Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Watchnight Sermon: Psalm 90 Teach us to Number our Days

We’ve come to the last few minutes of 2014, and I can safely say that time is flying. It seems like no time at all since we were here for the watchnight service a whole year ago. Christmas came round quicker than ever. Just when we’ve finally got used to writing 2014, now we have to remember to write 2015 instead.

Time flying struck home with me the other week when I heard of one of the boys I taught in Sunday School, who, in my mind, must only be about 15, but he has recently qualified as a dentist. Where has all that time gone?

Here in this building, we’re aware of the passage of time. On the walls behind me are memories of my predecessors, including Morris Davies (rector a century ago). Generations have come and gone, and this same building has stood as the meeting place for the church family. Yet if that’s true for a building just over 200 years old, which seems so permanent to us, then just think how you would describe God. You would need the words that Moses says to God in verse 1: ‘Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.’ In every generation from our first parents, God has been there. He has been the background, our dwelling place. But more than that, ‘Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.’

From everlasting to everlasting you are God. As we mark the changing of the calendar, it’s good to remember that God is eternal, our dwelling place no matter what year it is. Moses draws out this truth, that God is eternal, in three distinct ways.

1. God is the one who calls time (3-4). It’s not just that we come to the end of our life and die, but that God is active - ‘You return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man.’’ He is the one in control, ruling over the length of our life. He sees the end from the beginning. Even what seems like a very long time to us, a thousand years, God sees it just like yesterday. God is ruling over time.

God is the one who remains when all is swept away. Moses uses two pictures - a flood, and the grass. A flood sweeps away all in its path - just think of the images of the Boxing Day Tsunami (hard to think it was 10 years ago). He also points to the grass which pops up, flourishes in the morning, but then fades away by evening. Why does this happen with us? Why are the generations swept away? ‘For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed.’ It’s not what we want to hear. Yet Moses draws out the anger and wrath of God. But what makes God angry? Why does he need to be wrathful? That brings us to:

God sees our sins. Sometimes we can do a good job of hiding our sins from other people. Sometimes we can look respectable. But God sees. God knows. God’s anger burns against sin - not an unpredictable anger that could lash out unexpectedly; but his settled, determined opposition to everything that is against him and his glory in creation.

Life in our sin-infected world is under God’s wrath. Our seventy or eighty years (or more, or less) are toil and trouble, quickly passing. The years fly by, and we fly away. With each passing year, our time is coming closer. Yet the key question comes in verse 11. Because life is like this: ‘Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you?’

If life under the fall is set up like this, to remind us of our mortality, then how many actually stop to consider that? So many people are caught up in life, merely passing through without a thought of God, or of the purpose of life. So they party, get drunk, begin another new year with another hangover, resolving that this year things will be different.

But change only comes as we consider our short lives in the light of the eternal God. The answer comes with the plea in verse 12: ‘So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.’ Help us to see our time is short, and to take refuge in you, the everlasting to everlasting God. In this way, we become wise with God’s wisdom. So let’s begin the new year with this as our prayer. Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.

Show us that we aren’t God. Remind us that we can’t do it all ourselves. Take over when we try to manage the universe and take your seat, Lord. When we do this, then we can be satisfied with God’s steadfast love, morning by morning. To know that we are not God, but that the everlasting God loves us, and will keep loving us, this is where joy comes from. It will change our work, as we see God’s work and our place in it, and his grace on our lives. From everlasting to everlasting you are God. Lord, may we take refuge in your eternity; and find you sustaining us in our mortality, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

This sermon was preached at the Watchnight Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 31st December 2014.

2014 Books

Another year is ending, so it's the time to have a look back at what I've read over the past year. A disappointing year in some ways, with fewer books read than I would have liked. There seemed to be about three months after holidays when I hardly started a book, let alone finished one. But 26 books is one every fortnight, and it's not my worst year, beating 23 books in 2008. Here are the books, links to the reviews, and my top five of 2014:

1. Finding Joy: A Radical Rediscovery of Grace - Marcus Honeysett
2. I am Joseph - Alan Pain
3. A Time to Kill - John Grisham
4. Journey to Joy - Josh Moody
5. Homosexuality: Christian Truth and Love - Paul Brown (ed)
6. Jesus the Son of God - Don Carson
7. Jesus and the Logic of History - Paul Barnett
8. Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf - Sean Duffy
9. Preach: Theology Meets Practice - Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert
10. Crossword Ends in Violence (5) - James Cary

11. A Game of Thrones - George RR Martin
12. The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts - Douglas Bond
13. The Resurrection of Christ - Michael Ramsey
14. Naked God - Martin Ayers
15. Five Festal Garments - Barry G Cooper
16. What Christ Thinks of the Church - John Stott
17. The Day of the Jack Russell - Colin Bateman
18. Magnificent Obsession - David Robertson
19. Dr Yes - Colin Bateman
20. Slogging Along in the Paths of Righteousness - Dale Ralph Davis

21. Sycamore Row - John Grisham
22. Letters to a Young Pastor - Calvin Miller
23. A Clash of Kings - George RR Martin
24. Praying Backwards - Bryan Chapell
25. Building Below the Waterline - Gordon MacDonald
26. Crazy Busy - Kevin DeYoung

Here are the links to previous years' book blogs: 2013 (45); 2012 (49); 2011 (37); 2010 (52); 2009 (41); 2008 (23); 2007 (78).

