Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sermon: Luke 24:1-12 The Empty Tomb

This morning I’ve got a quiz for you. They’re all odd one out. I’ll give you four items, and you have to work out which one is the odd one out. Which doesn’t fit in the set?

lorry; bus; car; bicycle - the odd one out is bicycle - it doesn’t have an engine, and only has two wheels.

slippers; gloves; sandals; shoes - the odd one out are the gloves, because they are worn on the hands, the rest on the feet.

cabbage; pineapple; orange; apple - the odd one out is the cabbage, because the rest are fruit, but it is a vegetable.

doctor; nurse; vet; surgeon - the odd one out is the vet, because they treat animals, the rest people.

Now, those were easy, weren’t they? In each of the sets, there was one thing that stood out, that didn’t fit in with the rest.

On that first Easter morning, early on, some of the women who had followed Jesus went to the tomb. They were going to finish the funeral customs, by bringing the nice smelling spices to rub into his graveclothes. They went to the tomb expecting to find the body of Jesus in the tomb.

But that’s not what they found. Rather, the grave was open, the stone was rolled away. There was no body. Where had it gone? They were very confused.

Suddenly, though, two men in dazzling clothes (angels) appeared and said to them, in effect, that Jesus is like the odd one out. They had come to the graveyard, the place of the dead. But Jesus isn’t dead. He doesn’t fit into the set. He’s not like everybody else.

Here’s what the angels said: ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.’

They came expecting to find Jesus still dead. They knew, the same way we know, that dead people stay dead. They didn’t expect Jesus to be risen - otherwise why would they bring the burial spices?

This is the unexpected message of Easter: Jesus is alive. It was so unexpected that when the women went to tell the eleven disciples and the rest of the people with them, the disciples couldn’t believe it. They weren’t expecting it either.

‘These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.’ (11) Another version puts it like this: ‘They did not believe them for their words seemed like nonsense.

Perhaps today, you still think the story of Jesus being raised from the dead is just nonsense. You just can’t believe. If you were making it up; if this isn’t true, would you really make everyone doubt it when they hear it at first? Wouldn’t you want the characters to expect it? But they don’t. Why write it this way, unless it is the way it happened.

It was unexpected, and yet, they should have been expecting it all along.

When we were growing up in Dromore, there used to be a ‘spot the stranger’ competition every year. We didn’t all meet up in the town centre and point at outsiders who weren’t from the town. Rather, every shop decorated their window showing the things that they sold, but hidden among the display there was a ‘stranger’ - something that didn’t fit; something you couldn’t go into the shop and buy. It might have been a shoe shop with a knitting needle sticking out of a boot; it might have been a thimble sitting in the middle of a basket of apples. Sometimes we wondered if the stranger in some of the shop windows were the dead flies, but that was never the right answer, for some reason!

Some of the shop keepers were very obvious and the item would be sitting plain (probably so that they weren’t hassled by children and their parents wanting to know the answer), but other shops were more sneaky - you had to look very carefully, spend lots of time outside the shop until you spotted the object. But once you knew what it was, then any time you walked past, the stranger then jumped out at you. It was obvious that it didn’t fit. You wondered how you missed it all along.

It’s a bit like that with the resurrection. It was a shock to the disciples, but they should have known all along. Look at verse 6. The angels are speaking to the women: ‘Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’

Jesus had told them time and time again what would happen, and yet they just didn’t understand at the time. They should have been expecting Jesus to rise from the dead, but they didn’t. Like the stranger in the shop window, it’s now obvious for us. We can see that Jesus knew in advance what would happen to him, both the cross and the resurrection; he told the disciples, but they didn’t believe, until afterwards.

Jesus is still the odd one out. Just think of any collection of religious figures and founders - Mohammed, the Buddha. All the other people who started religions are dead. You can go to Muhammad’s tomb in Medina, Saudi Arabia; you can visit the Buddha’s grave in Sri Lanka; they’re both occupied. Jesus’ tomb is empty ever since that first Easter morning. Jesus is the odd one out, because he is alive!

It’s amazing news. It’s wonderful news. Whether you’re hearing it for the first time, or the thousandth time, the truth is that Jesus is alive. The grave could not hold him. Jesus doesn’t fit among the dead, because he is alive. And because Jesus is alive, that means that we too, as we trust in him, will live with him. Death has been defeated. Jesus is victorious - as he had promised.

This sermon was preached at the Easter Family Celebration at Aghavea Parish Church on 31st March 2013.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Sermon: Luke 23: 32-43 The King's Welcome

As we gather on this Good Friday, as we’ve heard the Passion of the Lord Jesus, we quickly realise that Jesus is at the very centre of human history. Jesus is the most important person who has ever lived - indeed, history itself is all about Jesus. Just think of how we mark time. We speak of BC and AD - Before Christ and Anno Domini, the year of the Lord. Now, while some very clever scholars try to speak instead of BCE - Before the Common Era - it still amounts to the very same; the dividing point, the centre point of time is Jesus Christ.

In our reading tonight, we saw how Jesus was at the centre of humanity. He was crucified between two thieves - one on his right and the other on his left. Jesus is in the centre, with the two crucified criminals showing us the two different reactions to Jesus. You see, there are only two ways to respond to Jesus, and the thieves crucified with Jesus demonstrate those two possibilities.

The first criminal, well, he went with the crowd. Luke tells us that the people watching sneered at him. ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.’ (35) They remembered the miracles Jesus had done; they thought they were just clever tricks - if he couldn’t get himself out of this situation. It would be like a champion lifeguard who had rescued lots of other people from drowning, who then drowned himself.

The soldiers joined in. ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’ They read the sign above Jesus’ head; they reckoned he should be able to rescue himself, come down from the cross and go free, if he was so important. And so, we listen in as the first criminal mocks Jesus. ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ If you’re really the Christ, you should be able to save not just yourself, but me too. Did you notice that each of the groups and also this criminal used the word save?

Save yourself - come down from the cross. Get yourself out of this mess. And while you’re at it, save me as well. He reckons that Jesus should get him out of this spot of bother - to show that he is the Christ. Yes, Jesus is the Christ, the king of the Jews - but in order to save others, he cannot save himself.

So the first criminal mocks and sneers, and rejects Jesus. In another gospel account we’re told that both criminals had mocked Jesus, but here Luke records that later on, the second criminal changes his tune. Whether it was as he watched Jesus die - praying for the soldiers who crucified them - he knew there was something different about Jesus. He and his mate were hardened criminals. They deserved all that they got. They were being punished for their deeds. But Jesus ‘had done nothing wrong.’ In the way Jesus dies, he recognises that Jesus doesn’t deserve to die like this. You see, the wages of sin are death but Jesus hadn’t sinned; hadn’t done anything wrong.

The second criminal then cries out to Jesus: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ (42). The sign above Jesus’ head declared that he was the king of the Jews. It was a further attempt to mock - look at the so-called king of the Jews, and what we have done to him. At this very moment, Jesus, is like no king the world had ever seen. He wears a scarlet robe of his own blood, flowing freely from the beating and scourging he received; on his head, he wears the crown of thorns. His royal throne is the cruel cross. Yet this man cries out: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’

Despite the circumstances, this man recognises that Jesus is the King. And so he entrusts himself to this King. He seeks to join his kingdom, by naming Jesus as his king. And as he does so, he receives an amazingly wonderful promise: ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’ (43). Jesus, by his death on the cross, the righteous for the unrighteous, has introduced his kingdom, and opened the way for sinners like you and me, and this penitent thief, to be with him in paradise. All we need to do is to trust in Jesus, who endured the punishment for our sins. He gives this promise to us as well - that we too will join him in paradise.

The dying thief, in his final moments, is rescued from his hellward path and instead given heaven. You might hear this and think, there’s still time - I’ll wait until my dying moments, until my deathbed in my 99th year. But can you be certain of that? Would you risk that day in the future if you’re not certain of tonight or tomorrow? The first bishop of Liverpool, JC Ryle writes of this passage: The penitent thief shows that it is possible to receive Christ just before death - but there were two thieves that day, and only one received Christ and was welcomed into paradise. Which do you identify with? Will you reject Christ? Or will you trust him as king and receive his welcome?

This sermon was preached at the Good Friday service in Aghavea Parish Church on 29th March 2013.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Sermon: Luke 22: 1-23 The King's Feast

If you were able to choose your last meal, what would it be? The internet is the source of all sorts of information, and there are several pages dedicated to documenting the last meal requests of prisoners on death row. From a family bucket KFC meal, through to lobster tail and steak; bacon and eggs through to pizza, with ice cream. If you were to pick your final meal, what would it be?

