Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Book Review: A Sweet and Bitter Providence

Almost everything that John Piper writes is worth reading, and his little book on Ruth, 'A Sweet and Bitter Providence' is very definitely worth reading.

The book is worth getting for his thoughtful introduction, in which he gives seven reasons why we should read and think about the story of Ruth:
1. The book of Ruth is part of the Scriptures, which Jesus loved - 'filled with God-inspired hope, because it points to Jesus'.
2. Ruth is a love story.
3. The book of Ruth is the portrait of beautiful, noble manhood and womanhood.
4. The story of Ruth addresses one of the great issues of our time: racial and ethnic diversity and harmony.
5. The most prominent purpose of the book of Ruth is to bring the calamities and sorrows of life under the sway of God's providence and show us that God's purposes are good.
6. The gift of hope in God's providence is meant to overflow in radical acts of love for hurting people.
7. The book of Ruth aims to show that all of history, even its darkest hours, serves to magnify the glory of God's grace.

From this introduction alone, there is much to ponder. Piper than launches into the story, tracing the events of each chapter in turn, explaining the story and magnifying God's grace and glory. Starting with the genealogy of Jesus, which includes Rahab and Ruth, he asks why there are mentioned in Jesus' family tree:

'From all outwards appearances, God's purposes for righteousness and glory in Israel were failing. But what the book of Ruth foes for us is give us a glimpse into the hidden work of God during the worst of times.'

Time and again, he returns to the point of the whole thing:

'The point of this book is not just that God is preparing the way for the coming of the King of Glory, but that he is doing it in such a way that all of us should learn that the worst of times are not wasted.'

'It is the message of the book of Ruth, as we will see, that all things mysteriously serve God's good ends.'

Writing about how Ruth had opted to stay with Naomi, finding in her some witness to the God of Israel, even in the darkest of times, he states of Naomi: 'Naomi is unshaken and sure about three things: God exists, God is sovereign, and God has afflicted her.' Yet, Piper suggests, 'Seeing is a precious gift. And bitterness is a powerful blindness. What would Naomi say if she could see only a fraction of the thousands of things God was doing in the bitter providence of her life?'

As the second chapter of Ruth opens, he observes: 'the mercy of God becomes so obvious that even Naomi will recognise it.' And it comes in the form of Boaz, 'a bright crack in the cloud of bitterness hanging over Naomi', 'such a God-saturated man that his farming business and his relationships to his employees was shot through with God.'

When the grace is found under the wings of Boaz and his God, we're given the warning: 'Grace is not intended to replace lowliness with pride. It's intended to replace sorrow with joy.'

Chapter 3 of Ruth can raise some eyebrows, but Piper deals with it by suggesting that 'strategic righteousness' is at work: 'By righteousness I mean a zeal for doing what is good and right - a zeal for doing what is fitting when God is taken into account as sovereign and merciful. By strategic I mean that there is intention, purposefulness, planning.' Indeed, in this chapter he finds that 'hope helps us to dream.'

Piper doesn't shirk from the potential connotations of Ruth visiting Boaz at the threshing floor, but insists that purity was maintained - the model for us to follow as well. 'Let the morning dawn on your purity.' Yet, his pastor's heart also speaks words of grace: 'If you have failed sexually, there is forgiveness and cleansing in the offspring of Ruth and Boaz - Jesus Christ.'

Concluding with chapter 4, Piper summarises the story memorably: 'At one level, the message of the book of Ruth is that the life of the godly is not a straight line to glory, but they do get there.' Along the way, Ruth has journeyed, to the point of giving birth to Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David:

'Suddenly we realise that all along something far greater has been in the offing than we could imagine. God was not only plotting for the temporal blessing of a few Jews in Bethlehem. He was preparing for the coming of the greatest king that Israel would have, David.'

As such, 'This simple little story opens out like a stream into an ocean of hope.' This hope stretches to David, but on to his greater son, Jesus, through whom we have hope.

Piper finishes by returning to the seven reasons to read Ruth, turning them into seven appeals that spring from Ruth:

1. Study the Scriptures
2. Pursue sexual purity
3. Pursue mature manhood and womanhood
4. Embrace ethnic diversity
5. Trust the sovereignty of God
6. Take the risks of love
7. Live and sing to the glory of Christ

This is a fantastic little book, one to return to when considering how to preach Ruth. Anyone wanting to get to grips with Ruth, and through that book to the wider themes of Scripture will be richly blessed as they read, consider and marvel. Highly recommended.

A Sweet and Bitter Providence is available from Amazon.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 12: 4-20 God's Gifts

Thursday nights when we were growing up was always an exciting night. After dinner, we would go to get the big grocery shop. And that meant that it was new cereal night. We didn’t tend to get the same cereal week after week. Instead, we’d pick whichever one had the best toy inside, or the most unhealthy E-numbered filled cereal. Most weeks, my brother and I would agree, but on the odd occasion, when he wanted Frosties and I wanted CocoPops, our eyes would suddenly light on the genius of Kellogg’s cereals - the Variety pack.

Eight little tiny boxes of cereal, each different, and a solution to all our troubles! Each morning you could try a different one, and you wouldn’t have to eat the same cereal all week. Mr Kellogg knew what he was doing when he made the Variety pack. Cereal for everyone, and all different.

I was reminded of Kellogg’s Variety when I read our New Testament passage for this evening. But rather than small cereal boxes, Paul has in mind the great variety of spiritual gifts God gives us, and the ways in which we use them. I thought it would be good to focus on them, as we come together this evening to commission churchwardens, glebewardens and select vestry members from our Rural Deanery. Over the next few minutes, we’ll think about God the giver, God’s gifts, and God’s good design.

