Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sermon: 2 Peter 3: 1-10 The Promise of his Coming

The moment has finally arrived. After weeks of telling his friends all about his new girlfriend, John has arranged for them all to meet up. So his friends are there, and John is there, but there’s no sign of Kate. Half an hour passes, and still no sign of this supposedly wonderful girlfriend. John’s friends start to get a little bit suspicious. Is she really coming? Does she even exist, or has John been spinning a tall tale about a made-up girlfriend? Well, where is she? What’s keeping her?

John waits for her arriving. No matter how much his friends doubt him, and make fun of him, John holds on to her promise, that she would be there.

This is something like what’s going on in our Bible reading today. You have people like John, who are waiting eagerly for someone’s arrival, holding on to their promise. And you have others who don’t believe that the person will come at all. But this is much more important than whether Kate will turn up or not - what we’re thinking about this morning is the return of the Lord Jesus to the earth.

And perhaps you’re like one of John’s friends, quietly sceptical, wondering how we could possibly believe such a thing. Are there really people who believe that Jesus will indeed come again? For a few moments, let’s look at what Peter, one of Jesus’ closest friends, says about the return of Jesus.

First of all, we see that this is a final reminder. Now sometimes final reminders can arrive in the post. Dear so and so, this is the final reminder of the amount you owe. It’s a call to action, to not ignore the reminder. And Peter opens this chapter like one of those letters. ‘This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved.’

Peter has written to these people he loves once already, and now he’s writing again. Earlier in the letter he says that he knows his time is short, so this is his second and final reminder. But this isn’t a demand for payment. Instead, this is a final reminder to... remember. Verse 2: ‘Remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour through your apostles.’

Peter wants to make sure that the church will remember what the prophets have predicted about Jesus’ return; and also remember what Jesus has commanded, through the apostles (that is, Peter and the other 11). It’s so urgent, because of scoffers who will scoff.

In the wee story of John and Kate, John’s friends could well have said this: ‘Where is the promise of her coming?’ Where is she? Well, that’s exactly what the scoffers will say, and are saying. ‘Where is the promise of his coming?’ Where is Jesus? If you say he has promised to come, where is he? And to back up their doubts, they continue in verse 4: ‘For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.’

They seem to be saying that everything’s going along just fine, that the world keeps going, and will keep going just fine without Jesus. So here’s the objection: Where is Jesus, if he promised to return? Based on every day up to now, he’s not likely to return.

Now Peter tackles the two challenges in reverse order. In verses 5-7, he shows that everything hasn’t just continued from the beginning. He points back to a moment of disruption, when things weren’t business as usual, a moment that these scoffers ‘deliberately overlook’ - they forget about it, they don’t want to remember it, because it challenges their worldview. And what was this moment Peter is thinking of? The flood of Noah’s day. God’s word had formed the earth out of water and through water, and God’s word then brought about the flood: ‘by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished.’

So things haven’t always continued on as normal. And God promised with the sign of the rainbow that the world would never again be flooded. But here in verse 7, Peter says that the heavens and earth are stored up for fire, kept until the day of judgement and destruction of the ungodly.

Having answered the second objection, Peter then returns to the main question - Where is the promise of his coming? Where is Jesus? Why has he not returned? And to answer, he picks up a verse from Psalm 90:4 ‘For a thousand years in your sight as but as yesterday when it is past.’ And he says, don’t overlook this, don’t forget this - that one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. He’s saying that God’s sense of time is different to ours.

It’s like the story of the man who was asking God some questions. God, he says, what is a million years to you? And God says, A million years is just like a second to me. Then he asks, What is a million pounds to you? And God says, A million pounds is just like a penny to me. So he says, God, could I have a penny, and God says, Sure, now just give me a second...

Now that’s just a joke, but if you think about it, time seems to move at different speeds, depending on whether you’re on a roller coaster or in a dentist’s chair. Or when you say to a child, give me five minutes... to them it can seem like eternity! Peter gives us a final reminder that Jesus’ return us sure, not slow. Verse 9: ‘The Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness’. So why the delay? ‘But is patient towards you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.’