In our reading tonight, we find Jesus eating his last meal with his disciples. It is this very night, on the night that he was betrayed, that he gathers in the upper room with his disciples. The disciples don’t seem to realise that it is such an important occasion, but Jesus makes clear that this is a very significant meal. It’s a dinner that they will never forget. Indeed, it’s a meal that we continue to remember and commemorate as we join around the Lord’s table tonight. But why is it so important? Why do we still celebrate the Lord’s supper?

The early part of the passage is taken up with the arrangements for the meal. A couple of weeks ago there was a special TV programme following the Queen around during her Jubilee year. At one point, she came into the royal banqueting hall to inspect the arrangements, and made the staff move all the fruit bowls as they were too near (or else too far away). She was making sure everything was ready in her role as host.

So too Jesus, here, is the one who plans the meal. He sends his disciples into the city, where they meet a man who leads them to the upper room. There they make all ready. But this is no ordinary meal. This is the Passover, the highlight of the Jewish year, when God’s rescue of his people from Egypt is remembered and celebrated.

The preparations having been made, the disciples and Jesus gather in the upper room. It is only at this point that Jesus declares that this night is full of more significance than normal. You see, far from Jesus being carried along by circumstances, as if he is a prisoner of fate and things just happened without him knowing; Jesus has been planning and preparing for this night.

Look with me at verse 15. ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it (again) until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ You see, Jesus knows that he is about to suffer. He knows that the cross is just around the corner. But this is not just sentimental emotionalism. It’s not just, oh it’s good to have this. Rather, he takes the Passover and uses it to explain what is about to happen; and points forward to the coming of his kingdom.

As we listen in to what Jesus says and does, he points backwards to the Passover in the past to explain the present, and point to the future.

Passover was a big occasion, a yearly festival, a bit like our Christmas dinner. In it, the Jews remembered the rescue God had provided for their ancestors. The Israelites had been in Egypt - they moved in when Joseph was prime minister at the end of the book of Genesis, and leave in the book of Exodus. but between the end of Genesis and the start of Exodus, about 400 years have lapsed. While they were once important, by the time of Exodus they were slaves. They cried out for God to rescue them, and God did it through the Passover.

The Passover was the last of the ten plagues in Egypt, when Pharaoh hardened his heart and refused to ‘let my people go.’ In the Passover, God gave instructions to Moses and the children of Israel. They were to take the Passover Lamb, and kill it. The blood of the lamb was applied to the doorposts and lintel of their houses. Inside, they shared in the meal of roasted lamb and bitter herbs, with the unleavened bread - because they were ready for the road; waiting for the call to go.

During the night, the angel of the Lord came through the land and struck down every firstborn in the land - from Pharaoh’s palace to the lowest slave. Each firstborn son died, except in the houses of the Israelites, where the blood of the lamb was visible. A death had already occurred. The lamb had died instead of the firstborn son. Pharaoh sent the Israelites away; they were free because of the Passover.

That’s the meal that Jesus and his disciples were celebrating. But now Jesus declares that what happened in the Passover was pointing all along to what he would do as he suffered on the cross. Now I don’t know about you, but sometimes families have special rituals when it comes to family meals. It might be watching the Queen at Christmas before opening the presents. It might be crackers, then meal; or meal then crackers; or deferring dessert until after a snooze.

There was a set ritual for the Passover. The meal was a re-living of the events of the first Passover. But then Jesus does something new, something different. He portrays his suffering in terms of the bread and wine.

He took some bread and says: ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ The bread symbolises his body, broken, given for his disciples. In his death, we are given life. In his wounds, we are healed. This is what we remember as we meet together around his table. Jesus is the real Passover lamb, who died in our place, bringing us salvation - not just rescue from Egypt, but rescue from everything that enslaves us - sin and death and hell.

So with the cup, Jesus takes it and declares: ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’ Jesus’ blood was shed for us on the cross; he institutes a new covenant - not of law, but of grace. His blood was given to release us from the law and to set us free to serve him.

As Jesus suffers and dies, so he brings in his kingdom. So as we take bread and wine, as we remember him, it’s not just as we might remember an old school friend who we haven’t seen in a while. Rather, we remember with gratitude and joy what Jesus achieved for us as he suffered. We not only look back, but we also look forward. The royal feast is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. This bread and wine is just a sample of the celebration we will have when we see Jesus face to face in his heavenly kingdom.

Jesus says that he will not eat it again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God. Neither will he drink the wine until the kingdom of God comes. By his death on the cross, Jesus has ushered in the kingdom. He has made the way for us to come and to share in the royal feast. The king has done all that is necessary.

The invitation is extended, as we share tonight to do this in remembrance of him - not just remembering back to the cross (the fulfillment of the Passover), but also remembering forward - looking to the completion of all things, when Jesus returns and welcomes us into his heavenly home. Will you come and share with him?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church at the Maundy Thursday service on 28th March 2013.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Sermon: Luke 22:63 - 23:25 The King Tried

As we’ve journeyed with Jesus this week, we know all too well what lies ahead. We’ve heard the story many times before, we know (even if the first disciples didn’t know) that the cross awaits on that first Good Friday. It’s so familiar to us, though, that sometimes it’s good to be able to stop and think, to ask questions, to watch in slow motion replay. If you’re watching a football game on TV, they’ll show the build-up to the goal, how it came about. Gary Lineker and his mates on Match of the Day will analyse the series of passes and dummies and shots that led to the goal.

In a similar kind of a way, our reading tonight helps us to see the build-up to the cross. Why was it Jesus was crucified? What led to Jesus being nailed to the cross? How did it come about? And what does it mean for us?

We begin with the men holding Jesus (63-65). They’ve arrested him, taken him prisoner, but there is no due process here, no fairness, no hint of being innocent until proven guilty. Rather, the guards mock him and beat him. They have heard that Jesus is regarded as a prophet, so they blindfold him, asking him to prophesy, to say which of them was hitting him. Jesus is scorned and insulted.

From there, he is taken to the assembly of the elders (the Sanhedrin), which could not meet at night, so they wait for the very first glimmer of daylight in order to not break the law. How ironic, given what happens next. Do you see what they say? ‘If you are the Messiah, tell us.’ (67) Yet Jesus makes the point that if he did tell them, they would not believe.

They sit in judgement over Jesus; they have already decided that Jesus must die. It’s the action they have worked towards for so long. Yet the tables are turned, as Jesus continues: ‘But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God’ (69) Jesus will be seated in the place of judgement; he will try them, but they refuse to listen; they refuse to believe.

They continue by asking if he is the Son of God, and his answer is enough for them. They don’t pause to consider if he is speaking the truth. They refuse to contemplate that Jesus is actually the Son of God, the Messiah. They have the ‘evidence’ so called, they can now take him to Pilate. The build-up continues.

It’s obvious, though, that the charge of being God’s Son won’t mean anything to the pagan Roman governor, Pilate. Instead, they claim that Jesus is leading the nation astray, telling people to withhold taxes from Caesar, and setting himself up as king.

For Pilate, a troubled governor who had already upset the locals in Jerusalem and caused bother for Caesar, this wasn’t what he wanted to hear. The Romans wanted to keep the peace, to control the Jews, but every so often there would be a new uprising. Pilate had to keep control.

When he asks Jesus if he is the king of the Jews, Jesus answers ‘You say so.’ Pilate’s opinion is that ‘I find no basis for an accusation against this man.’ He is not guilty. Why didn’t he stop the proceedings here? Why didn’t he release Jesus? The crowds don’t like it. They press on, mentioning Galilee. Pilate reckons he has his escape route.

King Herod, ruler of Galilee, was in town for Passover. If he’s from Galilee, then he can be Herod’s problem. Herod was delighted. For a long time he had been wanting to meet Jesus - not to hear his teaching and believe his message, but simply to see a sign. He was interested in miracles - he wanted a Paul Daniels type performance, but Jesus refuses to answer his questions, and performs no sign. Even with the false accusations of the chief priests, still Jesus remains silent.

The innocent prisoner is mocked by Herod; they dress him up in an elegant robe and send him back to Pilate. Again, Herod found him not guilty (15). Why wasn’t he released? The way of the cross continues.

