Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sermon Audio: Genesis 5:1 - 6:8

On Sunday morning I was preaching from Genesis five and six, wrestling with a difficult passage on Bible Sunday, as we traced death's defeat and glimpses of God's grace to Enoch and Noah.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sermon: Genesis 5:1 - 6:8 Rising Sons of Adam

Imagine that you decide to start reading through the Bible. An excellent idea. Where better to begin, you think, than the start. And so you read through Genesis 1 & 2, the creation story. You discover the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and see how it all went wrong as they disobeyed God’s command and listened to the devil. You continue on and read about Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. You’re full of enthusiasm, and then you grind to a halt in Genesis 5. In contrast to what has gone before, it might seem like a dry, dusty list of genealogy. The names are hard to pronounce, we don’t recognise them; they seem to live an awful long time; they’re remote, far off from us.

Perhaps you’re tempted to give up... maybe reading the Bible wasn’t such a good idea after all.. Another option might be to skip it out and move on to something more exciting- Noah’s ark. You’re maybe wondering why we would even spend time on a chapter like this- and as I was studying it during the free time at the clergy conference I wondered that myself- how could this possibly be useful? Especially as Greg is baptised- could we not have something a bit more exciting and inspiring for him?

Yet even in the face of all these questions, we can’t just ignore Genesis 5. You see, today is observed as Bible Sunday in the Church of Ireland - what better way of thanking God for the scriptures than by wrestling with a less well known chapter. Paul, in writing to his young friend Timothy, says this: ‘All scripture is inspired by God (God-breathed) and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.’ (2 Tim 3:16)

All scripture, not just our favourite Bible verses. All scripture, not just the bits we know. So rather than us saying - what’s the point of Genesis 5? We need to be asking - what IS the point in Genesis 5 - what is it God is wanting to say to us through this chapter? Why is it in the Bible? Why could we not do without it? Why did the Holy Spirit inspire Moses to write it here, and in this way?

So as we turn to Genesis 5 (on page 4), what do we find? Those opening words of the chapter ‘This is the list of the descendants...’ show us that a new section is opening up. Right the way through Genesis, we have these markers as the action moves on from what has already happened, and we see the next sweep of God’s plan. (e.g. 2:4, 5:1, 6:9, 10:1, 10:32, 11:27, 25:12, 25:19). We begin with Adam and continue down through the generations to Noah and sons.

If you like, these are our original great, great grandfathers, but we’re not told that much about some of them. Did you notice the pattern going on? Look with me at verse 6. ‘When Seth had lived for one hundred and five years, he became the father of Enosh. Seth lived after teh birth of Enosh for eight hundred and seven years, and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Seth were nine hundred and twelve years; and he died.’

Each of the entries seems to follow the same basic pattern - the years of his life, the name of his son, and the final bit of information - ‘and he died.’ In contrast with Genesis 4, which we saw a few weeks back was a dead end in the maze with Cain and his family, here in Genesis 5 we’re moving on through the generations, tracing God’s line of promise. But even God’s promised line, his chosen family, is still under the curse because of their sin - they are born according to the image of Adam (3), sinfulness passed from parents to the next generation. That’s why Genesis 5 have the constant chorus of the curse: ‘and he died.’ The wages of sin is death.

For some reason we all seem to like patterns. Whether it’s houndstooth coats, or paisley ties; stripes or spots or flowery wallpaper; patterns are all around us. But sometimes, when you have a pattern, it shows up the contrast - whether it’s a feature wall in a bold colour; or something that’s just a little bit different. The exception that proves the rule.

Did you notice the exception, the stand-out difference in the chapter? Who is it? It’s Enoch, in verse 21. It starts out the same, but then it’s suddenly different. ‘When Enoch had lived for sixty-five years, he became the father of Methuselah. Enoch walked with God after the birth of Methuselah for three hundred years, and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him.’

We expect to hear ‘and he died.’ But instead we’re told that he walked with God, and God took him. What does this mean? Over in Hebrews, it’s explained for us: ‘But faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and ‘he was not found, because God had taken him.’ For it was attested before he was taken away that ‘he had pleased God.’

Enoch stands in this line from Adam (the same family as us), he’s a sinner, just like his great-grandfather Adam, and yet he pleases God, he walked with God. He escapes death and goes straight into God’s presence. Enoch stands as a signpost to the Lord Jesus, who defeats death and rises, ascends into heaven bodily. He’s an example of what happens when God’s power is at work in us - the victory of Christ given to a sinner. ‘He who believes in me will never die’ (Jn 11:26)

So how did Enoch do it? Was he exceptionally good, always trying to do the right thing? Did he never put a foot wrong? It can’t be that- he was in Adam, he was sinful, but he was also a believer- it was ‘by faith’ that he trusted in God and walked with him, and (to use a phrase of Abram:) he believed, and God reckoned it to him as righteousness.

