Monday, April 30, 2012

Sermon Audio: John 20: 11-18

The first sin happened in the Garden of Eden; and in the garden of the tomb began the first day of the new creation, as Mary meets the risen Lord Jesus. Here's the sermon audio: Garden Transformation

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sermon: John 20:19-31 Doubting Thomas

Can we really believe that Jesus is alive? That may be the question that you’re asking today as we gather. Is it not just a big made up story that went a bit too far? Or maybe it’s the question you’ve been asked - by a friend or relative. They refuse to believe it - they need some proof. If Jesus is alive, then I will only believe it if I see him myself. Surely Jesus should make a TV appearance, sit on the couch with Oprah or call into the BBC Breakfast studios so that we can see and believe. Plus, we’re two thousand years since this is meant to have happened - we all know that dead people don’t rise. How can we believe that Jesus really is risen? I have to see, then I’ll believe.

In our reading, we find those very words spoken by one of the disciples, one of the Twelve - a man you might know as doubting Thomas. Poor Thomas, the name has stuck through the whole of church history, based on his words in verse 24. ‘Unless I see... I will not believe.’

In order to understand those words of Thomas, we need to go back just a wee bit further. In verse 19, we’re still on the evening of that first Easter day. There have been reports from the empty tomb, brought by the women; Peter and John have been to the tomb and have believed (something), but things still aren’t entirely clear. The disciples are fearful - the doors are locked - and yet suddenly, unexpectedly, amazingly, Jesus is with them.

It’s not just a collective hallucination; it’s not just a remembering of what he looked like - Jesus is in the room. The risen Jesus can show them his body, his scars - his hands and his side. There’s no doubt who this is. And as he comes, he says some very important things. ‘Peace be with you.’ They’re fearful, and Jesus brings peace. They are glad when they see his scars. And Jesus sends them out: ‘As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ He promises the Holy Spirit (to be received at Pentecost), who will help them as they go and proclaim the gospel - through which forgiveness of sins will come. They’re in no doubt - they have met with Jesus. Jesus is alive, and that changes everything.

But in the room that night there were only ten of the Twelve. Judas has committed suicide, and Thomas ‘was not with them.’ We’re not told where he was or what he was doing, but either way, he missed out on seeing Jesus. Remember, you couldn’t update your Facebook status and say ‘in the upper room with Jesus’ or text Thomas and tell him to come round... when they next see him, the disciples are bursting with excitement: ‘We have seen the Lord.’

Yet Thomas doesn’t believe them. He’s spent three years with them, he knows them all really well, yet he doesn’t believe what they have said. They’ve given the eye witness testimony, and yet he refuses to believe. It doesn’t pass his standard of evidence. ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

Unless I see, I will not believe. End of story. Perhaps that’s what you’ve heard from your friend or loved one. You might be able to trust these fairy stories, but I need some evidence. Imagine the frustration of the disciples as they struggle to convince him. As the week goes on Thomas is still resolute. But we did see him.

Eight days later - it’s the following Sunday evening - and his disciples are gathered together again. More than that, Thomas is with them this time. And, as we see from verse 26, the very same thing happens. Locked doors, Jesus came, stood among them, and greets them with those words: ‘Peace be with you.’
It seems as if he’s there precisely for Thomas’ benefit - even knowing the very objections Thomas had expressed, so that he is able to say: ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ For Thomas, the proof that he needed was standing before him - we’re not told that he takes Jesus up on the offer - to have seen Jesus is enough. And immediately, Thomas utters that fullest confession and statement of faith found in John’s Gospel: ‘My Lord and my God!’

There’s no doubt now with Thomas - Jesus is alive, has conquered death, which means that he is Lord and God, but more than that: ‘MY Lord and MY God.’ All that the disciples had told him was true and is confirmed as he meets the risen Lord.

Now pause for a moment. You might be saying to yourself, well, that was all right for Thomas. He said he wouldn’t believe unless he saw firsthand, and Jesus appeared to him. Does that mean that I will never believe, because I’ll never see firsthand? Isn’t seeing believing? Or that relative or friend will for ever be consigned to doubt, because Jesus has ascended and doesn’t do the appearing bodily thing any more. How can anyone believe now?
In a way, Thomas is the unusual one - he got a special dispensation where Jesus appeared to him in this way. But as Jesus continues, while Thomas may have been privileged to see Jesus in this way, there is a blessing for those who haven’t seen Jesus and yet still believe. ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ So is the Christian life just about blind faith, as Dawkins likes to claim? Is it like standing on a precipice, closing your eyes and jumping off? Is there virtue in unthinking, unseeing, blind devotion?

That’s not quite what Jesus is saying - for very good reason. Remember who he is talking to. He’s speaking to the Twelve (Eleven!), the eye witnesses appointed to go and tell what they have seen. The reason we can believe is because they have seen - and we believe their testimony that Jesus is alive.

It’s what John says in those last two verses of our reading: ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’

Do you see the connection? Thomas believes because he has seen Jesus face to face. That option isn’t open to us, so how can we believe? We believe through the things that have been written for us - the witness testimony John provides, that prove that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, through what he said, what he did, how he died, and how he is alive. We believe through the disciples’ witness - and so have life; so that we are (in Jesus’ words) blessed.

The proof that Jesus is alive exists - we hold it in our hands. The disciples were transformed from being fearful, locked away, to going out, boldly declaring that Jesus is alive, and being willing to suffer for him. It’s the word that shows that Jesus is alive, which will help your friends and neighbours and colleagues encounter Jesus.

If only I could see, then I would believe. Why doesn’t Jesus show himself once and for all so that we can know for sure that he is alive, with no doubts? The truth is, he already has. Jesus still takes the initiative in revealing himself to unbelievers, as they hear the testimony of the disciples, as they believe that Jesus is who he says he is and so, they, just as we also have, they meet the risen Jesus and come to know him.

You see, we’re not the first generation to have this issue; we’re not the first people to have never seen Jesus and yet believe - the apostle Peter in his first letter is writing to people in the same boat: ‘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 Pet 1:8-9)

Does that describe you? Do you believe that Jesus is alive? Are you able to say to him: ‘My Lord and My God’? Though we haven’t yet seen him, we look forward to that day when we will see him, and live with him forever. And all because Jesus is alive.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 29th April 2012.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Book Review: Conduct Gospel-Centered Funerals

One of the most difficult things a minister can be involved with is a funeral. Yet at the same time, a funeral can be a very rewarding part of ministry. One of the challenges for the minister in preparing a funeral is in being faithful throughout the service, to proclaim the gospel.

In this little book by Brian Croft and Phil Newton, the gospel is front and centre (or should that be center?), as the subtitle puts it: 'Applying the gospel at the unique challenges of death.' The book is divided into four main sections - plan, prepare, preach, perform. For the younger minster this is a really helpful book, as it discusses both the practical aspects as well as the pastoral elements of funerals and bereavement. While there are some parts which are very American in terms of culture and context (such as the graveyard service with chairs etc), the reader can use discernment and wisdom to apply or reject the cultural bits, depending on their own situation.

