Monday, October 31, 2011

October 2011 Review

This is just the twelfth blog posting of October, the frequency seems to be going down while the visitor stats continue to grow by random search enquiries and people accessing sermon archives. There should have been more blogging, but I haven't been able to find the time. The thing that is missing from October's blogging are the book reviews - five books have been finished but not written about. Perhaps I should get down to it! In the meantime, here's what did appear on the blog this month:

It being harvest season there were sermons and lots of sermons: Psalm 34, Mark 15, John 10, Habakkuk 3, Acts 2, Acts 1 and John 14.

I also started writing through Paul's Letter to the Colossians, with thoughts on reasons to be cheerful, the whole truth, global gospel growth, and being a faithful minister.

And that was it. Twelve blog posts accounted for in just two subjects. A short review. In other news, I signed up to Blipfoto, yet another photo site, this one where you can only upload one photo per day in a photo journal style and I've managed to do at least eight days in a row now. The photo of the month has to be Shadow Angel:

Shadow Angel

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sermon: John 14:15-17 I Believe in the Holy Spirit

I wonder what you think of when you hear of the Holy Spirit. We have declared that we believe in the Holy Spirit, but that might just be about all we know or think of him. For many, there could be something mysterious, even spooky about the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit.

That may be even more so when you look around at some other churches which almost seem to have gone overboard on the Holy Spirit, perhaps neglecting the Father and the Son as they focus on speaking in tongues and experiences and feeling the Spirit move.

So who is the Holy Spirit? What does he do? And why does it matter for us? The first thing it’s important to say is that the Holy Spirit is personal, a ‘he’ rather than an ‘it’, and the Holy Spirit is God. In just the same way as the Father is God and the Son is God, so the Spirit is God - all together the one God, the Holy Trinity.
Dove mosaic
Right back at the start of the Bible, we find the Spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters (Gen 1:2). The Spirit is connected to life, to creation. If you were to follow through the Old Testament, you’ll find the Spirit empowering certain individuals for certain tasks. Bezalel is ‘filled with the Spirit of God’ in Exodus 35 to build the ark of the covenant after Israel comes out of Egypt. King David is empowered for kingship. The prophets ‘spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.’ (2 Peter 1:21). But it’s still just particular people for particular purposes.

Yet the sense of anticipation is rising. We heard it from our first reading, where Joel declares: ‘Then afterwards I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy’ etc... (Joel 2:28). When Jerusalem is destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, Ezekiel the prophet is with the exiles in Babylon. He too points forward to a new day: ‘I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you... I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.’ (Ezek 36:25-27). In the very next chapter, Ezekiel tells us of the vision of the valley of bones. It’s a picture of Israel: dead, dry, without hope. As Ezekiel declares God’s word the bones come back together, flesh comes on them, and finally breath comes in them - there is new hope for the people of God with God’s breath - God’s Spirit - giving them life.

These are the promises, yet nothing seems to happen for a long time, until the Spirit-filled Man appears on the scene. The Lord Jesus was ‘anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.’ (Acts 10:38) And the night before Jesus died, he spends time with his disciples, preparing them for what will come after, when Jesus is no longer on earth.

Last week, if you remember, we thought about Jesus being in heaven, not being physically present with the disciples or with us. We thought about how it would be nice to have Jesus with us - but the way in which Jesus describes the Holy Spirit from our reading shows that what we have is so much better than Jesus standing here with us. Look at John 14:16, at the bottom of p 105. The Spirit is ‘another Advocate, to be with you forever.’ That word advocate is someone who stands beside - if you were up in court, you would have an advocate, someone who was with you, speaking for you. Other versions translate is as another helper. Did you notice - it’s another helper, another advocate - the Spirit continues to do what Jesus did for the disciples.

He is the presence of Jesus with them, he helps them come to faith (1 Cor 12:3), pray (Rom 8), grow in the likeness of the Lord Jesus (Eph 3:16), as well as convicting the world of sin. The Holy Spirit is given to us to bring us to faith, and keep us in faith, by dwelling inside us. What was promised in the Old Testament is now, through Jesus, given to us in the new covenant. Every Christian has the Holy Spirit, who helps them live for Jesus.

It’s not just the super-spiritual Christians, not just the keen Christians who have the Spirit. You might look at some people as if they’re a Premier League Man United type spiritual experience, while you’re just a ‘Dromore Amateurs’ kind of Christian. Every Christian has the Holy Spirit - without any need for special experiences, extra baptisms in the Spirit, or speaking in tongues or whatever.

The Holy Spirit helps us to live for Jesus, because he helps us to become like Jesus. In verse 17, there’s another name for the Spirit - the Spirit of truth. The Spirit is God, and as such cannot lie, so therefore he is the Spirit of truth - he witnesses to the truth, speaks the truth, indeed is the truth. Yet there are many in the church who are seeking to hijack the Holy Spirit and claim his sanction for things which are manifestly untrue. Worse still, they use Jesus’ words to justify it: ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth...’ (John 16:12-13). There are those who argue that the Spirit is continuing to lead us into all truth, new truth, so that we should accept homosexual marriage and ordination in the church. Is that really what Jesus is saying here?

