Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Book Review: Finding Joy - A Radical Rediscovery of Grace

In recent times I've been reading a few books about grace, of varying standard and with varying results. As can sometimes happen, I discover books that have been on my shelf for a while and haven't yet been read. I don't know where they came from, how long I've had it, but there it is, jumping into the 'to read' pile.

This is definitely one of the better books on grace. Marcus Honeysett examines what the Bible says about joy, discovering that it is rooted in God's grace. The two are inextricably linked. The full and proper experience of receiving God's grace will bring joy to the believer. Yet for many Christians, there is a distinct absence of joy. For Honeysett, the answer is to rediscover God's grace, and he does this by showing the connection in Paul's letters to the Galatians and the Philippians.

Galatians helps to bring the gospel back into focus - the gospel of grace, where we are saved not by our works, but by God's amazing grace. He points to the dangerous legalism that was rife in Galatia, and can also play a big part in our religious thinking. The way to stop legalism is by focusing on Jesus and his gospel of grace, and the freedom it brings.

Philippians then builds on this with the message of rejoicing, being joyful, in a variety of contexts and situations. There are some challenging applications, as well as helpful encouragements to go the way of rejoicing in grace, rather than depending on yourself.

My only (slight) complaint was that he seemed to jump around the Bible quite a bit. In fact, we ended up in Romans as much as Galatians and Philippians. Perhaps the book should have had Romans as its focus, rather than the other letters.

This is a good book for those who are struggling with the absence of joy. The gospel of grace is clearly and simply explained and applied. The implications of that grace for our life are spelled out. The Christian will be empowered and spurred on for joyful service with a spring in the step.

Finding Joy is available from IVP.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sermon: Luke 7: 1-17 Jesus' Powerful Word

Have you ever thought about the power of your words? A study has claimed that, on average, men speak 7,000 words per day, while women speak 20,000 words in a day. But every time you open your mouth, your words can be powerful.

The childhood rhyme isn’t always true - when you’re on the receiving end of hurtful words. Sticks and stones may hurt my bones but names will never harm me? To see in the news this week the abuse that Stan Collymore has been receiving on Twitter is a reminder that words can harm and hurt. They can be easily spoken, but devastating.

Words can also have the power to heal. The ability to say sorry, to make an apology, to bring reconciliation can be a powerful thing. Our words can bring about good. Now if that’s possible for you or me then what about the words of Jesus? What would it be possible for Jesus to do?

Last week we listened in to Jesus teaching on the plain. He was giving his team talk for those who follow him. And at the very end of the sermon, he says this: ‘I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them.’ (Luke 6:47). To hear Jesus’ words and do what he says is like building on rock. That’s a big claim - to say that what he says goes - the difference between rock and not having any foundations.

As if to cement this teaching, Luke tells us about two things that happened soon after. In each of the incidents, we’re shown someone in need, and in each of them, it’s what Jesus says that is important.

The first person in need is the Centurion in Capernaum. The centurion was a Roman soldier, a foreigner, who was in charge of 100 soldiers. He’s an important man, but his slave is sick, nearing death. He hears about Jesus, so he sends some of the Jewish elders from the town to go and ask Jesus to come and heal his slave.

When the elders get to Jesus, they’ve compiled a list of reasons why Jesus should run along and help the centurion. They say in verse 4: ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him.’ By their reckoning, he has done all sorts of good things and now deserves payback. He deserves to have this done for him. As if you can sway God’s favour by doing things.

How would you fill in the answer: ‘I am worthy because...’ What’s on your spiritual CV, the things you’re proud of, the things that you hold over God and say - I deserve this... For the elders, the good he had done was loving the people and building the synagogue. Obviously he has bought God’s approval through his giving and his good works.

But when Jesus gets near to the house, the centurion sends another message. Whatever these religious people say about him, he knows his own need. He doesn’t have a CV at all. They said: ‘he is worthy’. He says: ‘I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.’ Instead, all he asks of Jesus, unworthy as he is, is for Jesus to ‘only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.’

He knows how authority works. He’s about the rank of captain. He has soldiers under him, but he also has people above him. He is under authority himself, and when he says come or go, his soldiers and slave obey. When he says jump, the servants ask how high.

He knows that Jesus has the authority to heal. He knows that his word is powerful. And so he says: ‘only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.’

As we’re working our way through the gospel of Luke, we’ve seen how the people are amazed at Jesus, when they see what he does. But here we’re told that Jesus is amazed at the man’s faith. He believes in the Jesus and so trusts that Jesus can heal by his word.

