Thursday, June 30, 2011

June 2011 Review

Another month comes to a close, we're now halfway through the year. Tonight's post brings us to 23 for this month and 164 for the year thus far. What's been happening this June?

There were some book reviews, on A Time to Dance by Stanley Gamble, Collected Writings on Scripture by DA Carson, This Momentary Marriage by John Piper, How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill and One-to-One Bible Reading by David Helm. I also wrote an article for Lawkit called Fully Booked.

My preaching this month was from Acts 1, Ephesians 3 as well as in a series on the Apostles' Creed, on God the Father Almighty, Jesus Christ: his identity, his work, and what he's doing now. There was also a bumper edition of sermon audio.

As well as proving that I'm an eejit, there were reflections on moving house, celebrating the anniversary of my ordination, launching a new church website, visiting Roselawn Crematorium and thinking about the king's yoke. We also had the Church of Ireland twits, and some signposting on Ascension Day.

My favourite post of the month had to be Fully Booked, while my photo of the month was Daisy, Daisy:

Daisy, Daisy

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Church of Ireland Twitter - June 2011

It's almost the end of another month, so here's the latest update to the rankings of twittering ministers in the Church of Ireland. The very sad news is that I'm slipping down the rankings, from 3rd in the very first set (October 10) to 6th equal, despite increasing my score!

The new entry in the top twenty is the pseudonymous Josiah Rowley (should we put a price on unveiling the rector behind the character?), while the Bishop of Cork retains top spot yet again.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Book Review: One to One Bible Reading

This is a short book, but a very useful book on something very simple, yet revolutionary. David Helm is the pastor at Holy Trinity Church in Chicago, and he has done the church a great service in writing and releasing this book.

In the first chapter, we are introduced to some people you might know. Pen portraits tell you of a non-Christian, a new Christian and a long-time Christian. The question is, how to help each of them develop and continue in discipleship. 'For generations we have been conditioned to think of spiritual growth mainly in terms of events, programs and classes.' Helm argues, convincingly, that we miss out on the personal relationship when we push for programs, and a better approach is for one to one bible reading.

The next few chapters explore the why, the who, and the how, with lots of helpful hints and good theology being worked out in practice. Some of the benefits of this approach include salvation, sanctification and training (reaching the particular needs of the three types of people introduced at the beginning), but the thing that struck home as I read was his fourth benefit, that of relationship:

'People are hungry for relationships of substance. The language of friendship has become a verb. We 'friend' mere acquaintances with the click of a button. Reading the Bible one-to-one offers the appeal of developing true friendships, relationships of greater familiarity and substance.' (p. 15).

There are plenty of good ideas on how to get started, how to invite people to get involved ('both the simplest and probably the hardest'), and what a sample meeting might look like. Perhaps the greatest strength of the book is in the variety and quality of the resources offered. There are sections on how to approach a passage (the Swedish method and the COMA method), as well as question especially geared towards the different biblical genres, and an eight week journey through Mark's gospel.

As Helm admits and acknowledges, this book is a complementary volume to Marshall and Payne's 'The Trellis and the Vine', and so may be useful for pastors seeking to think further about the mechanics of one-to-one Bible study, or to release members of the congregation to start doing it for themselves.

Included within the book is a positive testimony of a man who came to faith through a regular one-to-one Bible reading, and I can certainly testify to the value of the enterprise, seeing wonderful growth in one older man especially with whom I meet.

All in all, I loved this book, for its simplicity, its clarity, and the gentle push to get on and do it. However there were a couple of questions I was left with. Firstly, who the book is aimed at - all Christians (as the subtitle declares), or particularly pastors? If it is for all Christians, the question remains as to how such ministry would fit into the church's overall ministry, and how it would be coordinated.

My other concern was in relation to coping when things don't turn out so well - the book is rightly positive about the benefits and blessings that can come from one-to-one Bible reading, but what if things don't work out? Perhaps it would have been useful to include something on troubleshooting, or a reassurance that things may not always be so positive!

One to One Bible Reading is available from the Good Book Company, as is The Trellis and the Vine, who kindly supplied me with a review copy.

Monday, June 27, 2011


I got a fright last week at church. I was coming back to the car after doing a committal of remains, and opened the boot. I dropped my stuff in, and closed the boot lid. And then the panic set in. Was I stuck there? Where had my keys gone?

My wee car is of the type that you can push the button and just the boot opens. There's a separate button to open the driver's door. The problem is that if you were to only open the boot, drop your keys in, when the boot closes, the keys are locked inside, and no way of opening the car.

It would be worse, of course, because my house keys were on the same keyring, so not only would I not be able to drive anywhere, but I couldn't even get back into the house to get the spare key. Well and truly stuck.

It reminded me of the time when a minister colleague would park his car in a Dublin city centre car park for a quick getaway up the road to the north when classes finished on a Thursday or Friday. Apart from that one day, when he locked his keys in the car and spent the rest of the day getting a bus home, then returning on the bus with his spare key, before driving north again.

What would I do now? No keys, no hope. Perhaps I should phone someone - living in a church-owned house means that someone is bound to have a spare key lying around. And as I lifted my right hand which held my phone, what did I find, but my car keys, thankfully not in the boot, locked away, but free and able to open the car and let me drive away.

Yes, I am an eejit!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sermon: I Believe in Jesus Christ... he ascended into heaven...

I wonder if you’ve ever asked yourself the question: Where is Jesus now? Have you ever read the gospels and marvelled at how Jesus healed all kinds of sickness - and then said to yourself, where is Jesus now? I wish he was here to touch me and take away my disease - or your family member’s illness. If only you could call him up, or wait until he visited Belfast on tour, then he could sort you out.

Or maybe it is when you see the state of the world (or the church!), with misery, depression, violence, and you think to yourself, if only Jesus was here, he could right all those wrongs. Where is Jesus now?

Or think of the new atheists who seem to dominate the media. When we read how Jesus debated with the Pharisees, Saducees and others, you might think, if only Jesus was here, he could defeat Dawkins in a debate, and things would be much simpler. Where is Jesus now?

In each of these situations, and perhaps more that you can think of, we end up saying to ourselves, wouldn’t it be great if we had Jesus with us now? We read of the first disciples, spending three years with the Lord, listening to his teaching, and we think - they had it easy. Where is Jesus now?

What I want to suggest tonight, as we continue to look at what Christians believe as stated in the Apostles’ Creed, is that Jesus is in the best place he could be. As we’ll hopefully see, we believe that where Jesus is and what he is doing is better than him being on the earth in person.

We’ve been working through the Apostles’ Creed, and come to the last section which speaks directly of Jesus, and you’ll notice it speaks of past, present and future. Firstly, the past, do you see, that after the crucifixion and the burial, Jesus was raised. This was the vindication of his death, God’s seal of approval on Jesus, and the beginning of the new age. The cross and resurrection are together, the centre of the Christian faith, but we’ll be returning in a few weeks to look at the resurrection of the body, so let’s continue, and focus on where Jesus is.

Still in the past, the creed tells us that ‘He ascended into heaven.’ We see this in Acts 1. Jesus was ‘lifted up’ (1:9) after forty days of resurrection appearances, teaching and training the disciples for the mission that was to follow. It isn’t that Jesus was the first man in space, but that he ascended into heaven - he doesn’t just go up and up, but he is taken into heaven.

So Jesus is in heaven rather than on earth. Well, that’s nice for him, you might be thinking - don’t we all go to heaven when we die? (As an aside, I noticed again that common assumption on Facebook of all places. Last week was Father’s Day, and there was a thing going around where you changed your profile picture to one of your dad, to say you loved them whether they were (and I quote) ‘here or in heaven.’) Let’s be clear, not everyone goes to heaven - but Jesus is unique and special because of where he is in heaven.

He ‘sits at the right hand of the Father.’ This is the place of honour, the special place. It’s in fulfillment of that great vision of King David, in Psalm 110: ‘The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’’ King Jesus is reigning over all, in his own special place. Jesus is the king on the throne - he occupied no earthly throne, but is now rightly seated and in control.

We can take confidence that Jesus is in charge - that he is ordering our steps, that he is watching over us, that nothing that happens to us is a surprise or a shock for him. Jesus, the King, is reigning.

