Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sermon: 1 Peter 4: 1-11 Time Is Short

[Did you hear about the man who went to the doctors? The doctor told him that he had just three minutes left to live. ‘What can you do for me, doctor?’ The man asked. ‘I could boil you an egg.’] This morning I’ve got a serious question for you - if you knew that today was your last day on earth, how would you live it? What would you do? What would you do differently?

Last year, the newspapers reported on a palliative care nurse who had recorded the regrets of her patients. What do you think made the top five? ‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.’ ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.’ ‘I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.’ ‘I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.’ ‘I wish that I had let myself be happier.’

Perhaps those would be your regrets. Maybe not. Perhaps as you’ve come to trust in Jesus, your regrets are the sins you’ve committed; the ways in which you’ve let down the Lord. It’s as if your past cries out against you, and as you look to the future, it seems as if you’re caught in this cycle - you want to be different, you try to be different, but then you stumble again. The same old sin; it’s much easier to go with the flow.

But in our passage this morning, Peter gives us some much needed encouragement to keep living for Jesus, even when it is difficult. You’ll remember that Peter is writing about the true grace of God, what the Christian life looks like for chosen exiles. Throughout this passage, Peter reminds us that time is short - and how we use our time matters.

First up, we’re given the principle - commit to live by the will of God. Here’s what Peter says: ‘Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same intention... so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh, no longer by human desires but by the will of God.’ (1-2)

We’re given a reason for doing it - since Christ suffered in the flesh (and some versions include ‘for you’ or ‘for us’) - throughout the letter we’ve seen time and again that Peter returns to the cross and the Lord’s suffering as the key to the Christian life. It’s the same here - Jesus has suffered to bring us to God, so now, follow his pattern by living in the will of God - for the rest of your life.

Peter is saying that there are two ways to go - human desires, or the will of God. You can’t do both, you have to choose - it’s like coming to a fork in the road, you have to decide what way you’re going to go. Have you ever been in a car and two different people are trying to give you directions at the same time? There comes a point when you have to decide who to listen to, who to follow.

Follow God’s will - for the rest of your life. That’s the general principle. Now it might surprise you that Peter has to urge us to do it, but that’s because he knows that we don’t do it by ourselves. ‘You have already spent enough time in doing what the Gentiles like to do, living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry.’

Do you have a favourite noise? I’m sure it isn’t your alarm clock. Now what’s the point of an alarm clock? What does it tell you? It’s saying ‘it’s time to get up, the time for sleeping is past, it’s time to get up and milk the cows or make breakfast or get to work...’ The sleep time is over, the day is now here. Peter is attempting to be an alarm clock for the Christian - the time for sin is past, so get up, live instead by the will of God.

Do you see what he’s saying - you used to live like this, but no longer. Now, when you don’t join in, people will be surprised. They’ll see that you’ve changed, they’ll malign you, speak evil of you. Around where we grew up they talked about someone becoming ‘good living’ if they stopped drinking and started going to church. Now if you’re facing this, wouldn’t it just be easier to give in and go with the flow?

But like the salmon going upstream, we’re called to be different. The time for drifting is past, we’re now in a new day, as we seek to live by the will of God. And, as Peter reminds us again, time is short. These opponents may give you a hard time now, but ‘they will have to give an account to him who stands ready to judge the living and the dead...’

I’ve never been in a courtroom - apart from at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum - but I’ve read enough John Grisham novels set in courts and seen enough TV dramas to hear those words ‘All rise’ - Peter says the judge is about to enter the courtroom. Our words and actions will be weighed and judged - whether we are dead or alive when he returns.

So we’ve seen a couple of times already that Peter talks of time being short - urging us to live the rest of our lives by the will of God; we’ve had enough time living in sin; for the judge is ready. Now in verse 7 he says it again. You simply can’t miss it: ‘The end of all things is at hand’ (or near). So you might be thinking to yourself - what will it look like to live by the will of God?

We’ve had a pen picture of living by human desires - now Peter goes on to spell out what God’s will is for our life together. ‘be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers.’ Rather than living for the weekend, we’re seeking after God.

‘Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.’ Why does Peter go on about love so much? Because we’re naturally inclined to not love - we have to be reminded of it, and to keep on doing it. We have a choice to make - to love the church family - and to choose to think of loving them rather than remembering their sin. There’s also the call to be hospitable without complaining - welcoming one another, serving one another.

Finally, Peter urges us ‘like servants of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.’ Do you see what Peter is saying here? It’s not that some people receive God’s gifts of grace and they should use them, but that everyone has received a gift, and they should use it to serve each other. So what gift is it that you have received from God? What are the talents and abilities that you have which you can use to serve the church family?

