Thursday, August 30, 2012

Sermon Audio: Matthew 13: 31-35, 44-58

On Sunday morning, during the double baptism, we finished off our mini-series in Matthew 13 as we considered some more Kingdom Parables. In simple stories, Jesus teaches what his Kingdom looks like - growing, precious, and pure.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Book Review: John Charles Ryle 1816-1900

JC Ryle has gone down in history as the first Protestant (Anglican) Bishop of Liverpool, a leading evangelical churchman, and a prolific writer of books and tracts. It's probably no surprise that his books feature on my shelves, both his commentaries and his devotional, doctrinal works, but I couldn't have told you that much about him. That malady has now been corrected through this little biographical book by Marcus Loane, the former Archbishop of Sydney.

Even before you get to the stuff about JC Ryle, this book is worth getting and reading. Loane begins by presenting an introduction to Evangelical belief and continuity focusing on the fact that evangelical faith is not novel or new, neither during the Evangelical Awakenings nor the Reformation, but rather: 'Our faith... can be traced back through all the ages of its primitive origin in the revelation of the Gospel of the Lord Christ himself.' (p. 12) Alongside this continuity, Loane demonstrates the 'fact that our faith draws its strength from recognised scholarship: it is nothing if not reasonable in its approach to the New Testament.' (p. 14) The third element of Evangelical faith is that 'our faith proves its worth in personal devotion: it is nothing if not spiritual in its response to the New Testament' - a devotion which bears fruit in self-giving and service. These are the qualities which are seen in the life of JC Ryle, which the rest of the biography displays.

Having been educated at Eton and Oxford, where he was cricket captain, and where he learnt important lessons in leadership, Ryle was converted at the age of 21, on hearing Ephesians 2:8-9 being read aloud in his parish church. He was wonderfully converted, yet it was not universally welcomed: 'But the great change in his life was hardly welcome at home. It led to an awkwardness and a sense of estrangement in his own family; it drove a wedge between him and old friends.' (p. 35)

He's not the first, nor even the last to experience such frustration and disappointment, and yet his story is an encouragement for the rest of us. 'In calm retrospect he came to see how God was fitting him for after work in a way he did not know.' (p. 36) Isn't that often the case - our difficult experiences are paving the way for what will later come.

In Ryle's case, it was his father's sudden bankruptcy, going from wealthy banker, silk trader and MP to being left with nothing, virtually overnight, that directed Ryle towards his place in the world, not in the family business, but in the Father's business: 'But there can be no doubt that God used this calamity to turn his heart towards his true life work, for the thought of ordination had not even crossed his mind as long as his hope for a political career had been practicable.' (p. 38)

Being ordained in 1841 at the age of 25, he became Curate of Fawley with responsibility for the Chapel of Ease at Exbury. In a remarkable ministry, he was in every home in the parish every month - something the recent Church of Ireland Gazette letter-writers would be most impressed with! However, such a course of action may have been his downfall, and within two years he had moved to Winchester as incumbent because 'his own health broke down at the end of two years.' (p. 40) Just six months later, he was on the move again, to a better living, that of Helmingham in Suffolk.

It was here that disaster struck for poor Ryle, being quickly widowed twice, with five children between the ages of two and fourteen. Yet even then, 'his faith did not falter; it taught him to echo the words of the Psalmist: "As for God, His way is perfect."' (p. 48).

His next parish was that of Stradbroke, and it was here that he came to national prominence, as a preacher and tract writer. Seeking to promote and maintain the true religion of the 39 Articles in the face of the rise of the Tractarians (the Oxford Movement / Anglo-Catholics), he wrote several more books including Knots Untied, and Old Paths.

Having been appointed as Dean of Salisbury, he never took up his place, instead being appointed as the first bishop of the new diocese of Liverpool by the Prime Minister of the time, Disraeli.

Having mentioned his books, perhaps the most famous of them all were his series of Devotional Thoughts on the Gospels - a useful running commentary on the scriptures, three of which were written in his incumbency in Helmingham (and the fourth in Stradbroke). If I'm to write, perhaps it'll be during my time here?

All in all, this was a good little book to read. It provided an account of a faithful minister's struggles and triumphs, and encourages other ministers to remain faithful and to give all they have in the cause of the gospel, for the glory of Jesus.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Book Review: Heresy * Spoilers Alert*

While some of my friends may think that most of the books I read and review are heresy, this one actually is! Heresy by SJ Parris is in the same historical murder mystery fiction genre as the Shardlake stories by CJ Sansom, and may even be better than Dissolution / Dark Fire / Sovereign / Revelation. Perhaps that is heretical to suggest, but I do think that Parris, in her debut novel, hits the mark.

The lead character is an unlikely choice, yet fits well into the world Parris has created (or reconstructed) for him. Giordano Bruno is a monk on the run from the Inquisition because of his desire for 'forbidden knowledge' and unorthodox views on the solar system in the 1500s. He then surfaces in Elizabeth's Protestant England, working as a spy for her agents, and all hell breaks loose.

Bruno's adventure in this novel centres on the academic centre of Oxford where he is resident in one of the colleges during the visit of a foreign dignitary. A series of gruesome murders occur *Spoiler* patterned after martyrdoms listed in Fox's Book of Martyrs, and the hunt is on to discover the murderer among the college staff and students.

Each man and woman introduced is immediately a suspect, with the twists and turns of suggested leads, further events, marvelous happenstance, and heightened suspicion. The action takes the reader on a guided tour of the sights, smells and reality of life in the period. The sectarian undertones and motives give a reminder of the times they were when it appeared that the religion of England was far from settled, and Protestants and Catholics were still fighting it out for power.

As with Shardlake, at times it appears that Bruno is thoroughly modern, reflecting a much more postmodern take on the whole realm of religion and tolerance. As you would expect, there are some interesting quotations:

'I was not afraid to die for my beliefs, but not until I had determined which beliefs were worth dying for.'

Bruno seems captivated by the notion of panentheism - the notion that God is in everything, or that we are all God: 'Sounds like dangerous sorcery to me, Bruno. And what would you prove? That there is no God?' 'That we are all God,' I said quietly. 'The divinity is in all of us, and in the substance of the universe. With the right knowledge, we can draw down all the powers of the cosmos. When we understand this, we can become equal to God.'

There's also the suggestion of a purer religion: 'An ancient truth, of which the Christian faith is one later interpretation. A truth which, if it could be properly understood in our clouded age, might enlighten men instead of perpetuating these bloody divisions.'

'Assure him that I am a true Englishman, loyal to the queen and to the English Church.' 'I though you had stopped believing in God?' I said with a smile. 'What has the Church to do with God?' he countered, almost smiling in return.

'Your tolerance would destroy in twenty days what twenty years of suffering has only served to strengthen.'

'Playing politics with the lives of others was part of the path to advancement, but that, as I was just beginning to understand, was the real heresy.'

And the final, concluding, ecumenical appeal (after the *Spoiler* exciting climax in and through the priest holes in a country house): 'If any good had come from the bloody events I witnessed in Oxford, it had been to convince me that, now more than ever, Christendom desperately needed a new philosophy, one that would draw us together as we passed from the shadows of religious wars into the enlightenment of our shared humanity and shared divinity.' - Surely this is the whole problem, in imagining enlightenment, there is yet more darkness. The light is only found in Jesus!