Remember where Jesus is, and who he is speaking to. He’s in the upper room with the disciples. The disciples were slow at catching on what Jesus was saying - think of all the times they misunderstand when Jesus says he is the Messiah. But the next day, Jesus will be crucified, will rise from the dead on Easter Sunday, be ascended into heaven, and then on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is given to the first disciples - it’s these first disciples the Spirit leads into all truth, so that they can understand Jesus’ death and what it all means. The Spirit helps them proclaim the gospel, the good news as they preach across the world, as they write the gospels and the pastoral letters to churches and individuals.

As the Spirit guided the disciples into all the truth they completed the writing of the New Testament, what Jude calls ‘the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.’ What Scripture says is what the Spirit says - and the Spirit of truth will not lie, will not contradict himself twenty centuries later. That’s why we must be careful to stand for truth as the Church of Ireland faces crisis. Will we listen to the Spirit in his word, or will we listen to the spirit of the age, what culture and godless society deems acceptable?

The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, is given to Christians to help us live for Jesus. He helps us live for Jesus by transforming us to become more like Jesus. As you know, we recently moved house. At the start, there were boxes everywhere, the painted walls were bare, the new carpets were fluffy. Over time, the rectory has been reflecting our personality - the furniture, the pictures on the wall. It’s the very same thing the Spirit does to a new Christian - things might be a mess, dark and dingy, but he brings us to faith, and continues to change us to reflect his personality, transforming us through the word of Christ to be more like Jesus. It is his desire for every Christian, and for every person. Are you listening to the Holy Spirit today?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 30th October 2011.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Faithful Minister

Moving from college to curacy to incumbency has been a time of learning - all the time there are new experiences, new challenges, and new expectations. I've jokingly talked before about things they don't teach you in college, but the truth is that the whole of ministry is a learning curve. Just think of some of the things that (sometimes unexpectedly) come with being a minister: steward, car park attendant, cleaner, photocopier, graphic designer, webmaster, and most recently, talent show judge!

These and other things may be good to do and be involved in, as they help build community, and make sure some things are done. But could it be that sometimes good things are holding back from the best? That other things which are good can crowd out the most important thing? Could it be that sometimes ministers and pastors don't have enough time to do their primary task because of the other things on their to-do list?

Yet again, Paul's letter to the Colossians is so helpful when it comes to clarifying the task at hand. We're still in the introductory thanksgiving Paul has begun the letter with, as he gives thanks for the Colossian Christians coming to faith, hope and love; as he thanks God for the global gospel growth. He also thanks God for the way the Colossians heard of the gospel:

just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf and has made known to us your love in the Spirit. (Colossians 1:7-8)

Did you see how he described Epaphras? 'He is a faithful minister of Christ.' Now why was Epaphras faithful? What was it that showed he was faithful? He taught them the gospel, the grace of God in truth. He brought them the good news of Jesus Christ.

This is always the minister's primary task - to study and proclaim the gospel so that men and women, boys and girls might come to be saved as they put their trust in Jesus. The diary can be a constant struggle to keep the main thing the main thing, so that nothing will distract from this purpose.
In the early church, they appointed deacons to help with the distribution of food to enable the apostles to dedicate themselves to 'prayer and the ministry of the word' (Acts 6:4) This enabled the life of the church to continue to develop, and the apostles to be faithful to their ministry.

If you're a minister, how are your priorities shaped and protected? If you're a member of a church, how are you helping your pastor to be faithful in his work? At the end of the day, indeed, at the end of that Day, it won't matter as much if the cars weren't parked neatly or the pews weren't polished every week; it will matter if we've been faithful to the Master in the proclaiming of the gospel: 'Well done, good and faithful servant.'

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Global Gospel Growth

When you think of the church, what comes to mind? Chances are, if you're not getting caught up in the trappings of stained glass windows, musty hymnbooks and blokes in robes, then you'll think of a local church. That small gathering of Christians you meet with regularly.

It's so easy to focus only on the local church, it's issues and problems, personalities and possibilities, buildings and budgets. It is, after all, how we do church. For many, it may be the only experience of church - local, small, and sometimes challenging.

Imagine that you're a newly converted Christian in the city of Colossae. You've heard the good news about Jesus and responded in faith. You have love for your fellow Christians, and you're enjoying meeting with them and learning more about Jesus. But in terms of the city, you're a small minority. People don't like you coming to faith, there are opponents ranged against you, the possibility of persecution. You're likely to feel small, threatened, and in a difficult position. Was your conversion real after all? Perhaps it's just a phase or a fad you're going through and you'll soon come to your senses.

What Paul says next in his letter to the Colossian Christians will continue to give them encouragement and boldness. Not only that Paul, the great apostle has heard of them, but that they're not alone in their experience. They're not alone in their faith:

the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing - as it also does among you (Col 1:6)

The church is bigger than the fifty or hundred that you're regularly meeting with in your local parish church! You're not the only one to be coming to faith in Jesus! Rather, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing, all across the world.
203/365:2010 Globe

How aware are we of the growth of the gospel? Do we rejoice at the news of many millions coming to faith all over the world? Do we recognise them as our brothers and sisters, united in the family of God, through the Lord Jesus?