This Gentile Centurion was the model believer - displaying more faith than anyone in Israel. He’s an example of one building on rock. He’s the one to be like - to trust in Jesus and depend on the word of Jesus to do what he says.

But as if that weren’t enough, Luke then tells us about another person in need. She’s in the town of Nain, leading a funeral procession, all alone. She’s a widow woman, and her only son has died. They’re on their way to the cemetery, with the whole town following behind.

It’s a terrible situation for a parent to bury a child, but even more so at the time. There’s no state benefits, no safety net for this woman. Without a husband or son, she has no means of support, no breadwinner. She’s in need, without hope and without a future.

Jesus sees her, has compassion on her, and tells her not to weep. Can you imagine something like this happening now? Someone interrupts the funeral and says, ‘don’t be crying.’ He’s a stranger to the woman, but by what happens next, we see that Jesus’ words have power.

He touches the bier, and says: ‘young man, I say to you, rise!’ Many’s a time we may long for someone to rise from death as we sit at the wake or watch the funeral. But only Jesus has the power to command a dead man to rise. The man sits up and begins to speak. Jesus’ words are powerful.

In these two incidents, Luke is helping us to see that Jesus’s words are powerful - that what he says happens. It’s no wonder that the crowds are both fearful and praising. They are witnessing something that the prophets like Elijah and Elisha did - raising the dead. But Jesus is more than just a prophet. This is more than just a good man. This is God: ‘God has looked favourably on his people.’

Or as another version puts it, ‘God has visited his people’ - God has come to save and rescue. God is here.

The thing is, though, what difference does this make to us? Why will this help you tomorrow morning? Jesus has the power to raise the dead by his command. The word he speaks at Nain is the same word he will speak on the last day, when he says rise. We will be raised to new life with him.

We don’t deserve it. We can’t work to earn it. We can’t depend on our spiritual CV. Instead, we must recognise our great need. We must confess that we are not worthy - but if Jesus says the word we will be healed. As we trust in him, he calls us to new life, by his powerful word.

When Jesus says it, we can depend on it. God’s word is what we need to be building our life on - not just every so often, but as often as possible. The people around us may speak words of cursing, and harm, but Jesus’ word is of blessing, it is good. To hear it, we need to listen to him. He is the only one who can heal and restore.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 26th January 2014.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Sermon: Luke 6: 27-49 Following Jesus

Last week in the children's talk I brought along something. Does anyone remember what it was? It was a football shirt. We thought about how Jesus wants us on his team. Well today, we're looking at the next passage in Luke's gospel. Who is it a football team need to listen to? It's the manager, isn't it? Manchester United aren't doing very well at the minute, but we're not sure if it's the players or the manager. But before the team go out onto the pitch, the manager will give a team talk. He'll tell the players how he wants them to play. In our reading today, Jesus is giving the team talk - how we should live, because we are on his team.

There's a question we need to answer first of all, though, and it's this: Why do we need to listen to Jesus? I need a volunteer. When I put this blindfold on you, you'll have a problem. What is it? He won't be able to see. He would be blind. He doesn't know where he is going. He couldn't make it back to his seat. He might fall over. What does he need? He needs a guide. Another volunteer. Except, there's a problem. His guide is also blind. Another blindfolded person. How do you think this would work? He is blind, he needs a guide. But so is she! Would they be able to make it to the seat? No, they would be in bigger danger than before. Jesus says that the blind leading the blind will fall into a pit, a hole in the ground. If you follow someone who can't see, it won't help you. And there are people who try to tell us what to do, how to live, but they are blind themselves. They don't know what life is all about. They can't see where they should go. It would be silly to listen to them.

Other people can't help us. Imagine that you were helping your dad cut some wood when suddenly you got a little tiny bit in your eye. Just a tiny little speck, a splinter. It's really sore, you can't see very well. You would need to go to the hospital, to A&E. Now imagine that you go into the doctor and they're getting ready to take out the little speck and they turn around and look - they have a big bit of log in their eye. They have half a tree blocking their vision! Would you be happy for them to try to take out the speck? Would they be able to find it as they went poking around in your eye? No! It would be dangerous. So we don't want to follow the people who can't see, who have something big wrong with them, trying to correct a little something. Can we be like this at times as well? We miss our own big problem while trying to diagnose and fix someone else with a minor issue? [For this I had a couple of volunteers again, one holding a speck, the other a log]

The problem with listening to people is that we can't see what they're really like. People on the outside look nice and good. But look at these two tubes. They look the same. They both have shiny Christmas paper on them. But when we squeeze them, we see that what's on the inside comes out. One is nice - toothpaste. The other is nasty - garlic puree. We couldn't tell until we see what came out. That's like our words and our deeds. They show what's on the inside. And we discover that all of us are bad. We're all in need of God's mercy. We need help to change.

