Monday, October 30, 2017

Sermon: 2 Timothy 3: 1-17 The God-Breathed Bible

I want to ask you a question this evening. What is it the church needs to do in these changing times?

There's no doubt about it that things are changing very rapidly all around us. The past century was one of amazing technology and development. Things are vastly different to when our grandparents were children themselves. Communications, working patterns, education - all are changing. One of my parishioners in Fermanagh turned 99 earlier this year. He would sit and chat about the changes he had seen in his lifetime. One of the biggest for him was moving from ploughing with horses to getting his first tractor. He would still rather have the horses, though.

But think how much has changed even in the last few years. On the lectern sits a wee box, recording my words. Later this week, this sermon will be available to whoever wants to listen in, anywhere in the world. And as for Facebook, video calling, and so much more - it’s incredible. As a news report recently put it, the smartphone in your pocket is more powerful than the NASA computers that put man on the moon.

With all these changes going on, let alone the social changes with proposed new definitions of marriage and relationships, we’re left wondering - should the church be changing its message to fit in with the times?

Some in the emerging/emergent church are saying precisely that. Because things have changed so much, the church needs to change the message it once proclaimed, so that we can fit in better with a new society, enlightened, multicultural, influenced by reason and not superstition.

This evening, though, on Bible Sunday, we come to the apostle Paul writing to a younger church leader, Timothy. Paul knows that he is near the end of his life; he's now in prison again, the time is short, and soon he will be killed for being a Christian. Timothy seems to be shy, fearful, so Paul is writing his last letter to Timothy to encourage him. Here, in chapter 3, he tells Timothy to know two things - know the times, and know the message.

Know the times

Boy Dylan sang in 1964 ‘The times, they are a-changing,’ and yet there's a sense in which things are still the same as ever. We have increased mobility, wealth, possessions, education, and yet things are as they ever were. Sin continues unabated. Paul says that this is the way things are going to be.

Verse 1: ‘But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days.’ He then outlines a catalogue of sins, a litany of lawlessness. ‘People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God - having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.’

It all sounds horrible, and yet, we realise that this is what our world is like. All these things are all around us. That’s because we’re in the last days. You see, sometimes we think that the last days are just the last couple of days before Jesus returns. But we are already in the last days. We have been since the resurrection of Jesus. The last days are every day between the first coming of Jesus and his second coming. So this is our world, these are our times.

And alongside these worsening morals, we also have the threat of false teachers. We see them in verses 6-9. They worm their way into households, they gain control over weak-willed women, spreading their false teaching, leading people astray. Jannes and Jambres (8) aren’t named anywhere else in the Bible, but they’re thought to be the magicians of Egypt who opposed Moses, opposing the truth.

So this is the world that Timothy was ministering in, and it’s still the world that we are living in. The last days.

Do you remember the theme song that brought New Labour to power in 1997? The D:Ream song 'Things Can Only Get Better'. Twenty years on, as we reflect on the Labour years under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, we can't really say things have been getting better. Nor have they been getting better under the Conservatives. No matter which government is in charge, they can’t change the hearts of sinful people. Sin will continue. Just look at your newspapers or TV news. This is the world we live in, and Paul calls us to know the times.

Notice the contrast in verse 10 though. Paul is saying that Timothy is to be wise to the times, knowing the world he is working in, but not to copy their example. Instead, he writes 'You, however...' Don't follow the wicked world, but copy Paul's example, his faith, love, patience, conduct and all the rest, including persecution!

It's a strange inclusion, isn't it? Paul promises Timothy that he will face persecution - indeed, everyone who desires to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. What a promise! Yet it's what we should expect - precisely because we know the times, we know that the world is living in rebellion against its Maker and King, so that if we stand up or stand out for Jesus, then we'll attract some opposition.

Know the times, and be prepared to stand up for Jesus.

Know the message

But as well as recognising the times, Paul also urges Timothy to know the message he has been entrusted with. Again, at the start of verse 14, notice the contrast. 'But as for you...' The evil people will go from bad to worse, but as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of. Don't change the message - hold firm to the gospel.

Paul reminds Timothy that he has been acquainted with the holy Scriptures since childhood - the scriptures which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. The Scriptures are the power of God for salvation, as they point to Jesus. Back in chapter 1, Paul mentioned Timothy's granny Lois, and his mummy Eunice, both of whom were Christians already, and had brought him up to know the Bible (the OT, of course), teaching and training him. Parents and grandparents, here's a call for you to be passing on the faith, teaching your children and grandchildren as you have opportunity.

The Scriptures, ‘All Scripture’, Paul says, are God-breathed. Sometimes we talk about how the Bible is inspired, but here Paul says that the Bible is ‘expired’ - not run out, but breathed out. As I’m speaking here, coming out of my mouth are my words, along with my breath. And God’s breath, his Holy Spirit, inspired the writers of the Scripture to communicate the words of God.

