Thursday, December 31, 2015

Watchnight Sermon: Romans 13: 8-14 Telling the Time

Do you know what time it is? In a few minutes, we’ll move from 2015 and begin the new year of 2016. As each second ticks onwards, and we come to that particular second, we go from December to January, from an old year to a new year. And as it happens, we might be singing, or praying (and hopefully not still preaching!). But for some people gathered in other places, the particular second will be very important. They’ll want to know the time.

So, in New York, (in a few hours time, with the time difference), they’ll be watching the ball drop on the stroke of midnight in Times Square. Over in London, they’ll be listening out for the chime of Big Ben. The clock strikes, the time has come, the new year will have begun.

As Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, his letter is like the chime of Big Ben, telling them the time. And as we read these words tonight, they’re telling us the time as well. You see, these words aren’t a calendar - something useful for a year and then you chuck it out (or recycle it). This isn’t like a diary. Instead, the letter to the Romans is like an alarm clock, telling us to wake up.

You know the way people describe life as being like a year; growing in spring, flowering in summer, falling apart in autumn and dying in winter; well Paul portrays the whole of human history like one day - or rather, one night. It’s as if we’re living in the night time, but the day is coming, the day is at hand. We’re waiting for the dawn (as we’ve heard in our readings tonight).

So as we move from 2015 to 2016, do you know what time it is? It might be night time, but the day is coming. At the end of a year we find ourselves looking back; the newspapers have their review of the year, the TV shows are full of end of the year quizzes and highlights. But Paul points us forward. Don’t focus on the past - but as time moves on think about this: ‘For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.’

Each year is a year closer to glory. Each morning is a morning nearer to heaven. Each sunset is a step closer to the dawn of salvation and Christ’s return. Even if things have been tough for you this year, hold on to this, that you’re that much closer to seeing Christ face to face. ‘For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.’ That’s a wake up call, a reminder of the time; the first glimmer of the dawn is just beyond the horizon, so hold in there. He is coming. Do you know what time it is?

But as Paul sounds the alarm, he also tells us what we should do about it. Because we know what time it is, that the night is far gone and the day is at hand, then we should verse 12: ‘So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.’ If the day of Christ is coming, and we belong to that day, then don’t be doing night time things.

Around about the time that we were packing up in Belfast and moving to Fermanagh there was a new trend developing. People (mostly ladies, it has to be said) would be seen going to the shops, walking along the roads in their pyjamas. This wasn’t that they had forgotten milk when they were going to bed and nipped into the shop; or that they were ill but really needed to get a prescription. This was unashamedly wearing their nightclothes in broad daylight.

It was a bit shocking, but the works of darkness we’re called to give up are even worse. Orgies and drunkenness, sexual immorality and sensuality, quarrelling and jealousy. These are nighttime things; works of darkness; but that isn’t us - that shouldn’t be us. The alarm has sounded. The day is coming. So take off the works of darkness. Instead ‘put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.’

Every day of every year, that question comes - do you know what time it is? We’re getting closer. HE is getting closer. Just as some will have been planning their New Year’s Eve party dress for some time, and now the night has arrived and they get dressed up, so we are called to be ready, to put on the appropriate clothing - the armour of light; the Lord Jesus Christ himself.

Perhaps that’s something we can try to do each day this new year when we wake up. Before your feet hit the floor. Before your fingers reach for your phone to check Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Even before you get the kettle on. Take a moment to realise the time - another day closer to seeing Jesus. Another day of putting on the gospel armour, committing the day to Jesus, seeking to walk with him.

This sermon was preached at the Watchnight Service in Aghavea Parish Church on 31st December 2015.

2015 Books

I like to keep track of the books I read, and tot them up at the end of each year. I normally try to review them on the blog as well, but it didn't work out that way this year. I also didn't get as many books read - my worst year since recording my reading, with just 21 books. So here is the list of books I've read in 2015:

1. Time for Every Thing? - Matt Fuller
2. The World of Pangea: Path of a Warrior - Michael Davies
3. Faker - Nicholas T McDonald
4. A Meal with Jesus - Tim Chester
5. Waterloo - Bernard Cornwell
6. Chapter & Verse - Colin Bateman
7. Fruit that will Last - Tim Hawkins
8. The Horse with my Name - Colin Bateman
9. Gray Mountain - John Grisham
10. Wild About Harry - Colin Bateman

11. To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
12. Ordinary - Michael Horton
13. What's Best Next - Matthew Aaron Perman
14. The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert - Rosaria Champagne Butterfield
15. A Storm of Swords: Part 1 Steel and Snow - George RR Martin
16. Punch - Austin Tanney
17. How People Change - Timothy S Lane and Paul David Tripp
18. The Most Misused Verses in the Bible: Surprising Ways God's Word is Misunderstood - Eric J Bargerhuff
19. The Art of Storytelling: Easy Steps to Presenting an Unforgettable Story - John Walsh
20. The Misery of Job and the Mercy of God - John Piper

21. A Storm of Swords: Part 2 Blood and Gold - George RR Martin

Here are the links to previous years' book blogs: 2014 (26); 2013 (45); 2012 (49); 2011 (37); 2010 (52); 2009 (41); 2008 (23); 2007 (78).

My top five of 2015 are:
1. To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
2. Waterloo - Bernard Cornwell
3. The Misery of Job and the Mercy of God - John Piper
4. The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert - Rosaria Champagne Butterfield
5. Time for Every Thing? - Matt Fuller

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Sermon: 1 John 1: 1-10 Fuller Fellowship

Now that it’s all over for another year, you might be wondering what it’s all about. The food has been consumed, the relatives packed off home again, and you’re already planning to get the decorations down and the house back to normal. And as the dust settles, you’re left wondering what it was all about. The stress, the frantic cleaning, the cooking of far too much food fade away, and you’re left with the memories. Things that will live long after the tinsel is tucked away for another year.

As those memories linger, you might wonder, what’s it all about. If you were to stop people in the street to ask them what Christmas is all about, I wonder what they would say. Is it just for the children? All about Santa? A day for turkey farmers and brussel sprout growers? Just a little distraction from the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year? Or is there something more, something deeper? Something really worth celebrating and holding on to as the old year passes and the new year sweeps in?

For the Apostle John, he boils it all down to five words. The booklets on the pews sum up Christmas in three words, but we’ll allow the apostle five. They’re there in verse 2. What was Christmas all about? ‘The life was made manifest.’

Forget the stars and angels and shepherds and wise men. John gets right to the point when he says the life was made manifest. Life, eternal life, was made manifest, appeared, was made visible, became something you could see.

And that’s what John claims he did - not just see, but ‘have heard, have seen with our eyes, looked upon, touched with our hands.’ Almost every sense is referenced. This is full, extensive evidence. And it’s not just an isolated experience. This isn’t just John making stuff up by himself - he speaks about ‘we’ and ‘us’. He’s part of the group which saw and heard and touched life.

But you might be thinking - how do you see life? How do you hear life? How do you touch life? Well, look a little closer. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, with some of the pieces mixed up. Or a murder mystery where the clues come separately and you have to put them together. Verse 1 - that which was from the beginning... concerning the word of life. So the word of life is from the beginning - which sounds a bit like the way John starts his Gospel (and how Genesis begins - in the beginning God). Verse 2 - it’s eternal life; life that was with the Father and was manifest to us.

Put that all together, and it’s clear that John isn’t speaking about a concept or an idea, but a person. As John says in 1:14 in his Gospel ‘The word became flesh and dwelt among us...’ He’s saying that Christmas was all about ‘the life was made manifest.’ When the shepherds hurried to the manger, they saw a baby, but they were looking at the life made manifest. The wise men came, brought their gifts, to the life made manifest. Jesus is life made manifest.

And when you think of it, only a small number of people could have said what verse 1 says. Sometimes we pass over the wee words in sentences looking for the big words, but in this case it’s a very wee word that’s key - the word we. W E we. We heard, we have seen, we looked upon, we touched. Over the past few days we hosted family in the rectory. The chat got round to older family members, grannies, great-grandparents and so on. It was only the elders who could tell us about them - we were with them, we heard them, we touched them. I couldn’t say that about my great-grannies - they died in 1963 and 1973.

It’s the same with Jesus. None of us could say that we have seen, heard or touched Jesus in the flesh; that we have seen the life made manifest. That’s true right through the last two thousand years of Christians, except for the first apostles. They are the ‘we’. They experienced it all - but we haven’t missed out. Look at verse 3. ‘That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you.’

John and the first Christians don’t keep it to themselves. They share it, they proclaim what they saw, heard, touched, this life made manifest, in Jesus Christ. Why? So that they can claim to be more important than us? To boast in their experiences? No, it’s there in verse 3. ‘so that you too may have fellowship with us;’

Groups based on shared experiences can sometimes become exclusive, even cliquey. A long time ago, far far away, I ran a church youth group. Some young people went on a youth weekend, and others didn’t. Those who went had a great time, grew closer together, and ended up with a lot of ‘in jokes’ only they understood. The few who didn’t go hadn’t a clue what was being talked about, and some in the end drifted away, feeling excluded, left out.

