Thursday, January 31, 2013

Book Review: Life of Pi *spoilers*

Yann Martel's novel Life of Pihas now been made into a feature film, leading to a surge in interest in the tiger on a boat story. When it was recently on special offer for the Kindleat just 20p (and it still is), I thought I'd read along and see what all the fuss was about. My conclusion? It's a bit of a strange novel, with bits of stories that could almost sit separately, and a traumatic twist at the very end. More about that later.

The book's main character is a little lad named Piscine (who seizes the opportunity to change it from 'pissing' to 'Pi' when he changes school), whose dad owns a zoo in Pondicherry, India. The early part of the story is fascinating, as the experience of growing up in a zoo is described in vivid detail; the envy of many a reader is incited - just imagine waking up and walking to school past the elephants and the lions and everything else! The arguments for zoos are presented very strongly, as a place of safety and security for animals who have adapted to their territory and are comfortable in their space.

Alongside zoos, there is plenty of chat about religion as well: 'I know zoos are no longer in people's good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.' He describes his favourite school teacher, Mr Kumar, who is an avowed atheist, who asserts that 'Religion is darkness.' to which Pi replies in his thoughts, 'Darkness is the last thing that religion is. Religion is light.' Yet even this prompts Pi to believe that 'atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them - and then they leap.'

Still on religion, Pi says: 'We are all born like Catholics, aren't we - in limbo, without religion, until some figure introduces us to God? After that meeting the matter ends for most of us. If there is a change, it is usually for the lesser rather than the greater; many people seem to lose God along life's way. That was not my case.

The development is that Pi - a Hindu - also becomes a Christian and a Muslim, all at the same time (allegedly, of course - it's the premise of the book). It's his contention that all religions are just basically the same: 'Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims.'

He meets a priest, who tells him the story of Jesus being crucified, and he reflects: 'What a downright weird story. What peculiar psychology... What kind of a god is that? What is there to inspire in this Son?' Nevertheless... 'I couldn't get Him out of my head. Still can't. I spent three solid days thinking about Him. The more He bothered me, the less I could forget Him. And the more I learned about Him, the less I wanted to leave Him.' And so he returns to the priest, who declares: 'You already are [a Christian], Piscine - in your heart. Whoever meets Christ in good faith is a Christian.'

To his Christianity is quickly added Islam, a year later. Martel, through Pi, presents a religious pick n mix, a smorgasbord of spiritualities where it appears it's buy one, get two free. Why just be a Hindu when you can also be Christian and Muslim. An interesting situation, which leads to a comical episode where Pi and his family happen to bump into the pandit, the priest and the imam all at the same time. 'That was my introduction to interfaith dialogue,' says Pi. Hilarious, but ultimately unsatisfying. The truth claims of each are exclusive, it's just not possible to be all at the same time.

Part Two of the book moves from his ultra-religious upbringing to the amazing journey. The family zoo is moving from India to Canada, and they're travelling on a cargo boat when suddenly, the ship is in trouble, and Pi lands in a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a tiger. Through the waters of the ocean, Pi recounts his travels as the zebra and orangutan are quickly disposed of, the tiger eats the hyena, and Pi is left with the tiger - to train, or be killed.

The survival story is like something from Bear Grylls, with lots of reflections on fear, on doing what is necessary, on gaining the upper hand against a wild tiger, changing dietary habits and fishing while avoiding sharks and so on. Through the carnivorous island, the hunger and thirst, the perils of storms, the disappointments of losing equipment and having barely enough to survive, eventually Pi and Richard Parker (the tiger) land on solid ground in Mexico.

That brings us to the third part of the book. It's perhaps the funniest of the whole book. It's a series of interviews (which had been recorded and transcribed) conducted by officers from the Japanese Transport department, investigating the sinking of the cargo ship. Most of it is in English, but we're also treated to the translated comments which they share in Japanese. Very funny stuff! They fail to believe the story of the tiger and so on, and eventually pressure Pi into telling another version, a story without animals. Now in the Kindle, you don't have page numbers, but you do have percentage of the book you've already read, and we were in the high 90s. What would be the twist? And it's simply this - there were no animals. The half of the book has been an invention, a fabricated story to remove himself from the horror of the true events of the lifeboat, in which a member of the crew, the cook, his mother and Pi set off on the lifeboat, but only Pi survives the butchery and drive to survive. Gruesome, so it's little wonder the Japanese report goes with the tiger story.

The author's note at the beginning (which was almost by-passed by the Kindle going straight to the start of chapter one) declares that this is a book to make the reader believe in God. I'm not sure he does that - unless it's in his all-encompassing way of insisting that it doesn't matter what you believe, you're in. Perhaps though, he means the miracle that Pi survived so long in the boat, but again, I'm not convinced. It's a memorable story that will long stick in my mind, but it's not a book to bring belief.

I'm not sure how they've transferred it to the big screen. I'm not sure how faithful to the book it would be. It might just be worth seeing or reading for some escapism, but, as the 39 Articles of Religion says of the apocrypha (paraphrasing) - interesting to read, but don't use them for doctrine.

