Wednesday, June 30, 2010

June 2010 Review

This is the 18th blog post of the month, the lowest month for blog posts in the past two years, for good reason, although with some strange blog visitor stats. So what has been happening?

This was the month when we said farewell to a dearly loved family member, and found some words of comfort in a hymn. Yet we're also looking forward to a family wedding this Friday, and so there was the stag do of karting to enjoy. Also on the family front, we thought about entertaining little nieces!

The World Cup kicked off, with a special edition of McFlurry's McLinks to mark the occasion. England also provided some inspiration for a sermon illustration, but it wasn't my fault that they lost to Germany!

My preaching this month was from Philippians 3, Mark 8 (audio), Genesis 32, and Mark 9.

Just one book was read and reviewed (although another one got finished while on holiday just yesterday), and it was The Last Word - John Stott.

Along the way there were passing references to James Martin, Plan B and forbidden fruit.

My favourite post of the month was playing catchup, and in the 365 photo challenge, my photo of June was Drum Shades:
170/365:2010 Drum Shades

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Just to point out that although I used the England team as an illustration in my sermon on Sunday, I am in no way responsible for their unfortunate demise and early exit from the World Cup. It was entirely the players' fault, as the Germans time and again exposed their poor defence and their inability to play as a team.

It was quite amusing though to find myself talking football with some of the older ladies at church on Sunday night!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Karting Kaos

On Saturday night I was down in Newry at the Formula Karting Centre for a stag do Grand Prix. A great evening and plenty of craic, although it's a good job I wasn't out to win it - out of the ten guys, I ended up in 8th place. A bit of a nightmare in my qualifying heats - crashed twice and so finished last in each of those races! The eventual podium places went to Liam in 1st, Graeme in 2nd and the groom-to-be Jonathan in 3rd.

177/365:2010 Karting

It's amazing how quickly you can get used to the karting way of driving, hard on the pedal, taking close corners and following the racing line. Not so good when you're back in the car though on public roads and wanting to try the same sort of tactics!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sermon: Mark 9: 2-13 Awesome!

It was a crucial match on Wednesday. A win was needed to ensure that England weren’t coming home from the first round of the World Cup. A poor start had led to the team being booed by the fans; the media were critical; the team was under pressure. The big question, though, was who would they listen to. Would they be dictated to by the fans and the media, or would they listen to the one who was in charge - Fabio Capello. Who were they listening to?

The disciples of Jesus were also having an uneasy time. Just before our reading today, Jesus has been identified as the Christ, the King God has sent to rescue his people. But Jesus has told his followers that he ‘must suffer many things and be rejected... and killed’ (8:31). Peter and the others can’t get over the news - Peter has tried to talk Jesus out of it, only to be rebuked himself by Jesus.

What is all this talk of Jesus, the Christ suffering? Surely Jesus has got it wrong? We were expecting a conquering soldier, to lead an army to defeat the Romans. Who would the disciples listen to - popular expectations, or Jesus?

You see, the disciples have to know exactly who Jesus is so that they can believe what he says and listen to him. It’s the same for us - why come along to church listening to what is said, and what Jesus said, if he’s just another person, if there’s nothing special about him?

Six days after Jesus is revealed as the Christ, Jesus takes three of his closest friends up a mountain. What they see and hear will confirm exactly who Jesus is, and what they should do about it. The passage divides neatly into two sections, each with the heading given by the words of the voice from the cloud: 1. ‘This is my beloved Son’; 2. ‘Listen to him.’

This is my beloved Son. As the passage was being read, you might have had some questions about what happened that day. Jesus has climbed this high mountain with Peter and James and John, but at the top, strange and awesome things start to happen. Jesus is transfigured - his appearance is changed, to shine/dazzle, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white.

Do you remember the old TV adverts, the Daz Doorstep Challenge? Mum always feared them coming to our door to see our washing on the line, but they tried to show that using Daz washing powder would get your whites whiter than your usual washing powder. Well, forget the Daz - Mark says that no one could even bleach clothes as white as Jesus became - dazzling!

As well as the brightness, Jesus is joined by two men from the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah, two prophets who had been taken up to heaven (it was believed). Imagine coming face to face with William the Conqueror and Martin Luther, and you’re getting close to the disciples seeing Moses and Elijah. They’re thrown into confusion - they can’t understand what’s happening, and (as usual) Peter speaks without thinking - ‘for he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.’

So much for what happened - but what does it all mean? Just then, a voice comes from the cloud, the voice of God the Father, who explains what is happening. The disciples are being given a glimpse of the glory Jesus had before birth, and will have following his death and resurrection. The glimpse of glory is the sign of who Jesus is: ‘This is my beloved Son.’

