Sunday, April 27, 2014

Sermon: Matthew 28: 16-20 The Great Commission

We’re almost coming into the time of year when my doorbell starts to ring with increasing frequency. Tourists from America, Canada, and Australia arrive at the door, seeking information about their great, great grandparents who left this parish to seek their fortunes across the ocean. They’re wanting to get back to where it all started; to the townland of their ancestors; sometimes thinking they’ll see the very cottage that was left behind. To see how their family line started, by getting back to their roots.

Part of my family can do the same by going to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra. My great aunt lived in one of the wee houses in Meeting Street, and now her family has grown and spread. Their family history is an actual part of history; their roots are there to discover.

In our reading today, Jesus is with the eleven disciples in Galilee. As you read through the gospel, you might wonder why the insistence on Galilee. After all, you might remember last week that the angel had told the women to tell the disciples that Jesus was going ahead of them to Galilee. (28:7) And then when Jesus meets the women, he tells them again: ‘go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’ (28:10) And if you remember from the middle of Holy Week, at the last supper Jesus had told the disciples that they would all abandon him, ‘but after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.’ (26:32). Galilee, Galilee, Galilee. Why Galilee?

Galilee was the place where it had all began. It was by the sea of Galilee that Jesus had called the first disciples (4:18). It was in the region of Galilee that Jesus began to teach and heal. It’s there that Jesus had started his ministry, and it’s there that Jesus starts afresh. Jesus takes the disciples back to the roots, back to square one. They might have deserted him, but now they’re starting again.

Except, this is something new, something different. Things are just going to be the same old way they had been before. Jesus has died and been raised. He’s not going wandering around Galilee and Judea any more. Instead, Jesus gives the great commission, he tells them the way things are going to be.

This isn’t just a great suggestion; or a great optional extra for super keen Christians. Jesus gives the great commission, the orders for the church in every generation. It has worked out really well that we happen to be reading this on the day of our Easter Vestry, as we come again to move forward for another year, continuing in the Lord’s work.

As Jesus speaks, he mentions four ‘alls’ which will keep us on task, and keep us right. The first all is: all authority. Look at verse 18: ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.’ By his death and resurrection, Jesus is confirmed as the king, the rightful ruler. He’s not just the king of the Jews, as the title on the cross said. He is the King of the whole universe - heaven and earth. He has all authority, not just a little bit. He rules over all.

When the Queen’s father died and Princess Elizabeth became Queen, the news was proclaimed. No longer was she just a princess, she was the Queen. The risen Jesus has all authority. So what?

This leads us to the second ‘all’. Jesus says: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.’ (19) This is the business of the church - to make disciples, not just in one place, but of all nations. The church is called to go and make disciples, followers, learners in every nation. This is the only measure that counts. We can sometimes get caught up on finances or on figures; accounts and attendances. But the thing that really matters is whether we are making disciples. Are we growing in our devotion to Jesus? Are we following him more and more? How have we grown in faith over the past year? Who has begun to follow Jesus?

This is the reason why the church exists - for disciples to make disciples. Everything that we do should be helping this aim to be achieved, through church and Bible study; meetings and organisations; pastoral visits and occasions. It’s something that we’re all involved in, not just the rector.

But, you might be asking, how do we do that? How do we make disciples? What should we be doing with them to make disciples? Jesus tells us how: ‘baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.’ (19-20)

Disciples are learners. We’re learning to obey all - everything that Jesus has commanded. Throughout Matthew’s gospel, we have lots of his teaching. The sermon on the mount is very practical when it comes to obeying Jesus’ words. This is what needs to be passed on. It’s not just, do whatever you feel like. Christianity isn’t just do whatever makes you feel good. There is a body of teaching that has been passed on, and it’s our job to pass it on to the next generation, and to every nation.

It’s at this point that things can start to seem daunting. Wow, that’s a big job that you’ve given us. How could we possibly do that? It’s like the first day that you’re left on your own to look after the house. I remember the first time mum and dad went away for the weekend and I could stay at home. I didn’t have to stay with granny. I was big enough now. So off they go, and suddenly you begin to think - oh, will I be able to manage to cook? check all the windows and doors... There was one time when I had some friends over and I turned quickly to go and answer the door, only to kick a full glass of club orange onto the wall. We got it cleaned off, and mum never knew - unless she’s reading/listening this on the internet!

So the disciples might be thinking to themselves - this is a big job. How could we do it? You might be thinking as well, how could we continue to do that in this generation? Well, Jesus gives them and us some encouragement with his final all. Look at what he says: ‘And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (20)

You’re not on your own. No matter where you might find yourself; no matter what comes when you step out to obey Jesus’ command; no matter what pressure you might find yourself under, you are not alone. Jesus is with you at all times, always.

The risen Jesus has all authority. He sends us to make disciples of all nations, by teaching them all he has commanded. And we are not alone, he is with us at all times.

What an encouragement as we begin a new year in the church’s life, as we choose a new Select Vestry and all the other offices. This is the task at hand. My prayer is that we will ourselves obey Jesus’ command as we work together to make disciples under Jesus’ authority, with Jesus’ presence and power. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 27th April 2014.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Book Review: Journey to Joy

It's been a while since I've managed to finish a book, and even longer since a book review appeared on the site. Things seem to have been incredibly busy, and I haven't been in the frame of mind to be reading for pleasure. The demands of Sunday and (Lenten) midweek preaching have been heavy. Hopefully we'll get back into a slightly better routine of reading and writing. After all, my annual books read total would suffer otherwise!