Even with my disagreement with some of the sentiment (which I'm fairly good at filtering out), I really did enjoy the novel, and already have the next one ready to read when the opportunity presents itself. Heresy by SJ Parris is on the Kindle and in real book format.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Sermon: Matthew 13: 31-35, 41-58 Kingdom Parables

Did you see the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games the other week? After most of the entertainment of the Queen skydiving, Mr Bean in the orchestra, and all the musical numbers, came what might have been the most boring bit - the part where you might have switched over to another channel for a while. It was when all the teams from each of the 205 countries paraded into the stadium. Were there any of the nations you’d never heard of before?

Imagine you wanted to go on holiday to some of those small islands in the Caribbean. What would you need to know before you went? You’d want to make sure the weather would be good; you might need to know what currency they use; you could find out something about the country. Now if that was the case when you’re going on holiday for a short while, what if you were moving there permanently?

For those coming from outside the UK wanting to settle here, there are the UK Citizenship Tests, where your knowledge of the country is tested [I took a practice test while writing the sermon, and failed! 67%] In our reading today, Jesus is describing what his kingdom looks like - not a country with land and borders, but the kingdom of heaven, made up of all those who name Jesus as king, who follow and obey him.

All the way through this month of August we’ve been listening in as Jesus tells parables. They’re stories to make you think - what’s it really about, all this talk of seeds and yeast, treasure and pearls, and fish. This morning, in those five stories, Jesus tells us that his kingdom is growing; his kingdom is precious; and his kingdom is pure.

First up, there’s the picture of the mustard seed. It’s so small, it would be hard to be seen. It doesn’t look very impressive. But plant the seed and it will grow into a tree. The end result is bigger and better than you would ever have imagined. The growth is amazing.

As we come to baptise Amy and Madison today, they seem so small - a bit like that mustard seed. Right now we can’t tell how they will grow up, what they will become and achieve. But our prayer is that they will grow up to call on the Lord, to love him and serve him in his kingdom. As we give thanks for these babies, so we pray that God will use them in his kingdom.

The kingdom is like a mustard seed - from such small beginnings it has grown so big. There was just Jesus, then his twelve disciples - now there are around 2 billion Christians in the world. Nothing is impossible with God. The same point is being made in the yeast - if you were watching the Great British Bakeoff on Tuesday night, it was bread week. A little yeast is worked through a large amount of flour so that the whole mix is affected by the leaven.

God’s kingdom is growing - are you within the kingdom? Are you a part of this movement? Are you obeying the king?

The next two stories point to the value of the kingdom, how precious the kingdom is. In one, a man finds treasure in a field - he knows it’s worth it to get rid of all that he has in order to buy that field and get the treasure - he has joy because he has discovered something valuable.

In the other story, a merchant gives his life to finding pearls. He has many pearls already, but then he finds a pearl of great value, and the others look poor in comparison. He’s willing to give up everything else he has in order to have the precious pearl.

Jesus is saying that being part of his kingdom, knowing Jesus as our king, is the most precious thing that we can have. Nothing else we could think of comes close to the joy of having Jesus. Have you discovered this? Or are you still caught up with the sights that dazzle, the other things that seem to promise so much but don’t satisfy.

Our prayer for these girls is that, as they are taught the Christian faith, that they will know the joy of having Jesus as their king. That they will follow up, no matter what the cost; that they will give up those things that hold them back. But it’s also my prayer for each one of us - that you also will know the joy of having Jesus as your king.

God’s kingdom is growing - are you within the kingdom? God’s kingdom is precious - have you discovered this joy?

The last of the stories might be the one that brings us up short. It could be the shocking one - but let’s look at it to see what Jesus is saying to us. He says that the kingdom of heaven is like a net - a drag net that is pulled along and catches all sorts of fish. Once it’s full, then it’s pulled ashore, and the fish are sorted and separated. The good fish are kept, the bad are thrown out.

Now in the rest of the stories, there wasn’t an explanation. You just have the story, and you’re left to work it out. But in this last one, we’re given the meaning. We’re told what it’s all about - it’s a warning about the future, what will one day happen in God’s kingdom.

‘So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Jesus says that there are just two categories of people - we’re either one or the other. Those categories are evil or righteous. When we think of the evil, we can all think of people who fit in that box - really bad people like Hitler or Osama Bin Laden. But we don’t think that we’re in the same category. We like to imagine that we’re good, or at least good enough.

The thing is, though, that we’re talking about the kingdom of heaven - Jesus is the king, but we have all turned away. We’re all rebels, we fight against God, we say no to God. We’re all evil. Deep down, we know that we don’t meet God’s standards. That picture of hell as fire and weeping and gnashing of teeth comes from the lips of Jesus. It’s what we deserve for our sin, our rebellion.

Yet Jesus tells us that there will be two categories of people on the last day - the evil and the righteous. If we’re all in the first box, how can anyone be righteous? The righteous aren’t perfect, but they are forgiven. You see, Jesus, the king, died for sinners, to take their sin, to endure their punishment, to enable all those who trust in him to go free and be counted as righteous - right with God.

Our prayer is that these girls will grow up to trust in Jesus and have their sins forgiven, so that they will be with the Lord in his kingdom forever. That same offer is open for you today. You’ll be changed, turned from an enemy to a friend, because the king offers his peace.

God’s kingdom is growing as more and more people across the world hear this good news and join his kingdom. It’s the best news you’ll ever hear, it’s the only true and lasting source of joy. But you must come in - don’t stay outside the kingdom. Whoever has ear to hear, listen!

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

Friday, August 24, 2012

Book Review: The Power of Words and the Wonder of God

The Desiring God conferences appear to be powerful times of teaching and fellowship - at least if their books are anything to go by. This, the edited and expanded transcript of the proceedings of the 2008 conference, entitled The Power of Words and the Wonder of God, gives a taster of the conference and a permanent record of the Bible teaching on offer.

As Justin Taylor, one of the editors (along with John Piper) asks in the introduction: 'What do words have to do with Christianity? Almost everything. At every stage in redemptive history... "God is there and he is not silent." God's words decisively create, confront, correct and comfort.' (p. 15) Taking this thought on, he asks: 'If God is a God of words, and if Jesus and his gospel are inseparable, then how should we - those who seek to follow him - use our words?' (p. 18) The aim (and indeed their prayer) is God-glorifying: 'May our great and glorious God graciously use these imperfect words to equip and encourage you in a path of using life-giving words to honour his name, edify the church, and call the lost to the gospel of Jesus Christ.'

