Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sermon: James 2: 1-13 Faith in Action - The Impartial Disciple

When I was growing up, there were a variety of jobs I wanted to do. My earliest wish was to be a bus driver. But over time, that changed to wanting to be a journalist. So when the work experience opportunities came up in school, I was all organised. I had a week with the Banbridge Chronicle. There was another week with the Lisburn Star. I even had a day with the Belfast Telegraph. After university, I interviewed for a job with the County Down Outlook. Local newspaper names tell you something about what they’re trying to achieve. A chronicle of events; an outlook on what’s happening; a herald of the news. But it was only when I came to Fermanagh that I heard of the Impartial Reporter.

Now that’s a bold claim, isn’t it? On a Thursday morning, when you buy the paper, they’re claiming to only present unbiased news. They’re impartial. Perhaps you remember Her Majesty the Queen’s comments when she met the then editor, Denzil McDaniel on her visit to Enniskillen in 2012. ‘The Impartial Reporter. I didn’t know there was such a thing.’ Now, whether the paper lives up to its name or not, James tells us that we should be Impartial Disciples.

But he doesn’t ease us into the subject gently. There’s no long introduction to his main point. Rather, in verse 1, he hits us between the eyes. ‘My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.’ There’s no wiggle room there, no vague advice, just a hard-hitting statement, which he expands on through the rest of the passage.

As we trust in the Lord Jesus, show no partiality. Don’t have favourites. Don’t make distinctions between people. To help us see what he’s saying, he gives us an example from verse 2 onwards. We need to watch our welcome. Imagine that two men arrive at church at the same time. One wears his designer clothes, gold Rolex watch, maybe even shades. The other’s clothes have seen better days. How would we welcome them?

If the obviously rich man is specially welcomed, taken to a good seat, while the poor man is ignored, or grunted at, or told to stand over there out of the road, or to sit on the floor - then what’s going on? ‘Have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?’ (4)

Now this isn’t just a word for the churchwardens, who welcome people at the door. It’s a word for all of us, as we welcome visitors to church. Maybe we would put up with someone else in ‘our’ seat if they’re going to be a good payer-in, but someone else, no way. The challenge is there - are we judges with evil thoughts? Do we instinctively make judgements about each other, and look down on some who are beneath us (as we imagine), while we fawn around those who the world (or we) think are important?

If this is what we’ve been doing, then we’ve been getting things upside down. We’ve been dishonouring those whom God honours, and honouring those who dishonour the Lord.

Listen to James in verse 5: ‘Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?’ To look down on the poor is to fail to see them from God’s perspective. To him, they are rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom - as they love him (this isn’t a blanket, if you’re poor you’re saved type theology). Whereas the rich are the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court, the ones who blaspheme the honourable name by which you were called.

Now what is this honourable name by which we were called? It’s the name of Jesus. And do you remember how he was described in verse 1? ‘The Lord of glory.’ The Lord Jesus, the crucified, risen and ascended Lord, is seated at the Father’s right hand in glory. Rather than being dazzled by the impressiveness of the rich, we are to focus on the Lord of glory. The rich might seem powerful and wonderful, but they pale into insignificance compared to the Lord of glory, our Lord Jesus Christ. The glory that we will share because we are heirs of the kingdom.

Now James isn’t saying that we’re to work by an inverse snobbery - that we ignore and grunt at the rich. Far from it! Each person is valuable; every person needs to hear the gospel and come to Christ; but a person’s wealth does not determine their value in the kingdom. We’re to be impartial.

The Impartial Disciple is to watch our welcome and honour those whom God honours. Or, to summarise it, the impartial disciple is to live out the royal law according to the Scripture (8). This is the law mentioned by Jesus the King, the Lord of glory, on which all the law and the prophets hangs (alongside love for God). And what does King Jesus command us? ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

Now James says ‘if you really fulfil {this] royal law... you are doing well.’ So take a moment, and ask yourself - how well am I doing? On a scale of 1 - 10 in the loving your neighbour stakes, where do you sit? I’ll not ask you to raise your hands, but keep that score in your mind for a moment. Is there room for improvement? Are there some people you need to do a better job of loving as much as you love yourself?

If that’s the case, and you’re not on a ten, then James has some surprising news for you. ‘But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.’ (9) By making distinctions, by having favourites, by showing partiality, you are failing to keep the law, and therefore sinning.

And you might want to protest, and say, but I do love some people / these people! Here’s a group of neighbours, and I love them, so isn’t that good enough? Well, what would a police officer think if he stopped you for talking on your mobile phone, and you said, but look, I was wearing my seatbelt and driving within the speed limit! Obeying some bits of the law don’t matter if you’ve broken another bit of it.

Or, as sometimes happened at home, my brother and I played football - outside, inside, anywhere, any time. And there was one day we had a tennis ball in the hall, and somehow... the lampshade was hit, and a bit of it fell to the ground. Mum and dad didn’t seem to care that most of the lampshade was unbroken - they did care about the broken bit! Because with a broken bit, it was all broken. And it’s the same here with God’s law: ‘For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.’ (10).