But that’s not what is happening here. John shares his experience in order to bring others in to share it with him. It’s like telling someone about your best friend, telling lots of funny stories, talking about them all the time. Your relationship with them is deepened, but even more, they also want to get to know your friend.

‘We proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.’ Fellowship with us (John and apostles) becomes fellowship with God. No one need miss out. Just because we weren’t around to see Jesus doesn’t mean we can’t have fellowship with him. It’s through the eye witness testimony that we hear of him and get to know him.

And that’s what John wants to happen. It’s why he wrote his gospel, but it’s also why he sits down to write this letter. It’s not for his benefit, but for ours. Perhaps it’s at Christmas that we can understand this best of all. Do you know that moment when you see the perfect present, so you buy it and already anticipate their excitement? Then you wrap it, and can’t wait to see their face when they open it? And then on Christmas Day your joy is complete? John wants us to have what he has. John’s joy is complete as others are brought into fellowship with the Father and the Son. And that’s what the whole letter is about - fuller fellowship with God and one another.

Fellowship with God who is light - not lying by claiming to walk with him but walking in darkness. Not saying we have no sin, or have never sinned - as some people were claiming in the churches John was writing to. But fuller fellowship by stepping into the light - and being cleansed by the blood of Jesus. Fuller fellowship by confessing our sins and finding forgiveness, and walking in his light together.

What is it all about? Eternal life has been made manifest in the Lord Jesus. John has seen it. John knows it. And he wants us to know it too, by coming to know Jesus through his witness. Fuller fellowship as we are drawn in, and drawn closer together to he who is life, and light, and love.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 27th December 2015.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve Sermon: Luke 2: 8-20 The Stranger in the Manger

When I was growing up, the Chamber of Commerce in Dromore organised a ‘Spot the Stranger’ competition each year. All the school children were given a list of shops in the town, and you had to look at their window displays to find the stranger - something they didn’t sell; something that was out of place. Some made it very obvious, sellotaping a needle to the glass (to stop annoying children like me going in to ask what theirs was, or to get a clue...). Others made it really difficult; you had to look carefully. But once you saw it, it was really obvious. It was out of place.

I thought of ‘spot the stranger’ when I was thinking about the manger. You see, when the angels appear to the shepherds to tell them their news, they give a sign, they tell them how to find the baby they are looking for. It’s there in verse 12. ‘And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’

We’ve heard the story so many times that we know what’s coming. We know all the details. We don’t think it odd that Jesus is lying in the manger. It’s just what happened - and we’ll sing Away in a Manger tomorrow morning. But stop for a moment and imagine you’re one of the shepherds. When you’re rushing towards Bethlehem, how will you know which baby to visit? It’s like the spot the stranger - it’s something that’s not normal. It’s a sign, because babies don’t normally lie in a manger.

The manger is the feeding trough for the animals. Jesus is lying in the donkey’s lunchbox. Earlier Luke tells us why it happened - there was no place for them in the inn - but it turns out to be the sign for the shepherds.

Can you imagine as they come into town and start knocking doors - have you a baby here? What’s he lying in? Cot? No. Mother’s arms? No. A manger? Yes, a manger! ‘And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.’ (16)

It was strange to find a baby lying in a manger, and yet it wasn’t the strangest thing they had been told about him. You see, in verse 17, when they find that the angels were right about his sleeping arrangements, they start telling the rest of what the angels had said: ‘And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.’ So what was it they said? What had the angel told them about this stranger in the manger?

‘For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.’ (11)

The stranger in the manger is the long-awaited Saviour. The rescue mission has begun. It’s the moment when the lifeboat rolls down the slipway and hits the water. The Saviour has arrived. But why is Jesus the Saviour? Why did he need to come? From what do we need saving? Ignorance? Insignificance? Poverty?

Max Lucado is an American pastor who puts it this way: ‘If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent an educator. If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist. If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist. But since our greatest need was forgiveness, God sent us a Saviour.’

Jesus came to save us from our sins. That’s what his name means - God saves. The baby would grow up to become a man, who would carry his cross to die - not for his sins, but for ours. The Saviour has come, and is lying in the straw.

The Saviour is also ‘Christ the Lord’ - the promised King God would send into the world. The Christ has come. Born a king, but not in a palace. Born a king, but not in a maternity unit. Born a king, and lying in a manger. The stranger in the manger is our Saviour and our King.

The shepherds heard the news the angels brought. They hurried to see if it was true. They found the baby in the manger, and they made known the saying. ‘And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.’

This Christmas, may we too wonder at what we have heard. Don’t just let it wash over you because you’ve heard it all before. Take some time to ponder the stranger in the manger; the Saviour, the Christ, the Lord who came to be one with us. Make him your Saviour; your Lord; your King this Christmas, and you too will return home glorifying and praising God for all you have heard.

This sermon was preached at the Christmas Eve Communion in Aghavea Parish Church on Thursday 24th December 2015.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Carol Service Sermon: Luke 1:35 Just Like His Dad

The assembly hall was full, the mums and dads were waiting for the performance, and the primary school nativity was underway. Everything was going great until the arrival of the magi, the three kings. The first stepped forward, said his line, and presented the gold. The second stepped forward, said his line, and presented the frankincense. The third stepped forward, and... silence.

He’d forgotten his line, stagestruck as he looked out over the sea of faces staring at him. From behind the curtain, the teacher whispered ‘Say something!’ But try as he might, his mind was a blur, his tongue was tied, and nothing came out. So the teacher whispered a second time, ‘Say anything!’

Now that’s a dangerous thing to say to a wee fella, but he thought about what people say when they see a new baby, and then with a smile declared: ‘He looks just like his dad!’

It might not have been the right line, yet he was spot on. As we’ve heard the story of salvation unfold tonight, as we’ve journeyed to Bethlehem with the shepherds and the wise men we’ve heard about the birth of a baby who looks just like his dad. He doesn’t look like Joseph, of course, but look into the manger and you find a Son who is the image of his father.

Think back to the message Gabriel brought to the young girl called Mary. ‘You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.’

Mary is surprised at the news, especially since she is a virgin, so she asks how will this be? Listen again to Gabriel. ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.’

Lying in the straw is the Son of God, the one John describes as ‘the Word’, the self-expression of God, the one who was in the beginning, the one who was with God, the one who was God. This Word became flesh, he became one of us. Why? Why did he do it?

Jesus came to reveal God to us, to show us what God is like - full of grace and truth. When we look at Jesus, we see God, when we listen to Jesus we hear the voice of God. He’s just like his dad.

But Jesus also came to save us from our sins, by growing up to live the perfect sinless life; to die on the cross; to rise again to life everlasting. He’s just like his dad.

As our final carol puts it: ‘Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail, the incarnate Deity, pleased as man with us to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel.’

So this Christmas, take some time to look at the baby in the manger. Don’t just coo at the cute baby and then forget him. Take a good look. Follow the shepherds as they hurry into Bethlehem. Journey with the wise men. And bow before the one who looks just like his dad - the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. This is God in the manger, come to save us. Let’s worship him, not just tonight; not just this Christmas, but with the rest of our lives and for all eternity, because he came to be with us, so that we might be with him. He’s just like his dad.

This sermon was preached at the Carols by Candlelight Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 20th December 2015. I'm indebted to Roger Carswell for the opening illustration.

Sermon: Luke 1: 39-55 Mary's Melody of Mercy

For just over fifty years, one programme has been broadcast every year on TV on Christmas Day. Any guesses what it might be? It’s Top of the Pops. It’s a very simple programme - they show loads of bands and singers performing their songs, and then reveal the Christmas Number One. In case you want to watch it, it’s on this Friday at 2pm, if you’re waiting for the dinner to be ready.

As I was thinking about today, I realised that the early chapters of Luke’s gospel are a bit like an episode of Top of the Pops. You have Zechariah’s song (the Benedictus); the angel’s song (used in Communion); and the song of Simeon (the Nunc Dimmitus). But kicking off the show, we have the song of Mary - Mary’s Melody of Mercy. This is the song that she composed when the angel Gabriel came to her and told her that she, a virgin, would conceive and bear a son. When she gets the news, she travels three or four days to visit her cousin Elizabeth.

Let’s look at her song, her melody of mercy. In the prayer book it’s called the Magnificat, because of the opening line: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.’ To magnify is to make bigger - so imagine that you’re going bug hunting in the garden. To see the number of legs on an ant, or what a worm really looks like, you need to get out your magnifying glass, to make it bigger, to see it more clearly. Or when you’re trying to read the newspaper and you have to hold it out further so that you’d need a longer arm, a magnifying glass will help you read it because it’s bigger.

So what does it mean for Mary to magnify the Lord? She’s making him bigger, by coming closer to him. She’s seeing him in more detail, she’s making more of him in her life. And she does that by rejoicing in ‘God my Saviour.’

