Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sermon: Luke 11: 1-13 Praying to Our Father

A recent survey found that only 1 in 7 people in the UK would never pray, even in a time of desperate need. 85% of the population pray, at some times at least. Is prayer just a last resort, after you've tried everything else yourself? Is God waiting around for us to come to the end of our own resources before we ask him to help?

As people following Jesus, prayer is hopefully more than just that last resort. But we all probably need some help. We could all pray more, and pray better. That was the experience of the first disciples. They were with Jesus, they saw him praying, and they asked him: 'Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples to pray.' These were Jews, they prayed daily, following their customs, and yet they wanted more. They wanted to pray the way Jesus did. Perhaps that's you today. You pray every day, but it can seem dry sometimes. You get into a routine which becomes a rut, and wonder how to improve. Listen in, as Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray, and why to pray.

First of all, we see the how to pray. And what Jesus gives them is a short and snappy version of the Lord's Prayer. We don't find the full version we used earlier in the service, but we find enough to recognise it. Often in our prayers, we begin by saying something about God - who he is, what he has done. Our collect this morning had the opening words 'Almighty God'. But here, Jesus teaches his disciples to approach God much more personally. This God who is almighty, and holy, and amazingly wonderful, is also our Father. Dad.

When we pray, we are coming to our Dad. Now when we say that, there may be some who shrink back. Perhaps you haven't had a good relationship with your dad. To think of God as a father makes you think that God is like your father. Hold in there. We'll see later on how God is so much better than any father, even the best. For now, just look at the privilege of calling God our Father. Fast forward a few years to when Prince William becomes king. He'll rule over the United Kingdom, he'll be watched by millions. He'll be king with all that means, but Prince George will know him as 'daddy.' God, the ruler of the universe, is our dad, our Father. Praying to him is to speak to our dad, who loves us.

So how should we pray to our Father? In the five sentences of this prayer, Jesus shows that we first pray for our Father's priorities, and then our own needs. Do you see the Father's priorities? 'Father, hallowed be your name.' We're asking that the Father's name be honoured, or made holy. So often we hear God's name used in wrong ways. The other day I was on a phonecall with a lady in England. She didn't know what 'Reverend' meant, so I explained that I'm a minister, I work in a church. To which she exclaimed, 'OMG, that's so cool!' She took God's name in vain!

It's easy to hear God's name being dishonoured. But could there be a danger that we also dishonour God's name - not in speaking it like my BT friend, but in how we live? If we are God’s people, do we show him honour in our lives? Our prayer is that God's name will be honoured. Connected to that, we also ask that God's kingdom will come. God is king, but not everyone recognises that. God reigns, but not everyone obeys him. As we pray to our Father, we ask that his kingdom will fully and finally come.

We pray to our Father for his priorities. But Jesus then goes on to ask for other things as well. You might think that it's a free-for-all, like a supermarket sweep where you can grab whatever you want. But the things that Jesus asks for in the Lord's Prayer aren't caviar and champagne; designer goods and luxury cars. He tells his disciples to pray for our needs, the things we really need for daily life.

'Give us each day our daily bread.' We need food to keep us going. There's an episode in The Simpsons where Bart is asked to say grace. So he closes his eyes and says: 'Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.' Jesus shows that God our Father gives us everything - we need to ask him for our daily bread.

'Forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.' As well as food, we also need to receive forgiveness. We can't sort out our sins ourselves. We need forgiveness - but we also need to give forgiveness as well.

The last of our needs is this: 'And do not bring us to the time of trial.’ We need deliverance. We need help. God provides.

In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus shows us how to pray. We pray to our Father for his priorities and our needs. But Jesus doesn't leave it there. He then shows us why we should pray. Here's why we can and should pray - so if your prayer life needs a helping hand, here's the encouragement to pray to our Father.

He tells a story of a man at midnight who's caught in a pickle, because he hasn't got any pickle, or anything to put it on. A friend has come, and he's got nothing for supper. So he goes round to his friend's house, asking to lend him three loaves of bread. His friend hears the door, but doesn't want to help him. He’s in bed, the security alarm is on. But even if he won’t help him because he is his friend, Jesus says he will help because of his persistence.

We get the point of the story in verse 9: ‘So I say to you (when you’re praying!): Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.’ We aren’t going to a friend, not knowing how they will respond. We’re coming to our Father, who will surely help - we just need to ask!

Do you see how verse 11 builds on this? Jesus looks at the disciples. Think of dinner time. Your child asks you a fish. Are you going to lift the lid on the plate and have a scary snake hissing at your child? Not likely! You wouldn’t do it. Or what if your child asks for an egg? Something hard on the outside, so you give them a scorpion? Not at all. You would give your child what they wanted, something that was good for them, not something scary or dangerous.

