Tuesday, August 31, 2010

August 2010 Review

This is the 17th blog posting of August 2010, and perhaps one of the lowest months for a while. Things were busy in the 'real world' which meant that there wasn't as much blogging to be done. Nevertheless, what filled some of those 17 posts?

Well, the sermons continued as normal, with my preaching from Psalm 139 (audio), Psalm 140 (audio), Psalm 141 (audio), and Luke 18 (no audio, as we don't record the midweek service).

There were book reviews from The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers, Let God Arise by Marcus Loane, Why We Love The Church by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck, and Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller.

We also had a historical note on the significance of Enniskillen for the siege of Derry, some cultural thoughts on the inflation of greed, and a wondering on evolution.

My favourite post of the month, due to the participation of commenters and their wit had to be the Caption Competition featuring Ian Paisley Junior.

The 365 photo a day challenge continues, and my favourite photo from this month was Simple Stormont:
236/365:2010 Simple Stormont

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sermon Audio: Psalm 141

On Sunday evening I was preaching on a Prayer for Purity from Psalm 141. Here's the sermon mp3 file, which you can also find at the sermons blog along with the other sermons from St Elizabeth's.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Book Review: Blue Like Jazz

Donald Miller's book Blue Like Jazz had been something that I'd seen in bookshops many times and never bought. It seemed a bit strange, just from the cover and title. Then I found a copy going for 40p in a charity shop recently, and added it to my shelf of 'to-read' books above my desk. There it sat for a while, and then I discovered that the last book I read and reviewed, Why We Love The Church, references this very book in not very positive tones, so it had to be the next book I read.

Just as I imagined it to be strange from the cover, so I continue to think having read it through. The subtitle declares that it is providing 'Non-religious thoughts on Christian Spirituality' which sounds very postmodern, and that's exactly how the book turns out.

At times I loved it, particularly when Miller finds himself reasoning his way to total depravity, that the soul of man, unwatched is perverse. He experiences the truth of the Christian doctrine (not just a fundamentalist dogma) as he reacts to tragedy and evil in the world, realising that 'I am the problem' when it comes to changing the world.

Yet even as he describes self-absorption as the heart of sin - only ever being interested in yourself - the whole book is a presentation of his thoughts, actions and words; his seeking significant spiritual experiences and finding more of them at a notorious college than at church. Very postmodern, very cool, but seemingly very self-absorbed.

Sometimes, he doesn't seem to go far enough, as he bases his faith on his feelings: 'I imagined Him (that is, God) half-angry because His beloved mankind had cheated on Him.' Seriously, only half-angry? It's this under-estimation of God's wrath towards us (borne in Jesus for those who trust him) that is at best a half truth, and ultimately unhelpful.

He also seems to slip up when praising wonder as the grounds for worship: 'Wonder is that feeling we get when we let go of our silly answers, our mapped out rules that we want God to follow. I don't think there is any better worship than wonder.' It seems that all that we know about God, all that God has revealed in the Scriptures through his Son the Lord Jesus is bound up in Miller's phrase 'our silly answers'. Without the revelation of God, we would only be wondering about God, but not knowing anything. Rather our wonder comes precisely through what God has revealed - that despite our great sin, he loves us, that Jesus has carried the punishment that our sins deserved, and that we can be forgiven and saved and redeemed. Wonder isn't abandoning all knowledge, but rather is found in Paul's words - 'the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.' (Galatians 2:20).

Another classic postmodern quote coming up: 'I don't think you can explain how Christian faith works either. It is a mystery. And I love this about Christian spirituality. It cannot be explained, and yet it is beautiful and true. It is something you feel, and it comes from the soul.' Well, it's hard to know just where to start with that!

I really did struggle with this book. Miller is engaging, clever, humorous, at times entertaining, and he is fairly honest about his thoughts, feelings and doubts. He's also sometimes very clear on what is vital in Christianity: 'I don't think any church has ever been relevant to culture, to the human struggle, unless is believed in Jesus and the power of His gospel. If the supposed new church believes in trendy music and cool Web pages, then it is not relevant to culture either. It is just another tool of Satan to get people to be passionate about nothing.'

He does mention Jesus a few times and his gospel in passing, but never spells it out. Never explains what he means by it, and so, mired in the trappings of postmodernism and seeming emerging church language, it's just so hard to know how to decide on the book. I'm not sure I would recommend it - unless you were going to follow it up straight away by reading either DeYoung and Kluck's 'Why We Love The Church' or Carson's 'Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church'.

Monday, August 23, 2010


Θχigeη is back again, the youth event in Dundonald for 1st form to 6th formers, organised by the partnership between Dundonald Baptist, Dundonald Presbyterian and St Elizabeth's. This year we're having a training event for leaders and Christian young people tonight, as well as some street work to invite people along (let's hope it's a dry night despite the heavy rain this morning!), and the main event kicks off on Wednesday 25th for three nights.

