Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Book Review: Dead Interesting

A couple of weeks ago, a parcel landed through our letterbox, having journeyed the whole way from Dublin (via our old address!). Inside, I discovered a book that was fairly quickly read and immensely enjoyed.

Dead Interesting is a compilation of stories from the graveyards of Dublin, written by one of the tour guides at Glasnevin Cemetery, Shane MacThomáis, and is a fascinating dander through not just the graveyards, but also the full sweep of modern Irish history. Each chapter is short, just a couple of pages, with at least one illustration (one of which is a picture I had taken). This book is guaranteed to make you laugh, cry, and learn, in equal measure.

Where else would you be guided through the graves of famous and infamous Irish men; the resting places of Jews and Hugenots; the cholera pits and mass graves; and be informed about graverobbers and funeral rites? There are many memorable and quirky stories contained within, of which these are just a small sample: the boxer's mother who bared her breasts in public; the two brothers buried side by side, one a British soldier and one an Irish rebel; fighters from both sides of the Spanish Civil War; and perhaps the most strange of all, the Belfast member of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) buried in the Republican Plot at Glasnevin.

There was just one tiny error in the book, as the author deals with the story of Margorie McCall, with the claim that her burial place was the Shankill graveyard in Belfast. It's actually the Shankill graveyard in Lurgan, from which she emerged to live again for a while, frightening her family as she landed on the doorstep fresh from her grave. But it's an easy mistake to make, given that most people would think of Belfast as being the Shankill in question.

All in all, this is a great little book, and one I thoroughly enjoyed reading. I'm very grateful to Shane for sending me a copy of it on its publication, and wish him every success for the book. Copies are available from the publishers.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Book Review: The Holiness of God

If there is one characteristic of God that is poorly understood in the church and the world today, it is probably God's holiness. We want to make God in our image and likeness, to mould him the way we think he should be. Surely we have no place for holiness in the God we want?

RC Sproul takes up his pen to explore, explain and expose the holiness of God and its necessity. Through the book he shows how holiness isn't an optional extra that we can reject, but rather that it is a fundamental part of who God is - indeed, the very heart of who God is. Indeed, it is inescapable throughout the Scriptures: 'The one concept, the central idea I kept meeting in Scripture, was the idea that God is holy... it is basic to our whole understanding of God and of Christianity.'

The opening chapter is a compelling story, a retelling of Sproul's encounter with God's holiness, which draws the reader in. Many writers could take note of the way he breathlessly brings the reader with him to that midnight chapel: 'I was alone with God. A holy God. An awesome God. A God who could fill me with terror in one second and with peace in the next.'

I must confess that some of the other chapters aren't just as thrilling, and at times I found it harder to read, whether through my dullness or what, I don't know. There were moments when I wouldn't agree with everything that was said (but then, what would I ever completely agree with?), but there were enough gems to make the reading of this book very profitable.

'There is a pattern here... God appears, people quake in terror, God forgives and heals, God sends. From brokenness to mission is the human pattern.'

'The delay of justice was not the denial of justice but the establishing of mercy and grace.'

'Even though God gave no answers, Job's questions were put to rest. He received a higher answer than any direct reply could have provided. God answered Job's questions not with words but with himself.'

I'm happy to recommend this book, coming as it does with Sproul's passion for God's word and his clarity at explaining that word. Prepare to meet your God, and to give thanks for his holiness and his grace.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sermon: Ephesians 2:11-22 Extreme Makeover - God's Home Edition

Home makeover shows are very popular these days on TV. Whether it’s the American ‘Extreme Makeover - Home Edition’ or the more British DIY SOS, I’m sure you know the format. At the start of the programme, you’re shown a house that has seen better days. The heating has never properly worked, the floorboards are more than a little creaky, if someone leaned on a wall, they’d be through into the kitchen. The family are whisked away, an army of professionals are drafted in, and the house is transformed. The before and after pictures are amazing - it’s hard to believe it’s the same house.

In our Bible reading today, we find a makeover that is even more amazing; and if you’re a Christian, then this is a renovation programme that you yourself have been featured in. Paul is writing to the church in Ephesus, a city where some Jews believed in the good news about Jesus, but most of the new believers were Gentiles. In the letter so far, Paul has been reminding the Christians in Ephesus about all the blessings they have received in Jesus (chapter 1), before making it more personal in chapter 2, reminding them that God made them alive in Christ by his grace. So here, he shows them another aspect of what it means to be a Christian, to receive these blessings, and to have hope.

