Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sermon: Luke 1: 26-38 A People Prepared - Mary

The angel Gabriel was having a busy time. Now, I’m not sure how angels normally put their time in, but as Luke begins to tell the story of Jesus, we hear of a couple of Gabriel’s special missions. Last week, you might remember, we saw him meeting Zechariah in the temple, delivering the message that the old priest and his wife would soon be having a baby boy. Zechariah didn’t believe it, and was quite literally rendered speechless, he was dumbstruck, until it all happened as he had been told.

As we approach tonight’s reading, it looks as if it’s business as usual for Gabriel, as he brings the news of another baby. But really, last week’s mission was almost like a rehearsal for the real thing; the warm-up act before the star takes to the stage.

Did you notice the contrasts between the two missions? Last time it was to the temple, but this time it’s in a home. He went to Jerusalem, the capital, previously, but now it’s the town of Nazareth in Galilee, in the far north of the country. He goes to a woman this time, not a man; and a young virgin, rather than an old priest.

Mary is introduced in verses 26-27. She is a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. They’re engaged, but they’re not married yet. She’s just going about her business, it’s just an ordinary day, when something extraordinary happens. The angel appears to her, and gives her a strange greeting.

‘Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.’ (28)

We’re told that ‘Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.’ (29). It’s not every day you meet an angel, never mind one bringing words like these. And what words they are! Gabriel says that Mary is highly favoured - God has favoured her, chosen her, given her his undeserved grace. And not only that, but the Lord is with her.

Out of all the people in Nazareth, and everyone in Israel, the Lord has chosen and favoured her. The Lord is with her. For us, we’re so used to talking about the Lord being with us, we even use that response ‘The Lord be with you...’ But for Mary, this was an incredibly amazing greeting.

But the greeting was just the start. Gabriel has some news that will change Mary’s life forever, and will change the whole world. Let’s hear what he says about the baby Mary is going to have: ‘You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High...’ (31-32)

The very first thing that Gabriel says about Jesus is that he will be... great. Now, I don’t know about you, but that word seems to have lost some of its impact. If you were out for dinner, the meal might be great. A movie you saw was great. You can even use the word as a kind of opposite, with the right tone of voice. So here’s what we’re going to do tomorrow, and you think ‘Great.’ So what does it mean when it says that Jesus will be great?

Perhaps the Greek word can help us. Now, you might be thinking to yourself, I don’t know any Greek. But I’m fairly sure you’ll know this word - mega. So, when I was growing up, a new computer game console came out which, the makers claimed, was the best, fastest computer game console ever. And what was it called? The Sega Megadrive. Or think of the music shops that used to be around - the Virgin Megastore - it wasn’t just a shop, it was a mega store, a great shop.

Now you might remember that John would be ‘great in the sight of the Lord’ (15). Jesus will be great. No other conditions. It’s as if Jesus is at the top of the league of greatness, in a league of his own, even. Why is he great? Well, as Gabriel continues, he is the Son of the Most High. This is no ordinary baby - this is God on earth, the Son of God.

Can you see who Jesus is? As we come near to Christmas and hear again about the baby lying in the manger, do you just see the cute wee baby? Is that all you see? Gabriel urges us to see the Son of God, having given up his power and glory to humble himself, to come and take on our flesh, to come and rescue us. Jesus is the great Son of God.

But there’s even more that Gabriel says about this baby. This great Son of God is also the great Son of David. ‘The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; his kingdom will never end.’

God is fulfilling his promises as the rescue plan goes into top gear. Back in the Old Testament, King David had conquered Jerusalem and established his throne there. He wanted to build God a house (the temple), but God instead promised to build David’s house (his line of kings - like the House of Tudor, or Stewart, or Windsor). So in 2 Samuel 7, the promise is made: ‘When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom... I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.’ (2 Sam 7:13-14)

At first glance, it looks as if God is talking about David’s son Solomon, who builds the temple, but he doesn’t reign forever. He reigned for 40 years, then died. And so the expectation continues - who is this king God has promised who will reign forever? David’s line continues, but the kings get worse and worse until Jerusalem is destroyed and there are no more kings. The promise seems to have died. Yet here, years later, God is fulfilling his promise - and his identified the son who will reign for ever! He will reign for ever because, as we know, death could not hold him - Jesus lives, and reigns, and will do for ever.