The main thrust of the book is the most helpful, with the reminder that the gospel should be front and centre in every part of our pastoral and preaching ministry, not just on Sundays or not just in evangelism. There are useful tips and advice on how to explain and include the gospel in every step of the process, not just in the funeral sermon. The fact that the two authors are experienced pastors is also reassuring - they have been there and done that.

As a little bonus, there are helpful appendices, which give some sample sermons, eulogies, appropriate music, and orders of service. While it's a great little book, there were several times where it appeared that there was a lot of overlap and repetition - partly due to the separate efforts of the two authors, and partly even within the authors' sections.

All in all, it'll be very useful for student ministers and newly ordained ministers who are seeking to develop their gospel-centred ministry in the realm of funerals. Conduct Gospel-Centered Funerals is part of the 'Ministering the Master's Way' series of books for pastors, and can be bought at Amazon.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Sermon: John 20: 11-18 Garden Transformation

This morning I want to share with you a little sadness that I’ve been carrying for a long time now. I went to Wallace High School in Lisburn, and Wallace have never won the Schools’ Cup in rugby. In our final year at school, we made it to the semi-final, only to lose in the last few minutes. Every few years, the team have a good run, my hopes rise, and I start to think - maybe this year. We even made it to the final one year, I went along specially to cheer on the team. And... we lost. Ravenhill is a place of sadness, loss, disappointment. Now imagine if next year was our year - we went to Ravenhill and finally won the Cup - the setting would be transformed; it would mean something very different.

In our two readings today, you might have noticed some similarities. It’s not so much a tale of two cities as a tale of two gardens. In the first garden (Eden), Adam and Eve, the first people, live in paradise. God saw all he had made and it was very good. They want for nothing, they have the world to explore; they have everything they need. You know the story - Eve listens to the serpent, eats the forbidden fruit, and before the end of the chapter, Adam and Eve are cowering in the bushes when God comes for his evening stroll. They listened to the creation, rather than obeying the Creator - they rebelled against the only command he had given; and so they hide.

What is it God says, as he comes walking? ‘Where are you?’ Sin causes separation - both between Adam and Eve, and between us and God. One of the consequences of that first sin was that Adam and Eve were removed from God’s paradise. You know that the world isn’t a paradise - heaven isn’t a place on earth - you don’t need to live very long to realise that. Every day we face the effects of the fall - from weeds in the garden to family struggles and everything in between.

We have this sin problem that we need dealt with - and we can’t do it ourselves. ‘Where are you?’

You see, even when we turn away from God, he comes after us. He searches for us, wants to bring us back to him. He describes himself as the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep. And in the end up, God takes on our human flesh - Jesus becomes man, enters our world, in order to come looking for us. Jesus came to rescue us from our sin.

In order to save us from our sin, though, Jesus went and died on the cross. He paid the penalty our sins deserved, and on that first Good Friday, Jesus died and was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. But keep in mind that first garden as we turn to the second. You see, Jesus died on the Friday, was buried hurriedly on the Friday evening before the Sabbath began at sunset.

In our second reading, we find the events of that first Easter Sunday morning. Mary arrives at the tomb, and discovers that the tomb is empty. She ran and told Peter and John, but once they have been to the tomb, they go home again. Mary is left. She had followed Jesus, along with some other women. She had been cleansed of seven demons by Jesus.

And so she stays close by his tomb, in this garden. Just as Ravenhill could be the place of transformation for Wallace rugby, so this garden is the place of transformation - not just for Mary, but for each of us; in something much more important than a piece of silverware and some school pride.

In the first garden, God came looking in the evening, asking ‘where are you?’ In this garden, Mary comes looking in the dawn, asking ‘where is he?’ Watch as Mary looks into the tomb (11). She’s weeping, and she sees two angels, sitting in the grave cave. They ask why she is weeping, and she tells them: ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ Where is he?

Do you see that she still thinks Jesus is dead? I don’t know where they have laid him - someone has obviously come and moved the body, Jesus must still be dead, lying in some other tomb, or some other place. Where is he?

As she turns around, she sees a man, standing in the garden. Again she’s asked: ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Mary doesn’t realise who it is she’s talking to - she reckons it’s the gardener, and again she launches into the where is he routine: ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Where is he?

With that, Jesus utters one word. Her name. Mary. Instantly, she recognises him. She realises that he has been in front of her the whole time. That he hasn’t been laid anywhere, because he isn’t dead any more. Jesus is alive - risen to life, so that he will never again die. She bursts out with that ‘Teacher’, and obviously rushes to embrace him, to show her devotion to her Lord, now risen.

In the place of disappointment, defeat and death, Mary finds life, and hope. No more tears, only joy; no more sadness, only smiles. The garden is the place of transformation - as the events of the first garden are overturned and restoration is begun.

That’s what the risen Lord Jesus’ message means: ‘But go to my brothers and say to them: ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’

In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve hid; they were separated from God, cut off from his presence. In the garden of the tomb, Jesus says that his followers are now part of the family; they’re welcomed in; they’re no longer separated. The Father is ‘My Father and your Father’; God is ‘my God and your God.’

The transformation is seen in the experience of Mary that day - she went weeping to the tomb expecting to find a dead Jesus; she returned excited and overjoyed, having found a living Lord as she announced: ‘I have seen the Lord.’ Everything has been changed, because Jesus is alive.

I wonder which of the two gardens is your story today? You might be cut off, far from God, fearful of him, rebelling against him. The loss of that first garden is where each of us start from - we feel the pain of paradise lost. Please don’t just stop there.

Come with Mary to the second garden; discover for yourself that Jesus is alive - and how that changes everything. Your sins have been dealt with; the separation has been stopped; God’s open arms are outstretched to welcome you in. Eden is not the end of God’s story - don’t let it be the end of yours. Paradise lost is paradise restored through the death and resurrection of Jesus, as we look forward to life with Jesus in the new creation, the new creation which began in that new garden on the third day, which was also the first day of the week.

While it would give me some happiness if Wallace could return to Ravenhill and lift the Schools Cup; it is of no importance and no significance compared to the greatest joy I know - of introducing people to the risen Jesus and celebrating with them as they move from death to life; defeat to victory; despair to hope. God still asks that first question: Where are you?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Book Review: Gunning For God

In the ongoing battle between the New Atheists and the Christians, John Lennox has been in the front line of defence on the Christian side. His recent book, Gunning For God, is a powerful appeal to the New Atheists to examine again their position, and to examine the evidence for the Christian position.

As the book opens, Lennox surveys the current position, where atheism is on the march, both vocal and widespread, from the strangely worded atheist bendy buses to the newspaper columns and blogs. Having debated with several of the New Atheists, where he seeks to present 'a credible, rational alternative to the fare which the New Atheists offer,' the book presents a full development of those ideas, as he explains the rationale of Christianity.

In order to engage the debate, he first discusses the position of the so-called New Atheists, arguing that their position is nothing new. Rather, the new element is in 'their tone and their emphasis' - being more aggressive. He also wonders if they are truly atheist, or more specifically anti-theist. In rounding off the opening salvo, he points out the discomfort of some agnostics with Dawkins' approach, such as the famous statement by John Humphrys in his book 'In God We Doubt'.