Life of Pi(Kindle)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Sermon Audio: Luke 4: 14-21

On Sunday we looked at the big claim of Jesus to fulfill the Scriptures in the synagogue at Nazareth. Listen in to hear the Saviour's Manifesto.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Book Review: Five English Reformers

JC Ryle was the first Bishop of Liverpool, and a leading evangelical churchman in his day. Throughout his writings there are warnings of the rise of ritualism in the Church of England and an appeal to return to the great martyr-reformers who died at the hands of Queen Mary for the truths of the gospel. This little book, Five English Reformers, collated and published by The Banner of Truth Trust turns the spotlight on the person, profile and legacy of John Hooper, Rowland Taylor, Hugh Latimer, John Bradford and Nicholas Ridley.

The opening chapter presents a paper entitled 'Why Were Our Reformers Burned?' In what may be an early assault on postmodernism (so early, in fact that a hundred and some years ago it wasn't even imagined), Ryle declares that 'It is fashionable in some quarters to deny that there is any such thing as certainly about religious truth... Yet three hundred years ago, there were men who were certain they had found out truth, and were content to die for their opinions.' He goes on to present the broad facts of the persecution arising under Bloody Mary when she assumed the throne on her brother Edward VI's death: 'She began at once to pull down her brother's work in every possible way, and to restore Popery in its worst and most offensive forms.'

The facts are shocking - in the years 1555 - 1558 there were 288 martyrs in England, including an archbishop, four bishops, 21 clergy, 55 women and 4 children. Most died by fire at the stake. Horrifying. Of these, Ryle suggests that, 'Never, I believe, since Christ left the world, did Christian men ever meet a cruel death with such glorious faith, and hope, and patience, as these Marian martyrs.' Indeed, one 'went to death as if he was walking to his wedding.'

Why were they killed? Ryle is adamant that it was the refusal of one doctrine: 'the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the consecrated elements of bread and wine in the Lord's Supper.'

In each of the remaining chapters, one of the reformers is in view, with an in-depth look at their person, ministry, martyrdom, and writings. There are some interesting insights into the time of the reformers, one instance of which relates the ignorance of the clergy in the diocese of Gloucester in 1551: 'Out of 311 clergy in his diocese, 168 were unable to repeat the Ten Commandments, 31 of the 168 could not state in what part of the Scripture they were to be found; 40 could not tell where the Lord's Prayer was written; and 31 of the 40 were ignorant who was the author of the Lord's Prayer!'

There was a very relevant reflection which has been borne out even more in these days of the internet and the celebrity pastor. Ryle is discussing the scarcity of Rowland Taylor's remains - his sermons and letters were not compiled or published or famous beyond his congregation: 'The causes of this absence of information are easily explained. For one thing, the good man lived, and laboured, and died, in a small country town, fifty miles from London. Such a position is fatal to a world-wide celebrity. It is the dwellers of large cities, and the occupiers of metropolitan pulpits, whose doings are chronicled by admirers, and whose lives are carefully handed down to posterity.' You'd wonder what Ryle would make of podcasting and real celebrity pastors these days...

Yet despite Taylor's insignificance on the world stage, his ministry was powerful in his parish: 'The whole town seemed rather a university of the learned, than a town of cloth-making or labouring people; and what most is to be commended, they were for the most part followers of God's Word in their living.' What a testimony!

On examining Bishop Hugh Latimer's ministry, Ryle speaks of the power of his sermons. While they (extant sermons) may seem quaint, very familiar and rambling, Ryle declares that his contemporaries would be poor judges of sermons: 'A modern sermon is too often a dull, tame, pointless religious essay, full of measured, round sentences, Johnsonian English, bald platitudes, timid statements, and elaborately concocted milk and water. It is a leaden sword, without either point or edge: a heavy weapon, and little likely to do much execution.'

On the contrary, when Latimer was reminded he was preaching in the hearing of the King, Latimer would remind himself: 'remember also thou art about to speak before the King of Kings, and Lord of lords. Take heed that thou dost not displease Him.'

This was a good book to read to gain a general impression and introduction to the reformers in question, and also to be reminded of important reformation principles. The only problem is that it is a collection of papers and addresses delivered on separate occasions in magazines and/or meetings. As such, there is a lot of repetition, both on the individuals concerned - the opening chapter is like a summary of the stories of the later chapters), and also regarding the dangers of aggressive Romanism. If Banner were to re-publish this volume, it could profit from some editing to streamline the material.

Those wishing to learn a bit more about the leading reformers in England, those who compiled the Articles and Homilies at the centre of Anglicanism, will find this a useful book, and a prompt to commit to keeping the gospel flame burning brightly. Five English Reformers(Kindle)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sermon: Luke 4: 14-21 The Saviour's Manifesto

The former North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il was well known for making some outrageous claims. In 2000 he claimed to have invented the ‘double bread with meat’ - or as we’ve known it for a lot longer, the burger. Another time, he claimed to have scored a massive 38 under par round of golf - the best Tiger Woods has ever managed is a measly 11 under par. Big claims, but ultimately false.

Perhaps more believable, although not by much, are the claims that you might hear from the mouths of politicians. Thankfully there are no elections coming up this year, but when election season swings around there are lots of claims made by the politicians, lots of promises about what they can do and will do. It’s only as time goes on that you see how they measure up to their words.