There follows the six main speakers, with their particular chapters. Paul David Tripp kicks off by thinking about the War of Words: Getting to the Heart for God's Sake. Exposing the power of words, he shows that 'The book of Proverbs is, in ways, a treatise on talk. I would summarise is this way: words give life; words bring death - you choose.' (p. 24) Reminding us that Jesus is the Saviour for the big sins as well as the little ones, our words as well as our deeds and thoughts, he gets to the heart of the problem: 'Here is what you and I need to understand: word problems are heart problems.' (p. 30)

As he concludes though, there is grace: 'There's an organic consistency between what is in my heart and what comes out of my mouth. The struggle of words is a struggle of kingdoms; a war between the kingdom of self and the kingdom of God. The kingdom that rules your heart will dictate your words. But there is grace - glorious, powerful, enabling, forgiving, and delivering grace - for this struggle.' (p. 44)

Sinclair Ferguson gives a masterly exposition of James 3:1-12 within the context of James' letter as a whole, and the wider scripture under the title of The Bit, the Bridle and the Blessing. There is much to rebuke the comfortable and relaxed Christian of today, who pays little attention to their speech and silence, and his twenty resolutions on the use of the tongue from James would be well adapted into anyone's life. Ferguson also uses a wonderful illustration of the change that is required, which comes about from a renewed heart and a transformed tongue, as he speaks of his Scottish accent being noticeably different and out of place in his adopted home of the United States: 'The most important single aid to my ability to use my tongue for the glory of Jesus is allowing the Word of God to dwell in me so richly that I cannot speak with any other accent.' (p. 64)

Is there Christian Eloquence? is the question that John Piper tackles, asking if it is possible to use words well, or if it is disallowed on the grounds of the worldly wisdom that Paul renounced in his gospel preaching in Corinth. Through careful argument and close exegesis, he shows that the cross itself stands against worldly wisdom, and thus the message of the cross is in similar vein. Nevertheless, in the Scripture as a whole there is a great variety of literary devices, 'and it seems to me that God invites us to join him in this creativity of eloquence.' (p. 76)

In what may be one of his favourite topics, Mark Driscoll looks at the whole area of controversy in his chapter, 'How Sharp the Edge? Christ, Controversy and Cutting Words.' In one sense, it didn't appear to be anything new or different to the same things he regularly says in his podcast sermons (which also seem to be repetitious at times), but he made some clear points: 'Throughout God's Word, the Scriptures, God speaks tough and tender words to his people.' (p. 81) He calls for us to follow in this way: 'Indeed, some Christians are always angry and won't stop fighting. But it is equally true that some Christians are rarely angry and won't start fighting. The former are always renounced while the latter legion gets away with perennial cowardice in the name of nicety.' (p. 93)

In his desire for catergorising and labelling of people (shepherds, sheep, swine, wolves and dogs) and how to relate to them based on their labels, it seemed as if there wasn't much room for grace, or for change. I'm sure Mark would desire for sinners to become saints, but the way he approaches the whole thing in the chapter left a big gap.

Daniel Taylor uses his chapter to consider Story-Shaped Faith, in realising that 'God is telling the world a story' and finding ourselves in that story, and telling that story to others, inviting them to join in.

In the last chapter, Bob Kauflin changes the tempo, adds a melody and asks 'What Happens When We Sing?' He suggests that music helps us to remember words, to engage emotionally with words, and to demonstrate and express our unity in the church.

Alongside these chapters, the book contains a bonus resource of a transcript of the authors / speakers in conversation. For me, it was useful to see these men engage with their topics further, and interact with each other's questions and themes. Within that section, Piper argues powerfully for the use of the internet to spread resources: 'And if you're going to do it for one person [researching and writing on a pastoral theme] you might as well put it on the Web and just multiply your usefulness.' (p. 141) To that end, he is certainly consistent, as this book and indeed most of his books are available for free from Desiring God in pdf format - sometimes it's not ideal for the Kindle (whole pages appear on the screen of the Kindle which makes the print very tiny), but what a generous sharing of these words for the study of the word of God!

All in all, I really enjoyed this volume, and would heartily recommend it for pastors and preachers, in particular, who use their tongues for God, but also for any Christian to think about the sanctifying of your words. You can get it free in pdf here, or for the Kindle, or in dead tree format.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Express Evangelism

I've been reading and thinking about 1 Thessalonians this morning. Having made it to Thessalonica on his second missionary journey, Paul proclaims the good news about Jesus in the city before moving on due to the vehement Jewish opposition (Acts 17:10). After some time in Berea (Acts 17:14), Paul arrives in Athens, from where he sends Timothy back to Thessalonica to hear if the new church and the new Christians are continuing in the faith despite such turbulent and troublesome beginnings (1 Thes 3:1-5).

1 Thessalonians is the letter Paul writes back to the city on Timothy's return. Paul is suitably encouraged to hear that they are indeed keeping going in the faith - as the news is spreading of their conversion across the whole region (1 Thes 1:8-9), as well as their 'work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope' (1 Thes 1:3).
What struck me most in reading the letter was just how much they already knew and had learnt from such a short time of instruction. Paul was probably in the city for just three weeks. We're told that 'on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures' in the synagogue, before the Jews got jealous and made sure Paul and his companions were evicted.

So you've got just three weeks to establish a new church, and teach them the basics of the Christian faith. How much is possible? What could they learn in that short time?

- The gospel itself. 'our gospel came to you...' (1:4). 'you received the word of God' (2:13)

- The role of suffering in the Christian faith. 'You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit...' (1:6). 'For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews.' (2:14). 'For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know.' (3:4)

- The need for conversion. 'You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God...' (1:9)

- The resurrection of Jesus. '... to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead...' (1:10)

- The return of Jesus. '... to wait for his Son from heaven... Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.' (1:10) 'Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.' (5:1-2)

- The important work of evangelism. 'For you remember, brothers, our labour and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.' (2:9)

- The need to walk rightly as Christians. 'For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.' (2:11-12) 'we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.' (4:1) This is spelled out in terms of abstaining from sexual immorality and self-control, because 'the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we solemnly warned you.' (4:6)

- The centrality of love. 'Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another...' (4:9)

- The sharing of encouragement in God's word. 'Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.' (5:11)

Nevertheless, there are still some things that are lacking. For some, Paul supplies teaching in the epistle (for example, about the fate of believers who have already died: 'But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep...' (4:13)), but for others, he desires to see them face to face 'and supply what is lacking in your faith.' (3:10)

That strikes me as a lot of learning in just three weeks. As we approach the first anniversary of my institution in Aghavea, I'm reflecting on my first year in the parish. What have we been learning together? Are there bits that we've missed out, despite having a lot longer? How can I develop my ministry in this next year and continue to proclaim the whole counsel of God?

The 'diet' of the first year consisted of the Apostles' Creed, Luke 1-2, Ephesians, the Sermon on the Mount, and John 11-21. As we begin the second year we'll begin exploring the Old Testament, kicking off with a series in Genesis 1-11 on Sunday mornings, but what comes after that, only the Lord knows so far! We're also beginning a new midweek Fellowship Group / Bible study, so there'll be more opportunities to share in God's word and work on the application to individual lives and discipleship.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Book Review: Men Made New

In 1965, John Stott spoke at the Keswick Convention for the first time, leading a series of four Bible studies from Romans 5-8. These were subsequently released as a little paperback book by IVP, under the title of Men Made New. In just over one hundred pages, Stott opens up the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer as he explores the work of sanctification in a Christian. It's a great wee book, and one that I immensely enjoyed on my holidays.

Observing that Paul's letter to the Romans is 'the fullest and most coherent manifesto of the Christian gospel in the New Testament', Stott declares that 'there is a grandeur, a comprehensiveness, a logic about his exposition.' After showing the need for justification and how it is achieved, chapters five to eight are the fruits of our justification, 'the great privileges of justified believers, of Men Made New.'[As a side note, when this series has been collected into the bigger volume called 'John Stott at Keswick', the title was changed to 'The Privileges of the Justified.'] Those privileges are found in each of the subsequent chapters - peace with God, union with Christ, freedom from the law, and life in the Spirit.

