Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Sermon: Matthew 13: 47-52 The Net

A few years ago, we were away on holiday. One morning, we took a walk down along the harbour. A crowd of people had gathered, so we decided to see what everyone was looking at. The fishermen had arrived with their catch, and they were gutting the fish, ready to be cooked and eaten in the restaurants along the promenade. There was a good crowd of people watching - maybe picking out their dinner for that evening - but there was another pair of eyes on them as well. A wee black and white cat made its way across to them on the rocks, waiting for its dinner as well. Then off, away it went, carrying a piece of fish in its mouth, and disappeared to devour its dinner!

Perhaps you’ve been in a fishing village and you’ve seen a similar scene. (Maybe without the cat, though!). I’m sure you can picture it, even if you haven’t witnessed it. The scene would have been even more familiar to the disciples as Jesus tells his last kingdom parable recorded for us in Matthew 13.

Matthew 13 is set by the lake shore - some of the stories were told in public, to the crowd, while some of the stories were told in the house, to the disciples. So Jesus could have pointed out the window to the lake, and what may have been happening at the time. But remember, that some of the disciples were fishermen. This was what they had done every working day. They knew the example, and so they could understand the point Jesus was making.

So let’s look at the story, first of all. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. They they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away.’

Maybe some of you are fishermen. You probably stand or sit by the shore or on the river, with your rod and your line, waiting for a bite. This is a bit bigger than that. Here, the net is dragged along behind the boat. It catches everything that’s in the water - all kinds of fish. But just because it’s a fish, doesn’t mean that it’s food.

So when the net is full, it’s brought up onto the shore, and the fish are sorted and separated. There are just two categories - good fish and bad fish. You keep the good ones to eat or sell, but the bad ones are thrown away.

That’s how the fishermen worked, and the disciples would have known that well enough. Now, in some of the parables, Jesus just told the story and left it at that - the treasure and the pearl last week - we had to work out what it was about. But with our parable tonight, Jesus gives us the meaning. Here’s the point he is driving at, in verse 49.

‘This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Just as the net gathers all kinds of fish, so there is coming a day when everyone will be gathered up. And on that day there will be just two categories of people - we’re either one or the other. So what are the two categories? Wicked and righteous. The question is, which are you?

When we think of the category of ‘wicked’, we can all think of people who fit in that box. The really bad people like Hitler or Saddam Hussein. That box is surely only for really bad people. Surely we wouldn’t be in the same category? We like to imagine that we’re good, or at least good enough.

But it’s not a sliding scale. With GCSE results the other day (and realising that it was 20 years since I got mine), there are lots of different grades. In England now they go from 9 to 1; but in Northern Ireland it’s still A* through to G. There are different passes (and various fail levels), but that’s not the way it is here. It’s simply pass or fail. wicked or righteous. Which are we?

Remember that we’re talking about the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus the king. But we’ve all turned away, we’re all rebels, we say no to God. In our heart of hearts, we’re wicked. Maybe not as bad as someone else, but we’re still wicked.

That’s why we begin our services with a confession - recognising and admitting and confessing our failings, our sins, our wickedness. We know that we don’t meet God’s standards. That picture of fire and weeping and gnashing of teeth, it comes from the lips of Jesus. Jesus was a hellfire preacher! And it’s what we deserve for our sin, our rebellion.

What an awful place. The author Mark Twain once said ‘heaven for the climate, hell for the company.’ Or as you might hear, hell will be so much fun, all my mates will be there. But this doesn’t sound like a party. It sounds like a torment, a terrible place, a place to avoid at all costs.

Yet Jesus tells us that there will be two categories of people on the last day - the wicked and the righteous. (Notice that it doesn’t say the bad and the good.) If we’re all in the first box, if we’re all wicked, then how can anyone be righteous? How can anyone be saved? The righteous aren’t perfect, but they are forgiven. You see, Jesus, the king, died for sinners, to take away our sin, to endure our punishment, to enable all who trust in him to go free and be counted as righteous, and so gathered in on the last day.

There is a way to escape the blazing furnace, the weeping, the gnashing of teeth. And his name is Jesus. As we trust in him we will be gathered in.

We’re coming towards the end of this mini series, looking at the kingdom parables. And as we do so, Jesus asks a question of the disciples, but it’s a question for us as well. ‘Have you understood all these things?’ (51) Scan back over the chapter, even the headings, and see what you can remember from each of them - the parable of the sower; the parable of the weeds; the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast; the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl; and the parable of the net. Have you understood all these things? If not, then say so on the way out and we’ll chat about them some time soon.

Jesus has been teaching us about the kingdom - that when the word goes out there are different responses to it; that wheat and weeds grow side by side until the harvest, but then the kingdom will be cleared and pure; that the kingdom might start small and seem insignificant, but it is growing and making an impact; that the kingdom (and Jesus the king) is of incomparable value and worth, however you discover it; and that people are either wicked or righteous.

We’ve had a good number of parables in Matthew 13, but it’s as if Jesus can’t resist one last parable. It just kind of sneaks in to verse 52. When the disciples say that they understand all these things, then Jesus says this: ‘Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.’

Another little story, another little ‘is like’. The teachers of the law were the scribes (who we sometimes hear in connection with the Pharisees). They majored on the Old Testament law, as they taught in the synagogue. But Jesus says that the disciples, these New Testament teachers are one step ahead, have something extra in their store. They don’t just have the old treasures to bring out, they also have the new.

The scribes might have been able to talk about God’s kingdom in some sense, but the disciples can now surpass that, like the owner of the house who brings out new and old treasures from his storeroom. Having been taught by Jesus, we’re now able to teach others, to share what we’ve been told, to help them also to see the kingdom of heaven.

Do you realise just how well stocked your storeroom is? You’re not like Old Mother Hubbard, with nothing in the cupboard! You have the teaching of the Old and New Testaments, the full recorded word of God, which contains all things necessary to salvation (Article 6). What will you do with your well stocked storeroom? Keep it all to yourself? Or share it with others?

God’s kingdom is coming. The net will gather us all up, the separation is coming. Just two groups of people - wicked, and righteous. May we all look to Jesus, and put our trust in him, and be found righteous on that last day. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 27th August 2017.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Sermon: Psalm 9 Tell out, my soul

The uniforms are ready. Pencils are sharpened. School bag is packed. And at some point this week, school will start all over again for another year. For some pupils, though, this will be their first time at school. They’ve maybe made it through playschool or nursery, but now they’re big P1s. And those P1s will be having some playtime, and some story time. They’ll learn numbers, and they’ll be learning how to read.

Nowadays, they do it by learning sounds, but when I was in P1 and Mrs McDonald was teaching my class, we did it by learning our A B Cs. A is for ... apple; b is for ... ball; c is for ... cat and so on. Around the wall there was a border with pictures of something for each letter, A to Z.

Well, our Psalm this morning, Psalm 9, is written in the same way. It’s (the start of) an A-Z of praise. The first verse starts with the first Hebrew letter; verse 3 starts with the second Hebrew letter and so on. (Kind of - Psalm 9 does half the alphabet, apart from 1 letter which is missing; Psalm 10 covers the second half of the alphabet).

Verse 1 shows us that this is a Psalm of praise. David says to God all that David is going to do: ‘I will praise you, O LORD, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonders. I will be glad and rejoice in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.’

David begins the psalm full of joy and praise. Do you see the ways in which praise bubbles out of him? Praising God with all his heart - it starts on the inside, from his will and emotions. Then he tells others about God and about God’s wonders. He will be glad and rejoice. He will sing praise to God.

So often we can imagine that praise is only singing, but here we see just how full and how active praising can be - a heart activity, a telling activity, a rejoicing activity, and a singing activity. From the inside out, David is going to praise.