Now why is she rejoicing? She tells us by the ‘for’ in verse 48. ‘For he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.’ Next week the new years honours list will be published. All over the country, people will have been receiving letters from the Queen, inviting them to receive an MBE or OBE for their community service, charity work or whatever. Now of course, the Queen doesn’t sit down with the phone book and think to herself, who will I honour? There’s a network of nominations, and an honours committee, yet it’s still a high honour to go to Buckingham Palace to receive the award.

But put yourself in Mary’s sandals for a moment. The God who is mighty, ruling over the universe, the all-powerful one, the majestic one - he has chosen and blessed Mary. God over all has noticed and known and nominated Mary. Little, insignificant Mary, the teenage girl living in a small town in the least province of Israel, the town Nathanael would later say this about: ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’

No wonder Mary is magnifying and rejoicing in God. But as she thinks through what God has called her to do, she realises just what this means. ‘For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.’

God has blessed her; God has done great things for her. He has chosen her to be the mother of the Messiah, the son of David, the Son of God. It’s not just a once in a lifetime opportunity, it’s a once in the entire history of the world opportunity. No wonder Mary magnifies. She knows her own sin, yet the holy God has chosen her and saved her - she rejoices in God my Saviour.

Now you might be thinking, well, that’s nice for her. Of course Mary rejoices because she’s someone special. But what about me? I wonder can you echo Mary’s words, can you say these words for yourself: ‘for he who is mighty has done great things FOR ME’?

You see, Mary rejoices in the mercy God has shown to her. But she doesn’t stop there, because God doesn’t stop there. As she rejoices in God’s mercy to her, she recognises that God’s mercy doesn’t stop with her. ‘And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.’ God shows mercy to everyone, anyone in any every and any generation; to those who fear him, to those who revere him.

As Mary celebrates God’s mercy, she shows how God has acted in mercy. Here’s what God has done (and will do). Here’s why we too can rejoice in God our Saviour. Do you see how each verse begins? ‘He has’ - this is all about God, what God has done already (and will do - sometimes the Old Testament prophets speak about the future using the past tense because it’s so certain what God will do, they can say it is done).

‘He has shown strength with his arm.’ This isn’t just the poser in the gym who stands gazing at his reflection as he lifts the weights and shows off his biceps. God has acted, he has rolled up his sleeves to act in power. And here’s what he has done (and is doing):

‘He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.’

It’s like a seesaw in a playground. The rich, the powerful, the proud are up top looking down on everyone else. Everyone looks up to them. Everyone wants to be them. They are secure in their success. No one can stand against them.

At the other end, you have the humble, the hungry, they’re at the bottom of the heap. But God intervenes. God turns things upside down - he brings down the mighty and exalts the humble. He fills the hungry and sends away empty the rich.

The other night on the news we had a picture of how the mighty can fall. The lead story on Thursday night’s news was how Jose Mourhino had been celebrating winning the Premier League with Chelsea in May. Just a few months later he was sacked, when the results weren’t going so well and Chelsea are near the bottom of the league.

And why does God act in this way? What’s his purpose in doing this? ‘He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring for ever.’ God is fulfilling his promise, the promise of mercy to those who fear him, to the offspring of Abraham.

Jesus came into the world to fulfil God’s mercy. It’s good news for all who will receive it, for those who fear him, for those who are of humble estate. But it’s not so good news for the proud, the rich, the powerful, who think that they can manage by themselves. When the world is turned upside down; when the seesaw is shifted, will you be up or down? My prayer is that you will echo Mary’s melody of mercy, rejoicing in God your Saviour who has done great things for you, giving you mercy and lifting you to himself. It might not be sung on Top of the Pops; it might never be Christmas Number 1; but this song will go on longer than any they'll show. Why not join in with Mary and make it your own?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 20th December 2015.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sermon: John 12: 1-8 Extravagant Worship

I wonder if you’ve ever had a memorable meal. A dinner that really sticks out in the mind. Now, maybe you can remember every single meal you’ve ever had, but for most of us, you couldn’t remember much about what you had for dinner Tuesday week ago, let alone fifteen years ago. But you might remember some memorable meals. Perhaps you can remember the best steak you’ve ever tasted; or the most delicious dessert (all with no calories, of course).

But sometimes it isn’t the food itself that makes a meal memorable. Something happens, and the meal will be remembered for a long time. A wee while ago I was out for lunch with my mum and dad. Ordered a chicken Maryland, and the plate came out, piled high - bacon, chips, banana fritter, battered pineapple, peas and sweetcorn - it was all there; but no chicken! They’d forgot to put it on the plate. We’ll never forget that it happened! Or perhaps you’ve had a memorable meal when you pulled out a ring and popped the question (and had to answer the question...).

As John sits down to write his gospel, there’s a memorable meal that he includes, and it’s found in our reading today. We’re not told anything about the food, just that Martha served it; but it was unforgettable because of what happened - an act of unashamed, extravagant worship.

The setting is Bethany, the home of siblings Lazarus, Martha and Mary. Lazarus, you might remember, had been dead, but Jesus raised him from the dead. And so the family give a dinner in Jesus’ honour. A time of table fellowship they wouldn’t have thought possible a few days before. Practical Martha cooked up a treat; Lazarus reclined at table - they weren’t sitting at a dining room table the way you might when you go home for your dinner. Instead, they reclined on one arm, with the other used to eat; legs sprawled out behind.

And Mary? Mary does something unforgettable. Let’s watch as John describes the scene. She took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard. The other night at the Christmas Fair there was the guess the weight of the Christmas cake. It was about 6lb 12 oz, but this is one pound of pure nard - a rare and expensive ointment. This is a costly act of worship. Later we’re told that it could have been sold for 300 denarii - a year’s wage.

That’s like going into Boots and asking for the most expensive perfume. In fact, you probably wouldn’t even get close. This would be like flying to Chanel and asking them to make you up your very own perfume. A year’s worth of wages was a huge sum to save up in order to buy this perfume for this costly act of worship.

I wonder are we as deliberate, as thoughtful when it comes to deciding what we’re offering in worship?

This wasn’t just a costly act of worship, this was also unashamed worship. Mary... anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. Now we might not quite ‘get’ what’s going on here. For a single woman to let down her hair, to touch and anoint a single man’s feet; this was shocking in that culture. This wasn’t how you were meant to get on.

But Mary doesn’t care what other people think. She is pouring out her worship as she pours out her ointment, as she anoints the anointed one (the Christ). This is pure devotion, not held back by what other people think. It’s the same attitude that David showed when the ark of the covenant was brought into the city of Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6. David danced before the Lord with all his might, wearing just an ephod. His wife Michal was raging at how David had behaved in front of his female servants. But David replies, ‘I will make merry before the Lord. I will make myself even more undignified than this.’ (2 Sam 6:21-22). He doesn’t care what other people think. And neither does Mary. Nothing will stop her as she offers this unashamed worship.

Sometimes we can hold back from really worshipping because we’re fearful of what someone else will think or say. They might not like it, but don’t hold back. Be unashamed in your devotion.

And all the more so, because this was a public act of worship. No one could miss what was happening. John says: ‘The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.’ I’m not sure how I’d have coped in the house - I sometimes have to take a deep breath to walk through all the perfume counters in Debenhams in Belfast just to get to the rest of the shop. The candle shops can be overpowering. And the worship offered that day was just as unavoidable. Everyone could smell it. Everyone would smell of it.

Public worship, witnessed by all, missed by none. Are we in the same category? Is the fragrance of our devotion to Christ obvious? Or would people be surprised that you’re here today; that you identify as a Christian?

Extravagant worship is costly, unashamed, and public. It doesn’t go unnoticed, and can sometimes be misunderstood. Criticised, even, by those you would think would know better.

Judas, one of the twelve, speaks up. ‘Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?’ What a waste! A year’s wages poured out in one go - think of the hungry mouths to feed. Think of the hands eager to receive even a fraction of it.

Perhaps you find yourself nodding along. Except we need to be careful of the company we keep. You see, the only hungry mouth Judas was worried about was his own. The only eager hand to receive even a fraction of the money was his own. John tells us (with the benefit of hindsight) that Lazarus didn’t care about the poor. He was a thief, helping himself to what was put into the common money bag. Judas was about to betray Jesus (4), but he already had many times before.

He was one of the twelve; he was with Jesus; he had a position of responsibility; but he was a thief. His time with Jesus didn’t lead to worship and wonder; he grew in selfishness and cynicism. Now for us gathered in church today, we need to face up to the same challenge. As we listen to Jesus, as we hear of all the amazing things he did, are we hardened to it all, and only watching out for how we can prosper ourselves? Or are we moved to worship?

Jesus speaks up in Mary’s defence. You will always have the poor with you. Now that doesn’t mean what one of our old teachers tried to say - there’s always going to be poor people, so don’t bother helping... It means we can and should be helping, and can do so all the time. But Jesus wouldn’t always be around. This anointing was done to prepare Jesus for burial, something which would happen in less than a week, that very Passover.