First up, he shows them the ‘before’ picture. These Gentiles were strangers and foreigners - complete outsiders compared to the family of God. That’s what he says in verse 12 - summarised at the end by ‘having no hope and without God in the world.’ This is the situation all of us are in by ourselves - far from God, and with no hope.

As if that wasn’t enough, they were also separated from God’s people, the Jews, by a big ‘dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us’ (i.e. between Jews and Gentiles). Now we’re all too familiar with dividing walls in Northern Ireland - the so-called peace walls in Belfast; but this was the wall between Jews and Gentiles - Paul might be thinking of the wall at the temple in Jerusalem, beyond which outsiders could not enter on pain of death, as a sign of the whole Old Testament Law, which marked the Jew out as special and separate.

So that’s the before. Just like some of the houses featured in these programmes, the prospects for the Gentile aren’t good. Our prospects weren’t that good either, apart from God. If you’re not a Christian today, then that verdict still stands. the makeover is still needed.

Jump forward to the end of the programme, to see the ‘after’ picture, and what a change we find. In verse 13, ‘But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near.’ There is peace (15), and access to the Father (18). Now, believing Gentiles are ‘citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.’

Rather than being on the outside, excluded, missing out; people of all nations and languages are included in God’s household, welcomed to the family table, given a place. Think of a young boy who travels to London on a school trip, and goes to visit Buckingham Palace. They can only get so far - the railings and gates and guards all say ‘keep out.’ But imagine if that child was adopted by the Queen - he would have access through the gates, right to the dining table at state banquets. This is the sort of change Paul is describing here.

What a transformation! The contrast is incredible, yet it’s all true. Sometimes you hear of these makeover shows going badly wrong - the residents hate what has been done, and they quickly get rid of the supposed improvements. But these changes are so wonderful that you would never want to go back to the before.

The bulk of these programmes, though, features the work that’s done on the house. They might be a team paid by the makers of the show, or it could be a volunteer labour force. the presenter will be shown interviewing some of them, there’ll be speeded up footage of the renovations, the plastering, tiling, and the rest of the work.

What about the transformation of the Gentiles? What kind of workforce enabled the demolition of the dividing wall? What kind of effort was needed to provide access for us, who were strangers and aliens? Was there a wrecking ball? A team with heavy mallets? Some dynamite? There was no big workforce. No huge crowd doing their bit. Just a workforce of one, doing the work that only he could do; paying the price that only he could pay:

‘But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh... he has broken down the dividing wall... and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross.’

The wall has been washed away by his blood; as Jesus died, he abolished the law, giving us free access to God; and reconciling us to God and to each other. Did you notice in verse 16 that both groups - both Gentiles and Jews - needed to be reconciled to God?

The hostility between Jew and Gentile has been removed, and instead there is one new humanity - in Christ. You see, we’re saved by grace, not by race - salvation is for all who believe, not just for Jews, indeed, not only for Jews. Together, we make up the household of God.

As Paul mentions the household of God, he jumps to another picture, not so much of a household of people, but of the building of the house itself. God is building a house for himself, and as people come to Jesus, they are being included in the building. It’s probably more of a dry stone wall, where each stone is unique, and each has its own special place, joining together to build the house. The foundations are in place - the apostles and prophets, but the most important bit is the cornerstone, the stone that holds it all together, the one you build from - Jesus himself.

I wonder if this story is your story? Having been far from God, separated from him, without hope and without God, through Jesus you have been brought near and found peace. If it is, then remember your story - never forget what Jesus has done; the change he has brought; the guaranteed future he has secured for you; the place that you have in the church, in God’s dwelling, that no one else can possibly fulfil.

Perhaps you’re still at the beginning; still a stranger to God’s mercy and grace. the invitation stands for you today. You too can appear in this transformation; you too can be welcomed in, building your life on Jesus, and knowing peace with God.

Just as Jesus came and proclaimed peace to those who were near and far, so we must continue to proclaim this offer of peace and pardon - it’s why we try to understand and teach the Bible here; it’s why we are committed to helping and supporting mission both here and overseas. As the message of Jesus is heard, so people are drawn in, and God’s building work continues as we are joined together, reconciled to him and to one another, to the praise of his glorious grace. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 26th February 2012.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sermon: Matthew 5: 1-16 How to be Happy

What is the recipe for happiness? What would it take for you to be happy? I don’t know how you would answer that question of how to be happy - perhaps a tropical sandy beach and waiter service? It might be going fishing every day and not catching a cold.