But there’s more significance in the fact that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father. You see, heaven is the very presence of God, the most holy place, the real holy place, to which the temple pointed. Jesus, the King, is also our great high priest - as we see at the opening of Hebrews: ‘After making purification for sin, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.’ (1:3).

He can sit down, because he has finished his work of salvation. The sacrifice has been offered, once for all, and so he doesn’t need to be on his feet continually offering the sacrifice. Yet his priestly work continues, as he intercedes for us - Jesus, at the right hand of the Father, is praying for you, Christian.

In the old testament, the high priest had a breastplate containing twelve precious stones, each representing a tribe of Israel. He bore the burden of the people, representing them before the LORD. Jesus is our high priest, and as he sits beside the Father, he represents us, speaking on our behalf. Praying for us.

What a great encouragement that is for you, when you’re facing a time of suffering, or a trial, or something unexpected - Jesus is on the throne, and Jesus is praying for you. The whole letter to the Hebrews is the expansion of this theme, as it reminds us that he ever lives to make intercession for us (8:25). Jesus has paid for our sins, and is praying for our sanctification. What more could you want or need?!

Well, there was still the outstanding complaint from the introduction - if only we had Jesus with us. Surely it would still be better to have Jesus with us, so we could see him? Think again. You see, Jesus raises our humanity to his throne, his flesh is exalted so that God will always forever more have our flesh as part of God. At the same time, it is by going to the Father, ascending to heaven, that Jesus can send the Holy Spirit, who is the power and presence of Jesus, not just with us, but in us, as we believe in him. It is because Jesus goes, that the Holy Spirit comes: ‘I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth.’ - but more on him next week!

We’ve see Jesus in the past - risen and ascended. We’ve seen where Jesus is now - at the right hand of the Father, ruling over the universe, and praying for his people. But is that it? What of the future? Where will Jesus be? We see it in the last part of our section tonight.

As the angel said at the ascension: ‘This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’ (Acts 1:11) We are promised that Jesus will return - it is the consistent hope of the New Testament, written to people who are in the same boat as us - between the first and second comings of Jesus.

We haven’t been abandoned; Jesus hasn’t forgotten about us; one day he will return. Just a few months back we were studying 2 Peter, thinking about the scoffers who made fun of this idea, but Peter is sure that God will keep his promises. It’s the promise of Jesus in John 14, ‘I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.’ (14:3)

But we must remember that Jesus is not just coming so that everyone can go to heaven - no matter how hard some people wish it were so. The Creed helpfully reminds us why Jesus will return: ‘From there he will come again to just the living and the dead.’

I remember growing up, when it was always ‘the quick and the dead’ and we’re in school sports day season, and me thinking, well, I’m not quick and I’m not dead, maybe I’ll be ok. What it is saying is that everyone will be judged. Jesus the judge is waiting at the door, and some day the command will be all rise, the court is in session.

Those wrongs you have suffered, those sufferings you have endured, those sacrifices you made, will be vindicated when Jesus the judge is in session. At the same time, there may be those of us with tender conscience who, when you hear of judgement, immediately shrink back in fear - fear not! Your sins have been dealt with, the punishment paid - and your judge bears the ‘wounds of love’ on his own body. This is why Paul can confidently say that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus - the judge has dealt with our sin.

If you have not yet trusted in Christ for salvation, if you remain in your sins, then I urge you to be reconciled to your judge now, rather than when it will be too late. When you meet him face to face, it will have been too late to find salvation, and instead you will face condemnation from the just judge because of your sins.

So where is Jesus now? Jesus has been raised, ascended, and glorified. He reigns from his throne in heaven, interceding for us. And one day he will return to judge the living and the dead. We believe it because it is the truth about Jesus, and it gives us confidence to meet even our struggles and trials with confidence because Jesus gives us strength for every step of the way.

His prayer is effective, and our joy will be perfected on that day: ‘Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.’ (1 Peter 1:8-9)

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 26th June 2011.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Book Review: How The Irish Saved Civilization

Thomas Cahill wants to let you into a secret in this book - that civilization as you know it today is all because of the Irish. Not the generation of the Celtic Tiger, nor the Wild Geese, but much further back, to the days when the Roman Empire was collapsing and the dark ages were kicking in. The Irish, and in particular, the Irish monks, were busy copying the great works of the ancient world in their monasteries while on Continental Europe they were being destroyed by the marauding barbarians. It was those same monks, in the next generations, which reintroduced civilization and philosophy to Europe, launching the rise of the medieval period.

The story is well told, with lots of interesting detail, such that you could imagine Cahill as one of the great Irish bards. He brings the reader on a time travelling adventure to observe what was happening across Europe in the 400s and 500s AD. It's fascinating, and well worth reading if you're at all interested in history, particularly Irish history. There's a good chapter on Saint Patrick, using the source material of his confession, and lots on the legacy of Patrick, as Columba (Columcille), Columbanus and others reach beyond Ireland to Scotland (Iona), England (Lindisfarne), and the continent with missionary zeal. Yet having said all that, there were a few things that troubled me.

Firstly, the author seems to be much too taken by the loose Celtic pagan morality, hearkening for those simpler days with easy sex and ready violence, where everyone was a warrior (what has changed?!), infusing those ancient morals with a thoroughly modern secular abandon. He refuses to be critical of the standards of the time, and rather urges for us to return to such behaviour.

Secondly, while it is acknowledged that it was the monks who saved civilization, there appears to be little understanding or explanation of why they were committed to the good news, why they would give and go and serve, or indeed what the good news was. The fact that the Book of Kells is a book of the gospels seems to be a secondary matter, compared to their elaborate decoration.

All in all, I think I could recommend the book for those interested in the heritage and history of what a bunch of Christians achieved on this island all those centuries ago, but with a firm warning that it can sometimes descend into nationalist propaganda, or undue Romanism (given the independence of the Irish Church in this period), and there's some foul language as well. Perhaps what I'm saying is that the topic is a great one, but I wish it was covered in another format than in this particular book!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sermon: I Believe in Jesus Christ... he was crucified, died, and was buried Matthew 27:15-61

As we come to the next section of the Apostles’ Creed, it might seem that we’re stating the obvious. ‘I believe in... Jesus Christ... He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead.’ Just like that. Surely it’s a simple stating of the facts.

After all, if we know anything at all about Jesus or about the church, then we’ll know that there’s a cross involved, that Jesus died upon the cross. Each of the four gospel accounts tell us the same thing, in vivid detail, that Jesus suffered, was crucified, died and was buried. Plus, we know that everyone dies, so it wouldn’t be any surprise that Jesus had died.

So why is it that the Apostles’ Creed goes through all this detail? Why does it set out clearly and simply the facts? I think it’s pointing us to the significance of the death of Jesus - the centrality of his death for the Christian faith. We’ll see this as we consider our reading from Matthew’s gospel, and think about the words of three people.

First up, we come to one of the few people named in the Creed - Pontius Pilate. Pilate was the Roman governor of the region of Judea at this Passover, and as such, had to decide on Jesus when he was brought before Pilate.

Having examined Jesus, heard the accusations from the religious leaders, and watched as a near riot kicked off in front of him, Pilate is caught in a difficult position. He knows that Jesus has done nothing deserving death. In fact, he knows that Jesus has never done anything wrong. We see that in his words in verse 23. ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ The answer is none. Jesus has done no evil, and is entirely innocent. He doesn’t deserve to die, let alone the death of the cross.

But as we’ve seen, Pilate is trapped, fearful, and so submits to the will of the mob, the will of the Jewish leaders. He tries to portray himself as innocent in the situation, when really there is only one innocent person standing there that day. As he washes his hands, he declares ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’

Innocent? When the very next line tells us that he ‘released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.’ He suffered under Pontius Pilate - undeservedly, totally innocent, yet receives the scourging of a criminal.

The words of the next man are echoed repeatedly, and further help us understand the cross. Jesus has been mocked by the soldiers, beaten as the King of the Jews, and taken to the place of the skull. Jesus is crucified, and as he hangs on the cross, dying, even that isn’t enough for the passersby, the chief priests and the elders. They continue to scorn him, shouting out mockery.

It’s the words of verse 42 I want to focus on. Do you see what the elders say? ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, I am the Son of God.’

