Tuesday, November 30, 2010

November 2010 Review

Where does the time go? The last day of November, we're into Advent, and just one month of 2010 left on the calendar. Here's a quick reminder of what's been happening on the blog this month in the 26 posts.

November is the month of remembering - the war dead, and friends.

While I didn't manage to read any books in November, I was still catching up on the book reviews from previous months. There were reviews on The Last Word by Wallace Benn, The Chosen One by Sam Bourne, The Way of the Righteous in the Muck of Life by Dale Ralph Davis, and Religion Saves by Mark Driscoll. I also reviewed the new Soul material from Christianity Explored.

My preaching was from John 8 (audio), Matthew 5 (audio), Mark 13 (audio) and Colossians 3. We also offered some more resources on sexual purity.

Still on a ministry theme, we had a report from NIMA (with the audio from the conference), and thought about the whys and the hows of beginning a sermon website.

In other news, we thought about the BBC, self-control, changing subjects, and updated the twittering clergy of the Church of Ireland.

My favourite post of the month was Under Control? and in the 365 photo challenge, my photo of the month was Snowy Donard:
331/365:2010 Snowy Donard

Changing Subjects

Last night I was listening to one of the All Souls podcasts, and Rico Tice was preaching from Galatians 1. He pointed out that in the gospel, the subject of our life changes.

Paul is writing to these Galatian Christians who have so quickly turned aside from the gospel Paul preached, and have listened to a false gospel that is no gospel - that of legal observance. So Paul points to the way the gospel changed him:

For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me... (Galatians 1:13-16)

Paul was very religious, extremely so - but it was all about himself. Paul was the subject - 'I... I... I...' The good news about Jesus isn't about our achievements, it's simply about what God has done for us and in us:

But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me

Do you see the subject change? No longer I, Paul; now it is he, God. God had set Paul apart before birth to be the apostle to the Gentiles. God had called Paul by his grace. God revealed his Son to Paul.

When we are converted, there's a change of subjects in our life. God is now the subject of our life, our assurance, our peace. Do you need to change subjects?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Church of Ireland Tweeters - November 2010

Following on from last month's experiment to see who the most influential Church of Ireland clergy on Twitter are (according to Twitter Grader), here's an updated list for the end of November 2010. Some new entries, including Bishop Harold Miller, who joined Twitter as he set off to Cambodia with Tear Fund and the Bishops' Appeal. No change in the top two though.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sermon: Colossians 3:1-11 No False Witness

Have you ever noticed that sometimes small things can be very powerful? Just take the mobile phone, for example. Fairly small, and yet incredibly powerful. I hope you won’t, but you could be surfing the internet, checking your emails, receiving texts, looking at Facebook, playing games and a whole lot else - all on something very small. As well as being powerful, though, small things can also be dangerous.

I don’t know if you have flown recently, but if you’re wanting to take liquids onto the plane in your hand luggage, they have to be in clear bottles of 100 ml or less - terrorists having perfected very powerful and dangerous explosives in such small amounts. Small, and dangerous. Or think of a match. There’s the old saying that one tree can produce a thousand matches, but it just takes one match to destroy a thousand trees. Small, and dangerous.

The thing is, though, that each of us have something so very small in proportion to our body, and yet it’s very dangerous. It can get us into lots of trouble. Tonight, we’re going to think about the danger we face, and how the gospel of our Lord Jesus can help us.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour. Tonight we come to the ninth commandment, and we’re confronted again with how we use our words, the danger of the tongue. You see, the Ten Commandments aren’t just a random arbitrary list of things; it’s not that there was some lottery where lots of good suggestions were thrown into a hat and the first ten out became the Ten Commandments.

No, the Ten Commandments were given to the people of Israel by God himself, after the people had been rescued from their slavery in the land of Egypt. God speaks directly to the people, so that they are afraid, and don’t want to hear the voice of God any more - they send Moses up to receive the rest of the Law.

So the Commandments are God’s directions for living, the basis of the whole Law, and they are perfectly designed. Look with me at the Ten Commandments (p 73). The first two (No other gods, no idols) and the last one (no coveting) are about your thoughts; the third (not taking name of Lord in vain) and the ninth (no false witness) are about your words; the fourth (Sabbath) and the sixth (no murder), seventh (no adultery) and eighth (no stealing) are all about your actions; and right in the middle is honouring father and mother.

So just as we saw in the third commandment, that we are not to take the name of the Lord in vain, either by using God’s name in flippant ways or as a swear word; so now we’re challenged again about our use of words. The original context of not bearing false witness seems to be in the court scenario, of not telling lies about your neighbour, but I want to expand that slightly into two related categories: how you speak of your neighbour; and how you speak to your neighbour.

So how do you speak of your neighbour? The commandment immediately takes us to the court setting, where witnesses are required to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. You can imagine the problems that would arise if false witness is given. In fact, you don’t even need to imagine it, because we see it far too often, even to this day. Over in Scotland, a former MSP has been facing perjury charges because he allegedly lied in court during an earlier civil case relating to his private life.

But most of us aren’t in court very often. Does that mean we aren’t affected by this commandment, that we can carry on regardless? Think for a moment - do you speak of your neighbours even when you’re not in court? Do you talk about them to others?

What is it you say? Do you simply report facts, or do you embellish the details, passing on the gossip, or share a matter for prayer?! You see, we can bear false witness in the way we talk about other people even if we’ve never been in court. Did you hear about those people in number 22? Even in the church, gossip can flourish so easily, a dangerous problem of the tongue that James describes as ‘a fire, a world of unrighteousness... setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.’ (James 3:6).

No false witness - we hear the word of God, and yet perhaps we aren’t challenged or troubled as we should be. You see, if we’re good with words, we’re likely to try to minimise our own faults and sins while maximising someone else’s. We downgrade our own lies, by rebranding them as fibs, or white lies, and sure, doesn’t everybody do it!

Why is it we lie? It might be self-preservation (to make life easier for yourself if you’re asked a difficult question, or are afraid to tell the truth); or self-interest (to make someone else look bad and to make yourself look good; or self-deception (as you make yourself believe that the lie is actually the truth). Our lies are mostly self-serving, centred on yourself, which is the very definition of sin. We try to bend or break the truth for our own interests and desires. It’s perhaps becoming even more of an issue in these postmodern days, when capital T truth is denied, and everyone has their own truths; their own version of events which is right for them.

Yet it’s clear that there is such a thing as capital T truth - the Lord Jesus was full of grace and truth, indeed more than that, he is the truth. In the face of truth, all of us are found to be liars.

Our reading from Colossians will, I trust, help us to not only speak of our neighbour, but also to our neighbour as well. And with the tongue, as with every other part of our life, it all comes back to who we are, and what God has done for us. Throughout Colossians 3, there are a couple of contrasts going on, and grasping these will help us to see how we should use our tongues as Christians.

The first contrast is between the things that are above (1) and the things that are on earth (2). Those earthly things are spelled out in verse 5 - the variety of sins and wickedness, such as sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire and covetousness. But Paul is saying that rather than setting your heart and your mind on these things, we have to put them to death. Instead, we set our minds on the things that are above, heavenly, good, Christlike.

