Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sermon: Genesis 3: 8-24 Sin, Separation and Salvation

I wonder if you’ve heard the old story about the new minister who called at a particular house. He thought the lady of the house was at home, but there was no answer, so he left a visiting card and on the back he wrote a Bible verse: Revelation 3:20 ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock...’ The next Sunday, the lady slipped a card into his hand, with another verse on it: Genesis 3:10. He opened his Bible to find: ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’

It’s a nice wee story, but the original setting of Genesis 3:10 is no laughing matter. Last week, we were thinking about the temptation of Adam and Eve leading to the first sin - as they disobeyed the one command God had given them in the Garden of Eden. We finished last week as we saw their eyes opened, as they realised they were naked.

Our reading today takes up the story, spelling out the consequences of that first sin - the situation we still face to this very day. All the way through the reading, we discover that sin leads to separation: between God and people; between people and people; between people and the creation. The first separation we see is between God and the people made in his image. It seems that God came to walk in the garden in the evening time, and he comes just like any other day. Except, something has changed.

Adam and Eve, aware of their sin and shame, go into hiding. They hid themselves from God, not wanting to face him any more. We have been in hiding ever since. So often you hear people talking about trying to find God - they go off on great expeditions, or take all sorts of drugs, or whatever it might be. But God isn’t missing. God isn’t lost. It’s we who are lost; us who have hidden ourselves.

And God comes looking. As children, we used to play hide and seek in a neighbour’s huge garden with trees and hedges. The one who was ‘it’ had to go looking to find those hiding. It’s not Adam and Eve saying ‘Where are you, God?’ No, God comes looking: ‘Where are you?’

Adam explains that he was afraid and he hid, because he was naked. As God gently asks how Adam knew he was naked, we see the next level of separation beginning. Look with me at verse 12: ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’ God, you know, it’s not my fault. It’s all her fault. She led me astray. And you know what, God? You gave her to me - maybe you’re to blame! Eve passes the buck as well, blaming the serpent. It was once said that Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent, and the serpent didn’t have a leg to stand on! (Sorry for those corny jokes, that’s the last of them, for this morning, at least!)

Sin brings separation. It cuts us off from God, but it also separates us from each other. Adam and Eve try to pass the blame. It’s always some one else’s fault. Have you ever heard yourself saying that or thinking that when you’re confronted with your own sins?

That separation is completed as God pronounces a curse on the serpent, Eve and Adam. Things will never be the same again. Paradise is well and truly lost. The serpent is cursed in the way it will exist; for the woman, pain in childbirth is increased, as well as the frustration of wanting to rule over her husband but having him rule over her; and for Adam, the ground is cursed because of him - joyful work becomes toil - thorns and thistles. There’s also the promise of death - returning to dust, just as God had promised in 2:17.

Right at the end of the passage, there’s the final separation, as the way to the tree of life is shut off, and Adam and Eve are removed from the garden. We’ve been cut off from God ever since. But is that it? If that’s all that we find in this chapter, it would be very bad news indeed. It would be sin, separation, curse. Entirely hopeless.

But in Romans 5:20 the apostle Paul says that ‘where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more.’ And here, even where the very first sin was committed, we find the grace of God abounding to Adam and Eve.

For a start, the death they deserved to die was graciously postponed - in the day they ate of the fruit they died spiritually, but they continued their earthly existence. God could have justly ended the whole creation on this very day, but he shows grace in allowing them to continue and to multiply.

But more than that, his grace is displayed even in the curse. Look at verse 15. Here he is cursing the serpent (who we saw last week, is the devil and Satan), now there is no grace for the devil, but there is a gracious promise for us: ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.’

God describes how things will be - opposition between the offspring of the serpent and the offspring of the woman. That is, one offspring, one descendant who is in view.

Now, I know that before baby Nathan was born there was great expectation in the Beacom house, Mark hoping for a baby brother to play football with to balance up the odds against the two sisters. And behold, it was a boy. But there’s even greater expectation for the offspring of the woman. ‘He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.’

In other words, there’s going to be a final confrontation. The devil will strike his heel, will inflict a tremendous blow; but in the same moment, the devil’s head will be crushed, he will be finally defeated. You see, the devil may have won this first encounter, but the promise has been given of a future rescuer; the separation of sin will be overcome by the Saviour, who will defeat the Satan.

There’s even a hint that this will be a costly victory. You see, in verse 21 we’re told that the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and his wife and clothed them. They are clothed, their shame covered, by the death of an animal, whose blood was shed for them, which died in their place.

On this side of the cross, we know what this first declaration of the gospel is pointing to - the death of our substitute, the Lord Jesus, who takes our sin upon himself; who dies to cover our shame and give us his own pure spotless robe of righteousness; who as he died on the cross was struck by the devil - his heel struck - it looked as if the devil had won; but Jesus rose from the dead, he crushed the devil’s head as he rose victorious, and reigns forever more.

Adam and Eve were promised God’s grace in the aftermath of their first sin; that same promise of grace comes to us in the gospel, if we will be receive it, and trust in the Lord’s death. This is our prayer for Nathan, that he too will receive the gospel and trust the Lord. Because as he does that, and as we too share in it, we will share in the Lord’s victory over the world, the flesh and the devil. As Paul says to the Christians in Rome: ‘The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet.’ (Rom 16:20) Amen!

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 30th September 2012.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Harvest Sermon: Acts 14: 8-20 Men With A Message

I once heard it said that when the apostle Paul showed up, there was either a riot or a revival, whereas wherever I preach, they serve a cup of tea. When you hear of the episode of Paul in Lystra from our reading tonight, you can see both excitement (as the crippled man is healed), but also danger (as Paul is stoned and left for dead). And you might wonder why did Paul continue to go and tell people about Jesus whenever it was so dangerous?

As we hear the news of pastors and Christians in many nations of the world today who are imprisoned because of their faith; as news of Christians being targeted is heard - why bother? Why do they keep going? How do they keep going?

We find ourselves tonight joining Paul on his first missionary journey. As he arrives at the city of Lystra, he meets a man who has been crippled, lame since his birth. Paul is speaking, and notices the man, and sees that he has faith to be healed (or saved, Gk). Just as the apostle Peter healed the man in the temple courts (Acts 3), so Paul now heals this man, showing the power of God in his life.

Suddenly, the whole town is astir! They decide that Paul and Barnabas must be two of their (pagan) gods come down to them. They quickly swing into action to welcome these gods, and hurry to prepare a sacrifice to them.

You see, there was a local legend about another town that had been visited by Zeus and Hermes, where the gods had found no welcome, except for an old couple, who brought them into their home. That couple was rewarded, but the town was destroyed. The people of Lystra didn’t want the same thing to happen to them, and so they were ready!

It’s only as the priest of Zeus brings bulls and wreaths (garlands) for the sacrifice that Paul and Barnabas realise what is happening. They don’t accept the praise and sacrifices; they are horrified by what is going on, and Paul and Barnabas rush into the crowd to stop the pagan idolatry.