Our Bible reading today also contains a big claim, perhaps it might even seem unbelievable. It comes from the lips of Jesus in the last verse we read, verse 21: ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ For the rest of our time we’re going to think about these words to see what he’s claiming, and if we can believe his words.

The scene is the synagogue in Nazareth. This is the town Jesus grew up in, the place he was known best. Those gathered in the synagogue remember him from when he was wee, they’ve watched him grow up, they’ve maybe even hired him as a carpenter in the past.

They’ve heard reports of his teaching and preaching around Galilee, and now here he is, back in Nazareth, in their synagogue on the Sabbath day. We’re told that it was his custom to go to synagogue - the place where the Jews would gather to pray and read the scriptures. He makes a priority to be with God’s people on the Sabbath. When it comes time for the reading, he’s given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and begins to read from chapter 61:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Right there, he stops, rolls up the scroll, and sits down at the front, ready to teach. The eyes of everyone are on him, they’re ready and listening, waiting to hear what he will say. They could not have expected or predicted how he would start. Here’s what he says: ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

Let’s break it down. This scripture - these words of the prophet Isaiah were written about 700 years beforehand. Towards the end of Isaiah’s prophecy there are a series of ‘servant songs’. In these, the voice of the promised king is heard - the promises of who he is and what he will do. In Isaiah 53 we find the most famous of the servant songs, as the sufferings of the Messiah are spelled out. But in this one, from Isaiah 61, the Messiah, the Servant of the Lord declares that God’s Spirit is upon him, empowering him, having anointed him for action.

And what will he do? He will bring good news to the poor - those without hope will be given hope. Those suffering in prison as prisoners of war will be released and freed. Those who are blind will be given sight. Those who are oppressed will go free. It’s freedom from suffering and sorrow. It’s the best kind of good news. And it’s all tied up in the Lord’s favour. How good it is to know that the Lord is for you, not against you. This is the news being proclaimed by the Spirit-anointed, Spirit-empowered King.

This is the Scripture that has been read for seven hundred years... yet still they were waiting. This is the hope they clung to, even through exile and defeat and suffering. This is the scripture that gives hope to the hopeless.

And in that synagogue on that day in Nazareth, ‘this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ Jesus says that the waiting is finished. Jesus says that the promise is now being fulfilled. No matter how many times before they had heard and hoped and longed for the Messiah to come; they need wait no longer.

Jesus sits and says the ‘me’ is ‘me’: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me (Jesus), because he has anointed me (Jesus) to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me (Jesus)...’ It’s no longer a puzzle to be worked out. He’s a person to welcomed.

Now as we said at the start, perhaps this is just another big claim, maybe this is just another politician’s manifesto - says one thing, and then does another. But just trace through the rest of Luke - what Jesus sets out here, he accomplishes. Flick over to Luke 7:20. John the Baptist is in prison, and he wonders if Jesus really was the one promised. How does Jesus respond? ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.’ (Luke 7:22)

The Old Testament points forward to Jesus. He fulfills the promises of God. So as we read the Old Testament, it’s all about Jesus. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:20 ‘For in him every one of God’s promises is a Yes.’

This Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Jesus is filled with the Spirit to accomplish the work and promises of God to release those who are suffering and to bring freedom. It’s the good news we rejoice in today as we baptise Amelia, and pray that she too will share in our joy. But there’s one other word in that sentence of Jesus we need to examine. It’s the first word: ‘Today.’

Jesus stopped reading from Isaiah 61:2 halfway through a sentence. In fact, he stopped at a comma. The rest of the sentence continues: ‘to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God.’ What Jesus is saying is that that day, indeed right through to this day, it’s the year of the Lord’s favour- not a calendar year, but a season, a time period that has so far extended 2000 years. We’re in the days of the Lord’s favour, but when Jesus returns it will be the day of vengeance, of judgement.

In this day, today, Jesus has given us his Spirit, we too share in his mission. All who are Christians have been filled with the Spirit, and we are sent to share the good news in word and deed; to bring justice, and freedom and liberty. To reach out with acts of love and grace. To pass on what we have received from Jesus so that others can share in the celebration.

So it’s appropriate and right, since we share in Christ and his Spirit, to declare that the Spirit of the Lord is on you; that you have been anointed to bring good news to the poor. You have been sent by him to proclaim release & sight & freedom; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

How would that change your actions this week? How will you live out the Spirit’s presence in your life? Could we together make an impact on our community, on our workplaces? The Lord has given us all we need - his own self. Let’s step up, as we are led by the Spirit, to demonstrate his love and share the good news, for his praise and glory. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 27th January 2013.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Book Review: The Explicit Gospel

I'd heard good things about The Explicit Gospelby Matt Chandler for a while, so when I had book tokens to spend, I went for it. It is perhaps the best book on the Christian faith that I've read in a while. Chandler is direct, thorough, and shares the good news of the gospel in a life-impacting way.

Through the two main sections of the book, he examines the gospel story in its two dimensions and viewpoints: the individual (what he calls the Gospel on the Ground) and the universe (what he calls the Gospel in the Air). Each traces the grand scheme of God's purposes from creation through to new creation by the pathways of: God - Man - Christ - Response; and Creation - Fall - Reconciliation - Consummation.