God's gospel is growing globally, so that the vision John saw of a crowd that no one could number from every tribe and language and nation, will be achieved. Let's keep on praying for the mission throughout the world; give and help and support those labouring across the world; and keep doing your bit where you are - wherever you are - to ensure continued gospel growth. To God be the glory!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sermon: Acts 1:1-11 Risen, Ascended, Glorified

I wonder if you’ve ever asked yourself the question: Where is Jesus now? You’ve read the Gospels, and heard how Jesus healed all kinds of sickness, and then thought - where is he now? If only he was here to touch me and take away my disease, or your family member who is ill. You could catch him as he passed through, or maybe on tour in Belfast, then he would sort you out.

Or maybe it’s when you see the state of the world (church?!) with misery, depression, violence, war, and you think - if only Jesus was here now, he could sort it all out. Where is Jesus now?

Or think of the new atheists we always see in the papers and on the TV. We read of how Jesus silenced the Pharisees in debates and think, if only Jesus was here, he could defeat Richard Dawkins in a debate, and things would be much simpler. Where is Jesus now?

In all these situations, and perhaps more that you can think of, we think - wouldn’t it be great if we had Jesus with us now? Peter, James, John and the other disciples had it so easy, spending time with Jesus in person. Where is Jesus now?

Through these Sundays, we’ve been working through the Apostles’ Creed, reminding ourselves of what it is Christians believe. As we come to the last section about Jesus, we’ll see that Jesus is better placed now to help us than when he was on earth - and how we can take heart from his help.

‘I believe in Jesus... on the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.’ It’s like a past, present, future description of where Jesus is and what he’s doing. In the past, Jesus rose again - came out of the tomb, in new life, defeating death, never to die again. Jesus’ sin-bearing death on the cross has been vindicated; God has set his seal on him; new life is possible for us as well. In a couple of weeks time we’ll be looking at the resurrection in more detail, so let’s continue, and focus on where Jesus is now.

He ascended into heaven. We heard that in our reading from Acts - Jesus tells his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they’re empowered by the Holy Spirit, then they will go out into all the world to spread the good news as they witness to Jesus - they tell what they have seen. At that moment, Jesus was lifted up.
Why do you look into the heavens?
Jesus is not the first man in space; not the original rocketman; he is taken from their sight as he ascends into heaven. There’s a common assumption that everyone goes to heaven, but that’s simply not true. But Jesus is unique and special, not just because he is in heaven, but because of where he is in heaven.

He sits at the right hand of the Father - the place of honour, the place of power, the special place (the highest place that heaven affords is his, is his by right). It’s in fulfilment of our Psalm today, written by King David. ‘The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’’ (Ps 110:1). Jesus the King is reigning over all. He had no earthly throne, but he is now rightly seated and in control. Because of that, we can take confidence. Jesus is in charge - he is ordering our steps, watching over us. Nothing that happens to us is a surprise or a shock for him. Jesus, the King, is reigning.

But there’s more. Jesus is seated. Heaven is the very presence of God, the most holy place, the real holy place which the temple pointed towards. King Jesus is also our great high priest: ‘After making purification for sin, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high’ (Heb 1:3). He can sit down because he has finished the work of salvation. The sacrifice has been offered, once for all, job done. It’s a nice feeling when you can sit down at the end of a long day, isn’t it? You know you can relax - Jesus has finished his sacrificial work.

And yet his ministry continues. As Jesus sits beside the Father, he continues to pray for us, interceding for us. Just like the high priest in the Old Testament who had a breastplate with twelve precious stones to represent the twelve tribes of Israel, so the Lord Jesus has us on his heart as he prays for us, as he speaks for us, as he represents us in the highest place of heaven.

What a great encouragement that is when you’re facing a time of suffering, or some trial, or when you fail into sin again - Jesus is on the throne, Jesus is praying for you. The letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus ever lives to make intercession for us (8:25) Jesus has paid for our sins & prays for our sanctification. What more do we need?
We’ve seen Jesus in the past - risen and ascended. Death is defeated, our future is sure. We’ve seen Jesus in the present - at the right hand of the Father, ruling and praying for us. But what of the future? Where will Jesus be? Remember the angel’s words from Acts? ‘This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’ (Acts 1:11) We have this promise that Jesus will return - it is the consistent hope of the New Testament, written to people in the same situation as us - in between Jesus’ ascension and his return.

We haven’t been abandoned; Jesus hasn’t forgotten about us; he will return. But we must remember that Jesus is not coming to take everyone to heaven - Jesus will return as judge: ‘From there he will come again to judge the living and the dead.’ I remember when I was wee, and we were using the traditional language service and the creed said he would come to judge the quick and the dead. I thought I would be ok if Jesus came, because I wasn’t particularly fast at running in school sports days, and I wasn’t dead. But the point is that everyone, living and dead, will be judged.

I’m sure you’ve noticed this week that Colonel Gadaffi was killed. It’s been hard to avoid it, and those gruesome images. They had hoped to bring him to justice, put him in court to answer charges for his crimes, but instead he died. Has he escaped justice? Jesus, the just judge, will judge the living and the dead.

Those wrongs you have suffered, those sufferings you have endured, those sacrifices you made will be vindicated when Jesus the judge comes. At the same time, I know there will be some, with tender conscience, who shrink back in fear at talk of judgement - do not fear, if you are trusting in Jesus. Your sins have been dealt with, the punishment has been paid; your judge bears the wounds of love on his own body. There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus - the judge has dealt with our sin!

There is still time now to be reconciled to this King and Judge - but one day it will be too late. The charges can be dropped, as you put your faith in Jesus, depend on his death in place of your own.

