Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Goodbye Gazette?

We're coming round to the time of year when my subscription to the Church of Ireland Gazette is due. This year, though, I'm seriously thinking about not renewing my subscription. Could it be goodbye to the Gazette?

For many years I've been an avid reader of the Gazette. At a time in Dromore, there were only two copies came into the newsagents - one for the rector and one for me. It was an amazing source of information on the Church of Ireland beyond my parochial boundaries. I kept up to date on the events in exotic places like Clogher or Cork, Cloyne and Ross. I tracked clergy movements as appointments were made and retirements notified. The letters were infuriating and inspiring - sometimes both. At home home (if that makes sense), there were lever arch files stuffed full of back copies of the Gazette, carefully kept in order - now consigned to the recycling - because who really needs to look back at an old copy of the Gazette from the 1990s?

In recent times the Gazette has modernised its production. Paper copies still exist for some people, but for most, the Gazette entered the digital age. On a Tuesday morning the latest copy of the Gazette appears on my computer screen for my weekly fix of Irish Anglican news. I'll flick through it, read a couple of articles, check who has been appointed where and that's me done.

The way we consume news has changed, leading to challenges for the national daily newspapers and the local weeklies. The same challenge is facing the Gazette in the days of digital news and rss feeds. A high proportion of the Gazette's filler comes from press releases and news items which have already appeared in the previous couple of weeks on the Church of Ireland's news page, or from one of the diocesan news feeds. For that reason, the news in the Gazette isn't news anymore.

I tend not to bother reading the columns or book reviews. Occasionally there is a particularly heretical column highlighted by others which I'll read. The letters page seems to go round again and again with the same old stuff - retired rectors giving current ones stick for not doing their jobs the way they used to; researchers looking for information; and the odd tussle about the latest issue.

So is it really worth the money when I'm only interested in the appointments section, to see who is moving where? I'm sure if it affected me directly I'd hear soon enough, and if not, it probably doesn't matter.

I considered it fleetingly last year. This year it's looking more likely. After all this time, it could indeed be goodbye to the Gazette.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 85 Restore us again

One of the games we used to play as children was quite simple. You took hold of the other person’s hands and started to wrestle, until eventually, the pain was too much for one person and they would cry out the name of the game - ‘Mercy!’ They asked for mercy, to be released, to be let off, because they realised they were defeated.

In our psalm today, we find a similar cry. The word mercy isn’t used, but the idea is there. This isn’t an individual, this is an entire nation, as God’s people cry out for God to ‘restore us again’ and ‘will you not revive us again?’ Perhaps you’ve found yourself crying out for mercy over the summer. Maybe you have once again fallen into that same old sin, and you’re wondering, can you really come again to God? Will he answer and forgive one more time?

Over the summer we’ve been singing the songs of the sons of Korah. They were the worship leaders in the temple. The God-inspired songs were used by God’s people as they went up to worship. As we recognise our need for God’s mercy, let’s sing along, asking God to restore us again.

Look at where the singer starts. There’s this problem, this need for mercy, but that isn’t where he starts. Rather, he goes straight to the top. First word: ‘LORD’. Capital letter LORD. This is the promise-making covenant keeping God. The one to whom we need to turn, if the covenant hasn’t been kept. You see, if you have a problem with someone it’s better to sort it out with that person, rather than running around telling the problem to everyone else! It’s just the same with the LORD - if we have failed him, it’s better to go to him in confession rather than avoiding him or going after anyone else.

So when the sons of Korah come to the LORD, how do they approach him? First, they look back at how the LORD has acted in the past. They have a reminder of what God has done. Did you notice all the past tenses? ‘you were favourable; you restored; you forgave; you covered; you withdrew; you turned.’ Here’s what the covenant LORD has done in the past. This is his past form. All those other times, the LORD has been like this.

It’s a great incentive to pray, isn’t it? To remember what God is like; to remind yourself of how God has acted in the past towards you. It’s the way that most of the Collects in the Prayer Book are structured - some reminder of what God is like before the request itself. And yet, in the psalm, the reminder of how the LORD has acted in the past makes the present more painful. It’s almost as if the singer is saying - LORD, you did all this before, so how come we’re in the mess we are now? If you were like this before, why are you not doing that now?