There's much to commend his approach, forged from the tension (or even supposed opposition) of the two perspectives. The shorter closing section of the book discusses some of the problems that can arise when one or other approach is exclusively used, either only ever focusing on the individual salvation or only making the world a better place through acts of justice.

The whole book is also an attack against what he refers to as 'Christian moralistic therapeutic deism', which is simply being the best you you can be by your own efforts. This is a million miles from the gospel, which is carefully spelled out. As the title suggests: 'The gospel had merely been assumed, not taught or proclaimed as central. It hadn't been explicit.' Chandler corrects that fault in the church in this book.

There are many reasons to commend the book. I appreciated and enjoyed his use of Scripture as he discussed each step in turn. Along the way there are sustained expositions of God's glory (Romans 11:33-36), our hardness of hearing and heart (Isaiah 6 - the whole of it, not just the 'nice' call of Isaiah. In fact, in quite a few places he helpfully takes our 'nice' notions of verses to task and calls us to look at the context, rather than just plucking a verse into obscurity.), the frustrated creation (Romans 8) and the fall and the meaninglessness of everything (Ecclesiastes).

As well as his thorough Bible expositions, Chandler is also thorough as he teaches, including discussions on all sorts of issues and subjects I wouldn't have expected along the way including evolution and creation etc. His thoroughness also extends to his illustrations, with a vast array of word-pictures to help explain the point.

I only had two minor questions. The first was whether he was clear on his audience - at times it seemed as if it was aimed at non-Christians or baby Christians, but the other bits seemed to be addressed solely to pastors or experienced Christians. The second question was: what happened to the witch mentioned in the introduction?!

All in all, this is a good book, and one that you'll want to read more than once to take in the glories of God as displayed in the Gospel of his beloved Son, Jesus Christ. The book resounds with gems like this:

'Romans 8:1 tells us that there is no condemnation for us, not because of all the great stuff we've done but because Christ has set us free from the law of sin and death. My sin in the past: forgiven. My current struggles: covered. My future failures: paid in full all by the marvelous, infinite, matchless grace found in the atoning work of the cross of Jesus Christ.'

Amen and Amen! The Explicit Gospel(Kindle)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sermon: Luke 4: 1-13 The Testing of Jesus

I wonder if any of you are doing tests or exams at the minute? It's coming into the season of school tests. When it comes to tests you want to do your best, you want to pass them. It's so bad that my brother-in-law took time out of a birthday party yesterday in order to revise for his Hebrew exam tomorrow!

In our Bible reading today, we find that Jesus is being tested. Now he's not in school; it's not a written exam; but it is a testing time. Last week, we saw Jesus being baptised, and at that moment, the Holy Spirit came upon him in the form of a dove and a voice came from the Father: 'You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.'

Immediately afterwards, Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit into the desert, the wilderness. Now, what do you find in the desert? There's sand, and rocks, and maybe camels and cactuses, but there's not much else. It's a barren, dry place. There's no food. And it's here that Jesus is tested, tempted by the devil.

Now I've brought along a mock exam paper, a report card for the test Jesus faces (download here) for you to follow along. How will Jesus do?

[The Bible background is that everyone else has failed the test so far. You remember in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were tempted by the devil, and they failed and fell. Far from the garden, in the wilderness, the children of Israel as they left Egypt, also failed. Each of us too gives in to temptation. Can Jesus succeed where we have all failed?]

Question One. Jesus is in the desert, he's been there forty days, with no food. He is hungry. And the devil suggests that he sort himself out. 'If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.'

Now I've brought along a stone (the biggest I could find in the garden, which isn't too big), but imagine the stones in the desert. They're big, they might look like a bap, they could be so tempting.

The devil is questioning the voice that came from heaven. The Father said 'You are my Son' but now the devil is saying Are you really? 'If you are...' Jesus has the power to do it. He could change stones into bread. After all, later in the gospel he will feed five thousand people, so he could easily feed one.

But Jesus came into the world to serve, not to be served. He came for others, not for himself or his own good. To feed himself in this way, using his power, would be selfish and sinful. Plus, it goes against what the Bible says.

Do you see how Jesus responds? 'It is written: Man does not live on bread alone.' It is written. He goes straight to the Bible, the Old Testament, to discover how he should act. You see, while it's good to have bread and not be hungry, it's not the most important thing - the verse from Deuteronomy goes on to say that we need the word of God to truly live.

Question one. Did Jesus pass or fail? Mark it down on your sheet. He has passed the first test.

Now on to question two. The devil takes Jesus to a high mountain and gives him a great view. Have you ever been to the top of a high mountain? It might have been Slieve Donard or Cuilcagh, you can see ever so far. But the devil shows Jesus even more. Not just the kingdoms around about, but all the kingdoms of the world. [Perhaps even throughout the whole of time, so he was shown the splendour of the United Kingdom in its height...] I've brought along a globe - Jesus was shown the whole world.

The devil says that he will give it all to Jesus, if he will but worship him. Now what is at stake here? Why is this a temptation? What's going on?

Let me tell you for a moment or two about my school days. There was a subject I really hated. It wasn't geography, English, or science. [Not even RE, as one boy suggested!] It was PE. I really didn't like having to get into T-shirt and shorts in weather like this with the snow and rain falling and go outside. There was one thing I dreaded above all, and that was when Mr Hill or Mr McAleese (actually, it was always Charlie McAleese) announced we were doing the 1.2. Those words struck fear into our hearts. The 1.2 was a 1.2 mile run from the school, around the park, and back via the main road, through the town to the school.