Trevor Johnston (Crosslinks Ireland Team Leader) is speaking on Why Bovver? and there are some great activities lined up as well as some chill out time. Each evening begins at 7.30pm in St Elizabeth's Halls, and you can get some more information over at the Oxigen website.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Sermon: Psalm 141 Prayer for Purity

How healthy is your heart? What’s your heart age? That’s the question being asked in the Flora ads these days - with the suggestion that your heart can be made more healthy by using their range of margarine, you can change your heart age. It’s vitally important to have a healthy heart - not just your blood-pumping organ; but also your spiritual heart. You see, when we find the Bible speaking of the heart, it mostly means the seat, centre of emotions, your very self.

But as Jesus reveals in Mark 7:20, our hearts are sick; they’re not healthy at all: ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.’ It’s our heart that produces all these evils. The heart of the matter is it’s a matter of the heart.

In our psalm this evening, we find that David sees the same thing. Over the last few weeks we’ve seen David’s prayers in the midst of difficulties and opposition, identifying the wicked and evil men who were attacking him. But in Psalm 141, David recognises that he too has a heart problem, he too has this propensity towards sin, that he too has to watch over his heart.

Look at verse 4 with me: ‘Do not let my heart incline to any evil.’ The tendency is there, it’s just the way we are in this fallen rebellious world, but David is asking God to keep his heart, to preserve his heart; to ‘lead us not into temptation.’ How does it happen? How does God keep our hearts? As we look at the psalm, we’ll see some of the ways God does this, some of the ways we can, as believers, keep from turning our hearts towards evil. I want to suggest 4 from the psalm - prayer (1-2); watch your words (3); careful company (4-5); and finding refuge (6-10).

The psalm begins, as many other do, with an earnest prayer to the Lord: ‘O LORD, I call upon you; hasten to me! Give ear to my voice when I call to you!’ It’s in these opening verses that we see the first way to keep our heart - by coming to the LORD in prayer, acknowledging that we need his help, as a first priority, not a last resort. David asks that his prayer to God would be counted as incense and the evening sacrifice - part of the daily routine of the tabernacle (later the temple) worship, the incense creating a sweet smell (partly to mask the stench of the dead meat being sacrificed), the smoke rising like our prayer. David is asking that his prayer be pleasing to God, just like the sacrifice, so immediately, David is recognising his need for help, his dependence on God.

You see, it can be so easy to think that we have it all sorted, that we don’t really need God, that we can be pure on our own; but we soon realise that doesn’t happen. We’re quick to turn aside from the way - how long can any of us keep from sin just by ourselves?; being in regular prayer, keeping close to God is one of the ways to keep from inclining to evil.

As David prays, though, he’s aware of that strange situation that James speaks of, that we too easily fall into: ‘The tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things out not to be so.’ The mouth we use to sing and pray to God, we also use to speak evil. No wonder then that David has to pray ‘Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!’

Like one of the sentries at Buckingham Palace, carefully monitoring who is coming in and who is going out, David asks God to be that guard. If we’re aware that God is watching what we say, or whisper, or share in confidence, would we be less inclined to share that titbit of gossip, that ‘matter for prayer’? How we describe others, our outbursts of anger or rage? Think of your words over the past week? Do you need a guard over your lips? As Jesus says, our words are the outflow of the heart: ‘out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks’ (Luke 6:45).

James 3 gives us an expanded commentary on how the small tongue has such huge power and potential for good or evil (set on fire by hell). If we’re committed to living lives of purity, of not inclining to evil, then we need to watch our tongues.

We also need to be careful of our company. Verse 4 continues - ‘Do not let my heart incline to any evil, to busy myself with wicked deeds in company with men who work iniquity, and let me not eat of their delicacies!’ You see, it’s so easy to be corrupted by bad company, to be led astray by the subtle influence of others. To get involved in questionable business practice and turn a blind eye, to be dragged deeper and deeper into bigger and bigger sins, to go along with the crowd - sure if everyone else is doing it then it can’t be too wrong?

But David is wise to the danger - both in terms of doing evil with the wicked, and of sharing table fellowship with them - ‘let me not eat of their delicacies’. (It’s almost as if we’re back to the healthy eating theme that we started with!) To be enticed by the sweet things, the dainties (as older translations suggest), to get sucked in by the attractiveness and sweetness of sin, and be led astray. You see, sin and temptation doesn’t always come with big red flashing lights; instead you find that it’s sugar-coated sin, attractive to look at, nice to taste, but death (or tooth decay) is the result. Isn’t that how temptation works? Something sweet and attractive, baited particularly for us.

Choose your company wisely - rather than the sweet things of the wicked, David prefers the rebuke of the righteous. Not as palatable to stomach at the time, and yet of infinitely greater worth for the soul. We see this contrast in company illustrated in Proverbs 27:6: ‘Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.’ Which would we rather have? Wounds or kisses? Yet the wounds of a friend are better for us than the flattery and deceit of an enemy.

Just think of David’s experience. His chain of sin, from lust to adultery to murder to cover up; he thought he had gotten away with his sin against Bathsheba and Uriah; but Nathan rebuked him. It was no doubt painful (for both!), but led to David’s repentance of Psalm 51.

Have you got those people in your life who know you well, who can rebuke you? Who can see when you’re taking a dangerous turn and need to be reminded or rebuked? Are you willing to receive a rebuke, or only ever want to rebuke others? Sometimes we can have blind spots, sins that we don’t even notice, and it takes a spouse or friend or pastor to (in love) point these out for your own good and growth. Perhaps the fellowship groups can help provide some sort of accountablity too.