As he seeks to answer the question 'Are God and Faith enemies of reason and science?' Lennox points out that the God of the Bible is certainly not opposed to reason - sadly he makes a tiny error which has been exploded beyond proportion by some other online reviews. He asserts that the command to 'love the Lord your God... with all your mind' is the 'first of the Biblical Ten Commandments', when it is actually part of the Lord Jesus' summary of the Law. It's a good point, but the impact has been lessened by the glaring mistake.

The rest of the chapter is a good discussion of the ways in which faith and science are compatible. As one such example, he points out that it was a theist who first proposed the Big Bang Theory, which was at first rejected because it seemed to fly in the face of the accepted wisdom of an eternal universe. Indeed, 'It is rather ironical that in the sixteenth century some people resisted advance in science because it seemed to threaten belief in God; whereas in the twentieth century scientific models of a beginning were resisted because they might increase the plausability of belief in God.'

Lennox tackles the notion of a 'God of the Gaps' as espoused by Stephen Hawking, where God can only be the explanation for the small and shrinking number of things we still don't understand. It's a useful refutation, which leads into the discussion of what 'faith' is - thus displaying that the New Atheists' position is as much a faith position as the Christian position. Contra the New Atheists, Christian faith is not believing in spite of evidence, but believing based on sound evidence, just as much as the New Atheists.

In the remaining chapters, Lennox considers whether religion is poisonous, or atheism is poisonous; discusses morality in a number of guises - whether we can be good without God, and the morality of the God of the Bible in the Old Testament. From there, he considers the atonement, miracles, and finally the resurrection of Jesus. In these chapters, the exposure of the atheist position is expertly argued, and the Chrsitian position is humbly and carefully (and rationally) explained. There is much for the atheist to consider, and the Christian will be helped in dealing with the objections and problems presented by the New Atheists.

All in all, it's a great book which deserves a careful reading, whether in paperback or Kindle format.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Book Review: Christianity and Liberalism

For a long time, I'd been told that I had to read J Gresham Machen's 'Christianity and Liberalism.' The book was written in 1946, yet no matter who talked about it, the consensus was that it could have been written this week. So when I recently got a Kindle, and discovered that the book was just 77 pence, I downloaded it and got stuck in. And I have to say, it does seem to be very relevant to the situation we find ourselves in these days.

Machen's thesis is simple: that Christianity and Liberalism are two different, distinct, separate religious systems, despite using similar words and phrases. Through the six chapters of the book, Machen develops this theme, as he considers the importance of and distinct approaches and beliefs about doctrine, the relationship between God and man, the Bible, Christ, salvation, and the church.

In each of the chapters, Machen demonstrates the difference between orthodox Christianity and Liberalism, which clarifies the opposing worldviews and beliefs and hermeneutics battling for the mind and future of the church:

'Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only the more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of traditional Christian terminology.' (Loc 17-18)

'In trying to remove from Christianity everything that could possibly be objected to in the name of science, in trying to bribe off the enemy by those concessions which the enemy most desires, the apologist has really abandoned what he started out to defend.' (Loc 90-92)

'According to the Christian conception, a creed is not a mere expression of Christian experience, but on the contrary it is a setting forth of those facts upon which experience is based.' (Loc 240-241)

'Here is found the most fundamental difference between liberalism and Christianity - liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative; liberalism appeals to man's will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God.' (Loc 583-585)

'At the very root of the modern liberal movement is the loss of the consciousness of sin.' (Loc 810-11)

'The truth is that the life-purpose of Jesus discovered by modern liberalism is not the life purpose of the real Jesus, but merely represents those elements in the teaching of Jesus - isolated and misinterpreted - which happen to agree with the modern program. It is not Jesus, then, who is the real authority, but the modern principle by which the selection within Jesus' recorded teaching has been made.' (Loc 974-977)

'But one cause is perfectly plain - the Church of today has been unfaithful to her Lord by admitting great companies of non-Christian persons, not only into her membership, but into her teaching agencies.' (Loc 1998-99)

Stirring and strong stuff. For some, it may seem like fighting talk, yet there is a lot of what he says that seems to ring true. At times, there are allusions and references to the situation he's writing in to in his own denomination and setting, but these aside, the main thrust is easily understood. Machen's low cost Kindle book may well be the wake-up call we need to hear and heed.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Monday, April 16, 2012

Sermon Audio: John 12: 12-19

Here's the sermon from a couple of weeks ago - Palm Sunday, to be precise: Behold your King.

Book Review: The God With Sore Legs

Adrian McCartney invites you on a journey, in more senses than one. The first journey is very impressive - as he sets off to cycle around the coast of Ireland. In the style of some of the best travel writers, Adrian vividly portrays the thought process that led to the start of the journey (with a few hours' notice!), as well as the places and people he encounters along the way. There's lots of humour, plenty of craic, and the undoubted pleasure of a bag of chips and a can of coke after a hard day's cycling.

Yet as the pace slows along the country coastal roads of this island, Adrian brings the reader on another journey, to discover the God with sore legs - Jesus, exhausted after a long walk, sitting by the well in Samaria. Each chapter presents another look at Jesus, as encountered in John's gospel. At times, there were some details I didn't necessarily follow or agree with, but on the whole, there's lots to consider, and the book provides a compelling and helpful introduction to Jesus.

It's perhaps geared towards those who don't know Jesus, but even those who have known Jesus for a long time will be blessed as they perch on the back of Adrian's bike and listen in to his stories and the story of Jesus. Here are just a few tasters to whet your appetite:

'Let's consider grace for a few moments before considering it for the rest of our lives.'

'Not following him does not make you a bad person. You already were!LOL.'

'Faith can never just be a matter of believing. It is also about acknowledging and declaring. Nicodemus was beginning to acknowledge where his journey had brought him.'

The God With Sore Legs is available from The Good Book Shop (in paper copy) and the Kindle store.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 15: 1-11 Of First Importance

I wonder do you ever forget anything? Do you ever need to be reminded about anything? Of course the worst thing would be if you had forgotten that you forget things! What kinds of things might you need to be reminded about? Perhaps it's PE day in school and you need to remember your kit. Maybe it's to remind you to tidy your room.

When you're grown up, you might need a phone or diary to remind you about things. You can set alarms and reminders on your phone. Or if you looked in my diary, you would see that I've to go to the dentist on Wednesday morning!

In our bible reading today, Paul tells us that there's something else that we need to be reminded about. I'll tell you what it is in a wee minute. But first, a question - is anyone looking forward to the Olympics in London this year? What's your favourite sport? It might be javelin, cycling, or rowing. I'm told that Tiddliwinks isn't an Olympic sport. What happens in the relay races?
One runner starts, carrying a baton. Then they pass it on to the next runner, and so on. But let's see what it looks like. I've got a baton, and just need four volunteers. [four volunteers spaced out along the aisle, running towards the front] They may not make it to the Olympics, but they have set a new world record for the fastest relay team to run the length of Aghavea Church!