In verses 4-6 we see God the giver. And that’s a really important thing to remember as we begin to think about spiritual gifts - they are gifts, given to us by God. Listen out for the common words as we read those verses again:

‘There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.’

Three times we’re told there are ‘different kinds’ or ‘varieties’ (ESV), and three times we’re told there is the ‘same’. Do you see what Paul is saying, underlining and putting in bold? There is one God, and he loves variety. It’s not just that there is one spiritual gift available; there are many. It’s not just that there is one kind of service (and he’s not talking about Morning Prayer or Holy Communion there), there are many ways of serving the Lord.

Do you remember Henry Ford’s words when the Model T was first launched? You can have any colour, so long as it’s black. There was no diversity or variety there! But God doesn’t work on a mass production line - he shapes us and makes us individually - no two of us are the same!

Now if you were following closely during the reading, you might have noticed a clue as to why this variety is available. It actually goes to the heart of God’s nature and being. Look again at the verses - ‘different kinds... but the same Spirit... different kinds... but the same Lord... different kinds... but the same God.’ Paul shows that God is, in his very nature, variety in unity - three persons in the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Just as the three are totally united in purpose and love, so God showers his gifts on his people.

Do we recognise and remember that our spiritual gifts are gifts - given to us by God the giver? That, in the words of the children’s song ‘I just thank you Father, for making me me’? Or do we claim the credit as our own? When someone thanks us or praises us for something we do, do we keep it to ourself, or do we give the praise and thanks to God the giver?

God the giver gives gifts. Coming up to our wedding, we spent several afternoons in Debenhams and Smyth Pattersons (Lisburn), compiling our gift list. We went around the shops, writing down the things we would like to receive as gifts from our wedding guests (so that you didn’t end up with six toasters and twenty cutlery sets).

In verses 8-10, we find a gift list - we’re told some of the gifts God gives. Wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, speaking and interpreting tongues. Later in the same chapter he’ll mention a few more. Helping others, administration, teaching. And as we’ve seen, there are even more varieties of gifts.

Just think of the gifts God has given to each one of you, to equip you to serve as churchwardens, glebewardens, select vestry members, secretaries and treasurers. And even if you’re not on a vestry, you too have gifts given by God - in music, in drawing alongside people, in praying, and in so many ways. Perhaps as you read this list, or come across the other gift lists in the New Testament, you might discover a gift that you realise you have; you realise that actually, you have been given wisdom. Or maybe someone else will come up to you and say, you know, I think that you have this gift or that gift, because we’ve seen how you can do this or that. Or maybe this gift list can be like the one we had in Debenhams - and something stirs in you to desire a particular gift.

These are all God’s gifts, given to us, just as the Spirit determines. But they aren’t for us to be the centre of attention, for everyone else to go, oh, look at how gifted they are. No, the Spirit gives these gifts (v7) ‘for the common good.’

What gifts has God given you? Take some time to think about that this week. Pray through the list, and ask God to show you how he has made you, the gifts you have been given. But then - how are you using them for the common good, to build up others? How can others benefit from your gifting?

This comes into sharper focus when we consider God’s good design. When we think of word pictures of the church, perhaps the one that is used most often is the one we find here - the church as the body. Just think of your body, made up of many different parts, each of them different. But together, they make you you. And it’s the same with the body of Christ, the church. Each of us is different, but we come together, baptised by one Spirit into one body, made one in Christ.

At this point, we get closer to the reason Paul wrote about spiritual gifts to the church in Corinth. You see, they were a church with lots of problems - which Paul has been dealing with and answering in this letter. And spiritual gifts were a particular problem. Everyone wanted to have the gift of speaking in tongues, because it was a loud, everyone noticing you type of gift. Those who didn’t have it wanted it; those who did have it thought that everyone else wasn’t a real Christian without it.

But the picture of church as a body shows us how our gifts work together. So imagine your foot says, well, I’m not a hand, so I don’t really belong. That’s nonsense! You need hands and feet both, to do their own particular thing, to pick things up, or to walk. Or your ear pipes up and says, well, I’m not an eye, I don’t really belong. But you need your ear to hear as well as your eye to see.

Paul then gets into horror science fiction movie images, of a whole body of just an eye. You might have great sight, but you couldn’t walk, or talk, or do anything else. So what’s that all about? We’re not to look down on ourselves, thinking that because we aren’t upfront, or aren’t noticed, that our gifts don’t matter. But neither should we look down on others, thinking that their gifts don’t matter as much as ours.

God’s good design is seen in the human body, with each part doing its own job to make you you. And that same design is seen in the church - many parts, but one body. Tonight we commission those involved in vestries, but everyone has gifts to use as we build up the body. Perhaps, Maurice, when we come to it, we need one final commissioning question, asking everyone to stand, asking if we will use the gifts God gives us in his service.

Your role and gifts are important, in fact, they’re vital - but so are everyone else’s too! How are you using the gifts God has given you, fulfilling his purpose and design as we serve him in our parishes, and grow together in love?

Many years ago, I served as Rector’s Churchwarden in the parish of Dromore Cathedral. In the cathedral there are three doors. The Peoples’ warden welcomed at the tower door; there was a rota for the middle door; and the Rector’s warden was at the organ aisle door. And almost every Sunday, behind the door, so no one else really saw it, was a tiny stained glass window. It’s of the boy Samuel, with the inscription ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ I wonder is that our prayer this evening? It’s often as we step out to serve the Lord that we hear the Lord calling us on, to use our gifts as he chooses, to be obedient to him.