So why is David praising God? That word wonders could mean any number of things, couldn’t it? If you sat down to think of reasons to praise God, you’d come up with quite a few. So why is David praising God here? Look at verses 3-6. There’s a repeated phrase; two words come up over and over. What are they? ‘You have...’ David is praising God because of all that God has done.

David’s enemies turn back, they stumble and perish, because ‘you have... upheld my right and my cause... sat on your throne, judging righteously... rebuked the nations and destroyed the wicked... blotted out their name for ever and ever... uprooted their cities.’

God has done all this, and that’s why David praises God. God is on the throne. He’s in control. God has been a righteous judge, judging justly, working to uphold the righteous and working against the wicked. Their defeat has been so complete, that David says even the memory of them has perished. (Which is a wee bit ironic, because he remembers the enemies he says that the memory of them has perished!). So that’s what God has done.

But it’s not just that God used to be like that. It’s not that he did these things before, but he doesn’t do them any more. No, what God has previously done shows us what he will continue to do. In verse 7, David moves from speaking to God, to speaking about God. He’s telling us about the LORD. ‘The LORD reigns for ever; he has established his throne for judgement. He will judge the world in righteousness he will govern the peoples with justice.’

I don’t know if you’ve been keeping up with the daily rollercoaster of Brexit news. Maybe you’re fed up with the whole thing. But this week, one of the issues has been whether the UK will remain under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. If we leave it, then you couldn’t appeal your legal case to it any more. It wouldn’t have a say over us.

Well that’s not the case with God’s law court. None of us can avoid it. The LORD reigns, not just for a wee while, but for ever. His throne is established, his judgement will come. And he’ll judge in righteousness and in justice. Completely fairly. Justice will be done, and be seen to be done.

And you might think to yourself - is that something to praise God for? If we face a just judge, would we be found guilty or not guilty? Verses 9 and 10 tell us more about this God. He is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. David has proved that - in the troubles he faced, God was a stronghold for him. And as David speaks to him again in verse 10, there is hope for us:

‘Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, LORD, have never forsaken those who seek you.’ The LORD has never forsaken those who seek him. What a promise to hold on to! As we come to God, as we seek him, as we get to know his name, his character, we can trust him - because he has never forsaken those who come to him!

Isn’t that what Jesus says in John 6: ‘All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.’ That’s a great reason to praise. It’s no wonder that David urges others to join in with the praise in verse 11. ‘Sing praises to the LORD, enthroned in Zion; proclaim among the nations what he has done. For he who avenges blood remembers; he does not ignore the cry of the afflicted.’

They say that an elephant never forgets. That’s even more true of God. He who avenges blood remembers. He doesn’t ignore the cry of the afflicted. God has a long memory, and will bring justice in the end. For those who have suffered, those whose attackers seem to have gotten away with it, this is good news. So often it seems as if victims are being left behind or forgotten, but God doesn’t forget.

It’s almost as if that reminder that God doesn’t forget suddenly prompts David to cry out about his current situation. Have you ever had that? You’re talking about one thing, and suddenly, it reminds you of something else you need to do! David says that God doesn’t forget, and doesn’t ignore the cry of the afflicted - and then he talks about his own affliction.

‘O LORD, see how my enemies persecute me! Have mercy and lift me up from the gates of death, that I may declare your praises in the gates of the Daughter of Zion, and there rejoice in your salvation.’

David is asking God to keep doing what he has already done. You rescued me in the past, so please do it this time as well! He wants to be lifted from the gates of death to the gates of Zion, Jerusalem, maybe even the new Jerusalem. But even as he asks this, he knows that it will be done. He knows that the wicked won’t get away with it; that they’ll be caught by their own schemes.

Those who forget God, the wicked, will perish, but the needy will not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the afflicted ever perish. God doesn’t forget. He is working out his justice, and he will declare his justice on the last day, when all appear before his judgement seat.

In the end, David prays for God’s kingdom to come, his rule to be established, and the nations reminded of who they are. ‘Arise, O LORD, let not man triumph; let the nations be judged in your presence. Strike them with terror, O LORD; let the nations know they are but men.’

Last week we asked the question - what is man? We saw how God has placed us a little lower than the angels, ruling over God’s creation. But sometimes we can think more highly of ourselves than we ought. It’s like the wee boy who, because he was told that church was God’s house, then thought that the minister was God... I can assure you I’m definitely not! But we can think that we’re at the centre of the universe.

Or think of the way King Jong-un is revered in North Korea. Just last week, the Telegraph had a report with this headline: ‘Kim Jong-un “no longer seen as God” as worshipping North Koreans place their faith elsewhere.’ Isn’t that what David was praying for?

He still seems to have President Trump rattled, as the two face up to each other, fingers poised on nuclear buttons - but they’re just men.

And the people who oppose you, or make your life difficult - they’re just people, just mortals. No matter how big, or important, or powerful they might appear, they don’t compare to our God. And if we’re taking refuge in him, then he is on our side, he is upholding our right and our cause.

David praised because of what God had already done. He continued to praise because God would keep doing what he has always done. And that’s why a young woman who was probably misunderstood, and gossiped about, and oppressed could sing about how God has performed mighty deeds; has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts; brought down rulers from their throne but lifted up the humble; has filled the hungry with good things, but sent the rich away empty; has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful. (Luke 1: 51-55)

Mary could sing of these things, because the child she was bearing was the Lord, the righteous judge. He came to establish peace, by bearing the judgement himself; he invites us to seek him and trust in him; but for those who won’t, then judgement will come.

David gives us an A-Z of praise. Why not come up with your own this afternoon after dinner - God is amazing; God is brilliant and so on... here’s two more, from our Psalm today - God reigns, and God is just. That’s reason enough to praise. God is for us as we take refuge in him - praise God with your heart; tell other people; be glad and rejoice; and sing, sing, sing!

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 27th August 2017.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Sermon: Matthew 13: 44-46 Treasure and Pearl

I wonder if you’ve heard of the Broighter gold? These days, you probably know it as the rapeseed oil with its distinctive gold colour, grown and produced at Limavady and available to buy down the street in Supervalu. But the original Broighter gold was discovered outside Limavady in 1896. Tom Nicholl and James Morrow were ploughing on farmland near the shore of Lough Foyle when they came across some items buried 14 inches under the surface.

They described it as a lump of mud, but when it was cleaned up, it was stunning. There was a model boat, 7.25 inches by 3 inches, weighing 3 ounces. There was a torc, a collar 7.5 inches in diameter; a bowl, two chain necklaces and two other torcs. All gold. One of the finest discoveries of treasure in Northern Ireland.

Perhaps we should invest in a metal detector! Derek McLennan was out in a field in Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland (think Stranraer / Cairnryan - that southwestern part of Scotland). In 2014 he discovered Britain’s biggest ever Viking treasure - about 100 items including silver bracelets and brooches, a gold ring, an enamelled cross and a bird-shaped gold pin. The Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer (who rules on the value of items declared to be treasure) valued the find at £1.98 million - which the National Museum of Scotland would have to pay to the treasure finder. (It’s different in the rest of the UK - the money is split between finder and landowner). Not bad going for a day’s metal detecting!

The Broighter gold and the Dumfries field are real life examples of one of the stories Jesus tells in our reading this evening. Over these summer evenings we’ve been listening in to Jesus telling some stories. But these aren’t just stories about the good old days, or just made up stories. They’re stories with a point - they’re to teach us something about the kingdom of heaven. What is God’s kingdom like?

Now tonight, we have two stories that, on the surface, seem very similar. They’re both about a man, and something very valuable, and what the man does to get the valuable item. So was Jesus going on a bit too long, as sometimes preachers are in the habit of doing? Or what is Jesus teaching us through these two stories? Let’s look at them in turn, to see what the kingdom is like.

