Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: The Year in Review

Well, this is definitely my last post of the year of 2010, so a chance to look back at what has been happening this year. We had 331 blog posts, disproportionately found in April and December, but fairly steady, with not quite one per day over the year.

We began the year in Dundonald, and we're still here a year later, albeit with an addition to the family in the shape of Pippa the puppy. It's been an interesting experience moving from not overly liking dogs to owning our own, and she's great - except when she landed me in A&E in November.

I'm still the Curate Assistant in St Elizabeth's, and over the course of this past year I have preached about 46 times, conducted 4 funerals and 2 Baptisms. Still no weddings yet, but there are some in the diary for next year.

In June we lost a dearly loved family member, and celebrated the wedding of another.

We were fortunate to be able to spend some time on holiday in Lanzarote (twice), and some other holidays around home with family and friends.

Over the year I've been involved in a Can't Cook, Won't Cook event, and a Barn Dance, and they were just at church!

There were also special series on Zephaniah, and the Promise of His Coming.

For more details about this past year, check out the monthly archives and reviews: Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec

2010 will be remembered as the year of my 365 project, and below is a slideshow of every one of the 365 photos taken this year for it:

Thanks for reading this year, and watch out for new content next year!

December 2010 Review

The final month of the year, and a bumper month, with lots of blog posting, boosted by the Promise of His Coming series.

My preaching was from 1 Timothy 6 (audio), Matthew 1, Luke 1, Luke 7, John 1:1-5 (audio), 6-8 (audio) and 16 (audio). We also thought about spot the difference, and snow white.

There were book reviews on Revelation - CJ Sansom, The Courage to be Protestant - David F Wells, Jesus of Nazareth - Pope Benedict XVI, Code Red - Andrew J Drain, Disciplines of a Godly Man - R Kent Hughes and The Incarnation in the Gospels - Daniel M Doriani, Philip Graham Ryken, Richard D Phillips.

We had two sets of McFlurry's McLinks - 18 and Christmas, and some other Christmas stuff. All in all, December is a funny month on the blog, with many end of year features, but I'll mention those separately.

Church of Ireland Tweeters - December 2010

Here's the latest ranking for Twittering Clergy in the Church of Ireland, using Twitter Grader. Together at the top are the Bishop of Cork and Stephen Neill; while the biggest climber was Craig McCauley, moving from joint 11th straight into 3rd:

Rank Name Twitter Username Grade 31/12/10
1= (1) Stephen Neill @paddyanglican 95.4
1= (2) Bishop Paul Colton @b2dac 95.4
3 (11) Craig McCauley @rrrcmcc 80
4= (3) Victor Fitzpatrick @prayspot 75
4= (4) Gary McMurray @garibaldimcf 75
6 (5) Rob Jones @robdjones 69
7 (6) Liz Hanna @hannamanor 68
8= (7=) Alan Barr @alnbarr 66
8= (9=) Daniel Owen @dnlowen 66
10= (7=)Earl Storey @topstorey 64
10= (9=)Bishop Harold Miller@BishopHarold 64
12 (11=)Arlene Moore @revamo 61
13=(13=)Bryan Martin @dromoreminister 54
13=(13=)Robert Ferris @rferris281 54
13=(16=)Adrian Dorrian @adriandorrian 54
16=(15) Trevor Johnston @trevorjohnston 51
16=(16=)Robert Miller @robsmiller 51
18 (19=)Stephen Lowry @shlowry 49
19 (18) Brian Lacey @brianlacey1978 48
20=(19=)Simon Genoe @simongenoe 46
20=(24) Daniel Nuzum @danielnuzum 46

Top Ten Referrers for 2010

The Simple Pastor recently compiled a list of the top ten blog referrers to his site (in which I was 6th), using the tools of Google Analytics. I've been signed up to GA for ages and never really did anything with it, so here's the top ten blog referrers of this year:

1. After Darkness, Light. The blog of my brother-in-law, Bryan, labouring for the gospel in Scotland.

2. The Diary of a Reformed Workaholic. I've never met Ali, despite her living in Belfast and frequenting Ulster Rugby games. Always plenty of laughs going on her blog.

3. Rambling Rural Rector. The Venerable Craig who is across the border in the diocese of Kilmore and into his techie stuff - much more than me!

4. Mindkee. The blog of my sister-in-law, Louise, who writes some poetry, reflecting on Bible readings as well as devotional hymns.

5. Clerical Whispers. Perhaps the most random of the referrers, a kind of gossip site on all things clerical, although mostly Roman Catholic.

6. For The Fainthearted. Another minister, blogging from rural Ireland, sharing sermons and reflections from his life's experiences.

7. Bishop Alan. One of the English bishops who blogs fairly frequently on matters of faith, culture and society.

8. Virtual Methodist. The blog of another minister here in Dundonald - I can almost see his church from our house!

9. The Simple Pastor. I've never met Phil, but we've connected through blogging about advertising and issues relating to consumption and poverty.

10. St Aidan to Abbey Manor. Sadly David decided to stop blogging this year, because he was always worth reading.

I'm grateful to these blogs (and many others) for sending readers in my direction, and also for the things I learn from these people. Here's to hopefully lots more blogging and building relationships in 2011!

The Promise of His Coming (31)

The Comfortable Words are well known to anyone familiar with the 1662 Book of Common Prayer service of Holy Communion. They serve an important function in the order of liturgy - coming immediately after the confession of sins and the absolution; they are words able to comfort, through their great and very precious promises to those who need to hear them.

There are some words from 'our Saviour Christ', as well as from the Apostles Paul and John. It is the sentence from Paul's first letter to Timothy that links in again with our Christmas theme of the promise of his coming:

This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. (1 Tim 1:15 - BCP)

Words able to comfort, words which are true, words which are worthy to be received by all, telling us, reminding us of why Jesus came into the world - to save sinners. Sinners like us, who have just acknowledged and confessed our manifold sins and wickedness. That's why the comfortable words have such impact and are so memorable - they apply again the gospel, telling us that the very reason Jesus came into the world was to save sinners like us.

It's almost disappointing, though, that Cranmer, when he put together the service in his Prayer Book, stopped where he did (although we can see why he did!). Here's how Paul continues:

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. (1 Tim 15: ESV)

Paul is often much aligned, criticised for being very difficult to understand (don't worry, Peter thought the same!), seen as too far off and remote from ordinary sinners like us. However, even as Paul presents the grand theology of the gospel, declaring the glory of God in the good news of salvation, he becomes intensely personal. Just think of Galatians 2:20 - 'And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.'

So we see it here too - Christ Jesus came into the world, and I'm the worst sinner in the world. So if Jesus came to save me, he can save any other sinner! A bad sinner, yes, but Jesus came to save me.

It's the difference between the academic knowledge of theology: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (even the devil can affirm that!); and the personal knowledge of salvation: Christ Jesus came into the world to save me, the sinner, the chief of sinners.