God is the giver of all our gifts. He gives the great variety for the common good, to build each other up, according to his good design of the church, the body of Christ. How will you use your gifts to serve him?

This sermon was preached at the Clogher Rural Deanery Select Vestry Commissioning Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 29th May 2016.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Sermon audio: 2 Peter 1:12-21

This morning's sermon audio from our latest series in 2 Peter 'Precious and very great promises'
Peter reminds us of the glory of Jesus revealed to him at the transfiguration and revealed to us through the Spirit-given Scriptures.
Listen HERE

Sermon: 2 Peter 2: 12-21 Total Recall

Last words can sometimes tell us a lot about a person. Captain Oates, on his ill-fated Antarctic exploration, full of duty to the last, is reported to have said. ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ The comedian Spike Milligan’s last words were ‘I told you I was ill.’

Last words stick in the memory - whether we’ve been able to spend time with a loved one, and we know that moment is coming, and we get one last conversation; or even if a loved one has been taken suddenly, we remember the last thing they said as they left the house that morning.

In our reading today, we have some of the apostle Peter’s last words. In verse 14, he knows that ‘the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me.’ So what will Peter focus on? What does he want to say to the people who received his letter?

Oftentimes, last words are about remembering - maybe remembering the good times we had together, or remembering the love that we shared. And Peter is all about remembering - look at verses 12-15. It’s all about remembering. Look at the words he uses: remind you; reminder; recall. Three sentences and three remember type words. So what is he reminding us of?

Verse 12: ‘Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have.’ Now if you’re asking ‘what qualities’ then it might show us how much we need these reminders! Last week, in the first 11 verses, Peter shows us what it looks like to grow in godliness - based in what we have received (faith, everything we need and promises), we’re to add on virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection and love.

So how did you get on this week with them? Did you find any opportunities to be patient rather than rage? Did you learn anything new about God this week as you read your Bible? Were there moments of triumph in self-control when before you would have indulged?

Even though we know them and we’re established in the truth, it’s so easy to forget. Other things take over our focus, and we begin to drift again. That’s why we need the reminder!

It’s maybe not the weather for it, but imagine a big pot of stew. If it’s left alone, it’ll settle, and start to stick to the bottom of the pot. It needs to be stirred up. This is what Peter is dedicating his last words to - while he’s in the body to stir you up by way of reminder, and after his departure, so that we may be able to recall these things.

So don’t forget about these qualities. Don’t think, yeah, we learnt about those last week. now onto something else. Remember them. Keep thinking about. Keep pursuing them. Could you put them on a sticky note on your bedside table? Or by your mirror?

Now why is Peter so insistent on remembering these qualities? Why is he focusing on us growing in grace and knowledge? What’s the point? He has already seen the glory of the King. He knows what is just ahead of us. He has experienced a glimpse of the eternal kingdom to which we’re journeying.

Verse 16: ‘For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.’ Maybe some people thought that the whole story about Jesus was just a story, just a myth, all made up. And especially the bit that still lies in the future. You see, that word ‘coming’ isn’t about Jesus’ first coming, his birth at Bethlehem. It’s a technical word (Parousia), which always means his second coming, his return in glory.

But Peter says, it’s not made up. It’s not a clever story, it will happen, because we have already seen his majesty. In our first reading we heard of the transfiguration, and here Peter looks back on that day, telling us what he saw, as an eyewitness. The honour and glory as Jesus’ clothing became dazzling white. But Peter also tells us what he heard - the voice borne to him saying ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’

Peter says that ‘we ourselves heard it’ - Peter and James and John. Having seen Jesus in all his glory once, Peter knows that Jesus will return in all his glory for all to see.

I wonder if you’ve ever found yourself thinking - is it all just made up? Is it all a waste of time to follow Jesus, who we’ve never seen? Could the Da Vinci Code and all the other conspiracy theorists be right? Listen to Peter’s eyewitness testimony. He was there. He saw Jesus, and writes it down so that we can be sure, so that we have a glimpse of the one who will return.

But that’s not always easy. It was all right for Peter, he got to see Jesus like that. We just have to take his word for it. Is that all we have to go on? Thankfully not. You see, as Peter goes on, he says that we have something more sure. Something that we can rely on. Something that will help us as we look forward to the return of the Lord Jesus. And what is it? ‘The prophetic word.’ (19)

Peter points us to the Old Testament scriptures, the words of the prophets. And you might think... oh. I’ve been trying to read the Old Testament and it’s such a struggle. I try, and I don’t understand it. I don’t know what it’s all about. And this is something more sure?

Peter gives us a picture. The prophetic word is like ‘a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.’ Again, there’s the forward focus. The day is coming, the glory of Christ is dawning, but until then, we have a lamp, a light. The lamp of the scriptures points us to the dawning of day, the morning star, the coming of Christ.

In over 300 scriptures, the birth, life, death, resurrection and return of Jesus are foretold in great detail. We see how Jesus fulfils the details, so that the lamp is like the sunlight before the day comes.

Now how was that possible? Did someone follow Jesus around and then write the Old Testament to make it look like he was fulfilling it? Of course not! These scriptures were written at least five hundred years before Jesus was born. And the two camps in the EU referendum can’t decide what life will be like in a month’s time if we vote in or out...

Look at verse 21. ‘For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.’ The scriptures are God given, inspired by the Holy Spirit, to point to Jesus, and by that, to encourage us to grow in godliness.