He saved others, he cannot save himself. Such irony, because they speak truer than they know! They get it spot on, yet they use it as a taunt. Make no mistake - Jesus could indeed have come down from the cross and saved himself. He could, as he said to Peter, call down twelve legions of angels, but had he done that, he could not then save others. It’s like a catch 22 situation - to save himself, he cannot save others. To save others, he cannot save himself.

What wonderful love of the Saviour to go to the cross in order to save us. He could have refused, but he went willingly and obediently. By remaining on the cross, Jesus shows that he is the true King of Israel, the promised Christ, the beloved Son whom God delights in, exactly where the Father desires him to be.

He saves others precisely because he did not save himself. He willingly gave his life for us. I’m reminded of the gallantry of William McFadzean in the first World War. His regiment were in the trenches preparing to go over the top on 1st July 1916. A box of grenades were being opened, when they spilled, and some of the pins came out. William immediately jumped on top of the box, covering the bombs and taking the full blast, saving the rest of the men in the trench. He gave himself to save his comrades. His sacrifice, in a small way, points to what Jesus has done.

But you might still be thinking to yourself, but why the cross? Why did Jesus have to die on a cross in order to save us? Why can’t God just accept us? We find it all tied up in our final saying tonight. We’ve already seen that Jesus is innocent, has done nothing wrong. We’ve seen that in order to save us, he could not save himself.

Ever since Eden, we have been separated from God because of our sin. The close communion has been broken because of our rebellion. In order to bring us near to God, and reconcile us to God, Jesus had to deal with our sin, bearing the punishment of separation that we deserved.

So as Jesus dies on the cross, the beloved Son, the one who from all eternity has been in perfect relationship with the Father, he cries out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Do you hear the force of these words? The one who was in the bosom of the Father is cut off, separated - in the darkness it is as if the Father cannot even bear to look at the Son because of our sin he carries.

I wonder if you’ve ever had a really close friend, someone you spent every day of the school holidays with, or someone you saw every day of your life. Then suddenly, they cut you out of their life, for seemingly no reason. It hurts, doesn’t it? It’s hard to deal with, isn’t it? That, in a small way, is what, in a much larger way, Jesus was enduring on the cross - separated from the Father because of our sins.

But how do we know that his death was effective to take away our sin and reconcile us to God? How can we be sure that we can come with confidence? The answer comes in the amazing things that happened at the moment Jesus died.

Look at verse 50. Jesus yielded up his spirit. At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. This wasn’t just a curtain on the windows of the temple, a bit of interior design. It wasn’t a bargain offer from Harry Corry in a floral print. It was the curtain that stood at the entrance of the Most Holy Place, where God’s presence dwelt at the heart of Israel.

The curtain was about 60 feet high and four inches thick - this was a seriously heavy duty curtain! And it’s message is clear: Keep out! No entry! Only the high priest once a year could pass through on the Day of Atonement. Suddenly, as Jesus dies, the curtain is ripped in two - top to bottom - we have access to God, we can boldly come through the death of Jesus. Separation has been reversed, reconciliation and welcome has been achieved.

We see another reversal in verse 52. We’ve seen how sin brings separation from God and death. ‘The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.’ As Jesus dies, the reversal begins, which brings the dead to life, as Jesus gives life to his people.

No longer does the sentence of death hang over us, Jesus gives life through his death and resurrection. It really is the great exchange:

I’m forgiven because you were forsaken.
I’m accepted, you were condemned.
I’m alive and well, Your Spirit is within me
Because you died and rose again.
Amazing love, how can it be
That you, my King, should die for me? (Newsboys)

This is why we declare in the Apostles Creed that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, that he was crucified, died and buried. The cross, the place of agony and death, is, for us, the tree of life, which brings us peace. It is the good news.

It’s the heart of our message - which we believe, and which we are sent by the risen Lord Jesus to take to the whole world, starting with our neighbours and friends. It’s so easy to stand in church and declare it, but will we tell it this week to our friends, to those who need to hear it?

Life, not death; acceptance, not condemnation; and all in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, and was raised for our justification.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 19th June 2011.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Fully Booked

The prospect of moving house this summer fills me with both excitement and dread. It's not the trials of deciding on delightful decoration, nor groaning at the gigantic garden awaiting me out west. It's all because of my books. Working from home means my house is more than just my castle - it's also my library. Studying The Book requires lots of books, which brings us back to my dread.

Packing. The clock is ticking, and sooner rather than later, all those books will have to be packed into boxes ready for the journey to their new home in Fermanagh. They'll even be reunited with some books that didn't make it out of their boxes when we moved into our current home. Those poor unfortunates have been consigned and confined to an unread existence under the spare bed. Perhaps they'll find some shelf space to make up for their boxed boredom.

My Heaving Shelves

Is there an answer in this digital age, with e-books emerging and Kindles turning paper books to kindling? Wouldn't it make more sense to stock up on space-saving resources rather than hauling several dead forests' worth of books to sit on other dead forests of shelves? The logical, rational position would be yes - start the download immediately. Having explored e-readers and considered Kindles, I'm not rushing to push the button just yet.

You see, contained within my shelves are more than just oceans of black ink on white (and yellowing) paper; more than endless bits of information to be read; there are memories and emotions - I may, in fact, be what I read.

Consider the excitement of entering a good secondhand bookshop, the smell of old books concentrating the senses; never knowing what hidden treasures you'll find, the bargains missed by others. That personal mission to find Fly Fishing by JR Hartley an old favourite. Browsing Amazon or iBooks just doesn't compare to the big book safari.

009/365:2010 Secondhand Books

My books bring back memories - not just of the stories I've read, but also of the places I've been when I was reading them. Gazing at Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns takes me back to the poolside in Lanzarote; The Partner, my first experience of John Grisham, was devoured in the car park while my wee brother played junior football in the rain in Whitehead; and so many books read in airports travelling to and from seeing my beloved fiancee (and now wife) while we were at college in different countries.

Imagine (unthinkable for some, I know, and possibly hypocritical by suggesting it in an e-journal), imagine turning off the computer, getting away from the screen, and interacting with a good old-fashioned book. Taking the time to read something, anything, that someone else has poured hours and hopes and dreams into; turning pages without any slick graphics showing pages turning; always ready to read, never shutting down or breaking down. Your local bookshop needs you - perhaps you need those old books after all?

My books transfer more than knowledge - they've become part of my life. How could I think of getting rid of them now, after years of searching secondhand bookshops the length and breadth of several countries? The dread of moving will be replaced by the joy of organising my new study library and hopefully seeing more of my books on the bigger shelving area. One thing is sure though - I can't justify buying any more volumes before the move: the removals lorry may already be fully booked.

This article was first published in the LAWKIT journal in June 2011. Go and read the far better articles from the rest of the contributors in the third edition!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Touring the Underworld

It seems that any time you're talking about death, the old question always arises: burial or cremation? From there, the discussion will lead on to talking about the crematorium, what it's like, what really happens, and stories you've heard from a friend of a friend.

I'm sure you've heard some of them: that you can't be sure whose ashes you're getting; or that they take the bodies out of the coffins and resell the coffins; or that a pacemaker/bottle of whiskey/something random will explode in the crem.
As a minister, I've often led services up at Roselawn Crematorium in Belfast, and the staff had always been offering a tour to show me what it's really like. Recently I was able to take them up on the offer, and Pat, one of the attendants, showed me around.

Immediately, you can forget the preconceptions mentioned above. It's a very professional, dignified service Roselawn provide, and it was fascinating to see how it all works behind the scenes.

Normally, at the end of the service, the coffin is lowered from the chapel to the lower level. From there, it's transferred onto a trolley, and brought to one of the four (what's the word? ovens? incinerators? cremators?) ovens. Checks are made that the person's name matches the card taken from the register in the office, then the coffin is 'charged' or placed into the oven. The person's name card is then attached to the front of the oven. This means that you're very sure to receive your loved one's remains.

Roselawn has four ovens, which are fired up in preparation for the half-hourly interval committals, with the process taking about two hours. There's some heat involved, reaching temperatures of around 1000° Centigrade at its hottest, although the ovens are all monitored individually with their own computer system and screen for temperature/smoke/etc.

When the cremation has been completed, the remains are removed from the oven and placed in the container (whether a box or urn), to be either collected by the family or undertaker, or scattered by the staff in the gardens of remembrance. Again, the name is checked from the same card, so that you can be sure you're receiving the right remains.