‘Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ may be the American Dream, but it seems that everyone is pursuing happiness in some shape or fashion. The lifestyle magazines in the newsagents are bursting with hints and tips on how to be happy - you really need this diet or that pair of jeans or these curtains - and the TV portrays the picture of happiness if you’re ten years younger or looking good naked or with your garden makeover or your DIY nightmares fixed.

For some, money is the answer. It has been said that ‘poverty is a great enemy to human happiness’ (Samuel Johnson), while a character in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park declares that ‘a large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of. It certainly may secure all the myrtle and turkey part of it.’ If you were to ask people how much money they need to be happy, the answer is likely to be, just a bit more... Yet despite wage increases and the recent boom years, happiness hasn’t increased.

Happiness always appears to be just around the corner - we’re not there yet, but it’s almost within our grasp - once we finish school; once we get a boyfriend or girlfriend; once we’re married; once we have kids; once the kids move out; once we retire... always grasping, but never really finding happiness.

Is it impossible to be truly happy? Despite the claims of our society, it seems that we’re as far away from happiness as ever. Perhaps we’re going about it the wrong way. When you get a new piece of equipment, what do you do first? Do you try to turn it on and get stuck in, or do you read the ‘start guide’ and the instructions? Most men, it seems, plough on ahead, but often we don’t get it right - things will work better if we follow the maker’s plan.

Perhaps we need to hear the Author of life, to see what true happiness will look like. In our reading tonight, we tune in to Jesus as he begins the sermon on the mount. In those opening verses, we quickly see the pattern - nine verses in a row all begin with the same word: blessed. Now that’s a word we hear and use in church, but what does it mean? Some translators use the word ‘happy’ here, which helps us see part of what it points to. You see, we think of happiness being fleeting - it comes and goes, depending on our mood and our circumstances. Being blessed is a deeper happiness, a contentedness, the underlying joy that comes from being approved by God.

Yet what Jesus says is the opposite of what the world imagines when it thinks of happiness. Just look at the first one: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ We think that heaven is for the bold and the brave, the great and the good, the healthy and wealthy. We’re likely to look down on people who are poor in spiritual terms, yet Jesus says (to our shock!) that theirs is the kingdom of heaven - they receive God’s blessing.

Or think of what we teach our kids - to succeed in the world you need to push yourself forward, make the most of your opportunities, get the advantage over your opponent. But Jesus says blessed are the meek; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the peacemakers.

So often you hear people say that they’re just sermon on the mount Christians - if everyone would just live by the sermon on the mount, we’d all be well. The thing is, though, that as Jesus declares the blessings, we realise all too quickly that we’re often not merciful, we’re not hungering for righteousness, we’re not pure in heart. And if we’re not those things, then there must be no blessing for us.

Should we just pick and choose? I remember when we were younger and it was a treat to go to Woolworths in Lisburn, because they had the big jars of pick and mix. All the sweet treats were displayed, and you could take just the ones you liked - no Brazil nut toffees, but extra dolly mixtures. Is this what Jesus presents here? A pick n mix spirituality, take your favourite beatitude and leave the rest?

These aren’t just separate, independent statements. The beatitudes are together for a reason. Earlier we noticed the pattern - ‘blessed are...’ Did you notice that the first one (v3) and the last one (v10) both end in the same way? ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven... blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ Why is this? Is it that Jesus ran out of endings and double up, hoping no one would spot it? Why are the first and the last the same? Jesus is saying that everything in between is connected - there is a progression in the blessings:

You see, our starting point in the kingdom is recognising our spiritual poverty. Realising that we are poor in spirit, bankrupt before God. (We’re brought to this by the prompting and conviction of the Holy Spirit). It’s when we come to this realisation that we’re blessed - unlike the church in Laodicea in Rev 3:17 ‘For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.’

As we realise our poverty, we mourn for our sins, for our situation - and God promises comfort in our distress, the forgiveness of our sins. Having our sins forgiven, we’re not confident in ourselves, but rather meek, humble - and promised the blessing of inheriting the earth. As God begins to work in our lives to change us, we begin to desire those things that God desires; to hunger and thirst for righteousness as we seek to crucify our sinful desires and to live in a way that pleases the Lord - again, we’re promised the blessing of being filled.