After the reminder comes the request. We see this in verses 4-7. ‘Restore us again, O God of our salvation.’ They are feeling the heat; they’re experiencing God’s anger. They need to be revived, restored. It may well have been that the land was failing, the crops not producing. In the old covenant there was a close bond between the people and the land - God’s blessing was seen in material things. The produce was God’s promised blessing. Perhaps they’re in a time of drought or famine. They’re crying to the Lord for his help, to give them life, to show his steadfast love. The request is marked off by the mention of salvation at the start and the end - verse 4 and verse 7. This is a request for rescue - a cry for salvation.

They know they can’t sort themselves out. They need God to act, they need God to save - just as he did before. Perhaps you’re in the same boat today. You find yourself far from God; missing the life that he provides. You need God to rescue you. Cry out to him, and not just for yourself - this is the people of God praying together.

Having reminded themselves of God’s character and past deeds; having given the request for rescue, now the voice changes. It’s all our and us up to now, but in verse 8 there’s just one voice. The inspired singer waits for God’s answer. ‘Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints; but let them not turn back to folly. Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land.’

There comes the point when speaking must give way to listening. Having asked (for the 20 millionth time) if you can go to the zoo, you have to wait for the answer. Or you pull out the ring, ask the question, and wait to hear if she’ll marry you. The singer anticipates God’s answer. There’s already a hint of reassurance. There’s already the promise of salvation for those who fear God - as the people have shown. It’s bound up in that little phrase: ‘He will speak peace to his people.’ Oh how we need peace in this world - in families, in villages and towns, in nations, and across the world. But even more precious than all those is the peace proclaimed here - peace with God. From God being angry, God will speak peace. But how does that come about?

The answer itself seems to come in verses 10 and 11. We’ve had the reminder, the request, the reassurance, and now comes the restoration. Here’s what God will do, and what it will look like. Here’s how salvation will be accomplished: ‘Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other.’

On Friday night, we have our BBQ, with a ceilidh dance after. The caller will tell us how to do the dances, to take your partner by the hand. This is a bit like a dance here. Steadfast love and faithfulness coming together, righteousness and peace as well. From our limited perspective, we can sometimes wonder how all of God’s character can fit together. How can God be loving and yet righteous? How can God at the same time forgive sins, and yet be just? It’s as if we put them all against each other - which one will triumph today? Which bit of God will he really be like today?

But our God is one. He is perfect, and all his perfections are perfect. He is perfectly love and faithfulness and righteousness and peace. All of his actions display all of his character - including the punishment of sins. Just as God was in the past, so he will continue to be, because God does not change. Those four aspects meeting together are the heart of God. They met supremely at the cross, where the sinless Son took on the sins of the world; and took upon himself all of God’s anger at all of our sins, in order to provide a full and free salvation.

It’s at the cross, where we confess our need. It’s at the cross where we see our salvation. It’s at the cross where we find the assurance that God has heard our request, even before we made it. It’s at the cross where God assures us that his anger towards us is spent, and his attitude is love and blessing.

The way we sing this psalm is changed in the light of the cross. If you are a believer, then God is not angry at you. As Paul reminds the Romans, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Rather, God disciplines us, as a loving father with his children. When we sin, God wants us to turn back to him, but it’s discipline, not wrath.

The reassurance is picked up again in the last verses. ‘Yes, the Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him and make his footsteps a way.’ This morning, why not come and confess your need? Remind yourself of God’s character. Request his mercy. And find reassurance + restoration at the cross.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 24th August 2014.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 84 How lovely is your dwelling place

Where is your favourite place on earth? Perhaps it’s the beach where you holidayed this summer, the memories lasting longer than the suntan. Maybe for you it’s the top of a mountain - a sense of achievement at making it to the top, the view of all below. Maybe your favourite place isn’t as exotic, but just as special to you, the townland you were born and reared in; the field at the back of the farm; your comfy armchair beside the fire. Did anyone say church?