There's really no mystery, and certainly no dodgy dealings in the underworld. It was very interesting to see what happens after the committal, and I'm very grateful to Pat and Eddie for showing me around. There is also the possibility of families or members of the public being shown the workings of the Crematorium, just contact the office to arrange it.

Photo by HeideKlein_OrangenKopf from Flickr.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sermon: Ephesians 3:14-21 Trinity in Action

Today is, as we’ve already heard, Trinity Sunday. The Sunday in the church year that preachers most dread. How on earth can we explain the Trinity. Will we wheel out St Patrick’s shamrock again, talk of triple-decker buses (like out of Harry Potter), or just panic? Rather than looking at a dry, dusty definition of the Trinity, I thought it would be much more useful to see the Trinity in action.

There are many places we could turn, but I want to focus on the passage we’ve heard read this morning, from Ephesians 3. But before we look in detail at the passage, I want to ask you - what is your praying like? I’m not asking if you pray, but rather, what you pray. You see, many of us have grown up with the model where we kneel at the side of our bed and our prayers go something like this: ‘God bless mummy, daddy, and the cat. Amen.’ Those prayers are great, but there might be something wrong if you never develop beyond that!

Throughout the Bible, we’re sometimes shown people at prayer, we get to listen in to their prayers. Think of the Lord’s prayer - you might say that every day. As Paul writes letters to the churches, he also includes some prayers - he says what it is he is praying for them, what it is he is asking God to do, and why.

So here in Ephesians 3, we find that Paul is praying for the Christians in Ephesus, and as we’ll see, he involves every part of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as he asks for things that they’ll need as Christians; the very same things we need in our Christian life as well.

First up, we find the Father. Verse 14: ‘For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.’ As we begin to pray, it’s helpful to remember who it is we are praying to. And what a great reminder on this Father’s Day. God is our Father - the source of every person, the pattern of fatherhood, the one who shows us what being a father is all about.

Just as God gave Adam the authority to name the animals (Gen 2), so every family in heaven and earth is named by God - it’s a sign that God is in full authority, that God is in control. Just last year we had an addition in our house, a lively miniature Jack Russell puppy. It was us named her - Pippa - to show that we are in charge of her (even though you would think it was the other way round sometimes!).

So Paul is praying to the Father. But what is it he is asking God the Father to do? ‘that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being.’

He’s asking for God to strengthen the Ephesian Christians, to give them power, but notice that he isn’t talking about becoming physically strong. He’s not wanting them to bulk up and become like Olympic weightlifters or bodybuilders. Rather is it strengthened with power... in your inner being. Living as a Christian is not always easy - we simply can’t do it on our own. For that, we need power to strengthen our inner being.

How do we do that? It brings us to the next person of the Trinity, to the Holy Spirit. From the riches of God’s glory, we are strengthened with power through his Spirit. You see, the Spirit isn’t a spooky, weird ‘thing’ that only happy-clappy types get, or that knocks people off their feet in revival meetings. The Holy Spirit is God’s presence inside us, strengthening us to live as Christians, to grow as Christians, to say no to sin, helping us to live for God.

I’m too young to have seen George Best play live, but I’ve seen the clips on TV. The skills he had, the way he was able to dribble and pass and score was unbelievable. In contrast I’m possibly one of the worst footballers in the world. I try, I run about, get an occasional touch, but I’m no George Best. More like George Worst. But if there was some way for George Best to take over my body, to help me, then my football skills would improve. This is a bit like what the Holy Spirit does, as he strengthens us with God’s power - not to be a good soccer player - but to follow Jesus.

Left to my own devices, I’m far too easily going to turn away from God, get caught up in sin, fall away. But God gives us the Holy Spirit to strengthen us to live for him. To keep on going. You see, as the Holy Spirit empowers us, we find that Christ is dwelling in our hearts, taking over our lives, ruling our hearts, living in us and through us.

Christ dwells in our hearts, changing us to be the people he wants us to be. It’s a bit like moving into a new house. The walls might be a horrible colour loved by the previous occupants, there might be work needing done to fix a leaky tap, the squeaky floorboards might need replaced, and the garden overhauled. Over time, you’ll get these things sorted, the decoration as you want it, making it look better, reflecting your style and personality. When Christ first moves in to our hearts, they are dirty and dark, things broken and covered up. Over time, Christ brings us to change, to become more like him.

But how does it happen? What brings us to depend on God, and be strengthened by the Spirit and become like Jesus with him dwelling in our hearts? It’s there in 17-18. ‘so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith - that you, bring rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.’

So far we’ve seen the Father, the source of every family, the one in authority over all; and we’ve seen the Spirit, who helps us and strengthens us to live for Jesus. Now we come to the Son, to the Lord Jesus Christ, and Paul’s prayer is that the Ephesians (and us) will know Christ’s love.

You might be thinking to yourself, well, I know that Jesus loves me - we sang about that in Sunday School all those years ago. But we want to keep on knowing Christ’s love, more and more, in all its greatness - Paul speaks of breadth and length and height and depth. But it’s not just you sitting on your own reflecting - no, it’s ‘with all the saints’ - it is as we live and grow together as a church family that we discover the vastness of Christ’s love for us and for everyone else.

Look around you - in the church there are all types of people, personalities, nationalities, and backgrounds. It is as we come together and learn to live together that we realise just how big Jesus’ love truly is, in dying for me, and for you, and for them.

The Trinity - one God in three persons - works together in the believer and in the church to build us up in growth and maturity. The Father gives, the Spirit empowers and the Son loves, so that we ‘may be filled with all the fullness of God.’ And perhaps you’re thinking to yourself, well, that was all right for the Ephesians. They were in the Bible, after all, and Paul was praying for them. Can God do the same for us? Will God, Father Son and Spirit give and strengthen and change me?

In those last two verses, Paul gives us a great encouragement to pray, and to keep praying. If your mind hasn’t been blown already, it just might: ‘Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.’

This God, to whom Paul is praying, the God to whom we pray, ‘is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think.’ God will more than answer our prayers, in more amazing ways than we can imagine. Isn’t that a spur to pray to our great God?

Perhaps this morning you aren’t yet a Christian. You don’t have Christ dwelling in your heart. My prayer is that you will come to know the great love of Christ for you, the love that took him to the cross, to take away your sins and to save you from the wrath of God. Even today, you can come in faith, and find that God will answer your prayer for rescue.

But for those of us who are Christians, the challenge lies in how we are praying for our church family, and for other Christians across the world. Are we seeking God’s giving and power and love for them to grow? Are we seeking these things for us to grow? Perhaps you don’t know how to start as you seek to pray more intelligently for other Christians. It’s great to know what we want to pray for people, something specific rather than general, something that will really help them. But even if you don’t know this prayer (and other prayers) of Paul’s is a good place to start.

It’s great to know who it is we are coming to in prayer - our great God, Father, Son and Spirit, who together work for our good, far more abundantly than we can ever imagine, and all for his glory. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Trinity Sunday 19th June 2011.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Rehoboam's Yoke

This morning I had my regular one-to-one Bible study with a brother in the Lord. We're working through 1 Kings, and have been considering the portrait of the kings of Israel and Judah. Some are good kings, but most are bad. Terrible, in fact.

The question we've been repeatedly asking ourselves is this: why is this in the Bible?

When you read of the folly of Solomon, what is God saying through that? Why has it been included for us and our learning? When you see the increasing wickedness of the successive dynasties of Israel, what can we take away from it?

What we're seeing is that with each king, there is a reflection, a signpost, a pointing forward to what the ideal king would be like. So when Solomon was wise, using his God-given wisdom, we saw how many were drawn to hear him and learn from him. Even the Queen of Sheba (cue Handel's famous tune!) arrived to see Solomon in 1 Kings 10, and so when Jesus, the true king comes, 'behold, something greater than Solomon is here.' (Luke 11:31).

That's fine when we see the positive reflections and shadows (types) of the true king, but what about when the kings are utterly wicked? In these instances, they show in negative what the true king is like. Their wickedness may be great, but his righteousness is greater. They may be surprisingly foolish, but his wisdom is much more.