James gives us the example of the ten commandments. The one God spoke both commands - no adultery and no murder. To break one is to break all. You can’t pick and choose which to obey. In the same way, the royal law says love your neighbour as yourself. All your neighbours, not just some. Everyone, not just the ones you like.

As we come to a close, James tells us what to do, as impartial disciples who watch our welcome, honour those whom God honours, and love everyone: ‘So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgement is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy.’ In Christ, we are to be judged under his law of liberty. So live out his way of freedom, showing the mercy we have received to everyone else. We didn’t deserve his mercy - so speak it out and act it out, especially to those we think don’t deserve it.

Isn’t this what we pray every day in the Lord’s prayer? Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. If we refuse to show mercy, then we cannot receive God’s mercy. But, in his final words in this passage, James rejoices: ‘Mercy triumphs over judgement.’

Are there people we find difficult to love? Are there people we would struggle to welcome? Let’s take a moment to ask God to show us his great grace and mercy and love towards us. And then ask his grace to extend that grace, mercy and love to others - the people we’ve thought about. To ask that we would be known as impartial disciples, welcoming disciples, loving disciples, merciful disciples.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 29th January 2017.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Facebookiversary: the antisocial media

Last week I had mentioned that it was my Facebookiversary - ten years of Facebook membership. I reflected on some of the blessings of Facebook, and had intended to think about the problems associated with it. That post didn't materialise last week, but here it is, Facebook's antisocial aspects.

1. Facebook can be addictive
Have you ever stopped to consider just how often you check your social media? How long you can go without checking, scrolling, posting or commenting? For some, it's the first thing they read in the morning, even before getting out of bed, and the last thing they see at night, even after the light goes out. That may include me, on occasion.

There are probably a few aspects to its appeal. Most people are inherently nosy, wanting to see what other people are up to. But perhaps even more than that, we want to know what other people think of us. So we'll post a status update, or a comment, or a photo, and then check to see if anyone has liked it or replied to it. Scientists have even suggested that the Dopamine hit in our brains can be as strong as any other addictive behaviour.

The Facebook app seems to tie into this addiction. I've noticed that if you've scrolled through your timeline, and you go to close the app, the feed will quickly refresh and show you the glimpse of something new at the top, tempting and teasing you to not leave, but just to see this one new item. And so on, and so on... Addictive, and therefore needing a remedy.

2. Facebook distracts us from real life
I've been in a few situations where a group of young adults are gathered together in the same room, but we were scattered in virtual worlds of our own. Physically gathered, but digitally separated, as we browsed our phones, visiting Facebook or Twitter or whatever the social media app of choice. It's why some people stack their phones in the centre of the table, with the first person to check their phone liable to pay for the meal! With so many out-there social possibilities, we can almost take for granted the flesh and blood people beside us. Let's be present where we are.

3. Facebook presents a distorted image of reality
While we're addicted to it, and distracted from the people beside us, Facebook also lies to us, by presenting a false version of reality. Everyone is a publisher and an editor, as they broadcast their carefully curated version of their life. If some people's Facebook statuses were to be believed, these people never have a bad day, nor a hair out of place, nor get annoyed. And so we compare our regular, normal life with the picture perfect perception of others' lives, and feel inadequate or dissatisfied. Let's remember the health warning as we observe the 'perfect lives' of others.

4. Facebook seems to be spammy
Whether it's the sunglasses sale, the unbelievable giveaways (just like and share to annoy all your friends with this non-competition so we can access their details too), or the hackers making fake profiles, Facebook seems to be a spammer's paradise. My response is always to report, block, or unfollow the offenders, but now it seems some spammers are finding new routes to provide their content - via links rather than status updates. You rarely hear of anyone winning these amazing giveaway competitions - so don't click on something that's spammy!

5. Facebook trades on your name
As someone said before, if you're not the paying customer, then you're the product being sold. This probably links into the spamminess, but our personal data can be big business. When advertising is all about impressions (views and clicks), then the efforts to get people viewing content becomes a never-ending arms race of fake news, clickbait and sponsored posts. We're not being paid to view them, so Facebook must be getting paid to show them to us. While imagining that we're in control, that it's our feed and our friends, we discover that we're being sold to the companies paying for access to our devices.

Facebook - bane or blessing?
So after ten years of Facebooking, and some thoughts on the pros and cons, what of the future? While there are some annoyances, and some antisocial elements, it seems that we'll not get rid of social media just yet. With wisdom, we can filter out some of the worst excesses - report, unfollow, unfriend, block - and watching how much we indulge in Facebook. There are some positives, which can be helpful for the Christian and for ministry. Will you be my Facebook friend?

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sermon: James 1: 19-27 Faith in Action - Hearing and Doing

No one wants to be deceived. In the news recently there were stories of people from Northern Ireland buying a car from Sweden, transferring the money, and then realising there was no car. They had been scammed Everything seemed to be grand, but the truth was hidden, the deception was believed, and the four cases so far have lost about £4000 each. They were deceived.

We’re urged to be so careful on the internet, to watch out, because there are people out to deceive us. We need to be on our guard, so that we’re not deceived. And that is the message that James has for us today. To watch out, to not be deceived. But it’s not the internet deceivers James warns us about. In fact, it’s no one else at all. The amazing thing that James says is that we can deceive ourselves. We need to watch out for ourselves, to not deceive ourselves.