My top five of 2014 are:

1. Jesus and the Logic of History - Paul Barnett
2. Naked God - Martin Ayers
3. Letters to a Young Pastor - Calvin Miller
4. Crazy Busy - Kevin DeYoung
5. Sycamore Row - John Grisham

Book Review: Crazy Busy

The title of this, the last book of the year, seems to perfectly summarise my life: Crazy Busy. It's why I haven't read as many books as I'd like this year. It explains why I don't get done all the things I'd like to get done. Life seems to move quicker and quicker with no off button, particularly on the iFamily of devices. We're always connected, always on, and frazzled.

Kevin DeYoung tackles the subject in (as the subtitle puts it): 'A [mercifully] short book about a [really] big problem.' It's a great book, as he looks at the affliction of busyness. His opening couple of pages left me breathless at all he was and is doing. And then I realised that I'm in a similar boat, I just don't realise it. DeYoung offers a simple diagnosis of busyness, broken down into seven distinct elements: pride; total obligation; setting priorities; parenting; technology; rest; and suffering.

With humour and the straightforward words of a fellow sufferer, he provides grace-filled counsel and practical wisdom. There is a way out, through the priority of devotion to Jesus, by spending time with him in his word, but he only gets there when he exposes the false promises of continuing as we are by ourselves.

This would be a good book to read at the beginning of a new year, when you're setting priorities and thinking about resolutions. But if you sink under the stress of January, it would be great to read at any time of the year, or even several times a year to refocus and reassess the mess of busyness.

Crazy Busy by Kevin DeYoung is available for Kindle.At the moment, it's even cheaper at ThinkIVP as an ebook.

Book Review: Building Below the Waterline

Building Below the Waterline by Gordon MacDonald was recommended to me as a book to read on leadership. I'm hesitant about the obsession with 'leadership', especially when it seems to be business world wisdom applied to the church. The book was fine, and readable, but I'm not sure I would recommend it to others.

The title comes from the story of the erection of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. After months of construction work, there was still no sign of anything visible, and the public began to question the cost and the progress. But the construction firm were building below the waterline, putting in solid foundations so that what was above the water would stand firm, and indeed has done ever since. That's the metaphor MacDonald pursues, urging the reader to build solid foundations in the unseen, private world of the soul, so that public leadership is assured. The book is divided into those two sections - the inner life of a leader, and the outer life of a leader.

The book comes at the end of MacDonald's career, and acts as a reflection on a life of ministry and leadership. There are many allusions to some kind of breakdown or disgrace, but the story is never told, so the reader coming in ignorance is left in confusion and imagining the worst. Perhaps if this had addressed or explained in some way, the book would have made more sense.

As it is, the chapters are short, the practical application is ready-made, but I'm not sure that there's much of scripture in it. Rather, it seems to be practical pragmatism with some spiritual sweetener on top. It's fine, but not what I'd want to build my life on, above or below the waterline. In a similar vein, I much preferred Letters to a Young Pastor by Calvin Miller.

Building Below the Waterline by Gordon MacDonald is available for Kindle.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Book Review: Praying Backwards

Are you able to say the alphabet backwards really quickly? Z Y X and W V... The title of Bryan Chapell's book might make you think of that. Is Praying Backwards all about doing a neat trick where you say your prayers in reverse? Thankfully not. Chapell's idea of praying backwards is a sound one, though.

He makes the point well in the introduction. 'How would your prayer change if you began where you ended?... We are supposed to be saying that everything we prayed for was offered "in Jesus' name" - for his honour and purposes... Yet that's not always the way we pray. Often we focus on asking God to ease our worries and satisfy our wants before adding "in Jesus' name" as an obligatory spiritual seasoning to make our petitions palatable to God.'

It's a great idea, making a really important point about how we pray. The rest of the book unpacks the idea, showing what it will look like to pray in Jesus' name, with his priorities and purposes. It will be modelled on Jesus' prayer life, seeking the Father's will, not our own (in a helpful look at the Lord's Prayer); trusting our good Father without doubting; finding in the Spirit power beyond our own power; praying expectantly and persistently, never giving up; with discernment as to what to pray for within the fences of what is righteous and what is prudent.

There is plenty in the book to take away, with some helpful reminders of the privilege of prayer, and some practical helpers to actually get praying or keep praying. As in Chapell's other books there are loads of illustrations, mostly gathered from his own experience (paddle and pray being my favourite one!), and the teaching comes across warm and friendly. However, there were a few times that it seemed to drag on a little more than necessary, and in places it seemed a bit repetitive.

