Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sermon: John 20: 19-31 'My Lord and my God'

Every so often, new words are added to the Oxford English Dictionary, reflecting the way language is changing, and new words are being coined. The word of 2016 - do you know what it was? Post-truth - ‘in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’ So some would argue that’s what we saw with the EU referendum and the election of Donald Trump - facts were forgotten, and instead personal beliefs and emotional arguments won the day.

Now, if this is the world we’re living in, then where does that leave the truth of the resurrection? Can we still believe in the resurrection of Jesus at all? And if we can - how is it possible? How does the truth of Jesus’ resurrection speak to a post-truth world?

After all, if society is saying things like ‘This is my truth tell me yours’ (as Manic Street Preachers entitled one of their albums) and Paloma Faith asks ‘Do you want the truth or something beautiful?’ How can we reply? If personal beliefs are top - then our neighbours and friends don’t want to hear about facts, they only care about how they feel. How can we provide an answer for the hope that we have in Jesus? What can we say in the face of death?

Well, to help us face up to a post-truth world, we’re going to look at one man’s experience of the very first Easter. And if post-truth is a fairly recent word, then another that applies in his situation is this one - a four letter word, spelled F O M O - fomo. Anyone know what that means?

FOMO is the fear of missing out. It’s the anxiety that comes, particularly on Facebook, that you’ll be sitting at home, missing out on something exciting. Can you picture the scene, or maybe you’ve experienced it. You’re sitting at home, nothing to do, scrolling through Facebook, when you see that all your friends are at a party, but you weren’t invited. They post loads of pictures, updates, and you feel left out. You’re missing out.

Well, even if FOMO was only added to the dictionary last year, it’s a perfect word for Thomas on that first Easter day. You see, our reading this morning begins on the first Easter Sunday. The disciples were all together, locked inside a room, for fear of the Jews. They still didn’t really understand that Jesus was risen - even though the women had reported the empty tomb, and then Peter and John had gone to explore it, and had also seen the empty tomb. The disciples were gathered together, when suddenly Jesus stood among them. He speaks a word of peace, shows them his hands and side, and commissions the disciples, sending them as the Father had sent him.

No wonder the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Their fear was gone. They really did have hope. They could rejoice that Jesus had defeated death. All the disciples were glad. All, that is, except for Thomas, the first feeler of FOMO.

Look at verse 24. ‘Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came.’ The disciples were all there, but Thomas was missing, and missing out. Where was he? Had he popped out to the shop? Was he having dinner somewhere else? We don’t know where he was, but he wasn’t there.

John tells us that Thomas was also called the Twin. But we have another name for him - a name that has stuck: Doubting Thomas. And he gets that name because of verse 25. Yesterday evening, we were watching the FA Cup semi-final. It was all tied, 2-2, very exciting match. And we went into the kitchen to get dessert. In the couple of minutes we were away from the TV, Chelsea scored not once, but twice. So when we told H, he wouldn’t believe it - until he saw the score on the top corner of the TV. He’s a Spurs supporter, so it wasn’t good news.

But the other disciples give Thomas some really great news, and he still won’t believe it. ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But do you see what he says? ‘Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.’

He’s been with the other disciples for three years - he knows what they’re like, yet he won’t believe what they say. He wants the facts - he wants to see, and he wants to touch. Think how the conversation would have gone that whole week after Easter. But Thomas, we’ve seen Jesus. We know that he’s alive. Why won’t you believe us?

One whole week passed. Thomas is still unbelieving, still doubting. The disciples are gathered, v26, and Thomas was with them. The doors were locked, yet Jesus came and stood among them. Again he says those words of peace. And then do you see what he says next? The risen Jesus invites Thomas to do everything Thomas had said he would have to do to believe. Jesus had heard Thomas, knew what Thomas needed, and so provides Thomas with the opportunity to not disbelieve, but believe:

‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.’

Up to that point, Thomas was sceptical. He wanted physical proof. He wanted to see, touch, and then he would believe. But look closely at verse 27 and into 28. Does he touch Jesus? Does he take up the invitation to touch his hands and put his hand in his side? No! He simply replies, ‘My Lord and my God.’

Thomas hadn’t believed the word of the other disciples, but he did believe when he saw Jesus face to face. His doubt was gone. To misquote the Monkees song, ‘then he saw his face, now he’s a believer.’

Do you see how Jesus replies? ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ Now Jesus is not saying there that you’re blessed if you switch off your brain and accept any old story about Jesus being raised. No, we may not have seen Jesus, but we can believe that he is alive, because of the eyewitness testimony of the first disciples. We can believe that Jesus has defeated death because Thomas and the other disciples met him, touched him, and shared food with him.

Because Jesus died on the cross and was raised to life, Jesus is exactly who Thomas recognises him to be - Lord and God. But even that isn’t enough (and isn’t even what Thomas said!). Is Jesus ‘My Lord and My God.’ Is he your Lord and your God?

Thomas might have missed out on the initial excitement of the first Easter Day, but within a week he too knew that Jesus was alive. Thomas speaks to our post-truth world, not only through his dramatic turnaround, his emotional appeal, but also through the undeniable facts - that Jesus died and rose again.