The way they do that is by declaring that they are men with a message. First of all, they are men. The people think they are gods, but Paul and Barnabas tear their clothes, in a sign of sorrow, of mourning. It’s almost as if they are also showing their humanness - that they are flesh and blood. Here’s what they say: ‘Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you.’

When you look at Paul and Barnabas, in one sense there’s nothing special about them. They’re just men. They’re not gods in disguise (as the Lystrans imagined). But they are men with a message - the message they have committed their lives to sharing as they travel across the entire region. And what is that message?

‘We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God.’ The message is the good news - the gospel - a demand to turn around.

Now, thankfully this evening I found my way here ok, but there have been some times recently when I’ve been heading out to visit parishioners. I go in what I think is the right direction, but realise that I’m going the wrong way entirely! I have ended up at the wrong house; and even sometimes up dead end lanes. What do I need to do? I need to turn around, and go the right way.

The Lystrans are going the wrong direction; they’re barking up the wrong tree; the idols they are clinging to are ‘worthless things.’ They were building their life worshipping a false, small g god, who couldn’t do anything. Zeus and Hermes had no power; they were just idols.

Instead, the good news called on the Lystrans to turn from these worthless things to the ‘living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them.’ This living God is the powerful one, who created everything, who made us, and gave us life. This is the God who demands and deserves to be worshipped.

Now if the living God created everything, then how come the people of Lystra didn’t already know him? Why was it they were going in the wrong direction? Well, as Paul says, ‘In the past, he let all nations go their own way.’ The Lord was patient with the nations, giving them up to follow their own ways, developing their own mythologies - but as he will say in Athens, God now calls all people everywhere to repent, to turn back to God.

And yet, even in their idolatry, God has not left himself with a witness. Starting with what his hearers know, Paul points to the world around them, as a witness to the goodness and grace of the living God:

‘Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.’

Even as the nations turned their backs on God; even as we have spurned him and gone our own way; there has always been a testimony to God’s kindness. It’s what he promised in Genesis 8:22 - ‘As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.’

The rain (which we see plenty of here in Fermanagh) is a sign of God’s kindness. The Lord Jesus says the same in Matthew 5: ‘He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.’ (Matt 5:45). The rain is part of God’s common grace, his kindness shown to everyone. It’s a pointer to the Lord.

And in just the same way the fact that we have seasons and crops; food and satisfaction - these too point to the common kindness of the great Creator God. It’s fitting and right that we gather this evening and over this weekend to celebrate the Lord’s provision. Yet even having the signs of the Lord’s goodness all around us isn’t enough for us to know the Lord.

These pagans in Lystra had been rained on; they had eaten the crops and marked the seasons; they had even witnessed a miracle of the Lord’s healing in their city, and yet they were determined to worship their idols, sacrificing to the false gods, worthless idols.

Are we any better? Do we too receive from the Lord’s hand and yet worship other gods? Do we make costly sacrifices to the idols we serve? It might not be Zeus and Hermes, but it might be money, family, health, or power. The ads on TV are a great indicator of the idols of our society - youth; wealth; sex; prestige; celebrity, the list could go on and on.

The men with the message confront us as well, as we are reminded of the need to turn from idols to serve the living and true God - the God of all grace, who has not only provided food in due season, but has given us the gift of his own precious Son, the God who did come to us as a man; who demonstrated the kindness of God as he went to the cross; where he took the punishment we deserved for our rebellion and idolatry; to bring us back to the one true God. It’s what the apostle Peter writes about when he says that ‘it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.’ (1 Pet 1:18-19)

Paul and Barnabas were men with a message. This is the message they were sharing, even as the crowd tried to sacrifice to them; and then as the crowd (won over and urged on by the Jews of Antioch and Iconium) stoned Paul.

You may not stone the visiting preachers here (at least, I hope you don’t!), but there are other ways to reject the message - churchy ways of being polite, but continuing in your own way.

My prayer is that as we celebrate the harvest (as poor as it may be this year), that this will be a sign and pointer to the goodness and grace of God, the living God, who calls us to turn back to him.

This sermon was preached in Clogh Parish Church at the Harvest Thanksgiving on Friday 28th September 2012.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Sermon Audio: Genesis 3: 1-7

On Sunday we were thinking about temptation - how Adam and Eve fell for the devil's lies; how we too face temptation; and how Jesus was tempted as we are, yet without sin.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Desperate Preachers . Com?

Two years ago, I noticed that one of the sermons on my blog was getting an awful lot of traffic in one particular week. It turned out that the sermon was on the very passage recommended by the Revised Common Lectionary, and in the one week that particular page was viewed 805 times.

The peak was on the Saturday, leading me to conclude that there were some desperate preachers looking for sermon ideas (or perish the thought, a ready-made whole sermon) for their Sunday morning gathering. Surely there aren't 805 ministers and pastors who would give pre-chewed food to their congregations?

There is more to the preaching event than just transferring information, or some useful thoughts on a Bible passage. In preaching, the community of God's people is gathered in a particular place, together, to hear from God into their situation from his unchanging word. That means that, although the principles from the passage may be the same, the way they are applied and explained and introduced needs to be carefully thought for the particular context and situation.

What was written for my former suburban parish doesn't necessarily match or work in my new rural parish. And they are only 70 miles apart, let alone congregations in entirely different countries and continents!

It seemed to be a one off. Thankfully. That was, until this week. The numbers visiting my blog in a normal day have increased, but again, the numbers have been off the scale in recent days. The reason? Mark 9:30-37 was the RCL gospel, leading to over 2000 pageviews of my sermon from 2010.

To put this in context: The previous highest number of pageviews on a single day was 400 on the 13th February 2011 (when it was another flurry of preachers looking a sermon on the Transfiguration from Mark 9). This week has totally smashed that - 1072 page views on Saturday alone (more than the whole month of September 2008!).

There definitely appears to be a market for desperate preachers wanting sermons. Let's hope it's not just laziness on their part, avoiding any work and taking a ready-made article from the internet for their congregations on Sundays.

Me, I'll continue to post my sermons on the blog, following the advice of John Piper:

'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 'The Power of Words and the Wonder of God')

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Sermon: Genesis 3: 1-7 Yield Not To Temptation

‘Wet paint: do not touch.’ I wonder if you’re like me, and when you see a sign like that, all you want to do it touch it, to see if it really is wet paint? Or am I the only one? Or what if you see a sign saying ‘Keep out’ - you want to see what is in there that you’re not meant to see...

What is it about us that we want to do those things we’re not meant to? Why is temptation so, so tempting? Oscar Wilde once declared that he could resist everything except temptation. (Which is probably nothing!). Why are we wired to be tempted, and to give in so easily?

Over the past few weeks we’ve been thinking about God’s good creation - the world was perfect, an ideal paradise in the Garden of Eden. But that’s just not how things are these days. We’re no longer in Eden - the world has been changed since then.

