Friday, February 28, 2014

Book Review: A Time To Kill

It was his debut novel, and it may still be his best one, even after such a prolific writing career. The brutality of the initial crime greets the reader on the very first page. A redneck racist attack on a little, defenceless black girl. Her father intent on revenge, and the subsequent efforts of the legal system to stumble towards a resolution.

For many years, I've enjoyed John Grisham's books. His thrillers are truly thrilling. They grab you and pull you into the story as you hurtle to the closing page. This was the first time I'd re-read A Time To Kill, mainly because Grisham's latest offering (Sycamore Row) was marketed as his debut's sequel and so I wanted to revisit the story to have it fresh in my mind. I wasn't disappointed, and neither will you.

In the Deep South of America, in the heartlands of Mississippi (and yes, I did the wee rhyme to make sure I spelt it correctly!), passions run deep, with racial tension not far below the skin. The desire for justice, the thirst for revenge, and the careful consideration of the law are all evoked in this masterful story. Along the way there are perfect pen portraits of plenty of characters, from Jake Brigance, the young lawyer fighting for justice against the big law firms; the black preachers with their Pentecostalism and their penchance for greed; the portrayal of small town America, with a variety of businesses and the inevitable gossip that circulates the town square.

While some may be upset by the sensitive nature of the crime, anyone who likes a good story will really enjoy this one. The action is non-stop, with cliffhangers aplenty. A Time To Kill may now be an oldie, but it's still a goodie. It's available from Amazonand for the Kindle.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Bible Briefs: Ruth

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

The story begins with a family tragedy. Famine. Emigration. Death. A widow woman left bereft with two foreign daughters-in-law. It’s no wonder Naomi (‘pleasant’) wants to be called Mara (‘bitter’). Everything has been taken from her; and what remains she tries to send away. One daughter-in-law gladly goes home, but the other, she stays, stuck to her like superglue. ‘Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me... if anything but death separates you and me.’ This Moabite woman has been won to the LORD, even through the weak witness of a wandering widow.

They arrive back at harvest time. Her faithfulness to her mother-in-law is recognised and repaid by the farmer - abundant grace is shown to her as she takes refuge under the LORD, the God of Israel. The farmer just happens (!) to be a kinsman of the dearly departed, who becomes the kinsman redeemer to buy back the property and secure the inheritance of the family line.

It’s a well loved rags to riches romance. The story draws the reader in. But it’s more than just a wee story with a happy end and the returning of Naomi’s pleasure. Through the rescue of one family and the inclusion of a stranger, God is carrying on his great purpose of rescuing his family and the inclusion of strangers from all peoples and nations and tribes and tongues. The hero is God, the covenant-keeping LORD, who uses the heroine Ruth, and includes her in the family tree of the Lord Jesus himself.

When tragedy comes, we cannot always see God’s purpose. But keep trusting - he is in control and is advancing his great purposes. Just ask Naomi and Ruth.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sermon: Luke 8: 1-21 Sowing Seeds

Imagine that you're driving along. Suddenly there's the sound of a siren behind you. What do you do? Hopefully, if it's safe, you pull over and let the ambulance or the police car past. Hearing the sound leads you to action. Or what about the ringtone of your phone? It makes a noise to call you to action: you need to respond by answering the phone.

Now it's one thing if it's a noise or a bell or a siren. But what about someone's voice? What are the voices you hear and heed during a day or a week? In school, the teacher's voice needs to be listened to, especially if you want to know what your homework is. Or maybe you're following instructions from a cookery programme to try a new recipe. Or you listen to the voice of the weather presenter - and then take your raincoat and umbrella anyway. We hear all sorts of voices, but which will we listen to? And when we listen, will we do what they tell us?

When we come to the parable of the sower, you're probably thinking, "Oh, here we go again. We've heard this all before. We know what this is about. You might even remember that we looked at this parable before, about a year and a half ago. But don't tune out. You see, when we heard it the last time, we were in the middle of Matthew's gospel, just taking one chapter of parables that time. This time, we come to it having already worked our way through the first seven chapters of Luke's gospel. We see how Luke shares it: where it comes in the big story, what happens around it.

Away back at the start of his gospel, Luke tells us that he has carefully researched everything so that he can write 'an orderly account.' (Luke 1:1-4). Luke hasn't just sat down to string together random things he can remember from the eyewitness account. He's tying things together to show us what he means. On first reading, it might seem a bit strange, but Luke is pointing us to what it means to be the good soil, to hear and hold and do God's word.