Let's ask one of the runners what they did: they received the baton and then passed it on. Paul says that his mission is a bit like that. He's not running in a race, though, let's discover what he's passing on. [baton was the cardboard tube from the inside of a cling film roll, inside there's a sheet of paper with the phrase 'good news' printed on it]. Paul has received the good news, and then he passes it on to others.

But what is the good news? It's told in my three Easter eggs from last week. If you saw them, then this is a reminder, but if you didn't, then my eggs help to tell the gospel, the good news. [three plastic eggs - mine were moshi monster eggs from Tesco - one with a cross, one with a stone, one empty] in the first egg we find a cross - Paul says that 'Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures'. In the second egg we find a stone - Paul says that 'He was buried.' In the third one, there's nothing, it's empty - 'he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures.'

This is the gospel. This is the good news that Paul received and passed on. But why is it of such importance? Why does Paul say that it's the most important thing? Has anyone ever played a game of Jenga? In Jenga you have a tower of bricks and you have to build the tower taller. Perhaps two of you will play a game of speed Jenga?
the Jenga
Eventually, the tower falls - this one brick was so vital for the tower to stay standing. Without it, the tower collapses. Paul says that the good news of Jesus is like this brick. Without the death and resurrection of Jesus, then we have no faith, no hope, and no life. Some people in Corinth were saying that Jesus wasn't alive. Some thought that it didn't really matter. Paul says that if Jesus isn't alive then we have nothing.

And how do we know it wasn't just made up? How can we be certain? Because Paul received the message from the people who met Jesus after he had been raised. He passed it on to the church in Corinth, who passed it on and on and on until we received it today here in Aghavea. We need to be reminded - lets ask Jesus to help us to remember that he's alive, because that makes the difference in how we live, it helps us face the difficult days, and we can look forward to being with him.

Paul received the message and passed it on. Will you pass it on too?

This sermon was preached at the Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 15th April 2012.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Sermon: John 20: 1-10 The Empty Tomb

Everyone is searching for life, and a bit more of it. Whether it is the TV programmes that want to make you ‘Ten Years Younger’, the home, fashion and lifestyle magazines with top tips for living, or people having their bodies frozen in the hope of being revived when science catches up with science fiction.

It could be the mid-life crisis that drives a man to buy a motorbike to convince himself that he’s still young; it may be the thousands spent on plastic surgery or cosmetic surgery to reverse the signs of ageing; whatever it is, people try to find life in all sorts of ways and pursuits. The tragedy, though, is that in trying to find life, they ignore the only source of real life, the life-giver, who offers real, true, eternal life. You see, John tells us how we can have life - it’s the reason he wrote his gospel. Look at the very end of chapter 20: ‘these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’ You can have life - and it comes through believing, through trusting that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by throwing all your weight on him, depending on him.

So John says that the things he has written down, the things that he witnessed, they point to Jesus the Christ. It’s helpful to remember this every time we read John’s Gospel - we’re told his purpose for writing. Now if that’s so for the whole of the gospel, then it’s true for the records of the resurrection as well.

As we celebrate Easter this year, we’re going to look at these events of Easter, the resurrection appearances John records for us -and ask, can we be certain that Jesus is the Christ, so that we believe, and have life in his name?

Today, we begin with those first ten verses. Can we be certain that Jesus is the Christ from this passage? For the next few minutes, I want you to imagine that this is a court. We’re going to hear the eyewitness evidence from some key witnesses. As the passage was read, you might have noticed the repeated word: saw. We’re going to hear what Mary, John and Peter all saw; examine the evidence, and decide on your verdict.

First up, we have what Mary saw. Verse 1: ‘Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.’ The tomb was cut out of the rock, like a cave, and a big stone sat in front of the entrance, closing it over - but the stone wasn’t where it should be. We see from the next verse what Mary thought had happened: ‘So she ran... and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”’

You see, when Mary gets to the tomb and finds the stone rolled away, her first thought isn’t that Jesus is alive - it’s that his body has been stolen. Now you might ask yourself why she would think that, but you need to remember that you’ve heard this story many times, you know how it ends. It’s a bit like the movie Sixth Sense. I’m very sorry if you’ve never seen it and I’m about to spoil it for you, but basically the film revolves around a little boy who can seemingly see dead people, going about their daily business. He befriends Bruce Willis, and they talk regularly. The twist comes at the end, when Bruce suddenly realises that he is actually dead. If you watch the film again, it all makes sense - you wonder how you missed that fact the first time round. In a similar way (but reversed), we can be like this with the Gospels. you read through the passion and crucifixion knowing all the time that Jesus is going to rise. It’s ok, you want to say, we know he’ll be alive on Sunday.

The disciples weren’t expecting it. Mary doesn’t think that Jesus is alive. His body must have been stolen. All we know for certain is that there is no body. The tomb is empty.

Our second witness is the disciple whom Jesus loved. This is John himself - rather than writing his own name, he refers to himself in this way, because he has personally known and received Jesus’ love. He and Peter set off on the race to the tomb, having heard what Mary saw. John, the younger of the two, makes it to the tomb first, but he doesn’t go in - he just stoops at the entrance. And what is it he sees?

‘He saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.’ (5) We call it the empty tomb, but John sees the linen cloths, prompting James Montgomery Boice to call it ‘the not-quite-empty tomb.’ What were these linen cloths? Look back to 19:40. After Jesus had died, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus come to bury Jesus in the tomb. They bring almost five and a half stone of spices, myrrh and aloes, and some linen cloths. ‘They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.’

The cloths are wrapped around the body, with the spices in between the layers of wrapping. But now, as John sees from outside, the linen cloths are there, but the body isn’t. It’s not that you could unwrap the cloths and they arrange them the same way - rather, it’s as if the body has just vanished, and the cloths remain as they were, collapsed under the weight of the spices. To mix up our seasons - it’s as if the Christmas presents are all sitting wrapped under the tree, and then the presents vanish, leaving the wrapping untouched, but empty.

So as John retires from the witness stand, we now know that the body has disappeared, but it’s not just that it has been removed - it has supernaturally passed through the graveclothes.

Peter is up next, the slower runner, but the more forward of the two, so characteristically, he blarges on into the tomb. What does he see? In a way, his testimony is similar to John’s, with one further detail provided - ‘He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.’ This was a bit like a turban, wrapped around the head. There in the tomb, Peter sees that it retains the shape of being wrapped, but is separate from the linen cloths. It wasn’t that (as some people imagine), Jesus simply woke up and then unwrapped himself and stumbled outside; nor that someone else unwrapped his body and stole it - the cloths remain in position, but the body has gone.

As we review the evidence, let’s think carefully what it all means. The tomb is open, but the body hasn’t been stolen - the linen graveclothes remain. The body hasn’t simply been unwrapped - the linen clothes remain in position, and the head cloth is in its own place, still as it had been. The evidence points in only one direction - Jesus is alive. It’s the conclusion John reaches, as we come to the final ‘saw’.

