Sunday, August 30, 2015

Sermon: Psalm 63 You are my Strength

When was the last time you were really thirsty? Perhaps you were caught up in your work, out in the fields on a hot day, and you suddenly realised you needed a drink. Maybe it was after playing sport, having run around a pitch or court. Maybe you were inside - a hot oven or stirring a big pot of something bubbling on the hob. Or perhaps you were in a nursing home or hospital, where the heat is always high, and you realised you were parched. When were you thirsty?

In our Psalm today, the reason for David’s thirst seems obvious. He is (title) in the wilderness of Judah. He’s in the desert, having fled from Absalom his rebellious son. In the desert there’s lots of rocks and sand, but not much else - no iced water dispensers, no bottles of Evian or Ballygowan, no rivers or streams. Just heat. And sand.

But did you notice, David isn’t thirsting for water. He’s thirsty, but it’s not for water. Verse 1: ‘O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.’ The lack of water isn’t bothering David. The lack of God is. David’s desire is for God. Did you catch the intensity of his words? Earnestly I seek you; thirsts, faints. His physical surroundings reflect his spiritual state. He is spiritually thirsty. David’s desire is for God.

All the more so, because he remembers what he has lost. You see, when David was king in Jersualem, the sanctuary was right beside him. David was beside the tabernacle (before the temple was built). He remembers in verse 2: ‘So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.’ He’s not there any more, he remembers his special times in worship. Yet even now, he holds on to what he knows about God: ‘Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up your hands.’ David desires God, the God of steadfast love, the God who deserves our praise.

David is open about his desperate desire for God - that desperate longing for God. This isn’t just duty, this isn’t just something he feels he has to do. This is intense longing, a passionate desire for God. Would that describe you today? When we gather, are we here because we’re thirsty for God, desperate to meet with him and hear from him?

Perhaps you feel like you’re in a desert right now. Things just aren’t going right at all. You feel far away from God. You miss that intimacy you once had. You desperately want him. Cry out to him. A wee baby doesn’t hold back when she’s hungry. She instinctively cries out to be fed. So cry out - say to God, you are my God. Look to him, and see his power and glory. Desperately desire him.

Because, as David shows us, when we earnestly seek for God, we are found by him. When we desire God, he does indeed give us the desires of our heart. We see that in this one long sentence of verses 5-7. Let’s take it in bits, as we see that David delights in God.

Now, anyone who was at the BBQ on Friday night can relate to verse 5. After the steak and all the rest, and the desserts, we were all well satisfied. We couldn’t have eaten any more. Full up, full to bursting, and maybe too full for the ceilidh dancing. That’s a picture of the satisfaction David feels in his soul - my soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food. Also, my mouth will praise you with joyful lips.

So when will this happen? When will David be satisfied and praising? He’s not in church. He’s not with friends. He’s actually on his own, in the middle of the night. One of my minister mentors called this the hospital psalm, because of verse 6. David will be satisfied and singing ‘when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night.’

A couple of weeks ago, we heard about David’s great night’s sleep, because God was his shield. Well here, David isn’t sleeping so well. He’s seeing every hour pass. He’s lying on his bed - but he doesn’t have a phone to tell him the time. There isn’t an alarm clock with a luminous display counting the passing minutes of sleeplessness. but there are soldiers changing the guard, as one watch takes over from the last. Every few hours, David hears the soldiers relieve their comrades, and he knows time is passing. But do you see what he is doing - remembering, meditating. He’s thinking about God, reflecting on who God is and what he has done.

And as he thinks about God, as he cries out to God, he is satisfied and sings, because of verse 7. ‘For you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.’ David looks back, he remembers what God has done for him. He thinks about how God has been his help. The times God has delivered him. How God protected him against lions and bears and Goliaths. How God kept him safe when fighting enemies. How God had forgiven him when he had gone astray. You have been my help.

When you’re going through the desert, when you’re wandering in the wilderness, when you’re feeling far from God, looking back at God’s faithfulness in the past helps us to trust him for the present and the future. Being surrounded by his wings causes us to sing for joy. Have you know that satisfaction and joy, as you remember the Lord?