Two weeks ago we had that challenge - who do you say that Jesus is? Here God the Father is declaring that Jesus is God’s Son, the one sent into the world to rescue his people, the one who deserves to be followed and believed.

Do you see who Jesus is today? Have you come to see him as the Son of God? He’s not just a teacher, not just a good man, not just a prophet. He is God’s Son - an opinion which is not particularly politically correct, but which is fact, revealed by God the Father.

But we can’t end there. We can’t just stay on the mountain top with the vision of Jesus in his glory. Moses and Elijah disappear, Jesus is alone with the disciples, he’s back to ‘normal’. Yet what the Father has said still stands as they walk back down the mountain. ‘This is my beloved Son’ - we’ve seen that. So what? ‘Listen to him.’

The disciples have seen the glory Jesus will again display when he has risen from the dead - Jesus tells them not to tell anyone until he has risen from the dead. That raises again the issue of Jesus suffering and dying - and still the disciples can’t understand (10).

But as they struggle to understand, they turn to another question that centres on the arrival of the Christ in his glory. Look at verse 11. ‘And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?”’ The scribes were the teachers of the law, officials in the temple who taught from the Old Testament. Basically, the disciples are saying - if you are the Christ and your glory is close at hand, then shouldn’t Elijah be coming first.

Elijah, as we’ve seen earlier, was one of the major prophets from the history of Israel. But in the last book of the Old Testament, God had promised to send ‘Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.’ He would be a messenger, one sent to prepare the way for the Lord. So if Jesus is going to reveal his glory, then shouldn’t we be seeing Elijah too?

Yes, says Jesus, Elijah does come first - to restore all things, to prepare the way, to get people ready through repentance. And having prepared the way, then the Son of Man (another Old Testament name for Jesus) should suffer many things and be treated with contempt - just as it has been written. The scribes are right on Elijah coming - it has been promised; in the same way, it has been promised in the Old Testament, in the Scriptures, that the Son of Man will suffer. (Remember the ‘must’ from last week?) The Son of Man in Daniel 7 is the conquering king, given authority by God. He was expected just as the Christ, to be triumphant. Yet again Jesus is showing that the Son of Man, the Christ, the Son of God, must suffer.

This pattern of suffering must have been hard for the disciples to hear - it wasn’t what they expected. Yet remember who is speaking - God’s beloved Son - listen to him as he explains the Scriptures. As an illustration of what will happen to himself, Jesus points to the promised Elijah:

The truth is that Elijah has come - has already come. Don’t be looking forward to Elijah, he has already been and gone - John the Baptist was this Elijah. And what happened to him? ‘They did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.’ The Scriptures said that John the Baptist would suffer for the sake of Jesus, and he did. How then could it be any other way for Jesus himself?

It was hard for the disciples to understand at the time. Yet God had clearly told them who Jesus was - the reason for listening to him. This is my beloved Son; listen to him. What about us? Do we listen to Jesus because we know who he is - the Son of God? Or do we listen to other voices, competing voices?

There are many in the world today who claim that it doesn’t matter what you believe - that everyone will be in heaven, all will be saved and no one is going to hell. Will we listen to those voices, or will we listen to the Son of God who says that he came to die to save all who believe in him?

There are many in the world today who claim that it doesn’t matter what you do, even as a Christian. They claim that we need to follow what culture is doing and recognise same sex unions, and put such people into leadership roles in the church. Are we listening to culture, or are we listening to Jesus, the Son of God?

Our confidence as Christians doesn’t come from ourselves, we don’t boast because of what we can do or think or say. We don’t believe whatever we like, from a pick-and-mix of beliefs and religious ideas. Our faith comes from knowing who Jesus is - the Son of God - and therefore listening to him, and obeying him. He is the one qualified to tell us about heaven and hell, about salvation and life and death. To listen to anyone else would be foolish (there are so many different opinions!) - just as the England team listening to the fans and media for advice on how to play would be foolish. Rooney and the rest listened to Capello, and will need to listen to him again this afternoon. He is the one who can tell them what to do because of his position.

Similarly, Jesus is the one whose voice we need to listen to. ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him.’

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 27th June 2010

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Plan B: Prayin'

It's interesting the songs that appear in the charts. Some have said that the postmodern generation don't do guilt and sin, yet upcoming star Plan B has made that the theme of his newest single release, Prayin'. Now, obviously praying should be our first resort, our Plan A, rather than plan B or further down the list of priorities, so let's look at some of what he's singing about:

I'm prayin', Lord I'm prayin to you,
Take away this guilt all up in my head
I'm pleading, Lord I'm pleading wit' you,
Got some things to do before the day I'm dead

I'm prayin', Lord I'm prayin' to you,
Save me from these sins weighing down on my soul
I'm pleading, Lord I'm pleading wit' you,
got some healing to do inside I'm feeling love.

