Thursday, February 28, 2013

Sermon: Psalm 27 No Fear

I wonder if you’ve got achluophobia? See if you can work out what it’s a fear of: It’s a fear that some adults may have, but it’s probably more common among children - in fact, one of our nieces takes a wind-up torch to bed with her each night. You know what it is, now, don’t you? It’s a fear of the darkness.

We’re coming into the lighter evenings again, as the days become longer and the nights get shorter, but it’s easy to see what the problem might be - or rather, it’s because you can’t see, it’s what brings the fear. The darkness can seem mysterious, threatening, dangerous - even if it’s just the danger of walking into the furniture in a power cut, as you scramble for matches.

While Elizabeth’s remedy is to have her wind-up torch with her, David’s confidence in the face of danger comes from one more powerful, and ultimately brighter. ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?’ (1). It’s a bold declaration, isn’t it? Because of who the Lord is, and what he is for David, there is no one to fear. The Lord is light - illuminating the darkness; guiding him through trouble; revealing truth. The Lord is salvation - deliverance from enemies, rescue in the face of attack. The Lord is a stronghold - a place of refuge, security, safety.

That’s why David can make this bold statement. Enemies will stumble and fall (2); even if they come and build a siege and make war, yet I will be confident.

I wonder if you are so confident in the Lord’s provision and protection? When the difficulties come; when opposition strikes; when it seems like the whole world is at war against you - can you be confident?

Let’s see why David is so sure. In verse 4, he shares the desire of his heart. ‘One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after;’ And what is it? What is the one thing? ‘to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.’

David’s desire is to be at home with the Lord. To be close to the Lord, and getting to know the Lord better. You see, his one thing has a couple of bits: ‘to behold the beauty of the Lord’ - that is, to be lost in wonder, love, and praise at the sheer beauty and glory of the Lord; and also ‘to inquire in his temple’ - that is, to continue to get to know the Lord, to go deeper, searching out just who God is.

You see, to be at home with the Lord is to find safety and security - sanctuary. That’s why David uses all these word pictures strung together to make his point - to live in the house of the Lord; to inquire in his temple; hide me in his shelter; under the cover of his tent; high on a rock.

To find refuge in the Lord, to have him as our stronghold means to be safe and secure in him - it’s a bit like a child hiding behind the legs of her parents when they’re talking to a scary man!

This sense of security and safety naturally leads to shouts of joy in verse 6. Of singing and making melody to the Lord. Hallelujah, what a Saviour! When you know the danger you have been in; and the deliverance you have experienced, it’s a reason for praise. Your enemies have failed. You’ve triumphed through the Lord’s might. Answered prayer leads to praise.

Now wouldn’t that be the place to stop? It’s a great message - we have confidence in the Lord as we seek after the Lord. All our struggles will be over when we seek after the Lord. Wouldn’t that be brilliant to hear?

Except, you know that’s not always the case. There is no guarantee that things will get easier when you become a Christian. Oftentimes, things might just get harder - precisely because you’re a Christian. Jesus never said ‘in this world you’ll have an easy time as you coast along to heaven.’ Rather, he said ‘In this world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’ It’s not that we’re saved from trouble, but rather, sometimes we’re saved through trouble.

That’s what we see from verse 7 on. You can hear the tone of voice change from confident assurance to a more urgent cry for help. ‘Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me! Come, my heart says, seek his face! Your face Lord, do I seek.’ The language of seeking stays the same, but now it’s in the midst of trouble - he still faces adversaries (who are willing violence against him); they are false witnesses, waiting for him to fall. So David is crying out to God, seeking for God, so that he can walk in God’s way, on a level (or straight) path.

Now it seems that, in the face of these threats and the enemies lurking, watching for him to slip up, it appears that God has abandoned him. His enemies are visible, they’re easy to see - which drives his desire to seek the Lord’s face.

He cries to the Lord asking that he won’t hide his face from him; also that God won’t turn him away in anger; nor cast him off. Yet even here there is the mark of trust; the confidence continues even in his desperate search: ‘If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.’ (10)

The relationship with parents is such a close one (for most people) that their forsaking him is uncommon, unexpected. It would be a severe blow - one I pray none of us has endured. Yet even if that were to happen, or if it has happened, yet David shows that there is one who sticks closer, one who has pledged that he will never leave us or forsake us - the Lord himself.

As David continues to seek after the Lord, in the midst of his problems, we come to the last two verses, where he finishes off with another burst of confidence. ‘I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.’ Isn’t this what faith looks like? Trusting that God will give us what he has promised - himself - his goodness. Trusting that God will show his goodness as he keeps us from slipping.

And yet, our timing is on a different schedule to God’s timing. We want it all now, if not yesterday. As life speeds up with microwave meals (although maybe they’re off the menu now), we want instant rescue. It’s why the last verse, full of confidence, nevertheless calls us to patience: ‘Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!’

We want to be in the first half of the psalm, but David knows that we’re actually probably in the second half. Continue to seek after God; be confident that he will not forsake you; listen to him as he leads you on the level path; and wait for him as he works in his own time.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church at the Lent Midweek service on 27th February 2013.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Sermon Audio: Luke 4: 31-44

On Sunday morning, we were continuing our series in Luke's Gospel, looking at the Saviour's Priority. Listen in to hear my favourite sandwich (as well as the reason I was talking about sandwiches...)!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Book Review: Empire State

I've been slowly but surely working my way through the Colin Bateman back catalogue since discovering his first puntastic comic novel on Northern Ireland, Divorcing Jack. Apart from the opening scene, Empire Stateis, appropriately enough, set entirely in the United States of America, and predominantly in New York - and even more specifically, at the top of the Empire State Building.

Nathan Jones and his girlfriend, Lisa both live in New York, although they soon part company, and Nathan gets a new job as a tour guide and security man at the Empire State Building, which has recently changed hands and will soon be hosting a visit from the President of the USA. With the expert development of a host of characters with their own stories and subplots, the action converges in a riotous assembly when the President is subjected to an assassination attempt.

All human life is definitely here; violent, crude, hateful, despairing, depraved, as well as loving, amusing, and downright weird. Bateman's humour and sarcasm shines through, partly in his puns and oneliners, and partly in his naming of characters including the drag queen Alex Maskey, and the messed-up security guard Brian Houston. It's definitely not one for those of a nervous or sensitive disposition.