Verse 44: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.’

In this first story, we’re introduced to a man who is out digging in a field. He doesn’t have a metal detector like Derek McLennan. He’s just working in the field - like the Broighter farm labourers. And as he digs, he comes across something he’s not expecting. Treasure, hidden in the field. There were no banks or safes when Jesus was telling the story. The only thing you could do with valuables was to hide them in a field.

The treasure was hidden in the field, and found by this man. Immediately he knows how precious his find it, and he knows he must have it. So he goes and does what he has to do. He hides the treasure again, goes and sells all he has and buys the field (and with it, the treasure).

The second story starts in verse 45. And it sounds the same. But it’s different. See if you can work out what’s different as I read it: ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.’

Now, he goes and sells all he has to buy the precious pearl. But what’s the difference between the two stories? The first man found his treasure by accident, but the second man has been hunting for a long time, knowing exactly what he’s looking for. He’s a merchant looking for fine pearls.

Think of some of those daytime TV programmes. Bargain Hunt, where the people try to find the things that will make the biggest profit at auction. Or you had the Antiques Roadshow the other week at Stormont, where people could bring their antiques to be valued by the experts, those who know their stuff.

Well this man in Jesus’ story knows his business. He’s a merchant, dealing in pearls. He’s bought and sold many pearls in his time. He has seen them all... but then he finds a very special one, ‘one of great value.’ He knows that he must have it. And so he does what he has to, in order to get it.

The first man found his treasure by accident; the second found his after a careful search, but in both cases, it was a life-changing discovery. Do you remember what they did after finding their treasure? They both sold all they had, giving up everything else, in order to get the most precious thing.

In one sense, it costs them everything, but stop them, if you can, and ask them, is it worth it, and they’ll say yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Having found the treasure, nothing else compares, nothing else matters. To be able to buy the field and receive the treasure - nothing else compares to that!

Now maybe you’re sitting thinking to yourself, maybe I should dabble in antiques, or maybe you’re wondering how much a metal detector would be. But remember that these aren’t just stories, they’re parables. Jesus is telling these stories to teach us something about his kingdom. But what’s the point of these parables?

Well, remember how he starts them both. We could so easily slide over these words, miss them in the excitement of the treasure hunt. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like...’ These stories are a picture of the kingdom. So what is the treasure? What is the pearl of great price? These two parables point us to the greatest treasure we can know - the Lord Jesus himself.

The two stories together show us that people find Jesus in all sorts of different ways. Some people stumble upon him, when they’re weren’t looking for him, finding him unexpectedly, like the man finding the treasure hidden in a field. Perhaps that was the case for some of you here tonight. You had a sudden encounter with him, and your life was changed in a blink of an eye.

But others are more like the merchant hunting for pearls. They’re on a long search, exploring many different philosophies and religions and spiritualities, before discovering the great glory and value of the Lord Jesus. Maybe that’s your story.

But however you come to find Jesus (or maybe better, to be found by him), getting to know him and trust him is a life-changing event, because of how precious Jesus is. Compared to Jesus, nothing else matters.

When we find Jesus, we discover great joy, because Jesus is more precious than anything we can own or buy or give our life to. It’s what Paul says in Philippians 3. Before becoming a Christian, Paul (Saul as he was known then) was extremely religious, very strict in following the Jewish customs. Yet here’s what he says: ‘But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him...’ (Phil 3:7-9).

Paul says that nothing else matters, nothing compares to knowing Christ. Jesus is the great treasure, the pearl of great price, and we can experience the joy that comes from knowing him. More than that, we want to share this joy, as we help others to find him as well.

Perhaps you have found the priceless treasure of the Lord Jesus. Rejoice! As you take the bread and wine, give thanks to the one who gave himself to save you, the one who came to seek and to save the lost. But as you rejoice, you’ll have a story to tell of how it happened - whether by a lifelong search, or by a sudden unexpected discovery. I’m looking forward to hearing your stories. Tell them to others as well. Here’s a great way in - ask them, what’s most precious to you? What do you value above anything else? Then tell them how you discovered the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price.

But perhaps you realise that you haven’t found Jesus yet. You might be searching. You might not be bothered at all. Well, if you still haven’t found what you’re looking for, don’t give up. Keep looking, keep searching. And even if you’re not looking for him, he might just be looking for you, and suddenly, unexpectedly, when you least expect it, you might just discover the greatest joy of all in Jesus. My prayer is that all of us will find Jesus, or rather, be found by him, so that we all find this joy, the joy of knowing Jesus.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 20th August 2017.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sermon: Psalm 8 What is man?

David asks a question this morning right at the centre of Psalm 8. It’s a question we want to think about for a moment or two. And here is the question: What is man? Or, to put it another way, what are people? So what are we?

Today as we welcome baby Arthur into the church family, that might be the question that family and friends are asking - who is Arthur? Who does he look like? How will he get on with his two older sisters? Already his personality is developing, becoming the person he will be.

But what about the rest of us? What is a person? Well, I thought about the recipe for a person. Now, forget about that wee rhyme that says ‘sugar and spice and all things nice - that’s what little girls are made of. Snips and snails and puppy dogs tails - that’s what little boys are made of.’ Here’s the recipe for a person - here’s what we’re made up of.

35 litres of water. 20 kg of carbon. 4 litres of ammonia. 1.5kg of lime. 800g phosphorous. 250g salt. 80 g sulphur. 7.5g fluorine. 5g iron. 3g silicon, and fifteen other traces of elements.

How does that make you feel? Now, was that what David was asking? What is man? And he was wanting the chemical breakdown of what goes into us? I’m sure not.

He asks, what is man, but in Psalm 8, he’s asking the question in relation to who God is. You see, man comes in the middle of the Psalm, but it’s the LORD where he starts and finishes.

‘O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!’ He’s saying to God that God’s name is majestic, is glorious, is super-fantastic (even supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!). And why is God’s name is special?

Well, first of all, because God’s glory is above the heavens. Everywhere you look, you see the glory of God. And even beyond what you can see, God’s glory fills it as well. And God’s glory brings forth our praise.

What do you do when you see something you like? You clap, or you shout, or you sing! So when you favourite team scores a goal (or even four goals like Man United yesterday), then you cheer. You praise them. Or when you see your favourite singer in concert, you cheer, or sing, you praise.

It’s the same with God - but in fact, it should be even more so with God. When we think of all that God has done, and who he is, then we should praise - Psalm 8 tells us that even from the lips of children and infants God has ordained praise. He wants us to praise him, because it silences our enemies.

When we praise God, the devil can’t reply, he can’t say anything. So today, we have the opportunity to keep the devil quiet, as we sing our praises to God.

David then thinks a bit more about God’s glory, and about all that God has done. Have you ever been out on a dark night, with no streetlights around, and seen the stars?

‘When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place...’

David looks up at the night sky, and he sees loads of stars. Someone cleverer than me has worked out that David might have been able to see about 2000 - 3000 stars. With a good pair of binoculars, we could see up to 100,000.

Or here’s a tennis ball. If the earth was the size of a tennis ball, then the moon would be the size of a marble, and it would be 2 metres away.

The sun would be about 7.3 metres in diameter, 783 metres away - about 8 football pitches in length.

Now that’s just the earth, the moon, and the sun. Astronomers reckon there are between 200 - 400 billion stars in the Milky Way (not the chocolate bar!) - our galaxy; and there are over 100 billion galaxies in the visible universe.

Now, we know so much more than David knew, but even the little bit he saw showed him God’s glory, and left him asking the question - what is man? But the full question is this: In the light of all that God has made, the size of the universe, all the stars that he has made, ‘what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?’

With everything else that God has on his mind and his hands, why does God care about us? Do you see what David is saying? God really does care for us. He is mindful of us - that means he remembers us.