I was always one of the slowcoaches [Never hurry a McMurray was the catchphrase], who would still be running while the others were already changed back into school uniform. But there was a shortcut. After you'd left the school, and in the park, there were lots of trees, and another exit from the park. It meant you could avoid the long way round (which brought you past the sewage works in the town) and cut the distance by a half. Much easier - not that I ever took the shortcut!

It's what the devil was offering Jesus here. A shortcut, to win the world without enduring the cross. Wouldn't this be so much handier? But again, it goes against the Scriptures. Here's Jesus' answer: 'It is written: Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.'

Jesus must obey and fulfil the Bible, as the word of God, and resists the devil. Question Two, has Jesus passed? Yes, of course!

Question Three, and Jesus is again on a high place. This time, though, it's the top of the temple. They reckon the highest place of the temple was about 700 feet high - roughly the height of 50 double-decker buses. Or about five times the height of the tower on the church here. High up, anyway.

The devil has heard Jesus saying 'It is written' and so he tries that himself. Psalm 91 says that Jesus will be protected from harm - his foot won't be hurt on a stone, the angels will guard and protect him. I've brought along a lifeguard hoodie to demonstrate the point. So surely if angels are going to watch over Jesus, then he could just jump off and prove the protection?

But Jesus says that you can't test it out. You can't just randomly do something to check it out. That's not how faith and God's word works. 'It says: Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'

How did Jesus do on the third question? Did he pass or fail? He passed. In fact, as you'll see, he gets a pass overall. He has succeeded where we fail. He is indeed the Son of God, he is qualified to be our sinless Saviour, who can give his life in place of ours, his righteous self for our sinful selves.

More than that, Jesus is like our older brother, who knows what we're going through when we're tested. You might have an older brother or sister who has already done their 11-plus - they know what you're going through - they've already been through the revision and the stress and the practice papers and the waiting for results... Jesus is like this. He knows what it's like to be tempted - and was without sin.

So when we're being tempted, we can come to Jesus, his throne of grace, and find grace for our struggles. And when we fail, we find in him mercy for our failures. Even if we fail, Jesus has passed the test, and proven (by his obedience) that he is the Son of God, and our older brother. Hallelujah! What a Saviour!

This sermon was preached at the Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 20th January 2013.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Sermon Audio: Luke 3: 15-38

Last Sunday we were continuing our new series in Luke's Gospel, as we searched for the One - the Messiah. Is it John the Baptist? Is it Herod? Or is it Jesus, the Beloved Son? What's the point of the genealogy in Luke 3?

Friday, January 18, 2013

Sermon Audio: Matthew 2: 1-23

We're still playing catch-up with the recorded sermons over the Christmas period. Here, we thought about the slaughter of the innocents, as we explored the dark side of Christmas.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Sermon Audio: Galatians 4: 4-5

Out of sync and out of sorts, due to a little 'technical hitch' - some of the voice memos on the iPhone wouldn't sync to the computer, so these sermons are coming late to audio.

In the mouth of Christmas, we looked at God's perfect timing in sending Jesus, 'in the fullness of time.' Even now, after Christmas, may this be a blessing to you.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Sermon: 3 John 1-15

There comes a time in every parent’s life which brings a mix of emotions. It’s the moment when their child has grown up, and they’re moving out, setting out on their own adventure. It might be when they move away for university; they might have started a new job and off they go; they may have finally decided they want their own space.

Perhaps you’ve been through this, either as the parent or the child. How do you feel in that moment, as the door closes, they’ve left? There’s a dolly mixtures range of feelings, aren’t there? Joy, that they’ve finally moved out; relief that they’ve gone? There might be some sadness, that they are no longer your little baby; or worry or fear about how they’ll manage. Will they keep going in the way they’ve been brought up?

I remember the first time I was away from home. We went on the P7 school trip to York from Monday to Friday. Beforehand I was probably a little homesick (before I had even left), so mum and dad were naturally concerned. When I got away, well, I had so much fun I never bothered ringing home once... while the parents were rightly concerned about me! But don’t worry, I got a telling-off when I got home that Friday night about not keeping in touch!

Just as mums and dads have these kinds of concerns for their children, so those in spiritual leadership in the church have the same concerns for their spiritual children. Will they keep on going in the way they have learned? Will they continue to walk with Jesus even if we don’t see them or aren’t around?

Which brings us to our reading tonight. It’s a letter from ‘the elder’ (whom we know is John), to a man called Gaius, a Christian who is described as ‘beloved’ and also ‘whom I love in truth.’ It’s clear that John and Gaius know each other, it appears that John had previously ministered to Gaius, but is now elsewhere. He writes to Gaius now because he has heard of what Gaius has been doing, and it does his heart good.

He begins with a prayer: ‘Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul.’ (2) John prays that Gaius will be as physically healthy as he is spiritually healthy. Now how does he know that it goes well with his soul? It’s what he has heard, based on his actions:

‘For I rejoiced greatly when the brothers came and testified to your truth, as indeed you are walking in the truth.’ (3) John refers to a group of men, ‘the brothers’ who are Christian workers. They’ve been to see Gaius, and when they return, they share the good news that Gaius is continuing to walk in the truth.

