Saturday, December 31, 2016

Watchnight Sermon: Philippians 3: 13-14 Pressing on

In a matter of minutes, we’ll be into the new year. For many people, that means that their new year’s resolutions kick in. I wonder if you can guess what the top resolutions in the UK are?

1. Lose weight. 2. Get organised. 3. Spend less, save more. 4. Enjoy life to the fullest. 5. Stay fit and healthy. 6. Learn something exciting. 7. Quit smoking. 8 Help others achieve their dreams. 9. Fall in love. 10 Spend more time with family.

I wonder if your resolution is in that list? Or maybe you’ve resolved something else? This time last year, a group of people resolved to read through the Bible in a year - and they’ve now done it (and are starting through it again tomorrow!). Perhaps you could join us this year - pick up a reading plan in the porch.

When you think of it, most resolutions bring about some sort of change - we say to ourselves, things are going to be different this year. Our resolutions make us say no to some things, in order to say yes to our target. So if we want to lose weight, we say no to the sticky buns and yes to the fruit and veg. Or we’ll say no to just dumping everything in a big pile, and yes to putting everything neatly in its place, if we want to get organised. It takes some effort, but it’ll be worth it in the end.

Well, in our reading tonight from Philippians, we find what looks like a new year’s resolution. Except, this isn’t just something to try for a week or two; this isn’t just for one year; this is Paul’s lifetime resolution. His ongoing aim:

‘But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.’ (Phil 3:13-14)

This is the one thing Paul does; the aim and direction of his life. His eye is on the upward call of God in Christ Jesus, he cannot wait to be face to face with God in heaven. As he presses on towards the prize, he cannot go in any other direction.

When I was learning to drive, I had a bad habit. When reversing, I didn’t shift around to look out the back window; I would try to use the mirrors. My poor driving instructor told me that I wouldn’t look out the back window when I was going forward, so why would I look out the front when I was reversing. There’s wisdom in that. Look the way you’re going! Or, as Paul says, ‘forgetting what lies behind.’

This past year may have been one of joy, or one of sorrow. You may have enjoyed everything about it, or struggled to make it to this point. No matter what, Paul urges us to (respectfully) forget about it. Don’t dwell in the past - either your successes or your failures. Don’t look backwards at things which can’t be changed.

Earlier in Phil 3, Paul tells us about his own past, his confidence in the flesh - how he worked so hard to earn his way to heaven with God. He thought he had it all, only to realise that it was all loss, rubbish (dung). Perhaps this year we’ve been trying to work our way into God’s good books; we’ve been putting our efforts into things that don’t profit. Listen to Paul: he forgets what lies behind.

Instead, he strains forward to what lies ahead. When I take our dogs for a walk, you would think that it’s them taking me for a walk. They don’t walk sedately by my side, no, they’re straining forward, almost pulling me along. It’s that sort of image Paul gives us of the one thing he does. He was probably thinking of the Olympics, the athletes straining forward for the prize. We watched the Rio games this summer, Usain Bolt winning even more gold medals. Even now, three and a bit years away, athletes are training to win gold at Tokyo 2020.

But our prize is more certain. The upward call of God is made possible through Jesus - our place in heaven is secured by his death for us. We receive his righteousness by faith (not by our works). Our future is secure; and so we can press on, straining forward to what lies ahead. As Paul puts it in verse 12: ‘I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.’

In verse 10 Paul tells us what this straining forward looks like - knowing Christ, and the power of his resurrection, AND sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. It’s not always easy to press on. And yet, with the prospect of heaven before us, it’s no wonder Paul makes this the one thing he does - forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.

Will you make this your resolution this year?

This sermon was preached at the Watchnight Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Saturday 31st December 2016.

2016 Books

Each year I like to keep a record of the books I've read, and pick my top five. As with last year, the blog book reviews dried up, but some reading continued, and in fact, more than last year! Here are the books I've read in 2016:

1. Do More Better - Tim Challies
2. Trusting God - Even When Life Hurts - Jerry Bridges
3. A Sweet and Bitter Providence - John Piper
4. Though He Slay Me - Jamie Freeman
5. James For You - Sam Allberry
6. Prayer - Tim Keller
7. Why Vote Leave - Daniel Hannan
8. To Fly To Serve - Adrian Reynolds
9. Christ and His People - Mark Ashton
10. Zeal Without Burnout - Christopher Ash

11. I Predict A Riot - Colin Bateman
12. Awe - Paul David Tripp
13. The Road to Little Dribbling - Bill Bryson
14. Why the Reformation Still Matters - Michael Reeves & Tim Chester
15. Rogue Lawyer - John Grisham
16. Paul - A Pastor's Heart - Paul Barnett
17. Go Set A Watchman - Harper Lee
18. Faith of our Father - Dale Ralph Davis
19. Driving Big Davie - Colin Bateman
20. The Imperfect Pastor - Zack Eswine

21. Let The Earth Hear His Voice - Greg Scharf
22. The Plausibility Problem - Ed Shaw
23. Belfast Confidential - Colin Bateman

My top five books for the year are:
1. The Plausibility Problem
2. Zeal Without Burnout
3. The Imperfect Pastor
4. Go Set a Watchman
5. The Road to Little Dribbling

Here are the links to previous years' book blogs: 2015 (21); 2014 (26); 2013 (45); 2012 (49); 2011 (37); 2010 (52); 2009 (41); 2008 (23); 2007 (78).

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Sermon: Isaiah 9:6 Nativity Names

When a baby is born, there seems to be a few questions which are always asked. When was the baby born? How heavy was the baby? And what are they calling it? And so when you hear those details, they are committed to memory, to share with whoever asks those self same questions!

In our readings tonight, we hear of two birth announcements, both for the same birth. One is made after it happens, the way birth announcements normally work - when the angels announce the good news to the shepherds; but the other announcement was made about 700 years before the baby was born. Imagine, that those words of Isaiah were written down so long before the event, and yet he gets the details spot on.

Forget about what weight the baby was - it probably doesn’t matter. Isaiah focuses in on the important question - what are they calling it? In verse 6, we’re given the names of the child born to us, the son given to us. But these aren’t the usual sort of names you might hear in the school roll call; you wouldn’t get these names being shouted in the park or the playground. Speaking of unusual and rare names - it seems that the name Gary could become extinct: only 33 babies born in the UK in 2014 were called Gary. Us Garys are an endangered species!

But rather than being just rarely used, and unusual, the names we find in Isaiah 9:6 are unique names, names for only one person in the whole of history, names that wouldn’t fit anyone else. (You know the way some people say, oh, you look like a Gertrude, or you don’t look like a Colin...). Well these names fit this baby of Bethlehem. They tell us who is in the manger.

First up, he is the Wonderful Counsellor. Now, that’s not a lovely local member of the district council - this Counsellor provides wonderful counsel. He’s one who draws alongside, who stands with you, who provides wisdom, giving help in time of need. Remember when some of the crowds will leave when Jesus says some hard things in John 6? Jesus says to the twelve, will you also leave? Peter answers, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ If you’re wondering about the future; if you’re unsure where to turn; if you need some wisdom - come to the Wonderful Counsellor, the fount of wisdom.

This baby is also the Mighty God. This is no ordinary baby - this is God himself, stepping down to be born as a baby, still powerful and mighty. It doesn’t take long to think of the ways in which this baby will show his power - as he walks on water; as he calms the storm; as he drives out diseases, and makes the lame leap for joy. God has come near, and is lying in the manger. He is almighty, all-powerful, and can do all things. What is it you need him to do? Come to the Mighty God, the source of power.

Thirdly, we see that this baby is the Everlasting Father, or as some would suggest, ‘Father of eternity’. He is in the position of authority for all eternity. Indeed, as Isaiah goes on to say, ‘of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end.’ We’re so used to things having expiry dates - the first mince pies that Tesco had on their shelves back in September would be out of date by now! We update our cars and clothes. But the kingdom of Jesus goes on for eternity, and we’re invited to be with him. Come to the Everlasting Father, and worship him now and forevermore.

The final name for the baby is Prince of Peace. The baby lying in the manger is the one who brings peace. That’s what the host of angels confirmed, as they sang ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’ In a world of war, we long for the peace that he brings. Even in recent days, when we hear of the Berlin lorry attack; fighting in Aleppo in Syria; as well as the places that don’t make it into the news, or which we’ve simply forgotten about; we long for peace.

The baby in the manger is the one who brings peace, because he gave himself for us rebels, to bring us back to God and bring an end to our conflict. That’s why, on the night we remember his birth, we also make sure to remember his death. Peace comes through the death of the Prince of Peace.

Isaiah points us to the manger of Bethlehem, to the baby lying in the straw. But as you pause to remember, don’t just see a baby. Don’t leave him as a baby. BEcause this little baby is the Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God’ the Everlasting Father; the Prince of Peace.

The baby grew up to live and die to bring us peace; and reigns in heaven for ever and ever. Christ the king offers us his peace, as his light shines into the darkness of our hearts. As that John Lennon song suggests: ‘Merry Christmas: War is over, if you want it; war is over now.’

