Monday, December 31, 2012

Watchnight Sermon: Joshua 24:15 Choose This Day

Lose weight; get fit; eat more healthily; save money/spend less; get a new job; spend more time with people who matter; try new experiences; get out of a rut; visit a country you’ve never been to before; read more. These were the top ten resolutions in the UK last year. I wonder if you’re making any resolutions?

As we come to the end of the old year, and begin a new one, it’s a great opportunity to think again about the choices we make. You could start a new fitness regime any time of the year, but there seems to be something about the change of date that provides a fresh start, a clean break, a new choice.

In our reading tonight, we hear of a watershed moment in the history of the people of Israel. It’s the end of an era, and a new period is beginning. Joshua has been leading the people of Israel since they moved into the promised land. Moses had brought the people out of Egypt and right to the borders, but Joshua had led the people in.

But now Joshua is old, he’s about to die (at the age of 110), and so he gathers the people together at Shechem. There, he speaks to them on behalf of God, reminding them of their recent history - from Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, down to Moses and the people standing there. It’s a reminder of God’s faithfulness and goodness to them, in giving them a land which wasn’t theirs, and a prosperous inheritance which they didn’t have to work for.

The LORD, the covenant God has done all this for them, and yet - here’s the surprise - Joshua says to them in verse 14: ‘Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness’ - so far, so good - keep on serving God as you have done; worship him, give him the reverence and respect he deserves... but look at what comes next:

‘Put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.’

They have received so much blessing from the LORD; they’re enjoying the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob; they’ve seen God do all this, and yet they’re still clinging to other gods! It’s not so much that they’ve turned their back entirely on the LORD, as that they’re trying to serve God AND gods.

After all, this talk of exclusive worship of God is a bit excessive, surely? Why not keep a multitude of gods happy, just in case you need them in the future. Surely the LORD doesn’t mind if we hold on to the odd idol?

Probably just as much as a husband or wife would mind if their spouse kept meeting up with their old boyfriends or girlfriends... Just as we pledge marital faithfulness to the exclusion of all others, so the LORD calls on the people to choose who their husband is - the LORD, or these other gods?

It’s unthinkable that they even need to make the choice, isn’t it? After all, what have these other gods done for them? Absolutely nothing! But we’ve heard the litany of the LORD’s loving provision, calling their ancestors, rescuing them from Egypt, giving them the land...

Yet here and now, they have to make a choice: ‘Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living...’ What’s it going to be?

Joshua is speaking to the people of God, who have been rescued, who have received so many blessings, and yet are wavering. They still hold to idols and false gods. Is there a possibility that we are the same?

We’re glad to have the promise of sins forgiven and the hope of heaven, but are we content to cling to our own idols - I’m going to heaven, but I’ll hold on to my pride; or my money; or God, you can have 95% of me, but leave that alone (whatever that is)...

Joshua lays the choice before the people, but he boldly declares his own decision: ‘choose this day... but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.’

As we begin this new year, may we too devote ourselves to the Lord, the one who has given us his blessings and faithfulness in the Lord Jesus, who promises that he will be with us. No excuses, no delays, no idols. As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.

This sermon was preached at the Watchnight Service on New Year's Eve, 31st December 2012 in Aghavea Parish Church.

2012 Books

Last year, I set myself the challenge to read more books and spend less time on my phone. Did it work? Here's the list of books I've read and reviewed this year:

1. Ministers of God - Leon Morris
2. Such a Candle - DC Wood
3. Ministries of Mercy - Tim Keller
4. The Holiness of God - RC Sproul
5. Dead Interesting - Shane MacThomais
6. Who Moved The Stone? - Frank Morison
7. The God with Sore Legs - Adrian McCartney
8. Christianity and Liberalism - J Gresham Machen
9. Gunning for God - John Lennox
10. Conduct Gospel-Centered Funerals - Brian Croft & Phil A Newton

11. Precious Blood - Richard D Phillips (ed)
12. The Christ of the Empty Tomb - James Montgomery Boice
13. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
14. South: The Story of Shackleton's Last Expedition - Sir Ernest Shackleton
15. The Bookseller of Kabul - Asne Seierstad
16. Orthodoxy - GK Chesterton
17. Forgotten God - Francis Chan
18. Mud, Sweat and Tears - Bear Grylls
19. The Independence of the Celtic Church in Ireland - WS Kerr
20. The Making of Modern Britain - Andrew Marr

21. The Measure of our Success - Shawn Lovejoy
22. The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness - Tim Keller
23. Divorcing Jack - Colin Bateman
24. Men Made New - John Stott
25. The Power of Words and the Wonder of God - John Piper and Justin Taylor (eds)
26. Heresy - SJ Parris
27. John Charles Ryle - Marcus Loane
28. Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome - Kent and Barbara Hughes
29. Cycle of Violence - Colin Bateman
30. It's Not What You Think - Chris Evans

31. Crazy Love - Francis Chan
32. For the City - Darrin Patrick & Matt Carter
33. Enniskillen - Denzil McDaniel
34. How (Not) to Speak of God - Peter Rollins
35. The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World - John Piper & Justin Taylor (eds)
36. Housegroups - Ian Coffey & Stephen Gaukroger (eds)
37. Planting for the Gospel - Graham Beynon
38. The Diamond Queen - Andrew Marr
39. Jesus and his World - Craig A Evans
40. Reclaiming Genesis - Melvin Tinker

41. Seven Days that Divide the World - John Lennox
42. How To Read Genesis - Tremper Longman III
43. God's Pattern for Creation - Robert Godfrey
44. Genesis in Space and Time - Francis Schaeffer
45. The Masculine Mandate - Richard D Phillips
46. Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
47. Ritual - V L Young
48. Dig Even Deeper - Andrew Sach & Richard Alldritt
49. Of Wee Sweetie Mice and Men - Colin Bateman

There was also the review of an unreadable book in the Kindle format: The Life and Times of James Ussher - James Anderson Carr

Last year there were 37 books read, so 49 is a bit better, although still nowhere near my previous best on the blog: 2011 (37); 2010 (52); 2009 (41); 2008 (23); 2007 (78).

My top books this year are:
1. Dig Even Deeper - Andrew Sach & Richard Alldritt
2. Christianity and Liberalism - J Gresham Machen
3. The Diamond Queen - Andrew Marr
4. Men Made New - John Stott
5. Mud, Sweat and Tears - Bear Grylls

What was the best book you read this year?

Book Review: Of Wee Sweetie Mice and Men

I was putting together my reading list for the year, when I discovered I'd forgotten to review the third Colin Bateman novel I read this year - Of Wee Sweetie Mice and Men. We're re-introduced to Dan Starkey, Belfast journalist extraordinaire, and although the book begins in Belfast, he's soon on his travels to the Big Apple, New York.

Starkey has been hired to write the book of a heavyweight boxing world title fight in which a nobody from Belfast is taking on the world champion. But, as you might expect, when Starkey is around, lots of extraordinary happenings occur. You can take the Belfast men out of Belfast, but you can't take Belfast out of the men - with hilarious consequences. There are kidnappings, spying missions, romance, mayhem, politics and hardmen terrorists and everything else as the crazy cast career from one scenario to the next.

As always with Colin Bateman, there are puns galore, lots of slick one-liners and plenty of laughs. It's a clever novel, which keeps speeding on towards the memorable conclusion.

If you're looking for a laugh, don't mind a little bit of foul language, and appreciate a local Northern Irish author telling great stories, then this might just be what you're after.

Book Review: Dig Even Deeper

Back in 2005, Nigel Beynon and Andrew Sach released a really helpful book for anyone wanting to go deeper in their Bible study. Dig Deeper: Tools to unearth the Bible's treasure did exactly what it said on the tin. The tools were introduced, and worked examples given. Those tools (just as a reminder) are: the Author's Purpose tool; the Context tool; the Structure tool; the Linking Words tool; the Parallels tool; the Narrator's Comment tool; the Vocabulary tool; the Translations tool; the Tone and Feel tool; the Repetition tool; the Quotation/Allusion tool; the Genre tool; the Copycat tool; the Bible Timeline tool; the 'Who Am I?' tool; and the 'So What?' tool. You'll need to read that book to discover what they all are, and how they'll help your Bible study.