It's obvious in the parable of the sower. You know the story so well. The sower sows the seed - not carefully, but seemingly randomly. He has a bag of seed at his waist and he scatters the seed as he walks along. The seed goes everywhere, landing on the path, the rock, among thorns and in good soil. Depending on the type of soil, the seed either withers or flourishes.
Jesus helps us to get what it's all about. There's no guessing game needed - in verses 11-15 he explains the parable and gives the meaning. The seed is the word of God. The seed is the same seed in all the different soils. The word goes out as Jesus teaches. Going on all around him - and indeed, going on this morning and every time God's word is proclaimed - are the different reactions. In some, the word is quickly forgotten, stolen away. In others, the word is received joyfully, but the joy soon fades as they fall away. For others, the cares of life choke out the word.

But it's the good soil that is in focus as Luke orders his material. Look at verse 15. Jesus says that these are the ones who 'when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.' Or in other words, those who hear and do God's word.

Just in case we can't grasp that, Luke puts together three other bits together to show us what that means. Straight after the parable of the sower, Jesus gives us another parable. After recent power cuts, it might even have more significance for us. When you light a lamp (or a candle), where do you put it? You're not going to hide it away under a jar or put it under the bed. You want to put it up on a lampstand, or the table, so that the light shines out.

So when the light of God's word comes to you, what will you do with it? Do you hide it away, try to cover it up? Or do you let it shine in you and through you? Do you let the light shine into the dark corners of your life, or are there areas where you don't let the light shine? Places of darkness, where secrets hide for now, but not forever (17)

Instead, Jesus wants us to let his light shine in every corner of our heart. Because it's an indication of how we are listening. Look at verse 18. 'Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.'

It almost sounds unfair, doesn't it? Those who have, receive more; those who don't have will definitely have nothing. But it's saying that how we listen matters. If it's just a formality, if we're not really listening, then eventually we will stop listening and not be able to hear God's voice. But for those who listen carefully, shaping your life based on what you're hearing, then God will continue to speak, continue to lead you on, continue to shine his light in your life.

This explains the seemingly random opening verses of the chapter. Why does Luke bother telling us that Jesus is going around proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom; and who is with him? The roll call is a living example of those who have heard God's word and are doing it. There are the twelve (as you would expect), but more unusual are the other names in the list. These are 'some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities' - Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and many others. They have heard God's word, and they are holding to it and doing it as they support the work of Jesus out of their resources.

This might be one of those areas where God's word needs to shine and search - our finances. It's always a risky subject to talk about money, but our passage points to it as one of the ways we respond to God's word. It can be an indicator to us of how God's word is affecting us - are we supporting the work of the gospel, or holding on tightly to our money? These ladies had been healed, they had experienced the blessing of hearing God's word, and now want to make sure that others share in the same blessings.

But it’s more than just sharing blessings. To hear God's word and respond is to be welcomed into God's family. In those closing verses, we're told that Mary his mother and his brothers come wanting to see Jesus. There's a big crowd and they can't get near him. The word gets through, though. Your mum and brothers are wanting to see you. They think they have a claim on him. They want to get near to him.

They might be Jesus' earthly family, but from now on Jesus is focusing on his heavenly family - his brothers and sisters. And Jesus' reply is almost surprising, maybe even shocking. 'My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.' This is the mark of being in the family - hearing God's word and doing it.

Sometimes when we consider a Bible passage together, the meaning can be hard to discover. There can be weeks where I struggle to find what it is that the Bible is saying. But this week it's fairly obvious, isn't it? Are you in the family of God? Can you call Jesus your brother? It all comes when we hear God's word and do what it says. To hold to it no matter what pressures come. To produce fruit with patient endurance. And that's not just for this week (and then move on to something else to work on next week). It's a lifetime of turning and obeying as the word brings particular things to light. So which type of soil are you? How are you listening? Will you do what he says as you hold on to his word and bear fruit for his glory?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 23rd February 2014.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Bible Briefs: Mark

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

When Mark begins to write his Gospel, he gives the game away in the very first sentence: ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ (1:1) As John the Baptist and then Jesus appear on the scene, the reader knows who this Jesus is, but the crowds and the disciples and the religious leaders are all trying to work out just who he is.