So, then, what does Jesus say when we listen to him? Have you ever had someone say that you get on a bit like your mum or dad? That the way you say something, or the way you look, or your expression is just like your parents? Well here, in the passage, Jesus tells us to be like our dad: our heavenly dad:

you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:35-36)

God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. We were these things. Imagine that you did something nice for someone - maybe made them a cake or weeded their garden or looked after their dog or whatever it might be. You did something nice for them, and they never said thank you. How would you feel? That wouldn't be very nice! Yet that is what we have done with God. He has given us life, and breath, and health and everything else, yet we refuse to say thank you. We are instead wicked. Yet God in his kindness sent Jesus to take away our sins, to bring us to God. God is still kind, even when people are ungrateful - he sends sunshine and rain and everything good.

We are to be kind like God our Father is kind. I give a volunteer five little tiny chocolate bars. They don't deserve them, they didn't do anything for them. I ask them do they want to give one away, after all, they've got five. It continues until they have one. Are they going to hold on to that chocolate bar for themselves? After all, they didn't deserve it, they got it for nothing. And when they give it away, they receive a massive bar of chocolate - the point is that God gives us much more mercy than we ever will show to anyone else around us.

This is the team talk for Jesus' team. We're to be merciful to those around us because God has been merciful to us. Even to those people who don't like us; those who hate us; those who have done bad things to us. God has shown us mercy. We must do the same to others.

At the very end, Jesus says that anyone who hears his words and does them is like a man who builds a house on the rock. It has strong foundations. It won't fall when the floods come. But to hear as we have done today and to not do what he says is to be foolish. To build without foundations. The house will fall.

Let's pray that as we have heard, so we will do what Jesus says, as we follow him on his team. Amen.

This sermon was preached at the Church Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 19th January 2014.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Sermon: Galatians 6: 7-10 Not Growing Weary

As you can probably tell, I’ve never ran a marathon. But I have friends who have run part or all of the Belfast marathon. Seemingly when you’re running such a big distance, you can hit the wall - each stride is difficult; the pain is increasing; your body is screaming for you to stop; it would be easier to give up and lie down somewhere. All my friends have said that what kept them going was first of all getting to the finish line; but second the crowd cheering them on willing them to keep going and running.

Tucked away at the end of his letter to the Galatians, Paul does something similar. It’s as if he dons a cheerleader outfit, grabs his pompoms, to urge us to keep going. We’re not running a race; we’re not playing a sport; but we need the encouragement to keep going. If you’ve ever wondered if you should keep coming to Mothers Union; if you’ve ever been tempted to think, och, I’ll not bother tonight, I’m sure somebody else will go; if you’ve ever thought that you should just forget about church or Bible reading or giving to charity or loving and serving in a multitude of ways, then you need to hear the word that God has for us tonight from the lip and pen of Paul.

We hear his cheerleading in verse 9: ‘And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.’

In this section of Galatians, Paul is showing the Christians that everybody is investing towards something. Everybody is building a future of one kind or another. We’re all working towards a future outcome. It’s a readymade illustration for a rural community, because he talks about sowing and reaping.

We all know how sowing and reaping works. Whatever you sow, that is what you will reap. If a farmer sows barley seed, he will reap barley. If he wants to grow potatoes, then he needs to plant potatoes. It’s obvious in your garden and on the farm. But when it comes to spiritual things, we somehow think that it’ll work differently. But look at verse 7. Paul spells it out: ‘Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.’ Whatever we sow is what we will eventually reap.

In spiritual things, there are only two options open to us. We can either sow to our own flesh (the sinful nature NIV) or we can sow to the Spirit. These are the two categories that Paul has been talking about the whole way through the letter to the Galatians. We can either decide to follow our sinful nature, to go the way of the flesh, to sow to please ourselves in selfishness. Or we can sow to please the Spirit.

It’s like a farmer who has to decide which seed he’ll sow. When he pays his money and makes his choice, that’s what he is working towards. The crop is what he’s looking for.