When we marvel at the grace of God in our lives, we begin to be merciful to others, acting toward them the way that God has acted towards us - thus being sure of God’s blessing in our lives. As we turn from sin, our hearts are purified, made new, and we are blessed in the knowledge that we will see God, that we will be with him in eternity. We’ll display the family likeness, as we seek peace and make peace; and even when persecuted, that happiness, that joy, that blessedness cannot be removed - because we know that the kingdom of heaven is ours.

This isn’t just a wee bit of fancy poetry; this is the declaration of God’s blessing on those who follow in his way; who recognise Jesus as the king. As we begin this time of Lent, it’s a useful season to reflect on our spiritual walk. Perhaps these beatitudes are new to you; you’re still caught up in the pursuit of happiness according to the ways of the world - my prayer is that you will find true happiness in the way of the Lord as Jesus outlines here.

Yet if you’re here on a wet Wednesday night, I’m assuming that most of us have already started in the way of blessing. These Wednesday nights will be a good opportunity for us to reflect on the Lord’s mercy to us, but also to hear the Lord’s call to keep going, as we love and serve and obey him. To be reminded again of those blessings that are ours; to be encouraged to keep going when the way is hard; when others exploit you and take advantage of your meekness and mercy; when you’re tempted to throw in the towel and indulge in those temptations; or when you again are confronted with your poverty of spirit and you beat yourself up over your sinfulness.

Hear the blessings that you have received - hear the approval that is yours in Christ, and look for that joy that is surely yours, whatever your circumstances or struggles.

I don’t have to tell you - but the Christian life is not easy. Look at verse 11. Jesus moves from ‘blessed are those’ to ‘blessed are you’ - he’s addressing his disciples (2), those who will face reviling and persecution and evil words. Just as Jesus suffered, so he calls us to suffer - in the same way the true people of God have suffered in the past. The disciples follow in the path of the prophets; and we too are in their line, the people of God in the midst of a hostile world.

But one thing is sure - God’s blessing in our lives will be noticeable - the joy will be evident to all; Jesus describes his disciples as salt and light - both very obvious and hard to miss. My brother-in-law made a curry the other evening, and while we didn’t taste it, all who had eaten it said that there was too much salt - it made its presence felt.

In the same way, a city on a hill cannot be hidden - as those around us see our lives, they’ll spot that we’re somehow different. In the world’s lifelong pursuit of happiness, which never really satisfies; we have the answer - a joy that naturally overflows, a testimony to the blessings of Christ and the glory of God. So keep going, and if I may say it, keep glowing, as the light of Christ shines in us and through us. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Ash Wednesday 22nd February 2012.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Stuck in the Mud

Spot the townie would have been easy on Friday morning.

Attached to the Rectory, there are twenty-seven acres of Glebe land which are let out to a farmer each year. Before the letting season begins, some members of the Select Vestry went for a walk of the fields, and I went with them.

I had my wellies on, but I definitely wasn't prepared for what we encountered. The fields are fairly hilly, and at the bottom of the hills, there was an awful lot of mud. Proper sticky sucky mud. I went down in, as far as my knees, and promptly realised I was stuck. I hadn't the ability to get my leg out, as I continued to sink. It even felt as if I was going to leave my wellington boot behind. I was stuck in the mud.

I couldn't get out myself, and so had to call for help. Thankfully the men were kind (as they had a good laugh) and pulled me out. I needed a rescue. Not once, not even twice, but three times, I got properly stuck.

It reminded me of the words of Psalm 40, and the rescue God provides as he saves his people:

I waited patiently for the LORD;
he inclined to me and heard my cry,
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the LORD. (Psalm 40:1-3)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sermon: Ephesians 1: 15-23 Praying in Christ

Wee Jonny was kneeling by the side of his bed one night, saying his prayers. Really loudly, he prayed: ‘God, please give me a new bike!’ His mum walked into the bedroom and said, ‘Jonny, why are you praying so loudly? God’s not deaf.’ ‘No,’ says Jonny, ‘But granny is.’ Jonny knew what to pray for, and how to pray for it!

You see, sometimes when we see friends, we might say ‘I’ll be praying for you,’ or ‘You’re in my prayers.’ But then when it comes to the praying, we don’t really know what it is we should be praying for.