So far we’ve seen that prayer, watching our words, and choosing our company can help us in not inclining our hearts to evil. In the last five verses, we see that finding refuge in the LORD can keep our hearts too. David is reminding himself of the fate of the wicked, of the judgement to come, of God acting for his people, and this too can help keep us from turning away.

In verse 6, David looks forward to the fate of the leaders of the wicked, ‘when their judges are thrown over the cliff [alt reading: when their judges fall into the hands of the Rock] then they shall hear my words, for they are pleasant.’ The leaders will perish because of their sin, and the truth of David’s words, their pleasantness will be evident to those who have been led astray.

While verse 7 is difficult, with almost every translation giving a unique rendering of the Hebrew, it seems to be saying that while David and the people of God are in danger, that even though they may even be killed, yet David will trust in his God, will seek refuge in the Lord. This is not fair weather faith, but real life faith, even in the midst of fierce opposition.

David continues to pray for his own protection - to keep him from the traps and snares of the evildoer; and for God to ensure that the sin of the wicked comes back to them, while David passes by safely.

When we reflect on the fate of the wicked, the looming judgement, eternity separated from God in eternal conscious punishment, this will not only drive us to keep close to God (just think of the warnings of Hebrews - how then shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation - driving us to hold on and to keep on keeping on), but it will also drive us to warn the people who are in danger. We want to see people turned from serving idols to serve the living and true God; turned from hell to heaven, for others to find refuge in God.

Do not let my heart incline to any evil is a prayer that believers need to be praying. As we pray it, we acknowledge that we can’t become holy by ourselves; that we can’t be good enough by our own efforts. As Jeremiah declares: ‘The heart is deceitful above al things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?’

We need a heart transplant, the work of the Lord in the new birth, being born again, as we take refuge in the Lord. But our sinful desires need to be mortified, crucified; as we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. Let’s take some moments to think about the ways our hearts incline towards evil, those sugar-coated sins we’re prone to - remembering our great Saviour and Lord who is at work in transforming us through prayer; our words, our company of the church, and our dependence on God. We’re not able by ourselves, but we can confidently pray: Do not let my heart incline to any evil. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 22nd August 2010.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Sermon: Luke 18: 9-14

In our Bible reading this morning, Jesus introduces us to two men, both of whom have come along to the temple. The two men illustrate two completely different ways of approaching God, and there’s a great shock for his hearers, both then and now.

Up first, we’re introduced to a Pharisee. The Pharisees were the guys who took the Old Testament very seriously, trying to observe the whole law (all 613 commandments). He’s a prime example of someone who is very religious, and he’s probably someone you would want to be coming along to your church - a good member of the community. A decent sort of a bloke.

The other, well, the less said about him the better. He’s a tax collector - and just as no one likes tax collectors today, they weren’t very popular in Jesus’ day either. Only they were even less liked. To be a tax collector meant working for the Romans. You’re a Jew living in the Promised Land, but this guy is working for the army who defeated you, taking your money and giving it to Caesar (along with a healthy proportion for himself).

So we have the two men, arriving at the temple, and we can listen in to their prayers. Look at verse 11. ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’

He’s praying, but who is he praying to? Himself! He’s praising himself, while at the same time doing down others. It’s all about I, me, myself. His first sentence compares himself to other people, and unsurprisingly, he finds that he’s better than everyone else! He looks around and sees all these evil sinners, but he’s better than that, or so he thinks. It’s like comparing yourself to Hitler, Martin McGuinness and the Yorkshire Ripper. You’re going to think yourself better. The problem is that he doesn’t compare himself to perfection, to the perfect obedience of Jesus. He fails to see how he has fallen short.

His second sentence then focuses on the good religious practices he does - fasting and tithing. But again, it seems that he’s saying look at me! Remember the context of the parable - Jesus is telling it to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt. Can they see themselves in this Pharisee?

Can we see ourselves there too? While we might not come out and say it out loud, there can be some times when we think these sort of things in our heart. We have a tendency to think better of ourselves and worse of others. We compare ourselves to more evil people, rather than better people. We always come out with a better opinion about ourselves.

The second man’s prayer isn’t as long., Just seven words in English: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ He’s standing far off, he doesn’t even look up, he beats his breast. He recognises his sinfulness - not just the things he has done wrong but his very nature of being a sinner. He knows he doesn’t deserve anything, and so he begs for mercy from God. A full recognition of who he is, and a cry for God to be who he is - full of mercy.

The shock comes in verse 14. Jesus has told the parable, and now he gives the verdict. ‘I tell you, this man (that is, the tax collector) went down to his house justified, rather than the other (that is, the Pharisee).’ What a shock! Those listening (and us continuing to listen) expect that the high performing good guy will be justified, accepted by God, welcomed by God; but that’s not how it works. The tax collector who threw himself on God’s mercy, not trusting in himself but only on God - he was the one who was justified. As Jesus summarises, ‘For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.’

It’s so counter-cultural, isn’t it? Society and culture says exalt yourself, better yourself, take pride in yourself, achieve self-esteem, be independent. But to take that approach will lead, in the end, to being humbled. Whereas those who humble themselves, their need, their desperate state exposed - they will be exalted.