Paul says we are sowing every moment of every day. In the things that we think - what we dwell upon, what we focus on; in what we say - how we use our tongue, the words we speak; in what we look at; what we do with our hands; how we spend our time, money, all these and much more - everything that we do, we are sowing towards one or the other - the flesh or the Spirit.

So often we can breeze through life, not really thinking about the consequences of our decisions. In a way, that’s what the hard-hitting road safety adverts are trying to confront. There’s the one which simply repeats over and over again: ‘Every drink increases your risk of crashing.’ The message is clear - if you decide to drink and drive, if that’s the choice you make, then there could well be consequences.

Paul shows us the results of our sowing. The two seeds have very different outcomes - ‘For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.’ Corruption or eternal life. Both are within our grasp. Both lie at the end of the choices that we make.

The world around is sowing to the flesh. You only have to watch the news or open a paper to discover that most people are living to please themselves - in many ingenious and varied ways - but all for themselves, whether it’s the pursuit of fame and fortune; power, sexual pleasure or whatever it might be.

The Galatian Christians had come across another type of flesh sowing - legalistic religion. After Paul had come and preached the gospel, another crowd of religious teachers had arrived. They tried to claim that in order to be real true proper Christians, the Gentile converts would have to submit to the full law of Moses, including circumcision. They tried to claim that you could work hard at religious practice and get in with God that way. If you gave enough or fasted enough or prayed enough, then you would get a step up the ladder.

But it’s just another kind of sowing to the flesh - if our religion is all about what we’re doing, then it’s just that - selfish, sowing to the flesh religion.

Throughout the letter, Paul has been helping the Galatians see that Christianity isn’t about law-keeping (because we can’t do it); Christianity is all about faith in Jesus who kept the law and became a curse for us who were cursed. We have been set free from law-keeping to instead walk by the Spirit.

This is what we’re called to. This is the Christian life: to sow to the Spirit, doing the things that please the Spirit. It’s what Paul is urging the Galatians Christians to do, more and more. But he knows, and you know, that to choose to do the right thing is hard. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, to keep choosing to follow the Spirit each day. Just like my marathon mates, the flesh is arguing back, trying to get them to give up.

Ever had days like that? You know what you should be doing, but deep within you suddenly think - but I won’t! Or you come up with a thousand and one reasons why you can’t go to church, or so many things you’d prefer to do rather than help out. It’s at moments like these that we need to hear the voice of the cheerleader: ‘And let us not grow weary of doing good [sowing to the Spirit], for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.’

Imagine a farmer who decides he’ll not bother sowing. He can’t be bothered to do any more. He’s maybe done half a field but then he got a bit bored. He remembered that it was nearly time for The Chase or Pointless or whatever. Could he expect to reap a whole field when he’s only sown half a field?

Don’t give up following the Spirit, doing those things that are good - not to win God’s favour and be saved, but because we are saved already by God’s favour - now is the time of sowing. The time of reaping is coming. Keep going and keep growing.

The work of Mothers’ Union in this parish is so vitally important, as you do so much in so many ways. Now, it can be hard to see the benefit if you’re up to your elbows in suds, but be assured - the harvest is coming. Nothing done for the Lord is wasted or unseen.

This sermon was preached at the Mothers' Union Holy Communion service in Aghavea Parish Church on Tuesday 14th January 2014.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Sermon: Philippians 1: 1-11 Praying for Gospel Partners

We’re at that time of the year when you might be writing a little ‘thank you’ note for the Christmas presents you’ve received. You’ve kept a note of who gave what, and then you sit down to write to thank them for the pair of socks or bottle of perfume.

Newly weds sometimes do the same thing - after the honeymoon finding the time to send out a wee card thanking great aunt Gertrude for a corkscrew or uncle Uel for some towels.

The apostle Paul is doing something similar. He’s writing a thank you letter from Rome, where he is in prison, to the church at Philippi in Greece. They had sent Epaphroditus with a gift for him, and now Paul is sending Epaphroditus back home, carrying this letter with him.

Except, it isn’t like a typical thank you - at least, not immediately. After the almost standard greeting, the thanks begin in verse 3 - but it isn’t the Philippians Paul is thanking. Do you see who it is that is receiving the thanks? ‘I thank my God in all my remembrance of you...’ He is telling the Philippians about how he thanks God for them. It’s not what we expect, and yet, when you think about it, it’s the right thing to do, isn’t it?