Look at verse 13. Here’s the contrast. Here’s the step up from the home situation to the heavenly situation. ‘If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children...’ Jesus is saying even bad dads give good gifts. Even in our wickedness, we are able to do good, at least for our children. Well if that’s so... ‘how much more will the heavenly Father give...’ How do you end that sentence? You expect Jesus to say ‘give good gifts...’ But he doesn’t. What is the good gift the Father gives? The Holy Spirit to those who ask him.

Do you remember how in the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for God’s priorities and our needs? We need the Holy Spirit to live for God. We need his power for each day. And God is our heavenly Father, the one who will give us what we need. We just have to ask.

So as you kneel or sit or stand or walk or run or wherever you do it; as you pray this week, remember who you’re speaking to - Almighty God, who is your dad, your father. Seek his priorities, and ask him for your needs. He will answer. He will provide, because he loves you and wants the best for you. So ask, and seek, and knock. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 25th January 2015.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Sermon: Luke 10: 25-37 Who is my Neighbour?

Have you ever asked the question: 'What do I have to do?' Where might you have asked that question? Perhaps when you're given homework - what do I need to do to get it done? How many pages of French or Science do I need to finish? How many questions or how many words is the target? Or maybe when you're in exam season you're wondering how much you have to study to get a good grade. How much work do I have to do to pass or come top of the class? For your sports teams, football, hockey, rugby, netball, you might wonder, how much do I need to practice? How many times a week do I have to turn up? How good do I need to be?

What must I do is a question that Jesus was asked. It wasn't about exam results or sports teams. It was about life, eternal life. 'What must I do to inherit eternal life?' (25). This man was wanting eternal life. He was wanting the reward of heaven. He wanted to know what he had to do. Or, in other words, how good do I need to be to make it to heaven?

When you come along to church, you might ask the very same question. How good do I have to be? How much do I have to do so I can be right with God? So let's see how Jesus answers. Let's see how good is good enough.

The man is an expert in the Law, he knows his Old Testament, he studies it, so Jesus asks how he reads it. 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and Love your neighbour as yourself.' (27).

That's it. Love God with all you have and all you are, perfectly, totally, in every moment with every fibre of your being; and love your neighbour as you love yourself. That's all we have to do. The question is, do we do it? Can we really say that we have loved God with everything even this morning before we came to church? Have we loved our neighbour?

The man seems to think that he has done the first bit. He reckons that he's fine with the loving God stuff. (But is he really? We simply don't love God with everything). He wants to make sure of himself on the second bit. You see, he thinks that he might have a chance of doing it as well.

He quoted from Leviticus 19:18 - 'You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself.'

The verse in its original context seems to say that your neighbour is your own people; the people who are like you, and who you like. Just the people of your own tribe, or people or nation. So if loving your neighbour means just being nice to the people who live next door, or just my friends, or just the people I like (and who like me) then I might be able to do it. You can see the wheels turning in the man's brain - I will be able to love God and love my neighbour.

All the more so because of why he asked the question. Look at the start of verse 29. 'But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbour?"' Who do I have to love like that? He wanted to justify himself. He wanted to make sure that he was in the right. Have you ever discovered at the back of the cupboard a packet of buns or biscuits that were out of date? You eat them all, and then your mum or dad or wife gives off to you. But you try to justify yourself, you try to make yourself be in the right. So you say, "I only ate those buns so that you wouldn't get a sore tummy eating out of date stuff!" You're really doing a good thing, making yourself be in the right.

Jesus answers his question by telling a story. And like some of our stories today, there were three main characters, two of whom you loved and respected and thought were great; and one who you looked down on. A bit like our Paddy Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman stories. So Paddy Englishman, Paddy Irishman and Paddy Scotsman were being chased by the police. They ran into a warehouse, and found three empty sacks lying on the floor. They jumped into one each, and pulled the top closed. The policeman nudged the sack Paddy Englishman was in, and he said "woof, woof!" so the policeman thought it was a dog and left it alone. The policeman nudged the second sack with Paddy Scotsman inside, and he said "meow, meow!" so the policeman thought it was a cat and moved on. The policeman got to the third sack, nudged it with his toe, and Paddy Irishman shouted out "potatoes, potatoes!"