On the whole, this is a good book to get a hold of to learn more about prayer, and to actually get praying. The new Christian will find it accessible and encouraging, but it will also be useful for the older Christian. Once you grasp the image he portrays of praying backwards, it really does affect your prayer life in a positive way.

Praying Backwards by Bryan Chapell is available for Kindle.

Book Review: A Clash of Kings

The second installment of the Game of Thrones saga was waiting for me on my Kindle. With such an intriguing ending to the first book, I had to launch into the second. Once again, George RR Martin has succeeded in moving the story along by developing the various strands and threads closer to the finale. The Starks are separated, Winterfell is in danger, Theon is on the move, King's Landing is under threat, Danyris is seeking to get moving to claim her throne, the Baratheon brothers are each readying their claim, the armies are on the move.

The religious life and practice and doctrine of the various strands becomes clearer in this one, although there is still much to learn and observe.

All in all, the second book of Westeros continues where the first one left off. Interweaving stories, told from one main character's point of view, with intrigue, violence, sex, and earthly ordinariness in extraordinary times. Yet again, the reader is urged to continue, and I will, at some point in the new year. Read it, but only when you're read A Game of Thrones first!

A Clash of Kings by George RR Martin is available for Kindle.

Book Review: Letters to a Young Pastor

One of the blogs that I follow on Feedly (the Google Reader replacement) is Challies. Each day, he trawls the Amazon site, highlighting some special Kindle deals likely to interest Christians. Sometimes it's frustrating to discover the offers only apply in America and can't be found on the UK Kindle store, but often times, the same deals are here too. There are always free and cheap Kindle books going, so when they appear, I fill up my Kindle. You never know when they might come in handy. The book under review was one such 'some day' deal.

I had never heard of Calvin Miller before, and wasn't sure that I would find much in common with a Southern Baptist minister. Yet the title of the book sparked my interest. I'm still a young pastor (I hope!), so it would be good to take an opportunity to learn from someone longer in the Lord's service. And what I found was a captivating writing style, great advice, and a book I'll return to again and again.

The introduction sets the scene:

Walk with me, young pastor, and let us speak of things that are not included in the treasury of all you learned in seminary. Make no mistake, I am pro-seminary. In fact, I am pro-a-lifetime-of-study for every pastor... One reason you should take this walk with me is that I am most imperfect. I have made so many mistakes, but these errors all held lessons of their own. And te mistakes are but the dark threads of success it takes to complete a tapestry. Walk with me and I will show you how you can use those dark threads to put artistic shadows and depth into your lightsome life... But the all-time great reason that you should listen to me is that much of what I write about in the book is written from the edge. Ministry is not for sissies, and the requirement of the tough times brings us to the edge of our commitment.

What follows are a series of letters each looking at an aspect of life and ministry. He doesn't take himself too seriously, which helps to show what life was really like for him. But the thing I loved the most were the turns of phrase. In his obituary, a colleague compared him to CS Lewis, and his writing is certainly memorable:

Now, Don Piper has spent some time in heaven and found it a profitable sojourn, but in my early days most evangelists had spent some time in hell and found it profitable as well. In those days there were a lot of sermons on hell, and even those that were not on hell sounded like hell.

'So many of the letters in this book focus on the long haul and the power of sticking to one thing: tenure.'

The letters take as their subjects: Seeing the significance of your call whatever the congregation's size; keeping the passion in your call; The art of pinpointing your location in a postdenominational world; reputation; the despondency trap; agape and eros; the pastor-parent; the art of self-forgiveness; come, let's make the world rounder; The rule of Jude 3; Avoid any word that begins with 'neo'; the emergent emergency; standing at the corner of orthodox avenue and political boulevard; what does your church offer that's missing at the YMCA?; when you can't find God; when idols fall; when bishops quarrel; the player-coach; breaking your bondage to the success syndrome; image or vision: it's your choice; never resign till Tuesday; vitality: the art of not snoozing through a revolution; nets allow aerialists to file for social security; coping with difficult people; grumpy homiletics; the candidate sermon; preaching to Hansy and Betsy; to entertain or not to entertain?; keeping in touch with the arts; nonconformity: the art of submissive individuality; confession: the art of telling it like it is, however it makes you look; touch: the delicate art of leaving your fingerprints on human need; self-crucifixion: the art of looking good on wood; and finally, humility: the art of doing good stuff and giving Jesus the credit. Thirty-five letters, each one with something interesting to take from them. Among the highlights are:

He analyses the reasons people give up on Christian ministry: 'First, we die because we suffer from congregational social schisms that result from huge doses of unforgiveness between jealous, wrangling laypeople. Second, we have too many pastors who compete within their denominations and fire at each other with blitzes of resentment. Third, many preachers who resent each other's success within their city limits participate in sanctimonious name-calling: 'Easy gospel church!' 'Calvinist Mecca! Bible-free preaching! Social gospelers! Modernists!'