We know why Jesus came - but did he come for you? You know that you're a sinner, but did he come to save you? Or will you spurn his salvation? Don't let another year pass while still lost and helpless. Turn today to the Saviour, and know his peace and forgiveness and rescue.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010 Books

I find it useful to keep a note of the various books I've read, and a brief overview of what they were about, mostly for myself, although sometimes the reviews can be helpful for others as well. So here's what I've read in this year:

1. Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor - Don Carson
2. A History of St Peter's Church - Brian Barton
3. Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture - Graeme Goldsworthy
4. The Last Gospel - David Gibbins
5. God's Big Picture - Vaughan Roberts
6. Stop Dating the Church - Joshua Harris
7. The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
8. Journey - Alec Motyer
9. The God I Don't Understand - Christopher Wright
10. Scandalous - Don Carson

11. Dissolution - CJ Sansom
12. The Trellis and the Vine - Col Marshall and Tony Payne
13. Awakening - David Robertson
14. The Last King of Scotland - Giles Foden
15. God's Word Trilogy - Alan Stibbs
16. Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church - Don Carson
17. Living Sacrifice - Helen Roseveare
18. Raised With Christ - Adrian Warnock
19. Lifted - Sam Allberry
20. Dark Fire - CJ Sansom

21. Changing the World (Through Effective Youth Ministry) - Ken Moser
22. The Gospel in Revelation - Graeme Goldsworthy
23. John Stott: The Making of a Leader - Timothy Dudley-Smith
24. The Road - Cormac McCarthy
25. The Books The Church Suppressed - Michael Green
26. The Last Word - John Stott
27. Sovereign - CJ Sansom
28. Bible Delight - Christopher Ash
29. The Ever-Loving Truth - Voddie Baucham
30. The Unheeded Christ - David Cook

31. The Nine Tailors - Dorothy L Sayers
32. Let God Arise - Marcus Loane
33. Why We Love The Church - Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck
34. Blue Like Jazz - Donald Miller
35. Captured by a Better Vision - Tim Chester
36. A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson
37. Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism? - Wayne Grudem
38. Should Christians Embrace Evolution? - ed. Norman C Nevin
39. Supernatural Living for Natural People - Raymond Ortlund
40. Saturday Night Peter by Peter Kay

41. Son of Hamas - Mosab Hassan Yousef
42. The Unquenchable Flame - Michael Reeves
43. The Last Word - Wallace Benn
44. The Chosen One - Sam Bourne
45. The Way of the Righteous in the Muck of Life - Dale Ralph Davis
46. Religion Saves - Mark Driscoll
47. Revelation - CJ Sansom
48. The Courage to be Protestant - David F Wells
49. Jesus of Nazareth - Pope Benedict XVI
50. Code Red - Andrew J Drain

51. Disciplines of a Godly Man - R Kent Hughes
52. The Incarnation in the Gospels - Daniel M Doriani, Philip Graham Ryken, Richard D Phillips

52 books this year, one per week, and eleven more than last year. The difference probably came through having two weeks of Lanzarote holiday reading in March and September, whereas in 2009 our September break was more active, sightseeing in New York.

Top five books from this year's reading?

1. The Trellis and the Vine
2. The Courage to be Protestant
3. Dissolution
4. Bible Delight
5. Scandalous

Previous reading lists can be found for 2009, 2008, and 2007.

2010: The Year in Pictures

This past year has been a major one for me in terms of photography, taking on the challenge of a 365 project - one photo every day for a year. There's still today and tomorrow left to do, but I'm pretty sure I'll be able to manage a photo each day now!

Some days it was a curse, remembering at the last minute that I still hadn't taken a photo that day; other days it was a handy iPhone camera moment; but the best days were when I managed to get a photo on the big camera - my Canon 500D SLR. Here are my best photos from the year:

006/365:2010 Stormont Double

051/365:2010 Whoosh!

084/365:2010 Under the Sea

105/365:2010 The Opera House

122/365:2010 What Time Is It?

170/365:2010 Drum Shades

212/365:2010 Drum Major

236/365:2010 Simple Stormont

272/365:2010 Funderland

301/365:2010 October Rose

331/365:2010 Snowy Donard

347/365:2010 Christmas Bokeh

I think I might have peaked too early, having the best shot of the year on the 6th January, but which of these would you pick as the photo of 2010?

The Promise of His Coming (30)

When we think of greatness, we think of those who have made something of themselves. Take Alan Sugar, from the TV show, The Apprentice. Starting as a small trader, he has built up a multi-million pound business, and the programme is for others who want to follow his path to greatness by getting a job with him and making money themselves.

The best stories of success always have this nothing-to-something element. Through hard work, ingenuity, 'luck', or whatever, they've raised themselves to a prominent position. However, that's not how it worked with the Lord Jesus.

There's no doubt about it - he is at the very top - King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the one seated on the throne, to whom every knee will bow and every tongue will one day confess that he is Lord. But it wasn't a bottom up approach - Jesus didn't start as an ordinary man who worked his way up to be God. No, Jesus had it all, but gave it up in order to be exalted. Notice Jesus' descent into greatness:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)

Jesus, the eternal God, with the Father, kept stepping down further and further - being born as a man. This is the Christmas story - the word became flesh and dwelt among us. But even that wasn't enough - Jesus went on to die, not in a nice clean hospital ward at the age of 102, but the death of the cross. Did you notice the joint reasons for this? His humility, and his obedience.

Jesus gave himself to serve us, so that nothing was too low for him to do, nowhere too far for him to go, in order to save us. Will we, who know this salvation through his death on the cross, will we have this mind as well, of humble, obedient service? Come, O Christ, and help us serve, to follow in your path, so that all the glory is yours, now and forever.

Sermon Audio: John 1:16

This was my last sermon of the year, preaching at the Family Service on Christmas Morning, from John's Gospel on Grace Upon Grace. Here's how it sounded.

Book Review: The Incarnation in the Gospels

Around the main seasons in the church calendar, I like to do some seasonal reading. It helps to focus again on the events of Christmas / Easter or whatever. This year's Christmas book had actually been bought last Christmas, but wasn't opened and saved until this year.

The Incarnation in the Gospels is a publication from the Reformed Expository Commentary series, with contributions (on one of the gospels each) from Daniel M Doriani, Philip Graham Ryken and Richard D Phillips. At some future point (at least when they were originally published in this volume) they will be found within the broader scope of the entire gospel commentary.

Unlike most commentaries, this volume comes across as more a collection of Christmas sermons collated by the authors and presented as a commentary. This approach has good aspects - we see how these men would preach to their congregations the message of Christmas and apply it; lots of ideas are contained within for readers and preachers alike; the expositions are fairly thorough and, if preached, would be longer than most sermons congregations (certainly in Northern Ireland) would be used to.

However, it doesn't quite do what it says on the tin. It isn't really a commentary on the Bible passages, as we've been at least one step removed from the hard work of engagement with the text - which is what would perhaps be most useful in a commentary. I think we see the polished, finished article too much here, and not really the difficult issues or interesting word studies and background or further discussion of the passage.

As I've also said in previous book reviews, it's harder to read when there are multiple authors, getting used to their very different writing/preaching styles in their own contributions.

That said, I think this will still be useful for pastors and those tasked with preaching at Christmas services. While you're not going to repeat word for word what has been written here, there are plenty of ideas and illustrations from which to build your own sermons on the Biblical texts of the incarnation. There are also some additional resources which may be helpful for pastors planning Christmas worship, including an outline for a ten lessons and carols service; extra ideas for gospel-centred worship at Christmas; and some modern carols with music printed in the book!

It's obviously too late for this year, but keep an eye out for it in September when you're planning your Christmas services and preaching.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Promise of His Coming (29)

Sometimes we can wonder why things happen the way they do, and at the time they do. We want something to happen according to our timescale, and then get angry with God when he isn't bound by our plans and timetables. Perhaps it's losing your job just before Christmas (when in the New Year God has arranged something better than you could have imagined). Or the plans to buy your dream home fall through at the last minute - you've waited for so long, and then it still doesn't happen.

