Thursday, September 30, 2010

September 2010 Review

It's that time of the month again, the last night, in which we review the events of the blog over the last few weeks. September has been quietish on the blog, with this being the 18th posting, 223 for the year so far.

This month we took a little holiday, which I wrote about here. While I was away, I got some reading in, although I haven't even got round to reviewing my holiday reading yet. Instead, there were some book reviews from earlier in the month, including Captured by a Better Vision by Tim Chester, A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, and Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism? by Wayne Grudem.

Someone else was travelling as well, with the Pope coming on a visit to the UK. I flagged up some sermons from All Souls relating to his visit, while my own preaching was from Matthew 5 (audio), Mark 11 (audio) and Genesis 3 (no audio!). I also thought about the seeming sermon sabotage with inflated visitor stats for pressured pastors.

In other news, we had an installment of McFlurry's McLinks, thought about the anger and the laughter of the Lord, and had some nostalgia in the form of remembering some games, and one game in particular.

My favourite post of the month was the one remembering fun times, and my photo of the month on the 365 project was Funderland:
272/365:2010 Funderland

The Laughter of the Lord

Ever wondered what makes God laugh? Perhaps a knock-knock joke? An amusing story with a twist in the tale? A Paddy Englishman, Paddy Irishman and Paddy Scotsman joke?

Perhaps you've never thought of God laughing. Sometimes his family doesn't help - we can seem like the frozen chosen, or as Wallace Benn says, more uptight than upright. Yet the Scriptures present the Lord God of heaven as one who laughs. Not just once, but several times in the Psalms.

But what is it that brings laughter to the Lord?

This afternoon I was reading Psalm 2 with an older brother. Not really remarkable, we meet up every fortnight for an hour of Bible study and discipleship. What struck us today, though, is that we find the Lord laughing in the middle of the Psalm. Here's what it says:

4He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.

Who are the 'they'? Who is it God is laughing at?

1 Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
2The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
3"Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us."

Rebellious humanity raging against God brings out the Almighty laughter. The important people (so-called) of the world, the kings and the rulers might call a conference; you might find united nations joining together to oppose the Lord and his Anointed (his special King), but while the people and nations may be serious, it just makes God laugh.

Why is that? Can you imagine a group of ants raging against a human in the back garden? They're puny, no match at all, compared to the human. They may seem big and important, but they can't stop the human doing what they will. Similarly, while Barak Obama or David Cameron or Robert Mugabe may seem important and powerful in this world, their rebellion against God will not succeed.

If it's true of the powerful people, how much more of us? We may think that we can rule our own destiny; chart our own course, but against the Lord, we can do nothing. Our rebellion brings out God's laughter.

Perhaps most topically, what makes God laugh? The pompous denunciations and declarations of the new atheists - Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and their ilk. They may rage and foam and spout, trying to persuade us there is no God. God's response? Laughter.

God's king rules, and God will give him his inheritance of the whole world. As the Psalm concludes (in a similar way to Psalm 1), there are two ways to live:

10Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the LORD with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
12 Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Be wise and be warned. King Jesus reigns - will you kiss him in submission and repentance and be blessed by taking refuge in him; or will you perish in the way by having his wrath upon you?

Two ways to live - with serious consequences. It's no laughing matter for us - but are you making the Lord laugh at your puny rebellion?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Book Review: Evangelical Feminism: A New Path To Liberalism?

The topic of the ordination of women is a controversial one for many in the church today. I'm much too young to remember the debates in General Synod, or to have witnessed the first female deacons and presbyters in the Church of Ireland. Nevertheless, within evangelical circles, there is much difference of opinion on how women should be exercising ministry within the church.

Wayne Grudem has previously written extensively on the issue (including a hefty volume of 856 pages); but this present volume is shorter in extent, but no less powerful in his argument. Grudem's simple thesis, repeated throughout as he presents his evidence, is that he is concerned 'about a widespread undermining of the authority of Scripture... to support evangelical feminism.' (p.11) Surveying various authors, theologians, and organisations' publications, Grudem discusses the approaches and arguments made for the full equality of women to hold every role that men do in the church.

Time and again, he finds that arguments are not made on a scriptural basis, but rather in seeking to sideline, avoid or evade what the Bible teaches. Rather, the arguments are a new path to liberalism, as the Bible is denied or argued away. Grudem argues that there is a danger that such hermeneutical methods (using new interpretations based on changing culture or relevance or equality or whatever) remove the unique authority of the Bible and place authority instead in the minds and decisions of people.

The danger, he continues, is that if a denomination has begun down this line on one issue that other issues are also decided on the same basis of denying what the Scriptures teach. One such issue is in the realm of homosexuality, where we've already seen problems in the Anglican Communion (amongst others).

Grudem's position is of complementarianism, whereby men and women are created equal but different, with different roles in church and home.

The book was an interesting discussion of a subject that is almost taboo in current church circles. The breadth of arguments which are discussed and rejected are hard to ignore, and Grudem is gracious and faithful in his responses. It's certainly a book I'll return to at some stage in the future.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Home, Home on the Range

Our summer holidays are over! Slightly later than most, we had a lovely week in Lanzarote. The weather was good (albeit with a few raindrops falling on our heads occasionally), the atmosphere nice, and a relaxing holiday completed. Nothing much on the agenda for a week except some relaxation, some food, some smoothies and lots of reading. Eight books completed over the week, so my yearly total got a nice boost. The reviews will follow, staggered into next month.

Playa Blanca was nice, and rather than eating in the hotel, we sampled some dining on the town. Seafood paella is a new favourite! One night though, we had the weirdest supper soundtrack. A real mix, including Britney Spears, Green Day, random Spanish tunes, lots of gangsta rap (full of expletives), and the Bible books song by Psalty!

The taxi driver taking us back to the airport must have known we're used to driving on the lefthand side of the road, as he proceeded to spend an awful lot of his time there, overtaking cars, jeeps and anything else in his way, whether there was a space or not!