Paul says that we are in Christ, that Christ is in heaven, so in a sense, we’re already in heaven, so it’s not fitting to continue to live as if we were sinful on earth. We are in Christ because we are united with Christ, have put our trust in him, believed in him, and through faith, have forgiveness of our sins.

But more than that, and this brings us to the other big contrast, we are so changed that we can talk of our old self and our new self. Look at verse 9, and we’ll see how Paul addresses both this theme of the new self replacing the old self, and also our very theme of not lying: ‘Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.’ (3:9-10)

Do you see what Paul is saying? The reason we don’t lie as Christians is because our old self, the way we were before we were converted and made new, all that has been put off. It’s like an old, worn, filthy, horrible jumper. You’ve taken it off and thrown it away. Instead, you’ve put on a new, clean jumper. It’s the new you, the new creation, so that it’s no longer appropriate or right for you to lie to those around you.

I’m not sure if you’ve heard or not, but there’s going to be a Royal Wedding next year - actually, on my birthday, but that’s another story. At the minute, Kate Middleton is just Kate, but following the wedding, she’ll be Princess Kate (or will it be Princess Katherine?). She’ll be part of the Royal Family, the wife of our future King, and so things will be expected of her. Life will completely change for her.

In a similar way, we have been changed, given a new self, and so we’re called to live up to our new self. We’re not the finished article - we’re still ‘being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator’. Renewed in knowledge - becoming more like Jesus as we come to know Jesus better, turning away from those earthly desires, living like a citizen of heaven, looking to heaven, from where Jesus will appear so that we appear with him in glory.

Think of the ways you use your tongue. The words that you say to others, and about others. Are you speaking the truth? The rest of Colossians 3 gives us some positive examples of how to avoid lying, to speak truth, and to be positive in our words.

Forgiving (13), being thankful (15), teaching and admonishing one another the word of Christ (16), singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (16), praising God, all of which leads to that great summary statement in verse 17: ‘And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.’

Let’s pause for a moment or two, considering the ways in which we use our words, confessing those times we have failed to speak the truth, and resolving to turn, and speak the truth in the name of the Lord Jesus.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church on Sunday 28th November 2010.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Book Review: Religion Saves

Religion Saves and Nine Other Misconceptions is one of the books from Mark Driscoll's pen, which is a straight sermon-to-book set-up. It's a series that Driscoll preached a while back, having established an elaborate voting system on the church website to find the most popular questions being asked by those coming along on Sundays.

The pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle is becoming increasingly well known, having recently preached at Mandate in Belfast, and is one of those controversial people, whom some love and of whom some aren't as fond. Let's be honest, I'm not really a fan of Driscoll, with some major objections to the way things seem to be done in his church, but as many of our young people are reading and listening to Driscoll, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

There are things to commend Driscoll - his passion for Jesus shines through, as well as his commitment to the gospel as revealed in the Bible. He's also seeking to communicate that gospel to his generation in the least churched city in America. These are good things, and yet there are some issues I have with this book, and in particular his style of communication.

First of all, his title seems a bit harsh. To instantly label the genuine questions being asked as misconceptions may not be the best way to approach and answer those questions! The themes themselves include birth control, humour, predestination, grace, sexual sin, faith and works, dating, the emerging church, and the regulative principle (which I had never heard of before!).

As I've said, some of our young people are reading Driscoll, and I'm not sure it's always appropriate reading. He can be quite (unneccesarily) explicit sometimes, in his description of sexual acts, and particularly in claiming that these are mandated in Scripture, in the Song of Solomon / Song of Songs. (On a side issue, in the past few years, he has preached through Song of Songs twice, which is an unusual overemphasis for any church, I would think).

Again, later, he's fairly rough when speaking of 'the Pharisees. Jesus called them a bag of snakes and said that their moms had shagged the Devil.' He's referring there to John 8:44, which actually says 'You are of your father the devil' - where Jesus is saying that these people were not from God, but were on the devil's side - not that their mothers had had illicit sexual relations! Is it that he sometimes loses the run of himself and goes for the controversial line to make it stand out, or does he just not realise what he's actually saying?

Perhaps the biggest frustration I had with the book was that, despite each sermon/chapter being set out to answer a genuine question from someone in his congregation, he rarely actually answered or engaged with the question! In some chapters they could stand quite separate from the question they were supposed to be answering, with no attempt to engage with what had been asked at all.

An example is the chapter on faith and works. The original question was: If salvation is by faith alone, then why are there so many verses that say or imply the opposite - that salvation is by works? Yet he never actually tackles the question, suggesting what those verses may be, and what they actually say in context, or how they may appear to speak of works judgement; or how the judgement of our works fits into the grand scheme of the gospel. Instead, he focused only on regeneration - great stuff, for sure, but not really what the question was concerned with.

Similarly on the emerging church, and specifically what the traditional church can learn from emerging churches, he never really answers the question, but goes on a rant against the way out emergents. All in all, a better approach on this particular subject will be found in Don Carson's Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church.

I'm not sure I would recommend this book - perhaps it's a style issue, but there are substantial issues too, I think. The same topics and themes are probably handled better by other authors, in a more gracious way, with less offense caused. Plus, all the audio transcripts of the book (in the original sermon format) are available to download from the Mars Hill website!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Under Control?

The debate is hot and heavy; whether the Black Eyed Peas have ruined a classic song through their remixing and updating. Their new release, last week 'The Time (Dirty Bit)' uses the chorus of '(I've Had) The Time of My Life', the finale song from 1987 movie Dirty Dancing.

Yesterday I got in the car and missed the opening section, so didn't realise it was that song. Will.I.Am was rapping, and it was then that I heard this line, which set me thinking about how a Christian is to be counter-cultural in the realm of control.

So come on, let’s go
Let’s lose control
Let’s do it all night

The way to have a good time, it seems, is to lose control, to let go of yourself. As I considered it for a moment or two, I realised that the Black Eyed Peas are not the only ones in today's culture promoting this message.

Eminem urges us to 'Just Lose It', while Beyonce's new song declares that 'we only find ourselves by losing all control', and The Saturdays are 'gonna lose control tonight.' The message is clear, to have fun you have to lose control, and go wild.

It's not surprising, then, that we find the counter-cultural message of Christianity loud and clear on this very point. It's right there in the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5: 'the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.'

I was reminded of this important element of the Christian life through the teaching of Vaughan Roberts from Paul's letter to Titus at NIMA this week. Self-control is mentioned a number of times as one of the signs of godliness which comes about through the grace of the gospel.

It's one of the qualifications for the elders / overseers (church leaders) (1:8); it's required of older men (2:2), young women (2:5), younger men (2:6), and is implicit in the behaviour of the older women too (so that you don't feel left out!). Why the repeated emphasis on self-control? Why is it so very important as to be mentioned time and again?

For Paul, the grace of the gospel brings about conversion and change in the lives of those who hear and repent. Grace must lead to godliness, so that previous ungodly desires, passions and pleasures are removed and godly desires and works are produced, as we become more like Jesus. It's most clear in one of the three summaries of the gospel within Titus:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14)

In contrast to the world around us, we no longer have to lose control to feel good; we no longer have to go wild in order to be free. The God whose service is perfect freedom releases us to live self-controlled lives, testifying to the power of the gospel to change us and make us more like Jesus. We become self-controlled not because we are repressed, or because we're strict legalists, or because we're hypocrites, but because the grace of God changes our passions, pleasures, affections and desires.