Jesus isn’t slow in coming, as if he’s been delayed. No, he is patient, giving time for repentance, giving people time to turn around from their sins, and to turn to him, to believe the promise of forgiveness, to escape the judgement and destruction on the day he returns.

Jesus hasn’t returned yet, so that you can turn to him. Today, this opportunity of repentance is given to you. You see, you are not here by accident today. Perhaps you’re here to celebrate the birth of a new family member, to witness a baptism, or you’re just being polite as you wait for the party afterwards. You’re here, today, to hear of the promised, sure, return of Jesus, and to have this opportunity to turn to Jesus.

He hasn’t returned yet, so that you could hear and receive him today. For some of us in the church family, he didn’t return last year, or ten years ago, or fifty years ago, or one hundred years ago, so that you could turn to him. You know the old saying - patience is a virtue, possess it if you can, seldom in a woman, and never in a man. Peter says God is patient. He has brought us to this day, and this moment, and gives us this opportunity to repent.

One day, though, it will be too late. You see, the Lord’s return, demonstrating his patience is not slow, but it is sure. One day Jesus will return. ‘But the day of the Lord will come like a thief.’ Sure, but unexpected. Mr burglar doesn’t ring up to say that they’ll call in tonight at 2am. They just appear. And Peter says that Jesus will come like a thief, in a moment, when we’re not expecting him.

Imagine that, right now, as we’re sitting here, a helicopter came overhead and lifted the roof right off the church building. We’d be totally exposed to the elements. Peter says that when Jesus comes, ‘then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.’

Now, this might sound a little bit strange, but one of my hobbies is visiting old graveyards, and reading the headstones. One day I came across an inscription in the graveyard at Rathmullan, near Tyrella Beach in County Down. It said ‘This grave never to be opened.’ There may have been good reason for it - perhaps the lady had some infectious disease; or maybe it was a condition of her will. But what Peter is saying here is that the grave of Jane Archer of Downpatrick will one day be opened, as the sky melts and burns, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed, and Jane Archer will face Jesus, to be delivered, or condemned.

We too, will face that same day. Our works, our lives, will also be exposed. The motives of our hearts. The things we think we’ve gotten away with. The secrets we keep. Would you be happy with that exposure? Your every thought, word and deed written for all to read? Could you stand before the judge?

Peter gives us this final reminder that Jesus’ return is sure (not slow), and displays his patience. Will you believe the promise, that Jesus will return? And given that Jesus will return, will you rejoice in his patience, and repent? In a few moments, I’ll ask some questions to the parents and godparents. Those questions get to the heart of repentance - there’s saying ‘no’: rejecting the devil, renouncing evil, repenting of sin; and there’s saying ‘yes’: turning to Christ, submitting to Christ, coming to Christ.

Tomorrow is guaranteed to none of us. The Lord could return today. So while you have this opportunity, turn to Christ, receive his promise, and wait for his return.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 26th June 2016.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Book Review: Though He Slay Me

I've mentioned previously that for a while, all my reading was on the subject of suffering. Jamie Freeman's book 'Though He Slay Me' takes its title from Job 13:15, and its subtitle shows its purpose: 'Seeing God as Good in Suffering.' Straight away, let me say that this wouldn't rank as highly as some of the other books I read on the subject, partly because there were more times when I didn't agree with the author, on particular dogmatic pronouncements. Yet there are still memorable moments, and helpful passages within the book, none more memorable than the story he shares in the first chapter of two difficult, dangerous births - his own birth, leading to Cerebral Palsy, and that of his child.

Laying out the foundation, Freeman surveys the range of self-help books available, all of which seek to avoid suffering. However, as he reminds us, 'No one escapes suffering in this life. Yet the ways in which people respond to suffering go miles in showing who has been born again by the Spirit of God... and who has not.' Further, he makes the case that 'while life in Christ is glorious and triumphant, it can also get you thrown in jail, beaten, persecuted, rejected and scorned.'

The issue of suffering has always prompted the question, is God really good, but he maintains, 'The issue of the goodness of God in suffering forces us to take a look at what we really believe about God and his Word.' Through the rest of the book, Freeman examines the goodness of God through a variety of lenses - that of God's sovereignty; the origins of suffering; sickness; death; poverty; rejection; human weakness and sin; broken families; racial discrimination; natural disasters; and God's purpose and plan for suffering. This all leads to seeing the goodness of God in his eventual triumph over suffering, the final chapter.