That’s why we can have confidence in the Bible - because it is God’s word. It’s not the invention of someone who wanted something to do one day; it’s not the ravings of strange people; it is the very word of God, breathed out by God.

And the Scriptures are given for a purpose. We see it in the rest of the chapter. In verse 16, there are four things that the Scripture does to us - ‘and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.’

Teaching - The scriptures teach us more about God and about ourselves. They give us information and teach us.

Rebuking - They also rebuke us when we are in the wrong. They might show us how our behaviour is wrong; or show us that what we think about God isn’t right. They rebuke us.

Correcting - They don’t just leave us in the wrong, though, they also correct us. They give us the truth, they correct the errors we might have in our thinking or doing.

Training in righteousness - They show us how to live a righteous life, what God wants of us, and encourage us to do it.

And God gives us the Scriptures (all the Scriptures) v17 ‘so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’ God didn’t just give us the Bible to fill our heads with Bible knowledge. The Bible isn’t just there as a source of trivia - to know who Melchizedek is; where Zarephath was; or how many donkeys Job started out with. The Bible is there to teach, rebuke, correct and train us... SO THAT we may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

It’s good to read the Bible. But it must be changing us and leading us to live out our faith, by doing good works, against the backdrop of a sin-soaked world. We’re called to know the message, to know the Scriptures and grow in the Scriptures, so that they change us to be more like Jesus.

Our message must not change - we must continue to hold fast and preach the gospel contained in the Scriptures - God's revelation of his Son, the Lord Jesus. How we present the message may change, but not the message itself.

Let's take seriously today Paul's call to know the times we live in, but also to know the message that can turn sinful people into saints; rebels into redeemed people; lost into found.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on the evening of Bible Sunday, 29th October 2017.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sermon: Galatians 3:15 - 4:7 Freedom in Christ

A couple of weeks ago, an Australian court decided that an unsent draft text message was indeed a valid will. A man had died, and his widow had expected to keep everything, but this unsent text message was found on the man’s phone, leaving everything to his brother and nephew. After a long court case, the judge declared the will to be valid, because the man’s intentions were clear. This human covenant had been duly established, so it couldn’t be set aside or added to.

I’m not sure that the law is the same here in Northern Ireland, so don’t be depending on a text message to serve as your last will and testament. So why am I talking about wills and such like? Isn’t it a bit morbid to talk about? Well, no, it’s better to have such things in place. But the reason I’m talking about wills is because that’s what Paul turns to in this part of Galatians.

Last week we saw that Christians receive the Holy Spirit - not by obeying the law (because we can’t do that), but by faith in Jesus. Jesus obeyed the law for us, and redeemed us on the cross, so that we receive the promise given to Abraham, the promise of the Holy Spirit. And now Paul is continuing with his line of reasoning. And, as Jimmy Cricket would say, come here, there’s more... We’ll see that we’re not just justified and left like that - there is even more for us than that.

So Paul introduces the idea of a will in verse 15. He does that to help explain the relationship between the promise given to Abraham and the law given to Moses. Just as a will isn’t set aside or added to once it comes into effect on the person’s death, so in the same way, God’s promise to Abraham isn’t changed or added to. The promise stands throughout the Old Testament period, and isn’t changed even though the law was given 430 years later.

As we saw last week - verse 18 - the inheritance doesn’t depend on the law; it depends on the promise given to Abraham - by God’s grace. But straight away, Paul knows there’ll be some objections. He voices it in verse 19. ‘What, then, was the purpose of the law?’ Why did God bother to give the Old Testament law? What’s the point of it?

He goes on to answer it in verse 19: ‘It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come.’ The law was given because of sin - to highlight and flag up our sin. We can’t be saved by the law, but the law shows that we need a Saviour.

We see that in verses 21-22. ‘Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.’

The law shows us that we’re prisoners of sin. The law declares what sin is, and so when we do those very things, then it declares that we are sinners. The law only condemns - but it shows us that we need the Saviour, the Saviour we put our faith in.

In verses 23-25, Paul gives us two pictures of what the law is. In verse 23, the law is a jailer, a prison guard. Perhaps you’ve been on a tour of a prison - Crumlin Road or at the Down County Museum in Downpatrick. You’re put in the cell, and the door is locked. That’s what the law did - it kept us as prisoners, ‘locked up until faith should be revealed.’ There was no other way out; only by believing in Jesus, trusting that his death has paid the sentence, and so we can go free.

In verse 24, Paul says, ‘So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.’ That phrase ‘put in charge’ is the idea of a tutor, nanny or governess, who is in charge of the children to make sure they go to school and do their lessons. Harsh, perhaps, but only has power until the child grows up. Now, paul says, ‘Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.’ We’ve been freed from prison; we’ve been freed from the schoolmaster!