To be self-controlled is to shine out like a light in the dark sky in this world, where the culture urges no forms of control at all. In doing so, we shine for the glory of God, as a testimony to his grace and goodness.

Friday, November 19, 2010

NIMA Audio Available

I've just seen on Peter Whyte's website that the 2010 NIMA audio from Bryan Chapell and Vaughan Roberts is available now. Well worth downloading and listening.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Book Review: The Way of the Righteous in the Muck of Life

Dale Ralph Davis is probably best known as the Old Testament scholar who has written some excellent commentaries on Judges, 1&2 Samuel, and 1&2 Kings. The latest book from his pen continues in the Old Testament, but from a slightly different angle - the preacher rather than the commentator.

The Way of the Righteous in the Muck of Life is a slim volume comprising twelve sermons Davis preached on the first twelve Psalms. At the start of each chapter, he provides his own translation of the psalm in question, highlighting the structure, key words and emphases. Then it's straight into the sermon on each psalm.

These sermons, indeed the book that has come from the sermons, is an excellent example of expository preaching at its best. The way into each is interesting and grabs the attention quickly; there are great illustrations and stories woven through helping to communicate the points being expounded; the application is relevant and grounded to connect with the original hearer and the reader.

As is Davis' aim in all his writing, God is made great as the text of Scripture speaks for itself. As he does this, Davis employs some great turns of phrase:

On Psalm 3: 'The very God, who, his enemies say, wants nothing to do with him, is the One to whom he cries.'

On Psalm 4: 'Biblical prayer seems to ponder God a good deal more than we are prone to do.'

On Psalm 6: 'Pushing ourselves to bring reasons for our requests may help us see how shoddy some of our petitions are - or it may encourage us if we seem to muster a cogent case.'

On Psalm 8: 'What seems inconsequential has overwhelmed what is mighty.'

Again: 'When David asks "what is man?" in verse 4 he is not cynical; he doesn't ask it with a curled lip; he asks it in wonder.'

On Psalm 10: 'Faith is perplexed and yet goes on pleading.'

On Psalm 11, and God hating the wicked and violent: 'The God of the Bible is not a formless blob of celestial protoplasm, not some sort of cosmic jello with a sickly smile. He has a nature, a character, positive and negative.'

These are only really a taster of the whole book as it explains and applies Psalms 1-12. You may like to use this book over twelve days, taking a psalm every day, because the chapters are short enough to read at the start or end of your day; or even take each psalm over a week and use this as your guide every Sunday as you begin a new psalm to pray through that week.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Grace for Godliness

It's always strange when Wednesday is your Monday - the week is shorter, but there's still the same work to be done. My week began today because the past two days were spent at the Northern Ireland Ministry Assembly (NIMA), in Lisburn.

An excellent couple of days of Bible teaching and practical training for preachers and teachers, with Bryan Chapell and Vaughan Roberts. Vaughan Roberts taught four sessions from Paul's letter to Titus, looking at The Preacher in God's Plan; The Preacher and the Gospel; The Preacher and Godliness; The Preacher and False Teaching, with the letter being thoroughly expounded and applied to the situation of preachers and teachers in the church in the twenty-first century.

Bryan Chapell was taking the more practical sessions, helping us to think carefully about application when preaching. It's probably the area of preaching that I struggle most with, so the sessions were really helpful in urging us to give more thought to the what, where, why and how of application. So as we apply the truth of Scripture, the message of the passage, the 'what' comes directly from our exegesis, but to ground it and make it connect more clearly with our congregation, we need to apply it in the where as well - in the particular situation a truth may be particularly precious; as well as helping people to connect our application with the grace of God.

This was the thing that came out very clearly from both Bryan and Vaughan's sessions - the grace is the fuel for godliness. There's no doubt that we want our congregations to be growing in godliness and abounding in doing good, but how do we call them to do this?

Moral urging either leads to pride (if we think we're achieving it all by ourself) or despair (as we realise we can't actually live to please God); it is only grace that leads to godliness - as a grateful response to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, so that the gospel rescues us and helps us to live godly lives of hope. Neither do we narrow grace to either licence (insisting that God will forgive us anyway), or legalism, but true, full, whole, wonderful, amazing grace which empowers us and assures us of God's verdict towards us.

Great teaching, but the conference also gives the opportunity to meet up with a range of 'ecumenical' colleagues in gospel ministry from Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, RP and other backgrounds; with the encouragement that comes from seeing that you're not alone in the Lord's work. It was good to meet up with friends I hadn't seen in a while and hear how they're getting on in new ministry situations, as well as meet new friends. As always, the bookstall was provided by John Grier from The Evangelical Bookshop in College Square, which was well worth a visit!

Next on the NIMA calendar is the preaching conference in January, but in due course the audio from the sessions will be available over at the NIMA website, so if you didn't make it, listen in and benefit from the good teaching!

Sermon Audio: Mark 13: 1-13

On Sunday morning past I was preaching from Mark 13 on the signs of the end, and how The End Is Not Yet. Here's how it sounded.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sermon: Mark 13: 1-13 Signs of the End

Where were you when the Twin Towers fell? The events of 9/11 were so devastating, with worldwide coverage, that most people can remember what they were doing when they heard what had happened in New York. The World Trade Centre was so impressive, 110 storeys high, that it was the symbol of America. Think of all the movies set in New York - the Twin Towers always featured in some way - an aerial shot, or standing tall in the background.

But imagine if someone had been in New York the day before and declared that they would be destroyed the next day? It would have been so unthinkable, so shocking - until it happened! It’s something like that in our reading this morning. We’re in the last week of Jesus’ life before he is crucified, and these chapters are set in Jerusalem - teaching in the temple, cleansing the temple, conflict in the temple with the religious authorities.

As Jesus and his disciples leave the temple, one of them remarks on the grandeur of the impressive temple. ‘Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!’ Just like our 9/11 person, Jesus turns round and says that the temple will be destroyed: ‘Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’ This is shocking stuff! At this point, the temple is still being rebuilt after being destroyed by the Babylonians 500 years before; King Herod had sponsored the building work, but it had already taken 46 years, and wasn’t finished!

It’s such a shock that four of Jesus’ disciples come to him privately as they sit on the Mount of Olives, looking across the valley at the temple, and ask him when all this will happen, and what signs will show it’s about to happen. Jesus replies in what is now our Mark chapter 13, but it quickly emerges that Jesus is speaking about two connected but distinct things. At some points, Jesus is answering their question, and speaking of the destruction of the temple (see v14-23 e.g. those in Judea flee to the mountains); but then Jesus is also speaking of a later event, the return of the Son of Man (himself!) coming in clouds with great power and glory (see v24-27).

The two are connected - the destruction of the temple is the judgement on the people of Israel at this point in history; which then points towards the judgement of all people at the second coming of the Lord Jesus.