Peter gives two examples - one specific, and then a call to everyone: ‘Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ.’

As one who speaks, folks, this is the challenge - that I don’t just get up and say what I want to say, but rather, that I speak God’s words - I need your prayers as I seek to study and speak. But each of us, whether speaking or serving or reading or praying or catering or weeding or building or teaching or clearing up or welcoming or whatever it is - find your strength in God, and not in your own power. The time is short. The Lord is near. Together we can seek to live by God’s will as we support and encourage each other, as we go against the flow of the world and our desires. Wake up, and live for him.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 30th June 2013.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Book Review: Closer Still

This has been a difficult book to review. The Church of Ireland is such a small beast, that almost everyone knows everyone else. Lots of my friends have raved about this book, but I'm not just as enthusiastic to recommend it. There are some interesting insights, but on the whole, I'm not a fan.

In many ways, the book is an autobiographical reflection on several Bible passages, as the author, Scott Evans (youth worker and speaker) tells of his experience of Christianity, his reaction to it, and his returning:

'By my mid teens, if I was asked what a 'Christian' was, I would have answered that 'a Christian is someone who has accepted Jesus as their Lord and Saviour and doesn't get drunk, get high or get laid.' This probably hasn't been the case for everyone, but growing up in church taught me what a Christian was defined by what he or she didn't do.' (Loc 35-38)

His experience is further illustrated by the following: 'I can see why it was confusing to follow Jesus. On one hand, I have a very clear list of the things that a Christian does not do, while on the other, I had no idea who to be.' (Loc 43-48)

Lamenting on our need for the quick fix, Evans writes of Jesus: 'He calls people - messy, broken, unreliable people - to follow Him. And answering the call doesn't fix them; they don't just agree to follow Him and magically transform into the people He wants them to be.' (Loc 62-65) Rather, 'The life of faith is not a five- or eight- step plan, it's a journey.' (Loc 69-70)

Some of the Bible passages he focuses on are the woman at the well (John 4), the parable of the talents, the healing of the woman with the issue of blood.

There's also an extended reflection on how doubting Thomas has been misunderstood. 'Why couldn't he muster enough faith to proclaim that Jesus had risen? Perhaps because belief is not the central issue of Thomas's story. Perhaps it's because whether or not Thomas believed in Jesus was not as important as how much he loved Him.' (Loc 392-394) Yet that's not the point that Jesus makes in John 21 when he shows that it's all about believing, especially those who have not seen Jesus, that is, the rest of us!

The majority of the book is centred on the Parable of the Lost Sons, helpfully pointing out that 'there are two ways of running from God, two ways of losing ourselves and losing Him, the foreign land and the field.' (Loc 457-461)

His attitude to the Bible is, at times, interesting. 'I generally don't like passages that I've heard preached on a million times. It's like hearing a song or seeing an episode of The Simpsons one too many times: you lost interest and it loses its impact.' (Loc 72-74) Yet he also rails against the out-of-context plucking of Bible verses - such as the oft-quoted and oft-misunderstood Jeremiah 29:11. This was a great bit, so often lacking from some modern ministry, where Bible verses are wrenched out of context and misapplied.

Yet he then seems to drift into a similar misunderstanding by seeking to read yourself into the text and find yourself in the story: 'One of the things that I tell my students who are interested in reading the Bible is to read it imaginatively. To encounter Him, we must go beyond reading the text to reading ourselves into the text, imagining ourselves in the shoes or sandals of characters within the story, especially those who encounter Jesus and sometimes even Jesus himself.' (Loc 331-336) I'm not convinced that this is the why we have the Bible, nor that it is the way it is to be read.

Most troubling is his interpretation of the offering of Isaac and the faith of Abraham in Genesis 22. Following Rob Bell, Evans insists that God stops the knife to show that He is not like the other gods, who demand child sacrifice. 'It's not simply an issue of whether or not God can trust Abraham, it's Abraham's opportunity to discover that he can trust God, that he will not be subject to the cruel, insatiable hearts of others.' (Loc 614) And so on: 'To push this somewhat controversial interpretation of this passage even further, I sometimes wonder if Abraham actually failed the test. He has already shown his faithfulness so I'm not convinced that, after 25 years of obedience, God needs more evidence.' (Loc 614-616). It's a very controversial interpretation, which fails to take account of how the Bible interprets the incident - Hebrews 11 declares that 'By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac... He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.' (Heb 11:17-19)

The misunderstanding continues, as Evans then states that 'I wonder if God was hoping that Abraham would say no. Or at least ask why. In doing so, he would be living according to the heart of the God who reveals himself throughout the narrative of Scripture. Whether he passes or fails God's test, what's crucial is that this is God showing that He is not bloodthirsty, He is not insatiable, that His heart is good. That He can be trusted with our lives, our loves and our dreams.' (Loc 619-622). The offering of Isaac was replaced by a substitute, whose blood was offered. The sparing of Isaac points to the sacrifice of Jesus, where the good God who is also love, just and holy, is satisfied through the blood of the substitute. It is in this that God's love and goodness is revealed, rather than in hoping to provoke Abraham to refuse.