And in our passage today, there are three ways we can deceive ourselves: we can be deceived about anger; deceived about God’s word; and we can be deceived about bring religious. So let’s think about them in turn, as we work through the passage.

First up, we can be deceived about anger. Now I don’t know what it is about anger that makes me think of driving. But can you remember the first time you sat behind the wheel? The very first thing you learn is what the pedals do - the A-B-C: accelerator, brake, and clutch. And it’s vital to get the right pedal for the right action - if you want to go faster, you don’t hit the brake - you need the accelerator. But there are times you need to slow down - you don’t want to hit the accelerator then, you need the brake.

In verse 19 James wants us, his beloved brothers and sisters, to know something: ‘let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.’ Now I don’t know about you, but I want to do the opposite of that! I want to be quick to anger, quick to speak my mind, and slow to listen to others. But that’s the danger - we can deceive ourselves that this is the way things should be, that we need to stand up for ourselves; we think our anger is always justified, always righteous. But James gives us the truth: ‘for the anger of men does not produce the righteousness of God.‘ It’s like the production line in a factory - if you put anger in, you can’t get a righteous life out. We need to stop deceiving ourselves about our anger, and do something about it.

‘Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.’ (21). We need to get rid of our filthiness. Instead of deceiving ourselves, we need to receive something - the implanted word. God gives us his word, he plants it in us. But notice that we receive it with meekness. Anger is the expression of our rights, our opinion, our agenda. We turn that on its head, we put on the brakes, as we meekly submit and receive God’s word.

Don’t be deceived that your anger fits with a righteous life. The solution is to receive the implanted word.

But even as we receive the word, we can still deceive ourselves. Look at verse 22: ‘But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.’ James is saying that it is not enough to hear God’s word - we also have to do it, to put it into practice. Otherwise we’re just deceiving ourselves. To help us understand, James shows us a man and a mirror.

I don’t know how long you spend in front of the mirror in the morning, but the man here is looking intently at his face. Maybe he sees that he needs to wash his face, or comb his hair, or brush his teeth. But his looking in the mirror was, in the end, pointless. ‘For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.’ He might as well not have bothered, as he forgets what he needed to change.

In contrast, those who put into practice what they read in God’s word are found in verse 25: ‘But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.’

God’s word is described as the law of liberty, the perfect law - the teaching of true freedom. But just like a mirror, it also shows us what we’re really like, and what we need to change. The hearer is like the one who looks in the mirror, goes away and forgets; but the doer looks, perseveres and acts.

When it comes to God’s word, are we deceiving ourselves? It’s good to read the Bible every day (and as some are doing, to read through it in a year), it’s good to talk about it; but it could all be pointless, if we’re not acting on it. Is our Bible reading just a bookmark moving exercise? Do we speed through to get the reading done and tick off today’s box, and then forget about it? Or do we take time to hear, and put it into practice? The blessing is there for the one who hears and acts.

Don’t be deceived that hearing the word is enough. The solution is to put it into practice.

In the last two verses, James brings us to the final deception. And we might think it odd that he talks about ‘religious’ people. I’ve said before that Christianity is about relationship, not religion - about knowing God, rather than performing rules and duties. But what James is talking about here is the outworking of our relationship with God.

The deception for the religious person is that their life doesn’t fit - they don’t bridle their tongue (which reminds us of the anger we started with). They think they’re religious, but actually they’re deceiving themselves, and their religion, their witness, their Christian walk is worthless.

So how is our witness? Are we deceiving ourselves? We might deceive ourselves, but the watching world can easily spot an inconsistent walk - maybe we know this from work. How can he shout at his employees like that and him a Christian? She’s meant to be a Christian but she gossips like anyone else.

As in the previous warnings, James gives us the solution, the way to change. ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.’

Do you think that’s a surprising list? Pure religion is bridling your tongue, visiting orphans and widows, and keeping unstained. Now James isn’t saying that this is all there is to being a Christian. But why does he focus on these things as the mark of living out our Christian life?

Two quick reasons. First, because they are rooted in what God has done for us. In verse 18, just before our passage, we read this: ‘Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.’ God shows his concern for those in need, because he decided by his own will to save us. We needed his help, and so wants us to help others in need. And how were we brought forth? By the word of truth - so we should bridle our tongues and only speak the truth. And why were we brought forth? To be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures - to be holy, just as God is holy.

Care for the needy, truthful speaking, and holiness. God wants us to do these things because they are rooted in who he is. And these two verses are like a launchpad for the rest of the letter. (Now in BB, I never liked doing the horse... running up and bouncing on the springboard to get up and over the big box.) These three big themes flow through the rest of the letter - care for the needy (chapter 2), how we use our tongue (3:1-12), and holiness (3:13-5:6).

All that will come in due course. For this morning, though, perhaps we need to take some time today to ask ‘am I deceiving myself?’ Am I quick to anger, when I need to be slow, and to receive God’s word? Do I only hear God’s word but never do it? Do I think I’m religious, but it’s all a great self-deception? How am I doing with God’s priorities of bridling my tongue, caring for those in need, and pursuing holiness?

As we hear God’s word today - will we just nod along and think, yes, that’s right - or will we do something about it? ‘Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.’