Ever since John had sown the seed of the gospel in his heart, Gaius has been continuing to walk in the truth. Even though John is not around, Gaius continues to walk with Jesus. He hasn’t given himself to follow lies, or to walk away, but rather he’s still on the path of truth.

And this news gives John great joy. In fact, as he says: ‘I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.’ (4) I wonder if you’ve ever had that joy. Perhaps it’s a friend from school you haven’t seen for a long time, lost touch, and then you bump into them, and discover that they are now a Christian. What joy! Or it might be someone you taught in Sunday School or GFS or the BB, and you hear that they’re serving the Lord themselves, continuing to walk in the way you taught them all that length of time ago. It’s brilliant!

I’ve been discovering recently that I’m getting (or at least feeling) older... It’s when the children you first taught in Sunday School are now graduating from university; and when the ‘young people’ from the youth group at church back home are now getting married...

It can be sad to hear of those who have heard and turned away. They know the truth, but they walk away. You feel frustrated, but they go in their own way. How much more then, the joy of hearing that some are still in the way.

I wonder have you spiritual children you can rejoice over? How have you used your influence and example and witness with someone else? It’s never too late to start, you could become a spiritual mother or father at any age, young or old. Who will you celebrate with in heaven? Who could you reach?

But, you might be asking yourself, what does it look like to walk in the truth? What should we encourage each other to do, so that we walk in the truth and help others to do so as well?

John gives us some examples, both positive and negative. Just like a weaver or a tapestry, he moves from one to the other, in and out. First, the positive example of Gaius. What was it that was so great?

He had received and welcomed and supported these brothers - even though they were strangers - simply because they were gospel workers. He didn’t know them, but because they loved Jesus, he loved them, and provided for them. He didn’t sit back, but put himself out for them, ‘in all your efforts for these brothers.’ (5) As we support fellow Christians, we are ‘fellow workers for the truth.’ (8) Hospitality and generosity are marks of the true believer, of the one walking in the truth.

But then we shift to the negative, as we’re introduced to another man called Diotrephes. He ‘likes to put himself first, [and] does not acknowledge our authority... talking wicked nonsense against us.’ As if all that weren’t enough, he also ‘refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church.’ (9-10)

He’s out for himself alone, proud, wanting to be important, trying to get his own way, and tries to prevent fellowship and partnership. Do you see the contrast? It’s the difference between day and night!

So when we come to verse 11, we’re given a choice: ‘Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good.’ Seems obvious, but here’s why: ‘Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.’

There’s another positive example - Demetrius, who ‘has received a good testimony from everyone...’ It’s as if the two D-men are lined up side by side, Diotrephes would get a good testimony from noone, Demetrius from everyone. This is the difference between walking in the truth, and going astray, led by wickedness.

Perhaps tonight is an opportunity to stop, and take stock of your life. Ask what way you’re going. Consider whether you are a cause of joy for other people as they hear of the report of your life and witness. And resolve to walk in the truth, loving and giving for the work of the gospel, partnering with those who serve, and all for the praise and glory of Jesus Christ, who is our saviour and example. Amen.

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 13th January 2013.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sermon: Luke 3: 15-22 The Son Revealed

A football club which has been losing all its matches, and gone through more managers than kits. The fans are angry, but then a new manager is appointed. Could things be different now? Could he be the one they’ve been waiting for?

A school is under pressure. The Education and Library Board is asking questions; wondering why the pass rate is lower than average. The teachers are overworked and underpaid; morale is low. A new principal is appointed - could they turn things around? Is this the one they’ve needed all along?

A nation has been conquered. An enemy country is in control. Things aren’t how they used to be. The people long for freedom. They’ve heard about the promise of a new king coming. And so they wait. And they wait. And they wait. All of a sudden, bursting onto the nation’s awareness is a new preacher and leader. He’s calling the nation to turn around, to repent; it’s symbolised by baptism - being dipped in the water. Could this be the one?

Last week, we began our new series in Luke’s Gospel, and we witnessed the ministry of John the Baptist. Today we see the results of his ministry - look at verse 15. ‘the people were filled with expectation.’ They questioned in their heart: ‘whether he might be the Messiah.’ Is this the one we’ve been waiting for? Is John the deliverer, the anointed king we’ve been expecting? He’s here!

But John quickly steps in and declares that he’s not the messiah: ‘One who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.’ (16) You think that I’m the messiah? I’m like nothing compared to him - in terms of person, and of ministry.

John says that you think I’m powerful, that I’m Messiah? I’m like the old style Mr Muscle (in the vest and biceps the size of a frozen pea) standing next to one of those weight lifters from the World’s Strongest Man. He is powerful, and important - I wouldn’t even qualify as the lowest slave who gets to deal with his feet and take off his shoes.

John also points to ministry - ‘I baptise you with water... He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’ (16) John deals purely with water, whereas the Messiah, when he comes, will deal in the fire of the Holy Spirit - again, much more powerful and important than John’s ministry.

John then pictures the Messiah as a thresher, as a farmer separating the wheat from the chaff - the Messiah, when he comes, will bring division, some like wheat gathered into his granary, others like chaff.

