Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Sermon: 1 Peter 1: 1-12 God's True Grace... Makes us Chosen Exiles

What does the Christian life look like? If God’s grace is active in your life, what would it feel like? If you were asked that question, how would you respond?

There are lots of different answers and opinions around today. You may have heard of some of them, whether it’s the portrayal of Christians in Eastenders or Coronation Street (where they’re all either silly or crazy) or from the lips of the prosperity preachers - those who claim that God wants you to sail through life with no problems, no more aches or pains, no sorrow or suffering, and a parking space whenever you’re in a rush and need one urgently.

You might have heard some other ideas of what it is to be a Christian - everyone on the inside (and the outside) of the church has some notion of what it’s like. But rather than being deafened by the crowd of voices, perhaps we need to ask what God thinks of the Christian life - through the pen of one of his apostles.

Through until the summer, we’re going to be following this first letter from Peter. If you turn over to the last verses of the letter, you’ll see what his purpose in writing the letter is: ‘I have written this short letter to encourage you, and to testify that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it.’ (5:12) Peter has written about the true grace of God - and what it looks like as that grace works in our lives.

Very often in the New Testament letters we find that the opening verses aren’t just a nice wee greeting, something to pass over on the way to the good stuff - rather, the first things that are said are the key to the whole letter. So what do we find that Peter says right at the start? He says who he is writing to, but it’s not just their address, it’s also who they are: ‘To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood.’

In those verses, Peter uses two words to describe these Christians - chosen exiles. Now it’s not obvious in our version, but Peter puts these two words side by side as he writes: ‘To the chosen exiles’ or ‘To the elect exiles’ - and what he’s saying is that God’s true grace makes us chosen exiles.

From time to time, we get a hint of what exile would be like on the news. Seeing people driven from their homes and land, streaming over a border as refugees, far from home, scattered, needy, poor. Peter’s first readers are ‘exiles of the Dispersion’ - right throughout modern day Turkey, small groups of believers, vastly outnumbered, it would be easy to feel isolated, abandoned.

Exile is the driving emotion of our Psalm today (137) - as Boney M sang of the waters of Babylon. All of us feel from time to time like we’re exiles as well - far from home, we’re only too aware that this world is not our home, we’re home sick for heaven, to be at home with the Lord.

Yet to those exiles, and to us as well, Peter reminds them that they are chosen exiles - destined by God the Father, sanctified (set apart, made holy) by the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood. God’s grace is active as the whole of the Trinity works together for them.

As if it weren’t enough, Peter then bursts with praise as he spells out the hope we have as the chosen people of God: ‘By his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading...’ Because Jesus is alive, we have this living hope - we have something to look forward to. It’s what Peter calls an inheritance - but it’s like no inheritance you’ve ever received before: ‘imperishable, undefiled, unfading.’

Think of anything you’ve bought or received in the last month. Some day it’ll stop working, or fade or break. Anything in this world we give our lives to won’t last. As the small print on the ads says: ‘Investments may go down as well as up.’ But in these three ‘im’ and ‘un’ words, Peter says that it’s a sure and safe investment. The inheritance is kept in heaven - just as we are kept by God ‘protected by the power of God...’

The true grace of God brings so many blessings, it’s as if Peter is out of breath as he piles them all up together. It’s right that we rejoice - God’s grace means we are chosen. That’s right and good and proper - but it’s not the full picture. You see, the prosperity preacher might stop there but Peter won’t allow us to do the same. Remember what Peter is teaching us about being a Christian - we are chosen exiles. And in verse 6, he brings us back to reality with a bump. ‘In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials so that the genuineness of your faith... may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.’

The Christian life is not pain-free; it’s not all a walk in the park. It’s a life of exile, journeying toward our real home, and along the way there are trials and suffering. And when those trials come, you might be led to ask ‘Why me?’ You look at your problem; you’re focusing on the suffering, but Peter gently points us to God’s purpose - to demonstrate your genuine faith, and to bring glory to Jesus Christ.