Fast forward to 2010, and the book under review - Dig Even Deeper: Unearthing Old Testament treasure. Andrew Sach and Richard Alldritt demonstrate the working of these tools as they guide the reader through a study of the book Exodus (using a 14 word summary of the book: beatings - bush - plagues - passover - water - whinging - father-in-law - fear - case law - covenant - tabernacle - calf - cleft - tabernacle.

I've enjoyed Andrew's ministry at St Helen's through the sermon podcasts, and it's easy to hear Andrew's voice in the book, as he continues to be clear and concise in explaining God's word. Both authors have an easy to read and easy to follow style, with some good illustrations and pointers along the way.

Don't think, however, that this is a breeze through Exodus, in which the authors will give you all the answers. This is a practical hands-on guide which constantly directs the reader to go back to the Bible and do some of the hard work themselves. The tools are wielded with great effect, demonstrating how they can be of use, and what they will unearth as time is taken to study God's word.

The writers also aren't afraid of flagging up the dead-end alleys and red herrings in Bible study - those times when we jump to assumptions. They're careful to bring us back to what the text actually says, and what it means. As well as the detail, they also focus on the big picture - the point of the whole book of Exodus: knowing God's name (character)

As it happened, I had been reading Exodus in my quiet times, and was a couple of steps ahead, but there were things I had missed. It was good to be able to think further about what I was reading, and to see what was lying further beneath the surface.

This is a really useful book, and would be profitable for preachers doing the background work on the text, or even the week-to-week preaching preparation, but it's not just for pastors. If you're wanting to study Exodus, whoever you are, then this is definitely a good starting point.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sermon: Matthew 1:1-23 The Dark Side of Christmas

Do you still have your Christmas tree and cards up? On the radio yesterday there were some people ringing in to say that they have their tree down already - they put it up in the middle of November, and are fed up of it by the time Christmas rolls round. We’re only halfway through the twelve days of Christmas, but already the Easter eggs are in the shops... If you still have your cards up, what kinds of pictures do you see?

My guess is that you’ll have received some with Santa on them; others with a snowy church scene (with choir boys in robes); some with robins or snowmen or reindeer; and perhaps some with a manger scene or angels. I’m fairly certain that you won’t have seen any depicting the second half of our reading today. It’s not a Christmas card image, and yet it’s a very real part of the whole Christmas story.

In the midst of all the joy and celebrations, we hear the cry of the darker side of Christmas - ‘a voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’ Sadly, it’s become all too familiar, most recently in the school in Newtown, Connecticut. Children murdered, slaughtered by adults.

In the aftermath, the question arises - what drives someone to kill children? Why does Herod attack and kill the most vulnerable in his nation?

As Matthew 2 opens, we’re told of a most surprising turn of events. Unexpectedly, a group of magi arrive in Jerusalem. These are stargazers, astrologers, probably from Babylon - the same type of person as taught Daniel when he was in exile. They ask where the new baby king is, expecting to celebrate, only to receive a strange response: ‘When King Herod heard this he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.’

The magi have travelled for a long time, following the star. They expect to find a party, but instead it’s more like a wake. Herod is frightened. But why? Listen out for the repeated word: ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?... When King Herod heard this...’ Herod is the king - appointed by Caesar, ruling as part of the Roman Empire, but there’s a new king in town - one who has been born king - one who is already king. As you might hear in an old Western movie: ‘This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.’ ‘King’ Herod has a rival for the throne - the Messiah, the Christ.

If Jesus is King of the Jews, that means that Herod isn’t. But Herod clings to power, seeking to hold on to his throne. He might appear to be helpful and look as if he too is rejoicing, but the outward appearance hides a power-hungry and wicked heart.

You see, he consults the chief priests and scribes, and asks them where the Christ was to be born. Quick as a flash, they know the answer - the Christ is from Bethlehem (as Micah had foretold). He sends them on their way down the Bethlehem road (it’s only about five or six miles) asking them to search diligently for the child, and to bring him back word so that he too can go and worship.

We know the story so well. We think that everyone welcomed the Lord Jesus - after all, the shepherds left their flocks to go and see the baby; the wise men (who we see going to Jesus and presenting their gifts) travelled a long way. But not everyone was overjoyed. The religious leaders knew the right answers, but they didn’t go to worship the baby king with the wise men. The Bible was like a text book for trivia questions - they might win the annual Christmas game of Trivial Pursuit (Bible edition); but they ignore the Christ himself. As we seek to learn more of the Bible and sit under its teaching and even study it through the week are we filling our heads with knowledge, or having our hearts changed as we’re driven to worship?

Herod claims he wants to worship, but when the wise men don’t return to him (having been re-routed by a dream from God) his true colours are soon revealed. Herod’s aim is to destroy the Christ. His opposition to Jesus stops at nothing. He will have no rivals - for Herod to remain on the throne, he must kill Jesus.

In Luke 19, Jesus tells a parable about a man who becomes king, but some of his subjects rebel against him, saying ‘We do not want this man to rule over us.’ (Luke 19:14). This is exactly what Herod is saying here - and it’s our response too.

Jesus is the rightful king - of the Jews; of the universe; of your heart. But we cling to the throne; we refuse to obey the king. Each of us is a rebel, seeking to put Jesus to death in order to remain in control, saying no to the true king. Herod sought to do away with Jesus by making absolutely sure - he killed all the male children under the age of two in Bethlehem. He’s saying: I am my own king - Jesus, you are not; you must die.

This is the very heart of our sin - wanting to be in charge ourselves and rejecting God’s rule in our life. In Herod’s case it presents itself in an extreme way by murdering innocent children to maintain his position. Yet we seek to do the same thing by other means. Other people suffer as we reject the king and do things our way.

The tears of sorrow are heard by the God of love, the God of all comfort. You see, while God provides for the protection of Jesus in this instance (through the angel warning Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape the danger); it’s not yet the appointed time for Jesus to die. He will die - indeed, that’s the reason Jesus came into the world, but not as a baby.

Instead Jesus will die on the Roman cross at Calvary according to God’s timing, for rebels like you and me. When tragedies such as the school shooting happen, people may ask the question: where is God in all of this? As we look at the cross, we discover that God the Father suffered the death of his only Son - in order to rescue rebels.

Our passage presents us with a choice today: will we be like ‘King’ Herod, who clings to power, only out for himself and his position. who seeks to destroy the Lord Jesus as he rejects him? Or will we be like those wise men (whom we sometimes think of as ‘we three kings’), who came from afar; who searched diligently in response to the light they had received; who bowed to the true king; and worshipped him; and gave him precious gifts.

As Her Majesty the Queen said in her Christmas broadcast, the thing that we have to give to the king is our heart, to gladly surrender to him. The closing verses of Psalm 2 are addressed to kings and rulers of the earth; but they’re also appropriate to each of us as supposed kings and queens of our own hearts:

‘Serve the LORD with fear, with trembling kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled. Happy are all who take refuge in him.’

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

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Book Review: Ritual

One of the things you probably didn't know about me is that I quite like horror stories. The other day, I was in a charity shop in town and saw a few of the Point Horror collections - teen horror novels by Caroline B Cooney, RL Stine and Diane Hoh. I was taken back to those stories I read years ago. Horror movies are also one of my things, although I haven't seen (m)any in a wee while. Underworld, with vampires and werewolves, was probably one of my favourite films.

I'm therefore a prime target for the new horror story 'Ritual' on Kindle from local author, VL Young. Young is a friend of a friend, and twitter marketing meant that I was aware of the book on Kindle, and downloaded it during a 'free giveway' day. It's probably coming in the same vein as the Twilight saga, although I haven't read or seen them.