‘Then the other disciple... also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.’ John saw and believed that Jesus must be alive. But the remarkable thing is that they really should have known all along. We mentioned earlier about Mary expecting to find a dead body, not a living Lord - Peter and John came with the same expectation.

They didn’t expect it, and yet they should have known - John points to the scripture that he must rise from the dead. There’s no hint as to which Scripture John actually has in mind, but it’s probably Psalm 16:10, which Peter preaches on the day of Pentecost: ‘For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.’

The details are fulfilled to the letter - we can be certain therefore that Jesus is indeed the Christ. The tomb is empty - the evidence points to the fact that Jesus is alive

The question is - what is your verdict? Will you believe that Jesus is alive? You see, if Jesus is lying in a tomb somewhere in Jerusalem, then we have no message, no life, and no hope. If Jesus is alive - then that changes everything. We can face the future with confidence, we can be sure of our eternal destiny, our sins have been paid for and life is ours. Jesus is alive - as we believe in him, we can be sure of having life - eternal life, which is infinitely better than just looking ten years younger.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Easter Sunday 8th April 2012.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Sermon: John 19:30 It is finished

Famous last words. It has been said that you can tell a lot about a person by their last words. Some famous examples include Oscar Wilde – ‘either that wallpaper goes, or I do.’ Or what about the General killed during the US Civil War whose last words were: ‘They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist…’

As we look at the last words of Jesus, then, what do they tell us about how Jesus dies? In verse 30, we read: ‘When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished”, and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.’

It is finished. Was this a cry of defeat, of frustration? Was Jesus saying merely, that his earthly life was over, ending in defeat? Just a week before, he had entered Jerusalem to the shouts of the crowd, welcoming him with cries of Hosanna. Now, he dies to the cries of crucify, crucify. Was it all a failure? Did Jesus cry out in despair as he died on the cross?

By no means! When Jesus said ‘It is finished’, this was his shout of triumph, the first proclamation of the gospel. The shout of Jesus is good news, because of why he dies, for you and me.

The hours of darkness had finished, Jesus had borne our sins in his body on the cross; he had suffered for our sins. And that suffering was over, complete, finished. You see, because he has taken the burden of our sins, because he was pierced for our iniquities, then we cannot suffer for them ourselves, if we trust in him.

I wonder if you’ve ever been in a shop which has a nail that sits on the counter. When you take your bill to the counter, and pay for your goods, then the assistant takes the invoice and puts it on the nail. Once it is on the nail, he is in effect saying, this has been paid; you won’t have to pay again for this.

In a similar way, Jesus paid for our sins, and took the punishment we deserved, held by the nails of Calvary, so that we can go free, our sins have been dealt with. So let’s pray that we all will know God’s forgiveness, and the joy of sins forgiven, because Jesus has borne them in his body on the cross, and it is finished!

This sermon was preached at the Good Friday service of hymns and readings in Aghavea Parish Church on Good Friday 6th April 2012.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Sermon: John 13:1-38 Love one another

Throughout this week, we’ve been listening as the Saviour speaks in those last days of that first Holy Week. We heard as Jesus described his death - the hour has come; how Jesus declares that he is the way to God; and as Jesus gives instructions to the disciples on how to follow him when Jesus is no longer with us physically on earth. Last night, we looked at the instruction to ‘abide in me.’

Tonight we come back to John 13, to the upper room, where Jesus gives the new commandment: love one another. We find that in verse 34. Jesus tells his disciples - and therefore tells us - to love one another.

This isn’t just the under pressure mum (or dad) in the supermarket with the kids having a tantrum and fighting in the middle of the shop - an angry behave! Nor is it left to us to work out what Jesus means. Rather, the events in that upper room on that first Maundy Thursday evening were so shocking, so surprising, that the meaning is crystal clear.

You see, Jesus goes on in verse 34 to ground our love in his: ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’ So let’s look at how Jesus has loved the disciples, which is the basis for our love for one another.

As we’ve seen throughout this week, the disciples didn’t know about what was going to happen. The arrest and crucifixion of Jesus was a shock - even though Jesus had told them in advance. But Jesus knows - he knows that his hour has come to go to the Father (via the cross); he also knows that the Father has given him all things. And so, on his last night on earth, Jesus loves his own to the end. Another version says that he showed them the full extent of his love.

It appears that there was just Jesus and the twelve disciples in this upper room. And one very important custom had been neglected. Just as we would make sure to wash our hands before a meal, in these days it was important to wash your feet. With sandals on your feet, and dusty roads, not to mention animal droppings, the feet quickly got dirty, mucky. Hospitality involved having your feet washed - this was done by the lowest slave; after all, it was a dirty, disgusting job.

They’ve started the meal, though, and their feet are unwashed. We’re told in other gospels that the disciples had an argument about which of them was the greatest - or in other words, I’m too important and grand to be doing the dirty job of washing feet. Their importance knew no bounds.

At that very moment, Jesus gets up from the table, takes off his robe, and ties a towel around him. Taking on the role and place of a servant, a slave. Jesus washes their feet. Jesus does the dirty job that no one else wanted to do. There’s a stunned silence, except for the splash of the water.

Then Peter protests: ‘Lord, as you going to wash my feet?’ ‘You will never wash my feet.’ He is outraged at what is happening, but Jesus explains that it must be so - Peter must be served by Jesus, in order to be with him. Peter then characteristically swings the other way, and wants his head and hands washed as well! But Jesus says that when you have been washed, made clean, then you only need to have your feet washed. [As we come to Jesus, we are made clean, but we still continue to sin, and need to be cleansed of those things, forgiven our ongoing sin as we battle against it]

After the action, Jesus gives the explanation. ‘You call me Teacher and Lord - and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also out to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.’

Jesus loves the disciples by serving them - in washing their feet, and in dying on the cross for them. If this is what the Lord has done, then he calls us to follow him, by loving one another by serving one another. It’s the put the other person’s needs and preferences ahead of your own; to give yourself for them; to put yourself out for them. It’s not just in the action of washing feet, though, it’s in lots of different ways, as we demonstrate our love, not just saying that we love.

And it’s not just loving the lovely; doing things for the people we like - it’s loving the unlovely too; giving ourselves for the lowest and the least and the lost. The whole way through the chapter there are reminders of just who it is Jesus is pouring out his love for - Judas, the one who has already decided to betray Jesus (just as Scripture has predicted, led astray by the devil); Peter, who despite his claims of bravado will deny Jesus three times - at the questions of servant girls; and the other ten who were unsure if it was going to be them who betrayed Jesus; who will also flee as Jesus is arrested. It’s this ragtag bunch of failures that Jesus loves and serves - people just like us.

As we reflect on our Christian life, we’re no better than the disciples. We too can be inflated by our own sense of self-importance; that those menial jobs are beneath us; we fail the Lord in so many ways; we flee from him, ashamed to be known as a Christian; we seek our welfare and good and ignore the needs of others.

The Lord Jesus demonstrates his love for us as he takes on the place of the servant, as he took off, not just his outer robe but his glorious splendour; as he took the form of a servant; as he loved and served by giving his life and dying for us - even the death of a cross!