This is probably longer than two of Bateman's previous novels put together, but the story never drags. The suspense continues as the characters come together and the ironic twisted resolution is worked out. If you've enjoyed any of Bateman's other books, then it's definitely one to read.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sermon: Luke 4: 31-44 The Saviour's Sandwich

One of the joys of watching children grow up is in the number of ways they can amaze you. Their first smile, their first steps, their first word. Their life is a journey of surprises, as you get to know them better. Their deeds and words help to show their character, to reveal more of who they are, and what they’re like. In our Bible reading today, we find some amazing things in what Jesus says and does. These words and deeds will help us to answer the question: what is Jesus’ priority?

We find Jesus in the synagogue. This was a bit like the Jewish form of church - the building where the Bible was read and taught. Earlier in the same chapter, Jesus was in Nazareth, but now he’s in Capernaum. We’re not told what he says, but as he teaches, the people are ‘astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority.’

It’s not just what they’ve heard before. It’s not just the same old, same old. It’s fresh, exciting, surprising - he speaks with authority. He knows what he’s saying. He means what he says. You can almost hear the silence, as everyone listens to his every word, when suddenly, there’s a loud cry. A loud voice calls out: ‘Let us alone! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ (34) As the congregation look around, they discover that it’s a man with an unclean spirit - a demon.

Jesus rebukes the demon, and says: ‘Be silent, and come out of him.’ (35) With that, the demon was gone, the man is left, unharmed. Look at the reaction now! ‘They were all amazed and kept saying to one another, ‘What kind of utterance is this? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and out they come!’

They can’t get over what they have just seen and heard - their focus was on his words: ‘What kind of utterance is this?’ I wonder if you’ve ever had the feeling that you might as well be talking to the wall. You’ve asked the kids to do their homework, but they keep on playing the Wii/ x box. You’ve told your husband or wife to do something, but it’s not done [or as I’ve read somewhere on Facebook: ‘Ladies, if a man says he will fix something, he will; there’s no need to remind him every six months!’]

If hearing Jesus teach with authority was astounding - and it was - then this is even more spectacular. Jesus has the amazing authority to deal with demons. He speaks, and the demon is gone. He can order them about like a child playing with a train set or a dollies tea party.

In the next verses, we follow Jesus after the service, to Simon [Peter]’s house. Having seen Jesus drive out the demon, they ask Jesus about Simon’s mother-in-law, who had a high fever. Could he do anything for her? Verse 39: ‘Then he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her.’ He does the same thing to the fever as to the demon - rebukes it, and it leaves. She’s raised to health, and immediately starts to serve him.

Amazing things. To hear him speak with authority. To hear him silence & command a demon. To watch him heal a sick woman: all amazing. But what happens next is even more amazing as Luke continues to tell us what happened.

But before we get to that, I wonder what your favourite sandwich is? Maybe it’s tuna and sweetcorn, or one that we got as kids: apple and mars bar. My favourite sandwich, though is the BLT. Bacon, lettuce and tomato. You start with the brown bread, and then the lettuce, put the tomato on top, and then the bacon. Now what comes next? Normally you’d just put the other bit of bread on top. But if you were spoiling yourself, or in a really nice place for lunch, they would do it twice. Even more bacon, then some tomato, and a final top layer of lettuce. Delicious!

Now why did I talk about sandwiches? I’m not just trying to make you hungry for your lunch. I’m not even trying to inspire your lunchbox for this week. Rather, it’s the way Luke tells the story. It’s like a super-duper sandwich. Teaching - demon - healing. As we finish the passage, we get the same things again, in the reverse order:

Jesus had healed one lady - Simon’s mother-in-law. Now, as the sun sets, ‘all those who had any who were sick... brought them to him.’ Jesus heals ‘all’ of them.

Jesus had drive out one demon - now, demons come out of many: ‘shouting ‘You are the Son of God’ - but just like earlier, he silences them. Why is it that Jesus silences the demons? Surely he wants everyone to know that he is the Messiah, the long-promised King, the Son of God, the Holy One of God; that he has power and authority to drive out demons and to heal people?

Just think - you’re the Son of God. Wouldn’t you want everyone to know about it, as soon as possible? Surely the way to do it is by driving out demons and healing people - and making sure the demons cry out your name and who you are. It’s free publicity! No need for facebook if you’ve got a circus like this. Big crowds, lots of popularity. Think of the fame.

But our ways are not his way. At sunset Jesus healed everyone, but by sunrise, he is out of the town in a deserted place. The crowd send out a search party - they want to make sure Jesus stays with them. ‘They wanted to prevent him from leaving them.’ Imagine if Jesus was to stay in your town, Jesus the demon-driver-outer and healer. There’d be no need for the equivalent of the South-West Acute Hospital. Jesus could heal everyone. There’s be no need for Doctor Scott and Doctor Cromie in Brookeborough Surgery. If anyone got sick, you just bring them to Jesus and he’ll make them better. Perfect.

Except, the crowds in their excitement have forgotten about the first part of the day; the first reason they were astounded. It’s like making the sandwich and forgetting the final matching layer. Jesus wasn’t just about demons and healings. What came first? And what comes last here?

‘But he said to them, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.’ (43) Jesus came to teach, to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God. And not just in one town either, but to other cities too.

The healings and the driving out of demons are signs of the kingdom, as Jesus overturns the way things are and defeats the devil and rescues his people. God continues to do amazing and wonderful things in us and through us.

But Jesus is reminding us that we can’t just run after the spectacular signs and wonders, but not bother about the kingdom. Do we yearn for Jesus to heal ourselves or a loved one, but aren’t really fussed about Jesus as our Saviour and Lord? It’s not enough to be excited about a big day, it’s about hearing and obeying the king every day.

Jesus was sent for the purpose of proclaiming the good news. You may never be healed of sickness in this life, but the good news that Jesus is King, as you hear and respond by trusting him - this will save you forever. Our prayer is that Jake and Ellie will hear the call of the kingdom, and follow Jesus the king, who saves us because he is the King.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 24th February 2013.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sermon: Psalm 42 and Psalm 43: The Cry of the Thirsty

When was the last time you were thirsty? For me, it was this morning, as I sat down to write the sermon, started thinking about thirsting, and suddenly, my mouth went dry, and all I could think of was a nice cup of tea or a glass of water. (Could it be that when you think of thirsting you suddenly are thirsty in the same way that you think of yawning and then all you can do is yawn, even if you aren’t tired? - Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned yawning during a sermon - I’ll have to make sure you don’t fall asleep!)