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 Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 23rd October 2011

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Whole Truth

How should we think of the gospel? Is it one option among many? Is it just an opinion sincerely held? Is it just good for us, but others might find their own way?

In another arresting little phrase Paul won't allow us to get bogged down in religious pluralism or post-modern agnosticism. Here's how he describes the way the Colossians Christians heard of the faith in Christ, the love for all the saints, because of the hope laid up in heaven:

Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you... (Colossians 1:5-6)

Note the word 'the' there: THE word of THE truth, THE gospel.
Bible Study
The gospel is not, as pomos want us to think, possibly one truth among many truths; it's not my truth (if you'll tell me yours); it's not a truth which works for me; it's not an opinion. It is the truth!

A single truth, not just for one group in society, nor one society, nor one culture - but the truth, the good news which has come to Colossae and transformed these believers, which it is also doing across the world, as verse 6 continues:

the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing - as it does among you (Colossians 1:5-6)

The truth, delivered once for all to the saints, is changing lives. In a world of opinions, thoughts and ideas; in a world of confusion and doubt; in a world of heresy and false teaching; in a world of lies, half-truths (which are whole lies), and spin: there is such a thing as Truth: the truth - the gospel.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Reasons to be Cheerful: 1, 2, 3

I started studying Colossians again yesterday morning, and was quickly stopped in my tracks. Within the first five verses, I was arrested by Paul's words, which are God's words.
Bible Study
Following the greeting, Paul (as is typical) launches into a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the people to whom he is writing. Paul has never met the Christians at Colossae; has never visited the city; and yet he is thankful for three interconnected reasons - a triumvirate of thanksgiving - three reasons to be cheerful:

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. (Colossians 1:4-5)

Did you catch that? Faith, hope, love. This fledgling church is abounding in faith, hope and love, and it's getting noticed and talked about.

Their faith is in Christ Jesus - he is the object, the ground of their faith. Reason to be thankful, number 1.

They have love for all the saints - for other Christians. This isn't something that comes naturally or easily, yet it comes on conversion and grows as believers unite. Reason to be thankful, number 2.

But the one that seems to be driving the other two, their faith and their love, is the third element - 'because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.' Paul isn't speaking about their hopefulness, rather, he's talking about the certain, unshakable hope that comes through the promises of the faithful God - their future is guaranteed, and because they have grasped this, they have faith in Christ Jesus and they are being transformed to live a life of love.

I was arrested because I was challenged as to what it is we give thanks for these days. Are we captivated by numbers - just bums on seats? Are we poring over the offering plate to see if collections are up? Or are we looking for, and thankful for faith, hope and love? Offerings and attendances may be indications of an increase in faith, hope and love, but at the same time it may not!

If it's what we're looking for and thankful for, are we also working towards these things?

What are the things our local church is famous for - how are we being talked about in the community? What are the things we will give thanks for as we approach another Sunday, and as we reflect on our time together on Sunday morning?

May it always be faith in Christ, love for all the saints, because of this sure hope.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sermon: Acts 2:42-47 The First Church

Does anyone recognise this picture? What is it? What is it used for? Who travels in it?
It is, of course, a TARDIS, a time machine used by Dr Who. He can go to any point in the universe, at any point in time, where he meets with people from history and fights against the aliens. I wasn't sure how many of you would recognise this, but it seems that lots of you watched Dr Who on Saturday nights.

If you could go back in a time machine, what would you do? What would you want to see happening? If you could be there to see something in the Bible, what would you choose? It might be David fighting Goliath, or maybe Jesus feeding the 5000 people. Lots of possibilities.

What about going to see the first church? You might be asking yourself what it looked like; what they did; who were they? The thing is, we don't need a TARDIS and Dr Who to see the first church, we just need our Bible reading today, and Dr Luke, who wrote it for us.

Luke writes down what it was like on the first day of the church. It was the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem. That morning, there were 120 people who loved Jesus and were waiting for the promised Holy Spirit. By the end of the day, after Peter had preached, another 3000 people joined the church! But what were they doing?

The first thing that might have surprised you was - there was no church building. They didn't have a building like ours, where they gathered on a Sunday morning. Instead, they met in people's homes, and at the temple, just wherever they were.

Luke gives us four features of things the first church did, and I've got some pictures to help us see what they were.

1. They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching... - who were the apostles? They were the men who had been with Jesus, who had heard him teach, had seen him do all those miracles, had met with him risen from the dead. Just think of it - if 3000 people who had never met Jesus needed to know about him, to get to know him, how would they do it? Those who had learnt from Jesus were teaching the others.

It's a bit like those of us who weren't alive during the second world war. How could we find out about it? We could ask the people who do remember it - perhaps even some who are in church this morning. These days we don't have any apostles around - they would be even older than the people who can remember the second world war! So how can we be sure that we're learning what the apostles taught?

Even though we don't have the apostles themselves, we still have their teaching - they wrote it down in what is the New Testament - the story of Jesus, and the apostles, and letters to new churches and Christians. So when we open the Bible, we are hearing what the apostles teach, because it is what God is speaking.

2. ... and the fellowship... - Fellowship might not be a word we use very much. It might be a word you only hear in church, one of the big words you hear of in church but don't know what it means. But think for a moment - if you have lots of new Christians, and they don't know how to be Christians, so they're hearing the apostles teaching, then how else can they be helped to live as Christians?