That freedom comes in Christ, and in him, we have a new status and a new relationship. The new status is the one we’ve already seen - justified, declared innocent. But there’s more than that - we also have a new relationship, verse 26: ‘You are all sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ.’ We’re not just forgiven, we’re also family. We’re not just saved, we’re also sons.

Now, that might sound a bit strange, that we’re all sons. Why not sons and daughters? Well, it’s because in the culture of the time, sorry ladies, only sons inherited. So for the Bible to say that we are all sons means that we all share in the family inheritance, we all receive the blessings that God gives us. We see that radical inclusion in verse 28: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, what your standing is, there is a welcome in Christ Jesus. Jesus, the Son of God, makes us sons of God in him.

As verse 29 says, ‘If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.’ In Christ, we are the seed of Abraham, and our name is in the will, we are heirs according to the promise. So when a will is read, what do you need to do to inherit? Just receive. It has been promised to you. And we receive the blessings God gives to and through Abraham by believing in Jesus.

Now that is an amazing thought - that we are heirs in Christ. But even more amazing, is this - your name was always written in the will from the very beginning. Back in verse 15 we saw that wills aren’t set aside or added to when they’re established. So your name was in the will, included in the promise, when it was to Abraham (and in fact, from before the foundation of the world). It’s not that God is sitting in heaven, pen poised, waiting to add someone’s name in when they believe. No, God has already named his heirs from long ago, your names are already written in heaven, and the promise is yours already.

In 4:1, the heirs were children, back in the prisoner / schoolmaster period of the law. They own the whole estate, they’re going to receive everything, but they’re still subject to guardians and trustees - they’re just like a slave.

Or, to give an up to date example. Now, perish the thought this would happen, but if the Queen, and Prince Charles and Prince William were all to perish, then who would be king? Prince George. But he’s just 4. How could he be king? There would be a Regent appointed, someone to rule on his behalf, until he came of age.

And Paul says it’s the same with us. Until we come to faith, we’re slaves (even though we’re going to be heirs). That’s what used to be the case. ‘But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.’

Now, hopefully you remembered to change your clocks last night, or managed to work out if your phone would automatically change to the right time. Hopefully no one turned up just before 10am thinking it was 11am. It’s the spring time change that’s more dangerous - I’ve had people arriving as the service is ending thinking they’re just on time... But Paul says that at just the right time, when the time had fully come, God sent Jesus - born of a woman (fulfilling the promise to Eve that her seed would come), born under law (fulfilling the law and perfectly obeying it), to redeem those under law.

When we come to faith, it’s as if we are coming of age, entering into our inheritance, receiving the full blessing of heirs and sons. And what is the blessing? It’s the one we saw last week - ‘Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’

We’re not just forgiven, we’re also family. We’re not just saved, we’re also sons. We have the Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus the Son, the Spirit who confirms that we are God’s sons by calling out ‘Abba, Father.’ We have freedom in Christ - no longer slaves, but sons; and because we’re sons, we’re also heirs.

We’ve covered a lot of ground this morning. At times I wondered if I’d bitten off more than I could chew. But God is telling us today that we are named in his will; his blessings are ours, because we’re not just forgiven, we’re his family. We’re not slaves, we’re saved. We’re not just saved, we’re his sons.

This is who you are. So live out of this identity - I am a child of the heavenly Father, redeemed by his Son, and filled with his Spirit, receiving all his blessings, and it can’t be amended or taken away from me.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 29th October 2017.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Sermon: Galatians 3: 1-14 Freedom from the Law

In 1936, Dale Carnegie published one of the first self-help books. It contained a series of principles on how to handle and deal with people, how to get on in business and in the home. The title? ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People.’ The promise is that if you follow these steps, then you’ll succeed by making friends, and influencing people to come round to your way of thinking.

The very first principle is simply this: ‘Don’t criticise, condemn, or complain.’ That’s the first step to winning friends and influencing people. Well, as we open up to Galatians 3, it’s quite clear that Paul hadn’t read How to Win Friends and influence People. Don’t criticise, condemn or complain? ‘You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?’

I’m fairly sure Carnegie wouldn’t advise calling the people you’re trying to influence - fools! But this is to show us how desperate Paul is to bring them back from the brink, to shock them out of their foolishness. If you’re jumping into Galatians for the first time, or if you’re fairly new around here, don’t worry, we’re not in the habit of calling people fools as directly as Paul does here. The reason he does it is because he’s so concerned for the Galatians. Paul had originally planted the church there, but now they were listening to false teachers, who were urging them to observe the law and be circumcised in order to be truly accepted by God.