God has made us a little lower than the angels, and crowned us with glory and honour. More than that, God has made us rulers over all that he has made - he has put everything under our feet - we care for creation - all flocks and herds, the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea...

So why has God done all this? Because he cares for us. Jesus tells us in the Gospels that God has numbered the very hairs of our heads - now that might be easier for some than others - but that’s how closely he knows us.

God cares for us. And Psalm 8 points us back to the Garden of Eden. Can anyone remember the names of the very first people in the world? Adam and Eve. God made them to be the rulers of the world, to care for everything. But Adam and Eve turned their backs on God. They said no to God. They sinned against God.

But God still cares for us. And in the New Testament, in Hebrews, the writer says that at the minute we don’t see everything under our feet. We might have a pet or two, a dog or a cat or a budgie, but wild animals are still wild. Not everything is under our control.

But the writer says that we do see something - we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, but who is now crowned with glory and honour. Jesus came to this earth, he became a human like you and me, in order to save us. He died for our sins, for the wrong things we have done, and the good things we haven’t done.

And we can reign with Jesus, we can share his throne with him, as we come to him. Here’s why God cares for us - because he cares for us. He loves us because he loves us. Arthur is loved, not because of anything he does, but simply because Alistair and Emma love him. And it’s the same with God.

What is man? Who are we? People God made, and people God loves so much that he gave his Son to become one of us, to bring us back to him. So who are we? People who owe everything we have to God - people to praise God for all his glory. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached at the Family Service in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday 20th August 2017.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Ambassador: What's Your Name?

Over the last few weeks, there’s been one question repeatedly on my lips. “What’s your name?” We’ve been overwhelmed by the welcome we’ve received since our move to Richhill at the start of June. Thank you for all your kindness to us over the past few weeks.

Thank you also for your patience, when I’ve not just asked “What’s your name?” but “What’s your name, again?” for the twentieth time! As we get to know each other, and as I try to remember all your names, I’m struck by just how important names are.

You might have heard someone say, “I feel like I’m just a number.” That can seem the case when you’re asked for your National Insurance number, your phone number, even your PIN number (but don’t give that one out to anyone!). You might think that maybe God works in the same way. He is saving a vast multitude that no one can number (Rev 7:9) - could we just get lost in the crowd?

Definitely not! In the Old Testament, God says through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.’ (Is 43:1) God calls us by name! That same truth is spoken by the Lord Jesus, as he speaks of the shepherd: ‘He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.’ (Jn 10:3) He then goes on to say: ‘I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me.’ (Jn 10:14).

While I might not get your name right first time, the good shepherd knows you by name. He is calling you to follow him, and to receive eternal life.

This article appeared in The Ambassador, the Armagh Diocesan magazine, which was published in August 2017.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Sermon: Matthew 13: 31-35 Mustard Seed & Yeast

What did you make of the reading from Matthew’s gospel this evening? Perhaps you thought to yourself - is that it? Just five verses. A wee short reading. Nothing much to it. Just a couple of wee stories from the garden and the kitchen. Something small, and seemingly insignificant.

But that’s the very thing that Jesus is teaching us tonight - that just because something is small, barely noticeable, doesn’t mean that it is insignificant. Rather, these small things become very noticeable, and very significant, in the course of time and the purposes of God.

Over these summer evenings, we’ve been listening in as Jesus tells some stories. They’re kingdom parables - stories of ordinary, everyday events which teach us something about the kingdom of heaven. So far we’ve heard the parable of the sower - that when the seed of God’s word is sown there are different reactions (but we shouldn’t give up). We’ve thought about the purpose of the parables - so that some hear but don’t hear, while others listen and understand. We’ve also heard last week of the wheat and the weeds - that the children of the kingdom and the children of the devil are growing up side by side, but by harvest there’ll be a separation.

The stories so far have all been about farming - sowing seeds and the wheat and the weeds. They’ve been about growing - and we see that theme continuing tonight, in several different ways. Again, we find ourselves in the field for the first story, so if you’ve got your wellies on, let’s head out onto the farm.

‘He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field.”’ (31).

What is the kingdom of heaven like? It’s like a mustard seed. And what’s the point that Jesus is driving towards? ‘Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.’ (32).

So the mustard seed starts off small, very small, the smallest of all your seeds. Jesus is talking to people who would plant these seeds. They know just how tiny they are. They’re 1 millimetre in size, or about half an inch. So small. You wouldn’t think much of it. You mightn’t even be able to see them very well.

But that’s not the case when they grow. Then you can’t miss the plant that comes from the seed! When it grows, it’s the largest of garden plants, it becomes a tree. Those small mustard seeds - the plant can grow up to ten or twelve feet in height. Something so large coming from something so small.

And it becomes so large that it’s not just a plant, it’s a tree, and a place for birds to come and perch. I wonder did you notice that phrase ‘the birds of the air come and perch in its branches’? Jesus is referring back to our Old Testament reading, from Ezekiel 17:23. In the prophecy, God says that he will take a cutting from a cedar tree, and plant it in Israel, and the tree will grow, so that birds come and nest in it.

He’s speaking of the Gentiles coming and taking shelter in Israel, being joined and included in the kingdom. And that’s the point Jesus is making here too. The kingdom starts small, like a mustard seed, but it grows so big that others are included, the Gentiles (you and me) come for shelter. Jesus speaks of the mustard seed. We have a similar saying - great oaks from little acorns grow.Both have the idea of something big coming from something small.

In the second story, we come in from the field to the bakery, or even just the kitchen. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.’ (33).

Have you ever tried to make bread? I’ve not tried it - it’s much easier to buy a loaf and the kitchen is less messy than if I had a go... But I might know something about making bread - but only by watching the Great British Bake Off. They would always have a bread week, and there’d be some challenge where they had to use yeast, and prove the dough, watch it rise, before it went into the oven. It seems that you only need a small amount of yeast for a big amount of flour.

If you went with the same amount of yeast and flour, then it would be like a dough monster, growing and expanding far out of the mixing bowl. A large amount of flour only needs a small amount of yeast. But when the small amount of yeast is mixed into the flour, then it impacts the whole batch. The yeast affects everything it comes in contact with, it makes its presence known, even if you can’t see it.

In other places in the Bible, yeast is used as a symbol of evil, and the way it spreads as a sign of the danger of evil in our lives. That’s why those verses in 1 Cor 5 talk about getting rid of the old leaven / yeast of malice and wickedness; and having the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

But here, the same spreading and growth and influence shows us how God’s kingdom spreads through the world - unseen, perhaps, and yet very real - and eventually the impact will be seen and felt.

So when you read the newspaper, or watch the evening news, you might see a world where bad things are happening, where God doesn’t seem to be in charge at all. It might look as if God’s kingdom isn’t here at all - but it’s here, it’s working, from small beginnings, perhaps unseen, but with sure and certain results.

This is the way that God works in the world. The same God spoke to the prophet Zechariah when the destroyed temple in Jerusalem was being rebuilt. It didn’t look anything like it did before, less impressive, and yet God says to Zechariah: ‘Do not despise the day of small things.’ (4:10). Great endings come from small beginnings. As a Chinese philosopher once said, ‘The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.’

This is the way God works in the world. And it’s why Jesus spoke in parables. He was fulfilling what was spoken by the prophet. Matthew, in verse 35, quotes Psalm 78:2 - words we opened our service with: ‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.’

