Sunday, January 31, 2010

January 2010 Review

This is now the 29th blog posting of the new year - considerably down on last year's 44, but things have been busy! There are a few posts in the oven, just waiting to be released, so perhaps February will keep you reading better than January managed. In January we (missed, then) celebrated five years of the blog under several names.

Another blog has been started this year, the 365 photo challenge, and so there were a few updates about it starting and continuing. A photo every day was accomplished during January (although some still have to be uploaded when the camera is next connected to the laptop), so we're flying into February without running out of inspiration.

On the church front, we had the Ready Steady Cook night, as well as a consideration of sermon assessments. My January preachings were from 1 Thessalonians 1 (audio), 1 Thessalonians 2 (audio), Luke 11 (audio) and Daniel 3 (audio).

There were no McFlurry's McLinks this month, but several book reviews, on Don Carson's Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor, and Brian Barton's A History of St Peter's Church. I just about finished Graeme Goldsworthy's book on biblical theology, but the review will come in February.

In the news round up, we considered how some seem to be hating Haiti, and how you can help Haiti by having heARTS for Haiti, as well as Mrs Robinson.

Post of the month was my grave questions, and picture of the month was my Stormont double:

006/365:2010 Stormont Double

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Sermon Audio: Daniel 3: 1-30

Here's the sermon audio mp3 file from last Sunday morning in Daniel 3 on the fiery furnace.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Grave Questions

I'm a very amateur historian, and enjoy wandering round ruined castles, churches, and especially graveyards. Graveyards, and particularly the inscriptions on headstones, give us an insight into the past, the legacy and reputation of the past generations. For most, the gravestone may be the last or only monument to their life and achievements, so it's interesting to read what is written or declared about the deceased.

Sometimes you'll come across the grave of someone famous, nationally or locally, and you can see how they were respected in their local area and by their own family. You also get an insight into the expression of faith (or lack of) which was held by the deceased through the statements at the bottom of the headstone.

Recently I stopped at the graveyard of Rathmullan Parish Church, near Killough and Tyrella. I had been there several years ago, but hadn't properly explored the graveyard. While it's not big, it contained two graves that led to questions forming in my head.

The first was what should probably be described as a mausoleum. The only proper building with a vault in the graveyard. The inscription was very interesting:

Mr Johnston of Ballykilbeg

William Johnston of Ballykilbeg is an Orange hero. Back in 1849, Orange parades were very contentious (nothing seems to change in Irish history...). Following the 'Battle' of Dolly's Brae outside Castlewellan, in which several Catholics were killed as the Rathfriland Orangemen returned home from their Twelfth Demonstration Lord Roden's Park (now Tollymore Forest), Orange parades were banned. William Johnston of Ballykilbeg disobeyed the ban by leading a procession on 12th July 1867 from Newtownards to Bangor, for which he was jailed for two months in Downpatrick gaol. Johnston was elected several times as MP for South Belfast, and managed to have the legislation banning Orange parades repealed.

William Johnston Memorial RBP 302

However, the question from the graveyard concerns his burial place. The inscription reports that it was 'Formerly Mr Brett's Burial Place.' So who was Mr Brett? Why was his burial place given to William Johnston? And where was he then buried? A tantalising detail which leads to more questions than it answers.

Later on my wander, I discovered another interesting headstone. This time, the grave of Jane Archer of Downpatrick, who died on 6th September 1836. She is the only person mentioned on the headstone, and down at the bottom is this inscription: 'This grave never to be opened.'

Never To Be Opened

There may be perfectly good reasons for this instruction. Perhaps Jane had some terribly infectious disease which, it was feared, would spread if the grave was reopened. Perhaps Jane didn't like the thought of sharing her resting place with anyone else, or didn't want someone lying on top of her. Perhaps it was an old grave, and her burial was the last to take place in the plot as there wouldn't be any space for further interments. We may never know the reason. But there's one sure thing: her wish will not be granted.

Her grave will one day be opened, on that last day. As Jesus says in John 5: 'for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his [the Son of Man's] voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgement.' (John 5:29)

The grave is not our permanent resting place - our ultimate destination is heaven or hell, and every grave, whether Mr Brett's, Mr Johnston's or Jane Archer's will be opened. Even so, come Lord Jesus!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sermon Feedback

Several things have been converging to lead to this posting. First up, I've been thinking for a while about sermon feedback in churches. Occasionally someone will say something at the door - hopefully more than just "nice sermon" (I'm not aiming to be "nice"), but normally if there's any comment it's a general bland comment.

The second is the review of sermons that we have in staff meeting and one-to-one contexts. Very useful to have a discussion about structure (which is normally lacking), introductions, illustrations, applications, and how we're handling the Word of God.

Third, this week it has been the Northern Ireland Ministry Assembly (NIMA) Preaching Conference. 30 or so ministers and students gathering to hear from God's word and to each present an outline sermon for critique and feedback in a small workshop setting. Ours has been in 2 Peter, with other groups working on Daniel and Mark. My presentation is tomorrow morning, so here goes...

Fourthly, and perhaps most significantly, I've been (slowly) reading Graeme Goldsworthy's 'Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture'. A great book which I'll properly review in due course. But Goldsworthy has a helpful comment on the area of sermon feedback:

The gospel not only defines the problem and God's response to it, it should also define the Christian buzz words that we use to assess sermons and talks... In short, what is relevant is defined by the gospel; what is helpful is defined by the gospel. The first question we all need to ask is not, "Was it relevant?"; "Did I find it helpful?"; or "Were we blessed?"; but "How did the study or sermon testify to Christ and his gospel as the power of God for salvation?"

What he's saying is that faithfulness is the measure of 'success' and not anything else. Am I preaching the word of God faithfully, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ? This is our aim and purpose and standard. Conferences, books and teamwork are helpful aids to this, but let's never forget what we're doing as we preach the Scriptures.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sermon: Daniel 3: 1-30

Let’s just all get on together, and recognise that your beliefs are as valid as mine. So long as you don’t offend anyone else, then you can believe what you like - in private. The public arena is no place for faith. This is my truth, tell me yours

These are the kind of things that we hear these days - that for the good of society, we need to unite around common values of tolerance, and human rights. Tolerance becomes the god of our age - or perhaps it is materialism, as we all become so focused on pursuing wealth and comfortable living.

So how does the believer take a stand for the Lord? Are we in a new terrible time which Christians have never seen before? We hear a lot about post-Christian Britain - is this a new bad thing for us to deal with?

In our reading today, we find that God’s people through the Bible have had to contend with opposition and that standing for God is not a new thing. We’re going to divide the passage into three sections - the Challenge, the Conviction, and the Confession. So first, the Challenge.

Nebuchadnezzar is king of Babylon, having conquered many lands and nations (including Jerusalem). Perhaps inspired by the dream of the statue in chapter 2, he has this gold statue erected on the plain of Dura, near Babylon. An impressive statue - 90 feet tall, and 9 feet wide, nearly the height of the Statue of Liberty (151 foot).