As ever, Stott was in fine form as he teaches and applies the word of God to the situation he finds in the church around him: 'Many think and behave as if the gospel were good news of justification only, and not good news also of holiness and of heaven.' The fruits of our justification are seen to be peace, grace and glory - reflecting the three tenses or phases of our salvation. But not to be missed or neglected is also the suffering that comes with the Christian life.

While most of us shrink back from suffering, Stott shows that Paul is clear that suffering is essential for the Christian, because it produces endurance, like antibodies are produced by infection. 'We could not learn endurance without suffering because without suffering there would be nothing to endure.' Our suffering is rooted and made bearable because of Christ's suffering for us, as he notes the 'unflattering terms in which we are described... failures, rebels, enemies, helpless to save ourselves.'

On God's love, he reminds us of the objective and subjective awareness believers experience: 'This is how we know that God loves us. We know it rationally as we contemplate the cross, where God gave His best for the worst. And we know it intuitively as the Spirit floods our hearts with a sense of it.'

As he turns to consider union with Christ, he declares that it is 'a state which leads to holiness.' 'It is not the literal impossibility of sin, but the moral incongruity of it, which the apostle is emphasizing.'

'So the secret of holy living is in the mind. It is in knowing that our old self was crucified with Christ. It is in knowing that baptism into Christ is baptism into His death and resurrection. It is in reckoning, intellectually realizing that in Christ we have died to sin and live to God.'

As he discusses the relation of the Christian to the law, he notes that we are still slaves (free slaves!), but not to the law, but to Christ. 'The law says, 'Do this and you will live.' The gospel says, 'You live, so do this.''

On the Holy Spirit, Stott summarises his work as follows: 'These, then, are the four gracious activities of the Holy Spirit. He subdues our flesh, He witnesses to our sonship, He guarantees our inheritance, and He helps our weakness in prayer.'

All in all, this is high quality bible teaching, exactly what you would expect and we came to love from the one known as Uncle John. My little book was a 1978 reprint of a 1966 edition which had sat on my bookshelves, having been rescued from a retiring minister's library, and caught my eye as I was picking holiday books. I'm glad to have read it, although you might be better able to read the version of the chapters in 'John Stott at Keswick'. Get it, read it, and rejoice in God's glorious work in your life.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Sermon Audio: Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43

Why is the world the way it is? Why do the wicked prosper? Why do good people suffer? Jesus answers the question of Psalm 73 as he tells the parable of the wheat and the weeds - harvest time is coming, when the separation will occur.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sermon: Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43 Wheat and Weeds

Have you ever looked at the world around you and thought - why is it like this? You might be watching the TV news, or reading a newspaper, and wonder what’s going on. Whether it’s the shocking news of the girl going missing in England (and her body being found in her granny’s house), or Julian Assange seeking asylum in a foreign embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden. The way of the world doesn’t seem to make any sense sometimes.

It’s made worse when it looks as if good things happen to bad people - those in charge of the banks continue to take home big bonuses while most people suffer; Premiership footballers earn vast sums while others go hungry. Or move to the personal level - someone has wronged you, perhaps cheated you in business or relationships; and they seem to be getting away with it. You’re worse off for doing the right thing. What’s going on?

This is the very problem that the writer of Psalm 73 is struggling with. He can’t get his head around the fact that the wicked are prosperous, healthy, seemingly lucky, and getting away with it. They’re proud, violent, scoff, and wealthy. Did you feel the frustration of the Psalmist as we read the Psalm earlier? ‘It is in vain that I cleansed my heart and washed my hands in innocence?’

For the believer, sometimes our faith makes it harder to cope with. After all, we believe that God is in control, that he is sovereign. If God is really the king, then why is life like this? Why is the world the way it is? Is God not in control? Is God not the king?

For this month of August, we’ve been listening in as Jesus teaches the crowd and the disciples about the kingdom of God. Today’s parable answers the question of Psalm 73 - if God is king, why are things the way they are? As we’ve seen, Jesus uses ordinary stories to teach about spiritual truth, so let’s remind ourselves of the story.

We’re told of a man who sows good seed in his field. He’s happy with his work, and waits for the plants to sprout. But unknown to him, in the dead of night, an enemy has come along and sowed weeds among the wheat. The plants grow up, and it’s not immediately obvious which is which. You see, the weeds here are probably darnel, a mildly poisonous weed that looks like wheat in the early stages. It’s only when the grains appear that the weeds are seen to be different. But by then it’s too late.

The slaves of the farmer are surprised when the weeds appear: ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ (27) If you sow good seed, you expect a good crop - not weeds. The farmer realises an enemy has done this - something which was devastating, and illegal in Roman law. But rather than sending in the slaves to pick out the bad weeds, the farmer tells them to wait: ‘No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.’ The roots and shoots of the wheat and weeds are tangled together, it would be too messy to get rid of the weeds now. It’s only when the harvest comes that the weeds can be easily separated from the wheat.

Now again, Jesus isn’t just telling a story for the sake of it. When he gets into the house, away from the crowd, the disciples ask him to explain it. As Jesus explains the story, we find that we’re in the story - it explains the world as we know it now, and gives us a warning about the future.

Jesus is the farmer, the one who sows the good seed. Here, the good seed are the children of the kingdom - those who belong to Jesus. On the other side, the weeds are the children of the evil one, sown by the devil, in opposition to Jesus and his purposes. Isn’t this what we see in the world? There are those who are wicked, who seem to be prospering; alongside those who are members of the kingdom.

Even the church can be a ‘mixed’ organisation - wheat and weeds side by side, looking fairly similar. It’s sometimes hard to tell. You can have those who on the surface look to be faithful members, but in fact they’re not. The fruit shows the heart - they might look like wheat, but they produce weeds.

We’re now in this season of growth, but one day, some day (soon), will come the time of the harvest. The owner of the field will call time and send his workers in to gather the harvest. At that time it will be so obvious which is which - the wheat and the weeds.

Here’s what Jesus says: ‘Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!’

Jesus is giving us a solemn warning here about what lies ahead for those who are not his people. Harvest time is coming, at the end of the world, when time itself shall cease, and the judgement of all is at hand. Just as you wouldn’t want any weeds spoiling your gardens or window boxes, so there is no room in God’s kingdom for those who are evildoers. Sin and sinners would be out of place in that atmosphere of perfect holiness.

We don’t like hearing about judgement; it’s not an easy thing to speak about - yet the Lord Jesus speaks of it, and so must we. You see, this world is not all there is, despite what the New Atheists try to tell us. If this world was all that existed, then there would be no justice. Hitler commanded the genocide of millions of Jews and others, and committed suicide before he could be captured and brought before a war trial. Did he escape justice? Our hearts cry out for justice - because there is a just God.

Jesus describes the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. I know that some of you have a tender conscience, and as we speak of evildoers, your heart immediately cries out. You’re all too aware of your sins and failings. But look at the contrast - evildoers are the weeds, but the righteous are the wheat.

