Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Watchnight Sermon: Hebrews 13:8 Jesus Never Changes

We’re moving into the final moments of this year. So how was 2013 for you? Hopefully there were some happy moments mingled with the sad ones. As time advances, with no way of slowing it down or even stopping it completely, we’re resigned to the fact that time brings changes. You might have noticed some of them over the course of the year.

You may have experienced changes in family - either through additions or through loss. There might have been a gap at the table come Christmas Day; or an extra mouth to feed. Even if your family stayed the same size, everyone is now an extra year older - the signs of age may be appearing, the grey hairs may be starting to show, or perhaps you feel every one of your years - in illness, or weakness. It’s the phenomenon described as TMB - Too Many Birthdays.

As we move from 2013 and start into the new year, we’re immediately faced with changes - remembering to write 2014 on letters and other dates. But the year stretches out in front of us, none of us knowing what lies ahead; none of us aware of the changes that will confront us. The only thing we can be sure of, the only thing that doesn’t change is this - change is inevitable.

The closing chapter of the letter to the Hebrews contains lots of useful pieces of advice, indeed, commands for the new year. They all flow from the message of the letter - that Jesus is better than the old covenant, that in Jesus we have the perfect sacrifice for our sins; the perfect priest who intercedes for us; the full assurance of salvation; the perfect meeting place of God and people; the great hope of the gospel.

And right at the heart of the chapter we find a little nugget which can be the verse for the new year, in the midst of the changes that will come: ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.’ Everything may change and will change, but Jesus Christ is the same as he was yesterday, today, and will be for ever.

This means that Jesus is the solid rock on which we can build our life; the refuge in which we can shelter; the place of safety. Jesus is not like those around us who flutter and flap; he’s not like those who can change their mind at a moment’s notice; he’s not irritable or grumpy or dependent on getting his morning coffee to be in a good mood. The achievement of the cross; his ongoing work of praying for his people; his grace and goodness towards us will not and can not change, no matter what this new year will bring.

I wonder if you’ve got a friend or relative, and you never know which ‘person’ you’re going to find when you see them - whether it is grumpy aunt or pleasant aunt or evil aunt. Sometimes we think that God is a bit like this - some days he’s nice to us and other days it’s as if he got out of bed the wrong side. But our Bible verse reminds us that Jesus is not like that - he is the same every day.

It’s because his promise still holds that we can give ourselves to love and serve those around us. To show hospitality to strangers; to remember those in prison because they love Jesus. To seek holiness in marriage and contentment in money. To offer the sacrifice of praise to God as we confess his name.

It all comes down to the unchanging Jesus, who helps us cope with the changes of life. And as the new year begins, may we all know his grace in our lives, as we trust in him.

This sermon was preached at the Watchnight Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Tuesday 31st December 2013.

2013 Books

It's the final day of the year, which gives me an opportunity to check how many books I read this year, revisit the reviews, and decide on my top five books. There's a variety of theology, history and fiction here, with something for everyone to have a look at.

1. The Litigators - John Grisham
2. The Explicit Gospel - Matt Chandler
3. Five English Reformers - JC Ryle
4. Life of Pi - Yann Martel
5. The Intolerance of Tolerance - DA Carson
6. Connected - Sam Allberry
7. Empire State - Colin Bateman
8. The Ragamuffin Gospel - Brennan Manning
9. Dangerous Calling - Paul Tripp
10. Brookeborough: The Making of a Prime Minister - Brian Barton

11. Christ, our Righteousness - Mark A Seifrid
12. Maid of the Mist - Colin Bateman
13. Unreached - Tim Chester
14. Lectures on Preaching - Phillips Brooks
15. Turbulent Priests - Colin Bateman
16. Loving the Way Jesus Loves - Phil Ryken
17. Closer Still - Scott Evans
18. Simpler - Mike Burns
19. A Quick Introduction to the New Testament - DA Carson & Douglas Moo
20. Calico Joe - John Grisham

21. Lies Lies Lies - Michael Green
22. Different by Design - Carrie Sandom
23. Gordon Hannon: Some Parson! Some Man - David Hannon
24. The Plantation of Ulster - Jonathan Bardon
25. Shooting Sean - Colin Bateman
26. Amazing Grace - Marcus Loane
27. Green is the Colour - Peter Byrne
28. The Racketeer - John Grisham
29. Grow in Grace - Sinclair Ferguson
30. Prophecy - SJ Parris

31. Killing Kennedy - Bill O'Reilly & Martin Dugard
32. The Ministry of a Messy House - Amanda Robbie
33. And The Mountains Echoed - Khaled Hosseini
34. Straightening Out The Self-Centred Church - John Benton
35. Beautiful Attitudes - Scott Evans
36. The Thirty-Nine Steps - John Buchan
37. What's So Great About the Doctrines of Grace? - Richard D Phillips
38. Mohammed Maguire - Colin Bateman
39. The Island - Victoria Hislop
40. The Message of Daniel - Dale Ralph Davis

41. Speaking God's Words - Peter Adam
42. Mystery Man - Colin Bateman
43. From Triumphalism to Maturity - Don Carson
44. Saving Eutychus - Gary Millar and Phil Campbell
45. The Lion's World - Rowan Williams

Last year there were 49 books read, so I've read a few less this year, but things were a bit hectic over the last couple of months and I haven't managed to read so many. Still, 45 isn't my worst year: 2012 (49); 2011 (37); 2010 (52); 2009 (41); 2008 (23); 2007 (78).