This morning we’re looking at how the change happened. How sin entered the world in that first act of rebellion. But we’re not just interested in it because well, it’s nice to think about. This is something that affects us day and daily - we’re all too aware of those temptations to sin; and as we baptise Bethany today, we recognise that she too will grow up to face temptation. How can she - indeed, how can any of us - resist the devil’s lies? We need the sword of the Spirit - the word of God, the truth of God.

So let’s go back to Eden, and watch as the drama unfolds. Back in chapter two, we’re told of the two trees in the middle of the garden - the tree of life, and also the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In 2:18, God gives the fruit of the trees to Adam (and Eve), ‘but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’

So all is well and good. There are lots of trees in the garden. There’s just one they’re not allowed to eat from. (Wet paint). Now in 3:1 we’re introduced to ‘the serpent’. He is described as crafty, and we quickly discover that he is working against God - the creation turning against its creator.

This is all we’re told of him at this point - the crafty serpent. But as we trace the theme through the rest of the Bible, we discover just who this serpent is. In Revelation 12:9 we’re given the clearest picture: ‘The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.’ Let’s see how he deceives Adam and Eve:

First of all, he questions God’s word: ‘Did God say...’ as in did God really say? Hmm... so God is holding something back from you? He’s not allowing you something? What kind of God is that? [But then, is a parent being a bad parent by putting a fireguard around the open fire?]

Eve answers true enough, but then adds in a little extra - ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’ (3:3). God never mentioned touching it! Was this an extra safeguard - don’t eat it, don’t even touch it, and we’ll be sure to be safe?

The serpent moves on from questioning God’s word to contradicting it: ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ (3:4) There’s no danger! It’s an empty threat! You will not die. The devil’s lies continue today - you deserve it; just take it; no one will ever know; love is all that counts; it’s your right; if it feels good, do it; there’s no hell; no consequences; you will not die.

The bait is dangling on the hook, and Eve is hooked: ‘So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.’ (3:6)

They want to be like God; they want to know good and evil - to define what is right and wrong. Even though they already know what good is (it’s all around them), and they don’t need to know about evil. Have you ever been like that? Suddenly all you can think about is the object of your desire - that temptation, whatever it might be... your new colleague; that chocolate cake in the fridge; ‘borrowing’ from work; you know what it is that you face...

And then Eve takes it, eats it, and gives some to Adam. Why didn’t he step in to stop her? Why didn’t he confront the serpent and keep to God’s word? He too was caught up in the temptation. He too was carried along by the devil’s lies.

Have you ever had one of those dreams where you think you’re at work, or at church, and you’re naked? The shock would be terrible, until you realise it’s just a dream... The serpent was right - their eyes would be opened, but not in a good way. It’s more like a nightmare, as they realise for the first time their nakedness - their shame. [Now some people think that this forbidden fruit was them having sex for the first time - not so. Part of God’s command to them in 1:28 was to be fruitful and multiply... sex is part of God’s good design and plan for his people, within marriage]

Next week we’ll see the consequences of this first sin, and how God deals with it. But before we’re too harsh on Adam and Eve, thinking that they messed it up for all of us; before you think that you would have done better; cast your mind back to the last time you faced temptation. The last time you fell into sin. Did you put up any resistance? Did you give in straight away?

What was the lie you believed? How were you led astray? What was it that caught your desires? Could you change? Could it be different? You see, part of our human experience is this bias towards selfishness and sin. It maybe won’t be too long before Bethany learns those vital words (especially with two big brothers): ‘mine’ ‘no’ ‘not fair’. We don’t have to be taught to stand up for ourselves, we know it instinctively. We say no to God - as one person has put it, sin stands for ‘Shove off God, I’m in charge, No to your rules.’

Adam and Eve said no to God and his one command in the Garden of Eden. We still follow our first parents in their rebellion and ours to this day. Even though you know better, you still do it. Who can rescue us from this body of death? (as Paul cried out in Romans 7)

But in another garden the one known as the Second Adam faced temptation at a level we have never known or experienced; sweating drops of blood, such was the pressure he was under (Luke 22:44), as he prayed ‘not my will but yours be done.’ (Luke 22:42) Jesus obeyed where we all fail - as he went to the cross, dying in our place; to forgive our sin and credit us with his obedience.

Our prayer for Bethany is that, even though she too will fall into sin; that she will know the great Saviour, who offers us his peace, and a place in the new heavens and new earth, where there will be no more sin or sorrow. Our prayer is that each of us will hear God’s word rather than the lies of the devil as we stand in God’s salvation & power.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 23rd September 2012.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Book Review: For The City

Now the title of this book might raise a few eyebrows among readers of my blog. After all, Brookeborough isn't a city, and Aghavea definitely isn't a metropolis. So why would I be reading a book about church planting in a city setting? Several reasons. Firstly, I've never really seen too many books about rural, small church strategy. If you know of any, send them my way. Secondly, it's good to think about church planting and growth in general - with a view to adapting and adopting what's learnt to the situation on the ground. Thirdly, the book was on special offer a while back on Kindle. And fourthly, the authors (Darrin Patrick and Matt Carter) themselves acknowledge that they will have a wider readership than just urban church leaders.

As the book begins, the authors ask the question: 'What makes a great church?... Many of us think that we go to a great church. After all, nobody ever sets out on a spiritual journey to find the most mediocre, lukewarm church around. No, when most of us describe a great church, a successful church, what we are really talking about is a church that meets our needs.' (p. 13) Rather, we should define success in God's way: 'A God-honouring, gospel-loving church is one where the Word of God is the primary motivator for doing the work of God.' (p. 14)

The authors share their stories of church planting in urban environments, their successes and their failures, in an honest account of finding the right way to seek the shalom of the city.

As with some other literature, there was a push for the importance of the city - although to their credit, it wasn't as forward as some other authors. Nevertheless, there is this insistence going around that the only place to be is in the city, something I'm not entirely convinced of:

'Cities are at the epicenter of God's earthshaking movements today, and it's important that any model for starting new churches takes into account the unique nuances of ministry in an urban context. But for those of you who aren't located in a larger city, many of the concepts we discuss will work equally well where you are. Much of what we show and tell in this book is transferable, from an urban church in New York City to a village in West Africa.' (p. 26)

As their stories unfold, as they show and tell, there are important lessons to learn - on building a church environment where people will feel welcome; on living surrendered to Jesus; on introducing people to Jesus through Bible teaching; on contextualising the message without changing it.