A great holiday, but it turned into a bit of a nightmare when we got to the airport. Due to the French air traffic control being on strike, the plane was delayed. But then ops and the airline couldn't agree on a route home for our plane. Needing to avoid French airspace would take us further over the Atlantic, and a greater distance to fly. Longer distance needs more fuel, but more fuel on the plane would overload it and prevent takeoff from Arrecife airport. Ops insisted on the extra fuel, balanced by removing 60% of the hold luggage. We watched as the bags were removed and shunted into the airport - they'll arrive some time in the next five days. Very handy.

Remarkably, my bag arrived in Belfast, but most of the rest didn't make it. Hence the exhausted passengers arriving bleary eyed at 5.15am this morning off the Thomson flight (when the new day's flights were beginning an passengers were setting off), four hours late, watching the baggage carousel in luggage lottery. Would your bag make it? If not, the Servisair worker was standing by with claim forms asking for details of the bags, ironically (and slightly frustrating) the form they normally use for lost luggage. No, my bag wasn't lost - you removed it from the plane!!!

The pilot and air stewards did well in a difficult situation, and we can't blame them. Still, the whole experience somewhat marred the end of the holiday. Instead of being home by 2, we pulled up to the house at 6.30 and straight into bed. And that's our holidays for another while. Where to next? Preferably nowhere near French airspace!

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Anger of the Lord

Perhaps the title might seem to be a strange one. Can we really talk about the anger of the Lord? It's not a spelling mistake; I didn't mean to write the 'angel' of the Lord. The anger of the Lord. Is God actually angry? Surely God is love, so how can he be angry?

In each generation, there is a tendency to over-emphasise one doctrine to the detriment of another doctrine; or to focus on one aspect of God's character at the expense of another. In our day, it could just be that we have focused so much on God's love and acceptance that we have neglected, ignored or totally forgotten about the Lord's anger.

We doubt that God could actually have anger, or that it is directed towards us personally. After all, doesn't he love us? What we fail to understand in this sort of approach is that we're deciding that one aspect of God's character is the lens through which we judge the rest of his character. So if anger doesn't fit with love, then love must be the one we keep, and we reject any notion of God being angry.

The thing is, though, that God can simultaneously be love and have anger. His characteristics are not in tension, but in perfect unity in their totality. So God is perfectly love; perfectly wise; perfectly glorious; and perfectly holy. Which brings us back to the anger of God.

In our balancing / comparative act, we've magnified the love of God and ignored the holiness of God, so that God is all love and no anger. It almost offends us that God could be angry at us or our sin.

All of the above came about as I reflected on perhaps the shortest chapter in the book of the prophet Isaiah. A wonderful chapter, which provides a hymn for the church - I wonder if anyone has set this to music. Isaiah 12:

I will give thanks to you, O LORD,
for though you were angry with me,
your anger turned away,
that you might comfort me.'
(Isaiah 12:1)

What a great little summary of the gospel. Line 2 reminds us that God was angry with me (past tense); angry because of my sin, his perfect wrath unleashed against my sin; my punishment the perfect response to my rebellion.

Line 3 reminds us that God's anger was turned away from me. Isaiah may not have fully understood how this could be - although perhaps the Spirit of the Lord granted him some measure of understanding through his prophecy contained in chapter 53. We know now, that the Lord Jesus took our sins upon him, propitiating the wrath of God, taking it away, so that Jesus bore our wrath; that the Father was angry at Jesus instead of me.

Line 4 reminds us that instead of wrath, we receive comfort, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter; as we enjoy the blessings of the gospel through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus.

Line 1 shows that our response to all that God has done for us is to give him thanks.

Four short lines, but a wonderful summary of the gospel, and one worth committing to memory. Yes, the Lord was angry with me, but his anger was turned away, giving me comfort and calling me to thank him.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Fun Times Revisited

Shallowfrozenwater had a great post recently, remembering some of the things he did as a kid. That started my own memories flowing, seeing as I'll be turning 30 soon, so here's a bit of nostalgia.


Skeesh was a cross between football and squash, played with a tennis ball. Out the back of our house, there were two car park spaces (ours and next doors), surrounded on three sides by a fence. Our fence was the wall to be hit with every shot, players taking it in turns to hit the wall. There was a gentle slope from the houses further uo behind us down towards our back yard, which was useful. Sometimes, though, if you got the spin on the ball right, you could put the ball away far, out of direct sight of the fence, especially if the next player didn't get to it in time and it had rolled down the hill. Skeesh was something that we played pretty much constantly with our cousins, and was only stopped when Mrs Wallace's son came to visit her in his car, and parked on our court!


Another summer favourite was cricket, using the dividing line between the two car park spaces as the crease, and the back fence as the stumps. An old tank would be left further up the slope, where the bowler would bowl from, and to which you had to make it to score runs. The bushes in front of granny' house were considered the boundary for fours or sixes, but if you got it that far, then there might be a pause while someone was brave enough to go into the bushes to find the tennis ball again! Stories abounded of rats living in them, but those bushes are all gone now, with some landscaping instead.

The funniest memory of cricket was one evening when dad was coming back from granny's and he wanted a go at batting. The game was on to try and put him out, but he was just too good for us, nicking the ball just above our heads; just out of our reach. Until that time when he was overenthusiastic, and the tennis ball struck the window of the bungalow directly behind us. Dad dropped the bat and ran into the house!

Bicycle Polo

We tried this once or twice, but it didn't really catch on, due to my injuries. The idea was simple enough - playing football on your bike, just like polo players on their horses. It was one Saturday evening, and me and my brother were playing. I might have been winning, but then disaster struck. The ball got stuck in front of the wheel of my bike, the wheel jammed, and I flew out over the front, landing squarely on my face on the bricked surface of our housing estate. Ouch!