You see, Peter isn’t going to contradict himself within two verses - just before speaking about these trials, in verse 5 he declared that we ‘are being protected by the power of God through faith’. God is still in control - he is guarding and protecting you when the diagnosis comes through; or when you’re handed your P45; or that situation arises on the farm; or your loved one dies.

Just as gold is tested, so our faith which is far more precious, is tested in the sufferings of exile. We’re to be forward focused - looking to when Jesus is revealed, when every eye will see him; when the suffering will be finished; when the little while has ended and the full stretch of eternity emerges. That day we will see him, but in the mean time, even though we haven’t seen Jesus we love him; we’re filled with an indescribable joy, sustaining us through the trials and leading us home to the fulfilment of our hope and joy.

This is the grace of God, that makes us chosen exiles, the grace of God which was promised in advance, through the Old Testament prophets. You see, they pointed forward to the ‘sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory’ (11). That’s the pattern for our lives too, as we follow the Lord Jesus: suffering now as exiles, glory later as God’s chosen people.

Perhaps today you’re weighed down by worries; you’re tormented by trials. These aren’t signs that God has abandoned you - rather they’re the sign of his grace as he controls and uses those things to trust in him. As you falter, remind yourself of all that is stored up for you - the imperishable inheritance, the living hope, and keep going as a chosen exile loved by God.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 28th April 2013.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sermon: Psalm 24 Guess Who?

Has anyone ever played the game ‘Guess Who?’

I tried to find my really old game at my mum and dad’s house, but couldn’t find it... but instead I’ve borrowed my niece’s game - it’s now Guess Who extra, with sounds and lights! Wasn’t like this in my day!

So how does Guess Who work? You have to try to work out which person the other player has picked; asking questions to help you decide - are they a man or a woman; with the people falling if they’re not the right one.

We could have a go at this version of Guess Who, but I’ve a better idea. We’ll do a real life game of Guess Who. I need a contestant... I’ve got the picture of someone from church on my phone, and need you to work out who it is - by asking the questions.

So if everyone would get on their feet (if you’re able) and ___ will ask yes / no questions to try to work out who the person is... [Hilarious opportunity to play guess who in real life...]

Now why did we play some Guess Who this morning? Who is the big word in our reading today. In the Psalm, David is asking: Who?

He starts off by answering the question - who does the earth belong to? And how does he answer it? ‘The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it.’

You know the way if you were to paint a picture, or make a model, or build something out of lego - that is yours. You’ve made it; it’s the same with this earth - God made it, so it is his.

But then from verse 3 we get to the even bigger game of Guess Who than we played this morning - the question is this: ‘Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place?’

In the Old Testament, God owns all the earth, but he chose a special place, the hill of the Lord, the holy place, where the temple would be built. But now, for us, it points us to heaven. The question is, who can go and stand before God in that holy, pure, clean place? Guess Who.

But rather than asking the usual questions male/female; wearing glasses or blond hair; David provides the answers: ‘He who has clean hands and a pure heart.’

First answer: The one who has clean hands. Now, quick inspection, are your hands clean? Did you wash them after you visited the bathroom? In hospital when you’re visiting you have to use the handwash gel to make sure you’re clean; I’ve brought along some hand wash gel... are your hands clean?

Except, he’s not just asking if our hands are clean in this way - he’s also asking if we have done good and right things; if our hands are spotless, or if we have got them dirty by doing bad things...

Now some people might already have ‘sat down’ with the first bit, but what about the second bit? ‘The one who has... a pure heart.’

He’s not asking about how our blood-pumping organ is - rather he is asking about the centre of our being; the person we are - our thoughts and motives... are we always pure in doing what we do?

Here’s a test for a pure heart: if your brother or sister...

Just as in Guess Who, David has made us fall - Guess Who is good enough to climb God’s hill and stand in his holy place? Who can go to heaven because they are good enough? None of us... not you, not me; not anyone.

Yet the Psalm isn’t over; David goes on to talk about receiving blessing from God; of being accepted by God - that those who seek God will find blessing and vindication...

How can this be possible? If we’re all out, if we’re all bad; how can we receive blessing? How can we be accepted?

Suddenly there’s another game of Guess Who which starts in the closing verses. It’s so good it happens twice!