After the mystery of Enoch’s disappearance, life returns to normal. The pattern continues. Death continues to reign. Sin spreads, so that at the start of chapter six, ‘The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.’ They woke in the morning, their first thought was of sin. Their thoughts through the day tended to sin. Their last waking thought was sin. God decides to act in judgement. Total wipeout - not just the BBC1 assault course, but actual total wipeout. All humans, and all animals and birds are to be blotted out. God the judge will act justly. Sin will be punished. The sentence has been passed.

As we read these chapters, we can’t fail to see ourselves as members of this same family of Adam; part of this sinful brood. We too deserve punishment, because of our total depravity (that’s not to say that we’re as bad as we possibly could be, but that every part of our life is infected by sin).

The last words of our reading, though, are a cause of hope. ‘But Noah found favour in the sight of the Lord.’ Noah found grace - unmerited favour, so that the Lord will save him from the coming flood. Noah is as sinful as those around him. But he is also graced. As we baptise Greg today, he responds to the undeserved grace of God as he turns from his sins and turns to Christ. It’s the same grace that is on offer to each one of us today. Will you receive that grace today, and walk with Christ, who has born the curse, defeated death, and offers us life in him, both now and forever.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 28th October 2012.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Sermon Audio: Genesis 4: 1-26

On Sunday morning I was preaching on Cain and Abel as we follow the early chapters of the Bible and trace the lines of sin and grace. We rejoice in the blood of Jesus, which speaks a better word than Abel's spilled blood.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sermon: Genesis 4: 1-26 Serpent's Seed

Have you ever been in one of those amazing mazes? The hedges are thick and full, you can’t see over the top of them, and you try to find your way through it. There’s a fairly new one in Castlewellan Forest Park, and at our last youth weekend from Dundonald, we had a maze challenge. Sadly two of the young people got well and truly lost in it, and while most people had finished in five minutes, for this pair, it was more like thirty minutes.

That’s the thing about mazes. You see a path, it looks like it’s the right one, so you follow it, only for it to be a dead end. It looked so promising, but ultimately, it was useless. And so you have to retrace your steps and try again. Finding the path to freedom among many diverging paths. Navigating your way to the goal.

These early chapters of Genesis are a bit like a maze. You might remember that in Genesis 3, God had promised a rescuer, one who would defeat the devil by crushing the serpent’s head. And we said a fortnight ago that the hunt is on. It’s as if we have entered the maze, tracing the right family line until we come to the rescuer. But along the way, there might be a few surprises, a few disappointments, just as we find in Genesis 4.

Adam and Eve give birth to their first son, Cain, and Eve immediately presumes that he is the promised saviour: ‘I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.’ But Cain will turn out as a dead end. He may be the offspring of the woman, but he is also the seed of the serpent. Cain is soon joined by his brother Abel, and it seems as if there was an intense sibling rivalry.

They each follow their own career paths - Cain a tiller of the ground and Abel a keeper of sheep. Now perhaps we should have had this reading last Sunday, at our Harvest Thanksgiving, because in verse 3, Cain and Abel bring their offerings to the Lord. Cain brings some fruit and vegetables, Abel brings some of the lambs.

On the surface, it looks well and good, but God has a different reckoning: ‘And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.’ God accepts Abel, but rejects Cain. We’re not actually told why. It may be that Abel’s sacrifice includes blood; it may be that the Lord sees the heart - we’re told in 1 John 3 that Cain’s deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous (1 Jn 3:12).

Yet even here, there is the offer of grace to Cain. God warns him that his anger is dangerous: ‘Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.’ There’s a chance to repent, to turn around, a warning about the power of sin, but Cain continues down his dead end path.

Cain takes his brother out into the field, where he sets upon him and kills him. Sin has mastered him, as he follows in the footsteps of his parents, and murders his brother. In one of the best known lines of the Bible, the Lord confronts Cain, asking where his brother is: ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ The truth is that Cain should have been his brother’s keeper - rather than helping him, he hindered him, killing him out of envy and jealousy.

The Lord says that Abel’s blood cries out from the ground for justice, and so the Lord brings justice. Cain is cursed from the ground, a fugitive and wanderer. God puts the mark of Cain on him, not as a sign of an outcast, but rather as a mark of protection - whoever kills him will suffer sevenfold vengeance.