These are the last two parts of the chorus, which seem pretty straight forward, a clear praying to the Lord to remove the guilt he's feeling and the sins weighing down on him. A fantastic prayer, and one the Lord delights to hear and answer:

And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.' (Acts 2:21)

The verses are a bit more murky, hard to understand on the surface without knowing what he's talking about, but perhaps we'll be able to point to this song to help us explain how to cry out to the Lord in prayer when reaching non-Christians with the good news of Jesus.

Sermon: Genesis 32: 1-32 Wrestling With God

What do Opal Fruits, Marathon and the singer Prince all have in common? It’s probably very obvious for those with a sweet tooth, but all of them have undergone a name change. Opal Fruits became Starburst in 1998, Marathon became Snickers in 1990, and Prince became a wee squiggle in 1993 (‘The Artist Formerly Known As Prince’).

Now, these name changes may not be vitally important to us - unless you hadn’t had Opal Fruits for years and decided you wanted some and then couldn’t find them on the shelf... However, our passage tonight presents us with a much more important name change. It’s not being done by a marketing firm, or by the PR gurus. Instead, God is the one who changes Jacob’s name from Jacob to Israel.

Just as when Saul got a new name when he was converted, becoming Paul, or Simon being given the name Peter by the Lord Jesus, the name change is an illustration of what God has been doing in Jacob’s life over many years. He goes from being ‘he deceives’ (living by his wits, out for himself), to being ‘he strives with God’ (knowing God’s blessing through relationship with him).

Yet even in tonight’s passage, we see the measure of the man God is working with - and as we consider Jacob, we can marvel at God’s faithfulness and the abundance of his grace working in his life.

As we saw last week, Jacob is on the move. It’s been a long time coming. Twenty long years with Laban, but now he’s coming home. God has told Jacob to return to his father’s house, and so he sets off. Yet he knows that he’s going to have to meet Esau. With no emails, no video-conferencing, no Christmas cards, Jacob doesn’t know how Esau is going to react when he returns back home. It’s twenty years since the brothers have seen each other. Since Jacob took Esau’s blessing and fled, with the threats of Esau ringing in his ears. And now he’s coming home.

He sends some messengers ahead to bring greetings to Esau, telling him about his prosperity and seeking peace - ‘that I may find favour in your sight.’ (5) The messengers return, to say that Esau is coming to meet him, and bringing 400 men with him. A small army. Will Esau follow through on the long ago threats?

Straight away, Jacob responds as we’ve seen him before. His devious scheming is in evidence as he responds in fear, by dividing his property into two camps. This is so that (as we’re told his thinking) if one camp is attacked, at least the other can escape so that he doesn’t lose everything.

In his fear, Jacob also prays - a wonderful prayer in which he identifies God as the one who has promised so much good, the one who has shown grace to a man so unworthy to prosper him, the one who can deliver him from his brother. It’s a great prayer, and can serve as a model for the prayers that we should be praying as well - adoration, confession, request, and appeal to God’s word/promises.

He has asked God for deliverance, and yet Jacob is still Jacob, the deceiver, the one who has to sort out his own problems. You sometimes get people like that, don’t you - they pray to God, but then take matters into their own hands, if God isn’t responding to their prayer as quickly as they think he should. Or they pray, but then make up their own mind and do what they were going to do anyway. Or they pray and then carry on regardless in their own scheming.

It’s Jacob, once again. He has prayed for deliverance, but then takes matters into his own hands and prepares a procession of presents bound for his brother. Now, on the face of it, this could be a nice gesture - see how God has blessed me and enabling others to share in that blessing. It could even be a testimony to God’s goodness. Yet we’re also given Jacob’s thoughts - we have a window into his intentions and motives. In a slightly different context, God told Samuel that man looks on the outward appearance but the LORD looks on the heart (1 Samuel 16:3) - God searches the heart and sees our motives.

Look at verse 20. ‘For he thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me.”’