As Jesus proclaims the kingdom, he works miracles and overturns the accepted standards of the religious leaders. The questions come thick and fast: ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority!’ (1:27) ‘Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ (2:7) ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ (2:16) ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ (4:41)

Eventually, Peter realises who Jesus is: ‘You are the Christ.’ (8:29). The question asked in the first half of the gospel has been answered. Who is Jesus? He is the Christ. Straight away, we’re plunged into the second half of the gospel, which asks (and answers) the question: What did Jesus come to do?

Within two verses, Jesus has already told the disciples that he, the Son of Man ‘must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.’ (8:31) From this point, Jesus is on the way to the cross, predicting his sufferings twice more, but his disciples just don’t seem to get it.

Almost a third of the gospel is taken up with the last week leading up to Jesus’ death on the cross, as Mark shares Jesus’ teaching and the disputes with the religious leaders. They, like Peter, should have recognised that the Messiah was in front of them, but they could not see it. Instead, they fulfill the scriptures as they condemn him to death. Yet as Jesus dies, one man does recognise who Jesus is, and what he came to do. A most unlikely of men: ‘And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”’ (Mark 15:39).

Who is Jesus? He is the Christ, the Son of God. He came to die for us. He came to rise again to new life for us. We know it from the very first verse, but Mark urges us to read on, to see and hear and discover this Jesus for ourselves, to become his disciples as we too come, and follow him.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Sermon: Luke 7: 36-50 Simon, the Sinful Woman and the Saviour

I wonder does anyone recognise the TV theme tune? [Play the 'Come Dine With Me' theme tune]

On Come Dine With Me, contestants take it in turns to host a dinner party for some strangers. They are then scored in secret, with the highest score at the end of the week winning £1000. The scores are for their food, entertainment, hosting skills, and general feeling of how the evening went.

Today in our Bible reading, Jesus is at a dinner party. He's been invited to go to someone's house for a meal. So we need a host: Simon. Simon is a Pharisee. He's really religious, he wants to make sure that he keeps all the Old Testament law; he's sure that he's better than everyone else, because no one else is so observant as he is. He thinks he is good. In fact, he thinks he is perfect. [Give a halo and an angel costume - my surplice].

So Simon is hosting his dinner party. Jesus is at the table. When suddenly someone comes into the house. An unexpected, uninvited guest. Someone who doesn't belong. Someone Simon knows well, because she is described as 'a woman who had lived a sinful life.' She is the opposite of Simon. She's well known as a sinner, and Simon doesn't like her.

Now as if that wasn't bad enough that she comes into his house, what she does next is even worse. She gets down at Jesus' feet, she starts crying, and wetting his feet with her tears. She dries his feet with her hair. She gets a bottle of perfume and pours it on his feet. She kisses his feet. What a scene! And all this is going on in the Pharisee's house. The respectable, good, upstanding Pharisee's house.

Imagine you were Simon. How would you feel? Would you be cross? We don't have to imagine what he's thinking as Luke tells us. He says to himself that if Jesus was really a prophet he would know who she was and what type of woman she is: a sinner.

Simon looks at the woman and declares that she is a sinner. He's obviously thinking that he himself is not a sinner. Just this really bad woman - she is the sinner.

Just with that, Jesus tells him a story. It's about two people who owe debts. Have you ever seen or used an 'IOU' note? It's where you borrow money and leave a little note saying I Owe You. Well, these two people in Jesus' story have IOUs. The first owes 50 denarii [a big IOU 50d written on an A4 bit of card, held up]. That's a lot. The second owes even more - 500 denarii [an even bigger IOU 500d written on an A3 piece of card]. Now what are these denarii? When I pull out the money in my pocket, what are these? Pence. So how much are we talking? A denarius was the amount of money a labourer earned for a day's wage. So in today's money, the first owes £2500 and the second owes £25000 [with matching IOUs in pound sterling].

Now, can you afford to pay back your little debt? Or your big debt? Neither of you can pay. You'll end up in prison or in slavery. That doesn't sound good. But what about if your debts were cancelled? [Rip up the pieces of card] What would you think of that? You'd be happy, glad, rejoicing. Now which of them would be the happiest? The one who owed the more. They would be the happiest, and would love the most. The debt cancelled brings love.

Imagine that you're having someone come for dinner. What might you do to welcome them? You might shake their hand or give them a hug. You might take their coat and hang it up. You might show them to the bathroom to refresh themselves.