In the world of Olympic sprinting, two false starts lead to a disqualification. Had the same criteria applied in this instance, this book would never have been finished. After a couple of times when I had started to read it, got a chapter or two along the way, it was discarded and left to gather dust. The only thing that kept me returning to the book to have another go was that it had been a complimentary review copy from the Evangelical Bookshop in Belfast, so I had to press on!

In Journey to Joy, Josh Moody takes the reader on a journey through the Psalms of Ascents (120-134). On the whole, the Psalms are handled well, with careful exposition. It could indeed be a helpful book for many. It just didn't seem to connect with me - whether it's because the writer is coming from a different perspective/church experience/cultural background or what, I'm not sure. There seemed to be times when I couldn't follow what he was saying, or couldn't work out where he was getting it from.

A case in point comes early on, as Moody describes the pain of the Psalmist in Psalm 120, and what he does about it. The points of application are: 1. Pray - don't talk to others, but first talk to God; 2. Tell the pain to God. To my mind, the two points are the same. Praying is to speak to God, to tell the pain to God. There were similar moments of confusion on my part as I struggled through. There was also, at times, a missing connection to Jesus, his person and work. The Psalms were almost dealt with in and of themselves, without the wider connection which I felt would have been helpful.

Many have found this book helpful. But for me, I didn't enjoy the book, and it didn't seem to draw me in, which was a disappointment. I love the Psalms of Ascent, but have found other books more helpful.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Sermon Audio: Cross Examined - Matthew 26-27

After a few years of going it alone during Holy Week, we were delighted to link up with Brookeborough Methodist Church to do a joint Holy Week this year. It was a really good week, as we listened in to the different voices around the cross, ultimately focusing on God's word to understand what was happening. Cross Examined: The Witnesses Testify. My thanks to Colin for his willingness to share and to preach three times. Here is what was said each evening:

1. The woman who anointed Jesus
2. The disciple who betrayed Jesus
3. The disciple who denied Jesus
4. Jesus: faithful to death
5. The centurion who crucified Jesus

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

An Easter Assembly: Luke 24:5

We're still in the season of Easter, so if you're looking for an Easter school assembly or a children's talk, here's an idea to work from. I had all the items I talked about so the kids could guess and shout out what they expected to find inside.

When you come along to school, what do you being with you? I've got my school bag here. What would you expect to find in it? Homework: books, and such like.

Now inside, I've also got my pencil case. What would you expect to find in it? Pencils and pens and rubbers.

I've also brought along my lunch box. What would you expect to find in it? My lunch! Some sandwiches and an apple.

You expect to find what would normally be in all those different things. Books in a school bag; pencils in a pencil case; sandwiches in a lunch box.

So when the women go to the tomb of Jesus, what do they expect to find inside? They expected to find the body of Jesus. Jesus had been crucified on Good Friday. He was dead. His body was in the tomb, a cave cut out of rock.

But when the women got there, what did they find? Nothing! The body wasn't there. The tomb was empty!

Jesus wasn't in the tomb because Jesus wasn't dead. He's alive! That is the message of Easter. Jesus died, but he didn't stay dead. That's why the angel says, "Why do you seek the living among the dead?" (Luke 24:5)

So even though we can be sad whenever someone we love dies, we know that Jesus will give life to everyone who trusts him.

Photo credit: Donut_Diva on Flickr

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Sermon: Matthew 28:1-15 He is not here!

I wonder if you’ve ever had something like this happen to you. You know that in the biscuit tin there are your favourite biscuits. For me, you probably know that would be chocolate digestives. So you go to the biscuit tin, your mouth is already watering, you’re going to have your yummy biscuit. You get to the cupboard, you open the door, you pull out the tin and, it’s empty! What you expected to find in there isn’t in there. Where have they gone?

So you ask the questions, you try to work it out. Is there anyone in the house with a chocolate stain around their mouth? Anyone with a pile of crumbs around them? What happened to the biscuits? It’s a silly example, of course. You should really be having an apple rather than a biscuit. But when you go to where something should be and it’s not there, then you have to work out what has happened. Whether it’s your homework, or your mobile, or your keys, or your favourite teddy bear. Where has it gone?

At the start of today’s reading, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go looking for Jesus. On Friday, Jesus had been crucified. He died. He was buried in a cave with a big stone across the entrance. So they went to see the place where he was buried. To remember.

But when they got there, something very strange happened. There was an earthquake. The ground shook, everything was wobbly. Sitting on top of the big stone was an angel, shining like lightning, with bright white clothes.

The guards who were watching to make sure nothing happened, they were afraid. Imagine, soldiers being afraid. They became like dead men. They lay down on the ground in fear.

The angel had a message for the women. He knows they are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. But he tells them something very important, which is also a little bit strange. If you have a green egg, then bring it up so that we can see the message of the angel: HE IS NOT HERE.

The place where Jesus was buried. The tomb where he was laid. But he is not there. Lots of different people give lots of different reasons why Jesus was not in the tomb. In our reading we hear two different reasons.

Option one. It’s there in verse 13. The chief priests tell the guards to say that his disciples came during the night to steal the body, while the guards were sleeping. Now maybe this happened. Maybe the guards, the soldiers were sleeping. Do you think soldiers are allowed to sleep while they are doing their work? Outside Buckingham Palace the guards stand in their red uniform with the big fuzzy hat. Do you think they could sleep while they are on duty?