Pilate once again declares Jesus’ innocence. ‘he has done nothing to deserve death.’ (15). Surely he should be released? But no, Pilate’s offer is to have him flogged and then released. Can you imagine the uproar if a government decided that suspects released without charge first got a flogging to send them on their way? Perhaps Pilate is trying to compromise with the crowd.

But the chief priests and the crowd’s opposition has turned into an avalanche. We’ve escaped the snow here, but in County Down and County Antrim, the snow remains - it wouldn’t take much on one of the hills to start an avalanche, but it quickly grows and builds until nothing can hold it back. So it is here with the crowd.

Pilate offers to flog and release; they shout back: ‘Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us.’ (18). Pilate addresses them again, but he’s shouted down: ‘Crucify, crucify him!’ (21). Momentum is growing; the snowball is hurtling down the hillside, bringing more snow with it.

For the third time, Pilate maintains Jesus’ innocence: ‘Why? What evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death.’ (22). Their loud shouts continue, ‘their voices prevailed.’

Pilate has given in to the mob rule. He condemns the innocent and hands him over to be crucified. The one who is not guilty is treated as the guilty one. The cross stands waiting for the Lord Jesus.

We’ve watched the slow motion replay. We’ve seen as the guards mocked Jesus; the elders condemned Jesus; Herod mocked Jesus; Pilate gave in as the crowd pressed for his death. Each person and group contributed and to the death of Jesus, the cruel cross. The repeated verdicts of the innocence of Jesus highlight the injustice of his death. To simply observe the human actors with their motives and desires and agendas as they collide and conspire could lead us to despair. Except we know that through it all, God is still in control. Herod and Pilate and the chief priests are all responsible for their actions, but even in this darkest of days, God is working to bring about his purposes.

The cross is the ‘cup’ Jesus asked to pass from him, but to which he submitted. It is in the cross that Jesus saves us, as he substitutes for us.

Consider Barabbas. He was a condemned man. A murderer and a rebel. He deserved the punishment that was due. He waited on death row. The cross had his name on it. Yet this guilty man walked free. Imagine that as he took off his prison clothes and walked out in freedom, that he watched as Jesus was nailed to the cross. He could truly say: ‘He died in my place.’

We may not like to hear it this way; we may not like the comparison, but we are Barabbas. We each of us deserve the death penalty. We stand rightly condemned. Yet Jesus has taken our place. He has died the death we deserve - the innocent for the guilty. The choice remains - will we cry ‘crucify’ and reject Jesus, or will we receive the pardon he provides, and worship the crucified Lord, who died that we might live. Hallelujah! What a Saviour!

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church at the Holy Week midweek service on Wednesday 27th March 2013.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Sermon: Luke 22: 31-34, 54-62 The King Denied

I wonder if Youcef Nadarkhani is a name you’re familiar with. Pastor Youcef had been held in prison in Iran because he is a Christian. His charges were apostasy (that is, converting from Islam), and evangelising (telling Muslims about Jesus). The court promised to release him if he were to recant his Christian faith. The pressure to deny Jesus must be massive, and yet, still, he holds on.

If we had time, we could share lots of other stories of Christians across the world who face similar situations. I don’t know about you, but it seems as if we have things so much easier here in Fermanagh. It’s not illegal for us to meet together; we aren’t in danger of the secret police interrupting our meetings.

Yet there may still be pressures to deny Jesus. They may be more subtle; but they will still come. It might be as you call in at a friend’s house on the way home and they tease you about coming to church on a Tuesday night. Or in your workplace as they ask what you did at the weekend, and you share all sorts of things, except where you were between 11 and 12 on Sunday morning. Or a friend might challenge you about something the Bible says - you don’t really believe that, do you? The pressure is to conform, to avoid embarrassment, to not be put on the spot. So you smile, and dodge the question.

But in case you’re feeling guilty; just before you switch off; take heart. You see, rather than the Bible portraying perfect people and honourable heroes; God in his grace gives us the full picture - as Oliver Cromwell requested when having his portrait painted: ‘warts and all.’

We think of Peter as one of the heroes of the faith - the bold, outspoken, courageous, first off the mark leading disciple. We look at him and think that he must be in a league of his own; so high above us in rank and power; he wouldn’t do the things that we have done. Yet look at him as our reading ends tonight. ‘And he went out and wept bitterly.’ (62). But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back to the start, and see how this develops, and what it means for us.

Back in verse 31, Jesus is still in the upper room with his disciples, They’ve shared in the Last Supper, and suddenly Jesus shares some surprising words with Peter (also called Simon): ‘Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail.’ (31-32)

Jesus tells us that Satan has prayed. He has asked the Father for something. He has demanded to sift the disciples like wheat. Now when I hear of sifting, it normally makes me happy - it means that Lynsey is busy in the kitchen with a sieve and some flour, which means that in a little while there’ll be some cakes or buns to sample. Good times. But imagine being the flour in the sieve. You’re shaken around, bumped about. It wouldn’t be so pleasant.

For the wheat being sifted, it was to be shaken up so that the chaff would be removed and the wheat held in the sieve. But it’s Satan asking for the disciples to be sifted, to be buffetted, so it’s not in order to improve them, but rather to test them, to see if they will give up on Jesus. All the disciples will be sifted, but Jesus tells Peter that he is praying for him, that his own faith may not fail.

Immediately we see the effects of the sifting. Peter boldly declares that he is ready to go to prison and to death with Jesus. Ah yes, the Peter we know. Yet Jesus tells him that before the cock crows, he will have denied Jesus three times. We’re not given Peter’s response, but I’m sure he doesn’t believe it.

But it’s one thing to declare that we love Jesus and stand with him in the upper room where it’s safe. It’s another thing on the dark hillside of the Mount of Olives, or by the fire in the courtyard of the high priest’s house. It’s one thing to sing our praise to Jesus here in church, but another thing by the fire of a friend. What will happen?

Jesus is arrested (as we saw last night) and taken to the high priest’s house. The rest of the disciples aren’t mentioned, it seems they have fled. Peter still follows, at a distance. He hasn’t given up yet. Peter joins the crowd by the fire, he’s settling into his place, getting warmed, when the first accusation comes.

‘Then a servant girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, “This man also was with him.”’ Perhaps the servant girl had been among the crowd; She may have watched as Peter swung the sword and lopped the slave’s ear off. She knew Peter. He quickly denies it: ‘Woman, I do not know him.’ Was Peter afraid? Did he think he would also be arrested? What was he doing?

Time passed, and again the accusations came. Again, he insists that he was not one of them - a follower of Jesus. An hour later, a third man insists, ‘Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.’ We’re in Jerusalem, among the city slickers. Galilee was away to the north, a more rural place, with a different accent. It would be like someone from Fermanagh being in Belfast, the accent would give (us) away. Straight away, Peter denies it; straight away the cock crowed.

Straight away, ‘the Lord turned and looked at Peter.’ We’re not told what the look communicates, but I’m sure you can guess. As Jesus looks at Peter, Peter remembers Jesus’ words, his prediction of denial. Peter went out and wept bitterly. Such a contrast, in such a short period of time - I am ready for death and prison; I do not know him.

It might make us wonder then, of the two prayers that were mentioned, which was answered? Was Satan victorious - he had asked (demanded) for the disciples to be sifted like wheat. They have all abandoned Jesus, and even Peter has failed and denied his master. Are we pawns in Satan’s hand? Thankfully not. You see, Satan does not have power over us by himself. He is on a leash; he had to ask and be granted the opportunity to sift the disciples. His testing of them still lies within the power and sovereignty of God. In the heat of the trial we can easily forget that God is still in control.

But more than that, Jesus’ prayer was answered. It might look as if it wasn’t - Peter denied Jesus, after all - but this was a momentary stumble; this wasn’t a final, fatal fall like Judas’ in his betrayal. Rather, here’s what Jesus prayed: ‘I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’ (32)

Jesus knew that Peter would deny him; yet even before the fact, he paves the way back; he gives him the job of strengthening his brothers when he has turned back. Peter continues to encourage and strengthen us as we read of his slip and his stand. This episode is written for us, to show God’s grace in Peter’s life. Just seven weeks later, Peter would stand in the very same city and declare that Jesus is the Messiah - he would not deny Jesus again. So if you’re feeling the heat; if you’re under pressure; if you’re being sifted - remember that Jesus is praying for us too, that your earlier failures are not final. In Jesus we have the victory.