The prime example jumped out today. Solomon had died, and his son Rehoboam was set to become king of all Israel. The people had been worked hard under Solomon, forced labour and taxes to build the temple and the palace, and so when they all came together for the coronation, they appealed for respite.

Having rejected the advice of the elders (think the old civil servants or Privy Council), Rehoboam goes with the advice of his young friends, and boldly declares:

My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions. (1 Kings 12:14)

Yoke on the Wall

This wickedly foolish king, Rehoboam, attempts to be the tough man, increasing the burden on the people. He shows us in negative, what the reign of the true king will look like; what living in his kingdom will be like. Remember these words?

Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28).

What a contrast between Rehoboam and Jesus - I know which yoke I want!

(Picture by mtsofan on Flickr.)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Lizzy's Been Bizzy

Hot off the press within the last hour, we're delighted to announce that while Select Vestry was meeting tonight, the new church website for St Elizabeth's has been unveiled. It's still at the Bizzy Lizzy address, but has been completely renewed (reborn?) by Steveo.

On the subject of church websites, just last week, Kevin DeYoung was urging for churches to be welcoming by having a good website. I wonder how our new one meets his criteria?

Sermon Audio: Hebrews 1: 1-14

Last Sunday night I was preaching on the next part of the Apostles' Creed, on the identity of Jesus: I believe in... Jesus Christ his Son our Lord.... Here's what it sounded like.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Ordination Anniversary

Dundonald ParishIt really doesn't seem like three years have passed since my ordination as a Deacon - or that it was two years yesterday since my 'priesting.' As my time in Dundonald moves quickly towards its end (with just eight Sundays left in the parish), has ministry been what I imagined?

It's a question I'll continue to ask as the leaving date (and associated speeches and farewell sermons) comes closer. In the meantime, here are a few reflections on my first three years of ordained ministry.

1. The opportunity to be set apart to study God's word is amazing! It's a great privilege to be able to give myself to reading the Bible, studying the Bible, praying the Bible and teaching the Bible - and it's my 'job'! There could be nothing better than spending time in God's word.

The danger, of course, is that professionalism can so easily kick in, so that Bible reading is only done in order to prepare for the next speaking engagement. In that situation, the question switches from what is God saying to me (relating to change/repentance/growth/maturity etc) to what is God saying to them, bypassing me completely.
The Family
2. The opportunity to lead God's people in prayer is immense! To be able to help people to pray as a church family gathered together is special, as they join in the "Amen" or the "Hear our prayer".

You can so easily think that you're the one helping them pray, rather than the Holy Spirit and the Lord Jesus; or you pray impressive sounding prayers to show how very spiritual you are, just like the Pharisee in Luke 18.

3. The access into peoples' lives is perhaps unique, both for happy and sad occasions. The excitement of baptisms when a new life is just beginning; the joy of weddings (with the best view in the house); the sharing with those who are ill; the comforting those who mourn and sharing the gospel hope with them; few people are present at so many of these moments, or welcomed as ministers normally are.

The frequency of those occasions, though can, as the proverb suggests, can breed contempt. What has become regular and routine (if you're on your third funeral of the month) is still the one and only special service for Mrs Jones, so everything must be done decently and in order, no matter how ordinary.

There's also the risk of bottling it, and not saying the things that should be said; even not taking the gospel opportunities that are presented at the time or after.

4. Seeing individuals come to faith, or grow in faith is exciting! Through my time here we've seen some trust the Lord for the first time, making baby steps in faith; and others growing considerably in their faith, becoming more mature, and stepping up to lead and help and serve others. This is what it's all about!

The flipside is that it can be frustrating and almost soul destroying to see some walk away, or revert to sin, or let you down. People with so much potential, and yet they refuse to take that step. I'm learning that sometimes you have to leave people in God's hands - he may not be finished with them, but it could take years before they'll come back.

5. You get to know so many different people, and visit them in their homes. On our lists there are approximately 500 families, which amounts to 1200 people, roughly. The opportunities this presents are great, and the number of people you meet is huge, and all at different ages and stages.

One problem I've found is that my memory for names can be atrocious, so I need to work on knowing and remembering names.

Another issue is that there will always be more people I could be visiting. It could never stop. Knowing that means that I can be satisfied with what I can do, not how many I've missed in a day/week.

6. There's a real danger that you're always caught up in the urgent, and so miss the important. It can be so easy to work away, day after day, on what has to be done today, without looking at the big picture, without taking time to plan for the future, or develop.

Connected to this is the need for a proper Sabbath for ministers. If Sunday is our working day of leading/preaching/youthwork etc, then the need for one other day in the week for rest and restoration is vital. Yet even on the 'off' day, parish work can easily creep in.

Further connected to this is the proper space for family life. I'm still trying to learn this one, to carve out time with my wife and family, not thinking about work at all!

Today I'm thankful for God's grace over these past three years, and for the people I've come to know and the friends I've made through my ministry in Dundonald. I'm thankful for Tim, my rector, for the ways he has trained me, and for his patience on so many occasions! I'm praying for many more years of fruitful ministry, but conscious that it's all in God's hands.

As I look to the future, I'm reminded of those words from the ordination service:

Because none of us can bear the weight of this ministry in our own strength, but only by the grace and power of God, let us pray earnestly for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on these persons. Let us pray also that God will each day enlarge and enlighten their understanding of the Scriptures, so that they may grow stronger and more mature in their ministry, as they fashion their lives and the lives of the people they serve on the word of God.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Book Review: This Momentary Marriage

Perhaps the title of this recently published book by John Piper gives you a shock, just as it shocked me when I first saw it. Is he really saying that marriage is momentary, and arguing that divorce is inevitable for some marriages?

As with the rest of his books, Piper is faithful to the Bible, and this is an excellent book on marriage which could be useful for marriage prep or in assisting struggling couples. Piper, in his own forty-year-long momentary marriage, argues rightly that no matter how long our marriage may last, they are all, ultimately, momentary in the light of eternity. An eternity where there is no marriage between husband and wife, where they are never given or taken in marriage, as Jesus makes clear. Rather,

The shadow of covenant-keeping between husband and wife gives way to the reality of covenant-keeping between Christ and his glorified Church.'

Clearly and persuasively, Piper shows that marriage, every marriage, is a picture (however imperfectly) of the Lord Jesus and his bride in heaven. Every marriage is looking forward to the final marriage between Jesus and his church. Through the successive chapters, he builds on this by going back to first principles to show that marriage is the doing of God (he designed it and gave it as a gift) and the display of God (it shows what God's eternal purpose is).

There are useful chapters on forgiving and forbearing each other, pursuing conformity to Christ in the covenant (first in yourself before your spouse), headship and submission, singleness, sex, and making children disciples of Christ. Throughout, there are also quotations from Dietrich Bonhoeffer which illustrate and complement what Piper is teaching.

This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence is a very good book, and comes highly recommended for pastors who may use it as the basis of a teaching series on marriage, as the course book for marriage prep, or simply as a great pastoral resource to refer to repeatedly. It is suitable for all people, not just marrieds, and will be profitable because of its faithfulness to the Scripture and the God of marriage.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sermon: I Believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord

If you were to stop 100 people on the street and ask them who Jesus is, what do you think they would say? You would expect to get a variety of answers - as we saw in the video, some people reckon Jesus didn’t exist, some that he was a good teacher, a kind man; others that he was the Son of God. But what does that mean?

As we were thinking about in the discussion, we either focus on Jesus as God, in his power and greatness, only appearing to be with us, or we focus on Jesus as Man, one of us, perhaps the best one of us, but still at best human. But as we’ll see, historic Christianity, the faith of the church throughout all its existence, won’t let us have this either or way of thinking about Jesus. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.

Rather than an either / or, what we have is a both and - Jesus is fully God and fully man. But how do we know that? This evening, we’re going to do a quick summary of the evidence as the Bible presents it, before thinking about why Jesus’ identity is important.

If you’ll take your Bibles and open to page 1008. Mark chapter 1, the beginning of the good news about Jesus. Now imagine that you are Simon, sitting in your boat. You are a devout Jew, you know that (as we saw last week) ‘The LORD our God, the LORD is one.’ (Deut 6:4). There is one God. This man Jesus comes along and proclaims the kingdom of God is at hand, and calls you to follow him. You do so.