Similarly, the author seeks to reinterpret prayer by quoting positively a story of Mother Theresa who claimed that she doesn't say anything when she prays, nor does God, but rather, in his words, 'I think this is what home with God is like, what intimacy is all about. A communicative silence, two hearts becoming one, our lives changed by the life and heart of God.' (Loc 676) It seems to me to be in such contrast with Jesus who taught his disciples how to pray, by saying, 'When you pray, say...' (Luke 11:2)

As I've said, there are some useful insights, but there are also strange and dangerous interpretations of central Bible themes. For this reason, I just don't think I can recommend the book.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Book Review: Loving The Way Jesus Loves

You've heard 1 Corinthians 13 read lots of times - at weddings, in church services, private devotions, Bible study groups, and a variety of other situations. You think you know what it's all about. Think again. In Loving The Way Jesus Loves, Phil Ryken explores the Bible's famous love chapter in a new way, relating each clause and phrase explicitly to the person, life, ministry, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. The result is a great book that will both challenge and warm your heart as you see the love of Jesus, and seek to share that love with others around you.

Early on, Ryken makes the point that 'As familiar as it is, this chapter is not understood nearly as well as it ought to be. For one thing, people usually read it out of context.' Indeed, 'when Paul wrote about love in chapter 13, he was not trying to give people something nice to read at weddings.' The context is the letter to the Corinthians, and their loveless pride of specific spiritual gifts. As he goes on to say, 'The only way for us to become more loving is to have more of the love of Jesus.'

Ryken then works through the chapter - not in a continuous basis, but rather chopping and changing it up to follow the chronology of Jesus' life, as he links it to the key events. Each phrase, each element of love, is illustrated by an incident from the gospels, which mostly succeeds to demonstrate the way in which Jesus loves and our deficiency of love. There were one or two that I wouldn't have chosen as the example, but he makes a strong case for each one.

The author has written many books, and has a good turn of phrase in communicating the truth. Here's just one sample: 'We are nothing without love, but Jesus does nothing without love.' Or again, 'First the apostle tells us what he cannot do without love; then he tells us what only love can do.'

My advice would be to get the book and take a chapter per week, to think through the implications of our lovelessness, Jesus' love for us, and how we can then follow and share his love. Loving the Way Jesus Loves is available from Amazon, IVP (ebook) and for the Kindle.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Beautiful Fermanagh: The #G8 Venue

The day has finally arrived. The leaders are arriving. Barack Obama is on his way to Belfast, and then to Fermanagh. The Lough Erne Golf Resort awaits the G8 delegations. And the rain is on. Good Fermanagh rain, just as we're used to in these parts.

It doesn't rain all the time, and to prove it, here are some photos of Fermanagh in the sunshine. Here's what the G8 leaders might miss as they dander in the drizzle and helicopter in the heavy rain!
Sunrise on Lough Erne

Monea Castle

Enniskillen Cathedral by night

Castle Coole

Enniskillen Castle by night

Topped sunset

Enniskillen Castle from the water

Crom Castle

Lower Lough Erne from Lough Naver Forest

My own little corner of Fermanagh - Aghavea

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Sermon: 1 Timothy 2:1-7 Praying for the #G8

Even though it hasn't started yet, it will soon be over. The roadworks are finished, the police are in place, the lough has been closed, and now we're just waiting for the leaders themselves. The action begins tomorrow, and by Tuesday tea time they'll be off again and life will get back to normal. We'll wonder what all the fuss was for.

For twenty four hours, the leaders of the world's eight richest nations (as well as the president of the EU and a few others) will be on our doorstep. What can we do? You might decide to steer clear of enniskillen over the next few days, wary of the potential for trouble. Perhaps you will join the protestors. In our reading this evening, we find the thing that God wants us to do - at all times, but how much more when we are hosting these powerful people in our county.