Just think of the people of Israel waiting for the Christ to appear. They had those promises, to Eve, to Abraham, to David, to Solomon, to the kings and prophets and people. The people went into exile, and returned from exile. And then silence. A long silence.

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons (Galatians 4:4-5)

God was acting according to his timetable, not Israel's. When the time was right, when the fullness of time had come, then and only then, God sent forth his Son. He was born under the law to save those under the law; he was born of woman to save those born of woman.

The law stood accusing us, Jesus redeemed us from it, by perfectly fulfilling it, and by bearing our punishment. As a result, we are transferred from the sinful family of Adam to the righteous family of God, adopted as sons to share with The Son his family privileges and remain with him forever.

And when the fullness of time has come, when the Father has purposed, Jesus will return, and time shall cease, as all his people are brought home together. We don't know when it will be, but we earnestly look forward to it. Come, Lord Jesus, come, in your perfect timing.

Church Mishaps

I'm not sure why, but it appears that church can often be a very funny place. Sometimes it can be something unintentional but hilarious. Something like leaving your radio mic on while you visit the bathroom. On other occasions, it might be truly horrifying, if a glass jug of wine is knocked over and smashes on the floor. For whatever reason, church can be a tense place.

Perhaps I'm slightly twisted (ok, I know I am...), but I tried to exploit that to make the point of my sermon on Christmas morning sound out very clearly. I had two 'presents' wrapped up, to show the two things that Jesus gives us in John chapter 1. The two big sides of a Cornflakes box had one word each on them, all nicely wrapped up.

The first volunteer opened the present, and revealed the word 'grace'. All was going well, so I explained about grace.

Then I called up my second volunteer, who unwrapped the second present, having hyped up the fact that the first present was grace and what would the second one be?

Yes, it was grace again.

I looked down at the congregation as we spotted that word grace again - and there were some horrified, embarrassed, shocked looks on their faces. Oh no, they were thinking, he's made a mistake. What's he going to do with that? He's written the same word twice!

This will go into that unwritten book of funny church memories, when the Curate made a muck up of his Christmas morning sermon!

I might even have milked the tension for a moment or two, before revealing that it was intentional, to illustrate John 1:16 'And from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.'

It's one way to ensure that the congregation doesn't sleep, especially if they've been up very early to see if Santa has been!

What are your favourite church mishaps?

Book Review: Disciplines of a Godly Man

This has been on my to-read list for a long time, it having been recommended to me back in first year in college, but I only managed to read it this year. Kent Hughes has written a comprehensive and intensive book on the spiritual disciplines required for godly men.

Several times as I read the book, I was thinking to myself, this all seems a little prescriptive, as he examines a particular area of a man's life (e.g. family, work, worship, church, giving, and many more), explains some relevant scriptures, provides some illustrations, and then proceeds to say what this will mean and look like for the godly man. You could even go so far as to say it's not a little prescriptive, as he admits there are over 100 'do's', intentionally. However, he does make the point that there's a difference between discipline and legalism - that of motivation. The desire to live a godly life (and be disciplined to do it) should be to please God as a response to God's grace; not to try and earn God's favour through our efforts.

As you can imagine, it's a fairly challenging read. Areas of life perhaps never considered before are brought into scrutiny, and motives, thoughts, words and actions are examined carefully. It's definitely not one to zoom through quickly - but one to savour slowly, perhaps taking a chapter per week. It's also an ongoing thing for each of us, we won't be finished being sanctified before we die, so there will always be things that stand out and challenge us to continue to work at.

My only slight negative is that it's very American in style, and may be best suited to that particular culture and society's standards. Some of the illustrations didn't connect with me at all, due to their being over-American.

However, I wouldn't let this stop me from recommending the book. It's not an easy read, but it will do you good!

Christmas Morning Sermon: John 1:16

We've already seen lots of presents that you've received this year - all very exciting! They'll give you lots of fun later on and in the days to come! One of the reasons we give presents to each other at Christmas is because God gave us the excellent present of his Son, sending Jesus to be with us.

You might remember that some people brought gifts to Jesus not long after he was born - the magi / wise men. But we're also told in the Bible that Jesus gives us a gift - can you imagine that, it's Jesus' birthday, and he gives us a present! In order to find out what it is, though, I need some help.

Here's a present, all wrapped up, and one of the young people come up to unwrap it: 'GRACE'

Jesus gives us grace - but what does that mean? Grace is when Jesus gives us good, when we don't deserve it.

You see, some people think that Jesus rewards those who are good (like Santa does), but that's not true. Jesus came into the world to forgive us for the wrong things we have done. It doesn't matter how bad you are, no matter what you have done wrong, Jesus offers you grace today.

Just think of all the things that Jesus offers us through his grace - the things that we don't deserve: he forgives our sins, all the wrong things we have done; he welcomes us into his family; he promises that we will live with him forever in heaven; and so much more. All the things we don't deserve, but Jesus gives us as he gives us his grace.

So that's grace. But Jesus offers us something else as well. A second gift at Christmas. Another present, so I'll need another volunteer to come up to the front and open the second wrapped present. So, if the first one was grace, what will the second one be?

One of the children come forward to unwrap it, and it says: 'GRACE' (!)

Oh dear, what has happened here? The first one said grace, and this one says grace too. What's happening? Have I made a terrible mistake as I was preparing the props today?

Actually, no, as we'll see as we look back at verse 16 which was read a wee while ago:

And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. (John 1:16)

Jesus doesn't just give us grace once and that's it - don't use it all at once. No, Jesus gives us grace, and then gives us more grace, and then gives us even more grace.

Have you ever seen a waterfall? We have some small ones here in Northern Ireland, but the biggest in the world is found in Africa, the Victoria Falls. And what happens with a waterfall? The water just keeps coming and coming and coming. Water upon water. You could say the same about the grace we receive from Jesus - grace upon grace. That's how amazing grace is - it just keeps flowing to us.

Have you ever heard the advertising slogan you hear around this time? A dog is for ___, not just for _____. What are the blanks? A dog is for life, not just for Christmas. What it's saying is that you don't just get a dog for Christmas, and it's exciting to receive a puppy as a present, but then you get rid of it by about the 28th December when you find it's too much work to clear up after the doggie. You could say the same about the grace from Jesus - grace is for life, not just for Christmas. In fact, we could even go further and say that God's grace is for ever, not just for Christmas!

Jesus offers us grace this Christmas Day. It's like any other present you might be offered today. You have to receive it in order to benefit. Will you receive this grace from Jesus today? Perhaps you've never heard of it before, speak to one of us. Maybe you need to think about it a bit more, and learn more before you receive it - come along to our Christianity Explored Course which begins on the 5th January, or take one of the 'Christmas in Three Words' leaflets from the church porch.

Jesus offers grace today - it's the best Christmas present you'll ever receive. Will you take it?

This sermon was preached at the Christmas Day Family service at St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on 25th December 2010.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Real Meaning of Christmas

I've seen a couple of versions of this knocking about the internet over these past few days:

The true meaning of Xmas is an imaginary man who sees everything you do and rewards you if you’re good all year. Just like Santa.

Some may think that Jesus is an 'imaginary man', but with the wealth of historical detail and unquestionable facts pointing to the existence of the Lord Jesus, it isn't that I wanted to take issue with. Rather, it's the whole basis of what is supposed to be Christianity as found in the statement: 'an imaginary man who sees everything you do and rewards you if you're good all year.'