Imagine a city with big gates. Maybe you’ve been in Londonderry at some point and have seen the gates of the city... the cry goes up: ‘Lift up your heads, O you gates; be lifted up you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.’

The question comes from within: ‘Who is this King of glory?’ Twice, they ask the same question, who is this King of glory?

These are the gates of heaven, opening up for the return of the king, the answer to the ‘who’ question:

‘The LORD strong and mighty; the LORD mighty in battle... the LORD Almighty, he is the King of glory.’

The Lord Jesus came down from heaven; down from that holy place, into this world that he made, the world that we have messed up by our sins, and Jesus did what we could not do. For every day of his 33 years, Jesus had clean hands and a pure heart. He committed no sin.

Jesus has received the blessing from God, and shares it with us. It is in and because of Jesus that we can stand with him; that we can be with Jesus in heaven. Now, the answer to the Guess Who: Who will be in heaven? Anyone who trusts in Jesus.

This sermon was preached at the Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 21st April 2013.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Book Review: Brookeborough: The Making of a Prime Minister

Having moved to Fermanagh almost two years ago, I've been trying to get to know the county's people, history, background and culture in order to minister and mission as effectively as possible. As part of the research, the opportunity came to learn about a previous generation of the local landlords, who happened to hold the most senior position in Northern Irish politics for about twenty years. In Brian Barton's book 'Brookeborough: The Making of a Prime Minister' we get to know a lot more about Sir Basil Brooke, Lord Brookeborough.

Barton's aim, writing in 1988 was to put right the shame that 'Brooke has not been well served by posterity'. 'The purpose of this narrative is to trace and to analyse the source and early development of his remarkable, improbable and hitherto neglected campaign.' (x) The result certainly meets the aim, with incredible attention to detail and plenty of analysis.

The background story of the Brooke family is fascinating, bringing them from England to Colebrooke via the plantation of Donegal and later in the 1640s, Fermanagh. It is here that subsequent generations of the family have made their home, to the extent that: 'over the years the Brookes came to identify closely with the county and country of their adoption, its prosperity and stability they helped promote, its idiosyncracies they enjoyed, its humour and sentiment they increasingly shared. They cherished its natural beauty, knew well its history, lived and worked by and large comfortably with its people.' (4) Each generation's contribution to the local, national and international history of the armed services of the empire is recorded.

Sir Basil's childhood is recounted with care, with an interesting detail that the Colebrooke estate in the 1880s was 30,000 acres. His father is recalled as 'a truly Victorian parent... stern disciplinarian, one of... the Jehovah-type.' (16) While this is mentioned, it's not explained if Basil meant that his father preferred the Old Testament view of God (commonly called), or if he thought himself in God-like control. His career in the army is shared, with service in India and then the First World War. On his return to beloved Colebrooke, he was to write, 'I had thought that my soldiering days were over but they were not... I was to become a soldier of a very different sort... but I had the added stimulant of defending my own birthplace.' (28)

That defence is detailed in the third chapter, on the formation of the Special Constabulary. Following the First World War, the tension in Ireland and especially Ulster, became intense. A rise in support for Sinn Fein came due to the execution of the leaders of the failed Easter Rising of 1916 - support which was allegedly promoted by sympathetic Roman Catholic priests. That tension was reaching boiling point in Fermanagh, so that Brooke formed 'his illegal vigilante force' (31). Later, when the Specials were formed and regularised, Brooke was appointed County Commandant.

With a ceasefire in the Anglo-Irish conflict, 'the truce was the prelude to a period of prolonged political uncertainty and sectarian tension which cast a dark and permanent shadow over the subsequent history of Fermanagh.' (44) The truce had been guaranteed by the formation of a Boundary Commission to investigate and recommend the exact line of the border between the Irish Free State and the newly formed Northern Ireland. Herein lay the concern - would Fermanagh find itself on the Irish or Northern side of the border? Fermanagh's nationalists expected to be southern citizens, with the County Council looking for authority to Dail Eireann. Unionists felt threatened, indeed Brooke described the Commission as 'the predominant threat confronting the loyalists of Ulster.' (45)

In this atmosphere, tension was to rise even further - 'from comparative peace to the brink of civil war' (45) with a number of incidents including the kidnapping of over 40 Protestants in the border region and the murder of five A Special Constables in Clones station.