Not at all! And to think the disciples came to steal away Jesus’ body? Where were the disciples? They were all in hiding! They were all afraid when Jesus was arrested on Thursday night. They all ran away and left him alone. Would they now come and risk the guards?

Plus, if the guards were sleeping, then how would they know who had come to do anything? Do you think this could have happened? Disciples coming, guards sleeping, body stole away? No, it’s silly!

But I said there were two options. Two explanations. What about the second? For that, we need more eggs. So if you have orange or yellow eggs, then please bring them up: HE HAS RISEN.

It was wrong to think that the disciples had stolen the body. The disciples were too scared to do anything. It was only the women who came to the tomb. It was the women who met the angel, who heard the good news: HE IS NOT HERE. Why? HE HAS RISEN, just as he said.

Jesus is risen from the dead. Jesus is not still dead. He is alive, and can never die again. This is the good news of Easter - that death will not finally win. Because Jesus is alive, we too will live, as we trust in Jesus.

Imagine being in a big forest. Trees everywhere. You can’t see the sun, there are so many trees. They’re all tightly packed together. How would you get out? How would you find your way? But imagine then that you get to a path which leads you out. That’s what Jesus has done with us. Jesus has cleared a pathway through death, and will lead us out the other side. Jesus is our guide. He has been that way, he can bring us safely through.

The angel told the women to come and see the place where he lay - it’s empty. He is not here. He sent them to go and tell - He is risen. But as they ran off to tell the disciples, they met Jesus himself. He speaks to them, they can take hold of him. Jesus is alive!

This sermon was preached at the Easter Family Celebration in Aghavea Parish Church on Easter Sunday 20th April 2014.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday Sermon: Matthew 27:54 The Centurion Speaks

I wonder if you were able to enjoy a bit of a break today? The days around Easter weekend can sometimes be a bit of a mystery - whether the banks are open; if there’s post coming; if the doctors are having surgeries. Perhaps you took things easy today. The sun was out, all the caravans were on the road towards Enniskillen, holiday time and a long weekend is here!

But maybe you had to work today. The alarm went off as usual; the cows needed milking; the office was calling. As we hear the account of that first Good Friday, we heard of someone who was working that day. When the rooster crowed that morning, little did he realise that he would take home with him more than just his day’s pay; more than a gambled for garment; he would have something much more precious.

He was there that day, probably far from home, working in that backwater place of Israel, in the troublesome town of Jerusalem. The centurion was a Roman soldier; commander of a hundred; and he was just doing his job. The crucifixion of trouble makers was commonplace. He was probably hardened to the painful cries and gruesome sights. It was all in a day’s work, to keep the locals in order and punish the worst offenders. But this day, there was something different about the crucifixion.

He might have heard something about Jesus - certainly he had been around Jerusalem for the previous week, with plenty of discussion and debate. The Jewish leaders were trying to get rid of him. They managed to arrest him (with the help of one of his followers) and gave him to Pilate.

And then he was handed over to be crucified. The centurion took charge of him. Into the Praetorium for scourging and mocking. They say he’s the King of the Jews? We’ll show him what that looks like: a scarlet robe, a crown of thorns, and beating, spitting and mocking.

Then off to the place of the skull. The place of death. Jesus is nailed to the cross, having refused the wine and gall to numb the pain. The centurion and his soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothing - the only bonus from a day at the foot of a cross. But it’s at the foot of this cross, the cross of Jesus, the King of the Jews, that the centurion realises that this isn’t like every other crucifixion. This is because of what he hears, and what he sees.

First of all, what he hears. Victims of crucifixion were always insulted - it was a bit like those held in town stocks in more recent times - they were fair game. But what was said was different; more vicious; more vindictive.

The passersby targeted him: ‘You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!’ If he is the Son of God, he should just come down off the cross and show everyone.

It’s the very same thing that the religious leaders mock him for: ‘He saved others, but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’’

Both groups were mocking Jesus because he thought he was the Son of God. They didn’t believe it. Despite all the evidence, his teaching, his miracles, his goodness, they refuse to believe. In fact, it’s the reason they put him to death, because they had rejected God and his Son.

The centurion heard all this. But what he didn’t hear was just as significant. He didn’t hear Jesus respond or retaliate. There was no backchat, no threats. The only thing that Matthew tells us that Jesus said was a cry to God: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ A desperate cry as the satisfaction for our sins was achieved through the separation and silence.

As well as his ears, though, the centurion was seeing strange things, further pointers that this was no ordinary crucifixion; that this wasn’t an everyday event.

From noon until 3pm, the sky turned black. Darkness was over the land. An unnatural darkness. It couldn’t have been an eclipse, because, as you might have noticed, there’s a full moon these nights, the Passover full moon. Imagine, it being night in the middle of the day.

As Jesus gave up his spirit, an earthquake shook the ground. Rocks split. Tombs were opened, and dead people were raised to life. It was as if the very earth itself convulsed at the death of its maker.

It was the combination of the sights and the sounds that led the centurion and those with him to be terrified! Grown men, Roman soldiers, fearsome fighters, terrified. The taunters may not have believed; the religious leaders could not and would not see. But it was plain to the centurion: ‘Surely he was the Son of God!’