There was an interesting chapter on the rise of the megachurches and his critique of them - made all the most interesting by the sudden decline and disappearance of Mars Hill Church formerly pastored by Mark Driscoll: 'The fact that you are reading this book leads me to believe you are not a megachurch pastor. I am guessing this for a couple of reasons. Reason number one: Most megachurch pastors are not well read, and when they do read, they tend to read from a list of sources that directly relate to church growth - namely, their own church growth... Reason number two: The overwhelming number of church pastors are "small" church pastors who never in their lifetimes will pastor a large church.' On the 'success mystique' of megachurch growth, he isn't a fan of multisite multicampus video sermons. 'The main idea here is that it is better to have a famous pastor at three locations than two nonfamous pastors at the other locations... But overall, this cultural-hero business in megachurches is not saving evangelicalism. It is generally flattening the world... by creating the illusion that each of these churches is unique... by creating the notion that they are saving Christianity. In reality they are destroying it... Third, megachurches are a bog of lost concern. Pastoral care has all but died... Eugene Peterson's pastoral job description is this: Live in the middle of your congregation and love God. The sheer numbers in megachurches render this definition impossible.'

There is also a strong denunciation of emergents and revisionists which has to be read in full to be appreciated, two full chapters worth, at least!

If you're in pastoral ministry, then this is a book for you to read. While it's targeted at younger pastors, it would be beneficial for any pastor of any age and stage. There is much that will do you good here - even if it's just to hear that someone else was going through the same things you're going through. His wisdom - godly wisdom - shines through, and will do your heart good. Letters to a Young Pastor by Calvin Miller is available for Kindle.

Book Review: Sycamore Row

Having read A Time to Kill for the second time, I was ready to read the newly published sequel from John Grisham, Sycamore Row. Once again, we find ourselves in small town Mississippi, with all its associations and racial tension.

A suicide on the very first page leaves an unusual will, naming Jack Brigance as the attorney for the estate. The rest of the book follows the unpacking and challenges to the will, as a variety of characters assert their legal claim to stop the dead (white) man's negro housemaid from inheriting the lot. Along the way, there are moments of humour, but also moments of terror, as the Ku Klux Klan object to Jack's taking on the case and muscle in to intimidate.

As I seem to say with nearly every Grisham novel, he is able to portray characters in amazing detail, catching the way people are likely to react, in all their greed or pride or shame. The story draws you in, teasing you with each chapter end, making you push on to read just one more chapter... To benefit from this story, though, it's probably best to read A Time To Kill first, so that you're introduced to Jack and Ozzy and all the rest.

Sycamore Row is available from Amazonand for Kindle.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Book Review: Slogging Along in the Paths of Righteousness

Are you wanting to read and understand the Old Testament? Your first port of call should be Dale Ralph Davis. I've previously written about some of his books, especially his The Way of the Righteous in the Muck of Life, on Psalms 1-12. Having read that, I was hoping that the next chunk of Psalms would appear in due course. Now, here it is: Slogging Along in the Paths of Righteousness.

As in the first book, this is a series of sermons preached by Dale Ralph Davis on Psalms 13 - 24. Continuing the tradition, this is a great example of expository preaching at its best. The introductions draw you in, the exegesis is clear and helpful, and the application is pastoral and challenging. The way he breaks down the passage always seems to make sense, so that you wonder how you missed it when you previously preached it!

Here are a few of the stand out lines from the book:

On Psalm 13, reflecting on his own tendency to exercise damage control on his family's reputation, he wonders what would happen if the the compilers of scripture had edited out David's cry? 'David may well teach us to pray and show us something of the path from anguish to assurance.' Even in his 'triple trouble', David continues to pray, as an instinct of faith.

Psalm 14 is portrayed as a 'mongrel Psalm', looking as if a couple of themes have been thrown together. But he shows the coherence of the whole. With the Psalm's insistence that foolishness isn't 'a particular case but a universal condition - the whole race consists of rebels... we find ourselves facing a crisis bar none.' Yet Psalm 14 brings us to a most remarkable wonder. 'It forces you to posit the wonder of grace.'

On Psalm 15, 'Anything that brings you to your knees and shows you how pervasive your sin is and how much you need atonement and forgiveness is gracious.'

In Psalm 16, on a positively sheltered life, 'he ponders what anchors him, and also what alarms him.'

Psalm 19 is described as what we should see, hear and say - seeing the weightiness of God in the unspeaking always speaking sky; hearing the wonderful law torah of God; saying 'sin may be present but we may not identify or perceive it.'

Psalm 21's memorable line is: 'We are not particularly particular about particularising thanksgiving.' Although he also has this to say: 'Jesus' hesed love is not simply love - it is love with superglue on it.'