You see, Jesus is worthy of this costly, unashamed, public, extravagant worship. This Jesus who raised Lazarus from the dead would himself go to the place of the dead, crucified for us, dying the death we deserved, to give us hope. When we see his glory, then the only right response is to worship him with all that we have. To welcome him in.

As we begin this Advent season, as we’re reminded that Jesus is coming - will you receive him in? Will you make him Lord of your life, Lord of your home?

Nuala is going to come and share a poem she has found helpful and challenging on this theme of welcoming Jesus in. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 29th November 2015.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Book Review: Waterloo

I've always been interested in history. It probably traces back to a leaflet produced by Banbridge District Council many years ago called 'Historic Dromore.' The sheer number of historical features in the wee town I lived in blew my mind - the cathedral, the high cross, the Norman motte and bailey (the best preserved example in Ulster), the stocks, the town hall, the gallows street, the castle; all these gave me an interest in the past. Yet for all my interest, there are some periods where I don't really know very much. I knew of Waterloo, but I couldn't have told you much about it, even having been driven on a bus near the battleground on the way from Charleroi airport into Brussels. I probably knew more about the Abba song than the battle.

I was vaguely aware of the Fermanagh connection to Waterloo, the Inniskilling Dragoons having fought there. So when the 200th anniversary of the battle came on 18th June 2015 and I spotted Bernard Cornwell's new book on Waterloo, I knew I had to read it and start to understand it. I'm so glad that I did.

Cornwell is probably best known for his fictional Sharpe books, which were adapted for television. His previous grounding in fiction helps him to tell a gripping factual tale, with lots of drama, excitement, and personal interest. An epic story of an epic battle, or rather three battles, as the subtitle summarises: 'The history of four days, three armies and three battles.'

Drawing on many firsthand accounts of private soldiers, official records, and observations, Cornwell weaves the material together to keep track of the Prussians, the French and the British through the phases of the battles, in a way that the very amateur historian can follow. Technical language is explained and the objectives of each section and force are described clearly. The full complement of maps (at the start of each chapter) helps to place the action and build up the entire battlefield.

For some, the story of Waterloo is the story of the mighty generals, the clash of Napolean Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington. While Cornwell keeps us up to date with their movements, he also provides enough detail of the experiences and difficulties of the ordinary solider in the armies.

I really enjoyed the book, as it helped to fill in a gap in my historical knowledge. The book managed to do it in a way that was accessible, exciting, and engaging, and for this reason I'd definitely recommend it. If you'd like to know what all the hype about Waterloo was, then this is the book to read.

Waterloo is available from Amazon and for the Kindle.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Book Review: A Meal With Jesus

If you know me at all, you'll know I like my food. This book sounds like a perfect one for me, and it really was. Tim Chester has written a great book on the theology and practice of hospitality - 'A Meal with Jesus: Discovering grace, community and mission around the table.'

Through the book, Chester follows the meals mentioned in Luke's gospel, echoing the complaint that the Son of Man came eating and drinking. And when you think of it, there are so many meals in Luke, and each adds to the story and mission of Jesus. There's the enacted grace of the party in Levi's house; the anointing of Jesus in Simon the Pharisee's house; the feeding of the five thousand; the rush to get the seats of honour at the banquet in Luke 14; the Lord's last supper and then the meals in Emmaus and Jerusalem on the first resurrection day.

The chapters follow the meals above (although, the astute may have realised that there are a few more as well - as Chester quotes someone saying, 'In Luke's Gospel Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal.') The circumstances and events of the meals are discovered and explained, and the practical meaning is examined and applied. Throughout, there's a focus on mission, with the challenge to come and receive from Christ and then to go and share that grace and hospitality with others.

All in all, this book is like a six course feast (with an aperitif to set the scene). Each course follows perfectly from the last, and grace is on every plate, with lashings of extra grace. Reading it is like reading a menu - the reader's hunger is stirred, the desire to enjoy these good things is intensified; except that in the reading, the 'eater' is also satisfied. Hungry souls will find fulfillment because Christ is served up in this fine feast.

A Meal with Jesus is available from The Good Book Company.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Book Review: Faker

The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector takes up just seven verses in our Bibles. It's a memorable short story with a sting in the tale - the two men are at prayer, but the end result is surprising. Only one is justified before God, and not the one you would have thought at the start. The parable forms the basis of a new book from the pen of Nicholas T McDonald, published by The Good Book Company: Faker - How to live for real when you're tempted to fake it.

Aimed at young people, I found this to be a great book for more than just the target age group. The writing is engaging, honest and refreshing, as Nicholas opens up about his own failings when trying to fake it. He explores the ways in which we all try to fake it, especially in our social media saturated world, by projecting the best image of ourselves to a watching world. His stories are hilarious (and also instantly recognisable), as the perils of projecting perfection are exposed.

False hopes are shown for what they are, and throughout, there's a clear passion to explain the good news of Jesus Christ in a way that is easily understood and applied to the life of teenagers. The substitutionary atonement is front and centre, and brilliantly explained. There's even a final chapter on prayer which opens up the Lord's Prayer in a fresh way.

I really enjoyed the book, and I reckon that young people definitely will. The chapters are short, accessible and engaging. The gospel is clearly explained. The truth is presented in a way that gently but helpfully confronts. It's well worth buying for your teenagers or youth group - but not just for them. Read it yourself, and appreciate afresh the glory of the gospel.

Faker is available from The Good Book Company, who supplied a review copy of the book.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sermon: John 9: 1-41 Was blind, but now I see

I wonder if you’ve ever heard yourself saying this: ‘I couldn’t see it for looking at it.’ You go into a room, you’re looking for something and you can’t see it. It mustn’t be there. It’s lost. And then someone else comes into the room and it’s right in front of you. You couldn’t see it for looking at it - you saw it, but you didn’t really see it. It’s as if you were blind, you just couldn’t see it.

That experience is a bit like what’s happening in our Bible reading this morning. Now, perhaps, you’re slightly puzzled, because you’re thinking, Gary, you’ve got it all wrong. John 9 is all about the healing of this man blind from birth; it’s all about someone who couldn’t see, and then he’s able to see - and he’s so excited about it, he tells just about everyone he meets. You’re right. The man’s journey from being blind to seeing is there. It shows the power and glory of Jesus, but at the same time, in the same events, there are people who can see yet are becoming blind. They can’t see Jesus for looking at him. They can’t see who he is, even though they can see what he has done.

Look with me at verse 39. You see, this verse is the key to the chapter, this is the point of it, this is what it’s all about. When we get this, then we can see how the story unfolds. ‘Jesus said, ‘For judgement I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.’

This morning is going to be like a sight test. It’s like the man who was asked had his eyes ever been checked, and he replied no, they’ve always been blue. Whether you should have gone to Specsavers or some other optician, they test your eyesight, and record if your eyesight is getting worse or better. Here in John 9, as you seeing Jesus more clearly, or are you becoming blind?

In verse 1, there’s no doubt where the man fits in. He is a man blind from birth. I’ve had two family members who lost their sight, both in their elderly years, but this man has never seen anything. Doesn’t know what his parents look like. Has never seen the sky, or trees, or flowers. His is a sad case, but the disciples aren’t interested in pity. Rather, they start the blame game. Whose fault is this? Some people reckon that health and wealth follows goodness, and that sickness is therefore punishment for some terrible disease. That’s what Job’s comforters are known for - they blamed Job for all his suffering. The disciples were of the same mould. ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’

Perhaps you find yourself asking the same question when something bad happens to you, or someone you love. What have I done, to deserve this? Why me? But the disciples are asking the wrong question, and seeing the situation in the wrong way. Look at Jesus’ answer: ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.’

This man has endured so many years of blindness so that the works of God might be displayed in him. The disciples saw blame, but Jesus sees the opportunity to work, to show his glory. Jesus says that he is the light of the world, and proves it by shining in this man’s life. In verses 6-7 the miracle is described - the spit, the mud, the sending, the washing, and the seeing.

Those who do not see may see. The man born blind can now see, and what he sees is a crowd of inquisitive people. They recognise him, or at least they think they do. They’ve seen him begging, that poor man, born blind, but this man sees. ‘I am the man’ he says. How? He tells the story of how he came to see. Jesus, mud, sent, wash, sight. Amazing, wonderful, so the crowd take him to the Pharisees.

Now when we hear of the Pharisees, we almost want to boo them, like the pantomime villain. But these guys took religion very seriously. They were the people who were supposed to know all about God, the people who saw things clearly. And they saw how the Sabbath law had been broken. You see, they were good at observing the law, and good at spotting when others broke it. They heard the story - mud, washed, see. And they’re not convinced. How could he be from God if he breaks the Sabbath by producing something, by working to make mud? Others seem to be more open, ‘How can a man who is a sinner do such things?’

The Pharisees are divided, so they ask the blind man (!) what he thinks about Jesus: ‘He is a prophet.’ For being blind (or at least used to be blind), he’s doing a good job of seeing. Better than the people who can see, anyway. The Pharisees don’t believe that he really was blind from birth, so they question his parents. They know he was born blind, but they’re afraid of answering any more questions - they fear the Jews. They don’t want to see the truth before them.