To celebrate the new statue (we’re not told what it is - whether Nebuchadnezzar himself, or one of his gods), he invites the civil servants - that big list - from all the provinces to attend. A gala day. Like the inauguration of Barak Obama last year - a huge crowd, a civic occasion. The orders are given - when the band plays music, then everyone must fall down and worship the golden image.

And so, the band strikes up, and all at once it’s like a Mexican wave as the crowd fall to their knees. Brian Walker, a journalist, remembers from his childhood when Cardinal D’Alton visited Londonderry: ‘We were standing in Waterloo Place craning for a decent view when suddenly everything cleared. An open topped limousine entered the square with the cardinal inside... in that second the crowd had seemed to vanish. In fact everybody had fallen to their knees, leaving only me and my daddy upright - or so I remember it, and giving me the best view in town.’

You can imagine the TV cameras at the ceremony, and as the music plays, the overhead camera swoops over the crowd, everyone bowed, and then it zooms in on these three standing up - like an island in the sea of people. Who are they? Why won’t they bow down?

The Chaldeans - the native Babylonians, the wise men, come to accuse the three, and Nebuchadnezzar is furious! He gives them another chance - music plays, bow down, everyone happy. Otherwise, he’ll throw them into a fiery furnace. Look at verse 15. Here is the challenge: ‘If you do not worship... and who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?’

Nebuchadnezzar sees himself as all important, all powerful. Who can save these three petty people from his hand? Nebuchadnezzar is enforcing a godless unity - bringing all the ‘peoples, nations and languages’ to worship his statue, asserting himself as head over all. He just can’t believe that anyone will dare resist him.

Meeting the Challenge, we have the Conviction of the three. Look at verses 16-18. (Read) Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego have no appeal to the king - they are guilty as charged. But even so - ‘our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king.’

What god can save? Our God can save - our God is able. There’s your answer, Nebuchadnezzar. The three know their God, and know their history - the Lord God is a God who saves - rescuing Noah and his family from the flood in the ark; rescuing the children of Israel from Egypt through the plagues and the Passover. Our God is able! They have confidence in God - not based on themselves, but on the power of God to save his people.

In a sense, that’s all that needs to be said. After all, we know the end of the story, we know what happens, and how they come out safe. God is able to save and he will. But they don’t stop there. Yes, God is able to save - but he may in his sovereign will decide that his purposes are best served through our death: verse 18 ‘But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.’

It’s the same as Peter and the apostles centuries later, who were arrested for teaching about Jesus in the temple at Jerusalem: ‘We must obey God rather than men.’ (Acts 5:29). In such a contest, there is no contest - God is the one to obey, not the temple authorities, or Nebuchadnezzar, or anyone else who seeks to stop the people of God being the people of God.

They aren’t rebelling because they know that rescue is sure. Remember - many believers are martyred - yet they still refuse to bow the knee to a false god or an idol.

What about us? Are we determined to stand firm, no matter the outcome? Are we convinced that God can save, but that even if he doesn’t we will serve him? These are the things to decide on in the quiet times, to make small decisions for God every day, so that when it comes to the big things, we can stand firm. Remember chapter 1 - and the ‘small’ matter of the food they ate?

Perhaps there’s a culture of silence in your workplace - everyone goes along with the cheating on time sheets, or knocking off early - will you go along with it, or will you stand firm, refusing to compromise for the sake of an easy life?

Their conviction leads to Nebuchadnezzar acting in fury. The furnace is heated seven times hotter than normal (something that isn’t really needed). Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are bundled up in all their clothes, bound up so that they can’t move, and they’re thrown into the furnace. The flames are so strong that the strong men throwing them into the furnace are themselves killed.

Nebuchadnezzar is watching to see them burn, when he is astonished! The men aren’t bundled up, they are walking about - and there are four of them! Much ink has been spilled on the identity of the fourth person - who in Nebuchadnezzar’s words ‘is like a son of the gods.’ In verse 28, Neb says that God sent his angel to deliver his servants - perhaps it’s an angel, or perhaps it is a pre-incarnate appearance of the Second Person of the Trinity, God the Son (Jesus). Either way, the purpose of the person is to show that God is with his people in their trials, that God is saving his people, rescuing them in the time of distress. Remember that these are Jews, the people of God during the time of exile, far away from Jerusalem.

God has saved his people - the fire had no power over them, their hair not singed, their cloaks not harmed, and no smell of fire. What god can deliver you out of my hands?

Nebuchadnezzar has a confession of sorts: He declares that the three are servants of the Most High God (26), and blesses God for his rescue: ‘who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.’

He understands what God has done for his people, he has seen the salvation with his own eyes - and yet it appears that it is one step forward, two steps back for Nebuchadnezzar. Look back at the end of chapter 2. There he declared that Daniel’s God was ‘God of gods and Lord of kings’. Yet by the start of chapter 3 he has forgotten that and set up the statue to be worshipped in honour of himself and his own gods. So here, while he says the words, he doesn’t seem to be genuinely converted.

He’s like the crowds who witnessed the miracles of Jesus, but remained in their unbelief. Even seeing God’s saving acts with his own eyes doesn’t change old Nebuchadnezzar. Look at the very last words of Nebuchadnezzar in the chapter: ‘there is no other god who is able to rescue in this way.’ No other god - that includes the so-called gods of Nebuchadnezzar!

Friends, Nebuchadnezzar points us to a real danger for us who sit under the Scriptures every week - we hear of God’s saving acts, we perhaps even know that Jesus died for our sins, as the way for us to be saved. Yet still you do nothing about it. It’s head knowledge - a fact to know, but it hasn’t changed you. you haven’t recognised that God is Lord over all. You just continue in your own way.

Don’t be like Nebuchadnezzar. Instead, learn what he failed to learn - and see that God is king over all, much more powerful than the ruler of the Babylonian empire, much more powerful than anyone you know. God is the one who can deliver us out of the danger we face. As we talked with the children earlier - God is the one who rescues his people - through the cross of Jesus Christ.

Let’s be clear - today there are pressures on all of us to conform to the way the world wants us to be - in work, in family life, in how we spend our money and how we look and dress. As in Nebuchadnezzar’s day, there’s a godless unity, a godless conformity. We just want to fit in, to be the same as everyone around us - our neighbours and friends. But Daniel 3 is calling us to stand firm, to ‘not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.’ (Romans 12:2) Perhaps there are specific areas in your life where you know you need to stand firm - perhaps even a public stand. What’s it to be? ‘Our God, whom we serve is able to deliver us... but if not... we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image.’

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 24th January 2010.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Covenants and Commissionings

It's been a busy week. Following the (belated) fifth birthday of the blog, I've been unable to blog with lots going on in the parish. On Wednesday, we had our quarterly visit to the Evangelical Bookshop to turn around the church bookstall. So there's lots of shiny new books available in the back right corner of the church building.