As we come to the Lord’s Table today, are you coming trusting in yourself, your goodness and your achievements? If so, there may just be a shock for you - God will not justify you. Or will you come humbly, recognising your plight as a guilty sinner; your need for mercy, throwing yourself on the arms of mercy of the Lord Jesus?

Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling

This sermon was preached at the Midweek Communion service in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Wednesday 18th August 2010.

Inflation of Greed

We're hearing much these days about the economy, and the risk of inflation due to economic pressures. Money may be scarce for many, with long-term unemployment being the situation many find themselves in, often through no fault of their own.

Despite the credit crunch, recession and all the rest, there is one measure of economics that continues to grow steadily, with no foreseeable decline - the inflation of greed. I noticed it the other day with the new song from Travie McCoy 'I wanna be a billionaire so so bad'.

A few years back, Kelis and Andre 3000 were singing about being a millionaire, but that just doesn't cut it any more. McCoy has to go one further, in this inflation of greed to be a billionaire! The primary reason (according to his chorus) is so that he can

Buy all of the things I never had
Uh, I wanna be on the cover of Forbes magazine
Smiling next to Oprah and the Queen

While he makes some interesting points in the verses, talking about how anyone near him wouldn't know what hungry was, the repeated chorus has him wanting his name in lights, being in a different city every night. The philanthropy or charity goes out the window when it comes to fame and fortune.

There are many people wanting the same thing as Travie McCoy, although they don't sing about it to the world in the charts. The desire for riches, fame, success continues to grow and consume people, but they ultimately don't satisfy. As we're reminded in the Bible, we brought nothing into the world and we take nothing out of the world. Dressing our desires up with some fancy lines about charity just won't cut it - after all, you don't need to be a billionaire to help other people; you don't need to be loaded to relieve someone else's burden.

I wanna be a billionaire so so bad? Perhaps not. What's next - I wanna be a squillionaire, a trillionaire, or a bajillionaire? Let's hope not!

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Caption Competition!

I spotted Ian Paisley Junior at the recent European Pipe Band Championships at Stormont, and this photo lends itself to a caption competition, so here you go...

Junior: Caption Competition?

The blog has the right to remove any unsavoury comments.

Book Review: Why We Love The Church

The authors of Why We're Not Emergent have done it again. Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck have gone one step further and produced their second collaboration, on why they love the church. Surveying popular culture as well as emerging church types, they diagnose a strange problem - decorpulation. While it may be a made up word (and sure why not?), it presents the malady of many today - wanting Christ without his body; loving Jesus but hating his church.

The book is arranged almost like a pingpong game - taking chapter about. DeYoung (who is a pastor) takes the theological issues at stake and expounds the Bible as it pertains to the church; then Kluck (who is a sports writer and member of DeYoung's congregation) reflects on culture and truth in a more subjective but no less useful way. DeYoung presents the four primary reasons why people don't like the church - missiological (thinking the church has lost its way); personal (the church has an image problem); historical (thinking the church has become an institution and moved from its pure roots); and theological (that churchianity is a religion, but that's not what Jesus is about). His chapters then respond to each issue in turn, with some great quotes to give you a flavour:

'People seem to want fellowship without commitment... to learn from each other without being taught by anyone.'

'We are less the reincarnation of Christ in the world ushering in His Kingdom and more His ambassadors bearing testimony to His life and finished work.'

'What outsiders like is a pop-culture Jesus... the Jesus they like is almost certainly not the Jesus who calls sinners to repentance, claimed to be the unique Son of God, and died for our sins.'

'Many of the Christians who went to war under the sign of the cross [in the Crusades] conducted themselves as if they knew nothing of the Christ of the cross.'

Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion is a great reminder of the Biblical mandate of the Church, and is presented in a great format with the two voices alternating with the one simple message. While anyone will benefit from it, the target audience is probably teens to thirties, the emergent generation who may be swayed by the move away from institutions and structures to more free form spirituality.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Derry Day and the Battle of Newtownbutler

This morning hundreds and thousands of Apprentice Boys will be making their way to the Maiden City, Derry - Londonderry - Legenderry for the Apprentice Boys of Derry annual commemoration of the breaking of the siege and the Relief of Derry. The parade comes at the end of the weeklong Maiden City Festival in the city. Yet there aren't too many Apprentice Boys from County Fermanagh. Instead, at the same time as the Apprentice Boys parade, the Royal Black Institution in Fermanagh will be having its annual parade. Why is that?

While Londonderry gets all the headlines (as well as some for all the wrong reasons like the riots and contentious feeder parades), the Fermanagh Sir Knights are barely noticed by the wider world. It was exactly the same during the Williamite Wars! Much is made of the siege of Derry, when the Apprentice Boys closed the gates to keep the advancing Earl of Antrim's soldiers out of the city. Much is known of how the Mountjoy broke the boom and freed the city from the besiegers. Less is known about the critical role of the town and people of Enniskillen during the siege of Derry.