Now why does Peter tell us all this about the prophetic word? What does he want us to do with it? ‘Pay attention.’ Listen up! Are we walking by the light we have in the darkness while we wait for the day to dawn? Or are we stumbling about in the darkness, not using the light God has given us?

If we are reading it, how do we do that? It’s great that we’ve been reading through the Bible this year - but do we just scan it to be able to put a tick beside that day’s bit? Are we turning pages for the sake of the achievement? Or are we paying attention, listening carefully to what’s being said?

Peter wants to encourage us to read it, to pay attention to it, not out of guilt or duty - this is something I have to do. But rather, realising that this is God speaking, God giving light for the path. Not, ‘I have to do this’ but ‘I get to do this!’ I get to spend time with God, hearing him speak to me, showing me how to grow in godliness as I wait for the return of his Son.

What a change that could bring, as we sit down to read. Asking God to speak to us. Thinking about what we read, and what God is saying to us through it.

Peter’s last words stir us up to remember his reminder of these qualities of growth in godliness. To help us we have his eye and ear witness word - the glory of Christ is coming, it will all be worth it. And the prophetic word shines the way for us while we wait.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 29th May 2016.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Pentecost Sermon: John 14: 15-21 Who is the Holy Spirit?

Saying goodbye is never easy, and yet it comes all the time. Whether it's P7s preparing to change schools, saying goodbye to teachers and dinner ladies, or friends who are going to different schools; or if your best friend moves away to another country. It's not easy to say goodbye.

The Bible reading today is from the night before Jesus was crucified. He has told his disciples that he is going away - back to the Father, back to heaven - and he's not going to be on the earth with his disciples any more. The disciples are sad. They've had three years with Jesus, seeing the miracles he has done; hearing the teaching he has given; all those amazing things. But they've also just been with Jesus - eating, joking, spending time talking as they walk along.

All that was coming to an end. Saying goodbye. The disciples are sad. And we would be too - imagine if we got to be with Jesus here, in person, here and now, and then he says that he is leaving. We wouldn't like it either.

But Jesus gives them a promise: the disciples won't be on their own. Jesus says: 'I will ask the Father and he will give you...' the AA. Now, does anyone know what the AA is? Well, if you are out in the car, and it stops, it won't go any more, then you might need to ring the AA, the Automobile Association. They'll come and help. They'll come and do what they can. And Jesus promises the AA - but not the car breakdown service.

Jesus promises this AA: Another Advocate. Now what do those words mean?

Another - it's a second, just like the first. If you have one bike, and you get another bike, then you'll have two bikes. That's another.

Advocate - now imagine you're in court. You are facing the judge and the jury. But you don't stand alone. You have someone standing with you - your barrister / solicitor, who is beside you, speaking for you, arguing your case.

Another Advocate is someone who is just like Jesus - up to now, Jesus had been the Advocate of the disciples. He was with them, he was their helper, their advisor, their counsellor. But now another advocate is coming: the Spirit of truth, also known as the Holy Spirit.

So what does the Holy Spirit do? Jesus says 'he will be in you.' So here's a glove. A nice leather glove. I'll set it on the lectern. Now, can that glove do anything? Can it lift a glass of water? Can it wave? Can it open the door? No, no, no. The glove just sits there. No matter how much we ask it, or tell it, it can't do anything by itself. But with my hand in it, the glove can do lots of things. It can lift things, wave, open things. The Holy Spirit is like that - he comes into us to help us to live for Jesus, to do the things we can't do by ourselves. He is the Spirit of Jesus - Jesus living in us.

I've got a question for you. Who is the best footballer in the world? Messi? Now I'm not great at football. Anyone who plays on a Thursday evening will tell you that. Now imagine that Messi could control me. If he could control my legs to run to the right place each time, or my feet to kick the ball and score goals, or control my brain, my thinking. I'd be brilliant! I could play like him. Well, Jesus comes into our life by his Holy Spirit, not to make us better footballers, but to help us to live like him.

And a big part of living like Jesus is to love him and keep his commands, to do what he wants us to do. But it's not just demands and commands - Jesus gives us the help, power, and desire to do what he wants.

Saying goodbye isn't easy. Over in John 16, later on this same evening, Jesus says that it's better that he's going away. How could that be? Well, think how the disciples met with Jesus. He could only be in one place at a time. If Jesus was in Jerusalem, then you had to be in Jerusalem to be with Jesus. If you were anywhere else, you weren't with him. But now that Jesus has gone back to heaven, and has sent his Spirit to be with us and in us - now we can have Jesus with us where we are!

Whenever the car breaks down and won't go any further, then you call the AA. You only need them when something goes wrong. But every Christian always has their AA with them. Another Advocate, the one who is like Jesus, who stands with us, and is in us, to help us, and guide us. Let's pray.

This sermon was preached at the Family Service on Pentecost Sunday 15th May 2016 in Aghavea Parish Church.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Book Review: Trusting God - Even When Life Hurts

My book reviews have faded into non-existence since January, so I'm hoping to keep up my reading and my reviewing. Here goes...

You might notice a common thread in some of the books I've been reading since the start of the year. I've been seeking refuge in the Lord, encouraged by some writing specifically on the issue of suffering and grief. And Jerry Bridges' book 'Trusting God' might just be the best one that I've read on that subject.

It's always the way, isn't it - I had this book on my Kindle for ages, having found it in one of the special sale bargains highlighted by Tim Challies, and thought that one day I'd get round to it. But who wants to read about suffering until you're enduring it? So in January, I got to the book, and found some balm for my soul, because Bridges brings you to the Lord who is our comforter, the one who can be trusted.