As we receive his love, Jesus calls us to take up the towel, to follow his example, to give yourself in love and service. In this way, Jesus says, ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.’ The watching world will see and be struck by the demonstration of love within the church, among Christians - real, genuine love expressed as we serve each other. As we welcome visitors, as they struck by our love? Do they see the Saviour as we serve?

This call to love one another isn’t just a suggestion; it isn’t something you might want to get around to doing eventually if you ever have a spare moment or two; this is a new commandment - what Jesus commands. It’s not optional, it’s compulsory - which means that we are either obeying the Lord, or disobeying his command.

May God give each of us the grace to give, and love, and serve as we follow the example of the Master, who loved us so much that he gave up everything for us.

Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

This sermon was preached at the Maundy Thursday service in Holy Week in Aghavea Parish Church on Thursday 5th April 2012.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Sermon: John 15: 1-17 Abide in me

What’s the difference between an apple tree and a Christmas tree? It’s not a trick question, it’s not even the start of a really bad joke. What is the difference? An apple tree produces fruit by itself; but a Christmas tree has its decorations tied on. There’s a world of difference between a tree that you have to decorate (and then quickly get fed up looking at!) and one that naturally bears fruit.

In our reading tonight, Jesus describes himself as the true vine. It’s another of those ‘I am’ sayings, where Jesus takes the Old Testament name of God and applies it to himself. He declares that he is God, and then goes on to show one aspect of what that means.

In the Old Testament, Israel, the people of God, were depicted as a vineyard, as a vine (e.g. Isaiah 5), but here Jesus says that he is the true vine, the true vineyard, the true Israel. And where is it he says this? We’re still in the upper room. It’s the night that Jesus celebrates the Last Supper with his disciples; in a short time, he will be arrested and be on the way to the cross. Jesus is preparing his disciples for what will come next, for life without Jesus physically present with them. In this extended metaphor, Jesus shows the disciples what it means to be in relationship with Jesus.

He says: ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower.’ Just a little while before, they’ve shared in the passover meal, they’ve drank the wine, now Jesus says he’s like the vine. The Father is the vine-dresser, the one in charge, the one who is tending and overseeing the growth of the plant.

Sometimes, there’s remedial work needing done - ‘He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit.’ You see, if you’re investing in a vine, you want to make sure that it’s producing fruit - if there’s no fruit, it’s a sign that it’s dead, unproductive. The fruitless branch is removed. And we might think that’s right and proper. But it’s the next part that we might find more uncomfortable:

‘Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.’ You might think to yourself, well, if something is working, if it’s producing fruit, then let it be. But the father won’t settle for a little fruit; he knows what he’s doing as he prunes - it might be painful, but in the end there will be even more fruit produced.

What will this pruning look like? It may well be in our circumstances, as we face illness, or unemployment, or bereavement; our location or income or opportunities. The natural reaction to these things changing seems to be - why is this happening to me? But Jesus calls us to see the hand of the vine-grower, and instead ask - what are you teaching me through this? How can I produce more fruit in my new circumstances?

The busy and stressed worker can become the prayer warrior when they are laid aside through illness; the retired person suddenly has more time to devote to sharing with others; a family bereavement can remind us of the shortness of life and of what is truly important.

Now if the goal for us is to be fruitful, to produce much fruit, then how do we do it? Is it by organising seminars and really striving to increase our fruitfulness? Do you see the apple trees in the orchard urging one another to squeeze out more fruit? The chances are that those of us gathered here are those who are the busiest in the church family - the pressure to be fruitful is one more burden to be added onto the top of all your other duties and responsibilities; one more box to tick. But before your mind races (or switches off), Jesus tells us the secret of fruitfulness: ‘Abide in me as I abide in you.’

The secret of fruitfulness is being connected to Jesus. Imagine a branch lying off by itself, really straining itself to produce grapes. It will undoubtedly fail. There’ll be no crop. Jesus says: ‘apart from me you can do nothing’. The branch needs to be connected to the vine, receiving the life-giving sap; the fruit will surely come.

Over the winter there were some fierce storms. Some of the big trees at the back of the rectory lost branches. While the remaining tree starts to produce the green shoots these days, the branch won’t be producing anything. It’s only fit for being cut up for firewood.

It’s the same in the Christian life. We simply can’t go it by ourselves. Either we are connected to Jesus and receive his life-giving spirit, empowering us and enabling us to produce the fruit of the Spirit; or else we’re just trying to fake the fruit on our own - keeping up appearances, turning up to church, looking respectable; but just like a Christmas tree, with the decorations tied on.

As we’re connected to Jesus, as we abide in him (remain in him), so there are several things that flow from that. The first is that we can pray with confidence, knowing that our prayers will be heard and answered. As Jesus says: ‘If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.’ Jesus isn’t just saying, ask for whatever YOU want; rather it’s as we abide in Jesus, as we’re connected to him, we’ll be asking for the things that he wants - what he wants will become what we want; we are changed to become more like him.

It won’t be that we ask for a Ferrari (or whatever it might be you fancy), rather that we’ll be asking for those things we know Jesus desires - for others to come and be connected to him; for the Father to be glorified; for the church to grow; for more spiritual growth and fruit, and so much more.

Next, Jesus says that there’s like a domino effect of love - the Father loves the Son, the Son loves us, and so we’ll want to keep his commandments; and in this way, we’ll share in his joy. The love of God overflows into our hearts, and overflows to those around us - to enable us to obey Jesus’ commandment (which we’ll be thinking more about tomorrow night as well). Jesus calls us to love one another - that’s not an easy thing to do - just look around! We’re all different, different personalities, temperaments, backgrounds, hopes, desires etc - for us to love one another takes the power of God, his love empowering us to love one another - the fruit of the Spirit growing and developing in our hearts and lives.

As Jesus calls us to bear fruit, he gives us one last burst of encouragement in those closing verses. He looks around the upper room and says: ‘You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.’ Fruit from the greengrocers quickly spoils; the bananas don’t last long. But the fruit of the Spirit lasts for eternity - our love and joy and peace (and all the rest) will be displayed for eternity.

Are you connected to Jesus? Are you receiving from him the life-giving power? Are you going through a time of pruning? Take heart that God is in control, and his purposes are for our good and his glory. Are you praying as Jesus wills? Are you receiving and sharing the love of God? Jesus says: Abide in me.

This sermon was preached at the Holy Week service in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 4th April 2012.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Sermon: John 14: 1-14 I am the way

How do you cope when it comes time to say farewell? Some people seem to manage ok - perhaps because they have to say goodbye so many times. Others don’t cope just as well. It’s now almost exactly a year since it was announced in Dundonald that Lynsey and I would be saying farewell and moving west, to this lovely county.

The reaction that first Sunday (and for the months until we actually moved) was astounding - lots of questions to be answered - where Aghavea was, how you would get there, would we keep in touch, and so many more beside. It’s hard to say goodbye to people you’ve come to love and ministered to. Yet, we’re really just down the road - quite a few of our friends from Dundonald have made it this far to come and see us and check that you’re being good to us!