King James' army was advancing northwards in the spring of 1689, defeating the Ulster Protestants at the Break of Dromore, which caused widespread panic (indeed, greater panic than had already occurred when the 'Comber Letter' had been found in December 1688). Many fled to Scotland and England, while the rest of those able took refuge in Londonderry and Enniskillen. In many ways, it was the men of Enniskillen who saved Londonderry, by engaging and distracting a good proportion of James' army - had Enniskillen fallen, Londonderry would have faced much tougher opposition. Indeed, so strong were the Inniskilling Regiment (as they would be known afterwards), that they were able to send raiding parties against the Jacobite posts at Trillick and Augher in April 1689, as well as Ballyshannon, Leitrim, even getting as far as County Meath, just 25 miles from James' headquarters in Dublin.

Just as the Mountjoy was breaking the boom on the Foyle on 28th July 1689 (Old Style) and the siege was officially lifted on 1st August (OS i.e. 12th August in our calendar), the Enniskillen men were fighting their own major battle, the Battle of Newtownbutler. This victory against the superior forces of Lord Mountcashel brought freedom to Enniskillen, and held Western Ulster for the Williamite cause.

Thus, while the Apprentice Boys celebrate the relief of Derry, the County Fermanagh Royal Blackmen are commemorating their own local history, and the decisive victory of the Battle of Newtownbutler. Which was more important? Both were highly significant, in that had one town fallen, the other would soon have perished as well, but with both continuing and winning, the Williamite cause could continue in Ireland, paving the way for the Battle of the Boyne the following year.

This blog post was based on a chapter from my book, Journeying Through Irish History: Exloding Myths, which is available from me for £10, all proceeds supporting the work of West Tyrone Voice victims' group

Friday, August 13, 2010

Sermon Audio: Psalm 140

On Sunday night past I was preaching from Psalm 140: Crying for Deliverance. Here's how it sounded...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Conserving Evolution?

Sometimes I wonder about things. This is one of those times. Just a brief observation of something that seems a little bit illogical to my tiny brain.

Wildlife conservation is a big business these days, with regular updates on endangered species like the elephants, tigers, pandas, turtles and many more. Much is made of the declining populations and number of breeding pairs left in the world.

Yet at the same time, those most involved in conservation work are the same people who likely believe in evolution, both micro (within species adapting to their particular environment e.g. the urban moths becoming darker to blend in with the polluted cityscape) and macro (producing new species and explaining the origin of everything). But surely this is illogical? Surely their evolution theory should desist any such conservation efforts because that's the way evolution has always worked - species unable to adapt or survive in a changing world are lost while 'progress' is made through new species better able to cope.

Are they to some extent elevating conservation over their belief in evolution? Why would one species worry about the survival of another species anyway? Or are the conservationists displaying the fact that humans aren't just animals like any other species, but that we were made in the image and likeness of God, and given dominion over the animal kingdom to tend and care and rule over it under God?

Evolution and conservation doesn't seem to sit as well together as creation and conservation. Yet we often fail in our responsibilities and stewardship of the earth's resources. Saving animals is good, but not as good as saving people from the wrath to come.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Book Review: Let God Arise

CS Lewis once coined the phrase chronological snobbery, meaning that we assume that our generation is the most advanced and superior generation, so that we can't possibly learn anything from the generations that have gone before. For some, it's a way of life, but for others, we accidentally fall into it through simply not knowing about the rich heritage of saints in church history.

If you ask most Christians, they'll be able to stammer through a potted history of some notables from the past two thousand years of Christianity - perhaps Paul, Constantine, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Whitefield, and one or two others. But how much we know about the leaders of the church in ages past is debatable.

Sir Marcus Loane's little volume, Let God Arise, is a great antidote to this chronological snobbery and ignorance. Taking some key figures from English church history, Loane presents a portrait of each, noting their motivations, actions, achievements, and impact on the world church scene. Within the book there were some people I had never really heard of, and some that I should have known better. Aidan of Lindisfarne (the true founder of the English Church, with roots from Columba's mission to Iona, originating in this land); John Wycliffe; Little Bilney, the key figure in the English Reformation with a huge impact on so many other reformers; the Wesleys and Whitefield; William Wiberforce; and Elizabeth Clephane, the hymnwriter.

Perhaps the reason this volume is so good is because it doesn't make much of the characters without making much of their Saviour. Jesus Christ is exalted in each of the chapters, so the read is encouraging and challenging (to see what these men and women of God have done in previous generations, when things were far from as easy as we have them now), but also edifying in reminding the reader of the gospel which is at the heart of each of the players.

This book will be useful for anyone seeking to grow in their understanding of church history, and to discover more about the particular people featured. The book will even be a launchpad for people wanting to go further into church history and learn from the church triumphant.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Sermon Audio: Psalm 139

Here's the sermon mp3 from Sunday week ago, when I was preaching on the The Searching Saviour from Psalm 139.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Sermon: Psalm 140 Crying for Deliverance

We’re continuing our series in the psalms, and come to a psalm of desperation; as David faces a terrible situation of opposition. The Psalm breaks down into two main sections - God, protect me; and God, punish them. In each case, we find some verses dealing with the wicked, before the final verses concentrating on God’s salvation.

The opening section (1-5) presents the agonising situation that David finds himself in. We’re not told the specifics - whether this is when Saul is hunting him down, or whether the evil men in view are the nations surrounding Israel when he is king. Either way, the situation seems to be bleak.