David’s delight is crowned in verse 8. Just like a child with their mummy or daddy, it’s one thing for the child to hold their parent’s hand. Far better for the parent to hold their hand. ‘My soul clings to you.’ - It’s a desperate holding, clinging, fearful of letting go. But as we hold on to God, we find that he is holding on to us: ‘your right hand upholds me.’ God holds us up.

And that brings the contrast of the last verses. God is not only David’s desire and delight, but also his defence. God will uphold David, ‘but those who seek to destroy my life shall go down into the depths of the earth.’ It’s like getting into a lift and the attendant asks up or down? God’s people are upheld, but God’s enemies go down - given over to the power of the sword; a portion for jackals (so that the jackals are also satisfied).

This isn’t David expressing a personal hatred of his enemies. You see, those who are against David as God’s king, are setting themselves against God. An attack on God’s king is an attack on God. God will act justly, for truth, against every false claim, and every lie.

In defending the truth, God defends David, his king. The mouths of liars will be stopped. The king will rejoice, and all who swear by him will also exult and praise. Just as David was in the wilderness, so his greater son, King Jesus spent time in the wilderness as well. His battle was with the Satan, the accuser, the father of lies. His temptations? To be satisfied by turning stones into bread; to demand protection by jumping off the temple; to bow down and worship the devil and bypass the cross. Jesus answered each of those with scripture, from Deuteronomy but each has an answer in this Psalm also - desire: earnestly seeking God to worship only him; delight: finding satisfaction in God alone; defence: knowing that God upholds his people and gives over the liar. Jesus triumphed over the father of lies in the desert place. That triumph was completed in the cross and resurrection. The enemy of the king is overthrown, and we can share in that victory.

You might not be in that desert place today; things are going well for you. Praise God, but store up this word in your heart. You never know when you might need it. It’s better to be prepared in advance for the hard times when they come. But if you are in that desert place, then look to God, and find in him your desire, your delight, and your defence.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 30th August 2015.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Book Review: The World of Pangea - Path of a Warrior

Back in the 17th and 18th century, word spread about the possibilities and opportunities of going to the new world. Not too far from here, a museum records the experiences of those who decided to emigrate from rural Tyrone aboard the coffin ships to enter the new world of America. Recently, I ventured into a new world without the dangers of seafaring; in fact, I stayed comfortably on the sofa throughout. It was an enjoyable visit, and I'm already looking forward to the next time I can visit.

The World of Pangea has emerged from the pen of Michael Davies, inspired by the writings of JRR Tolkein and following in the same vein as The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. In this first installment, we're introduced to Pangea through the eyes and experiences of Idris, a boy becoming a man and a warrior. The book opens with his coming-of-age ritual, and continues to develop the strange occurrences during the challenge. In a world of danger, with war on the horizon, this warrior seems ill-equipped to deal with all that's thrown at him.

Davies has worked on his world for about 14 years, and the dedication and commitment shows, with back stories, customs and traditions as the clash of cultures fulfilling ancient prophecy begins. His writing style is interesting, the chapters alternating between first person and third person narration, giving the widest scope for experiencing the story as and beside Idris and his companions, both human and non-human.

My one slight confusion was the assertion that 'The following day the labor of winter began. The sun rose earlier and set later in the north, so the mornings were spent carefully making our way out over the frozen waters, digging large circular holes and catching fish.' It's a fantasy world, so anything is possible, but I would have thought that longer days was impossible in winter!

That one small problem aside, I really did enjoy the book, and will look forward to the rest of the trilogy when published. The reader is quickly caught up in the excitement, joy, drama and pain of Pangea, journeying with Idris on his path of a warrior. If you want to lose yourself for an afternoon, or escape while lying in the sun, this is the book for you.

To further whet your appetite, here are two videos - the first, a trailer for the book, and the second, an interview with the author, Michael Davies.