It's by partnership (another word for fellowship!), coming together, meeting together to support and encourage each other in their faith. The church family spends time together.

It's illustrated by the Lord of the Rings - which none of you may have seen. In the first book or movie of three (very long books and movies they are too...), nine creatures set off on a mission together, and they are the Fellowship of the Ring. They come together, help each other, in order to complete the mission and destroy the ring to defeat the evil power. We're on a mission too, as we want to tell people about Jesus, and we need each other for help and support and encouragement.

3. ... the breaking of bread... - when do we break bread in church? It's at the Communion service, isn't it? We break bread to remember Jesus, his death and resurrection - it's the reason there's a church at all. As we break bread we share together - something we see the church doing as they cared for each other and helped those in need.

4. ... and prayer - remember that as they do all this together, as they seek to learn from God and remember Jesus' sacrifice and support each other, we can't do it alone. We need the power and help of God, asking God to help us.

So as the church did these four things - four things that we still do today - they cared for the needy, shared what they had, praised God, and every day, more people joined them, as the Lord added daily to their number those who were being saved.

What about us? We have the same four features of church life, will we change the world? Are we committed to church, to helping each other do just that? Let's pray.

This sermon was preached at the Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 16th October 2011

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sermon: Habakkuk 3: 17-19 Joy in Despair

Tonight it is easy to give thanks to God, surrounded by all the good things God has given us. We celebrate God’s provision, the fruit, and vegetables, flowers, fish and livestock and all our food. It’s easy to say that God is good when we see it in material blessings. But what if our circumstances aren’t just as pleasant? What if we suffered total wipeout? Would we still be as quick to praise?

For you it might not be a lack of fig blossoms, or no olive oil; but what if you were to lose your job, or get bad news in the doctor’s surgery? Could we still praise the Lord in the midst of these circumstances?

Our reading may not have been one you were expecting for a harvest thanksgiving, and yet, as I was preparing, this was the passage I kept coming back to. The prophet Habakkuk (as well as not being easy to say or spell), is one of the lesser known prophets, his short book tucked away near the end of the Old Testament. Yet his message, and in particular his trust in God, speaks volumes to us, and challenges us as to where we put our trust.

This little book is a two-way conversation between Habakkuk and his God. Habakkuk looks at society around him, God’s people are failing to live in the way they should, and he cries out ‘O LORD, how long?’ Why isn’t God doing something to help his people? God’s reply is surprising and terrifying - he is bringing the Chaldeans (Babylonians) on Judah. He’s bringing a worse, more evil people, to discipline Judah, God’s people. How can this be? Well, as God says, this is how he has chosen to act - but one day Babylon too will be brought down.

So as we come to chapter 3, Habakkuk responds in prayer. He appeals to God to act as he did before, in salvation and judgment, just as he did when he brought Israel out of Egypt. And it’s as if Habakkuk is sitting watching the enemy arrive, coming over the hill to defeat his people, God’s people. How will Habakkuk respond?

He knows dark days are coming. Difficult days are just around the corner. Total devastation and destruction of their way of life; their farms and livings wiped out. In verse 17, it’s as if Habakkuk takes you on a tour of his farm, as if working through a checklist of his produce:

‘Fig tree? Did not blossom. Vines? No grapes. Olive? No produce. Fields? No crops. Fold? Empty of flocks. Stalls? No herd present.’ Can you imagine this farm with nothing growing but weeds; nothing to eat, or sell, or make. Completely bare. ‘Disaster on a total scale’ writes one commentator. A disastrous harvest. So how would you respond?

Or perhaps farming means slightly less to you. What if there was no food in any of the shops; even Tesco and Asda were bare? How would you respond? Or if you were to get your P45, no job and no prospects? What do you do now?

In these last few days we’ve seen a total meltdown in the world of Blackberries - not the fruit to make jam - but the mobile phone. Something wasn’t working, and for three days, peoples’ phones and internet wasn’t working. To hear some people on Facebook complaining it was as if their world had ended! It was the same with the iPhone, upgrading to the latest software with phones crashing - as the headline writers hoped it was Apple and Blackberry Crumble.

Maybe you’re not fussed about so-called smart phones; not worried about unemployment; but what is that one thing you couldn’t do without, the thing you care about most - perhaps your grandchildren, or your possessions, or your pet hamster. How would you cope without that?

Put yourself in Habakkuk’s shoes for a moment. What do you expect him to say next? He’s gone through the farm stock list, and it’s completely empty. How would you continue? We have nothing so... pull yourself together God, what do you think you’re doing? Don’t you care about us God, can’t you see we’re fading away here?

Let’s see what Habakkuk says: ‘Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no heard in the stalls, yet will I rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.’

I’m almost certain you didn’t expect to hear the word rejoice, or joy. We’re suffering terribly, and yet Habakkuk wants to rejoice? How can he rejoice in suffering? Is it possible for us to do the same?

In those two lines, Habakkuk refers to God in two different ways, which together show us why he continues to rejoice, even in those difficult times. ‘Yet I will rejoice in the LORD.’ The LORD (capital letters), otherwise Yahweh / Jehovah, is the covenant name of God. It’s God’s name revealed to Moses when he called to him from the burning bush. The Lord God Almighty chose the people of Israel to be his people, and he would be their God. He has pledged himself to care and protect them through the covenant with them at Mount Sinai - and it’s this covenant making and covenant keeping God that Habakkuk is trusting in.