The stage is set. We’re looking out for someone who is more powerful than John, who overrules him. And in the middle section, we find a possible candidate. There’s no doubt that Herod is more powerful than John - he is the ruler of the region; he throws John in prison; but that’s about as far as he goes in the Messiah stakes.

Even though Herod is a ruler, he’s actually a really bad ruler - you see, that mention of Herodias is his brother’s wife - he took his sister-in-law in as his own wife; but that’s just a taster of his wickedness. Luke hints at ‘all the evil things that Herod has done.’

So we’re still looking, still searching for the Messiah, the promised king. Luke rewinds the video to when John was baptising, and the camera points to the moment when, among the crowds being baptised, Jesus was baptised. In that moment, there’s something to see and something to hear, both of which are confirmation of who Jesus is - that he is the one we’ve been waiting and watching for.

‘The heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.’ John had said that the Holy Spirit would be a marker, an indicator of the Messiah, and he we have that sign. The Holy Spirit comes on him, equipping him for the task at hand as he begins his powerful ministry.

But there’s more than just the visual. There’s also the audio: ‘And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’’

John may have had the word of God coming to him which led him to go and proclaim and baptise, but here we have the three persons of the Trinity (as they always do - ) working together in perfect unity: God the Father speaks out this affirmation of God the Son, as God the Holy Spirit anoints and confirms him.

God’s word proclaims clearly that Jesus is his Son, the Beloved, that he is this unique position of Son, Messiah, ruler and King. Just think of how this has been growing through Luke’s gospel so far: Gabriel told Mary that her son ‘will be called the Son of the Most High’ (1:32); the angels told the shepherds that ‘a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord’ had been born (2:11); the boy Jesus asked Mary and Joseph ‘Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ when he was found in the temple (2:49).

Now, at the age of thirty or so, God addresses him directly, in the hearing of all around him, and declares and confirms that he is God’s Son. Not only that, but with him, God is well pleased. This is the point Luke makes as he includes Jesus’ genealogy here, at this point.

It’s a long list of names, some of which are hard to pronounce, and it might remind you of someone listing a page from the phone book. All these names. What’s the point? As we trace Jesus’ family tree backwards, we find some familiar names - David, Abraham, but right at the end of the list we find ‘son of Adam, son of God.’

Adam could be regarded as a son of God because God had formed him and created him ‘in his own image.’ But as we discovered in the autumn as we studied the first part of Genesis, Adam threw away his God-likeness as he fell into sin. Seth was in the image of his father; and that trait of sin was passed on, and the image of God was further tainted and spoiled. That image is now marred and spoiled, like a smudged photograph.

We’re all in sin, we’re just like Herod - we may not have done the same things, but we’re wired the same way. We’re all like each other, we share in this image of Adam.

But now suddenly, as Jesus steps onto the stage, after thirty years of ordinary life, which was really, for us, extraordinary life because he was without sin, God’s voice confirms that here is one in whom he is pleased; here is his Son, his image-bearer, God’s king, here to establish the kingdom.

The good news is that the Son of God became a human, in order that we could become children of God, baptised not just with water, but with the Holy Spirit, transformed from chaff into wheat; and given the same Holy Spirit that empowered and equipped Jesus. It’s our prayer that Louise will grow up to trust in and follow Jesus, and be conformed to his likeness. We discover that Jesus is the one, the only one, who can truly rescue us and turn us around. Will you come to him today?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 13th January 2013.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Sermon Audio: Luke 3:1-14

On Sunday we began a new series in Luke's Gospel, as we looked at the ministry of John the Baptist. He prepares the way for the Lord as he proclaims repentance.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Book Review: The Litigators

John Grisham has long been a favourite author, ever since Dave got me hooked on his novels at least ten years ago. It's almost guaranteed that I'll (eventually) buy his new books (when they're out in paperback, or even later, when they're flooding the charity shops and secondhand bookshops) and enjoy them immensely. That's precisely what happened with one of his more recently new ones: The Litigators(Kindle).

Grisham has a talent for writing good legal thrillers with humour and tension in equal measure. His ability to tell a good story is more than matched by his incisive descriptions of people, giving the measure of the man or woman in a few sentences. The reader is drawn in, wanting to turn the pages to follow the twists and turns of the story, urging on the underdog and cheering as justice is done.

The main character is David Zinc, a lawyer in a big firm with a big salary, who on the spur of the moment throws it all away. He snaps, flees the office, goes on a bender, and ends up in the offices of a 'boutique law firm' of two ambulance chasers on the verge of hitting the big time in a mass tort lawsuit.

The story follows the highs and lows of the lawyers, their families, their divorces, their opponents, with a whistle-stop guide to federal law and lawsuits. Throughout, the reader is left wondering can they pull it off, but you'll have to discover that for yourself.

Grisham's novels stay with you long after you've finished reading them. Just the other day I was looking at the spines of his books in a shop and was able to remember the basic story of each of them, no matter how long ago they had been read. This one is no different, and perhaps even one of the best he has written.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Sermon: Luke 3: 1-14 Prepare The Way: Repentance

2013 is shaping up to be a big year in Fermanagh. We’re waiting for the G8 leaders to arrive in town, holding their conference for the world’s richest 8 nations in Enniskillen at the Lough Erne Resort. Preparations are already under way. You can expect it to get a lot more noticeable as we come closer to June, with security, media, protesters, and the curious wanting to catch a glimpse of Barack Obama, David Cameron and all the rest.