But as we begin, I wonder if you remember the catchphrase of the Three Musketeers? All for one and one for all. As we look at 1 Timothy 2, we'll see lots of alls and lots of ones.

The first all comes in verse one. 'First of all, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions...' Paul commands Timothy and the church in Ephesus under his care to pray. But rather than just saying pray, he gives all types of prayer for all types of people. The call is to pray for all people, but then he goes to the specific, to pray for kings and all who are in high positions.

The G8 leaders certainly qualify as those in high positions, and we'll be praying for them later. But why is it we're told to pray for them? Why should we pray for those in authority? It is so 'that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.' When Paul was writing, he wasn't living under a democratically elected government. Neither did he have a Queen who was a Christian. Rather, Caesar was out to get Christians, Paul himself would die by execution. Yet still, he prays for the emperor, and calls us to pray, so that we may live in peace.

As if that wasn't reason enough to pray, Paul gives us another two - it is good, a good thing to do, but also, it is pleasing in God's sight. And it's here that we find our next all. God 'desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.' So often we set the scope of salvation too narrow - only us and people like us. In the first century, there was the same issue. The Jews thought that they alone were the inheritors of God's salvation, but the Gentiles were included. All sorts of people are included, God's desire is for all to be saved (even though not all will be saved).

For Paul, being saved and coming to a knowledge of the truth is the same thing - like two sides of the one coin. And what is the truth? What is the testimony that has been given to him? 'for there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.'

There may be many different people, many different supposed religions, but Paul reminds us of the truth that there is one God. Not many gods, not lots of idols, as was believed in Paul's day; but one God, who made heaven and earth. Now how can we relate to this one God? If he is high and exalted, the head over all, more powerful than the G8 leaders, then how could we approach him? We need a go between, a mediator, someone to represent us before him, to act in our place.

God has provided the mediator - the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all. There is one God, one mediator, who gave himself for all. This means that any other religious system is false. They either describe a false god (an idol) or else give a false way to approach this one God. You see, if God has provided the way to approach him, in the mediator, to try and go your own way is to believe a lie. To say no, thank you, I'll do it my way, is to reject this God and reject his salvation.

Just think of someone who is adrift at sea. They're in danger, and the lifeboat comes along, but they refuse to get in. There's no other means of rescue, the lifeboat is their only hope. Is it wise to refuse their help? Is it tolerant to let them go their own way?

Jesus is the saviour for all who will turn to him, his blood is sufficient, the ransom has been paid. It's for this reason that Paul is appointed to be a preacher and apostle, a teacher of the Gentiles - or as you could say, all nations.

This is the truth that has been revealed, the truth that God wants everyone to hear and accept, and so be saved.

We offer all sorts of prayer for all people (especially rulers) so that God's desire for all to be saved through Jesus, the one mediator for all, might be taught to all nations. It's a great reason to pray, as we fall in line with God's desires and pray for the things he wants.

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall on Sunday 16th June 2013.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Sermon: 1 Peter 3: 1-12 God's True Grace in Families and God's Family

Have you ever realised that you’re being watched? And I don’t just mean your nosy neighbour. They’re not the only ones who are watching your life. While we may not have the paparazzi following our every action, yet there are people who follow what you say and do. How does that make you feel? Uncomfortable? Irritated?

We’re in the letter of 1 Peter, learning about the true grace of God. Peter uses two words to describe Christians: elect exiles. In the early part of the letter he shows how Christians are chosen or elect - receiving the blessings of salvation from God our Saviour, who has given us an imperishable hope by the imperishable blood of the Lord Jesus shed for us, and revealed to us by the imperishable word. We’re chosen, but yet we’re exiles. We’re in this hostile world while we await the day when we will be at home with the Lord. But Peter won’t allow us to sit around waiting. Instead, we’ve seen that he calls us to action.

In 2:11-12 he says this: ‘Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honourably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honourable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge.’ Our honourable deeds will be seen by the world around us, they’re on display, leading to them praising God. We’ve already seen what that looks like in terms of relating to the state, and for slaves.

In this morning’s passage, he moves on to show what that will look like in our families and in God’s family. What will the watching world see as we relate to husbands and wives, and as we relate to each other in the church? What is this honourable conduct? Now in case you think that you’re off the hook, that this doesn’t apply to you - please don’t tune out. If you’re not yet married, this could help in preparing for marriage, as you look for a partner. Or it could be that you can pray for those who are married, for these things.

Just this week there were commemorations of the 69th anniversary of D-Day. As we come to the first verse, it’s as if we’ve landed in the middle of a minefield. [By the way, this is the value of preaching through books of the Bible from start to finish - the preacher doesn’t get to duck the difficult passages or only preach the ‘nice’ bits.] So what does Peter say, and why does he say it? ‘Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands.’