Psalm 78 is the second longest Psalm in the Bible (so don’t worry, we’ll not read it all). But as the Psalm starts, we find that line - speaking parables, utter things hidden since the creation of the world. The Psalm is a recap of the story of God’s people - how he rescued them from Egypt, how they grumbled in the desert, how he brought them into the promised land, how they rebelled against him... And the whole Psalm is leading to this conclusion - page 592: ‘He chose David his servant and took him from the sheep pens; from tending the sheep he brought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob, of Israel his inheritance. And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skilful hands he led them.’ (Ps 78:70-72)

Do you remember when Samuel goes to Jesse’s home to anoint the next king of Israel? Samuel looks at the oldest boy, Eliab, and thinks - this is him. But God says, don’t look on the outward appearance - the Lord looks on the heart. So Eliab is rejected. So are his next six brothers. Samuel gets to the end of the line and asks, have you any more sons? Well, yes, there’s David, the baby brother, but he’s out with the sheep. The smallest, least thought of, unnoticed, is anointed, and becomes king.

Or think of the very start of God’s chosen people. God chooses Abram, a man who is 75, with a wife but no children, and God promises him a son. And so he waits for the son to be born... for 25 years. As Hebrews 11 puts it: ‘And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.’ (Heb 11:12).

One seed, small and unimpressive, becomes unmissable. God’s kingdom may be hidden, but it is working towards its eventual conclusion. It’s the way God has always worked. And we have the opportunity to be part of his kingdom, to see how the mustard seed can grow in our lives, how we can be the yeast working in our village and our world, bringing influence and change, and fulfilling God’s purposes.

To be here on a Sunday evening in August, rather than sitting in Newcastle eating ice cream and watching the world go by. To be doing something the world thinks - why would you go to church? It’s boring. It’s a waste of your time. But the seed is taking root, and growing, and will one day be seen by all.

To struggle to say a word or two about Jesus to a friend, or with a colleague; to mention that you were at church; to seek to live out your faith in the way you work or the way you treat your neighbour - these might seem like small things, but they can have a big impact as the kingdom influences and the kingdom grows far beyond all that we can ask or imagine.

God’s kingdom is like the tiny mustard seed; it is growing. God’s kingdom is like the yeast; it is working unseen. Jesus calls us to be part of his kingdom. Jesus calls us to be working for him, perhaps unseen, perhaps in what we think are unimpressive ways, but all used by him, as his kingdom stands and grows forever, till all his creatures own his sway.

Last week, I was coming down from the north coast, and stopped at Junction One for a wee walk about. Looking for a wee bargain. I didn’t buy anything, but I did notice the advertising at the Regatta shop. They sell outdoor clothing if you’re going up a mountain or going camping. And the window display was all about how a group of friends had got together to make great affordable outdoor products. And a whole blurb about their passion, their technology, their quality and their design. But it was the line at the bottom of the window that stood out: ‘There were 12 of us. Now there are millions.’

Isn’t that us? That could be the strapline for the church. There were 12 of us - just a mustard seed start, as Jesus told the disciples to bring the good news to all nations. Now there are millions. So let’s get out there, like mustard seed and like yeast, and see God’s kingdom grow.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 13th August 2017.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sermon: Psalm 7 You are my refuge

When we were growing up the summer holidays were long, and carefree, and the sun shone every day. (Or so it seemed). We had loads of friends on our street, and we rode our bikes, played tennis, and did lots of things together. The game we loved playing, though, was what we called pom pom home. It was like hide and seek - except the person looking for you had to get back to base and shout ‘pom pom I see Gary’ for me to be caught. Again. The whole idea of the game was to make it home, to get back to base, then you were safe. You couldn’t be caught. You were safe.

This morning, we’re thinking about taking refuge, finding shelter. So what comes into your mind when you hear those words - refuge, shelter. Perhaps it’s huddling under an umbrella, when the rain comes tumbling down, finding some protection from the elements. You get the same idea with a bus shelter - when you’re waiting for a bus, you can stand in under it, to get out of the rain or the wind.

With the children going back to school, though, I began to think back to the best time of the school day (and it wasn’t the home time bell, but it was just better than that) - breaktime and lunchtime. If it wasn’t raining, we were allowed out into the playground. You could play football, or chasies or swop football stickers or pogs or top trumps. If you were ever annoyed by someone, or someone wanted to fight with you, then you knew what to do - get close to Mrs Malcolmson / Osborne / Clarke / Barr. The dinner ladies took no nonsense. No one would dare come near you if you were beside them. The dinner ladies were a shelter, a safe place. A person was a safe place, a refuge. And that’s the idea that David shows us in verse 1. ‘O LORD my God, I take refuge in you; save me and deliver me from all who pursue me.’

The title of the Psalm gives us some idea of what is happening - ‘A shiggaion of David, which he sang to the LORD concerning Cush, a Benjaminite.’ And verse 2 shows why David needs to take refuge in the Lord - ‘or they will tear me apart like a lion and rip me to pieces with no one to rescue me.’ David fears for his life because of his enemies, and in particular this Cush boyo. So he takes refuge in the Lord. God is (firstly) David’s refuge. Is he your refuge, your shelter?

Next, in verses 3-5, David maintains his innocence before his judge. Do you see the way he says ‘if, if... then let’ this happen. He’s appealing to God the judge. If I have done this and there is guilt on my hands - if I have done evil to him who is at peace with me or without cause have robbed my foe - then let my enemy pursue and overtake me. If this was true, then he would deserve for his enemy to triumph over him. He feels so strongly, he feels wrongly accused, so he cries out to God, who sees all and knows all.

Whenever you’re accused of wrongdoing, how do you handle it? Do you go on the attack? Or do you take it to the Lord, your shelter, your refuge? David it takes it to the Lord in prayer. He appeals to the judge, and rests his case. Selah - that pause, that turning around.

From verse 6, we see David owning God as his vindicator, the one who will show and prove that David is in the right. I wonder would you talk to God like this? ‘Arise, O Lord, in your anger; rise up against the rage of my enemies; awake my God; decree justice.’ Do you see the action of those three lines? Arise, rise up, awake. God, don’t just sit there allowing this to happen. God, get up and do something! It’s almost like the words that will be heard when the schools start again - get up, you’ve to be in school! And what is it that God has to do? Not go to school, but to act as judge.

David seems to be impatient with God - that God is slow to do his job. That God is slow to act on David’s behalf. Have you ever found yourself in the same boat? The wicked seem to get away with their wickedness. Come on, God, don’t let them get away with it! Don’t let them accuse me falsely!

In verse 8, it almost looks as if David has gone too far. He may well be right to be cross with the accusations. He may well be right to call on God. But is he right to claim verse 8? ‘let the Lord judge the peoples. Judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness, according to my integrity.’

It’s one thing to claim to be innocent in one particular charge. It’s another to claim to have righteousness and integrity. All the time? In everything? No slips, no faults, no secrets? It’s one thing to ask for God to judge others - but do we really want God to judge us? To come under his searchlight? The God who searches minds and hearts, who knows what we’re thinking, what we’re feeling, what we’re desiring.

This is a prayer - ‘bring to an end the violence of the wicked and make the righteous secure.’ David is looking forward to the day when the wicked will be stopped, when the righteous are secure. but how can we be sure that we’re part of the righteous, rather than the wicked who will be stopped? How could David be so certain? Was he trusting in his own righteousness, and his own integrity? Is that what we need to do as well? Reckon on our own right standing? Try to impress with our integrity?

Would we be willing to stand before God and say these words? To stand before the God who sees on the inside, without the need for x-ray vision or truth detectors or any other tricks. He searches minds and hearts. How can we be vindicated? How can we stand in the judgement of God?

We find the answer in verse 10 and following. ‘My shield is God Most High, who saves the upright in heart.’ David is vindicated because he knows that God is his shield and his saviour. He has taken refuge in God. And in these verses, we’re given a tour of God’s armour, his weapon room. Those who take refuge in God are behind his shield. But those who don’t, they’re on the receiving end of the other weapons of God: ‘God is a righteous judge, a God who expresses his wrath every day. If he does not relent, he will sharpen his sword; he will bend and string his bow. He has prepared his deadly weapons; he makes ready his flaming arrows.’ Now that line in the middle, ‘If he does not relent’ - the Bible translations are divided. Some go with our version, and the ‘he’ is God. If God does not relent, if he doesn’t provide mercy, then he will express his judgement...