You might have been thirsty after a hard day’s work on the farm or in the garden. You might have run after children or grandchildren all day. You’ve hit the shops, and now it’s time for refreshment. You’ve got back from training for a marathon. You’re thirsty. The picture the psalm writer gives us is of a deer longing for water - thirsty after being chased, perhaps.

The writer declares his thirst - but not for water. Rather, his thirst for God. ‘As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.’ You might have experienced physical thirst, needing water, but what about this spiritual thirst? Have you ever been thirsty for God?

Perhaps things aren’t what they used to be. Your prayer life has become dry and dusty. You’re not as on fire for the Lord. The Christian life doesn’t seem as exciting as it once did. God seems distant, he doesn’t seem to answer prayer. What do you do when it’s like this? This might be you as we speak. But you might be thinking to yourself - what is he talking about? It’s never been like that. The Christian life is full of peaks and troughs, mountains and valleys. Listen in, this could soon be your experience.

His thirst is great; his need is deep - ‘When shall I come and behold the face of God?’ He’s crying - it’s made worse as other people ask ‘Where is your God?’ you talk a lot about him, but where is he? As if that’s not enough, in verse 4, he remembers when things were different:

‘These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.’ The writer looks back and remembers how things used to be - he was a leader of God’s people; he was at the heart of the service, he was in the thick of it, among the noise and music and joy. But now he’s thirsting, longing for God.

Perhaps you look back to when things were different. Those first days when you trusted the Lord and everything was exciting as you opened the Bible. You saw prayers answered, and enjoyed worship. But it’s not like that now. You thirst for God. Where is he?

In the second section, the writer feels distant from God. Verse 6: ‘My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.’ He’s right on the edge of Israel; he’s as far away from Jerusalem while still in the land; about 120 miles away (further than Brookeborough to Dublin). He’s separated from the temple and from God.

God seems to have forgotten him; the enemy (whoever they are) oppresses him. Their taunts are like a deadly wound - like a cut or a sore that they keep poking. They continually ask: ‘Where is your God?’

What the writer experiences physically, being so far from Jerusalem, we can also experience spiritually. It seems as if God is so distant. As the hymn puts it: ‘Where is that blessedness I knew when first I saw the Lord?’ God doesn’t change, God doesn’t move, so if we’re distant from him, it must be us who have gone astray.

By the third section, in what is Psalm 43, the cry becomes even more desperate. Here, the call is for vindication - for God to act and defend his cause. For God to intervene and demonstrate his power. You see, even in the darkest moments, the writer never loses his trust. Even when things are going against him and God seems distant, he still continues to call to God. It’s the very nature of the Psalm, isn’t it? It’s a cry to God.

In verses 3 and 4 of Psalm 43, the writer cries for resolution: ‘O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling. Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy; and I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.’

He recognises that God must act; that only God can bring him back and satisfy him. He asks for God’s light and truth to lead him and bring him, and cause him to praise. It’s precisely what he needs - light for the path (being so far away), and truth (surrounded by the enemy’s lies).

It’s what we need as well - whether we’re far from God because we’ve never been intimate with God before; we’re still wandering far from him; or whether we’ve been a Christian for a long time and yet, things have slipped; the worries of life have carried us away; we’ve become separated, feeling far from God; we’ve lost the joy and excitement of the Christian life. What we need is for God to send his light and truth - or rather, the one who is the light of the world; the one who is the way and the truth and the life - Jesus, the one who brings us near to God, brings us into God’s family and causes us to worship.

Now you might have noticed that we’ve left out a fairly important part so far. If you’ve been following along, you’ll have thought - he’s missed a bit. You see, when we’re reading the Bible, it’s always good to look for repeated words or phrases - sometimes that’s the key to the whole passage. And here, it would be hard to miss the repeated phrase, because it’s actually a repeated refrain. What’s the chorus?

‘Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.’ (42:5, 11; 43:5).

I wonder do you talk to yourself? Don’t be afraid to say yes - you see, whether we realise it or not, we’re always talking to ourselves. There’s always some sort of conversation going on. Whether it’s as worries are recycled and repeated and on and on; or you’re wondering how you’re feeling and psyching yourself up to get out of bed or make that awkward phonecall.

Here, in this chorus, the writer asks himself: ‘Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?’ And you might be thinking to yourself, well, isn’t it obvious? He’s given us a litany of reasons. Haven’t you been listening? He’s thirsting for God; he’s far from God; he’s desperate for God to act.

But look how he responds to himself as he talks to himself: ‘Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.’ You see, he recognises the situation he’s in. He knows the list of reasons why things look so bleak, and why he could be depressed. But he reminds himself of the hope he has in God - he doesn’t just focus on himself and his problems. He turns his focus instead on God. What he’s doing is, in effect, preaching to himself. He’s reminding himself of the gospel; he’s encouraging himself based on God’s promises.

It goes something like this: It might be tough now, but there is still hope in God. God loves me - I know this because Jesus died for me. I am a loved child of God, adopted into his family, my sins are gone; there is no condemnation.

If you had a friend who was discouraged, you would hopefully draw alongside them and gently remind them of the hope of the gospel in Jesus. So why not do it to yourself? Talk to yourself in the best possible way. Remind yourself of the gospel as you preach to yourself. It’s as we do this that we find that hope, which brings us to praise him, our help and our God. The thirst is quenched in him.

This sermon was preached at the Lent Midweek Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 20th February 2013.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sermon: Luke 4: 1-13 Jesus Tempted

When we were growing up, my younger brother loved watching the wrestling on TV. Each week he would sit down and watch as Hulk Hogan and Kane and all the rest fought it out in the ring. His favourite fight, though, was the royal rumble. In it, 30 fighters would enter the ring in quick succession, with a fight to the finish, throwing everyone else out of the ring over the top of the ropes.

The weaker wrestlers would be quickly eliminated, one defeating them all easily. Until right at the end would come the showdown. Could the last fresh wrestler defeat the champion, the one who looked certain to win?

In our gospel reading today, it’s a bit like the closing stages of a royal rumble. The fight has been going on since the beginning of creation, the devil defeating everyone who has gone before - Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; the children of Israel in the wilderness; every human being has failed and fallen in the face of temptation. The big question is: can Jesus succeed where Adam and Israel failed? Can Jesus do what each of us fail to do?