He’s linking what has already been said to this bit about wives - in the same way, accept the authority (or be subject). Now why would Peter say such a thing? Why would we want to read and obey such a command? Doesn’t he realise we’re in enlightened times now, that the feminist movement has brought women’s lib? Isn’t this just outdated nonsense?

Let’s see the reason he gives: ‘so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.’ Peter knows that it’s often likely that Christian wives may have non-Christian husbands. Religion might be seen as a woman’s thing, not something for a real man. The wife’s longing and desire is to see her husband come to faith, but how is that going to happen?

You can try nagging him into the kingdom, but it’s not going to be very successful. There might be some things you get him to do (eventually!), but nagging won’t do it. Rather, Peter says, it’s by your conduct - honourable conduct (2:12) - that they see and are won over. Do you see the pattern at work? As they watch your quiet (indeed, silent) witness over time, they can’t fail to notice your purity and reverence. (link to 2:12)

It’s not just your husband, though, who is watching you. Peter goes on to ask what you’re displaying: ‘Do not adorn yourselves outwardly by braiding your hair, and by wearing gold ornaments or fine clothing; rather, let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight.’

Peter isn’t saying that you shouldn’t get your hair done, that you shouldn’t have jewellery or clothes. But rather, these shouldn’t be the thing that is most noticeable about you. You see, some give their lives to pursuing trinkets and ornaments - but how valuable are they in the long run? Rather, the gentle and quiet spirit of the inner life is, once again, Peter’s favourite word - imperishable (lasting beauty). Are you becoming eternally beautiful in your spirit, or are you just like a clothes rack? Peter points to an example from scripture - Sarah obeying Abraham, submitting to him.

Now, before the men start to cheer or think that they have it made, Peter turns his attention to you (us). ‘Husbands, in the same way, show consideration for your wives in your life together, paying honour to the woman as the weaker sex, since they too are also heirs of the gracious gift of life - so that nothing may hinder your prayers.’

We’re not to lord it over our wives, but rather Peter speaks of consideration and honour. In the things you do, the way you speak to her and of her; in the ways you serve her; do you honour her? You see, it’s not that we’re more important, that we’re of a different order - Peter reminds us that they are ‘also heirs of the gracious gift of life’. It’s not that you’re more chosen than your Mrs. Indeed, it’s so important because God is watching - if we don’t treat our wives with honour, our prayers will be hindered.

(As Peter will go on to quote Ps 34 - God’s ears are open to the prayer of the righteous, but is against those who do evil). So when others at work speak disrespectfully of women, do you join in? Are your eyes only on your wife?

Now in case you’ve drifted off, Peter moves from the specific to the general in verse 8: ‘Finally, all of you...’ How should we relate to each other in God’s family? ‘Have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.’ In any family there are moments of tension, but we’re to still have honourable conduct - so that the watching world sees how these Christians love one another.

Our way of getting on will be startling, it’s not what people are used to - but no more so than how we deal with evil and abuse. ‘Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but on the contrary, repay with a blessing.’ Our natural sinful desire wants to echo back evil for evil - you’ve wronged me, I’ll get my own back. The way of the elect exile is to be different, to repay with blessings, not curses.

Why? Because in Christ, we have been called to be a blessing, because we have inherited a blessing from him. In Christ, we have received the blessing of eternal life; we’ve been made righteous as we trust in him. We have this certain hope. Therefore, we pass on this blessing to others. We’re changed to become more like Jesus, so that the watching world sees what it’s like to live under the lordship of Jesus, that they too will come and share in his blessing. Now, it’s difficult, but on that day, as our neighbours praise God because they’ve seen our honourable conduct, won’t it all have been worth it? To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus, forever and ever, Amen.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 9th June 2013.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Bible Briefs: Ezekiel

Series Introduction: Bible Briefs are a short introduction and summary of the overview of a book of the Bible, with a view to helping people take up their Bible and knowing what it's about.

The book of the prophet Ezekiel has always struck me as particularly odd. Perhaps it’s the opening chapter with the amazing vision given to the prophet with its details of the living creatures and the wheels within wheels which is hard to picture, and hard to understand. Having made it through chapter one, the reader is then faced with 23 chapters of doom, as the judgement and desolation of Jerusalem and Judah is declared.

As if the words weren’t enough, Ezekiel is commanded to act out the judgement by besieging a model of the city (4); by cutting his hair with a sharp sword (5); packing his bags and digging through the wall (12); and most horrific of all, by not mourning when his wife passes away (24).