The centurion came to see who Jesus was. The challenge for us tonight is whether we align ourselves with the religious leaders, or with this pagan soldier? Do you hear the story of the cross and turn away, thinking that it doesn’t matter? Adding your mocking voice to the cry of the scoffers? Wanting him dead, and having nothing to do with him?

Or will you confess with the centurion that this man on the cross, committed to the Father’s will, is none other than the Son of God? To realise the seriousness of our sin, that there was no other way. That in order to save us, he could not save himself, but freely gave himself for us.

Our prayer, as we bring to a close our week of joint meetings, is that you will be able to say with Paul that the man on the cross is: ‘the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.’ Surely he was (and is) the Son of God. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Brookeborough Methodist Church on Good Friday, 18th April 2014.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Sermon: Matthew 26: 31-35, 57-75 Words of Defiance and Denial

Do you remember going to the seaside when you were growing up? The waves splashing, the sand getting between your toes. You might have built a sandcastle or dug a big hole in the beach. Did you ever lift a big handful of sand, as much as you could could, only to watch it slip away through your fingers?

That’s how I imagine it felt like for the disciples in that first Holy Week. They must have been on a high on Palm Sunday; the crowds cheering; Jesus entering the city on a donkey; the cleansing of the temple. It looks as if everything is going to plan. Jesus, the Messiah, is here to be the conquering, kick the Romans out kind of king. Hosanna to the Son of David!

But then things start to go wrong. The wheels begin to come off the car. Through the week there are disputes with the religious leaders. Five chapters of questions, debates and hostility. Perhaps Jesus isn’t as popular as he had seemed on Sunday. But that’s nothing to the devastation of the Thursday night. Over dinner, Jesus announced that one of the twelve was going to betray him. It came as a shock to them - they didn’t all immediately turn to Judas and say, it’s him. Rather they all say ‘Surely not I, Lord?’ (22) Judas has gone now. There’s Jesus and the eleven. There’ll surely be no more surprises.

As they leave the upper room and make their way towards the Mount of Olives, Jesus tells them how the next hours will go. ‘This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ Jesus quotes from Zechariah 13:7, a chapter which points to the events of Holy Week. He knows that it is going to happen, and yet it is unbelievable for the disciples to hear. As we would expect, it’s Peter’s voice we hear.

You see, the whole way through the gospels, Peter is the disciple whose words are recorded. When Jesus walks on the water, Peter is the one who says, ‘Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.’ (14:28). Peter is the one who correctly identifies Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God (16:16) but then rebukes Jesus as he begins to speak of the Christ’s suffering (16:22). At the transfiguration, it’s Peter who pipes up with his idea to build three shelters for Jesus and Moses and Elijah (17:4). It’s Peter who asks about how many times he should forgive his brother who sins against him (18:21). We’re used to hearing Peter, sometimes opening his mouth before his brain is in gear; sometimes over-confident; sometimes rash; but always ready to follow Jesus.

And what does Peter say on this occasion? ‘Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.’ (33) Does he look around at the other ten and think to himself, well, they might be a bit flaky, they might not be totally reliable; I’m better than them. There rest of these boys might give up and give in, but not me. I never will. He is sure of himself. He’s been with Jesus all this time. He’s going to stick with Jesus. They’re defiant words.

But look at Jesus’ reply: ‘I tell you the truth, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.’ (34) Jesus knows what is going to happen. He knows the plan and purpose of the Father, already written, promised long ago in the Old Testament. He has already told the disciples what is going to happen; now he does so again to Peter. The general falling away is now given detail. Three times before the rooster crows, you will disown me.
But Peter won’t let it rest. He comes again with his defiant words: ‘Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.’ There’s a pattern there, isn’t there? Even if (whatever comes along)... I will never. Words of faith, words of defiance, easily spoken in the safety of the disciples.

Could it be the same for us? When we’re in church, it’s easy to say and sing our words of faith. Commitment is safe in the crowd. There’s no fear and no consequences to our declaration of trust. We can even be bold in what we promise to the Lord. Do our words still hold true when we’re away from church? It’s harder in the world to keep our promises and live out our faith.

For some, there is strong pressure to deny Jesus - or be killed. We don’t face that pressure here, but there is still some subtle pressure to deny the Lord. To talk of what you got up to at the weekend, except for the time at church. To know that you would face ridicule if friends knew that you were here at a midweek service - are you getting a bit over enthusiastic now? To dodge the difficult question about the Bible or God, or to just try and blend into the background, rather than being known as a follower of Jesus..

When we catch up with Peter again, Jesus has been arrested in the garden where he was praying. A large crowd with swords and clubs have come to take Jesus away. Peter swings a sword and cuts off an ear. But resistance is futile. Jesus is led away. The disciples scatter. But Peter follows, at a distance. He’s not fallen away yet.

As Jesus is tried inside the house of Caiaphas, Peter makes it into the courtyard. He’s there among the guards. Watching, waiting. Peter’s earlier defiant words turn into denying words.

A servant girl recognises him. Jesus had been around Jerusalem all week, creating a stir. Peter, as one of the closest disciples was obviously near him the whole time. ‘You also were with Jesus of Galilee.’ Bold, brave Peter, frightened of the accusation of a slave girl. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ He moves on, out of the courtyard to the gateway. Maybe it was darker there, maybe he was trying to hide, avoid the stares and accusations. Another girl takes a good look at him: ‘This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.’ ‘I don’t know the man!’
His blood pressure is rising. He’s fearful, uttering these denying words.