Beginning with the story of his own sudden bereavement, when his mother died when he was just fourteen, he shares that 'learning to trust God in adversity has been a slow and difficult process for me. It is a process that is still under way.' This realism assures the reader that he isn't preaching down to anyone, but rather, 'is written from the perspective of a brother and companion to all those who are tempted at times to ask, 'Can I really trust God?'' The treasure in the book comes because it is 'a Bible study about God and his sovereignty, wisdom, and love as they bear upon the adversities we all encounter.'

His purpose is simple, and twofold - 'First, I desire to glorify God by acknowledging His sovereignty and His goodness. Second, I desire to encourage God's people by demonstrating from Scripture that God is in control of their lives, that He does indeed love them, and that He works out all the circumstances of their lives for their ultimate good.'

Through the book, Bridges addresses the subject by beginning with the big question: 'Can I trust God?' Surveying the pain and horror we see in the world, he readily admits that 'God's people are not immune from pain. In fact it often seems as if theirs is more severe, more frequent, more unexplainable, and more deeply felt than that of the unbeliever.' To answer, he focuses on the two issues raised by the question - is God dependable; and how our relationship with him is, so that we will depend on him.

Time and again, Bridges returns to the three truths about God - 'the sovereignty, love and wisdom of God', not just to increase our knowledge, but so that we can be so convinced of these truths that we appropriate them in our daily circumstances, trusting the God who is sovereign, love, and wise. The tone of the writing is truth-saturated, with a pastor's heart, sensitively but surely applying the truth to the sufferer's heart. Occasionally there was a line that I didn't fully agree with, but on the whole, this was an excellent guide to God's goodness and sovereignty, and will help to strengthen and encourage those who read it to trust God - even when life hurts.

Trusting God is available from Amazonand in Kindleversion.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Sermon: 2 Peter 1: 1-11 Growing in Godliness

It’s always really sad to see someone who doesn’t live up to expectations; who doesn’t reach their full potential. Whether it’s a football player who is on the team, but doesn’t put the effort in; or someone in work who doesn’t pull their weight; or a pupil whose grades aren’t where they could be. They’re ineffective and unfruitful.

How much worse, then, to be a Christian, to have a knowledge of the Lord Jesus, and to be ineffective and unfruitful. Like an adult who has never really grown up, there’s little maturity. Such a waste.

As we begin our new series in 2 Peter, the apostle Peter wants to make sure that we aren’t going to be ineffective or unfruitful as a Christian - that the knowledge we have of the Lord Jesus will be effective in our lives, and that we will be producing the fruit of godliness. How can we be effective and fruitful as Christians?

It’s the concern of the whole letter - our growth in godliness, but don’t just take my word for it. Very often, as we look at the letters in the New Testament, we can see the theme clearly because it is what starts and ends the letter. So if we top and tail 2 Peter, what do we find? 1:2 - ‘May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.’ Turn over to 3:18 ‘But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.’ Growth in grace and knowledge (with the day of the Lord in view).

In these verses, Peter is going to tell us how we can grow in godliness, and it all boils down to remembering what we have received, and making every effort. Now even as I say that, you might be thinking, surely they are contradictory? Stay with me, and we’ll see how they fit together.

So first of all, then, what we have received. Let’s look at verse 1. Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ. It’s the standard way of opening a letter at the time - not putting the name of who it’s from at the very end (as we do), but right at the start. It’s Simeon Peter, Peter, a servant and apostle. This is one of the twelve, one of the three, one of the prime leaders of the early church - the one who took the lead on the day of Pentecost.

How amazing would it be to get a letter from Peter. I’m on Twitter, and sometimes some of my friends try to get a ‘tweet’ from a famous celebrity - a wee message direct to them from their favourite singer. Here we have a letter from one of the top men in the church, but he says something even more amazing straight away: ‘To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ.’

We might think of ordinary Christians being on one level, missionaries slightly higher, Christian celebrities higher still, and Peter and the apostles right at the top with a much more important level of faith - no, says Peter - to be a Christian means you have a faith of equal standing with the apostles. But it’s not something we have worked up ourselves, or performed for ourselves - no, we have obtained it through the righteousness of Jesus (our God and Saviour).

What a great start, as we think about how to be effective and fruitful as Christians - recognising that we are on an equal standing with the apostles, not second class or amateur league compared to them. But there’s more. Verse 3 - ‘His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence.’ As well as giving us our faith, God has given us all things that pertain to life and godliness - everything we need to live a godly life, becoming more like Jesus. How has he given us these things? What do they look like? It’s through the knowledge of him who called us. As we come to know the Lord Jesus, as we come to know more of him through the Bible, we see what pleases him, we see how he lived, and we are given the resources to do it.

There’s still more! Verse 4 - God has ‘granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature...’ We have been given faith, given all we need for godliness, and on top of all that, we have been given God’s precious promises. Through the rest of the letter we’ll see more of these promises, but you can immediately think of what some of them are - forgiveness, the Holy Spirit, comfort, assurance, hope of eternal life / heaven and many more. Through these promises we come to share in God’s eternal life, escaping the world’s corruption of sinful desire.

As a Christian, even this morning, you can see how much God has given you - faith, everything you need for godliness, and precious promises. As you think of all these, you might say to yourself, well, if God has given me all this, then I can just sit back and relax. It’s all in hand. You might even have heard the saying ‘Let Go, Let God.’