Let’s briefly remind ourselves of the tests that Jesus faced. In the first, the devil says: ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ (3) Jesus has been in the wilderness for forty days; we’re told that he is hungry. We know he is the Son of God - we’ve already heard the Father’s voice in Luke 3. We know that Jesus has the power to provide miraculous food - later he will feed five thousand and four thousand. So why not a bit of a bap for one?

How does Jesus respond? ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.”’ Jesus goes straight to the scriptures to discover God’s will for his people. The verse he points to is from Deuteronomy 8:3, where Moses summarises the experience of the children of Israel in the wilderness. There, God provided manna for them after they hungered, to show that ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.’ While bread might be good, it’s much more important to have and obey the word of God. Jesus has passed the test.

The second test offers Jesus the kingdoms of the world, if he will but worship the devil. Now what’s going on here? As you might have guessed from my physique, I was never a fan of PE. The classes I dreaded most were when Mr McAleese would announce the 1.2. The 1.2 was a run 1.2 miles long, starting at the school, through the park, past the sewage works, onto the road, down through the town (past our house, where mum and/or granny would be watching out), and back round to school.

On cold, miserable mornings, it was torture! Except, some boys quickly worked out that once you had started into the park, you could cut out about half the distance by using another gate. You avoided the smelly sewage works and the big hill; you could even rest on the benches until the keen ones had gone the long way round. A shortcut. Why strain yourself? Why not take the easy way out? That’s what the devil is offering here - king of kings and lord of lords, without having to go to the cross. Just bow down and worship the devil. A lot less hassle.

How does Jesus respond? ‘It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”’ (8) Jesus turns to the scriptures again, and declares that God is the only one who is worthy of our worship. To worship anyone or anything else is at the heart of sin - idolatry. Jesus has passed the test.

By now the devil is sick hearing Jesus quote scripture, so he tries it himself. ‘It is written...’ He takes Jesus to the top of the temple - about 700 feet up - the height of 50 double deckers on top of each other, and urges him to jump without a parachute or a bungy rope. Why? Well, because God has promised in Psalm 91 to protect his people. Plus, if Jesus pulls it off, it’ll provide a great spectacle in Jerusalem. Think of the watching crowds!

But just because the devil can quote scripture doesn’t mean that he understands it. He’s using it with an agenda; he seizes on something that suits his purpose. And how does Jesus respond? ‘It is said (which is in effect, it is written), ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’’ God is not a performing puppy who has to jump to our demands; we don’t call the shots; we can’t just test out the promises to make sure. We can depend on them, but not check them, just to be sure. Once again, Jesus has passed the test.

The end result that day was that Jesus passed the test. He defeated the temptations the devil threw at him. He remained faithful and obedient to God; he proved himself to be the Son of God, not by doing what the devil said, but by doing what God has said.

God’s Son succeeds in perfect obedience where Adam and all his sons and daughters have failed. He is qualified to win salvation for us by his perfect life as he dies in our place for our sins. So we can be sure that our failures are covered; that when we have given in to temptation, Jesus’ blood is covering our sin. We are credited with his obedience where we have disobeyed. What wonderful good news!

But what about those times tomorrow when temptation strikes? How will you react when you’re given an opportunity you feel you just can’t refuse? The first thing to remember is that Jesus knows what we are going through. As the letter to the Hebrews reminds us: Jesus ‘has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.’ (Heb 4:15). Therefore, we can ‘approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find find grace to help in time of need.’ (Heb 4:16). Jesus, the Saviour, knows what we face; he has been in our shoes; he faced temptation on a level we will never know, and yet did not sin. He’s not like an armchair general or a commander who has never experienced the front line of the battle... he’s been there before us. He gives us grace when tested, and mercy when we fail.

But there’s more. You see, Jesus is not just our Saviour; he is also our example. So how does our passage help us when we face temptation? What will the grace for the battle look like?

Notice how Jesus answers each of the temptations in the same way - ‘It is written’ (or ‘It is said’). Jesus’ response comes from the Scriptures, the creator’s instructions. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I get a new gadget, I want to tear into it straight away. Plug it in, turn it on, and figure it out as I go. Before you know it, I’m stuck, I don’t know how to work it, and I have to hoke in the box for the instructions. The Bible is a bit like the maker’s instructions - a guide for living.

As well as that, though, the Bible is also like a love letter to us from God - now maybe young people today don’t bother with love letters - they’re more into Facebook wall posts; but imagine (or remember) back to when it was pen and paper - you received word from your beloved; you would treasure it, and read it, and re-read it. The Bible is not only from God, it’s also about God - we see the Lord Jesus within its pages from Genesis to Revelation, as it unfolds the greatest story ever told, God’s rescue plan for people like us.

But it’s even more. Do you remember the armour of God in Ephesians 6? Paul describes all the pieces of defensive armour - helmet, belt, breastplate, shield... there’s just one weapon for attack: ‘the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.’ It’s the sword that Jesus uses here against the devil.

I’m sure you’ve seen an often-repeated scene in films and TV drama. The hero is in a showdown with the villain, when suddenly, the hero has no sword, no weapon. They’re powerless. That’s a picture of the Christian against the power of the devil.

The other day I was in a small Primary School speaking to an SU group. They were practicing their ‘sword drill’ - finding and reading and getting to know Bible verses. How is your own sword drill? Is your Bible in use, or gathering dust on a shelf or safely away in a cupboard?

You see, it’s as we read our Bibles, as we wield our swords, that we can resist temptation as we become more like the Lord Jesus - as Paul says. ‘All scripture is inspired by God (God-breathed) and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.’ (2 Tim 3:16)

Perhaps this season of Lent would be a good time to start to read your Bible. Why not read through a gospel as you learn more about the Saviour? Some find it useful to start the day off by reading the Bible and praying. For others, it might be at the end of the day; or during lunchbreak; or when you get a few minutes any time of the day. You could get a Bible app on your phone; or have the Bible on cd to listen in the car or as you jog. Any time we’re out shopping and Lynsey goes to try on clothes, I take the opportunity to read a chapter or two on my phone. There are lots of daily reading notes available - ask me or your rector afterwards for details of some.