And John tells us why he writes about Thomas, and everything else that he has written in his gospel book. ‘These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God...’ Take some time today, or over this week, to read through John’s Gospel. Everything John writes is to show you who Jesus is, so that you can be sure that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. But having that head knowledge that Jesus is the Christ, isn’t enough. Here’s the rest of his purpose: ‘... and that by believing you may have life in his name.’

Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. And through John’s gospel, he says of himself: ‘I am the resurrection and the life...’ ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life...’ Jesus died in our place for our sins, but Jesus has defeated death. He is alive, and so we too can receive his life as we trust in him. This is the hope we have as we stand at a graveside; as we feel the pain of loss - that Jesus is the life, and will give us eternal life.

We can believe it because doubting Thomas became trusting Thomas. He gives us truth for a post-truth world. He didn’t miss out. And neither will we, as we trust in Jesus Christ, and say to him and about him: ‘My Lord and my God.’

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 23rd April 2017.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Sermon: Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12 Scripture Fulfilled - The Suffering Servant

It’s an assignment I would have failed - my mission impossible. But it’s one that Philip passed with flying colours. One day, he was minding his own business, when an angel told him to go down to the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza. When he got there, he saw a Rolls Royce chariot, heading south. The Spirit told him to ‘go to that chariot and stay near it.’

That’s where I probably would have failed miserably! But Philip runs along beside it, and as he does, he hears the man inside reading aloud; words that were very familiar. So Philip asks him, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ ‘How can I, unless someone explains it to me?’ comes the answer.

Philip is invited to come up and sit with the owner of the chariot - I’m sure he was glad to get his breath again! As he did so, the Ethiopian eunuch read out these words: ‘He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.’

So who is the prophet speaking about, the eunuch asks. Himself, or someone else? ‘Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news of Jesus.’ (Acts 8:35) From this passage we read tonight, Philip told him the good news of Jesus. Who is it all about? Jesus. Always Jesus. Only Jesus.

That episode from Acts chapter 8 helps us to see the idea we’ve been thinking about all through this Holy Week - that the Old Testament scriptures point forward to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. Long before the first Good Friday, the cross was already in view, in types and shadows and patterns - the serpent crusher in Genesis 3 who would defeat the devil; the Passover in Exodus 12, with safety under the blood of the Lamb; the forsaken suffering Saviour in Psalm 22; the substitute that the Lord will provide in Genesis 22.

Tonight we come to what is perhaps the clearest Old Testament description of the cross. Indeed, Isaiah 53 portrays the cross so clearly that some have spoken of Isaiah as the fifth evangelist, an extra gospel writer. John Stott, points out that every verse (apart from v 2) of Isaiah 53 is quoted in the New Testament. But these words were written seven hundred years before the events of the first Good Friday.

Towards the end of Isaiah’s gospel, there are a number of ‘servant songs’ - songs either sung by or about the Lord’s servant, the one who would come to serve and redeem. (Isaiah 42, 44, 49, 53, 61). This servant song (indicated by the opening words of 52:13) has five verses (stanzas), each with three Bible verses.

And those stanzas are arranged like a sandwich. So if you were making a sandwich, you have some bread, then a slice of ham, then some cheese, then another slice of ham, and another bit of bread. Bread on either outside, then ham, and right at the centre, the cheese. Our passage tonight is like that ham and cheese sandwich. The two outside passages are what God says about the servant; inside that are how people treated the servant; and right in the middle is what the servant achieved.

Section 1 - the wise servant. ‘See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.’ Even in the first line of this servant song, God says what the end will be. ‘He will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.’ This isn’t just the lifting up of the cross, but already we see the very end, highly exalted in heaven. More than that, he will sprinkle many nations - make them clean, by sprinkling them - yet it isn’t going to be all plain sailing, in verse 14 there’s the hint of what is to come - the many who were appalled at him and his disfigured appearance, and form marred beyond human likeness. The sprinkling and the shock come together - the one flows from the other.

Next section (like the ham), we hear the voices of others, describing this servant. But there’s a question: ‘Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’ That’s the question John asks in chapter 12 of his gospel. The answer? No one, but the disciples. Everyone else had seen the signs, the miracles, and had rejected him.

Verses 2 and 3 are the description of the Lord Jesus’ life. A few years ago there was a BBC programme called ‘Son of God.’ They tried to piece together what Jesus would have looked like. Here’s what they came up with - a broad face and large nose... olive-coloured, swarthy skin, short, curly hair and a short cropped beard. Or in other words, just like every other Jewish man of the time.

Forget the images of Jesus with a halo around his head, so everyone knew who he was. He looked like everyone else, nothing special. No beauty or majesty to attract us to him. It wasn’t that he was the 1st century equivalent of a movie star or pop star that everyone wanted to look at and be like. Rather, he was despised and rejected; a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering. Despised, and we esteemed him not.

Think of someone you try not to see as you walk up the town in Enniskillen. Someone you try to avoid. That’s how people thought of Jesus. They didn’t want to know him.

And then we get to the centre (the cheese section of the sandwich). Here we have the heart of the cross. Do you see the initial misunderstanding of verse 4?