Whenever we were growing up and suspected of doing something wrong, my granny had a phrase at the ready: ‘Tell the truth and shame the devil.’ The Pharisees have a similar phrase, which we see in verse 24. A second time they interview him and they say, ‘Give glory to God. We know this man is a sinner.’ And the man gives glory to God as he gives his simple testimony, a line that John Newton put in his hymn Amazing Grace: ‘One thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see.’

Again they ask how, and he’s getting annoyed, getting sarky, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’ They’ve heard the testimony. They’ve seen the evidence of God’s work, power and glory, but they refuse to see. They can’t see it for looking at it. They revile him, they abuse him, they lecture him. But look at the man’s simple faith: ‘If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’ (33)

And that’s the final straw. They cast him out, with those stinging words: ‘You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?’ They see, but they are becoming blind. At the same time, the one who started blind is seeing more clearly. Jesus finds him, and asks ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ Who’s that, the man replies. ‘You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.’ Do you see his response? ‘Lord, I believe’ and he worshipped him.

This is why Jesus came into the world ‘that those who do not see may see’ - this man was blind, but by the end of the day he could see. Imagine looking into his parents’ faces for the very first time. But he was also brought from spiritual blindness to spiritual sight - he saw Jesus for who he was, not just this miracle worker, not just this prophet, but the Son of Man, his Lord, who he believed and worshipped. John gives us this sight test today - have you noticed any improvement from earlier on? Are you seeing Jesus more clearly? His power, his glory, his grace? Are you moving from not seeing him at all to seeing and delighting in him? Are you better able to focus on him? Is your vision of him a bit less fuzzy than it used to be? Praise God - and keep looking at the light of the world.

But sometimes people get bad news when they have their eyes tested. Stronger glasses are needed as their sight worsens; macular degeneration is detected and blindness is approaching. Could that be some of us today? That’s like the Pharisees - they thought they could see so clearly, yet they were becoming blind. They couldn’t see Jesus for looking at him; they wouldn’t recognise him as Lord. They thought that his light was darkness. And they didn’t even realise. That’s where the passage ends. ‘Are we also blind?’ they ask. They thought they had 20-20 vision, but instead they are guilty, unable to see their sin; unable to recognise the Saviour right in front of their face.

The famous hymnwriter Fanny Crosby was only able to see for the first six weeks of her life. Despite being blind, she wrote many of the hymns we sing today - To God be the glory; Blessed assurance; and Safe in the arms of Jesus. A preacher once said to her, ‘I think it is a great pity that the Master did not give you sight when he showered so many other gifts upon you.’ She replied. ‘"Do you know that if at birth I had been able to make one petition, it would have been that I was born blind? Because when I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Saviour."

She who was blind had the gift of sight - to see Jesus for who he was, her Saviour. And when she died and went to heaven, his would be the first face she ever saw. May we also be brought to see the Saviour, with our spiritual eyes, so that we too can share that same testimony: ‘Was blind, but now I see.’

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 22nd November 2015.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Sermon: John 11: 1-44 Resurrection and Life

On this Remembrance Sunday, we honour those who served and gave their lives for the cause of peace and freedom. It is estimated that 17 million people lost their lives in WW1, and around 60 million died through WW2. Yet we also remember those who have died since, through war and terrorism. The sheer scale of loss is unimaginable, yet behind those numbers lie the human stories - sons, husbands, fathers, daughters, wives, mothers, sisters and brothers.

Each death brings the pain of loss, the weight of sorrow, the sense of hopelessness in the face of death. And sometimes, death can even bring out some questions about God. Does he really love us - and if he does, why did he let this happen? Does he not care? Why did he not do something to prevent it?

Those are the questions that were spoken around the village of Bethany in our Bible reading. Does God love? Does God care? Is God powerless to help? The chapter opens with an ill man. Lazarus is ill, near death, and so his sisters send an urgent message to Jesus. ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ They remind Jesus that he loves Lazarus, and urge him to come. We’re told in verse 5 that Jesus loves the family, but his love leads him to do something very strange. Look at it with me. ‘Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.’

It’s because Jesus loves that he waits where he is. It doesn’t sound like the loving thing to do. Imagine the sisters, frantically watching Lazarus get sicker and still no sign of Jesus. Where is he? Why has he not come? Does he not love us? Jesus loves them, and he allows them to go through the grief, the sorrow, the heartbrokenness, the sadness - because through their pain, they will see God’s glory all the more. Does Jesus love us? Yes - even though we might not think it.

But does he really care? Jesus had waited two days, then travelled to Bethany, and by the time he arrives, Lazarus has been dead four days. His funeral has finished, and the days of mourning are in full swing. And did you notice that both Martha and Mary said the very same thing to Jesus when he arrived? Verse 21 and 32. ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ You could have helped, but you dillydallied. Don’t you care?

In verse 33, we see the care and compassion of Jesus up close and personal. When he sees Mary weeping, and the crowd weeping, then he is deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. So much so that we get the shortest verse in the whole Bible - John 11:35 ‘Jesus wept.’

Even though Jesus knows what he’s about to do, he cares for those in need. He is troubled by the things that trouble us. Some of the people watching recognise that care: ‘See how he loved him.’ Yet other people bring up the last of our questions - he might love us and he might care for us, but is he powerless to help?

Verse 37: ‘But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?’ Throughout the autumn we’ve been working through John’s Gospel, seeing the amazing things Jesus did, watching as he met with people and brought about change. He made water out of wine; made the lame walk; healed the official’s son by his word 25 miles away; and even made a blind man see (as we’ll see in two week’s time). Was Jesus powerless to help in this instance?

It’s the same question the two sisters asked. Don’t you care, can’t you help? Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Do you see what they’re saying? Before Lazarus died, you could have helped him, but you’re too late now.

He might have been able to stop Lazarus from dying, but is Jesus powerless against death itself? Can he give us sympathy but that’s about it? Is he all right to tackle some things, but others are too much even for him?

We’ve looked at how Jesus answered Mary, with compassion, his tears flowing with hers. But it’s with Martha that Jesus shows that he is the answer to the power of death. You see, Martha went a wee bit farther than Mary. She says the same, but then she goes on to say: ‘But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.’ Along with the accusation comes a little bit of faith, a mustard seed.

Jesus tells her that her brother will rise again. So she jumps on the Jewish hope of resurrection on the last day. She looks ahead to the end of time, to an event away in the future. It’s what the Jews believed, and it’s what we have affirmed as well - that on the last day there will be the resurrection of the body, the judgement, and eternal life.

But look at what Jesus says. She sees resurrection away in the future. Jesus says: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.’

Jesus is saying that he gives life, new life, resurrection life in the here and now. To receive Jesus is to receive life, and to have to promise of life eternal. Everyone thought that Jesus was powerless to help, but Jesus says that he has overcome the power of death, and he spells out what it means for all who believe in him. Even though he dies, yet shall he live. Death will come, but it does not have the final say; it is not the last word. Jesus brings resurrection, being raised in a new and perfect body, because he himself would rise from death.

But it’s one thing to say it. It’s another thing to demonstrate it. When Jesus gets to the tomb in verse 38, he tells them to roll the stone away. Practical Martha steps in - ‘Lord, by this time there will be an odour, for he has been dead four days.’ But look at how Jesus replies. It’s all about faith: ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?’

The stone is rolled away. Jesus shouts with a loud voice ‘Lazarus, come out’, and (to make absolutely clear) John tells us ‘The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth.’ This was a dead man walking. Jesus has the power over death because he is the resurrection and the life.

When we’re faced with death, it brings all sorts of questions. Does God love me? Does God care? Is God powerless to help? The answer to each comes in the Lord Jesus, because he has demonstrated his love, his care and his power by surrendering to death, the death of the cross, dying for our sins, to bring us to God; and by rising from death, the firstfruits of resurrection life, to never die again.

Lazarus came out of the tomb that day, but Lazarus would one day die. Indeed, the chief priests plotted to kill Lazarus (12:10) because of his witness to Jesus’ power. But Jesus will never die. As he says in Rev 1:19 ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.’ Jesus loves you. Jesus cares for you. And Jesus has power over death. Will you trust with your death, as well as your life? Jesus says: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?’

This sermon was preached on Remembrance Sunday 8th November 2015 in Aghavea Parish Church.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Sermon: John 8: 1-11 Without Sin?

Growing up, I was a member of the Boys’ Brigade, and looking back, it was the displays that really stand out. Having worked all year, the display was the night when family and friends attended - there was drill (marching), team games, the horse (which I couldn’t get over...), and a sketch of some kind. One sticks out (and hopefully, no pictures survived of this one) - the big idea was that we were members of The Spinster’s Club - all avowed spinsters, attending our regular meeting. A new member joined, and she had to give up all the items belonging to men in the audience. But then the minister came in, and the leader announced that some group member had shamed the group, by being seen with a man. So as the minister prayed, one by one, the guilty group members sneaked off... leaving just the leader and the minister - who were all set to head out on the town together!