Indeed, as the next chapter makes clear, 'the spectre of the Boundary Commission helped to keep local fears and rumours alive and deepen those psychological scars which permanently influenced the county's political structures.' (59) There is an interesting piece of trivia concerning the drawing of the border, with the military pushing for Lough Erne to be the dividing line, for ease of defence. Such advice was of course, rejected, with the entire county remaining in Northern Ireland.

Perhaps Lord Brookeborough is most famous for his line that 'he had not a Roman catholic about his own place' (78) - a line which has been adapted and adopted (and twisted) even to the present day on the lips of Sinn Fein MLAs. Barton provides a lot of analysis of those remarks, with documentary evidence of the situation of the day, the pressures of the moment and the background. After ten pages of discussion, his conclusion is that Brooke's moderate speeches have been ignored or forgotten, and that 'Such rhetoric was a response to a particular situation and it should not be deduced that the distrust of the minority that he then expressed proved as enduring as its place in popular recollection.' (89)

From here on, the book becomes incredibly detailed to the extent of being laborious in the reporting of Brooke's political career as Minister of Agriculture, Minister of Commerce and Partition, and eventually the almost minute-by-minute negotiations that led to Brooke becoming Prime Minister, succeeding John Andrews in 1943. While it was interesting to see some of what happened in the Northern Ireland Parliament at Stormont, it really would be heavy going for most people, except the political geek.

Of those chapters, just a few highlights shone:

- The statistics of rural living in Northern Ireland in the 1940s: 'In the early 1940s, the Ministry of Home Affairs estimated that 40 per cent of rural housing was either unfit for human habitation or overcrowded, and that over 60 per cent had neither gas nor electricity installed or available.' (102)

- The opportunity to see the people involved in the Ulster Crisis (ironically) establishing the Home Rule Parliament in Northern Ireland - names familiar to students of the Ulster Covenant and raising of Carson's UVF are found in power - Craig, Spender, and others.

- Building on that, the discovery that those politicians weren't really very good; that public opinion was never really overwhelmingly positive for the Stormont administration, and that the government's sheer ineptitude was such that it 'might do irreparable harm to Ulster and to the unionist cause... and constituted a grave danger to the system of democratic government in the province' according to Spender. (121). Perhaps nothing ever changes!

There is also a revealing insight into Brooke's personal faith or otherwise. He 'played an active part in parish if not diocesan affairs more from a sense of duty than personal piety.' (143) This seems to be the only reference to faith at all, or perhaps was all that Barton mentioned.

The book in its final chapter deals with the steps Brooke took to become Prime Minister, but then suddenly stops. To an extent, this was disappointing, as I wanted to learn more of how things turned out, but then that was beyond the scope of the book. I enjoyed it, even thought at times it did appear to revel in the intimate details rather than portraying the broader picture. This will definitely be a good book for those wishing to understand some of what has made Fermanagh the place it is today, as seen in the life of one of its leading citizens. It should be a must-read for politicians and those involved in local politics as we see the current administration at Stormont falter and fail in its duty to serve effectively and achieve just about anything. Otherwise we may repeat the past, rather than learn from its mistakes.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Sermon Audio: Luke 24: 36-53

Yesterday was the final sermon from Luke's Gospel for a while, as we rounded off the post-Easter appearances of Jesus. We might be on the last page of Luke, but the story hasn't finished - in fact, it's only just beginning as Jesus continues Fulfilling the Scriptures.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sermon: Luke 24: 36-53 Fulfilling the Scriptures

I have a really bad habit when I’m reading. I like to know how many pages I have left to read. So early on, I flick to the end to see the last page number. It’s not too bad if it’s a book on theology or history, but there is a time when it becomes a problem. Every so often, I like to read a thriller or murder mystery type book. The danger is, though, when I look at the page number, I might catch a glimpse of a spoiler - perhaps the name of the culprit as they’re driven away in a police car. Or the knowledge that a character must make it through the story.