In the story Jesus tells (and we'll need help with each of these), there are three characters. A priest, a religious person who works in the temple and everyone respects. Whenever we use the word 'priest' I want you to shout out 'Amen!'. Next up is a Levite. He's also religious, well respected, and also good. When I say the word 'Levite' I want you to shout out 'Praise the Lord!' And finally, there's a Samaritan. We don't like Samaritans around here. They don't worship God properly, at the temple. They're a bit shifty. So when I say the word 'Samaritan' I want you to 'boo!' So there are the three. Who do you think are going to be helpful? The priest and the Levite.

A man (our churchwwarden) was on a journey from Jerusalem to Jericho. He walks along, up the aisle, always in danger with the scary people lurking near the road. And then he's robbed - his coat and jacket are removed, his tie is loosened, he's bedraggled, and lies down, left for dead. But it's ok, there's a priest (Amen!) coming along. He stops, sees the man lying, and... walks quickly past. The priest (Amen!) didn't help at all. Maybe he was late for a service.

But it's ok, the Levite (Praise the Lord!) is coming. He stops, sees the man lying, and... walks quickly past. The Levite (Praise the Lord!) didn't help either. Well, if those two couldn't help, then there's not much chance of the third one helping. Huh.

The Samaritan (boo!) comes along. Stops. Takes pity. Bandages wounds (with a first aid kit). Pours on oil and wine. Takes him to an inn. Helps him. Pays for his care.

The priest (Amen!) didn't deserve an Amen. The Levite (Praise the Lord!) didn't deserve a Praise the Lord. They are the ones who should be booed. Religious, but no help to anyone. No care, no pity.

The Samaritan (boo!) shouldn't be booed. We don't expect it, yet this was the only one to have mercy. To help. To care. To love his neighbour, whoever he was. Jesus says to go and do likewise.

So we see the standard for eternal life under the law. Perfection. Perfectly loving God, and perfectly loving our neighbour. Every neighbour, no matter who they are or where they come from. We fail to do that. But the good news is that Jesus came to do exactly that. He saw our need. He took pity on us. He came with love and mercy, to obey the law and give himself for sinners.

As we follow Jesus, we can do as he says. We can become more like him, so that we love more, and obey more. So go and do likewise - show your love for God in the way you love your neighbour, whoever they may be.

This sermon was preached at the Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 18th January 2015.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sermon: Luke 10: 1-24 Sent by Jesus

My first job came completely out of the blue. I was 15, and one day I got home from school. Mum said that the owner of the corner shop up the street had rung, asking would I like to work for him. Immediately, I said no, I wanted to play computer games and go to youth club! But with a quick talking to, I started working in Jackie’s.

With the new year started, you might be thinking about a new job. Perhaps you’re fed up where you are, so you get the paper and look through the job adverts. No matter what job it is, you normally get the same sort of information in the ads. Firstly, there’s a vacancy, there’s a job to be done; secondly, there’s the job description, some sort of details about what is to be done, what you have to do in the job; and thirdly, there’s the reward, the wages, what you get out of the job.

It struck me as I was studying the passage this week, that this is what we have in the first part of Luke 10 - a job vacancy, a job description, and the job’s rewards. Jesus is on his way up to Jerusalem. We saw last week that he calls us to follow him, even though it isn’t always easy, it’s urgent, and it needs determination to press on. This week’s passage follows on directly. As we follow Jesus, we find that he sends us out in his service.

Jesus is on the road. He has set his face to go to up to Jerusalem. He has an appointment with the cross. But as he goes, he sends seventy, two by two, to prepare the way for him. They go to every town he is coming to. But look at how he sends them out: ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’ (2)

There’s a vacancy to be filled. In fact, there are lots of vacant posts to be filled. When the harvest time comes around, it’s all hands on deck. Friends in Scotland tell me they still have a week’s holidays for the potato harvest (even in schools in the middle of the city!). As Jesus looks out, he sees a harvest, not of potatoes or wheat, but of people. People ready to accept him and believe the good news, but they need to be brought in. They need to be harvested. The gospel workers are few.

The cry goes out to ask the Lord of the harvest to send workers. When we see the need for workers, we need to pray to the Lord. Are we stirred to pray for gospel workers, not just here in Northern Ireland, but across the world? Will we join in the Lord’s other prayer?

So we pray, asking God to send out labourers. The need is there, the vacancy is advertised. Yet from verse 2 to 3, the disciples are the answer to their prayer! Ask the Lord to send? Go on your way!

Have you ever discovered that you only really know what the job is whenever you’re in it? The seventy disciples are sent, they’re on their way, and Jesus fills in their task. Here’s the job description. ‘I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.’ Bringing the news of peace, the news of God’s kingdom is amazing, but it’s also a wee bit scary sometimes. They’re to take nothing with them, just to live on what they’ve given, and bring the message of God’s kingdom coming near. Notice that it’s the same message whether they are received well (9) or rejected (11). Their labour doesn’t depend on the response - the kingdom comes in blessing and in judgement.