Northern Ireland is a small place, but I’m always struck by the variations in accents. (I can’t do accents) Just think of the Ballymena accent, or a Belfast accent. Or, if you go up to Belfast, they might know that you’re from Fermanagh. It’s a bit like that here. the people in Jerusalem look down on the people of Galilee, in the north. ‘Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away.’ But again, Peter denies it: ‘I don’t know the man’ with swearing and curses.

At that very moment, the rooster crowed. The sound is like a wake up call, a reminder to Peter, a signal of his failure. The words of Jesus are remembered, where Jesus had spelled out what would take place. Peter remembers, and wept bitterly.

Perhaps as we hear of Peter’s defiant words becoming denying words, we’re reminded of our own failings and fallings. Perhaps even today you’ve denied your Lord in what you have thought, or said, or done. Your response is to weep bitterly with Peter. You can’t believe it has happened. Is this it? Are we done for?

The good news is that failure is not final; failure is not fatal. Peter weeps as he remembers Jesus’ words. The sand has slipped through his fingers; it seems as if all is lost. This Jesus thing was good while it lasted, but now Jesus is arrested. The Jewish leaders reckon he is worthy of death. High hopes have been dashed. And to make it worse, Jesus knew what Peter was going to do. Had he seen it coming? Did he know it was all going to end in such circumstances?

Jesus knew that defiant words would lead to denying words. Peter remembered with pain what Jesus had said: ‘Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.’ Peter just needed to remember a few more of Jesus’ words. You see, Jesus had told the disciples what would happen over the next few hours - but he had said more than just the fact that they would abandon him. Look again at verse 32.

The shepherd will be struck, the sheep will be scattered. The Christ will die. But it’s not the end. Jesus knows what lies ahead. He gives them a pointer even now that death is not the end, that failure is not final.

We can quickly write people off if they disappoint us. Oh no, I wouldn’t trust her, not after what she did that last time. Him? He didn’t deliver that one time thirty years ago, so we can never depend on him again.

But Jesus tells the disciples of the ultimate future. The other certainty of this weekend. ‘But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.’ The scattered sheep will be gathered again. The stricken shepherd will be raised to new life. Failure is not final. Because it is written in God’s purpose, and Jesus is alive, having died for our failures and denials. So cry those tears of godly repentance, and return to him, the shepherd of your souls. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Brookeborough Methodist Church on Wednesday 16th April 2014.

Sermon Audio: A Portrait of Love

Our Lent Midweek series this year looked at a portrait of love from 1 Corinthians 13. Here's the complete set of sermons for you to download and listen:

1: What's love got to do with it?

2: The power of love

3: You've lost that loving feeling

4: Pure love

5: How deep is your love?

6: Endless love

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 103: 11-12 Cross Examined

When we were growing up, there was a song we used to sing at Bible clubs. And like all the best songs, there were actions. And it went a little like this: ‘Deep and wide, deep and wide, there’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.’

Tonight we’ve been using Psalm 103 to help us think about the cross. And in Psalm 103, we find the same measurements in the same directions. There’s something that is deep (or high), and something else that is wide. In fact, the two combined give us the cross. We have an up and down direction, and a side to side direction. Together, they show us what the cross is all about.

First of all, then, the up and down. What’s the tallest building you’ve ever been on? Here’s mine - the Empire State Building in New York. 381 metres high. But it’s tiddly compared to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, at 829.8 metres tall. They go up really high, yet they still seem very small. They’re called skyscrapers, but they’re not really scraping much of the sky.

Or think of when you fly (if you fly). Planes sometimes pass overhead at about 30,000 feet, and there’s still a lot more sky above. You can go a long way up. David points us to the up and down measurement and says that it’s like the measure of God’s love.

‘As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him.’

Go outside and look up. That’s how great God’s love for you is. The distance from heaven to earth was the distance that the Lord Jesus came in order to save us, giving up his place in heaven, being born as a baby, living life among us, and dying on the cross. It’s not even just his love, but his steadfast love - his unchanging, never ending always and forever love. How high? As high as the heavens. That’s God’s love for you.

And because God loved, he gave his Son, to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. He died on the cross, while we were yet sinners, in order to take away our sins. And it’s to show this that David gives us the second measurement.

‘As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.’

East and west are always going in opposite directions. They don’t meet. And that’s what Jesus has done with our sin. He has removed it, taken it away, we’ll never see it again.

The story is told of the owner of a Rolls Royce. The firm take great pride in the reliability of their cars. So the man took it over on the ferry to France and was driving around the continent when suddenly, the car broke down. He rang Rolls Royce to get the problem sorted, so they flew out a mechanic in a private jet with all his tools and equipment, he fixed the problem, and the driver continued on his journey.

When he got back home, he was worried about the cost of the repair - the mechanic, the parts, and above all the plane. But he hadn’t received the bill. So he rang up the firm again to ask about the bill. But the person in Rolls Royce replied: ‘We have no record of any Rolls Royce having ever broken down.’

Because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross, there is no record of our wrongdoing. Our sins have been removed from us. They’re not stored up so that some other time God can say to us - don’t forget about what I know about you... They have been removed entirely.

This is the good news of the cross - God loves us and our sins are removed from us. This is the reason to praise. This is the reason to come to God and worship him.

The burden of our sin is lifted off our shoulders, because it has been borne by Jesus. Will you lay your burdens down?