There were several points at which I scribbled notes into my Kindle, a 'really?' here and a 'not sure about this' there, on issues such as families and divorce, and the rejection of Israel. So, when discussing family life, he makes this categorical statement: 'Because of this, I do not believe the Bible gives allowance for divorce.' Yet I can think of two occasions where the Bible gives allowance for divorce - marital unfaithfulness, and when a new convert's spouse refuses to remain with them. As I've said, there were several other similar dogmatic statements that come across as blunt, unhelpful, and even wrong.

I was reminded of the African responsive declaration: 'God is good, all the time; all the time, God is good.' Sadly I'd have to say that this book, on the goodness of God, isn't always good. For this reason, I wouldn't recommend it as highly as some of the other books on suffering I've read recently.

Though He Slay Me: Seeing God as Good in Suffering is available from Amazon and for Kindle.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Developing Ministry?

I serve on the Board of Governors of our local Primary School. Alongside speaking in Assembly and teaching some RE lessons, it's a way of being involved in the school, and engaging with the wider community. I'm coming to the end of my second year on the Board, and it has opened my eyes to everything that is involved in managing and maintaining a school.

Within the Board of Governors, there are different roles and responsibilities, shared out among the members. I'm one of two Governor reviewers for the Principal's PRSD (Performance Review and Staff Development). In June, we meet together with the Principal and an external adviser to review the past year's performance in terms of their specific objectives, and to set the new objectives for the coming year.

The three objectives are within the areas of: 1. Leadership and management; 2. Pupil and curriculum development; 3. Personal and professional development of the principal. The objectives are also SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound).

In turn, the Principal reviews the PRSD of the teachers in the school, under three similar but slightly different areas, reflecting the different responsibilities: 1. Professional practice; 2. Pupil and curriculum development; 3. Personal and professional development of the teacher.

Coming away from the review meeting last week, it made me wonder about some form of PRSD for ministers in the Church of Ireland. As it stands, there is no model of performance reviewing and development planning as far as I can see. Perhaps it happens in some dioceses, but I've never experienced it.

It needn't be an onerous task - certainly not as detailed as the Annual Appraisal that Doctors endure, in which they produce a full ring binder of evidence of their Continuing Professional Development (CPD) - reflections on their reading, courses and lectures attended, and a certain number of learning hours spent in development; Quality Improvement Activity - auditing their work; Significant events - reflections on particular cases, and how they might do things differently; Feedback from colleagues and patients; and Records of compliments and complaints. I'm certainly not recommending that something as detailed be done, having watched the process of compiling such a portfolio.

If there was some form of review and planning, I think it would be incredibly helpful for those in ministry. Some structured, even if informal, way of reviewing the previous year of ministry, reflecting on particular challenges; as well as identifying two or three areas for focused learning and development.

Perhaps they could be structured around the themes of:
1. Theology (some particular branch or area of theology you want to learn more about e.g. Ecclesiology, or the Holy Spirit, or Biblical theology or Systematic theology, or committing to studying one Bible book intensively);
2. Pastoral (some area of pastoral ministry that you would wish to develop or improve - ministry to the sick / elderly / housebound / marriage prep / Baptism prep etc);
3. Professional - although immediately I recognise that isn't the right word, but I'm struggling to come up with the word, prompted by John Piper's challenging book, 'Brothers, we are not professionals'. This would look at the practical doing of ministry, including prayer, preparing liturgy, preaching prep, conducting meetings, choosing priorities, managing diary and time commitments etc. Perhaps Practical Ministry is the term I'm looking.
4. Personal - looking at home life, making sure time is managed well to ensure days off and holiday time is taken; maintaining and developing outside interests/hobbies; investing in friendships etc.

When at Theological College, we were always warned by the example of a previous anonymous student, who allegedly said that on graduating he was looking forward to never opening another book, because his studies were now finished. So how can we build some form of reviewing and planning into our ministry? How do we ensure that we haven't given up on reading, learning and growing; content to get stuck in a rut, just doing the same old things as we count down the days until retirement?