Hopefully you, like me, want to become better in your prayers. You’re just not satisfied when your prayer life settles into the God bless the world and the church and the cat. Rather, you want to be praying specific prayers which make an impact on the situation, and help the person being prayed for. How do we do this?
Paul is writing to the Christians in Ephesus. He opens the letter with an amazing outpouring of praise to God because of the great blessings that God has showered on us who are in Christ. These include the choosing for adoption, redemption, forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ blood, and being marked with a seal – the Holy Spirit – guaranteeing our inheritance.

It is for this reason that Paul gives thanks to God for them! Remember that Paul had left Ephesus to move on to other places to preach there too. But now he is hearing that they have continued in their faith, and also of their love for God’s people. What great news!

Notice, though, that Paul doesn’t congratulate the Ephesians for believing – rather he thanks God for their faith and love – who, as the earlier part of chapter 1 reminds us, pours out his glorious grace.

Paul thanks God for them at all times – he has not stopped giving thanks. But more than that, look at verse 16, he also remembers them in his prayers. Even in celebrating all that they have achieved (through God’s grace), he prays that they will continue. So what is it that Paul prays for them?

First of all, he prays that God will give them the Spirit of wisdom and revelation so that they will know him better. How much we all need that! Is there anyone who thinks that they don’t need to know God better? But Paul’s not finished there. He prays that they will have the eyes of their heart enlightened, to see God better, and to know him.

This knowing God better, through the Spirit, through having their eyes enlightened, comes in three specific areas: hope, riches and power.

Paul prays that the Ephesians ‘may know what is the hope to which he has called you.’ Notice earlier in the passage, verse 15, that he was thanking God for their faith and their love. Now he’s praying that their hope will come onboard.

Notice, though, that it isn’t just a vague hope – it is intimately bound up in God – ‘the hope to which he has called you.’ The God who has blessed us with so much, is the God who calls us, and who is our hope.

Next, Paul prays that ‘you may know … the riches of his glorious inheritance in his people.’ In verse 14, Paul spoke of the Holy Spirit as ‘a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession.’ Here he continues that idea, so that in knowing God better, the Christians at Ephesus will come to know the riches of his inheritance in the saints. In sharing together, they also share in God’s inheritance together – again, it’s not a vague inheritance, but intimately bound up in God and his people.

Finally, Paul prays that ‘you may know … his incomparably great power for us who believe.’ Remember that we have been looking at how Paul thanks God for their faith and love, but continues to pray that they will move on, growing up to know God better, and that this knowing God better will help them to know the hope, the riches, and now the power.

Sometimes it can be easy to think that God is powerless. We might watch the news on TV, or read a newspaper and be overwhelmed by the devastation of war or famine. Where is God? Can God do nothing? Here Paul reminds the Ephesians that God has incomparably great power. It’s as if all through the passage he is running out of amazing and super-amazing words to describe God. This power, this work of God is working ‘for us who believe.’

As an illustration of this power of God, Paul points to the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. We all know that dead people don’t come back to life. Yet the power of God not only raised Christ from the dead, but also seated him at the right hand of God – the position of power and authority, high over all rulers and authority and power etc.

This is the power of God that is working in you and for you, for us who are called to his hope, and receiving his inheritance among his saints.

Perhaps we, like the Ephesians, need to be reminded of these things that are ours through the gospel of Jesus. Maybe you’re right at the start, and need to begin with that faith in the Lord Jesus. Or maybe your love for God’s people is weak, and needs to be encouraged and strengthened.

Or perhaps you have been in the walk for a long time. The road can seem long sometimes, and you need to have your eyes opened to see just how much God has in store for you, both now and in the future. And also to see the great power of God which is for us and available to us. Oh how much we all need these things ourselves, more and more.

Yet we must also remember that we have been listening in to Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians. While it is vital that we have these things ourselves, surely we must also be challenged to pray for others – not in the general sense, but in specific prayers. As someone said to me recently, specific prayers get specific answers.

Have some of your friends recently become Christians? Thank God for them – and thank God through them as well – let them know that you’re praying for them. Pray for these things in their life.