‘Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted.’ Jesus took up our infirmities, he was carrying our sorrows. That’s what he was doing, hearing our burdens. But that’s not what the people saw that day. They instead thought that he was stricken by God, smitten and afflicted. They could only see the God-forsaken cursed one.

But. But look - do you see why Jesus died on the cross? ‘But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.’ Why did Jesus die? For us.

Do you see what Jesus died for? It was our transgressions and our iniquities. Those are two words for sin - the wrong things we’ve done, and the right things we haven’t done. To return to the Garden of Eden again - when Adam and Eve sinned, they didn’t die that day, but one day they would die. But what their sin brought immediately was separation from God. They were removed from the Garden. They were cut off from God.

Jesus takes our sins, and was pierced for them. He was crushed for our iniquities. He didn’t deserve to die, but he died in our place, for our sins. He gives us peace because he took the punishment; by his wounds we are healed.

It’s like being out for a meal, and you go to pay. But someone has already settled your account. The bill has been paid in full. You can’t pay any more. Someone else has made the payment on your behalf. So is this true of you?
Are you included in this ‘our’? Can you truly say tonight that he was pierced for MY transgressions? If you can, rejoice! The price is paid. If not, then please don’t leave tonight without speaking to Colin or myself, and making sure that your sins are covered, forgiven, the price paid.

Maybe you think that you’re not really that bad. Or at least, not as bad as Mr So-and-so. Verse 6 pictures us as sheep. As I arrived at one house to do a Home Communion this week, I had to say, did you know there are a couple of lambs out on the lane? We’re sheep because, we all have gone astray. We’ve wandered from the fold, and turned to our own way. (Isn’t that the heart of sin, going our own way, rather than God’s way?).

We might be like sheep but Jesus is the lamb who has taken our iniquity. More than that, as we go into the next section, back out the other side, Jesus is the lamb led to the slaughter, silent, uncomplaining, willing. Even when he was oppressed and afflicted, he didn’t retaliate, didn’t answer back, he took it.

Who can speak of his descendants? Well, it seems no one, because he was cut off from the land of the living. He was stricken. Put in an early grave, a borrowed grave - died with the wicked, buried in a rich man’s tomb. The Lord Jesus deserved none of this. He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. So why did it happen?

Well, as we come to the final section, we discover what the cross achieved, as we hear again from God. First of all, God’s will - ‘Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer...’ The cross wasn’t just a plan concocted by Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders. They had a hand in it, they acted freely to try to destroy Jesus, they certainly opposed him. But alongside, and through their evil actions, God’s will was also being accomplished.

As the believers say in Acts 4 ‘Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus... They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.’ (Acts 4:27-28). They did it, but they were bringing about God’s will for Jesus to die. Why? ‘And though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.’

This sacrificial death of the suffering servant isn’t the end of the story. Earlier we asked, Who can speak of his descendants? Look around you! He will see his offspring. Even here, the promise of the resurrection is included. The sufferings and the subsequent glories (as Peter said).

Verse 11: ‘After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.’ It’s in knowing Christ that we are justified by him, our iniquities borne away.

And it’s because Jesus has done these things, that verse 12 comes. Again, it’s God speaking. ‘Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.’

A portion among the great - the highest place that heaven affords is his, is his by right. Just as verse 13 had already said - ‘he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.’

This morning an American pastor tweeted a cartoon strip. There are two men in it. One says, ‘I hate the term Good Friday.’ The other asks, why? So the first says, ‘My Lord was hanged on a tree that day.’ The other says, ‘If you were going to be hanged on that day, and he volunteered to take your place, how would you feel?’ The first thinks, and says, ‘Good.’ ‘Have a nice day’ is the other’s reply.

What’s so good about Good Friday? Jesus died for our transgressions. In my place condemned he stood. But Good Friday is not the end of the story. It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming. Jesus has fulfilled the scripture - not just in his cross, but also in his resurrection. That’s why this is Good Friday.

This sermon was preached in Brookeborough Methodist Church on Good Friday 14th April 2017 in the Scripture Fulfilled series.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Sermon: Psalm 22 Scripture Fulfilled - The Suffering Saviour

God, where are you? Can you hear me? Will you answer me? Don’t you see? Don’t you care? I wonder if you’ve ever said words like these - or ever felt them in your heart. They’re the cries of the heartbroken. The sorrows of suffering. And as you go through the experience of suffering, it feels as if God has forsaken you. He doesn’t answer. He doesn’t act. You feel all alone.

Tonight, we hear the same words on the lips of Jesus. We see this forsakenness in the experience of the Son. And as we glimpse, through the darkness at the desolation, so we find our comfort and our hope through the forsaken one.

In Matthew 27:45-46, we read these words: ‘From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over al the land. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”’ That cry of Jesus is the first line of our Psalm this evening.

And as you scan the Psalm quickly, it’s clear that so many of the details match up with the events of the crucifixion. The mockery of verses 7&8. Bones out of joint, and on display of verses 14 and 17. The thirst of verse 15. The dividing and casting of lots for the clothing in verse 18.

If you had never read this Psalm before, you would probably think it was an eyewitness testimony written down on the day of the crucifixion; or a record of what the crucified one said - written down afterwards. But this isn’t a newspaper report from the Jerusalem Times the next day. This is a Psalm, part of the Old Testament, written down a thousand years before the crucifixion, written down (as the title reminds us) by David, the great-great-great-... grandfather of Jesus.