Some of my colleagues may not want or appreciate a top-down episcopal-imposed 'review', particularly Church of Ireland rectors with the security of parson's freehold. Perhaps we could develop something like this from the bottom up, for those who would appreciate such accountability, and mutual encouragement to keep going and keep growing in ministry.

Today marks the 8th anniversary of my ordination as a Deacon in Dromore Cathedral. God's grace has been amazing, through the highs and lows of pastoral ministry. God is faithful, and in his grace, we'll have many more years of ministry. In his word, he shows us how to do it, in words written by the apostle Paul to his young colleague, Timothy:

6 If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. 7 Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; 8 for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. 9 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. 10 For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe.

11 Command and teach these things. 12 Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. 14 Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. 15 Practise these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. 16 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Tim 4:6-16)

Paul speaks about training yourself for godliness - toiling and striving in it, because we have set our hope on God. The Olympic athlete doesn't just turn up at the stadium in Rio and have a go at running or jumping. They've been training hard for the past four years, their eye on the gold medal. It involves hard work, commitment, dedication, blood, sweat and tears. Are we as committed to godliness?

Young Timothy was to set an example to the believers - by no means perfectly, but so that all could see his progress. That's the review question - have I grown in the past year? How have things changed, improved and progressed? The planning phase comes under the keeping a close watch on 'yourself and on the teaching' - your life and your doctrine. The apostle Paul would, I feel, get behind such a review and planning strategy - not for its own sake; not to add another thing onto packed schedules; not as a burden; but simply as a way of growing in godliness and effectiveness in gospel ministry. With that aim in mind, it could be a very useful procedure.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Sermon Audio: 2 Peter 2: 1-22

On Sunday, I was preaching from 2 Peter 2, on the danger of false teachers. Just like an episode of the TV and movie franchise, it can seem like 'Mission Impossible' to resist the alluring messages of the false teachers, who plug into our sensuality and greed. Yet Peter says that it is possible for us to stay on mission, especially because these messengers will self-destruct. As we hear the warning, how do we apply and obey a whole chapter of the Bible which doesn't contain a single command? Listen in here to find out.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Sermon: 2 Peter 2: 1-22 This Messenger will self-destruct

Does anyone know the TV/movies with this as the opening theme? [Play clip] It is Mission Impossible, the 1966 TV programme, with four films since 1996 starring Tom Cruise. When that distinctive music is playing, the spy listens in to a tape giving him directions for the impossible mission. ‘Your mission, if you choose to accept it is...’

As Peter continues in his letter, it might feel like a mission impossible for his readers. As we’ve seen so far, Peter is urging us to press on to grow in the knowledge and grace of Jesus. Having received from God our faith; everything we need for life and godliness; and his precious and very great promises, we’re urged to increase in those qualities which confirm that we’re growing in grace - virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection and love.

It can be hard enough to try to grow in these qualities (how have you got on over the past 3 weeks?), but today’s passage might make it seem like mission impossible. While affirming that God has given us the scriptures, written by men carried along by the Holy Spirit, pointing us to Jesus, and confirming the promise of his return, Peter now gives us a stark warning. A warning that might discourage us, making it seem much harder for us to grow. It’s the warning of false teachers.

This weekend, the nation is celebrating the Queen’s 90th birthday. At her coronation, the Queen was given a copy of the Bible, with these words ringing in her ears: ‘We present you with this book, the most valuable thing that this world affords. Here is Wisdom; This is the royal Law; These are the lively Oracles of God.’ All true, and Peter would affirm it - yet he says that alongside the true prophets, there were false prophets. And because it happened in the Old Testament, it will also happen in the New; in the church. ‘Just as there will be false teachers among you.’ Not maybe, there will.

Look at what they will do - ‘who will secretly bring destructive heresies.’ Now heresy isn’t a word that we tend to hear very often. A heresy is a belief that strays from the truth; something out of line. So if you have true prophets and false prophets, you also have true teachers and false teachers. They might sound good; you might like what they say, but it’s not true, it’s not good, and in fact, it will lead to destruction.