1-3 and 4-5 could sit parallel - do you see the similarities? Deliver me/Guard me from evil men/the hands of the wicked. Then the second line is exactly the same: preserve me from violent men. The first situation concerns these violent men who plot evil in their hearts and then speak it out - having a sharp tongue, having poison like an asp in their mouth, ready to strike out.

As if that wasn’t enough, the violent men are also planning to trip up his feet. They’re planning to trap him, to capture him, to do away with him. There’s a clear and present danger - both from these poisonous lips and from the hidden traps. David, representing the people of God, is in danger.

The first section concludes, then with verses 6-8. Notice that rather than focusing primarily on the threat, David turns to his God, more than that, to the covenant LORD. ‘I say to the LORD, you are my God; give ear to the voice of my pleas for mercy, O LORD!’ David takes shelter in the covenant LORD, the one who has promised to be his God, the one who is with him. But even at that, David can only plea for mercy, rather than demand things as a right.

Yet there is confidence as David approaches his God - look at verse 7. ‘O LORD, my Lord, the strength of my salvation, you have covered my head in the day of battle.’ He’s acknowledging that he cannot save himself, but that God saves, indeed is the strength of his salvation. It’s not that we’re just about saved, that we just about make it, but that God who is almighty, strong, provides a great salvation, a strong salvation, an imperishable, undefiled and unfading salvation. Indeed, just as God has covered David’s head in battle - he has protected David in the past in tricky situations - so David continues to trust in him, knowing God’s strong salvation.

Verse 8, the final in the first section (God, protect me), is an earnest prayer against the yearning of the wicked; another plea for God to save him, and to frustrate the plans of the wicked: ‘Grant not, O LORD, the desires of the wicked; do not further their evil plot or they will be exalted.’ David is concerned, not just for his own security, but also for God’s good name - for the wicked to succeed, to gain their desires, will mean that they are exalted in the eyes of the world. The glory of man takes away from the glory that is due to God alone, so this is a prayer for God to act for his own glory.

In the second half of the Psalm (9-13), David’s prayer is not now for protection, but for punishment. God, punish them, is the summary line of the second section. As before, we have the prayer against the wicked men, before the final verses which express the certainty.

Let’s look at verses 9-11. Earlier in verse 7, David has recalled how the LORD has covered his head in the day of battle. Now, he prays that the wicked would have uncovered heads - ‘As for the head of those who surround me, let the mischief of their lips overwhelm them!’ David is praying that what they inflict on others would come back to them. I was thinking about how to illustrate it, (and for the second week in a row, I’m using a cartoon - not sure what that says about me!). Have you ever seen Wile-E-Coyote? He’s the guy that always tries to capture Roadrunner. He might have a boulder ready to drop on roadrunner, but it doesn’t budge - until he’s standing under it. Or he paints a tunnel on the rockface - roadrunner gets through it, but then he hits the rock. You’d think he’s learn - all his evil schemes come back to haunt him; his evil is returned to himself.

It seems that David is asking for this sin to be returned to them - the slanderer not being established (and burning coals falling on him); the violent man who had hunted with violence being hunted by evil and falling into the miry pits (this, the same person who was laying traps).

But let’s be clear here - David is not asking for a sort of karma. Karma is the eastern notion that if you do something bad, then something bad will happen to you. That’s not what is going on here. Remember, David is praying to the covenant LORD, who is the judge of all the earth. It’s not that sin is punished through an impersonal force that seeks balance in your personal circumstances. No, God is the one who sees and judges. God is the one who punishes, according to his holiness and justice.

We see this in the closing verses - David doesn’t say ‘I know that karma will sort everything out’ but ‘I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and will execute justice for the needy.’ David knows this, we know this, and yet sometimes we have to admit that it’s slow to happen, or at least it seems that way. But we have to remember that it will happen in God’s timing, not ours. That one day time will cease, and the full final judgement (with no appeals) will take place, and the afflicted and needy will find justice. At that time, then we will see the fullness of verse 13 - the righteous giving thanks to God (his name), and the upright dwelling in his presence.

So how do we apply this psalm? How do we take it and use it? I think we’re often inclined to find ourselves in the role of David, as the one who is afflicted and threatened and slandered. We see ourselves as the victims of the violence of others. Yet at the same time, we’re more likely to be in the role of the evil men, the violent men, planning evil in the heart and stirring up wars.

You see, verse 3 is used by Paul in his letter to the Romans, in chapter 3 (p1133), in that long litany of verses from the Old Testament which shows that ‘none is righteous’, that all of us are sinful, that all of us are guilty. As such, we also need to recognise the ways in which we have venomous lips, seek to trap others, slander them and oppose them.

As we’ve seen, God will punish these sins, so before we cry for mercy from the attacks of others, we first need to cry for mercy for ourselves - finding that strong salvation that comes from the LORD. In that sense, we need to use verse 6 of ourselves first - ‘You are my God; give ear to my pleas for mercy, O LORD!’

Then having received that mercy, being numbered with the people of God; being sinned against by others, how will we respond? Our tendency can be to quickly lash out at those who are hurting us - perhaps not in personal violence or retaliation, but to use these imprecatory psalms against them. We might take great delight in the prospect of those who hurt us roasting in hell for all of eternity, but is that really how we should react? Our God is the one who does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked, but would rather he turn from his sins and live (Ezek 19:23).