If we get our heads round this twin theme of temple destruction and the end of the world; it’s much easier to understand what Jesus is saying. We just need to keep in focus which of the two Jesus is addressing at each point. So in the verses we’re looking at today, the end of the world is in focus - the signs that the end is coming; and there are some terrible things promised - wars, rumours of war, famine, earthquake, arrest, persecution, family break ups. It really doesn’t sound pleasant, and yet as we look around us, it’s the world we’re living in.

The signs of the end of the world and the return of the Lord Jesus are happening all around us. You just have to turn on the TV - famine in various places; earthquakes in Chile trapping miners; and on this Remembrance Sunday we are all too aware of nation rising against nation. We can know that Jesus’ teaching here is reliable, because we can see these things happening around us - and we can look back to AD70 when the temple was destroyed!

So what can we do? What should we do as we realise that the end is near? Jesus tells his disciples (and therefore us, who are still in this end times period) in these verses two main things: 1. Don’t be led astray; 2. Be on your guard.

It’s an uncertain time when wars are being fought, with the world in turmoil, with uncertainty across the world. We look around for answers, for leadership, for someone to explain what it’s all about and sort out all the problems. Jesus says that in this very situation, ‘many will come in my name, saying ‘I am he’ and they will lead many astray.’ These false teachers, false christs even, will try to exploit the situation, claiming to speak for God, but lead people off to follow themselves.

Jesus says clearly: ‘See that no one leads you astray.’ Don’t be swerved from obeying Jesus’ words and following someone else - even if they come looking the part, even in clerical collars or bishop’s robes! [It’s why we preach with Bibles open - so that you can be certain that what we are saying is what God is saying - so that we’re not leading you astray by making things up]

Don’t be led astray, as if these things shouldn’t be happening at all. War, famine, earthquake - all unpleasant things, and yet Jesus says ‘nation will rise... there will be...’ (v8) No matter how much we try to prevent them, or think we can make everything good here and now, we’re always going to see war because of the abundance of sin; we’re always going to have famine and earthquake. Just as Paul says in Romans 8, so Jesus says that these natural signs and wonders are just the beginning of the birth pains. I hope Susanna doesn’t mind we mentioning her, but the birth pains came long before baby Lois was born.

This world will be filled with difficult situations, war, famine, earthquake, tsunami, poverty, disease, storms, but they are birth pains - we can’t solve these things here and now, but when Jesus returns, poverty will cease, hunger will be no more, ‘and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation.’

Don’t be led astray by false promises or false teaching. Are you holding fast to what God has said? Or are you listening to all other sorts of voices? Don’t be led astray. Jesus also says to us: Be on your guard.

As if the situation isn’t bad enough with all these wars going on; Jesus teaches that his followers are going to face all kinds of extra difficulties and pressures. It’s not what we expect to hear, is it? We expect that if you become a Christian, everything is going to be easy, blue skies every day on your way to heaven. Jesus says that being a Christian is hard, with these extra problems coming your way. [By the way, that’s a sign of teaching what Jesus teaches - presenting cross-shaped living, rather than ‘Your Best Life Now’ as one American prosperity teacher claims]

Look at verse 9. Jesus’ disciples will be arrested, brought before councils (courts), beaten in synagogues (religious centres), and stand before governors and kings for the sake of Jesus. Fast forward about 15 years, and that’s exactly what happened with the Apostle Paul. It seems that no matter where he went, he was arrested, or beaten, or on trial. Once again, Jesus’ words are reliable. But we read these things and think, surely that doesn’t happen today.

Across the world, Christians continue to face opposition, trials, and even execution because they are Christians. And even in this country, it seems that the secular agenda is pushing forward, limiting and restricting Christians. It may not be long before some of us could be arrested for preaching the Bible because it is so offensive to our sinful modern agenda.

Verse 12 shows us more pain on the way - the break up of families, precisely because some are Christians and some are not - brother will deliver brother over to death, and even parents and children. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. It’s a fairly bleak picture, isn’t it? This is what being a follower of Jesus is like in these last days - ever since the cross and resurrection.

And yet, even as Jesus warns us to be on our guard, he gives us encouragement and hope to continue, to go on being a Christian no matter how difficult it may be. Look again at verse 9. Arrest, beatings, and appearing before kings. Why will these things happen? ‘to bear witness before them. And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations.’ These difficult situations are the very means God has decided to use to spread the gospel, the good news about the Lord Jesus.

Think again about Paul for a moment. Arrested in Jerusalem, he appears before the Roman tribune, Claudius Lysias; then governor Felix in Caeserea, governor Festus and King Agrippa, before landing in Rome under house arrest where all the soldiers guarding him hear the gospel so that Paul can write to the Philippians: ‘All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.’ (Phil 4:22) Right under the nose of the hostile emperor, some of those in his house are Christians, and all because Paul has been arrested!

It’s the gospel that gives us hope and peace in the midst of these persecutions - the good news that Jesus Christ has died for our sins, that we are reconciled with God, and that one day Jesus will return and we will be with him forever in the new heavens and new earth.

God gives us help to live and speak for him - even when on trial - the Holy Spirit is promised to help us to speak out for Jesus. And look to the very last verse of our passage for even more grace and hope: ‘And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.’ It doesn’t matter (at the end of the day) what other people think about us - even if they hate us. The pressure is there to turn away from the gospel, but Jesus urges us to not be led astray, and to be on your guard, so that you endure right to the end, and are saved.

Where are you today? Are you wavering, or holding firm to what Jesus says? Are you keeping going for Jesus, no matter what pressure you’re facing? In John’s Gospel, some of the crowd have stopped following Jesus, and Jesus asks the disciples - what about you, do you want to go away as well? Peter’s answer is perfect for our passage this morning: ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ (John 6:68)

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 14th November 2010.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Sermon Website: How To

I'd been asked by a colleague how to set up and run a sermon website blog, and had written up some helpful pointers. Here they are, with the links embedded as they might be useful for a wider audience.

Setting Up The Website

Recommended to use Blogger for a free blog, which is easy to set up and maintain. It can be set up with a Google email address. You will be asked to pick your web address - for example, www.[YOURCHURCH].blogspot.com

We use Fileden for free online storage, although there are probably other sites doing a similar sort of thing. A free account will give you 1GB of storage, which is probably about 100 sermons (depending on length!). Easy sign up (and ignore the ads as you sign in).

In Blogger, the standard way we publish is (using the ‘Edit HTML’ section rather than the ‘Compose’ system):

TITLE: “Sermon Audio: PASSAGE x:x-x”

BODY: ‘Sunday Xth X 2010
Preacher: X X


-In blogger, the main body as it appears can be saved automatically as above so that you just have to slot in the information each time rather than remembering the link html details! You can do this in ‘Settings > Formatting > Post Template’ - copy the above in, and it will automatically appear each time you begin a new post. The Capitalised information just needs to be altered (see below)

Getting The Audio

Getting the sermon from CD to mp3 is fairly straightforward. On the Mac, Garageband is the program to use; for Windows, Microsoft Movie Maker will produce .wma files, which can be easily converted to mp3 format using a free converter downloaded from the internet (Google wma to mp3); or the free program from Audacity with the mp3 converter LAME also available from their site

A couple of minutes will edit the audio track from the cd, removing the rest of the service and leaving the Bible reading and sermon, or sermon only. Export to mp3 format and save on your computer

Uploading the mp3

Upload the mp3 file from your computer to FileDen. When it has uploaded, go to the Files pages on FileDen; right click on the sermon you want and then click on ‘Properties’; click on ‘Linking Codes: URL’ and copy this.