Now you might be thinking - this really is a mission impossible. How do I know if I’m listening to a true teacher or a false teacher? But you’d almost think that Peter knew about the Mission Impossible theme tune. If you remember it, when the spy listened to the tape, the last thing they would hear was this: ‘This message will self-destruct in five seconds.’ There would be a bang, and the tape was gone; no one else would be able to hear the secret mission.

If we can change that phrase slightly, we see what Peter is saying to us. The false teachers are ‘bringing upon themselves swift destruction.’ Or in other words, ‘This messenger will self-destruct.’ The false teacher will self-destruct.

That’s a good reason to be careful, to be wary when you’re listening to someone. Make sure you’re not listening to a false teacher, bringing destruction. So how do you know? Well, in verses 2 & 3, Peter gives us a flavour of their heresies. It’s all about sensuality - all about feelings, particularly in the realm of sexual pleasure; if it feels good, just do it, with whoever and whenever. And it’s motivated by their greed - they’ll say whatever it takes to exploit you, to take advantage of you.

Further down the passage, Peter shows us how to spot a false teacher. And that word ‘spot’ is one to bear in mind. I’m sure you’ve seen the adverts for Clearasil. Look at verse 13. They are blots and blemishes, they are out of place, like a big spot on the forehead when you’re heading out on a hot date.

In a number of short, snappy sentences, Peter shows us what they’re like. Revelling in the daytime. Eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. Enticing unsteady souls. Hearts trained in greed. Accursed, because they have gone astray, wandered from the right path. They’re like Balaam, who we find in Numbers 22-24 - a prophet for hire, he’ll say anything, curse anyone, for a fee - yet he was rebuked when his donkey spoke back to him.

Now maybe you’re wondering what the big deal is. Why can’t we all just get along, and listen to every sort of viewpoint? Why do we have to worry about true and false, right and wrong? Isn’t it narrow and restrictive? Could Don Carson, the theologian be right when he says that the only heresy left today is that there’s such a thing as heresy.

We see the danger in verses 17-22. ‘They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption.’ The promise of the false teacher is that you can be free, do what you like, no limits, no boundaries, but they’re actually leading people into greater slavery. It’s like a wasp calling his mates to an abundant supply of jam or sugar, not realising that he’s caught in the trap.

The pictures Peter uses are the dog returning to its own vomit (which we’ll not dwell on, before you eat your Sunday lunch), and the sow, washing herself, becoming clean, then rolling in the muck again. Listen to the false teacher, and having experienced freedom, you’ll actually become entangled in the defilements of the world. The last state worse than the first. No wonder Peter warns us about them. These messengers will self-destruct, and will take you with them, if you follow them.

Is it mission impossible to spot them, and to avoid them? So far we’ve only looked at the warning, but there is some encouragement in this chapter as well. And it all begins in verse 3. ‘Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.’ How can we be sure? Well, remember the scriptures, written by men moved by the Spirit? Peter turns to them to illustrate his point, with four big ifs.

‘For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgement.’ Did God do it? Yes. ‘If he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah... when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly.’ Did God do it? Yes. ‘If by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly.’ Did God do it? Yes. ‘And if he rescued righteous Lot.’ Did God do it? Yes.

Oftentimes in sport, previous form is a good indicator of future success. And going into Euro 2016, the team with the current longest unbeaten run is, Northern Ireland. I’m hoping they can continue that run tonight against Poland. But think about God’s form in those verses. Every time, he was able to condemn the guilty, and rescue the righteous. That’s the contrast between Noah ‘a herald of righteousness’ and the ungodly who perished. It’s the same contrast between righteous Lot and the sensual wicked of Sodom. All those ‘if’ statements are true, and here’s the point, verse 9: ‘then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgement.’

God has kept the righteous in the past, and he will keep doing it, no matter how many false teachers come their way. And God will bring the false teachers to the judgement - they will indeed self-destruct. Both these truths hold together, and it’s vital that we remember them.

As I was preparing to preach this, I wondered what we are meant to do about this all. Now, you might have noticed that there are no commands; no doing words; no instructions in what Peter says here. There’s a lot about what the false teachers are like; there’s the promise of rescue; but there’s nothing to do in this chapter. Isn’t that strange?