Psalm 23 is summarised as shepherd geography, where the shepherd takes the sheep. 'Now we can look back over the journey. The grassy pastures may be the normal place, the valley of the shadows the fearful place, in front of the enemies the dangerous place, and the house of Yahweh the abiding place.'

If you want to get to know the Psalms better, this little book would be a good place to start, for this collection of twelve Psalms. You could use it as a devotional, taking a psalm a day, or a psalm per week, drinking in its truth as shown by his teaching and application. Pastors will also find it helpful in raising possible structure and application in their sermon prep. Here's hoping that another collection is published in due course, and even that the whole Psalter is eventually covered! Slogging Along in the Paths of Righteousness by Dale Ralph Davis is available for Kindle.

Book Review: Magnificent Obsession

From the publication of his book The Dawkins Letters, in which he answered the chapters in Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, Dundee Free Church minister David Robertson has emerged as one of the leading Christian apologists in the UK and further afield. With speaking engagements all over the country and beyond, Robertson has honed his apologetics, presenting the truth of Christianity in a clear and engaging manner. This is also the case in his most recent book, Magnificent Obsession: Why Jesus is Great.

Tackling one of the most common objections, 'I would believe if I had the evidence', Robertson admits that it isn't an unreasonable request. 'What is unreasonable... is when the statement is made with the assumption that there is either no or insufficient evidence.' Thus, 'This book is written to challenge that assumption.' He acknowledges that, while some people thought that the rise of the New Atheists was a bad thing, they have actually revived an interest in Christianity and opened it up to outsiders asking questions. He explores the idea that everyone has a faith position of some kind, even the atheists. For him, 'I am a Christian because of Jesus Christ.'

The book follows a familiar format, drawing on the same letter style as The Dawkins Letters. However in this book, the recipient isn't an actual person, rather an amalgam of various atheists and agnostics known to him through correspondence, speaking engagements, pastoral work and personal contact. The letters follow a logical sequence, building on the previous, as well as the anticipated response from the reader. The themes of the letters are: Man, Miracles, Messenger, Murdered, Marvellous, Meaning, Mission, Modern, Maranatha, Magnificent.

Throughout, there is a clear and concise presentation of the evidence about Jesus, answering objections and putting the New Atheist on the back foot with some questions and challenges for their faith position. There are plenty of ideas to use in conversations, and threads to pursue and think about further.

On the evidence for Jesus, Robertson contends that 'in our postmodern, touchly-feely world, Jesus is whoever we want him to be.' The reason people don't want to know about Jesus is simple: 'The only reason that people will not accept the overwhelming evidence for the existence of Jesus is that they just really do not want him to exist.'

On the virgin birth, 'If true, it is part of the evidence that there is a God, who does 'intervene' in the world and who does call us to follow him.'

His section on the cross is pure gold, answering the objection of its horror, its need, and its purpose. Similarly, the resurrection is shown to be the heart of the faith, historically attested, and reliable to believe.

He doesn't shrink back from the hard things - even the doctrine of the Trinity, which is the centre of the faith, and vital to understanding God as he has revealed himself.

I couldn't recommend this highly enough. It's a great book which clearly presents the Christian faith in a logical and coherent way, answering the objections many Christians are likely to face from their friends. It would be useful for Christians to read to gain help for those conversations, but also to give to their non-Christian friends to read and discuss together. Magnificent Obsession is available from Amazon.

Book Reviews: The Day of the Jack Russell and Dr Yes

I've previously written about how much I enjoy Colin Bateman's books. Over the course of the summer, I read another couple of his, both from the Mystery Man series. The (fictional) owner of the (real life) No Alibis bookshop in Belfast doesn't just sell crime fiction, he also stars in it. Buoyed by his first successful mystery solved, and with a blossoming relationship with the jewellery shop assistant from across the road, and plagued by his mother, the stories continue to entertain as weird stuff happens and crimes are solved.

The Day of the Jack Russell (a title based on The Day of the Jackal) centres around the death and kidnapping of the Chief Constable's Jack Russell dog. What is its real significance in a world where grafitti artists are murdered and M15 seem to be involved? It's a rip-roaring tale that will make you bark with laughter. Seriously!

Dr Yes moves the story on to the dodgy world of plastic surgery, disappearances and murders. Is it all really as glamorous as it seems? Is beauty only skin deep? What lies beneath? The plot unravels like the bandages from a face lift, to reveal a glorious end result, with a few twists and turns along the way.

Both novels are written from the point of view of Mystery Man himself, with all the wry observations, cutting wit and weird personality quirks that brings (for example, working his way through the Starbucks menu item by item). They're a gift for Northern Irish people, with a very distinctive Ulster humour, but being recommended by the Richard and Judy book club, seem to make the transition to wider British culture. Expect lots of puns and jokes along the way.