None of us are righteous by our own efforts. All of us deserve the fire of hell for our sins. But the good news is that Jesus endured our punishment; he died the death we deserved, and as we trust in him, we have that great exchange - he takes away our sin, and gives us his righteousness. We are found to be his, to be that good seed - and so no longer face punishment, but paradise.

The Psalmist was utterly confused by his problem - ‘until I entered the sanctuary of God and understood the end of the wicked.’ God IS in control - Peter tells us that the delay of judgement is not weakness, but patience - while it is still today there is still time to turn and be saved. One day it will be too late, the judgement will be final. Come today, while the offer remains. ‘In the Lord God have I made my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.’ ‘Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!’

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 19th August 2012.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Wedding Bells

Yesterday we gathered in Hamilton Road Presbyterian Church to celebrate the wedding of Rev Adrian Dorrian to his lovely bride, Anne Graham. May they know the Lord's blessing on their married life together as they build their lives on his foundation. We were reminded by the minister of Hamilton Road, David Johnston, that marriage is a man and a woman coming together, staying together, walking together, and serving together.

If you're friends with me on Facebook you can find more photos in this album.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Sermon Audio: Matthew 13: 10-17

As Jesus teaches the crowd about the nature of the kingdom of heaven by the lake shore, he uses stories and parables. The disciples ask him why he speaks in parables, and Jesus explains the purpose of the parables - which might be quite surprising!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Book Review: Divorcing Jack

Colin Bateman's books came highly recommended from a friend and former colleague. He told me about a night that he was reading such a book in bed, and ended up laughing so much and so hard that he woke his sleeping wife! Coming very late to the Bateman party, I nevertheless decided to keep an eye out for them, and where better to start than his very first novel, Divorcing Jack. Even better, it was bought in a charity shop in Bangor for the princely sum of 50 pence, with two others. Due to the need to switch off the Kindle during take off and landing on the aeroplane, I decided to begin my holiday with a dead tree book, this very one. And I laughed so much!

Divorcing Jack follows the lead character of Dan Starkey, a newspaper columnist in Belfast during the mid 1990s. After sharing one kiss with a woman not his wife, he is propelled into a high speed murder mystery chase around Belfast, Bangor, and the fictional town of Crossmaheart with an American reporter in tow, encountering many memorable characters, such as the Jack Russell, Mouse, the Alliance Prime Minister-in-waiting, a stripping nun, and terrorists of all sorts and shades. At times the action is gruesome; the language colourful; the characters fierce; but it all comes together with many groan-inducing puns which delighted me!

Here's a taster of Bateman's knowing asides and puntastic puns:

'I was brought up with Protestant tastes. Plain and simple.'

'His accent wasn't Belfast, but it wasn't country enough to be annoying.'

'Not so much a question of Finishing School as never having finished school.'

'God didn't reply, but then He was probably moving in mysterious ways.'

On meeting the nun: 'She gave me a look that was more Armalite than Carmelite.'

Reader beware that all human life is here, with the attendant language and actions, but in the end (with lots of unexpected twists to the last page) it's a satisfying read, full of Bateman's characteristic black humour which may be appreciated by a wider audience, but will go down well with the folks at home in Ulster.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Preaching Away: Coolbuck

Most Sundays, I have the joy and delight of preaching in my own parish church at Aghavea. You'll have to ask my parishioners if they have the joy and delight of listening to me! Occasionally, though, there are opportunities to discover and preach in other churches, and yesterday afternoon was a special one.

This is the little church at Coolbuck, in the parish of Lisbellaw. There's a service here each Sunday afternoon at 3pm (fortnightly in the summer months). It's also not very big, as you might have noticed.

Coolbuck Interior

The parish website provides some more details:

"Coolbuck Mountain Church is a chapel of ease lying within the Parish of Lisbellaw. Early records of the church were lost with other parish records in the fire in Dublin in 1922

According to the Griffith Valuation in 1862 a new schoolhouse was to be added to their records. It is believed that the Ford family built it as a school and handed it over to the landlord JGV Porter to be used as a church.

The stonemason was John Johnston who lived nearby in Coolbuck; the agreed price for the building including the boundary wall was eight pounds.

John Johnston was married in the Parish of Derryvullen South to a local girl, Margaret Rinchey of nearby Mountdrum and they had a large family. Many of their children moved to Australia and three of them became ministers in the church. Their grandson was the Stationmaster in Lisbellaw and on the day of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II the family left Lisbellaw by train to start a new life in Australia.

After the First World War services were held monthly and Harvest Services held annually by the light of the tilley lamps. Rev JJ St Ledger opened the church on a weekly basis when he came to the parish in 1958 and this practice still continues. As such, we believe Coolbuck to be Ireland's smallest church building regularly used for public worship.

The electricity was brought to Coolbuck in 1995 with money raised at a Miniature Olde World Flower Festival.

One of the highlights for many in the parish and beyond is the First Communion of Christmas at Coolbuck on Christmas Eve.

The first funeral service was held here in 1979.
Our first baptism was a double baptism in 1971.
Our first Wedding was in December 2005."

Preacher's View

This is the preacher's point of view, with twenty-four souls gathered yesterday, the small, intimate church provides great acoustics for singing, and no amplification required for preaching.

The Lord's Table

With thanks to the Rector, Bryan Kerr for inviting me to lead and preach at Coolbuck yesterday afternoon.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sermon: Matthew 13: 10-17 The Purpose of the Parables

Have you ever seen one of those magic eye pictures? You know the type - it’s a pattern, and as you keep looking at it, suddenly another picture appears. Or so I’ve been told. I can never see them. You could tell me that the secret picture is of an elephant riding a unicycle over a tightrope and I wouldn’t know. People who can see them might even get frustrated with me - it’s right there, how can you not see it?

Seeing, but not really perceiving. Last week we began to look at Matthew 13, as Jesus teaches a series of parables by the lakeside, and we listened in as he speaks of the parable of the sower - the seed is sown, the four different responses. The parable is for the crowd, and it’s only later that Jesus explains it, to his disciples. In between the parable and the explanation, we find today’s reading. The disciples ask Jesus - ‘why do you speak to them in parables?’

The disciples might be seeing the puzzled response of the crowd; they perhaps see that the crowd aren’t quite understanding what Jesus is saying. The disciples might even be having a hard time understanding him themselves! They’re asking why doesn’t Jesus come straight out and say what he really means. Why does he use stories and parables?

The key to Jesus’ answer comes in verse 11. Look there with me: ‘To you (that is, to the disciples) it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.’ The words of Jesus are bringing a division between people - those who will come to know the secrets of the kingdom and those who won’t; between those who will see and hear and not get it, and those who will.

Let’s think about these two groups. Over in verse 13 Jesus gives the reason for speaking in parables: ‘The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.”’ On the surface, they’re seeing Jesus, they’re hearing him speak, they’re listening to the parable of the sower, but it’s all just on the surface.

They’re not really hearing the true story, what it’s all about; they’re not getting to the deeper meaning. In the same way, they’re seeing Jesus, but they’re not really perceiving him - they don’t realise that he is the Son of God, the King of this kingdom he is proclaiming. They’re a bit like me and my magic eye picture - I’ll look, but I’ll not see it.

You might have noticed that this phrase “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” is in quotation marks in our Bibles - Jesus is picking up and using a phrase that comes several times in the Old Testament. You see, this isn’t the first time the people of Israel, the people of God, have been slow on the uptake. They have form in this sort of experience.