From this point onwards, humanity finds itself in a downward spiral; things only getting worse with each new generation. From Cain, through Enoch, Irad, Mehujael, Methushael to Lamech, the image of sinfulness spreads, the offspring of the serpent continues to succeed. If you thought Cain was bad, Lamech is in a league of nastiness.

It’s not enough that he takes two wives, he boasts of his wickedness in his little poem in verses 23-24. Talk about an over-reaction: ‘I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.’ Charming!

The image of Adam, that ingrained sinfulness, that flaw in character is being passed and magnified to each of his descendants. When you’re confronted by someone like Lamech (thankfully not in a dark alley), the flaw seems so obvious. It’s clear that he’s a dead end in the plan of salvation.

If only Abel hadn’t been murdered by his brother Cain. Perhaps he was the rescuer? Yet we know the rest of the story - Adam and Eve have another son, Seth, through whom the line of promise is carried on. In the days of Seth and his son, people begin to call on the name of the Lord - this is the godly line, the family of faith from whom will come the Messiah, the promised one.

Yet even in this passage, we’re seeing pointers to Christ, signs along the way which help us to understand what Jesus has done. Just as Abel was murdered by his brother, so the Lord Jesus was betrayed and crucified by his own people, his nation. His own people would not receive him, but rejected him, doing away with him.

And yet, there’s a difference. Abel was murdered because of his accepted offering. Jesus was murdered as the acceptable offering. You see, it’s not that God wanted the death of all those sheep and goats as sacrifices - rather his desire was for the attitude of the one making the offering. On the outside, gifts can be given, seemingly generously, while the heart is cold and hard towards God and our neighbour. The envelope is put on the plate, the ‘silent offering’ is given, but the heart may still be held by sin.

Jesus came into the world, able to make the perfect sacrifice because his heart was pure; he perfectly loved the Lord and his neighbour. Jesus offers himself for his sinful brothers (who put him to death).

That’s why the writer to the Hebrews says that Jesus is the mediator of a new covenant, and that his sprinkled blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Abel’s blood cries for justice, for vengeance. But the blood of Jesus cries out grace and mercy. Through his shed blood, we sinful sons of Adam and daughters of Eve can be welcomed in, our sins wiped away, made perfect and righteous in him.

Perhaps you’re lost in the maze of sinfulness today. You keep following dead ends, never making any progress, always trapped by your weakness. There is a path to freedom, the one who is the way, the truth, and the life - the offspring of Eve who has paved the way for us to rescue us, Jesus Christ our Lord. Will you call on his name today?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 14th October 2012.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Sermon: Habakkuk 3: 1-19 Joyful in God

I’m sure you’ve heard of the radio programme ‘Desert Island Discs.’ The show has been running for seventy years now, with celebrities invited to share their choice of eight songs, a book, and a luxury item they would want if they were stranded on a desert island. What would your items be? What could you not do without? It’s a fun question, and if we had time to go around the church we’d learn a lot about each other and our music preferences.

But what if the situation wasn’t just a bit of fun, a game played out on a radio programme? Forget about Desert Island Discs, and instead focus on Real Life Issues. What if the circumstances of your life brought about a radical change in your fortunes; suddenly you find yourself out of work; or ill and unable to work; broken down or laid aside. You’re a victim of the economic downturn; the Ulster Bank computer systems crash; we experience the wettest summer in living memory, the crops are ruined, the cattle barely able to be fed; whatever it might be. What could you not do without? What would you cling to?

In our Old Testament reading, the prophet Habakkuk is facing a similar meltdown. It’s not the turn of events that he would have thought possible; but the prospect of disaster is in front of him. What will he cling to?

Habakkuk’s little book is a two-way conversation between Habakkuk and his God. Habakkuk looks at society around him. God’s people are failing to live in the way they should, and he cries out ‘How long, O LORD?’ (1:2) Why isn’t God doing something to help his people? God’s reply is surprising and terrifying - he is bringing the Babylonians on Judah. (1:6) He’s bringing a worse, more evil people, to discipline Judah, God’s people.

Habakkuk complains: How can this be? How can you possibly reward these evil people and give them victory over us - ok, we’re bad, but they’re worse! Well, as God says, this is how he has chosen to act - Babylon is the instrument in God’s hand to punish - but one day Babylon too will face destruction. They’ll be repaid for their wrongdoing.

Habakkuk has been told all this by the LORD - now how does he respond? How would you respond, if you’d been told all this?

Habakkuk responds in prayer in chapter 3. He reminds God of what he has done in the past, how he rescued the people of Israel from Egypt and brought them into the promised land. ‘LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O LORD’ (3:2) From verses 3 - 15, he retells the story of the capturing of the promised land, as God went before his people, driving out the inhabitants and delivering and saving his people, giving them their land.