What made it worse was that at the summer scheme we went to in the community centre, we were going to watch a film / movie later that week. The new blockbuster. The latest installment in the enterprise that is Batman. The movie? Batman Forever (1995), in which there was a character, whose name I quickly acquired as my nickname for that summer: Twoface!

These are some of my growing up memories of fun things we did. What about you? Any favourite activities or games you want to share?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Sermon Audio: Mark 11: 12-26

On Sunday morning past, I was preaching on Jesus cursing the fig tree and clearing the temple, and asking the congregation if we are Leafy or Fruitful? Have a listen, if you like!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

McFlurry's McLinks (16)

It's been a while since the last serving of fresh and interesting McLinks from the blogosphere and my feedreader, so here goes:

Ray Ortlund writes about the new NFL season (although it could be profitably applied to football/rugby/Formula 1 or whatever your sporting idol is).

In ministry items, Irish Calvinist pointed to a video of John Piper's sermon prep. Kevin DeYoung thought about the practicalities of applying the sermon. He also writes about why he loves his church (and not just when he's on holidays!). James Cary (who has sadly ceased blogging having reached 500 posts) thought about virtual preaching. Also on a technology note, Peter Whyte thinks about e-readers.

A recent survey suggested that newspaper article starting lines are predictable, according to Abraham Piper. It made me think about sermon openers too. Peter Whyte reports on some extensive reading.

Irish Calvinist wonders if younger evangelicals (in the American context) are more concerned with being cool than orthodox. At the same time, Stafford Carson reports on the tendency of young people to be moralistic therapeutic deists.

Meanwhile, the IRS in the USA is spot on in its ecclesiology. Thinking about taxes, Deyoung also notes that there's something worse than taxes, or death. Still on government and all that, Clare in Brussels reflects on the West Wing (this is a new link from this blog).

If you're feeling lost or low, take a few moments to reflect on Psalm 121 using Daniel Owen's wonderful photos. Still on the photos theme, check out these macros on 22 words.

If you want a laugh, check out the honesty of Ali's kids in the middle of this update.

In previous episodes of McFlurry's McLinks we've featured a parody video based on Bohemian Rhapsody; here's one via 22 words which presents the three Star Wars prequels in six minutes:

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sermon: Genesis 3: 15 The Serpent Crusher

Mindset 14/09/2010
Christ in all the Scriptures: Genesis 3:15

The New Testament tells us all about Jesus, so why do we need to bother with the Old Testament? We’re New Testament Christians, after the cross, so why would we need to read the Old Testament, or look at what it says? After all, it’s old, and young people and youth leaders like new things, fresh things, not ancient things.

Perhaps as you’ve been thinking about your programme for the year, or talking to your young people, this might be the kind of thing you hear. It can seem harder for us to understand, because it’s further back in time, and yet it’s worth it when we grasp the Old Testament. You see, it’s more than just Sunday School stories like Noah’s ark, David and Goliath, and Daniel in the lions’ den. The Old Testament prepares the way for Jesus, just like John the Baptist does.

Just think for a moment about God’s plan of salvation. When did God the Father and the Lord Jesus decide that the cross was necessary? Was it just before the angel Gabriel was sent to see Mary? Was it perhaps a bit earlier, when the kingdoms of Israel and Judah failed? Maybe when the people were breaking the covenant that Moses had been given at Sinai? Or was it even in our reading tonight, when Adam and Eve messed everything up, and the Father turned to the Son and said - we’re going to have to do something about this. Was the coming of the Lord Jesus and the cross just Plan B?

We’ll come back to Genesis in a moment, but if you have a Bible, look over to 1 Peter 1:18-21. (Read) Peter says that Christ was ‘foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times.’ Even before God created all that exists, in eternity past, the Son of God was planning to come to redeem us, the lamb who was slain. So God wasn’t flummoxed when Adam and Eve succumbed to temptation; God wasn’t surprised when they turned away.

It’s helpful to remember that whenever we now turn to Genesis 3. Rather than just an ancient story, this is what Luther described as the protoevangelium - the first gospel. Here in Genesis, we find the first hint, the first pointer, the first sign of the rescue that Jesus will accomplish so many thousand years later. But what is it all about? As with any verse of Scripture (particularly when we’re dealing with one verse!), we need to get some context. We’ll use three quick points to unpack the verse in its context: 1. Paradise lost. 2. God’s Judgement. 3. God’s Grace.

I hope I’m not insulting you by spending some time laying the foundations, but it’s not bad thing to be reminded of these things - particularly where they can seem so familiar that we think we have it all sussed. In Genesis 1, we see God completing the work of creation, and Genesis 2 gives us some more details about the humans God created as the pinnacle of creation. Remember God’s verdict on the whole thing? ‘God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.’ (Gen 1:31).

Yet as we come into chapter three, God’s good creation is being unravelled. Things are being turned upside down. The humans, Adam and Eve are made in the image of God, given dominion to rule over the rest of creation, with Adam being given the lead role. But what do we find in Genesis 3? The serpent, a created being tells Eve what to do, and she tells Adam what to do. No reference to God; ignoring God’s good command - indeed, God’s only command. Aflame with desire, for the food, for the wisdom, for the chance to be like God, they turn their back on God.

Suddenly, everything has changed. It’s as if shame has been switched on for the first time - verse 7 says their eyes were opened, and they knew they were naked. Have you ever experienced that sense of shame when you’re found out? I remember years ago being in Newcastle, in the amusements. I might have been about 8, and having a go on the tupenny sliders; timing the moment to put your coin in, expecting to get a fortune of coins dropping out the bottom (which was probably about 20p!). The coins were perched on the edge; they should have fallen; perhaps they just needed some encouragement.

I banged on the glass; tried to shuffle the coins over the edge - and at once the alarm went off; a light flashed on top; and, you’ve guessed it; the wee man came over to tell me off. I had been caught doing something wrong. Worse, it was in public. I knew shame.