Why read the Bible? It shows us the beauty and glory and wonder of our glorious Saviour, who defeated our enemies (including the devil), and reigns on high; who gives us his word so that we can know him; and gives us grace to stand firm against the devil’s lies. God, who spoke creation into being continues to speak to us through his unchanging word, to him be the glory. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Mark's Church, Dundela, east Belfast on Sunday 17th February 2013.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Sermon Audio: Obadiah

On Sunday night in the Brooke Hall, I preached from the shortest book in the Old Testament, the book of the prophet Obadiah. What is God saying to his people as he addresses their enemies?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Sermon: Psalm 51 A Cry for Cleansing

When we were growing up, we always used to go for walks on Sunday afternoons, after we got our dinner. Some days we would just go through the park; other days we ended up on a big circuit through the countryside, but there’s one day I will never forget. We were on the Jubilee Road, about a mile from home, when suddenly, my wee brother (aged about four or five) tripped and fell headlong into a big muddly puddle. He was plastered in muck from head to toe - from the front, he looked like a swamp monster. Absolutely filthy.

No matter how hard he tried to sort himself, wiping the mud off his face, it just didn’t work - because he was still dirty. He was only really spreading it around. Even dad’s hanky didn’t make much difference. He nearly would have needed to have been put in the washing machine along with his clothes. He started to cry. He didn’t want to be dirty. He needed to be clean - and he couldn’t do it himself.

Our reading this evening is a cry for cleansing, from the lips of King David. It’s the cry of someone who has realised their filthiness, who has recognised that they can’t sort themselves out. Just like a baby crying because they have a dirty nappy, so David cries out to be cleansed.

You see, David had been found out. In the title of the Psalm, we’re told that it is ‘A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.’ David, the king, hadn’t bothered going to war with his soldiers, and instead, back home, he spotted Bathsheba bathing, and sent for her. In doing so, he got her pregnant - but then had her husband (one of the soldiers who had been fighting for him) killed to cover up his unfaithfulness. As one commentator has said, David managed to break at least five of the commandments in one go - coveting, theft, adultery, murder, and bearing false witness.

He thought he had gotten away with it, though. No one knew anything about it, but God knew. So God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David, telling a parable to trap David into convicting himself with his own words. ‘You are the man.’

This psalm is the outpouring of David’s repentance, as he cries to God for cleansing. He recognises his need for God to do it in the very first verse: ‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.’ He needs mercy - for God to not give him what he deserves. He admits that God would be justified to sentence him; (4) that God would be right to pass judgement on him, because he has done evil (4).

It’s not that he’s covering up his sinfulness; not pretending that all is well; he’s not ignoring the stench of his sin - no, he lays it bare before the Lord. He says that ‘I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.’ (3) He mentions sins, and transgressions, and iniquity. David recognises that he is, in heart and soul, evil - a sinner from conception, born this way in rebellion against God.

Now as we read these words, I wonder what your reaction is? When you hear the word ‘sinner’, do you instantly think of yourself, or of some other person or group? Is it only those people over there (whoever they may be) who are the sinners? Or do you qualify as well? Is that who you are, too? Maybe when we come to church, we don’t show it - we can put on a show for an hour or so, stand and sit in the right places, smile and sing and be silent; we look the part, dressed in nice clothes. And yet, deep down, each of us are in the same situation. None of us are righteous. God desires ‘truth in the inward being’ (6), but we’re a jumble of lies and folly and idolatry. It’s David’s testimony - even David, the man after God’s heart; David the king, the leader of God’s people. David, the sinner.

Because of that, he can only cry out to God for cleansing. ‘Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.’ (2) ‘Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.’ (7) ‘Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.’ (9)

David has owned what he has done; now he cries out for God to do what only God can do - to provide cleansing, to bring forgiveness. It almost sounds too wonderful to be true - that we who are dirty can be made clean. And yet it is precisely what God does; what God has done, not just for David, but for countless numbers, everyone who turns to God in repentance and faith - as we know (even though David didn’t), through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross, for our sake.

As we cry out to the Lord, we are assured of forgiveness and mercy, because of God’s promise. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. (1 Tim 1:15). So if you found yourself as a sinner earlier, then there is hope. You see, God doesn’t just confront us with our sin; convict us of our guilt and then leave us like that. No, he has provided the cure. He has sent the remedy - the redeemer, who takes away our sin and clothes us in his perfect, spotless righteousness. In the book Revelation, John sees that great crowd before the throne, and he is told that ‘they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’ (Rev 7:14)

The TV adverts are always full of the latest washing powder or the newest hoover which also washes the carpets. All the stains will be taken away. Yet no washing powder, however good, will make whites whiter than snow. Eventually over time whites become grey (please don’t look too closely at my surplice!). Yet the blood of the Lamb makes them whiter than fresh snow.

I suspect that most, if not all, have cried to the Lord; you’re already a Christian. So what about after we’ve been converted? We rejoice in the promise that as we confess our sins, God forgives them. There is no condemnation. And yet, David is very aware that he needs more than just the instant forgiveness - what we know as justification (which we see in 1-9). He also needs the ongoing power of God to change (what is known as sanctification). Look with me at verse 10: ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.’ This is all about how David will continue to live in the future. He’s assured of forgiveness, but he also needs to go on with God, which again is an act of mercy on God’s part.

You see, if our hearts are sinful and wicked, then we need a new heart, a clean heart - a heart that desires God, that seeks to obey him by love. We’re given a heart transplant. We’re also given the Holy Spirit - David pleads that he now be taken away. (11) David asks to know the joy of salvation - the joy of sins forgiven, which leads to a willing spirit.

As he rejoices in sins forgiven, he will then be able to help other sinners, as he shares God’s way with them. But more than that, our ongoing experience of deliverance and salvation will pour out praise to our God, who has rescued us and cleansed us.

The Lord has provided all that we need for our salvation; for the change in identity from sinner to saved. It’s all found in the work of the Lord Jesus, his perfect sacrifice. We receive his mercy as we come humbly, with a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart. Will you come tonight?

This sermon was preached at the Ash Wednesday service in Aghavea Parish Church on 13th February 2013.

Sermon Audio: Luke 4: 16-30

On Sunday I was preaching from Jesus' visit to the synagogue in Nazareth, on the Saviour Rejected. Here's how it sounded.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Sermon: Obadiah 1: 1-21 Edom's Judgement

A few weeks back, you might have noticed the news that Willie Frazer was going to lead a delegation to Dublin as part of the flag protests. He wanted to protest about the flying of the Irish flag over the Irish Parliament (if the Union Flag has been mostly removed from Belfast City Hall), except, the flag doesn’t fly over the Oireachtas when it’s not in session, so the flag wouldn’t even have been flying on the Saturday.