The book is narrated by Nikki, an Irish girl in America faced with a huge problem: 'Every night when I go to sleep, I wake up in someone else's nightmare.' The nightmares become real for Nikki, though, as she seeks to help her best friend, Alexia, who has been taken by Immortals. Along the way, there are appearances from Cole, Nikki's boyfriend, and Conrad, who is a werewolf, as well as plenty of vampires and werewolves.

The tale is gripping, and the reader is drawn in to the story, with plenty of excitement and lots of action. The ending is dramatic, and will be enjoyed. Young obviously knows the genre well, and writes in keeping with the limitations and 'rules' of the vampire/werewolf horror genre.

My only issue with the book is that it needs some editing, mostly in terms of spelling and grammar. At times the layout can be confusing, with a new paragraph being taken for each new sentence of speech when it's the same character speaking, leading the reader to assume it's the other character speaking. Perhaps another helpful suggestion might be to have the characters develop their own voices, rather than everyone sounding and speaking exactly like the narrator.

With these suggestions, it has to be said that this is a book (indeed, perhaps even a series) with a lot of potential. I enjoyed reading it, and would look to hear more from the author in the future. Fans of Twilight and such like are in for a treat. It's well worth downloading and reading.

UPDATE: Since this review was published, the author has been in contact to say that the editing has now been completed and I was reading an earlier draft. So there's nothing holding you back - download, read and enjoy!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Book Review: Pride and Prejudice *Spoilers*

'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.' So begins Jane Austen's novel 'Pride and Prejudice' - a book I had never read. It seems to echo through our culture, probably through the endless television and movie remakes, such that I knew Darcy was a character, but knew nothing more about it. Coming free in the Amazon Kindle bookstore, I picked it up and started reading.

To my surprise, I enjoyed it more than I expected (and perhaps more than I should admit!). Austen's writing style takes a little bit of getting used to, what with the partial dialogue in scenes (where one character might be quoted extensively, but the other's contribution is paraphrased by the narrator), and the language is certainly of the time. Having said that, the pace is good, the characters are portrayed vividly, the story draws you in and keeps the reader intrigued, and the ending is very satisfying.

Just in case you've never read it either, Pride and Prejudice follows the Bennet family as Mrs Bennet fusses and promotes 'The business of her life [which] was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.' The five daughters are caught up in the social scene, each with their unique character and personality, which is well captured. We're also introduced to the head of the household, Mr Bennet, who seems to reside in his study, well away from the cares of courting.

Along the way, we meet many other characters, but the main protagonist is Mr Darcy, who in the first half of the book portrays the 'pride' of the title, although we discover that in her own way Elizabeth Bennet is just as proud (and even more prejudiced). The romance blossoms along the way, with Elizabeth receiving a fair number of marriage proposals, from a variety of men.

While the English upper class social scene of the 1800s is quite alien, it's a fascinating insight into the lives of the 'great and the good' at the time. Perhaps lovers of Downton Abbey may wish to revisit one of the original classics from the period.

For me, it was interesting to hear of Mr Collins, a cousin of the Bennet family, who served as a clergyman under the patronage of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and to hear some of his insights on ministry. That is, keep in with the lady of the manor, and do your work:

'The rector of a parish has much to do. In the first place, he must make such an agreement for tithes as may be beneficial to himself and not offensive to his patron. He must write his own sermons; and the time that remains will not be too much for his parish duties, and the care and improvement of his dwelling, which he cannot be excused from making as a comfortable as possible.'

One of my favourite characters, however, was Mr Bennet. Early on, we're told that 'they found Mr Bennet still up. With a book he was regardless of time.' He has some of the best funny lines, as when Elizabeth comes to discuss Mr Collins' proposal with him: 'An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never seen you again if you do NOT marry Mr Collins, and I will never see you again if you DO.'

It's as if the book is perfectly split between the pride and the prejudice - indeed, my Kindle told me that the first mention of prejudice came at 51%! Misunderstandings are dealt with; prejudices are overturned and pride is replaced by humility as the romance drives towards its conclusion.

All in all, it's a great book, and well deserving of being hailed a classic. I'm glad to have read it, and enjoyed it, and will perhaps have a go at another of Austen's books before too long.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Sermon: Luke 1:37 The God of the Impossible

Have you ever thought about how unlikely the Christmas story is? We’re so familiar with the story; we’ve heard it all before; we know what it’s all about. But step back for a moment, think through the details of what happened, and ask yourself - is it really possible?

Are we dealing with a fairytale story, made up to tell the children to make Christmas seem special? Could it really have happened? It all seems impossible:

I mean, ladies, to find not only one wise man, but three - and all at the same time! Just think of some of the other improbables: details of the birth written down seven hundred years before they happened. The town of birth on the birth certificate was to be Bethlehem, even though the mother and her betrothed lived in Nazareth.

The birth being announced by stars and angels, bringing strange visitors - shepherds and wise men.

The baby king lying in a manger - a feeding trough for the animals, wrapped up in strips of cloth.

When you put it all together, you might be tempted to think it’s all a bit far-fetched. If it was a novel, you’d think it too unbelievable. The book wouldn’t get published.

But sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction. The gospel writers tell us what happened, reminding us that the people involved found some bits hard to believe as well. After all, the wise men turned up at Herod’s palace looking for the baby king. They didn’t expect to go on to Bethlehem.

The shepherds were terrified when the angels appeared to them, bringing the good news.

But the prime example of how improbable it all appears came when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, to tell her that she’s going to have a baby - a son to be named Jesus, who will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High (that is, he is God), who will reign over the kingdom forever.

We like to think that we’re more sophisticated, more intelligent than people back then. We’ve come through the enlightenment; we’re scientific people. We know that babies aren’t born by virgins.

But Mary knows that too! It’s just as difficult for her to take in and believe as it is for us. Mary asks: ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?’ How will this be? Gabriel, how can all this possibly happen? It’s just impossible.

How does Gabriel reply? He points to Mary’s elderly relative, Elizabeth, who has swapped her seniors’ lunches for ante-natal classes. She was old, and barren, but now she is six months pregnant. It can only be God’s doing. It’s truly a miracle. Here’s what he says: ‘Nothing is impossible with God.’

We think too little of God; we impose false limits on him, and imagine that he is bound by our weaknesses. But Gabriel’s words sound out loud and clear at that first Christmas: ‘Nothing is impossible with God.’

The God who inspired the human authors of the Scriptures to write down the location, circumstances and details of the birth so long in advance is the same God who sent the angels and star to bring along the most unlikely of visitors to the maternity stable - ragtag outcast unclean shepherds, and foreign, pagan magi. The God who caused the virgin to be with child is the same God who lies in the manger, come to dwell with us and rescue us by entering our world and dying for our sins.

We might think it difficult, or improbable, but nothing is impossible with God. CS Lewis calls this ‘the Grand Miracle’. Everything else that Jesus said or did, as he taught, as he healed, as he raised the dead; as he himself was raised from the dead - it all flows from this Grand Miracle, that God became Man through the virgin birth.

As we come to this Christmas, look again in the manger, and see the face of God. His beauty and purity and glory shines out. You might ask yourself how could you ever go to heaven? Just like Mary, you know it’s not possible for you by your own efforts.

And hear again those words of Gabriel, indeed, the words of Jesus: ‘Nothing is impossible with God.’ As God came, and gave himself, so we can be sure of salvation, as we trust in him: the God who can work mighty miracles; the God of the impossible.

This sermon was preached at the Carols by Candlelight service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 23rd December 2012.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sermon: Galatians 4:4-5 The Fullness of Time

On the internet, you get the weird and the wonderful. A Twitter account asks the question: ‘Is it Christmas yet?’ Thirty thousand people are ‘following’ the account as it tweets every morning: ‘No’ or ‘Not yet’. The countdown is on, the anticipation is rising, the presents are appearing under the tree. We’ve even (eventually) got the tree up in the Rectory!