In your blog composer, click on new blog post and paste the URL code for the sermon (from FileDen) where it says MP3_URL (leaving the quotation marks in the html code - without these, it won’t work!).

Format the TITLE and DATE and PREACHER sections.

In Blogger, it’s also possible to add tags (at the bottom of the composer), which will make your website easier to search - we normally use standard tags such as Bible, Exposition, Expository preaching, Preaching, Sermon, Sermon Audio, as well as the Bible book and the preacher’s name - that way if someone is looking for more sermons from John, they can easily get them all etc.

Monitoring the Website

As an additional extra, you may wish to check how many people are visiting the website - Blogger provide stats information; another one that we use is Statcounter. They provide a small section of html code which you copy and paste into the blog (they give instructions on it), and then they collate the visitor information reliably.

To see a sermon website which is currently working by using the above, check out St Elizabeth's Sermons.

I'm aware this guide might be stating the obvious for some computer folks, but if you're new to the game and wanting to begin, I hope it's helpful. Get in touch if you need some more help, or leave a link for your new site in the comments box below!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sermon Website: Why?

Over the past couple of years we've been publishing our sermons online at St Elizabeth's. Recently I was talking to a colleague who was asking how it works, and what needs to be done to set up a sermons website. I've prepared a paper which I'll publish here tomorrow on the how, but I thought it would be useful to consider the 'why' question first of all.

Using Emerging Technology

In days gone by, some churches had a 'tape ministry.' The services were recorded on cassette tapes which were then made available for loan, or distributed around the housebound members of the congregation. Most churches with this sort of ministry have now moved on to CD ministry, with CDs (or even DVDs) replacing cassette tapes. the sermon website is the next logical step, using the technology of the internet and mp3 players to spread the word.

Ministry to Church Members

The ministry potential and benefits of a sermon website are huge. Sitting alongside the CD ministry, the sermon website can help the housebound still be part of the worshipping community, and being fed the same family meal that the congregation have heard on Sunday.

It can also serve as a catch-up service, so that if you're preaching through a series and someone is away on holiday or working, they can stream or download the sermon and not miss out through their absence. Similarly, if they heard the sermon but want to listen to it again to think about a particular point, it's available for them to return and listen again.

Perhaps at the end of a series, church members will want to listen to the whole series again over the course of a week, to get the big picture of the Bible book or section. It's easy to do this.

Listening can be done at a time and place that suits the church member. Whether it's in the car on the way to work; while jogging; while up with a baby at 3am; sermons are available at any time.

Minstry to the World

The internet is a public place, with opportunities to reach a wider audience, even more people than could fit into the church building on a Sunday morning.

There's a potential for those moving into the area to see and hear what a church is like, even before they come along on a Sunday, by sampling the recent teaching.

Many people are searching on the internet for good Bible teaching resources and sermons, with good levels of traffic for downloads of sermon mp3s. It's very random, but there's a good potential to reach people with the gospel in this way.

Missionaries and those travelling can still benefit from the Bible teaching at home, even when they're separated from their home church.

The possibilities are endless in the global village, and it's important for Christians to be out there on the internet, using it for good and the gospel. However, it's also important to urge that the sermon mp3 should not be the only form of teaching or fellowship an individual should be receiving. It is good to benefit from the Bible teaching made available on the internet, but it doesn't replace being involved in a local church fellowship and congregation. Internet sermons are a good supplemental to the diet of Bible teaching found in the local church, but a poor solitary diet.

Tomorrow we'll think about how to actually get on the internet with a sermon website.

We Will Remember Them

060/365:2010 Unfaded Memories

While the poppy crosses fade away, our memories must never fade. Remembrance is an essential element of the human experience. Today, and on Sunday, we particularly remember the dead of two world wars, as well as those who have died in many other conflicts across the world. We especially remember those who have given their lives in this province to protect the whole community.

Remembrance is at the heart of the Christian faith. We remember the greatest sacrifice of all, as the Lord Jesus Christ hung on the cross at Golgotha, dying that we might live.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. - Jesus (John 15:12-14)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Book Review: The Chosen One *Spoiler Alert*

In the past, I've enjoyed the modern religio-political or politco-religious novels from the pen of Sam Bourne (Jonathan Freedland). In each, some conspiracy was unearthed, with a powerful secret leading to a thrilling chase against some form of terrorism or terror about to be unleashed on the world. The Righteous Men, The Final Reckoning and The Last Testament were all great books.

So when I was picking my holiday reading, I had to include Bourne's latest volume, The Chosen One. In it, we revisit a previous character who now becomes the main protagonist in this volume, so that was a nice weaving together of the stories. Maggie Costello is working for the new President, Stephen Baker and things are coming together to work for change. But then, suddenly, things spiral out of control when various revelations are made concerning Baker, and the President looks to be in danger.

Costello is thrown into investigative mode, hunting down those who are threatening the President, as well as those who are threatening the threatener! It's an action-packed thriller combination of the West Wing and 24. It's a better version of the Dan Brown type story, with high level political intrigue, a series of killings, some foul language, and some adult scenes.

The action continues throughout, with lots of twists and lots of subplots to think about before the climax of the book. I did enjoy it, although there were unresolved questions at the end - including how the Islamic sub-plot fitted in and how it related to the main conspiracy of the rich guys and their political grooming.

While it's a good enough book, I don't think it was Bourne's best story - perhaps the pressures of publishing another bestseller meant that the story wasn't fully formulated and resolved. If you like Dan Brown, you'll prefer Bourne's other stories - get into them before trying this one.

Sermon Audio: Matthew 5: 27-32

On Sunday night we were continuing our series in the Ten Commandments, and it fell to me to preach on Ten Commandments: No Adultery. Here's how it sounded.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Sexual Purity: Resources

Following on from last night's sermon on adultery (of the body and of the heart), I thought it might be useful to compile some links to good resources on the issue if you're particularly struggling in this area. As well as highlighting some good free stuff available on the internet, it also means that if you want to buy a book, you can do so over the internet rather than being embarrassed buying it from your church bookstall or local Christian bookshop.

Internet Resources

Tim Challies, the well-known Christian blogger, compiled a series of blog articles on getting out of porn, now also available as an E-Book called Sexual Detox.

Mark Driscoll has an E-Book called Porn Again Christian.

There's also the great website xxxchurch exposing and preventing porn, as well as providing accountability software and support for those trying to quit.


Tim Chester's book is excellent on the issue of porn: Captured by a Better Vision. (Reviewed here).

Arterburn and Stoeker have a number of books out, including Every Man's Battle and for single guys Every Young Man's Battle.

If you know of other good resources, mention them in the comments and we'll include them in updates of this page.