There was a useful section on relationships within the church family:

'The perfect model that meets our longing for relationship is not found by looking horizontally, within the community of humanity. Instead, it is found by looking vertically - at the community of divinity. God, by nature, is community. God, by nature, is relational. And we know this is true because of the Trinity.' (p. 86)

'Here is the reality for a true disciple of Jesus. Following him will always take you into relationships that make you uncomfortable. In other words, if you are not currently in some kind of relationship with a drunk, a prostitute, a beggar, an outcast, or a modern social equivalent to one of these people, you are not wholeheartedly following Jesus.' (p. 100)

The authors are also realistic and blunt when it comes to the difficulties of church planting:

'When God promises something, we can take it to the bank. That is certainly an encouraging word. But the promises of God begin to lose a little of their lustre when we consider the fact that God also promises us the very thing that we spend most of our lives trying to avoid: suffering. Yes, God promises us suffering - suffering for both the Christian and the non-Christian.' (p. 137)

'Most of us don't like to admit this, but most church planters believe, at some level, that numerical growth is the definition of their success. But numerical growth is not the definition of success. However, because deep in our hearts we believe that numerical growth indicates success, we sell our souls and the souls of our people to get it. If, as a church planter, you can avoid getting caught up in the numbers game, you might actually be able to do it right the first time!' (p. 160)

The church planter will find this a most useful book, as if you were sitting down with the authors, hearing how they have done it. Those in church leadership will also find it a good book to check the priorities and purpose of the local church. All in all, this book was another good encouragement to keep going in the realm of church leadership and growth, even if I'm not sold on cities nor ministering in an urban environment. You can get it for Kindle and in paperback.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Biblical Marriage

On Sunday morning I was preaching from Genesis 2, on the way in which God provides in his wonderful creation. Now in every sermon situation, there is always more material than can be fitted in to the allotted time. There might be some really interesting asides and pieces of information and gems that just don't fit into the sermon as preached. And if that's the case on a regular sermon, then how much more in Genesis 2. By focusing on the God who provides, it wasn't possible to unpack everything the passage says about men and women, and marriage.

Now, if you've been around the internet on blogs or Twitter or Facebook, you might have seen a campaign picture that looks a little something like this:

The point being made is that there are lots of different permutations and combinations of marriage in the Bible, and therefore Christians are wrong / bigots / dumb to insist on one man and one woman in a mutually exclusive public union until death.

The fact is that although we're told about Abraham's dealings with a concubine or David's many wives or Solomon's 700 wives and 300 concubines, those pieces of information are presented as that - information, not recommendation. Those accounts are descriptive, telling us how it was; but they are not proscriptive, telling us how we should do it. You only have to follow the story to see the mess they get into by going their own way.

Abraham (Abram) and Sarah (Sarai) have received the promise of a son from God, but they don't believe it will happen, so Sarai takes matters into her own hands, giving her servant Hagar to Abraham. Ishmael is born, but he is not the child of promise.

David falls into adultery by a slippery slope of 1. not going to war to lead his people in battle; 2. spying Bathsheba bathing naked on her roof; 3. committing adultery with her in his head; 4. committing adultery with her in his bed; 5. murdering her husband to cover up the affair.

Solomon's many foreign wives lead him astray from the worship of the Lord by their idolatry, sowing the seeds of Israel and Judah's fatal split, and eventually Jerusalem's ruin.

We're told of these various permutations of relationships and the ways in which some of the Bible's leading characters messed things up, not out of approval, but as a warning.

In order for us to understand what marriage is, we must go back to the Creator's original plan, as revealed in Genesis 2:

'But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

"This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man."

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.'
(Genesis 2:20-25)

God is the first matchmaker, bringing together man and woman, Adam and Eve, in the first marriage. In the mathematics of it, one plus one equals one. One man and one woman, publicly joined together become one flesh.

We know this is the key text on marriage because it is the foundation for everything else the Bible teaches about marriage:

This is the passage Jesus turns to when he addresses human sexuality, marriage and divorce: 'Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female...' (Matthew 19:4) In this passage Jesus continues by pointing out that divorce was only permitted later, by Moses, because of the hardness of the hearts of the people. The Creator's intention is that marriage is lifelong: 'What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.' (Matt 19:6)

This is also the passage that Paul turns to in Ephesians 5 as he advises wives to obey their husbands, and husbands to love their wives - because Genesis 2 is the pattern of human marriage, which itself is a picture and patterned on the relationship between Jesus and his church. The eternal unity of Christ and his church is displayed in God's pattern for marriage, a coming together and unity of husband and wife.

When we call for biblical marriage, this is what we're looking to - God's design for marriage, according to his purpose and plan, instituted before the Fall. We acknowledge that we don't always get it right, but we know that the pattern points to the Lord Jesus who loved his bride so much that he gave his life for her - for us - so that, despite our sin, we might spend eternity with him at the marriage supper of the Lamb.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Sermon: Genesis 2:4-25 The God Who Provides

Have you ever watched a football game in the stadium? Your team scores a goal - it's very exciting, but from your seat, you might not have been able to see how it happened. Sometimes it's better to watch the game on TV, because the cameras can show lots of different angles - you get the same event, from different viewing points.

It was the same with the Olympics. You might have been watching the judo or the hockey, or maybe even the track events. The TV cameras gave you lots of views of the same event. You knew what was happening better than just having the one angle.

When you open up your Bible and begin to read, you might wonder why we have what looks like two creation stories. In Genesis 1, we have the six days of creation laid out. So we know what happened. But then you continue reading into chapter two, and discover another bit about creation. What's going on?

Well, just like our TV cameras, we're being given the same event, from a different angle. There's a different point being made, but the same thing is being described. In Genesis 1, we discover the God who made everything. We noticed the pattern in the chapter: 'And God said... it was so... it was good.'

When we move into chapter two, we have another view, a different camera angle. This time, the focus is on the people God made, as we discover the God who provides.

We're told that God had made the heavens and the earth. There are no shrubs or plants (5) for two reasons: 1. there was no rain (now, wouldn't that be a lovely thing, if we had no rain. I know a few farmers who would be glad of no more rain for a while!) - the earth was watered by streams coming up. and 2. there was no man to work the ground.

God makes man.

Have you ever heard the little rhyme:

What are little boys made of?
What are little boys made of?
Slugs and snails
And puppy-dog tails
That's what little boys are made of.

What are little girls made of?
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice
And all things nice
That's what little girls are made of.

Or so they say! It's just a wee saying, but here we're told that God made Adam (whose name means from the ground) from the dust of the ground. It's been worked out that if we were to figure out all the chemical elements in the human body - oxygen, hydrogen, potassium, calcium and so on, we would have a market value of about $5.

But we're much more valuable than that. You see, God forms the man, and breathes his life into him. God places him in the garden at Eden, where we find him richly provided for:

There are trees, pleasing to the eye and good for food - his hunger is provided for. There is water in the river (with all those hard to pronounce rivers) - his thirst is provided for. There is work in the garden - his labour is provided for.

It's then that we hear a loud siren ringing. It's as if an alarm has sounded. Suddenly, we discover that something is not good. You remember all the way through Genesis 1 there was the pattern: 'And God said... it was so... it was good.' Now there is something that is not good.

God says that it is not good for the man to be alone. He needs a helper suitable for him - a partner in his life and work.

God brings a parade of all the animals to Adam; Adam names them; controls them; and we're going to think about some of those animals now.

Challenge 1: Give each child some plasticine (or play dough), and ask them to quickly make an animal [When I used this talk, we got some snakes and a worm, but also a hedgehog, a pig, a dog, and lots more imaginative creatures!]

Challenge 2: Work from A to Z with the children (and adults) shouting out animals (or creatures) for each letter [We came stuck at U - until someone shouted unicorn!!!]