The only people who are genuinely asking ‘is it Christmas yet?’ are the children, as they await their new toys. They want to hurry up time to bring along the big day. They’re impatient for time to pass.

But then, it’s not only the kids who can do that. When we’re wee, we want to be older; when we’re at school, we want to be finished (and when we’re off, we want to be back); we want to get a job; we want to retire; we look forward to children; we want them to grow up; we want them to stay at home... always rushing on, always anxious to get to the next stage of life. Time passes - indeed, time flies, quicker and quicker it seems.

Christmas can seem to take ages to get here. For us, it’s on the calendar, it comes every year. But think back to the first Christmas - it really did take ages. You remember in the autumn we heard those first promises that Jesus would come as God spoke to Eve of the seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head? As the Old Testament continues, the promises come thick and fast. Except, it appears that nothing is happening.

God calls Abraham, and makes a nation of him. His descendants go into slavery in Egypt and four hundred years later are delivered at the Passover. They wander in the wildnerness for forty years before taking the Promised Land. Judges lead the people; then kings rule over them. The nation is divided into two nations; each is taken into exile. A remnant returns. And yet, still, after all this, the Christ hasn’t yet come.

Can you imagine an angel, watching all that is happening to Israel, wondering why Jesus hasn’t come yet? A bit like the child’s question in the car: ‘Are we there yet?’ Why hasn’t Jesus come yet? The Old Testament ends, and there’s silence for four hundred years. Is God being slow? Was Jesus caught up in traffic on the way from heaven?

In one verse of our reading today, Paul tells us the answer, and shows us why Jesus came at that first Christmas. Look with me at 4:4. ‘But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.’

Paul says that it was ‘when the fullness of time had come.’ At just the right moment; at the very time God had chosen, this is when it happened. There has been great excitement about the new movie in the cinemas - The Hobbit. In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf the wizard says that ‘a wizard is never late, Frodo Baggins. Nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.’ Paul says the same about the coming of the Lord Jesus - it’s as intended.

And at just the right time, ‘God sent his Son’ - the Father sends his own Son into the world; not in a show of power and majesty, but rather ‘born of a woman, born under the law.’ Now why does Paul point out these two facts. After all, to be born of a woman isn’t that remarkable, is it? I’m fairly confident each of us was born of a woman - to be born of a man would be more noteworthy! He’s picking up on the promise to Eve in the garden: he’s pointing to the fact that Jesus is the seed of the woman - he is the one promised long before. But as well as being the woman’s son; Jesus is also born under the law, born into the nation of Israel, under the old covenant.

Jesus observes the law, perfectly obeying the commands of the Old Testament, doing what we could not do - and all ‘in order to redeem those who were under the law.’ You see, as Jesus obeyed the law, he did not deserve to die; but as he died the death of the lawbreaker, he redeems those who have broken the law.

When we think of redeeming today, it’s probably redeeming coupons or vouchers. We give over the coupon and we get money off a product, or we get something for the voucher. Jesus redeems those under the law because he gives himself in their place. He submits to the law, and allows them to go free.

And what is the end result? Why did Jesus come into the world at just the right time? It was ‘so that we might receive adoption as children.’ This is the reason for Christmas - God sent his Son to bring us into his family. Now I realise that ‘f’ word might be a scary one at this time of year - spending time with the family might be a stressful experience; with your inlaws and outlaws.

Jesus came into the world in order to welcome us into his family, to become our older brother by adoption. As we’re brought in, we discover that we share all the benefits of being part of the family - receiving the Spirit of the Son, who cries out in our hearts ‘Abba! Father!’ - confirming that we are in the Father’s family’; and also sharing in the inheritance as God’s child.

It’s probably not the type of thing you see on a Christmas card, is it? Jesus came into the world as a baby in order to bring us into his family. You see, too often we just focus on the baby and forget that he grew up and went to the cross - the cross is in view from the start, Bethlehem is the first point on the way up to Calvary.

While we decorate our Christmas trees, Jesus was going to the tree, the cross, where he would die for us, to bring us into his family tree.

It might be that you’ve lost sight of the privileges of being a Christian, the wonder of being welcomed in. This Christmas could be a good time to stop and think of all that the Lord Jesus did for us in coming to save us. Or perhaps you realise you’re still on the outside, looking in. Could this be the time when you open your heart to the Lord, and receive what he has done for you?

Or maybe you’re wondering what the Lord is doing right now. Why does he seem slow to answer your prayers? Why are your family or friends not saved even though you pray for them earnestly? Paul reminds us that it was at the fullness of time that God acted in sending his Son - God does not change, and acts in his perfect timing, neither early nor late.

Will you trust in him and his perfect timing? Can you depend on his sovereign power in these moments?

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

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sermon: Luke 2:12 Christmas Unwrapped

Are you all set for Christmas? Have you all the presents wrapped and under the tree? It’s one of the most exciting parts of Christmas - seeing all the beautifully wrapped gifts with coloured paper and bows - and the best bit: the gift tag that says it’s a present for you!

When we were growing up, dad had a rule that we weren’t allowed to open any presents until Christmas morning. Now that wasn’t too bad, except our great-aunt and uncle lived in Belfast, and always came to visit granny early in December, bringing presents with them. The mysterious presents (and they were always brilliant) sat under the tree for several weeks. We couldn’t open them, but that didn’t stop us from poking and prodding them, trying to work out what was inside. You see, the wrappings were nice, but they’re not the most important part.

Up until the big day, it’s the wrapping that holds the attention. But come Christmas Day, the wrapping paper is torn away, the gift inside is revealed, and the real enjoyment can begin. Whether the paper ends up in a plastic bag, carefully collected at the time, or the room looks like it’s been recarpeted with fragments of wrapping paper, the wrap is forgotten, the presents are finally present.

But sometimes, you hear of the child who takes more enjoyment from the box, rather than the expensive gift inside. The box becomes all sorts of things in the imagination, the toy itself is left abandoned. If it’s your child, you want to show them the real present, not just the wrappings. Otherwise, they’re missing the precious gift.

We might laugh when it comes to a child, and yet sometimes we too can be so caught up in the tinsel and trappings, and yet miss the treasure. We come round to another Christmas time, and we think we’ve heard it all before. We know the story so well, we reckon it’s just for the kids. We get wrapped up in the wrappings of Christmas, that we miss the gift itself.

You see Christmas is about more than cooking the perfect brussell sprouts and attending the parties and being visited by the jolly man in red and spending time together as a family. If we unwrap the Christmas package, what is it we find at the centre? What is the heart of Christmas? Our Bible readings tonight help us to discover Christmas unwrapped:

Take away the tinsel and turkey and tree; pass on the parties and puddings and mince pies; strip away the shepherds and angels and wisemen; and gaze on the glorious gift - wrapped up, but not in paper and bows. Wrapped in strips of cloth, and lying in a manger, where the animals feed, is THE Christmas present: a tiny newborn baby.

But this is no ordinary baby. Every parent knows that their baby is special, their child is amazing - but none can compare with the baby in the manger. We discover that this is the long-awaited king, the rescuer. As the angels told the shepherds: ‘Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.’ (Luke 2:11)

Indeed, as the angel Gabriel told Mary: ‘He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.’ We’re hearing much in the news at the minute about the royal baby, but William and Kate’s child has nothing on the baby Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of all.

Isaiah helps us remove the wrapping to see just who Jesus is: ‘He will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’ It’s the message of the most famous verse in the Bible: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.’

You might be a present-poker; you might have sneaked a peek; or you might be waiting patiently to see what’s under the tree. But don’t get caught up in the wrapping paper and miss the real Christmas gift. As our next hymn asks: ‘What child is this, who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?’ As the wrapping is removed, we find the answer: ‘This, this is Christ the King.’

The gift tag has your name on it. The gift is for you. God gives us his Son, the Saviour. Will you receive him this Christmas time?