If that’s your slogan, then what Peter says next will give you a great shock. Look at verse 5: ‘For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue...’ and so on. It’s not that someone else has taken over and is promoting a kind of works do it yourself religion - no, it’s because God has given us all these things, for this very reason, make every effort.

It’s the same kind of “both and” we find in Philippians 2: ‘work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you...’ So what is it we have to make every effort to do?

Supplement your faith with virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love. Such a list, and we don’t really have time to explore each of them in the detail we would like. Suffice to say that these are the marks of the Spirit working in our lives - you’ll notice certainly similarities to the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5. I don’t think Peter is saying that you necessarily follow in a strict line; that you have faith, then add virtue (wait until it’s good) then add knowledge - rather that each of them are increasing. They’re rooted in what God has given us, they’re based in the faith we have received, and yet we can make an effort to increase them.

What happens if we don’t have these qualities? Peter goes on to tell us in v8-9. The reverse of verse 8 suggests that if we don’t have these, then we’ll be ineffective and unfruitful, as we see further in verse 9: ‘For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.’ To reject this work of the Spirit in your life, to refuse to make an effort to become more like Jesus, Peter says, is to be nearsighted so much as to be blind, forgetting the sins that have already been forgiven and cleansed. It’s to say to yourself, well, I’m not so bad really, am I?

As we come towards the end of the passage, Peter gives us some encouragement to be effective and fruitful as Christians; to keep making the effort towards godliness. ‘Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.’

Peter isn’t saying here that our calling and election is made sure because of our works - but rather that our works are a sign that we have been elected, chosen by God, called by him, that we are being kept by him, and that we are heading for this rich welcome into Christ’s eternal kingdom. Do you see that? You, who have been given a faith of equal standing to Peter, won’t be entering heaven through a back door, through the tradesman’s entrance, just about making it and no more. No, there’ll be this great welcome, this richly provided entrance. We are headed for heaven - what an encouragement to keep going, making the effort, pushing ahead.

So how do we apply this passage? What will you take away with you today? Perhaps you haven’t even started on the journey. You can’t supplement your faith with anything, because you haven’t even got faith in the first place. This assurance, these qualities aren’t really for you until you are a Christian - to try to perform these qualities by themselves won’t provide any assurance. You see, we can’t make it on our own - we need that righteousness of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ to make us right with God. We’re here, we’ll be delighted to help you find out more about how to become a Christian.

Or maybe you’re someone who is an activist. You come to every Bible passage, every sermon wanting to know the one thing you need to do. Perhaps your mind is racing with ways to make every effort to improve these qualities. Remember that our effort must be rooted in what we have received - pause, and remember all that God has given you - your faith, everything you need for godliness, his precious promises.

As you remember God’s mercy towards us, take some time by yourself this week and work through the list - ask yourself - how is my self-control; how am I doing with virtue; where are the areas I need to work on, making an effort in? How can I continue to become more like Jesus?

Think as well about this time last year, or five years ago - are they, in the words of verse 8 ‘yours and increasing’? To ask these questions and to be serious about answering them means that we’ll together become more effective and fruitful as Christians - and all for the glory of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 22nd May 2016.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sermon audio: 2 Peter 1:1-11

This morning we began our new series in 2 Peter. In the opening verses, Peter shows us how we can grow in godliness.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 15: 50-58 Raised: in victory

When was your greatest victory? When did you enjoy your finest triumph? Maybe it was playing for the school team in a final, or a solo sports performance. Maybe it was that one time you managed to beat your brother or sister in Ludo or chess or tiddliwinks as a child. Perhaps it was in an argument, or even in a fight... There’s something about us, that we all like to recall times of victory, no matter how small. We can celebrate.

As we come to the end of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul spells out the implications of a great victory that we can celebrate, both today, and for all eternity.We’ve been studying what the Bible says about the resurrection of the dead - and Paul now looks to the end, and declares in verse 57 ‘Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ We’ll look at the victory Christ has won, the change that it will bring in us, and then what that means for us today.

So first, the victory Christ has won. For there to be a victory, there must be an enemy, an opponent, someone who is defeated. As we gather here today, it is all too clear who our enemy is. As you walked into church, the headstones around the building are silent reminders of the onward march of death. Or look around. Saints who were faithful members of the congregation for many years are with us no longer. Or drive around and see the number of funeral directors and undertakers, whose business is death. Or spend a moment reflecting on your own loss - death is all around, our great enemy. As someone once said, the only certainties in life are death and taxes.

Our enemy is death. Death is painful for those left behind, who mourn the loss of loved ones. But the Bible goes further and says that there is a sting to death - like a bee or a wasp. There’s a sting to death, and that sting is sin - the needlepoint that threatens and does the damage. Death comes as a result of sin, and grieves us so. Sin gets its power from the law, from God’s command. As we break God’s law, as we disobey and rebel, then that sin stings us, and we fall into the hands of our enemy.

Sometimes bee stings can kill, but with the sin sting, death is a certainty. (The wages of sin is death - Romans 6:23). What shall we do? What can we do, in the face of such a powerful adversary? Our enemy will triumph.

Or will he? Faced with our enemy, how can Paul taunt death in verse 55. Look at it with me: ‘O death, where is your victory? O death where is your sting?’ Come on Paul, you almost want to say - death wins every time. Death wins, its sting is stung.