Wednesday night we had our Fellowship Group, continuing our year-long study in the letter to the Hebrews. We reached chapter 8 and looked at Jesus being the mediator of a better covenant, and considered how the earthly Tabernacle was a copy and shadow of the heavenly throne room, and how the new Covenant supersedes the old Covenant of Sinai. A tough study (probably because of the idiot leading it), but with hard work comes great reward as we dug down deep into God's word. I'm considering some blogging on the relationship of the old covenant to the new covenant, but they'll come perhaps later next week.

Tonight, it's off to St Saviours Dollingstown, my old stomping ground, for the commissioning service for the new Ireland Team Leader of the Evangelical Anglican Mission Agency, Crosslinks. Bishop Wallace Benn is preaching at the service, and it should be a good and God-honouring evening.

That's all for now - more updates coming shortly soon...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Sermon Audio: Luke 11: 1-13

Here's the mp3 sermon audio file from Sunday morning's Family Service preach. We were looking at Prayer Power from Luke's Gospel.

Five Years On

Oops. Once again, I missed the anniversary of the blog! I knew that this blog (originally entitled The Thoughts of a Random Ordinand) had started in January 2005, but I couldn't remember what date. It was only this morning that I had a look, and behold, it was 12th January 2005 that launched my blogging endeavours. Long before Facebook came along. Perhaps even before Bebo?

Since then we've had 1544 blog posts on a wide variety of subjects, and plenty of discussion. A big thank you to all who read the blog here, on Facebook or through rss feeds. Now back to business!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Hating Haiti?

There has been considerable coverage of some 'Christian' remarks made by an American tele-evangelist, Pat Robertson concerning the recent earthquake in Haiti. They have been widely reported in the media, speaking on the alleged pact that Haitians made with the devil to free themselves from French slavery, and that the nation has been cursed since then. His broadcaster has later produced a statement saying that "Dr. Robertson never stated that the earthquake was God’s wrath."

Just one person, yet the publicity his words have generated, and the negative repercussions for the image of Christianity in the media have been widespread. Perhaps Robertson should have followed the line that Jesus used when asked about freak occurrences and 'natural' disasters in his day.

1There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2And he answered them, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." (Luke 13:1-5)

The crowds must have assumed that because the Galileans died in a horrible way, they must have been notorious sinners. After all, according to popular wisdom, your life and death is a straight reflection of your character. So if you die horribly or early, then you must have been a terrible sinner, whereas those who live into their hundreds are the most righteous. To which Jesus says - nonsense!

Suffering is not (always) a result of specific sin - we saw that when we preached through the book of Job. Sometimes suffering just happens - God is on the throne, but suffering is not related to specific sins - we live in a fallen world, things are not how they should be, disasters happen.

Similarly, it seems that in the recent Jerusalem news bulletins, people were talking about a tower which had fallen at Siloam in the city. Eighteen people lost their lives, but they weren't the worst sinners in the city. They weren't singled out for their sin.

In each case, Jesus refutes the popular understanding of sin leading to punishment in such a direct manner. The tower falling wasn't a consequence of their sin. The earthquake in Haiti was not because Haitians are the worst sinners in the world. Rather, what has happened to them may also happen to you: No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. (Luke 13, 3 and 5)

The same words are repeated twice. Disasters happen. Unless we repent, we will likewise perish - maybe not in an earthquake along with thousands of others, but one day sin will catch up with us. One day each of us will die - are we ready for the day, because, as Jesus makes the point, it could be sooner than we imagine. Are you ready for your own death?

If you don't want to hate the Haitians, but instead want to help them, check out heARTs for Haiti at the new Facebook page for the art sale being organised to help relief efforts.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

have a heART for Haiti

Like just about everyone else, I've been watching the news footage from Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake. Shocking pictures, as we see once again the unruly power of the groaning pains of the creation as it waits for re-creation and the freedom of the glory ofthe children of God. So many lives lost, so much devastation.

The aid response has been swift - £12 million given in the UK in the first two days, yet so much more needs to be done. In St Elizabeth's, we're having a retiring offering today and next week for the work of the Disasters Emergency Committee. Meanwhile Faye and Cathy have a crafty way to help the victims. They're organising a sale of art, photography and crafts to raise money for Haiti. You can did more information over at their Flickr sites: Faye and Cathy. I'll keep you updated here on the blog as well.

Sermon: Luke 11: 1-13

This morning, I’ve got a picture that’s going to appear on the screen - does anyone know who it is? ... It’s Pudsey Bear - and what is he linked with? When do we see him? ... He’s the mascot of Children in Need. So every year coming up to November, we see Pudsey the Bear, reminding us about Children in Need.

Does everyone know what that word need means? Can anyone help us out? ... It’s when we have to have something, because we can’t do without it. We don’t have something important, so we need it. So if you miss your breakfast, then you’ll be really hungry, and you’ll need some food. Or if you’ve been running around outside (although maybe not in this weather) then you need a drink because you’re thirsty. Or if you’ve had your shoes for a long time and there’s a hole in them and the water gets in, then you need a new pair of shoes.

But we don’t just want to think about Children in Need today - because it’s not just children who have needs. All of us in church today have needs, things that we just can’t do without. We’ll think about them a bit later on.

Lots of needs. And how do you make sure that your needs are sorted out? How do you make sure that you get what you need - if it’s a drink or some food or whatever?

[Cue Johnny asking for a sweet as he’s a bit of a cough... But I try to ignore him because I’m trying to speak, but he persists, and so I give him the sweet...]

Jesus tells us the story of a man who needs something. Let’s see what happens: Person 1 comes and knocks on the door, but person 2 is in bed. Person 1 asks him for some bread as he has none and a visitor has come. Person 2 says no, go away, I’m in bed. Person 1 asks again, and Person 2 gets up and gives it to him.

How did Person 1 get what he needed? He was asking for it, so that because he kept asking, Person 2 gave him what he needed. Or like Johnny needing the sweet - because he asked, I gave him what he needed.

Jesus gives us a short memory verse to help us in this: ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.’ (Luke 11:9)

Ask, seek, knock. When we know that we need something, Jesus tells us to ask God, and he will give it to us. Just think of the Lord’s Prayer. In the Lord’s Prayer, there are a few things that we ask God for, things that we need: ‘give us each day our daily bread’ and ‘forgive us our sins.’

We need all the things that keep us going for today, our food, which is the bread; and we also need to have our sins forgiven, the wrong things we have done wiped away.

But how can we be sure that God will give us what we need? How can we know that God will give us our daily bread and forgive our sins?

Jesus talks about asking your mum or dad for some food. Can you imagine if you asked them for a fish, and instead of that you got a scary serpent? Or imagine you wanted a boiled egg for breakfast, and they gave you a stinging scorpion?

Or imagine you asked for a burger and chips for dinner, but instead they gave you some dog food and stones?

You’re asking for something you need (food), but they instead gave you something dangerous, something that would harm you! It just wouldn’t happen. They wouldn’t do it. We know that our mums and dads will give us good things, things that we need.

Even bad people give good gifts. God is good, so how much more will he give good things to us, the things that we need! Bad people give good gifts. The good God gives great gifts! The gift that Jesus mentions here is the Holy Spirit - God gives us himself, who provides for us, who makes us new people, and who helps us to live for Jesus.