My top books this year are:
1. Saving Eutychus - Gary Millar and Phil Campbell
2. Dangerous Calling - Paul Tripp
3. The Plantation of Ulster - Jonathan Bardon
4. The Ministry of a Messy House - Amanda Robbie
5. The Racketeer - John Grisham

What was the best book you read this year?

Book Review: The Lion's World

If you've been following the blog for any length of time, you'll know that I've long admired the Chronicles of Narnia from the pen of CS Lewis. Most years since childhood I've read them, and now I have a listen to the full, unabridged audiobooks on my iPod too. There are always new things to discover, as well as familiar things to rediscover and enjoy all over again. I also like to read lots of books about the Narnia tales, and recently I spotted that the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams' book was on special offer on Kindle. It's been read, the last book of this year, so here (after a flurry of book reviews in the past couple of days) are my thoughts on The Lion's World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia.

Williams states early on that he hadn't recognised the value of Narnia in his youth: 'Discovering the books over again as a student, I realised that what I had not registered was the wit of the actual writing and the sheer psychological penetration of so much of the character drawing.' (Loc 64-65). In that little quote, there lies the key to what lies ahead in the book - a focus on psychology and such things. For quite a bit of the book, I wasn't sure what he was writing about, plunging deep into things I wasn't aware of nor really concerned with. Contained within are a survey of Williams' thoughts on Lewis' thought, not just in the Narnia books, but in virtually all of his writings, and a good deal besides - Shakespeare, Lewis' contemporaries, and even (surprisingly!) The Muppets!

It's highly theological in places, although not the theology I would warm to - for example, his conception of hell seems to be very far from what would be orthodox. At times, it's the choices that we make ourselves; our refusal to come to Aslan; or the like, rather than judicial punishment. So, for example, 'But, as The Great Divorce repeatedly insists, the only decision to be a stranger to heaven is ours.' (p.88) Or, later, 'The determination to protect the self at all costs leads to a denial of reality, and that denial is basically what hell means, however you dress it up.' (p.102)

Williams surveys the criticisms of the Narnia books - on the grounds of sexism, racism, and violence, but successfully argues that the books are of their time, and follow the literary genre of medieval chivalry adventure tales. In the chapter, however, he makes a little mistake on one instance speaking of Edward when he plainly means Edmund. (p.36)

He also looks at the topics of Aslan, the self, and the meaning of the end. There were some interesting points, some useful ideas, but all in all, I found this a disappointing book. It was visiting a familiar place, but with a tour guide speaking in Double Dutch, only bringing confusion rather than clarity. The former Archbishop is obviously an intelligent man, but his book wasn't one that I would rush to read again. I'll stick to reading the originals and discovering Aslan for myself.

The Lion's World is available from Amazonand for Kindle.

Book Review: Saving Eutychus

This is a very unique and memorable book. If you can't quite place the name in the title, perhaps the full title and subtitle will help: 'Saving Eutychus - How to preach God's word and keep people awake.' Eutychus is, of course, the young man who fell asleep while Paul was preaching through the night and fell out of the window down to the ground and died - but whom Paul raised to life. If you haven't got the raising to life ability of Paul, then the authors Gary Millar and Phil Campbell want to help you preach and keep people awake!

The book alternates between the two authors, one a Northern Irish man (Millar), the other an Aussie (Campbell), each with a passion for God's glory in and through preaching. This is the focus and drive of the whole book - because, as they remind the reader early on, it's not about you. 'Saving Eutychus doesn't just mean keeping him awake. It also means doing our best to keep him fresh and alert so he can hear the truth of the gospel and be saved.'

The first requirement, therefore, is prayer - dependence on God to be working by his grace. In this first chapter there is a helpful, gentle rebuke of those who only depend on disconnected sermon podcasts being piped through the air rather than the up close and personal involvement of the local church where the pastor knows and is known, and prayer comes more naturally. There is a double challenge - to the preacher himself to be praying for his preaching, but also for the congregation to be praying together for the preaching (rather than, as can sometimes happen, other needs are crowded in and the preaching forgotten).

Chapter 2 focuses in on preaching that changes the heart, when the sermon seems to be exactly what is needed, whether or not the preacher realises. It's not manipulative, not wily, but a heaven-guided missile to the heart. The appeal is for expository preaching as the best way to communicate the Bible: 'expository preaching happens when the vibe of the passage = the vibe of the sermon.' There follows some examples of how this can happen and what it might look like.

Campbell writes chapter 3 in preacher's confessional mode, in the chapter entitled Deadly, Dull and Boring. He reflects on his early preaching, in the form of essay writing and delivering, and wondering why it didn't connect with people. He charts the changes he made, through natural scripting; more repetition of the main idea; and the use of 'improper' English which is how we naturally speak. Campbell gives his top ten tips for being clearer - some of which the preacher will already do, but some of which he can take on board.

What's the big idea is the theme of chapter 4, urging the preacher to spend lots of time working out what the main idea of the passage is, and then communicating that through the course of the sermon. We get a glimpse into the way Campbell preps his sermons - writing out the passage, using various colours and columns to work out where the big idea is contained. We also see how he begins to work through application - in the light of the gospel, what the passage is really saying, and unflinchingly.

Chapter 5 explores the reasons why preaching the gospel is so hard (especially from the Old Testament). Millar guides us through some hermeneutics to help us see that the Old Testament was written for us, and how to work on it. He gives some very helpful advice on finding a route to the gospel, through one of any number of key themes being worked out through the Bible, including creation, fall, covenant and promise, temple, sonship, exodus, messiah, resurrection and so on. Very helpful for those struggling to understand how the Old Testament is still relevant, and for the preacher to refresh on how to explain and apply it.