Even when the people of God have failed him, have walked away from him, the LORD is still keeping his covenant with them, working his purposes out. It’s this faithfulness of the LORD of the covenant that leads Habakkuk to rejoice.

So often we can get so attached to stuff that it becomes like a god to us - an idol. As those things are removed from us, everything comes back into perspective, and we see more clearly that we don’t need God and stuff - that God is enough for all that we need, and that he is in control.

Just think of Job, the prosperous man of the Old Testament with his sons and daughters and sheep and camels and oxen and donkeys and servants. In one day, it was all taken away from him, and how does he respond? ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed by the name of the LORD.’ Can we say that, as we face difficult days? But what is it that allows us to say that? How can we lose so much or suffer in incredible ways and yet still hold fast to God?

We see it in the second way Habakkuk describes God. He says: ‘I will take joy in the God of my salvation.’ Habakkuk has a personal relationship with God - he knows him as his own Saviour. And this makes all the difference.

God is not just an abstract concept; not just a bearded man sitting on a cloud - the Lord God Almighty, the covenant making God is my Saviour - his covenant is with me; he is my rescuer!

Friends, I do not know what circumstances and situations you find yourself in tonight. I don’t know what problems you brought with you this evening, or what awaits you in the days to come. You might even think that what Habakkuk had to deal with was as nothing compared to the weight of the burden you’re carrying this evening. Friend, you do not need to deal with it alone. Even tonight, you can find that the Lord God draws near to help you in time of need; that the Lord God will be your salvation - through the work of the wonderful Saviour Jesus.

The apostle Paul writes of Jesus: ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.’ (2 Cor 8:9) These riches we’re promised aren’t earthly riches, not gold or money; but heavenly riches, the incomparable riches of his grace, freely given to us. And this is what the Lord Jesus went through to save us and grace us:

‘who, for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, ‘ (Heb 12:2) The Lord Jesus lost, not just his farming, not just his produce, but everything in order to save us and restore us:

‘who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross.’

When we see what the Lord Jesus endured in order to rescue us; to be our salvation, then we can face our problems confident that God stands with us, that his love is constantly with us - and that’s something we can rejoice in, even in the darkest day. With Habakkuk we can say that ‘God the Lord is my strength.’ He will keep us going, no matter what we’re facing.

You might have been a Christian for a long time, but it’s so easy to get caught up with material things that we lose sight of the blessings we have in Christ Jesus. As an African Christian said in our home church a long time ago - you in Northern Ireland have God and stuff; we just have God. But God is enough!

Maybe you have heard of Jesus, you know the salvation he offers, but you’ve never taken that step of faith. The Lord is near, he will become your salvation this night, if you will simply trust in him - you need not fear the future with the Lord Jesus as your salvation and your strength. Let us pray.

This sermon was preached at the Harvest Thanksgiving in Cornafanog Mission Hall on Thursday 13th October 2011.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Sermon: John 10: 1-18 The Good Shepherd

In our Bible reading tonight, Jesus describes himself in two ways - the door, and the good shepherd. As you’ve already noticed, the chapter is full of pictures of sheep, and how the sheep relate to the shepherd, and tonight we’re going to look at the good shepherd to see why he is the good shepherd; and what it will mean for us to have him as our shepherd.

Chapter 10 doesn’t stand in isolation, rather it continues on from the end of chapter 9, so let’s get the background right first. Jesus has healed a man who was blind from birth; given him sight. But some of the religious leaders didn’t like this sort of thing happening, and threw the man out of the synagogue because he had put his trust in Jesus, the Christ.

Jesus is speaking against these religious leaders, these Pharisees, contrasting himself with them, showing us what a good and true shepherd will be like. In verse 1, he regards them as ‘a thief and a robber’; later they’re described as strangers; as ‘the thief [who] comes only to steal and kill and destroy.’

Throughout Israel’s history, they had been portrayed as the flock of God. Just think of Psalm 23, or those words from Psalm 95 ‘For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.’ (Ps 95:7) The people of God were his flock, and God appointed shepherds over his people. Whether they were kings or religious leaders (priests), these shepherds failed in their task. They were too interested in their own position; they would exploit the flock for their own gain.

Ezekiel 34 is the key condemnation of these false shepherds: ‘1The word of the LORD came to me: 2 "Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. 4 The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts.’

What will God do? ‘ 11"For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out...22I will rescue[b] my flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep. 23And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the LORD; I have spoken.’
These religious leaders, the Pharisees are still leading the flock astray; they’re still out for their own power and prestige and position. And what Jesus is saying here is that he has come - just as God promised in the Old Testament - the good shepherd is here.

Jesus is the good shepherd, and we’re going to look at three ways in which he is the good shepherd: 1. Jesus cares; Jesus saves; and Jesus calls.

Jesus cares. In verse 12, Jesus gives us a picture of a hired hand. They’re happy to take the money; will do the job so long as it’s fair weather, but once danger comes along, then they’re out of there. When a wolf comes to attack, the hired hand doesn’t care for the sheep; he just wants to save his own life, so he escapes, and leaves the wolf a tasty dinner of lamb.