How do we know that God will give us what we need? God is good, God tells us what to ask for, and God promises to give them to us.

So perhaps today you have done bad things, wrong things - you know you need God’s forgiveness. You can ask for it, say sorry to God, and your sins are forgiven, wiped clean. Or maybe you need some help in school, you’re on your own, no one plays with you. Jesus is your friend, he is always with you - if you ask God for help, then he will give you it.

Or parents and grandparents - can I speak to you for a moment? You wouldn’t dream of giving bad things to your child or grandchild. You give them good things, that help and build them up. So why do you think God, your heavenly Father would do that to you? God loves you even more than you love your children. He gives you good gifts too. You just have to ask him.

Let’s try the memory verse again:

‘Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you.’ Luke 11:9

This sermon was the basis for the Talk at the Family Service in St Elizabeth's on Sunday 17th January 2009. Alongside the talk, there were some visual aids, a drama, a (scripted) interruption, and some PowerPoint slides.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Cook Off!

So last night we had our Ready Steady Cook event in church as a fundraiser for our Building for the Gospel project. Our Youth Worker Johnny and myself were each given a bag of ingredients and had to make a little meal out of it. In my bag, I found some milk, eggs, cheese, scallions (spring onions), garlic, and bacon, so I made a set of mini quiches. Thankfully they turned out well, and I even managed to win the audience vote, although Johnny's spinach pastry diamonds won the special judge's vote.


We had over 100 people in the Burton Hall, which made me a bit nervous - normally I'm cooking for myself and my wife or one or two others, but with a big crowd, it was a bit fierce! The evening was hosted by The Pampered Chef, using all their bakeware and utensils, with the building project benefitting from a percentage of the cookware sales. As well as the samples that Johnny and I produced, there was also a tasty supper for everyone. A great night, even though they didn't warn me in college of some of the things that come with being a minister!

015/365:2010 Ready Steady Cook!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Two Weeks Notice

We've now completed two weeks of the 365 photo challenge. Fourteen days' worth of photos, one per day, uploaded and blogged. Just 351 days to go! Remember, you can find my 365 project at Garibaldi 2010, and there you'll also find links to the other 365ers on Flickr and blogs.

1. 001/365:2010 Sunset Pylons, 2. 002/365:2010 Stingray Smile, 3. 003/365:2010 Hot And Cold, 4. 004/365:2010 Ready For Soldiers!, 5. 005/365:2010 Suds, 6. 006/365:2010 Stormont Double, 7. 007/365:2010 Back in the Box, 8. 008/365:2010 The Blank (Sermon) Page, 9. 009/365:2010 Secondhand Books, 10. 010/365:2010 Half Beard, 11. 011/365:2010 Love So Amazing, 12. 012/365:2010 Beanz, 13. 013/365:2010 Trinity College Dublin, 14. 014/365:2010 A Big White Lump... and the Remains of a Snowman

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Sermon Audio: 1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8

Here's the sermon audio mp3 file from Sunday night's sermon on Walking Worthy in Evangelism.

Book Review: A History of St Peter's Church

Let's be frank - Parish histories, while fascinating for parishioners, can sometimes be dull and boring to those not connected with the parish or familiar with the local area. The details of additions to buildings and descriptions of Select Vestry meetings can drag on with little hope of humour or interest.

Last November, a new parish history was launched for St Peter's Parish, on the Antrim Road in Belfast, written by Brian Barton (building on an earlier work by Richard Breene). I'm slowly getting to know the parish through having a friend in the recently appointed Rector, Adrian Dorrian. I've led a couple of services and preached there, as well as taken some photos.

Preacher's Point of View

However, whether I knew the parish or not, I have found Barton's book very interesting in several areas. Firstly, as a social history of the development of the town and City of Belfast. His opening chapter is purely social history with a dash of ecclesiastical history thrown in as well. The family history of the Donegalls (after whom quite a number of streets are named) is linked to the outward push of the growing industrial town, first to the west and south, then across the river Lagan to the east, and eventually along the northern shore of Belfast Lough. The surprising news that Belfast Castle is a mere baby, being completed in 1870, and the development of the new Antrim Road, and the movement for a new parish church to be erected in the locale.

Secondly, there are good portraits of the people involved - reminding us time and again that the church is not a building, but the people who are inside - from Rectors and churchwardens, to some of the founding committee, including Francis Bigger, a Protestant member of Sinn Fein, who served as secretary of the founding committee and of the first Select Vestry.

The Troubles are also covered, with the impact of mass population movements from north Belfast leading to a decline in the church's congregation, and the devastation of the bombing of the Landsdowne Court Hotel next door in 1987. Yet even with these set backs, the determination to continue to work for the kingdom shines through, as the buildings are restored and new halls built, and ministry continued through the centenary of the parish and church in 2000.

Another interesting section relates to the Chapel of the Resurrection, located off Inisfayle Park, which was originally part of the estate of Belfast Castle. The Chapel was a mortuary chapel for the Earl of Belfast (the original Black Man before the statue of Henry Cooke took up his spot at College Square, outside Inst), and was later transferred to St Peter's parish for Sunday afternoon services. Sadly, the building is not just a shell, having been targetted by vandalism and theft many times, but it still stands high on the hill, visible from the M5 and M2 travelling towards the city.

As well as the text, there are lots of full colour and black and white photos of the key features of the church building, and it will be a valuable and important contribution to both the social and religious history of that part of north Belfast. A good read, not just for those linked to the parish, but for any local historian with an interest in the development of Belfast, or in the social elite families like the Donegalls and Chichesters.

A History of St Peter's Parish, Antrim Road, Belfast is available from The Good Book Shop, Belfast.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Ready, Steady, Cook!

Doing anything this Friday night? I've been conscripted to take part in a cooking challenge in the Church Halls, in aid of our Building for the Gospel project.

It's the familiar Ready, Steady Cook format - Johnny Beare (our Youth Leader) and myself will be given a bag of ingredients, and we have to come up with a recipe and prepare a meal. No pressure then! The evening is being hosted by Shirley Kerr, one of the Pampered Chef agents, and we'll be using some of the products made and sold by Pampered Chef. Profits from the evening are going towards our building project.

You're very welcome to come along and laugh at my awful cooking - Friday 15th January at 7.45pm in the Church Hall, Church Green, Dundonald.

Let's hope I get a tin of beans and a pan loaf so I can do my chef's special of beans and toast!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Book Review: Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor

Don Carson is best known for his robust, hefty theological writing. His huge commentary on the Gospel According to John, or his work on The Gagging of God, are among his better-known works. Whatever he turns his hand to is always thorough, and thoroughly good.

Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor is in a different genre, and yet not so different. Don's father, Tom Carson, was the ordinary pastor in the title, and Don tells his father's story, using journal excerpts written through the many years of Tom's pastoral work in various parts of French-Canada, around Quebec.