This reflection was shared at the Riverbrooke Cross-Border Initiative Carol Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Thursday 20th December 2012.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Book Review: The Masculine Mandate

Richard D Phillips is an author I've been enjoying for quite some time. Coming from the Reformed stable, his books are always seeking to present the teaching of the Scriptures in a clear and concise way. I've found that this continues in his book 'The Masculine Mandate: God's Calling to Men.'

Phillips surveys the world's understanding of masculinity, finding it defective and misleading:

There's certainly nothing wrong with being an outdoorsman, building one's own house, or even, within bounds, being the solid John Wayne type. But is that all there is to being a man? The truth is that the Bible gives us God's picture of a real man, and it doesn't fit any of our stereotypes.

His desire is to present the Masculine Mandate as found in the Scriptures, to enable a 'strong, biblical, and confident Christian manhood.'

Concentrating a lot of attention on the opening chapters of the Bible, Phillips examines the creation account of Genesis 1-3 to discover the author's intention of man made in the image of God; commanded to work and keep the Garden. He tackles the opinions of John Eldredge (Wild at Heart) head on, countering the thought that man was made outside the garden to be wild, because God's purpose was for man to work the garden and keep it. So our call is not to be wild at heart, but rather to follow God's pattern and purpose.

This is the Masculine Mandate: to be spiritual men placed in real-world, God-defined relationships, as lords and servants under God, to bear God's fruit by serving and leading.

Through a series of chapters, Phillips discusses what the call to work and keep might look like in the contexts of home, marriage, family, work, church and so on. It was mostly good, helpful, stirring stuff, although sometimes it seemed a bit American for my liking, and sometimes I wondered if the call to men only applied to men, rather than both men and women.

This might be a useful book for a men's small group or one-to=one to read and discuss, and will provide a good basis for anyone wanting to examine the scriptures and how they call us to be godly men.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Book Review: Genesis in Space and Time

Day Five in the Genesis book tour.

This was the first book I've ever read by Francis Schaeffer, and I must confess, it took me a little while to get into his writing style. Some of the other books I've reviewed this week were more readable, but having got used to Schaeffer, there were lots of helpful insights in Genesis in Space and Time.

With a perhaps more philosophical approach, Frank Schaeffer underlines the importance of Genesis:

I wish to point out the tremendous value Genesis 1-11 has for modern man. In some ways these chapters are the most important ones in the Bible, for they put man in his cosmic setting and show him his peculiar uniqueness. They explain man's wonder and yet his flaw. Without a proper understanding of these chapters we have no answer to the problems of metaphysics, morals or epistemology, and furthermore, the work of Christ becomes one more upper-story 'religious' answer.

The book charts the 'flow of biblical history' through the opening chapters, with a good reflection on the wonder of creation (and of the 'time' before time - my term, not his). As he explores the revelation of God as Trinity in the creation, as well as the power of God, creating by divine fiat, the spirit soars. On the creation of man, he is perhaps at his finest:

A man is of great value not for some less basic reason but because of his origin. Thus the flow of history has tremendous implications for every aspect of our lives. I stand in the flow of history. I know my origin. My lineage is longer than the Queen of England's. It does not start at the Battle of Hastings. It does not start with the beginning of good families, wherever or whenever they lived. As I look at myself in the flow of space-time reality, I see my origin in Adam and in God's creating man in his own image.

Schaeffer doesn't confine himself to Genesis only, but makes connections with the rest of the scriptures, tracing the lines from the fall through to the cross and beyond. Despite my initial uncertainty, I'm definitely glad I made it through the book and benefited from Schaeffer's contribution. While some of the other books might only be of interest to the person specifically studying Genesis, this would be a great book for any student of our culture; people wondering why the world is the way it is, and what can be done about it; and all those wanting to grow in apologetics reasoning and engagement.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Book Review: God's Pattern for Creation

Day Four in Genesis week on the blog. This time, the book under review is God's Pattern for Creation: A Covenantal Reading of Genesis 1 by W Robert Godfrey. This was a little shorter than some of the other books, but then it does only deal with the first chapter of Genesis. However, it was still a useful addition to the reading I had undertaken, helping to shape the important first sermon in the series by focusing on the order and plan of creation, through the lens of the covenant.

It's essential to start well, as the author points out: 'Beginnings are important, and if we want to understand the teaching of the Bible as a whole, it is vital to understand what it teaches about creation.' Noting the challenges to the authority of Genesis in revealing the work of creation, he declares that: 'In some ways such controversy is a good sign for the people of God. It means that people are studying Genesis 1 with great interest and care.'

The structure of the book is very simple, and follows Godfrey's reading of Genesis 1: the first three days; the last four days; and then the message of the chapter. He demonstrates his interest and care as he carefully examines the text of Genesis and draws out the meaning of the words, and how they fit together. He notes the patterns of words - not just the seven days, but also the threefold use of 'create', as well as the seven 'and it was so' uses, and the ten 'let there be' and 'make'. There are useful figures and diagrams, setting out the chiasms found in the text, again highlighting the structure carefully written by Moses as led and inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The issue of the seventh day - the Sabbath - takes up a lot of space, as he discusses the options of what the rest day means for God and for us, and its connection to the 'rest' to which Hebrews points us forward. His conclusion is interesting:

All of our considerations of the Bible's teaching on days and time should lead us to the conclusion that the days and week of Genesis 1 are presented to us as a real week of twenty-four-hour days. These days and week, however, do not describe God's actions in themselves but present God's creative purpose in a way that is a model for us. The purpose and message of Genesis 1 is that God created the world for humankind - a world in which man could be the image of God in his working and his resting.

While there may come a stage when you've read so many different points of view that you become totally confuddled, this book didn't add to the confuddling. While it's short, it's a great help in getting to the original language of the text (without a Hebrew character appearing in the book), and would be useful for anyone wanting to think further about the order and purpose of the days of creation. The summary at the end, presenting ten theses on creation, is spot on in providing the takeaway message.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Book Review: How To Read Genesis

Day Three of my Genesis book reviews, and this time 'How To Read Genesis' by Tremper Longman III. From the outset, this was a book I warmed to and thoroughly enjoyed, and has made me keep an eye out for his other introductions to Psalms and Proverbs. He acknowledges early on that Genesis 'is the foundation stone of that great literary ediface', the Bible, the Word of God. It's important to have the foundations right, and we get a good survey of those foundations in this highly readable book.

As the author declares: 'This book is not a commentary, though it will provide an overarching interpretation of Genesis... [It] is an exploration of the proper interpretive approach to the book of Genesis.' The opening chapter discusses the interpretation of the book, proposing a number of principles: 1. Recognise the literary nature of the book of Genesis; 2. Explore the historical background of the book; 3. Reflect on the theological teaching of the book; 4. Reflect on your situation, your society's situation and the global situation. These four principles are elaborated using fourteen questions to ask of the text under consideration.

Part Two encourages us to read Genesis as literature. There's a great discussion on the authorship of Genesis, beginning with a defence of Moses being the author (except for the bit about his death, obviously), and an examination of the four source hypothesis of JEDP - which we didn't really hear much of in college, perhaps because it's mostly unfashionable these days. At the end, though, the author summarises in the following way:

But when it comes down to it, it is both impossible and unnecessary to differentiate Mosaic and non-Mosaic material in any detail.

Also in Part Two there's a chapter on the structure of the book, highlighting the various elements and markers along the way. Longman proposes a three-tiered structure - the primeval history (1-11); the patriarchal narratives (12-36); and the Joseph story (37-50).

Part Three felt like the perfect remedy and answer to the suffering of my Old Testament classes at Theological College! Throughout we had been hammered with the Enuma Elish and other creation myths, as well as alternative flood narratives such as Utnapishtim. These textual traditions were solid evidence that the Israelites just copied and adapted other cultures' great texts, or so we were told repeatedly. For so long I refused to believe it, but also had no scholarship to argue against the assertions. If only I had known Tremper Longman back in 2005, his ears would have been burning, I would have been quoting him so often!