How will your praying be changed as a result of our reading? Let’s pray indeed that we won’t be satisfied with trite prayers and vague intercessions. Rather, let’s pray that we will be a praying people, so that we might know God better, and grow together as a church under the headship of Christ, for his glory.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 12th February 2012.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Granny Jean

Life has been a bit of a blur these last few weeks, and what has happened still hasn't really sunk in. On Monday 30th January 2012, after one week in hospital, my Granny Jane McMurray, passed from this world into the joy of her Master.

Jane Hunter, known as Jean to just about everyone, was born at 'The Pole', Macadam's Crossroads in Drummiller, Dromore in April 1927 to John and Sarah Jane Hunter, one of five children - Bella, Billy, Rebecca and Ronnie. Granny worked as a stitcher, mostly in Belfast, but also in Dromore, most recently at Warners, from which she retired in 1987.

Jane met Francis McMurray of Dromore, and they were presently married:

At first, granny and granda continued to live at The Pole with the Hunters, before moving into Maypole Park, and eventually Churchview. Jackie and Yvonne were born, yet in the days after granny died, I discovered that there was unmentioned sorrow and pain in granny's life. Three other daughters were born and died within their first year of life - something I had never known about or ever heard mentioned until we were preparing the information for the tribute.

Granny had endured a lot, also having lost her right eye (with several explanations of what had happened so I'm not quite sure). Yet despite these sorrows, as well as the death of granda McMurray in 1988, granny continued to be lively, full of fun, kind, generous, dedicated, committed, and altogether lovely.

I will never forget the day when we were playing outside on our bikes and granny decided she would have a go on mine. Off she set for a quick lap of Churchview, to the bemusement and delight of Neil and me (and possibly Paul and Mark) - granny on a bike at about the age of 70!

There are so many memories that flood back, as stories were shared and moments recollected that had long been forgotten. When we were wee, the four grandchildren all went to their house for Sunday lunch after Sunday School and church, and what we had for lunch, every Sunday without fail, was 'stewed bugs and onions' - or mince and onions as you might know it. Granny's kitchen was a virtual playground with the stools imagined to be buses or cars or whatever and the table a mysterious tunnel. But the best thing about granny's kitchen was her home baking. A family friend always loved Aunt Jean's Jelly Rings, while there were pavlovas and my personal favourite, the wee pancakes fresh off the griddle.

Granny was baptised, confirmed, married and buried in Dromore Cathedral, and she gave herself in the parish in so many ways. Not so long ago, she received a certificate recognising her fifty years of membership of the Mothers' Union; she also helped at the Clayton Hall Communions, went to Bible study, helped at the Autumn Fair and other catering occasions, and played some bowls. As the Rector, Stephen Lowry said, granny was at church as often as the clergy, morning and evening for so many years.

Sunday afternoons for many years saw my wee car travel the highways and byways of the country, joined by mum and dad sometimes, but every time by granny, as we explored all around us, enjoying conversation and the views. At that time, granny was delighted to hear that I'd been accepted for training at college, with the constant question - will I ever see you ordained?

Granny made it to see me ordained,

and married.

With full determination, she even made it to our new house in Brookeborough, all those miles, to attend my Institution in Aghavea.

Granny's death, so sudden and unexpected, has been very sad. I've lost my last grandparent, and we'll no longer have granny around to call in and see or to phone up. The house will soon be cleared and returned to the Housing Executive for someone else to move in. Things will never be the same again.

Yet it's not all sad. Mixed with the tears of the last fortnight there have been laughs, and beneath all, a sure and certain confidence that we know where granny is now. No longer is she weakened by her Parkinsons and associated ailments; no more does she bear those sorrows and pains; never again will she be sorely tried by temptation.

Granny is with the Lord Jesus, in his safe keeping, already enjoying the bliss of Paradise as she waits for the resurrection and is given her new, perfect body. We know she is there, not because she was good (she wasn't) or perfect (she wasn't) or holy (she wasn't). We know she is there because she acknowledged her sin and trusted in the Saviour. From that moment on, she lived for the Lord Jesus, and not for herself, witnessing in words and ways to the saving power of Jesus.

I can still remember the nights we stayed over in granny's. Neil and me in a single bed (it wouldn't happen now - there wouldn't be room!) with the plastic bottle filled with hot water to warm the bed (a health and safety nightmare!). Granny would go to bed, but before she got in, would kneel and pray for a long time.