The World of Pangea - Path of a Warrior is available from Amazon and on Kindle.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Sermon Audio: Psalm 7

When people turn against you, where do you turn? In our short summer series, we've been looking at some of the Psalms from the life of King David, and especially in the time when nothing seemed to be going right for him. Absalom his son has rebelled against him, and set himself up as king. David is fleeing from Jerusalem when a Benjaminite launches a vicious verbal assault on his king's majesty. The only refuge David has is in God himself, so listen in as David declares: 'You are my Shelter.'

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The March of Progress, Google Maps Style

A wee while ago, I was arranging to meet up with a friend for a chat. We wondered where would be convenient to meet, and Costa at Holywood Exchange was suggested. Not knowing there was a Costa at Holywood Exchange (beside Ikea in Belfast), I took to technology to discover where it was. Google Maps is always my friend, and especially their amazing Streetview function. You get to see what places look like before you go there, so you know what to look out for, or which lane to be in.

While perusing Streetview on Google Maps, I discovered that their images, built up over several years have provided a glimpse into the development of the Holywood Exchange retail park, and the building of the Costa coffee shop. Three images, side by side, on one roundabout show the absence, construction, and finished article.

Here's the first, from May 2010.
The site is just waste ground, with the hint of what may be coming, the fence securing the site.

Fast forward to June 2012.
The steelwork of the building is now in place, but there's no hint of any coffee aroma yet - apart from the workmens' flasks.

Finally, we have the most recent image, from April 2015.
Costa is open for business, the building complete and full of customers.

Now, it may well be that I'm the only person on the planet who thinks this is interesting or amazing. I'm fully prepared for that! But isn't technology amazing, to show how one little site in the corner of a carpark has been developed, coming along in stages, progress being made, and only really properly seen in hindsight.

That's one of the reasons I (try to) keep a journal. Little markers along the way, charting moments of growth and progress, giving me the opportunity to look back, to see where I've come from, to celebrate what God is doing. The wasteland is showing signs of life. A new building is emerging - not a coffee emporium, but the temple of the living God as we living stones are built together. That's much more exciting than an espresso or a latte.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sermon: Psalm 7 You are my Shelter

This morning we’re thinking about shelter, but I wonder what comes into your mind when you hear that word shelter. Perhaps it’s huddling under an umbrella, when the rain comes tumbling down, finding some protection from the elements. You get the same idea with a bus shelter - when you’re waiting for a bus, you can stand in under it, to get out of the rain or the wind. The idea is also found in the charity called Shelter, working with the homeless, or in those animal rescue shelters - a safe place, a protected place.

With the children going back to school, though, I began to think back to the best time of the school day (and it wasn’t the home time bell, but it was just better than that) - breaktime and lunchtime. If it wasn’t raining, we were allowed out into the playground. You could play football, or chasies or swop football stickers or pogs or top trumps. If you were ever annoyed by someone, or someone wanted to fight with you, then you knew what to do - get close to Mrs Malcolmson / Osborne / Clarke / Barr. The dinner ladies took no nonsense. No one would dare come near you if you were beside them. The dinner ladies were a shelter, a safe place. A person was a safe place, a shelter. And that’s the idea that David shows us in verse 1. ‘O Lord my God, in you do I take refuge; save me from all my pursuers and deliver me.’

In August we’ve been looking at some of the Psalms from David’s life. Last week we saw how David was able to sleep despite being driven out of Jerusalem by his rebellious son Absalom - because he knew that God was ‘my shield, my glory, and the lifter of my head.’ As David continues on his journey, he is annoyed by the words of this Benjaminite. So he takes refuge in God - he finds that the Lord is a shelter. He needs God to be a shelter, because otherwise he would be torn apart, as if a lion had got him. God is David’s shelter.

Even though we’ve seen that David wasn’t perfect, yet he claims to be innocent of this charge. He appeals to God, his judge. ‘O Lord my God, if I have done this... if, if, if.’ If it was true, then he would deserve for his enemy to triumph. He feels so strongly, he feels wrongly accused, so he cries out to God, who sees all and knows all.