We've thought about lots of different animals. Yet when Adam had considered all the animals, none of them was a suitable helper for him. What was it Adam needed? Eve!

And so the woman is formed out of the man - not from his head to rule over him, nor from his foot to be trodden by him, but from his rib to be protected by his arm, close to his heart, and side by side.

God brings Adam and Eve together - the same, but different, to be joined together in the work God has for them to do.

So what does this passage teach us? We see that God provides - the garden, work, food, partnership, family. We have been made according to God's plan and purpose for a role and task. Let's find it, and do it, for his glory. Amen.

This sermon was preached at the Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 16th September 2012.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Book Review: Crazy Love

Crazy Love is an impassioned plea to the church to step up to the mark. Pastor Francis Chan identifies that something isn't right in the way we live and love and do church. The answer? Crazy Love.

Early on, Chan presents the problem:

'We all know something's wrong. At first I thought it was just me. Then I stood before twenty thousand Christian college students and asked, "How many of you have read the New Testament and wondered if we in the church are missing it?" When almost every hand went up, I felt comforted. At least I'm not crazy.' (p. 17)

What is it we're missing?

'I get nervous when I think of how we've missed who we are supposed to be, and sad when I think about how we're missing out on all that God wants for the people He loved enough to die for.' (p. 18)

'This book is written for those who want more Jesus. It is for those who are bored with what American Christianity offers. It if for those who don't want to plateau, those who would rather die before their convictions do.' (p. 19)

'The core problem isn't the fact that we're lukewarm, halfhearted, or stagnant Christians. The crux of it all is why we are this way, and it is because we have an inaccurate view of God. We see Him as a benevolent Being who is satisfied when people manage to fit Him into their lives in some small way. We forget that God never had an identity crisis. He knows that He's great and deserves to be the center of our lives.' (p. 20)

The answer?

'I believe He wants us to love others so much that we go to extremes to help them. I believe He wants us to be known for giving - of our time, our money, and our abilities - and to start a movement of "giving" churches. In so doing, we can alleviate the suffering in the world and change the reputation of His bride in America. Some people, even at my church, have told me flat-out, "You're crazy." But I can't imagine devoting my life to a greater vision.' (p. 19)

Chan directs us to consider God's greatness and power displayed in creation - all for his glory. 'The appropriate way to end this chapter is the same way we began it - by standing in awed silence before a mighty, fearsome God, whose tremendous worth becomes even more apparent as we see our own puny selves in comparison.' (p. 36)

Our common behaviours of worry and stress 'communicate that it's okay to sin and not trust God because the stuff in my life is somehow exceptional.' (p. 40). His analysis of the human condition at this point is penetrating and hard-hitting. The remedy is to turn around: 'The point of your life is to point to Him.' ((p. 42) Again, 'we need to stop living selfish lives, forgetful of our God.' (p. 49)

Very briefly, Chan points out the love of God: 'I don't think I'm the only person who has misunderstood God's love. Most of us, to some degree, have a difficult time understanding, believing, or accepting God's absolute and unlimited love for us.' (p. 51) However, it seems that he doesn't take much time or effort to spell out that love for us; there is no mention of the cross as the display of God's love; he very quickly jumps to our love for God. But our love is only ever as a response to God's love for us - so if there's no explicit foundation of God's love laid down, then we can't really properly respond - it's as if our feelings are being manufactured or cajoled, rather than flowing naturally from a warmed up heart as we see the objective display of love in the cross of the Lord Jesus.

The remainder of the book then concentrates on our love for God - an important theme, certainly, but again, without the proper sequence of our response to His love. 'There has to be more to our faith than friendliness, politeness, and even kindness.' (p. 128) 'So within this command to love God... every fiber of humanity is addressed. our goal as people who follow Christ should be no less than becoming people who are madly in love with God.' (p. 140)

Chan's desire is for the reader to be changed as a result of reading the book. To no longer be complacent, comfortable in the regular routine: 'What I can say is that you must learn to listen to and obey God, especially in a society where it's easy and expected to do what is most comfortable.' (p. 166) His closing paragraph is a stirring call to action:

'Now close this book. Get on your knees before our holy, loving God. And then live the life with your family, parents, spouse, children, neighbors, enemies, and strangers that He has created and empowered you through the Holy Spirit to live.' (p. 172) [It should also be noted that this book nicely sets up for his next book, Forgotten God, on the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.]

One of the most helpful chapters was a series of profiles of ordinary people who are living this 'crazy love' kind of life, loving and serving in extraordinary ways.

It's a book for the young, media savvy, web generation - at one point early on, the reader is directed to stop reading and go and watch a video online. Perhaps that video filled in the bits I thought were lacking in the book, but as I was halfway across the world with no internet, I didn't watch the video.

All in all, the thing I'll take away from the book is Chan's passion for us to be awakened to love. However without the adequate exposition of God's love for us as the basis of our love, the call may just be a little crazy.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Sermon: Philemon 1-25 Love in Action

It’s the stuff of soap operas. Things are getting along fine, and then comes the drama. An old familiar face returns again, and sparks are about to fly. The viewer is left to guess what’s going to happen, as the regulars respond to the new situation. Is the new character out for revenge? Looking for money? Or coming to sort things out?

This year in the Brooke Hall, we’re going to take a look at some of the smaller sections of scripture - you could almost call them the one hit wonders - or rather, the one chapter wonders. A whole Bible book read through in a couple of minutes, very short compared to Psalms or Isaiah or even Romans. But it means that in our time together this evening, we’ll have grasped a whole book of the Bible!

Tonight, our Bible book comes in the form of a letter, written from the apostle Paul to Philemon (whichever way his name is pronounced!). The setting for the reading of the letter is just as shocking as anything you might find in Eastenders or Coronation Street - only this is real life. You’ll see from the first verse who the letter is written to - Philemon, Apphia (who may be Philemon’s wife), Archippus, and the church in their house. In these early days of the Christian faith, there were no church buildings, no memorial halls. Instead, the churches met in peoples’ homes, packed in as they heard the teaching and prayed and loved and served each other.

The letter comes from Paul to this house church carried by the one who will cause everyone to gasp for breath. One who was well known in those parts, but who hadn’t been seen for some time. One who was never expected to be seen again. One-simus. Onesimus.

Onesimus had been a slave, who used to work in Philemon’s house. That was, until he ran away (and it seems, may have stolen some of his master’s goods). Now, if you were Philemon, how would you react to this returning runaway? Would you throw your arms around him, or get the handcuffs out? What happens next?

Before you’re too hasty, Onesimus presents the letter, written from Paul to Philemon - the letter we have in front of us tonight. What does Paul say to Philemon? And what does a letter about a slave have to say to us, almost two centuries later?

Having gotten through the formal opening of the letter - the writer(s), who it’s to, Paul launches in with his thankful greeting. He highlights the things in Philemon’s life that he is thankful for: ‘I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints.’