The sixth chapter is entitled Stand and Deliver, on the delivery of sermons. It's full of practical wisdom, including the helpful 'delivery sphere' of volume, pace and pitch. It may be that my preaching can sometimes be too settled, needing more variety - so this is something I'll return to and try to work on. As Campbell comments: 'It's all about owning your words - using the words you've prepared to communicate the big idea of your passage in a way that moves people towards faith and obedience.

Chapter 7 looks at sermon critique through peer review and pew review. Some good tips here.

The end of the book consists of a sample sermon by each author, critiqued by the other author. It was a useful way of seeing how the sermon feedback sheet could be used, even if they were perhaps very nice about each others' sermons!

The whole book is a joy to read, with lots of good advice and exhortation from those who have been long in the work of preaching and are employed in the training of other preachers. Their humour shines through; these are no ivory tower professors, but are real life preachers seeking to glorify God by encouraging change in their hearers. If you're a preacher, or wanting to be a preacher, this is a great book to read. You will certainly benefit from it.

Saving Eutychus is available from Amazonand for Kindle.

Book Review: From Triumphalism to Maturity

In most churches and teaching environments I've experienced, Paul's 1st letter to the Corinthians is regularly tackled and taught through. But when it comes to 2 Corinthians, it's dealt with less often. There are the so-called 'purple passages' which might be preached in a stand alone fashion, but 2 Corinthians seems to be harder than 1 Corinthians. It's a letter that has always intrigued me, probably because it's harder to grasp, so I took a helper on holiday with me, in the form of Don Carson, in his book 'From Triumphalism to Maturity'.

The book takes the form of an exposition of chapters 10-13, but as you would expect, the whole letter is referenced and explained by the providing of context and illustration. Writing in the preface, Carson admits that he loves the apostle Paul, but the chapters under scrutiny are among the most intense he has written:

'Arguably, the most intense chapters in all of his writings are those studied here, viz., 2 Corinthians 10-13. Certainly they reveal more about Paul himself - his sufferings, values, motives, wrestlings, and self-perceptions - than any other four chapters of comparable length; yet far from promoting egocentricity, they point unerringly to Jesus Christ and to what it means to be a Christian.'

That really is the most concise summary of what the reader will find discussed, in suitably brilliant Carson style. There are closely argued discussion and weighing of various interpretations, rhetorical flourishes and glimpses of superb writing, helpful illustrations, and Carson's wit which drives the reader onwards.

There is much to be learnt and taken onboard by the pastor who seeks to emulate the 'super apostles' troubling the Corinthians, with corrective and clear instruction on the appropriate models of biblical ministry. Boasting in weakness rather than in imagined strength, in the grace of Christ is the repeated message, not depending on self. It's a key lesson to learn and remember for the pastor, or indeed the Christian, who thinks they have it all sewn up and can manage on their own.

From Triumphalism to Maturity is available from Amazon.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Book Review: Mystery Man

You're probably fed up hearing of the latest Colin Bateman book I've read. This is the last one for a wee while! Bateman's books fall into several different categories. There are the stand alone novels which deal with a character and then finish, often catastrophically. There are the Dan Starkey novels, following the actions and inactions of Belfast's worst journalist. There are the Murphy's Law books (which I haven't started yet), which were turned into a TV series. And there's the Mystery Man series, partly based on the real life No Alibis bookshop on Botanic Avenue.

The first in the series, appropriately entitled Mystery Man, follows the owner of a failing bookshop, who, through a series of strange occurrences becomes a private investigator. The first case, involving a stolen pair of expensive leather trousers, soon develops into a much more sinister turn of events, with, as you've come to expect from Bateman's books, a murder or two.

The book is a romp through the world of book publishers, Nazi secrets, dancing and serial killers, with lots of black humour and laugh out loud moments as the jokes, puns, and accidents roll in thick and fast. If you've loved anything by Bateman, this will be no exception, and will spur you to continue onto the next in the series. Mystery Man is available from Amazonand for Kindle.

Book Review: Speaking God's Words

The first time I encountered Peter Adam, I was preaching in a small group at a Proclamation Trust Ministry Students Course. The sermon was terrible, and the feedback, while gracious, was also fairly direct. I hadn't preached the idea of the passage at all, importing material from elsewhere, and my illustrations weren't saying what I had thought they were saying. I was thoroughly chastened. But at least I would never see Peter Adam again.

Fast forward a few years, and I'm a busy curate in East Belfast. I'm dispatched to the airport to collect one of the speakers for the Northern Ireland Ministry Assembly the next day, who, as I'm sure you've guessed, was none other than Peter Adam. He didn't remember me, but I surely remembered him! We chatted about the conference and he began to realise that we had in fact met before, but faithful were the wounds of a friend, as they helped me to get back on track in preaching the passage.

Speaking God's Words: A Practical Theology of Preaching has been sitting on my bookshelf for quite a while - perhaps even from those heady days in London. I finally managed to get around to reading it this year, wanting to keep myself fresh on the theory of preaching, and to sharpen my skills for the sake of my congregation. This was well worth taking the time to read, with lots of helpful encouragement to continue the task at hand.

'Preaching is such a demanding activity... And all the pressure on a pastor or minister is to spend time and creative energy being a counsellor, social worker, administrator, friendly visitor or public-relations worker. The pastor needs a robust theology of preaching to find any time or energy for preparation.'