Tom was an ordinary pastor because he wasn't famous beyond his own sphere, just a quiet, godly, faithful pastor working in his little corner. Yet the journals of this ordinary pastor provide an insight into pastoral ministry, and can provide encouragement and consolation for other ordinary pastors working away with little sign of 'fruit'. There are some bleak times, when Tom gets very discouraged after seeing no increase in numbers, or any signs of life, particularly in Drummondville. His response is to resign his charge and take up a job in the Canadian Civil Service.

Don fills in the back story, helpfully explaining some of the situations and circumstances his dad was going through, with church politics and local personalities providing challenging problems. His affection for his dad is plain from the first page, and continues throughout - indeed, one of the great features of the book is the behind the scenes confirmation of what was happening, from an eye witness.

Yet what makes for one of the book's strengths may also be a weakness. Perhaps not wanting to share too much of the negative material, Don shares very small extracts, as may be natural for it being his dad's story. There are also a few times when he seems to be overly defensive of his dad, when discouragement may in fact be completely justified.

Another strong theme of the book is the need for being aware of and immersed in the culture you're ministering to. Tom Carson had been born in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, and his parents emigrated. Yet there was still a lot for Tom to learn as he moved from English evangelism to a new pioneer work in French-speaking Quebec. The particular culture and values had to be carefully observed and infiltrated for successful mission work. Why would we need to prepare any less for mission work in our own country, with its alien culture too?

Towards the end, the book provides a tender and inspiring picture of the Christian commitment of marriage, as Tom's wife Marg develops Alzheimers, and Tom continues to love and serve her, even without any recognition and response. May we see many more committed marriages, in sickness as in health, like Tom and Marg's.

The last page is the most touching, the most inspiring, and the most challenging. Don Carson writes of the things that Tom never did, and the many more important things that he did do. I don't even want to repeat a portion of it, because it's the fitting conclusion to the whole book, and is best read at the end.

Suffice it to say that my ambition is not to be popular or famous or a superpastor. Reading Tom's story, and hearing it in his own words, is an inspiration to be an ordinary pastor, faithful to the end. Amen!


Tonight I'm going to show you some pictures, and I want to ask you what they have in common. First up, a batch of celebrities, sports stars, pop stars, and a pile of money. Next, some religious statues. What do they have in common? They're all idols.

An idol is something that takes the place of God. God created us, gave us life, and loves us. He therefore demands and deserves our love, worship, service and life. But we don't do that. We turn away, and worship created things rather than the Creator. We get hung up on stuff rather than God.

What is our idol? What is the thing that we spend our life on - our money, time, energy, we think about the most? What do we put first in our life? Is it alcohol, getting drunk at the weekend, living for the next bottle of booze? Is it sex - as if your life's mission is to sleep with as many people as possible? Is it money - to gain as much as you can? Is it fame - so that everyone knows who you are?

It might even be lots of small idols worshipped together - a combination of money and fame and internet and sex and whatever else. But they're still idols, taking the place of God.

Paul is writing to a group of Christians, people who have become followers of God, and he writes these words: 'you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.' (1 Thessalonians 1:9) This tells us three things:

1. A turning is needed - we can't serve two masters - we can't love God and also hold dear to our idols. Who will we serve? The technical word for this turning is repentance - an about turn, from going our way and running after idols, to turn to God and turn our backs on the idols.

2. God is the living God - Paul goes on to say that God raised Jesus from the dead, and that he will return. Jesus is alive - in contrast to the idols, whatever they are, which are all dead. They cannot save and they cannot satisfy.

3. God is the true God - all other idols are false. Why would you waste your life on a falsehood, a lie, rather than serving the living and true God?

We have a choice to make. Who will we serve? Who will you serve?

This text was the basis for the Talk in St Elizabeth's Teens (SET) on Sunday 10th January 2009 on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 Motives in Evangelism

The ends justify the means. So long as something good happens at the end - that is, whatever you want to happen - then it doesn’t matter how you get to that point. Would this be a fair representation of our Christian lives as we seek to tell other people the good news? Is that the way Paul viewed his evangelism and preaching? It doesn’t matter how you do it, so long as you get a result, so long as someone professes faith (whether or not they’re genuinely converted)?

We began last week with our new series in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Thessalonica. Remember that Paul had been there for a brief time before a riot started, and the newly converted Christians sent Paul and his companions away to Berea. They hadn’t seen him again, and Paul had continued through Athens to Corinth, where he sits down to write this letter back to Thessalonica to encourage the brothers and sisters.

But because of the shortness of his visit, and his speedy exit, it seems that some people were questioning what Paul had done. Was he just another travelling peddler of religion and wisdom, but when the hard times came then he was off? Was he just exploiting the naivety or goodness of the people of Thessalonica? Was he only out to enlarge his tummy and his pocket at their expense?

Through the week we’ve seen some controversy concerning our local MP. Her actions have been questioned, as well as her motives. The statements on Wednesday were the first defence, an explanation of what had happened and why. I’m not going to talk about those problems - but rather here in 1 Thes 2 we have Paul’s defence of his actions in response to the accusations of some in Thessalonica.

As the passage was read, you might have noticed it was a bit like watching a tennis match - you know, back and forth yes, no, yes, no and so on. Appeal not springing from error, approved by God; not speaking to please man, but to please God; not with words of flattery - God is witness; not seeking glory, but being gentle. Back and forth. We weren’t like this, but we did do this.

Paul sets out his motives, his words and his actions of evangelism while in Thessalonica. As we rejoice in the small steps of evangelism around Christmas time, we need to think through how and why we do our evangelism in this year. Paul is absolutely clear in what and why he does what he does - let’s hope that God’s word helps us to also be clear in our mission. As Paul says in verse 1 - his coming to them wasn’t in vain; as we saw last week, they were thoroughly converted - they are the first evidence of Paul’s pure motives and godly conduct.

And this within the particular circumstances of his time in Thessalonica. Previously, he had been in Philippi, and ended up being beaten, then thrown in prison. Maybe you would think, well, I’ll maybe go easy this time, prison wasn’t very nice, maybe I’ll tone down my message. That would certainly be a temptation. Yet Paul declares he had ‘boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of such conflict.’ These circumstances form a backdrop to all else that we discuss tonight. Note for now Paul’s confidence in his God - it’s not just bravado that keeps him going - it is boldness in God. A holy boldness to continue speaking for the Lord even when it’s dangerous.

So first up, Paul’s motives. What was it that drove Paul to spread the gospel and proclaim God’s word? Look at verse 4: ‘For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive.’ Paul certainly isn’t in gospel work out of selfish or impure motives. He isn’t on a fool’s errand, having got the wrong end of the stick. He isn’t out to deceive people and lead them astray. His motives are pure and clear - which comes from being certain that God has commissioned him: ‘but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel of God...’ His motive for preaching Christ isn’t selfish or sinful - but comes from being sent.

Paul is sure that God has approved him, and entrusted him with the gospel - that word of stewardship, being given something to pass on (not to change or adapt). This is what drives him to continue to proclaim Jesus Christ. Knowing that he has been sent by God, and that God is watching and testing his service, Paul is out, not on a people-pleasing mission, but on a God-pleasing mission.