This sermon was preached at the SNATCH Praise Service in Aghavea Church Hall on Palm Sunday 13th April 2014.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sermon: Matthew 21: 1-17 Hosanna to the Son of David

Did you hear about the minister who stood up to begin a service? He noticed there was a problem with the equipment and so he said: ‘There’s something wrong with this microphone.’ ‘And also with you’ came the response.

We’re used to hearing responses all the time, and not just in church. Just think of the chorus of ‘Stand up for the Ulstermen’ sung at Ravenhill after Ulster score another try. Or (even though it pains me to say it) a chorus of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ when Liverpool score.

This morning, we’re looking at the response of the crowd to the events of the first Palm Sunday. Most weeks, our response, the application, comes towards the end. You might even be able to tell when it’s coming, and you can tune out, so that you don’t have to think about doing anything in response to God’s word. This morning, though, we see the response first, if that’s not to put the cart before the horse.

The response comes like a chorus twice in the passage. Did you notice it earlier when the passage was read? Or can you see it now as you look at the passage? It’s in verse 9 and verse 15. ‘Hosanna to the Son of David.‘ It’s a cry of praise and a cry for salvation all in one go. It’s almost if we were to cry out ‘I’m praising you because you’re saving me, Son of David.’ But that’s a bit of a mouthful, so Hosanna is much easier.

I wonder if that is your response to Jesus - I’m praising because you’re saving. As we come towards Good Friday and Easter, what is your response? Hosanna to the Son of David was the chorus echoing Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday. Will it echo around Aghavea and Fermanagh today? What did the crowd see? What prompted them to cry out?

Recently we had called with our nieces, and they were playing a game of ‘snap.’ I’m sure you know how that works. When you see two things the same, you shout ‘snap’. They had animal pictures - elephants, giraffes, lions, penguins. When you saw two elephants in a row, you shouted snap!

If you look closely at the Bibles, you’ll notice that the passage is a mixture of block text and of inset text. Those inset bits are bits of the Old Testament. Matthew includes those quotations to help us play a game of snap. When you see something in the Old Testament, and something that Jesus is doing, then it’s a snap - Jesus is saving, so we’ll be praising.

If we were to do a Family Fortunes question: name something associated with Palm Sunday, I’m fairly sure the donkey would be the top answer. Matthew tells us the details of how the disciples got the donkeys (there were two of them). But look at what else he tells us just before the first bit of inset text: ‘This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying...’

The prophet (Zechariah) had spoken about the King of Zion coming, riding on a donkey. This wasn’t a regular occurrence. Kings rode on war horses, not on donkeys. But here, the prophet had spoken about a king coming on a donkey. And here, now it is happening. Snap!

As Jesus rides along the road on the donkey, the crowds lay down their cloaks and also branches. They recognise who is coming, so they begin to shout out. And what is it they shout out? The respond in praise, by shouting out scripture. Hosanna comes from Psalm 118, and the crowd go on to use another verse too: ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ They are recognising that Jesus is the one coming in the name of the Lord, on the Lord’s business, as the king. The Old Testament promise of one who would come is being fulfilled. Snap! Hosanna to the Son of David. We’re praising because Jesus is saving.

But then Jesus makes it to the city. He enters the temple. But he isn’t there to pray. Instead, it’s quite surprising what he does. You see, we sometimes have in our minds a ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ type of Jesus, a stained glass Jesus. You can’t really see Jesus doing what he does next. Verse 12: he ‘drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves.’

Imagine for a moment the chaos of the scene - the thud of tables overturned. The rattle of coins being spilled. The shouting and confusion. The scramble. Now why does Jesus do this? He explains it in verse 13: ‘It is written, My house shall be called a house of prayer but you are making it a den of robbers.’

The space for prayer had been taken up by the selling of animals and the changing of money. People were profiting by cheating those who wanted to come and pray. You know the way if you were to head over to Cavan, you would need some Euro? Well, those who ran the temple insisted that you had to use temple money. You would have to exchange your pounds or euros into temple money, at unfair rates. The temple was open for business - but not the business of prayer. The Lord has come to his temple and thrown out those who were far from the Lord. As he does that, he makes space for the blind and lame to be cured. He is restoring and reforming, battling against corrupt religion.

The chief priests and scribes (that is, the people who run the temple), they don’t like it. They are angry - and even more angry when they hear the children’s chorus. The children have heard the adults praising, and they pick it up and sing it too. That’s why it’s great to have families in church - as the children see parents and adults praising, they too will pick it up.

In verse 15 the children are now crying out ‘Hosanna to the Son of David.‘ They are responding with praise, but it’s bringing anger to the religious leaders. They confront Jesus asking: ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’

It turns out that this too is fulfilling scripture, a verse from Psalm 8 where ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself.’ Even the infants are praising, because Jesus is saving. But what about you? When we come together, are you singing out your praise? It doesn’t matter if you haven’t a note, you can still sing and make a joyful noise!

In this one short passage, Jesus fulfils four different Old Testament scriptures. Over the course of his life he matched over 300 different scriptures - snap, snap, snap. Jesus has come to save, but will we praise?

The crowds on that first Palm Sunday welcomed the King with shouts of praise. Yet all too quickly the cry was crucify. They turned against him - yet that was how he would fulfil all the scriptures; this was how he would save.