In contrast, Jesus is the good shepherd because he cares for the sheep; he lays down his life for the sheep. He didn’t have to - remember the intense agony in the garden of Gethsemane as he resolved to obey the Father’s will and go to the cross. Jesus knew what lay ahead - the scourging, the mocking, the agony of the cross - he could have fled. Yet he chose to go through those pains, to lay down his life for his sheep.

Jesus died on the cross for us, his sheep who had gone astray. Jesus died because he cared for us, because he loved us.

Jesus cares; and because Jesus cares, he lay down his life in order to save us. In verse 9 Jesus says ‘I am the door’. In other versions it’s translated gate. But what does he mean? If you imagine a sheep pen, Middle Eastern pens were an enclosure of stone walls, but there was a gap to get in and go out through. The shepherd lay in the gap - he became the door, the way in and the protection for the sheep. As Jesus continues: ‘I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.’

Jesus is the only way of salvation - as he declares in John 14: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ To enter by Jesus, is to find safety, shelter, salvation - while the thieves and predators lurk outside. It really is the difference between life and death:

‘The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.‘ Abundant, overflowing, never-ending life is on offer if we will but come in, if we have the Lord Jesus as our shepherd.

Perhaps you’re longing to experience this salvation, this abundant life today. You’re only too aware that each of us face death, you have no hope beyond it. You hear those words of the Apple Boss Steve Jobs, who died this week and think that’s just the way things are - you live, you die. Could there be this abundant life available; could you have your life turned around by having the good shepherd as your shepherd? How is it possible?

It’s all about hearing the shepherd’s voice, and following his call. Jesus gives us another picture of the shepherd, as he takes the sheep on towards the good pasture. But how does he move the sheep?
The Shepherd
Does he jump on his 4x4 quad and whistle for the sheepdogs and drive the sheep along from behind? That may be how the farmers do it these days, but that’s not how the middle eastern farmer did it. Rather than going behind, the shepherd goes out in front:

‘The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.’

The sheep know the shepherd’s voice, and they obey it. I wonder if you’ve ever noticed the logo of the music shop HMV. It’s a dog sitting beside a gramophone, listening intently, because it’s an exact reproduction of His Master’s Voice. It must be the same for us Christians, the sheep of the good shepherd. We listen out for and obey the Master’s voice as he leads us on.

Have you heard the good shepherd’s voice? Perhaps even tonight as we’ve been looking at this chapter you’ve heard the voice of Jesus, telling you of his care and love for you that took him to Calvary to die on the cross for you; the salvation he offers to you, life in all its fullness. Jesus is calling to you to come, follow, listen, and find life.

But it’s not just about to be Christians or new Christians who need to listen. The whole Christian life is about listening to the good shepherd’s voice and following him, not just today, but every day; for the rest of our life. Even though it’s hard - and I know it’s hard with lots of different voices trying to entice you in lots of different ways: keep on listening, keep on hearing the Master as you read his word, as you hear his word taught, as you grow closer to him.

O let me hear thee speaking in accents clear and still,
Above the storms of passion, the murmurs of self-will.
O speak to reassure me, to hasten or control;
O speak, and make me listen, thou guardian of my soul.

Jesus, the good shepherd is calling. Are you listening? Are you following? Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached at the Harvest Thanksgiving service in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 9th October 2011.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Sermon: Mark 15: 22-39 The Cross of Christ

‘I believe in... Jesus Christ... He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead.’ It’s the one thing that most people probably know about Jesus, even if they’ve never darkened the door of a church. Jesus was crucified - died on a cross. After all, it’s there in each of the four gospels, with so much detail about how it all happened.

Backlit Cross

If you’ve ever read a biography of someone famous, there’ll be a lot of material on their life, relationships, achievements, work, and perhaps a short chapter at the very end on how they died. But if you think of the gospels, there is nearly as much about Jesus’ last week, his last hours, as there is about the whole 33 years leading up to that week. Matthew has 28 chapters, with the last 7 about Holy Week. Luke has 24 chapters, and by chapter 9, he’s already on his way up to Jerusalem. By John 12, (of 21) Jesus is in Bethany six days before the Passover; while in Mark, of his 16 chapters, 6 are set in Jerusalem in Jesus’ final week. Why such emphasis on Jesus’ last week and his death?

Let’s be clear straight away. Jesus’ death was not a tragic accident, happening too soon; a young life cut down in his prime. Nor was it that he was playing with fire and got caught, the religious leaders and Romans being too powerful or too crafty for him. No, the reason the gospels spend so much time detailing Jesus’ death is because it was for this very reason he came into the world.

This morning we’re going to look at three short sayings around the cross, which will, I hope, show us just why Jesus had to die. We’ll also see what it means for us. You’ll find them all in Mark 15, on page 51.

The Creed reminds us that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate. We find his verdict of Jesus in verse 14. Jesus has been brought by the Jewish leaders to be tried, but Pilate finds nothing wrong with Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel he declares that he finds him innocent. Jesus Christ has done no wrong, yet Pilate is in a tricky position. There’s a riot kicking off in his front yard, so he tries to pacify the crowd by offering a choice - Barrabas or Jesus. Who would they like to be freed? A scheming murderer and rebel; or the blameless Jesus?

They choose Barrabas - what should Pilate do with Jesus? ‘Crucify him!’ Verse 14: ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ No one can convict Jesus of any wrong, yet the shouts grow louder ‘Crucify him!’