There are other times, though, when saying farewell seems to have a greater finality to it. Whether a sudden shock or a long drawn out gradual decline, it’s hard to say goodbye. For the disciples of Jesus, our reading brings a moment of shock, as Jesus announces just before it that he is with them only a little longer. That where he is going, they cannot immediately come. It takes them by surprise, they weren’t expecting this news.

We’ve jumped forward to the evening of Maundy Thursday (having skipped over chapter 13 to which we’ll return on Thursday evening). Jesus is preparing the disciples for all that is to happen the next day, and after. They’re understandably saddened by the news that he’s leaving them - after all, he’s been with them for three years; they’ve seen and done so much together; they’ve been welcomed into the city of Jerusalem.

They imagined that this would be the victory they had long been waiting for. And Jesus is leaving? But where is he going? What is happening?

Jesus responds with those words of comfort that are so familiar from the funeral service: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.’ He’s saying that they need to trust God, and trust him through all that is about to happen.

Next, he gives them this wonderful promise: ‘In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places...’ Jesus points ahead to the many-mansioned Father’s house. He tells us that he goes to prepare a place for us. I wonder if you’ve ever made it to a hotel, only to discover that they’re fully booked; there’s no room at the inn. It happened a friend of mine a couple of years back - he arrived at his hotel in London, but there was no space. He had to travel about 40 minutes across the city to another hotel in the same group.

But Jesus is saying that our space is prepared; it’s certain. Not only that, but he will personally come and take us to be with him. Getting to the hotel when you’re away on holiday can be a bit of a nightmare - you arrive off the plane, and sit on a hot and sticky bus for the trip around a lot of hotels before you come to yours. Jesus will personally escort us, he will bring us to himself, to his nearer presence, to be with him where he is.

As Jesus says that ‘you know the way to the place where I am going’ Thomas jumps in and says: ‘Lord, we do now know where you are going. How can we know the way?’

‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life.’ Those words of Jesus are words of comfort for the believer, they are also words that silence every other religious claim. All sorts of religious leaders make all sorts of religious claims, but in this one sentence, Jesus declares that he is the only way to come to God.

Jesus says: I am the way. He’s not just a way, not even the best kind of way among others. He is the way. You might have heard the old saying ‘all roads lead to Rome’ - all ways do not lead to God. Jesus is the only way.

Jesus says: I am the truth. He’s not just a truth (in this multi-cultural, politically correct, post-modern world). What he says is the truth; but he himself is the truth - the measure and standard of truth. Any other religious claim is therefore a lie.

Jesus says: I am the life. He is life, and he gives life, real life, eternal, everlasting life. Which must mean that without Jesus, we face death.

‘No one comes to the Father except through me.’ Ask most people today if they think they’re going to heaven, and they’ll say, yes, I think I’m going to heaven. Ask why, and you’ll get a multitude of answers - I go to church; I pay into church; I’m a good person really; I’m decent; I’m better than our neighbours; But none of those answers are right. None of those ways will bring you to God. The only acceptable answer is the only true and living way - the Lord Jesus himself, who on the cross made that way possible as he died for our sins and rose again to give us life.

It is as we believe in God and believe in Jesus, as we accept what he says - that we can’t come to God based on our goodness - but that Jesus is the only way, then we come to know not only Jesus, but also the Father. What Jesus is saying is that to look at Jesus is to see what God is like - to know Jesus is to know the Father.

As Jesus goes to the Father, as he reigns at God’s right hand; he hears and answers our prayers, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. It is as we pray to the risen and ascended Lord Jesus, as we pray in his name and according to his will, that we can be confident of being heard; confident that Jesus will hear and do it.

Farewells can be difficult; but as the Saviour speaks tonight, these words are comforting words. As we trust in Jesus, our future is secure; our eternal dwelling place is certain. We need not fear the future, rather, we await the time when the Lord Jesus will bring us to himself. In Jesus we find the truth and the life, as we walk in his way.

This sermon was preached at the Holy Week service in Aghavea Parish Church on Tuesday 3rd April 2012.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Sermon: John 12: 20-36 The hour has come

You're lying in bed, sleeping peacefully. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, an almighty noise rings out; the silence is shattered. Wearily you open your eyes and realise its the alarm clock. It's time to get up. The day lies ahead of you, whatever it holds in store. Maybe you're going out to milk the cows; maybe it's time to head to the office. The hour has come.

Or perhaps you're the sort of person who marks dates on the calendar and then counts down the days. Eagerly anticipating the holiday, heading off to the airport and getting away from it all. The graduation day has come, the course has finished and you're now finally qualified in your chosen profession. The hour has come.

In our reading tonight, Jesus declares that the hour has come - that his hour has come. But it's not the long-awaited holiday that has come. Rather, the hour has come for his glorification.

As we come to John 12, Jesus has recently raised Lazarus from the dead. It’s now Passover time, and Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem on the donkey. The crowd welcome his arrival, and hail him as king. Jerusalem is full of people from all over the world, gathered for the feast, and among the crowd, there are some Greeks. They would have been Jewish converts, but they’re not native-born Jews. Do you see their question in verse 21? ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’

They’ve obviously heard about him; they want to see him for themselves. We wish to see Jesus. It’s a question we would love to be asked, isn’t it? When a friend or relative or neighbour says to you - we want to know more about Jesus, tell me about him.

The question, and who it comes from is the signal for Jesus, the indication that his time has come. It’s a bit like the alarm clock ringing to say that it’s time to get up. Verse 23, Jesus says, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’

Do you remember what happened at the start of John’s Gospel? Jesus is at the wedding in Cana, and the wedding runs out of wine. it would be terribly embarrassing, and Jesus’ mother comes to him and says, ‘they have no wine.’ How does Jesus reply? ‘Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.’

All the way through John’s gospel, we’re moving steadily towards this hour, and now, with the Greeks coming to see Jesus, the alarm has sounded, the hour has come. And yet it’s still very surprising how Jesus will be glorified.

We might have thought that because foreign people were coming to see Jesus and talk to him that this was his glorification; that he was being recognised by all peoples. There's a hint of that in verse 32, that of drawing all people to himself. But the way he will draw people to himself isn't through miracles, isn't through his teaching. Rather, it will be in this glorification.

Now, when you think of Jesus being glorified, what is it that comes to mind? You might think of the crowds in Jerusalem shouting their praise; or being elevated high on people's shoulders. In this country, it might involve meeting the Queen and receiving an MBE or Knighthood. But as Jesus is glorified, as he is lifted up, it means his death on the cross - as John says: 'he said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.'

Jesus makes it clear what his glorification involves: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’

I don’t know very much about gardening, but I do know that it’s the time of the year to be planting for your summer flowers. So you go along to the garden centre, and you buy the packets of seeds, but rather than planting them in the ground, imagine you left them sitting on the shelf in the garage. There wouldn’t be any flowers to show - the seeds wouldn’t do anything.

They need to be planted - buried, if you will - because out of death comes life. The grain of wheat is buried and dies, but through the death of the grain comes the producing of much fruit. In the same way, Jesus dies on the cross, buried in the tomb, but produces much fruit and much life through that death.