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 22nd January 2017.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Facebookiversary: The Blessings of Facebook

Yesterday Facebook drew my attention to the fact that the last ten years of my life have been as a member of their social media machine. Perhaps after ten years it would be helpful to consider some of the bane and blessing of Facebook. Today we'll look at the blessings, and hopefully tomorrow we'll consider the banes. Here's a few things that come to mind:

1. Facebook helps to keep you in contact with people
There's no doubt that Facebook is built on making connections and keeping in contact. The very concept of having friends on Facebook is what drives the experience, fills your news feed and provides opportunities to connect with even more people. 'So and so is a friend of a friend of yours, would you like to add them as your friend?' At last count, I have just over 500 friends on Facebook. Some I haven't seen from school days; others are colleagues in various parts of the country and world; some I see regularly. At whatever level, it's nice to keep in touch.

2. Facebook can be a prompt for prayer
With all those connections, the news feed can provide many prompts for prayer. In some cases, a friend will mention something that's happening in their church - an event, a new sermon series, or something else - and that knowledge leads to prayer. On occasion, someone will specifically ask people to pray, and it naturally follows. But prayer prompts can also come unbidden, as you see what people are writing and sharing and enduring. They may not request prayer, but that doesn't stop us from praying into those situations!

3. Facebook can be a tool for evangelism
Connecting with people and praying for them, Facebook also provides opportunities to share the good news of Jesus with our friends. Sharing a video that you've found helpful. Posting a Bible verse that has spoken to you. Inviting people to an event. All of these and more can be another step along the way to your friend trusting in Christ.

4. Facebook is useful for discipleship
Last year, a group of parishioners and friends decided that we would read through the Bible in a year. Alongside the fortnightly Bible study here in the rectory, we also set up a Facebook group. Throughout the year, it provided a forum for people to share what they were reading, both by highlighting something that stood out and by asking questions when there were things they didn't understand. Relationships were deepened through the sharing. And there was encouragement to keep going because there were a group of people doing the same thing together - even if geographically distant.

I'm soon due to start the Arrow Leadership Programme, and a similar group will be established for the participants and staff, as we reflect on the things we're reading, learning, and growing in together.

5. Facebook can be good for churches
There are so many ways in which churches can use Facebook (and other social media) for good. Having a Facebook group (or page) provides a means for people to keep in contact with the church. Notices, announcements and advertisements can be shared - and then re-shared by congregants. Facebook events can be an easy method of publicising events. Sharing photos of what's been going on - including pastoral occasions like weddings and Baptisms show what's been happening in the life of the parish.

Another way we use Facebook is by integrating it with PrayerMate. Each day, the prayer topic from our Prayer Diary appears on our church Facebook page. Around 100 people see the prompt to pray, as we unite our prayers on a specific theme.

Facebook - all blessing?
With these reasons, Facebook can seem to be a good tool for ministry and life. You may even have a few more ideas on the blessings of Facebook (comment below!). And yet, the experience isn't all positive. Tomorrow we'll turn to some of the antisocial elements of social media, to seek some wisdom in our online life.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017


Facebook has a great memory. Every day, using its 'On this Day' feature, it reminds you of things that happened that very day. But not historical, world-shaking events. No, Facebook delves into its archives to remind you of things on your profile - people you became friends with, or memorable statuses and photos you posted 'on this day.'

Today was an especially significant day, representing the tenth anniversary of my joining Facebook. I'm not sure how or why I signed up for Facebook on the 18th January 2007. I must have received an invitation from friends through my Bebo or else MSN messsenger, both of which were a bigger deal at the time.

In those ten years since joining Facebook, things have changed, changed utterly. At the time I would have been a student at the Theological College, in second year. Since then, I've got married, been ordained, moved house several times, served in Dundonald and now in Fermanagh, experienced times of joy and times of sorrow, and become a dog owner. [The last one would have been particularly surprising for 25-year-old me!] Facebook has become the main vehicle for social media interaction, eclipsing Bebo, MySpace and many others. And the way in which we access Facebook has also undergone a transformation since another recent tenth anniversary - the launch of the first iPhone.

This particular week must be the one to begin new social media experiences, because it's now just over 12 years since I started blogging. In recent times the blog has mostly become the place to find sermons and book reviews, but maybe we'll get a little bit more regular in posting other types of writing as well. With the particular focus of Facebook this week, I'm planning to come up with a couple of posts - one reflecting on the blessings of Facebook, the other reflecting on the antisocial side of that social media. Watch this space.

[I've been trying to post my first ever Facebook profile picture, but thus far have been unsuccessful. I'm on the iPad... maybe later I'll get it sorted!]

Update: Here is my first ever Facebook profile picture:

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sermon: 2 Kings 5: 1-19 Naaman's New Skin

For this Family Service talk, the first part is an interactive re-telling of the story, with key words. When the congregation hear the key words, they respond with the sound and the actions.

Leprosy - ‘aaaagh’
Wash - ‘scrub, scrub’
Clean - ‘hurray’
River - splish splash
Fight - ‘fight, fight’
Sad - ‘boo hoo’
Soldier - ‘yes, sir!’