Will you praise him today? We can only praise him when we know that he has saved us. Jesus has done all that is needed. We just have to accept it. Will you praise him today? Let your Hosanna ring out - not just today in church, but every day, in the way you live your life, in the choices you make, in your words and ways. Hosanna - Jesus is saving, so I will praise him. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Palm Sunday 13th April 2014.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 13: 8-13 Endless Love

Have you ever discovered a yoghurt in the fridge that you had forgotten about? Or maybe there’s a packet of crisps or biscuits lurking at the back of the cupboard. You’re about to open up when you notice the ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date. It’s already gone. So what do you do? Some of you might have a smell or a taste, just to see what it’s like. But for some, once the date has passed, then the item is destined for the bin. With the use by dates, they’re fairly accurate. The yoghurt or the meat or whatever definitely will have gone off, beyond use by then.

Is love like that? Only good for a time, and then it’s finished? Tonight we are in the final verses of 1 Corinthians 13, as we look at the portrait of love. We’ve seen how Paul has rebuked and reminded the Corinthians about what love is really like. They thought they were loving, but the way they were doing church showed that they were lacking in love. As Paul wrote about what love is, they would have quickly realised that they weren’t like that. They weren’t kind; they were boastful, and so on.

As Paul closes the chapter, he shows them and us the final quality of love. Look with me at verse 8: ‘Love never ends.’ Love has no best before date. It continues, even when other things end. Over these weeks we have seen how the Corinthians were raving about spiritual gifts - prophecies, speaking in tongues, and words of knowledge. But Paul says that all of these will come to an end.

Early on in the Christian life, you discover that things are better, but they aren’t perfect yet. There are blessings that you have now that you didn’t have before, but we’re still not totally there. It’s a bit of a tension between the now and the not yet. Now, we have the blessings of forgiveness of sins, and the Holy Spirit living in us, and the promise of eternal life, but we aren’t fully there yet. We don’t yet see Jesus face to face; we haven’t got rid of our sinful desires; we are still burdened by illness and suffering and loss. But one day we will be there.

That’s why Paul talks about the partial and the perfect. Now, we’re in the partial, we’re on the way towards the perfect. He compares the two stages as being childhood and adulthood. Look at verse 11: ‘When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.’

There was a day that I really enjoyed, a long time ago. Me and my brother were the youngest of all our cousins. One day, my auntie Yvonne arrived at our house with a big box of lego and toy cars. My cousin Mark had got rid of them, so we got them. That day I can remember thinking to myself: ‘Why would anyone want to get rid of lego? This is great!’ We had more lego to play with, we had great fun. But now, I don’t have that lego any more. I’m not sitting in the rectory building things and pushing toy cars along the carpet. There came a day when I got rid of those things too.

When you become an adult, you don’t continue in childish ways. And Paul is saying this in relation to the Corinthians and they way they were doing church. Their obsession with tongues or prophecy were childish things. They might be caught up with them now, but they’re not the things that matter.

That’s why he says in verse 8 that prophecies will pass away, that tongues will cease, and knowledge will pass away. They’re things for the here and now. They don’t last.

The partial and the perfect. In verse 12, Paul gives us another picture of the difference between the two. If you have a bit of frosted glass in your front door, then when you go to answer the door, you might recognise someone by their size and shape. You get a rough outline of who is there, but you can’t see them clearly. It’s only when you open the door that you see them face to face.

Here and now, we’re in the partial. It’s like looking in a steamed up mirror, or like looking through frosted glass. We know a bit about God - enough for us to trust him - but it’s only when the perfect comes that we will see him face to face. We know in part, but then we will know fully, even as we are already fully known.

So if there are all sorts of things that are here today, but won’t last, what should we do? If prophecies and tongues and spiritual gifts have a sell by date, should we get rid of them? Not entirely. You see, we’re still in the partial phase, we’re still on the journey. We still need the things for the stage we’re in. Spiritual gifts are good, given by God in order to help us and encourage us on the journey. To know what yours is, the way God has made you, the way God wants you to serve others - to know this is a good thing and can help avoid frustration as you serve.

There are always vacancies in the church body for people to serve in all sorts of ways. There are things that only you can do, and that’s why God has placed you in this body at this time. Find out what it is, and do it - or keep doing it!

But alongside these spiritual gifts, Paul urges us to focus first and foremost on the greatest and most enduring gift - love. We’re at the stage where some people might be looking at summer holidays. If you were setting off to a foreign country, you need to get some of the currency, whether it’s dollars or euros or whatever. You’ll want to get a few phrases in the local language so you can order an ice cream or find the toilet.

Paul points us to the currency and language of heaven - the one thing that never ends: love. If there is perfect love in heaven, then we need to be getting practice in here and now. Love is the thing that carries on right through.

And that is because God is love. Each week we’ve seen an aspect of love in the life of Jesus. And tonight is no different. Love endures, because Jesus endures. We thought of how he endured everything to go to the cross, but he did not stay dead. Jesus lives, so love lives, and never ends. It’s the message of our second reading, as Paul points to the unending love of God. In four simple questions, Paul gets to the heart of God’s never ending love.

If God is for us, who could possibly be against us? If God has already given his Son for us, what would he now withhold? If God has justified us, who could possibly bring any charge or condemnation against us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?

He lists possible candidates, but none of them can do it. There is nothing in all creation, now, or in the future, that will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, because Jesus lives, love lives.

So often we can be focused on the here and now, and forget about what lies ahead. Love never ends; it is the currency and language of heaven. So live a life of love here and now, as you get ready for eternity.