We’re singing with the Sons of Korah this summer and we’ve jumped from the 40s to the 80s. In Psalm 84, the writer sings of his favourite place on earth. It’s the temple in Jerusalem. ‘How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts.’ It’s a home sweet home, because it is God’s home, God’s dwelling place. It’s so special, because it is where he draws near to God.

But as he thinks of it, there is pain and longing. He’s not there. He’s far away. That’s why verse 2: ‘My soul longs, yes, faints, for the courts of the LORD.’ The first time I was going away from home was to York on a school trip. For weeks I was worried about being homesick. In fact, I probably had mum worried sick. But for those few days I was having such a great time, I hardly thought of home. Didn’t even ring. Oops. But here, the writer is homesick. He’s one of the sons of Korah, one of those who lead the praise, but he’s far away from the temple. Far away from God. Have you ever felt like that? You feel a million miles away from God; you’re fainting and longing for him.

He’s even envious of the sparrows and swallows. They’re nesting in the roof of the temple. They’re close to the altars, at the heart of the temple. But he’s far away. They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. He’s feeling that as he recognises the blessing there is for those who dwell in God’s house, ever singing his praise. They’re near God. And there is a blessing in that.

After verse 4 comes that little word you might have seen before. Selah. It’s sometimes in Psalms and might be a musical term; might be an reminder to pause and reflect on what’s been said. It might even show a change in direction. I think that’s what’s going on here. Blessed are those who dwell in your house, but that is not the only blessing. Not everyone can dwell in the temple all the time. You often find yourself far from God. But there’s still a blessing.
‘Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.’ There is also a blessing for those who know the way to Zion, to God’s temple, to come near to God. Even though the way is difficult - through the valley of Baca (dryness, where nothing much grows), there springs are made, and water given. They’re not journeying in their own strength, they find strength from God. ‘They go from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion.’ Have you ever looked back at something you’ve come through and wondered how you did it? Or perhaps you’re passing through Baca valley; you’re feeling dry right now. Find strength, not in yourself, but in the one who is your strength. There’s a blessing for the journey. As we begin to draw near to God, he gives us the strength to come to him. Both Peter and James use the same verse in their letters: ‘Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.’

In verses 5-7, he speaks of those and they. Now, as he sets out, this is his prayer: ‘O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob.’ No matter how far away we feel we are from God, God will still hear us. He hears not just our shouts and our songs; he also hears our whispers and cries; even the silent shouts of our heart. It’s time for another Selah, another pause.
Just look how far we’ve already come. Longing and fainting, far from God, now we’re on the journey. We’re on the way, finding God’s blessing of strength to go and keep going. Drawing near to God, until we find ourselves at journey’s end. We’ve arrived in Zion, God’s home sweet home.

There, in Zion, is God’s home, but it’s also the King’s home. That prompts the prayer of verse 9: ‘Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed.’ Here, with the king and all the people of Israel, the writer rejoices. He’s home with God. And as he thinks about it, he realises just how precious it is to be at home with God, to be near to God. ‘For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.’ Just one day here is better than a thousand anywhere else. Is this how we feel about God?

Or what about the second comparison: ‘I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wickedness.’ Some Saturdays when we’re coming back, we drive through Lurgan. At some of the pubs, in rain, hail or shine, are the men in black. The bouncers (or the door security). They’re on the doorstep, watching out for trouble. They can just about hear the music; they can only peep inside.

For the writer, it would be better to be uncomfortable, at the door, right on the edge of the crowd, at God’s house than to be in comfort in the tents of the wicked. Why? Well here’s the reason. ‘For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favour and honour. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.’

The king might have been described as our shield, but God is a sun and shield: he shines brightly, he gives protection; he bestows favour and honour. Why would you not want to be near him? And just as we saw in the first two sections there is a blessing in the 3rd section - not just for those who dwell in God’s house; nor those who go up to Zion; ‘O Lord of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you.’

To be close to God, to trust in God, is to find blessing. But how do we sing this psalm as a New Testament believer? Where do we go to meet with God? Where do we find the courts of the Lord and the highways to Zion? The temple no longer stands. The Dome of the Rock mosque has taken its place. Just the wailing wall remains. Do we need to fly to Israel to find God?