Back in Deuteronomy 29, Moses is addressing the people before he dies and they cross over into the promised land. They have experienced the miracles of Exodus; God’s provision for them in the wilderness, yet still they don’t really trust in the Lord, they’re still rebellious. They don’t want to listen.

In fact, as Jesus says here, his generation is the fulfilling of the prophecy of Isaiah 6. I’m sure you know the passage well - as the prophet Isaiah is called for service, the vision of the LORD in the temple, his conviction of his sin in the face of God’s glory, his sin being taken away, and then the question from the throne: ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And with that, Isaiah says ‘Here I am, send me!’

Now that’s where we like to stop the reading. Application - God called Isaiah, and God is calling you, will you go for him? But carry on into the next verse, and you discover just what Isaiah was being called to do. It wasn’t the victorious, triumphant, wonderful message you might think. ‘Go and say to this people: Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand...’

It’s the very passage that Jesus quotes here - Isaiah’s ministry is to expose the people’s blindness and deafness. Isaiah comes from God, and the people don’t listen to him - because they refuse to listen.

I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the Olympics (maybe you’re fed up with them, but don’t worry, they’re all over tonight!). The other day they were interviewing the swimmer Michael Phelps, the greatest Olympian ever. He said about how the President of the United States, Barack Obama had phoned him during the Olympics to wish him well. This was a great thing, a privilege, for the leader of his country to ring him up.

But imagine that Michael hasn’t answered the phone. Or had answered and then starting humming to himself. Or didn’t bother listening. This is a bit like how the people of Israel were in Isaiah’s day, and also in Jesus’ day. They had the privilege of the Creator of the universe speaking to them, and how did they react? They put their fingers in their ears, they closed their eyes, they refused to turn back to God and be healed.

Could this be said of us as well? You could be an upstanding member of the community, someone who has been born and bred, baptised and confirmed in the Church of Ireland, never miss a Sunday, and yet it’s as if you’re sitting with fingers in your ears as God speaks through his word. Is this you? Oh how we need to cry for mercy, asking that God would open our ears that we would hear, and give us hearts to turn to him for healing and salvation.

How could we be members of the kingdom if we refuse to listen to the king? If we disobey what he says?

In contrast to the crowds, the disciples have been given the secrets of the kingdom. To know the Lord Jesus personally, to understand his work of salvation on the cross, to hear him teaching - Jesus says that their eyes and ears are blessed, because of their place in history.

The Old Testament believers had only the promise of the King, which they believed, but they longed to see the Messiah themselves, and to hear his word. They looked forward to the day Jesus would walk on the earth - what a privilege for the disciples to be with Jesus. They got to hear him and see him.

It’s a privilege we share with them, coming after them in time, having the words of Jesus written down for us, so that we too can see his work and hear his words. How blessed we are, to have the Scriptures in our language.

What a privilege we have - but with that a great responsibility to make sure that we are listening to him. We share in the blessing of the disciples, and one day we too will see him face to face, in his eternal kingdom, where we’ll be with him and see him and hear him directly.

So as Jesus speaks to us through the Bible, are you listening to him? Will you receive his word?

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

Friday, August 10, 2012

It's Friday... But Sunday's Coming!

Tony Campolo's little book of the same name comes from a preacher he once heard. The preacher was talking about the cross, the shame, the seeming defeat of Jesus. The fact that all the disciples had fled. Hope seemed to have been lost. It's Friday... but Sunday's coming!

That defeat and sadness and disappointment of Good Friday is overturned when Sunday comes and Jesus emerges from the tomb, in new resurrection life. It's Friday... but Sunday's coming!

The application is that while the Christian life may be hard, there are many struggles, disappointments, sufferings etc as we follow in the path of Jesus, we're still in the pain of Friday. It's Friday... but Sunday's coming!

The preacher was very effective, Campolo reflects, in a church and with a congregation that joined in the little chorus. It's Friday... but Sunday's coming!

It's a memorable little phrase, one that has stuck in my memory in the ten or more years since I read the book. But these days it has a different resonance with me in the realm of ministry.

For the pastor, Sunday is the 'big' day in the week, when the congregation meets together for encouragement and praise, prayer and to hear God's word. The centrepiece of the service is the opening and proclaiming of the Bible, and that needs a sermon.

It's Friday... but Sunday's coming!

The preacher's week begins on Monday morning (or as early in the week as possible), starting to work on the passage for next Sunday's preach. Praying, reading, paying careful attention to the text, what it actually says, letting it flood into the mind.

As well as the conscious reading and studying, the text will continue to marinate unconsciously while driving, while eating, while sleeping. Thoughts continue to interrogate the text - what does it mean? What does it tell us about God? What does it tell us about people? What is the connection to the Lord Jesus?

Later in the week, with some problems and questions emerging, it's time to consult some older brothers, asking them to help in your sermon prep - guys like John Calvin, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, and some other commentary writers and preachers from the library. They will hopefully help clarify some issues, perhaps even give some hints towards structure or application.

By now, it is Friday morning, and Campolo's phrase echoes through the mind:

It's Friday... but Sunday's coming!
It's now time to write the sermon, it's Friday, and Sunday is not too far away. So on Friday mornings, you'll find me in the study, trying to write the first draft of the sermon, getting ready for the weekend, wanting to share what God has been saying in and through the Bible passage for the week.

Several months ago, I had a sermon written on the Friday morning. An adaption of a previously preached one, which seemed to be 'good enough'. But it wasn't. Early on Sunday morning, in that twilight period where I'm not sure if I'm sleeping or awake, suddenly it came to me - I needed to write a completely new sermon, and not depend on somewhere else's leftovers. So in an hour or so, the new sermon was written - although the hard work of studying and thinking and reflecting had already been done through the week.

It worked that Sunday; the sermon was well received; but I don't want to leave it until Sunday in a normal week!

And here we are again. It's Friday... but Sunday's coming. Time to write that sermon...

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Book Review: The Life and Times of James Ussher

Archbishop James Ussher (or was it Usher?) is the man who is famous (or infamous) for the dating of creation to the 23rd October 4004BC, using the genealogies contained in the Scriptures. But there's more to the man than just this. One of the first students at the newly founded Trinity College, Dublin, Ussher finished as Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland from 1625-1656, having helped write the Irish Articles of Faith in 1615 - the foundation for the work of the Westminster divines as they crafted the Westminster Confession of Faith (which impacted on subsequent Reformed Confessions).

All in all, it appears that he was a remarkable man. The author sets out his aim early on in the book: 'The present volume is an effort to place the Irish Primate before the reader as he was in his day - a great ecclesiastic, a profound scholar, and a much-tried Churchman.'

Sadly that's about all I can tell you about Ussher, or even about the book. Consider this not so much a book review as a Kindle format review.

In theory, the Amazon Kindle is a wonderful invention. The ability to carry around with you a thousand books or more in something that fits into your pocket is amazing. A world of possibilities opens before you, of reading and accessing a multitude of books, wider than your regular genres, at a hopefully reduced price. Even better, the range of older books which might be out of print or out of copyright, suddenly re-released to the wider world as their texts are digitised and optimised for consumption.