This sermon was preached at the Holy Week service in Aghavea Parish Church on Tuesday 26th March 2013.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Sermon: Luke 22: 39-53 The King Betrayed

I wonder if you’ve ever experienced betrayal. To feel the sting of disappointment; to be let down by a close friend - well, as the saying goes, ‘with friends like that, who needs enemies?’ Perhaps you can identify with David in Psalm 41: ‘Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.’

It might have been years ago, yet the pain remains. How do you respond to such betrayal? Does it open your eyes to the dangers of relationships; a prompt to close everyone out and rely only on yourself? Does it stoke the fires of bitterness and self-pity?

As we turn to our reading this evening, and think about betrayal in this Holy Week, your mind probably quickly lands on Judas. Just as the name ‘Lundy’ in the Ulster mindset refers to any traitor because of the governor of Londonderry, Robert Lundy, during the siege - he wanted to open the gates and surrender - so Judas is now part of the popular vocabulary for a traitor, a betrayer.

But as we look at our text, we find that none of the disciples of Jesus cover themselves in glory - each of them are, to some extent, found to be in betrayal. The scene is the Mount of Olives. It’s now Thursday night, just after the Lord’s Last Supper (which we’ll return to on Thursday). Gone are the crowds of Palm Sunday, it’s just Jesus and his disciples.

In the first verse (39), the disciples are doing well - they follow Jesus. That’s what disciples do - follow their master and learn to do as he does. But (on the Mount of Olives) it’s all downhill from there. You see, the disciples follow, but fail. Jesus tells them to ‘pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ (40) The disciples fall asleep.

They’re exhausted; because of grief; but they have failed to pray, failed to obey. The disciples needed to pray, so that they would be ready for what lay ahead, but instead they slept.

Are there times when we are similarly prayerless? The Lord tells us to pray; gives us encouragements to pray; gives us the words to pray; gives us the Spirit to help us in our prayers, and yet, and yet, we simply don’t. How much easier we will fail & fall if we ignore the means of prayer.

What a disappointment that must have been to the Lord Jesus when he returns to the disciples and finds them asleep. Even now (46) he urges them with the same words, but it appears that it is too late.

You see, while he was still speaking, we find a crowd coming towards them. In words that are the most ironic and disappointing, we read that ‘the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them.’ Here we have one of the twelve - one of those who should have been following Jesus, was instead leading - leading a crowd coming to arrest Jesus.

As if that weren’t bad enough, he approaches Jesus to kiss him. The sign of friendship, love and greeting is instead a sign of betrayal, of rejecting the king. All his three years following Jesus, his privileged position among the twelve, all thrown away - sealed with a kiss.

Why would he do this? Earlier in chapter 22, we’re told that Satan entered into him (22:3), and that Judas went to the chief priests to offer to betray him. They’re delighted, as they were wanting to get rid of him, and so they offer some money as a reward. How great a price, to throw away his privilege for so little money. To hand over Jesus for a little gain. Could it be that we would so cheaply throw it all away? Is there a danger that we would also do away with Jesus for the sake of some gain?

As the disciples realise what is happening before them - and remember that they were sleeping just before the crowd arrived - they suddenly jump in to defend Jesus. They ask ‘Lord, should we strike with the sword?’ (49) but before waiting for a reply, they strike.

The slave of the high priest is on the sharp end of the sword, and loses an ear. Could this be the time of trial they were to pray to be ready in - yet they stampede in, trying to fix things in their own way. They fail to follow Jesus’ example. He tells them ‘No more of this.’

Perhaps you can identify with this approach. We wade in to sort things out, because obviously God isn’t in charge; he needs us to take matters into our own hands with our own strength. Yet it’s just as much an example of faithlessness and prayerlessness as the earlier sleeping was. Whether through inactivity (sleeping) or through overactivity (swording), we can fail to follow the Lord Jesus. What is it Jesus would have me do?

Now, imagine for a moment that you were Jesus. How would you respond? You’ve been betrayed outright by one of the twelve and the other eleven haven’t been much better. What would you do? In contrast to what I suspect would be our natural reaction, Jesus instead continues to obey his Father, and continues to follow the path laid for him to bring about our rescue.

The King has been betrayed, but he is not swayed from his plan. Even as the disciples were snoozing and snoring, Jesus was praying. ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.’ (42) He knows the pain that lies ahead; he knows the suffering that awaits. He asks if it might pass him by - and yet for our sake he prays: ‘not my will but yours be done.’

Jesus submits to the Father’s will, remaining steadfastly committed to the way of the cross, for us. He surrenders himself to obedience for the sake of the disobedient.

More than that - although flowing from it - is his grace instead of rage. The disciples lashed out, but Jesus heals the slave’s ear, even in the face of the hostile crowd. He shows grace to those who least deserved it, who were out to get him.

That grace is shown to us who also were the cause of Jesus’ death. At one time we too were against Jesus and rebelled, but his grace was effective towards us, and led to our healing; our being made whole.

Just as Jesus submitted to the Father’s will, so he now submits to the crowd, willingly surrendering to them, even though they carry him to trial and death. He had been in the temple teaching each day and they hadn’t touched him. They waited for this moment on the dark hillside, taking him in secret. As Jesus says: ‘But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.’ (53)

The human actors were intent on destroying Jesus, but they weren’t the only enemies that night. The powers of darkness were also out to get Jesus, to do away with him. Jesus, the King, submits himself to imprisonment and death, by the kiss of betrayal, to destroy his enemies and bring rescue to repenting rebels. Hallelujah! What a Saviour!

This sermon was preached at the Monday night of Holy Week, 25th March 2013 in Aghavea Parish Church.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sermon: Luke 19: 28-44 The Royal Visit

Can I let you into a sermon secret? There sometimes comes a moment when the you realise the path you’re pursuing comes to a dead end. The sermon you had hoped for doesn’t quite materialise. But in its place comes something much more useful.

I was almost going to focus this morning on the donkey. Here’s how my thinking went. Yes, it’s Palm Sunday; Jesus on a donkey; we’ll have a wee think about the donkey, and how Jesus used such a humble animal for his purposes; and how Jesus can use each one of us. A fine sermon, I’m sure you would agree, but it’s not one that you’ll hear today.

You see, as I studied the passage, it turned into the curious case of the colt. There’s no doubt that the colt, the donkey is featured. It is Palm Sunday, after all. But focusing on the donkey would be a bit like watching a movie to catch a glimpse of an extra who appears in one scene, crossing the street behind the main character. It might be fun, but it kind of misses the main point.

The question that helped me on (what I hope is) the right path was this: Why does Luke report on things in this way, with these words? You’ll probably know that there are four gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke, John; each of which tell the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection; but all with their own focus and method.

Last weekend when Ireland suffered a horrendous defeat to those rugby giants Italy, the BBC declared that Paddy Jackson had been Ireland’s best player, while the RTE commentators were of the opinion that the Ulsterman had been the poorest player on the team. They’re reporting on the same match; they’re speaking about the same thing, but each with their own perspective. It’s the same with the gospels - often they share the same story, but with their own take on it.

So while Matthew ties the donkey’s use to fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, Luke doesn’t. So what is Luke’s focus? Why does he give us Jesus’ instructions about going and getting the donkey, including what to say when challenged, and then immediately reporting that it all happened, and that they used the reply to the challenge. I don’t think he’s making the point that the colt is needed, so much as he’s flagging up who it is that needs it.

‘The Lord needs it.’ (31, 34) Twice in quick succession these words are repeated - Luke’s main point is about the identity of the one who needs the donkey: ‘The Lord.’ We’ll see how he develops this as the passage unfolds. But for now, it’s enough to see that Jesus describes himself as ‘The Lord’ - a title denoting authority, power, and honour.

That honour is seen when the colt is brought to Jesus and cloaks are spread on it for him to sit on. More than that, others spread their cloaks on the road. Remember the story of Sir Francis Drake spreading his cloak over a puddle so that Queen Elizabeth (the first) didn’t have to step in it? This is kind of what’s going on here. It’s like a red carpet for the VIP of the day.

That same honour is heard as the disciples begin to ‘praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen.’ (37) The disciples have been following Jesus; they’ve travelled with him on the way up to Jerusalem; they’ve witnessed the miracles, and now, as they come within sight of Jerusalem itself, they burst out in praise. But look at what they say. If they’re praising God, wouldn’t you expect them to say something to God? What do they say?

‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’ Their words are directed to the coming King. They’re praising God by praising the King in their midst - Jesus. They’re using words from Psalm 118 as they recognise that Jesus is God’s promised king, coming in power, the one to bring peace.