Sermon: Matthew 5: 27-32 No Adultery

To misquote the old Wet Wet Wet song, adultery is all around. You only have to turn on the television, read a newspaper, or maybe even watch your neighbours. Adultery is all around. Whether it’s reports of the latest celebrity marriage going down the pan (most recently, Wayne Rooney and his wife Colleen), or your favourite soap stars who seem to be playing musical beds, you just can’t get away from it.

As we come to the seventh commandment, we read the five words: ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ Those words are plain and clear, but in order to hear their full force, first we need to take a step back to consider the context. To think about adultery and unfaithfulness, first, we should remind ourselves of God’s good gift of sex within marriage.

We go right back to Genesis 2, where those familiar words from the marriage service are found. ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.’ (Gen 2:24). This is the pattern of God’s good gift: one man, one woman in covenant faithfulness, the right and proper place for intimacy and the enjoyment of sex. It’s important to remind ourselves of this, because often Christians can appear to be anti-sex. Nothing could be further from the truth. We must affirm what God has affirmed, that sex is good, in its proper context of marriage.

So it’s no surprise, then, when we come to Mount Sinai, after the children of Israel have been rescued from Egypt, and God is giving them the law, the ten commandments, that we find no adultery as one of the ten. our duty to our neighbour includes not committing adultery.

What is adultery? Simply put, it is to have sex with someone who is not your husband or wife. To deny the marriage vow, and to rip apart what God has joined together. The law is a reflection of God’s character, and so, just as God keeps his promise, keeps his covenant, he calls us to do the same. To be faithful in our covenant promises to our husband or wife (which is why Jesus prohibits divorce except in particular circumstances in verse 31 - the marriage commitment is for life, not just while it suits us, unless our partner has broken it already).

Why does God need to include it in the ten? Because, just as with all God’s good gifts to us, we are quick to exploit and abuse his gift of sex. While most people think that sexual immorality only came about through the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s, ever since sin entered the world sex has been twisted by sin. Tonight we’re going to think about two particular ways in which God’s good gift has been destroyed - through the adultery of the body; and adultery of the heart. Then we’ll briefly think about how to enjoy God’s good gift.

In verse 27, we find the first way God’s good gift is destroyed - the adultery of the body. Here, Jesus quotes the seventh commandment, and you can imagine the pious self-righteous Pharisees puffing themselves up, thinking to themselves ‘I’ve never done that...’ Perhaps we can think the same - that’s another one off the list, check.

Is this commandment just an opportunity for us to look down on others? Are we a step nearer heaven if we avoid sexual relations with someone who isn’t our husband or wife? Can we breathe easy and concentrate on trying to keep the next commandment (and snooze during the rest of the sermon)?

We will all agree (hopefully!) that adultery is wrong, but before we go congratulating ourselves on being perfect in this regard, we need to hear Jesus as he continues to speak. As we’ve seen with some of the other commandments, Jesus moves from the outward conformity to the inner attitude. And it’s here that we find the second way God’s good gift is destroyed - by adultery of the heart.

‘You have heard that it was said... But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’ Now, ladies, just because Jesus addresses men here doesn’t mean that you’re off the hook. The same principle applies for you as well.

Suddenly we move from congratulation to conviction. Adultery in the heart is still adultery. It may be unseen by anyone else, with no dangerous deeds and illicit liaisons risking being caught, but adultery in the heart is still adultery. So those ‘at least I didn’t...’ just don’t count.

Sometimes when I’m driving, I’ll have Radio Ulster on, and if it’s early afternoon, I’ll realise that I’ve got Hugo Duncan on, and swiftly turn over! But a few weeks back I left it on, and heard the following lyrics: ‘I can say I’ve never been unfaithful, but I can’t say it’s never crossed my mind.’ I don’t know who was singing, but those words immediately stuck with me - it’s precisely what Jesus is saying about adultery of the heart. Adultery in the heart is still adultery. Adultery in the mind is still adultery.

Or if Hugo Duncan isn’t your generation, what about Jason Derulo? One of his first songs said this: ‘In my head I see you all over me, in my head you fulfil my fantasy...’ and so on. Adultery, sex outside of the marriage commitment, in the head is still adultery.

So what is it that you think of? Or perhaps to phrase it more directly, who is it that you think of? They may be someone you know, or they may be a celebrity. Are you committing adultery in your heart, by unfaithfulness to your marriage partner; or if you’re not married, by unfaithfulness to your future husband or wife, or by unfaithfulness to your current single state of chastity.

But you may have noticed that Jesus went even further than just the heart - by specifically mentioning the eyes. ‘I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent...’ Jesus seems to be saying that adultery in the heart begins with this lustful look.

Remember King David’s affair with Bathsheba? How did it begin? ‘It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. And David sent and inquired about the woman... So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her.’ (2 Sam 11:2-4). David saw (with lustful intent) and then sent for her.

Looking with lust is adultery in the heart. Yet you don’t have to exist for very long before you realise that our society is obsessed with sex, and with providing and promoting material for the eyes. The advertisers know that sex sells, everything from fast cars to potato crisps (recent ads in Belfast); so-called Mens Magazines are full of scantily clad (if even), airbrushed models in more graphic poses than extreme pornographic publications from twenty years ago are on sale in newsagents and supermarkets in plain view of children and anyone else. Tim Chester, in his very helpful book ‘Captured by a Better Vision’ talks about the pornified culture. Then there’s the unnecessary sex scenes in a wide range of movies and TV programmes, both after the watershed and before; and porn is just a mouse click away on the internet. Millions of images and opportunities for lustful thoughts. And that’s not to mention the people we know, work with, go to school with, or pass on the street.

Jesus is not saying that men should not look at women at all - or that women should cover up in a burkha like Muslim women. As John Stott says, we all know the difference between looking and lusting. And because we know the difference, we recognise the sin in our life. Conviction, rather than congratulation. Adultery in the heart is still adultery.

So what can we do about it? Jesus proposes a radical remedy, which sounds shocking. ‘If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell...’ Your eye and your hand - if they’re the cause of sin, get rid of them.

Jesus is not demanding to be taken literally here - after all, to remove your right eye will still leave your left for lustful looks, and even if both eyes are removed, you can still lust in your heart... Rather, he is saying that we need to be firm with sin in our life. It’s mortification, not mutilation that Jesus is teaching. Tough on sin, tough on the causes of sin. So if you use your eyes to glimpse the magazine covers in the newsagents, act as if you were blind and look away at something else. Avoid them completely! If you hand is clicking on those websites, then stop clicking there! Cut it right out of your life. Don’t play with temptation; don’t toy with sin - you’re more vulnerable and weak than you imagine.

As Job says, ‘I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin.?’ (Job 31:1) If you’re struggling with this, make that covenant with your eyes. Stop looking lustfully - for the sake of your marriage, and for your own sake! Get help - ask a Christian friend to ask those difficult questions; to come alongside and help you through. Get Tim Chester’s book and resolve to change, and do it!

There’s one last thing to say, and this is a very important thing to say. Sometimes the church can appear to suggest that the worst type of sin is sexual sin, as if there’s a league table of respectable sins and notorious sins. The truth is that all of us are sinners, and all of us need to know that the Gospel is a message of grace. Christ Jesus came into the world to do what? To save sinners. It’s not that Jesus died for every other type of sin apart from sexual sin. So whether it’s the obvious adultery plain to all, or the hidden but still sinful adultery of the heart, the good news is that Jesus died for your sin. No sin is too bad to be forgiven.