Part Four traces God's story through the stories of Genesis in broad brushstrokes, applying the lessons and principles already supplied. It's good to see the principles applied in concrete examples, and to see the bigger picture of the whole story - especially since there's a danger of getting bogged down in the detail when preparing and preaching individual passages of Genesis (or indeed any book).

Part Five looks at reading Genesis as Christians. While some may protest, this is ultimately how we need to read the text to receive its fullest revelation:

'In what follows I am not claiming that the human author(s) of Genesis had a detailed awareness of how his words would play out in the history of redemption. However, we have already expressed our understanding that there is an ultimate Author standing behind the human author. We couldn't presume to know the Author's intentions if it weren't for the New Testament. Later revelation brings out the fuller significance of these ancient words, and it's from the perspective of the New Testament that we now read the book of Genesis.'

All in all, I really enjoyed this book, and not just because it was the necessary and perfect corrective to the dodgy and depressing theology we'd been force-fed in college. It's a great introduction to Genesis, and helps to lay the appropriate building blocks for a rigorous exploration and interpretation of Genesis. While addressing theological scholarship, it wasn't a heavy read, and should be fairly accessible for anyone wanting to be stretched, while at the same time carefully guided through the issues arising.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Book Review: Seven Days That Divide The World

It's Day Two of my Genesis book reviews, and perhaps appropriately, it's a book that deals with the creation days themselves. This wasn't strictly part of my sermon series prep, but further background reading by an author I respect on a related topic. John Lennox is emerging as one of the leading Christian apologists in the realm of science and evolution, so it was interesting to read his take on the creation.

It might be a recurring observation by all the writers this week, but Genesis is not an easy subject: 'The biblical announcement of the fact of creation was as timelessly clear as it was magnificently appropriate. However... when it comes to the timing and means of creation... people over the centuries have found the book of Genesis less easy to understand.'

Lennox declares that 'the topic is clearly a potential minefield.' Yet he continues to argue that there is hope of a harmony of the Bible and science both properly interpreted. After all, belief in creative intelligence was the starting point for modern science, which therefore doesn't disprove God's existence. Indeed, Lennox examines the trouble surrounding Galileo, that famous test case of religion against science. Rather, 'The conflict was far more between two 'scientific' world pictures than between science and religion.'

Continuing to discuss bible interpretation, Lennox points to a number of examples where the 'literal' sense of the words used can be inadequate and even misleading - 'since there can be different levels of literality.' So, with the discovery that the earth revolves around the sun: 'Even though our interpretation relies on scientific knowledge, it does not compromise the authority of Scripture.' Therefore: 'The Galileo incident teaches us that we should be humble enough to distinguish between what the Bible says and our interpretations of it.'

With this foundation in place, Lennox examines the text of Genesis 1 to discover what it actually says. He explains that there are a variety of meanings for the word 'day' in the Hebrew, whether the period of sunlight; a twenty-four hour period; or an age. He also considers the possibility of the six creation days being solid days, but spaced throughout a longer period of time (ie not just in the one week).

Moving on, the problems of the origin of humans and death are raised. Were Adam and Eve just a pair of humanoids that God decided to begin with, or were they a special creation? Did evolution play a part in their rise? Did death exist before the fall? Lennox' answer seems to push for an ancient world, with an attitude of humility as the 'best fit' for the evidence of Scripture and science.

His fifth and final chapter appears to be the strongest, as he turns from science to focus instead on the message of Genesis 1, displaying the truth it reveals of God to the reader. In a series of simple points, Lennox again and again points to the God who is, the creator, the one who formed us, and calls us to relationship with him.

There are also a number of interesting appendices, providing a background to Genesis, an examination of the Cosmic Temple view, thoughts on the beginning of time, a brief discussion of the suggestion that there are two accounts of creation, and an analysis of theistic evolution and the God of the gaps.

All in all, it's a book that will raise the salient points in the discussion and provide much food for thought. I'm not sure that I agree with all his conclusions, but at least I've been provoked to think more carefully about my position, and am now better informed about the issues. Any book by Lennox also equips the reader for apologetics, which is also a bonus!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Book Review: Reclaiming Genesis

I've long appreciated Melvin Tinker's ministry of preaching and writing, having read several of his books and heard him preaching in Dundonald and at NIMA. When preparing to preach from the opening chapters of Genesis, it was very helpful to read his book Reclaiming Genesis, a series of sermons he had preached, reworked into book form. While I didn't necessarily agree with all his exegesis or application, it was good to see how someone else had tackled the book.

As he begins, Tinker points out that the two books most likely to be the cause of heated debate are found at either end of the Bible: Genesis and Revelation. 'The main bone of contention is how they are to be interpreted.' The rest of the introduction is rooted in the discussion of interpretation, which helps to put the sermons themselves into an interpretive framework and context.

He argues that Genesis displays clearly that God is sovereign, but that he may have used evolution as his instrument. This is not something that the Scripture is overly concerned with, though, as the text of Scripture is written for us. The more important question, therefore, is what is its purpose, and what is it saying?

With a great illustration of a scientist analysing a love letter scientifically, Tinker points out that 'they miss out on the most important thing... that someone was trying to establish a relationship.' Genesis answers the Why (or rather, Who), rather than the How.

Moving into the sermons themselves, there is much to be edified by in these pages. The introductions and illustrations are like a preaching masterclass, the language is simple and direct, the message of the scripture is clear and arresting. It may actually have been a bad idea to read it prior to preaching, such were the insights that could be 'borrowed' - although Tinker obviously had a lot more time in his sermons than I'm currently preaching.

Here are a sample of quotations to whet your appetite:

'Whatever Genesis 1-3 is, it is at least a vigorous polemic against paganism.'

'What Dawkins has in effect constructed is a pseudo-religion in which the powers of deity have been ascribed to molecules.'

'We are sinners not because we are fundamentally lawbreakers, but because in our pride we take to ourselves the decision to become lawmakers independent of God.'

Many of the contentious issues are dealt with, in a manner that shows how an ordinary congregation can be helped to think through them without dictating or pontificating. It's a most helpful book, for anyone wishing to learn more about Genesis, or receive a basic introduction to the text of the opening chapters.

The preacher will find it useful; but it's not just for preachers - the 'ordinary' Christian could use it to aid an indepth study of Genesis or as a guide for devotions.

Preaching Genesis 1-11

I've just preached through the first eleven chapters of Genesis this autumn. It was even more challenging that I had imagined when I set out on my quest. I hope that it's been useful and profitable for the congregation; I know I have certainly been stretched in tackling the creation, the fall, the flood, the genealogies, and Babel. It's challenging because:

1. We're in the Old Testament, which for many Christians (and sadly many preachers) is alien territory. The texts may not be as familiar; passages may be longer; and it might appear to be harder to make the connection to the twenty-first century hearer.

2. The passages may be contentious, with people leaping to particular positions on e.g. the nature of the days in creation; whether God oversaw an evolutionary creative process; the nature of the temptation in the fall; whether the flood was universal or local - and this is just a quick sampling of the issues off the top of my head, which leads to:

3. There's always more that could be said, so the preacher must ruthlessly whittle the material down to make the big point the passage is making, rather than following secondary or trivial matters and focusing attention on them.

Throughout the series, we've watched as God has remained faithful to his promises and purposes, even when our forefathers have messed up, time and again. It's been good to see how God had already begun to make promises relating to the arrival of his Son into the world right back in Eden, demonstrating practically that Jesus was ready from before the foundation of the world to come and die for us.

This week, I hope to review some of the books I read in preparation for the series - perhaps appropriately there may be six of them, with a rest on the Lord's Day!

Sermon Audio: Isaiah 9:1-7

Yesterday morning I was preaching from Isaiah 9, as we considered the announcement of the Royal Baby in this Advent season.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Sermon: Isaiah 9:1-7 The Royal Baby

Among all the bad news stories at the minute, there has been one good news story: the announcement of the forthcoming royal birth. You can’t have failed to have seen it on the news - Prince William and Princess Kate (Katherine) are expecting a baby.