It was a bit of fun, but the point behind it comes from our Bible reading today. I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase before, or maybe even used it yourself - let him who is without sin cast the first stone. But what does that mean? And where did it come from?

So far as we’ve toured through John’s gospel, we’ve seen Jesus’ glory in lots of different situations, with lots of different people. And so far, they’ve all been positive. He called John and Andrew and Philip to come and see, to follow him, and they came. He produced gallons of the best wine at a wedding. He confronted religious Nicodemus and converted the (spiritually and physically) thirsty woman at the well. We’ve seen him heal the official’s son (from a distance), and the paralysed man at Bethesda. But not everyone rejoiced at the down to earth God.

The religious people are feeling the pressure, they’re not liking what Jesus is doing, and so they start confronting him, challenging him. And it seems that they don’t care who they hurt as they pursue Jesus. They’re a bit like the church in America which had the sign outside which said: ‘We love hurting people’. Hopefully, they mean that they love people who are hurting, but the Pharisees here look like they really do love to hurt people.

The setting is the temple, during one of the festivals. It’s a busy time of year, like a half term, when everyone has come to Jerusalem, and the city is heaving. Jesus is teaching in the temple, there’s a crowd around him, when suddenly, the scribes and Pharisees appear, bringing a woman caught in adultery. We’re not told, but it seems that she had been caught redhanded, perhaps in a state of undress, and dragged to the centre of the crowd in the temple.

Look at what they say: ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?’ (4-5) These religious men use this sinful woman for their own purposes. They accuse her, and condemn her - an easy target. The moral men look down on her immorality. They accuse and condemn her, but only because by using and abusing her, they can accuse and condemn Jesus.

They look as if they’re concerned for moral purity, for keeping the Law, but actually, they’re concerned with nailing Jesus. Look at verse 6: ‘This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.’ You see, if he says, don’t stone her, then he has spoken against the Law. If he says to stone her, then he’ll run foul of the Roman government, who had banned Jewish executions.

So they press him for an answer. Which will it be? Which side of the trap will he fall for? Why isn’t he answering? Why is he stooped over, writing on the ground? So they ask, and ask... and then Jesus stands and says that famous line: ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.’ (7)

Jesus doesn’t fall into their trap. Instead, he tells them to consider their own conscience, to reflect on their own life. Yes, at this stage in redemption history, adultery was punishable by death - but had they also done anything deserving death? Were they a perfectly righteous judge, without sin themselves? Plus (as you might have noticed), just as it takes two to tango, it also takes two to commit adultery, yet only the woman had been dragged in.

The woman had been caught redhanded, in order to catch Jesus. But they themselves had been caught out - their own hearts exposed; their own guilt condemned; their own sin revealed. One by one, they slip away. As Psalm 130 puts it, ‘Lord, if you marked our transgressions, O Lord, who could stand?’ As you might have taught your own children, when you point a finger at someone else, there are three fingers pointing back at you.

The supposedly moral people might look down on this woman, but they are also immoral at heart. We like to imagine that there is a league table of sin, and that, so long as we’re higher than some other people, then we’ll be all right. Well, ok, I’ve told the odd lie, but at least I haven’t done ... (fill in the blank). I’m a decent person, never do anyone any harm, and well, I’m better than her at number 23... But the Pharisees that day were confronted by their own sin. James, the brother of Jesus says in his letter that to break just one commandment is to shatter the whole law. As Paul says, the wages of sin is death - all sin, any sin, not just some sins, or other peoples’ sins.

Jesus had been stooping, continuing to write with his finger. But now he stands, looks around, and sees just the woman standing there. ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ Everyone has left. No one is left to condemn. Yet there is one who is sinless, one who could condemn her. The one who is without sin is the one who still stands there. What will he say?

Notice what he says in verse 11. Do you see how the two things go together? ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.’ He doesn’t condemn her - he gives forgiveness. He removes the penalty of death from her, and allows her to live. It’s why Jesus came into the world (3:17) ‘For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ He forgives, he doesn’t condemn - but that doesn’t mean that anything goes; that there’s cheap grace for you to exploit, for you to go out from here and do whatever you feel like and that God will forgive because that’s his job. If Jesus had only said ‘neither do I condemn you’ then you might have thought that.

But he also says: ‘go, and from now on sin no more.’ You’re forgiven, but don’t continue in sin. You’ve been set free, don’t go back to the same slavery. Mercy and grace fit together to forgive us and change us, whoever we are.

Perhaps today, you see yourself in the role of the Pharisee. You see your religion as a way to beat people up and feel superior to them. You measure yourself against other people and always come out on top. You look down on people who sin in different ways to yourself, whose sins might be more obvious. In the words of the insurance advert - go compare - yourself to Jesus. In the light and perfect purity of he who is without sin, you’ll find that you are sinful, that you can’t make the grade by yourself, that you are more sinful than you ever imagined - but that you are more loved than you could ever dare. Flee to Jesus. Find in him the mercy to deal with your sins. As you realise that you deserve the wages of sin - death - marvel that the sinless one died for you to give you the free gift of God - eternal life.

Or maybe you find yourself like this woman. Your sins are obvious, and religious people have seen you as an easy target. You know you don’t deserve anything. You’re waiting for the stones to rain down on you. Don’t run from the sinless one - find in him your forgiveness and your freedom. The sinless one died for your sins to bring you to God, to wash you clean, to give you his life in place of your death. In this moment, confess your sins, receive his forgiveness, and strengthened by his feast, move out resolved to change by his grace, to go and sin no more.

So let’s pause, in silence, before we join in the confession. Be deliberate in your confession, the things that accuse you, that things you want to stop doing, Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 1st November 2015.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Sermon: John 4: 1-42 The Woman at the Well

If you’re looking at job adverts in the newspaper, one of the things that you’ll notice is the statement ‘So and So is an equal opportunities employer.‘ So it doesn’t matter who you are, or what your background is, you are welcome to apply; it’ll not affect your application. This morning as we continue with John’s Gospel, we find that Jesus is an equal opportunities Saviour. It doesn’t matter who you are, or what your background is, Jesus is interested in you, and will save you. It’s the outworking of what we saw in ch 1 - He came to his own, but his own people did not receive him; but to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.’ (1:11-12).

So think back to before the harvest, when Jesus met Nicodemus, and look at the person who meets Jesus today - they couldn’t be more different. Let’s play a little spot the difference. Nicodemus was a man, a religious man, and a Jew. Today, Jesus meets a woman, a morally questionable woman, who’s a Samaritan. Very different, yet both needed to meet with Jesus; both needed to be saved by Jesus, but the conversation goes very differently. You see, there’s more than one way to introduce people to Jesus. So let’s see what happens here.

Look at verse 4. You’ve heard of a man on a mission - there was no one more on a mission than Jesus. Everything was done perfectly. He could have gone by another route to avoid Samaria entirely, but Jesus ‘had to pass through Samaria.’ He had this woman in his sights. He had a divine appointment with her, even if she didn’t know it yet.

So he arrives at the well. He’s weary from the journey. He’s thirsty. And it’s noon. The sun is at its highest and hottest. You’ve heard the saying that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun. Well, there were no mad dogs, and no Englishmen around. But there was this woman, coming out to the well to draw water.

Now think about it. Why is she coming when it’s really hot? Surely you would come when it’s cool, at morning or evening when everyone else came? Why come now? It’d be harder to do. She’s avoiding people. Yet Jesus knows, and Jesus is there to meet her. As they chat, they talk about three topics - water, husbands and worship, but watch how the woman’s view of Jesus shifts.

Jesus starts off with a basic need. ‘Give me a drink’ (7). Now even this is surprising. She can’t believe that he has even spoken to her. Normally Jewish men wouldn’t have looked near her. She was unclean, lesser, inferior. Yet here Jesus meets her, and speaks to her. Give me a drink. But then Jesus talks about living water - ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ (20)

She’s lost - you haven’t a bucket, how could you get water? But Jesus isn’t talking about the water from the well. He’s talking about living water - a spring of water welling up to eternal life. Water that satisfies and means you’ll not be thirsty any more. This is what Jesus is offering. Satisfaction for thirst.

But the woman reckons it would be great not having to come to the well any more. Is it just internal plumbing, hot and cold running water Jesus is offering? Do you see what she calls him? ‘Sir, give me this water...’ (15). But she doesn’t get it yet.

It’s at this point that Jesus says something that sounds to us completely random, and a wee bit personal. ‘Go, call your husband, and come here.’ (17). But Jesus is putting his finger on her own thirst, her own longing for satisfaction, and the ways she has tried to find it. The story goes of a wedding reception, and a person couldn’t make it, so they phoned in a telegram to be read out. They wanted 1 John 5:18 read out ‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear’, but the 1 of 1 John was missing and instead this was read out: ‘for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband.’ Five and six times, she had tried to find satisfaction, only to find disappointment, and heartbreak, and even greater thirst.