This is Adam and Eve’s first time of knowing shame. Remember, they were living in paradise; sinless perfection; walking with God in the garden. And it all comes crashing down round them. They know the Lord will be coming walking, so what do they do? They hide from God! (Incidentally, we’ve been doing that ever since; turning away from God, hiding from him. It’s why we rejoice that God comes looking for us; God comes calling for us, rather than waiting for us to go looking for him...)

So that’s our first point, the background - Paradise Lost. Our second point is that of God’s judgement. As sin enters the world for the first time, God judges. Yet even as God judges, we see the effects of sin continuing, spreading, making things worse. God asks Adam what has happened, and suddenly everyone is out for themselves. Adam almost tries to make out that it’s God’s fault: ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she...’ Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent, and the serpent doesn’t have a leg to stand on. (Groan!)

From verse 14 onwards, we see that there are consequences for the serpent, for Eve, and for Adam. Nothing will be the same again. God maintains his character and judges sin. He cannot do otherwise. Suddenly, thistles and thorns will grow, making labour difficult; pain and struggle will be the normal state of affairs in the fallen world. And finally, there is separation; as Adam and Eve are driven out of the Garden, removed from God’s presence.

Are you ever asked why things are the way they are? Why there’s death, disease, famine, and all the rest of the problems we face? Here in Genesis 3, we see that the world, the whole of creation is under this curse of God, and all because of sin, our sin in our first parents. Our world is under judgement.

It would be enough to make you despair. We had it all, nearness to God, a perfect world, perfect relationships, and all was destroyed. A moment ago I said that God was acting according to his character in judging; but thankfully Genesis 3 isn’t the end of the story. It would be a short Bible and a short history of the world if God had wiped out Adam and Eve that very evening. But he didn’t; he was also true to himself and his grace, which brings us to our third point: God’s grace.

Amidst the darkness of the scene, there is this pinprick of light; this first dawning of the glorious gospel; the first hint of rescue. Let’s look at verse 15. God is speaking to the serpent: ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.’

This is part of the judgement of the serpent, and yet it displays the grace of our God, in telling of the future final fate of the serpent, our enemy, Satan. As Calvin remarks, ‘observe that the Lord spoke not for the sake of the serpent, but for the sake of the man.’ God’s judgement gives hope to Adam, and to all of us.

God promises a serpentcrusher will come, the offspring of the woman, who will be injured, but will bruise the serpent’s head. That’s all we’re told in the text, and yet what a hope!

We see the enmity between the serpent and Eve’s children throughout the history of the Old Testament. Just think of the destruction of the male infants in Egypt - trying to destroy the offspring of Eve (the children of Israel, the chosen nation); or later in Esther’s time, the planned destruction of the Jews by Haman. Time and again, God delivers his people, allowing the scene to be set, the people prepared for the serpent crusher. At the right time, the offspring of the woman sets foot on earth, born of woman, ready for the decisive battle.

We see the enmity continuing when Herod unleashes his plot to murder the baby boys of Bethlehem; when Jesus is tempted in the wilderness; when Peter tries to talk Jesus out of the way of the cross (Mark 8). But nothing will deter Jesus from going to the cross; and as he dies, having been rejected by the chief priests and scribes; mocked by the crowds; condemned by the nations; abandoned by his friends; he dies alone. It looks like a terrible, unfortunate defeat.

That was Friday, but fast forward to Sunday morning, and the cross, the worst the world could throw at Jesus turns out to just be a bruise on the heel; Jesus is raised to life by the Father through the power of the Spirit; at that very moment, he bruises the serpent’s head. A crushing blow; defeating sin and death. What seems to be Jesus’ defeat turns out to be his great victory.

The Scriptures point to Jesus, his cross work, his death and resurrection. The Old Testament gives us the promises of God, and the New Testament shows us how Jesus fulfils them. God is faithful to his promises, and as we study the Old Testament, we see the work of Christ in fuller detail, and that leads us to rejoice. Our enemy, our accuser has been dealt a fatal blow; his days are numbered. Just as Adam and Eve put their trust in this serpent crusher, so we, who can see exactly how God fulfilled the promise, we can also trust the serpent crusher. Jesus overturns the curse that lies upon us and upon the world; and reverses the effects of the curse, so that we can look forward to the new heavens and the new earth:

Saviour of Calvary,
Costliest victory,
Darkness defeated
And Eden restored;

As another hymn puts it:

For Judah’s Lion bursts His chains,
Crushing the serpent’s head;
And cries aloud through death’s domains
To wake the imprisoned dead.

Let’s rejoice that Jesus is the serpent crusher. Our enemy is defeated; and God graciously gives us to share in the victory. As Paul writes to the church in Rome: ‘The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.’ (Rom 16:20). Amen, and amen.

This sermon was preached at Mindset and the Midweek Holy Communion in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Tuesday 14th & Wednesday 15th September 2010.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Sermon Sabotage

In our congregation, we preach systematically through books of the Bible, so that in the morning at present we're working our way through Mark's Gospel (or at least, a section of it); the evenings are working through Exodus 20 and The Ten Commandments. It means that it's easy to know what's coming next, because it's where you left off the week before; and there is no avoidance or evasion of the 'tough' passages or verses.

Difficult topics (e.g. marriage, divorce, the Christian freedom, the end times) can be addressed without individuals feeling that you've picked that topic just this week to deal with them. The issues that Scripture raises are the issues we preach, as the books present them.

Not all churches preach systematic continuous exposition of the text though. Some use the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), which gives you the passage each week depending on the particular Sunday of the church's year. It generally works through most of the Gospels (although not every passage), and some of the rest of the Bible once every three years.