Photographers and TV cameras were camped outside the hospital where Kate was being treated for her severe morning sickness. Everyone wanted all the details. For the next few months, you can expect the ‘royal bump watch’ to continue, tracking the progress of the pregnancy.

In a time of recession, and violence, and redundancies, it’s been good to get some good news. The mood of the newsreaders lifts. There are smiles all round. A baby is on its way!

Our reading this morning also contains the news of a royal birth. Just as now, the people were in dark and dreary circumstances. The people are described as walking in darkness, living in a land of deep darkness. It’s even worse than the way the nights are drawing in; even worse than a friend who’s a missionary in Sweden, where some days they don’t even get daylight. They’re caught in deep darkness. No hope, only despair. (Remember, this is from the time before street lights or powerful torches.)

Isaiah says that they will experience a turnaround. ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness - on them light has shined.’ (2) It’s the difference between night and day; darkness and light - the change being brought about through this special announcement. For those in darkness, the baby will bring light.

In verses three to five, we see the spreading effects of the light, as well as the cause of it: ‘You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.’

Before there was only despair, but the new baby will bring joy. The rejoicing will be like the joy that comes when harvest is gathered in; the joy that comes when victory in battle has been won, and you’re sharing the spoils of war. It’s a dramatic turn around - and all because the victory has been won. Look with me at verse 4: ‘For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.’ Isaiah looks back to a time when Israel had defeated the Midianites, and says that this new victory will be like that one.

No longer will God’s people be in slavery; no longer will they be commanded by an enemy. They’re pictured like oxen with the yoke of their burden, slaving for their oppressor. The yoke will be broken; the rod will be shattered. God’s people will be free, as they share in the victory.

Verse 5 pictures a great bonfire of all the soldiers’ uniform and kit. It’s not needed any more; it’s burned as fuel for the fire. Do you know the John Lennon song ‘Merry Christmas (War is Over)’? I’ll not try to sing it, but this is in effect what Isaiah is promising - war is over; and all because of the birth of this baby.

Is it any wonder there is rejoicing? The victory is within reach; violence and slavery and oppression are almost finished. Where once there was despair; there is now hope and joy.

The news coverage of Kate’s pregnancy is already reaching fever pitch. It doesn’t matter whether the baby will be a boy or a girl - the law is being changed to make it the firstborn child becomes monarch, rather than the oldest boy (even if he has older sisters). So Kate’s baby will potentially be King or Queen. This is our future monarch!

So with Isaiah. Several times he reminds us of just what this baby will do: ‘authority rests on his shoulders’ (6); ‘His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.’ (7) This baby is the king, in the line of David, who will establish justice and righteousness - not just for a little time, but for ever and ever.

For this eternal peace, we need an eternal king - not just a long line of feeble kings, some good, some disappointing. This baby will be the eternal king, forever to reign on the throne. A reign that will make Queen Elizabeth’s reign seem like a blink of the eye.

Now how is this possible? Are these not huge claims? Could this really happen? Is there such a candidate to take the throne and bring peace and rule forever?

Already there is speculation as to the name of William and Kate’s new baby. We don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl, but already suggestions have been given as to what it might be called. In verse 6, we discover the names given to this new baby: ‘For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’

The baby king is the Wonderful Counsellor - now, that’s not a lovely local politician, not a councillor, but a Counsellor - one who draws alongside, who provides wisdom, who helps in time of need. He’s also the Mighty God - you see, this is no ordinary baby, but God himself stepping down to be born as a baby, still powerful and mighty. The third title, Everlasting Father, shows the baby as the one who is in the position of authority, the father of the nation, for ever. Prince of Peace - the baby brings peace.

Taken together, these names point us to the identity of the baby King, and show what he has done for us. You see, we are the people walking in darkness, apart from God we have no hope. Jesus, the light of the world stepped down into our darkness to rescue us. Our darkness is the realm of Satan, the prince of darkness, to whom we are bound as slaves, serving him in our slavery to sin. But Jesus has won the victory against sin, the world and the devil through the cross, giving us joy and gladness, and freedom and peace.

It’s why Satan tried to use Herod to destroy the baby Jesus in Matthew 2 in the slaughter of the innocents. But Jesus was spared, and went on to win the victory.

Isaiah points us to the manger of Bethlehem, to the baby lying in the straw. But as you approach this Christmas, don’t just see a baby. Don’t leave him as a baby. Because this seemingly helpless, frail baby, is also the Wonderful Counsellor; the Mighty God; the Everlasting Father; the Prince of Peace.

The baby grew up to live and die to bring us peace; and reigns in heaven for ever and ever. Christ the king offers us his peace, as his light shines into the darkness of our hearts. As that John Lennon song suggests: ‘Merry Christmas: War is over, if you want it; war is over now.’

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 9th December 2012.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Book Review: Jesus and his World

A test of a good book is whether it is unputdownable. On receiving the volume under review, having taken it out of the envelope, I was through the introduction and into the main body of the text before I had realised. The writing style is informative and helpful, and the material so fascinating that this was a book most definitely enjoyed which will be profitable for Bible context throughout the rest of my ministry.

In Jesus and his World, Craig Evans seeks to open the specialised field of Biblical archaeology to the wider world. After an excellent non-technical introduction to the theory and practice of Biblical archaeology, providing clarification of details we find in the text through discoveries and digs, Evans lays out the ‘solid evidence from the first century’ for the existence of Jesus contra the minimalists.

The five main chapters lay out the findings of archaeologists in relation to the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth: the town of Sepphoris near Nazareth; the synagogue; reading, writing and literacy; ruling priests and the temple; and finally Jewish burial traditions. The overall impact of the chapters provides a vivid depiction of what life was like in the experience of Jesus, his disciples and contemporaries.

Each of the chapters is well researched, and presents the material in a simple and straightforward way. There are plenty of photographs to help illustrate the findings, as well as text boxes summarising the key points, which give the complete picture to the reader. The interested reader who wishes to explore further is also guided to additional resources and publications.

The book gently corrects some of the myths and false assumptions we’ve probably all heard or even used in preaching and teaching over the years. For example, ‘Recent excavations in and around Nazareth... suggest that the village in the time of Jesus may not have been a sleepy, isolated place, as many have imagined it.’

There are also useful allusions to the text, illustrative of the setting of some of Jesus’ utterances: ‘The smallness of the private dwellings, along with small windows, is probably presupposed in a saying like this: ‘What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim upon the housetops.’’

As Evans declares: ‘The chapters of this book have attempted to place Jesus and the Gospel narratives into a more detailed context, in the light of archaeological excavations and the material culture these have uncovered.’ He has certainly achieved his aim. My only complaint was that it ended too quickly. I would have preferred a little bit more in each of the chapters, such was the quality of the writing, and the appreciation of his insights.

Having enjoyed this book, it’s definitely one that I would warmly recommend for all those wishing to discover more of setting and context of Jesus’ life and ministry. Evans is a good guide, in this well-written and easy to follow book. Biblical archaeology has certainly been made more accessible through his work.

This review was written for publication in SEARCH, the Journal of the Church of Ireland, with the book provided by them.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Book Review: The Diamond Queen

It's a book that was written for this year, and had to be read this year as well! In 2012, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth has been celebrating her Diamond Jubilee, sixty years on the throne. Among the swathe of books to mark the occasion, I decided to plump for Andrew Marr's The Diamond Queen, having so much enjoyed his 'The Making of Modern Britain' (and looking forward to Modern Britain too). I think it was a good choice, as I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

As Marr points out early on:
This book is an attempt to tell her life story, looking at the influences on her, and trying to explain why she does what she does. Though the well-known tales of her children's trials and tribulations are included, as they have to be, this is not a particularly gossipy life story.