Whenever you’re accused of wrongdoing, how do you handle it? Do you go on the attack? Or do you take it to the Lord, your shelter, your refuge? David it takes it to the Lord in prayer. He appeals to the judge, and rests his case. Selah - that pause, that turning around.

From verse 6, we see David owning God as his vindicator, the one who will show and prove that David is in the right. I wonder would you talk to God like this? ‘Arise, O Lord, in your anger; lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies; awake for me; you have appointed a judgement.’ Do you see the action of those three sentences? Arise, lift yourself, awake. God, don’t just sit there allowing this to happen. God, get up and do something!

It’s almost like the words that will be heard when the schools start again - get up, you’ve to be in school! And what is it that God has to do? Not go to school, but to act as judge.

David seems to be impatient with God - that God is slow to do his job. That God is slow to act on David’s behalf. Have you ever found yourself in the same boat? The wicked seem to get away with their wickedness. Come on, God, don’t let them get away with it! Don’t let them accuse me falsely!

In verse 8, it almost looks as if David has gone too far. He may well be right to be cross with the accusations. He may well be right to call on God. But is he right to claim verse 8? ‘The Lord judges the peoples; judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me.’

It’s one thing to claim to be innocent in one particular charge. It’s another to claim to have righteousness and integrity. All the time? In everything? No slips, no faults, no secrets? It’s one thing to ask for God to judge others - but do we really want God to judge us? To come under his searchlight?

We find the answer in verse 10 and following. ‘My shield is with God, who saves the upright in heart. God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day. If a man does not repent...’ Here’s why David is upright; here’s how David has righteousness and integrity - he hasn’t worked it up himself - he has received it, through repentance.

By taking refuge in the Lord, the righteous judge, David is counted as righteous. For any who will not repent, God is presented as the righteous judge. ‘If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow; he has prepared for him his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts.’

Those who do not repent are in the firing line. The sword, the bow and arrow, all aiming at the sinner. To rebel against God is to sign up for the enemy, to stand in opposition to God, to fight against God. That’s the position we’re all in by nature, and unless we have done something about it, then we’re still in the firing line. God is angry at sin - not an unpredictable, vindictive anger the way some people might be; but a perfect, holy indignation against sin, all that dishonours him and rejects his way.

Alongside God’s anger, we’re also afflicted on the inside. It’s as if David brings us to the maternity ward to give us an examination. The wicked man conceives evil, is pregnant with mischief and gives birth to lies. Our sin comes from inside, and destroys us from the inside.

It’s almost like one of those Tom and Jerry or Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote cartoons. ‘He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole he has made. His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own skull his violence descends.’ Our acts of sin return on us, and destroy us. By continuing in sin, not only are we our own worst enemies, but also, we have God as our enemy.

David finds comfort in these verses, as he looks forward to the end of evil enemies. But this might be the wake-up call we need. Perhaps you will consider your ways, and realise the end of your own path. It doesn’t have to be that way.

You too can experience the assurance David knew. You can also be confident of standing in the judgement. You see, God is our refuge, our shelter. Out of his great love for us, he turned his weapons on his precious Son. Jesus bore the punishment we deserve. Jesus died the death we deserve. He takes away our sin, and instead he gives us his perfect righteousness - the righteousness that David knew as his own, a gift from God.

When we take refuge in God, the accuser can shout all he wants. But he is powerless to change God’s verdict on us - the judgement revealed before the day of judgement: there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. That’s why David turns to thanks and praise - for his righteousness. Can you sing his praise today?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 23rd August 2015.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Sermon Audio: Psalm 3

On Sunday we continued with some of the Psalms from the life of King David. After Absalom begins a rebellion against his father, David flees from the palace and the city of Jerusalem. Many foes are against him, yet he declares that he lay down and slept, and woke again. How was this possible? The secret comes in knowing and saying to the Lord: You are my Shield.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sermon: Psalm 3 You are my Shield

Did you sleep well last night? Was it a nice, long, refreshing sleep and you woke this morning ready to take on the world? Or was it one of those disturbed, seeing every hour, tossing and turning type of nights? According to some survey or other, 25% of people in the UK have some form of sleep disorder - they can’t sleep at night, and then could sleep all day, feeling tired.