Paul has already showed them that listening to the false teachers would be dangerous and wrong, now he says that they’re being foolish. They haven’t thought things through. So he’s going to get them to think about their experience of becoming a Christian, and their experience of being a Christian. And so he sets a question before them in verse 2. Here’s what he wants to know: ‘Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?’

In asking the question, he’s saying that they do have the Holy Spirit living and working in them. If you’ve been listening carefully, you’ll have noticed that this is the first time the Spirit is mentioned in Galatians. But it won’t be the last time we hear of the Spirit. In fact, the presence of the Spirit in the Christian is a big deal for Paul, and should be a big deal for us as well. The third person of the Trinity, living and dwelling in us, giving us power to live for God and become more like the Lord Jesus. Over the next few weeks we’ll see more of the Spirit’s work in our lives, but for now, the question is, how did they receive the Spirit? Was it by observing the law, or by believing what they heard? What do you think? (It’s like Who Wants to be a Millionaire - a 50:50 chance of getting it right, or 100% chance if you know what Paul has been saying).

In verse 3, he asks them again are they foolish? After they began with the Spirit, were they now trying to finish off by their own efforts? As if the Holy Spirit is like jump leads when your car battery is flat - just get me going and I’ll be ok by myself after that. They had even suffered because they were Christians, because the Spirit was in them - was that all for nothing now that they were turning their back on the Spirit and trying to do it themselves?

Again Paul asks in verse 5: ‘Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?’

To help them answer the question, he points them to the Old Testament, and to Abraham. ‘Consider Abraham: He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Abraham (or Abram) was minding his own business, when God called him to follow him. God made promises to him - promises of descendants, and a land, and great blessing. And in Genesis 15, the promise of a son hadn’t yet come about. Abraham was 75 by now, and Sarah his wife was 65. But God told Abraham to go outside, and said that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars.

Abraham believed the promise, and God credited to him as righteousness. Abraham took God at his word, and God counted Abraham as his friend. And Paul says that as Abraham looked at the stars, he was seeing his children pictured - he was seeing... us. Abraham was the man of faith, and we become his children by believing God’s promise as well.

That’s how the gospel was preached in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ The Gentiles are being justified by faith, we’re being made right with God in the same way that Abraham was - as we believe God’s word and depend on it.

Now, just to make absolutely sure that the Galatians know how they received the Spirit - by faith, not by the law - Paul shows the futility of depending on the law. You’ll notice that in verses 10-13, Paul quotes a bit from the Old Testament in each of those verses. ‘For it is written... because... on the contrary... for it is written.’ Paul’s argument is grounded in the Old Testament to show that it’s by faith, not by observing the law.

If you were to take Dale Carnegie’s principles on how to win friends and influence people, it wouldn’t matter if you only did one or two of them. You can take them or leave them. But with the Old Testament law, their demand was total commitment. Verse 10: ‘All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law’.

When I was studying at the Church of Ireland college, our degree was simply pass or fail. And the pass mark was... 40%. But with the law, the pass mark is 100%. Break any one of the 623 laws, and you’re under the curse. Just think of that - you’ve managed to keep 622 of them, but you fail in just one, and you may as well have broken all of them.

We just can’t do it; we can’t be justified by the law - declared in the right - because, (Hab 2:4) ‘the righteous will live by faith.’ This was the verse that caused Martin Luther to kickstart the Protestant Reformation. He had tried to be the best monk ever, in fact, he said later, ‘If ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery, it was I.’ But in trying to keep the rules of his monastery, he only knew despair, and failure. But when he realised that the righteous will live by faith, his life was transformed.

But the law doesn’t give comfort, only challenge - ‘The man who does these things will live by them’ (Lev 18:5) - to live by the law, you needed to perfectly obey it. but we can’t do that. Rather, we’re all under the curse. We’ve all sinned. We’ve all missed the mark. We can’t do it by ourselves.

We needed someone to do it for us. Someone to take away our curse, by suffering the effects of the curse himself. And that’s what Jesus has done for us - his gracious act of loving us and giving himself for us. We see it in verse 13:

‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.”’

To redeem is to buy back. And Jesus redeemed us from the curse, by becoming a curse for us. He had perfectly obeyed the law; he didn’t deserve to die; yet he died so that we could live. He died under the curse of Deuteronomy 21:23 - cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree - the cross. This was the message Paul had portrayed to the Galatians (see verse 1). And the word of the crucified Christ is the message of freedom from the law, freedom from the curse that condemns us, freedom to live.

But Paul says something which might be a bit surprising in verse 14. How would you complete this sentence: Christ died so that ...?

Christ died so that we could be forgiven.
Christ died so that we can go to heaven.
Christ died so that we can have hope / peace / joy.

All those answers are right, and good, and they’re the answers I would have given. But Paul tells us something else that Christ died for in verse 14.

‘He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.’