Jesus got to her heart. He showed he knew her longings. And so she shifts in her opinion of Jesus. ‘Sir, I perceive you are a prophet.’ So then she changes the topic (!) and talks about worship. If you’re ever in danger of personal matters, it’s far easier to debate theology, and so she asks who is right - the Jew in Jerusalem, or the Samaritan on the mountain? Where do we need to go to worship God properly?

But Jesus says you don’t need to go here or there, you can do it anywhere: ‘But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ Forget about personal background, or religious heritage, or even a life of immorality - God wants worshippers who worship in spirit and truth. Will you do it? Will you worship in this way? Is this you?

But again, he’s getting a bit personal, a bit in your face, and so she again tries to change the subject. ‘I know that Messiah (Christ) is coming. When he comes, he will tell us all things.’ Yeah, all this chat is well and good, but if only the Messiah was here. He would sort it all out.

‘I who speak to you am he.’ I’m here. I’m telling you. And then the disciples come back. And she goes. She leaves her water jar. And what does she say in the town, to all the people she normally avoided? No more head down, cross the street moves. No more fear of what the people think of her as they gossip about her latest fling. Now she’s banging the doors down. The shift is complete. Jesus has gone from stranger, to Sir, to Prophet, to, well, look at verse 29. ‘Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?’

The disciples are fussing about Jesus eating, but Jesus’ eyes are focused on the food of doing God’s will - this is what sustains him. And in this season of harvest services, the picture of the Samaritans coming out of the town to hear him is of ‘see that the fields are white for harvest.’ There’s a harvest, people to be gathered in, even among the Samaritans. You see, Jesus is an equal opportunities Saviour. You don’t have to be Jewish. You don’t have to be born into the Church of Ireland. You don’t have to come from our group. All can come, and be found by Jesus.

That’s what the Samaritans found when they met with him, listening first to the woman’s story, but then meeting with Jesus for themselves. The evidence of Jesus’ teaching is met by their belief, which leads to life - that living water welling up to eternal life. The Samaritans know it for themselves: ‘we know that this is indeed the Saviour of the world.’

So perhaps you didn’t identify with religious Nicodemus. Perhaps you sneak in to church, hoping no one will notice you, fearing what people say about you. You’ve been thirsty for a while. You’ve tried to satisfy that thirst for living water by drinking from broken cisterns - sex, or drink, or drugs, and nothing satisfies. You’ve been searching for Jesus, for his living water. So come to him, drink, and be satisfied.

But this isn’t just for the people who make it inside the church building. All around us, your neighbours, friends, family members, work colleagues, people you bump into in the street. Everyone is thirsty. Everyone is trying to satisfy their longing in different ways, but only Jesus can do that. Only Jesus is the Saviour of the world. Only Jesus can give this living water, because he is the Christ, the one who shows us how to worship right, and live right.

So who will you bump into this week? Who will God bring across your path, in a divine appointment, a God-incidence? Will you be ready to let that living water flow through you, spring up in your heart, to let a thirsty soul drink? Could you share a word about how Jesus has satisfied you? There is a harvest to be gathered, and you are sent to share in the labour, to reap for God’s glory. God calls all sorts of people to be Christians, people like you and me, and people very unlike you and me. But whether it’s Nicodemus, or the woman at the well, or the person you chat to tomorrow, all who believe Jesus will become children of God. May we see it more and more, as we have the courage to speak out and share, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 11th October 2015.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Children's Talk: Ireland's Call

There's something happening in England at the minute, with lots of countries involved. Does anyone know what it is? It's the rugby world cup. I've brought along a rugby ball. So which team are you supporting? England? Wales? Scotland? Ireland?

Lots of support for Ireland - I've brought along my Ireland shirt to show who I'm supporting. Now does anyone know the song that they sing before they play their matches? It's Ireland's Call. Can anyone sing it?

Here's how the chorus goes:

Ireland, Ireland, together standing tall;
shoulder to shoulder we'll answer Ireland's call.

And here's the video of them singing is before the match against Canada:

There's a line in it that sounds a little bit strange. Shoulder to shoulder? When the cameraman pans along the team, their shoulders aren't all beside each other. Some are big and tall, others are lean and short. They're beside each other, but their shoulders aren't all at the same level. Now why is that?

It's because a rugby team needs different sorts of players. You need hefty, strong players to go into the scrum, to push forward and beat the other team's scrum. But if everyone was the same size as your front row, they might not be very good at playing in the backs. In the same way, you need small, fast runners to play at the back. But if everyone was like that, your scrum wouldn't be very strong.

Each position needs something different. Each player is different, but they all work together to make a good rugby team. It's the same in your school teams, whether it's hockey or netball or football - everyone works together with different roles. It's also the same as your body - you have eyes, ears, hands, toes, heart, lungs and lots more besides. They're all different, but they all work together to give you life.

In the Bible we see the same thing: 'Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.' (Romans 12:4-6)

You might be different to other people in your class or in church, but God has made you for a special job, something that only you can do, as you join with people who are different to make up the one team, the one body. We can be shoulder to shoulder as we answer God's call.

This Children's Talk was shared at a School Assembly in Maguiresbridge Primary School last week.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Harvest Sermon: John 12: 20-33 Unless a grain of wheat...

Are you a morning person? When the alarm goes off, do you jump out of bed, wide awake, ready to start the day, full of chat? Some of you might be, but I’m not like that. It takes me a little bit of time to waken up, and in the meantime, I don’t like noise, or chat, or anything really. If I’ve to be up at a particular time, then I have to set a couple of alarms on my phone to make sure that I really do waken and really do get up!

Now if you’re like me, and you find it hard to waken, maybe you need a stronger alarm than just your phone (or your mum shouting at you for the tenth time to get up...). Here are some very effective alarm clocks that you can’t ignore.

So here’s the first - the carpet alarm. It wont shut up until you’re out of bed, with both feet firmly on the floor.

Or what about this one - the sub morning. It keeps going until it’s fully under water, so you have to take it with you to the bathroom. And once you’re there, then you’re up, and you might as well jump into the shower. (Although, if I had this one, I might be tempted to properly put it under water by throwing it into the toilet...).

Here’s Clocky - when the alarm goes off, he jumps off the bedside table and runs round the room, so you have to go chasing him.

Now this one makes you think - the alarm goes off and throws four jigsaw pieces out - to stop the alarm you have to get the four pieces in the right place.

Maybe you know what to buy someone for Christmas now! Each of these effective alarm clocks are hard to ignore. When the right time comes, then they let you know, you know about it.

And that’s what’s going on in our reading tonight. In verse 23 Jesus says ‘The hour has come.’ His alarm has sounded, he knows that it is the right time - but he’s not talking about the time to get up; it’s not morning time he’s talking about. It’s his time: ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’

Now how did he know that his time had come? There were no fancy alarm clocks. Instead, it was a group of people with a special request. When the Greeks, the people who weren’t Jews, came wanting to see Jesus, it’s as if the alarm has sounded. Jesus knows that it’s now time for him to be glorified.

Now when you hear of glory, and being glorified, what do you think of? Maybe the glory of the Welsh rugby team, having beaten the English last night. Or loads of fans shouting out your name. Or having thousands of followers on Twitter or Facebook. But Jesus talks about something that might sound strange.

In fact, you might think that the time has come for a lecture at Greenmount Agricultural College, because of what Jesus says. Let’s look at it together. ‘Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.’

On the way in, you hopefully received a seed. One seed of corn. Have a look at it now, up close and personal. It’s not very big. There wouldn’t be much eating in it. As my granny would have said, ‘it wouldn’t fill a hole in your tooth.’ Even if you took your seed home and made popcorn from it, you wouldn’t have much.

But if you were to take it home and plant it, then eventually, you would have an ear of corn. One seed, kept by itself, remains just a single seed. But a seed that dies, planted in the ground, produces many seeds.

This is the basis of how food production works. One apple seed grows into a tree producing loads of apples. Or one cocoa bean grows into a Wispa.

Now why does Jesus say this? What has this to do with the Son of Man (Jesus) being glorified? Jesus is saying that he is the grain of wheat. If he stays as he is, then he’s just on his own. But if Jesus dies, then he will produce many seeds. As Jesus dies on the cross, he makes it possible for the harvest, for lots of seeds to be born through his death. Jesus’ death produces life. Jesus’ death brings multiplication of life.

Jesus is the seed the produces many seeds. As we come to Jesus and believe in Jesus, so we are one of his seeds. We too have this same choice in front of us - do we keep it to ourselves? Or will we follow the way of Jesus, as we serve him and follow him? That’s the choice that Jesus puts before each of us tonight, whether we’re young or old.

Jesus says: ‘Anyone who loves their life will lose it’ - that is, if you keep you for yourself, and do your own thing, and only care about yourself, then you’ll ultimately lose out. But, ‘anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life’ - Jesus is using the opposites of love and hate to show priority. To hate your life is to live for the good of others; to love and care and serve and share. To follow the pattern and example of Jesus.