Even from this sample sentence, you know that Adam is on your side. He's been in the trenches, he knows the struggles. So to learn from one with such experience is a joy and delight, and gives spring for each step. The book is divided into two main sections - firstly, three biblical foundations of preaching, and then a second section observing the preacher at work.

The Biblical Foundations of preaching are, Adam argues that: 1. God has spoken - 'Any human ministry of the word depends on a God who is not silent.' 2. It is written - as the revelation has been written down and passed on to us, 'preserved by God as his revelation for his people.' 3. Preach the word - with a God-given source (the Bible), there is also a God-given commission to preach, teach and explain it to people. A variety of examples of this ministry is discussed, from Moses through the Old and New Testaments, to the ongoing work of the church, and especially some notable preachers.

With the foundation in place, Adam then turns his attention to the preacher at work, looking at some distinct but connected aspects of the work.

In Preaching as a ministry of the word, he criticizes Phillips Brooks' famous definition of preaching {preaching is truth through personality} as being too general. But the principle behind Brooks' definition still stands as he explores what the ministry of the word means, and how this is bigger than, but not exclusive of preaching. The word is also ministered in lots of different contexts through the week, so that he clarifies: 'our ministry may be pulpit centred, but it should not be pulpit restricted.' The chapter concludes with a useful survey of Bible words and images of word ministry which would be worth revisiting regularly to check that the full spectrum is included in what the pastor attempts.

In The Preacher's Bible, there's a useful reminder that teaching the Bible is the means of explaining the gospel, but not the end in itself. We're not just producing Bible swots, but wanting to see people growing in grace through the administration of the word. That was my takeaway point of the chapter, because the rest of it was discussing various issues I didn't really grasp - whether through the way they were discussed, or the fact that they are gripping disputes in a certain corner of the theological world.

In The Preacher's Purpose, Adam builds on my observation from the previous chapter, pushing the point home that it's not enough to ask 'did I preach well?' but rather, did the sermon help lead to transformation. To use the question of Charles Simeon: 'Does it humble the sinner, exalt the Saviour and promote holiness?' This prompts Adam to discuss the threefold purpose of a sermon: to serve God and Christ, serve the word, and serve God's people. In all, there are some good pointers for the preacher setting out or recapping and re-learning the basics. However, the illustrative discussion of John Calvin's ministry was, to my mind, a little too long and not overly helpful.

The final chapter, The Demands of Preaching set the preacher straight as to their work in terms of loving and obeying God and Christ, being committed to the truth, loving people, working hard, relating to the real world, enduring suffering, and finding our sufficiency for these things in God. Sobering stuff, but also providing sustenance for the work ahead.

Speaking God's Words is primarily written for the pastor, especially those who want to refocus on why preaching is such a major part of the pastoral work. There will be much to encourage you as you continue to labour for the Lord. Speaking God's Words is available from Amazon.

Book Review: The Message of Daniel

I've admired Dale Ralph Davis as a Bible teacher and writer for a long time. When I was preparing to preach through Daniel in the autumn term, I was delighted to hear that he had just published a new commentary on Daniel in The Bible Speaks Today series from IVP.

As you would expect if you've read his material before, this isn't so much a technical commentary as an enlarged and expanded series of sermons preached by Davis. Along the way he touches on some of the key issues and mentions some of the disputes found in bigger commentaries, but they aren't his primary function. His analysis of the text is first class; his exegesis is always spot on; but his illustrations are out of this world! The apparent ease with which he illustrates the passages, always having stories or observations that perfectly prove the point he's making could lead to a series dose of coveting - or even better, a determination to improve my own illustrations.

This would be a good book for anyone wanting to learn more about God working in and through difficult, even hostile situations. If you're feeling like you're in Babylon, trapped in exile (which, let's face it, is every Christian while we're still in this sinful world), you'll benefit from Davis' warm style as the truth makes its mark.

The Message of Daniel is available from IVP at 28% off the retail price.

Book Review: The Island

It seems like ages ago now, but back in the summer we were on the island of Crete. The book to read was, of course, Titus, and I've reviewed a commentary I read while there. But in the realm of fiction there was another must read book, set on and just off Crete: The Island by Victoria Hislop. It is ostensibly a ladies' book, but the local angle made it just about acceptable for me to read it too (I hope!).

Alexis is of Greek origin, but living in London with her family. And Alexis is at a crossroads. She's trying to decide whether to continue with her long-term boyfriend, whose personality seems to be very different from her own. As they head off to Crete on holiday, her mother (who has always been reticent and mysterious concerning her family history) gives her a letter for an old friend, propelling Alexis on a journey of self-discovery, prompted by the events on and around Spinalonga, an island leper colony just off Crete.

Alexis' family friend begins to share the whole back story of Alexis' granny and great-aunt, with elements of jealousy, tension, intrigue, tragedy and comedy. The whole time, as the story unfolds, the reader is left guessing as to which of the sisters is which, until the crashing conclusion.

The portrayal of the suffering of those with modern day leprosy, particularly the fear and hysteria of those surrounding them is touching. Their utter hopelessness demonstrates the sadness of living with leprosy, until a cure is found and the colony is quickly deserted.