He’s trying to buy off his brother’s favour and acceptance through all these gifts. He’s undermining the prayer he prayed by trying to achieve deliverance by his own hand and effort, rather than through quiet trust of the Lord. It turns out (as we see in the next chapter) that the deceiver is deceiving his own heart - Esau doesn’t want his gifts. He’s pleased to see Jacob again after all this time. Yet isn’t that how we imagine we can buy God off - give him presents and gifts and good deeds and whatever else and then expect acceptance from God. So we trot out our giving to charity, or our work for the Sunday School, or how nice we’ve been to our next door neighbour, and think that God will be appeased through these things. Yet it’s God who has done all that is necessary for us to be accepted - not through appeasement, but through the costly propitiation and satisfaction of his wrath in the cross of the Lord Jesus.

Jacob is still Jacob - he deceives even after all this time; as he looks to his own security in dividing the camps; as he seeks to appease his brother through gifts; and as he undermines his prayerful trust by his own scheming. But as the sun goes down, Jacob has sent his wives and children across the river. He’s alone, and this will be an extraordinary night.

By the end of it, he will have a limp, a new name, and the further promise of blessing. He’s alone, and yet he isn’t. Look at verse 24. A man is wrestling with him, struggling with all his might, and Jacob is struggling back. When we’re thinking about wrestling here, though, perhaps it might be useful to point out to the younger ones that you’re better to think of Olympic Games style wrestling rather than the WWF/WWE/WCW type pantomime wrestling shown on Sky TV. It’s not all bouncing off the ropes and the steel chair and extravagant costumes. It’s a firm grip of your opponent seeking to bring them to the ground.

We’re not told directly who the man is, and yet we are - following the whole night of struggling, the man dislocates Jacob’s hip. Even despite the pain he’s in, Jacob holds on to that remarkable statement in verse 26: ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ The words of the blessing, as Jacob’s name is changed reveal precisely who he has been wrestling with: ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.’

Jacob, the deceiver, has encountered God, striven with him, and has prevailed, obtaining the blessing from God. No need of schemes and trickery, no sense of using God to get what he really wants; now he has come to encounter God face to face, not letting go until he has been blessed, and delivered from death in the face of God.

Jacob, the deceiver, has become Israel, the one who strives with God. Throughout Jacob’s life, God has been faithful, bringing his blessing, but now Jacob is turning away from his deception, never to be the same after encountering God personally.

As we come to apply this text to our hearts and lives tonight, though, we have to ask - how does the big point impact on us? It’s God who changes Jacob’s name, and at the same time is changing Jacob, from being the one who trusts in his schemes and plots, to one who trusts in the Lord fully, who finds blessing and acceptance and favour from God himself.

If it’s not too direct, may I ask - are you a Jacob? Are you still one who trusts yourself, you scheme and plot and work for your own acceptance? At the end of the day, you’re only deceiving yourself.

God is the one who is in the business of changing lives - he may not change your name, but is he changing your heart? Can you look back and see how the Lord is changing you? How the Lord is helping you to trust in him, even through the times of fear and doubt and uncertainty.

As we see the Lord in this way, his gracious, blessing-bringing, life-changing way, we should also be encouraged to pray all the more, persistent in prayer, that God would give us himself, and his blessing. It’s not that God is harsh and miserly, and that we have to struggle with him to force him to part with some blessing - not at all - yet he delights to see us call out to him, he desires that we be often in prayer (indeed, so often that Paul could say pray without ceasing). Will we take hold of God with our burdens, and at the same time know that God will answer our prayers?

In some ways, we’re finishing at a cliffhanger - it’s like a dum-dum-dum-dum... at the end of Eastenders. To find out what happens when Jacob meets Esau, tune in next week. Yet Jacob has found resolution, as he limps back to rejoin his family. A new injury, but also a new name. God has met him, and God has blessed him. What else could he possibly need?

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 20th June 2010.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Playing Catchup

Isn't the world a very small place? Last Friday night I made my way over to Dundonald Presbyterian Church for a special service. Our friends there were welcoming their new minister at the service of Installation. William McCully was moving from his previous churches in Letterkenny, County Donegal to become the new minister in Dundonald. I think I've only ever been in Letterkenny once, so didn't think I would know him at all.

What a surprise, then, to find that he was originally from Drumgooland, not a million miles from Dromore - but a greater surprise was in store. It turns out that his brother-in-law was one of my friends from school! And there, in the middle of Dundonald, I saw Gordon Bingham for the first time in probably five years or so!

Dromore High Prefects 1996-97

This year we're thirteen years away from Dromore High School (Gordon is 3rd in from right on 2nd row from back), and spent some time remembering our days at the school, as well as having plenty to catch up on, and to meet his wife Helen! Gordon is now working for the Faith Mission in Cumbria, a brother gospel worker just across the water, so we were able to encourage one another in the work for the Lord as well.