It was a political stunt that backfired, and yet it might help us to see, in part, what the book of Obadiah is all about. This year in the Brooke Hall we’ve been looking at some of the smaller books of the Bible, Philemon, 3 John, and tonight we come to Obadiah. Imagine how terrible it would be to bump into Obadiah in heaven and for him to ask what we thought of his book, only to have to admit that we hadn’t read it! Now we’ll be ready for his question!

Willie Frazer was a political spokesman, going from one country to another, trying to speak to the country. Now, Willie would have been speaking on behalf of the Ulster People’s Forum, but Obadiah, is speaking to another country, to Edom, on behalf of God. Right there in verse 1, we have the charge: ‘The vision of Obadiah. Thus says the Lord God concerning Edom...’

Now who was Edom? It’s not Edam - the cheese. If you remember back to Abraham’s family, his son was Isaac, and he had two sons, twins, Esau and Jacob. Jacob became Israel, the chosen line. Esau is also known as Edom. The land of Edom lay to the south of Israel, a mountainous region, from which they became very proud. You see, they thought they were secure.

When we were young, there was a big climbing frame like a boat in the park up the road from our house. It was always great fun to climb on, but sometimes if there were lots of friends, you would see who was in charge of the ship. You had to try to throw everyone else off (onto the grass, I hasten to add), and the last one standing was the winner. Of course there was a rhyme to go with it: ‘I’m the king of the castle, you’re the dirty rascal’. Lots of fun...

But this is how Edom thought of itself. Verse 3: ‘The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rock, in your lofty dwelling, who say in your heart, “Who will bring me down to the ground?”’ The capital of Edom was Petra, a city built into the rock, it was thought to be impenetrable. You can almost hear Edom singing ‘I’m the king of the castle...’

God’s verdict, though, is one of judgement: ‘Though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest is set among the stars, from there I will bring you down, declares the Lord.’ Human power is no match for God’s power. When God’s judgement comes, it’s not just knocking down a peg or two - it’s total destruction. Look at verse 5. God says through Obadiah that if thieves were to break in, they might just take some of your belongings. Maybe what they could carry. Or if grape gatherers were to strike your field, they would leave gleanings. They’re not going to strip the vines bare. Yet Edom’s destruction is total. Their loss is complete. Total wipeout.

Now you might be asking, why is this happening? What could they possibly have done? Look at verse 10. ‘Because of the violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever.’

The setting is the fall of Jerusalem, when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came against Jerusalem and carried off the treasures of the city. Did Edom help those in need? Not at all, instead, the Edomites were helping Babylon, first by standing aloof, pretending not to hear the cry for help, and then by joining in the assault, even catching and handing over some survivors who were trying to escape (14).

Edom seems to be profiting from the fall of Jerusalem. The enemies of God’s people are taking delight and pleasure in the misery of God’s people. They’re riding high on the downfall of Jerusalem. But that situation will not last forever. Now, they may celebrate, but judgement is coming. Verse 15: ‘For the day of the Lord is near upon all the nations.’

The day of the Lord is a coming judgement, a reversal, where they are repaid for what they have done. What has gone up will certainly come down - with a bang. Pride and pleasure now, but then suffering.

The surprising thing, though, is that there isn’t much said about it all here. Rather, what is mentioned and majored on is the fate of Jerusalem. Here, in this word to Edom, is an extended promise of restoration and rescue for fallen Jerusalem. It’s a remarkable word, given the circumstances of the time.

Jerusalem has been conquered. Most of the people of the city and area have been taken away to Babylon. The city lies in ruins. It looks as if Judah and Israel and Jerusalem are finished. Babylon and Edom are flourishing, prospering. Yet Obadiah declares that Edom will fall, while Jerusalem will be restored and rise again.

‘But in Mount Zion there shall be those who escape, and it shall be holy, and the house of Jacob shall possess their own possessions.’ I don’t know if you’ve ever had your house burgled. When I was young, I remember our granny’s house being robbed - she was hoovering upstairs and always left the front door open (but with the inside door closed). Someone took the opportunity to nip in, grab her purse, and make off. She never saw it again. The treasures of Jerusalem were carried off (wealth v 11). The gold vessels from the temple went to Babylon. But they will come back (and indeed, did - see Ezra and Nehemiah).

Further, there’s the promise that Israel’s borders will extend to take in the whole region. That’s the message of 19-21. The exiles will return and the nation will expand, and, closing words: ‘the kingdom shall be the Lord’s’.

In this very week when Parliament was debating same-sex marriage, it can look as if the kingdoms of the world are very powerful and proud. They chart their own course and go their own way. And we wonder, does God see, does God care?

The message of Obadiah is that God stands in judgement against the proud - whether nations (like Edom), or individuals. Who will bring me to the ground? I will bring you down, declares the Lord. Jerusalem, the people of God - the church, may appear to be losing, weak, powerless, and facing days of distress. But hang in there. It’s not over yet. Just as God restored the fortunes of Zion; just as Jesus was raised from death; so too he has made the promise to us that we will reign with him.

To stand in pride against God is utter foolishness. To think that we’re incapable of falling is folly. The only safe place is not in the clefts of the rock at Petra, but in the rock of ages, cleft for me, as we take refuge in the God of our salvation who exalts the meek and scatters the proud...

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 10th February 2013.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sermon: Luke 4: 16-30 The Saviour Rejected

Just after I was appointed as your Rector, I was doing a little search on the internet for Aghavea Church, to see what I could find out. On the first page, there was a site that almost gave me a fright. Here’s the headline: ‘Parishioners Protest At Morning Prayer: Aghavea Church.’ As you might imagine, it made me wonder what sort of parish I was coming to - but then I read the date: 19th November 1826. There was a falling out over politics, and the majority of the congregation got up and walked out as the Rector began the service. Now hopefully that won’t happen today!

I was reminded of that this week as I was thinking about the events in the synagogue in Luke 4. A fortnight ago, we looked at the first part of the story - Jesus reading from the Old Testament and declaring that he was fulfilling the promises that had been made about the coming king who would bring freedom. It all started so well. They seem to like what he’s saying. But jump to the end of the reading, and it’s a bit like that stormy morning in this very building almost 200 years ago. ‘All in the synagogue were filled with rage.’ (28) More than that, they want to kill Jesus, by throwing him off the cliff. What was it caused the change? How did they go from being in church to becoming a lynch mob? Is there any chance that we too, attending church, would want to get rid of Jesus? Let’s find out.