This is one such volume. First published in 1895 by James Anderson Carr, the work has recently been republished in several hard copy versions (all very expensive), but appeared on the Kindle store for just 77 pence. A bargain! Buyer beware - you get what you pay for.

This Kindle edition hasn't been optimized for the Kindle at all, with the end result being a jumble of text and extensive footnotes all gathered together. It was simply impossible to read the book, as you were never quite sure which bits were the book and which were the notes. While most books with footnotes will have them available at the end of the chapter or the end of the book (with a handy link if you want to read the note), this one obviously tries to recreate the original text with its footnotes at the bottom of the page - except it doesn't work on a Kindle, or where footnotes carry on beyond a page themselves!

The price of the book was small, but the impossibility of the format means I'll not be able to read the book at all. Don't be caught out like I was! Here's the link to the Kindle version. A much better book would be The Irish Puritans: James Ussher and the Reformation of the Church.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Sermon Audio: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

On Sunday we began a new series for the month of August, listening in as Jesus teaches the crowd by telling parables about the Kingdom of God in Matthew 13. The first is probably the best known of this collection - the parable of the soils (or the parable of the sower!).

Monday, August 06, 2012

Book Review: The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness

What does it look like to live as a Christian? In this little book, really an expanded, transcribed sermon, Tim Keller reveals what true freedom - the freedom of self-forgetfulness is. For the half an hour it'll take you to read it, and the little sum of money (99p in the Kindle store) it'll cost to buy it, this book is definitely worth it.

While our society concerns itself with the ego - self-esteem, self-development and such like, believing that we need to help people increase in self-esteem and that the big problem is low self-confidence, Keller argues that we actually have too high a view of ourselves:

'Our belief today - and it is deeply rooted in everything - is that people misbehave for lack of self-esteem and because they have too low a view of themselves.'

'Trying to boost our self-esteem by trying to love up to our own standards or someone else's is a trap.'

Keller's answer is the gospel's answer - by not connecting sins and identity, we see ourselves as God sees us, and find our value in God's opinion rather than our own or anyone else's:

'The essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.'

'True gospel-humility means an ego that is not puffed up but filled up.'

The problem is widespread:

'What Paul is looking for, what Madonna is looking for, what we are all looking for, is an ultimate verdict that we are important and valuable. We look for that ultimate verdict every day in all the situations and people around us. And that means that every single day, we are on trial.'

The answer?

'He says that it is the Lord who judges him. It is only His opinion that counts... Paul is saying that in Christianity, the verdict leads to the performance. It is not the performance that leads to the verdict.'

'Because he loves me and he accepts me, I do not have to do things just to build up my resume. I do not have to do things to make me look good. I can do things for the joy of doing them.'

This little book is perhaps the best short introduction to the whole connection between justification and sanctification I've ever read. It's completely life transforming, and will do your heart good. Buy it now from the Kindle store.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Sermon: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 The Parable of the Soils

Where would your ideal holiday be? You might be the adventure type, wanting to go and climb mountains, or even ski down them. Perhaps you would prefer to get away from it all, a little cottage in the middle of a forest, far from other people. Or maybe you’re the type who likes the beach, water lapping at your toes, relaxing.

At the start of our reading today, it seems as if Jesus is doing the same. He went out of the house and sat beside the lake. But rather than getting away from everything, Jesus isn’t there for rest. We’re landing into the middle of Matthew’s gospel, and Jesus has been attracting a crowd, following him to watch him perform miracles of healing, and to hear him teaching. In fact, the crowd is so great that Jesus has to get into a boat, and it’s from the boat that he teaches the crowd.

This whole chapter, set on the beach, contains some of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God, as he tells a number of parables - stories with a deeper meaning. On these four Sunday mornings in August, we’re going to listen in as Jesus teaches.

So this morning, Jesus begins with a story that most of us have probably heard before. He says: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow.’ As he goes along, he spreads the seed, and Jesus tells us that it lands in lots of different places - the path, where it is eaten up by birds; the rocky ground, with a promising start, but it withers as quickly as it sprouted; among the thorns, where it is choked out; and finally the good soil, producing a crop.

You’ve heard the story before. You know what it’s all about. You know that Jesus gives the explanation a little later. But stop here, at this point, and that’s all Jesus says to the crowd. If you were in the crowd that day, that’s all you would have heard about the seed and the soils. What would you make of it?

Would it seem as if Jesus was branching out into giving agricultural advice? Was he writing a column for the farming section of the Impartial Reporter on how to sow seed? What was it all about? You see, in verse 10, the disciples come to Jesus (probably later) and ask him why he speaks in parables. It’s only to the disciples that Jesus explains the parable (we’ll think next week about the purpose of the parables from the middle section).

So what is it all about? Jesus starts with what the people know - they all know about farming, they either sow themselves, or have seen their neighbours doing it. They know about the different places that the seed can land; and the way the seed grows in those places. But Jesus isn’t just teaching about farming - instead he’s pointing to the deeper truth, and it’s highlighted in the first and last word of the parable in our NRSV version: ‘Listen!’

When I was at school, every few months I got a day off school, and a trip into Belfast on the bus with my mum or my granny. I would be taken to a little box in the hospital, wearing headphones, with a stick in my hand, listening carefully. When I heard a sound, I had to hit the block of wood. It seems my hearing wasn’t great - I ended up getting vents in my ears three times!

Jesus is asking us in this parable the same question: how’s your hearing? Are you really listening? The other day we were round at my sister-in-law’s house. The TV might have been on, the kettle might have been boiling, but my sister-in-law was able to hear their youngest one crying upstairs - we might have heard it, but weren’t really listening, but she was listening out for it. Her listening moved her to action - she didn’t just say, oh, Catherine is crying and then go back to chatting; no, she heard and she acted - she went to see how the baby was doing.

In verses 18-23, Jesus explains the parable. He says that it’s all about our listening - what we do with the word that we hear. He begins: ‘When anyone hears the word of the kingdom...’ (19). Even as Jesus tells this parable, he is sowing the word of the kingdom, he’s spreading the good news, but there are different responses; different reactions. Some will hear the word (as they listen to the Bible read and the sermon preacher), but they won’t take it in, it’s taken away by the evil one. Are you listening?

For others, just like the rocky soil, there’ll be a quick sprouting, ‘immediately receiving it with joy’, but there’s no roots - ‘when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.’ The good news sounds good - yes, I’ll go for that, but then the Christian life is harder than you thought.

Other people will be like the thorny ground. You hear the word, you begin to respond, but then ‘the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.’ Are you caught up in this world with its wealth and its worries? Those weeds need to be uprooted, and the soil prepared for the seed.

And finally, Jesus talks about the good soil, where the person hears and word and understands and bears fruit. In fact, it’s a bumper crop, with a hundred, or sixty, or thirty times what was sown.

Now what was the problem with the first three? Was it the seed that was faulty? Were there different qualities of seed being sown? Was the word different to the four groups? Not at all! It’s the same seed being sown at the same time - the difference comes in the types of soil; the responses to the word.

This means that any time the word is read or proclaimed - as we meet together as a church family; as we read our Bibles at home; as the word is read in GFS or Sunday School or Mothers’ Union or wherever; these are the possible responses - it’s nothing to do with the preacher, it’s to do with how we receive the word.