In Simon's Come Dine With Me, let's see how he scores: In Jesus' day there were no boots or shoes, just sandals on dusty roads. Your feet got all dirty. Simon doesn't give Jesus any water to wash his feet. How does he score? [The children and some of the adults got score cards with either 0 or 10]. He gets a zero. But what about the woman? She uses her tears to wash his feet. She scores a 10. What about the greeting when entering the house? In those days it was usual to kiss your guest on the cheek, but Simon didn't bother. How would we score? 0. What about the woman? She kissed Jesus' feet, and scores a 10. You would normally have oil to refresh you guest, give them a face wash, but again, Simon didn't bother. He gets 0. The woman? She poured her perfume on Jesus' feet. Another 10.

Simon is a really bad host. He doesn't show any care or love for Jesus. If it was CDWM he would get 0. But the woman, this really bad woman, she scores a perfect 10. Jesus commends her. She is showing love because she has been forgiven her huge debt. She knew she was a sinner, but she has also experienced God's forgiveness, and so pours out her love in response and gratitude.

Simon, he doesn't think he owes anything. He doesn't realise that he too is a sinner. He thinks his debt isn't as big or as bad as the woman's. You see, we can often compare ourselves to other people and think that we're not too bad after all. We're not as bad as him or her. But compared to Jesus, the perfect man, we fall far short.

We each owe a debt to God, a debt we cannot pay. All of us are sinners. We might think we're good, but we're not. We need to come to Jesus, and find that he has paid our debt. He has cancelled our debt by dying to save us from our sins. We can find in Jesus the relief of debts cleared and sins forgiven.

The woman knew that forgiveness and shows her love for Jesus. Her costly devotion to him, bowing at his feet.

It was Valentine's Day on Friday, but how do we show our love for Jesus? It begins by hearing those words: 'Your sins are forgiven.' When our debt is cleared, we are free to love and serve and follow Jesus. Let's pray that each of us will know the love of God in Jesus for us, and respond in love for him.

This sermon was preached at the Church Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 16th February 2014.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Sermon: Philippians 1: 12-30 To Die Is Gain

I’m not quite at the stage yet, but I notice that some of you are wearing spectacles. While some people wear specs without lenses (perhaps to look smarter or cooler), if you actually need them, you can ‘see’ the benefit straight away. Whether it’s to follow the small print in the prayer book and help your reading; or to see things that are far away; or for driving, you know that they’re key to be able to see clearly. Before you put them on, things are all blurry, but with the specs, you can see better.

There’s a word that we encounter for the first time in reading tonight as we work our way through Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It’s a most strange word when you think about it, coming from the pen of a prisoner. It’s the word ‘rejoice’. Verse 18 has it twice (and we’ll see it crop up again later in the letter). Paul the prisoner is trying to gee up the Christians on the outside to rejoice.

You see, the Christians in Philippi were probably thinking that it was a terrible pity that Paul, the greatest apostle, was thrown in prison. Surely his career as a church planter is now over. He’ll be sitting in the prison, unable to help the efforts. But Paul wants them to put on their gospel glasses to see what’s really happening.

As he writes this bit of the letter, we discover that the things that look like disasters and disappointments are transformed by the goggles of the gospel. I wonder if you’ve ever had a setback - something goes wrong; how do you respond?

Paul invites us to put on the gospel goggles - or indeed, to have corrective eyesight - to see things as God sees them.

The first is found in verses 12-18. Paul is in prison. Surely that means that the mission has ended? He has lost his freedom, no longer can he travel around the Roman Empire planting churches and preaching about Jesus.

But look at what he says in verse 12: ‘I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.’ Put Paul in prison, and he can’t travel, but that doesn’t mean he has been silenced. It’s just that his audience has changed.

This morning in church we had Colin from Crosslinks who said that mission isn’t just something that happens across the world. It’s also something that happens in our world - where we are. So Paul, here is a model of that. He actually has a captive audience.

Paul was being guarded closely. He may have had a soldier chained to him on one side or both sides. And as he’s sitting chained up, he tells his guards about Jesus. He tells the first pair. Then they go off duty and he tells the next pair. They change and on and on he goes. So much, in fact, that he can say that ‘it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard...’

Others may see the problems, but Paul sees the opportunity. How else would the soldiers have come to hear about Jesus? And, as he goes on to say, it’s not just Paul that is continuing to speak. The other Christians in Rome are also becoming more bold. They’re speaking out about Jesus.