Now that’s a big sentence. But what Paul says is that through the death of Jesus, Gentiles like you and me can receive the blessing given to Abraham. We can share in Abraham’s blessing through Jesus. And what is that blessing? ‘So that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.’

Paul asked the Galatians how they had received the Spirit - by law, or by believing? It is by faith that we receive the promised Holy Spirit. God’s plan was always that his people would have the Holy Spirit living in them, empowering them to live in God’s way. And through Jesus, the promise given to Abraham is fulfilled in you and me.

As you trust Jesus, you have the Holy Spirit living inside you, helping you to live. It would be entirely foolish to start with the Spirit and then go back to our own efforts. This blessing is for you today - for the first time as you come to Christ and trust him for salvation; - or as you realise what you have already received, but have never experienced.

Thelma Howard died in 1994, just before her 80th birthday. She lived simply, frugally, and when relatives gathered to have her will read, they didn’t expect much. But Thelma had been a housekeeper for the Walt Disney for more than 30 years. She was paid her wages, given free board and lodging, and for Christmas and birthday, she was given bits of paper. She didn’t understand them, but kept them all safely in a box. It turns out they were stocks and shares in Disney. And at the time of her death in 1994, her shares were worth $9.5 million. She had this great resource, yet she never realised, and never used it.

As you trust in Jesus, you are given something even more valuable than Disney shares. You are given the Holy Spirit, living in you, the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham, the outworking of Christ’s redemption. Realise your blessing today, receive your inheritance - given freely as you believe.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 22nd October 2017.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Bowlers' Service Sermon: Philippians 3: 4-14 Paul's Aim

Tonight, we gather to give thanks to God for sport, and particularly for the friendship and fellowship we enjoy through the Bowling Club. While I haven’t thrown any bowls here yet, I was first introduced to bowls at the age of 8, when my great-aunt Rebecca brought me along to the Cathedral club in Dromore. I played for about 12 years or so, then took it up again when we moved to Fermanagh, playing for the Aghavea church team. Hopefully I’ll get an opportunity to play in the near future.

As I was preparing for this evening, and thinking about playing bowls, our Bible reading from Philippians came to mind. When you’re playing bowls, you count up, or you keep the score; there is the only thing that counts - being close to the Jack; and there’s the way you aim for it. Score, what counts, and aiming. And those three elements of bowling are the things that the apostle Paul talks about in relation to his life.

So first, let’s think about the score. In a friendly match, or when you’re having a practice night, it doesn’t really matter what the score is. But, this week as the tournament has been progressing, and especially tomorrow night when the finals are being held, the score is very important. It’s how you know who’s winning, who’s succeeding.

And in terms of life, Paul outlines in verses 4-6 the points he has scored, the reasons he had confidence in the flesh. He lists his religious achievements - the things that showed how successful he was. He was circumcised according to the Old Testament law; he was a Hebrew of Hebrews, his parents were Israelites from the tribe of Benjamin. Those things were given to him, but the next ones he chose to pursue - he became a Pharisee, a strict follower of the law; in terms of his zeal, he persecuted the church, because he thought they were false teachers; and as for legalistic righteousness, doing what he could do to obey the law, he was regarded as faultless. For a religious person, this was a high score.

We might also try to score ourselves highly, even if we use different categories - the charity work we do; the help we give to people; our paying in to church; or whatever it is that we might think - that’s in my good book. That's to my credit.

A few months ago, the team I was part of won our section of the Fermanagh Churches League. Section D, mind you, the lowest section on the league - and it wasn’t because of anything I had done. We made it to the playoffs. As our team was playing, I was keeping an eye on the scores on the other mats. And over on the far mat, their scoreboard was ticking over nicely. I was thinking to myself - our rink over there is doing well, that’ll help our overall score. And then I happened to be watching as an end finished, and I realised that it was the other team scoring all those points! The high score I thought we had was actually against us.

And that’s what Paul realised about putting his confidence in the flesh, what he could achieve: ‘But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.’ And on over in verse 8 he says that he considers them ‘rubbish’ - or dung. The things he prized, his high score, he now realises it’s useless, something to be rid of.

And he says that, because he now knows the one thing that counts above everything else; the only thing that matters. On a bowling mat, the only thing that matters is being close to the Jack. Well, the apostle Paul says that the only thing that matters in life is being close to the Lord Jesus. ‘What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.’ Knowing Jesus is the only thing that matters for Paul, the only thing that counts.

And the way he does that isn’t by his own achievements, it’s only by faith in Christ - and receiving a right standing with God. The Lord Jesus is the one who gave himself for you; he came to this earth to rescue you from your sins by dying in your place. He freely offers us his righteousness as we trust him.

Verse 10 summarises what being close to Jesus, being in Jesus, knowing Jesus is all about: ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection of the dead.’