And then it dawned on me. You see, we’re so used to reading chapters as if they’re in separate boxes. In our Bibles there might be big chapter numbers and headings to mark off the new chapter. But those aren’t part of the original. Sometimes, they can be distracting, and sometimes they can hide what the author is saying.

Do you remember the contrast at the start of the chapter? Look at how it begins - ‘But false prophets also arose...’ This follows on from Peter’s instruction about the scriptures. The application for chapter two is one that we’ve already heard, already thought about - but now brought into sharper focus.

Can you remember it from last time? Pay attention to the prophetic word. The authentic message. And as you listen to the true prophetic word, the Scriptures, heed the warning about false teachers. Weigh carefully what teachers say, check if it lines up with the Bible, and don’t listen if it wanders from the path.

Pay attention to the Bible - when you’re in church; when you’re in a Bible study and someone gives a new way of looking at something; when you’re channel hopping and come across the God Channel. Be aware that there will be false teachers. And don’t follow them and their self-destructive ways. The Lord will rescue the godly. His promise is sure. So pay attention, and don’t be led astray.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 12th June 2016.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Sermon Audio: The Weekend's Words

Last Sunday in Aghavea we had a special Gift Day service in the morning, and a Favourite Hymns Evening as well. So here are the two sermons that were preached, for you to listen in.

Sunday morning: Gift Day Sermon from Acts 4:32 - 5:11 on Ananias and Sapphira's offering

Sunday evening: The Worship of Heaven from Revelation 4&5.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Sermon: Revelation 4 & 5 The Worship of Heaven

I wonder if you’ve ever stopped to think about the words we use in the Holy Communion service: ‘And so with all your people, with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we proclaim your great and glorious name, for ever praising you and saying...’ It’s a reminder that we aren’t the only people praising God - all over the world, we join with God’s people; but more than that, we join with all the company of heaven. Tonight we’re singing and praising, but what is the worship of heaven like?

If you’re a certain age, you might remember a TV programme called Playschool. And each day, we were invited to take a look through the round window (or the square window or the arched window) to discover more about something in the world. Well, in our reading tonight, the apostle John sees an open door into heaven. We’ll hear what he sees, and also what he hears, as we discover what heaven’s worship is like.

The first thing John sees in heaven is a throne. Now, even though we might think that the universe revolves around us, that we are in charge of our own world, the throne of heaven is occupied. There is one seated on the throne. John’s description may not be very helpful - the appearance of jasper and carnelian (precious stones, both with a reddish colour). He doesn’t really tell us much directly about the one on the throne - but what he hears tells us much more. You see, there’s a constant chorus, a day and night proclamation of praise in verse 8.

You see, around the throne there are 24 other thrones, the elders, clothed in white, with gold crowns on their heads. Also around the throne are the four living creatures, with six wings and eyes all around, one like a lion, one like an ox, one like a man, and one like an eagle. And they never cease to say: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.’

The one on the throne is Holy, Holy, Holy. He is so entirely different to everything else. Total purity. Totally perfect. He is the Lord God Almighty. The one who rules and reigns with perfect power and wisdom. He is the eternal one, with no beginning and no ending, everlasting.

And every time the creatures declare God’s glory, the elders fall before him, casting down their golden crowns, giving their worship: ‘Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.’

This holy, holy, holy God is worthy to be praised, to receive glory, honour and power. Why? ‘For you created all things.’ God is worthy to be praised because he gave us life, in the first place. Without God, we would not have existed. Life was his idea. And so, we should praise because he made us, according to his will.

John sees the throne, and hears the praise of God’s creation. Do we give glory to God because he made us?

John then sees something else. It’s a scroll, rolled up, and sealed up with seven seals, with writing front and back. This is the unfolding of history, God’s plans for the whole universe. God holds it in his right hand, and the challenge goes out. Who is worthy to open the scroll and break the seals? No one is found to answer the challenge - heaven, earth, under the earth. What will happen? John begins to weep.