Naaman was a soldier. In fact, he was the top soldier for the king of Aram. Naaman would lead the army to fight other armies, and he was very good at fighting. This one time, Naaman led his soldiers to fight against the people of Israel. His soldiers took people away from their homes to become slaves in Aram. Naaman took a young girl, probably not much older than some of the GFS girls, and she served in Naaman’s house.

The girl noticed that, even though Naaman was a good soldier, and very important, he was also very sad. This was because Naaman had leprosy. His skin was diseased, and other people were afraid of catching it.

The little girl knew that God was able to heal Naaman of his leprosy. She said to his wife: ‘If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.’

So the king of Aram sent Naaman to the king of Israel. But the king of Israel was very sad when Naaman came to him. He thought the king of Aram was trying to pick a fight with him. ‘How can I cure him of his leprosy?’ he asked.

Elisha the prophet heard of what had happened, and he told the king to send Naaman to him. So Naaman arrived at Elisha’s house. He rang the doorbell, but Elisha didn’t come out. Instead, he sent a message, telling Elisha to go to the Jordan river, and wash himself seven times.

But Naaman was sad. He expected the prophet to come out to him, and say some words, and touch the spot, and heal his leprosy. And as for telling him to go to the Jordan river? Yuck. It wasn’t as nice as the Abana river, or the Pharpar river, the rivers of Damascus. He was sad, and about to go home.

But then his servants spoke up. If he had told you to do something really difficult, you would have done it. If you had to climb a really high mountain you would have tried it. If you have to swim across an ocean, you would give it a go. If you had to complete the Ninja Warrior obstacle course, we would have seen you on TV last night. So why not something as simple as going to wash in the river?

So Namaan went to the river Jordan. He went in for a wash. And then another wash. And another wash. And a fourth wash. Then another wash. He washed again. And then went in for his seventh and final wash.

As he came up out of the river, his leprosy had gone, his skin was like new, and he was clean. Naaman knew right then that there is no God in all the world apart from our God. He used to worship the god Rimmon, but Rimmon couldn’t do what God had just done.

So, having heard the story - tell me this: how did Naaman get cleansed from his leprosy? He dipped in the river Jordan 7 times. But how did he know to do that? Elisha the prophet told him. But how did he get to Elisha? The young girl from Israel told him about the prophet in Israel who could heal him - because of the God of Israel.

That little girl had been taken away from her home. She was far away from her family. She was in a strange place, with people she didn’t know. Yet she didn’t forget about home. She didn’t forget about her God. She still trusted God. And she told people about her God.

Naaman was cleansed from his leprosy because one little girl told him about her great big God. In a few moments the GFS girls and leaders are going to make some promises - to love and serve our Lord Jesus Christ, and to help other people.

We can help other people as we tell them about our God - how great he is, how good he is, and what he has done for us. He sent Jesus to come to die on the cross for us. We don’t need to do something really impossible to be cleansed from our sins - we just need to trust in Jesus, to believe what he says, to be saved by him.

This children's talk . all-age talk was preached at the Church Family Service and Girls' Friendly Society Enrolment Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 15th January 2017. It could also be used as a primary school assembly.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Sermon: Micah 6: 1-8 What does the Lord require?

“What do you want from me?” It’s the question that has been asked time and time again in soap operas, as a couple reaches breaking point. What do you want from me? What do I need to do for this relationship to continue?

It might also be a question asked in a work context. Knowing what the boss wants done, and how they want it done, can bring a smooth working relationship. What do you want from me?

It’s also a question that many people ask of God. What do you want from me? What do I need to do for you, to get in the right with you, to be sure of heaven with you? And all around us, in a world of religious options, people try to answer that question in a variety of ways. Some will try to please God with pilgrimage. Others with sacrifice. Still others with giving or good works. What do you want from me, God?

In our reading tonight, we discover what it is that God wants from us. But in order to understand it, we need to see it in context. You see, sometimes people seize on this one verse, verse 8, to say, you see, this is all God wants - just our good works, as we do justice and love kindness and walk humbly. It’s not quite what God is saying - and to feel the full force of it, we need to look at the whole passage.

In verse 1, it’s as if a court is in session. There’s a command to ‘Arise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice.’ Someone is being called as a witness - no, more than a witness, the defendant. They’re placed in the dock, told to stand up, and plead their case. In the witness box and the public gallery are seated the mountains and hills - and the foundations of the earth (v2).

But who is it in the dock? Who is the defendant? We discover in verse 2. ‘Hear, you mountains, the indictment of the LORD, and you enduring foundations of the earth, for the LORD has an indictment against his people, and he will contend with Israel.’

It’s God’s people in the dock - Israel. God had made a covenant with them through the call of Abraham, yet here they are. An indictment against them, a charge to face. The covenant has been broken. And yet God asks a seemingly strange question in verse 3:

‘O my people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me!’ Now there’s no answer at this point, but it seems that the people imagined that the fault in the broken covenant lay on God’s side - that it was fault things had broken down.

God continues to speak, and in verses 4-5 reminds the people of Israel of all that he had done for them. ‘For I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam.’ He’s reminding them of the Exodus - the rescue from slavery in Egypt by the Passover. It was God who brought them, redeemed them, sent them leaders.