If you fancy a chuckle, and want something a wee bit different to the standard crime novel, give these a go - but start with Mystery Man, the first in the series. These will make better sense in that order! The Day of the Jack Russelland Dr. Yesare both available for Kindle from Amazon.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Sermon: Luke 2: 22-40 Simeon's Bucket List

Can you work out what all these things have in common. Visit Hawaii. Carve a pumpkin. Experience zero gravity. Go surfing. Learn how to drive. See the Northern Lights. Throw a dart at a map and travel to wherever it lands. Swim with dolphins. Any ideas? They are among the most popular items on people’s bucket lists. (According to www.bucketlist/org/popular)

What’s on your bucket list? You may not know the term, but you might just have a bucket list. Now, it’s not a list of buckets that you own (if indeed you own more than one bucket, just in case, like Liza, you get a hole in it). Rather, it’s a list of things you want to do before you kick the bucket. They’re the things that you want to achieve before you die. The things that you could say ‘I’ve done that, now I can die happy.’

So what would your bucket list include? What would you prioritise? What would you want to do so that you could die happy?

This morning in our reading, we meet a man with just one item on his bucket list. That one thing might not seem like a big deal to us. His bucket list says: ‘See a baby.’ He lives in Jerusalem, he must see loads of babies - especially if parents observe the Law and bring their newborns to the temple for dedication.

But it’s not just any baby. It’s actually see ‘the’ baby. Simeon is described as righteous and devout. He trusts in the Lord, he’s living by faith. But more than that, he is ‘looking forward to the consolation of Israel.’ (25)

He knows that Israel is in distress. God’s people are not in a good way. They need to be consoled. Now I’ve had some experience of this recently. The Bowling Club had a party night. Everyone picks out what team they play on, and after three games, the highest men and women scorers get prizes. I was playing terribly that night (as I always do!) and needed to be consoled. I ended up with one of the very lowest scores. But I was consoled - I got a booby prize! It made up for what was lacking. When I received my Terry’s Chocolate Orange, the pain of my terrible performance was forgotten!

Israel was not in a good way. They seemed to be far from God. God hadn’t spoken for about 400 years. The Romans had conquered the land. Israel was an occupied land. Israel needed to be consoled. Israel needed God to console them.

The Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah (Christ). The consolation of Israel will come through the Christ. The Christ will be the comforter Israel needs. And Simeon has been guaranteed to see him before he dies. His bucket list is to meet the Christ.

Out of all the babies that were in the temple that day, Simeon is guided to the right one. He takes the baby Jesus in his arms, and breaks into song: ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples. a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’

I can die happy, because I have seen your salvation. He may not know how the salvation will come, but he knows who will bring the salvation. And even though he can’t know the future, it seems that he is basing his song on the servant song of Isaiah 49. He links Jesus to the servant in that song, who is the means of the Lord comforting his people; the way Israel will be gathered back to God; but also as a light to the nations.

Even though Simeon sees only the seed - the baby Jesus at just 40 days old - he knows that the full flowering of salvation will come. God’s word is sure. Just as God promised Simeon he would see his salvation, so God will fulfil that salvation in Jesus.

The baby didn’t stay a baby. He grew up, in a lifelong obedience to God’s will. He lived the perfect life, and died the perfect death. Through his death, we have life. Through his name proclaimed, Jews and Gentiles are brought back to God.

You might have 1001 items on your bucket list. You might have so many ideas about what would you should do before you die happy. But Simeon tells us that only one will really matter after death. It’s the one that Simeon had on his bucket list. To get to know Jesus. To find in him your salvation. Because when you have his salvation, you can die happy - but more than that, you can die confident that you will live with him for eternity.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 28th December 2014.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Morning Sermon: Luke 2: 19 An Unforgettable Christmas

One of the things I love about the Christmas morning service is seeing the presents that you bring along. I like to see the toys that you’ve been waiting for, and were so excited for last night that maybe you weren’t able to sleep!

I’ve brought along a present that’s all wrapped up. It’s going to help me tell you about a Christmas memory of mine from many years ago. Does someone want to open it?

I had wanted one of those remote control racing track car sets. Something like Scalectrix. For weeks, I watched the adverts on TV and couldn’t wait to get my very own. We went down the stairs on Christmas morning, and me and my brother each had our own chair for presents. There it was, my car racing set. I was so excited! So we went off to church, got home again, and I wanted to set it up straight away.

We put it up on the kitchen floor. A round track, that mum and dad had to step over to keep making the Christmas dinner. It was time. I placed the car on the track, squeezed the controller, and the car started. But I didn’t know I had to ease off going around the corners. The car kept going, jumped off the track, and shot in underneath the cooker. And that was that. No more racing car. An unforgettable Christmas, for all the wrong reasons!

If we were to ask Mary about the first Christmas, a word she might use is unforgettable. For a start, her and Joseph had travelled about eighty miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. They’d found no place to stay, apart from in the stable. That alone would be unforgettable. A bit like the family holiday stories - do you remember when such and such happened?

Then Mary’s baby was born. No Mothercare, no baby clothes, so he was wrapped in strips of cloth. No freshly painted nursery with a new cot, so he lies in a manger. You would never forget those details.