That’s why we’re looking at this Psalm tonight, in this week of weeks. You see, this week we’re recalling the words of Jesus on the first Easter evening: ‘Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ (Luke 24:44). Jesus says that the whole Old Testament is about him, and points forward to his crucifixion and resurrection. So far, we’ve been in the Law of Moses - hearing the promise of the serpent crusher, who would defeat the power of the devil though wounded by him; and hearing how the redemption of the Israelite slaves from Egypt in the Passover points to Christ our Passover Lamb, where there is safety and redemption under his shed blood.

Tonight we turn to the Psalms, and Psalm 22 as it predicts (in the words of the apostle Peter) the ‘sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.’ (1 Pet 1:11). The sufferings are plain to see, front and centre, from the opening verse which is quoted by Jesus on the cross. By mentioning the first verse here, it seems as if Jesus is linking the whole Psalm to his experience of the cross. So what do we find in the Psalm? How do David’s words tell of his experience? And what does it tell us of Jesus’ sufferings?

You’ll notice that the Psalm switches from David speaking of himself, to addressing God - particularly with the ‘yet’ (3, 9), and the but (6, 19). There are three sets of this pattern, with an increasing desperation each time.

Set one: The forsaken one (1-5). David asks that haunting question - ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ There’s no answer to the question, which is the big problem. David cries out to God, by day, by night, but there’s no answer, he finds no rest.

He just can’t understand his experience - as he turns to address God directly in verse 3. ‘Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One...’ He reminds God of how God has always answered his peoples’ cries before - throughout their history, they trusted you delivered; they cried and were saved. They trusted and were not put to shame.

That word shame provokes the second set of the pattern. It begins in verse 6. ‘But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.’ They don’t just despise him, they also mock him. ‘He trusts in the Lord, let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.’

There’s a special suffering in being identified with the Lord. And the crowds at the foot of the cross used these very words as verbal blows on the crucified Jesus: ‘He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, “I am the Son of God.”’ (Matt 27:43).

These taunts are especially terrible because of the closeness of his relationship with God. We see this as he turns again to talk directly to God in verse 9: ‘Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast... from my mother’s womb you have been my God.’ So because of this close relationship, this nearness we’ve always had, then verse 10: ‘Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.’ You’ve always been near, God, but now you’re far and trouble is near. Help me!

As the pattern repeats again from verse 12, we see why there is no one to help. As David describes his suffering - whatever it was he was going through - he perfectly describes his greater son’s suffering on the cross. No one to help, because ‘Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.’

It’s like the walker who had climbed over a gate when the farmer shouts at him, asking if he thinks he can run across the field in 9 seconds. Why, he replies, well, because the bull can do it in 10 seconds. One bull would be bad enough, but the people surrounding David are described as strong bulls encircling. Being surrounded by hostile people. As well as bulls, they are also described as roaring lions, mouths open wide against him.

Verse 14 paints a vivid picture of the position of the crucified - poured out like water; bones out of joint; heart turned to wax, melted within me. Add to that the dryness of mouth in verse 15 - remember that Jesus says in John 19:28 ‘I thirst.’ The dryness and dust of death is an apt picture of this longing.

The sufferings of the crucified one continue, though. Surrounded by dogs (not the well groomed Crufts type or your friendly pampered pooch at home, but more the wild pack dogs - another picture of the mob), the villains encircle - ‘they pierce my hands and my feet.’ Whatever David had experienced, he again gets the details of the crucifixion of Jesus spot on. (Crucifixion hadn’t even been invented when David wrote this Psalm).

Hands and feet pierced, stretched out on the cross, all his bones are on display, people staring and gloating. And then the ultimate humiliation. ‘They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.’ John 19:23-24 describes how this happened - the four soldiers in the group each getting a share, and his seamless tunic going to the winner of the cast lots.

In his death, Jesus had nothing. On Monday evening, we didn’t pick up on it, but as God sent Adam and Eve out of the garden, he replaced their fig leaf coverings with clothes of animal skins. An animal died to provide them with covering. We will one day be clothed in the white robes of righteousness - provided for us by the Christ who hung on the cross naked. He was stripped so that we could be clothed and covered.

The sufferings of Christ, foretold in great detail, and fulfilled in every detail. In verse 19, he turns again to speak directly to God: ‘But you, Lord, do not be far from me. You are my strength; come quickly to help me.’

Even in the depths of despair, and the sorrow of suffering, still there is trust. Still there is the cry for help. Do you see it there in verse 20? ‘Deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs. Rescue me from the mouth of the lions.’

Now the next line of the pew Bibles continues that pleading - ‘save me from the horns of the wild oxen.’ Another ask. But you might see that there’s also a footnote, an alternative wording - and all the commentators agree, the proper wording. Let me give you verse 21 in the Hebrew word order: ‘Rescue me from the mouth of the lions; from the horns of the wild oxen you have heard me.’