As if that wasn’t enough, to get out of Egypt, then in verse 5, God recaps an important moment during the wilderness wanderings. ‘O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him.’

Now those names might not be terribly familiar to us - apart from Balaam’s donkey, which spoke. But to Micah’s original audience, this was well known. Balak the king of Moab had seen the people of Israel coming towards his land, and he was scared of them. So he called on Balaam (who was a diviner, prophet, fortune-teller type person) to curse them. And what was Balaam’s answer? ‘How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced?’

Balaam, the professional curser cannot curse the people of Israel, because God has said they are blessed. God is reminding his people of his fixed verdict of them. It’s like the Romans 8:1 declaration made over us = ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’

And also in verse 5, ‘and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal.’ To us, those placenames mean nothing, but for Israel, this reminded them of coming into the promised land. The people had camped at Shittim, on one side of the river Jordan. Their next stop was Gilgal on the other side of the river Jordan. And how had they gone from one side to the other? There were no bridges. God had stopped the flow of the river, enabling the people to cross on dry land.

All these things God had done for his people - all these reminders are given, end of verse 5 ‘that you may know the saving acts of the LORD.’ This is just a sampling of all the ways God had saved his people. He had done it all - the people hadn’t had to do anything!

Yet look at how the people then respond. They’re asking the right question: ‘With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high?’ What do I need to do? What do I need to bring? What do you want from me?

The people give a checklist of possibilities. Some burnt offerings, calves a year old? Thousands of rams? Ten thousands of rivers of oil? Each more elaborate and costly than the last. And then a horrific thought - ‘Shall I give my firstborn for my transgresson, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ The nations around them practiced child sacrifice, offering up their children to the gods to bring about a good harvest. Is that what the Lord God wanted?

No, no, a million times no! Notice that what the Lord requires of us aren’t sacrifices at all. At least, not in the bringing something and sacrificing it at a temple or altar. What does the LORD require of you? ‘But to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.’ This is the proper response to God’s saving acts. And as we gather here, around the Lord’s table, on this side of the events of the cross, we can see even clearer God’s saving acts. The body of Jesus broken for us on the cross. His blood shed for our sin. God has done all that is needed. We receive it with faith.

As we receive his mercy, so we are called to share it with others. As we receive his love, so we are called to share his love. This was the charge against God’s people in Micah’s day - they weren’t doing justice; they weren’t loving kindness; and they weren’t walking with their God.

What does the Lord require of you, members of Mothers’ Union, in this new year? When you say it out loud, it doesn’t really seem like much, does it? Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God. You might almost think, is that it? But this affects every relationship you have; every hour you have; every decision you make; every pound you spend.

Having been saved by God, how do we respond? Justice, kindness, and walking with God. May we know God’s grace, as we respond to his salvation, and walk humbly with him, loving him, and our neighbours as we love ourselves. Amen.

This sermon was preached at the Mothers' Union Opening Service of Holy Communion on Tuesday 10th January 2017 in Aghavea Parish Church.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Sermon: James 1: 1-18 Faith in Action - Facing Trials

They say school days are the happiest days of your life - you just don’t realise it at the time. I wonder if you would agree. I was thinking back to my time as a pupil at Dromore High School. We always had a long Christmas holiday, which was great. What wasn’t so nice, though, was what came straight after the holidays - probably this week coming in: the school tests. For a solid week, we sat tests three times a day. We were glad to get them finished!

I wonder if you had the same thought whenever you finished with school (or college) - no more tests! You could set down your pen, and forget about sitting any more tests. And then you realised - that leaving school and begin an adult brings far more tests than the ones you sat in school. And they come thicker and faster than ever

As James, the brother of the Lord Jesus, begins his letter, he mentions the ‘trials of various kinds’ that we face in life. Multi-coloured tests - and far more complicated than anything we revised and wrote down in school tests. Perhaps as this new year begins, you’ve already been confronted with some of these trials - health concerns; temptation; money worries; family problems; or something else entirely. For the Christian, life can get even more complicated, even harder. Some trials come because we are following Jesus. We find ourselves wanting to do the right thing, in how we use our time, our money, our words, and so on. Various trials - and you may be wondering what to do, or how to cope with what’s coming at you.

James gives us some advice for meeting these trials of various kinds. You see, the tests we face in life are just like the tests we faced in school - they show us certain things: how we’ve progressed; what we don’t know; where we stand; and the end results. We’ll think about each in turn.

Now as James begins with his advice, we might think what he says a little bit strange. We might even want to say to him, ‘You’re not wise.’ Look at verse 2: ‘Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds.’ Count it all joy? Seriously? No one in my class came into school full of the joys of spring the morning of our tests. When trials and trouble come to you, joy might be the last thing on your mind.

But that’s what James urges us to do - count it all joy. Why? Because tests show us how we’re progressing. They are markers of our growth, and make us grow even more.
Notice that James doesn’t say that the trials are a joy in themselves - but count them joy because of what they do in us and for us. ‘For you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.’

So when you face a trial, it produces steadfastness. You become stronger, more able to stand the next time something comes your way. And as you keep standing, so you become complete, lacking in nothing. Tests show us how we’re progressing, how we’re getting on. So how will you respond to the trials you’re facing right now? Or this week/year? See how God can use them to teach you and grow you.