But then they were joined by a bunch of shepherds. They were looking for the baby wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger. They said they were sent by angels, heavenly messengers! The angels had spoken of this baby being the Saviour, Christ the Lord. His birth was good news of great joy. Imagine the noise and excitement of the shepherds as they told of what they had seen and heard. How it was all true!

Luke says that everyone who heard the message ‘wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.’

This was the unforgettable Christmas. Mary made sure she treasured it all, and pondered, wondered about what it all meant.

When we get to this time of the year, and hear of shepherds and angels and a baby in the manger, we might think that we’ve heard it all before. We know what it’s all about. Let’s get on to the presents and the turkey. Perhaps this year, in the middle of all that happens, we can take some time to think about Jesus, the baby in Bethlehem, the Saviour who is Christ the Lord.

As we hear of the good news, we could even accept it, and accept him as our Saviour. How amazing would it be, as we celebrate his coming into the world, to welcome him into our heart and our life. That would make it a truly unforgettable Christmas.

This sermon was preached at the Christmas Morning Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Thursday 25th December 2014.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve Sermon: Luke 2: 10 Good News of Great Joy

These days we seem to be bombarded by non-stop news. Just think for a moment - BBC1 and UTV each have a morning breakfast news programme, mid-morning updates, lunchtime news, news from 6pm-7pm, then more from 10pm onwards. You can hear the headlines every hour on the hour with most radio stations. Then there are the 24 news channels, and the news websites, constantly updated with new news.

We’re coming into the time of year when we get the review of the year, as programmes and papers look back at 2014. There are reminders of the news headlines we’ve lived through (and probably forgotten). News that is constantly changing brings many different events to our mind, for at least a moment, before something else takes its place in the headlines.

There’s lots of news around, but have you ever noticed that it’s mostly bad news? The Glasgow bin lorry tragedy; continuing fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and many other places. The spread of Ebola in West Africa. The aeroplanes, one of which went missing, the other shot down out of the sky over Ukraine. The celebrity sex abuse cases. And on and on it goes. Bad news after bad news.

With the advances in technology, we seem to be catapulted from one crime scene to the next, able to follow the events in a Sydney coffee shop hostage situation as they happen. The news keeps coming. The bad news keeps coming.

And that’s before we consider the local news, things happening in families and among friends and neighbours. When we hear of something bad having happened, and so often, we become overwhelmed by the flood of bad news stories. Where can we turn to find some relief? We might find ourselves saying with David in Psalm 4: ‘There are many who say, ‘O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord.’

David realises that we need the light of the Lord to see good. We need to know him to hear some good news. And that’s what the angels announced in the sky near Bethlehem on this very night. He says: ‘I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.’ (Luke 2: 10) Here is some good news - and it’s not just for the shepherds on the hillside that night. It’s not just for those who met the shepherds as they dashed into town. It’s for us as well. It’s for ‘all the people’. But what is it? What is the good news?

‘To you is born this day...’ Just this afternoon, we heard word from Scotland of the birth of a friend’s baby. A Christmas Eve baby. We’re looking forward to meeting him in due course. Babies being born are causes of joy and happiness, but the angel goes on. You see, this is no ordinary baby. ‘To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah the Lord.’

So much of the bad news we hear is because of human sin. Pride, jealousy, coveting, selfishness is the driving factor for many of the headlines we see and hear. Sin drives us to want, to keep, to fight, to increase at all costs. But behind the obvious sins of greed and murder, we live in a sin-saturated culture. Every word, thought and deed is produced by a sinful heart. Every part of us is twisted by sin, the effects of the fall, the outworking of Adam and Eve’s original sin.

It’s inevitable that a fallen world finds itself with ‘natural’ disasters, devastating illnesses, freak accidents, as well as the wars and rumours of wars. But in this world of bad news, the good news rings out. Christ the Saviour is here. The one who comes to put right the things that are wrong; the one who suffers in our place to take away our sins; the one who gives up his heaven to save us from hell.

This is good news to sing about - just like the angels did. This is good news to share with all we meet - just as the shepherds did. This is good news to have and to hold on to - because it is for all the people.

I don’t know what your year has been like. I don’t know what tomorrow may hold. Even as the cycle of bad news continues, even as things seem to be getting worse, the good news is that Jesus loved us so much that he came to be with us, and to save us, so that we can be with him. Forever. Alleluia! What a Saviour!

This sermon was preached at the Christmas Eve Communion in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 24th December 2014.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Book Review: What Christ Thinks of the Church

Back in the summertime, I was trying to plan some preaching series for church. At the time, I was considering dipping in to the opening chapters of Revelation 1-3, the letters to the seven churches. So John Stott's little book 'What Christ Thinks of the Church' came with me on holiday. As it turned out, we didn't do the Revelation series (yet), but it was still worthwhile to read Stott doing what he does best - exposition of Scripture. Even though I don't agree with everything he says, there is much that is solid and profitable in this book.