Set within a deeply religious (Orthodox) community, there are hints and details of their religious thought and practice. The keeping of Good Friday - 'Christ's funeral procession' or the Feast of Agros Konstandinos: 'the girls of Plaka donned their finery. They had been to church, but their minds were on things other than the sacred nature of the event.' There's also the importance of infant baptism: 'Until baptised... she was exposed to the "evil eye", but once the ritual had taken place her spiritual safety would be guaranteed... as the congregation saw the waters wash away the baby's nonexistent sins.'

There was a slight issue with a little detail I noticed, which detracted from the quality of the story. Anna had arranged to see her dad on the 3rd Wednesday in September. Maria is told to get her concern checked out after that. But then Maria gets an appointment with Dr Kyritsis on Monday 17th September - which is obviously before the 3rd Wednesday! The time sequence just doesn't work in this instance.

It's a good story, flitting back and forth between the generations as stories run concurrently. The characters draw you in, with sympathy for some of them and rage at others. But it is probably more for the ladies with the romantic thrust throughout. The Island is available from Amazonand for Kindle.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sermon: Matthew 2: 1-12 The Wise Mens' Gospel Gifts

This morning we’re looking at the wise men who came to visit Jesus. But have you heard this one before: What would it have been like if it was three wise women instead of three wise men: They would have asked for directions; arrived on time; helped deliver the baby; cleaned the stable; made a casserole; and brought practical gifts.

There’s a lot of mystery surrounding these visitors from the east, but perhaps the most mysterious thing about them is the gifts they bring to the baby. I mean, just stop for a moment and consider your reaction. You hear of a family member or friend who has had a baby. You want to bring a gift - do you immediately stop at Marks and Spencer to get some gold, frankincense and myrrh? They wouldn’t be top of your shopping list, would they?

There are a thousand and one things that could be more practical and useful for a first-time mother - baby clothes, nappies, towels, bibs, the list could go on and on. So why do these wise men bring these gifts? In verse 11, the treasure chests are opened, and gold, frankincense and myrrh are brought out - or, as a child at a nativity once said: ‘gold, Frankenstein and a mirror’. These gifts tell the story of the baby - the gifts are the gospel.

So let’s consider each of them briefly in turn, to see what they tell us about this special baby. The first one is obvious enough - gold for a king. It was the question on the lips of the wise men when they first appear in the Bible: ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?’

They had come searching for the newborn King, which was why they had landed at the king’s palace in Jerusalem. Herod, however, wasn’t so happy to hear their question. You see, they don’t ask where is the one who has been born and will one day be the king of the Jews. They ask where is the child who has been born the king of the Jews.

The baby is already King. The gold is a recognition of the baby’s place as king of kings and lord of lords. The wise men come to worship, but did you notice that the people in Jerusalem aren’t bothered about the good news? The chief priests and the scribes can answer the quiz question - where will the Messiah be born - but they don’t come with the wise men to see their king. Will we be found with the wise wanderers who worship, or the precocious priests who prevaricate by staying away?

So first out of the treasure chest is gold, fit for a king. The second gift might be less obvious, but it also makes sense. These wise men were magi in the east. Over the last term we came into contact with one of the leading magi of his time - Daniel in Babylon. The visitors to the baby Jesus were the very same sort of guys as Daniel had been in his day. You might remember that in Daniel 9, Daniel had been reading his scriptures, the writings of Jeremiah, and knew the time of exile (70 years) was coming to an end.

It seems that the wise men held on to Daniel’s scriptures, because our Old Testament reading (Isaiah 60) pointed forward to the coming of a new king, one in whom is the glory of the Lord, to whom nations and kings will come. In that very passage we even find a suggested gift list for those who come - ‘They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.’ (Is 60:6)

Gold and frankincense, declaring the praise of the LORD (of God). Frankincense is the sign of divinity - the sign that this is no ordinary baby, that this is God who has come. You see, in the Old Testament, frankincense was used in the temple offerings as an odour pleasing to the Lord. (e.g. Leviticus 2:1).

But it was even more exclusive than that. In Exodus 30, the Lord is instructing Moses on how to set up the tabernacle and begin the sacrifices and priestly ministry of Levi and his sons. Frankincense is used to make the incense of the tabernacle - a perfume that couldn’t be bought on the high street or used for anybody. It was only to be used in the place of worship, for God alone.

The baby is a king, but he is also God with us - as shown by the frankincense. As if him being the king is not enough reason, here we find that this is our God, to whom worship is due.

But what about the third gift? The myrrh is perhaps the strange one of the three. Sometimes you have to go into a Yankee Candle store. The blend of smells and fragrances can be overpowering. I find that if I take a deep breath and hold it as long as I can, I can just about survive until we’re out again. But in those kind of shops, you find all sorts of smells - the Christmas ones of cinnamon; or cranberry and orange; the regular ones of fluffy towels or lavender; even baby powder. But you definitely wouldn’t have chosen to buy a myrrh candle. Myrrh was the smell of death.

Imagine bringing a little baby something that smells of death? It’s almost unthinkable - as you celebrate life to have a reminder of death in your nostrils. You see, myrrh was used in the ceremonies of death in Jesus’ day. It was part of the spices used as the body was wrapped in the shroud, ready to be laid in the tomb. Towards the end of John’s gospel, we’re told that Nicodemus brought 100 pounds of the stuff to used for the burial of Jesus.

So even as Jesus is born, as the baby is growing, and these strange visitors appear, this gift is pointing to the reason he was born. The King who is God with us, came to die. Already his path towards the cross is marked out. His death is already present as he begins his life.