The world truly is a small place, and the Lord can work in marvelous ways through his glorious providence. Through bringing his brother-in-law to minister alongside us here in Dundonald, I'm back in touch with Gordon, and hopefully will keep in better touch, particularly with the local link.

Sermon: Mark 8: 22-30 A Question of Identity

I wonder did you notice the surprise in our Bible reading earlier on. Was there something in it that made you stop and think - what’s going on? I’ve probably read these verses loads of times before, but never preached from them, and I have to admit, I’ve been puzzled all week.

You see, most, if not all of us, have heard at least something about Jesus. We know that he taught, but more than that, he did all kinds of miracles. He fed at least 5000 people out of a packed lunch. He cleansed lepers, and healed the lame. He calmed storms, and walked on water. All marvellous, wonderful things.

Yet here, it seems as if something goes wrong. Do you see it in verse 24? Jesus is healing a blind man, but it doesn’t work first time. Normally Jesus touches the eyes of the blind and they can instantly see. Bang, just like that. So what’s happening here? Was he having an off day? Did he get out of the wrong side of the bed? Was he distracted at the crucial moment?

While at first sight, the two sections of our reading appear to be distinct, completely separate, nothing in common, it does look as if Mark has purposely put these two stories together, to make an important point. In the first story, we see a pattern, Jesus bringing the man from being blind, to having partial vision, to seeing clearly. As we’ll soon discover, the same pattern can be seen in the second story too.

Let’s look at verse 22. This blind man is brought to Jesus. He has an obvious affliction - he can’t see. But the people of Bethsaida know that Jesus can do something about it. He can open his eyes (he has done it in other places for other blind people...). So Jesus spits on his eyes, touches them, and then asks that question - ‘do you see anything?’

Something has happened - there has been some progression of sight. He can now see in a shadowy kind of way - ‘I see men, but they look like trees, walking’ (24). He’s better than he was, but he still can’t see perfectly. So Jesus lays his hands on him again, and the man can see perfectly.

Let’s be clear - it is Jesus who causes the man to see. Jesus opens blind eyes. It’s also what he’s doing in the second story (27-30). But there it’s not physical eyes, but spiritual eyes that are being opened.

Bethsaida was in the northern part of Israel, but now he has gone on with his disciples further, away from the crowds, away from the pressure, taking some time with them alone. Although we’re beginning a new series today, we are in chapter 8 - the disciples have been with Jesus for the previous 8 chapters, and seen the things that he has done.

And Jesus is asking them what they’re making of what they have seen. It’s the question of identity - what do they think of who Jesus is, based on what they’ve seen him do? First, there’s the easier question - ‘Who do people say that I am?’ What have you heard the crowd say about me? What’s the word on the street? What are people thinking about me?

The answers are varied - some think John the Baptist (who was a prophet who had recently died - he was the one who prepared the way for Jesus by calling Israel to turn from their sins). Others think he could be Elijah - an Old Testament prophet, come back from the dead. Others just think that Jesus is a prophet - a messenger from God (of whom there had been many in Israel’s history).

It’s the spiritual equivalent of men like trees - they have partial vision, but aren’t seeing clearly yet. Yes, prophets come from God, but it’s not quite who Jesus is. But then Jesus asks the second question. It’s a slightly different question, more personal. ‘But who do you say that I am?’

This time it’s Peter who answers, and he gets it spot on - he’s seeing Jesus clearly. ‘You are the Christ.’ (29) Often we hear ‘Jesus Christ’ and think that Christ is his surname - actually, it means ‘anointed’ - it’s a title, the sign of his kingship, the Son of God, God’s anointed king. Peter is seeing Jesus clearly, and gets it right. Jesus is the Christ.

Yet even at this moment of clear vision, it turns out that the disciples still aren’t seeing Jesus clearly. Look at the last verse of our reading. ‘And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.’ Doesn’t this seem a bit odd? Jesus is identified as the Christ, but don’t let on to anyone. Can you remember the hype when Barack Obama won the Democrat Primaries to be the US Presidential Candidate? The world’s media went crazy with excitement that America and the world could have a ‘saviour’. No one was keeping that news quiet. So why does Jesus want his identity (at this stage in his ministry) kept quiet?

In the very next verses, Jesus spells out just what he’s going to do as the Christ - suffer, be rejected, killed (and rise again). Peter just can’t accept it. You see, the disciples expected the triumphant soldier king who would lead an uprising and defeat the Roman army. They can’t see the Christ as the God-given substitute and sacrifice for our sins.