This past week, I had noticed a tremendous explosion in my blog visitor stats, and couldn't work it out at first. Normally, the blog gets about 50-60 page loads per day. Small fry, you might think, but that's plenty. Yet take a look at this extract of my stats from 24th August through to today (this morning, which is why there aren't so many for today yet):

Fairly steady right through until 7th September (last Monday). A jump from 52 on the Sunday to 145 on Monday, soaring to 275 on Saturday past. These are the Statcounter stats - the Blogger hosted stats that accompany the blog now were even higher. And you know what the top search term for visitors from Google was?

luke 15:1-10
sermons on luke 15:1-10
luke 15:1-10 sermon
sermon luke 15:1-10

Are you seeing the pattern here? Blogger reckons there were 805 pageviews of my recent sermon from Luke 15:1-10, which just happened to be the passage for yesterday in the RCL. That sermon was (and still is) on the first page of Google for the above searches, helping the exposure, but massively inflating the blog views for this month. So just how many ministers get their sermons off the internet? Or at least take their ideas from the internet?

Is there a market for having sermons ready a week before they're preached in the RCL? Perhaps some enterprising minister could shift to observing the RCL a week in advance, and offering the sermons online for a small donation? In our case, it just so happens that occasionally, we're almost overlapping, but not always.

So what's up next Sunday in the RCL? I wonder if I've something appropriate to share on the internet...

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sermon: Mark 11: 12-26 The Unfruitful Fig Tree

I wonder if you remember the old TV advert for Jacobs Fig Rolls. The question was asked - ‘how do they get the figs in a fig roll?’ This morning in our reading, there aren’t any figs on offer, though; but the passage is almost like a fig roll turned inside out. Did you notice that as ... was reading? Verses 12-14 are about the fig tree, as are 20-25, but there’s this bit in the middle about the temple.

You might have wondered about that as we heard it - why do we jump from the fig tree story to the temple and then back to the fig tree again? Well, firstly, it’s the way these things happened - this is the last week of Jesus’ life before his crucifixion, and having entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (as we saw last week), he went out of the city, then verse 12 is Monday, and verse 20 is Tuesday. But Mark also tells it in this way to point to the bit in the middle - like a sandwich, the important bit is in the middle - so the fig tree incident helps us to understand the clearing of the temple.

Today we’re going to look at the passage using three headings - the unfruitful tree; the unfruitful temple; and the fruitful new temple. So first up, the unfruitful tree.

Jesus is on the way into Jerusalem from Bethany. We’re told he’s hungry, but he sees a fig tree in the distance. The leaves are on the tree, and so he goes over expecting to find a few figs. Mark tells us (end of 13) that it wasn’t the season for figs, and Jesus doesn’t find any. So he curses the tree: ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’

Is Jesus being unreasonable here? If it wasn’t the season for figs, then why would he expect to find any? It seems that with the leaves, there should have been a few early figs on the tree, and this is what Jesus was looking for. But he’s disappointed. He found nothing but leaves. The tree gave the outward promise of fruit, but wasn’t producing any fruit, so its punishment was to remain eternally fruitless. Remember that, as we turn to the unfruitful temple.

The temple was the centre of Jerusalem life; it was where you went to offer sacrifices, to pray. But what Jesus finds as he enters the temple is far from ideal. Look at verse 15. He finds money-changers, people selling pigeons, people selling animals for the sacrifice. It’s more like a market than a meeting house; and Jesus is not happy. He begins to clear the temple, driving out the people who were buying and selling; overturning the tables of the money changers (can you imagine the scramble for the coins as they jingled and rolled across the floor?!). What’s the problem?

Remember the lesson of the unfruitful fig tree? The outward promise of fruit, but not delivering? We see it here in the temple as well. You see, the temple was like a series of rooms / halls leading from outside to the Most Holy Place. Working from the outside, you first came into the Court of the Gentiles, where anyone could visit; then the Court of the Women (for all Jewish people); then the Court of the Israelites (where only the Jewish men could go); then the Court of the Priests (where only the priests could go); and finally, at the centre, the Most Holy Place (or Holy of Holies) where the high priest went on one day of the year.

The traders and the money changers had set up their stalls in the first part - the Court of the Gentiles. It seems that in the temple, you could only use special temple currency, so you had to change it (just like you have to change currency when you go on holiday abroad) - with the money changers making some tidy profit from the pilgrims. Similarly, you could buy your animal to sacrifice in the temple, which would save you bringing one from home (potentially a long distance), but again, you were be overcharged. It was a captive market, just like everything is more expensive in the airport or the cinema!

Do you see the problem already? Let’s look at what Jesus says while he teaches: ‘Is it not written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”? But you have made it a den of robbers.’ (17). The temple is meant to be the place of prayer, not just for the Jews, but for all the nations, for Gentiles too. But if any Gentiles were to come to the temple to pray, they would be jostled and disrupted by the buyers and sellers. Outwardly the temple (and therefore the Jewish nation) gave the promise of fruit - it looks like a place of prayer; but actually, it’s a den of robbers; everyone out for themselves; everyone to make money. You could say they were more interested in profits than in prophets. (Groan!)

The chief priests and scribes display their heart condition in the way they respond to Jesus here. You see, they weren’t cross when people were profiting from the temple, exploiting people and turning it into a market; but now that Jesus has cleared the temple, they’re raging: ‘they heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him’.

Temple religion promised so much, and yet was unfruitful, like the fig tree. Looking on from outside it was the place of prayer; more than that, lots of people were coming along; there was a bit of life about it. But actually when Jesus comes along to inspect it, the temple (and the supposed people of God) were unfruitful. It’s very challenging for us. You see, we have fairly good numbers coming along on Sundays; lots of activities happening, we say all the right things, we believe our Bibles. But are we producing any fruit?

We might talk like a good church, but are we? We might look like a good church, but are we? Are we producing the fruit that Jesus delights in, in depending on Jesus; trusting in him; growing more like him; reaching out to see others coming into relationship with him; Or are we just as barren, lifeless. Are we leafy, or fruitful?

Or to make it more personal - are you as an individual being fruitful or unfruitful? Are you seeing the fruit of the Spirit in your life more and more, or are you all leaves, making a good show but without any fruit?

