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.