This sermon was preached at the Christmas Eve Communion in Aghavea Parish Church on Saturday 24th December 2016.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Carol Service Sermon: Matthew 2:11 Gospel Gifts

What would it have been like if it had been three wise women instead of the three wise men? They would have asked for directions; arrived on time; helped deliver the baby; cleaned the stable; made a casserole; and brought practical gifts.

Let’s face it, the three wise men don’t really seem very wise at all. I mean, if you heard that a friend or a family member had a baby, you wouldn’t stock up on gold, frankincense and myrrh, would you? They wouldn’t be top of your shopping list in Marks and Spencer. There are a thousand and one things that would be more practical and useful for a first-time mum - baby clothes, nappies, towels, bibs, the list could go on and on.

But in Matthew 2:11 we hear these words: ‘And going on into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.’ But why did the wise men bring these particular gifts?

Well, each of the gifts tell the story of the baby - these are gospel gifts. The first one is obvious enough - gold for a king. It was the question the wise men asked when they arrived in Jerusalem at the royal palace. ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?’ Herod wasn’t pleased by their question. He thought he was the king. But even from his birth, Jesus is king of the Jews. The gold shows that Jesus is the king.

Next, we have the Frankenstein, sorry, frankincense. This was a sign of divinity - the sign that this is no ordinary baby, that this is God who has come. You see, in the Old Testament, frankincense was used in the temple offerings. In fact, it was only to be used in the temple - you couldn’t buy it in Boots alongside the bottles of Dior or Old Spice. This baby is a king, but he is also God with us - as shown by the frankincense.

So what about the third one? It’s not a mirror (the thing you look at your face in); but myrrh - perhaps the strangest of the three. Sometimes you have to go into a Yankee candle shop. The blend of smells and fragrances can be overpowering. I find that if I take a deep breath and hold it as long as I can, I can just about survive until we’re out again. In those kind of shops you find all sorts of smells - the Christmas ones of cinnamon, or spiced orange, the regular ones like fluffy towels or lavender. But you definitely wouldn’t have chosen to buy a myrrh candle. Myrrh was the smell of death. It was used in the burial rituals, and 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes would be used when Jesus was buried after the crucifixion.

Even as a little baby, the wise men bring a reminder that Jesus was born to die. He would die in our place, to take away our sins, and to give us pardon and peace. This is the good news of Christmas, as the wise men bring these strange, and yet appropriate gifts. Perhaps they were wiser than we thought. And wiser still, they fell down and worshipped him. This baby, the King over us, who is God with us, who will die for us.

The gifts tell the gospel. Jesus is the king - will you surrender to him? Jesus is God - will you worship him? Jesus is the one who died and rose again for your sins - will you take refuge in his sacrifice?

As the bumper sticker says: ‘Wise men worshipped Jesus. They still do.’ This is how you can be truly wise this Christmas, as you receive God’s gift to you, and bow before him in worship.

This sermon was preached at the Carols by Candlelight service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 18th December 2016.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Sermon: Matthew 1: 18-25 Jesus, our Immanuel

Over the last few weeks, a new advertising poster has popped up in Adelaide, Australia, to a mixed reception. There’s a pop-art style cartoon of a pregnant woman at one side, and the close up of a man’s face on the other. And in the middle, the caption says: ‘You’re engaged, your fiancee is pregnant, and you’re not the father. What a Christmas!’

Now don’t worry - this isn’t a spoiler for the big storyline coming up in Neighbours or Home & Away. Because this isn’t a story from a made-up soap opera. This is real life - a story Jerry Springer or Jeremy Kyle would want to run on their TV show. Just think how tense an episode that would be.

‘You’re engaged, your fiancee is pregnant, and you’re not the father. What a Christmas!’

How would you feel in that situation? Angry? Confused? Betrayed? Whatever it is you’re feeling, it’s likely that Joseph was feeling the same way. You see, that poster in Adelaide is how an Anglican church is advertising its Christmas services. You’re Joseph - you’re engaged, your fiancee is pregnant and you’re not the father. What a Christmas!

This morning, we’re in Matthew’s gospel, as he begins to tell us of the Christmas story. He says as much in verse 18: ‘Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.’ But if you were to read this passage, and the next chapter, you might notice that he doesn’t tell us everything. Matthew tells us about the three wise men, but he misses out the bit about the angels appearing to the shepherds. He misses out the bit where the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and instead tells us the story from Joseph’s angle.

And from Joseph’s point of view, it’s not great. You’re engaged, your fiancee is pregnant and you’re not the father. What a Christmas! That’s where we find ourselves in verse 18. ‘When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.’

Now Northern Ireland can be fairly traditional in its views, and maybe Fermanagh even more so, but in Israel at this time, this was totally shocking. Mary is betrothed, engaged to Joseph, and yet, the signs are very obvious that she is pregnant. And then she has the cheek to come off with some story about the Holy Spirit making her pregnant? What does she take him for? A fool?

In those days and in that culture, Joseph would have had the right to have her publicly disgraced, and even stoned to death for unfaithfulness. But instead, having thought it through, he comes to his decision in verse 19: ‘And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.’

Now he has decided what to do, that’ll be it. Verse 20: ‘But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’

Mary had been telling Joseph about an angel appearing with a message that she would have a son by the Holy Spirit. It seemed unbelievable, but now Joseph gets the same message from an angel. The child really is from the Holy Spirit. Mary hasn’t been unfaithful.

As the angel continues to speak to Joseph, we hear two names for the baby that is growing in Mary’s womb. Now I’m not sure if Frainc and Amanda spent days or weeks or months going through baby name books to come up with Katie Tara, or if there’s a particular significance to her name.

But in the Bible, names are significant. They can tell you a lot about a person. And the two names that the angel gives to Joseph tell us just who the special baby is, and why he matters to us - not just at Christmas time, but all the time.

The first name is found in verse 21. ‘She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’

The name Jesus simply means ‘God saves’. We talk about people being saved in all sorts of situations - when the lifeboat launches in the middle of a storm to save people from drowning in the water; when the crash barrier stops the car going over the edge and the people are saved; when the medics save a patient from dying.

But do you see why Jesus is given the name Jesus? ‘For (that is, because) HE will save his people... from their sins.’ Jesus is the Saviour, because he saves his people from their sins. These days we don’t really like to think about sin, or talk about sin, because it sounds so old-fashioned, so out of touch. But as we watch the news, or read the paper, or see life unfolding all around us, we see and know the effects of sin, in our own lives, and in everybody else’s.

In the beginning, God made a perfect world, and everything was good, good, and very good. But our first parents messed things up. They chose to go their own way; to do their own thing; to be like God - or in other words, to sin. And every one of us since has been caught up in their act of rebellion. It’s not just that we’re sinners because we sin - rather, we sin because we are sinners, it’s in our nature, it’s the way we are.

The lovely name of Jesus is so lovely because it speaks to us of his salvation - Jesus came to save us from our sins. He came to bear them on the cross, to die the death we deserve, to give us pardon and peace. Jesus is the Saviour.

But then in verses 22 and 23 we hear the other name for Jesus. As Matthew comments: ‘All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.’

Matthew remembers our Old Testament reading from Isaiah, and in its promise of a virgin conceiving and bearing a son, called Immanuel, finds the ultimate fulfilment in the events of the first Christmas. Why is Immanuel another name for Jesus? Well, Matthew tells us - ‘which means, God with us.’

If Jesus is God saves - and he, Jesus, saves his people from their sins, then that means that God himself has appeared. Jesus is ‘God with skin on’, as a Sunday School child once said. God is here. God is with us. That’s the message of Christmas - that God is with us.

Always and forever, God is with us. As we come shortly to baptise Katie, this will be our prayer - that she will grow up to know Jesus as her Saviour, and as her always with us God. But it’s not just something for Katie; it’s something for each one of us, as we gather here today.

Jesus is God’s gift to you this Christmas. He can and will save you from your sins - by taking away your burdens, and the weight of a guilty conscience, by giving you a fresh start as you trust in him.

And as you do that, as you trust in him, as you lean on him with all your weight, then you’ll discover that he is Immanuel, God with us, that he is always with you. That (as he has promised) he will never leave you or forsake you. Even if everyone else deserts you; even if you will spend Christmas Day by yourself - God is with you.

The poster’s slogan still reads ‘You’re engaged, your fiancee is pregnant and you’re not the father. What a Christmas!’ But instead of the angry face you might have expected on Joseph, the poster shows him smiling, excited, joyful - because this is the real Christmas - Jesus, our Immanuel - the God who saves us from our sins is the God with us, now and forever.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 18th December 2016.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Sermon: Romans 8: 31-39 More than conquerors

A few weeks ago, I managed to tick something off my bucket list - to ride the train from Coleraine to Londonderry, and enjoy the spectacular views along what Michael Palin has described as one of the best train journeys in the world. That’s a fairly leisurely one, compared to another target - to climb to the top of Cuilcagh, and stand on the highest point of Fermanagh (and Cavan!). To get up there, even with the new walkway, will take effort, but it will all be worth it, to see the view from the top.

Now to get to the top of Fermanagh would be one thing, but how much better to get to the top of Everest? Well, in a sense, that’s what we’ve been doing these past weeks as we’ve journeyed through Romans 8. A number of commentators remark that Romans 8 is the Mount Everest of the Bible, the high point of the truth of Christianity. Well now we reach the summit, the pinnacle of what it means to be a Christian.