The amazing message of the Bible is that in Jesus, God drew near to us. God stepped into our world, lived among us. He did all that was necessary for us to draw near to God. The altar of sacrifice was the cross, where he died to make a way for us. The curtain that said ‘keep out’ from the holiest place was torn in two; they way is open for us to come.

There is no temple for us to journey to. Apart from the references to the old Jerusalem temple, every time the New Testament talks about the temple, it is speaking about us - individual Christians and the church together. In bowls, the aim of the game is to get your bowl as close to the Jack (the wee yellow ball) as possible. The old temple system was like that - get as close as you can. But now, we are the temple. God dwells in us by his Spirit. We are God’s dwelling place. The longing of the psalm for the temple is our longing to be with God’s people, to discover that God lives in and among us.

The blessing in the psalm isn’t on or for a building. This building in which we meet is special, handed down over generations, which we need to care for and pass on to the next generation. But it’s a warm rain shelter. It’s a place (as the Presbyterians call theirs) which is our meeting house. The blessing is for people, those who come and meet with God.

As we move towards the new term and things pick up again in September, here’s the question to consider. Is our passion for God the passion for his people? Is our priority meeting with God’s people? How are we getting involved and serving God’s people? How are we helping other people to meet with the living God?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 17th August 2014.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Sermon Audio: Titus

The sermon mp3 uploads have been behind for a while, but hopefully we'll be able to catch up. Back in May and June, we preached through Paul's letter to Titus, and here are all the podcast sermons. In Titus, we discover that the truth of God's gospel of grace must lead to godliness. Here's how that can happen in church, home, state, and individuals:

4th May: Titus 1:1-4 Introducing Titus

11th May: Titus 1:5-16 What to look for in a church leader

18th May: Titus 2:1-10 Living the gospel

25th May: Titus 2:11-15 God's grace

8th June: Titus 3:1-7 Heirs of hope

22nd June: Titus 3:8-15 Devoted to good works

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 49 The Hope of Life

This morning, I hope you have your thinking caps on. I’ve got a few little riddles for you. 1. What gets wetter the more it dries? A towel. 2. What goes around the world but stays in a corner? A stamp. 3. What has holes in the top, bottom, left, right and middle, yet holds water? A sponge. 4. In a red bungalow, all you can see is red: red wallpaper, red carpets, red curtains, red chairs, red table, red bathroom. What colour are the stairs? There aren’t any in a bungalow! 5. What is the longest word in the dictionary? Smiles - there’s a mile between the two s.

We’re familiar with riddles and puzzles. If you listen to Hugo Duncan on BBC Radio Ulster, he has his wee teasers. They’re things to make you think. In Psalm 49, we find a riddle. This is something that has been bothering the sons of Korah for a while. They’ve meditated on it; they’ve gained understanding, so now they are speaking wisdom. It’s wisdom and understanding for everyone. Just as we’ve seen them call all peoples to praise God, so here the call goes out to everyone: ‘Hear this all peoples!’ Whether you’re high or low, rich or poor, the sons of Korah have a riddle for you.
We find the problem in verses 5 and 6. ‘Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of those who cheat me surrounds me, those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches?’ Can you picture the scene? The writer finds himself in times of trouble; he’s being cheated by those who are rich. He’s set to lose out. He’s intimidated by those who have more than him and make sure he knows it. Perhaps you’ve found yourself in the same position. You’re struggling to keep your head above the water; the bills keep coming; you’re at a loss as to what to do; you’re fearful.

The riddle, the puzzle is at the start of verse 5: when all this is going on ‘Why should I fear?’ Hard circumstances will come. We all get storms in life. The question is, how will we respond? Will we fear the rich and powerful? Why should I fear? This isn’t just a Countdown conundrum, a quick thirty second solution. Yet over time, the sons of Korah have come up with an answer. Are you ready to hear their wisdom; to gain from their understanding? The answer comes in verse 7, a wander around the graveyard.

‘Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit.’ What he’s saying is that you can’t buy God off and keep on living. Some people try it all the time - through a new fitness plan or plastic surgery or herbal treatments. Here’s the latest trick to increasing your life expectancy.