The one thing that counts - knowing Christ, and the power of his resurrection - having the power that raised Jesus from the dead living and working in our lives. And we think - yes, I’d like that. But we stop there. Knowing Christ, and his power, we’ll have some of that. But Paul goes further. To also have the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings. As we follow Jesus, knowing him and his power, we may also experience suffering and hardship. But it is in the way of the cross that we experience the resurrection; it is in our own sufferings that we experience the power of Christ and the grace of Christ to keep and sustain us.

This was the thing that mattered in Paul’s life. So what is the thing that matters most in your life? Is it the same? Or are you living for something different?

To get the score, you need to be close to the Jack. And to get close to the Jack, you need to aim. You have to see where you want your bowl to go, forehand or backhand, how tight to the stick, and how much weight. The skip can tell you so much, but it all comes down to your aim.

In verses 12-14, we see what Paul says about his aim in life. He realises that he isn’t there yet; he hasn’t made it yet; but in the meantime, ‘I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.’ And there in verse 13 we see the ‘one thing I do’ - ‘Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.’

When I was learning to drive, I had this bad habit of not turning around when I was reversing. I’d just kind of try to see in the mirrors, but it was more of a keep going till you feel the bump or hear the bang. And my driving instructor gave me some valuable advice - you wouldn’t look out the back window when you’re driving forward, so don’t face forward when you’re reversing. Look the way you’re going.

And that would probably work on the bowling mat too. You wouldn’t try to bowl backwards. So look the way you’re going, and go for it. Forget what lies behind - whatever the score might be; whether yesterday has been good or bad or indifferent, press on today! Strain towards what is ahead. Aim forward towards the goal, and win the prize of the heavenly call.

As we press forwards, looking to Jesus, the prize is already in reach. Christ Jesus has taken hold of us, and God has called us to it. It's yours for the taking as you trust Jesus and receive him as your Saviour and your Lord.

The bowling mat helps us think about:

1. the score - the things you think are for you might be against you;

2. and the only thing that matters - being close to Jesus, knowing him;

3. and the aim - pressing forward to be with Jesus. So what’s stopping you? Tonight we have this opportunity to get to know Jesus, perhaps for the first time - don't waste this opportunity. Get to know the one who gave himself for you. I'd love to introduce you to him. Or maybe you are already a Christian. May God's word to you tonight is to reevaluate your score, what you're depending on for salvation; and to refocus our aim, and press on towards the one thing that really counts - knowing Jesus.

This sermon was preached at the Bowlers' Service at the end of the St Matthew's Bowling Club Tournament in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday 15th October 2017. St Matthew's Bowling Club meets on Monday and Thursday nights, and new members are always welcome!

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Sermon: Galatians 2: 11-22 Freedom by faith

Have you ever noticed that before a football match, the two captains come into the centre with the referee. They’ll toss a coin to see who kicks off. They shake hands, but once the whistle goes, it really does kick off. For a moment they were friendly, but now they are sworn enemies, out to beat the other team. As the bowling club tournament runs in the hall this week, you’ll see the same idea - a polite handshake one minute, then opposed the next.

As you listened to this morning’s Bible reading from Galatians, you might have wondered if the same sort of thing was going on. Glance back to verse 9 in Galatians 2 and you might remember from last time (before the harvest) that Paul and Barnabas shared the right hand of fellowship with James, Peter and John. They shook hands to show that they were in agreement, they were on the same team.

But was that just a formality? Was it all for nothing? Did it mean absolutely nothing, when you read verse 11, just two verses later, and discover that suddenly Paul is opposing Peter to his face, calling him out in public! What is going on? Why were they friends and brothers one minute, and then the next are at each other’s throats?

And when you see why Paul was opposing Peter, you might think, was it a storm in a tea cup? The row arose over something as small as eating arrangements - who sits with who, and what that says. Now, maybe you’ve planned (or are planning) a wedding reception, and you have all the names on bits of paper, seeing who can sit with who, and which people need to be kept apart for everyone’s sake.

That gets us so far in thinking about the importance of sitting and eating together. But the actual issue is there in verse 12. Peter was visiting Antioch - a city in modern day Turkey. The church was made up of Gentile believers. Peter would gladly share in fellowship with them - sharing meals with them, sitting at the table together, with no problems.

But all that changed when some people came from Jerusalem - members of the circumcision party. They were those who insisted that Gentiles had to be circumcised in order to be real Christians. And when they arrived, Peter withdrew from the Gentile Christians, wouldn’t sit and eat with them as he had before, and would only eat with Jews. When Peter did this, he influenced all the other Jewish believers to also draw back from the Gentiles, in effect making a distinction between Jews and Gentiles.