So far we’ve seen that to be a Christian means no condemnation - we already know the end result, the verdict has already been passed. To be a Christian means living as a child of God, as the Spirit confirms who we are as he dwells in our hearts. To be a Christian means living with hope-filled hearts, as we long with creation for our renewal and redemption. To be a Christian means living by the Spirit’s help in our prayers, and taking refuge in the truth that God is working in all things to fulfil his good purposes for us - to make us like his Son.

It’s as if we’re going up and up, the summit of the mountain rising before us. It’s like an orchestra coming to the climax, the music getting louder and louder. And Paul in verse 31 brings us to today’s passage as he writes: ‘What then shall we say to these things?’ How do we respond to all we’ve heard? How do we summarise it all?

Here’s how Paul does it. You might have heard of the kids’ science centre in Belfast, W5. It’s dedicated to getting kids asking the 5 W questions - who, what, where, why and when. Well here, Paul asks 4 W questions - all starting with the same W. They’re there in verses 31, 33, 34 and 35. He asks over and over - ‘who’. And each time, the answer is the same. The answer is ‘no one’. But it’s as if Paul is playing the ‘yes no’ game - you know the one, we play it sometimes at youth fellowship, where you’re not allowed to say yes or no, and if you do then you’re out of the game. Well each time, rather than simply saying ‘no one’, Paul gives us a fuller answer, directing us to who God is, and what he has done for us.

So let’s dive into the passage, or lace up our walking boots and climb higher and higher as we stand on the solid rock of Christ, this Mount Everest of his love for us. Verse 31 is where we find the first question:

‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’ That ‘if’ isn’t there to make us wonder if God is for us or not. This isn’t something that is in doubt for the Christian, for the one who trusts God. Rather, it’s asking, if this is indeed the case, if God really is for us (and he is!), then who can be against us? Who can oppose us?

And perhaps at times you might be able to supply a list of people who might be against you. You may even find that most people are against you! But Paul says, why would that matter, if God is for you? In the early church, a bishop by the name of Athanasius defended the orthodox teaching of the Trinity, while a number of church leaders embraced the Arian heresy (which taught that Jesus wasn’t fully divine). Some came to him and said, look, Athanasius, the whole world is against you, to which he replied, ‘Then Athanasius is against the world’ (Athanasius contra mundum). He knew that God was for him, so he could stand against all who opposed him.

And Paul gives us the evidence for God being for us - ‘He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?’ God the Father gave up his beloved Son, he did not spare him, as a sign of his love and attitude towards us. He will surely give us all things. So who can be against us? No one, because God is for us.

Question two: Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? And again, you might think, plenty of people, who know all sorts of things about us. But once again, our eyes are drawn to God, to what he has done and is doing for us. ‘It is God who justifies.’ That is, it’s God who declares that we are in the right with him. We have been declared ‘not guilty’ by the judge, the charges won’t stick. So who shall bring any charge against us? No one, because God has justified us.

Question three: Who is to condemn? And you might have a list of possible candidates, people who pass judgement on you or what you have done; perhaps you’ve been on the receiving end of someone’s stinging words. But do you see how Paul answers this one? Again he draws our eyes to what God has done for us. ‘Christ Jesus is the one who died - more than that, who was raised - who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.’

We’ve already seen that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, and here’s why. Jesus is the one who could condemn us. He lived the perfect life; he obeyed where we all failed; he set the standard, and so could condemn us.

But as John 3:17 puts it: ‘For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ Jesus has died for us, been raised for us, is at the right hand of God for us, and is praying for us. By his life, his death, his resurrection, and his continuing ministry for us, we are under no condemnation. No one else’s opinion really matters! So who is to condemn? No one, because Christ died and lives for us.

Three questions down, one to go, and this is the big one, the last step to the summit. This is where we might stumble, might struggle to see it, and yet this is the pinnacle, the very top of all the truth, the secret of the Christian life. Here’s the question: ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?’

And straightaway, Paul gives us a list of possible contenders. ‘Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?’ And these might be the things that would make you question whether God loved you. Or perhaps you can come up with another situation, where it might seem like God had ceased to love you, that you had been cut adrift from God’s love.

That’s why Paul quotes from Psalm 44 here - ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ In context, the Israelites weren’t suffering because they had turned away from God - they might have seen some sense of justice in that. No, they were suffering, being slaughtered, because they loved God. ‘For your sake’.

But isn’t that the point? The very things that might seem to point to the absence of God and his love, are actually the things that prove God’s love. The times when God might seem to be furthest away are actually the times when God’s love is the nearest and most precious. It’s what makes us more than conquerors - winning when it looks like we’re losing. Knowing his love more when it would appear that he is absent from us.

So who can separate us from the love of Christ? Paul gives us a list - a list of things that he is sure cannot do it. ‘For I am sure [convinced, absolutely certain] that neither death nor life, neither angels nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

Think through that list. Take time to read it over carefully later on after you get your dinner (and resist the urge to have a snooze). Think - is there anything at all that could separate me from Christ’s love? Not death nor life - so whether I’m living or dead, Christ loves me. Angels can’t affect his love for me, neither can rulers - the people in charge of the country, the Queen, the Prime Minister, even Donald Trump. Anything happening now, or anything happening in the future (and your past is already dealt with). Not the powers - spiritual powers, demons. Neither height nor depth - things high or low, whether we’re up or down. Now even if you think of something outside those categories, the last one will cover it: ‘nor anything else in all creation.’ Nothing at all. Nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus.

Four ‘Who’ questions. Each one answered ‘no one’ - because of all that God has done. And these four truths, this Everest is yours today, ‘if God is for us’. Perhaps you’ve been discouraged, facing opposition, or charges, or condemnation, or wondering if you’re beyond God’s love. Climb onto the rock of Christ, take in the view, and stand firm on God’s love. Find encouragement as we meet around the Lord’s table, as we recall his love for us.

Maybe you find yourself on the outside looking in. It’s like walking past a house and smelling a delicious meal being cooked, and you wish you were inside enjoying it. You wish you had all these blessings, and knew the love of God for yourself. Well, just step inside. Receive these promises as you turn to Christ, and realise what he has done for you, and trust in him, and revel in his love. Come today.

Who can be against us? Who shall bring any charge against us? Who is to condemn? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? No one. We are more then conquerors, because he has loved us. He loves us. He will always love us.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 4th December 2016.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Sermon: Romans 8: 26-30 God's Good Purposes

Back in 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, the United States Secretary of Defence was giving a briefing to journalists, when he came off with a line that has gone down in history. Speaking about the situation in Iraq and the issue of weapons of mass destruction, he said this: ‘There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don’t know we don’t know.’

Now if you followed all that, you’re doing better than me! What he was trying to say is that there are things you know, and things you don’t know. And as I was preparing for this morning, Donald Rumsfeld’s line came to me, It seems to fit so well. You see, in our Bible reading today, Paul says that there are some things we don’t know, and some things that we do know.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been working through Romans 8, as Paul describes what living the Christian life is like. It’s living with no condemnation - the end result is already known in advance. It’s living with as God’s children, with the Holy Spirit confirming our identity. It’s living with hope, as both the creation and we wait for the renewal of everything as God’s kingdom is revealed.

And now, Paul says, it’s living out God’s good purposes for us in his world. It’s not always easy, not always straightforward to live the Christian life, yet Paul gives us plenty of encouragement as we seek to do it - especially when things are tough.

In verse 26, we find the things that we don’t know. ‘For we do not know what to pray for as we ought.’ I wonder if you’ve ever found yourself faced with a situation, and you just don’t know what to pray for. Perhaps someone you love faces a difficult decision about work, and you don’t know which would be best. Or a friend shares some news with you, they ask you to pray for them, and you’re stumped. You don’t know what to say, you don’t know how to pray.

You see, sometimes we imagine that God is like a giant slot machine in the sky. You say the right prayers, in the right way, at the right time, and out pops your answer. But he’s not like that at all. As Romans 8 has been reminding us, he’s our Abba Father, our dad. He loves us and cares for us.

So Russell and Wendy, you don’t expect Arthur to say to you ‘My dearest mother and father, if it wouldn’t trouble you, could I at your earliest convenience have some milk, please?’ No, you just hear him crying. Or you just know what he needs, without him even having to cry. You provide all he needs (even if he doesn’t realise it).

God not only knows what we need, but he has also given us his Holy Spirit to help us in our weakness. Do you see what the Spirit does for us? ‘but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.’ Last time we saw how the creation groans, and we groan as we wait for God’s purposes to be completed. Here, the Spirit groans, as he prays for us. God the Holy Spirit prays for you to God the Father! When we don’t know what to say or how to pray, God does it for us. And God does it perfectly - verse 27, ‘according to the will of God.’

Now in other places in the Bible we’re told that Jesus is praying for us - here we’re told the Holy Spirit is praying for us, especially in those moments when we don’t know what to pray for. What an encouragement!

So even in that unknown there is a known - we don’t know what to pray for, but we know the Spirit is praying for us, according to God’s will. In verse 28, we move to something that Paul says we definitely can know. So let’s read it, and then think it through.

‘And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.’

So what do you make of that sentence? There might be some who think - how can we possibly know that? It might sound like blind optimism, someone who always tries to find the good in everything. Maybe it’s a bitter pill that someone has tried to get you to swallow when something that’s definitely NOT GOOD has happened. All things work together for good?