Yet Paul has been writing about the resurrection of Jesus, and how Jesus’ resurrection affects us, so that he can burst out into the shout of praise in verse 57. Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Death affects us because of sin, but Jesus has dealt with our sin - as verse 3 reminded us - Christ died for our sins. He died the death we deserve, and has been raised again - he has won the victory over death - Jesus didn’t stay dead in the grave, but lives forevermore!

This victory will be completed and consummated when he returns, and brings the great change of verses 51-54. So far, Paul has been writing about those who have died, those who have fallen asleep - Christians who have died. As he describes what will happen on the last day, he is revealing a mystery - something hidden that is now revealed, a special apostolic revelation for the encouragement of the brothers and sisters. Not all Christians will die - some will be alive when Jesus returns, but no matter whether dead or alive, ‘we shall all be changed.’

All change - like the announcement on a bus or train. This one can only take you so far, after that, you must get on another one for your final destination. We see this in verse 50, where perishable flesh cannot inherit the kingdom of God, we need a new imperishable and immortal body. The trumpet will sound - the music of festivity, celebration and triumph - and in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye - in the time it takes to bat an eyelid, the Lord will appear and everything will be changed.

But what will the change be like? Verse 53 helps us - this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. (not immorality, but immortality!) As I said last week - our bodies now are weak and falling apart. Our bodies are prone to die, but they will be made new and will never die or fail or fade.

It is when this change takes place, when we are clothed with immortality, that ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ That line comes from Isaiah 25 - and I want to go there briefly to see the glory of the victory as prophesied in the Old Testament: (p 708). Verse 7 in Isaiah 25 shows the universal problem - death is like a sheet or a veil, a blanket over all peoples - full blanket coverage, as you might say. None are exempt. But, ‘he will swallow up death forever; and the LORD God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.’ Where? On this mountain - Jerusalem, the mountain of the Lord, where Jesus rose from the dead and swallowed death whole. Death does not have the last word, Jesus has triumphed!

That’s why Paul can taunt death in those words of verse 55 - O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? Yes, you may take loved ones from us, but you will not triumph - they merely sleep, and they will be freed from your grasp as they rise and we rise with them, and we are together changed and clothed in the power of Christ and made like Christ’s resurrection body, never more to die.

This is our future hope as Christians, as those who trust in the death of Christ for our sins and his resurrection for our victory over death. I’m sure you know that when a bee stings someone, it soon dies - Death stings Jesus, and he draws its poison, so that we are saved and aren’t stung. What a glorious future - no wonder we rejoice as we look forward, so that even our mourning is transformed so that, as Paul says elsewhere ‘you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.’ Death hurts us as we lose loved ones, but we can look forward with certainty to that reunion through Christ’s resurrection. Death is not the end, death does not have the final say.

I don’t know about you, but I almost want Paul to finish on the high triumphant note of verse 57. That note of thanks and praise as we see clearly the victory won and how we will share in it. But that’s not where Paul ends. Instead he adds verse 58, as he draws out the implications of the whole chapter. Because of Jesus’ resurrection, and our resurrection; because of the world to come; because what we do matters, ‘therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.’

The doctrine of the resurrection will lead to two things - being firmly faithful and abundantly fruitful. First of all, firmly faithful. My beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable. Paul’s teaching on the resurrection is the corrective to the Corinthians’ tendency to be blown about by false doctrine. Some had been listening to people who said there was no such thing as the resurrection. Some doubted the power of God, or the promises of God. Now that they know the truth, they must stand firm in it, be steadfast, and not moving about, shifting , but standing firm on the rock of Christ. Wasn’t that how Paul opened the chapter? ‘Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you’ (1 Cor 15:1-2) Right doctrine, firmly faithful.

But they are also called (and we too), to be abundantly fruitful. Because Jesus has died and been raised, and he has entrusted us with the work of the gospel, and because Jesus will return victorious, then be ‘always abounding in the work of the Lord.’

Always abounding - Can any of us say that our work for the Lord is abounding at any time, never mind always abounding? We’re often so slow to speak for Christ, or serve Christ, or progress in godliness. Yet Paul gives us the motivation for pressing on, for abounding in the work of the Lord. Why? ‘Knowing that in the Lord, your labour is not in vain.’ We have two ‘ins’ here - not too pubs (inns), but two ins - in the Lord, and not in vain. These two ins summarise the chapter and provide the motivation for doing the Lord’s service:

In the Lord: Those in the Lord, in Christ shall be made alive (22), we have this sure hope, a hope that is not in vain. Our labour, our work for the Lord and in the Lord is not in vain - just as our faith in Christ is not in vain (v14). Our faith is not empty, because Jesus is alive. Our work is therefore also not empty or useless, but productive, fruitful, as we spread the good news of Jesus, the triumph of victory over sin and death.

Only one life, twill soon be past,
only what’s done for Christ will last.

What is your greatest victory? If you’re in Christ, then those sporting achievements or arguments pale into insignificance, and our greatest victory is just around the corner - just a heartbeat away, when the Lord returns and we share in his victory over death. How will you respond now?

Leicester City are on cloud nine, having won the Premier League, the first time in their 132 year history. Will they win it next year, and the year after? Probably not.

Our victory is complete, and forever! No replays, no rematches, no appeals, Jesus has won and we share in his victory. The result is sure, and we can celebrate now, as we stand firm in the truth of the resurrection, and spread the good news to others - Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 8th May 2016.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 15: 35-49 Raised: in glory

One of the topics that generates the most questions has to be heaven and what it’s like. Will we know each other? What age will we be in heaven? What will we do all day for all eternity? And maybe these are some of the questions that you’ve thought about as well. But as Paul teaches about the resurrection of Jesus and what it means us for us, he reckons that someone will be asking how it all works.