It’s such a sudden change that the NIV translators almost couldn’t believe it. But this is what David wrote - that suddenly, from the horns of the wild oxen, God had indeed heard, and answered (as verse 2 had asked). The sufferings are complete, and the glories are ushered in. That’s what the rest of the Psalm shows us. And it’s what Jesus was pointing to as he quoted Psalm 22:1 - not just his sufferings, but also his glories.

Verses 22-25 continue the pattern, because we’re back to ‘I’ again - but this time, it is the Christ’s experience of celebration: ‘I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you.’

His suffering has finished, he declares God’s name and praise, along with his people - the people he has brought near through his suffering.

Why is there such praise? ‘For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.’ The suffering complete, Jesus returns to the Father, raised by his mighty power on that first Easter morning.

The glories spread even further, to the ends of the earth in verse 27. Jesus sends his disciples - sends us, to all nations, and to all generations, bringing the good news of the Jesus who suffered and was raised, who now reigns over all. Look at verse 31. Even though he couldn’t even have imagined that there would be an island called Ireland, and on it a place called Brookeborough, and that three thousand years after he wrote these words, here we would be reading them, and rejoicing in the suffering Son they pointed forward to, yet David writes about us: ‘They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn.’

David couldn’t have imagined that we would be the fulfilling of that last verse; but neither could he have realised just how this Psalm of his could so accurately describe the sufferings of Christ and the glories that followed. So how did he do it? It was only by the Spirit of God - as Peter says, ‘men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’ (2 Pet 1:21).

The Spirit guided David to write what he wrote, to show that God is in control, in every detail. The death of Jesus was no accident, it wasn’t a big disaster that happened outside of God’s control. No, as Jesus says, ‘everything written about me must be fulfilled.’ He knew what was coming in advance. It’s why he sweat drops of blood, why he agonised in the garden, and why he finally prayed ‘not my will, but yours be done.’

As the writer to the Hebrews urges us: ‘Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.’ (Heb 12:2)

Jesus endured the cross, and scorned its shame. Jesus was stripped so that we could be clothed in his righteousness. Jesus died alone so that we could be welcomed into the great assembly of all his people. Jesus was forsaken so that we never would be forsaken. As Hebrews assures us: ‘God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”’ (Heb 13:5)

This sermon was preached in Brookeborough Methodist Church on Wednesday 12th April 2017 at the Scripture Fulfilled series in Holy Week.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Sermon: Genesis 3: 15 Scripture Fulfilled - The Serpent Crusher

“If you don’t want to know the scores, then please look away now.” Those are the words the newsreader says on Saturday night, just before they report on the football. It’s so that someone who hasn’t heard how their team has done can watch Match of the Day without knowing the end result in advance. But as we gather at the start of this Holy Week, we already know the end result. Jesus, who was crucified on the first Good Friday, was also raised to life on the first Easter Sunday.

And it’s helpful to know that, and helpful to remember the events of that first Easter Day as we begin our special series this week. Do you remember the two disappointed disciples, walking home from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus? A stranger catches up with them, asks what they’re talking about, and they can’t believe he hasn’t heard of all that had happened in the city. They had hoped that Jesus was going to redeem Israel. But their hopes were dashed. He had died on a cross. And surely that was the end. There were rumours flying about that his tomb was empty, but they had given up, and gone home.

The stranger then says, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ He then begins with Moses and the Prophets, explaining ‘what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.’ The stranger was Jesus, and he gave them a big Bible study of how the Old Testament talks of him and points to him.

Having recognised him as he broke the bread, they set off back to Jerusalem in the dark, along the seven miles, to share the good news with the disciples. Then Jesus stands among them, risen, alive, and he reminds them of what he told them before his death: ‘Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’

That’s our purpose this week - to see how the Old Testament scriptures about Jesus’ death are fulfilled. Now, we’ll not cover all of them - we won’t get near the ‘everything written about me’. But we’ll pick out some of the main passages and see how they point us to Christ’s cross.

Tonight, we start at the beginning - a very good place to start. In our reading tonight we have the protevangelium - the first declaration of the gospel, the first signpost to the cross, from within the Garden of Eden.

Eden was the place of perfect paradise, where Adam and Eve walked with God, and ruled the creation under him. It’s hard for us to imagine just how perfect it was, because we’re so used to the world as we know it now. But any time you despair of shattered dreams, or disappointments, or groan under suffering, sickness or sadness or regret strained relationships, you’re longing for the Eden experience.

Adam and Eve had it all, and yet how quickly they lost it. From Paradise to Paradise Lost in a matter of verses. So how did it happen? Behind it all was the serpent. You’ll see that here in Genesis, we’re just introduced to the serpent without any explanation. But in Revelation 12 and 20, the devil is described as ‘that ancient serpent’. So here in Eden is the devil, Satan.

‘Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made.’ His craftiness comes out in the way he talks to Eve.

‘Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden?”’ He’s challenging God’s word, seeking to undermine it, causing doubt. So when Eve says that they can’t eat from (or touch) the tree in the middle of the garden or they will die, the serpent strikes straight back: ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’

Do you see what he’s doing? Challenging, and now denying God’s word. He’s trying to convince her that God is holding something back, that God is not really good. That you can’t really trust God.

Her desire is stirred: ‘When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.’