In verse 12, we find mention of Sodom. Now, back before Christmas, we heard of its destruction for great wickedness. Yet Jesus says it will be better for Sodom than for the town that rejects these labourers. And those pagan cities, Tyre and Sidon, they too will fare better at the judgement than Chorazin and Bethsaida. If they had seen the same deeds of power, demonstrating God’s kingdom, they would have repented. But the towns of Israel, they refuse to listen.

But who is it they’re not listening to? Peter Westmacott lives in the United States. You could walk past him in the street and not recognise him. His name probably doesn’t even mean anything to you. Yet he meets with the US President regularly, because he is Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the USA. When he speaks, he speaks on behalf of the Queen. That’s the idea in verse 16: ‘Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.’ There’s a chain of command, a sending out by the sent one. The Father sends Jesus, who sends us. To refuse to listen to us is to refuse to listen to Jesus and the Father.

This is the job description of every Christian - to be sent out, to speak for Jesus, by bringing the kingdom to the places we find ourselves. So are we willing to go? Are we ready to go to the places God has prepared for us?

When we do go, there’s a great joy in seeing how God acts. There are reasons for rejoicing. In verse 17, the seventy return with wonderful stories of their experiences. What a great reward! They saw demons submitting to the name of Jesus. Jesus had a vision of Satan falling from heaven. All amazing stuff. Yet look at what Jesus says about it in verse 20: ‘do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’

What is the ground of our rejoicing? Not in the amazing experiences we have, but just that our names are written in heaven. To be a member of the kingdom is the grounds for rejoicing! To be known by God beats any spiritual experience we might have. Your feelings can fluctuate, go up and down; but the fact of being saved by God is unchanging - and this is what leads us to rejoice.

Jesus also rejoices, because God’s will is being done. You see, as the labourers are sent out, people make their choice whether they listen or not; whether they believe or don’t. At the same time, though, God is accomplishing his will. God has chosen this way to proclaim his kingdom - it’s hidden from the wise and the intelligent (or at least the people who think themselves to be too wise and too clever to need God). By refusing to listen, they exclude themselves. But God reveals the kingdom to ‘infants,’ to those who will listen, to those God has chosen to listen and reveal himself.

If this is what causes Jesus to rejoice, then it should cause us to rejoice as well. Even the preacher can be tempted to think (sometimes), I’m so pleased, that was a really great sermon today! But our rejoicing isn’t in what we’ve done, but in what Christ has done for us - revealed himself to us in his word, and brought us into his family. This is where blessing lies - to be with Jesus, to see him and to hear him. The disciples were blessed, but we are too, as we come to know Jesus.

When we rejoice that we are indeed children of God, we see the need for other people to come to know him as well. We see the job vacancy, the need for gospel workers, for people to share the good news, across the world and across the street. We’ll be motivated to pray, to ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers. And as we pray, we’ll find that the Lord is sending us as well. So let’s pray, and let’s go, to the people we meet this week, as we bring the news of peace, of God’s kingdom come.

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

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Sermon: Luke 9: 51-62 Follow Me

The buzz of Christmas is almost over. The tree might be already down. You might be glad to see the end of it. How did you spend your Christmas night? Perhaps you were with family or friends, taking things easy, enjoying the chat or what was on the telly, or maybe even playing board games. Right across the country, though, there were some hardy souls who took an early night. They set their alarm for the early hours. They got up before the scrake of dawn, and headed off to join a queue to be there for 5am for the start of the Next sale. For the sake of the bargains, everything else took second place - sleep, comfort, laziness. Maybe when they wakened they wanted to lie on, but to get the special prices, they got up anyway. They set their face, nothing (and nobody) would stand in their way.

As we rejoin Luke’s gospel at the end of chapter 9, we find Jesus with the same determination. But it’s not for sale bargains that he’s setting his face. ‘When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his fcae to go to Jerusalem.’ Earlier in chapter 9, Peter had declared that Jesus was the Messiah of God (20). Jesus then met with Moses and Elijah to discuss his ‘departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem’ (31). The time is drawing near, Jesus has an appointment with the cross, the means of his being taken up again to glory. So he sets his face toward Jerusalem.

Over the next couple of months, we’re going to go with Jesus on the journey to Jerusalem. We’ll listen in to his teaching. We’ll discover more about the kingdom of God, and Jesus the King. But today, as he begins his journey, we hear his call to follow him, to go with him to and through the cross. We’ll see what following Jesus looks like, and also see some of the different responses to Jesus.