Look at verse 35. ‘But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’’ That’s the question we’re thinking about today. What will our resurrection really look like? When we are raised on the last day, what will it feel like? What kind of body will we have on that day?

Now hopefully if you ask me a question, I’ll not follow Paul’s line here and say ‘You foolish person!’ So why does Paul think this is such a silly question? Why would this be a foolish thing to ask? Well, the answer is really all around us. As he answers, Paul takes us to the garden, or the farm, and the idea of sowing and reaping. The way the world works, the ‘natural order’ of creation points us to God’s work of re-creation.

Principle 1: Dying brings life. Look at verse 36. ‘What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.’ To reap a harvest, you first have to sow the seed. If you just keep the seed sitting on your kitchen table, it’ll never grow. It must die to live. It’s only when it is buried, planted in the ground, that the seed will die and then spring into new life. It’s what Jesus says in John 12 - ‘unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ Dying brings new life. Sowing leads to growing.

Principle 2: The thing that grows isn’t the thing that’s sown. Or at least, it’s not exactly the same. Everyone knows that if you plant apple seeds, you’ll not grow pears. What’s sown is what grows, but it’s not exactly the same. It’s the same, but different. Just look at a seed, and then look at the fruit. They’re entirely different! ‘And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain.’ (37)

But when the seeds are planted, God gives them the body he has chosen, each type of body unique and special and different. So imagine you go to a garden centre, and there’s a big kind of pick-n-mix stand. Lots of seeds, and you took one of each sort and had them in your hand. The seeds might all look the same, but the plants would each be different.

Imagine if everything in the universe only had one and the same type of body. Humans, animals, fish, birds, they all had our body shape and skin. It would be a bit weird! But Paul says, look at the world around you - ‘For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish.’ Or look up - the glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of stars, each different. Each created thing has its own kind of body, the right kind of body for it. God’s got it all under his control. It’ll be just right.

So take those two principles - dying brings life; and what is sown isn’t the same that’s grown. And now Paul takes what we know from the world around us, and applies it to our bodies. And here is great hope.

You see, every day, we’re all getting older. Our bodies are wearing out or giving up. Someone once said that the sign of getting older was that when you were bending over to tie your shoelaces, you see what else you could do when you’re down that far. And despite the anti-ageing creams or the ‘ten years younger’ programmes, we’re still getting older. Maybe I'm feeling it this week - at a meeting with colleagues, some thought I was older than I am - maybe I need the Oil of Olay! And perhaps you wonder how great eternal life would be if you were to keep going in your body? Could you go another 1000 years in the skin you’re in?

But remember what Paul has shown us from the natural world. And we see him apply it to the resurrection. ‘What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.’ Our earthly bodies are just the seed. When we have a funeral, and there’s a burial, it’s like a seed being planted. The Moravian church calls its graveyards ‘God’s acre’, God’s field, as they await the harvest, the resurrection.

Just think of that transformation of the resurrection - we lay our loved one to rest, perhaps having sat with them at home or in hospital. We’e watched as they go down, as their bodies fail. Even the best of us end up perishable, in dishonour, weakness, and all too aware of the frailty of our natural body. But they’ll be transformed at the resurrection - raised imperishable, in glory, in power, a spiritual body. Now that doesn’t mean that we’re just a spirit, just a ghost. It means a body made alive by the Holy Spirit, empowered by heaven.

This isn't a spirit in a dress sitting on a cloud playing a harp, as some images of heaven would suggest. This isn't that we become an angel when we die - you don't become someone or something else. You're still the same person, raised with a new, resurrection body. Remember last week, when we saw that Jesus is the firstfruits? His body is the prototype, the first example of the resurrection body.

So what was his resurrection body like? He could appear in a locked room with the disciples. He could be touched, his wounds inspected. He could walk along. He could cook breakfast for the disciples on the beach barbecue. He could eat broiled fish. He’s not like Casper, a friendly ghost. He is raised to new life, real life, in a glorified imperishable body.

If you remember last week, Paul gave us the comparison between Adam and Christ. In Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. Well here, he continues the compare and contrast. Look at verse 45. Adam became a living being, but Jesus (the last Adam, the second ‘first man’) became a life-giving spirit. Adam was given life. But not so with Jesus - he gives life.

And that makes all the difference. You see, we’re all born in Adam. ‘The first man was from the earth, a man of dust.’ The life given to Adam is also given to us. But that life is temporary, all too short. Our frail bodies fail, and those words are said of us - earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, echoing Genesis 3:19 ‘By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it were you taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ We bear the same image of Adam.

But Jesus is from heaven. He belongs to a different sphere. And he gives us a different destiny. If we belong to him, then we will be like him. Look at verse 49, as Paul summarises what we’re looking at today: ‘Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, so we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.’

We are like Adam, who come from dust, and return to dust. But as we trust in Christ, so we become like him. We will share his risen life. And we will have resurrection bodies like his. This world is not the end. Death does not have the last word. And we will be raised in glory, to be like Jesus, in resurrection bodies like Jesus. That’s a truth to hold on to when we grieve for loved ones, or when we’re faced with our own mortality. Burial is a seed sown, as we wait for the harvest - you and me, personally raised, personally known, but in new bodies, just like Jesus’ own.

What kind of bodies? Look at the world around you - dying brings life, and what’s sown isn’t the same as what’s grown. John puts it like this: ‘Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.’ (1 John 3:2)

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 1st May 2016.