Jesus declared his curse on the fig tree, condemning it to being fruitless forever - and in verse 20, the next morning as Jesus and the disciples go into Jerusalem again, Peter notices that the fig tree has withered already. Jesus also judged the temple and the religious people (because they rejected him), and just a few years later, the temple was destroyed. Yet Jesus is our temple, the place where we meet with God; he is the house of prayer for all the nations, where people from every nation are coming to be reconciled with God through the sacrifice of the cross.

So if we want to be fruitful; if we are to be part of this fruitful temple; how do we do it? How do we prevent ending up like the unfruitful temple? Jesus addresses this in the closing verses of our passage. Peter has expressed amazement that what Jesus said has come true, the fig tree has withered so quickly. But Jesus summarises it as: ‘Have faith in God.’ The way to be fruitful and pleasing to God is to have faith; to believe that God is able to do far more abundantly than all that we can think or imagine.

Have faith in God - and pray to him. The temple was meant to be the place of prayer, but prayer had been squeezed out; don’t be like that, but keep praying. And believe when you pray - have faith filled prayers, not just about small things, but also about the big things, the things that might seem impossible. All things are possible with God. Jesus uses the illustration of the mountain - a seemingly immovable, solid things can be moved through prayer. What are the ‘mountains’ in your life, the things that seem impossible? Keep on praying with faith-filled prayer.

Similarly, when you pray, also forgive - have faith and forgive. You see, we can’t really benefit from God’s forgiveness if we refuse to forgive ourselves. We haven’t really understood God’s forgiveness if we can’t forgive others. I know that it can be hard - I know some of the situations you find yourself in which are painful, with terrible things being done to you which were wrong.

Yet these are the plain words of Jesus: ‘And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive your trespasses.’

While we started with figs, I want to end with vines. You see, having faith and forgiving come from being connected to Jesus; being fruitful is a result of relationship with Jesus. We see that illustrated perhaps best of all in Jesus’ words in John 15: ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing... If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. But this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.’ (John 15:5, 7-8)

Let’s pray that we bear much fruit for the glory of Jesus, that we’re not cut off and unfruitful.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 12th September 2010.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Book Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

I like Bill Bryson. He's the kind of guy I would love to meet, to hear his funny stories about the people and places he's been. But then I would worry about what he would write about having met me!

For about one year, I devoured his travel writings, eagerly finding them in second hand bookshops and journeying with him to exotic places like Scotland the Appalachian trail, Australia, continental Europe and many more. Always informative, always a great read.

A few years back, he went on a journey of a different kind, into the history of science. I bought it not long after it was published, but then didn't get round to reading it. Eventually, it made it onto the 'to-read' shelf above my desk, and recently I completed it. A Short History of Nearly Everything is portrayed as a rough guide to science, and it's probably impossible to find a better guide than Bryson.

The facts that he discovers, the developments in theories he follows, the scientists he profiles and meets are truly astonishing. The universe, and this world of ours, is truly a wonderful place. Wonderful can sometimes be an overused word, but this book will leave you full of wonder. From the smallest of creatures to the biggest of mountains and everything in between; from the atoms and molecules to the whole shebang; nothing is neglected in this grand guide of the known universe.

The response it brought from me time and again, was that sense of wonder at the majesty and provision of grace from the great Creator God, the one who made it all, and continues to rule over his creation. From the way that the earth is just the right distance from the sun, has the right gaseous mix in the atmosphere, has the right climate, the right gravity, the right tilt to provide season, and so many more variables that allow for the possibility and flourishing of life; through to the way we have been able to analyse weather, plate tectonics, sea levels, other species, planetary movements and the expansion of the universe.

In this sense, though, I think the name of the book is even more suitable than perhaps Bryson intended - A Short History of Nearly Everything. You see, I realise it's a book dealing with the development of theories in science; but it is depressingly materialistic - not in the wealth and riches sense, but in the continuous pounding of the drum that matter is all there is. He closely follows Darwin and Dawkins in seeing all of life as one, following one pattern and developing into the great variety we now see around us.

For many, science is portrayed as the great revealer, giving us all the answers of the universe, but Bryson is very helpful in flagging up the great unknowns, the things that science still hasn't figured out, and may never: 'The upshot of all this is that we live in a universe whose age we can't quite compute, surrounded by stars whose distances from us and each other we don't altogether know, filled with matter we can't identify, operating in conformance with physical laws whose properties we don't truly understand.' (p.219)

I would definitely recommend this book; it's a great read, and easy to follow for non-boffins. Despite some very technical stuff being discussed, Bryson (and his team of scientific helpers) have been good at explaining it simply. The humour is mild and amusing, and it's a great journey to go on with a brilliant guide. Just don't swallow all of his conclusions wholesale.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Pope Idol

William Crawley reminds us that it's just one week until Pope Benedict visits the UK Great Britain, a visit surrounded by controversy. I just want to flag up a great little series of sermons preached by Hugh Palmer in All Souls, Langham Place (London) recently: Truths Worth Dying For.

As Mark Meynell (who's also on the staff at All Souls) writes, 'But if one of the purposes of such visits is to raise the profile of Catholicism, then it is perfectly fair game to re-examine the reasons why many of us count ourselves Christian but not Catholic.'

Hugh faithfully preaches Scripture and in the process helps explain why the Reformation happened, and why we continue to hold to these great truths, the solas (grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, Bible alone). Good for your iPod or mp3 player, and good for your soul!

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Sermon Audio: Matthew 5: 17-20

On Sunday evening past we kicked off in a new series on the Ten Commandments, fleeing legalism, pursuing holiness. Rather than just plunging in, I began looking at Jesus
Fulfilling the Law.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Five Years On: Healy 1-0 England

Oh What A Night!