It was as if Peter was saying there are Premier League Christians - those who are Jews; and there are second division Christians - the Gentiles. Or imagine that as you arrived for church today, the churchwardens asked which football team you supported, and you only sat with people who support the same team - and then insisted that Man United supporting Christians are the real deal, while the Liverpool supporting Christians are at best, second rate.

Paul gets to the heart of what Peter is up to in verse 13. ‘The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy.’ None of us wants to be a hypocrite - saying one thing but doing another. But that’s what Peter was doing - he was saying that all Christians are the same, but then by his actions he was showing that some were more important than others. That to eat together, you Gentiles would have to be circumcised. Without it, you would miss out.

But as Paul says, in verse 11, he was clearly in the wrong. Peter was in the wrong because, verse 14 ‘they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.’ Peter was a bit like a picture hanging on the wall that isn’t level. Maybe you never notice, but sometimes when you see a picture that’s askew, it just needs to be straightened up, to hang right. Peter was out of line when measured against the plumbline of the gospel.

And so Paul confronts him - not privately, but publicly. It’s right that in Matthew 18, Jesus gives us guidelines for resolving a private dispute with a brother or sister, but this is a public matter. Peter was leading people astray, so needed to be publicly rebuked. And the rebuke comes in verse 14.

‘You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?’ Peter was a Jew by his family line. But now he wasn’t living according to the strict food laws and cleanliness code. Jesus had taught him that all foods were clean, and so he was living like a Gentile. Yet now, by his actions, he was forcing Gentiles to follow Jewish customs in order to sit and eat with him. He wasn’t living that way himself, so why was he forcing others to do it?

In verses 15-16, we get to the heart of the matter. What does it take for someone to become a Christian? What is needed to be justified - to be declared in the right with God, declared innocent? There are two alternative paths to take; two approaches to being justified. Either we can do it by observing the law - obeying every detail of the Old Testament law, by living not just a good life, but a perfect life; or we can do it by trusting Jesus.

Listen again to these verses. Three times we’re told the right answer, the only way to be justified: ‘We who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.’

How is someone made right with God? Not by observing the law - because no one will be justified that way. It’s only by faith in Jesus Christ. Trusting him. Depending on what he has done for us, because we can’t do it by ourselves.

And it’s the same whether you are a Jew or a Gentile. Only by faith. Yet Peter was showing by his actions that faith in Jesus wasn’t really enough - you would also have to be circumcised. It’s right that Paul confronted Peter, so that Peter’s words and right hand of fellowship weren’t just meaningless, weren’t just hypocritical, but were followed through in his actions in welcoming all who believe in Jesus.

We are only made right with God by faith in Jesus. Nothing else will do. Nothing else can make it. Paul then goes on to answer an objection to this. Ok, someone says, you trust in Jesus, does that mean you can live how you want? If you’re not obeying the law, then does that mean that you can sin freely and still know that you’re saved? Like the person who sets out to commit some terrible sin, saying to themselves, it’s ok - God will forgive me after. ‘Does that mean that Christ promotes sin?’

‘Absolutely not!’ Paul says that being justified by faith doesn’t give us a free pass to live how we want, and sin freely. Rather, we will be changed when we’re justified ‘in Christ’ - united with him. When we trust Jesus, we are then ‘in him’ - so that what he does, we do and where he goes, we go.

In verses 19 and 20, Paul talks of the death and the resurrection of every believer. But it’s not a future thing, something that will one day come to pass. No, he speaks of it as something that has already happened, when we first put our faith in Jesus:

‘For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’

As we put our faith in Jesus, we go through death and resurrection - dying to the law and its demands. Crucified with Christ so that ‘I’ - the old me, the unrighteous me, the sinful me, the trying to be justified by myself me - my old self has died. Instead, Christ lives in me.

No longer do we live for ourselves, no longer do we try to justify ourselves by our good works or obedience to the law. Now, ‘I live by faith in the Son of God’ - the Son of God who did all that was needed for me to be saved - ‘who loved me and gave himself for me.’

The only way to be made right with God, to be justified, is by faith in Jesus, who loved you and gave himself for you. Trusting in Jesus is the only way to be saved - by the grace of God, giving us what we don’t deserve. So how could Peter insist on faith in Jesus plus circumcision?

Or how could we insist on faith in Jesus plus anything else? It’s all, and only by grace. We cannot achieve it by our efforts, we simply kneel at the foot of the cross. And, as Paul says in verse 22, if righteousness could have been gained through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

So stop trying to earn God’s favour by your good works - your giving to charity, your prayer times, your church attendance, whatever it might be. And don’t look down on others who don’t match your supposedly high standards of achievement. Your high standards are still useless to save you. Instead, simply receive. Take hold of the grace given by the death of Jesus for you. You just need open hands to receive - as we’ll do in a few moments at the Lord’s Table.