Maybe you couldn’t sleep because someone else was snoring (as all the ladies look at their husbands...) - or perhaps you woke yourself up from your snoring! Some people even have ruined sleep by sleepwalking or sleeptalking.

Or maybe you weren’t able to sleep because of a worry you have - you can’t seem to switch off, you’re always thinking about it, always worrying about it.

In our Psalm today, David describes his night’s sleep. Look with me at verse 5. ‘I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me.’ Well, that’s all right for him, you might think. David was the king, he was probably in his royal palace with a four poster bed and a comfortable mattress and a nice duvet. Of course he was sleeping well. If I was in Buckingham Palace I would have a great sleep as well!

But these Psalms we’re looking at this summer are Psalms from David’s life. They are all in response to events that David was living through. When we read the title of the Psalm, the little capital letters, we see that David wasn’t in his palace. David wasn’t even in the city. He was on the run. ‘A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.’

David was king in Jerusalem, but his son Absalom had risen in rebellion against him. Absalom comes towards the city, and David runs away. He flees. Everyone seems to have turned against him. Look at verses 1-2. Here’s how desperate the situation is:

‘O LORD, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; many are saying of my soul, there is no salvation for him in God.’

It’s as if David is looking behind him, and he sees the crowd following Absalom, many foes; many risen against me; many talking about me. If it goes on numbers, then David is finished. All these people are against him, they’re out to get him. And they reckon that God doesn’t want him either.

Now, picture yourself in David’s position. You’ve had to flee from your house and your hometown. You’re with a small band of followers, and evening comes. You’re not lying in your palace, you’re lying on the ground. Do you think you would sleep much? Would you not lie awake, listening for the noise of Absalom’s army? Would you be able to sleep for fear of what might happen?

So how do we get from this desperate situation in verses 1-2 to verse 5, where David lay down, slept, and woke again? We have to go through verses 3 and 4. And as we do that, we also have to deal with the extra wee word at the end of verse 2 and 4. Selah. No one quite knows what it means, but it’s found in loads of Psalms. Some think it’s a musical term, but it seems like it’s a pause for thought indicator. It comes at the end of verse 2, as if David is reflecting on this situation.

Everyone else has it in for me. ‘But you, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory and the lifter of my head.’ Here’s the reason David could sleep so well, even with all these people out to get him. He knows that the LORD, the promise making, promise keeping God is three things: a shield about me - God is like a shield, protecting us; my glory - the one who David delights in, the one whose opinion really counts; and the lifter of my head. With all these people against him, with all his worries and woes, David’s head must have been down. But God lifts his head, gives him strength and grace and purpose.

And how does David know this? How does this work out in his life? ‘I cried out to the LORD, and he answered me from his holy hill.’ David might have left the ark behind. David might not be in Jerusalem any more. But God still hears David, and answers David. (Selah - pause)

When you know that God is in control, when you know that God is in charge, when you know that God is for you, then you don’t need to fear anyone or anything. So even on the rough ground, David had a good night’s sleep. He did it, ‘for the LORD sustained me.’ And do you see how he keeps going in verse 6? ‘I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.’

David isn’t trusting in his own strength. He doesn’t think that he can take them all himself. David’s trust is in his shield, his glory, the lifter of his head. And so he calls God to action: ‘Arise, O LORD! Save me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked.’

It’s God who acts to save, not David. It’s God who deals with David’s enemies, striking them on the cheek, breaking their teeth. Then they won’t be able to bite. They won’t be able to speak out the accusing threats.

Verse 8 brings the Psalm to a close, and shows us the message of the Psalm in one little easy to remember sentence. Despite the big problem David had; despite all the people after him; David was able to lie down and sleep. He wasn’t depending on himself. His trust was in God, because he knows the truth of verse 8.