‘We speak, not to please man, but to please God, who tests our hearts.’ You know the way politicians can sometimes say what you want to hear so you vote for them, but then they don’t actually do what they said? What used to be lies and propaganda is now ‘spin’. The danger is that preachers will also say what the people want to hear - to tickle and amuse them, to please them, rather than fearlessly declaring the word of the Lord, even when exposing sin or calling for something unpopular but right and good.

Paul acknowledges that as we speak for Jesus in our evangelism, as we talk to our neighbour or friend or family member about God and the gospel that we can sometimes want to please them, so we don’t mention about hell or sins, or the need for repentance. After all, they won’t want to hear about that, we reason. We want to please them. But such changing of the message is not pleasing to God.

Paul’s motives are absolutely clear - he has been sent by God, and must please God. What about you? The great commission still stands, it hasn’t been revoked. Who is it you’re trying to please in your use of words (or absence of words)?

Paul then writes about the words that he used. It’s linked to the section we’ve just considered, as he speaks to please God and not others. Verse 5: ‘For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed - God is witness.’ Again, we have the not, the things that Paul didn’t do, and then the reason for it.

How do we use words in evangelism? Paul is clear that he didn’t indulge in flattery - trying to butter his hearers up, make them feel good through smooth words. Yet flattery obscures the view of reality - perhaps through suggesting that they don’t really need a Saviour, that they’re good enough on their own.

Another dangerous use of words would be in a pretext for greed - to exploit the gospel for his own gain. But again Paul is clear that these things didn’t happen - his use of words was careful, precisely because ‘God is witness.’

If we turn to Paul’s actions, we see that even in how he conducts himself is no barrier to the gospel, but that everything he thinks, says and does is seeking to be controlled by and commending the gospel. Once again, we have something that Paul didn’t do, then his positive conduct.

I remember one time in Dublin, there was an American lady staying in college for a while, and after the Wednesday evening service and before dinner, there was a reception. The lady spent about five minutes politely talking to this tall man she didn’t know, and as she was finishing to go on to talk to someone else, she turned to him and said, ‘and who are you?’ “I’m the Archbishop of Dublin, actually.’ was the abrupt reply! Paul says ‘Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ.’ Paul wasn’t up of himself, drawing attention to who he was, exalting himself - because in exalting himself, Christ would be made less of and relegated in importance.

Too often in the Church of Ireland we’re too concerned with position and importance - robes and titles and seats and coverage and publicity, all of which, at the end of the day, aren’t really what’s important. To bask in our own glory is to reduce to glory of Christ, to take away from the Saviour his exalted place.

Rather, Paul goes on, his conduct was gentle - the image he uses is of a nursing mother looking after her children. Later in verse 11 he’ll also use the image of a father, exhorting his children. In evangelism (indeed in all of life) Paul’s conduct is gentle, loving, and not harsh or full of self-importance.

Do you ever think about what the people in the Bible were like? So if you think of Paul, what comes to mind? Maybe strict, stern, as he comes across in Galatians (with good reason!), or tireless and full of energy, as we see him in Acts on all those travels and persecutions. The picture you have is probably not of a motherly, tender figure, who is ‘affectionately desirous’ of these new Christians, who cares for them deeply and seeks their good.

Yet this is how Paul’s conduct is described - you can feel the love and concern through the letter. Do we love the people we are seeking to share the gospel with? Do we care if they aren’t saved and spend a godless eternity? Because Paul’s love for the Thessalonians led him to not only share the gospel with them - it wasn’t just street corner blanket condemnation you’re all going to hell stuff. He shares not only the gospel, but ‘our very selves’ - sharing the gospel, yes, but also his life. Eating with them, showing them how he puts in his time and his interests and how Christ is at the heart of all he does.

I rejoice in the evangelism we were able to do back in December. The opportunities to talk to people at their doors, or to walk up to people on the street and invite them along and to share the good news of Jesus was great. May we have many more days like that this year. But we also have to share our lives with those we want to bring to faith - it’s not enough to shout the gospel at them and leave it at that. It’s part of a process, to bring them to be part of the community here, to get to know us, to see what we’re about and how we live, to see the gospel in practice.

So how are we at that? How are we doing at sharing our very selves with those of us who are already in the church? For many people, church can be a very lonely place. The times of coffee and before and after the service are great ways of getting to know each other - but what about the rest of the week? How are we sharing the gospel and our very selves? Where are the bonds of affection in the church family? How can we bring others to share in our life, to experience and know the gospel of our God?

Select Vestry are reading a book this year: Total Church. There’s a phrase in the book that sums up Paul’s defence of his life evangelism, that explains his motives, his words and his actions: gospel intentionality - doing something in a gospel-focused way. Let’s seek to develop our gospel intentionality, both individually, and together as the church family, so that our existence, our coming as Paul says, ‘was not in vain.’

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 10th January 2010.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Number One or Number Two?

I've been reading Don Carson's journey through the 'Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson' this week. I'm not finished, and there will be a more fuller book review when I'm done. But one thing has struck me as I've read the moving and insightful book on Don's father Tom. It's something that I have to work through and come to realise more fully as the time of my Curacy will some day come to an end.

Tom's journals are the source for much of the book, his private meditations and reflections on his ministry are opened up to bring encouragement to other little-known 'ordinary' pastors who are plugging away preaching the gospel in their little corner. There are many discouragements noted, as Tom failed to see much visible fruit from his work, particularly in Drummondville, Canada.

After some time of being discouraged, Tom resigns his pastoral charge and works as a translator for the government. At the same time, he assists in a small church in Hull, providing some preaching and pastoral work as the back-up to the senior pastor. Following his retirement from the Civil Service he continues to work as the assistant, being directed by the senior pastor on who to visit, when to preach and so on. The organisation and overall responsibility has been removed, and he's free to do the people work and the word work which he loves so dearly:

'The brute fact is that Tom functioned better as a number-two pastor than the senior man.' (p. 116)

Which raised a question for me. At present I'm a number-two pastor, the Curate Assistant. I'm not thinking about leaving Dundonald (we're loving it here), but there will come a day when we're moving on. Am I cut out to be a number-one, or do I function better as a number-two?

I don't have any answers at present - it's something to think through - but in the Church of Ireland, the pressure appears to be geared towards lone ranger rectors doing it all. Am I ready for the change from a brilliant staff ministry team to be on my tod? Thankfully we don't need the answer right this minute. Several years will do...

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Here's To You, Mrs Robinson

It was a sad, devastating day yesterday in the Northern Ireland news. We don't normally catch the evening news, but for some reason, we saw both the National and Local news bulletins on the BBC.

The First Minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson MP MLA, appeared on a video broadcast from his home study, reading a prepared statement following the publication of a statement from his wife and Strangford MP, Iris Robinson. He talked about her attempting suicide following an inappropriate affair, and the struggle this has placed on their marriage, but that they are working through it.

It appears that someone was going to break the story, so the Robinsons pre-empted it with their own statements. Peter Robinson appeared as a broken man, grieved and pained by his wife's infidelity, and the consequences of this. We need to be praying for the family, who are local residents here in Dundonald, as they seek to rebuild trust and their marriage together.