Later in chapter 1, Jesus heals the man with an unclean spirit in your synagogue in Capernaum. Look at 1:27 - ‘And they were all amazed so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”’ (1:27) So who is this Jesus?

Fast forward to chapter 2, Jesus heals the man let down through the roof on the bed. Jesus forgives his sin, heals the man so he can walk, and what is the reaction of the crowd? ‘they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”’ (2:12)

Chapter 3, and as Jesus is casting out unclean spirits, they are recognising him: ‘And whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried, “You are the Son of God,”’ (3:11). And it just keeps coming - Jesus doing these amazing things, and all the time you’re saying - who is this Jesus?

Not long afterwards, you’re in a boat. There’s a storm. A really bad storm, because even though you’re a fisherman, you think you’re going to die. What’s worse, Jesus is asleep on the boat. Doesn’t he care? Jesus gets up and calms the sea and the wind with a word. Look at 4:41 - ‘And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”’

Jesus is a man. No doubt about it. You’ve lived with him, travelled with him, ate with him, listened to him. Jesus is fully human. And yet there’s more to him - so when Jesus asks what you think of him, you are in no doubt: ‘You are the Christ.’ (8:29). You may not fully understand what the Christ means at this stage, but there’s no doubt who Jesus is. It’s confirmed at the Transfiguration, when Jesus becomes dazzling white on the mountain, and the voice from heaven declares: ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him.’ (9:7).

At his trial, when asked if he is ‘The Christ, the Son of the Blessed?’ Jesus replies: ‘I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.’ (14:61-62). The high priest judges it blasphemy, to make himself equal to God, but what if he is speaking the truth? The whole way through, Mark’s gospel is building and building to the mighty declaration by the foreign soldier, who sees clearer than all the religious people of Israel: ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’ (15:39).

Jesus is man, yes, no doubt about it. But Jesus is also God. As Mark says in his very first line: ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ (1:1). Now what we see being displayed through Jesus’ life, we also see displayed in Jesus’ resurrection - remember just a few weeks ago we heard Thomas’ declaration: ‘My Lord and my God.’ (John 20:28)

We also see it stated elsewhere. Think of John’s gospel, and how does it begin? ‘In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.’ (John 1:1) This word (logos, wisdom) became flesh. Or think of Philippians 2, that early Christian creed, ‘who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped (exploited), but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men...’ (Phil 2:5-7)

Perhaps the greatest of these statements is found in Hebrews 1 (remembering that we could go to many more places in the New Testament... Romans 1, Colossians 1, 1 John 1 etc), the passage we had read. Who is Jesus? He is the Son, through whom God has spoken, the heir of all things, through whom God created the world. ‘He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.’ (Heb 1:3).

If you want to see what God is like, look at Jesus. As the Sunday school child once said, Jesus is ‘God with skin on.’ Now perhaps you’ve followed it all through so far, you can see that Jesus is a man, yes, but that he is also God. But the question running through your mind, perhaps you’ve been asked it by a friend is this: why does it matter? What’s the point of Jesus being the God-man?

I want to introduce you to two groups this evening, both of whom got it wrong about Jesus. First up, there was the Docetists (from the Greek ‘to seem’) - they claimed that Jesus was God, yes, but definitely not a real man - he just seemed to be human. Well, even on that brief introduction, you can see what the issues are. If Jesus wasn’t one of us, then how could he die in our place? How can he identify with our struggles and weakness if he only appeared to be human but didn’t actually take on flesh? The Jesus of the Docetists can’t save us.

A wee while later in church history, we meet a man who goes the other way. If the Docetists claimed that Jesus was only God, then Arius went to the other extreme. Jesus was just a man who came into existence when he was born of the virgin Mary, and while he was a good man, the best man ever, he definitely wasn’t God.

It’s because of Arius and his chums that the Nicene Creed (which we tend to use at Communion) is extended: ‘And in one Lord Jesus Christ, The only-begotten Son of God, Begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made. Being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made...’ The Nicene Creed makes it absolutely sure, doesn’t it?!

Jesus the man, the good man, the best man may inspire us to the best that a man can be, but that’s it. If he’s just another man, then he is not mighty to save, he would have the same problems as the rest of us.

So you see, we affirm what Scripture affirms - that Jesus is fully God and fully man. Nothing less will do. Nothing less will save us. No one else can save us. We see it through the rest of Hebrews, as you have the vision of who Jesus is right at the start - the Son of God, the radiance of God’s glory and the exact imprint of his nature - this God took on flesh, came into the world, was made, for a little while lower than the angels, made purification for sins, identifies with us by calling us brothers, shares in our temptations, serves as our great high priest, prays for us, and has lifts our humanity to the heights of his throne.

Sometimes we can underestimate the Lord Jesus as we think of him, or undersell him as we speak of him to our friends. We all, naturally, tend to gravitate towards one or other of his aspects - either emphasising his humanity at the expense of his divinity, or focusing only on his greatness as God while forgetting his humanity. We really do need to hold both together, not in tension, but in perfect harmony, just as we see them displayed in Jesus.

I’ve used this before, but I still think CS Lewis puts it best when he says in Mere Christianity:

"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Do you?

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 12th June 2011

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Book Review: Collected Writings on Scripture

‘In some ways, this is a difficult book to assess because it is not a sustained thesis or critique but a reprinting of seven papers or lectures delivered or published elsewhere.’ (p. 209) Such were the author’s words as he begins one of the several book reviews in this volume, but thankfully this assessment doesn’t apply to the book under review. Collected Writings on Scripture comes from the pen of esteemed lecturer and Bible teacher, Dr Don Carson, and is a helpful and challenging set of articles and reviews on the nature, form and use of Scripture in the academic world, as well as in the church.

In ‘Approaching the Bible’, Carson seeks to answer two main questions - what the Bible is, and how to interpret the Bible. As he begins, the reader is reminded that the doctrine of Scripture does not exist in splendid isolation, unimportant and unconnected to our theology. Rather, our doctrine of Scripture is integrally linked to and informs our theology. If the Bible really does reveal God to us, then ‘to approach the Bible correctly it is important to know something of the God who stands behind it.’ He continues by considering the Bible as being ‘simultaneously the product of human authors and the revelation of the God who talks.’

This is a good introductory essay which sets out the issues for someone approaching the Bible for the first time or the thousandth time. The principles set out to help understand the Scriptures are clear and pertinent, given that Carson reminds us from 2 Timothy 2:15 that ‘it is dangerously possible to be someone who does not correctly handle the word of truth.’ As is characteristic with Carson’s writings, this essay is comprehensive, well thought out, both helpful and heartwarming with some of his memorable one-liners.

The second essay, ‘Recent Developments in the Doctrine of Scripture’, is more technical, and primarily relating to the (American) academic discussions on the nature of the Bible. He argues that there has been a resurgence of interest in the doctrine of Scripture due to the growing strength of evangelicals, the fragmentation of evangelicalism, the crisis of authority in modern Western Christianity, and the theological revolution in the Roman Catholic Church. These factors (among others) have led many to take up the pen to rethink or restate both traditional and innovative formulations of the doctrine of Scripture.

What follows is a discussion of the ideas of various scholars centred on verbal inspiration, plenary inspiration, common sense realism, accommodation and inerrancy. At times it seemed hard to follow the fairly detailed and technical differences in the theories, being unfamiliar with the work being discussed. Yet Carson is able to keep the reader’s attention, through the debates to discussing, finally, how these developments impact on the church and the world.

‘A high view of Scripture is of little value to us if we do not enthusiastically embrace the Scripture’s authority. But today we multiply the means for circumventing or dissipating that authority... The authority of the Scriptures is in such instances almost always formally affirmed; but an observer may be forgiven if he or she sense that these self-promoted leaders characteristically so elevate their opinions over the Scripture, often in the name of the Scripture, that the Word of God becomes muted... [In other circumstances, we] can by exegetical ingenuity get the Scriptures to say just about whatever we want - and this we thunder to the age as if it were a prophetic word, when it is little more than the message of the age bounced off Holy Scripture.’

The third essay considers ‘Unity and Diversity in the New Testament’ and whether systematic theology is possible. While many claim that the New Testament reflects various competing theologies, Carson is clear that given the unity of purpose and source of the Scripture, such a systematic theology is not only possible, but necessary. Indeed, the diversity found in the New Testament often reflects diverse pastoral concerns being worked out from the common credal position. Once more, Carson’s concern is not ultimately with the scholarly, but with the pastoral implications: ‘This chapter has dealt with technical articles and critical judgments, but in the final analysis what is at stake is not some purely academic dispute, but what we preach.’