‘Salvation belongs to the LORD; your blessing be on your people.’

Salvation belongs to the LORD. David the king recognised this, but we also hear another king singing the same song. This king knew what it was to have massive opposition; for people to taunt him about his God; for people to question his faith. Yet as he trusted in God, so he passed through (not just sleep, but) death and woke again, because the Lord sustained him.

Jesus has endured the scorn and opposition to provide his salvation. Jesus is the one who shields us, is our glory, and lifts up our head. Because salvation belongs to the Lord, so he provides blessings to his people. There’s another Selah at the end - a great reminder to pause, reflect, and take in this great truth before we rush on with the rest of today.

When it comes bedtime tonight, how will you sleep? When the litany of worries begins, could you join with David in recognising who your God is - your shield, your glory, the lifter of your head? And as you do so, cry out to him. As someone once said, when you can’t sleep, rather than counting sheep, speak to the shepherd, who is your Lord.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 16th August 2015.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Sermon Audio: Psalm 51

On Sunday morning, we began a new short summer sermon series of Summer Psalms: The King Sings. We're listening in as David the king sings some autobiographical Psalms. Having committed coveting, adultery with Bathsheba, and the murder of her husband Uriah, David is confronted by Nathan the prophet. Psalm 51 is David's response, as he declares to God: 'You are my salvation.' Listen in as David sees the greatness of his sin, and his even greater Saviour.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Book Review: Time for Every Thing?

Coming up to my holiday this year, I was getting stressed. The list of things to do kept growing, while the time and power and ability to do them all was diminishing with each day. I got there, and was able to get away and relax away from phones and emails and sermons. At just the right time, my review copy of Matt Fuller's new book 'Time for Every Thing? - How to be busy without feeling burdened' came in the post. The very book for me and my situation. And it really and truly was (and will be!).

This isn't a long book (which is a good thing, given its topic), but it's packed full of helpful advice and wise counsel, built solidly on biblical foundations. In the opening chapter, Fuller quickly diagnoses the problem. 'Time. I would love to have more of it.' Writing about the invention of the pocket watch, he comments, 'Ever since then, we've been able to carry around with us a ticking measure of the day's disappearance.' But even more importantly, 'what needs to change is how my heart views those hours.' While we try to pack too much in (or else waste it), building on Ecclesiastes 3, he writes, 'There may be a time for everything that God expects, but there is not time for every thing that could be done.'

The first part of the book lays the foundations. Through the chapters, we explore why we're feeling worn out and weighed down - and the burdens we need to lay down (religious rules, a need to prove myself, expectations, needs of others, and our own security); the rest that Jesus offers (rest in life, not from life), including a helpful mini Bible tour of the concept of rest, through creation, Sabbath, and the land. This chapter on rest also included the helpful insight that even the yoke of Jesus is good news - that he has laid out good works for us to do, in his steam, not our own.

There are some great pearls of wisdom as he thinks about trusting God in 'trusting work, not anxious toil' (Ps 127). The antidote to stressful toil is in 'knowing that the living God will provide what we need.' This runs counter to today's culture where being busy seems to be cool. This continues into the chapter on time wasting - which comes from both being idle or easily distracted, as well as focusing on the wrong things. Commenting on the parable of the talents, comes this gem: 'You can gain everything life has to offer, and have wasted your life.'

In the remaining chapters, Fuller walks the reader through priorities, work, family, church and leisure. The practical wisdom comes thick and fast, with lots to think about and apply. Rather than thinking that this book will enable us to find time for everything, he writes, 'How do we find time for everything? Well, the simple answer is: we don't - but there is time for every thing that God wants us to do.' Explaining the Ephesians 2:10 good works God has prepared for us in advance, we don't need to feel guilty over other good things which are left undone. He then sets out some principles based on the freedom to serve between the 'floor of obedience' and the 'ceiling of obedience' - to do less is sin, to go beyond is idolatry, but within those parameters there is freedom. This was very helpful to think through and apply.