Jesus, the sinless one, is crucified. He does not deserve it. As if that wasn’t enough, though, the chief priests and the scribes (the religious leaders) come to watch him die, mocking him as he hangs on the cross. Let’s see what they said, what the Lord endured: ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’

These leaders speak better than they know - in their mockery they actually speak the truth. Jesus could have come down from the cross. Remember in the garden Jesus says to Peter he could call on twelve legions of angels to rescue him - but had he escaped the cross, he could not save anyone else. In order to save others, he could not save himself. What wonderful love of the Saviour to go to the cross, willingly, in order to save us!

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 be thinking - why did Jesus have to die to save us? Why can’t God just forgive sins without the death of his Son? Remember that we’ve already seen that Jesus us innocent, has done nothing wrong; and in order to save us, he could not save himself.

Ever since the Garden of Eden, we have been separated from God because of our sin. Adam and Eve walked in the garden, but once they sinned, they hid from God, and were banished from the garden. In order to bring us near to God, reconcile us to God, Jesus had to deal with our sin, bearing the punishment of separation (death) we deserved.

We find our last saying in verse 34: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Do you hear the force of those words? The one who existed in perfect relationship with the Father before time began is cut off, separated, forsaken. All because he bears our sin - it’s as if the Father can’t bear to look at him, God turns his back.

In that moment, Jesus is forsaken, in order to save us. But how can we be sure his death was effective? How can we be sure that our sins can now be forgiven because of the cross? The answer comes in the most amazing thing that happens at that very moment. And it’s so important that Matthew and Luke and Mark all record it. But it doesn’t happen at the cross - if it were a film, the scene would move from the cross to the other side of town, to the temple, where something amazing and terrifying is happening: ‘And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.’

This wasn’t just a curtain in one of the windows, a piece of interior design. Nor was it a bargain offer from Harry Corry in a floral print. This was the curtain standing at the entrance of the Most Holy Place, where God’s presence was in the heart of the temple.

The curtain was 60 feet high, and four inches thick. The message is clear: Keep out! No entry! You are too sinful to enter God’s presence! You are separated from God! Only the high priest, and only once a year, and only bringing blood could enter - on the Day of Atonement. Suddenly, as Jesus dies, the curtain is torn in two, and we have access to God; we can boldly come through the death of Jesus.

There’s a song which goes like this: ‘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!’

It’s fitting that we share in the Communion today, as we rejoice in Jesus’ death, and what that means for us. We are no longer separated; our sins are forgiven; we can draw near. We trust not in our own achievements; only in the cross of Jesus.

Perhaps you’ve never experienced this forgiveness - you know that you’re separated from God, your sins are against you. You can come, even today; accept that what Jesus has done on the cross is for you - your sins on his shoulders, and find forgiveness and peace and reconciliation. Things will never be the same again!

Perhaps you’re a Christian, but you find that you still sin - come again to the cross, and find forgiveness for all sins.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 9th October 2011.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Sermon: Psalm 34:8 Taste and See

Today is harvest, and as you came into church this morning you might have noticed all the sights and smells of the flowers and fruit and vegetables. The church is really well decorated. We can see all the good things God has given to us. But as well as the sights and smells there are also the tastes!

In my home church, we had the harvest weekend services, and on the Monday afternoon we hosted the High School harvest. Some times, some of the boys would take an apple from the window, take a bite of it, then put it back - with the teeth marks hidden at the back! They were enjoying the tastes of harvest!

We're going to think about tastes for a moment or two. What are you favourite foods? [Kids answer with chicken, chocolate etc] What about your least favourite foods? [Brussels Sprouts, cabbage etc...]

This morning I've brought some foods along with me to taste, and I need a volunteer. Just in case there are any allergies, I'm going to ask Alan, the churchwarden to come up and help me. And don't worry, Alan, we've got a doctor and several nurses in the congregation in case you collapse!

So we'll put the blindfold on, and give you the samples of food. What are they? [Four samples of foods in little tupperware boxes, with spoons to give samples: 1. tomato ketchup; 2. honey; 3. lemon juice; 4. chocolate]

There were some horrible things and some nice things - which would you like the most? [Kids all chose the chocolate] But what happens when you're given something new? Will you try it or leave it? You never know if you like something until you try it. It might be brussels sprouts, or cabbage, or even snails! Lynsey and me were on holiday in France a few years back and a plate of snails came out - we had to try them to see if we liked them, and they were ok! [Disclaimer - don't try eating the snails in the garden at home...]
Snails. Yum Yum
Psalm 34:8 says this: 'Taste and see that the LORD is good.' What that means is that you have to get to know God, see what God is really like. Just think of all that he has done, giving us life, this earth, weather, food, families, everything we need. God is good.

But more than that, the Lord is good because he sent Jesus to die on the cross to bring us back to God so that we can enjoy God's good things not just now, but for ever. Jesus 'suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.' (Heb 2:9). Jesus has tasted death so that we don't have to = we don't have to fear death.

When you get home, you might have a big lunch today. There might even be new things to try. As you taste your food today, or if you try anything new this week, remember our Bible verse: 'Taste and see that the LORD is good.' Do you know that?

This sermon was preached at the Family Harvest Thanksgiving in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 2nd October 2011