In that sense, they still only have partial vision. They still can’t see Jesus clearly. In fact, in terms of Mark’s Gospel, the first person to truly see Jesus clearly with perfect vision as to who he is, turns out to be the Roman soldier supervising his crucifixion: ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’ (15:39)

Our application this morning flows straight from the passage, from the points we’ve been looking at already. How is your vision? Not so much your physical eyesight, but your spiritual eyesight? Are you seeing Jesus for who he truly is?

You may be spiritually blind - you come along but don’t really get what’s happening; don’t really see Jesus at all. You’re in the right place. Jesus is in the business of opening blind eyes. Or perhaps a friend of yours is spiritually blind - you can bring them to Jesus for him to open their eyes.

Or perhaps you have partial vision. You know about Jesus, have heard about him over many years, but you still aren’t seeing him clearly. You’ll accept that he is a good man, a prophet perhaps. You’re facing the right direction - stick with Jesus. Pray that he will open your eyes, as you continue to come to church, explore, ask questions, read your Bible. We can take heart that the disciples lived and travelled around with Jesus, watched all that he did, and yet still didn’t grasp it straight away. But they did, eventually - after the resurrection.

Our prayer is that you will come to have perfect vision, to see Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God who came from heaven to rescue you, dying in your place for your sins, who offers you pardon and life and hope. Yet even when we come to faith, we still need to have a regular eye test - to check on our vision. Are you seeing Jesus clearly? ‘Who do you say that I am?’

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 13th June 2010.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Be Still My Soul

Yesterday was a difficult day. We said goodbye to Lynsey's granny - who was also 'my' granny. I'm not sure I can write much more just now as she will be sorely missed, being at the very centre of the family. But we know that she is with the Lord - death will not have the last word, because she knew the Lord Jesus as her Saviour, and he has conquered death.

At the funeral, the large congregation sang this hymn:

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice Who ruled them while He dwelt below.

Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,
And all is darkened in the vale of tears,
Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.
Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay
From His own fullness all He takes away.

Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord.
When disappointment, grief and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past
All safe and bless├Ęd we shall meet at last.

Amen, and amen, even though it is painful.

Friday, June 11, 2010

McFlurry's McLinks World Cup Special

Search on Google for 'World Cup' and you'll be presented with about 150,000,000 sites. Let's add another one to the total, with a special version of McFlurry's McLinks for the launch of the 2010 FIFA World Cup today in South Africa. It's just a pity that the Green and White Army of Northern Ireland aren't there, but to make up for it, here's some links to explore!

The Simple Pastor linked to the World Cup stadia. He also linked to the economics of the World Cup from Mint.

Rick Hill had some observations on the World Cup, and he's going for England to win. Don't think so Rick - I couldn't bear it if they did!

Bishop Nick Baines published some World Cup prayers.

On Slugger O'Toole, Mick Fealty wants anyone but Brazil and Germany to win.

On my Twitter feed, there was a classic tweet (which I can't find now, nor who composed it), but it went along the lines of - 'England have won the World Cup once, the rest of the world have won it every other time. The odds are in our favour!'

The FIFA website is hosting a fantasy football league for the World Cup, sponsored by McDonald's. One of my friends created a league - there's still time to sign up!

Perhaps the best blog on the subject was Church Mouse presenting the World Cup Bible (some real groaners contained here, but I might just use these over the next few days...).

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Old McDonald to the Rescue!

Over the past week or so, we've been spending quite a lot of time with family due to a health issue. It means that I've been seeing my niece who lives in Scotland, who we don't get to see terribly often. However, there was a problem. The past couple of times that we've seen each other, whether in Northern Ireland or in Scotland, Elizabeth has burst into tears as soon as she's clapped eyes on me.

This happened whether she was with her mum, or with a whole load of people. If I got too close, or she crawled too close to me, then tears were inevitable! So imagine my panic when I was left with Elizabeth while her mum popped into the kitchen. Just the baby and me. Tears were ripe. What to do?

At just the right moment, Old McDonald came to the rescue. Yes, that Old McDonald, the one who has a farm and all the noisy animals! Back when I was a baby, iPhones and YouTube had never been invented, but now they are my guarantee for a tear-free time with my baby niece. Old McDonald had a farm; Twinkle Twinkle Little Star; The Elmo Song; Five Little Ducks Went Swimming One Day; and many other kiddies favourites, all playing on my phone leads to smiles and dancing and happy times!

So you can join in with one of your old favourite childhood songs, I give you Old McDonald:

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Bible Background

Last night was the final session of the term for Mindset, the youth leaders' training and support network. Trevor Johnston (Ireland Team Leader with Crosslinks) was speaking from James 3. The sermon was really good and a definite challenge on how we use our tongue because words are revealing (3:1-2), dangerous (3:3-8) and confusing (3:9-12).