Turn with me to 1 Corinthians 6:9. Paul is writing to the church in Corinth which was in a mess. All sorts of immorality and quarrelling; in a city with all sorts of immorality going on. If you’ve been convicted tonight, then you might find yourself in this list:

‘Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. BUT you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.’ (1 Cor 6:9-11)

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 7th November 2010 in a series on the Ten Commandments.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

I Got Soul (But I'm Not A Soldier)

Every so often, The Good Book Company send some resources to be used and reviewed. My most recent review request came for the brand new edition of the Christianity Explored Youth resource CY and Soul. Straight away, let me say that this is a brilliant resource, and well worth getting and using with your church youth group.

CY has been around for a few years, but over the past year, it was revised and rewritten with feedback from youthworkers on the coal face. The result is that CY is an even better resource than before, and looks the better for it.

Within the leaders' handbook, there is a good, well informed and well thought through section on holding a CY course, as well as the information needed to run a CY Nano (11-14s) or CY (15+) course. There are more games, more ideas, and more help for leading the discussion groups following the talks. The sessions, as in the main Christianity Explored course, work through Mark's Gospel, taking a particular theme each week, with the cross at the very heart of the course.

The participant's handbook has also been revised, linking in to the new presentation of the material in a useful and relevant way. However, the most exciting element of the new CY has to be the Soul DVD.

Each of the seven sessions have a 12-14 minute video clip which is well presented, well edited, and will keep the interest of young people, churched or unchurched. Filmed in a variety of locations, the sets are great, helping to illustrate what is being said - not distracting at all. There's even some manga style cartoons in some of the sessions illustrating stories being told.

In each of the sessions (Christianity is Christ, Identity, Mission, Cross, Resurrection, Grace, Call), Nate Morgan Locke presents the theme, with plenty of Bible verses included and shown on screen. The narration is clear, concise and compelling. So good, in fact, I would even be tempted to use the video with adults as well as youth groups!

Even if you've used CY in the past, you really should be getting the new version, and especially the Soul DVD. CY resources can be bought from The Good Book Company website, including a sample pack (£25); Soul DVD (£20); Leader's Guide (£10); and handbooks for CY and CY Nano (£3 each).

Friday, November 05, 2010

Sermon Audio: John 8: 31-47

On Sunday evening we took a break from our Ten Commandments series and preached a special sermon for Hallowe'en night, entitled The Truth About the Father of Lies. This is what it sounded like.

No News Is...

...good news, except if you're the BBC. Most of their journalists and newsreaders are on strike today in a dispute over pensions, meaning their news programmes and online news is on a skeleton staff, and being poorly updated.

Locally, in Northern Ireland, the BBC NI news website is normally fairly good for being up to date, but today, it hasn't changed since last night. What a chance for UTV to pick up some more viewers/listeners/readers for their news coverage. If only the UTV news website offered a mobile version which was easier to view on an iPhone...

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Sermon Audio: Mark 12: 28-34

On Sunday morning, I was preaching on the Great Commandment from Mark's Gospel,
Total Love. This is the mp3 audio file.

McFlurry's McLinks (17)

Time for another batch of links to the best of what I've been reading on the internet over this past wee while. Lots of links - I'll try not to leave it so long before the next batch!

On the ministry front, Kevin DeYoung had two batches of advice for theological students and young pastors. Proc Trust have started a blog with some useful articles, including preventing boring sermon illustrations. Irish Calvinist asks why pastors are fat. Ugley Vicar preached on the New Perspective, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector!

Some amazing pictures for you to look at: Abraham Piper linked to a nuts and bolts chess set, as well as a hilarious literalist rendering of Solomon's wife (Dontcha wish your girlfriend was hot like her?!), the ultimate preaching trick, and the comparative size of Africa. Belfast Taxi Driver highlighted the screme egg, while Quaerentia linked to amazing photos of the Northern Lights.

DeYoung ponders tormented souls and reasons reason, while Scrabo Power is worried about the next big thing. It's slightly out of date now as he's long gone, but étrangère had an open letter to Benedict when he visited the UK Great Britain. Irish Calvinist thinks about the Gospel and the Koran. The Simple Pastor studied the word call in the Bible. Good stuff. The Vicar's Wife is ready to meditate.

Jonny's Romantic Instructions charts his course from couch to competitor. Benyong gives some advice for new medical students and wonders if the Bible is like a software licence. Trevin Wax had some English expressions and where they came from. Normal Life Adventure shared an alarming story.

Archbishop Cranmer wants to put Cliff Richard at Christmas Number One. Meanwhile, on a Hallowe'en theme (too late for this year but useful for next!) Captive Thoughts looked at resisting the devil while the Vicar's Wife had some Christian pumpkins.

In politics, could we eventually see a united Ireland, united under the Union Jack again?

For the video this time, the Vicar's Wife linked to this Bible in a minute:

This second video had to be shared - the trailer for the new Narnia film!

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Book Review: The Last Word

This is the second book with this title that I've read and reviewed this year, the other being John Stott's farewell at Keswick. This volume is an older book, originally written in 1996 and republished. The author is Wallace Benn, Bishop of Lewes, who we recently had at our harvest weekend, and who has appeared on Top Gear!

The Last Word for Benn is Jesus' teaching in the upper room, found in John 13-17. The book is broken into five sections - the last demonstration; the last question time; the last gift; last perspectives; and lasting joy. Through these sections, the shorter chapters work through John's gospel in turn, expounding the essential message of Jesus' farewell discourse.

Benn helpfully identifies straight away the key focus of these chapters, the thing that makes sense of them: 'The death of Christ is the focus and backdrop to the dramatic and powerful actions and words of these chapters.' Indeed, 'it is the laying down of Jesus' life which brings glory to God.'

Similarly, he deals with the questions of the disciples, which are our questions too, by bringing us back to Jesus' teaching: 'We find not only four questions from troubled hearts, but four answers for troubled hearts from the lips of the Lord Jesus himself.' Perhaps the most useful section was the two chapters dedicated to the person and work of the Holy Spirit - a subject of much confusion in the church today.

Benn is a great Bible teacher, with great turns of phrase ('we have all known people who have confused uprightness with uptightness'), as well as a pastor's heart to illustrate and apply the teaching directly to the heart of the reader. To some extent, Benn covers the same section of John's Gospel as Don Carson's book 'Jesus and His Friends' but this is much more accessible and easy to read!

One slight complaint about the book is that the same illustration is used virtually verbatim on pages 65 and 141, without any indication that it has previously been used. In an original sermon series this wouldn't be just as obvious or noticeable, but when you're reading through the book and find the same story twice, without even a wee phrase like 'you remember my colleague from earlier who...' It's a minor issue, and doesn't detract at all from the book's value or importance, just a slight niggle from the reader's perspective!