Very often, the last page is the place where the whole story is understood - and not until then. If you read it through a second time, you realise there were hints the whole way through, but you only really get it at the very end. In some ways, that’s how it is with Luke’s Gospel. Having walked the Emmaus Road last week, we now find ourselves in the upper room with the disciples as they discuss what has happened. They know that Jesus is risen, but then suddenly, Jesus appears in the room with them.
While he is with them, he explains to them what has happened in recent days. Look with me at verse 44: ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you - that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’

Earlier this week I saw a photo of a movie script for a film Tom Cruise was starring in. All over the script he had added extra ideas and suggested different lines to those the writer had prepared. He felt free to improvise and make it up as he went along in the scene. But Jesus is saying here that the script of his life had been written in advance - and everything had to be as written. ‘Everything written... must be fulfilled.’

Now when he speaks of the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms, those are the three parts of the Old Testament. The scriptures together laid out what Jesus did; he lived in obedience to them, so that everything would be as they said. So why didn’t the disciples realise in advance? How come they didn’t understand that Jesus’ death was happening in this way for this reason? Why didn’t they greet the first Good Friday as a good day the way we do now? It’s because they didn’t at that stage understand the scriptures. As Jesus teaches them, he ‘opened their minds to understand the scriptures’ so that they could grasp it.

If the first disciples of Jesus needed God’s help to read and understand, how much more we? We need to come humbly, asking God to open our minds to receive his word - we’ll never understand them by our own power. Perhaps you’ve discovered that as you’ve tried to help someone to see why Jesus is so important; you’ve shared a verse of the Bible but they just don’t get it - even if it seems obvious to us. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4 that the god of this world (the devil) has blinded the minds of unbelievers. We need God’s help to understand his word.

So what was it that ‘must be fulfilled’? Jesus gives us the three things that must be fulfilled beginning in verse 46. ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to’ ONE: suffer. The sufferings of the Messiah are written of in advance throughout the Old Testament - Psalm 22, Isaiah 53 to name but two. It’s why in verse 39 Jesus says ‘Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.’ The hands and feet - the places on his body where the nails pierced him; the wounds of love are still to be seen; permanent reminders of Jesus’ love for us.

But that’s not all. ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to...’ TWO: rise from the dead on the third day. Jesus did not stay dead; the scriptures had promised that the Messiah would rise - and on the third day. Psalm 16, Hosea 6, as well as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22. In the first part of our reading Jesus goes to great pains to make absolutely certain that he is risen from the dead - alive, bodily raised - inviting them to touch him, to see his hands and feet, and, because they still wonder and disbelieve for joy, he eats some cooked fish. This isn’t just a spirit; this isn’t a ghost; this is Jesus, raised from the dead. Just as was written in the scriptures!

Now you might be thinking to yourself that’s a great ending. There’s only a few verses of the book left. So Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, that’s nice. But he isn’t finished yet. You see, there were three things written of the Messiah. 1 - suffer; 2 - rise; THREE: that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

Because Jesus is the Messiah, because he suffered death and rose again, he is the one who brings forgiveness of sins. It’s there in his words of greeting: ‘Peace be with you.’ In a world that is lacking peace; to people who are in guilt and shame of sin; Jesus brings them peace. Peace with God. Peace with each other. This peace is now to be spread, as repentance (turning from sin) and forgiveness of our sins is proclaimed.

One of the big employers in Dromore when I was growing up was a firm called John Graham. They do all sorts of things - build roads; buildings, all sorts of things. You’ve maybe even seen their distinctive green vans and huts and hoardings at their building sites. If you were to ring up their office, you couldn’t speak to John Graham now - he has long since perished, but the company continues to act in his name.

Last week the film critic Roger Ebert died. A few days after his death, his account sent out a new message on Twitter. He wasn’t tweeting from beyond the grave - rather his wife is carrying on his work. She is tweeting in his name.