It's hard to think that it's five years to the day since that night. Oh what a night, when the mighty England came to Belfast expecting to win, only to lose out 1-0 to not Brazil, but Northern Ireland! I was fortunate to be there that night, saw David Healy score, shouted myself hoarse, and took some photos. Check out what I wrote the morning after here. Nico has the video on his hat for all occasions.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Book Review: Captured by a Better Vision

Pornography is perhaps one of the great unspoken issues in the church. Statistics and surveys suggest that many men (and women) who are Christians struggle with temptation in this area, but it's rarely discussed or dealt with.

Tim Chester is doing something about it in this great book which addresses the issue frankly, but faithfully. Primarily written for men (although women may also find it useful), Chester identifies the epidemic of porn which has arisen through an increasingly permissive society, and new technologies which make it easier to access. From there, he first discusses twelve helpful and revealing reasons why porn is wrong; then digs deeper to find the root cause of pursuing pornography - the heart.

In one of the most helpful sections, Chester exposes the false promises that porn makes, and corrects them with the greater promises of God - for example, porn may offer refuge from the pressures of the world; but God promises true refuge, redemption, and salvation. Indeed, while the book is primarily addressing the particular problem of porn, it could be usefully applied to any and all sin in men's lives through the incisive exposure of the root causes and heart motivation (with the caveat the author supplies, that 'reading about porn is dangerous').

For those who have struggled with porn and sexual temptation, this book will be a real help, as Chester lays out the five ingredients of combating temptation: Abhorrence of porn, adoration of God, assurance of grace, avoidance of temptation, and accountability to others. It's not enough to try one thing on its own, but to use all these weapons together, finding greater pleasure in God than in porn; replacing a vicious cycle with a virtuous cycle in seeking to live for the glory of God.

The closing section is brilliant, in the form of a guided meditation through Psalm 51, and is almost worth the price of the book for this alone!

Captured by a Better Vision: Living Porn-free is a great book, not just for those who struggle with porn, or those who are pastoring those who are struggling, but also for men in general to think through their sins (whatever they are), and to continue in a life of repentance every day. While church bookstalls may stock it, there could be a reluctance among men to buy it from there, so perhaps an online order may be the best and easiest for this book!

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Sermon: Matthew 5: 17-20

If I ask you to think of the word law, what words or thoughts or images come into your head? It might be a judge in a curly wig, or a traffic cop pulling you over for speeding. You might think of rules, punishment, fear, obedience. The tendency is probably to associate the word law with negative images; of broken laws.

So when we come to think of God’s law, there’s a possibility that you’ll continue to bring those negative images. Perhaps it’ll be even worse, thinking of sin, guilt, strictness, and some branches of Protestantism which are particularly hardline. you might ask yourself, then, why we’re bothering with a series on the Ten Commandments. After all, it’s part of the Law, found in the Old Testament. What has that got to do with us?

You might be like the rich young ruler that Jesus encounters who replies quickly ‘All these I have kept from my youth.’ (Mark 10:20). Yes, I know what the law says, and I’ve done it. I’m good, I obey (at least some of) the Commandments. You want to leave the law behind as something old and unnecessary. We’re New Testament Christians, not Old Testament Jews - why do we need to bother with the law?

To kick off our Ten Commandments series, rather than launching into number 1 straight away, I thought it would be good to consider what Jesus says here in Matthew 5, on how Jesus relates to the law and the prophets (the Old Testament), and then what that means for us. And as we do so, we’ll find that Jesus speaks of the fixed law, and the fulfilled law.

The context of our passage is that Jesus is near the start of his ministry, and has just began the Sermon on the Mount. Look back to 5:1. Jesus is up on the mountain, and his disciples have come to him. And Jesus opens his mouth and teaches. The Beatitudes (as we know them) turn the world’s values on their head and sets out the things that are valued in God’s kingdom. There’s a kind of echo of Exodus 19-20, where God’s people have come to Mount Sinai, the covenant people of God gathered around God, hearing his teaching, the Law. So as Jesus establishes his kingdom, he sets out the standards of his kingdom.

The natural question, then, is how does all this fit with the Old Testament? What does it mean for the follower of Jesus in relation to the law? Is Jesus abolishing the law and setting something else in its place?

Our first point is that the law is fixed. Look at verse 17. Jesus says that he has not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. The Law is fixed, as verses 18-19 set out. ‘Not an iota, not a dot will pass from the Law’. These are the smallest possible markings in the writing of the day - little markings that could distinguish between letters, and Jesus says that not even one of these is going to be removed. And how long will the law last?

Sometimes there are time limits on laws, they’re only in place for a certain length of time, they’re easily changed - just look at how quickly the new coalition government have been changing some of the laws Labour had brought in. Here in the passage, we’re given a time frame in two ways - until heaven and earth pass away; until all is accomplished. Look around - is the earth still here? Then the law still stands. Has all been accomplished, every promise of the Old Testament? No, then the law still stands.

Therefore, for anyone to meddle with the law, to relax any of the commandments is a serious business. Instead, Jesus calls us to do them and teach them - as a way to being great in the kingdom. In this sense, are we good citizens upholding the law, or are we bad citizens, working against it?

The fixed law is unchanging in its demands. And that’s where our problem lies. The law is clear, setting out God’s standards, his requirements of each one of us, but none of us can meet the standard. If I were to read out the Ten Commandments, we wouldn’t even make it to number two before we would all have failed. You shall have no other gods before me? That’s me out. And, I suspect, that’s you out too.

Faced with the terrifying demands of God’s law, we might be seriously scared and disillusioned when we read what Jesus says next, in verse 20. ‘For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ Houston, we’ve got a problem. The scribes and the Pharisees - these were the guys who were serious scripture students; they were like the SAS of the Jewish religious scene.

They not only had the law, but they had rules about the rules, to make sure you were keeping the rules. For example, if the law said that you were not to work on the Sabbath then they had an encyclopedia of rules about this rule to define what work was, what you could or couldn’t do. Think of Matthew 12. Jesus and the disciples are walking through a grainfield, and the disciples pluck some heads of grain to eat. That’s work, according to the Pharisees, and they complain to Jesus.