Overall, this is a useful short introduction and overview of John 13-17 which is very pastoral in applying the teaching of Jesus to our lives and situations. It's packed with personal illustrations which are helpful and illustrate the points effectively. A good book for preachers as they seek to understand what is being said, as well as the Christian who wants to take these chapters as their personal Bible reading and wants some help with the passages.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Sermon: John 8:31-47 The Truth About the Father of Lies

Freedom! It’s the cry that stirs millions of hearts, has inspired stories, movies, revolutions and resistance the world over. Whether it’s William Wallace, stirring the Scottish troops before attacking the evil English in Braveheart; or the delight of the USA - the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Everyone wants to be free; free to do what they want when they want - perhaps especially it’s what the teenagers are seeking as they push boundaries at home (ironically, in seeking to be free and different, they all end up looking exactly the same!).

For a people who have been enslaved for centuries, freedom is a big deal. Just think of the joy of the people of Israel as they left Egypt at Passover; or more recently, those newly independent states in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism. Freedom is something to celebrate. How sad, then, if some people don’t even realise that they are in slavery.

To groan under the oppression of slavery is one thing, but to not even know that you’re a slave is quite astonishing. Yet that’s exactly the state of the people speaking with Jesus in our reading from John 8 tonight. Jesus is speaking with Jews in Jerusalem, during one of the feasts of the Jews, the feast of Booths (when everyone made themselves booths/shelters to remember the time of wandering in the wilderness).

Jesus says to these Jews, who have believed in him (to some extent): ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ Jesus’ word is truth, and the truth sets people free. Yet on hearing of this release, they immediately protest that they have never been enslaved to anyone! To their mind, they are free as a bird!

But look at what Jesus says to them in reply: ‘everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.’ Completely unbeknown to us, as we sin, we become enslaved to sin itself. Sin continues and multiplies, and comes to rule over us, leading us to more sin, further sin, deeper sin. So even though these Jews never realised they were in slavery, Jesus is saying that they are definitely slaves, needing to be freed.

It’s not just the Jews who didn’t realise they were in slavery. Perhaps you yourself are also in unseen chains, presenting your body as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness (Rom 6:16,19). You don’t realise your position. Yet Jesus offers freedom, even tonight.

As Jesus goes on to debate with these Jews (who are getting more irate by the minute), he links this slavery to sin with the idea of sonship. Do you see the contrast in verse 38 (which is the first hint of it): ‘I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.’ Jesus’ Father is not their father - and each act according to who their father is.

This is shocking stuff! These were religious Jews, people who attended synagogue, who had travelled to Jerusalem for this special occasion, this feast, yet Jesus is exploding the idea that his Father is their father. Just stop for a moment and think about it. If you were to ask people on the street if God was their father, most people are likely to think that he is, no matter what their connection to God is. Even more so in a church connection. But Jesus is asking them (and us) to be sure of who our father really is.

These Jews are convinced that they are Abraham’s children. We see this in verse 33 - ‘We are offspring of Abraham’, and again in verse 39 ‘Abraham is our father.’ They’re identifying themselves with Abraham, the father of the people of promise. While this is true in a biological sense (they could trace their family tree back to Abraham) yet Jesus insists that they’re not really true children of Abraham, because they aren’t doing what Abraham did.

Abraham heard God’s word and obeyed it. You remember in Genesis 12 where God tells Abraham to leave his father’s house and homeland, and go to a land God will give him. What happens? Abraham goes. Abraham receives the promise of offspring, numerous descendants like the stars or the sand, and (despite a wee wobble when Ishmael is produced through Sarah’s intervention...) Abraham believes God and obeys.

Yet here, Jesus is revealing God to them, speaking the very words of God, and they want to kill him! They’re not doing what Abraham did.

Similarly, in verse 41, they claim to have one Father - even God. They claim that God is their Father, but again, Jesus says that simply isn’t true, because Jesus has come from the Father, so if they were of God, they would love Jesus, they would welcome him and his words. But again, they’re rejecting Jesus.

We sometimes see this today, don’t we? People who think that God is their Father, and yet they reject Jesus. They think they don’t need him, don’t need to hear his teaching. But if they are truly of God, then they will receive Jesus and his words.

So Jesus has exposed the false beliefs of these Jews, that Abraham is their father, and behind that, that God is their Father. Yet Jesus is still pushing the idea that someone is their father. Look at the start of verse 41. ‘You are doing the works your father did.’ Your father. And who is their father? Who is the one who has enslaved them, ruling over them, leading and guiding them?

‘You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.’ (44) Do you get what Jesus is saying to these religious Jews? And not only to them, but to everyone who isn’t a Christian, no matter how decent or nice or good they may appear. Your father is the devil.

Jesus goes on to sketch out just who their father is in a bit more detail. It’s for this reason that we’re thinking about it tonight, on this night in the year when people willingly are open to the influence of evil, when kids are encouraged to dress up and think about evil spirits.

Just who is the devil, our enemy? What are his desires that Jesus speaks of? ‘He was a murderer from the beginning’. Satan, the devil, appears to have been one of the angels of God. But he set himself up in opposition to God, wanting the praise of heaven for himself. And so the war has raged from that day to this, the devil opposing God, seeking to destroy and defile God’s good creation.

If God is the giver of life and all good things, then the devil seeks to do the opposite - to kill and murder and destroy. He led Adam and Eve astray, in effect murdering them, killing them through their slavery to sin. He continues to destroy lives, families, nations.

Similarly, just as God is just and true and right and good, the devil ‘has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.’ Just think of some of the lies the devil tells people - there’s no such thing as God; there’s no such thing as the devil; hell is just a thing to joke about; there’s no judgement and no consequences; sin is a good thing; just seek your own pleasure; you’ll never be found out.

The light of Christ shines in the darkness and points out exactly what the devil is like. His lies lead people astray, they enslave people to serve sin and himself.

In contrast, Jesus, the Son of God, is the one who came from God and was sent by the Father (v42), who tells the truth (v46), who reveals what God is like (v40), and who sets people free (v36). He did this ultimately in his cross and resurrection, when the powers of evil did their worst, killing the Son, but God the Father raised him from death, setting him high over all as King.

It’s one of the great contrasts running through John’s Gospel - between light and darkness, between those who believe and those who don’t; between those who receive Jesus and those who reject Jesus; between freedom and slavery; between life and death; between those who serve God, and those who serve the devil.

The question is - which are we? Which are you? Or as the passage tonight asks - who is your father? Are you linked up to the devil, serving him, following his example of murder and lying? Or are you a child of God through adoption?

The good news is that Jesus, the Son of God, through his death and resurrection, offers us adoption into the family of God - being removed (as it were) from the abusive parent, our father the devil; being adopted by God the heavenly Father, so that we can call him our Father. We receive eternal life as we believe in Jesus.

We can be confident of our future in the family of God. Yet we’re aware that Satan still prowls around (as Peter puts it) like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. Peter urges us to resist him - Jesus has defeated Satan through the cross, and will finally defeat him when he returns on the last day. We know how it ends already - it’s as if we have seen the score before watching the highlights on TV.

In Jesus, we have the victory. We are truly free - now from the penalty of sin and the power of sin, and when Jesus returns, from the presence of sin. Free indeed!

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday evening 31st October 2010.