The weight of the chapters lies heavy on the reader. The message is unmistakeable - sinners will not stand in the judgement of a holy God. That message is amplified as Ezekiel turns to the nations and addresses the same word to them (25-32). It seems as if there is no hope at all.

The people of God have neglected their God; the promises of God to Abraham look as if they will fail. What will happen? In the midst of the gloom, suddenly comes the promise of a new covenant - for the sake of God’s holy name - a new promise of a new heart and a new spirit leading to covenant faithfulness (36).

Ezekiel is taken to that most famous of his chapters, the valley of dry bones (37). Israel is dead and dried up, but these dry bones come together and live by the breath of the Spirit. New life is given in the place of death; leading to the vision of the restored (and greatly expanded) temple and city, the name of which closes the book: ‘The LORD Is There’ (48:35).

We find that the message of Ezekiel is not weird at all - it’s the story of the good news as it points to the salvation we have in the Lord Jesus. We, under the judgement of God, ‘dead in our trespasses and sins’ (Eph 2:1), like those dry, dusty bones, are made alive in Christ and being built into the spiritual temple (1 Pet 2:5) where we will dwell forever with God. You could almost say that it’s the Gospel According to Ezekiel - thanks be to God!

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Sermon Audio: John 3:16

On Sunday morning we took a break from our 1 Peter series to look at God the Giver as it was the church's Gift Day. Here's how it sounded.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Book Review: Turbulent Priests

Colin Bateman's sixth novel heralds the return of journalist Dan Starkey, investigating the outbreak of belief in the rebirth of the Messiah on the quirky Wrathlin Island. With a funny, if strangely contrived parody of the Nativity, little Christine is believed to be the bringer of fresh revelation and worker of miracles - at the age of four. And Starkey is on the case.

As with his other books, Bateman presents a variety of characters, who will cause eruptions of laughter at their actions and words. The parochialism of a small island, the ease of dominating a group, the perils of joining a close-knit community are all on display as Starkey settles into a new role as 'father' to his wife's son. As expected from the title, there are some observations and assertions on the role of faith and religion in the community, and the priests are indeed turbulent!

Here's how Father Flynn (previously encountered in Cycle of Violence) describes his vocation:

'You should understand first that I never have been particularly religious. That may seem a strange statement for a priest, but it's the truth. Becoming a priest can sometimes be like becoming a plumber or an electrician, something you go into because it's a secure job or because it's something for which you have a natural aptitude. It isn't necessarily something you have a particular love for. You learn it off by heart. That's how I was before my operation. I was doing a job. Just a job.'

This is the same Father Flynn who, hilariously, has a heart transplant, and is found to have been given a Protestant heart, which has somehow changed him! Another little glimmer of Bateman's oneliners can be found when Starkey talks of how 'I'm the product of a mixed marriage. My father was an agnostic, my mother an atheist, although they still counted themselves as good Protestants. Protestantism never has and never will be about religion. It's about property, and culture and spitting at Catholics.'

Still on religion and such like, Bateman has the Catholic Archbishop say the following: 'Evidence? This is the Catholic Church, man, we don't need evidence. We need faith, we need belief, we need trust. Since when has evidence ever been a requirement of a religion?' Funny to hear, but sadly very mistaken in practice.

One last little taster of Bateman's writing style. Check out this exchange as Flynn tells Starkey about going to investigate the little Messiah:

Flynn: 'On the one hand, I was dying with excitement, on the other hand desperately embarrassed. I mean, how do you walk up to a house and enquire if the Messiah is at home? Has the Messiah finished his homework yet?'
Starkey: 'I ca see where there might be a little awkwardness about it.'
'So what did you do?'
'I prayed, I took a deep breath, then I walked up to the front door, rang the bell, and waited to see what happened.'
'Well, nothing happened. The bell wasn't working. A bit of an anti-climax really...

It draws you in, causes you to get into the story, and then gives you a little humorous jump when you least expect it.

The story goes on, with some more mysterious happenings on Wrathlin. What is the secret of the island? What will happen to the messiah? How turbulent can the priests really be? You'll just have to read it to find out. [As before, warnings about bits of language, but for me, the story can be enjoyed while ignoring the profanity.] Buy it on Amazon (Kindle)

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Sermon: Isaiah 12 A Song of Salvation

On this very day, sixty years ago, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the Second took place at Westminster Abbey. Did anyone see it on TV? On such a special day, there was the traditional music - the anthems we’re used to hearing, such as Parry’s ‘I was glad’ and Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’ - but there were also some new musical items, specially composed for the occasion. According to Wikipedia, the font of all knowledge, Ralph Vaughan Williams composed a motet ‘O Taste and See’, William Walton a new setting of the Te Deum, and Healy Willan an anthem ‘O Lord our Governor.’ There were also new orchestral pieces from Arthur Bliss, William Walton and Arnold Bax.