Now John Graham and Roger Ebert have both died. But the risen Jesus sends the first disciples to act in his name - to do the final thing written of him on his behalf. From their starting point of Jerusalem, they are to go to all nations, proclaiming repentance and forgiveness of sins - because ‘You are witnesses of these things.’ Look back again to verse 39. What’s the word that jumps out in repetition? ‘See’ I had never seen it before, but now it’s like that children’s rhyme: ‘A sailor went to sea sea sea to see what he could see see see...’

The disciples were witnesses of Jesus’ death (hands and feet) and his resurrection (see) and of the forgiveness that comes through Jesus (they’ve experienced it themselves). They are sent out to all nations - but not until they have been clothed with power - the Holy Spirit.

We come to the end of Luke’s gospel, but we discover the story isn’t over. Rather, it’s only just beginning. Luke has written another book - the continuing story of what Jesus does, how the proclamation begins to be made in the Acts of the Apostles. And even when that book comes to an end, the story hasn’t finished. And that’s where we come in. Jesus, the Messiah, continues to send us out to act in his name, to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins both here in this parish and across the world. Jesus has done all that is necessary for peace with him; he empowers us with the Spirit; our task is to point to Jesus.

Having met with Jesus, the disciples would never be the same again. How will be step out in obedience to share the good news?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 14th April 2013.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Book Review: Dangerous Calling

For ministers and pastors, a lot of the time we're giving and serving, caught up in the multitude of things to be done and people to see and sermons to be written. It can almost be a self-perpetuating vicious cycle of doing and doing, with few opportunities to step back and see the bigger picture. If you're a pressured pastor, this is just the book for you. It's not an easy read. I'm not saying the words are difficult, but rather, it's a book with lots of challenges. The issues Paul David Tripp raises are well aimed and make an impact. This book is like looking in the mirror, and seeing some warts and problems, perhaps even for the first time.

In Dangerous Calling, Paul Tripp writes 'to confront the issue of the often unhealthy shape of pastoral culture.' This pastoral culture stands against the gospel of grace, by focusing on performance and comparison with others. As he begins the book, he invites us to deactivate our inner lawyer defense system, and instead revel in the gospel of grace, which makes honesty possible, because our sins are covered by the blood of Jesus.

Part one is an examination of pastoral culture as it stands. It doesn't make for pleasant reading. In the first chapter, Tripp tells his own story. 'I was an angry man... I would wrap my robes of righteousness around me... and remind her once again of what a great husband she had... I was a man headed for disaster... huge disconnect between my private persona and my public ministry life.' It was this spiritual schizophrenia which was so dangerous. Tripp confesses that he was caught up by the underlying themes in so many pastor's experiences: 1. I let ministry define my identity (rather than being a child of God, the focus is on being the pastor / professional); 2. I let biblical literacy and theological knowledge define my maturity; 3. I confused ministry success with God's endorsement of my lifestyle.

Chapter two provides the key question: 'How is the gospel of Jesus Christ forming and transforming the heart of this pastor and his local ministry culture?' For the remainder of the chapter, he gives some indications that a pastor is losing his way and forgetting the very gospel of grace. These include ignoring clear evidence of problems (by being a 'very skilled self-swindler'); being blind to the issues of his own heart; a ministry lacking in devotion (merely downloading information to hit other people with truth); not preaching the gospel to himself; questioning calling and fantasising about another life outside of ministry.

In the third chapter, the focus intensifies on the danger of having big theological brains but heart disease. He tells of a time when he had a notebook to work through Romans analysing the words and linguistics and grammar, yet had entirely missed or ignored the message of Romans. His head knowledge was being puffed up but his heart wasn't impacted. 'My eyes began to open to the dangers inherent in academizing our faith.' There's a danger that we produce (or are) 'theologeeks' - 'the guys who see theology as an end in itself rather than as a means to an end.' The remedy is presented in the form of a devotional reading of Isaiah 55: 'The ultimate purpose of the Word of God is not theological information but heart and life transformation.'