This parable is like a mirror being held up to us - we’re confronted with that question: how’s your hearing? Which type of soil are you? How will you receive the word from God? How will you prepare to hear from God? Are there ways you can break up the rocky ground or clear away the weeds in your heart and life to help you hear better?

Last year when the lawn at the front of the Rectory was being sown, the seed wasn’t just thrown down there and then - the ground had to be prepared, the weeds removed, so that the good seed would grow. What might that look like for us? It might mean getting to bed at a decent time on Saturday night in order to be fresh for Sunday mornings at church; coming ready to hear and really listen; not being distracted.

There is encouragement here for us as a church family, dedicated to hearing from God - that even though some may not hear, the yield from the seed on good soil is worth the frustration and disappointment - so we’ll keep on sowing - on Sundays, in small groups, as parents teaching their children; in lots of different ways.

Our prayer for little Olivia today is that, in time, she too will be like this good soil, that she too will hear the word of the good news, and that she too will be fruitful for her Lord, for the glory of Jesus.

How’s your hearing? Are you listening?

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

Saturday, August 04, 2012

We're Going To The Zoo, Zoo, Zoo!

Or rather, we've already been to the Zoo: Dublin Zoo.

It's been a couple of years since I was last there, and they've continued to make improvements to the habitat and viewing possibilities for all the wonderful animals in the Phoenix Park venue.

Here are a few of my favourites:
This cheeky monkey giraffe had his tongue out!
Red Pandas
The red pandas were more active than I'd ever seen them before.
Ring Tailed Lemurs
Ring Tailed Lemurs.
Pink Flamingo
Pink Flamingo.
A scruffy penguin, reading for picking up!
Penguin Swimming
A swimming penguin.
Mother and Baby
Mother and Baby.
Baby Hippo
Baby hippo.
Tiger standing proud.

Friday, August 03, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises *Spoiler Alert*

If you mention Batman to me, I'll be most likely to think of Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer or Geroge Clooney in the lead role. The Tim Burton / Joel Schumacher era are the Batman films I know best. Indeed, I'll never be able to forget the 1995 film Batman Forever with its baddie Twoface - given that a few days before seeing the film I ended up looking a bit like him, having come off my bike doing something stupid, having cut the face off myself!

For some reason, the newest version of Batman, starring Christian Bale had completely passed me by. Batman Begins came out in 2005, followed up by The Dark Knight in 2008, yet I didn't see either of them. I hadn't intended going to see The Dark Knight Rises, which was recently released, but that's where I ended up last weekend with my newly returned brother-in-law.

It probably put me at a disadvantage to just about everyone else in the cinema, as I didn't know the back story; couldn't immediately relate to what had gone before, but as the movie went on, I think I worked out most of it. I've now got both of the first two films to play catch-up, so don't give anything away in the comments!

So what did I make of it? Well, I was impressed by the film - a lot more realistic and less cartoonish than the previous series of Batman movies. The character portrayals were great, and there were a few twists and turns along the way. It was a long film, almost three hours, although it didn't feel like it at the time.

There were the big name stars - Michael Caine as the butler Alfred; Tom Hardy as the sometimes hard-to-make-out Bane; and perhaps the biggest surprise (at least to me, as she's normally only ever seen in those rom-coms) Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle (Catwoman).

However, the scene that sticks out for me (SPOILER ALERT!), was where Bruce Wayne/Batman is in the pit prison 'Hell on Earth' and manages to escape by ascending the sheer walls and making the leap. You might not have noticed, but when he makes it to the top, he throws down the rope from the outside, which will enable all the other prisoners to be freed.

It's as if Batman, the Dark Knight, rises from the inescapable prison, the place of death, the place where there is no hope; and by his resurrection, he enables others to escape as well.

It seems that all of our stories are but echoes and faint re-tellings of THE story of our salvation; the whole world contains these resonances and longings for a superhero, a saviour, but to put our hope in a man in a costume will ultimately fail. There is a Saviour, and his name is Jesus.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Book Review: The Measure of Our Success

A little while back, this book was going for free on Kindle, and had come highly recommended on my Twitter timeline. Coming to the end of my first year as rector, with holidays approaching, it felt like a good time to reflect on how I was doing. Shawn Lovejoy (no relation to the Reverend in the Simpsons) urges pastors to rethink success in this Impassioned Plea to Pastors.

Early on, he sets out the problem:

'Today I am deeply convinced of one truth: pastors are not doing so well. Most pastors are disillusioned, discouraged, and discontent with the way their lives and ministries are turning out.'

And what is wrong with pastors, for him?

'Here's my basic conclusion: the main reason so many of us are struggling stems from our definition of success. Somewhere along our ministry journey, we got things tangled up in our hearts and heads. Our root problem is that we have exchanged God's definition of success for our own. We have begun to measure success the way the world does.'

Even while we're busy, Lovejoy argues that we could be doing it all wrong:

'as ambitious self-started, we can so easily begin to work for Jesus at the expense of working in and through Jesus. The more talented and driven we are, the easier it becomes for us to rely on our own ambition, talents, power, strength, intellect and wisdom.'

He continues to describe growing churches, top 100 churches and the like, with most pastors wanting to be up there with their name in lights. It's a mistake, because, as he points out: 'Success is being faithful with what we have.' Indeed, anything else is idolatry, as we set our idols up to be a growing church or a large church, rather than being faithful where the Lord has called us.

He presents the three Cs of unhealthy measurement: 'comparing, copying, and condemning' and works through them in a helpful way to expose the constant comparison that goes on with other churches, both locally and internationally.

While this was a helpful reminder as to what success looks like, it's not the book I would recommend to others on the subject. At times I wasn't convinced of the author's use of Scripture, and at other times it was just too American in language, culture, drive, and forwardness. Perhaps it was just his personality coming through and clashing with my more reserved nature, but it grated at times in reading the book.

Perhaps the most memorable chapter was the last, in which he writes a powerful resignation letter - the book may just have been worth it for this. The Measure of Our Success: An Impassioned Plea to Pastors is available on the Kindle.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Happy Holidays!

Did you miss me? Where did those three weeks go? We're now into the final day of my summer holidays, before going back on duty tomorrow. It's been really good to have lots of time off, spent with Lyns and the family; as well as the opportunity to get away and do something different for a week or three.
The centre of our holiday was the actual holiday, far far away in the sun, where summer really is summer, and the pool is refreshing and cool. A holiday in the sun means reclining on a sunlounger, catching up on some of the books I've been looking forward to reading, both in dead tree and kindle format. Lots of books. To put it into perspective, thus far this year I've read twenty books in the first twenty-eight weeks, and in my holiday week I managed to read another eleven (and a half!).

I discovered some new (to me) fiction writers, laughed a lot at Colin Bateman's books, was inspired for autumn preaching, and had my soul nourished and refreshed by sitting at the feet of John Stott. Reviews will come in, spaced over the rest of the year, probably, when I have a think about them.

We had a trip to Dublin Zoo, met up with friends, celebrated a birthday with a snake cake, enjoyed fellowship at 2nd Dromara Presbyterian Church (where they thought I was their new student minister!), and ended the time with some car trouble - hopefully I'll be reunited with my wagon today.

Tomorrow, the phone message will be changed, the collar will be back on, and off we go again, with the parish barbecue in sight, and Harvest and Christmas just around the corner...