The fourth essay is a thorough discussion of ‘Redaction Criticism: On the Legitimacy or Illegitimacy of a Literary Tool’ and will be of particular interest for those with theological training and those seeking to use a variety of methods to understand the Scripture. Some of Carson’s careful criticisms may be powerfully applied further in the realm of criticism.

In the final essay of section one, Carson asks the question, ‘Is the Doctrine of Claritas Scripturae Still Relevant Today?’ While the perspicuity of Scripture may be of perennial concern, the presenting issue comes from the rise of the postmodern epistemology and its characteristic doubt of an authoritative meaning and universal truth. This chapter, while very helpful, was far too brief, however he has covered the same topic in other volumes, such as The Gagging of God and Becoming Conversant With The Emerging Church.

Part 2, which takes up the final third of the book, is a collection of book reviews written by Carson on the work of others on the theme of the Scriptures. These were an interesting addition, illustrating some of the vast and varied opinions and theses of others working in the same field. As always, Carson is thorough as he summarises the books, giving both praise and critique where necessary.

All in all, this was a very helpful volume to review, and one which carefully but clearly sets out a coherent evangelical doctrine of Scripture. While some sections may prove too technical for the regular member of the congregation, theological students, pastors and academics will richly benefit from Carson’s scholarly analysis undergirded by his pastoral passion. His rigorous argument and defence springs not from academic pride or the endless production of papers, but first and foremost for the encouragement and growth of Christians:

‘The aim of thoughtful Christians, after all, is not so much to become masters of Scripture, but to be mastered by it, both for God’s glory and his people’s good.’

A version of this book review appeared in the new edition of Search: A Church of Ireland Journal, published in June 2011.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Sermon: Acts 1:12-26 Waiting For God

What are you like when you have to wait? It could be for a bus; it might be in the doctor’s surgery; it may be that your call is important to us, you are number 15 in the queue, please hold the line while we try to connect you...

In our New Testament reading, the disciples are waiting, not for a bus, but for what has been promised to them. They find themselves in this in between time, between the Lord Jesus being ascended, and the promised Holy Spirit coming upon them at Pentecost. We know that it was a period of ten days, from Thursday until the Sunday week, but they’re living in these days, not knowing when the Holy Spirit will come.

As we watch the disciples, we’ll see that they don’t just sit back passively, lying around until something happens. Their waiting is active, they are busy. So what is it they are doing in these days?

In verses 12-14, we see them obeying what Jesus has said in verse 4. They return to the city, they go back to the upper room, and they pray. The eleven disciples are named, and they are united, along with the women, and Mary and Jesus’ brothers. It’s a church prayer meeting. They were ‘devoting themselves to prayer.’ God has promised them the Spirit, so they are praying to God for what he has promised.

Secondly, in verses 15-20, we see that Peter engages in Bible study. You see, even though there were 120 in the room, there was an empty place - the chair where Judas Iscariot sat. Do you see what Peter says of him? It isn’t, poor, misguided Judas, but rather ‘the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas.’ The Psalms speak directly of Judas, and because they are God’s word, they could not be broken.

That’s why there’s the empty place at the table - Peter makes sense of what has happened by reading his Bible, and seeing how their circumstances have been described and prescribed centuries beforehand. Peter knows his Bible, and relates it to what they’re going through.

Thirdly, we see that as Peter continues speaking, they’re going to fill Judas’ space, and have a new twelfth apostle. Do you see the criteria? ‘one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us... one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.’ The work of an apostle is to witness to Jesus’ resurrection, to tell what they have seen, to spread the word that Jesus is alive.

So this guy Joseph with three names and Matthias are proposed, and one name Matthias is chosen and appointed as an apostle. Now why is it significant that they bother doing this? Why appoint Matthias, given that we’ll not see his name again in the rest of the Bible? It’s because the church believes what Jesus has said - they have mission in mind. Look back to verse 8: ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’ Matthias is the twelfth of the twelve witnesses - even as they wait for the Spirit, the twelve (and the hundred and twenty) have mission on their minds.

Now, as we’ve said, our reading describes a unique period in the life of the people of God - between the ascension and the coming of the Spirit to all believers. Yet if these Christians are praying, reading their Bibles and focusing on mission even before the Spirit comes, then how much more should we, who have received the promised Spirit, as we wait for the return of the Lord Jesus?

Are we as a church family together ‘with one accord’ devoting ourselves to prayer? The Spirit helps us in our weakness to pray, interceding on our behalf.

Are we understanding and applying and living out the Scriptures? The Spirit who wrote the Scriptures is the one who helps us to understand them.

Are we committed to mission, both going and sending? The Spirit helps us and gives us boldness to speak out, even as he prepares the hearts of people to hear and receive the message.

This sermon was preached at the Midweek Holy Communion in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Wednesday 8th June 2011.

Hezekiah's Removals

Last night I felt a bit like King Hezekiah. Not because I have delusions of grandeur, or desires of royalty, but because I was following his example from Isaiah 39:2.

And Hezekiah welcomed them gladly. And he showed them his treasure house, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his whole armoury, all that was found in his storehouses. There was nothing in his house or in all his realm that Hezekiah did not show them.

Prior to this, Hezekiah had been ill, and so when he recovered, the envoys of Babylon came to bring him a congratulatory gift. After the pleasantries, he gives them the guided tour of the palace, storehouses, riches, just about everything.

While we don't have silver or gold (apart from wedding rings!), last night I did show a man everything we have, as the removals man prepared an estimate for moving us from our curatage to our new rectory. The old awkward piano, the big wardrobe that'll need dismantling etc. When the quotes are in, we'll pick our movers and book the date of the big move. That was the very reason the man came this evening.

On the other hand, it was completely unexpected for Hezekiah. It's only afterwards that the prophet Isaiah comes to Hezekiah and tells him what it means:

Hear the word of the LORD of hosts: Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the LORD. (Isaiah 39:5-6)

In the next generation, the Babylonian removals firm will be so successful that the royal palace will be wiped out and everything moved to Babylon. Everything seen will be transferred, and Jerusalem left in ruins. The end of an era and the beginning of exile for the people of God.

It's no accident that the very next words after this promise of removal and exile are the glorious words of restoration and return:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. (Isaiah 40:1)

A return so wonderful that Jerusalem will be exalted and all tribes will come to the city to learn from the LORD God. But that is years in the future when Hezekiah showed the contents of his palace. The Babylonians were very efficent, so that nothing was left behind. I just hope our removals firm are as good as those Babylonians!

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Bumper Sermon Audio

Following a bit of a backlog, here are the last few sermon audio mp3s from my recent preaching. They are on The King of Glory from Psalm 24, Do You Love Me? from John 21, and the first week of looking at the Apostles' Creed, I believe in God the Father Almighty from Psalm 33.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Sermon: I Believe in God, the Father Almighty

I believe... Well, what is it you believe? There can sometimes be a danger that we stand together and recite the apostles’ creed without really thinking about it. When was the last time you stopped and said to yourself - why do we say this? Why are these things included?

Why do we have a creed at all? Why not just leave it open for people to think and believe what they want? Well, if you know anything about church history, you’ll know that the creeds were necessary to stop false teaching and wrong ideas floating about. Any society or club will have its list of rules / membership criteria - in a way, it’s the same with the creed. It’s a summary of what has always been the shared faith and witness of the church, what makes us distinctive.

Let’s face it, even as we start to say the creed, we’re becoming distinct from the rest of the world. I believe - already many people can’t go on after those first two words. They can’t or won’t believe in anything. While the focus may be on a Dawkins, there are many more who simply refuse to believe in anything but themselves.

I believe - and many others will have a pick and mix variety selection of beliefs which they try to hold together. A little bit of angels, some meditation, some karma, some loving your neighbour as yourself, lighting a candle - the postmodern world is your oyster. Whatever gets you along, go for it. In contrast to this supermarket sweep of religions, we continue to be even more specific.