But sometimes, tests also show us what we don’t know. So if you only got 30% in your science paper, it showed you needed to work harder, that there were lots of things you didn’t know. And these various kinds of trials can have the same effect in our lives - we realise that we need help. We realise that we’re lacking in wisdom, in knowing what to do and how to cope. Well, James has some wise words for us in verse 5: ‘If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.’ How simple is that? Ask God, and he will give us wisdom. When we see our need, and ask God in faith, he will give us what we need.

But then James goes on to urge upon us faith, not doubting, ‘for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.’ I love sitting and watching the sea. It’s never the same from one minute to the next, and one day to the next. The waves are always in motion. But we’re not to be like that - back and forward, double-minded, unstable. God is the generous giver, who gives us what we’re lacking, so trust him to hear and answer your prayers.

Tests show us how we’re progressing; and what we don’t know. Another thing that tests do is show us were we stand. The next class after the tests was always a nervous one - we would get our answer paper back, with a mark on it, and within minutes, we’d have worked out where we were in the class. There was one girl who was always top, and everyone tried to beat her, but it rarely happened!

Well here, in verses 9-11, James says that these trials that come remind us of our standing. He speaks to the lowly and to the rich, urging them to boast in their position. But notice that it isn’t what you would expect. It’s not that the rich are to boast because of their wealth, and that the lowly have nothing to boast about. Look closely at verse 9: ‘Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away.’

As the trials of life come, we’re to boast in the standing we have through the gospel - our position in Christ. You see, it’s not just lowly and rich - it’s the lowly brother (and the parallel if unspoken rich brother). In Christ the lowly are lifted up, even if they face poverty and desperation. Their spiritual status is the thing to focus on, to boast in. The rich may face different challenges and trials, but again, they’re not to boast in their financial position, but in their spiritual position - humiliation, being brought low as they trust in Christ rather than their own purchasing power.

Why? Because wealth is fleeting - like grass, it is here today and gone tomorrow. But our standing in Christ is permanent, whatever trials may come. So in this new year, whatever your bank balance, however weighty (or light) your wallet is, focus on your standing in Christ - that you’ve bowed the knee in submission to him, and then lifted up in him. See beyond the exterior to what lies on the inside, in yourself, and in others.

There’s one last thing that tests bring us - the end results. When you sit the tests in school, it’s to get the qualifications to get into college, or to get a job. The tests lead on to the end result. In verse 12, James shows us where the various trials will lead us: ‘Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.’

Earlier we saw that our generous God will give us wisdom if we ask. Here we see that he will give us the crown of life if we stand the test. We’ll come back to that in a second, but first, James wants us to be clear that there’s something that God does not give us. It’s there in verse 13. You can’t say ‘I am being tempted by God.’ Why? Because God can’t be tempted by evil (it has no effect on him), and he himself tempts no one.

So where do our temptations come from? Earlier we saw a kind of production line where trials produce steadfastness, which brings completion. Well here in verses 14-15 there’s an unholy production line (or more like a biology lesson in the spawning of sin): Temptation comes from our own desires, which conceive to give birth to sin, which grows up to bring death.

We do it all by ourselves (with the help of the world, the flesh, and the devil). Confession time: this week at Bible study, I was well caught. I had succumbed to temptation. I had been in Tesco, and spotted some reduced mince pies. I love mince pies, a desired these ones, and so I gave in, and bought them. I then had a couple, and hid the box in my desk. My secret was safe, until Lynsey needed something from the very same desk drawer, and my sin was out in the open. God didn’t tempt me. I did it all by myself. You will have the things that you’re particularly tempted by - we’re all different. But the pattern is the same for each of us: Desire leads to sin, leads to death. Don’t blame God for the ways in which you tempt yourself.

Don’t be deceived - God doesn’t present you with temptations, hoping that you’ll give in and he can blast you. God only gives us what is good - every good gift and every perfect gift is from above. He is the Father of lights, the one who doesn’t change. He’s always good, always generous, always wants the best for us. And he wants to give us the crown of life, promised for all who love him.

Our modern Olympic athletes compete for gold medals, but in the ancient Olympics, they wanted to win the crown of laurel leaves. So they endured all the training, they ran according to the rules, then had their eye on the prize through all the trials that came their way.

What about you? These various trials will come this year, as they come just about every year. Will you count it all joy (because they show us how we’re progressing), producing in us steadfastness? Will you look to the generous God to give you the wisdom you need (because they show us what we don’t know)? Will you focus on your standing in Christ, no matter what your financial position (because they show us where we stand)? Will you look to the finish line, past the temptations which we bring upon ourselves, to see the crown of life God will give to us (because they show us the end result)?

To all who are triumphant a crown of life shall be; they with the King of glory shall reign eternally. Let’s stand up, stand up for Jesus.

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

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Sermon: Hebrews 2: 5-18 Jesus, our Brother

I wonder if you were surprised to discover what day it is today. Now, I don’t mean that it’s Sunday - even though it’s hard to keep track of what day it is around Christmas. And I don’t mean that it’s New Year’s Day, as we begin 2017 - as if you missed all the buzz about New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. I wonder if you were expecting a new year’s theme today - only to discover that the church calendar brings us to what might seem a strange feast day.