Special occasions require special songs - both old and new. In Isaiah chapter 12, God gives us a new song to be sung on a special day. Twice in the chapter, we’re told ‘You will say in that day’ - but you might be wondering, well, what day is that? For that we need to go to the previous chapter - where we find that ‘that day’ is when the root of Jesse, the one empowered by the Spirit, achieves complete salvation. It’s a coronation anthem for us to sing when Jesus returns and ushers in the new creation.

Already, we have the words. I remember one of the first times that we took my wee brother to a Northern Ireland game. He was worried beforehand that he wouldn’t know the songs; he wanted me to teach them to him. It really wasn’t difficult - ‘Northern Ireland do do do do do’

Here, Isaiah gives us the words; it’s as if we’re in choir practice for the heavenly chorus. We praise now, but it will be so much bigger and better on that day. So what will we be singing on that day?

The first verse is a personal song - it’s all I and you. ‘I will give thank to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me. Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.’

It’s a song for everyone who has known the joy of sins forgiven, of wrath turned away through the cross of Jesus. God was angry with me, but his anger has been turned away by the blood of Jesus. Now we receive comfort. So we rejoice and sing of God our salvation.

I wonder can you sing that song? It’s easy, at a favourite hymns evening to be caught up in the music, and to sing some familiar old hymns. But can you sing these words? Have you come to know God as your saviour? Even tonight you can come and be assured of sins forgiven.

But we can’t stop there. You see, it’s never enough to simply say, well I’m saved, I’m all right. The second verse drives us to open up our focus, to look at the needy and lost world around us, and to declare God’s praise to a watching world.

‘Give thanks to the Lord, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the peoples, proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be made known in all the earth. Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.’

When we rejoice in our salvation, so we want others to know about the good news of the gospel as well. The risen Jesus sends out his disciples, and so he continues to send us out, as we make known the name of Jesus, the works of Jesus, so that everyone will come to praise him.

On that day, John tells us that there will be people from every nation and language and people. Together we’ll praise our great God and Saviour. The timetable of heaven will be ceaseless praise. Let’s get into practice here and now, as we praise the Lord in our thoughts and deeds, but also with our words.

This sermon was preached at the Favourite Hymns evening in Aghahvea Church on Sunday 2nd June 2013.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Feedly: The Google Reader Replacement

I'm very much a creature of habit. Once I get into a routine, I'm hard to shift from it. I don't like change! It manifests itself in lots of little things, but one in particular is my consumption of websites and blogs. For about seven years, I've been using Google Reader as my feed reader. It's always been good, simple, and efficient - all the updates are fed straight to your reader without you having to visit each individual blog to check for updates. But then came the news of Google Reader's pending doom. What to do now?

With various options, I've decided to opt for Feedly. At the start, it seemed clunky, strange to use, and not as familiar as Google Reader. Having trialled it for a month or two, I'm not sure why I didn't change much sooner! Feedly provide a dedicated app for smart phones as well as a desktop reader for, well, desktops! The iPhone app is the version that I've been using the most, and it's well built, much more efficient and reliable than reader, and perfect for the purpose of reading blogs. The easy access to click through to the actual website is very useful, and the whole app doesn't have to reload any time you return to the feed (unlike the old Google Reader mobile site). If you're wanting to be kept up to date with blogs, it's definitely the app/site to use. You'll pick it up in no time, and adding in subscriptions is also very handy.

one slight criticism is that sometimes, the Feedly iPhone app freezes or times out, with the result that you occasionally see the same news items several times before it realises you've read them. Although that could be my phone being jam packed with stuff and not having the necessary RAM.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Sermon: John 3:16 God The Giver

It’s probably the most famous verse in the whole Bible. If I had given you the reference, you could have told me what it was without a moment’s hesitation. Yet just because something is well known, doesn’t mean we really know it. This morning, for a few minutes, we’re going to think about that verse - John 3:16 - and what it means for us.

It might be your favourite verse, but just as a diamond on its own may be impressive; rather we want to see the diamond set among a whole crown of precious stones - the verse wasn’t just randomly spoken by Jesus. They come in a context, in the middle of a conversation, as Jesus points to God the gracious giver.