As he points out in the introduction, 'Many Christians fight shy of the book of Revelation.' It's seen as a difficult book - a 'happy hunting ground for fundamentalists' was how it was described at Theological College. But Stott immediately provides some clues for the interpreter from the text: 1. Apocalupsis (apocalypse) means unveiling, a revelation. So put out of your head those tabloid headline notions of apocalyptic freak weather and such like. 2. This revelation is given to the church, so that we know what is going on. 3. In persecution, error and sin, the devil's tactics don't change from one generation to the next. 'The substance of the revelation is Christ himself.'

The rest of the chapters explore the letters of Christ to the seven churches in turn. Stott helpfully summarises each, with lots of helpful observations: Ephesus - love; Smyrna - suffering; Pergamum - truth; Thyatira - holiness; Sardis - reality; Philadelphia - opportunity; Laodicea - wholeheartedness. Here are some of the stand out lines:

'It is clear that the risen Lord is in a position to evaluate the condition of each church and to commend or condemn it, for he knows its state with perfect accuracy.'

'It is not a living church if it is not a loving church' - on Ephesus.

'A willingness to suffer proves the genuineness of love' - on Smyrna.

'With the call to suffer there went the promise of accompanying grace.'

'The way to lose fear is to gain faith.'

While in Thyatira there is much to commend, 'it is sad to read a little further and discover its moral compromise.'

'But outward appearances are notoriously deceptive; and this socially distinguished congregation was a spiritual graveyard.' - on Sardis.

'We turn now, with some relief, from the rebuke... to the remedy.'

There were moments when I didn't agree with his conclusions, mostly in the last of the letters to Laodicea. It all centres on the famous images of the lukewarm to be spat out of the mouth, and of Jesus standing at the door and knocking. Stott argues that Jesus was us either burning hot for him or else icy cold against him. I don't think he's right on this bit. Similarly, he seems to want to follow the popular individual evangelistic appeal application of Jesus knocking, so that any individual can open the door for salvation. But is that really what Jesus is saying here, writing to a congregation of Christians who presumably are already saved?

The last chapter notwithstanding, the book is what you would expect from John Stott. Thorough exposition with warm and pastorally sensitive application. This would be most useful for the pastor preparing to preach from Revelation (and not just the letters themselves), but would also be suitable for any Christian wanting to use it devotionally over a longer period of time. There is much to ponder, any many warnings to hear as the Spirit speaks to the churches. What Christ Thinks of the Church by John Stott is available from Amazon.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sermon: Luke 2:14 The Christmas Truce

Almost 100 years ago, a most remarkable event took place. In the worst of times, something so unbelievable happened that it’s remembered to this day. It even featured in the Sainsbury’s Christmas advert this year.

Lieutenant David Williamson from Castlecaulfield wrote home to his father about it: ‘There was a sort of truce arranged today (Christmas Day) between some of our fellows and and Germans in front of them... Our men went across and they and the Germans exchanged tobacco and talked and sauntered round between the two lines of trenches. It was the queerest sight in the world to see two lots of men, who a few hours before were intent on killing each other (and will be again tomorrow!) talking together as if they were the greatest friends in the world. They even arranged a football match, and since I started writing this letter a telephone message has come through to say that the Germans had won by three goals to two.’

The Great War had begun in August, with the promise of being home and finished by Christmas. But the war continued, so that troops found themselves in the trenches on Christmas Day. The fighting wasn’t over, but men who were enemies enjoyed peace on Christmas Day as fighting stopped. For at least a little while, the fighting stopped, there was a period of peace. It seems too good to be true, and yet it happened.

As we hear the Christmas story, a truce is announced, and the promise of peace is given. In the skies above Bethlehem, the angels sang to the shepherds, and here’s what they said: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’

The birth of the baby brings glory to God and peace to people on earth. While the Great War was paused for Christmas Day, it’s a deeper peace that the angels are singing about; a deeper peace that the Lord Jesus brings.

In our first reading, we heard of how sin entered the world through Adam and Eve’s disobedience. The consequences are all around us. Sin has infected and affected each of us, our personality, character, and relationships. The rebellion begun by our first parents is carried on by each of their children. We naturally rebel against God. We choose to sin in our hearts and in our actions. We have enrolled in the army of God’s enemies.

Yet to a world of rebels, the angels sing of peace. Peace among those with whom God is pleased. Peace for all who will receive it. And it comes wrapped up in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.

Jesus comes into the world to turn rebels back to God. This is the message of Christmas, good news in a world of bad news. You can know his peace tonight, if you come to him. Lay down your opposition to him, turn around and receive his promise of peace.

We can have that reconciliation tonight, and take that peace with us everywhere we go, even when we deal with annoying relatives over the Christmas holidays. So let’s sing of it now, in the words of our last carol, ‘peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.’

This sermon was preached at the Carol Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 21st December 2014.