A terrible situation. Local politicians and the media have thus far been sympathetic and have pledged their support for Peter and Iris in these difficult days. Yet some have been critical of Iris Robinson since her criticism and condemnation of homosexuality back in 2008. They see this as her comeuppance for those remarks.

Yet there has been one bright moment in the midst of the despair. In her statement, Iris said: I grieve that I have damaged my profession in Christ, but I am comforted that He was able to forgive even me. Later, in Peter's statement, he said this:

I love my wife. I have always been faithful to her. In a spirit of humility and repentance, Iris sought my forgiveness, she took responsibility upon herself alone for her actions and I have forgiven her. More important, I know that she has sought and received God's forgiveness.

I only ask if people feel they must judge her, that they find within themselves, as I have done, the gift of doing so with mercy and compassion.

The language of mercy, forgiveness and grace has been used, and forgiveness has been provided and accepted within the Robinson's marriage, and also from God. Yet it has raised many discussions in the media about how Iris Robinson can be certain that God has forgiven her. Rev David McIlveen was interviewed on Good Morning Ulster, and the Chaplain of Upper Bann DUP branch (whose name I didn't catch) was on the Stephen Nolan radio show, both proclaiming clearly the gospel of God's grace and forgiveness on undeserving sinners through the death of Christ and confession and repentance.

Also on Good Morning Ulster, Glen Jordan was interviewed, and his words on scandalous grace bear repeating here:

"One of the things we believe is that grace is a scandalous thing, grace is for those who do not deserve it," he said.

"It doesn't make sense in the kind of economics where you always get what you deserve.

"When you have done wrong to somebody and that person turns round and for no good reason extends forgiveness and says 'Let's try and repair this relationship' you've experienced grace then and you have a responsibility to live out in the light of that."

How marvellous that God's grace and glory is being proclaimed even in such terrible circumstances. How rightly Simon and Garfunkel sang all those years ago:

And here's to you, Mrs. Robinson
Jesus loves you more than you will know (Wo, wo, wo)
God bless you please, Mrs. Robinson
Heaven holds a place for those who pray

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Stormont Double

006/365:2010 Stormont Double

This is my 365 photo for today, taken up at Stormont. A new angle on the building that houses the Northern Ireland Assembly. Reflections and snow all in one!

The Wise Men

Living on the edge of east Belfast, it's always heartening to read in the Scriptures that 'wise men from the east came'. However, rather than being silly, the wise men's arrival (supposedly today, the feast of the Epiphany) provides us with some amazing contrasts in the response to the birth of the Christ.

1. Kings, a king and The King

We three kings of Orient are - according to the old traditions, they were three kings who visited the city of Jerusalem seeking for the one born King of the Jews. The obvious place to look for the king would be in the palace in Jerusalem, yet the occupant was decidedly troubled when the Oriental visitors arrived. You see Herod the king claimed the title for himself, although he wasn't really a Jew. He had been imposed on the area by the Romans, and maintained his reign by brutal tyranny and murderous tactics.

He feigns praise as he sends the wise men to continue searching in Bethlehem, but it won't be long before he sends his soldiers along the same road with murder in their hearts. A satanic attempt to destroy the Christ-child at the beginning of his life foiled through obedient Joseph. Herod sees Jesus as his dangerous opponent precisely because Jesus is the true King of the Jews (and everyone else).

The kings journey on to Bethlehem, following the star and the ancient words of prophecy, and find the child and 'they fell down and worshipped him' (Matt 2:11). What a contrast between the response of the king Herod and the three kings - murderous hate and joyful worship. How will we respond to The King?

2. Religious and Pagan

The three wise men are described as magi. Another Christmas word that's hard to pronounce! The magi appear to have been star watchers, astrologers, and probably involved in pagan worship. In church we started a series in Daniel, and I wonder if Daniel and the others were part of the same caste of magi so many hundred years before: 'the magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans' (Dan 2:2).

Pagan or not, these wise men came searching for the King of the Jews who is King of the world. They journeyed a long way, following the star in order to worship him. They kept going on to Bethlehem after Jerusalem gave them the location. They rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. They presented costly treasures.

What a contrast to the religious men of Israel, the chief priests and scribes. Herod was troubled, and brought them to tell where the Christ was to be born. They probably didn't even have to open the scrolls or check their Bibles. The answer was well known, thanks to the prophecy of Micah 5:2 - Bethlehem.

So do they pack their donkeys or camels or horses or feet and journey with the wise men to see their King, their Christ who has been born? Do they rejoice at the news and hurry to see who they've been waiting for so long? Do they make an announcement to the people to come along to Bethlehem and see the hope of Israel?

Erm, no. They watch the wise men go, and do nothing. They completely ignore the greatest news they could have imagined. It would be like all their birthdays and all their Christmases rolled into one. But they don't turn up. They don't celebrate. They don't rejoice at God fulfilling his promises. While not murderously opposing the Christ, they reject him all the same through their denial and disinterest.

Today is the end of the season of Christmas. The trees will be packed away or thrown out (if they haven't already because you're sick of looking at it). But let's not forget the Christmas message. Let's not throw out the Lord Jesus with the Christmas cards and decorations.

Instead, let's remember the dedication and sacrifice of the wise men as they spent time, money, and energy to travel so far to worship the King newborn. We don't even have to leave our seats. Let's worship the King of Kings, and do it now!

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Sermon Audio: 1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10

Struck down with the cold and a poor voice, this is my Sunday evening preaching from 1 Thessalonians. The theme was Walking Worthy as Model Believers.

Monday, January 04, 2010

In The Beginning...

Isn't technology wonderful? This year I'm using the ESV One Year Bible which will guide me through the complete Bible in the year 2010. It's organised by the ESV Bible publishers, and the day's readings pop into my RSS reader (Google Reader) every morning at 8.30am.

On Friday, we got stuck in with day one's readings - Genesis 1-2, Matthew 1-2:12, Psalm 1 and Proverbs 1:1-6. Every day there'll be a section of the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Psalms and Proverbs. When I can, I'll try to blog something about the readings, either on the day or shortly after.

Genesis 1 is all about beginnings. With the words that John later picks up, 'In the beginning', Genesis takes us back to the start of every created thing. But while everything was being created, God was already there, the Creator by whom and through whom everything else was formed.

Three things strike me from the account of creation:

1. God's Word has power - God speaks, and things happen. Let there be light, he says, and there is light - three days before the sun is formed! At each stage, God speaks, and the creation is established and completed.

2. God creates in his image - humans are created in God's image, 'in our image, after our likeness', and given the task of being fruitful, multiplying, filling and subduing the earth, and having dominion. We are the pinnacle of creation, the final part, the only creatures made in the Creator's image, so we cannot think less of ourselves. But at the same time, we are still just creatures, we are not the centre of creation, so we should not think too much of ourselves.

3. God's creation is good - at the end of each day, God reviews his work, checks it, and declares that it is good. Having created humans, God's review declares that everything is very good.