Philemon is known for his love for the saints and his faith toward the Lord Jesus. Philemon has been generous in demonstrating his love - because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through him. Obviously, he is wealthy (he has slaves), but he’s not selfish. Rather, he uses what he has for the good of other Christians, and especially those who are in need (just as we were thinking about this morning, in the work of the Barnabas Fund).

Now just as Paul highlights the impact Philemon has had on so many people, and just as he reminds Philemon of his faith and his love, so now, in the main body of the letter, Paul asks that he will demonstrate it in this particular case. You see, we’re called to be consistent Christians in every part of our lives, not just the bits that suit us, on a Sunday morning or evening, but in every aspect of all we do - our business, our home life, our work, rest and play. As we look at Paul’s appeal, we’ll see that so many of the same words and ideas come up again - love, sharing/partner, goodness, heart, refreshed.

You see, Paul could have come across heavy handed; could have given orders; but that’s now what he does. Rather, he appeals ‘for love’s sake’. He appeals for his child (in the Lord) to be accepted, welcomed back. On what basis? That of love.

Just as Philemon has been accepted through the good news of Jesus, leading to him being loving and generous, so Paul appeals for Philemon to show that same love in this case. You see, Onesimus himself has been transformed because of the good news.
It seems that when he ran away, he made it from Colossae (where Philemon lives - see Col 4:7-9 for the connection between Philemon and Colossians) the whole way to Rome, where he found Paul. While there with Paul, he became a Christian, and has been changed. Previously, he was useless - he was a runaway slave - but now, he is living up to his name: useful.

While Paul would like him to stay with him, ministering to his needs in prison, the right thing to do is send him back to his master - but with this appeal. You see, Paul says that he is not just welcoming back a slave, he’s now a ‘beloved brother’.

This is the transforming power of the gospel of the Lord Jesus. Too often we regard our faith as a private thing - it’s just between me and God; it doesn’t affect or influence any other area of our life. We’re not that bothered about other Christians, or about church.

The New Testament won’t allow us to be just Jesus and me. Rather, it’s all about Jesus and me and you and our brothers and sisters in the local church and in the worldwide church (and in the church at rest). Our relationships with each other should be transformed - so that we regard ourselves as brothers and sisters - beloved brothers and sisters.

And then Paul gets to the bottom line. The bill. Philemon might be thinking to himself - well, ok, but all this has cost me big - if he stole some money or goods, the damage he has done to me. But Paul says to receive Onesimus as if he was Paul - and to charge to Paul’s account anything owing. It might be a big debt or small, but Paul will sort it out - even as he reminds Philemon of the bigger debt he owes: ‘to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.’ You see, Paul brought Philemon to faith, his whole salvation (on a human level) is because of Paul’s preaching. When you compare the debt, Philemon owes even more!

The letter to Philemon is like a real life worked out example of the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:23-35). When Philemon considers the huge debt and offence he has been forgiven by his Master; his own loss at the hands of Onesimus is like nothing.

It’s as we consider the grace with which Paul starts and ends his letter that we learn how to relate to our brothers and sisters in the church. With the love and grace we have received, so we should love each other.

It’s not always easy. It’s sometimes very costly. Yet we hear the command as well as the gentle appeal - this is the way, walk in it. Love one another, even as I have loved you.

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 9th September 2012.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Book Review: It's Not What You Think

My earliest memories of Chris Evans are from the school mornings when mum was going out to work before 8am and we spent almost an hour or so over in granny's house before walking round to school. On the TV, we discovered a most colourful, bright and breezy programme, entitled The Big Breakfast, presented by Chris Evans and Gaby Roslin.

Fast forward a few years and Chris was appearing in another completely zany programme (also on Channel 4) called Don't Forget Your Toothbrush where one contestant would depart at the end of the show on a holiday, based on a number of crazy games and challenges. A while later, and there he was back again, in a music and chat programme called TFI Friday.

And then, I hadn't heard tell of him for a while. He had seemingly disappeared from the TV, and was working hard on radio - Virgin and BBC Radio 2 (but only really listening to Northern Irish based stations Cool FM or Radio Ulster, I didn't hear him). More recently he has popped back on TV, presenting the Friday edition of The One Show on BBC 1.

That little diversion was to show that Chris Evans was always there or thereabouts in the background of my growing up. So it was very interesting to read how he got to that place in the first installment of his autobiography, entitled It's Not What You Think. He got that right!

On opening the book (I read it on my Kindle), you're confronted with the contents page - a series of top tens. It's through these amusing and revealing top ten lists that Chris tells his story: 'Dear Reader, for the purposes of bespoke compartmentalisation during the course of this book, where Dickens went for episodes, Shakespeare went for stanzas and the Good Lord himself for chapter and verse, being a DJ I have gone for Top 10s. If it were good enough for Moses and his Commandments, it should be good enough for my book.'

As he summarises his journey to where he was (up and down and up again), he asks how it all turned out: 'For years, as the song went, I did it my way; for years I thought I was bomb-proof; for years I was just plain lucky when I thought I was being a wise guy. Of course I got things wrong from time to time, but I put that down to being part of life's rich tapestry - after all, few of us set out to get things wrong on purpose.'

'Was there a plan? Not that I'm aware of, but then again I suppose there must have been - surely a story like this couldn't occur by chance? Or maybe that's what life is: just one big accident from start to finish and what comes round there corner to his us depends on which road we're on at the time.' He continues to ponder life: 'I am constantly intrigued by this existence of ours and why we are here at all in the first place and therefore, as a result, I am fascinated as to just how far we can take things before we are asked to leave.'

It's interesting that he ponders life, wonders about the meaning of our existence, and even tantalisingly mentions God every so often (in almost joky ways) without making the connection that God is the reason for our existence. Again: 'As far as I can see, life is one big bank account and the best philosophy is just to keep on making deposits whenever you can; be they financial, emotional, occupational, or otherwise. This is the absolute number one way to reduce the risk of disappointment, unhappiness, poverty and loneliness. By rights, I'm not at all sure I should even still be here to tell my tale, but by the grace of God I am, so here goes.'

There are stories of growing up, of his schooling - first at an all boys school until he has to change schools unexpectedly ('When I woke up that morning I had no idea that by the end of the day.... I would now need to find a new school...'), first relationships, and family life. He's open about his dad dying young after a terribly drawn out illness:

'First of all let me apologise for using the term 'early death' as I'm not quite sure whether that's right, it's just something we've always said about Dad. None of us know when we are supposed to die in the first place; therefore how can anyone's passing really be declared 'early'. Surely we are all meant to die when we do die and that's why it happens when it does. The reason I suppose we refer to Dad's death as being early is because he was relatively young, still in his fifties, when he was plucked out for promotion to that higher office in the sky.'

'Dad's disease and everything that came with us continued to happen but now with more frequency and for longer. The sooner any human being is spared the indignity of such a living hell the better - I don't care what anyone says.'