But the simple truth is that you just can’t do it. It may be uncomfortable, but it’s true - one day, each of us will die (unless the Lord returns first!). If even the wise die, then also the fool and the stupid must perish, and leave their wealth to others. No matter what size your house might be, we all end up in the same plot of ground.

That’s what verse 12 says. ‘Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish.’ Trusting in wealth and riches makes you just like a beast. He then goes on to show the path of those with foolish confidence. Here’s the road they’re on, the direction they’re going. They’re sheep for Sheol, and death is their shepherd, leading them on the way. Sheol is the Old Testament word for the place of the dead, a dark, dreadful place from which there is no return. It’s how we understand hell. Foolish confidence in riches leads to hell.

We see that in Luke 12. A man wants to make sure that he got his fair share of his inheritance. But Jesus gives a warning about greed. He tells the story of a man with a bumper crop. He plans to pull down his barns and build bigger ones. He’s all sorted for years to come. He can trust in his wealth and take life easy. But God says he is a fool, because he has stored up treasures for himself but is not rich towards God. He thought he had a long and prosperous life ahead of him; he died that very night.

This is the truth that the sons of Korah are telling all who will listen. Your money won’t save you. Riches won’t rescue you. As Paul writes to Timothy, the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Confidence in riches leads to Sheol. But there is another way. Look at the contrast between the end of verse 14 and verse 15. ‘Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell. But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.’ In the midst of the gloomy darkness, as the shadows of Sheol surround the psalm, suddenly there is a burst of light. Here is the hope of the gospel, in Old Testament form. No one can ransom their own soul, but God will ransom my soul. I won’t be abandoned in Sheol; God will receive me. ‘But God’ is the turning point of hope.

He doesn’t know how it will happen. He just knows it will happen. From our place in time, we can look back and see how God ransoms souls. But it wasn’t with the payment of gold or silver. The price of a life is costly. So costly, in fact, that it took the blood of Jesus. The Lord Jesus came as our ransom, our redeemer. He gave his life in place of our life. He died the death that we deserved. He entered the place of the dead. He suffered hell, the darkness and absence of God, and bore the punishment for our sins.

For the Christian, death will come, but death is not the end. Death is but the entrance into God’s nearer presence. ‘He will receive me.’ That’s the gospel promise in a nutshell. The new heavens and new earth are where God dwells with his people. That’s the answer to the riddle. Why should I fear? Those who oppress you, those who boast in their wealth, it won’t last. Consider their future - and yours.

From verse 16 on he applies the truth. The question: Why should I fear? The answer: No man can ransom, but God will ransom me. So now apply it. ‘Be not afraid when a man becomes rich.’ In verses 17 and 18 we find the reason. Each of them are a ‘for.’ ‘For when he dies he will carry nothing away.’ You’ve heard of the story of a rich man. He called in three friends before he died. He gave them each £10,000 and asked them to put the money into his coffin just before his funeral. A week after all was over, the three gathered. The first confessed that he had held on to £1000 but put the rest in. The second had put half in. The third, well he wrote him a cheque for it!

The Pharaohs in the pyramids took their wealth with them, but it was of no use to them. You can’t take it with you. Money is just for here and now. So don’t fear the rich, if they’re only rich in the world, think how poor they really are. V18 ‘For though, while he lives, he counts himself blessed.’ Blessing now but Hell hereafter. This life is the nearest some people will ever get to heaven. It’s like the story Jesus told of the rich man in his castle and Lazarus at the gate. The rich man died and went to hell, and could see Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom in paradise. (Luke 16)

Verse 20 is like a chorus. We’ve heard it before. Did you notice in verse 12 it runs the same way. ‘Man in his pomp... is like the beasts that perish.’ The words in the middle reflect on each other. Those who ‘will not remain’ are those ‘without understanding.’ They are those who refuse to listen to the wisdom of the sons of Korah, the wisdom of the scriptures. To gain understanding, to be truly wise, we need to come to God, to find our hope only in him. It is the only path of life. So don’t fear the rich, those who cheat you. Find your hope in God, not in wealth.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 10th August 2014.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 48 Through the Keyhole: The God of Zion

You can normally tell a lot about someone based on their home. Now, don’t worry, I’m not going to single anyone out; there’s no naming and shaming from this pulpit; I don’t even notice what your house might be like. But your home says something about what you’re like. If you were to see my study, you might reckon that I’m fairly chaotic, but it’s an orderly chaos - I normally know where everything is!.