This sermon was preached in the 'A Portrait of Love' Lent Midweek series in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 9th April 2014.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 13:7 How deep is your love?

Ed and Floreen Hale recently died within hours of each other after 60 years of marriage. Ed, an engineer, had met Floreen and asked her parents for her hand in marriage. They refused, because she was recovering from a car crash in which her husband of three months had died. But Ed persisted, making a promise to carry his beloved in his arms every day.

They married in 1953, settling in Batavia, New York, where they began their family, having two children. He cared for her, spoiling her. Five years ago, he was diagnosed with kidney disease, getting regular dialysis, but still he took his wife out every day.

Two months ago, they were both seriously ill in separate hospitals, 35 miles apart. Ed wanted to be with his wife, so the hospitals cooperated, under the prompting of social workers. He made the journey, to a private room where their two beds were pushed beside other. Floreen died the next morning, holding Ed’s hand; with Ed dying the very next day. He had kept his promise of 60 years, his love being demonstrated by his actions.

It’s a moving story, and it helps us to see that the extent of our love is seen by our deeds. As the Bee Gees once asked - How deep is your love?

It’s the question Paul was asking the Corinthians. The church is meant to be the community of love, but their actions in Corinth were far from loving. When it came to worship, they wanted things their way, so that they would enjoy it; but they weren’t concerned about anyone else and what they might like. So there was a big emphasis on their spiritual gifts and the performance of them, but little teaching that would encourage and build up the whole body of believers.

It was also the same in their dealings with outsiders and with people in the church they regarded as weak. Things that they had no problem with, would cause other people to stumble. Things like eating meat dedicated to idols - could you eat it or not? Now that might not be a struggle today, but there are issues that can cause some people to stumble.

Paul confronts the Corinthians with the demands of love, as he asks them: How deep is your love? Through these weeks we’ve been seeing how Paul points to a portrait of love, asking the Corinthians how they measure up. Tonight we come to verse 7, where love is seen in all sorts of ways.

‘Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.’ Love might bear all things, but the Corinthians wouldn’t. Instead, they were caught up with their own agenda and preferences. Could they really put up with things that they didn’t like, if it would help and benefit someone else?

That is the way of love, the way of Jesus. Because as Paul writes of love bearing and believing and hoping and enduring all things, he is pointing to Jesus, and how he did the very same. His love is seen in his deeds, as he endured all things, horrible things, to win our salvation.

We have taken just a small sample of material, in our reading from Matthew. Over Holy Week we’ll be looking in greater detail at Matthew’s passion, but in our verses tonight, just look at what Jesus endured for our sake.

He has already endured the betrayal of a close friend; the desertion of his disciples; the denial of his closest friend. He has been arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, endured a trial in the high priest’s house, where he was slapped, beaten, and spat on. He has been taken to Pilate, accused falsely, rejected by his people and the crowd, and sentenced to crucifixion.

In verse 27, Jesus is given to the Roman soldiers, who gather a battalion before him - 600 men. He is mocked, his clothes removed, a scarlet robe thrown on him, and a crown of thorns driven into his head. The King of the universe, the one who sustains everything by the word of his power, the one who formed these people and gave them breath; and he endures this mockery. He doesn’t answer, doesn’t respond. He doesn’t retaliate.

Now I don’t know about you, but I would have tried to do something. Even in less harrowing circumstances, I would try to fight my way out. Yet here, Jesus endures it, driven by his love for us and for all rebels.

Some didn’t even make it on the way of the cross, such was the fearsome flogging. But Jesus begins by carrying his cross. And then, he was crucified. That’s all we’re told, but imagine for a moment the nails in the hands and the feet. the weight of the body pulling, causing excruciating pain. That’s a word from the cross - ‘out of the cross’ is excruciating. Even on the cross, he endures more abuse, more mockery.

But as if that were bad enough, there is also the abandonment. Jesus cries out: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ He experienced the God-forsakenness that we deserved. He endured the full penalty for our sins, such was his love for us. Had he not done so, we would have been lost, left outside of God’s kingdom forever.

But Jesus did it. He paid it. He endured it all, in order to bring us safely through, in order to give us hope and a future. The writer to the Hebrews tells us what was going on: ‘looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.’ (Heb 12:2)

Mr Motivator used to be on the TV, doing keep fit routines on breakfast programmes. He wanted to get you motivated to go through the unpleasantness of exercise in order to attain the goal of looking trim. The motive here for Jesus was the joy that was set before him - the joy of having us as his inheritance, sharing eternal life with us at the throne of his Father. He endured the horror in order to bring about a better future for us.

And that’s what Paul says love does. It bears and believes and hopes and endures all things, so that we can serve others and bring them to a better future.

To set the needs of others ahead of our own; to put our own agendas into last place; to give and serve is to follow the way of love.

How can you follow Jesus, and put up with things, so that someone else can benefit? Perhaps you have time to give to call with a neighbour; or to help with an organisation? Perhaps you’ll decide to not buy a cup of coffee and instead send the money to a mission organisation. Or when you chat over tea and coffee at church, you resolve to ask other people how they are, rather than only talking about yourself.

Paul calls us to look at Jesus to see what love looks like; and to follow in his footsteps. He gave up his plans and preferences to serve and save us. May we follow as we serve others, for their good, and for Christ’s glory. Amen.

This sermon was preached in the 'A Portrait of Love' Lent Midweek series in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 2nd April 2014.