It might make a snappy soundbite, but this is certainly not Christianity! The gospel of Jesus Christ is not that those who are good will be rewarded - it simply doesn't work, because none of us are good enough. We can't earn any favour with God; we don't deserve anything from God. So if Christianity were about us being rewarded for being good for a year, then none of us would receive any reward.

But if you've been listening again to the message of the angels, the testimony of Jesus, and the promise of the Scriptures, the coming of the Lord Jesus is all about grace - undeserved grace for the sinner. We deserve hell, but Jesus came from heaven to rescue us by dying in our place, enduring our hell, so that we can share his heaven.

It's why one of the first things you'll do at the church service is to confess your sins - to acknowledge that we aren't good; that we have sinned, and so we ask God to forgive us and to change us. This is the good news of the gospel - that Jesus came to save sinners, not reward the righteous. We see that repeatedly in Luke's Gospel in particular.

The real meaning of Christmas is the Son of God who became a man, who sees all that we do and offers forgiveness for those who are bad, and condemnation for those who think they're good enough! Anything else isn't Christmas and isn't Christianity.

The Promise of His Coming (28)

In these days following Christmas Day, we're looking at some of the New Testament explanations of the incarnation, as the apostles reflect on why Jesus came into the world at all. Today, we come to the letter to the Hebrews, with its glorious opening chapter on the glory of the divine Son, through whom God has spoken in these last days.

As well as being divine, though, the eternal Son had to become human in order to bring many sons to glory, being made perfect (i.e. complete) through suffering. In order to save us, he had to be like us:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Hebrews 2:14-15)

Through our flesh, he destroyed our death, but more than that, destroyed the one who has the power of death. Jesus is the great substitute, who came onto our team, who took our place, and has defeated the enemy that terrified us for so long. Just like David, he stepped up to defeat the Goliath who defied the living God and the armies of the living God.

Our chains are gone, our fear is forgotten, through the serpent crusher, the one who took on flesh for us and our sake. Praise be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ, very God and very man!

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Promise of His Coming (27)

John's Gospel doesn't tell us about the shepherds and angels, nor the wise men. Rather, he goes back even further to the very beginning. He introduces us to 'the Word', who was with God, and was God. So in Genesis 1, as God spoke light into being, this Word was the agent of creation. This Word is also light and life for the world, but it's in verse 14 that we find the Christmas message:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

The Word of God became one of us, and lived among us. Matthew may use the word Emmanuel, John tells us the very same thing. John, one of this who saw Jesus up close and personal describes what he has seen as glory - God's glory manifested in flesh, full of grace and truth.

Often we imagine that's it's an either / or choice - grace or truth. Truth in it's brutal reality withholding nothing; or else just being nice without integrity. Jesus, however, gives us both grace and truth. The glory of God is here.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Promise of His Coming (26)

Yesterday we thought about the contrast between mighty Caesar and Almighty Jesus, who lay in a manger. Today we continue to see the Christmas contrasts, as the angels announce the very special birth.

If a royal baby is born these days (perhaps if the Lord is gracious to William and Kate after they're married), there's a tremendous fuss. The world's media will assemble, 24hour news will be full of it, the heads of state of the nations of the world will be informed and invited to see the baby.

When the King of Kings is born, though, the media don't know about it. The king of the region will only find out at least a year later. Caesar is unaware of what is happening. The news is first told to a rugged (or ragged) bunch of shepherds out in the fields. Because of the amount of time they spent with their sheep, they were ceremonially unclean, outsiders, one of the lowest groups in society.

It's the shepherds, perhaps even tending the sheep to be used in sacrifice at the temple, that God sends the angels. It's an amazing message:

10 And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger."
(Luke 2:10-12)

The Christ has been born, the long promised king, which is good news of great joy for all the people. May you know this joy this Christmas time.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Promise of His Coming (25)

1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.
2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town.
4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David,
5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.
7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

The top of the empire is far removed from the very bottom. Caesar's palace was the location for his decree, that all the world under his control should be registered. He's at the top of the tree, ruling with great power.

At the other end of the spectrum, a baby lies, not in a cot, but in a feeding trough, a manger. His mother and adopted father have journeyed the hundred miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, at the behest of Caesar. Poor pawns in the grand scheme of the empire. Yet this Joseph is the son of David, a once powerful line in the region. His great-grandfather (plus a few more greats) was king.

The baby, though, far outstrips the wealth, glory and majesty of Caesar. This is not just a baby. This is God's King, the King of Kings, to whom every knee will one day bow.

Appearances can be deceptive. The real power does not lie in Rome, but in a draughty stable. Bow before him in worship.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas

To all my readers, subscribers and occasional ransomers who call with their weird searches:

Merry Christmas one and all!

May you be blessed through the salvation of the Christ Child, and the joy of the angels and the shepherds.

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. (1 Timothy 1:15)

McFlurry's McLinks - Christmas Special (19)

Here's a special seasonal supplement of McLinks, all with a Christmas theme. You can always read these if you've already smugly finished the shopping and wrapping and have nothing to do; or you can keep them for when the family are asleep having consumed too much turkey and brussel sprouts tomorrow.

347/365:2010 Christmas Bokeh

Quaerentia has a video of the conquest of a materialist temple with a resounding message, and a credal Hallelujah.

Tcsoko asks if you're feeling Christmassy.

Stuff Christians Like reflects on Code Adam.

Last Place You Look imagines Joseph being registered at the census.

Trevin Wax compares Caesar's Palace and Christ's Manger.

If you're still searching for a Christmas Family morning bible talk / sermon, David Keen has a Chocolate Christmas message.

Dave Bish points to who Christmas is for.

Kevin DeYoung considers Santa and Jesus (in two parts)

The Church Mouse asks what is your favourite Christmas carol?

Virtual Methodist asks what he have done with Christmas.

The Vicar's Wife asked about seasonal refreshments at Carol services.

Erik Raymond sees swaddling righteousness in the manger.

PaddyAnglican linked to this brilliant Christmas song by Frank Kelly - what if the Twelve Days of Christmas really happened?

And while most people have probably seen this by now, here's a digital Christmas...

The Promise of His Coming (24)

The parents of young babies are always waiting to hear what the baby's first words will be. There's excitement when the child speaks for the first time, and they move from baby noises to sounds, then words, then an increasing vocabulary. It's been said that parents spend a year or two teaching a child to speak, and the next eighteen years trying to shut them up again!

First words are important - but what if a grown adult hasn't spoken for a while? Relatives of patients in a coma are desperate for their loved one to speak, to say a word, to be able to communicate.

Our next Christmas song comes from the mouth of the priest, Zechariah. He hadn't spoken for nine months, but it wasn't because he was in a coma. Rather, he had disbelieved the message an angel brought to him that his elderly wife would bear a son, who would be the one who would come in the spirit and power of Elijah to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. The angel struck him dumb, until all would be fulfilled.