Your home shows what kind of person you are. It was the idea behind ‘Through the Keyhole.’ Having seen round a celebrity’s home, the panel had to work out: Who lives in a house like this? This morning, our psalm is a bit like an episode of Through the Keyhole, except we’re told straight away whose house it is.

As we’ve seen in recent weeks, the Sons of Korah were the worship leaders in the temple in Jerusalem. In Psalm 48, they sing of the God of Zion. Look at verse 1: ‘Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised in the city of our God!’ God is great, and greatly to be praised. As the sons of Korah look out at the city, they see what God is like - his chosen dwelling place reflects his character.

You’ve heard of the saying, ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle?’ Well here, the city of Zion is fortified. It’s like a castle. God’s castle. but look at what verse 3 points to: ‘Within her citadels God has made himself known as a fortress.’ God’s home reflects what God is like - a fortress, a castle, a defensive secure place.

But rather than just saying that, the sons of Korah tell you a story. They look back to a time when God’s people were under attack. Verse 4 shows the threat. ‘For behold, the kings assembled; they came on together.’ It’s not just one country against them, it’s kings plural. Lots of kings. Lots of soldiers. The threat is real. The odds are against tiny Judah.

But remember, God has made himself known as a fortress. ‘As soon as they saw it, they were astounded; they were in panic; they took to flight. Trembling took hold of them there, anguish as of a woman in labour. By the east wind you shattered the ships of Tarshish.’ God won the victory. God is a fortress (just like his dwelling place).

It’s one thing hearing of it. It’s lovely to hear of how God has worked in the life of someone else. It’s amazing to read of things like the 1859 revival or look back to a time when the churches were full. But it’s even better to see it for yourself. To know and experience God as a fortress in the midst of the challenges and problems and attacks in your own life. ‘As we have heard, so we have seen in the city of the LORD of hosts, in the city of our God, which God will establish for ever.’

We had heard about it, but now we have seen it with our own eyes. God is a fortress. He is rock solid, dependable, safe and secure. Are you sure of this truth today? Have you seen it in your own life? Can you praise God for his fortressness?

The sons of Korah continue their Through the Keyhole tour. From the battlements, they go further up and further in to the city. From the fortress to the temple, and it’s here they find the reason. ‘We have thought on your steadfast love, O God, in the midst of your temple. As your name, O God, so your praise reaches to the ends of the earth. Your right hand is filled with righteousness.’ God is like a fortress because at his core is his steadfast love. In the words of the Jesus Storybook Bible, his ‘never ending, never giving up, unstopping, always and forever love.’

If God loves like this, then it is not surprising that he is a fortress for those he loves. his hand is filled with righteousness - he always does what is right, because he is righteous, good, true, pure, perfect. God’s steadfast love was seen in the temple, the place of sacrifice, where sinful people could come and meet with a holy God. Have you been through the keyhole? Have you known the God of Zion, whose place displays his praise?

From the temple, the sons of Korah take us on a walking tour. Perhaps you’ve visited Londonderry and walked around Derry’s walls, over the gates and the bastions. Here, the Zion tourist board shows you the city, count the towers, consider the ramparts, look at the citadels. They all point to God’s character and protection and guidance. Go on the walking tour to tell the next generation: ‘this this is our God, our God for ever and ever. He will guide us for ever.’

It’s a great psalm. As we go through the keyhole, we see God’s character displayed in God’s dwelling place. But as we go through the Bible, we might be left confused. Those towers and ramparts, those strong defences were torn down by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 587BC. The city was left desolate. The walls toppled. The protection withdrawn. No wonder the mood is very different in Lamentations, as the lament rises from the ruins of the city.