Back to the theme of religion again, as he discusses temptation: 'The Bible may be dodgy in all sorts of other areas but it's pretty much bang on the money when it comes to explaining the evil that is temptation and the devastation it can cause. The destruction of peoples, nations and in this case, as far as I was concerned, the most beautiful love affair the world had ever seen. The apple is there - don't eat the apple. But more importantly don't even think about eating the apple. Basically, just forget apples exist and preferably as quickly as possible. The infection with temptation is perpetuated by the dreaded 'thought'.' While I wouldn't rate him as a theologian - after all, if the Bible is right on this, then it should also be right on overcoming temptation and the remedy for sin - he's probably spot on as he reflects on his infidelity to his school sweetheart.

Still at school, and facing a dreaded fight with another pupil at the end of the school day, Chris turns to God: 'I decided it was time for a prayer.' Through the course of the day, a mishap occurs, leading Chris to think: 'My fingers are obviously broken. There must be a hospital trip in this. It might even be an ambulance job. Hurrah, thank you God, let me know how much I owe you.'

Is God only there in the desperate times of emergency to get him out of a quick fix?

There's also some spiritual advice included from the Dalai Lama and being prepared in advance for a peaceful death...

He's interesting as he describes his journey into radio work, getting his first break by watching Timmy Mallet in action on a Piccadilly Radio (Manchester) outside broadcast and blagging his way into assisting on his programme. There's a moment of realisation: 'Since working in radio I have discovered that the 'on-air turns' have a real dilemma with their self-image: they've spent so many years cultivating their on-air persona they've left their real personality behind.'

Chris' quirky nature comes through as he makes up words, including lowerarchy and bottleable. You'll have to read the book to find the context of those new words! Along the way, Chris tells some funny stories of his time at Piccadilly Radio, Channel Four on the Big Breakfast, Don't Forget Your Toothbrush and TFI Friday, and his time on BBC Radio 1. There's a cast of characters including his love interests, as well as Zig and Zag, Gaby Roslin, Paula Yates, Concorde, Richard Branson, John Cleese, Danny Baker, and many, many more.

The cliffhanger ending comes as he raises the funding to buy out Virgin Radio and launch it as his own project. Will he secure it? How will it go if he does? Book Two will hopefully answer the danging questions!

As an epilogue, there quite a nice touch as some of those characters mentioned along the way get their own back as they contribute a little bit about Chris. At times it was a little cheesy - they're obviously singing his praises - but at least it's not just his story and his side presented.

If you're a child of the 80s and spent the 1990s watching Chris Evans, you too might enjoy this book as you discover how he did all that stuff, and how he got there. It's definitely not what you think! You can get it for Kindle or real book.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Book Review: Cycle of Violence

Many years ago, I can remember spending a Sunday afternoon at a friend's house in another part of Dromore, except we weren't at his house. Instead, we stood on Bridge Street, watching as a film crew transformed a street we knew very well into part of another town. A fictional town, called Crossmaheart, the setting of the film version of the Colin Bateman novel, Cycle of Violence. The scene we watched repeatedly being filmed (and even interrupted by the cathedral bell chiming the hour) was the actor cycling up the street. Other scenes were filmed around the south Down and Armagh area, with Rathfriland doubling up as the actual Crossmaheart.

It was reported on at the time by the local papers, and I often wondered what came of the film. I often looked out for it, but never heard anything further about it. As it turns out, Crossmaheart the movie never was released on DVD, but was appearing on a Sky Channel called Movies for Men. So much for seeing it on screen, but as I'm getting into Bateman's books and had two on holiday with me, I read and finished this one on the plane on the way home (again when the Kindle couldn't be turned on for taking off/landing).

First impressions, it's another funny book, but the title is very accurate - it's perhaps even more violent than Divorcing Jack (and that's saying something). Another frustrated journalist features as the lead character, this time Miller, who finds himself seconded to the sleepy, sectarian town of Crossmaheart, where he soon finds himself in too deep in a local mystery. His immediate predecessor has gone missing, and Miller is quickly hot on the trail of the story.

Bateman continues with his amusing stories, and hilarious situations, but this is also a deeper, more thoughtful work at times, dealing with traumatic themes and experiences. The disturbing portrait of sectarian characters on both sides (including a Presbyterian minister) hits home, and leaves the reader wondering if we've really moved on since the mid 1990s. There is a moral and (unintended) justice done in the end, although the very ending was brutal, and very sad.

It was interesting to see the regular appearance of Miller's (deceased) father, and how the afterlife was presented or assumed. I'm not sure if it was Miller's imaginings or if it was displaying Bateman's own beliefs, or just an outlet for some of Miller's thought processes and fears being verbalised.

I found this to be a fast-moving novel, which made a nice change from some of the theology I was also reading on holiday, and I'll certainly be looking forward to reading more of Bateman's books in the near future. If only they weren't as violent!

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Sermon Audio: Genesis 1:1 - 2:3

On Sunday morning we began a new series in Genesis, as we discovered the God who made everything - the eternal, speaking, powerful, orderly, good God who made us in his image.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Book Review: Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome

As I've mentioned previously, I've been reflecting on the notion of success in ministry, particularly since I've just passed my first anniversary in this parish (but I'm still, seemingly, the new rector!). I've already read and reviewed Shawn Lovejoy's book The Measure of our Success, but while I was on holiday I read a similar book which had long been on my shelves.

Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome comes from the pen of Kent and Barbara Hughes, as they share their own story of ministry burnout and recovery. I had heard Kent teaching at the very first NIMA back in 2005, and remember him sharing a little of the story during the teatime interview, but this book gives the whole picture. It was a touching, and challenging read.

'Pastors... often face significant feelings of failure, usually fueled by misguided expectation for success.' This sense of failure almost made Kent quit: 'The significance of my experience is not its hardness, but that it almost made me quit my divine calling.' Indeed, as he goes on to say, 'I wanted to quit. How had I come to this? In retrospect, I can now see that much of it had to do with my expectations.'

What makes this book special is that you don't just hear from the burnt out pastor - you also hear the other side of the story, from his wife. The minister's wife doesn't have an easy life, in that unique position of being a part of the congregation, and yet being on the inside of the ministry family as well. Barbara shares her experience of that time, and how it was her faith that somehow kept Kent going until he could believe again.

The problem arises, they maintain, because of the thrust of most counsel to pastors - your church will grow if you are involved in marketing, understand the sociology of people, encourage giving, grow in godliness, and teach the word - simply as if it's a formula or a machine: put this in and out will come the end result. But it's not always so. What if you're in a small church; can you be successful in a small church?

Through the succeeding chapters, the authors take the reader through a series of definitions of success, most importantly centred on what the Bible says, rather than on ministry or church planting gurus. In some senses, these chapters were reminiscent of other books from the Hughes couple, the Disciplines of a Godly Man (woman, etc).

Their first definition may well be the most significant. 'We found no place [in the Bible] where it says that God's servants are called to be successful. Rather, we discovered our call is to be faithful... Faithfulness is possible for all believers, regardless of the size of a person's ministry.' Faithfulness is based on (i) the obedience factor - knowing and doing God's word; and (ii) being hard working.