Now these days we’re used to hearing of restrictions placed on some processions by the Parades Commission. It looks as if the Pharisees are the earliest members of the Parades Commission as they seek to impose restrictions here: ‘Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”’ They don’t like the tone of the praise; they don’t accept that Jesus is God’s King.

Yet how does Jesus answer them? ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’ (40) They may not accept the King, but creation itself recognises it’s Creator King. If the disciples were to stop singing, the stones themselves would shout out for joy!

It’s a joyful occasion; it’s a big day; one to be remembered, as the disciples sing for joy. Yet in the midst of all the joy and loud shouting, the camera focuses in on Jesus himself. Sometimes in a wedding video, you’ll catch a glimpse of the bride or groom (or maybe their parents) with a wee tear in their eye - weeping for joy.

As Jesus weeps here, in the middle of the joy, we’re told that it’s not happy tears - but a full-on expression of sorrow and sadness: Jesus weeps for the city, weeps for the lost, because of the fate Jerusalem faces - total destruction in just about forty years from then. They rejected peace when it was available; they will instead receive the effects of war.

And why was this so? ‘because you did not recognise the time of your visitation from God.’ Jesus here declares that he is the Lord, the king coming in the name of the Lord, that he is God, on a royal visit to Jerusalem. He comes in peace on the donkey; yet even now he knows that he will not be received in peace. They did not recognise him as God.

Last year for the Jubilee there was a special TV interview with Prince Charles. He spoke of the times in the 1950s and early 1960s when the Royal Family were holidaying in Balmoral and would take a boat over to Northern Ireland for tea with family friends. The Queen was here, travelling about, but if you’d met her on the road you wouldn’t have known it was her. Jesus, the King, has arrived - how will he be received on this royal visit?

Through the nights of this week, we’ll follow the rest of the story; we’ll watch what happens when Jesus enters Jerusalem; the various responses to the king. I invite you to join with us.

Today, the key question is this: what is your response to Jesus? By your words and actions as they expose your heart attitude, will you reject him like the Pharisees, wanting it all to be hushed up? Jesus comes as King, offering peace. God comes to visit - will he be refused entry?

Or will you be like the disciples, who celebrate that God has come to them; that Jesus is here to reign over the new kingdom, bringing peace, as the whole creation cries out in praise?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Palm Sunday, 24th March 2013.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Sermon: Psalm 118 The Saviour's Victory Song

Picture the scene. It’s a cold, wet Friday night in midwinter. Rather than staying in the warmth, I’ve gone to Ravenhill, the home of Ulster rugby. Ulster aren’t doing very well. The handful of travelling supporters are having the time of their life. But then things start to change. One lone voice begins to sing ‘Stand up for the Ulstermen.’ The song spreads, and soon it’s ringing round the whole stadium. Ulster manage to get the try they needed, and the crowd end up hoarse from singing.

Or if rugby isn’t your scene, think of the magic formula for the music industry these days - especially the X Factor type song. The song starts off quietly, slowly, before gaining in volume; the solo singer is joined by a choir or backing singers; there’s the inevitable key change, finishing loudly with some fireworks or bright lights.

In both cases, the song is started by a single voice, but it’s catchy, it invites others to join in, so that the end result is so much larger and more impressive. In a sense, that’s what we have here in Psalm 118. Throughout Lent we’ve been looking at some cries of the heart - desperate cries to the Lord, asking him to help and save. Psalm 118 is slightly different, in that it is a victory song; it’s a cry of victory, thanking God for his salvation. It starts with a solo voice, but is soon expanded by the backing singers.

The choir master is looking for more people to join the chorus - as we hear the song, I wonder if you’ll want to sing along?

The Psalm kicks off with an invitation to worship. The soloist sings out: ‘O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!’ (1) Immediately, the chorus are invited to echo that praise: ‘Let Israel say... Let the house of Aaron say... Let those who fear the Lord say...’ (4)Can you join in? Let the people of Aghavea say: ‘His steadfast love endures forever’. Are you sure of God’s steadfast, never changing, faithful love?

Perhaps you’re not sure of it tonight. Maybe you’ve been knocked and rocked by something that’s happened to you this week. Maybe you’re been shaken by some news. You wonder if God really does love you; if his love is more than just for a week or two. Does it abide forever? Let’s listen in as the soloist takes the mic again.

The singer shares his testimony. ‘Out of my distress I called on the Lord.’ (5) If you look at verses 10-13, you get an insight into his predicament. ‘all nations surrounded me... they surrounded me on every side... the surrounded me like bees; they blazed like a fire of thorns...’ The image is of being completely surrounded, hemmed in, pressing in - not in the comforting God surrounds me of last week (Ps 139), but in a much more hostile way. There’s danger here, the threat is real; the enemies are hostile - like a swarm of bees (you sometimes see on TV people who allow bees to cover them...), or a fire.

As these enemies press in, ‘Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place.’ (5) It’s the difference between being in the scrum at Ravenhill, surrounded, to being air lifted and set down on a spacious tropical island. From danger to delight. There’s space, freedom, no enemies to worry about.

But before we reckon that the singer is like an Action Man figure; the song shows us clearly that his rescue has been the Lord’s doing. He testifies that the Lord is on his side; that he has taken refuge in the Lord; that it is in the name of the Lord that he cut them off. Verse 14 sets us straight: ‘The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.’ Remember the story of David and Goliath? Goliath stands 9 feet tall; David is just a youth. But the Lord is on David’s side, and with a stone and a sling, the Lord gives David the victory.

The rest of the Israelites had cowered away in fear for forty days as Goliath issued his challenge. But once David had won the victory, they too celebrated and shared in the victory. So we see here: ‘There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous.’ (15) The chorus joins in as they celebrate what God has done for this solo singer.

The setting then shifts from the tents of the righteous (the temporary dwellings used in the battlefields) to the city of Jerusalem, to the gates of righteousness. We used to take boys to BB camp every summer and there was a certain joy at getting back home to houses with proper beds. But this is like a victory parade; a triumphant procession as the winning army returns home to be welcomed and celebrated.

‘I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord. The Lord has punished me severely, but he did not give me over to death.’ Now the original singer may have escaped death, but as we hear the psalm as Christians, we realise that the singer is our Saviour - who was not abandoned to death, but through death has risen to new life, and will never die again. As he approaches the gates of the city he cries out to the gatekeepers: ‘Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.’

The answer comes back that ‘This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.’ The singer shows his righteousness by declaring his thanks: ‘I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.’

As the singer enters in triumph; as the Saviour enters the city; so the chorus and crowd swells as it joins in. These psalms (113-118) were originally sung during Passover week - so they’re the very words that were fresh in the minds of the crowd as Jesus entered on Palm Sunday: v22-27.

Just as God has saved the singer, so the chorus joins in, asking God to ‘Save us’ - you might just recognise the original word: ‘hosanna’. Jesus was welcomed with Hosanna; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord...

Yet the verse that is used throughout the New Testament is verse 22. ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.’ The Lord Jesus was opposed, rejected, thrown out; he was crucified by his own people and by the nations of the world. They had no use for him. They couldn’t see his worth.

Yet that seemingly unusual, mis-shapen, useless stone has, in fact, turned out to be the cornerstone. It’s the key to the whole building project. It’s the one that makes the whole thing fit together. As the chorus continues, ‘This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes.’

As we see the Lord Jesus enter the city of Jerusalem on a humble donkey; as he is betrayed, denied, and rejected; as he is flogged, beaten, crucified; laid in a tomb - it appears that Jesus has been defeated, that God was not with him. But this was the Lord’s doing - and therefore it is marvellous in our eyes. The grave could not hold him. He was not given over permanently to death. Jesus lives, having defeated his enemies (our enemies), so that his song becomes our song; we share in the chorus as we share in his victory. Will you join in and celebrate his victory for you and for me?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Church on Wednesday 20th March 2013.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Sermon Audio: Psalm 139

Last Wednesday I was preaching from Psalm 139 in our 'Cries From The Heart' Lent Midweek sermon series. Here's how it sounded.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Sermon: Luke 5: 27-39 Follow Me

I wonder can anyone remember the name of the man we were introduced to at the start of our Bible reading today? Levi - but he's not the guy who makes the denim jeans. What was his occupation? He was a tax collector. [Get a volunteer to be Levi, sitting on a chair at his tax booth]. Levi was very unpopular. No one liked him, because he was working for the Romans, he took their money, and kept some for himself. He was rich because he cheated. [Get all the children to walk past the tax booth paying their taxes].