It's hard to say goodbye. Seeing granny in her last days in the hospital with wires and tubes and oxygen was difficult to watch as she laboured for breath. It looked as if death was winning. Death claimed another victory. But it's not the end of the story. Jesus lives, and granny lives with him, and one day she will receive her new body. No more sorrow. No more pain. No more tears. Life forever. This was granny's hope, and is ours too. We shall meet again and shall never again be separated.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Sermon Notes: Psalm 4 An Evening Prayer

Westlife sang about flying without wings; on Sunday evening in the Brooke Memorial Hall I was preaching without a script. Normally, I'm a full script preacher, but there was the opportunity to attempt to preach from just a few notes.

I'm not sure if the congregation noticed any difference, you would have to ask them, but I sure did! The notes (below) were probably fairly full, yet I was very aware of not having the full script at several points. Occasionally my language drifted back to the same few sayings, whereas a script enables a wider variety of approaches (look at, do you see, consider, think for a moment - as just one example). I also found it hard to transition from one point to the next. If the notes are the dots of the sermon, I perhaps struggled at joining them - the dots were certain, hopefully good points, but the connection and flow and sustaining were lacking.

I'm not sure how long the sermon lasted, probably about the same length as normal, but with a full script I can be more confident of the time it takes to preach a page, so I can write to length (while still allowing space for inspiration or further explanation/illustration if necessary).

For what it's worth, here are my preaching notes from Psalm 4:


Sticks and stones may break my bones
but names will never harm me?

- Verbal assault; how do you respond?
- Psalm 4 - links to Psalm 3, possibly same situation David finds himself in, fleeing from Absalom (his son), gone from Jersualem
- All we know for sure: Psalm of David, finding himself facing opposition - this time of the verbal assault

Urgent Prayer (1)

-Answer me when I call
- Description of God to whom he prays - O God of my righteousness - God is the one who justifies him
- Not the first time to pray - precedent, David calls on previous experience of answered prayer - lit. you have given me space in my narrow places
- Request for grace - knows he doesn’t deserve it

Apply: do we turn to God; when we pray knowing who we pray to and asking for urgent answer?

Confronting Enemies (2-3)

- Attack of enemies not physical (as Ps 3) but verbal
- Turning things upside down - David’s honour (as king) turned into shame
- They love vain words (delusions) and seek after lies
- Definitive answer: know LORD has set apart godly for himself; LORD hears
- Not about what others think of him; but what God thinks of him - this is what really matters - who he really is e.g. ‘Graeme’ aka Mr Philips

Apply: are we prone to run after vain words and lies too? As we look at others; talk about others?

Comforting friends (4-5)

- Seems David’s friends are as agitated for him - offended on his behalf
- David urges them to be wise - be angry, ok, but don’t sin - Paul picks up on this in Ephesians 4:26
- Instead, be silent, offer sacrifices, deal with your anger, trust in the LORD - he will right the wrong, not you!

Apply: do we choose anger too easily, which leads to sin?

Addressing God (6-8)

- Some friends despondent, is there any good? in the face of all this bad stuff happening, who will show us some good?
- David turns to the old Aaronic prayer (Numbers 6:26); asks God to shine on them; light of your face
- David finds joy in his heart from God - even in the midst of this difficult situation
more joy than some do at harvest time - or, modern example, pay day - January a long month, some looking forward to payday!
- David has peace to sleep - not due to nytol, but due to the LORD over all - LORD makes him dwell in safety

Apply: even in difficult situations, will we find peace in God and joy in God?
- All comes down to what God thinks of us -in the gospel of the Lord Jesus: God of our righteousness, regards us as godly because of his grace; protects us, and working out his good in our life, for his purpose

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 5th February 2012

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Sermon: Ephesians 1: 1-14 Blessed in Christ

There’s a very popular question being asked these days. If you own a mobile phone, I’m almost certain you’ve asked it, or been asked it, in this past week. The phone goes off in a crowded bus, or in the middle of a shop, or even if you’re in the middle of a field (and have signal!) and the person on the other end wants to know: Where are you?

That might seem an odd question to ask you this morning - you might think the preacher has gone mad. Surely we’re in Aghavea Church, but I want to ask you anyway - where are you? You see, as Paul begins his letter to the Church in Ephesus, he reminds them where they are: ‘To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus.’ (1:1).

He’s saying that they’re not just in Ephesus, they’re also in Christ, because they’re trusting in him. Yet even if we know where we are (in Aghavea, in Christ), it’s still important to see where you are - have you ever seen the street maps or the hospital map with the star or the arrow which declares ‘You are here’? Seeing where we are sometimes only makes sense when we see the big picture.