Those of us who have known the mercy of the LORD, that undeserved favour and deliverance from the punishment that we deserve - can we really push for others to receive the same? Will we not rather seek for others to know this forgiveness too?

Remember that our sins have not just been forgotten - they have been punished, in the body and death of the Lord Jesus on the cross - this must change our attitude, how we see others. It’s not that our sins were trivial matters compared to the sins against us, but that our punishment has been borne. Jesus’ death ushers in the kingdom ethic, how we respond to the sins of others. We don’t retaliate, we leave room for God to judge in his time and his way.

It’s not that we won’t be sinned against, or ever be opposed/slandered/hurt as a Christian; we still find opposition and threats. Rather, as Paul again writes to the Romans (p 1142): ‘If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. [But some people will still oppose/slander/attack you. So:] Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’ (Romans 12:18-21)

It’s not easy to respond by blessing when being cursed by our enemies. It’s not easy to entrust yourself to God’s justice and God’s timing when you have opportunity to strike back yourself. Sometimes you’re in the heat of the moment and want some instant satisfaction.

David urges us to take the longterm view, trusting God for salvation and vindication, knowing that those who refuse to repent will find their sins returned to them. Those last two verses point us to the end of time, when all wrongs will be righted and justice will be done, and seen to be done. Sin, sorrow, suffering, will be removed from God’s presence; ‘Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name; the upright shall dwell in your presence.’ Even so, come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 8th August 2010.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Book Review: The Nine Tailors

Dorothy L Sayers is regarded as one of the finest crime writers, and she came with high recommendations from several colleagues. Despite those recommendations, I had never found any of her books until recently, in another of my charity shop finds. It seems I'm getting into my murder mysteries, but don't worry, I'm not trying to plan the perfect murder or anything!

The Nine Tailors, perhaps surprisingly, is neither about a murderous gang of gentlemen's outfitters, nor about a series of unfortunate victims all connected to the cloth trade. Rather, the setting for this Lord Peter Wimsey murder hunt is a parish church in the fens of East Anglia with a strong tradition of bellringing. Under a campanological canopy, Lord Wimsey discovers an unappealing murder and the hunt is on to unravel the knotted ropes with his clear as a bell and very sound reasoning.

The portrait of the Rector and his wife is brilliantly portrayed, in their lives given in service of God and the parish, dealing with the various batty parishioners and caring for their needs. Yet in small communities, where everyone knows everyone's business, there are still secrets which slowly emerge as the story is told with plenty of twists in the tail.

There is also lots of humour, despite the grave circumstances, with some memorable one-liners from a variety of characters. And there's one thing - if you read this book, you'll never forget how the main victim lost his life.

Having read this book, I'll certainly be returning again to Dorothy Sayers' adventures with Lord Peter Wimsey in the years between the two world wars. That is, if I can find any more in my bookshop hunting!

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Sermon: Psalm 139 The Searching Saviour

Almost every time you’re leaving the house, you’re being watched. I’m not just talking about your neighbours either. In the UK, there are more than 4.2 million CCTV cameras (according to the BBC in 2006, so it may have risen since then), with Belfast being one of the leading cities for CCTV footage. As well as that, there’s the cameras in shops watching for shoplifters; Tesco clubcards to watch what you’re buying; number plate recognition systems on the speed cameras. You’re being watched. I don’t know how that makes you feel - concerned for your privacy?

Or think about a programme on Channel 4 this summer (and for the previous ten summers). The inmates/ contestants are in the Big Brother house. Every conversation they have is heard, every move they make is watched by millions of TV viewers. (Isn’t it ironic that people sit around in their own houses watching people sitting around in the Big Brother house?) Millions of viewers, fascinated by how other people react. Constantly being watched.

Our Psalm tonight affirms that we’re being watched, but long before CCTV was invented, long before Big Brother was thought of. Rather than fear and alarm, though, this knowledge is described as ‘too wonderful for me’ and precious. It’s another Psalm of David, and the psalm records David’s praise to the God who knows me, surrounds me, made me and tests me.

I’m guessing that the Psalm is probably fairly familiar to most of us, but let’s take a moment or two to see the big picture, before looking at the sections. It’s made up of 24 verses, we have 4 sections of 6 verses, each dealing with a particular aspect of God’s character and power.

In the first six verses, we see God’s knowledge. ‘O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know...’ God, the covenant God, knows all about David - when he sits or rises, where he goes and where he lies down. But more than that - even further than the Big Brother cameras can reach - God also knows what we are thinking, and what we are going to say before we say it. Sometimes married couples can finish each other’s sentences, but nothing compared to God’s knowledge here.

[How does that make you feel - knowing that God knows all about you, all that you do and say and think? I don’t know about you, but sometimes that might make me feel uncomfortable - we can make ourselves presentable for church, and hold things together for the hour or two, but don’t ever let the real ‘me’ out. There is never a moment that God is not watching us, knowing us, searching us. But for David, this issues in praise, not fear: ‘Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.’