That’s what the Bible says here, and to be able to know this truth, to really know it, and be convinced by it, we need to see who it’s for, and what it’s promising. So who is this promise for? ‘For those who love God... for those who are called according to his purpose.’ There’s no ‘or’ in between - this is one and the same group of people - if you love God, you have been called by him. So it’s God’s people in view. And what is promised? All things work together for good. That’s good in God’s eyes, rather than our eyes. You see, we think of things that would be good for us, things like being famous, or rich, or popular, or successful. Never being ill, never grieving. (It’s like a grown up Santa’s list).

But the good that God has for us, his purpose for us, the reason he called us... is found in verse 29: ‘For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.’

The good that God is working out in our lives, in all things, is this: to be conformed to the image of his Son. Or in other words, to become more like Jesus. Now I can never really see family likenesses - I don’t know if Arthur is more like a Fleming or a Dunn (maybe the families can settle that later on over lunch!). But God’s purpose in our lives, his will for us, is for us to look more like Jesus

And he brings it about through ‘all things’ - the bad as well as the good; the difficult as well as the delightful. Sometimes on XFactor you get the contestant with the ‘sob story’ who might use it to gain some sympathy and more votes. But God uses all things, every detail of our lives, the ups and the downs, to make us more like Jesus.

If you are a Christian, if you love God, then this is God’s purpose for you. The story goes that the artist Michelangelo was asked how he had been able to sculpt his famous statue of David from a big rock. “It’s easy,” he said, “you just chip away the bits that don’t look like David.’ This is what God is doing with us, in everything that happens, working to chip away the bits of your life that don’t look like Jesus, so that you bear the family likeness.

Perhaps you’re experiencing this chipping away right now. You’re going through difficult days and you think - God, why are you letting this happen? God is using it for your (ultimate) good, and he knows what he’s doing. You see, verse 30 is like one of those moving walkways you get in airports, or maybe better, an escalator. You step on, and you’ll be brought the whole way to the finish. (v29: Foreknew), then predestined, then called, then justified, then glorified. What God starts, he finishes, to work out your salvation.

If you are a Christian today, you have been known by God from eternity past; he has already set your final destination to be heaven with him; he has called you to hear and repent and believe; he has justified you, made you right with him through the sacrifice of Jesus; and he (not will) has glorified you - already made your future certain and set his glory on you. All this is yours in Christ. And all this can be yours, if you’re not yet a believer - today you can hear his call, you can respond to Christ, and receive everything I’ve mentioned as your very own.

Donald Rumsfeld called his autobiography ‘Known and Unknown.’ When we’re faced with our unknowns (when praying seems hard, when life seems tough), we can rest on our knowns - the Spirit of God is praying for you, to become more like the Son of God, as the Father brings us along the golden chain of salvation. We know that God knows (even when we don’t) - so keep trusting and loving him as he works out his purposes in our lives, according to his will.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 27th November 2016.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Sermon: Romans 8: 18-25 The Hope of Glory

“The price was heavy, but it was worth it.” Words taken from a letter written by soldier in the Royal Irish Fusiliers to his parents shortly after the Battle of the Somme, 100 years ago. When we hear of the dreadful conditions the soldiers faced - the sea of mud in the trenches, cold and damp from the rain, the rats and lice, the constant danger - we might wonder what kept them going? The answer, of course, was victory. To win the war, they would put up with anything - as the soldier said, ‘The price was heavy, but it was worth it.’ Their sufferings wouldn’t compare to the victory that was to come.

That same idea is what lies behind our reading from Romans 8. Let’s see how he says it: ‘For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.’ It’s as if Paul has a pair of scales, and in one side, he puts the sufferings we endure, and on the other, the glory to be revealed. It’s not that they’re close, neck and neck, about the same. No, he says there’s no comparison. The glory completely surpasses and totally outweighs the sufferings.

Now, it’s not that Paul didn’t know anything about suffering. In another NT letter, he outlines some of what he had endured - beatings, stonings, shipwrecks, constant danger, toil and hardship, hunger, thirst, in cold and exposure. (See 2 Cor 11:23-29). He knew what it was to suffer, so he’s not making light of suffering, rather, he makes much of the glory to be revealed.

So why does he say that? Paul gives us the reason in verse 19. ‘For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.’ Perhaps you know some people who are eagerly waiting for Christmas. They’re counting down the days, they know how many sleeps it is, they just can’t wait. Well Paul says that the whole of creation, the natural world around us is waiting like that - with eager longing - not for Christmas, no, but ‘for the revealing of the sons of God.’

Creation can’t wait until God’s children are revealed. It’s as if it’s standing on tip-toes watching for the moment. Why? Well that’s what verse 20 tells us: ‘For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.’

At the minute, creation is subjected to futility. It’s in bondage to corruption. I don’t need to tell you that. You experience it every day. Things wear out and break down. The lovely banana you were going to eat has turned black and mouldy. The thorns and thistles and weeds spring up. As the hymn puts it, ‘Change and decay in all around I see.’ It’s the world as we know it, but it’s not the way the world was originally made.

Our first reading from Genesis 3 showed us the aftermath of Adam and Eve’s decision to rebel against God’s good and generous rule. The world comes under the curse, but it’s in the hope that one day the bondage will cease, and creation will share in the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

No wonder the creation waits eagerly! And then Paul gives us another picture of the creation ‘groaning together in the pains of childbirth.’ I’m not really fussed on medical programmes, but sometimes ‘One Born Every Minute’ will be on the TV. Even if I’m not watching, you can still hear the sounds of the delivery suite. The groans and pains come, but are worth it whenever the baby is born. It’s as if the creation is groaning, waiting for what comes after, the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

Just think what this means. The gospel, the good news of salvation in Jesus isn’t just about me and my ticket to heaven. The victory Jesus has achieved, the salvation on offer, is for the whole creation. Jesus redeems and saves the natural world, as he makes the new heavens and the new earth.

In verse 23, we see that the experience of the creation is also our experience, as we long for Christ’s return. ‘And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.’

The ‘we ourselves’ here is speaking about the Christian, the person who is trusting in Christ. Throughout this chapter, Paul is showing us what life as a Christian is like in this world, and here, he says that a Christian is someone who has ‘the firstfruits of the Spirit.’ A Christian is someone who has the Holy Spirit dwelling in them, the firstfruits of glory. It’s a bit like when there are cakes being made, and you get to lick the bowl. You know the cake will be good because the first taste is good. The Holy Spirit gives us a taste of heaven here and now. But that first taste only makes you long for the finished article even more. Having licked the bowl, and smelling the cake in the oven, you can’t wait for a slice of the cake.

So just like the creation, (do you see how the same words are used?), we too ‘groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons.’ We just can’t wait for the glory to be revealed - when we are known for sure as God’s children, when our bodies are redeemed and glorified.

That is still ahead of us - as we know only too well in our frail and feeble bodies. In the meantime, we’re suffering, struggling along, looking forward to what will be, with a sure and certain hope. That’s what hope is all about - looking forward, eagerly waiting, even though we don’t see it now. Because if we had it already, then it wouldn’t be hope. No, Paul says that ‘if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.’

So how good are you at waiting for something? Do you get impatient? Feel like giving up? Wonder why you’re bothering at all? Wondering if it’s really worth it in the end?

Remember what Paul sets before us here. The glory that is to be revealed to us (and in us), when we are adopted as God’s children and our bodies are redeemed and made new. The glory that will be when this world is redeemed, and corruption, decay, sadness, sickness and suffering is no more.

With a future as bright as this, as glorious as this, Paul urges us to keep going. Your sufferings now may seem overwhelming, you might feel like despairing, but they are not worth comparing with the glory that is coming. This is the promise given to us by God, as he gives us the firstfruits, the foretaste of glory - in his Holy Spirit.

You can know this hope today. This future can be your future, as you receive the promise, and trust in the one who overturns the curse, the one who has defeated the serpent. Trust in the Lord Jesus, and you too can look forward to the immense glory waiting to be revealed, as we wait patiently, on tippy-toes, for the completion of God’s purposes and the renewal of all things.

This sermon was preached on Remembrance Sunday 13th November 2016 in Aghavea Parish Church.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Sermon: Romans 8: 12-17 Children of God

This morning I want you to take a chance on me. I’ll need you to gimme gimme gimme your attention, because knowing me knowing you, this is something you need to hear today. In fact, it’s better than money, money, money, and if you get what this morning’s sermon is all about, then you’ll get on like a dancing queen.

This morning we’re thinking about Abba - but not the Swedish pop group. Instead, we’re thinking about our Abba, and being able to call God Abba, as Paul says in verse 15. ‘By whom we cry, Abba! Father!’

We’re in a short series, as we work our way through Romans 8, and think about living by the Spirit. A fortnight ago, we heard about the wonderful good news that ‘there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ We already know the verdict on the last day; we’re already confident that nothing can condemn us because we are in Christ. Now that is good, and great, and wonderful, but there is even more to the Christian life than just knowing that truth.

Today, Paul opens up a bit more of what that means for us, as we are brought into God’s family and receive the inheritance. So let’s dive in at verse 12, as we unpack the glorious riches of Christ.