Now, it’s true, as he says, that some are trying to stir up more trouble for him. They’re only talking about Jesus in order to make things worse for Paul - from envy and rivalry. Does he care? The important thing is that ‘whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and I rejoice.’ It looked bleak, Paul had been arrested. But as Paul sees how things are turning out, he looks with his gospel goggles and sees the name of Christ being proclaimed more than before. Are there ways in which we could speak out about Jesus, even when it looks the opposite?

Paul’s gospel glasses give him a new perspective on death, as we see in verses 19-26. The way that many people (even some Christians) look at death is that this world is where all the action is and death is the end. That death brings loss, and so we want to fend it off for as long as possible with health regimes and plastic surgery and fashion and all sorts of things.

But look at verse 21. Paul couldn’t say this without having his vision altered by the gospel goggles. ‘For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.’ To live is to experience Christ as we love him and serve him - fruitful labour as Paul mentions.

Yet to die is - for the Christian - gain. You don’t lose anything, it is only gain, as you are no longer bound by the pains of the world; by the frailty of our bodies; by the sins and temptations that continue to war against us. Death is but the doorway through which we enter Christ’s eternal kingdom. It is ‘far better’. It’s not quite what we expect to hear, is it?

Mark Ashton was the minister of a church in Cambridge when he was diagnosed with cancer. As he went through the treatment it became apparent that he could not be helped. He wrote a little book called ‘On My Way To Heaven.’ In the last days of his life, he was seriously ill. His family and friends were gathered around, to hear him say ‘Soon Home.’ He knew he was going home

But notice that Paul doesn’t say that we should all just decide to die as soon as we can. Rather, it’s not in his hands, but in God’s, to decide and decree his lifespan. Until Jesus comes or calls, he will continue to live for Christ, for the encouragement of the Philippians.

Resolved to live, Paul looks forward to coming to see the Philippians again. Until that day, though, he encourages them to ‘stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.’ This is the third remarkable thing he sees through his gospel goggles, and the theme that will continue through to the next part of the letter. You see, we are not saved to be individuals, pursuing our own agendas and doing things our own way. Instead, we are called into the body of Christ, in one spirit with one mind. The image Paul uses of side by side is the Roman army, where the shields interlocked, every soldier protecting each other together.

We’re called to stand together, protect one another, and help one another, especially because of verse 29. You see, it’s not just a privilege to believe in Christ, but also suffer for him. How vital it is, then, to help and care for each other, supporting one another in the hard times.

It’s very different to the ‘every man for himself’ attitude of so many. It’s distinctly Christian as we follow the pattern of Jesus and his apostle.

The very things that make it look like God is not in control, the things that would make you want to give up - imprisonment, death, suffering. Paul invites us to look at these (and all the other things that come our way) through our gospel goggles. See how God is still in control, and how even these weaknesses can be used as strengths. Who are the people God has put beside you to hear the good news? How can you play your part as we stand together in suffering? Will you change the way you view death?

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 9th February 2014.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Book Review: I am Joseph

Back in the early 1990s, Alan Pain published a series of supposedly autobiographical books featuring some Bible characters. Among the others, such as Moses and Jeremiah, is Joseph's story. In this book, Joseph tells his story in his own words, with a remarkably twentieth-century viewpoint on a number of issues. It's an interesting take on the story, with some useful observations, but that's probably as far as it goes.

From his ancestor's days, Joseph traces his chequered background, through to the series of dreams which caused turmoil to his family life and eventual slavery in Egypt. Through sexual temptation and imprisonment to becoming the chief (under Pharaoh) of the whole land, the story of Joseph is well known, and Pain provides the story in a straightforward way. The details are helpful, the perspective can at times be refreshing, but it's when he gets bogged down in the psychology of what's going on that the book seems to drag in places.

If you're planning a sermon series on the later chapters of Genesis, it might be useful background reading, but I wouldn't build too much on it.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Sermon: Luke 7: 18-35 Greater Than The Greatest

It’s a question that provokes endless debate. It might be about something as small as a particular ability or hobby. Or it could encompass everyone who has ever lived. I’m sure that at some time, you have attempted to answer the question: who is the greatest? Get a group of bowlers together, and they’ll eventually talk about the best bowler they’ve ever played against. Get a group of musicians talking and they’ll argue about who the greatest singer is.

We’re coming up to the Oscars, when the celebrities walk along the red carpet, waiting to hear who has won best actor and best picture - the award committee are trying to decide who is the greatest. Not so long ago Portugal buried the man many considered to be the greatest football player - Eusebio. Some might have an interest in the Time Person of the Year - last year Time magazine gave it to the Pope.