One of the elders tells him to weep no more. ‘Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’ So John looks to see the Lion of Judah, the Root of David, and he might wonder if he needs to go to Specsavers. Have you ever had a restaurant bring you out the wrong order? You ordered the beef, and they bring you turkey.

Here, they’ve called for the Lion, and standing before the throne is... a Lamb, as though it had been slain. But it’s no mistake. The Lion of Judah is the Lamb of God, the Lord Jesus, crucified, slain as the sacrifice for our sins; for our unwillingness to praise the God who gave us life and breath and everything. It is the Lion / Lamb Lord Jesus who controls history, who unveils God’s plan for the world.

As he takes the scroll, the living creatures and the elders sing a new song. Again, it follows the same pattern: ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals... Why?... ‘For you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.’

John sees the scroll, and hears the praise of Jesus. Will we give him our praise, because of all that he has done for us - he died for us; he paid the ransom for us and all his people; he has brought us into his kingdom, and made us priests to our God, and given us a share of his reign. Will you praise the King of your salvation?

It’s as if the praise of Jesus kicks off a chain reaction; or like dropping a stone into a still lake, the ripples spread wider and wider. First, the voice of many angels, myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, all praising: ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!’ And then, as if all that wasn’t enough, John hears: ‘every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea...’ And they all join in: ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever!’ Amen.

Paul in Philippians tells us that one day every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Why wait until that day? Why have it forced out of you reluctantly? Why not joyfully receive Jesus as your Lord. Submit to him today, and join in the joy of heaven, to worship him here and now, on earth as it is in heaven.

He is worthy to be praised. He made you. He gave you life. And he gives you new life, a place in his kingdom. So don’t wait until you ‘have to’ worship him. Let’s worship him with joy and gladness.

This sermon was preached at the Favourite Hymns Evening in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 5th June 2016.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Gift Day Sermon: Acts 4:32 - 5:11 & Mark 12: 38-44

I wonder how you prepared for today’s Gift Day. Perhaps you were all set a few weeks ago, when the first reminder appeared on the notice sheet. Or maybe you remembered this morning when you found the different envelope in the FWO envelope box. Or, it might be that you’ve just discovered it there now when you arrived at church and saw it on the service sheet. (And that’s ok too!).

When it comes to giving, how do you decide how much you’re going to give? Do you have a routine that you follow - the same amount goes into each weekly envelope, as it always has, and probably always will? Do you look up in last year’s annual report how much you gave and do the same again? Or do you carefully consider what you’ll give as the opportunities arise?

Let me say right away that money isn’t something that we find easy to talk about. And yet Jesus talked about it time and again. So on this Gift Day, let’s think about money and offerings for a few minutes together. In both of our Bible readings today, we find an offering taking place. In one, the amount seems impressive, and yet the offerers are condemned; in the other, the amount seems miniscule. and yet the offerer is commended. You see, it’s not the amount that’s given that seems to matter - but the heart attitude behind the giving; that’s the important factor. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Let’s look first of all at the reading from Acts. Now Acts, as you know, follows the story of the early church from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth, bringing the good news of Jesus. And every so often, Luke writes a little summary statement, summing up what’s been happening. The first comes at the end of Acts 2, and now in Acts 4, we read the next one. ‘Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.’

There was no one in need among them - but this isn’t a socialist set-up. No one was forced to give up all they had. People still hold private property, but some were selling lands or houses and bringing the proceeds to the church, to be distributed to the poor. An example of that is seen in this man called Joseph, also known as Barnabas. It means son of encouragement, and we can see how he was so encouraging. He sold a field, brought the money, and ‘laid it at the apostles’ feet.’

As we move into chapter 5, we hear of another offering being made. Ananias and Sapphira sell a field and bring along some of the money. It seems to be just the same as what Barnabas had already done. And yet, it was entirely different. By the end of that Gift Day, both Ananias and Sapphira would be dead. So what went wrong? Why was their offering condemned?

Follow along in the story. Acts 5:1. They sell a piece of property, and they decide to keep back some of the proceeds for themselves. The rest, they bring to lay at the apostles’ feet. That’s not the problem, the bit they kept back. As Peter says when he confronts Ananias, ‘While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?’ He could do with the property and the money what he wanted.