One day, though, Jesus came past and said two words to Levi. Do you know what they were? 'Follow me.' Levi got up from his booth and left it all behind, and followed Jesus. We're going to think about why Levi did that. Why would Levi (and why would we) want to follow Jesus? The reading gives us three reasons:

1. Jesus is the doctor for sin-sickness

Levi was so excited about following Jesus that he threw a big party at his house. He invited all his friends along - but who were his friends? They were other tax collectors. You see, if no one else likes the tax collectors, then they were friendly with each other. Levi has met Jesus, and now he wants his friends to meet Jesus too. They're having a great time, but not everyone is happy.

In the reading we heard of the Pharisees. They were the very religious people who thought they were better than everyone else. They especially didn't like tax collectors. They looked down on them. They were upset that Jesus was spending time with the taxmen rather than with them. So they complained to the disciples.

Now, I've brought something along, I want to see if you can guess what it is. [Produce a stethoscope slowly] It's a stethoscope. Now who uses something like this? It's a doctor, isn't it? Now when do you go to see the doctor? Do you go when you're feeling fit and healthy and on top of the world? No, of course not. You go to the doctor when you're sick. You need to be made better, so you go and get the doctor to fix you.

Here's what Jesus says: 'It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.' (31-32) The Pharisees thought that they were perfectly good by themselves. The tax collectors knew they were bad and needed fixed, healed. Jesus has come like a doctor to fix our sin-sickness and save us.

That's good news for us - as we know that we're sinners and need a Saviour, Jesus is the doctor who heals our sin-sickness.

2. Jesus is the bridegroom who brings joy

The Pharisees still weren't happy. They took their religiousness very serious and fasted - they went without food. Yet here is Jesus having fun at a party, eating and drinking. They don't like it, and complain about it as well.

Have you ever been to a wedding? What happens at it? After the service, and the photos, there comes the party, with the food. Have you ever been to a wedding that has been really sad? A wedding without food and partying? Of course not! Weddings are happy occasions, full of joy.

Jesus says that he is like the bridegroom - where he is there is a party; how could you be sad and glum when you're at a wedding? The Christian life isn't sadness and gloom - it's not a funeral, but a wedding. We're not the frozen chosen; we're happy, joyful, excited, because we are with Jesus.

3. Jesus is bringing something entirely new

But that's still not all. We've already seen that Jesus is the doctor who heals our sin-sickness and the bridegroom who brings joy. We come to the final reason for following Jesus, but first I've brought something to show you.

Here's my lovely red t-shirt. I've had it for ages, it's really nice. Shall I show you the front? It's great, apart from this big hole in the front. It might have been the washing machine chewed it up; maybe our dogs got a hold of it. Either way, do you think I could wear this t-shirt now? No, it wouldn't be right. Shall I show you what I'm going to do to fix it?

I've got a brand new, still in the box, grey shirt. And what I'm going to do is to cut a big patch out of the new shirt and sew it onto the t-shirt to fill the hole. Isn't that a great idea? Do you think that would work?

No? Of course it wouldn't work. The new patch wouldn't match the old t-shirt - different colour and material. Would I be able to wear my new shirt? No, because it would also have a hole in it then... I would need to buy another shirt to patch the new one! What should I do? I need to get rid of the old t-shirt and instead to wear the new one. I can't patch up the old - I need to put it away and instead put on the new.

Jesus says that if you've got a tear in an old garment, you don't patch it up by cutting up a new garment. Jesus isn't just a patch to apply to the hole in your old way of living, rather he is the new garment, a new way of living, a whole new way of doing things that we accept or reject. Think of Levi - he left behind his old way of life and started to follow Jesus, a completely new way of life.

Jesus makes the same point as he talks about old wine and new wine. Now, I must confess, I don't know much about wine, but I was thinking about how to explain it. Here's what I came up with. Has anyone ever tasted flat coke? You know old, unfizzy, yucky coke? I've heard of some people drinking that if they've got a sore tummy - it will either kill you or cure you... Now imagine that you like flat coke. It's all you drink, you make sure the fizz is out of it. Now imagine that you pour that flat coke into a glass. It won't fizz up, so you can pour the whole amount straight in.

Now what would happen if you did the same with fresh, fizzy coke? What would the result be with fizzy coke going straight into a glass? It would fizz up, it would go all over the place, it couldn't be contained! This is Jesus' point - he is this something new, that can't be contained by the old religious ways. He brings a fresh start, something entirely and completely new.

You can't keep going on the way you always have, with Jesus patched on. He demands a new way of life, following him. Yet, as Jesus says, some people won't like it. They'll claim to prefer the old wine - the way they know, the religious life, and so they reject Jesus.

Jesus called Levi to follow him. Jesus calls us to follow him, because he is the doctor to cure our sin-sickness; he is the bridegroom who brings joy; he is the new garment bringing a new way of life. Will you follow him today?

This sermon was preached at the Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 17th March 2013.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Sermon Audio: Luke 5: 17-26

On Sunday morning as we continue to work our way through Luke's gospel, we came to the beloved Sunday School story of the paralysed man being let down through the roof of the house to be healed by Jesus. Jesus, however, surprises us by focusing instead on our greatest, most urgent need.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Sermon Audio: Psalm 69

Last Wednesday night I was speaking from Psalm 69 in a special Lenten series in the Psalms looking at cries of the heart. Psalm 69 is a picture of the suffering of the Messiah, as he cries out to God to save me from sinking.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sermon: Luke 5: 17-26 Our Greatest Need

As we think about mothers today, there are so many things to give thanks for. One, among many, is that mums (and dads too) provide for the needs of their children - even if the kids never realise it. Just think of the number of times you’ve heard yourself say this (or it has been said to you): It’s a rainy day, your son is ready to go, happy to splash about. ‘You need to put your coat on.’ Or you’re in a cafe, your daughter would be happy to have three courses of ice cream. ‘You need to eat your dinner up first.’ Or they get home from school, they think they need to get onto the computer game; it’s been neglected all day. ‘You need to do homework first.’ I’m sure you can add lots of examples!

When we look at our Bible reading today, it’s as if something similar is going on. We’re introduced to four men, carrying a paralysed man on a bed. The stretcher party have heard that Jesus is in town, so they’ve brought their friend to be healed. We’re even told that ‘the power of the Lord was with him to heal.’ (17) This paralysed man can’t walk. They’ve carried him to the house where Jesus is; but their way is blocked. There’s too big a crowd; they can’t get into the house. Was it in vain?
But then they have an idea. The house would have an outside set of steps leading onto the flat roof. Up they go, carefully carrying the man, until they’re above where Jesus is. Imagine you’re inside with Jesus. He’s healing some people, he’s teaching; then you hear some scratching, some digging, and bits of plaster drop into your hair. You look up, and suddenly there’s now a skylight where once was the roof. There’s a man on a bed being let down into the room.

So what is the man’s need? Well, isn’t it obvious? His mode of transport was a bed; he’s been through this ordeal; he can’t walk. His need is to be healed, to be able to walk.

But that’s not what immediately happens. Look at what Jesus says in verse 20. ‘When he saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.”’ Do those words of Jesus trouble you? It’s not what you expect, is it? It almost seems insensitive, doesn’t it? They’ve heard that Jesus is the healer; they’ve gone to a lot of effort; they’ve put their friend through someone’s roof, only for Jesus to ignore the fact that his legs don’t work and instead talk about sin? Even if he talks about his sins being forgiven, you might be thinking to yourself, well that’s not going to change his day to day life, is it? He’ll still be paralysed.

Jesus highlights the most urgent need of each of us; yet it’s a need we may never know we need unless it’s pointed out to us. We’re all a bit like the kids we thought about at the start. We go through life, reacting and responding to our felt needs - we need qualifications to get a job, so we work hard at school and training courses and university. We need company / commitment, so we find a partner and get married. We need a roof over our heads so we find a house. We need to fight the signs of ageing, so we ask for Olay products for Mother’s Day. We need to keep healthy so we cut down on the sticky buns and eat our five a day.

All these needs and so many more, yet left to ourselves, we may never realise our greatest need: that we need to deal with our sins; the need for forgiveness. To be able to walk, yet walk into hell wouldn’t have been enough for this man. Jesus focuses on his and our greatest need.