If this is what happened to the city of the great King, the joy of all the earth, then what of the God of this city? Was God not powerful? Did God not care any more? Was his promise in vain? Is there a danger that if we trust in God we’ll be left desolate like ruined Jerusalem?

Thankfully not. You see, God does not change. Remember when the sons of Korah led us into the temple and they discovered God’s character? His steadfast love and his righteousness? God was still righteous as he punished Zion for their sins (Lam 1:5,8,9,14,18,22). Under the old covenant, the people of God were called to obey, but they didn’t (and couldn’t). God’s holiness punished their sins.

The people returned from exile in Babylon; Ezra and Nehemiah rebuilt the city and temple, but it was nothing compared to the old one. But even before Jerusalem fell, there was a promise of a new Jerusalem, to which the nations would come. A place where God would dwell with his people. So they waited, and waited.

In John 1, the reading we always get around Christmas time, we find the promise coming to fruition. ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.’ Lived among us - the word there is ‘tabernacled’ - he pitched his tent among us. Jesus is God’s presence living among us.

That’s why Jesus declares in the next chapter: ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews think he means the temple, a building site of 46 years. He means the temple of his body, the meeting place of God and people - destroyed on the cross, and on the third day raised up.

Jesus is the city of God, the dwelling place of God. In him, we perfectly see the perfect character of God. Beaten, bloodied, crucified, demonstrating that God is indeed righteous, his steadfast love is unchanging, that God is indeed a fortress for all who take refuge in him. As we eat the bread and drink the wine, we share in Christ’s sacrifice. In Christ, we meet with God, no longer at a distance, and look forward to eternity with him in the new Jerusalem, the city of God. So walk around, explore God’s goodness, and take refuge in him.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 3rd August 2014.

Friday, August 01, 2014


Today, after fifteen years, I'm leaving O2.

My life over those last fifteen years has been neatly divided into spells of three years - three years at Queens University Belfast; three years in Newtownstewart; three years in Dublin; three years in Dundonald; three years in Brookeborough. Through it all, O2 have been there, every step of the way.

I can remember sitting in Glenn's house chatting with him, Andrew and Donna about these new (to us) mobile phones. They would be a good idea to have in case you were lost or stuck somewhere. The price of texts and phone calls seemed extortionate (it probably was, for what can be done now in a tariff), but it would be 'just in case'.

This was the phone I bought the very next day. BTCellnet with the screw-out aerial. My first phone from 1999.

It quickly emerged that texting was more than 'just in case' and was, in fact, almost essential to existence in those pre-Facebook msn messenger days. From that first phone, I progressed to the Nokia 3310, and the inevitable playing of Snake 2.

Nokia, the indestructible phones, were my staple for quite a few years. The 5200 was a cool, funky, flip phone which doubled as a music player. It was great, right up until the night that it went a bit mad and started phoning my contacts randomly in the middle of the night.

While sojourning in Dublin, I had two mobiles simultaneously - my Irish network of choice being O2Ireland, with another Nokia - a 6100?

There was, I think, one more Nokia, but it was recycled after I upgraded to the iFamily: iPhone 3; iPhone 4; 1Phone 5c. A wealth of possibilities in the palm of your hand - texting, phone calls, email, internet, maps, games, the whole Bible, prayer points, apps, and much, much more.

Fifteen whole years with one company. Fifteen years of using O2 for my mobile phone provision, as well as three years of internet provision.

The writing was on the wall when we moved to Fermanagh. O2 couldn't provide home internet as it was too far from their service provision. Hello BT Infinity. There has never been a great O2 signal in our area, with incredibly patchy coverage at home. Texts could be delayed for hours; sending texts has to be retried many times before they would send; calls may have been missed.

So today I make the change. Adios to O2 (should that be AdiO2 ?). CheeriO2. Hello Vodafone. At some point today, the change will take effect as the PAC code works its magic and the technological fairies do their thing. The advice in the email from Vodafone is clear enough:

'Wait for your current SIM to lose service (this will happen between 11am and 4pm)' - since my O2 signal has been so rubbish, how will I know if it's deactivated or just acting as normal? I'll probably have to keep checking by switching sim cards until it's sorted.

Farewell O2. Thank you for everything. Hello Vodafone!