It’s the right thing to praise and thank God because God is the giver of every good and perfect gift. He is the source of all the good things we enjoy, among them fellowship. So it’s proper for Paul to thank God whenever he remembers the Philippians. Praise where praise is due.

But it’s also the right thing to encourage the people God is using to provide the fellowship and gifts. So Paul writes to the Philippians to let them know that he is thanking God for them. It’s good for the Philippians to know, and will boost them, even as God gets the credit.

Who is it that you thank God for? By all means, thank God for them, but let them know as well - the praise and good will increase as you share in this way. So what was it that Paul was praising God for them? Why was Paul so thankful?

When he remembers them, he makes his prayer for them with joy because (verse 5) ‘of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.’ Paul had been the person who had brought the good news about Jesus to Philippi. He had told them about Jesus the Saviour; it had even landed him in prison, but he was still thankful as he remembered the Christians he knew in that place. They were partners in the gospel. They were working together in the work of the good news, and this is why Paul gives God thanks.

From the time that the good news had arrived in Philippi (indeed, in Europe) at the prayer meeting by the river and in Lydia’s house and the Philippian jailer’s house, these Christians were partners with Paul. They had a very different background; they were of all different sorts of types of people; but they are partners, workers together.

This is seen in verse 7. You see, some people might be tempted to hold back whenever Paul has landed in prison again. Maybe they would rather be more respectable, and try to forget Paul languishing in prison. But no, they have continued to be partakers with him of grace, both in his imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel.

They’re standing with him, even through the hard times. They’re providing encouragement for him to keep going. It’s no wonder that he holds them in his heart and yearns for them with the affection of Christ Jesus. The way that they’re standing, partnering with him, is a sign of how God has begun to work in their hearts and lives. It’s something that only God could have brought about.

Giving to the work of the gospel shows that the good news of Jesus is a priority; that we want people to know the Lord and be saved from their sins; it’s something that comes about as God begins to work. And Paul gives us some encouragement - that what God begins to do, he will bring to completion. He’s not like some of us, with a to-do list the length of your arm, with things started and abandoned. Good intentions, but things left undone.

But God is a bit like Mastermind - what he has started, he will finish. So be encouraged. What God has begun in your life, he will bring to completion. He is working towards the day of Jesus Christ; working to bring us to wholeness on that day.

You know the way children can be very excited about birthday parties or holidays? They might count down the days (or even the sleeps - ten sleeps to Christmas). Every day they might ask - is it today? Paul helps us to be encouraged, even in our mess and muddle, even when we’re discouraged because we aren’t quite what we should be. Simply ask this: is this the day of Jesus Christ? No, we’re not there yet - but I’m not what I was - God has begun to work in my life and is continuing to do so. He won’t give up, so I’ll keep going.

Thanksgiving to God for the encouragement of Christian partnership. Encouragement along the way. In the closing verses of our reading, Paul also prays for the Philippian Christians - it’s the prayer of love for them.

Sometimes our praying can become a little stale. We end up in a rut, never advancing beyond the ‘God bless mummy and daddy and the cat’ type prayers. But here Paul prays for the Christians in a specific way, for a specific purpose.

He prays that their love may abound more and more (with all knowledge and discernment) so that together they can know and approve what is excellent - and then do it. As they continue to love one another, they can help one another to do the right thing, prompting and helping the fruit of Christ to grow, and all to God’s praise and glory.

Why not use this prayer for our church family? Pray that our love for one another will increase - and then watch as it happens, as we become more loving as well. Pray for growth in the things of God, the decision to do the things God wants us to do. What a transformation it would be, for each of us and for all of us together.

Paul’s love for the Philippians is obvious and genuine. That love is expressed as he thanks God for them and prays to God for them. But it’s also expressed as he tells them that he thanks God for them and what he’s praying for them. The partnership is built up; the praise is increased.

Who are you thankful for? Why are you thankful? What are you praying for them? Will you let them know?

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 12th January 2014.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sermon: Luke 6: 12-26 Following Jesus

On just one occasion, I was chosen to represent my school on the football team. I was the third choice substitute, and spent a wet and windswept afternoon in Rathfriland getting foundered on the touchline. I didn’t get a touch of the ball. I didn’t even get to play the last two minutes. My football career ended on the minibus on the way home when I decided I wouldn’t bother any more.

I wonder do you remember school days and sports teams - trying out, hoping to get picked, getting in to the team. It might not even have been a team - maybe it was just the breaktime games where you line up and the best are picked. It was more likely for the team captains to fight to not have me on their side...