The child has been born now, and on its eighth day had to be named and circumcised. Family members wanted the child to be called Zechariah, after his father, but both Elizabeth and then Zechariah insisted that his name was John. It is only then that Zechariah's silence is broken, and his first words in over nine months are this outburst of praise to God, as he is moved by the Spirit:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
(Luke 1:68-69)

This horn isn't a trumpet - it's the symbol of strength, just as some animals have horns. This strength of salvation has been raised up in the house of David - the Lord visiting and redeeming his people in the birth of the Lord Jesus. As Zechariah makes clear, this salvation is 'in the forgiveness of their sins' (77). And once again, we see that God is keeping his promises from long ago:

70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
72 to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
74that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

We see the purpose of God's salvation here as well - we are saved to serve. Serving God 'in holiness and righteousness before him', without fear because God is for us and not against us as we are found saved in Christ. O horn of salvation, come.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Promise of His Coming (23)

What's your favourite Christmas carol? Lots of songs are sung at Christmas time, and over the next few days we'll be looking at some of the songs from the first Christmas. The songs continue to give the message of the promise of Jesus' coming, as well as responding to the good news.

Today we're thinking about Mary's song, known in some circles as the Magnificat. It was sung by the young virgin Mary when she arrived at the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, themselves the recent recipients of news of a strange birth - but more about that tomorrow!

While Mary doesn't mention Jesus himself, her song (full of Biblical pictures and allusions) is looking forward (in the prophetic past tense) to what things will be like when her son, Jesus, is born, all because of what God has done for her:

"My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
(Luke 1:46-53)

The Lord God is her Saviour, the mighty one and holy one has done great things for her. Things will be turned upside down, so that the proud are humbled and the humble are lifted high. The hungry will be filled (just think of the 5000 men as well as women and children who were fed), while those who exploit them are sent away empty.

Why does all this happen? Why will the coming of the Lord Jesus lead to justice and peace? Mary knows her Bible, and the God revealed in the Bible:

He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever
(Luke 1:54-55)

God is fulfilling his promises to Abraham and his offspring; God is helping his people as he again shows mercy to those who need it. O come, the fulfillment of all God's promises!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Book Review: Code Red

This may not have been one of the longer books I read this year, but it will certainly stay with me for a long time. Andrew J Drain, a fit cardiothoracic surgeon, flying high in his career, very suddenly had a complete reversal, and became a patient, with the most serious form of leukaemia. This book is the account of his life, his suffering, and his reflections, as well as a series of sermons he preached on another sufferer from the book of Job.

Published by Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF), this book was a must-read for me for many reasons - I'm a preacher, so I want to read other's sermons in order to improve my own preaching; I'm a pastor, so I want to learn how to better pastor those who are suffering; I'm married to a doctor, so I want to better appreciate those serious medical situations and their effect on patients and staff; I'm a human, and one day I too will be facing my death, and I want to die well.

This is a compelling account, with many deeply personal and moving reflections as Andy tells his own story, written in the months leading up to his death. He knows he is going to die soon, and yet there's a strong confidence in the face of death, because he is trusting the Lord Jesus for his salvation. It's not the position of many in our world, because 'we live in a youth-orientated, health-worshipping, death-denying society.'

It's not all tears though, as Andy's humour and wonderful sense of irony comes through - particularly in describing the incident which gives the book its title. There were moments to smile as well, as he reflected on his school days and some of the things that happened during medical school in Belfast.

The sermons, preached as a sufferer, are particularly helpful, and don't settle for the easy answers but closely follow and explain the text, always pointing beyond Andy and Job towards the ultimate sufferer, the Lord Jesus, crucified for us.

This book is to be highly recommended, and would be suitable for medical staff (with lots of thoughts on the transition from doctor to patient, and the insights gained from the role reversal), as well as anyone preparing to face a longterm terminal illness, and those seeking to help pastor them. As the foreword (by Steve Midgley) reminds us, though, 'The Bible's teaching about suffering is like prophylactic medicine - best administered in advance.' Pointing to the hope of the gospel in the midst of despair, this is just what the doctor ordered.

The Promise of His Coming (22)

Job titles are getting increasingly complicated these days. The Telegraph reported earlier in the year on some of the stranger ones in Britain. A lifeguard is now a 'wet leisure assistant', while a bin man is now described as a 'waste management and disposal technician.' However, when Jesus was named, the name perfectly describes his job.

We're continuing to think about the promises of the Lord Jesus coming at Christmas, and today we're back with Matthew's account of when Joseph saw the angel of the Lord in a dream. The appearance was important, because Joseph's betrothed, Mary, was pregnant. Joseph was preparing to divorce her quietly, but the angel reassured him that Mary was not unfaithful, but that this was in the plan and purpose and working of the Lord. Within the message, the angel tells Joseph the name for the child, the same name he had already told Mary, but here, the reason is also spelled out:

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. (Matthew 1:21)

Jesus means 'the Lord saves', and so Jesus' name reflects what he came to do - to save sinners, but it also reminds us that the baby born in Bethlehem is none other than the God himself taking on flesh - as Matthew continues, he is Emmanuel, God with us.

Sometimes the Rector in a parish can be addressed as 'Rector' as if that were their first name - their job title is used as a name; here, the name Jesus is his job title. O come, the one who saves from sin, Jesus the Christ.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sermon Audio: John 1: 6-8

On Sunday morning I was preaching from John's Gospel again, this time on John's Witness. Here's the who, what, and why of John the Baptist - apologies for the microphone malfunction halfway through...

Book Review: Jesus of Nazareth

A little bit ironic, isn't it, that my previous book review was on The Courage to be Protestant, and this review is on the first book written and published by Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI! It took an awful long time for me to get through this one, and I'm still unsure what to make of it.

Many are hailing it as a wonderful book which presents an amazing portrait of the Lord Jesus, but I wasn't so fussed on it. Perhaps in trying to sound eloquent, knowledgeable and scholarly, the Pope is hitting way above my head, but I didn't really enjoy the way he was trying too hard and quoting all these important Catholic (and Jewish) theologians. It may, however, be that the translation from German to English has made it less flowing and more difficult to read.

This book is just the first of a two-parter looking a the life of Jesus, with this volume going up to Peter's confession of Christ, and the next volume (whenever it comes out) covering the passion, crucifixion and resurrection. There were some interesting insights and helpful comments, but all in all, I think this was a bit of a disappointment of a book, slightly limited by the narrowness of Catholic theology.

Early on, as he was introducing his methodology, he wrote of how 'some thirty years ago... American scholars to develop the project of "canonical exegesis." The aim of this exegesis is to read individual texts within the totality of the one Scripture, which then sheds light on all the individual texts.' (p. xviii) While this may seem new and exciting to the Pope, the fact is that the Protestant churches have been doing this for five hundred years! Perhaps we should get the Pope along to some Proclamation Trust events and preaching conferences to learn how to do it!

My irony detector was turned on and soared when on one page he criticises a group for their beliefs because 'here, obviously, theory predominated over listening to the text' (p.53) and then seven pages later he engages in the same thing by insisting that Jesus declares a time of 'conversion and penance' in relation to Mark 1:15 - penance which definitely isn't in the text!

It's maybe not surprising that I don't agree with the pope on quite a few things, not least how we interpret the Bible, and what that looks like for Christian discipleship - this wasn't a book I enjoyed reading, and I wouldn't rush out to buy one for myself. I really wouldn't recommend it - there are much better books dealing with the life of Jesus and what that means for us, which are edifying and not just plain confusing or dodgy.

The Promise of His Coming (21)

Angels seem to be big business in the spiritualised (but not religious) marketplace of pick n mix beliefs and behaviours. From angels cards to angels in your pocket, from angels whispering in your ear to cuddly fluffy fat babies with wings, angels seem to be all around us. Popular culture (and to a certain extent, the churches) have so romanticised angels that we don't think anyone would be afraid if they were to see one face to face.