It happens all the time, that the same day means different things to different people. The day that you celebrate as your birthday or wedding anniversary is the same day that someone else remembers a loved one’s death. And so on New Year’s Day, we remember the naming and circumcision of Jesus.

So why do we do this? Why focus on this little piece of ritual performed on the baby Jesus? Well, we’re told that it happened, in Luke 2:21. It’s a verse that we could easily miss, sandwiched between the shepherds and Simeon’s song. It shows us that Jesus was circumcised, like all Jewish boys on the eighth day. (Today is the 8th day of Christmas, with the maids-a-milking and so on...). So if we keep Christmas Day as the 25th December, it follows that today is the feast of the circumcision.

But you might still be asking yourself... WHY? Why does it really matter? And will it make a difference to us in this new year? To grasp the significance of today, I want to focus on our reading from Hebrews.

The letter to the Hebrews is a short letter of exhortation and encouragement, urging Jewish Christians to keep going in the faith. They’re thinking about going back to the temple religion, but time and again the focus in the letter is on why Jesus is better. In the opening verses of Hebrews we’re given an insight into God’s Son, the one whom God has spoken through; the heir of all things; through whom the world was created; the radiance of God’s glory, the exact imprint of his nature, the one who upholds the universe by the word of his power.

As you read the opening verses of the letter, you see the divine glory of the Son, shining through. But now, here, in chapter 2, we discover something amazing: This divine Son took on our flesh and become one like us. As we’ve already sung today - what child is this, who laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping? This, this is Christ the King. The baby lying in the manger; the baby who was circumcised on the eighth day, is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity.

Hebrews uses lots of Old Testament references and quotations, and in 2:6 we find today’s Psalm, Psalm 8. The writer quotes from David’s Psalm - the Psalm in which David surveys the wonder of creation; the vastness of the universe; and then asks: ‘What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honour.’

David’s original point is that, even though we’re so small and insignificant in terms of the universe, God is mindful of us and cares for us. He formed Adam and Eve to be the governors of his creation. But the writer to the Hebrews shows us that David was also pointing to the Lord Jesus, the Son of Man, who for a little while stepped down from his throne in heaven (where he was higher than the angels), and he stepped down to become man (where he for a little while was lower than the angels).

Why did Jesus do this? Why did Jesus give up his place in heaven, and take on our flesh to become man, and submit to the full human experience - including circumcision? The answer that Hebrews gives is - he did it for us.

Over the past couple of weeks, the TV has been full of review of the year type programmes. Reminding us of the year that has just gone; bringing us up to speed on where we stand as this new year dawns; showing us where we might be going with Brexit and President Trump and so on. At the end of verse 8, we’re given a review of our current position - what we can see:

‘At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.’ Isn’t that a fair picture of the world around us? Not everyone bows the knee to Jesus. Many disregard him. They go about doing what they want to do. But there is something else we do see: ‘But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.’

Jesus came into the world to taste death for everyone. He died so that we don’t have to. He has eaten the bitter fruit to save us from death. In our flesh, Jesus has defeated death on our behalf, for our sake.

There are many names for the Lord Jesus. Over the Christmas period we’ve thought about quite a few of them - Jesus, Immanuel, Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. But in Hebrews 2 we find another name for Jesus - brother. Imagine the privilege of being able to call Jesus your brother - to be part of the family, to share in his inheritance.

Verse 14 shows us why Jesus came to be one like us and with us: ‘Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.’

In our human flesh and blood, Jesus submitted to death in order to destroy death itself and the devil. As we trust in Jesus we are delivered from our lifelong slavery of the fear of death. Perhaps you felt the fear of death in 2016; perhaps you saw its power up close and personal; perhaps you feel it breathing down your neck. This new year can be different - no fear - not just in a wishful thinking this year’s going to be different kind of way; no, it can be different when we know that Jesus has destroyed the one who has the power of death. You can be delivered from your fear of death - through Jesus who was born and suffered and died and was raised for us; for you.

But there’s another way in which the Lord Jesus gives us help and strength for the new year. Jesus was made like us in every respect. He has shared our human existence, in every way - as one of the verses of Once in Royal David’s city which we won’t sing this morning puts it: ‘and he feeleth for our sadness, and he shareth in our gladness.’ Jesus is our merciful and faithful high priest, who has made propitiation for our sins, precisely because he was one with us, made like us.

Look at verse 18: ‘For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.’ We may not know exactly how this new year will turn out, but one thing we can know for certain is this - there will be temptation at every turn. Especially when we resolve to go God’s way; when we make time and sit down to read God’s word; temptations will come. But you are not on your own. Jesus knows what you’re going through! He has been there, endured it, and resisted every time. He is able to help you when you face temptation. He is with you, and for you.

The circumcision of Jesus reminds us that he is one with us - that the eternal Son has taken on our flesh, dwelt among us, and is for us. See him crowned with glory and honour - the one who suffered for us; the one who takes away the fear of death; the one who helps us when we’re tempted. As we start this year, give your all to him, our brother, our Lord, our God, our all.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 1st January 2017.