But it was the first part of the evening that was perhaps particularly useful, especially if we were wanting to teach the letter of James to our youth groups. Taking four simple questions, we examined the background and context of the letter, in terms of the style of writing (proverbial, wisdom type of writing), audience (primarily Jewish Christians but now for all), situation (trials, persecution, hypocrisy and self-deception through disobedience), and the antidote (pray, receive the implanted word, and do it!).

Very simple questions with answers to be found within the text of the letter which help to understand the context and why James says what he says in the way he says it. A most useful exercise and one that could (and indeed should) be conducted prior to teaching a Bible book.

Mindset now takes a break for the summer, but details of further training events will follow in due course.

Monday, June 07, 2010

My Weird Weekend

Weird Weekend

Stats on my blog had a weird weekend with two to three times as many visitors as normal. On an average day, there are about 50 page views. Yet things took off to over 70 last week and then over 100 on Saturday and Sunday. Most visitors seemed to be coming searching for 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 sermon or some connected search term, with my recent sermon featuring on the Google front page for 1 Thess. Then things have dropped even further than normal today!

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Sermon: Philippians 3: 1-11

Over recent times we’ve seen a lot of discussion in the news about profits and losses. Mostly, it has been losses, with some well known businesses and shops closing their doors, but even in the current climate, there are some profits to be made. Sometimes the very things that have been good at making profits for so long are found to be (in the long term) actually a liability, and a loss.

In Philippians 3, Paul uses the language of accountancy - profit and loss; gain and loss, to describe his own life, and particularly his spiritual life. As we’ll see, the very things that Paul thought were for his gain, he now sees them as a loss, indeed, describes them as rubbish.

Paul’s profit and loss comes in the context of a warning to the Philippian Christians. Let’s look at verse 2 together. ‘Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.’ These three terms are describing the same group of people, and are a strong warning against them.

But why is Paul so firmly against these people? What is it that Paul hates? They are the circumcision party - they put their confidence in the flesh (see verse 4). Basically, they were arguing that to be real true Christians, proper believers, the Gentile Christians would have to be circumcised to be saved. They were ultimately saying that Jesus wasn’t enough - that the only way you could be sure was this extra religious practice. (Jesus plus circumcision)

But Paul says that they have got it all wrong. Paul looks back at his days before conversion, when he was very religious, and says that if anyone has grounds to be sure of themselves, it was Paul. In verses 5-6 he gives his spiritual CV. In terms of religious practice, Paul had it made. He was part of the people of Israel, he was circumcised, he was a strict observer of the law (Pharisee), he went so far as to persecute the church (who he saw as false teachers back then), and he was regarded as blameless as regards to the law.

His profit is immense - he has stacked up all these things in his profit column. But it’s all about what he has done himself - all very religious. Yet in verse 7, there’s a remarkable turn around. In accounting terms its incredible - ‘But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.’ (7) Everything that he previously thought was for his gain, he now sees as a great loss. Nothing of that matters now compared to the one great gain that he has - the only thing of value given to him - the only thing that profits him.

And what is that? Verse 8: ‘the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.’ The one thing of value for Paul is to know Christ Jesus (as) Lord.

How can we know Christ Jesus as Lord? As Paul explains in verse 9, there are two competing confidences, two competing paths to righteousness. ‘not having a righteousness that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.’

Paul has tried the righteousness that comes from the law - it was the basis of his spiritual CV - but what he thought was gain turned out to be a big loss. You see, no matter how impressive we look, none of us can meet the standards of the law. All of us fall short. Our achievements just aren’t good enough. We end up in pride at what we have done. It’s a dead end.

As Paul turns away from those and turns to Christ, he finds the only righteousness that counts - the only thing of surpassing worth - the righteousness that comes from God by faith in Christ. Not our achievements, but simply our trust - not in what we have done, but what Jesus has done. Believing the promise of God, and being given freely Christ’s righteousness.

This is how to be righteous. But I want to ask you today - as you come to church, as you come to the Lord’s Table, where is your confidence resting? Is it in your achievements, your religious performance? Do you think God accepts you because you’re a member of the Church of Ireland, or because you’ve been coming to church and never missed a Sunday for forty, fifty, sixty years? If our confidence is in ourselves, then we’ve put things in the wrong column - our confidence is misplaced.

Rather, Paul urges us to be trusting in Christ, to believe the promises that God gives us, and to receive the righteousness that comes by faith. Our confidence is in Jesus - not ourself!