The chapter on church was good, in showing the essential nature of meeting together - which even acts as a solution to the Sunday blues, because we see Sunday as the first day of the week, rather than Monday morning. The togetherness of church is emphasised, meeting together, asking who have you encouraged rather than what have I got out of it myself? Comparing and contrasting church with social media, the stand out line was: 'We need to meet, not just connect.'

The chapter on leisure was also good (and not just because I was coming into my holidays). The suggestion to find what is genuinely refreshing was helpful - and led to conviction over my poor camera, sitting in its bag having been neglected for a while. Hopefully I'll find time to get to know it again, to savour God's creation. As Fuller writes, 'Learning what drains us and what refreshes us makes a massive difference to how tired we feel.'

The final chapter provides the challenge to put in place the things we've learned throughout. 'What changes should I make in order to maximise my faithfulness in serving the Lord with the time he has given me?' While we can't do everything, Jesus says to do what you can (like the woman with the alabaster jar). And in doing it, be reliable and deliberate.

This was a great book. In my own case, very timely, providing both encouragement and challenge. Anyone could read it with profit, but particularly if you're feeling the pressure on your time and wondering what to do about it. Thank you to Matt Fuller for writing it and sharing the ideas, and thank you to The Good Book Company for the review copy.

Time For Every Thing? is available from The Good Book Company and in ebook format.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Sermon: Psalm 51 You are my Salvation

Here’s a sentence I didn’t ever think I would say: ‘I would have to agree with Elton John.’ While there’s lots of things I would disagree with him, I think he got it spot on when he sang ‘Sorry seems to be the hardest word.’ Just think of the last time you were in the wrong - and you try to argue your way out of it; your inner lawyer jumps to your defence to give reasons or excuses. Lots of other words come to mind. Sorry seems to be the hardest word.

If that’s true for us, then it seems to be even more so for those in the public eye. Politicians, sport stars, celebrities all seem to find it hard to say sorry when they’ve been caught out and the scandal breaks. There’s that special, ‘I’m sorry if anyone was offended’ which they don’t mean; and the statement which says I’m sorry I’ve been caught - rather than being sorry for what I’ve done. Sorry seems to be the hardest word.

Over these next few weeks, we’re looking at some of the Psalms from David’s life. Today, in Psalm 51, he’s saying sorry to God. The superscription - the little capital letters at the top of the Psalm - tell us when this Psalm was written: ‘when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.’ We heard the story in 2 Samuel 11-12. David had spied Bathsheba, committed adultery with her, and she was pregnant. Her husband was away fighting David’s battles, so David brings him back to try to cover up his involvement. Uriah is more honourable, so David resorts to murder. He thinks he has gotten away with it. No one knows. It hasn’t made it into the Sunday World or the Jerusalem Times. ‘But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD.’

God sends Nathan to speak to David, exposes his sin in his parable of the little lamb, and David is convicted. Psalm 51 is David’s response - not a polished press release, or a hush-up, say little public apology. This is a no-holds-barred confession, saying sorry to God. In it, we see what the writer of the hymn ‘Beneath the Cross of Jesus’ says: ‘two wonders I confess: the wonders of redeeming love and my own worthlessness.’ We see our sin, and our Saviour.

As we dive in to the Psalm, we’ll take it in blocks of three verses each as we see the request, the root of the problem, restoration, the result, and the wider application. So first, verses 1-3, the request. David knows that he deserves nothing, so he doesn’t ask for justice. None of us could stand if God gave us what we deserve. David asks for mercy: ‘Have mercy on me, O God.’ God, I don’t deserve anything, I need your mercy. But he can ask for mercy because of who he is speaking to - ‘according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy.’ He knows that God is full of steadfast (covenant) love, and full of mercy. So he requests God’s mercy, to ‘blot out my transgressions.’ - to wipe them away, to get rid of them. He needs to be cleansed and washed from, do you see, his transgressions, iniquity and sin, because they are ever with him, ever before him. He can’t sort himself out. He can’t clean himself up - if you have dirty hands and you wipe your face, you just get dirtier... So he makes this request for mercy.