As we begin the Bible reading today, we find that Jesus is making a decision; picking his team. It’s so important that he spends the night in prayer, up the mountain, talking with his Father. Now, if you were to hear that it was a fifteen he was selecting, you’d probably think of a rugby union team; an eleven would be football or cricket; three or four would be a bowls triple or rink. But Jesus calls his disciples to him - the people who are following him - and he chooses twelve of them. They’re still disciples - followers, learners - but they are also named as ‘apostles’ - sent ones.

But why twelve? Is it a football team with a substitute? This isn’t a sports team, rather Jesus is beginning again - he’s starting the new Israel, the people of God. If you’ve ever seen Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat you’ll remember that Jacob had twelve sons - who fathered the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus begins with a new twelve, the new people of God, made up of the people who follow Jesus. These twelve will be the sent ones, to carry on the work of Jesus after he is crucified, risen and ascended.

There wasn’t anything special about the twelve. Some of them were fishermen, one was a tax collector, some of them we don’t really know much about at all. But Jesus has chosen and sent them. He calls and chooses us as well to be part of his team, to follow him.

Having chosen his team, Jesus returns down the mountain to ‘a level place’. Surrounding him is a big crowd - made up of two different types of people: ‘a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people’ from all around. Some are his followers, some are just a crowd of people. They have come, Luke tells us, ‘to hear him and to be healed of their diseases’ They’ve heard about Jesus - they want to see for themselves, to hear what he’s talking about, but also to get healed. Imagine it - if Jesus arrived in Enniskillen they would push all the hospital beds out of the South West Acute Hospital (the SWAH). Everyone would be cured. There’d be no queue at the doctor’s surgery - in fact, there’d be no need for the doctors.

The word would quickly spread, wouldn’t it? People in Enniskillen would text their friends and relatives; it’d be on Facebook. The traffic in the town would be even worse than it normally is. A big crowd would gather to see what it was all about. But they’re there for the spectacle. They just want to see what the fuss is about. They’re not really interested in following Jesus.

I wonder which of those two categories you’re in today? Perhaps you’re here because you’re connected to baby Ben. You’ve come along for the occasion and the party, but you’re not fussed about following Jesus. Or maybe you’re here because you wouldn’t know what else to do on a Sunday. It’s part of your routine. You rarely miss - but are you here out of habit, or out of a desire to listen to Jesus and follow him?

Before Christmas, we were on holiday, when we discovered that a movie was being filmed in our hotel. The actors had been busy all day, but while we were eating, the lead actor (Vince Vaughan) walked past us in the bar and said hello. It was quite exciting, seeing someone famous - but that’s as far as it goes. I was part of the crowd of people who saw him, but I haven’t become a fan. I haven’t devoted my life to watching every film he’s been in.

Are you just part of the people, or are you a disciple, a follower? If someone asked you tomorrow what you did at the weekend, would the Baptism be something nice to mention, and then eventually forgotten? Or could this be a step in the journey of following Jesus?

You see, Jesus begins to teach. Earlier we noticed that his choosing twelve apostles is the beginning of the new people of God. So now, Jesus is echoing what Moses did as he brought the people out of Egypt towards the promised land. He went up a mountain, spoke with God, and came down, bringing the Ten Commandments. What has Jesus done today? He was up a mountain, spoke with God, and has come down to the people, and now opens his mouth to speak. And who does he speak to? It isn’t to everyone. Look at v 20: ‘Then he looked up at his disciples and said:’

What does he say? What is it all about? ‘Blessed are you...’ Jesus says what it’s like to follow him. It’s about being blessed - but it’s blessing in surprising ways. If we were to take a moment and write down who we think the people who are blessed are, what would you write? My guess is that the people we think are blessed are those who are successful or famous or rich or beautiful (or all four combined!).

But Jesus speaks of blessing for those who are poor; hungry; weeping. And you might think - what? How are they blessed? But the values of the kingdom of Jesus aren’t the same as the values of the world. Jesus’ kingdom is an upside down kingdom - just as his mother Mary had sung about in her song. You see, this world isn’t all there is. There’s a forward focus to what Jesus says. Hungry now, but you will be filled. Weeping now, but you will laugh. Poor now, but the kingdom of God is yours.

Jesus shows us what it is to be his follower in verse 22. It’s not a pretty sight. It’s not a welcome message: ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.’ So we’re connected to Jesus, the Son of Man, but other people won’t like it. The crowd will get nasty. They’ll not like you - but even then, you are blessed. Why? Because ‘surely your reward is great in heaven.’