Even now, Habakkuk asks for God to do the same things again: ‘Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.’ (3:2b) Yet God has declared his purposes. They are fixed, and so Habakkuk knows that the Babylonians will soon invade and capture the land.

It’s as if Habakkuk is sitting watching the enemy arrive, coming over the hill to defeat his people, God’s people. Resistance is futile. Dark days are ahead. Difficult days are just around the corner. Total devastation awaits; their homes and farms face destruction. How will he respond?

We come to verse 17 and it’s as if Habakkuk gives you a tour of his farm. It’s not one of those open working farms, where the kids can come and see how the cows are milked and where the hens lay. Rather, it’s like a tumbleweed, rundown farm, in silence:

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

Maybe you’re picturing your own farm in this state. What would you cling to? How would you respond? Or perhaps farming means less to you. What if there was no food in the shops, even Asda and Tesco were completely bare? Or your P45 arrives, no job, no prospects. What would you do now?

What is it you couldn’t do without? Not so long ago there was a total meltdown in the world of Blackberries - not the fruit to make jam - but the mobile phones. Something failed, and for three or four days, they couldn’t make or receive calls. At the same time, iPhones were crashing with a software update... it was as if some peoples’ worlds were ending, they had become so attached to their phones. As one headline writer suggested, it was Apple and Blackberry Crumble.

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

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

Let’s see what Habakkuk says: ‘Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.’

I’m almost certain you didn’t expect to hear him talk about rejoicing, or being joyful. We’re suffering terribly, and yet Habakkuk wants to rejoice? How can he rejoice in the midst of suffering? Is it possible for us to do the same?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You might have been a Christian for a long time, but it’s so easy to get caught up with material things that we lose sight of the blessings we have in Christ Jesus. Perhaps in these days of tightening our belts God is calling us back to himself, to find in him all we need; to realise that in all things God is working for the good of those who love him - not our temporary happiness, but our eternal good.

Maybe you have heard of Jesus, you know the salvation he offers, but you’ve never taken that step of faith. What is it you’re clinging to? What is it you cannot do without? Those idols you have will not deliver; they cannot satisfy. When they are taken away, what then will you do? The Lord is near, he will become your salvation this night, if you will simply trust in him - you need not fear the future with the Lord Jesus as your salvation and your strength. Come to him, no matter how chaotic your life may be, and find your peace in him. God is all we need, and he is more than able to keep us and deliver us.

This sermon was preached at the Friday night Harvest service in Colaghty Parish Church, Lack, on 14th October 2012.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Sermon Audio: Genesis 3: 8-24

On Sunday we continued to work through the opening chapters of Genesis, as we considered the consequences of the first sin in the Garden of Eden. Sin leads to separation (and salvation) due to the undeserved grace of our God.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Harvest Sermon: Luke 14: 1-24 Come Dine With Jesus

I wonder if you’ve ever seen the TV programme ‘Come Dine With Me.’ The format is simple. Contestants take it in turns to host a dinner party, with the other participants secretly scoring their efforts. The person with the most points wins a cash prize of £1000. It seems that the producers work hard to put together the most bizarre combination of guests to make memorable TV moments, with a few confrontations and shocks along the way.

Our reading tonight is a bit like an episode of Come Dine With Me. We’re told in the very first verse that Jesus has gone to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, and he’s being watched carefully. As the dinner party unfolds, we’re given glimpses of what life in Jesus’ kingdom is like, in the four episodes Luke tells us about:

Scene 1. In the house, a man with abnormal swelling of his body (another version suggests dropsy). Jesus asks the Pharisees and experts in the law (those who are very religious) ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?’ When the assembled men don’t answer, Jesus heals the man and sends him away.

The Pharisees considered healing to be a work, something that shouldn’t be done on the Sabbath. And yet, as Jesus explains, it’s a work of mercy: ‘If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?’

It would be unthinkable to shout down the well to your child to keep paddling until the next day, when you would be able to work to pull them out. No, you would get them out straight away, Sabbath or not. In the same way, this healing, doing good, isn’t something that should wait.

The atmosphere is also tense after the first confrontation. But then in scene 2, as the guests choose their seats and make sure they’re in the places of honour, right up beside the host, Jesus tells them a parable:

Imagine that you’re at a big function. You want to be seen to be there, noticed by everyone, so you plonk yourself down at the top table. You’ve got the best seat in the house, it’ll be a night you’ll never forget. The only thing is that someone more important than you has been invited. You’re sitting in the Lord Mayor’s seat; you’re in the place where the Queen should be sitting; you’re where the bride and groom have been placed. What will happen? Everyone will notice you all right, as you’re escorted from the best seat to the lowliest. You’ll be humiliated.