Yet the testimony sounds again and again that when you see a biblical angel, you are afraid - Zechariach, Mary, the shepherds, Daniel among others all feared for their life when they encountered a heavenly messenger.

Today we're thinking about the time when the angel Gabriel came to see Mary, to bring good news of her pregnancy, a very special pregnancy. Special, because Mary was a virgin - and we all know that virgins don't have children! Except nothing is impossible with God. A special pregnancy, for a special baby:

He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Luke 1:32-33)

Son of God, son of David, whose kingdom never ends. It's the 2 Samuel 7 promise finally coming to fulfillment. O come, great David's greater son.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Promise of His Coming (20)

It's not the most exciting way to start a book, is it? Perhaps you've decided that you'll read one of the Gospels, and this one comes first, so you launch in. And immediately, you're confronted with the list of names that are hard to pronounce. It's almost like opening a novel and finding the first chapter is just a phone directory list. Either it puts you off completely, or else you'll just skip over it and get to the real story.

Why does Matthew open his gospel with this big long list of names? His purpose is seen in the very first verse, which explains the whole genealogy, and should help us to get very excited as we hear the list of ancestors and see how God's promises are being fulfilled and worked out in history:

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. (Matthew 1:1)

Who is this Jesus, born in Bethlehem, presented in this gospel account? He is the Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Each of those phrases shouts out the expectations and promises of the Old Testament, now being worked out in the person and work of the Lord Jesus.

The hope of Israel, long-waited-for, has now arrived. The rest of the gospel will show how Jesus fulfills and secures the blessings promised to Abraham and David by being the anointed Christ king, and the seed of Abraham through whom all the families of the earth will be blessed.

Come, O Christ, the hope of Israel.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sermon: John 1: 6-8 John the Witness

Have you ever noticed in newspapers that sometimes the articles don’t seem to flow properly? Perhaps there was more space than story, so they had to pad it out, adding irrelevant additional reporting, which didn’t really seem to fit. Or worse, there was a problem in the editing process, and two stories were mangled together with paragraphs that didn’t belong in the story accidentally thrown in which led to confusion rather than clarity.

We’re continuing in the opening verses from John’s Gospel, and this morning I want to focus particularly on verses 6-8. Just look at those verses - why are they included at all? Is it one of those unfortunate editing errors or an irrelevant addition? After all, in verse 5, John is writing about the light that shines in the darkness. Jump to verse 9, and it could easily move straight from 5 to 9 - the true light was coming into the world. Think as well about the big picture - if this opening section is about how the Word (who was with God and was God in the beginning, who created all things, who is life and light) how this Word became flesh and moved into the neighbourhood, and the whole Gospel is about this word, Jesus, then why do we have these three verses about this other guy, John seemingly slotted in at random?

It’s often the ‘strange’ things we come across in our Bible reading, those bits that don’t seem to fit, or the times we wouldn’t have expected it to say just ‘that’ - as we study and think and reflect on them - we actually come to see just why they’re there. The strange things can turn out to be the key to the whole thing. Hopefully we’ll see that we can’t just get rid of these three verses; that we can’t just get rid of John - that John is important - both in terms of salvation history, and also for our own discipleship.

Let’s keep three questions in mind as we consider these verses - who, what, and why. Very simple questions, and hopefully effective as we see John’s importance and example.

First of all, then, who. ‘There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.’ We know his name is John - but immediately, to avoid any confusion, let’s be clear - it’s John the Baptist we’re thinking of, and not John one of the disciples, who wrote this gospel account. John the Baptist, he was sent from God.

From Luke’s Gospel we get more of John’s back story - his miraculous birth to the aged Zechariah and Elizabeth, his time in the wilderness, his ministry of baptism and all that. But in this Gospel, we’re simply told that John was sent from God. Commissioned by God for a special task, sent with authority.

John is on a mission - not for the secret service, like a James Bond spy; no, there’s nothing secret about John’s task. It brings us to the ‘what’ - what he was sent from God to do:

‘He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light.’ We’re all probably familiar with the idea of a witness - either through being in court ourselves or seeing a courtroom in a drama or even a TV soap. What is it the witness does?

I hope it doesn’t happen, but if you were to see a traffic collision on the way home from church, then you might be called to be a witness. You aren’t expected or wanted to give your personal opinions and make decisions - you’re simply asked to say what you have seen or heard or experienced. So, the white car drove through the red light and hit the bus, or whatever it might have been.

But here, John isn’t just reporting on what happened in an accident. Rather, he has been sent by God as a witness, to bear witness about the light. He is called to proclaim what he knows about the light of the world - Jesus. Jesus is the content of his message, the subject of his witness - and you can see that further down the chapter - across the page as John calls the people to be ready for the arrival of the Lord; and as he says out: ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ v36 (who takes away the sin of the world v29).

He is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness - as John is sent to witness, he has to use his voice! While it might make good TV, here there would be no point in John being a silent witness! John’s job, indeed, his whole life, is all about pointing to Jesus, proclaiming about Jesus, telling people about Jesus.

This theme of witness is a big one in John’s Gospel - throughout its pages there are presented a number of witnesses pointing to Jesus - including John the Baptist, God the Father, the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures, the Samaritan woman at the well, and the disciples. Just as those first disciples were called to be witnesses of what they had seen and heard (those who had walked with, watched, lived with, talked with and experienced the risen Jesus), so we also are called to be witnesses to Jesus, pointing to him.

And I know that as soon as I say that, some of you will immediately feel the panic rising. Oh no, you think, here comes the guilt trip about not telling people about Jesus. Not so fast. You see, I reckon that each one of us are fairly good at being witnesses in all sorts of ways.

Think back over the last week. Perhaps there was something that particularly pleased you, something you really enjoyed. Maybe it was the new Terry’s Chocolate Orange McFlurry in McDonald’s, or a nice meal in a fancy restaurant. Maybe you picked up a bargain in a shop or down at the Christmas market in Belfast. Whatever it was, you simply had to tell people about it. So you rang up your good friend Agnes, you shouted over the back fence to your next door neighbour, you put it on Twitter, Facebook and texted your three best friends. What were you doing? You were being a witness!

You experienced something, and you had to tell people about it. With the coming of Jesus we have something much more important than a good feed or a quare bargain, we have light, and life, and peace. For each of us there will be different opportunities, different people, but all of us will have some place to witness to Jesus, to point to what Jesus has done, particularly at Christmas time.

We’ve thought about the who - here it’s John the Baptist, sent by God, and the what - to witness to the light, to Jesus. Why is it that John was sent? Why is it that God still sends us to be witnesses for Jesus?

Verse 7 tells us: ‘He came... that all might believe through him.’ This might be another of those surprises - we might expect this to be speaking of Jesus, so that all might believe through Jesus. In fact, it seems to be saying that all might believe through John. Does that seem strange to you?

Throughout John’s Gospel and the rest of the New Testament, it will say that we believe in Jesus, but not through Jesus. So Jesus is the one we believe in - he is the object of our faith - he is the one we depend on and trust in; but John is the one through whom we come to believe - his witness leads us to believe in Jesus.

You might be thinking to yourself - John had nothing to do with me believing in Jesus. As good reformed people, you might even be thinking that we’re saved by faith alone in Christ alone - and you’re right. But let’s not forget John’s unique place in salvation history. John is regarded as the last of the Old Testament prophets, but he’s also the first person to point to Jesus, as he prepares the way for Jesus.