Rather, I think he achieves a powerful, colourful, loving and respectful bigraphy, with much to draw and hold the reader's attention. There will be much that the reader thinks they know, but also lots that they never realised before. The workload of the Queen is presented simply, and admirably. Again,

And honestly, the more you see of her in action, the more impressed you are. She has been dutiful, but she has been a lot more than dutiful. She has been shrewd, kind and wise. Britain without her would have been a greyer, shriller, more meagre place.

It was interesting to read of her faith:

She is a woman of faith. She stands atop the Anglican Church, that national breakaway from Rome hurriedly decided by her Tudor ancestor, the beef-faced and priapic Henry VIII. So she is called Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England. The former title is technically absurd since it was given to Henry by Pope Leo V before he rebelled. but the latter one certainly counts: the Queen appoints bishops and archbishops and takes her role as the found of Anglican respectability very seriously, addressing the General Synod and talking regularly to its leading figures.

Marr presents the story of monarchy in general from Victoria to Elizabeth, because to understand the Queen, you have to understand what has led to her and influenced her. Nothing is left out, from the difficulties of the 'German' appearing monarchy during the First World War, leading to the 'invention' of the Windsors, through to the abdication crisis of 'Uncle David'.

It's a good read, charting the history of this nation throughout my lifetime and before, with a close following of the story of the Queen's family right through to the marriage of William and Kate (whose pregnancy was announced yesterday - just as Marr had said, the pressure to produce an heir was on).

How do we assess the Queen's reign?

For most of us the Queen seems always to have been there. She has done her job so well it has come to seem part of the natural order of things, along with the seasons and the weather. One day, of course, she won't be there. Then there will be a gaping, Queen-sized hole in the middle of British life.

It's a well-written book with a good grasp of the course of British history through the last sixty years, and an intimate portrait of the lady who has been at the centre of each of our lives for that lengthy period of time. Pick it up and read it. I'm sure you'll enjoy it!

Monday, December 03, 2012

Sermon Audio: Genesis 11:1-9

Here's the sermon audio from yesterday morning's preach, as we considered the confusion at the Tower of Babel, and looked at how Jesus reverses the curse.

Book Review: Planting for the Gospel

The sub-title declares that this little book is 'A hands-on guide to Church Planting', and it's certainly that. With just over 100 small pages, this is a primer and introduction to the concept, theory and practice of planting new churches, from the pen of Graham Beynon.

Section One presents some of the issues you might need to think through as you start to plan for a plant. The brief chapters present matters such as the reasons for planting a church; different models; deciding on the model to use; different methods of planting; key issues, and the early days.

For such a small book, there are lots to think about, and even avenues for those who wouldn't consider themselves to be in a position to plant. It's a good prompt to keep thinking about church planting, and to look for ways to develop and grow the church wherever you are, as well as planting beyond.

Section Two presents a series of case studies. They're brief pen portraits of plants, and what was very helpful was that they weren't just success stories - several spoke of things being small, and trials. There was also a helpful mix of locations, both America and the UK (and even one in Northern Ireland!) to give illustrations for the variety of models and methods outlined earlier in the book.

It's a great little book, and while it won't be the last book you'll read on church planting, it should definitely be the first.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Sermon: Genesis 11: 1-9 Confusion!

A few years ago, we were on holiday in Lanzarote. We went on a bus tour, and the guide was pointing out various features of the island. As we drove along, she was talking about a town with an Amy Grant museum. Now, Amy Grant is a famous Christian singer, but neither of us realised just how popular she must be in the Canary Islands. Strange, but ok. Until we realised, as the guide continued to talk about the museum, that it was an Emigrant museum, dedicated to the people who have left the islands, and not an Amy Grant museum!

We were both speaking English, but confusion reigned supreme. Or think of when you encounter Americans, and they talk of trash (rubbish), gas (petrol), sidewalk (pavement/footpath) - as someone once said, two nations divided by a common language.

Now imagine that you’re in the middle of a building site, you’re working on a big tower, and suddenly, you can’t understand a word your colleagues are saying! They can’t make you out either, there’s just confused looks all around. You were communicating yesterday, but now, it’s all Double Dutch. What’s happening?

If you were with us last week, you’ll remember that we saw the command to Noah and sons as they came out of the ark to ‘be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.’ (9:1). In the chapter we skipped over (Genesis 10), you find a big long list of names and families and clans and places. It looks like God’s word has been obeyed. Except, in Genesis 11, we find the circumstances that led to the scattering.

In verse 1, we’re told that ‘the whole earth had one language and the same words.’ All the people are still together, banded together, when they settle at Shinar. Rather than doing as God had commanded, they stay together, finding safety in numbers.

It’s here that they decide to work together: ‘Come, let us make bricks’ (3); ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city’ (4). The town planners get to work; the builders start working, and the plan is to build, not just a city, but also a ‘tower with its top in the heavens.’ Just think of a city skyline, with the skyscrapers standing tall - the Empire State Building or the Burj Khalifa in Dubai (the tallest building in the world at 2722 feet high). They’re working on the first ever skyscraper.

They’re clear about their motives: ‘let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ They’re out to make a name for themselves; they’re motivated by pride and prestige, wanting to be famous for their achievements; reaching for the top.

Reaching, in fact, for the very top - to heaven itself. As they labour and build and climb, they’re seeking to prove themselves, wanting to succeed, to replace God, to do away with God. So they press on, doing all they can, doing it themselves. We don’t need nor want God!

Come, let us. Higher and higher they go, building their empire. Come, let us - higher and higher we go? Building our empire? What is it that we give ourselves to? What is it that our pride pushes us to do on our own? How are you trying to make a name for yourself, to be known for?

Is it in your family, to have the best, most perfect children, the highest achievers? Perhaps it’s the have the cleanest, tidiest house. Maybe it’s in your work to succeed and make it to the very top. Perhaps you’re building your tower of wealth and riches, wanting everyone around to be in awe of your success. What are you giving your energy to?

Reaching up, building up. In verse 5, we find the start of the Lord’s response. It’s like a little bit of humour, it’s a moment of irony. They’re building up, reaching towards the heavens, but verse 5: ‘The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.’

Imagine that you have ants in the garden. They start to build an ant city. They’re working away, it’s something very grand and impressive in the ant world, never been seen or done before. They think they’re going to knock you off your perch and take over your garden. But for you to see what they’re doing, you have to get down on your knees, get the magnifying glass out, stoop down and look carefully - that’s a bit like what’s happening here. The Lord comes down - it’s as if he couldn’t see it from heaven!

The people banded together with ‘Come, let us’ - the Lord responds with his own ‘Come, let us.’ ‘Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ The people reached up in sinful pride, the Lord stoops to curse by bringing confusion of their language. The scattering happens, the nations are divided, the peoples spread out over the face of all the earth. The city lies unfinished, its ruins a testament to the folly of pride. It’s name? Babel - babble.

So when it comes to our own prideful ambitions and projects, what will come of them? Do we really think God will allow them to continue? Will we forever get away with making a name for ourselves and building our own kingdoms? Whether suddenly or slowly, confusion creeps in; our plans are frustrated; our pride leads to a fall; our towers lie in ruins.

We simply cannot reach up to heaven. We can’t build our way up to heaven. It’s not possible. Indeed, as we’ve seen right through these opening chapters of Genesis, our first parents are just like us. We’re scattered, lost, alone. Our achievements are temporary, they’re soon toppled.

But the good news is that, in Jesus, the curse is reversed. In Jesus, God comes down, not in judgement, but in grace, to seek and to save the lost. In Jesus, God comes down to lift our humanity to the heights of his throne. In Jesus, the confusion of language is reversed, as the risen Jesus sends out his disciples to preach the good news and make disciples of all nations, so that on the day of Pentecost, people from all over the place hear the good news in their own languages, and on the last day, gathered around the throne, will be ‘people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages’ crying out ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ (Revelation 8:9-10).

On this Advent Sunday, we’re reminded to get ready for the coming of the King - against whom earth’s pride empires pass away - whose kingdom stands forever. Will you come to him in humility, to find your salvation in him?

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