Having looked at where our confidence should lie, and how our profit should come from the gain of Christ, Paul goes on to show some of the benefits of knowing Christ. Let’s look at verse 10 together. ‘That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.’

To know Christ and the power of his resurrection - who wouldn’t want to know these things? Rather than trusting in our own achievements, to know Christ is to receive the power of his resurrection - to receive the Holy Spirit who indwells us and helps us to live for God. Yet that’s where many of us stop. We only want to claim that half verse, but not the whole verse.

But Paul goes further, and says that to know Christ is also to share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. To be a Christian is to suffer - just look at Paul’s example of suffering for the gospel. Jesus promised as much - if they persecute me, they will persecute you. The servant is not greater than the Master. If the Lord Jesus endured the cross and its shame to win the crown for us, then how much more should we expect to share in suffering for him? We saw Christ’s path of suffering in chapter 2 - the cross before the crown. Paul says that the same path has been laid for us - to follow Christ’s example having been saved by him.

No cross, no crown. The world loves to boast about its achievements. Religious people love to boast about their goodness. But Paul says that it’s all rubbish, compared to knowing Christ (knowing Christ and his power, knowing Christ and his sufferings, and ultimately knowing Christ and sharing in his resurrection).

Are you trusting in yourself today? Are you listing all the things that you think guarantee you heaven? Do you have a list of reasons why God should love you? They’re all rubbish. Just come today and receive the grace offered to you in Jesus Christ - he has done all that is needed. His death on the cross removes your sins and gives you the perfect spotless righteousness of Jesus.

Where is your confidence today?

This sermon was preached in the Church of St John the Baptist, Upper Falls Parish on Sunday 6th June 2010.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Giving God the Glory

This morning I caught about one minute of BBC 1's food programme, Saturday Kitchen. A great moment to see though, as celebrity chef James Martin was demonstrating how to cook a particular kind of fish (I didn't catch which it was - possibly Turbot or another flat fish). James made mention of the clever markings of the fish - black on one side and white on the other so that it can be disguised / camouflaged and escape predators. The celebrity guest, Lenora Crichlow, said that it was a genius fish, to which James replied that God was the genius for creating it like that.

Truly giving God the glory for the wonders of his creation! Well done James.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Book Review: The Last Word

John Stott has enjoyed a lengthy public ministry, proclaiming God's word both in the UK and further afield. Back in 2008, a new book was released with his portrait on the front, entitled The Last Word. Stott's last book, subtitled 'Reflections on a lifetime of preaching' was bought at the time, but disappeared so it's only now that I've had a chance to read it.

The Last Word refers to Stott's final ever address at the Keswick Convention, on Christlikeness. Answering the question he has devoted his life to, What is God's purpose for his people, Stott insists that 'Christlikeness is the will of God for the people of God.' He then expands on this theme, showing its biblical basis, its extent following Christ's example, and its practical consequences.

The sermon is good with excellent content, but I found it to be very brief - it would have been good to see it expanded somewhat, in the classic Stott style, but this may well be because of the way it has been presented in the book. Rather than a continuous style with perhaps Italicised headings, it has been formally divided into separate chapters with blank pages and a title page for each section. So it would be even shorter than the 30 tiny pages it takes up. Plus, at one point, a new chapter heading has been introduced for the final sub-point of the previous section, leading to a more confusing structure which doesn't aid the reader.

The book is padded out with various other elements, including an interview with John Stott on the founding of the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity (LICC), a great sermon on Romans 5, and then brief information sections on LICC, the Langham Partnership, and Keswick. Remarkably, I found the additional material to be the better and more useful parts - the Romans 5 talk was really good (and is part of another recent book 'John Stott at Keswick') and you got more of Stott's passion, personality and intentions coming through in the interview.

On one level, this book was almost a disappointment. Billed as Stott's last word, we have seen another book from him since (The Radical Disciple), and the sermon from Keswick was good but brief. Yet this slim volume will be a useful addition to the Christian's library, and may prove its most useful as a basis for further Bible study on the theme of becoming more like Jesus. A more mixed review than I normally produce, but I ended up slightly ambivalent about this book, so it is an accurate reflection on my reaction to it.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Forbidden Fruit

Over the past few months, I've enjoyed reading Clients From Hell in Google Reader. The premise is simple. Anonymous web designers and other creatives share some of the weird, scary, or downright funny things their clients say as they commission and oversee design projects. The other day, they had a religiously themed post - perhaps all those Apple Geek minsters and youth workers should take note and repent...

Even more interestingly, given the convictions expressed over there, it is Apple's Steve Jobs who has been anti-pornography in the app market.