He is found in each of the four gospels, just before Jesus’ ministry begins; calling people to be ready and identifying and pointing to Jesus when he comes. As we’ve already seen, he is the voice crying out in front of Jesus; the forerunner; the police motorbike outriders who clear the way and announce the arrival of the special visitor.

It is precisely because John has pointed to Jesus, witnessed to who Jesus is, that the first disciples came to follow Jesus, and therefore John’s witness has led all who believe in Jesus to believe through him. We see that across the page in 1:36. John is standing with two of his disciples when Jesus walks past and he is the witness: ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ he says, and the disciples move from following John to following Jesus. Andrew and the other (who was probably the apostle John) come to believe in Jesus because of John’s witness.

While John’s role was special and unique, the why of our witness is exactly the same. We want to see people hearing the message about Jesus and believing in him - it’s the very reason John has written this gospel in the first place: ‘these [signs] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name’ (20:31)

So as we take courage and speak about the Lord Jesus to friends, family and neighbours, we remember the reason we bother to do it at all - we want to see them come to believe in Jesus too.

John the Baptist was not the light himself, and yet Jesus describes him as ‘a burning and shining lamp’ (5:35) - an instrument that allows the light to shine. Will we also be willing to be lamps, allowing the light of Jesus to shine in us and through us to the surrounding world of darkness? We need God’s help, so let’s pray together.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 19th December 2010.

The Promise of His Coming (19)

We've jumped forward a couple of hundred years as we come to the final promise in the Old Testament of the coming of the Lord Jesus before we begin to consider tomorrow the New Testament promises, and then after Christmas, we'll look at the reactions to Christ's arrival.

The prophesied exile has taken place, Judah has fallen to Babylon, and the period of the exile has finished. The remnant have returned to the land of Israel, but times are hard. The temple has been rebuilt, to some extent, but the people of God are still not enjoying the blessings of life in the land of promise. Morals are lax, religious observance is poor, and so the prophet Malachi is sent by God to challenge those who need challenge, and to comfort those who need comfort.

One of their popular questions was: 'Where is the God of justice?' It seems that this wasn't in a crying out for justice way of asking, but rather in a we'll do what we like kind of way, because God obviously doesn't care, and God isn't going to do anything about it. Where is the God of justice?

Behold, I will send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3:1)

It sounds like good news, doesn't it? Back when Ezekiel was prophesying, he saw the glory of the LORD depart the temple, and had foreseen its return. Now that the temple has been rebuilt after the exile, there hasn't yet been the return of the Shekinah glory. Will that now happen? Will it be another day of celebration, like the dedication of the temple in Solomon's day?

Not exactly. Actually, the promise of his coming isn't good news for these spiritual layabouts. As the promise continues:

But who may endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD. (Malachi 3:2-3)

The Lord will come to purify and cleanse, to deal with sin. While Jesus' first few visits to the temple are 'ordinary' (as ordinary as the blessing of Simeon and the staying behind to ask the religious teachers questions could be), the coming of Jesus means that the temple will be cleansed and superseded, made redundant and that 'a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.' (Acts 6:7)

Come, O Lord, to your temple.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Promise of His Coming (18)

The promises we've looked at over the past few days may not have been just as familiar, but as we come to Micah 5, we're in very familiar territory! The people of God are under threat (yes, again!), facing a siege, but in the midst of the situation comes this great promise of a ruler to save his people.

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. (Micah 5:2)

Bethlehem is the little town of David, the place where that great king was born, and from where this promised king would come. But this would be no ordinary ruler - his coming forth is from of old - long before David was born, this king existed, indeed, from ancient days, I am.

The coming king would, like his ancestor David, be a shepherd king:

And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace. (Micah 5:4-5)

When the magi arrived looking for the new born king of the Jews, the religious leaders knew exactly where he would be found - how ironic, then, that the shepherds weren't told this message of the one who would shepherd his flock - this was the message for the magi. Notice too the greatness of this king to the ends of the earth - his fame spreads, his reign increases, so that all the earth is his.

From little Bethlehem, come, O great ruler.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Book Review: The Courage to be Protestant

It's certainly an arresting, and perhaps especially in Northern Ireland, a controversial title. However, let's be clear from the start, it's not remotely sectarian or political, and nothing at all to do with how we view ourselves or others in Northern Ireland.

What the book by David Wells has to do with is the issue of the assumptions, motivations and methods of the church in seeking to reach the world with the good news about Jesus Christ. As Wells has observed the protestant churches, he sees three main groups:

1. Classical evangelicals - people like John Stott and others, who are united on the key Protestant doctrines such as the authority of the Bible and penal substitution, and who agree to differ on secondary issues which are considered less important (e.g. baptism). Wells argues that as the importance of doctrine has been shrunk, so too does our understanding of the church, which led to a second group appearing:

2. Marketers - churches like Willow Creek, where the church has been reconfigured around the sales pitch, where the form modifies the content in order to win the 'sale' and keep the customer happy. This may have worked for an affluent American boomer generation, but now, Wells argues, the next generations are dissatisfied with such commercial Christianity.

3. Emergents are into deconstruction, doubting of truth completely, where the loss of truth is offset by adventurous worship and trying to recover a lost sense of mystery.

His analysis of the church is, I think, perceptive, but what is perhaps even more helpful, is how he critiques the wider culture. The church has sought to be driven by the culture rather than critiquing it (in both marketing and emerging forms), so Wells seeks to redress the balance and examine the postmodern mind and culture.

The heart of the postmodern rebellion is unveiled: 'It turned away from meaning that is fixed and universal and turned toward meaning that is private and subjective.' All external forms of authority are rejected, so that pomo's are only looking to the self for values (not virtues!) and truth.

This was a particularly thought-provoking statement on secularisation: 'What the secularisation of life does it to demand that all belief in a God or the saved be kept private and not appear in the public square.' This leads to two worlds developing - the public and the private, with different behaviours, values and norms. For the church, a retreat into the privatised leads to relating to the immanent God as therapeutic and near, but ignores God's transcendence and authority over all.

The conclusions towards which he draws leads to a wake-up call to the churches to consider again their relation to the culture they are seeking to reach. The question of authority and truth is a key one to be sure on - 'Images we may want, entertainment we may desire, but it is the proclamation of Christ crucified and risen that is the church's truth to tell.'

This is a valuable book for those in church leadership - both pastors, elders and committee members, as well as the thoughtful church member seeking to understand culture better. It's not overly technical, and fairly easy to follow the argument right through. The Courage to be Protestant will help to impress the reader with the urgency of standing in the line of historical Protestantism on the solas of the Reformation as we proclaim the truth to a watching world.

The Promise of His Coming (17)

The prophet Ezekiel continues to proclaim the promises of the Lord's coming, and today's focuses on the unity of God's people through their coming king.

Anyone with even a casual acquaintance with the Old Testament will realise that the people of God were divided and separated shortly after the monarchy had been established. Following Saul's death, the house of Judah crowned David as their king, while the house of Israel (at least for a short period) had Ish-bosheth. David eventually was crowned king of all Israel, but due to the folly of Rehoboam, Solomon's son, the two parts of the people were permanently separated. Judah's kings continued to be the sons of David, while Israel had a mishmash of dynasties, with more coups than a dairy farm. (Sorry...)