At the start of our reading today, we find a similar list of the political VIPs in the land of Israel about two thousand years ago. Tiberius is emperor, Pilate is governor of Judea and Herod (not the same Herod of last week’s child-slaughtering reading) is in Galilee. All attention appears to be focused on them - the sky news cameras would be following them around, reporting on their pronouncements.

Yet Luke draws our attention away from the centres of power, away from the parliaments and throne rooms of Westminster or Stormont or the White House, and instead points us to the wilderness. Something is happening there which is of much greater significance. There, we find the preparations beginning for the coming of the Lord.

Now, I know that we’ve already been thinking about the coming of the Lord at Christmas - and Luke has done that in his first two chapters (which we looked at a year ago). But we’ve moved on thirty years since the manger and the stable (23), thirty years of ordinary life have occurred. We only know of that one incident when Jesus got left behind at the temple in Jerusalem at the age of twelve.

The rest of that time fades into obscurity. Jesus lived an ordinary life (although one without sin). There are all sorts of later false gospels which make up stories about Jesus’ childhood, but Luke doesn’t go in for that. You see, he’s writing history - he has interviewed the eye-witnesses - ‘so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.’ (1:4)

Out in the wilderness, we see the preparations for the coming of the Lord. In the Old Testament verses quoted, we find some plans for a new road - a highway for the Lord. It’s not going to be a humpy, bumpy road up hills and down valleys, but a straight, level road. Think the new A4 dual carriageway, only even better!

But we don’t see any diggers or lorries. There’s a sound, but not of heavy plant machinery. Rather, it’s a voice - ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.’ You see, it’s not an actual road that’s being prepared, but rather the people are being prepared for the coming of the Lord.

So how did the people need to be prepared? What is it the voice is crying out? Look with me at verse two: ‘the word of God came to John...’ So what is the word God gives John? What is it he calls out? He is ‘proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’

Now if I was to ask you what we know about John, the top answer would probably be that he is the Baptiser (or Baptist). While Luke mentions the baptism, he actually spends more time (and verses) telling us what John was saying, rather than what he was doing. John prepares the way of the Lord by proclaiming repentance - symbolised in the washing of John’s baptism. We’ll see what repentance is as we think about his message - that repentance is essential.

What do you make of John’s words in verse 7? It’s clear that he’s not out to please people; he doesn’t have an eye on the opinion polls in the way some of the politicians might be worried about how their speeches are coming across; it’s definitely not ‘How to win friends and influence people.’ Look what he calls the people: ‘You brood of vipers!’ That’s hardly an endearing term of affection, is it?

But it’s a sign of the need for repentance, to turn away from sin, to be finished with it, to go in a different direction. There is a wrath to come, from which we need to flee (even if it sounds as if John is disappointed that people are fleeing the wrath!). John says (9) that the axe is lying ready to cut down any tree not producing good fruit. Judgement is coming.

It’s a call to take stock, to honestly think - am I producing good fruit? Even five minutes alone with ourselves will remind us that we are in need of repentance, that we aren’t producing good fruit; that in our heart we are sin sick, caught in the endless cycle. There is hardly a few minutes (let alone an hour or a day or a week), when i find myself straying and (not even) struggling with sin.

Repentance is essential - especially for religious people. John’s hearers thought that they might not need to bother with repentance, after all, they were already children of Abraham. If they’re part of the people of God, maybe they were ok? But John says that they can’t rest on their position - God could raise up children to Abraham from the stones at their feet.

Repentance is essential - we are more sinful than we have ever imagined. Repentance is essential - the judge is on his way. Repentance is essential - especially for religious people. John tells us one more thing: Repentance is essential - and practical.

Verse 8: ‘Bear fruits worthy of repentance.’ It’s not enough to just say that you’ve repented; to just make a decision to turn away from sin. It has to be seen in your life - repentance should make a practical difference to the way we live.

That’s why the question that comes from the crowd is so important. (It’s also the question that we always try to answer in the sermons, and it’s the question we should be asking as he read or hear God’s word and try to apply it). ‘What then should we do?’ (10, 12, 14). How will we be changed as we repent and turn from our sins? What will we do differently as a result of hearing God’s word?

For the crowd as a whole, it will mean not being selfish, but sharing with those in need - whether it’s coats or food. Have we a concern for the poor? Or are we only concerned about ourselves?

For the tax collectors (‘even’ the tax collectors!), it means being honest and not exploiting people for greedy gain. For the soldiers, it means honesty and contentment.

For you, what is it? What are the strongholds of sin that you need to turn from; and what will that look like in your life? How will others notice a difference in your life as you bear fruit in keeping with your repentance?

As we meet around the table today, we remember that the King is coming - the King who is also judge; who is pure and holy and righteous. Repentance is essential - we are more sinful than we have imagined (but we are more loved than we could ever have imagined). Repentance is essential - and practical. As we repent, turn from our sins, so we turn to the loving King, who gave himself for our sins, so that the rough will be made smooth, ‘and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ May we know his grace as we are transformed by his word into his likeness for his glory.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 6th January 2013.