Other versions reckon that the ‘he’ is talking about people. So they’ll say ‘If a man does not repent...’ But it’s the same end result either way. If we repent, if we turn to God, then he will receive us and give us refuge. But if not, then he will express his wrath against us.

Here’s why David is upright; here’s how David has righteousness and integrity - he hasn’t worked it up himself - he has received it, through repentance, through the Lord relenting.

By taking refuge in the Lord, the righteous judge, David is counted as righteous. For any who will not repent, God is presented as the righteous judge. Those who do not repent are in the firing line. The sword, the bow and arrow, all aiming at the sinner. To rebel against God is to sign up for the enemy, to stand in opposition to God, to fight against God. That’s the position we’re all in by nature, and unless we have done something about it, then we’re still in the firing line. God is angry at sin - not an unpredictable, vindictive anger the way some people might be; but a perfect, holy indignation against sin, all that dishonours him and rejects his way.

Alongside God’s anger, we’re also afflicted on the inside. It’s as if David brings us to the maternity ward to give us an examination. The wicked man is pregnant with evil, conceives trouble and gives birth to disillusionment. Our sin comes from inside, and destroys us from the inside.

It’s almost like one of those Tom and Jerry or Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote cartoons. ‘He who digs a hole and scoops it out, falls into the pit he has made. The trouble he causes recoils on himself; his violence comes down on his own head.’ Our acts of sin return on us, and destroy us. By continuing in sin, not only are we our own worst enemies, but also, we have God as our enemy.

David finds comfort in these verses, as he looks forward to the end of evil enemies. But this might be the wake-up call we need. Perhaps you will consider your ways, and realise the end of your own path. It doesn’t have to be that way.

You too can experience the assurance David knew. You can also be confident of standing in the judgement. You see, God is our refuge, our shelter. Out of his great love for us, he turned his weapons on his precious Son. Jesus bore the punishment we deserve. Jesus died the death we deserve. He takes away our sin, and instead he gives us his perfect righteousness - the righteousness that David knew as his own, a gift from God.

Many’s a time in our neighbour’s big back garden, we would sneak about, trying not to be caught, trying not to be found out. When we made it to the base, when we took refuge there, we were safe. It didn’t matter how much the catcher complained.

When we take refuge in God, the accuser can shout all he wants. But he is powerless to change God’s verdict on us - the judgement revealed before the day of judgement: there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. That’s why David turns to thanks and praise - for his righteousness. Can you sing his praise today?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 13th August 2017.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Sermon: Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43 Kingdom Parables: The Wheat and the Weeds

I'll hold my hands up, just so that you can see for sure: I don’t have green fingers. As I sometimes say, the only things I can grow are weeds. And that was definitely the case when we got married and had our first home together. There was a bit of a garden at the front, and more of a garden at the back. Our neighbours on either side were great gardeners, so the pressure was on. So off we went to a garden centre, got a few nice plants and so on. We planted them, watered them, and waited.

After a wee while, there was something growing, shooting up tall, and bringing these great flowers. I was so pleased at our efforts, until one of our neighbours pointed out that the bluebells I had been proud of were actually a weed. I quite liked them, but they weren’t what we had planted. Their seeds were already in the soil, waiting to come again.

And come they did. Better than any of our own plants! If you keep any sort of a garden, even a wee window box, then you know that you have to keep weeding it. To show off the flowers that you want, you have to get rid of the weeds. What’s a weed? Anything that shouldn’t be there.

In our Bible reading tonight, Jesus tells another of his kingdom parables. It’s an earthly, everyday story to teach us something about the kingdom of God. The story will show us some detail of what the kingdom of God is like. So let’s look at the parable, beginning in verse 24.

We’re told of a man who sows good seed in his field. He’s happy with his work, and waits for the plants to sprout. But unknown to him, in the dead of night, an enemy has come along and sowed weeds among the wheat. At first, it’s not obvious what has happened. It just looks like a good crop is growing.

But, verse 26, ‘When the wheat sprouted and formed ears, then the weeds also appeared.’ Alongside the wheat, there are the weeds. You see, the weeds here are probably darnel, a mildly poisonous weed that looks like wheat in the early stages. It’s only when the grains appear that the weeds are seen to be different. But by then it’s too late.

The wheat and the weeds are growing in and out through each other. It’s not that all the wheat are in this side of the field and all the weeds are in the other field. They’re side by side and through other.

The servants of the farmer are surprised when the weeds appear: ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did the weeds come from?’ (27) If you sow good seed, you expect a good crop - not weeds. It’s as if they’re asking if he’s still got the receipt for the seed. Or if he’s still got the packet the seeds came from. Are you sure they were good seed that was sown?

The farmer realises an enemy has done this - something which was devastating, and illegal in Roman law. The weeds would threaten the wheat growing. Remember the parable of the sower - where the thorns grow up and choke the plants? So what should be done? We need to do the weeding! We need to get rid of the weeds!

So that’s what the servants ask: ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

But the farmer tells them to wait: ‘No, because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest.’ The roots and shoots of the wheat and weeds are tangled together, it would be too messy to get rid of the weeds now. In taking out the weeds, you might also threaten the harvest. It’s only when the harvest comes that the weeds can be easily separated from the wheat. Then the weeds will be collected first and tied to be burned, and afterwards the wheat gathered and brought into the barn.

So that’s the story of the wheat and the weeds. But what is it all about? Is Jesus warning about the dangers of agricultural terrorism? The need to have someone guarding your fields at night to stop enemies sowing weeds? Tips for farmers when it comes to weeding? Well, no.

When Jesus gets into the house, away from the crowd, the disciples ask him to explain it. As Jesus explains the story, we find that we’re in the story - it explains the world as we know it now, and gives us a warning about the future.

Jesus is the farmer, the one who sows the good seed. Here, the good seed are the children of the kingdom - those who belong to Jesus. On the other side, the weeds are the children of the evil one, sown by the enemy, the devil, in opposition to Jesus and his purposes. Isn’t this what we see in the world? There are both sorts of people in the world. And sometimes you can’t tell which are which. The children of the kingdom and the children of the evil one grow up together.

Just as the wheat and the weeds for a time looked the same, so it is with people you meet on the street. Some who look like weeds might actually be wheat; while some who look like wheat, the real thing, could actually be weeds. Here and now it’s hard to tell, but harvest is coming.

This was the thing that the writer of Psalm 73 struggled with. To his eyes, it seemed as if the weeds were flourishing, as if it was a better life to be wicked. But then, he entered the sanctuary of God ‘then I understood their final destiny.’ In the presence of God he sees beyond this life to the judgement, to the harvest, and sees that crime doesn’t pay; that wickedness will be judged; that it is only the wheat that will be taken into glory.

Now, the parable is about the world - all the world is God’s own field, as we sung in our first hymn. But the church too reflects this field. Even the church can be a ‘mixed’ organisation - wheat and weeds side by side, looking fairly similar. It’s sometimes hard to tell. You can have those who on the surface look to be faithful members, but in fact they’re not. The fruit shows the heart - they might look like wheat, but they produce weeds.

We’re now in this season of growth, but one day, some day (soon), will come the time of the harvest. The owner of the field will call time and send his workers in to gather the harvest. At that time it will be so obvious which is which - the wheat and the weeds.

Here’s what Jesus says: ‘As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear!’