Verse 12: ‘So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.’ Paul says that we are debtors, that we owe something to someone. He doesn’t spell it out here, we’ll work it out in a second, but notice that he tells us who we don’t owe anything to.

‘Not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.’ I wonder if you’ve ever changed jobs. You’ve worked hard for your previous employer, but now you work for your new boss. And then your old employer comes round, asking would you do a wee something for them. Could you help out? You would be able to say, I don’t owe you anything. I’ve finished working for you, you don’t control me any more!

That’s what’s going on here. Paul has showed how we have been rescued from living according to the flesh, living according to our own desires. We don’t owe it anything - our time for living by the flesh is finished. But you might still be wondering, well, who do we owe something to?

Look at the contrast Paul sets out in verse 13: ‘For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.’

These are the only two ways we can live - either by the flesh (the path that leads to death), or by the Spirit. So it must be the Spirit, to God, that we owe everything. We’ve been ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven - everything we have is because of God. So how do we pay our debts? How do we respond to God’s good news?

It’s by the Spirit, as we put to death the deeds of the body. Do you see how strong this language is here? It’s not just ‘don’t do those things you used to do’, it’s ‘put to death the deeds of the body.’ But it’s not something we can do by ourselves - it’s ‘by the Spirit’ - we need his power to lead us and change us, to kill off our sins.

When you look at the two ways to live, which do you think is the easy one? Living by what pleases you, or killing off your sin and living to please the Spirit? It would be far easier to do what you want. The struggle is to put to death the deeds of the body, because, deep down, we might still want to do those things. But there is encouragement here. You see, if you’re struggling, if you’re fighting against your sin, then that’s a good sign. As verse 14 continues: ‘For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.’ If you’re struggling with sin, if you’re (by the Spirit) putting it to death, then you’re being led by the Spirit. And if you’re led by the Spirit of God, you are a son of God. (Or a daughter! The language of sonship is because at this time only the sons inherited from their father).

What an encouragement! Perhaps this week you have been discouraged by your weakness; by how easily you’ve slipped again. You know better, you try harder, and still you fall. The fact that you’re frustrated is a good sign! It shows that you’re led by the Spirit, and that you are a child of God.

And it comes through the Holy Spirit, verse 15: ‘For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’

The Holy Spirit doesn’t come to bring fear and slavery. Rather, he is the Spirit of adoption. He brings us into God’s family, he makes us into a child of God, and teaches us how to call God our Father. Abba (not the Swedish pop group), Abba is the word for dada, daddy, dad, in Aramaic. It’s by the Spirit that we can call the God of the universe our dad. We who were on the outside are brought in by the sacrifice of Jesus, and the work of the Spirit confirms what has happened in our hearts.

‘The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs - heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided that we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.’

The Spirit confirms that we really are God’s children, and he also confirms that we are God’s heirs. God’s inheritance is for us, for all who believe, for all who are his children, and the brothers and sisters of Jesus.

What a transformation in a few verses! From owing everything for our very lives in verse 12, to inheriting everything in verse 17. Everything the Father has is ours in Christ. The glory lies ahead, and in the meantime, as children of our Abba Father, we are called to live by the Spirit, and put to death the deeds of the body.

Perhaps as you hear of what the Christian life looks like, you think to yourself, that sounds great, but I’m not there. I just do what I please. I live according to the flesh. Turn around today! Don’t stand around on the outside any longer! Come in, come home, and know the God of the universe as your Abba, your dad.

But maybe you are a Christian. You’re finding things tough. Sin keeps popping up. You keep doing things you don’t want to do. You’re struggling. Be encouraged by the Spirit living in you, leading you to keep fighting as you put your sin to death. You’re not living in slavery and fear; you’re adopted as a son, a child of God.

God gives you what you need to live for him - the power of his Holy Spirit dwelling in you. Keep going! Keep fighting!

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 6th November 2016.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Sermon: Romans 8: 1-11 No Condemnation

I wonder if you can remember the feelings you had when you sat down in the exam hall at school. Maybe you were nervous, trying to remember everything you had learned on that particular subject. Maybe you felt sick, wanting to do well, or hoping you’d get through. How much better would you have felt, if you knew the end result before you sat down, or as you were furiously scribbling your answers down?

Or what about the moment when you drive up to the MOT test centre. How flustered you feel when they ask you to turn on your lights and you can’t think how to do it! How nervous you feel when they do the braking test, or when they lift your car up and give it a good shake. One time, the tester took ages with my car up on the lift, then he called over a colleague, then he disappeared into the office, and then came back, stood for ages before eventually letting me know the car had passed with flying colours! How much better, to already know the verdict before you drive the car in to the centre.

Or maybe Saturday night for you means sitting down to watch Match of the Day. You know your team’s result, and so even if they go down 2 goals in the first half, you know that they’re going to win 3-2. Knowing the end result changes how we feel about the experience. Knowing the final verdict can give us confidence, no matter what might be going on in the meantime.

Now if that would be true of exams, or MOTs, or Match of the Day; then how much more would it be true of life? How amazing to be able to know God’s verdict of our life here and now - without having to wait until we stand before his judgement seat. As we begin looking at Romans 8, this is what Paul tells us is possible, here and now.

Look at what he says in verse 1. ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ No condemnation. A ‘not guilty’ verdict. A declaration of innocence is available for us - for those who are in Christ Jesus. Now this verse is the summary of everything Paul has said from chapters 1-7 (and it might be good for you to read them, to see how it has come about).

You see, people may say lots of things about us; they can have their opinion of the things we do or say. Or maybe you have your own opinion about yourself - the shame or guilt for something you have done; the thing you hope no one ever finds out about; you see yourself as sinful, as guilty, as condemned. But the only opinion that really matters is what God thinks of us. It’s his verdict that counts in the end. And his verdict can be known now - no condemnation for those in Christ.

It’s as if we have been set free. The law of sin and death holds each of us - our sin leads to death. But those in Christ are set free, the prison doors opened, the chains removed, as we are declared innocent. But how does this happen? How can we know the verdict in advance?

Verse 3 shows us what God has done for us. He sent his own Son, the Lord Jesus, ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin’. Jesus came in our skin, sharing our human nature, to die for our sins. He condemned sin in the flesh, and has taken away our sins. It’s as if we had a huge debt, and Jesus has paid our debt. He has dealt with our sin. But Paul says Jesus has done even more for us than just paying our debts. Verse 4: ‘In order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.’

Jesus not only takes away our law-breaking. He also gives us the power to obey the law. He helps us to do the things we never could do before, when we walk according to the Spirit.

When you think of it, there are lots of ways we divide people. Men and women. Old and young. Rich and poor. Manchester United fans and ABUs (Anyone But United). But Paul says there are only two types of people - you’re either one, or the other, there is no middle ground, no sitting on the fence. So which are you - do you walk according to the flesh, or according to the Spirit?

From verse 5, Paul helps us to see which group we’re in. ‘For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.’ The way to see which group you’re in is to see where you have set your mind. What is it you think about when you don’t think about anything? What is it that sets your goals, dreams and ambitions? Is it your flesh, your sinful nature, your sinful desires? Or is it the Spirit - to want what he wants? In a few moments, Alex and Esther will declare their choice - as they turn from the world, the flesh and the devil, and turn to Christ, submit to Christ.

It’s one or the other. It’s as if you come to a fork in the road. Two roads lead to very different destinations. ‘For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.’ It’s a matter of life and death, heaven and hell. And your thoughts are a diagnosis of your heart, your desires. To pursue sinful pleasure is to be hostile to God, to love the things God hates, and hate the things God loves, to be unable to please God.

Now, by nature, that’s all of us. We naturally are out for ourselves. It won’t take long for Anna to learn the word ‘mine’. And even if we’ve grown up, and know not to say it out loud, we can still think it, and work towards it: ‘Mine!’

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are two groups of people in the world - people who live by the flesh, but there are also those who live by the Spirit. Paul says that the Christians in Rome, the people who received the letter, are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit. And how do you know? How can we tell if we’re in the Spirit? It’s ‘if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.’

If we belong to Christ, if we are in him, and he is in us, then he gives us the Holy Spirit, he gives us the power to change, and the guarantee of the final verdict. Do you see how Paul refers to the Holy Spirit here? He is the Spirit of God. The Spirit of Christ. The Spirit of life. The Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead. Each points us to the work of the Spirit, in bringing the power of God to live in us, and in giving us life.

Living as a Christian can be frustrating. You know what you should be doing, but you don’t always do it. You want to change, but you stumble and fall into sin. You feel the power of sin, the pull of death, as you do that thing you hate once again. But look at what God gives us. He gives us his Holy Spirit - the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead to dwell in us. He will do the very same in our lives.

He gives us life. Satan may try to condemn you. He might try to bring you down with the weight of guilt. How could God really love you after you did that? But the Holy Spirit whispers into our soul that we already know the verdict of the last day - not guilty. No condemnation. Life and peace, because we stand in Christ’s righteousness, as we live by the Spirit, and follow his leading. It’s as if we can open our exam results before we’ve sat the exam. We already know the final result, as we trust in Christ, and live by the power of his Holy Spirit.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 23rd October 2016.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Sermon: Haggai 2: 20-23 The Signet Ring

Did you hear the story about the burglar who was in prison? His dad wrote him a letter, saying that he would find it a struggle on account of his old age, but he was getting ready to dig the back field to plant some spuds. So the son wrote a letter back to him, telling him not to bother digging in the field - that was where he had buried the loot. A few days went by, and the father wrote again to say that the police had come and dug about in the field and found nothing. The son replied and said, it was the only way he could help - and he could now plant his spuds!