The King, God with us, dies - dies for us. This is the gospel, the good news of Jesus. He who had no sin; he who deserved to be worshipped and praised; he stepped down into this world to die for our sin. We don’t know how much the wise men knew, but they went on a costly journey, to bring costly gifts, to bow down and worship the baby king. They were the first Gentiles to come and worship, but they are by no means the last, as men and women from every tribe and tongue hear the good news and respond in the same way - to bow the knee and worship King Jesus.

The gifts tell the gospel. Jesus is the king - will you surrender to him? Jesus is God - will you worship him? Jesus is the one who died and rose again for your sins - will you take refuge in his sacrifice?

I once saw a bumper sticker which simply said this: ‘Wise men worshipped Jesus. They still do.’ Will you be a wise man, a wise woman today?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 29th December 2013.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve Sermon: Hebrews 1:6 The Royal Command Performance

Each year, the nervous hopefuls line up, waiting their turn. It might be cold in Cardiff, muggy in Manchester or lovely in London, but they don’t mind. Their eye is on the prize for winning the TV series - the chance to appear in front of the Queen at the Royal Variety Performance. Britain’s Got Talent are still taking applications if you’re bursting to sing or dance for Her Majesty.

This year’s Royal Variety Performance was recently on TV, hosted by John Bishop with Robbie Williams, Gary Barlow, Attraction and Jessie J among other performers. But did you know that the Royal Variety Performance has another, less well known name? It’s also known as the Royal Command Performance - because at the very first one in 1912, King George V had commanded the artists to perform, to benefit a charity. Nowadays someone else organises the acts, but the name has stuck.

In our readings this evening, we heard of a Royal Command Performance. Luke tells us that the angels were singing their song of praise: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’ But it’s the writer to the Hebrews who tells us how it came about. Here’s what he says in verse 6: ‘And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him.’’

Throughout the letter, the big idea is to show that Jesus is better - better than the sacrifices, better than the priests, better than the old temple. And here in chapter 1, he shows how Jesus is better than the angels.

Some of the first readers were very taken by angels, they were focusing on them. Robbie Williams could have sung his song for them: ‘I’m loving angels instead.’ But the writer flicks through the scriptures to show that angels are great, yes, but they’re nothing compared to the Son.

You see, God never made an angel his Son, he doesn’t speak of the angels as being those who created the world; the angels don’t get to sit at God’s right hand in the place of authority. The Son has the place of authority. The Son is the one in that unique relationship with the Father, begotten not made. The Son is the one the angels worship by Royal Command.

The reason for the worship is clear. Lying in the manger is no ordinary baby. The angel told the shepherds about the Saviour, Christ the Lord, but the writer to the Hebrews makes it even clearer.

This is the eternal Son, the heir of all things, through whom everything was made. That baby lying in the manger is ‘the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.’ When we look in Jesus’ face, we see God.

Lying in the manger, God’s rescue plan is unfolding. God’s Son has come to save and redeem, to make ‘purification for sins’ by giving his life for us, to bring us to God. No wonder the angels worship. Yet they don’t even receive the benefits of salvation. It wasn’t for the angels he came, but for you and me, we whose sins need to be purified.

So come tonight, to his table. Come and receive the sign of his life laid down - his body broken and his blood shed - for you. And as you come, come in praise at what he has done. Spend your life in worship, in grateful response, as you prepare for eternity with him, where we with worship without end, to the praise of his glorious grace. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church at the Christmas Eve Communion 2013.

Book Review: Mohammed Maguire

It's Christmas Eve, the shops are just about to close in Belfast City Centre. Four men are precariously perched on the balcony of toy shop: an RUC officer, the store's Santa, the shop manager, and the main protagonist, Mohammed Maguire. The whole book unfolds over the course of a few hours, as the men veer nearer or further from the edge, sharing their sorrows, while the life story of the curiously named Mohammed Maguire is told.

The son of an international terrorist relationship, Mohammed's dad is an Egyptian militant, while his mum is from the Falls Road and a staunch member of the IRA. While on a Libyan training camp, Mohammed's parents are killed, leaving him an orphan. There then follows, in true Colin Bateman style, a quirky and unusual story with Northern Ireland's recent history as the backdrop. Mohammed Maguire is presented as the hero at the centre of an alternative history, where as a young boy arrested and interned because of his infamous family, he begins the refusal to wear prison clothes, simply because it doesn't fit him. From there, the prisons dispute escalates as those in authority misunderstand his simple request for uniform that will fit.

It's an interesting and imaginative tale that provides fewer laughs than some of Bateman's other books. But be ready for the twist at the very end. Mohammed Maguire is available from Amazonand for Kindle.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Carol Service Epilogue: Luke 2:14 The Christmas Number One

What do the following songs all have in common: Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody (1975); Bob the Builder’s Can We Fix It (2000); and Cliff Richard’s Mistletoe and Wine (1988)? They’ve all been the Christmas Number One. Each year there’s a lot of interest to see who will have the Christmas Number One - whether it’s the latest X Factor song; or a campaign on Facebook has pushed some other song to the top of the charts. At this point, I haven’t heard if Sam Bailey has done it.

The list of Christmas Number Ones is a little bit odd. Some of the songs have something to do with Christmas - Mistletoe and Wine, or Shakin’ Stevens’ Merry Christmas Everyone; or even Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas. But some previous Christmas Number Ones have nothing at all to do with Christmas - Mr Blobby by Mr Blobby; Two Become One by the Spice Girls, or Jimmy Osmond’s Long Haired Lover from Liverpool.