I wonder how you react to that? Does it make you uneasy? It caused an uproar that day - just look at the reaction of the scribes and Pharisees. These were the very religious people. In verse 17 we’re told that they had come from all over the country to hear Jesus and make up their minds about this new teacher they had heard about. They can’t believe what they have just heard: ‘Then the scribes & the Pharisees began to question, “Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”’

They’re right that only God can forgive sins - because sin is our heart rebellion against God; and all our sins (plural) are ways in which we are disobedient against God’s law. If our sins offend God, then it’s only God can forgive them. It would be blasphemy for anyone to say that they could forgive your sins - unless that person was actually God.

But in order to spell it out, in order to leave absolutely no doubt in their minds, Jesus confronts the Pharisees. He asks them: ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven you”, or to say “Stand up and walk”?’

Well, what do you think? Which is easier to say? It’s not that they are difficult to pronounce words, but rather that it’s probably easier to say ‘your sins are forgiven’ because there’s no outward change; there’s nothing to be seen. It would be harder to say ‘get up and walk’ because it would be obvious if a paralysed man was to get up and walk. Anyone can say ‘your sins are forgiven’ - but would it make any difference? There’s only one way to prove it, and that is to then demonstrate his power. As Jesus says: ‘But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins...’

The Son of Man is Jesus’ favourite way of talking about himself - it comes from Daniel 7, where ‘one like a son of man’ comes with the clouds of heaven and is given power and glory and kingship - a way of pointing to himself as the promised Messiah King. So he’s saying that in order to show that he has this divine power, that he is God, that he does have the power to forgive sins (something which can’t be seen); he commands the paralysed man to get up and walk (something that can be seen).

Jesus not only has the power to heal, he also has the power to forgive sins. He leaves us in no doubt at all that he can deal with our greatest need; that he can provide forgiveness of sins. If we were to fast forward to the end of Luke’s gospel, we’d see how he brings that forgiveness - by his death on the cross; which is now proclaimed to all nations. (see Luke 24:46).

Perhaps you’ve never realised your need of forgiveness before. You’ve been caught up in the busyness of life, dealing with your every other need. Don’t neglect this most urgent need - to find forgiveness for your sins. It could be the greatest gift you’ll ever receive on Mother’s Day. Jesus has authority on earth to forgive sins.

Perhaps you’re a Christian. You already know the joy of sins forgiven, but things have slipped. You’re caught in a particular sin and you wonder if Jesus forgives even that sin. It seems too terrible; too awful. It might be a sin you’ve confessed time and time again; it seems as if you’re bearing it yourself. Listen to those words of Jesus: ‘the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.’ - that’s all sins, not just some; all sins, not just little ones; all sins, even the darkest, most distressing sins.

As commanded, the paralysed man got up (or rather, was raised - an Easter, resurrection word) - a picture of what Jesus does to each of us as we are forgiven - and he walked home ‘glorifying God’. When our greatest need has been dealt with, when we have been raised - and given assurance of being raised with Christ on that last day, when our bodies will be renewed and made new; how can we also not glorify and praise our God?

In a moment of quiet, let’s bring our hearts; our deepest need to the Lord. (Pause) We hear his words: ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven you.’ Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Mothering Sunday, 10th March 2013

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Sermon Audio: Luke 5:1-16

On Sunday mornings we're working through the early chapters of Luke's Gospel. Last Sunday we came to the place where Jesus calls his first disciples to be fishers of men. Here's what the sermon sounded like, beginning with an awful joke...

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Sermon: Psalm 69: Save me from sinking

You almost didn’t have me as your rector. When I was about ten, our church youth club went to the Shankill swimming pool in Belfast. There were other pools nearer, but Shankill was the best one at the time, because of the added extras. There were flumes to come down, but even better, was the wave machine. The siren sounded, the waves kicked in, and suddenly, I was out of my depth.

I’m short now, but even shorter then, and I can’t swim. As people around me had fun, I found myself sinking, swallowing mouthfuls of chlorine swimming pool water, grasping for help. They might even have thought I was having a laugh, but it was no laughing matter. The duty lifeguards hadn’t spotted me, but thankfully one of our youth club leaders did, and grabbed up up and out of the water, to safety.

A frightening experience, one I’ll never forget; one which led to a tightening in my chest as I wrote it down earlier. It’s the same experience David pictures as he cries out in Psalm 69. ‘Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.’ It’s not a swimming pool, but it is a dangerous place - his feet are sinking in deep mire, he has no foothold, he is in danger of going under. He’s been crying out for so long that his throat is parched, he’s thirsty; he’s weary with crying. His enemies are watching with delight as they hate him and falsely accuse him.

As we see why he’s in such a situation, we quickly discover some words and verses that are very familiar. You’ll recognise some of the phrases - they’re ones that are used in connection with Jesus on the way to the cross. So as we consider the psalm, we’re not seeking to take it upon ourselves directly, but rather, seeing how David the King looks forward to and prophetically speaks with the voice of Christ the true King - and through him, what it means for us.

So why is he in such a situation? In verses 5-12, we find that the king is suffering for God’s sake (7) - suffering reproach and shame. He has become a stranger to his family (8), rejected and unrecognised. It’s because of his zeal for God’s house that has consumed him (9) - the zeal that the disciples saw when Jesus cleared the temple of the sellers and moneychangers. Those who seek to insult God are pouring out their insults on the king - like the British Embassy in Iran being attacked in November 2011, not because of anything the Ambassador had done, but simply because of who he represented. The king is mocked, insulted, and drunks make up songs about him.

From verse 13, the king returns to prayer, calling for rescue. Do you see the way in which he asks - he appeals to God’s character: ‘in the abundance of your steadfast love’ (13), ‘with your faithful help’ (14), ‘abundant mercy’ (16). He knows the God he is speaking to, he cries for answer, for rescue, for deliverance, for redemption.

You see, his danger isn’t just his enemies. His danger isn’t even the flood, this picture of his desperate situation. His greatest danger is at the end of verse 15: ‘Do not let... the Pit close its mouth over me.’ It’s a way of speaking about death - if you imagine going down a well or a mineshaft, and eventually darkness closes over, the pit swallows you up.

He’s in desperate trouble; yet still his enemies don’t relent. ‘you know the insults I receive, and my shame and dishonour.’ (19). He looks for pity, for comfort, but none is given. Just think of the insults that surrounded the Lord Jesus on the cross - If you are the Christ... he trusts in God... He looks for pity; but all he is given is vinegar to drink for his thirst. You remember in John’s Gospel that Jesus, knowing all was completed, and to fulfil the Scripture says ‘I thirst’ (Jn 19:28).

How precious this Psalm is, as it shows us, so long in advance, the suffering of the Christ; as David echoes the words of Jesus, the king. Yet the next section might take us by surprise. You see, as we think of the words of Jesus on the cross, he prays for his persecutors. But here, in Psalm 69, there are strong words of curse, as David calls down curses on his enemies.

He asks for them to be trapped, to be blinded, to be weakened, to receive God’s indignation and anger; for their homes to be left desolate. It’s strong stuff - and it only gets stronger: ‘Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous.’ (28)

How come David can use these words, yet we’re told to bless those who persecute us and pray for them? The thing to note, though, is that you and I - we’re not David. We’re not the king; this psalm isn’t directly about us and our sufferings. Rather, it’s about the king, and those who attack him. To reject and crucify the Lord Jesus is to reject God. To turn your back on him is to bring these curses on yourself.

Jesus can say these things because, like in Psalm 2, he is God’s king - his enemies will be destroyed like the potter’s vessel. The first disciples understood this when they dealt with the legacy of Judas, who had betrayed Jesus. They quote this very verse ‘May their camp be a desolation’ as they declare Judas to have abandoned his place of leadership and appoint Matthias in his stead (Acts 1).

If we’re to be found in Psalm 69, it’s not so much as the chosen, suffering king; rather it’s as his enemies, the ones who caused his suffering; those who have mocked and scorned him; those who deserve to go down to the pit. Yet the amazing, wonderful good news is that Psalm 69 is all about the king who suffers and dies, whom God raised to life and victory.

That’s why there’s the change in tone from verse 30. If it was set to music, you would have up to verse 29 in a minor key, filled with emotion and pain and sorrow. But come verse 30 suddenly the orchestra strikes up, full of joy, like a fanfare: ‘I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving.’ The death of the king is not the end. Evil will not triumph. God rescued Jesus not from death - but through death as he went to the cross, endured the shame, because of the joy that was set before him.

The closing verses capture that joy - a joy that includes us, as the king extends the good news to his people, as the scene becomes wider and wider. ‘Let the oppressed see it and be glad; you who seek God, let your hearts revive. For the Lord hears the needy, and does not despise his own that are in bonds.’