Even as Jesus is going towards his death, even though his soul is troubled, he is determined to follow the path that lies before him. He isn't going to ask the Father to save him from that hour - its the very reason he came into the world - to glorify the Father. The Father confirms Jesus in his mission, assuring him that his name will be glorified.

You see, it is in Jesus death, arms stretched out on the cross, lifted high, that Jesus will draw all people to himself. At the same time, though, he wins that decisive victory against the 'ruler of this world' - the devil who is driven out. Jesus is glorified in his death, as that invitation to everyone and anyone is made - come to me.

Once again, the crowd are confused by what Jesus says - they just can't get their heads around the thought of the messiah suffering. So they're left wondering, who is this Son of Man? The answer is clear - Jesus is the light of the world, they need to walk by his light, listen to his teaching and follow in his way.

There's one appeal to everyone - 'While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.' The call still rings out - one day it will be too late to believe; on day it will be too late to become children of light; so while you still have the light, as Jesus, the light of the world is offered to you - receive him now, believe in him now.

Jesus was glorified in his one-off, unrepeatable sacrifice of himself for us and our sins; in his death we have life. And yet, as we consider Jesus glorified, he calls us to follow the path he trod. To hate your life - to give it up for the sake of Jesus by following him, taking up your cross, and giving your all for him. ‘If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will be my servant also.’

It’s costly, to give up your life and comfort and security for the sake of Jesus and others, but at the end of the day, just as Jesus was glorified in his service and through his service, so the Father will honour the one who serves Jesus.

Are you following Jesus in his path? Are you serving him by way of costly devotion, putting him ahead of everything else?

Jesus is on course to go to the cross to save us. It's in his death that Jesus is glorified, and he calls us to follow him. To serve him for the glory of God.

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough at the Holy Week service on Monday 2nd April 2012.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Sermon: John 12: 12-19 Behold Your King

This year the Queen is celebrating her Diamond Jubilee. Sixty years on the throne. A lifetime of reigning. One of the ways she is celebrating is by going on a tour of the United Kingdom. Now imagine that you’re waiting to see her arrive in Enniskillen, or even here in Aghavea. How would you recognise her? How would you know who she was?

You know what she looks like, don’t you? You’ve seen her on TV and in photos. You would be able to recognise her. And if you were really stuck, you could always pull out a coin from your purse or pocket and check. The book of stamps in your wallet would remind you what she looks like.

Now, you might think that’s a bit of a stupid question. But it leads me to the question I want you to consider this morning from our reading in John’s Gospel. And it’s this: how would the people of Israel recognise their king? After all, they had no stamps; they hadn’t seen him on TV; there weren’t any photographs of God’s king.

Yet there was a detailed description of the promised king which the people already had - almost like a photofit picture you might see on Crimewatch - made up of lots of passages of Scripture. Long before Jesus appears on the scene, God has been preparing his people to receive the king. He has given them the portrait of the promised king in the prophets of the Old Testament. For so long, the people of Israel have been watching and waiting for him to arrive, and now he’s here.

That’s why, as Jesus comes towards the city of Jerusalem (12), we’re told that the great crowd in the city go out to meet him, waving palm branches. (13) They reckon that Jesus is the king - after all, they’ve heard heard about him raising Lazarus from the dead - whoever can do this must be fairly special. They’re hopeful that Jesus is God’s king, and they quote one of those Old Testament promises about him.

Let’s look at verse 13 together: ‘So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord - the King of Israel.’ They’re quoting from Psalm 118, and that word Hosanna is a cry to God to save them, to rescue them. So as Jesus comes towards Jerusalem they’re saying to Jesus - you’re the one whom God has sent; you’re the one who’s going to rescue us; you’re the king.

But what they mean by that isn’t what we might expect. You have to remember that Jerusalem is ruled by the hated Romans. Jerusalem and Israel wasn’t free; it had been conquered. They expect Jesus to lead a rebellion against the Romans and throw them out of the country. They want to make Jesus the king in Jerusalem, by getting rid of Pontius Pilate and the Roman armies.

If you can imagine this as a movie, it would be like the moment when William Wallace rallies the troops to fight against the English in Braveheart. This is what the crowd is looking forward to. Victory and freedom.

At that precise moment, though, Jesus does something unexpected. Now, I know that you have heard the Palm Sunday story before, but imagine for a moment that you haven’t. What would you expect Jesus to do, with this wave of popular support; the tension rising; the excitement reaching fever pitch? He’s going to appear on a war horse, isn’t he? A white horse, in particular, to show that he’s the great military leader, a hero!

But that’s the opposite of what happens. Jesus finds a young donkey, and sits on it as he enters the city. In his actions Jesus is saying that their picture of the king isn’t complete. You see, they only grab hold of the victorious king - that’s like only having the queen’s ear - but there’s another piece of the puzzle in the prophet Zechariah. That verse from our first reading is quoted by John: ‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.’ (Zech 9:9, John 12:15).

They expected a war horse, a conquering king; Jesus comes as the humble king, riding on a donkey, fulfilling what has been written; helping us to see the bigger picture of who the king is and what he’s like. Yes, there will be victory and rescue; but it will come through the humble action of the king, bringing salvation through his own death.

As Jesus enters Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, he knows what lies before him. He has been on the way of the cross since he took his first steps. Yet even though he has told the disciples so many times, they still don’t get it. John tells us that in verse 16: ‘His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.’

At the time, the disciples didn’t have a clue what was happening. They couldn’t piece together the photofit of the promised king. They couldn’t see how all the pieces of the jigsaw fitted together. It was only after the cross and the resurrection that they started remembering what the Old Testament Scriptures had said about Jesus, and the things that had been done to him.

Perhaps you’re still putting together the pieces, still trying to make sense of this Jesus. You’re still working out what sort of king he is, and why he had to die on the cross. There’s no better way to get to know someone than by spending time with them; listening to them speak. That’s what we’re going to do every night this Holy Week - listen to what Jesus has to say about himself and his death. Why not come along and get to know him better?

As Jesus entered the city, a massive crowd of people are with him; telling about how they had watched Jesus call Lazarus out of the tomb and raise him from the dead. The crowd in the city coming out to meet him are stirred up, as they hail him as king. The Pharisees are watching the scene, talking among themselves: ‘you see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!’ The whole city seems to be on Jesus’ side.

That’s on Sunday. Come Friday the crowd will be baying for his blood, calling for his crucifixion, declaring that they have no king but Caesar. How quickly they turn away from Jesus. The King’s people become rebels - but then that’s the pattern of every human since Adam and Eve. We reject our rightful king; we sit on the throne ourselves.

All along, God has been preparing the stage for his king; providing the details of his loving kingdom; painting the portrait of the promised king - the one who loves the rebels so much that he willingly died to bring them back; the humble king who gives his life in place of theirs; who offers peace and forgiveness and rescue through the death of the cross.

This is the king who calls us to return; to find welcome; who invites us to share in the celebration banquet. As we share in bread and wine, we proclaim his death; we celebrate his victory, and we long for his return as the humble, conquering king. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Palm Sunday 1st April 2012.