Chapter four looks at another presenting issue - where the public pronouncements of the pastor are not matched by his private life. 'I'm convinced that the big crisis for the church is not that we are easily dissatisfied but that we are all too easily satisfied.' With a variety of dangers and temptations, Tripp writes that 'It is only love for Christ that can defend the heart of the pastor against all the other loves that have the potential to kidnap his ministry.' This theme is further developed in the next chapter, where the pastor's lack of ministry to himself is highlighted: 'Does it seem right and healthy that in many churches the functional reality is that no one gets less of the ministry of the body of Christ than the pastor does?' Again, in the sixth chapter, this lack of community, this feeling of isolation is remarked upon - as if the pastor is an abnormal alien object outside the body of Christ rather than a part of it. Who is it pastoring the pastor?

The final chapter of the first part diagnoses the war zones in a pastor's life - not in the church, but in the pastor's own heart. These battles are unique to or intensified by the pastor's situation, and are the making or breaking of the pastor. The rest of the book takes up this theme of battle for the pastor's own soul, and how to stand and fight.

Part Two focuses on the danger of losing your awe (forgetting who God is). Tripp writes: 'Familiarity with the things of God may cause you to lose your awe.' There is a constant need to be mindful of the blessings God has given, and especially his grace - even and especially when we think we don't need it. Similarly, he focuses on dirty secrets: 'The dirty secret was that much of what he did was not done out of faith but out of fear.' This is intensified by the problem of mediocrity: 'I am very concerned about the acceptance of Sunday morning mediocrity, and I am persuaded that it is not primarily a schedule or laziness problem. I am convinced it is a theological problem.' The remedy is to be in awe of God: 'If your heart is in functional awe of the glory of God, then there will be no place in your heart for poorly prepared, badly delivered, functional pastoral mediocrity.'

Part Three switches to the danger of arrival (forgetting who you are). This covers a ranger of issues including the building of our own kingdom; of always preparing and never switching off; of the disconnect and separation between public and private; all of which issues in a great exposition and application of Peter's instruction to the elders in 1 Peter 5.

As I've said, it's a hard book to read. The heart is exposed, the reality is uncovered, but not in a harsh or vindictive way. Tripp's passion for God and love for pastors is demonstrated in the way he lovingly applies the gospel balm to ragged and ravaged hearts. The places for change and growth are shown clearly. While the book is sometimes slightly repetitive, it is still very profitable, and could well be a life saver and a ministry changer.

Dangerous Calling is available from IVP, Amazon, and Kindle. (IVP is cheaper!)

Monday, April 08, 2013

Sermon Audio: Holy Week in Luke's Passion

I'm just getting round to sorting out the sermon mp3s from Holy Week now, so here are a complete set, all from Luke's Gospel:

Palm Sunday: The Royal Visit Luke 19:28-44

Monday: The King Betrayed Luke 22:39-53

Tuesday: The King Denied Luke 22:54-62

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

Maundy Thursday: The King's Feast Luke 22:1-23

Good Friday: The King's Welcome Luke 23:32-43

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Sermon: Luke 24: 13-35 Seeing Jesus on the Emmaus Road

Have you ever had the experience of not being able to see something for looking at it? You go into a room for something, you spend ages looking for it, you can’t find it; yet it’s right in front of you. It’s normally the case that someone else will be able to spot it immediately... You’re looking at it, but you just can’t see it.

What’s maybe worse, though, is when you’re looking at someone. You know you should know them, you chat away, but all the time you’re thinking ‘who are you?...’ I’ll confess that I had this before Christmas when I bumped into a lady, knew I should know her, but it took ten full minutes of conversation and stumbling questions before I worked out who she was. Oops!

This morning in our reading, the two disciples have a series of experiences just like this. They’re walking home from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and they’re talking about what had happened in recent days. As they walk along, they’re joined by someone they should recognise, but they don’t know him. They see him, but they don’t recognise him.

When he asks what they’re talking about, they’re amazed he’s even asked the question. ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place?’

Cleopas and his friend had been followers of Jesus. They knew he was a prophet mighty in deed and word - but he had been crucified. Listen to the disappointment in their words: ‘But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.’ They had high hopes, but they had been dashed. Their expectations had been exhausted. Their dreams are deflated.

Now as if that disappointment wasn’t enough - they’re confused by the strange events of the morning. All this talk of visions of angels and word of Jesus being alive. Yet Cleopas and friend haven’t stayed around. No one has seen Jesus yet; It all seems so strange. They just can’t make sense of it all.