But what about the greatest person who ever lived? Who do you reckon it would be? In our reading today, Jesus answers the question for all time, and gives us a perhaps surprising answer. Look with me at verse 28. It’s as if Jesus is opening the golden envelope, and brings out the name at the awards ceremony: ‘I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John.’ According to Jesus, John the Baptist is the greatest person who has ever lived, out of everyone who was born of women.

He might not have been who you would expect. Yet Jesus gives us the reason in verses 24-27. The people crowding around Jesus had first of all gone out to listen to John the Baptist. But why had they gone? It wasn’t to see a reed shaken by the wind - nor someone in fine clothing.

John the Baptist, with his strange clothing and bizarre diet, was ‘a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.’ John was the one who a verse of scripture was written about - the promise of the last book of the Old Testament: ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ (Mal 3:1)

John the Baptist was the greatest person who ever lived, because he was the one who announced the coming of Jesus. He was the person who got the people ready for Jesus - like the warm-up act. No one, no matter how great their achievements, could beat that. And that’s exactly what John did. He announced the coming of Jesus, he called for repentance, he baptised people to symbolise their turning from sins and turning to God. What a privilege. What a great man!

Yet if you look again at verse 28, Jesus says a remarkable thing. John is the greatest person who has ever lived - yet it’s possible to be greater than him. ‘among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’

To get the reason, we need to rewind to the start of the passage. We’re now in Luke 7, but away back in chapter 3, John the Baptist, the messenger, the greatest person to have ever lived, was thrown into prison. King Herod didn’t like him, and so he was in jail. Every prison visit, his remaining disciples have been bringing him news of what Jesus is up to. He has heard about the miracles and the teaching. And John is confused.

Flick back to Luke 3:17. He’s talking about what he expects Jesus’ ministry to be like: ‘His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ John’s ministry was one of judgement - proclaiming the coming judgement and the need for repentance. He expected Jesus to pick up where he had left off and immediately bring the final judgement and put all things right.

No wonder he’s confused and (maybe even) disappointed by what Jesus is doing. He just doesn’t understand what he’s up to. So he sends messengers to ask Jesus: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ In other words - Jesus, what are you playing at? You’re not quite as fire and brimstone as I expected you to be.

Have you ever found yourself asking the same question? Is Jesus really the one to trust in, or should we go and find something else to do? Could it be that you expect Jesus to do something and then he doesn’t do it? What’s happening?

Jesus points him to scripture to answer the question. John may have expected the fire to fall immediately, but Jesus came to proclaim the kingdom and to show the kingdom in his miracles. ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’ (22-23)

Jesus came to proclaim the kingdom, fulfilling the Old Testament promises in his life as well as his death on the cross. The healing that Jesus brought is a sign of what will ultimately happen to all in the kingdom when we’re given our new resurrection bodies. - whole, healthy, and happy.

John might have been the greatest person born of woman, but Jesus says that those who are in the kingdom are greater. We have the privilege that John did not have - because he was the last of the Old Testament prophets, the last pointer towards the kingdom which is now come in Jesus.

There is no more need for the prophets to point forward to what the king and the kingdom will be like. That would be like watching the trailers and adverts for a film or TV programme rather than watching the real thing.

Jesus invites us to join his kingdom, where even the least person is greater than John the Baptist. No wonder the tax collectors are so happy in verse 29 - they had heeded John’s warning, and went where he was pointing, and are now following Jesus, they’ve been included in the kingdom.

Jesus ushers in an expected kingdom in an unexpected way. The people in Jesus’ day were like children playing games in the street - one moment there’s music but they’re not happy and won’t dance, the next, they’re pretending to mourn, but they won’t cry. You couldn’t please them.

They saw John and thought he had a demon because he fasted and drunk no wine; they saw Jesus and thought he was a drunkard and glutton. Jesus, the sinless one, was bringing in his kingdom of joy and wholeness and healing. A kingdom where you can be greater than the greatest person who ever lived - because Jesus the king has died for you and welcomed you in.

It’s something to be celebrated today, as we gather around the table. We rejoice in the privilege we receive, as we look for the fulfilment of the kingdom when sickness will be no more. John couldn’t get his head around it, but this is the kingdom we are a part of. Won’t you come today with gladness, as we share the bread and wine until he comes.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 2nd February 2014.