Nicodemus had come to Jesus by night - perhaps to avoid being seen. He was a religious man, a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews. He knew there was something special about Jesus, but couldn’t work out what it was. Is Jesus really from God?

Jesus immediately begins to burst his bubble. You see Nicodemus thought that his religious duty would be enough to bring him to God. His prayers and his sacrifices and his giving and his religious performance would surely be good enough for God. You might find yourself in agreement with him. It’s a mindset that we’re very familiar with in Northern Ireland. Our duties and services and sacrifices to God are made in order to win God’s approval - you could also find that this Pharisee could be renamed Nick O’Demus.

But straight away, Jesus declares: ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above’ - or, as other versions put it, which actually make more sense of Nicodemus’ next words: ‘without being born again.’

Sometimes ‘born again’ is used as a slur against certain types of Christians; maybe those who are more extreme, or more straight-laced. But Jesus says that everyone and anyone needs to be born again to enter the kingdom. Every Christian is therefore a born again Christian, or else they’re not a Christian at all.

Nicodemus wonders about the mechanics of entering the womb a second time, but Jesus points to the new birth by the Spirit. Again Nicodemus can’t get his head around this. He doesn’t quite grasp what Jesus is talking about. All this chat about born again and Spirit and what have you. And so he asks: ‘How can these things be?’ (9)

Jesus takes him back to the Old Testament, and gives an illustration of what Jesus himself has come to do, which shows that salvation is a gift from God - that God is the giver.

Back in Numbers, from our first reading, Moses is leading the people of Israel through the wilderness. They have been rescued from Egypt, and they’re on the way to the Promised Land. Have you ever been on a long car journey and the voice from the back seat pipes up: ‘are we nearly there yet?’ ‘I’m hungry’ ‘I’m thirsty.’ ‘I need a wee.’

Moses is on the journey that lasts forty years. The people of Israel grumbled over and over again. And in this particular incident (Num 21:4-9), the LORD sends poisonous serpents among the people. The people began to die when they were bitten. It was a serious situation, as the people saw loved ones perishing and they feared for themselves.

So they repent - they recognise that they have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against Moses. They ask Moses to pray for them. And so Moses prays. And how does God resolve the situation? The people wanted the serpents taken away, but rather God provides the means of salvation from the serpents.

‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ (Num 21:8). So what does it take to be healed? Look and live. Can you imagine someone being bit, but refusing to look at the bronze serpent on the pole? You’re in pain, you close your eyes - but all it takes is to look at the serpent (in faith) and you will live.

God sent the punishment, because he is the righteous and just judge. But God also sent the cure, because he is the gracious and loving one. It’s the point Jesus makes: ‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’

Jesus was lifted up on the cross, raised high, so that whoever was perishing, whoever was in danger because of their sin, they can look to Jesus, believe in him, and be saved, be given eternal life. And that leads us into our verse. It flows naturally - because of the ‘for’ at the beginning of verse 16. When we say it by itself, it sounds a bit strange having a for at the start, but within the flow, it perfectly fits:

‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’

The bronze serpent points forward to what Jesus would do on the cross. Just as God gave Moses the serpent for saving lives, so God gave Jesus to provide salvation and eternal life. God is the giver - and it’s all because of his love. ‘For God so loved the world...’

What a remarkable and wonderful and amazing statement. God loved the world- as Don Carson says, this isn’t amazing because of the bigness of the world, but because of the badness of the world. The world here means people hostile to God; yet even though we are sinful and rebellious, God loved us. Indeed, you can even go so far as to put your own name in there: ‘God so loved ... ‘ God so loved Joe Bloggs that he...

God’s love led to God’s giving, as he gave the most precious object he had - his only Son - in order to rescue us. God is the giver, in giving us Jesus, who came to die on the cross, lifted up to draw all people to himself.

But as with all gifts, they have to be received. If I were to write you a cheque, you have to cash it in to receive the benefit. And so it is here- God has given, but we must receive. We are to believe in him- to trust in him, to throw all your weight on him, to depend on him. In doing so, we are promised that we will not perish, but have eternal life.

On this Gift Day, as we bring our gifts to God, it cannot be as a religious duty; as a way of earning merit or receiving approval. Rather, our giving must be in joyful response to the God who is the giver - of all things, everything we have, but especially the giver who has given us salvation in Jesus Christ.

It’s one thing to know what John 3:16 says. It’s so much more precious to really know it in our lives and experience. May we know the giver, and rejoice in his gift. Amen.

This sermon was preached at the Gift Day in Aghavea Church on Sunday 2nd June 2013.