The first response comes in verses 52-56. Jesus sends messengers ahead to get things ready for him. They’re passing through Samaritan territory, but the response isn’t good. You see, the Jews and the Samaritans didn’t get on. They hated each other, because each didn’t think the other worshipped God the right way. Because Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, they ‘did not receive him.’ They don’t want to help him on his way. The guest houses suddenly have ‘no vacancy’ signs in the windows. The cafes are closing up. We don’t want your sort around here.

They see Jesus as just another Jew, another person from the group they hate. They reject him before they even listen to him. They have written him off already. Prejudice about Jesus is all too rife. Imagine the pity of the scene - the King is passing through on his way to the cross; the Saviour has come, but they all turn their backs and tell him to move on and get out.

But prejudice isn’t just something that non-Christians have. James and John jump in to give them what they think they deserve. Together they were called the Sons of Thunder, and here we see why. ‘they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ Let’s give them fire from heaven for refusing you, Jesus. But Jesus rebukes them. Following him isn’t about using and abusing power to sort people out and give them what we think they deserve. Jesus continues on his way to the cross.

On the road, we meet a variety of volunteers & conscripts. In each of the three conversations, the word ‘follow’ is used. But even though the word is used, the action doesn’t follow through. There’s plenty of talk of following, but not much actual following. Each conversation gives us a glimpse of what following Jesus looks like.

Firstly, it’s not easy or comfortable. The first man’s words sound impressive: ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ That sounds great, get him signed up, watch him follow closely. What Jesus says in reply sounds strange, but actually gets to the heart of the man’s problem. ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ (58). Jesus doesn’t move from mansion to mansion; he’s not staying in the penthouse suite of the Hilton in each town. It’s not easy, and it’s not comfortable. He has nowhere to lay his head. He’s always on the move, edging closer to Jerusalem and the cross.

Have we imagined that following Jesus is always going to be easy? Do we say we’ll follow Jesus wherever, so long as he leaves us where we are? Are there things he has called you to do, to follow him in, but you’re reluctant to take a step out? Is he calling you to go somewhere when you want to stay put? Following is not always easy or comfortable, but it’s worth it to be with Jesus.

Second, following Jesus is urgent. The first man came up to offer his services. In the second, Jesus gives the charge: ‘Follow me.’ The man gives what sounds like a reasonable answer. ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ I’ve duties to perform, rites and ceremonies to fulfil to make sure my father has a proper decent funeral. Let me do that, then I’ll go. But there’s no indication that his father is actually dead! If he had just died, his son wouldn’t be out on the road listening to Jesus. He would have been at home, already doing all those duties. What he’s really saying is - wait until my father dies, then I’ll come and follow you, if you can wait ten or twenty years... But Jesus’ reply shows that there’s an urgency to following him: ‘Let the dead bury their dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’

Let those who are spiritually dead bury those who are dead. Don’t delay. Don’t hesitate. Get on with following Jesus, proclaiming the kingdom in your life and words. Have we tried to put off following Jesus? We’re happy to come to church, but hold back from making a commitment to Jesus? We’ll wait until it suits us, when we’re old & have nothing else to do. Or wait til we’re on on our deathbed it’ll be time enough then? Following Jesus is an urgent priority.

Finally, following Jesus takes determination to press on. The third man volunteers to go, but wants to say farewell at home first. After all, he doesn’t know when (or if) he’ll be back. It’s a reasonable request. But Jesus uses a ploughing picture. ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ If you’re driving a car forward, then you don’t sit looking out the back window, at where you’ve come from. If you’re ploughing, you look straight ahead, keeping your eye on a fixed point to go straight towards it. If you look over your shoulder, if you look back to see how you’ve been doing, you’ll make it crooked.

Are we in danger of looking back to the good old days, rather than pressing forward to what Jesus is calling us to now, this year, and in the future? Are we looking back to what we’ve left behind, the old way of life, the old sins that still seem attractive? Following Jesus is about pressing on, not looking back.

Perhaps you’re just getting back into the swing of things after Christmas (when you don’t know what day it is and there’s nothing but repeats on the TV). You’re wanting a ‘new you’ in the new year. You’re setting targets, resolving resolutions and establishing priorities. Jesus is calling you to follow. Following Jesus is not always easy or comfortable; it’s an urgent call; and it takes determination to press on. He doesn’t shout commands from the sideline. He isn’t pushing you from behind. He calls you to follow - to go where he is; where he has already gone. To, and through the cross, to his glory. Will you follow him today?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 4th January 2015.