For a moment or two, let’s have a listen to the very first Christmas Number One, which was sung at Christmas Number One - the night Jesus was born. It wasn’t on the radio, but it came over the air-waves, as the angels sang in the sky above Bethlehem.

The first line is all about giving glory to God in the highest - with the fullest measure, to the highest height, to the extent that he deserves it. Glory to God - giving God the praise that he is due, because of what he has done.

If someone has done a good job, it’s right and natural to praise them. So it’s proper for us to thank the organist and band for their music and the readers for their readings. If the angels are giving God glory in and to the highest, what is it he has done?

We get a hint in the second and final line. The angels give God the glory, because he is giving to us ‘on earth peace to people on whom his favour rests.’

God’s favour - his grace - is an undeserved gift given freely. Even though we’re at war with God and with one another - if not openly, then in our hearts - God will give us his peace as a gift. Peace with him; peace with one another.

And it’s all possible because of that first Christmas. While the choir of angels had been waiting to burst into song, the first angel had announced to the shepherds the birth of a Saviour. The baby in the manger is Christ the Lord, God come to save us from our sins. It’s good news of great joy, and it’s for all people - not just we who are here, but everyone we’ll meet at work tomorrow; even the people you’ll bustle in the queues in the shops. The Saviour has come. The angels sing.

Glory to God for peace to people. It’s the original Christmas Number One, the most listened to Christmas song of all time. Have you heard it recently? Is it in the soundtrack of your life? Is it your theme tune?

Let’s join with the angels as we stand to sing: ‘Hark! the herald-angels sing, glory to the new-born King.’

This epilogue was preached at the Carols by Candlelight service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 22nd December 2013.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sermon: Isaiah 7:1-17 God With Us

Have you ever found yourself asking: Is God really with us? Does he really care about us? Is he for us?

Perhaps you take a reflective approach. You see the images taken by the space telescopes; you think of the vastness of the universe; and you think - if there’s a God at all, then he must be too busy to be bothered about little old me and my concerns. He might be well-meaning, but mired down in running the universe.

Or perhaps he is distant, uncaring. It’s like that song by Bette Midler, ‘From a Distance.’ He’s a bit like your neighbours across the street or across the fields - watching you from a distance, but not really too bothered with how things are going. He got the whole thing started off, but now it’s ticking along nicely without him.

But maybe you wonder if God really cares about you when something terrible happens. Illness, or bereavement, unemployment or financial worries come along, and you’re not sure that God can help. Does he see but not bother? Does he not care?

For Ahaz, it wasn’t illness that got him wondering. It was an attack by the enemy. Ahaz was the King of Judah, a great-great-grandson of David. But now the armies of Aram and Israel appeared on the horizon ready to attack Jerusalem. [Just in case you’re confused about Israel being the baddies - after Solomon had died, the kingdom of the twelve tribes of Israel had divided into two nations - Judah the southern kingdom, with the sons of David as kings, and what is confusingly still known as ‘Israel’ the northern kingdom]

The word spreads about the advance of the enemy. The effect on the people is terror. They’re all over the place, they’re so frightened. As we’re told in verse 2: ‘the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.’ We’ve even had some practical demonstration of that this week - the storm and the trees blowing about.

Ahaz is the king, the leader of God’s people, yet his heart is all over the place. He’s like the guy in Dad’s Army shouting ‘Don’t panic, don’t panic’ as he panics the most! Does God see? Does God care?

The LORD sends Isaiah the prophet with his son to meet Ahaz with a message. ‘Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint.’ Do the opposite of what you’re doing right now. Stop being afraid, and instead trust. No matter what they’re plotting; no matter what appears to be happening, the LORD calls Ahaz to trust him.

In verses 7-9, he gives a little piece of prophecy in poetry. And it’s all about standing or not standing. First of all, their plans and plots ‘it shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass.’ Then in the very middle of it, there’s a promise that Ephraim (another name for Israel) will be shattered, will no longer stand. But enough about their plans not standing, and Ephraim not standing - now comes the challenge: ‘If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.’

As God talks about the future and about his enemies, Ahaz can either refuse to listen and continue to worry and panic and not get anywhere because he’s trying to do things in how own strength; or he can hear what God is saying, take him at his word, and stand firm in faith. That’s what faith is - hearing God’s promises and taking him at his word.

As if even that wasn’t enough, God goes a step further. He invites Ahaz to ‘ask a sign of the LORD your God’. Just ask, and God will show you that he means it. But Ahaz says he won’t do it - he doesn’t want to put the Lord to the test. It sounds like the right answer - it’s scriptural - but in this case, God had told him to ask for a sign, it wasn’t testing God without reason.

Yet even with that, God gives him a sign anyway. ‘Look, the young woman (virgin) is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.’ Now whenever we hear that verse our minds immediately jump to Jesus. But it must have meant something in the immediate context to Ahaz.

There was a young woman, a virgin he knew, perhaps a daughter or woman who lived in the palace. And what God promises here is that she will (by the normal, natural process) have a baby. By the time the baby knows the difference between evil and good, the lands of Aram and Israel will be defeated, the kings long gone, the enemy no longer a threat.

And the baby’s name will be a reminder for Ahaz of the truth of God’s promise, a reminder that he could have and should have stood firm in faith - Immanuel, God is with us. You can picture the scene. Ahaz is sitting at home watching the TV news. The Middle East is again centre stage. The cameras are showing the scenes as his great enemies are defeated, as the kings of Aram and Israel are captured, but he can’t hear the TV newsreader. The baby is gurgling. He calls out, Oh Immanuel, hush. Oh, God is with us, just as he promised.