Instead, Jesus says to put yourself in the lowest place - the host may then come and promote you to a better seat. You’ll be honoured. Then Jesus gives the principle: ‘For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

Have you ever seen it? Someone puts on a display of self-importance; they brag about their skills; they look down on others and are full of themselves - but in exalting themselves they are soon humbled. The story goes that some celebrity or other was in an airport, wanting special treatment as they were checking in - maybe an upgrade to first class. The assistant wasn’t playing ball, and the celebrity started up with ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ Quickly, and calmly, the assistant lifted the microphone and broadcast to the whole airport the following: ‘There’s a gentleman at desk 12 who doesn’t know who he is. If someone does know, could they please help him?’

It’s funny to see in others - it can be painful when it happens to us.

Remember who Jesus is addressing - the Pharisees and teachers of the law - they were exalting themselves in the religious way; they were high achievers; they were looked up to in society. They would be humbled in Jesus’ kingdom - just as the words of Mary’s song had predicted: ‘He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.’ (Luke 1:52-53)

As we move on to scene 3, Jesus turns from the guests to the host, and exposes the motives of his heart. You see, in throwing his grand dinner party, he has invited the great and the good. It’s the place to be, with the celebrities of the day. Why? Well, because they will have dinner parties and you’ll be invited back. You’ll be repaid, it’ll all be pleasant. An endless round of fuzzy fellowship with good food and nice people.

‘but when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’ Do we only help those who will in turn help us? Do we dare to only use the gifts God has given us for us and our friends? People we like and people like us?

As we celebrate God’s good gifts at this harvest time, Jesus challenges us to use them to share with those in need; those who really do need them. Or will we continue with our comfortable round of entertainment? It might be costly, and yet there is ample repayment - on that day, at the resurrection of the righteous; when those who are Jesus’ will rise to life with him; righteous because of Jesus, not because of their own goodness.

Now you might have noticed that up to this point, Jesus has been doing all the talking. The Pharisees had nothing to say when Jesus asked them about healing; they have ventured no opinion on the things that Jesus have been challenging them with. It’s almost as if there’s an awkward silence (ever experienced one of those?!) when suddenly one of the guests siezes on what Jesus has just said: ‘Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.’

One of the promises of the Old Testament, one of the pictures of the completed kingdom is of the feast, the banquet. And the man rightly declares that those who will be there and eat in the kingdom will be blessed. But in scene 4, Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom, about who it is that will be present. It’s another shocker:

The invitations have been sent, the replies received, and when everything is ready, then the servant is sent to tell the guests to ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ Just at that moment, the invited guests start to drop out. The excuses start, and what poor excuses they are: ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it... I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out... I just got married, so I can’t come.’ Feeble excuses - would you buy a field without seeing it? Would you buy a car without test driving it? Would you suddenly get married in a flash?

Those who were invited refuse to come. They back out at the last moment. Now what will happen? The feast is ready, the food has to be eaten. The servant is sent out: ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ and then again ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.’

Those who were expected and invited refuse; the most unlikeliest of people are welcomed in. The great and the good, those who exalt themselves and think they are worthy are excluded; those who are no-hopers and down and outs; those who are humble are welcomed in and exalted.

It’s a picture of Jesus’ ministry - the Jews, those who had been invited through the promises of the Old Testament, refuse to come in, they refuse to listen to Jesus; they exclude themselves. In their place, we who were on the outside are brought in; we’re given a place at the table, a share in the heavenly banquet, as we hear the good news and respond to it.

And yet there’s a danger that we, respectable upright church-going people, might presume on our place and think ourselves worthy, and exalt ourselves. Well, obviously God will welcome me - heaven would be a worse place without me and my wonderful goodness there. But by such an attitude, we’re refusing the invitation; we’re shutting ourselves outside; missing out on the joy of the heavenly feast.

No. the heavenly banquet is for the poor, crippled, lame and blind; for the sinner who recognises their unworthiness, and comes humbly to the Lord Jesus, pleading their sinfulness and trusting in the saving blood of the Lord Jesus, who welcomes us in.

We’ve been looking at an episode of ‘Come Dine With Jesus’. This dinner party was memorable for all sorts of reasons. Yet through it, the invitation is extended to us - we too can ‘Come Dine With Jesus’ in his heavenly home for eternity. Even now he is preparing your place, if you will but come.

This sermon was preached at the Harvest Thanksgiving in Brookeborough Methodist Church on Sunday 30th September 2012.