The serpent had persuaded her, and tempted her, and deceived her. As Adam and Eve bit into the fruit, they realised they were naked. Guilt and shame were felt for the first time in the world. They had to cover up, fashioned in fig leaves, and then started the first ever game of hide and seek.

The story goes of a minister out visiting, and he rang a door. He had the sense someone was inside, so he wrote a Bible reference on the back of his card - Revelation 3:20. Behold, I stand at the door and knock... The next Sunday, the lady slipped him a piece of paper with a Bible reference on it - Genesis 3:10. ‘I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.’

Adam and Eve hid themselves from God. It wasn’t that God went missing and Adam and Eve had to go and find him, and that we still are on a search for God. No, it’s us who have gone into hiding. But still God comes looking for us, asking ‘Where are you?’

Perhaps you’re hiding from God tonight. You’re here, but you’re hiding, not really engaged. God comes to meet us where we are; comes to speak tenderly with us.

God asks them why they’re hiding. ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?’ And it’s here that the blame game starts. Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent, and the serpent didn’t have a leg to stand on!

But do you see how sin brings shame and blame? It’s not really my fault, God - it’s because of someone else; or because of my circumstances; or even because of you, God, you made me do it because of how you made me and what you gave me. ‘The woman you put here with me...’ It’s always someone else’s fault.

In the very place where there was blessing, and perfection, God’s good creation has been marred, spoiled, ruined. It’s like the painting of Jesus on a church wall in Spain a few years ago - that a lady attempted to improve and totally destroyed it. Or it’s like someone who has worked for ages building a model ship out of matchsticks, only for their toddler to destroy.

God has to judge their sin, their refusal to trust him, their disobedience of his word. But even as he declares judgement in the form of curse, there is mercy and grace. God could have wiped them out immediately. One day they would die, but it wasn’t that day.

The curse includes pain in childbirth for the woman and thorns and thistles in work for the man, but it’s in the curse on the serpent that we find the promise of the cross. ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.’ (15)

God declares to the serpent that there will be enmity, opposition, hostility between the serpent and the woman; between his offspring and hers; but do you see how it changes at the end?

It’s no longer between the serpent and the woman, nor their respective offspring. This time it’s personal - between her offspring and ‘you’. God declares to the serpent that at some point in the future, the woman’s offspring will do battle with him. There will be a decisive victory.

This is why we see the children of Israel so often being oppressed throughout the Old Testament. The serpent is each time trying to prevent the offspring of the woman from being born - whether it’s the baby boys being thrown into the Nile by the Egyptians; or the slaughter planned by Haman in the days of Esther; or Herod’s killing of the baby boys under two in Bethlehem - the serpent is trying to destroy the offspring before this ultimate battle comes.

That ultimate battle comes on the cross. Let’s think of it in the words of verse 15. (And I hope you don’t have ophidiophobia - the fear of snakes). Picture the two things happening at the same moment - as a man stands on a snake’s head, it bites him in the heel. ‘He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.’

The serpent lands a blow on Jesus. He strikes his heel - he brings about Jesus’ death. But Jesus rises from that death to live again. The serpent’s blow is fatal, his head is crushed. William Williams, the Welsh hymnwriter most famous for ‘Guide me O thou great Redeemer’ puts it this way:

‘Bruised was the dragon by the Son,
though two had wounds, there conquered one,
and Jesus was his name.’

As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, ‘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.’ (2:14).

As far back as the Garden of Eden and Genesis 3, God points forward to the cross, and proclaims that the serpent will be defeated by the offspring of the woman, the serpent-crusher. And so, from Genesis onwards, the search is on for this promised one, the one who would defeat the devil, the one who would bring freedom for his people.

Perhaps tonight, you’re under the weight of your sin. You’ve been deceived by the devil, you feel yourself trapped and enslaved by him. Your shame shouts aloud. Your guilt goes before you. Look again to the cross. In Jesus’ death, he has defeated the devil, he has crushed his head.

And listen to the promise that Paul gives to the Christians in Rome, and to us as well: ‘The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.’ The devil’s days are numbered, and his defeat is sure because of the cross. We can look forward, not to Eden restored, but to the new heavens and the new earth, where nothing unclean or impure can dwell. The scripture has been fulfilled. The serpent crusher has come, and has won.

This sermon was preached in Brookeborough Methodist Church on Monday 10th April 2017 in the Scripture Fulfilled series of Holy Week services.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Sermon: Matthew 21: 1-17 The Scripted Saviour

My acting career wasn’t very successful. I’ve no Oscars on the mantelpiece, but even I know the importance of getting your lines right. When I was in P6, our school put on a performance of Snow White. I was one of the seven dwarves - Drowsy. And there I was, with my rosy cheeks and my wee hat, doing the best sleep-acting you’ve ever seen. The whole night, I had two lines: ‘I’m tired,’ and ‘Is it time to go to sleep yet?’ Just two lines, but I got them right!

It was better than my other appearance. Our youth club put on A Christmas Carol one year. I was Tiny Tim (can you see a theme in my roles...) and the whole play led up to the moment when, with Scrooge a reformed character and celebrating Christmas with the Cratchet family, Tiny Tim would sing a solo. And, at that moment, I forgot the words. I thought I wouldn’t need them, and I got them all wrong. It didn’t work out too well.