These opening verses of Ephesians give us the big picture, and show us exactly what it means to be in Christ. They take us from eternity past (before the foundation of the world in verse 4), through time, to eternity future (the fullness of time in verse 10 and our inheritance of verse 14). These fourteen verses (eight sentences in English) are one big sentence, as Paul bursts forth in praise of God because of the way he has blessed us in Christ.

There’s so much in these verses that you could take a year to explore them and still not be finished, but don’t worry, we’re just going to spend a few minutes looking at what we have in Christ.

Paul tells the Ephesians that they have been blessed in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. They lack nothing, they have been given everything they need in Christ. The rest of the sentence is like an extended version of the chorus ‘Count your blessings’, as Paul shows us what those blessings are in Christ:

We have been chosen in Christ to be holy and blameless before him - before we were even born, before the world even came into being, God had chosen you and me in Christ. We are chosen and predestined for adoption as his children, not because of any merit of our own; not because God saw in us any good thing; but simply according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace.

We have been welcomed into God’s family, not because we were good enough, or smart enough, or important enough; but simply because God gives us what we don’t deserve. It clear to see, when we consider that in Christ we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our sins. We don’t bring anything to the table, only our sinfulness. God in his grace, in Christ Jesus, has forgiven us and cleansed us, and redeemed us.

(Are you still counting?) As if that wasn’t enough, God has also revealed to us the mystery of his will, the plan God has been working on, the meaning and purpose of history - the thing we’re all heading towards: ‘to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.’ You see, Jesus is right at the centre of God’s cosmic plan and purpose, in him, everything will come together, and we have a part in God’s plan when we are in Christ.

As if it wasn’t enough that we have been blessed, chosen, loved, adopted, redeemed, forgiven, graced, informed, still there’s more. As the pew Bible puts it: ‘In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance’ - we have this inheritance waiting for us in glory in eternity - the inheritance for all who believe, both Jew and Gentile. And in the meantime, we have the pledge, the guarantee of the inheritance, the promised Holy Spirit.

Count your blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done. All these blessings are yours today, because of what Jesus has done. No matter what you’re going through, no matter how you feel, no matter how distant God may appear because of your circumstances, if you are trusting in Jesus then you have been blessed in all these ways (and more!).

Perhaps you’ll take some time through this week to come back to the passage, and reflect further on what God has done for you in Christ Jesus. Spend some time soaking in his word, marvelling at his love and grace towards you, wondering at the riches of his grace lavished upon you.

You might be wondering, though, how do we respond to this grace and love? As we’ll see in the coming weeks, the first three chapters are mostly all about doctrine - what God has done for us; and the last three chapters are about how we live in the light of that, but already in these verses there are hints as to how to respond.

The first is to praise him. Right at the start, Paul praises God because of all this as he bursts out: ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ...’. We’re told that God has done all this ‘to the praise of his glorious grace’. So as you reflect on God’s goodness, are you praising? There’s all the difference in the world between someone who thinks they deserve something by right; and someone who recognises they don’t deserve anything, and thus gives thanks and praise.

Another way we can respond is to see why God chose us in the first place - ‘to be holy and blameless before him’. This is God’s purpose for us, it’s the reason he saved us, and the reason he gives us the Holy Spirit, to live for him becoming more like Jesus. How is your holiness? Are you more like Jesus this year than last? Rejoicing in God’s grace helps us to change as he picks us up from our failures and gives us a fresh start.

You see, praising God and living for him aren’t two separate things at all, but one and the same, as we see in verse 12: ‘so that we... might live for the praise of his glory’. How we praise and how we live will both bring praise to God.

But let’s be clear. All these blessings and benefits are only for those who are in Christ Jesus, who are depending on him, trusting in him, united to him. Apart from Christ, there is no blessing, no peace, no life. Perhaps as we consider the blessedness of these Ephesian Christians, we discover that we’re on the outside, that we’re separate.

Even today, you can come to Christ, be united to him, be found in him, and as you do, you’ll find that all these blessings are yours; that you too were chosen before time, destined for adoption, that you too are redeemed and forgiven, that you too can look forward to this glorious inheritance, to the praise of his glorious grace.

In Christ, we receive all this. No wonder that Paul exclaims: ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places!’ Where are you?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 5th February 2012.