Jesus is giving us a solemn warning here about what lies ahead for those who are not his people. Harvest time is coming, at the end of the world, when time itself shall cease, and the judgement of all is at hand. Just as you wouldn’t want any weeds spoiling your gardens or window boxes, so there is no room in God’s kingdom for those who are evildoers. Sin and sinners would be out of place in that atmosphere of perfect holiness.

We don’t like hearing about judgement; it’s not an easy thing to speak about - yet the Lord Jesus speaks of it, and so must we. You see, this world is not all there is, despite what the New Atheists try to tell us. If this world was all that existed, then there would be no justice. Hitler commanded the genocide of millions of Jews and others, and committed suicide before he could be captured and brought before a war trial. Did he escape justice? Our hearts cry out for justice - because there is a just God.

Jesus describes the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. I know that some of you have a tender conscience, and as we speak of evildoers, your heart immediately cries out. You’re all too aware of your sins and failings. But look at the contrast - evildoers are the weeds, but the righteous are the wheat.

None of us are righteous by our own efforts. All of us deserve the fire of hell for our sins. But the good news is that Jesus endured our punishment; he died the death we deserved, and as we trust in him, we have that great exchange - he takes away our sin, and gives us his righteousness. We are found to be his, to be that good seed - and so no longer face punishment, but paradise.

A few years ago, I was part of a inter-diocesan discussion day on human sexuality. At our particular table of 8, it seemed as if I was the only one who believed in the biblical definition of marriage as one man and one woman, so I had spoken up, seeking to be faithful. The final session of the day was a reflection on this very parable. We were asked to reflect on it, then share our thoughts on it. One woman almost leapt over the table, to tell me that we can’t judge and shouldn’t judge! Yes, ok, I said, but look, the judgement is coming.

Everyone you meet is destined for either the fiery furnace or shining like the sun in the kingdom of our Father. We might not be able to tell who’s who (for sure) - but we labour to bring the good news, to share God’s word, so that the wheat will be revealed, and gathered to glory. Harvest is coming.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 6th August 2017.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Sermon: Psalm 6 How long, O Lord?

Picture the scene. You’re heading out somewhere, and you’re ready to go. But you can’t go yet, because someone else isn’t ready. And so you sit and wait. Or you pace up and down the hallway. You jangle your keys. And you think to yourself... how long?

Or you’re out shopping, and you stand outside the shop. And you wait. And you wait. And you think... how long?

Or you’re on the phone, and you hear the recorded message: ‘Your call is important to us. Please wait while we try to connect your call with the next available assistant.’ So you hear the same piece of music time after time after time, and you think... how long?

How good are you at waiting? You see, it’s one thing when it’s something small like waiting for someone else to get ready to go out; or someone to finish trying on shoes or clothes in the shop. Or maybe you’re asking ‘how long?’ will this sermon be? But sometimes waiting is even harder to do. The ‘how long?’ cry is even more urgent.

Perhaps you’re in the middle of a ‘how long?’ situation at the moment. You desperately need God to do something, to change something, to intervene, but it seems like he’s doing nothing, that he has forgotten about you, or that he doesn’t care about you.

That’s the very situation that David finds himself in as he writes Psalm 6. You see, David didn’t just sit in his nice cosy office, writing bits of poetry. No, he is living through these situations, his psalms are from his experience, from his anguish, so that he cries out: ‘How long, O Lord, how long?’ (3)

Now maybe you’re not in this ‘how long?’ situation right now. Things are going ok with you. Listen up - because we don’t know when we will find ourselves in one of these situations. For you, and for all of us, Psalm 6 can be like the Scouts motto - be prepared.

Why was it that David cries out, ‘how long, O Lord?’ Well, we see his anguish in verses 1-3. Whatever it is he’s going through, he feels that the Lord is rebuking or disciplining him. God has brought about this situation in order to discipline him. But look how he prays it - ‘O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath.’ David isn’t saying, don’t correct me, or train me, or improve me - but just don’t do it in anger or wrath.

Hebrews 12 picks up on the discipline of the Lord - always from God’s love because it shows we are God’s children, always for our good that we might share in his holiness. Sometimes we go through situations that God uses to bring us to himself. Our dependence grows when we come to the end of our tether.

David seeks mercy and healing from God - ‘for I am faint... for my bones are in agony.’ Everything about him is weak and sore. And so he looks to God for mercy, and for healing. In fact, it’s so bad that ‘my soul is in anguish.’ (3) No wonder David asks, ‘How long, O Lord, how long?’ This is his anguish.

But then David moves on to his argument. You might remember that last week we saw five reasons why we should pray. Well this week, David lines up his arguments, the reasons why God should answer his prayer.

Now I wonder if that sounds a bit strange to you. Does it sound like we’re meant to bargain with God? Or argue him into submission? Convince him with a strong argument? But we see something like this all the time in the Bible. Here’s the request, and here’s the reason why you should do it. So what are David’s reasons, his arguments?

‘Turn, O Lord, and deliver me; save me BECAUSE of your unfailing love. No one remembers you when he is dead. Who praises you from his grave?’ (4-5)

So there’s the request - Turn (it’s as if God has turned away from him, and so he wants God to turn back to him). Deliver me and save me. And the reasons? 1. ‘Because of your unfailing love.’ Imagine that a parent makes a promise to their children. On Tuesday we’ll go to the zoo. Then on Tuesday morning, the zoo trip doesn’t look like it’s happening. So the kids start up with ‘but you promised!’

That’s what David is doing here. God, you’ve already promised your unfailing love to me, so please show it by delivering me. David puts faith in God’s faithfulness. That’s reason 1. You’ve said, God, and so I remind you of your promise.

And reason 2: ‘No one remembers you when he is dead. Who praises you from his grave?’ Now this isn’t David saying that this life is it, and there’s nothing beyond. The rest of the Bible shows that this isn’t true. But what David is saying is that if he dies, then God will have one voice less in the earthly choir. God’s earthly praise will be diminished, and so God should save him and deliver him, keep him alive in this situation.

David presents his arguments - I wonder if we thought about the things we prayed for, could we give reasons why God should answer? As if when we pray, we imagine God replying with why should I do that? Perhaps it would spur us to thoughtful prayers, reflecting on what God has promised.

Next, in verses 6-7, David details his agony in greater detail. Here’s how his anguish is affecting him. He is worn out from groaning. Even the effort of complaining is too much. David also says that he has wet his bed - but from tears. ‘All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes.’ He’s in this agony of anguish. It’s no wonder that he’s crying out to God, ‘how long, O Lord?’

But then suddenly, the Psalm changes in verse 8. He has mentioned how his eyes fail because of all his foes. All of a sudden, he now speaks to them. ‘Away from me, all you who do evil.’ They may have been tormenting him, but now he sends them away. Why? ‘For the LORD has heard my weeping. The LORD has heard my cry for mercy; the LORD accepts my prayer.’ After his anguish, his arguments, and his agony, God has answered his prayer.

Because God has heard his weeping, his cry for mercy, and has accepted his prayer, then verse 10: ‘All my enemies will be ashamed and dismayed; they will turn back in sudden disgrace.’ God will indeed act according to his unfailing love to deliver and save.

So if you’re in the middle of the Psalm, if you’re in the place of tears, if you’re still crying out to God, how long, O Lord - then keep looking to God; keep crying to him; verse 8 will come. It’s not that the Lord is deaf; that he can’t hear. In his own good timing he will save.

And we know this not just because David says so, but because Jesus knows so. You see, in our Gospel reading today (John 12:27), Jesus says that he is in anguish (cf v3) - ‘Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.’ Jesus was already in anguish by chapter 12, as he faced the agony of the cross. Even before the nails were driven into his hands and feet, Jesus was in anguish. Just think of him sweating drops of blood as he prayed in Gethsemane.