A perfect paradise. So far from what we experience now, yet we look forward to when God will re-create, when the new heavens and the new earth are unveiled. Better than Eden.

Sermon Audio: John 1: 4-5

Back in December when I tried to upload the sermon audio files from the Sunday before Christmas, there was a problem with FileDen and they wouldn't go. I didn't get another chance to try until this morning, and they've now gone live.

So very late, here's the audio mp3 file from my sermon from the Parish Christmas Carols by Candlelight service, on Light and Life from the Prologue to John's Gospel.

As always, you can hear more sermons over at the St Elizabeth's Sermon Blog.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10 Model Christians

Who are your models? Now, I’m not talking about fashion models, people like Claudia Schiffer or Cindy Crawford. But who are your models, the Christians you look up to? We’ve already thought about this briefly - perhaps there’s some particular aspect of their life that you admire, something they seem to have attained that you struggle with.

Maybe when you hear the phrase model Christians you are already shrinking into your seat thinking that you could never be one of those, not with the doubts you have or the sins you still deal with or whatever. You’re thinking you’re too ordinary to be a supersaint.

In our reading tonight, Paul describes the Christians in Thessalonica as model Christians - they are ‘an example to all the believers’ in verse 7. But how did they win such an accolade from the apostle Paul? Why did he think so highly of them? We’re going to investigate this for a few minutes tonight, to see how they became model believers, and how we too can be model believers in our day.

To help us set the course for this evening - and just in case I can’t get through it all - here’s the summary statement: ‘Model believers have received and believed the word of God.’ That’s it. Nothing special or secretive or esoteric. Model believers have received and believed the word of God.

Paul is writing to the church at Thessalonica shortly after having visited the city to preach the gospel. He knows the people he’s writing to, a very short time after leaving (in a hurry). Paul mentions in verse 9 about the ‘kind of reception we had among you’ - the welcome that Paul and Silas and his fellow missionaries received, but that welcome was because of what Paul was bringing to them.

They received not only the missionaries, but they received the word of God. Look at verses 6-7. They imitated Paul and the Lord, because ‘you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.’

They received the word with the joy of the Holy Spirit. Paul preached the gospel, the word of God, and they received it. The church was a mixed one - some Jews, some Gentiles, but all received the word of God, in contrast to the unbelieving, jealous Jews (Acts 17:5). Later in 1 Thes, Paul elaborates on their receiving the word of God: ‘you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God.’ (1 Thes 2:13)

But there’s one more thing about receiving the word of God. Something that I’ve glossed over so far when reading the passage. Something that is vital to grasp. You see, when we think of receiving the word of God, and hear the Thessalonians described as model believers, you might think to yourself - well that was easy for them - they were living in Bible times, things were much easier for them, less complicated. Surely they can be model believers. But actually, Thessalonica wouldn’t have been the place you would instantly pick for model believers. My choice would have been Berea, Paul’s next stop after Thessalonica - the Jews were more noble there, they searched the scriptures to check what Paul was preaching. They would be the model believers.

Yet we have the letter to Thessalonica, and no letter to Berea. The Thessalonians were model believers because they received the word of God, yes with the joy of the Holy Spirit - but also ‘in much affliction.’ Flip over to Acts 17:5-9. Is this the ideal environment for the planting of a new church? Jealous Jews and city riots? As Tim reminded us this morning, we’re still in a spiritual Babylon, where the culture and society are opposed to God and his people.

It’s precisely why the Thessalonians are model Christians - they received the word in much affliction. Not fair weather believers, they were in at the deep end. One of the church leaders (the only one we know the name of) has a criminal record, being bailed by the city authorities. Not quite what we would expect or seek to copy. Yet the Thessalonians received the word (even in their afflictions) with the joy of the Holy Spirit. As Paul writes in verses 4-5, it’s a mark of their being loved and chosen by God, that they received the word in such circumstances and are holding on - ‘our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.’ They were certain they had received God’s word and were holding on to it!

Model believers receive the word of God. What steps are you taking to receive the word of God in 2010? Maybe you’ve started one of those ‘read the Bible through in a year schemes’ - it’s not too late to start now. Or perhaps you’ll decide to read one good Christian book every month in 2010. That this year will be the year you get serious about receiving and understanding the word of God. You’ll sign up for the Fellowship Group for the first time; you’ll begin one-to-one Bible study with another believer - speak to Tim or Johnny or myself to set something like this up.

Model believers receive the word of God. But more than that, they also believe the word of God. Just hearing God’s word read and preached, or reading the Bible every day or reading every book on the church bookstall won’t do much for you if you still don’t believe the word of God! We see in 1 Thessalonians that the Christians there are model believers because they received and believed the word of God.

Believing God’s word was revolutionary for them. Literally. Look at verse 9: People throughout Macedonia and Achaia are talking about the Thessalonians, how ‘you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God...’ What a turn around! Believing the word of God means turning from the dead and false gods, and turning to the living and true God. They also believe God’s word concerning his Son - as they wait for Jesus to return from heaven, the Lord who was raised from the dead, who will deliver us from the wrath to come. For such a short visit from Paul, they have certainly grasped and believed the key doctrines of the faith.

They were thoroughly converted, having received and believed the word, and there was evidence of a changed life. Look at verses 2-3. Paul gives thanks to God because of them, every time he prays, because he remembers ‘your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Faith, love, hope - as we work through 1 Thessalonians, we’ll see these again, but these are, for Paul, the essential Christian characteristics - they also feature (for example) in 1 Corinthians 13.

The Thessalonians, having received and believed the word, were also turning to spread the word. In verse 8 Paul says ‘For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything.’ The Thessalonians were reaching out with the word, telling others, so that others would also know the joy of the Holy Spirit and the blessings of the word of God.

Model Christians receive and believe the word of God. We’ve already thought about receiving the word, but what can we do to believe the word of God this year? Maybe this will be the year that you take the Lord serious in his call to repent in that particular area of your life that you are struggling with? That you’ll step out in faith, identifying yourself as a Christian in your workplace or school.

Or perhaps you’ll commit to learning more about your faith. Maybe you’ll get involved in some evangelism, building relationships with someone at the gym or the shops or the coffee shop or wherever you regularly go.

Or maybe the big step this year for you will be to become a believer - to actually receive and believe the word of God for the first time. What a great start to the year!

Let’s seek to make sure that we genuinely receive and thoroughly believe the word of God so that it really does change us. Then we will be model believers, urging others on, for the glory of God.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church Dundonald on Sunday 3rd January 2010, beginning a new series in 1 Thessalonians.

365 On Course

It's now day three of the 365 Photo Challenge, and everyone's still on track. I haven't compiled a list of the complete participants yet, so thought I had better do that. Here they are:

On blogs:

On Flickr:

Jonny did a 365 last year, and here's his complete set (although there's 431 photos in the set?!).

And finally, my 365 so far:

Friday, January 01, 2010

It's The First

Happy New Year to one and all. May you be richy blessed in this new year through him who does not change: 'Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.' (Hebrews 13:8)