The way the world thinks is that so long as we have everything we need, we’re grand. Money, food, fun, what more would we need? But to those who are rich, full and laughing, Jesus pronounces woes - the opposite of blessing. You might be all those things now, but they won’t last. They won’t count. As Jesus will go on to say much later, ‘what will it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his own soul?’

To be a disciple of Jesus means to follow him, to listen and learn from him; to be identified and connected with Jesus - even when it’s painful and unpleasant - because in this way there is blessing now and a future kingdom. If you’re following Jesus today, take heart, and find the grace of Jesus to keep going when it’s hard. Our prayer is that each of us will move from the crowd to be a disciple, and follow Jesus for the rest of our life, to know the blessing that comes from knowing Jesus, both now and into eternity.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 12th January 2014.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

On Blogs and Blogging

It's almost nine years since I began to blog - the actual anniversary is this coming Sunday. It's a funny kind of a thing - writing articles, reviewing books, watching and waiting for visitors and comments. Speaking into the air to see if anyone is interested. It seems that the visitors come more readily than the comments, for whatever reason.

Depending on what counter you're using, there are around 51625 (Google Analytics), 73000 (Statcounter) or 102000 (Blogger) pageviews last year. Quite a divergence of numbers but either way, it's good that someone at least is viewing my material - at least 140 pageviews per day by the most conservative measure. But what are they interested in?

According to Google Analytics, nine of the ten most popular pages were all sermons. The top page was the home page, and the next nine, indeed, the next thirty-two top pages were all sermons. So the book reviews are less popular than the sermons. In fact, you have to go to position 69 to find the highest rated book review in last year's visitor figures. Those sermons aren't even necessarily the new ones - rather they're the archived sermons which are attracting the visitors.

If sermons are the feature that brings visitors, who might it be coming to read the sermons? I've previously noted that the weeks where I happen to have a sermon that ties in with the Revised Common Lectionary, my visitor numbers are through the roof. Even on New Year's Eve in the late afternoon there was a visitor who had googled 'What sermon can I preach at a Watchnight Service?' Perhaps the blog should be renamed Desperate Preachers or Last Minute Sermons?

Sermons are an easy way to produce content. The script has already been produced, so it doesn't take much to copy and paste it for the world to view (and possibly use). The book reviews have developed over time. There are still occasional pictures if the camera has been out and about (increasingly rare these days). The chatty posts have all but disappeared, compared to the early days of the blog where it was all about what I'd been doing and what the weekends held. Perhaps now I'm finally finding my niche and my voice - even if that niche is for lazy pastors to find quick and easy content for their own sermons.

The blog has suffered for a while, but maybe in this new year there'll be more regular content. We'll see... but for now, I'm hoping to keep on blogging.

According to Blogger, the posts published in the last year which were viewed the most are:
668 That Monday Morning Feeling
352 Sermon: Ezekiel 37:1-14 The Valley of Dry Bones
342 Sermon: Luke 4:1-13 The Testing of Jesus
260 Sermon: Matthew 25:1-13 The Wise and Foolish Virgins
220 Orange Parades: History Repeating Itself?
212 The Orange Order: Faith Proclaimed or Feet Parading?
212 Book Review: Five English Reformers
159 Sermon: Luke 5:17-26 Our Greatest Need
155 Sermon: John 15:1-17 Connected to Jesus
144 Book Review: Empire State

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Sermon: Luke 6: 1-11 Lord of the Sabbath

One of the surprising things you find as you read the gospels is that not everyone welcomed Jesus. We tend to think that as he taught and worked miracles that everyone must have been glad to see him. It comes as a surprise, then, to find that some people didn’t like him, in fact, more than that, they hated him.

The leading group of haters was the Pharisees. These were the leading religious group of the day. They were serious about keeping the Old Testament law. They wanted to be right and good, by their own efforts. So they made a show of being as good as they could, and looked down on other people who were obvious sinners.

Now you’d think that these would be the very people who would welcome Jesus. This is God’s Son, come into the world, and they’re trying to reach up to God by their works - surely they’ll be glad to get to know God’s Son? But it’s just not like that. Instead, as we’ll see, they begin to openly challenge Jesus because of what he says and does.

The issue is the Sabbath. Earlier in the service we heard the Ten Commandments read. Number four begins in this way: ‘Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work...’