I needed to get my lines right and follow the script, just as I had with my two lines in Snow White. As the events of Palm Sunday unfold, it’s clear that everyone is playing their part, and everything is following the script written beforehand. So whether it’s the donkeys, the palm branches, the turning of the tables or the children’s praises, none of it happens by accident; every part was written in advance. The script was there - in the scriptures.

So let’s have a look at the events of Palm Sunday, and see what they show us about Jesus.

In verses 1-3, we’re given the details of how two of the disciples go to get the donkey and colt. Jesus and his disciples are drawing near to Jerusalem, they’re almost there, and so the two disciples are sent ahead to get the donkeys. Now why did the Lord need them? It wasn’t just that he was tired, that this was like him hiring a taxi or a bike to get him into town.

The Lord needs them because the donkeys are included in the script. Look at verse 4: ‘This took place to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet, saying, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”’ The script in the scripture is from the opening verse of our Old Testament reading - Zechariah 9:9.

This pointed forward to the time when the humble king of Zion (Jerusalem) would come riding on (two) donkeys. And now Jesus is fulfilling the scripture - he is filling it full of meaning by acting it out. The promised king is here.

Jesus rides into town on the donkeys. And straight away, the crowd recognise who he is. The other week, we went for tea in Corick House, and as we came up to the front door, there was the red carpet rolled out. Not for us, of course, but because there was a wedding fair on that evening. They were showing how the happy couple would have a red carpet welcome. Well here, the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, (just like Sir Francis Drake laying his cloak down so that Queen Elizabeth didn’t have to step in a puddle); and some cut branches to lay them on the road.

They recognise that Jesus is important, that Jesus is the king. And they join in with their lines, in words written down in advance - words from our Psalm (118). Look at verse 9 - ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ That’s Ps 118:26. And the bit about ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’? That Ps 118:25 - Hosanna means ‘Save, Lord’ - a cry of praise and prayer.

The crowd recognise that Jesus is the coming King, so they shout out the script from the scriptures to welcome their king.

So Jesus makes it into the city. And then he goes to the temple. But he isn’t there as a tourist, just to have a wee look around, take a few photos and maybe buy a postcard. Jesus is there to cause a fuss, to disrupt what has been going on.

Can you picture the scene? ‘And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons.’ Imagine the noise of the coins rattling on the ground, and the scramble to gather them up again. The hustle and bustle. Now why did Jesus do this? It’s not what we expect to hear Jesus doing!

St Matthew’s church in Richhill once served as the market house for the town, until the market closed, and it was turned into a church. A place of trade became a place of prayer. Well, the temple authorities had managed to do the complete opposite. Look at what Jesus says in verse 13: ‘It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer”, but you make it a den of robbers.’ The temple authorities had made it a den of robbers - because you had to change your ordinary money to temple money (at a poor exchange rate) and you had to buy the pigeons and animals to sacrifice (at really high prices).

So Jesus follows the script as he quotes from Isaiah 56 to make the temple a place of prayer once more. The scriptures become the script for Jesus. The coming king cleanses the temple.

Now with space in the place, the blind and lame came to him, and he healed them. God is in his temple, and wonderful things are happening. The king has come, cleansed the temple, and is putting wrong things right. So how would you finish the sentence?

‘When the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple... they’ ... (what)? They joined in the praising? They welcomed him with open arms? They were really happy?

Well, no. ‘They were indignant.’ Everyone else is happy, praising, shouting out for joy, and they have poker faces. They say to Jesus in verse 16: ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ The children have been crying out the same words the crowd were shouting earlier: ‘Hosanna to the Son of David.’ The priests and scribes don’t like it.

And Jesus says that they too are following the script. ‘Yes; have you never read, “Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise?”’ I can’t imagine that Jesus said this with a straight face. Do you see what he says to the top religious people in the land - ‘have you never read’ and then quotes a bit from the Bible!

The children are just fulfilling their lines in the script of scripture, from Psalm 8:2. Written down long before, was this promise that wee children would sing praise to the Lord Jesus. And now they’re doing it. Singing praise to the promised, coming king.

In this one scene, we have four Old Testament scriptures being fulfilled, as the script is followed. And, as we continue to read about Jesus, we discover that everything that happened in his life, his death, and his resurrection was promised in advance in the scriptures. That’s what we’re considering this week in our Holy Week series. Do come along each evening, and see how the Bible fits together.

For this morning, though, what will your response be? You see, Palm Sunday isn't just a drama we watch on stage. As Shakespeare wrote 'All the world's a stage.' We have to play our part, join in the drama.

In some ways, your only options are the same as my two stage performances. Your lines have already been written. Will you forget your lines, or deliberately move away from the script, and be indignant with the king, refusing to praise?

Or will you join in the chorus line, the repeated joyful response of the crowd and the children - ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ It’s a cry of rejoicing, because it’s a cry asking him to save us. The king has come, humble, in the name of the Lord, to cleanse and heal, and accept our praise because he is our Saviour on his way to the cross. Will you join in that cry today: Hosanna to the Son of David!