That’s what Jesus did. He ‘hated’ his life, by following God, and doing what the Father wanted. in doing so, Jesus went to the cross. He died. But by doing that, ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ The Greeks were the first to come, wanting to see Jesus. The alarm had sounded. The hour has come for Jesus to be glorified, by his death on the cross. The death which brings multiplication. The seed buried to produce an abundance of seeds.

We are the seeds Jesus has produced. Before us is the same choice that Jesus faced. Will we live for ourselves, or for God’s glory? To help you think it through, here’s a simple question - now, maybe it was thinking about grain which makes bread, which makes toast, and that made me think about breakfast, but here’s the question: Eggs or bacon?

I’m not asking which you would prefer? (The answer is probably both!). but when it comes to following Jesus, are you eggs or bacon? You see, a hen pops out an egg, and it goes on unconcerned. It’ll probably lay another one tomorrow.

But for you to eat bacon, the pig has to give its all. Total commitment. You can’t just take a slice of bacon from the side of the pig.

Jesus died for us - the seed that produced many seeds. Are you eggs or bacon? With your little seed, will you protect it and keep it; or will you die to self and give yourself for Jesus and others? The alarm clock is sounding. Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

Pray: Lord, take each of us, and use us for your glory, as we give ourselves to serve you, and follow you. Amen.

This sermon was preached at the harvest in Colebrooke Parish Church on Sunday 27th September 2015.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Sermon Audio: John 3: 1-21

Yesterday morning I was preaching from John 3, when Nicodemus comes to see Jesus by night. What would Jesus say to this very religious man? The answer is very surprising, yet it's the answer that religious people still need to hear today - 'You Must Be Born Again'. Listen in, and discover this fresh start for yourself.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sermon: John 3: 1-21 Hard Truth for the Religious: You Must Be Born Again

From as far back as I can remember, I’ve been going to church. Our Sunday School was before the service, and I was at that too. Mum and dad realised that they could get some peace, so I also went to holiday clubs and Bible clubs in the local Presbyterian, Methodist and Elim churches as well. It seems as if I’ve known that Bible verse for my whole life - and that might be the case for you as well. With a little prompt, ‘For God so...’ you could say it off without thinking. Children in Sunday Schools know it from an early age. It’s a great promise to hold on to, and yet, when it was first spoken, it was shocking for the one who heard it.

As chapter three opens, we’re introduced to a very religious man. ‘Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.’ Nicodemus was at the top of the tree when it came to religion. He’s a Pharisee, the strictest group of Jews, and he’s a ruler of the Jews. He’s part of the ruling council. Later on, Jesus also calls him ‘the teacher of Israel’. So imagine a bishop coming to Jesus. Someone very religious, one who you think Jesus is going to be very impressed by. One who strives to live a good life and to obey God’s law. One who carefully tries to be good. And Nicodemus comes to Jesus - by night - and he says what he knows: ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one could do these signs that you do unless God is with him.’

There’s probably a wee bit of flattery there - but perhaps also an earnest searching. Jesus, are you really from God? So what would Jesus have to say to Nicodemus? Or what would Jesus say to a decent member of the Church of Ireland who tries very hard, and turns up, and pays in? What does Jesus say to this very religious man?

Do you notice how Jesus says in v3, 5, 11 ‘Truly, truly, I say to you...’? Jesus (who John tells us in 1:14 is full of grace and truth) tells this religious man the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It’s the truth this religious man needed to hear - and the truth that we who may have a tendency towards religion also need to hear. The truth is this: that religion will not save you. [If you take nothing else from today, or if you stop listening in a rage, or decide to fall asleep, remember this truth - religion will not save.]

Jesus tells us this in his first hard truth: ‘unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ (3) Nic said what he knows, from what he has seen, but Jesus says that to see the kingdom of God, you have to be born again.

Sometimes these words have been used as a slur against what some people see as the ‘serious’ Christians, maybe from small independent churches. Ah, they’re just the born againers. But Jesus says that you can’t see the kingdom of God without being born again Every Christian is a born again Christian, or else they’re not a Christian at all.

But what does Jesus mean? Nicodemus begins to wonder about the mechanics of entering into his mother’s womb and revisiting the maternity ward and delivery room. his question is: How? But he just doesn’t get it. Being born again is about starting over, a fresh start, a whole new way of life - not just improving the old way of living. As Paul puts it in 2 Cor 5:17 ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.’

And, as Jesus goes on with his second hard truth, being born again means being born of the Spirit. V5: ‘unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’ You see, flesh gives birth to flesh - every so often the zoo shows off its new baby animals - the mummy giraffe gives birth to a baby giraffe; a mummy tiger gives birth to a baby tiger. Flesh gives birth to flesh - humans give birth to humans; but only the Spirit can give birth to those born again by God. The new start doesn’t come by effort or religion, but only by being born of the Spirit. That’s the only way to get into the kingdom of God.

Just as you can’t see the wind, you can only see the effects of the wind, when the trees sway about or are blown over, or the slates come off your roof - in the same way, you can’t see that someone has the Spirit of God in them - but you do see the effects.

Again, Nicodemus is baffled. Again comes his question - and maybe it’s the question you’re asking as well. ‘How can these things be?’ How do you get this fresh start of being born again? How can you be sure of entering the kingdom of God if it isn’t of your own efforts and good works? How do you make sure you don’t end up knock, knock. knocking on heaven’s door only to be kept out?

Jesus gives Nicodemus the third and final hard truth. And it’s the truth that links in to what we’ve already seen in John’s gospel. Listen for the familiar words in v11: ‘we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.’ So far we’ve seen how John the Baptist and then Andrew and Philip bore witness. Here, Jesus is the witness, speaking what he knows, bearing witness - but ‘you do not receive our testimony.’ [The ‘you’ is plural - youse-ins]

So what is the testimony Jesus shares, which they don’t receive? It’s what he knows, having come from heaven, the testimony of God’s saving purposes. Jesus has come to earth to bear witness by his life - and by his death. Will we receive it?

The testimony comes in verse 14 onwards. ‘And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’ When Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt at the Exodus, they spent forty years wandering in the wilderness, always on the journey, never reaching their final destination. And they grumbled - not the ‘are we there yet’ or ‘I’m hungry {or the new hangry - angry because of hunger}’ or ‘I need a wee’. They moaned about Moses. About God. About the wilderness. So God sent serpents to kill some of them. But then the people repented. God didn’t take away the problem, but he gave a new solution - this bronze serpent. A representation of the problem, which became the solution. If you were bitten, all you had to do was look to the serpent, believe that God would heal, and you would be healed. If you turned your back, there was no hope. You had to look to live.

In the same way, Jesus would be lifted up on the cross. A representation of the problem - a sinner’s death. Yet he is lifted up so that all who look to him will live. The curse of sin is on him - the curse you are cursed with - so don’t die on your own; look to him, and be saved, and have eternal life.

This is the truth - religion will not save. The only thing that will save is faith in Jesus. As our famous verse tells us: ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’ God loved the world, he gave his Son, to be our Saviour. Anyone, whoever believes in him, whoever you are, whatever you’ve done - believe, and you will not perish. You’ll have eternal life. This testimony leads to belief, leads to life. (John 20 all over again!).

You see, Jesus didn’t come to condemn. He didn’t come to wag a finger and give off and make you feel bad. He came in order that the world might be saved through him. He came that you might be saved through him - not through religion.

Attending all those Sunday schools and bible clubs, I was a proper little Pharisee. I thought that God loved me because of all that I did for him. I won the BB scripture cup every year. I tried really hard, but in the end, the verse I knew so well was what I actually needed - a new start, being born again by the God who loved me in spite of my efforts, and in spite of my sin, and who sent Jesus to be my Saviour.

But this is a hard truth for religious people to hear. It’s like going into your garage or your basement on a dark winter’s night. You turn on the light, and the wee furries and creepies dash to get back into the darkness. Jesus, the light of the world has come, but we prefer darkness, so that our evil deeds aren’t seen. Nicodemus came by night, under cover of darkness. Will he step into the light?

As you follow John’s gospel through, Nic makes two more appearances - (7:50 where he speaks up to ask for a fair hearing for Jesus in the council, and 19:39 where he asks for Jesus’ body, to aid with the burial). Eventually, he comes into the light. He identifies with Jesus, and follows.

What about you? Will you step into the light? Will you hear and receive these hard truths from the one who is grace and truth? You can’t see the kingdom of God without being born again, a new start. You can’t enter the kingdom of God without being born of the Spirit, as he brings about the newness of life. You have to accept the testimony of Jesus, about his saving purpose rooted in God’s love.

You know the verse so well, but today, make it your own. Put yourself in the verse. Personalise it, so that you know it for yourself, receiving God’s love, and his free gift of grace.

‘For God so loved _ _ _ _ _ _ that he gave his only Son, that [as _ _ _ _ _ _] believe in him, I should not perish, but have eternal life.’

Let’s take a moment to let that sink in. And as we close our eyes, I’ll give an opportunity for you to raise your hand as a sign that you are believing this for the very first time, or coming back to it. No one will see. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 27th September 2015.