Just as God has rescued his Son, the King, so that rescue opens up to all the needy - in and through the King. It’s the cause of joy and praise - across the whole creation: ‘Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves in them.’ Why? Because of God’s salvation - for Zion and the cities of Judah. The Lord’s people will be expanded, they will live and dwell with him.

Perhaps you’re feeling as if you’re about to go under. The waters are up to your neck. God, in his word, directs your attention to his son, and what he has done to rescue you - won’t your trust in him, and rejoice in his salvation.

This sermon was preached at the Lent Midweek service in Aghavea Church on Wednesday 6th March 2013.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Sermon Audio: Psalm 27

Last Wednesday at our Lent Midweek service I was preaching from Psalm 27, on the confidence believers can have: No Fear.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Book Review: The Ragamuffin Gospel

A while back, I asked about books on grace, and this one came highly recommended. Having never heard of it before, I spotted it in a secondhand bookshop and decided to have a read at it. Now, having finished it, I'm not entirely sure about it at all.

There's not doubt that it's about God's grace for ragamuffins (whatever they are), or in Brennan Manning's words, 'the bedraggled, beat-up and burnt-out.' He makes an impassioned plea for grace, free grace, without religious bondage or baggage; open for all to receive, all who know their condition and can't achieve, but simply receive.

As he makes clear, it's not about impressing God, scrambling for brownie points, or anything like that. He even talks about the Reformation and the rediscovery of justification by grace. My heart sang. Hallelujah! Especially for Brennan Manning, a former Catholic priest to talk so openly and welcomingly - preach it brother!

And yet. Let the reader be warned. It's about grace all right, but it seems to come with an awful lot of other baggage and unhelpful accompanying stuff. While rejoicing in the reformation, Manning is still caught up in Catholic structures and strictures. He freely dips into other religions, allying them with his cause; using them as illustrations of the grace of Jesus Christ (Zen, Jewish, Buddhist, Islam). There are all sorts of mystical experiences and visions and apparitions and 'words' presented as par for the course - which are certainly not part of the gospel of free grace!

In sum total, it appears to be grace plus all these wee extras - as if the precious and very great promises (2 Peter 1) are not enough for the believer. In places, my heart may have sang, but it was worryingly quieted by some of the presenting material and illustrations and experiences.

For that reason, I don't think I could recommend this book. At the very least, let the reader be aware and warned of the issues and problems - perhaps too great and overwhelming against the good parts. So my quest continues - a good book on grace, please?

PS - The version I read was a newer edition by Authentic Media (not the one in the picture below). Their spelling was very bad - perhaps a sub-editor was caught napping with the number of little errors that slipped through!

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Sermon: Luke 5: 1-16 Jesus the Fisher of Men

Did you hear about the fisherman who had sat by the river all day, and nothing was biting. It seemed like a waste of a day, but on the way home he called into the fishmongers and asked the shop assistant to throw a couple of fish at him. The assistant looks at him and wonders what he’s at - he says, ‘It’s so that when I get home, I can at least say that I caught them!’

In our Bible reading today, Simon has had a night like that. Except, he wasn’t just sitting by the riverside enjoying a packed lunch and some peace and quiet. He was a fisherman by trade - out in the lake of Gennesaret (Galilee), working by boat all night, dragging along the huge nets, trying to catch the fish. It’s been a disappointing night. They’ve caught nothing.

They’ve given it up for a bad job, and so Simon and his colleagues are washing their nets, checking them over, making them ready for the next night. As they’re doing this, Jesus comes along. As usual, the crowd are following him, listening in as he teaches, but they’re pressing in. Jesus gets into Simon’s boat, asks him to go out a wee bit, and from there, Simon’s boat becomes a pulpit. Jesus teaches the crowds.

When Jesus finishes, though, he says something strange: ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ Let’s go fishing. Now imagine that I, a self-confessed townie, were to land on your farm to try and give you advice on lambing or milking. Or if I were to tell you how to do knitting or patchwork, despite never having picked up a knitting needle before. Or how do you think it would go if you were to ring up Ryan Giggs to give him some tips for his next match?

You’d tell me to run and jump. You know more about it than me. It would be like trying to teach your granny to suck eggs. So when Jesus tells Simon to let down his nets, you can see the reaction on his face. This carpenter teacher, who could heal his mother-in-law, ok, but what does he know about fishing?

‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ There’s a reluctance - he thinks it’s stupid, a waste, even more effort after a night of useless work and a morning of cleaning the nets. Even so, however reluctantly, he still calls Jesus ‘Master’, he will obey. ‘If you say so, I will let down the nets.’

In what seemed like a clear lake, completely empty of fish, suddenly, the net can’t contain them - ‘they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.’ Even when they call for John and James to bring their boat over, there are still too many fish! They filled both boats (these were probably twenty feet long and six or seven feet wide) so that they began to sink. This is a lot of fish! A miraculous catch of fish. An amazing sight.

But Jesus was catching more than fish. Jesus was catching Simon. Simon has heard the teaching before - he was probably in the synagogue from last week. He had watched as Jesus healed his mother-in-law. But now Jesus is in his boat, in his world, the place he knows best - and Jesus displays his power and authority.

Simon Peter falls at Jesus’ knees and look at how he responds: ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ Jesus shows the control he has over his creation - in guiding the fish (and so many) into the nets. He reveals in this incident that he is no less than God - and Peter is suddenly exposed in the presence of God.

Did you notice the change in how he spoke to Jesus? Earlier it was ‘Master...’ but now it is ‘Lord’ - not just respect, but submission. He recognises that Jesus is God, and uses the same word used of God in the Old Testament. Lord.

Face to face with God, Simon’s first reaction is not how great it is; or how wonderful the fish will taste. No, his first reaction is his awareness of his sin. He wants to hide, to get away from God. ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.’ It’s the same reaction of Adam and Eve in the Garden as they hid from God when they became aware of their sin. Or think of the prophet Isaiah when he sees the Lord seated in the temple - ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips...’ (Is 6:5)

I wonder if you have been caught by Jesus? Simon already knew Jesus, but in a moment, he saw him in a new light, and was convicted of his own sinfulness. You’ve heard Jesus’ teaching; you know about him, but then, in a moment, you see him for who he is, the lights come on, you realise your sinfulness in a way you’ve never imagined before. At the very same time you’re drawn to Jesus, and yet driven to flee. It’s as if Jesus has caught you in his net, but you’re trying to get away.

What will Jesus say? How will Jesus respond? Look with me at verse 10: ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ Where Simon is afraid, captivated by Jesus’ power, Jesus speaks a word of peace and comfort: ‘Do not be afraid.’ It’s the same word of peace he speaks to us when we are convicted of sin; when we are afraid of the consequences. Do not be afraid.

But that’s not all. Jesus was catching fish; through that he was catching Simon. Now, he gives Simon a new job - to catch people. No longer will he be catching fish - his days in the boat are finished. Now, having met with Jesus; having seen his power revealing him to be God; Simon is to retrain to catch people.

It’s a great picture of what it means to be a Christian, isn’t it? Catching people and bringing them into the kingdom. Gathering them to hear and receive Jesus as their Master and Lord. Just as Jesus gave the miraculous catch of fish, so Jesus will give the catch of people as Simon and James and John leave the boats and nets and fish behind and follow Jesus. Just think of the first day that Simon Peter goes fishing - on the day of Pentecost, when 3000 people are ‘caught’ and added to the kingdom. Or the countless millions who are still being caught as the word is proclaimed, and they meet with Jesus.

How are we doing as a church in fishing for people? Are we bringing people to meet with Jesus in his word? Or are we content to just look after our own wee patch and keep things ticking over? Someone once said that we’re not called to be keepers of fishtanks and aquariums, but to be fishers of people - out in the world.

As Jesus demonstrates in those last verses, he is willing to make those who come to him clean - but how will they be saved if they don’t come? Are we bringing Jesus to them and them to Jesus?

When we see Jesus for who he really is - the Lord, God in control of all he has made - then we will seek to follow him, and do as he says. Perhaps we as individuals, and as a church family, need to keep listening to Jesus, and following as he catches people. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 3rd March 2013.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Sermon Audio: Psalm 42 & 43

Due to a little technology malfunction, thankfully sorted now, the midweek sermon audio files are running behind. So eventually, here's the sermon on thirsting for God from Psalms 42 and 43.