They’ve been expecting Jesus to redeem Israel - by kicking out the Roman oppressors and winning the victory. They thought things would work out in a particular way, but they haven’t. I wonder if you’ve ever found that as well? You have your life all planned out, but things don’t turn out that way. You expect a life of ease and comfort, but then sorrow surrounds you - what should have been victory turned into defeat. You’re left wondering if God is really in control. Where is God when these things happen?

It might be hard to see where Jesus fits into it all; it might appear as if Jesus isn’t with you in the middle of the trouble. You’re confused, disappointed, sad. They just can’t see Jesus; can’t understand what he’s doing - even when he’s right beside them; even as he’s speaking to them.

Yet Jesus enables them to see. Now notice that he doesn’t immediately say: ‘There’s nothing to worry about, sure, did you not recognise me? It’s me, Jesus, alive and kicking...’ Rather he helps them to see his death and resurrection as laid out in the Old Testament.

I wonder if you were caught out at all last Monday morning. There were a few dubious news stories knocking about; and a few tall tales as well. It was April Fools’ Day, where people try to catch each other out, while trying to avoid being the fool themselves. Yet here Jesus says that these two were ‘foolish... and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared.’
Jesus is saying that they should have expected his death and resurrection, precisely because it had been written about in advance in the Old Testament. They didn’t see Jesus in the scriptures, which was why they were finding it hard to understand what was happening that very day. He goes on: ‘Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ He then gives them the best ever Bible study, as he explains from Moses and all the prophets the things about himself ‘in all the scriptures.’

The Old Testament isn’t irrelevant for us; because it’s all about Jesus. Over 300 specific details of his life, death and resurrection are given, hundreds of years before he was born - all of which gives us confidence that God knows what he is doing; how he is in control of history; how his purposes do not fail.

Cleopas and his friend talk later about how their hearts ‘burned within us’ while he was opening the scriptures. That excitement of knowing and understanding the Bible, seeing it all click together; seeing the Lord Jesus in the Scriptures - what a thrill to be able to open the Bible together and hear God speaking to us. Do you take time to hear him speak? [Bible reading resources...]
Their hearts were open to see Jesus in the scripture; yet they still didn’t know who the man walking with them was. They come to the end of their seven mile walk (as if they’d walked from Fivemiletown to Aghavea), but the stranger appears to be heading on further. They urge him to stay with them. He is the guest, yet he takes the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them.

It’s the same set of words used of the time Jesus fed the five thousand; the same words from the Last Supper just a few days before. And it’s at that moment that their eyes are open; they recognise Jesus; they see him for who he is; and he suddenly disappears from their sight.

Though they didn’t realise it; though they couldn’t see him; Jesus was alive - Jesus had been with them the whole time. The knowledge that Jesus is alive is enough to transform these sad, disappointed, weary disciples into joyful resurrection people. Despite the hour; despite having walked seven miles, they get their coats on and go back the same road; back to Jerusalem and the eleven and the others. They have good news to share!

The good news is shared - Jesus is risen, he’s alive; he has even appeared to Simon (Peter - the one who had denied Jesus). They share how they recognised him in the breaking of the bread.

Perhaps today you’re weary, sad and disappointed. You’re wondering why things are the way they are. You just can’t see God’s purpose in the events of your life. Jesus invites us to meet with him at his table - as we break bread together, we’re reminded of God’s love for us; of how God could use the darkest of days to bring about the brightest of days; how violence and shame and hatred were transformed in the cross of Christ to offer hope and forgiveness and victory.

As we hear his word and share at his table, so he meets with us. He invites us to see him, to know his presence with us - not just here, but everywhere we go, in whatever situation we find ourselves. The good news of Easter isn’t just for one day in the year; we live each day in the light of the resurrection - the knowledge that Jesus is alive; that Jesus is with us; that God is fulfilling his promises, and will continue to do so. Just as Jesus met his disciples on the Emmaus road, so he’ll meet us on the Aghavea road, the Main Street, or whatever your new address is...

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 7th April 2013.