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 9th April 2017

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Sermon: James 5: 13-20 Faith in Action - Prayer Power

Whenever you get home today, there are probably a few things you’ll do between now and bedtime. You’ll press a switch or turn a knob, and the oven will come on to cook your dinner (or else to turn it off, hoping that it’s not burnt if the sermon goes on too long...). You’ll twist your fingers, and water will flow from the tap. You’ll pull a cord, and lights will come on. Did you ever stop to consider the power you have in your fingertips? A fairly simple activity brings great power.

Now imagine if you were to go home, and didn’t do any of these things. The water is available, but you don’t turn on the tap. The electricity is waiting, but you don’t use it for cooking or lighting the room. So, even with the fair stretch in the evenings, you just sit in the dark until it’s time for bed. What would someone else think? You have this potential, this power at your fingertips, and yet you don’t use it. You don’t get the benefit of it.

As James brings his letter to a close, this is the point that he wants to get across to us. He’s saying to us that we have the potential of a great power available to us, but we need to use it! Now maybe you don’t feel very powerful this morning, but look at verse 16, in the middle of it: ‘The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.’

In our Bible reading this morning, James wants us to realise the power potential we have. So how do we release this power? How do we see this power at work? It’s when we pray. So let’s dive into the passage to see how we can develop in prayer power.

And as we do that, James has a question for us. Or rather, a series of questions. You see, when we meet together on a Sunday morning, we each come from different situations. On any given Sunday, some will be cheerful - maybe it’s someone’s birthday, or you’ve been feeling great this week. Or maybe you’ve been knowing the Lord’s presence and blessing in a special way. Yet the person beside you or near you is feeling completely different. Maybe there was a row in the car on the way here. Or you’ve been feeling under the weather. Maybe you’re dreading an appointment this week.

That’s why James gives us the kind of checklist in verse 13. ‘Is anyone among you suffering?’ (We’ll not ask you to put your hands up...) ‘Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church...’ Both praying and praising are ways of speaking to God - and that’s what prayer is all about. The opportunity to speak to God; to communicate with the maker of the universe; to let him know how we’re feeling.

But remember that James says that it’s the prayer of a righteous person that has great power. Does that mean that only a certain sort of Christian’s prayer have power? So how do we become righteous?

In verses 14-16, we see how the last of the checklist works out in greater detail. James says, ‘Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.’

In this ministry to the sick, the elders are to pray over them (when they’ve been called!). and anointing them with oil. Some traditions save this anointing for the very end of life (extreme unction / the last rites), whereas some of us maybe don’t use oil at all when we maybe should. But notice that it isn’t the oil that is powerful and effective. Verse 15 ‘And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.’

What is it that saves, brings forgiveness, and the promise of being raised up (whether that is healing, or ultimately the promise of resurrection)? The prayer of faith. You see, none of us are righteous in and of ourselves. All of us have committed sins.

It’s only when we put our trust in Jesus, when we believe in him and what he has done for us in the cross - it’s only then that we become righteous. It’s only then that we have the promise of eternal life and the forgiveness of our sins. So as we gather here today, whether you are suffering, or cheerful, or sick, I wonder can you say that you are righteous? If not, then look to Jesus today, and call on him in faith to save you.

If you are righteous, if you are trusting in Jesus, have you realised just how powerful your prayers are? When you become a Christian, you become a priest, you have a ministry of prayer - for one another in the church family, and for others who are outside the family of faith (for now!). That’s why James says in verse 16 ‘Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.’

In admitting our weakness and our faults to one another, and praying for one another, we grow together, and have this promise of healing. Now that doesn’t mean that we’ll have someone come up to the front and tell us everything that they’ve ever done wrong - we’d be here a long time - but it does mean that in appropriate ways, with people we trust, we can admit our faults and pray for one another. Righteous people have a ministry of prayer for one another.

James then gives us an example of how a righteous person’s prayer has great power as it is working. Elijah was just like us, and yet by his prayers, it stopped raining for three years and six months. We heard of the stopping and starting of the rain in our Old Testament reading from 1 Kings 17-18. If Elijah’s prayers could achieve the turning off and on of the rain, as easily as we can turn the tap on and off, then what could our prayers achieve?

Imagine the things that could happen, if we were to realise the true potential of the power made available to us, and actually prayed for them to happen? Sometimes at youth groups we ask the question - if you could have any super power, what would it be? But James is telling us we do have a superpower available right now, if we will just pray.

In the last verses, we have an example of how we can see our prayers at work. Imagine someone wanders away from the truth. They’ve been part of things, but are now far away. If we care for them, and pray for them, how might that power of prayer work? If we bring them back, do you see what happens? ‘Whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.’

Jesus is the one who died to bring us salvation, to save us from death, to cover over our sins. Yet by our prayers, we can have a part in the saving of others. So who are you praying for, that they’ll come to saving faith? Perhaps today, as you receive the bread and wine and remember what Jesus has done for you, you’ll spend just a moment longer at the rail to pray for someone who needs his salvation.

And after the service, I’ll be available by the font to pray with you or for you. I’ll even have a little oil if you would like to be anointed for yourself or someone else. But any of us could pray for anyone else - ‘for one another’ as James says.

The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. This power is at your fingertips today. How will you use it?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 2nd April 2017.