It’s still early in Jesus’ ministry. Having taught in other towns, he now comes to Nazareth, his home town. In the synagogue, the place of worship and prayer, he makes the claim that the Old Testament scriptures are all about him - he is the fulfillment of the promise. Now look with me as events unfold. In verse 22, we’re told that ‘all spoke well of him’ - but as the verse continues, we hear the warning bells... danger ahead!

First of all, they reject the messenger. Verse 22 again: they ‘were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.’ Other versions use astonished, or surprised, or marvelled - so this isn’t just an amazed at something they like; rather it’s more amazed at something they just can’t believe. It would be like your best friend telling you they had voted for a political party you thought were atrocious. You just can’t believe you’re hearing it, you’re astonished and disappointed.

They continue by saying ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ They remember Jesus when he was a wee nipper, running around. They’ve watched him grow up, and now they just can’t believe that he would come out with this stuff - him, the messiah? Jesus as the Christ? Don’t be silly, they say, sure he went to school with our Jonny. He’s nothing special. Sure, he’s just the carpenter’s son. We’ve known his da. Who does he think he is?

They’re so familiar with Jesus. They think they know all there is to know about him. They have him sussed. And yet, they don’t know him at all. They’ve got the wrong end of the stick, and they’re missing out on who Jesus really is.

Is there a possibility that we’re also too familiar with Jesus? We think we have him sussed. We put him in a nice neat box, all tied up with string, kept out of the way except for those times when we really need him? It may be that if we think we know Jesus, that we’re actually failing to grasp his identity just like those people in the synagogue that day.

You see, they’re sure Jesus is Joseph’s son. But Luke, in these early chapters shouts out loud and clear (just like the voice from heaven) that Jesus is God’s Son. To fail to see this is to get Jesus wrong. So who is Jesus, in your eyes? Have you jumped to assumptions, or will you get to know him? [The season of Lent could be a good one to even more read your Bible, read through Luke’s gospel to discover the real Jesus...]

The people rejected the messenger. They couldn’t believe that Jesus could be the one to bring freedom. But that wasn’t all. You see, they also rejected the message. We thought last time about the wonderful good news of the message Jesus brought - freedom, liberty, healing. Yet these people in the synagogue reject the good news, because the scope is wider than they like.

It’s good news for all, for every outsider, but that displeases the good Jewish religious folk, who think that God is only for them. They reject the message by imposing false limits on who God can save. They reckon that it’s only by going to church and being nice that will make God like them - but the message Jesus brings is bigger and more radical than that.

Jesus doesn’t say ‘pull your socks up and try harder.’ Rather he says that those held captive will be released; those who are blind will be given sight; those oppressed will be freed. It’s a free pardon for anyone who will hear and receive it - not just the Jews; not just the people like us. To show that this is always how God has worked, he points back to times in Israel’s history when Elijah and Elisha (two prophets) were active.

There were plenty of hungry, poor widows in Israel, but Elijah went to live with a widow at Zarephath, where God caused a miracle to occur, giving her an unending supply of oil and grain (1 Kings 17). Now Zarephath wasn’t in Israel - it was in enemy territory, Sidon, the very place Jezebel (the bad queen) came from. In the same way, Elisha heals just one person of leprosy - Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army, again, the Israelite’s enemies!

The message of Jesus is good news to all who will hear, even (and especially) the outsider. We like to think that heaven is going to be people just like us - all Northern Irish, white, and Church of Ireland. But the good news is for all - John sees the vision of heaven where a multitude gathers before the throne of every tribe and tongue and people and language,

God’s grace is for all, not just for us. Who are the outsiders we think that God couldn’t possibly be interested in? Who is it we think couldn’t be saved, because they’re not like us? Who should we be sharing the good news with, and inviting in to hear?

The people rejected the messenger. They were too familiar with Jesus. He shocked them, so that they also rejected his message. They were so angry with what he said that they made him an outsider - they threw him out of their town and wanted to throw him off the cliff, they were so mad they wanted to kill Jesus.

These religious people, these good, upstanding people who think that they’re insiders reject the good news for all outsiders. But it was as Jesus became an outsider - the Son of God who was rejected by men and forsaken by the Father - that outsiders can be welcomed in as they hear and receive the good news.

Please don’t ever think that you’ve tamed Jesus, that you know all about him. And that’s especially so of Christians. How are you continuing to get to know the Lord? How are you following his footsteps (and even facing rejection) by sharing the good news for the outsider, the people unlike us?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 10th February 2013.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Book Review: Connected

If there was one doctrine of the Christian faith that would be the hardest to understand and explain, what would you think it was? Having dealt with the resurrection in his first book, Sam Allberry is back with his second, Connected, on the Trinity. As with his first, so with his second - it's a great book, and essential reading to help get to grips with an important part of our faith - who God is in himself, and what that means for us. As he acknowledges, 'Writing on the Trinity has been both an enormous joy and an enormous struggle.' It was well worth the struggle, as you'll discover when you read and profit from the book.

One again, Allberry writes in a very accessible and easy to follow style, with lots of illustrations and humour, which help to communicate the message. While dealing with some complicated stuff, his explanations and illustrations provide insight.

In the introduction, he declares that the Trinity used to be filed in the 'Things that all good Christians believe' file, without any exploration of what it meant. However, as he read the Bible, he discovered the Trinity is there, for example in Jesus' farewell discourse in John's gospel. 'Understanding the Trinity helps us make sense of what we hold dear,' because, as he goes on to point out, 'very few passage are 'about' the Trinity... Most of the time when it comes up, the Trinity is an essential background to the main point.'

The rest of the book is divided into two main parts: The Trinity and God; and The Trinity and Us. In a number of chapters, the Bible is explored and explained.

Part one focuses in on God, who is one, a divine integrity, three in one, and the party that never ends. In contrast to the polytheism all around, the foundation of the whole Bible is that God is one. It's declared in the Old Testament and affirmed in the New, especially as Jesus is asked which the most important commandment is. Rather than launching directly into a command, he gives the full quotation: 'Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one...' As Allberry comments, 'Doctrine comes before ethics; confession before commandment.' The fact that God is one applies in may ways, of which two are: 1. God deserves our total devotion. 2. There is one God for all, idols are nothing, so mission is vital.