He need this request because he then addresses the root of the problem: his sin, which brings separation from God. Now, having heard from 2 Samuel, verse 4 sounds strange. ‘Against you, you only, have I sinned.’ And you want to shout out, but David, what about Bathsheba and Uriah? But David is right. All sin is ultimately against God - whatever our sin of choice might be, and whoever suffers, it is ultimately against God - not just a breaking of God’s law, but a breaking of God’s heart. You see God delights in truth in the inward being, God is justified in his words and blameless in his judgement. But we can’t stand because v5 we were brought forth in iniquity and conceived in sin. We don’t start off pure and holy and then learn how to do evil. We are born in and into sin, we’re corrupt already, following our parents and our first parents, Adam and Eve. Our sin runs up against this holy God, and this is the root of our problem. So what do we need? What did David need?

Restoration (v7-12). We need to be restored, as God deals with our sins - to cleanse, wash, blot them out (7-9), and then makes us new in verse 10-12. ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.’ This isn’t something we can work up in ourselves - we need God to do this work of creation and new creation in us. A clean, new heart, not ruled by sin, but listening to God. By giving us the Holy Spirit to fill us and change us. By restoring in us the joy of salvation. You see, it’s only when you realise the depths of your sin that you know the joy of salvation.

This restoration isn’t just taking away my sin, it’s also adding more than we ever had before. So, say that you owed the bank a massive sum of money. Forgiveness is the bank manager cancelling your debt. So you don’t owe any money, but you don’t have any money either. But this restoration that God provides is as if that friendly bank manager not only forgave your debts, but then put a million pounds in your bank account. We don’t deserve it, but God restores, gives us more than we could ever imagine.

And this restoration leads to the result of verses 13-15. When we have been restored, we want others to experience that joy as well. ‘Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.’ Our message can never be ‘you’re so bad, you need to repent’ - but rather it’s ‘I’m so bad, but God forgave me, and he’ll forgive you too.’ Look at what God has done for me! Another result will be that we praise the Lord - ‘my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.’

David doesn’t say, I’ll sing perfectly in tune. He says I will sing aloud of your righteousness. So sing up, or at least make a joyful noise! Don’t just stand there, waiting until the hymn is over so you can sit down again. Sing out your praise to God!

The final verses might seem a little bit contradictory. You see, verse 16 says that God doesn’t want sacrifice or burnt offerings, but verse 19 talks about God delighting in sacrifices and burnt offerings. So which is it? Does God want sacrifices or not? Verse 17 gives us the key: ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.’

God had given the sacrificial system in the first place. The whole range of sacrifices laid out in Leviticus point to Jesus. But in David’s day it would be easy to bring a bull to be slaughtered because that was what you did. It was an external act, on the outside it might look like you’re turning from your sin and turning to God, but who could tell?

God desires truth in the inward being (6). God sees what’s on the inside. So what matters most is the broken spirit, in sorrow at our sin, really, truly sorry, and turning to God in repentance and faith. In a moment, we’ll say the words of the confession. You could probably say it without looking at the words, and without thinking. But have you really confessed? God is looking for the broken spirit, not whether you say all the right words in all the right places.

When Nathan comes to David, David is convicted of his sin. He sees himself as he really is. His transgressions, iniquity and sin. His innate sinfulness. His inability to help himself or save himself. And it breaks his heart, for having offended against a holy God.

Yet in this Psalm, he also sees his Saviour. The God who sees and knows and acknowledges the cry of a broken heart. The God who cleanses, heals, and restores more than we have lost. The God who is holy. The God who is steadfast love and abundant mercy. The God who would give his own Son, in the death on the cross, where his holiness and mercy meet, and our sins are forgiven, our debt is paid, and we are given his righteousness, credited to our account.

So come today, with your heart broken for your sin. Whatever you have done. Whatever burdens you bear. Whatever guilt you carry. Lay them down. Come in confession. And come to the table, to remember his love and receive his grace.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 9th August 2015.