God was with his people in the days of Ahaz. The word of God promising that a young woman (who was a virgin then, but would be married and) would have a baby was intended for him - but it had a double meaning. It was also a pointer to the future, when a virgin would indeed have a baby.

Joseph couldn’t get his head around the news. He was engaged to Mary, betrothed, but then she announced that she was pregnant? She tried saying something about angels and God, but he just couldn’t believe it. She had been unfaithful - she must have been. But then the angel spoke to Joseph.

The child is from the Holy Spirit; the special baby who will be called Jesus, because he is the God who saves. And Matthew, writing under the guidance of the Spirit, discovers that this also fulfils the old prophecy of Isaiah - that Jesus is truly Immanuel - not just a sign that God is with his people - but he is God with us.

Now we can know for certain that God is with us - he has stepped into the world he made. He has moved into the neighbourhood. God is not distant. God certainly does care. This is the heart of the Christmas message - God is with us to save us from our sins and bring us to himself.

And so as we baptise Ruby today, we pray that God will be with her, as she grows up, so that she finds rescue from her sins. It’s the gift that God gives us at Christmas - himself. But you don’t have to wait until Christmas Day to receive this present. He invites you to get to know him today.

It’s very simple. Come by faith. Trust in his word of promise - that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. That’s what makes someone a Christian - taking God at his word. standing firm in faith, not being blown about by worries. Because, as Isaiah told Ahaz: ‘If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.’ Stand firm today, with faith in the God who loves you, who is God with you, today and every day.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 22nd December 2013.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Book Review: What's So Great About the Doctrines of Grace?

As I've previously noted, I've been trying to read lots of books on grace. So when I spotted this book on special offer for the Kindle, I loaded it up and took it on holidays. However, it wasn't quite what I had expected. Instead of dealing specifically with grace, it turns out that the book is a point-by-point defence of the five points of Calvinism. So what's the problem, I hear you ask. Aren't you a Calvinist? While I do hold the doctrines of the Church of Ireland on election, predestination and all that, I didn't really enjoy the book.

Richard D Phillips states that he has two purposes in the book. 'The first is to explain the doctrines of grace, also known as the "Five Points of Calvinism" through the exposition of Scripture... The second purpose is... to help believers feel the power of these precious truths in their lives. In other words, I aim not merely to teach the doctrines of grace, but to show what is so great about them.'

There are five points of Calvinism, but six chapters. The opening one deals with the theme of God's sovereignty as standing over and above the rest of the doctrine. It's a helpful chapter, which then focuses on Isaiah's vision of God, with the four hallmarks of response to the sovereign God: 1. A readiness to serve - which he claims only comes after the vision. But surely this fails to take account of the fact that the vision comes in chapter 6. Isaiah has already been a prophet. 2. Humble, trusting obedience. 3. Holy boldness. 4. Reliance on sovereign, saving grace.

It's here in this subsection that I really didn't like the book. He describes the dithering King Ahaz, who refuses to ask for a sign in Isaiah 7:

This is seen in the sign Isaiah gave to King Ahaz. Isaiah urged this sign on Ahaz to enliven his faith. It was a sign that was foolish in the eyes of the world, but glorious in the eyes of God: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." In the presence of Ahaz's apostate unbelief, Isaiah laid his hand on the greatest sign of sovereign grace of which he could think: the virgin who would be with child.

As he continues, he makes it clear that he's jumping immediately to Jesus, without thought of original context, or of what that might have meant for Ahaz in the first place. Instead, the scripture becomes flat with no context or contours. I'm afraid, coming so early in the book, it didn't make me want to go much further, if this was the way he was going to handle the scriptures.

But I persisted. The remaining chapters cover the five points of Calvinism, with fairly standard defences of total depravity (How bad am I really? Much, much worse than you have dared to think.); unconditional election (which promotes humility and not pride); limited atonement (we find solid ground for our assurance of salvation); irresistible grace (it glorifies the saving work of the Holy Spirit and demonstrates the saving power of God's Word; and perseverance of the saints (we look not to ourselves, but to the faithful God's sovereign, preserving grace).

All in all, I liked much of the book, but at times was concerned with his handling of the text. I'm not sure it would be overly convincing to those who were enquiring, but for those who are convinced Calvinists, there will be something to help ground you more surely in the doctrines of grace.

What's so Great about the Doctrines of Grace? is available from Amazonand for the Kindle.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Book Review: The Thirty-Nine Steps

I'd never really heard about this book before, but when loading my Kindle for holiday reading back in the summer, it came highly recommended by my brother-in-law. It was free, and so on it went, in the off-chance it would get read. I'm glad I did - for the rip-roaring tale is quite the adventure.

Set in the period just before World War One, the story is narrated by Richard Hannay, a man who has returned from service in South Africa and is seeking some adventure. In this case, what he wishes for comes true, with a bigger adventure than he would have expected. From his flat, where a mysterious visitor is murdered, the chase is on as Hannay flees from the law, discovering that he is in over his head in a fast-paced and funny spy thriller. London, to the Scottish lowlands, and back to the south coast of England, the action continues with mad-cap escapes, disguises, twists and life on the run.

Some of the language is a bit archaic, and the story can be at times a little overly inventive, but on the whole, it's a good tale well told, as the fugitive turned tramp Hannay tries to convince the Cabinet to strike and capture the German spies at high tide where the thirty-nine steps lead from the clifftop to the sea. Well worth loading onto your Kindlefor free!