In the divine integrity chapter, he helpfully makes the point that there is more to God than we realise. He is undivided, so you can't have one 'person' without the others (e.g. a Jesus church or a Father movement or a Spirit obsession), nor can you play one off against the others (e.g. as you might with your mum or dad when you were looking something). This is applied to the cross - that it's neither a reluctant Father who is won round by the Son; nor an unwilling Jesus forced to go to the cross.

The One who is Three looks at the Bible in a bit more depth, tracing some of the occasions where the Trinity is in view through creation, the visitors coming to Abraham, and various other incidents. The humanity and divinity of Jesus is also examined, before a useful reminder of some of the things the Trinity is not.

The last chapter in this section explores the Party That Never Ends - the internal relationship of the Trinity, with the reminder that God is love because love has always been a part of the giving and receiving of the Trinity. Therefore, God is not dependent on us - we were not made because God was lonely, but rather, God invites us in to share with him.

Part Two shifts from God to people, and explores what the Trinity means to us and for us. In 'You: an introduction' he explores the notion of going on a gap year to 'find yourself', because 'we are easily confused about who we are.' The simple truth is that 'God made us to image him: the more we understand him, the better we will understand who he has made us to be.' This leads to a reflection on being made in God's image of relationships, serving, and in marriage, where the 'one' flesh is the same word as the Lord your God, the Lord is 'one' - unity in difference, not sameness.

It's based on the Trinity that Allberry (whose same sex attraction has been well documented on his blog) affirms that marriage is only between one man and one woman - 'Sex is for marriage. Jesus makes this clear in other places where he lists among other sins that of 'secual immorality.' It is a catch-all term for any sexual activity outside of marriage: pre-marital sex, extra-marital sex and all same-sex sexual activity. While none of these is named specifically, they are all covered by the general term Jesus uses. To suggest Jesus did not teach on these matters, as some claim today, is simply untrue. Jesus upholds the biblical ethic that the only moral context for sexual activity is marriage... We need to keep coming back to our Creator's design for us. The kind of union that finds its fullest human expression in marriage is itself a reflection of what we see in God's own eternal nature: unity in complementary difference.'

From there, the next chapter explores gender and the potentially controversial topic of male headship. With a great illustration of how McDonald's ensures that all their fries are always all the same, whereas God is 'unity not in sameness but in difference' he points to the musical theology of Islam and Christianity. Islam's monotone call to prayer is a musical pointer to their unitary God; whereas Bach's polyphony illustrates (in what I think is a brilliant phrase) 'Theological harmony.' On gender, while it may be controversial, he asks which you would rather be out of step with - culture or God? Learning from the Father and the Son being equally God but distinctive, he points the way ahead for the gender war, as we follow the persons of our God who are 'equal in divinity; submissive in role.'

God's three-in-one diversity is also reflected in the life of the church, with a variety of people and gifts and experiences, all coming together and building each other up as the body of Christ.

In what was perhaps the best chapter, Allberry explores the role of the Trinity in prayer. 'Scripture doesn't do technique, but theology.'
He goes on to say that 'Prayer takes its cue not so much from what we do, but from who God is' as he spells out the role of the Spirit as he helps us pray through the Son to the Father. 'Prayer is essentially evangelical: as we pray, we are re-enacting the gospel to ourselves.'

As I've said, the Trinity may not be an easy subject to think about, but Sam Allberry presents the doctrine from Scripture in a clear and engaging way. It could be a useful book for pastors and teachers as they seek to communicate the Trinity (with a mine of helpful illustrations which will be recycled!). But it's not just for pastors. Ordinary Christians will also find it a good introduction to the Trinity, and to thinking about the way God has revealed himself to us. It might even be good for non=Christians exploring Christianity to see who God is in himself. Connected(Amazon) can also be downloaded as an ebook from IVP.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Book Review: The Intolerance of Tolerance

I've heard Don Carson speak a few times, and either during the session, or else during the question time after, modern culture has inevitably raised its head. On the past few occasions, he mentioned about the intolerance or the new tolerance, and how there was probably a book in it. And now, here it is: 'The Intolerance of Tolerance.'

Carson traces the development our culture which has led to a disappointing redefinition of tolerance. Originally, it meant that you would accept and tolerate the existence of other views - rival truth claims, defending their right to believe such. Nowadays, though, the new tolerance is rather 'intrinsically intolerant' - that all views are equally correct, and to challenge this is 'intolerant.' With a generous portion of contemporary examples from America, Britain and further afield, the intolerance of tolerance is exposed - often in ridiculous and what would be funny ways - if it all wasn't so serious.

Having introduced his theme, given a survey of the current state of play, traced the history of tolerance, Carson then asserts that what is happening is worse than inconsistency - it is inconsistency with an agenda. As he states, 'It is in fact smuggling into the culture massive structures of thought and imposing them on others who disagree, while insisting that the others are the intolerant people.' Inclusion, used to force Christian student groups to include non-Christians on their committees, is not universally applied to also force Christians onto the atheist group committee, or Jews onto the Muslim committee or so on... 'They appeal to tolerance selectively in order to promote their own selective values.'

The centre of the book is a reiteration of the Church and Christian truth claims, as well as morality. Rather than God being tolerant in the modern (or postmodern) sense, God is patient, not wanting any to perish, but judgement will come. 'His love is better than tolerance; his wrath guarantees justice that mere tolerance can never imagine.'

On discussing inter-faith dialogue, he writes of three religious ladies, a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim, who meet together to share together. They have a happy unity, but as Carson points out, 'Interfaith dialog... will likely come to this sort of happy friendship provided no participant believes very much to be true within his or her respective traditions.'

At times when reading Carson, my head begins to hurt because his material is so heavy (or else above me), but even in this, it's clear to follow his thought and to sense the urgency in his message. The chapter on 'Tolerance, Democracy and Majoritarianism' appears to be mostly concentrating on the American system, with American history sampled and American concerns. The final chapter, however, is relevant for everyone, as he gives ten words, ten action points to seek to change the culture, based on the observation of the book. While all are worth taking on board, the stand-out ones for me were to 'practice civility' (by commending the Lord Jesus through our actions and interactions, rather than sounding off and turning people away); and being prepared to suffer - which appears to be the trajectory we are on.

The Intolerance of Toleranceis a good read to get a sense of our bearings in the current climate, and to prepare us for what may eventually come our way in this part of the United Kingdom.