The message was for one person, his dad, but he knew it would have a wider audience. That's a bit like our reading from Haggai today. It's a message for one person, but it's not just for him. We're allowed to listen in, to benefit from it as well. It's not like the post that mum and dad would receive to their address, 42 xxxxxx xxxxxx, Dromore - except it was for the same address in Dromore, County Tyrone, and a Mr Mcxxxxxx. Here, we're meant to be receiving it, learning from the message addressed to Zerubbabel.

We're now in the final chunk of Haggai's book, in the series of four messages he delivered in Jerusalem in the year 520BC. After Jerusalem had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and his army, the people had been taken away to Babylon for about 70 years. They've now returned to their own land, to Jerusalem, but they were more keen to build their own panelled houses than to build the temple, the house of the LORD. Over a few months, Haggai challenged the people to 'consider your ways' (and build the house); to keep working even though the building was small and unimpressive; confronted them with their uncleanness, the anti-Midas touch, yet God would bless them anyway.

So now, on the same day as the previous message, Haggai has another word of the LORD, this time for Zerubbabel. Zerubbabel is the governor of Judah, the person in charge of the city and region. This would be like someone calling at the First Minister's office at Stormont with a word for Arlene Foster. And what is it that God is saying to Zerubbabel?

Well, the message breaks into two parts - the shaking and the signet ring. Let's look at them in turn.

'Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, saying, I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, and to overthrow the throne of kingdoms. I am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and overthrow the chariots and their riders. And the horses and their riders shall go down, every one by the sword of his brother.' (21-22)

God says that he is going to shake the heavens and the earth. So it's not just an earthquake that is in view, but rather a universe quake. It's something that only God can do. Perhaps you've heard of the question - what if everyone on earth gathered in the same location and we all jumped and landed together - could we shift the earth's orbit? And the answer is... No. You wouldn't even notice... It's impossible for us, but as easy for God as shaking the sand off your feet or shoes after a walk on the beach.

Do you see the purpose of the shaking? 'To overthrow the throne of kingdoms.' God is going to overthrow and destroy the power of the nations of the world. By this stage, the Babylonian empire had been conquered by the Medo-Persian empire. But God says they will be overthrown. They won't be able to stand - just like a Jenga tower that collapses when the wrong block is removed; or like a Monopoly board overturned because someone is losing, and the houses and hotels go flying!

God is saying that he is in control of the nations. He can bring ruin whenever he chooses. He can raise up, and he can overturn. And this is good news for the people of Jerusalem. They're fed up with kingdoms coming to conquer; they've seen enough of chariots and riders coming into their land. So no matter how powerful the King might appear; no matter what the chariots come to do, they are not all-powerful. God is in control. And he tells Zerubbabel about a day that is coming. This day of shaking, of overthrowing, the kingdoms of the world.

Now perhaps when Zerubbabel heard this word of shaking, perhaps he was frightened himself. After all, he was the governor of the city. He was in charge in the region of Judah. What would the shaking mean for him? Perhaps his legs were shaking and his knees were knocking at the thought of it.

But Haggai has a final word - this word for Zerubbabel, which we too can listen in to hear - a word of grace and promise. The final verse of Haggai: ‘On that day, declares the LORD of hosts, I will take you, O Zerubbabel my servant, the son of Shealtiel, declares the LORD, and make you like a signet ring, for I have chosen you, declares the LORD of hosts.’ (23).

On that self same day, the day of shaking, Zerubbabel will be made like God’s signet ring. Now, when I read that, I wasn’t entirely sure what a signet ring was. So i had a look into it. The signet ring was the mark of authority. So if the king was sending out a letter, he would get a bit of wax, and then imprint his sign, his signet ring, to show it came from him.

It’s something we still do - normally at the bottom of graduation certificates there’s the seal of the university - although when I pulled out my Trinity certificate, there’s no seal at the bottom. I promise I really did pass my exams to be a minister! But here’s my Institution certificate - and in the red bit there’s the seal of the Archbishop of Armagh (we had no bishop in Clogher when I came to be rector here).

Do you see what God is saying here? The nations may be in uproar, the kingdoms will be overthrown, but Zerubbabel has been chosen, and will be like a signet ring, the symbol and agent of God’s power in the world. God has his eye on Zerubbabel; his purposes will involve Zerubbabel.

Now, you might be thinking, well, that’s nice for Zerubbabel, but what does that mean for me? Well, remember who Zerubbabel is. We’re told that he’s the son of Shealtiel, and those names might not mean much to us, but the opening chapter of Matthew helps us to see the bigger picture.

Zerubbabel is the son of Shealtiel, who was the son of Jeconiah, who was the great (x12) grandson of King David. And that means that God taking an interest in him is good news for him, and good news for us as well. Despite being born in exile (his name means ‘seed of Babylon’), God had chosen him. Despite the ways the kings from David to Jeconiah had messed up, leading to exile in the first place, God was still fulfilling his promise to David, that one of his sons would rule. God has not finished with his promise. He’s still interested in the line of David, still working to bring the long-awaited Christ from this family line.

Matthew 1 connects the dots, and brings us to Jesus, who is called Christ, the successor of this same Zerubbabel. But what has this to do with us? How does a message for Zerubbabel impact on us? God promises a day of shaking, when the kingdoms opposed to him are overthrown, and his chosen servant king will be his signet ring, his power in the world. The writer to the Hebrews picks up on this promise, and sees it as something still to come in the future. A day of shaking, with differing outcomes - the things that are shaken removed, and the unshakable remaining.

It made me think of a BBC news report after the earthquake in Amatrice back in August. Almost 300 people died, and the reporter, standing among the rubble of the village said that the Italian government had a choice - deciding whether it was happy with around 300 deaths per earthquake, leaving people’s houses and buildings as they were; or if it would invest millions of euros in making homes safe, making them earthquake proof.

That contrasting image of the shakable and the unshakable; the earthquake prone and the earthquake proof - this is what Haggai’s last message to Zerubbabel is all about. The day is coming when the earth and heavens will be shaken. Kingdoms and people will be overthrown. The only safe place is to be in the unshakable kingdom; to shelter in the signet ring, the chosen of the Lord - his king, king Jesus.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 9th October 2016.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sermon: Haggai 2: 10-19 Clean or Unclean?

What is your favourite TV quiz show? Do you like Countdown, with the words, the letters, and the Countdown conundrum? Maybe you prefer the Chase, as contenders take on a quiz champion chasing them to get answers right? Or do you delight in the obscure knowledge in Pointless? Over the summer, we watched an episode of University Challenge, and I could hardly understand the questions, let alone get any of the answers...

Every so often, a new quiz show appears on our screens. A while back mum and dad were watching one with people answering questions in armchairs that were moving backwards, and if they didn’t answer, they were flung over the edge into oblivion. (Ejector Seat). In our reading this morning, it looks as if the prophet Haggai was launching a new TV quiz show.

It’s not Deal or no Deal, it’s Clean or Unclean? And the format is very simple; here’s how it works: Haggai asks the priests questions about the law, if something is clean or unclean. Now those aren’t really categories we think about today in the same way, but the Old Testament law was very concerned with whether things were clean or unclean, holy or impure. The Jews were called to live a life of purity, by obeying the law with all its regulations about what sorts of food you couldn’t eat (so for example, no bacon butties). Being ritually unclean meant you couldn’t come before God - you had to go through the ritual set down in the law to become clean again.

So the quiz show begins in verse 12. ‘If someone carries holy meat in the fold of his garment and touches with his fold bread or stew or wine or oil or any kind of food, does it become holy?’ The answer is no - the priests have got it right. There’s then the second round in verse 13. ‘If someone who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?’ Now, the priests know their stuff. These are easy questions for them - it’s as if they could answer these questions in their sleep. It’s really obvious that something unclean touching other things makes them unclean as well.

So let’s review what we’ve learnt from the priests. Holy touching something else doesn’t make it holy; but unclean touching something else does make it unclean. Or in other words, you can’t catch cleanness, but you can catch uncleanness. Now, in case you’re wondering what that’s all about, and why it really matters, Haggai tells us in verse 14.

‘Then Haggai answered and said, “So it is with this people, and with this nation before me, declares the LORD, and so with every work of their hands. And what they offer there is unclean.”’

God declares that the people are unclean, so that everything they do, and everything they touch becomes unclean as well. It would be someone who had fallen in a mucky field, and then they come into the farmhouse, and you can trace their steps around the house - the mark of the wellies on the kitchen floor, or worse on the cream carpet in the living room; the handprint on the fridge door as they look for something nice to eat; the towel that used to be white that’s now a shade of muck as they wiped their hands or face; they’re unclean, and everything they touch becomes unclean.