The remaining definition chapters, in brief, spell out that 'Servanthood yields success - because in serving we become more like Christ.' 'In the spiritual realm, the number one priority is loving God.' 'Without faith (believing) there is no success.' 'As God's undershepherds we must keep our lives ever sharp through prayer.' 'Holiness is foundational to true success. No one can be regarded as a success who pursues a life contrary to God's will.' 'Attitude is everything. There are two attitudes that particularly characterise ministerial failures: negativism and jealousy.'

The section ends with a completely turned around testimony: 'We had discovered that the miserable yoke of worldly success is so crushing because it is a burden that God's servants were never meant to bear. So this is our testimony: we found success in a small church that was not growing. We found success in the midst of what the world would call failure. We realised that the results are for God and eternity to reveal.'

Part 3 presents the places and people for pastors to find and receive encouragement: God, the call, being ordinary (and used by God), fellow workers (in what they call the Titus Touch), and the reward of heaven. It can be so easy to get burdened by the work and fail to see the positives, so this is a useful list that will be revisited heavily. The Titus Touch is one that I've been trying to do anyway - in coming alongside and spending time with other pastors - but is even more on my priority list now. Indeed, as I read that chapter, I sent out a few encouragements by text from my sunlounger, and will continue to try to see the guys face to face.

Part 4 presents some helps for the pastor, some useful help for the pastor's wife and congregation to take on board to ensure that they are serving the pastor who serves them.

All in all, this is a very important book for anyone involved in pastoring to read. It's probably better to read and learn from Kent's experience rather than going down that same road and having to learn it first hand. It's a helpful and timely reminder that success in ministry is not the same as worldly success - but in pleasing the Master through faithfulness in our current station. It would also be good for those involved in church leadership - Vestries, Elders, Committees - to think through their aim for success, and to help serve their pastor in his work. You can get it from Amazon.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Sermon: Genesis 1:1 - 2:3 The God who made everything

Every so often, I get some strangers calling to the Rectory. More often than not, they’ve travelled a long way - from America, or Australia. As soon as I hear the accent, I know what they’re looking for: old church records of baptisms, marriages and deaths. They’ve returned to the homeland, they’re trying to trace their great, great grandparents. At the root of their search, though, is the big question: who am I? Where did I come from? What is my background?

Over the course of the autumn, these are the questions we’re asking as well. But we’re not just going back two or three generations. Rather, we’re going right back to the start, to our first parents, as we trace the opening chapters of the book Genesis. One preacher describes this whole section as the seedbed of the Bible. It’s here that we’ll discover who we are; why the world is this way; and see how our salvation story begins.

Now as we begin to think about where we came from, how the world began, we realise that there are lots of different ideas floating around. In the time of the ancient Israelites, the surrounding nations believed that there were lots of gods who were a bit bored one day and decided to make humans; others believed that one of the gods had a battle with a great sea monster, out of which he made the earth. We’ll see that Genesis stands in opposition to those pagan stories.

Today, there are also competing stories of the beginning. New Atheists like Richard Dawkins attributes the Big Bang and all of us existing as pure random chance. Macro evolution - where all forms of animal life developed from the same simple root - is declared to be how we got to where we are.

Genesis will not allow us to bow down to randomness - rather, in this first chapter, we find the good God who made everything. You might find it useful to have your Bible open, as you follow along. So who is the God we are introduced to in this opening chapter of the Bible?

He is the God of eternity. Look at the opening words: ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’ Genesis means ‘beginnings’ - we hear of the beginning of the heavens and the earth, but God already existed ‘in the beginning God’. It’s not that God was somehow made first - God always existed. He is the eternal being. (You might remember that we saw a hint of this in Ephesians 1:4 ‘just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world’). God is eternal, the creator of time itself, without beginning or end, the Alpha and the Omega (the A and the Z, in our language).

This eternal God is also the God who speaks. It’s one of the things you can’t miss in this chapter! Each part of the creating comes about by the words: ‘Then God said... And God said...’ God is not silent - you see, he doesn’t just speak creation into being, he has also revealed it to us. Back in the day (day one, that is), there was no Facebook or Twitter; no one was live-blogging creation as it happened. People hadn’t been formed yet. We wouldn’t and couldn’t know about God creating if he hadn’t told us. He revealed it to Moses, who wrote it down for us.

Now Genesis is not necessarily a ‘how to’ - even though the order and sequence of creation is being corroborated by the work of scientists - God reveals to us the ‘why’. God speaks, and tells us what we need to know about himself, and about our place in his creation.

The eternal, speaking God is also the God of power. We see this because when God speaks, things happen. Have you ever had the frustration of saying something and nothing happens - whether it’s asking your kids to make their beds, or your husband to make you a cup of tea - you might as well talk to the wall! Not so with God - look again at verse three. ‘Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.’ Do you see the pattern right through? ‘And God said... And it was so.’ God is powerful, what he says is done.

And what is it he says, this eternal, powerful, speaking God? His words show that he is the God of order. Verse two says that the earth was a formless void - shapeless and empty. As the creation days unfold, we watch as God forms the world (days 1-3) and fills it (days 4-6), each day following the pattern: light (1) - sun and moon (4) [which aren’t even named as some of their neighbours worshipped the sun and moon - Genesis reminds us that God made the sun, moon and stars - we worship the Creator, not the creation]; waters and sky (2) - birds and fish (5); dry land (3) - animals and finally people (6).

We’ve had quite a few babies born over the summer. The families would have been busy making preparations, making sure the nursery was ready, the cot and pram and all the rest - we see that God forms and fills the earth, making it ready for us to live in.

This eternal, powerful, speaking, orderly God is also good. With each step, we’re told ‘And God saw that it was good’ - the good God works goodness, and with the creation of people, the climax of all his work, God declares that it was very good.

The final thing to notice about the God who made everything is that this is our God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the God who does not change. In the opening verses we find mention of God, of the Spirit of God hovering over the waters, and God speaking (God’s word - whom John reveals to be the Lord Jesus, God’s Son, by whom everything was made). We also see it in verse 26, when God says ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.’ Why the plural, if it is not the Trinity declaring together, speaking collectively as one?

This is the God who made everything, the God who made the first humans, in his own image and likeness. It is only as we see and know the God who made us that we can answer that question: who am I? You see, we were made according to God’s plan and purpose, shaping the world and us by his power and his goodness, to be like him - in love and community, dependent on our maker who gives us our place as stewards over the creation, and gives us food and everything we need for life in his world.

Even though this world has been marred and spoiled by our sin, even though we’ve turned our back on him, and exploited and abused his good gifts to us, one man did walk on the earth who perfectly displayed what it was to be the image of God, the one who was the Word made flesh, who dwelt among us.

The Lord Jesus calls us back to relationship with him, calls us to turn to him by faith, and receive his blessings (won for us by his death on the cross), and to enter into his rest - the weekly rest a sign and symbol pointing forward to the perfect rest of heaven, as he issues his invitation to us: ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’ (Matt 11:28)

This is our God, the eternal, powerful, speaking, orderly, good God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who invites us to find our identity connected to him. Will you come to his table?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 2nd September 2012.