Their righteousness (on the outside) was extremely strict. You remember Paul’s description of himself in Philippians 3? ‘as to zeal, a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law, blameless.’ (Phil 3:6). And Jesus is saying that his disciples’ righteousness has to exceed the Pharisees’ in order for them to enter the kingdom of heaven? I’m out, and I suspect you are too. None of us can do this by ourselves.

But the great good news of the gospel is that Jesus came to do what we could not do for ourselves. The law stands over us in judgement. We have broken it and deserve punishment. But Jesus says that he has come to fulfill the law and the prophets. This isn’t just that Jesus fulfilled every prophecy written about him - born in Bethlehem, seeking refuge in Egypt, the son of David, who healed people, carried our sickness, entered Jerusalem on a donkey, was betrayed, beaten, crucified, buried in a rich man’s tomb, and was raised. It’s not just this, but also that Jesus fulfilled the law’s demands. He was perfectly obedient in every moment of his life to the will of his father; never thought wrong thoughts, never said wrong words, never did wrong things; never dishonoured his parents, never murdered or stole or swore.

Jesus fulfilled the law, obeyed it, so that he has the perfect righteousness of perfect relationship with God the Father. And as we trust in Christ, we receive what Luther called the great exchange: Not just that Jesus takes away our sin by bearing it in his body on the cross; but also that he gives us his righteousness; it is imputed to us, counted as ours - we are counted as justified - just as if I’d never sinned. We see this in lots of places in Scripture, but turn with me to 2 Corinthians 5:21. ‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ Jesus takes out sin and gives us his righteousness. This is how we enter the kingdom; this is how our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.

So if we have this righteousness given to us by Christ; if we are not under condemnation if we are in Christ (Rom 8:1), then why do we need to bother with the law? Why do we need to think about the Ten Commandments over this term? What benefit is there?

The Ten Commandments (the law) show us how to please God; they point us to the perfect obedience of the Lord Jesus. So out of love and honour for God, we want to obey more and more (falteringly, because we haven’t fully gotten rid of sin yet). We’re looking at the Ten Commandments, seeking to obey them, not in order to get God to love us, but because he already does; not for God’s acceptance, but from God’s acceptance. We don’t do these things in order to be saved, but because we already are.

Just think of Exodus 20. How does the passage with the Ten Commandments start? The older people may know this better through the old style catechism training - ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt. You shall have no other gods before me.’ The children of Israel weren’t given the ten commandments as a way for God to like them, and if they obeyed then God would rescue them. No, God has already rescued them; and here’s how to live in God’s covenant with him. Do you see the difference? Tim’s strapline for the series gets to the heart of it - fleeing legalism; pursuing holiness.

These sermons will be challenging - the way of holiness is not easy; sin and the devil will seek to prevent us; yet because we have been saved, we must push on to become more like Jesus; to be conformed to the likeness of him. And that means heart obedience, not outward conformity. You see, our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees because it comes from the new heart working out, rather than just outward conformity. Look at the rest of chapter 5 - Jesus doesn’t lower the bar but raises it - it’s not enough to avoid murdering someone if you’re doing it in your heart; it’s not enough to avoid sex with someone who isn’t your spouse on the physical realm if you’re already thinking about it.

The law of God is fixed - how do you stand in relation to it? Condemned or acquitted? All of us are condemned; but Jesus has fulfilled the Law - are you receiving the benefit of that?

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 5th September 2010.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Castles, Churches and a Cross of Sacrifice

County Fermanagh is probably my least visited county in Northern Ireland, with vast sections unexplored and virtually unknown apart from looking at maps. Last Saturday though, my ignorance about the Lakeland county began to be overturned, with a day off and free time for an adventure.

In the past, I've been to Enniskillen a few times and stayed at the Share Centre in Lisnaskea, so decided that Lower Lough Erne would be my destination for this trip. In terms of geographical oddities, Northern Ireland is full of them - the Upper Bann section of the river is 'lower' on the map than the Lower Bann river (because it flows northwards from the Mournes to Lough Neagh, then on to Coleraine); and similarly, Lower Lough Erne is the more northerly of the two Lough Erne portions.

I was on new territory for most of the day, finding new parts of the country to which I will certainly return again. And here's some of what I found on the way.

One of my interests is Irish history, and there's a wealth of history deep in the Fermanagh countryside. While Enniskillen and Crom Castles may get all the credit and visitors, they're not the only Fermanagh fortifications. Tully Castle, on the shores of the Lough has a great garden laid out in front of it (and a walk round by the Lough):
Tully Castle

Monea Castle may well be my favourite though. One of the Plantation castles, the ruins still stand despite its turbulent history in the 1600's.
Monea Castle

Another of my photographic interests is to capture photos of Church of Ireland parish churches. I'm slowly building my collections on Flickr (see Down & Dromore, Connor, Armagh, Clogher, Derry & Raphoe among others). My little trip through south west Fermanagh (with a short incursion into County Cavan) helped get a few more photos from both Kilmore Diocese as well as Clogher. Just a small sample, here are Boho and Inishmacsaint:
Boho Parish Church
St Ninnidh's Parish Church, Inishmacsaint

The most surprising part of my day came on the return leg, along the north shore of Lough Erne. Tucked away in the little Irvinestown was something I didn't expect to see. This:
Irvinestown Cross of Sacrifice
A Great War Cross of Sacrifice. I've previously found these in the City Cemetery, Dundonald Cemetery, Carnmoney Cemetery, Milltown Cemetery (!) and in Dundee. They are all the same, commemorating the soldiers who died during the First World War (also known as the Great War). As Graeme has informed me, they were erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in any cemetery with more than forty war graves. There are plenty in Irvinestown, both beside the cross itself, and also around the back of the church.

All the Great War Cross of Sacrifice crosses I had found up to now had been in and around Belfast. There's one in Irvinestown. Any more in out of the way places in the Northern Irish countryside?