The truth is, we don’t have to pretend with God - he knows us better than we know ourselves. Rather than fear, this is a great comfort - we can’t surprise God with how bad we’ve been, he already knows. We can come as we are, in repentance and faith, but not stay the way we are (as we’ll see later)]

As well as God knowing me, he also surrounds me. Verses 7-12 are the second section, with a vivid description of the way in which God is everywhere present (omnipresence). If I go high or low, near or far, night or day, God is there. Now, some commentators think that David is trying to flee from God, as if trying to escape. But the tone of this section is too positive - it’s not desperation we’re seeing here, but still more wonder. It’s not like the old Tom and Jerry cartoons where Jerry runs through the house, being chased by Tom, then opens a door and Tom’s already there; then down the stairs and opens the front door and Tom’s there... God is present everywhere, leading us and holding us (10) - that no matter where David goes, no matter what he’s facing, he knows that God is with him.

[Have you ever been to a service or event and a speaker/leader/worship leader gets up and says “Let’s welcome God here...” How silly is that - God was there long before we arrived, and he’ll be there long after we leave - we can’t welcome God anywhere - it’s his world, he made it!]

What difference would it make to your day knowing that God is with you in the office/classroom/coffee shop? It’s not that we leave God in church on a Sunday night and then see him again next week. How would you live differently recognising the presence of God with you? It’s what Brother Lawrence did - practicing the presence of God. When he scrubbed a pot, he did it knowing that God was with him, praying to him; when he was cooking the dinner, he knew that God was present.

God knows me, God surrounds me, and God made me. We’re in verses 13-18, in perhaps the best known verses of the Psalm. If we put the first two assertions together, we arrive at this section - God knows me so well because he made me; that God surrounds me, and no place is beyond his scope, so that even in my mother’s womb - even before she knew I was there - God was making me. ‘You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb...’

Even before birth, God is active in David’s life. Think also of Jeremiah, God says to him: ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ (Jer 1:5) God made us in our mother’s womb - this means that we weren’t a mistake (even if that’s how its put humanly speaking). It’s why we need to think carefully about any plans to introduce abortion into Northern Ireland. God’s greatness is displayed in his knowledge, his presence, and his creating power.

Up to now, things are moving nicely, but there’s a sting in the tail. Up to verse 18, it’s all nice and lovely, verses to cherish and reflect on, perhaps with soft music in the background. But then comes the final section. It seems like it’s not just a key change, but a jump from one music style to another. Like from easy listening to heavy metal or something. Let’s look at verse 19: ‘Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me!’

It seems like such a contrast, doesn’t it. You’re sitting there thinking, where did that come from?! What brought that on? As David was composing the psalm did something bad happen to him at this point and he lashes out? It’s almost as if David is saying, look God, you know all about me, you are all around me, you made me - you know all this, and yet it’s as if you don’t know about the evildoers who are opposing you. Why haven’t you dealt with them? You see all that I do, can you not see this as well?

This final section might seem like a contrast, might seem out of place, but it actually helps us to better understand the whole psalm. That rather than standing out, this final section is the key to the whole psalm. You see, David is living in the real world, in a world of frustration, opposition, enemies, and prosperous evil people. His experience is the experience of all saved people with a passion for God’s name and honour - frustration that the sinful prosper. David is praying in that experience, and finding the comfort that God’s knowledge of him, and God’s surrounding of him, and God’s creating of him brings to him. That God knows what is happening.

So David asks God to deal with the wicked. That God would be true to his power and greatness and holiness and deliver his justice. It’s what we saw a couple of weeks ago (and a few centuries later) in Psalm 137 with the verses at the end about dashing the heads of infants off rocks - another cry for God’s justice.

But the question is how we relate to these verses now. What do they say to us, who live after the cross, in the last days, as the gospel is proclaimed? Well, those who oppose God are still his enemies, but the amazingly good news is that Jesus Christ died for his enemies. (Rom 5:8) That means that our attitude to the enemies of God still hates their sin, but we proclaim to them the salvation that is found only in Jesus. One day, of course, God will fully and finally judge every person - those who remain enemies bearing their own sin and its punishment, but for those who have confessed their sin and believed in Jesus, their sin has been carried by Jesus, its punishment has been satisfied.

You remember the old phrase from the war - who goes there? Friend or foe? Are you still a foe, the enemy; or are you a friend?

The last two verses show that the final section isn’t just a copy and paste error, but that the Psalm sits together as a whole. In verse 1, it was past tense ‘you have searched me...’ Now in verse 23, it’s an ongoing searching: ‘Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.’

God’s holiness is not just a matter for those enemies of God - it’s also an ongoing matter for his friends too. We see here David asking God to continue to apply his holiness - it’s the grace of sanctification. God, keep on searching me; testing me; trying me - am I slipping into patterns of sin? Are there things I’m not even aware that I’m doing that are sinful?

In a sense, this psalm can be summed up by what an American author, Max Lucado, once wrote: ‘God loves you just the way you are, but he doesn’t want you to stay that way.’ Are you willing to pray these last two verses to God? Willing to submit to his prompting, willing to surrender to his leading? You see, God knows all about us, he surrounds us, he made us, and he is awesome in his holiness. We cannot stay the way we are in the light of our great God.

Let’s pray verses 23-24 together after a moment of quiet.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 1st August 2010.