It’s a bit like the Greek mythology of King Midas. He was granted a wish that whatever he touched would turn into gold. At the start, he thought it was great, he could turn a twig and a stone into gold. What a great power to have! But then he sat down to eat, and the food he lifted turned to gold. His wine turned to gold. The midas touch was more like a curse. Well here, God says that people have the anti-Midas touch. It’s not that we touch everything and it turns to gold, but rather, we touch everything and pass on our uncleanness.

I wonder if you’ve seen this at work, or in a club you’re involved with, or even in relationships. People are people, and even with the best of motives, we mess things up or make things worse. Our unclean touch, our mucky handprints affect whatever we do.

Now it’s bad enough whenever it’s in relationships, or in work, or in a sports club that this unclean touch affects everything we do. But remember what the people in Haggai’s day were doing. They were building for God’s glory. They were rebuilding the temple that had been destroyed years before. Even as they tried to build God’s house, the place for his holiness and glory, their unclean touch was affecting it. They’ve been building for exactly three months (24th day of 9th month cf 2:10 & 1:15), but their offering is unclean, because they are unclean.

To show how things have been working out for them (or rather, not been working out for them), Haggai uses what seems to be his favourite word. It’s a word we’ve heard him use in chapter 1, and now it’s here in verse 15 & 18. What is it? Consider.

Haggai asks them to ‘consider from this day onward.’ It seems that word ‘onward’ can mean going back or forward, as both consider-ings make them look back. So first, consider ‘before stone was placed upon stone in the temple of the LORD’, well, things weren’t great. The harvest wasn’t just as good as they thought it would be. They’d look at a heap of grain, thinking there were twenty measures in it, but there’d only be ten. Even worse, they’d look at a wine vat thinking there were fifty measures, but they’d only get twenty. Why was that? Because God had struck them and their work with blight, mildew and hail - frustration and disappointment, yet even then they didn’t turn back to God.

Nor did they turn back when they started work. The second consider beings them to the time since the foundation of the temple has been laid. Have things been better? Well, no. Despite it being harvest time (September - December), there was nothing in the barn - no seed, no grapes, figs, pomegranates or olives. Their uncleanness is contagious. They were unclean, and all they tried to do was unclean.They’ve nothing to show for their labours.

And if we’re just like them, and we’re unclean, and all we touch becomes unclean, then it’s natural that there’ll be disappointments and frustration as we seek to build up the temple, our church family. Someone might think they’re being helpful, but they spread the mess around. Someone else says something, not realising the impact of their words. How can we build to God’s glory in the midst of our mess? How can the holy God dwell among an unclean people?

In fact, forget about everybody else. Focus on yourself, and ask that same question - how can the holy God dwell in an unclean person? When this diagnosis lands in our hearts we might think - yes, that’s me, I know that I’m unclean, and I try to change, I try to clean myself up, but just like the muddy footprints and the dirty towel, I just make everything else a mess. What can I do? How do I change?

It was the question on the lips of the man in our reading from Mark 1. He knew all too well that he was unclean. He may well have had to shout it out when people came too close. He was a leper. He hadn’t experienced anyone touching him in years. Everyone was too afraid, in case they caught his leprosy. Uncleanness was contagious - unclean touching something else makes it unclean.

He comes up to Jesus, he reckons that Jesus can do something about his uncleanness, and so he says those words of faith: ‘If you will, you can make me clean.’ I can’t make myself clean, but Jesus, if you want to, you can. And in that moment, Jesus does the unthinkable. He reverses the curse. Verse 41: ‘Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.’

Our uncleanness is contagious - unclean touching something else makes it unclean. But with Jesus it is different. His cleanness is contagious. Clean touching unclean makes it clean. Jesus brings the change we need. The change that God promised right at the very end of verse 19 - the promise that depended entirely on God, and not on the people: ‘But from this day on I will bless you.’ The curse is reversed. We who are unclean can become clean, by God’s design, action and blessing. There’s nothing to do; nothing to achieve here in Haggai 2.

God doesn’t say, clean yourself up first and then I’ll think about helping you out. It’s not about sorting ourselves out to make God bless us. He chooses to do it anyway, for unclean, undeserving people, who receive his blessing and are changed.

This is the grace of God in action. For Haggai and the people, messed up and messing up, God will bless them from this day on - mark it in your calendar! And for us as well, as we build up the temple, the church family, in the mess of the building site, there is also much blessing, great encouragement, signs of growth and change.

Michael W Smith puts it like this: ‘Your plans are still to prosper, you have not forgotten us, you’re with us in the fire and in the flood. You’re faithful forever, perfect in love, you are sovereign over us.’

God has not finished with us. We’re still a work in progress, but he gives us his blessing, his cleansing, his Spirit dwelling in us to empower us to live for him. Let’s do it.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 25th September 2016.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Sermon Audio: Summer Psalms

Over the summer months it's harder to sustain a sermon series, with attendances varying, and people here, there and everywhere. In recent years, I've tended to preach summer sermon series in the Psalms. They are usually standalone units of text - the Psalm by itself can be understood without needing to know what comes before or after. Yet there are ways of doing series in the Psalms - so last year, we followed the Psalms of the sons of Korah. You could also follow the songs of Asaph; do a series in the biographical Psalms of David; the songs of ascents (Ps 120-134); or the 'one hit wonders' - Psalms whose author only wrote one in the Psalter.

This year, I preached through some familiar Psalms with well-loved hymn versions. This meant that we could sing the hymn versions well, even with lower than usual attendances, and there was a variety of emotions and themes coming to the surface.

Here, for your encouragement and upbuilding, are the sermons I preached over the summer - my summer Psalms:

Psalm 72: Praying for the King.

Psalm 23: The Lord's my shepherd.

Psalm 95: Worship and a warning.

Psalms 42&43: Thirsty for God.

Psalm 121: Where does my help come from?

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sermon: Haggai 2: 1-9 Continue your work

How do you deal with discouragement and disappointment? You know those times when you start up a new project with enthusiasm and positivity, and then about a month in you think, why am I bothering with this? Or you take over from someone, and you’re faced with the comparisons with how things used to be, and you’ll never match up to the good old days. Where do you turn for help? How do you keep going, when everything seems to be against you, when it would be easier to just give up and not bother? How do you deal with discouragement and disappointment?

This is the issue facing Zerubbabel, Joshua and all the remnant of the people in Haggai 2. These were the people who had returned from exile in Babylon back to Jerusalem. Last week we heard the challenge of God’s word to them, to ‘consider your ways’ - they had been living in luxury panelled houses while God’s house (his temple) lay in ruins. At the end of Haggai 1, ‘they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God, on the twenty-fourth day of the month, in the sixth month.’ (1:14-15).

It’s now almost a month later (1), when God sends Haggai with another message. Each of Haggai’s messages is dated, it’s as if he was keeping a diary or journal, and so on the 17th October 520BC, God speaks again. God knows the discouragement and disappointment they’re feeling - and so speaks into the situation, to diagnose the problem:

‘Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes?’ (3)

It’s 67 years since Solomon’s temple was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar. Yet some of the oldest people around (who had gone into exile and now returned), could still remember seeing the old temple in all its glory. The gold, silver, precious stones. A glorious place. And as they remember the old temple, well, the one they’re working on just doesn’t compare. It’s as nothing in their eyes. They wonder why they’re bothering. Such a disappointment. Such a discouragement. Should they just give up?

I wonder if you ever feel the same way, when it comes to building God’s house? Maybe as you look at the work needing done here on the parish church, and you see the plans, and the amount of money that needs to be paid, you think - we’ll never reach it; we just can’t do it; why bother? Or, as we saw last week - to build God’s house now is to build up the temple - the place where God dwells, that’s us, his church, his people. And building up God’s people can be a slow and steady process - it takes time getting to know people, knowing how to help them, what to say. And sometimes there’s disappointments that come, when people walk away, or fall back, and you might think - will they ever get it? Is it worth bothering at all?

Or when you persistently invite someone to come along to church, and they keep saying no; or they come and then don’t come back; or they come but aren’t as excited as you are about being with God’s people. And maybe you’re tempted to think, I’ll not bother with trying to build up the church; I’ll leave it to someone else. All your efforts, but very little to show for them, at least outwardly. Disappointment and discouragement.

But look at what God says to them through Haggai. In verse 4 and verse 6, there comes the word ‘yet’. It’s a turning word, a word that shows a change in direction, a change in prospects. Things might be like this, YET here’s how they’re going to change. And these two ‘yet’s are words of encouragement for a discouraged people. Let’s look at them in turn.

First of all, in verse 4, here’s what God says: ‘Yet now be strong... all you people of the land, declares the LORD. Work, for I am with you, declares the LORD of hosts, according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not.’

Be strong. Don’t give up. Keep on going. Continue your work. God calls us to action, to play our part in what he’s doing in the world. Do you see how the ‘be strong’ message is repeated, is addressed to Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest - the leaders of the people; but it’s then addressed to ‘all you people of the land.’ Be strong! Work! Why?

‘For I am with you, declares the LORD of hosts, according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt.’ They’re not slaving away on their own, with just their own weak efforts. God is with them - the LORD of hosts, that is, the Lord of angel armies. But more than that, the LORD who made a covenant with them when Moses brought them out of Egypt. God made a promise to be with them, a promise he is keeping, a promise he is fulfilling as he calls them to work.