The problem was that they were saying that they were giving away the full price. So if they sold it for £80,000, and kept back £20,000 for themselves, they said that they sold the land for £60,000 and were giving the full amount to the church. It’s not so obvious with Ananias, but very obvious when Peter asks Sapphira about the whole thing. ‘Tell me whether you sold the land for so much’ and she says, ‘Yes, for so much.’

On the surface, they looked very impressive, just like Barnabas, giving away all they had. But they were holding something back, secretly saving for themselves. And Peter calls it for what it was - ‘You have not lied to men but to God.’ (5:6).

Now whether it was the shock of being found out, or the swift judgement of God, (or both), but both Ananias and Sapphira fell down and breathed their last, about three hours apart. Look at verse 11: ‘And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.’

I think there’s a great challenge here with Ananias and Sapphira. Do we give our offerings so that others will think well of us, to boost our reputation? So that people will say, oh, they’re great givers? God sees the attitude of our hearts, and knows the details of our finances better than anyone else. And in Ananias and Sapphira’s case, he condemns. He sees through their pretence and their posing. Perhaps some of us need to be challenged, to have this great fear come upon us as well - that God is not to be toyed with. The challenge is there, plain for all to see. And yet, others of us, as we give our offerings, need to be comforted and reassured.

You would love to be able to give more, and yet your offering seems so small, so insignificant, that you wonder if it’s worth putting on at all. Well, just as God saw the attitude of Ananias and Sapphira (despite their sizeable gift); God also sees your heart, no matter how small your gift.

In our first reading, in Mark 12, Jesus is in the temple. It’s during the days between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. And he sits opposite the treasury, where people offer their gifts. Imagine one of those large glass bottles you see at Flower Festivals. And the rich, they put in large sums. The rattle of the bags of coins makes a lot of noise. Every is aware of the big offerings they’re giving.

But Jesus singles out one person in the crowd. The one person no one would have noticed. She puts in two small copper coins, which make up a penny. Not much noise from her offering. And just a penny? Was it worth her while? Yes, says Jesus. And why has he singled her out? Look at verse 43. ‘Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box.’

Surely not, Jesus? Just a penny? Compared to large sums? But look at what Jesus focuses on - her heart attitude. ‘For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

If push had come to shove, she could have kept one coin, and put the other in. But she put in both coins, all she had to live on, as an offering to her God. An expression of worship, and dependence, and trust in the God she loved. Everyone else might have looked down on her, but Jesus noticed her, and commended her for her giving.

So how will you approach your giving. God sees and knows your heart. Do you need to hear the challenge of Ananias and Sapphira, to avoid following their example of pursuing a good reputation while holding something back? Or do you need to be comforted that though others might look down on your giving, God is delighted with your generosity of grace-inspired giving. There’s a verse in a newish song by Keith Getty which gets me every time. ‘Now Jesus sat by the off'ring gate As people brought their money: The rich they filled the collection plate; The widow gave a penny. "Now she's outgiven all the rest - Her gift was all that she possessed." Not what you give but what you keep Is what the King is counting.’

Not what you give but what you keep
is what the King is counting.

As we’ve been reminded already this morning, everything comes from God; we can only give what he has already given to us. God knows our needs, and he knows our hearts. Will we keep his good gifts for ourselves, or give them away to those who need them?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church at the annual Gift Day service on Sunday 5th June 2016.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Sermon Audio: 1 Corinthians 12: 4-20

On Sunday evening we hosted a Commissioning Service for members of the Select Vestries* in our Rural Deanery** of Clogher. Sadly our visiting speaker wasn't able to join us, so I preached on God's gifts for ministry from 1 Corinthians 12. You can listen in here.

(Explanations for my non-Anglican friends:
* Church committee charged with the running of the parish, particularly the 'Three F's' of fabric, furnishings, and finance.
** A clump of local parishes together under the leadership of the Rural Dean. Ours includes the parishes of Aghavea, Tempo & Clabby, Colebrooke & Cooneen with Mullaghfad, Fivemiletown with Kiltermon, and the Clogher Cathedral group (Clogher, Augher, Errigal Portclare and Newtownsaville). )