Both Israel and Judah have been in exile, but now Ezekiel declares that a new day is coming, and in his prophetic action, a new unity is being promised:

The word of the LORD came to me: "Son of man, take a stick and write on it, 'For Judah and the people of Israel associated with him'; then take another stick and write on it, 'For Joseph (the stick of Ephraim) and all the house of Israel associated with him'. And join them one to another into one stick, that they may become one in your hand." (Ezekiel 37:15-17)

Two sticks become one stick, as the scattered people are brought together. The stick is a bit like a staff, the equipment of a shepherd, the symbol of a ruler, and so again we find that bound up with this unity comes the one prince, the one king over God's people:

My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes. They shall dwell in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children's children shall dwell there forever, and David my servant shall be their prince forever I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will set them in their land and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in their midst forevermore. My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Ezekiel 37:24-27)

Again, there's this promise of David - not actual David, but the son of David, great David's greater son, who will reign over his united people - so that God dwells in their midst. As John would say (in the Message translation): 'The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.' What was true of when Jesus walked among us is even more so when Jesus will return, and heaven comes to earth forever. Come, O uniting shepherd king.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

McFlurry's McLinks (18)

It's been long overdue, so here's another batch of McFlurry's McLinks - some of the items from my Google Reader which have caught my eye and are for sharing. Nearer the big day there'll be another Christmas edition, so watch out for that!

Quaerentia had an interesting article on the conversion of Lauren Booth to Islam. Will and Testament wondered about seminary essays being ghostwritten. Above Every Name points to a church planter who thinks church should be more like a gay bar.

On blogging, Irish Calvinist Ordinary Pastor beat his blog coma (and changed his name!), and urges everyone, but especially pastors to be reading. Provost Kelvin explains how to read blogs. As the year reviews and lists on blogs begin, I managed to get into the top ten referrers to The Simple Pastor's blog.

The Simple Pastor (who is moving to Sweden!) thought about why secularists hate Christian youth festivals. In a similar vein, Dave Bish considers the historicity of Isaiah and the reality of the God of Israel, as well as the dynamic of preaching and who we're listening to. Tcsoko asks if you're consumed or consumer.

Kevin DeYoung opens 2 Peter to show why we must pursue holiness, and gives us Bible doctrine. The Ugley Vicar ponders prayer for the dead using that old 'Rest In Peace' formula. Here's a sad exercise in liberalism where the preacher seeks to 'rescue something positive from a gospel that is scary, frightening and downright creepy.'

Be safe on the roads in the bad weather - Belfast Taxi Driver reminds us how easy it can be to slip and slide.

I've been looking forward to the new Narnia film, The Voyage of the Dawntreader, but I'm not so sure any more, having seen what étrangère, Trevin Wax and Dave Bish have written.

On with the funnies, and the Vicar's Wife wonders if you ever tartle. Hand of History had a political guide to Ireland for tourists. Mulled Vine writes great little tales, and the guest is hilarious!

Some videos too:

This one is very clever - how many movies do you recognise from these 270 films of 2010? (H/T Abraham Piper)

This one is immensely inspiring:

The Promise of His Coming (16)

Do you remember the parable Jesus tells about the lost sheep, and the searching shepherd? You might hear that and think that it's a nice wee story - but actually, it appears that Jesus' parable is one way of describing what Jesus was doing when he came into the world. In fact, you can go further, and discover that it's one of the promises made by God in the Old Testament, hundreds of years before Jesus comes, pointing forward to this good shepherd who is coming into the world:

For thus says the LORD God: 'Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out... I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the LORD GOD... And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the LORD; I have spoken. (Ezekiel 33:11, 15, 23-24)

The chapter begins with the judgment and condemnation of the false shepherds of Israel - the rulers of the people, the teachers, the elders, who should have been leading the flock, but were instead lining their own pockets and feasting on the lambs. The false shepherds will be punished, and then God gives this promise of himself coming to shepherd his people, to seek out the lost, to bring them to the pasture of Israel from the nations.

The good shepherd will give his life for his sheep, and save them by his blood, so that we can be white as wool. Come, good shepherd.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Sermon Audio: John 1: 1-5

On Sunday morning, I was speaking at the Church Nativity and Family Service, possibly the shortest sermon I've ever preached, on The Light Shines. Here's how it sounded.

Sermon: Luke 7: 19-23 Are You The One?

I wonder if you’ve ever had unmet expectations. You had hoped that something would happen, but then things don’t turn out just the way you had thought they would. It might have been in work - a new colleague started, and you thought things would get better with someone to help you, but they actually made the work harder. They weren’t what you expected.

Or perhaps it was in a family situation. Maybe an inlaw - you thought that a new brother-in-law or sister-in-law would be great company, but they turned out to be completely different once you got to know them. You expected so much more than what you got.

It can be hardest, though, if our expectations are in relation to God. We’re facing a particular situation, praying really hard for God to act in a specific way, but he doesn’t. Or he does something we didn’t expect, and we don’t know what to think. Maybe you prayed for a loved one to become a Christian or to be healed from their illness, but they were never healed or saved. It wasn’t what you expected. It left you with lots of questions.

As the messengers from John the Baptist come to Jesus, they express a similar sort of unmet expectation. John the Baptist had been this fiery preacher, warning of the wrath to come, preparing the way for the appearing of the Lord, for that day of judgment. He had, under the guidance of the Spirit, baptised Jesus, recognising him as the Messiah, the Christ, the coming King.

John is now in prison, having been put there by Herod, and is hearing some news about what Jesus has been doing, but it’s not what John expected. Listen to John’s message: ‘Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire... His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ (Luke 3:9, 17)

Fire, wrath, judgment. But that’s not what has been happening in Jesus’ ministry. He’s been teaching people, healing people, and even raising the dead. This wasn’t on John’s agenda, and so he has questions for Jesus. In verse 19 we find that searching question: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’

Jesus, are you the real Messiah, are you the one that Israel has been waiting for all these hundreds of years? Are you really the hope of Israel, the Son of God, the king, the judge? I mean, all that stuff you’re doing is good and nice and all that, but it’s not really what I was expecting you to do. Where is the wrath? Notice that he knows that there’s someone to come - someone they’ve been waiting for, it’s just that Jesus didn’t match up to what he expected. John, and Israel, were waiting for the conquering king to defeat the Roman armies and free Israel from their slavery.

So it’s interesting to see Jesus’ response. Rather than a straight ‘yes’, Jesus gives an intriguing reply: ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

It’s as if Jesus is offering an Old Testament identikit picture of what he is doing. You know those police pictures of suspects - short hair, big ears, a long nose, thin mouth, and you have a rough image of what the robber looks like. Here, Jesus tells the messengers to tell John what they’ve seen and heard - the fulfillment of those Old Testament promises of what it will look like when the Lord is restoring his people.

It’s not what John was expecting, and yet, it’s exactly God’s agenda, promised long before. Wrongs put right, people being healed and saved. And while we read this and think - why does God not heal my relative today - we know that it’s all down to God’s timing, and he will, on that day when we rise with restored bodies, with no more sin or suffering or sickness. It’s not that Jesus will never judge - the rest of his teaching in the gospel shows that he will judge the world - but we have to get the timing right. As another promise from Isaiah says, ‘to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God.’ (Is 61:2) Jesus’ earthly ministry proclaims God’s grace, but when Jesus returns as judge, he will exercise the vengeance of our God against his enemies.

Our unmet expectations are normally the result of us expecting the wrong things, or at the wrong time. Jesus doesn’t conform to our agendas - we must be conformed to his. Are you the one who is to come? Yes, as the signs of the kingdom confirm.

This sermon was preached in St Peter's Church, Antrim Road, Belfast on Wednesday 15th December at the midweek Communion.