As you come forward, as you receive the bread and the wine, remind yourself of these words: ‘The Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’ Stop your striving, and stand in his grace.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 8th October 2017.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Harvest Sermon: Luke 12: 22-34 Consider the lilies

This morning we’re celebrating God’s goodness to us. We can see it all around us. We can smell it, but just don’t taste it! Our school used to go to my church for our harvest service, and if there were apples along the window sills, people would take a bite out of the apples and then turn them around... Don’t be doing that today!

But even as we’re surrounded by God’s goodness, it might be that some of us are feeling like the man on the screen. How do you think he feels? Is he happy? Don’t think so. How does he feel? He’s worried.

And you might be worried about something today. Health, money, school, family, work, or not having work - lots of things we might be worried about. But Jesus tells us that we don’t need to be worried.

Here’s what he says: Therefore I tell you, do not worry
about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.

Jesus is speaking about two particular worries - food and clothes - but as he does so, he helps us deal with all our worries.

Sometimes I bring along something to look at, but today the harvest decorations are a great reminder of the truth that Jesus teaches. Because Jesus also told people to look at things, and think about things, to help them see what he was saying. In today’s reading, he says look up, and then look down.

So here’s his first picture, looking up. Does anyone know what this is? It’s a raven. In Matthew’s gospel he talks about the birds of the air. Now think about the birds. When was the last time you saw a raven driving one of these - a John Deere tractor? Never! Or when was the last time you saw a robin driving a combine harvester? I’m fairly sure you haven’t - unless the farmer’s name was Robin, but that’s different!

The ravens and the other birds don’t have to plan and prepare. They do not sow or reap; they have no storeroom nor barn. So how are they fed?

Yet God feeds them. God the Father cares for them and feeds them. You don’t see the birds worrying about food, they get enough to do them, fed by God.

Now Jesus isn’t calling us to start eating like the birds, as if we’re Bear Grylls eating all the bugs. He’s not urging you to change from eating spaghetti to eating worms. Here’s the point: ‘And how much more valuable you are than birds!’

You are more precious, more valuable to God than the birds. If he cares for them, he will care for you as well. If he feeds them, he’ll feed you. We can depend on God.

And we have to depend on God, because our worrying won’t actually make a difference. Does anyone know who this is?

The man on the right is the world’s tallest man living - Sultan Kosen from Turkey, at a height of 251cm or 8ft 2.8inches. And to the left, maybe you haven’t spotted him, is Chandra Bahadur Dangi, the shortest man in the world, at just 1ft 9.5inches.

Here’s a short video of them meeting in London in 2015.

Would anyone like to be a little taller? Or maybe a lot taller? So we’re going to try an experiment. I want you to worry about your height, and try to make yourself grow taller. Ok, go! ... So how did that work out? Jesus tells us how that will work out: Who of you by worrying
can add a single cubit to his height?

Worry won’t help us. So why worry about anything?

Having looked up, Jesus now gets us to look down. Does anyone know what these are? They’re lilies. And Jesus tells us to consider them, how they grow. Just look at the variety of colours and shapes in the flowers that are here. Or imagine walking along a path and suddenly finding a whole field of wildflowers. Or walking into a florist’s shop. Now how do the flowers do it? Do they have floral fashion shows with all the latest looks? Do they worry about being designer daffodils? Of course not.

Does anyone know what this is? It’s not an upside down bicycle. It’s a spinning wheel, used to make the thread or yarn to make clothes. But Jesus says the lilies don’t labour or spin. They’re not working hard to produce their floral fashions. They don’t traipse around every clothes shop for hours. They’re naturally beautiful. The catwalk can’t compete. The supermodels aren’t as beautiful as the lilies of the field. Does anyone know who this is? This is Solomon the richest king of Israel, the one who gave his life to pursue wisdom and wealth. Yet even he wasn’t arrayed like one of these.

And what’s the point? Just like the birds, it’s an argument from the lesser to the greater. If our Father feeds the birds, he’ll certainly feed us. So here, If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith!

When God was making grass which was going to be used to fire ovens, he could surely have made it functional and plain. There was no need for it to be fancy. Yet if God has clothed something so temporary; how would he not clothe you as well?

When we look at the birds, we see how our heavenly Father feeds them - and will feed us. When we look at the flowers, we see how our heavenly Father clothes them - and will clothe us. Our heavenly Father knows what we need. He will indeed supply it. We don’t need to worry, when we put God as our Master.

When we make his priorities our priorities; when we seek his kingdom, when we live the way God wants us to live, we discover that God will indeed provide for our needs. When we put God first, everything else falls into its proper place.

So are you worried today? Remember that God is your Father. He cares for you. Turn your worries into prayers, and discover how he provides for you.

This sermon was preached at the Harvest Service in St Matthew's Richhill on Sunday 1st October 2017.