He endured that agony for you. He was saved through death, was raised to new life, and he offers us this hope, this unfailing love, this certainty of answered prayer. All who put their faith in his faithfulness will be saved. But Jesus will also say at the last, ‘Away from me, all you who do evil’ (cf Matt 7:23).

To be an enemy of Jesus is to be ashamed, dismayed, and disgraced. But for those who love him, there is answer, salvation, and endless praising of the one who loves us with an everlasting love.

Anguish, argument, agony and answer. David shows us how to pray, and why God should answer our prayers - and how God will answer our prayers. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 6th August 2017.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Sermon: Matthew 13: 10-17 Kingdom Parables - The Purpose of the Parables

Have you ever seen one of those magic eye pictures? You know the type - it’s a pattern, and as you keep looking at it, suddenly another picture appears. Or so I’ve been told. I can never see them. You could tell me that the secret picture is of an elephant riding a unicycle over a tightrope and I wouldn’t know. People who can see them might even get frustrated with me - it’s right there, how can you not see it?

Or maybe you’ve had something like this happen to you. You’re asked to go and get something from the kitchen. So you look and look for it, but you can’t see it. And then your beloved comes, and gets it straight away - it was right in front of your face, you were looking at it, but you couldn’t see it for looking at it.

Seeing, but not really seeing. Last time, we began to look at Matthew 13, as Jesus teaches a series of parables by the lakeside, and we listened in as he speaks of the parable of the sower - the seed is sown, the four different responses. What we noticed was that the parable was told to the crowd, and it’s only later that Jesus explains it, to his disciples. In between the parable and the explanation, we find today’s reading. The disciples ask Jesus - ‘why do you speak to the people in parables?’ (10)

The disciples might be seeing the puzzled response of the crowd; they perhaps see that the crowd aren’t quite understanding what Jesus is saying. The disciples might even be having a hard time understanding him themselves! They’re asking why doesn’t Jesus come straight out and say what he really means. Why does he use stories and parables?

The key to Jesus’ answer comes in verse 11. Look there with me: ‘The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you (that is, to the disciples), but not to them.’ The words of Jesus are bringing a division between people - those who will come to know the secrets of the kingdom and those who won’t; between those who will see and hear and get it, and those who will see and hear, but not get it.

This is explained and expanded on in verse 12. Now at first reading this sounds maybe a wee bit unfair. ‘Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.’ So if you have, you’ll get more, but if you don’t, then you’ll even lose the little. But isn’t that how muscles work? (I’m going by the experience of others... I haven’t been in a gym in years!) If you work hard in the gym, then your muscles grow bigger and stronger, but if you just lay in bed, not moving, then your muscles would waste away.

The parables work in the same way. If we’re looking for the light, looking for understanding, then we’ll be given it; but if we don’t, then we won’t - ‘the darkness intensifies’ (Green p153).

So Jesus identifies two groups of people - the insider and the outsider. Let’s think about these two groups. Over in verse 13 Jesus gives the reason for speaking in parables: ‘This is why I speak to them in parables: “though seeing they do not see, though hearing they do not hear or understand.”’ On the surface, the crowd sees Jesus, they hear him speak, they’re listening to the parable of the sower, but it’s all just on the surface.

They’re not really hearing the true story, what it’s all about; they’re not getting to the deeper meaning. In the same way, they’re seeing Jesus, but they’re not really seeing who he is - they don’t realise that he is the Son of God, the King of this kingdom he is proclaiming. They’re a bit like me and my magic eye picture - I’ll look, but I’ll not see it.

You might have noticed that this phrase “though seeing, they do not see; though hearing they do not hear or understand.” is set in separately in our Bibles - Jesus is picking up and using a phrase that comes several times in the Old Testament. You see, this isn’t the first time the people of Israel, the people of God, have been slow on the uptake. They have form in this sort of experience.

Back in Deuteronomy 29, Moses is addressing the people before he dies and they cross over into the promised land. He’s recapping all that they’ve come through, and he’s urging them to trust God as they go into the land of promise. He says this: ‘Your eyes have seen all that the LORD did in Egypt to Pharaoh, to all his officials and to all his land. With your own eyes you saw those great trials, those miraculous signs and great wonders.’ (Deut 29:2-3)

Just think what they saw. A Holywood blockbuster movie wouldn’t even get close. The plagues. The Passover. Walking through the midst of the Red Sea on dry land. Watching as Pharaoh’s army were drowned when the waters closed over them. The provision of manna and quail. The pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud leading them.

They saw all that, with their own eyes, and yet they still don’t really trust the Lord. They’re still rebellious. ‘But to this day the LORD has not given you a mind that understands or eyes that see or ears that hear.’ (Deut 29:4) They don’t want to listen.

In fact, as Jesus says here, his generation is the fulfilling of the prophecy of Isaiah 6. I’m sure you know the passage well - as the prophet Isaiah is called for service, he’s given the vision of the LORD in the temple, his conviction of his sin in the face of God’s glory, his sin being taken away, and then the question from the throne: ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And with that, Isaiah says ‘Here am I. Send me!’

Now that’s where we like to stop the reading. Application - God called Isaiah, and God is calling you, will you go for him? But carry on into the next verse, and you discover just what Isaiah was being called to do. It wasn’t the victorious, triumphant, wonderful message you might think. ‘Go and tell this people: Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving...’ Imagine being given that assignment! Preaching, and no one listening. Never having any response, never seeing a single convert. And Isaiah says ‘For how long, O LORD?’ How long have I to do this?

This is the very passage that Jesus quotes here - Isaiah’s ministry is to expose the people’s blindness and deafness. Isaiah comes from God, and the people don’t listen to him - because they refuse to listen.

Last night it was great to get a phonecall from Bulgaria. In fact, even better, it was a videocall - after her many hours of travel, it was good to hear and see that L had arrived safely at the campsite. To see her and to hear her voice.

But imagine that I hadn’t answered the phone. Or had answered and then starting humming to myself. Or didn’t bother listening. Stuck my fingers in my ears and closed my eyes. This is a bit like how the people of Israel were in Isaiah’s day, and also in Jesus’ day. They had the privilege of the Creator of the universe speaking to them, and how did they react? They put their fingers in their ears, they closed their eyes, they refused to turn back to God and be healed. They are hearing the words of life, but they don’t want to listen. They’re being offered the lifegiving medicine, but they leave it on the shelf, or pour it down the sink.

Could this be said of us as well? You could be an upstanding member of the community, someone who has been born and bred, baptised and confirmed in the Church of Ireland, never miss a Sunday, and yet it’s as if you’re sitting with fingers in your ears as God speaks through his word. Is this you? Oh how we need to cry for mercy, asking that God would open our ears that we would hear, and give us hearts to turn to him for healing and salvation.

How could we be members of the kingdom if we refuse to listen to the king? If we disobey what he says? Remember verse 13 - we use it or we lose it. So what are we doing with the word that God speaks to us week after week, or day after day?

In contrast to the crowds, the disciples have been given the secrets of the kingdom. To know the Lord Jesus personally, to understand his work of salvation on the cross, to hear him teaching - Jesus says that their eyes and ears are blessed, because of their place in history.

The Old Testament believers had only the promise of the King, which they believed, but they longed to see the Messiah themselves, and to hear his word. They looked forward to the day Jesus would walk on the earth - what a privilege for the disciples to be with Jesus. They got to hear him and see him.

It’s a privilege we share with them, coming after them in time, having the words of Jesus written down for us, so that we too can see his work and hear his words. How blessed we are, to have the Scriptures in our language.

What a privilege we have - but with that a great responsibility to make sure that we are listening to him. We share in the blessing of the disciples, and one day we too will see him face to face, in his eternal kingdom, where we’ll be with him and see him and hear him directly.

So as Jesus speaks to us through the Bible, are you listening to him? Will you receive his word?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 30th July 2017.