The Pharisees wanted to try to keep all the law, so they wanted to be sure that they wouldn’t break it. After all, how could you be sure that you weren’t accidentally doing something you shouldn’t? If you aren’t allowed to do any work, what does it mean by work?

Just to be absolutely sure, they had developed a whole series of rules - and then rules about the rules - to make sure that you wouldn’t be guilty. So whenever they see Jesus and his disciples walking through cornfields, plucking some heads of grain and eating them, they are raging.

‘Why are you doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’ The Pharisees are arguing that the disciples had reaped, threshed and prepared food. In other words, they had been doing work - harvesting and preparing food was against the law. For them, no work means no work of any kind.

But Jesus doesn’t answer them directly. Rather he points back to a time when David was on a mission with some of his men - fleeing from Saul who was king and trying to kill David. They were hungry, and called with the priest Ahimelech (1 Sam 21), asking for bread. But the only bread he had was the holy bread of the Presence - which had sat in the tabernacle. It was only meant to be eaten by priests - according to the law, but David had taken it and eaten it.

These were the serious scripture scholars. They prided themselves in their Bible knowledge. They probably could recite the whole Old Testament off by heart. Yet Jesus says: ‘Have you not read...’ Of course they had read it, but they hadn’t taken it to heart.

The law was good, but it was even better to feed hungry people in this instance, especially when the hungry person was God’s appointed and anointed King. So here, Jesus is saying that the disciples were hungry, and it was better to be fed then to observe their rules about the laws and be left hungry.

But that’s not all Jesus says. Look what he goes on to say next. The Pharisees might be acting like the sabbath police force, watching to make sure people keep the rules. They might think that their job is to decide who’s in the right, but he himself is in charge of it: ‘The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’ The Son of Man is one of the titles used by Jesus, it’s from Daniel (as we saw) and points to the Messiah, the Son of David. If David could do that, well, one greater than David is here - who is lord of all, including the sabbath.

The Pharisees might have had an idea about how they thought the Sabbath should work, but they aren’t in charge of it. Jesus is the one who is lord of the Sabbath. What he says goes. Just think - if you were wanting to know about how a car worked, would you ask a random passerby on the street, or the designer of the car? What anyone else thinks of it doesn’t really matter, compared to the person who designed and made it.

Here we have Jesus, the Son of Man, the one who is lord of the sabbath. He can tell us how it’s meant to be - no matter what the Pharisees might say.

Round one to Jesus. But now, the Pharisees are ready for him. They’re watching even more carefully. Look at verse 7, they watch to see if he will cure the man with the withered hand ‘so that they might find an accusation against him.’ Once again, the man’s life isn’t in immediate danger, so to heal is to work, according to their reckoning. What will Jesus do? To heal or not to heal.

But Jesus puts the question to them: ‘I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?’ Do they think the law is better served by leaving someone unwell, if you can heal them? Will they boost their own standing if they narrowly keep the rules but leave a man to suffer longer than needed?

As Jesus tells the man to stretch out his hand, it is suddenly made well, restored. It’s a moment to celebrate, as the man is healed. But the reaction of the Pharisees is to be ‘filled with fury’. They begin to discuss what they might do to Jesus. Far from keeping the Sabbath holy, they’re not plotting murder. The religious people with their manmade rules are exposed.

It’s an illustration of what Jesus talked about at the end of Luke 5. Jesus is bringing in the new garment, the old garment can’t be patched up, it’s a new way of living. The old wineskins can’t contain the new wine as the religious categories just don’t stand up to the way Jesus is presenting. The Pharisees see the command to sabbath as thou shalt not - things not to do. It’s easy to outwardly keep that list. But on the inside, the sabbath isn’t being kept. Instead, Jesus presents sabbath under his rule - as a reminder of the creation where God rested and enjoyed his creation - but also as a pointing forward to the sabbath rest which is eternal life.

So this year, why not try a different approach to your sabbath (whether that is Saturday or Sunday or whichever day you get a break from routine)? Use it as an opportunity to rest from your labours (as far as it is possible). Be restored as you connect with Jesus. Use it positively to do good as you help others, especially those in need. And take time to focus on what lies ahead - the perfect sabbath rest which has been won for us through the perfect work of the Lord Jesus on the cross as he gave his life in obedience to the whole law to redeem and save we who have broken the law.

In that perfect sabbath, every body will be restored; every need satisfied; our earthly labours completed. Our mini sabbaths point to that endless sabbath. ‘Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest’ - as we share in Christ’s death, so too may we share in his resurrection to eternal life. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 5th January 2014.