What difference would it make to you, knowing that the LORD of angel armies is with you every day? Knowing that his power is made available to you in your weakness. Knowing that you’re not on your own, that he is on your side? Be strong, and work, for I am with you.

Now that would be a good enough encouragement to keep going, wouldn’t it? But then God says something even better, another encouragement for these brow-beaten builders. Look at verse 6. ‘For thus says the LORD of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the LORD of hosts.’

The first encouragement was something God’s people had to do. But this one was something that only God could do. Shaking the heaven, earth, sea and dry land - it reminds me of my Henry Hippo money box, giving it a wee shake, to make sure all the money came out when it was holiday time. Well, this shaking that God’s going to do is a bit like that - he’ll shake the nations, ‘so that the treasures of all nations shall come in.’ God is going to provide for the work of building his house to be completed; for his house to be filled with glory.

Around the time the work on the temple started, the ruler of the region started putting on pressure for the work to stop. They even went so far as to write to King Darius, to get his command for them to stop building. (See Ezra 5) Perhaps this was also why the builders were discouraged. But shortly after Haggai prophesied, a letter came back from Darius - ordering the work to continue, but more than that, for the full cost of rebuilding to be paid out by the ruler of the region from his tax revenues. He also had to pay for whatever was needed for the sacrifices in the temple - God was indeed shaking the nations to fill his house with treasures. But it shouldn’t surprise us. Do you see what he says in verse 8?

‘The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the LORD of hosts.’ God owns everything; it’s all his, and he will give it and use it for his purposes. God may allow us to use the gifts he gives us, but we’re only stewards, not owners. Everything in our pockets, purses, wallets, bank accounts, or under the mattress is God’s - he gave it to us to use for his purposes. Do you really want God to have to shake it out of you?

God is concerned with his glory. And even though the house they were building looked like nothing to them, compared to the old temple, God promises that the future will be even better: ‘The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts.’

Last week, we traced the temple theme through the Bible - the place where God dwells - from the temple in Jerusalem, to Jesus (do you remember what John said of him? ‘The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we have seen his glory...’), to us, his people as God dwells in us; but the final temple scene is the new creation. We heard part of John’s walking tour of the new Jerusalem from Revelation 21 - but the most striking thing is that there is no temple in the city, because God himself is there with his people. And did you notice what will be brought into that new Jerusalem?

‘By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it... They will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations...’ (Rev 21:24,26)

Last night, you might have swayed, hummed or sung along to the Last Night of the Proms, Land of Hope and Glory, and everyone feels proudly British. It’s nothing to see the glory of all nations coming together in the new Jerusalem, as God brings people from every nation to be his people. This is what God is up to in the world - and you think, well, God can do all that on his own, he doesn’t need me. Yet he involves us in his work. He calls us to play our part, to take up our trowel, to build his church - even when we face discouragements and disappointments. Keep going! Be strong, work, for I am with you, and I will shake all nations, and I will fill this house with glory. Amen, Lord!

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 11th September 2016.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Sermon: Haggai 1: 1-15 Consider Your Ways

“It’s too early! I’ll get up in five minutes’ time!” I wonder if that’s been said these mornings as school starts again. There’s another version of it in the afternoons - I’ll do my homework in a wee while. I’ll get round to it eventually. But it’s not just the kids who can put things off. Have you ever had one of those days when you wake up with a list of things to do, all good intentions, and then go to bed that night no further on. Maybe tomorrow, you think. I’m reminded of the wee saying - when a man says he’ll do something about the house he doesn’t need reminded every six months...

But have you found that when you have important things to do, unimportant things become so much more attractive? They’ve no time to do their homework, but have the time to complete ten levels of a computer game. You didn’t manage to get your tax return finished, but did arrange your cds in alphabetic order. No time for the things that really matter, but loads of time for other things.

As the prophet Haggai steps up, this is the problem he’s facing in the city of Jerusalem in 520BC. Sixty-seven years earlier, Jerusalem had been destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar. Its walls and its houses, had all been destroyed. Even worse, the temple had been destroyed - the place where God’s presence dwelled; the place you met with God; the place of sacrifice. God’s people had been taken away to Babylon, where they lived in exile - you might remember when we looked at Daniel.

Some of the exiles have returned now, they’ve been around for about 18 years. Ezra 3 tells about the restoration of the altar and the foundations of the temple. But that’s all they’ve done, at least, to the temple. They’ve been busy doing other things, though.

And so, on this certain day, the first day of the sixth month (29th August 520BC), Haggai delivers the LORD’s message. ‘This says the LORD of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD.’ Not yet, we’ll get round to it eventually. But Haggai continues: ‘Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your panelled houses, while this house lies in ruins?’

Do you see the contrast between God’s house and their houses? It wasn’t time to build God’s house, which was in ruins; yet they were living in panelled houses - luxury houses. Just imagine walking along Temple Street, Jerusalem. You see the big, impressive houses, and, even though you’re not meant to, you can’t resist taking a peek through the windows as you walk past. It’s not just bare stone walls inside, there’s panelling. You can nearly hear Lloyd Grossman from Through the Keyhole asking ‘Who lives in a house like this?’ And then you walk up the street, and well, you don’t need to go through a keyhole, there’s just a pile of stones, a ruin of rubble. Who lives in a house like this? Oh, this is meant to be God’s house. The contrast is shocking, and it’s meant to be.

As Haggai continues, though, he says that they should have known something was wrong. Do you see in verse 5, the therefore? ‘Now, therefore, (because of all this), thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways.’ Or to put it in a Northern Irish saying, ‘Catch yourself on.’ Haggai points to a series of disappointments they were facing. You sow much, but only harvest a little. You eat, but you’re still starving. You drink, but you’re still thirsty. You put on clothes, but you’re still cold. You earn wages, but they seem to disappear too quickly - like putting them in a bag with holes.

Now, was it just that times were hard, and they were unfortunate with the way things turned out? Not at all - verses 10-11 show that God was behind their difficulties. He called for the drought they were facing - in the original there’s a play on words Haggai uses - God’s house is in ruin - ‘hareb’ - so God sends a ‘horeb’, a drought.

Verses 10-11 are an echo of the old covenant curses, which Moses pronounced in Deuteronomy 28. As the people of Israel entered the promised land, they were given the choice of obedience or disobedience, life or death, blessing or curses. They’ve already been through exile, losing their land because of their disobedience. Now they’re back, and they’re doing it all over again.

So again he says, ‘Consider your ways.’ Catch yourself on. Think about what you’re doing. But this time, it’s also a call to action - catch yourself on, and here’s what to do: ‘Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD.’

Here’s the big problem. The temple lying in ruins spoke volumes about their attitude to God, and his glory. They didn’t really care about God. They didn’t care what other people would see or think of their God in his temple ruin. They were much too busy keeping up appearances in their own houses to worry about God’s house.

They went about their own business, but neglected God’s business. Could that be true of us, as we gather today? We’ll worry about getting serious with God stuff sometime, just not today, or this week, or this year. We’ll get to it eventually, but in the meantime, we’ll concentrate on ourselves. In Jerusalem in 520BC, it meant that the temple was neglected. So does that mean that we apply this now by looking at the parish church, that we need to consider our ways and compare our houses with this house?

It would be great to be able to do it - except, we’re not sitting in Jerusalem, in the temple ruin in 520BC. We’re here in Aghavea in 2016. The challenge is the same - are we focusing on ourselves and neglecting God’s house - but we have to ask, what is God’s house?

You see, the temple was the place on earth God had chosen to make his presence especially known on earth. If you go to Jerusalem now, there is no temple. But do you remember the Christmas gospel, John 1, which tells us that ‘The word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ Jesus is the temple, the place where God’s presence is found. And now, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3, the temple isn’t bricks and stone - the temple, where God dwells is, is us - his people. ‘Don’t you know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?’ (1 Cor 3:16). That ‘you’ is plural - yousins, you together are God’s temple.

So if we gathered together are the temple, what will it look like to give ourselves to the work of building the temple, God’s house? We’ll want to build up and encourage each other, by coming together, being there for one another. We’ll want to see others brought in, added to the building, like living stones. We’ll not just focus on ourselves and what we like, but seek to serve one another. And as part of that, we’ll want to make sure that our meeting place is well kept and welcoming - but we shouldn’t work on the building, and neglect building us, the church.

Consider your ways. Perhaps we need to hear that word from the Lord today, just as the people in Haggai’s day needed it. From verse 12 on, we’re told how the word was received that day. Zerubbabel, Joshua with all the remnant of the people ‘obeyed the voice of the Lord their God, and the words of Haggai the prophet, as the Lord their God had sent him. And the people feared the Lord.’ They heard God’s voice, they obeyed it, they feared the Lord. As they do so, Haggai has another message, a word of grace as they repent: ‘I am with you, declares the Lord.’

They might have initially abandoned God’s house, but God has not abandoned them. God is with them - and so God stirs them up to action, to work on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God.

As we turn from our own glory to live for the Lord’s glory, so we have that assurance - I am with you. As Paul reminds us, God is with us, and God dwells in us. As we respond to God’s word, and consider our ways, may we know both his promise that he is with us, and also his stirring up to action.

This sermon was preached in the Haggai: Building for God's Glory sermon series in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 4th September 2016.