I believe in God - again many will join us to this point. Just the word God or god will excite the imagination of many people - with the word meaning whatever the individual wants it to mean. All sorts of notions are conjured up, from Allah to the Roman gods. But again, it’s very general. We must go on, and as we do so, we arrive at the Christian distinctive, the truth that sets us apart: I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. And in his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord... And the Holy Spirit.

I believe in this God. The creed isn’t just a speculation of what God is like, someone’s best guess of what it’s all about. Nor is it wishful thinking - as if we’re saying, we can’t be sure, but we hope God is like this... In itself, the creed has no merit - but only so far as it is based on Scripture. In effect, what we have in front of us in the creed is a summary of what the whole Bible teaches, from before the beginning to after the end of time. And, precisely because it summarises scripture, the creed reflects the speaking God, the God who has revealed himself to his creation, so that we can know him. It’s not us reaching up to grasp what God is like, but it is God revealing himself to us, helping us know who he is, and what pleases him.

So as we consider the first section of the creed this evening, we come to Psalm 33, which is a great help in showing us the Father Almighty, the creator of heaven and earth. As we survey the psalm, we’ll find that we come to the themes in reverse order.

Following the call to praise in the opening verses, we are given the reason to praise from verse 6. ‘By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host... For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.’ (6,9) What we have here is a summary of Genesis 1 - where God speaks the light into being (by his word), and everything God decides to make is made.

Everything you can think of or see; when you enjoy a walk by the beach or climb a mountain; God made it all. Already we’re seeing the power of the Lord, as light is commanded in the darkness, and the world is formed and fashioned by his hand.

As we were reminded last Sunday morning - the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof: God owns what he has made. That means we aren’t the owners of the world, merely the stewards of it - how are we using (or abusing) God’s world?

So God is the Creator of heaven and earth. But there’s more in Psalm 33 as well. It shows us how God is also Almighty. Depending on your generation, you may not use that word very often, but it’s the same as saying God is all-powerful. Recently we had a visit to Dublin of the most powerful man in the world - President Barak Obama. Right now he is powerful because of the weaponry of the American military, but in a few years (or less) he’ll be out of a job, and he’ll lose all that power. God, however, is almighty, all-powerful - ever was, and ever will be.

Look at verse 13: ‘The LORD looks down from heaven; he sees all the children of man; from where he sits enthroned he looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth, he who fashions the hearts of them all and observes all their deeds.’ (13-15) God is all-powerful because he sits in heaven, watching over all that happens, but he’s not just a spectator, not just Jackie Fullerton in the commentary box. More than that, God is sovereign, ruling, reigning: ‘The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.’ (10-11)

As we look back, we can see how God is working his purposes out - while nations rise up and empires become powerful, they quickly fade away again - Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, the Holy Roman Empire, the British Empire, America. Yet through all those empires, God’s kingdom continues. God is so in control that even the actions of his enemies play into his hands and further his purposes. Just think of the cross - as the might of the Romans and the cunning of the Jews combined to do the devil’s work, they were actually doing ‘whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.’ (Acts 4:28) Think how powerful you have to be in order to have your enemies do you bidding!

As we move on through the psalm, we find that the amazing Creator, the all-powerful Almighty is also a wonderful saviour. ‘Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love, that he may deliver their soul from death and keeo them alive in famine. Our soul waits for the LORD; he is our help and our shield. For our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name. Let your steadfast love, o LORD, be upon us, even as we hope in you.’

Now what’s implicit here is made explicit elsewhere - that God Almighty is also the Father Almighty. We have to remember that the Bible didn’t all drop from heaven at one point in time - it was written by lots of different authors (with one ultimate source and author), over a period of a few thousand years. What that means is that God reveals himself over time, so that the people can understand. So the prevailing message of the Old Testament is ‘Hear O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.’ (Deut 6:4) God is one, yes, but as Jesus comes, we discover (as the apostles came to realise) that he also is God, as is the Holy Spirit - so God is one, made up of these three ‘persons’ who relate to each other and to us.

Now in the Old Testament, the fatherhood of God is there, but it’s fatherhood in relation to Israel as a whole. So, for example, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’ (Hosea 11:1). There’s also a sense in which the king is seen to have a special relationship with God, to have God as his father, but that was as far as it went in the Old Testament. All that completely changes when the Lord Jesus comes, and reveals that God Almighty is his Father (as the only begotten beloved Son) and so teaches his disciples to pray ‘Our Father’.

Now I realise that, as we talk of these matters, some may find it difficult to think of God as father, precisely because of how a man fulfilled (or neglected) that role. Rather than shying away from using the language, however, can I encourage you to discover the fatherhood of God, how he is the perfect father, who loves and cares for you, who only seeks your best, who never leaves you nor forsakes you? There’s a verse in Psalm 27 that may help your particular situation: ‘For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the LORD will take me in.’ (Ps 27:10)

So how do we apply this? Perhaps it’s slightly different in these weeks as we explore the apostles’ creed. Nevertheless, I think that what we’ve looked at tonight brings comfort and challenge. God is the Creator of heaven and earth - this world is not random, there is a purpose, and therefore you are not an accident - you are lovingly created. But what will you do to love the world, to tend and keep it, to steward it?

God is Almighty - he is all-powerful, and he is on your side, as you trust in the Lord Jesus. As Paul says in that great chapter, Romans 8 ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’ God’s purposes are not stopped, so that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.

And God is Father - Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and Father of us, you, me, as we come into his family. Will you trust him and his purposes for you? Will you trust him in the particular situation you find yourself this week? Will you rejoice in his care and provision?

We can say these things because it’s what the Scripture says - it’s what God has revealed to us concerning himself. I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. Do you?

This sermon was preached at the start of a new series 'I Believe' in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 5th June 2011.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Where is Jesus now?

It may be a question on lots of lips, for lots of different reasons. If only we could see him, then we could believe. Has he abandoned us? Is he coming back? How does he put his time in?

Today, the Ascension Day, helps us to answer some of those questions. In previous years I've written about the disciples looking intently up:

Firstly, it means that we have a job to do. The angels came along to ask the disciples why they remained standing where they were, looking intently up into the sky, as if wanting to see Jesus again. their question is more a rebuke though - as if the disciples would gain anything by looking up at the sky every day for the rest of their lives. Rather, the disciples had a job to do; they were to wait in the city for the gift the Father promised; then with the power they would receive when the Holy Spirit came on them, they would witness to the resurrection in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

I've also thought about the essential ascension, and commend that post in its entirety for your consideration. Here's a taster:

5. The ascension is the triumph of Jesus. In the place of authority, Jesus reigns over not just the church, but also all of creation. Jesus 'has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.' (1 Peter 3:22) Jesus has authority over all angels, people, kingdoms and places. There is no part of the universe of which Christ does not say "It is mine!"

The ascension is an important part of our faith, and reminds us that, although we don't see Jesus now, one day we will, and we will be like him. His work, triumph, and intercession all guarantee it!

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Book Review: A Time To Dance

With this year being the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible (also know as the Authorised Version), there have been a range of books, lectures and events tying in with the celebrations. One of my colleagues, Stanley Gamble, has also got in on the act with his publication A Time To Dance, published by Slieve Croob Press.

Stanley's aim is simple, to provide an introduction to the King James Version, and explaining some of the background to the history of the new translation. In five short chapters, he takes the reader through the accession of James I, the Hampton Court Conference, the translation process, the way in which the KJV built on earlier translations, before pausing to consider some of the beauty of the more famous passages of Scripture as rendered in the version.

There were some useful points to consider, including the political reasons why James wanted a less seditious edition, and some of the translation decisions which were made (perhaps for the worse, rather than the better, given the enduring legacy of the KVJ - e.g. using the word 'church' rather than 'congregation' or 'assembly'). There are also moments of humour, with some insightful and witty stories giving moments of light relief.

Alongside the chapters, there are a couple of appendices: the confession of James I, and also the dedication of the KJV translators to the king. These were interesting, as they helped us to hear from the main players themselves, describing in their own words their purpose and faith.

Perhaps the only disappointment was that the book was so short! Over the 90 pages, the font is fairly large, and it would have been nice to see more detail in some of the sections, and to have some more analysis of the whole process. But, given Stanley's aim, I think he has achieved his goal, to provide an introduction to the KJV. As such, I commend his effort, and recommend the book! A Time To Dance is available from Lulu. No, not the singer!