Mary might think this is all wonderful, but there’s a tiny problem. ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?’ It sounds, well, great, but it’s surely an impossible dream. Maybe if God waits until she marries Joseph, gives them some time, then she could bring forth this son?

Gabriel tells her how it will happen - not in the future, but here and now. ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.’

This special, holy, great Son of God baby will be born to a virgin. And if she needs any more help believing it, Gabriel points her to what’s happening with her elderly relative: ‘Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month.’

And here’s the point he’s driving to: ‘For nothing is impossible with God.’ If God can give a baby to old Elizabeth, then he can bring about the birth of his Son through the virgin Mary. Nothing is impossible with God. As Paul writes to the Ephesians, God is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or imagine. But so often we simply don’t believe it.

We would love to see that relative you pray for every day to come to faith, even though they’ve been anti-God for ever. Maybe that’s too hard for God to change, is it impossible? Is anything impossible with God? Gabriel says: No! Not even having a virgin conceive and give birth is impossible for God.

It was an ordinary day for an ordinary young woman. But it turned out to be extraordinary with news of God’s grace to Mary; and news of the great Son of God and Son of David who she would bear and birth. So how do we respond to this news? We see the way to respond in the answer that Mary gave that day: ‘I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.’

Mary receives the news, believes her God, and receives the Saviour. Whatever pain, and misunderstanding might come - Joseph was ready to divorce her quietly - Mary submits and obeys. May we also hear God’s word and obey.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 19th November 2017.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Sermon: Luke 1: 1-25 A People Prepared (1) - Zechariah

I asked this question the other night at Bible study, and everyone was in shock. So let’s see how the evening congregation gets on with it... Are you all set for Christmas?

You know it’s getting closer when the Sundays are in the countdown before Advent; when the Christmas stuff is in the shops; and the reminder comes that it’s just 42 days to Christmas. And perhaps your mind starts racing about all the things you have to do to be ready for Christmas. buying presents, ordering the turkey, cleaning the house, putting up the tree, and so much more, before you’re prepared.

On these Sunday nights leading up to Christmas, though, we’re going to get ready in an entirely different way. Forget the list you might be making, and checking it twice. Instead, we’re going to prepare for Christmas by revisiting the preparations for the very first Christmas. It’s not so much the house prepared, but (as we read in verse 17) a people prepared for the Lord.

Luke will tell us about the shepherds and the angels and the stable, but before we get there, he starts his story a bit further back. He tells us of the things that happened in order to get to the manger in Bethlehem, as he begins his good news story.

We all know how stories begin. ‘Once upon a time, there were...’ Or even ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’. But that’s not how Luke begins. You see, this is no fairy tale. This isn’t another part of the Star Wars story. Luke is writing history, having carefully researched what has happened. He writes ‘Since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus.’ (3-4)

Theophilus (friend of God) is a Christian, and Luke has carefully studied what happened, met the eyewitnesses, and has written it down for him, and for us, so that we can be certain about the life, teaching and events of Jesus.

Have you ever watched a film and enjoyed it, only to discover as the credits roll that it’s based on a true story? This is the true story of what happened - you see it in the details Luke includes: that Herod is the king of Judea (5), that Zechariah is a priest, married to Elizabeth, and details of which section of the priesthood he’s in. Luke is telling us the true story, something we can rely on and trust.

It’s the true story of a special child - as we can see from the special circumstances of the birth.

As we’ve said, Zechariah is a priest, and we’re taken with him to Jerusalem, to the temple. You see, there were 24 sections of priests, each taking their turn in serving at the temple. Zechariah and the rest of the priests of Abijah went up to Jerusalem for their week. While there, one of them would be selected by lot to go inside the holy place to offer a sacrifice of incense on the altar. It’s reckoned that this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance - some men never got the opportunity.

He knew what he needed to do - go in, light the incense offering, and then return outside to bless the people waiting outside. Simple. Except when he went inside, things weren’t as he expected. There was an angel inside, waiting to see him! I wonder what you think of when you hear of angels - fluffy wings and white robes? Zechariah is terrified - the sight is awesome - fear overwhelms him.

The angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that he is going to become a dad, that him and Elizabeth are going to have a child. No pregnancy testers here, nor 12 week scans. Just a heavenly messenger straight from God announcing the forthcoming birth. What a special child this is going to be. But that’s not all.

Just think of the parents of this child. Back in verse 7, we were told that ‘they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.’ It’s what Zechariah says himself in verse 18: ‘How can I be sure of this? I am an old man, and my wife is well on in years.’ All those years of childlessness, all that pain, and suddenly the news comes of this special birth of this special child.

You might be reminded of another time when an elderly couple had a baby - Abraham and Sarah were in their nineties when they suddenly had to go shopping for maternity wear and nursery furniture - when God gave them the child of promise Isaac. This is the beginning of another chapter in God’s purposes as he gives another miracle baby, this special child in special circumstances.

Gabriel tells him what the child’s name is going to be: John (which means gift from the Lord). The special child in special circumstances is a gift from God.

The news was so unexpected that Zechariah simply can’t believe it. He thinks of himself and his wife and thinks - this simply can’t happen. Surely they’re past it. So he says: ‘How can I be sure of this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well on in years.’ How can I be sure that what you have said is going to happen?

He’s given a surprising sign, isn’t he? ‘And now you will be silent and not be able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.’ (20)

Now there might be some wives would be glad of their husbands not being able to speak for a wee while. Zechariah is struck dumb because he doesn’t believe the angel’s message, this true story of a special child.

When a baby is born, there are lots of hopes and expectations. In our reading, this special child has a special purpose, as Gabriel tells Zechariah in verses 16-17. ‘Many of the people of Israel will be bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’

You see John’s birth was promised in the Old Testament. God’s people have been waiting for about four hundred years for him to appear on the scene as the one who would come in advance of the Lord’s arrival. He would come in the power of Elijah - who was one of the Old Testament prophets - to prepare the way for the Lord.

This child John will grow up to go before the Lord, to make people ready for the Lord’s arrival. John will be a bit like a motorbike outrider calling people to get ready for the arrival of the king. His message is that the Lord is coming, and we need to be ready for him.

We’re not just talking about getting ready for Christmas, we’re talking about the Lord’s coming. If you turn over a page or two in the Bible you find John appearing in the wilderness preaching his message of repentance, calling people to turn around from their sins. John begins his ministry before Jesus appears on the scene to bring God’s salvation.

The true story of a special child with a special purpose. We’re not just dealing with fairy tales. Luke hasn’t just made up a nice wee story. He’s telling us of things that happened, that God has done in his world, so that we can be certain of what we believe.

All that happens here is in fulfillment of God’s promises in the Old Testament, getting people ready for the arrival of Jesus, turning people towards God. John was born, this special child with this special purpose - to point to Jesus.

When Zechariah was told the news of what God was doing, he didn’t believe, and was struck dumb. But will we believe the good news? Will we believe that what God has said and done to prepare the way for Jesus is true? Will we believe that Jesus is the Lord, the one who rules, who will bring salvation? This true story is two thousand years old now. Jesus came, heralded by John, to die for our salvation. Are you ready to receive him?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 12th November 2017.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Sermon: Galatians 5: 1-15 Freedom to love

Today, we pause to remember - to remember those who gave their lives in the service of others, and the cause of freedom. Men from this village, and from every village, town and city, signed up to serve, and to stand against the forces of tyranny in Europe and around the world, to bring about the freedom we enjoy. We are free today, because of their dedication and sacrifice.

And yet, as our Bible reading tells us today, there was an even greater sacrifice, which has brought about an even greater freedom. We’re told in Galatians 5:1 that ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.’ As we’ve been working our way through this letter over the last few weeks, we’ve seen how the death of Jesus on the cross brings freedom. Christ has set us free from sin, and the law, as we trust in him.

That freedom is available to you today - the freedom from guilt and shame; the freedom from the burden of our sins; Paul describes it as being released from prison, and coming to the end of school. Freedom! But what does our freedom look like? Can we really do whatever we like?
When I was becoming a teenager, one of the songs that played nonstop on the radio said this: ‘I’m free to be whatever I, whatever I choose and I’ll sing the blues if I want... I’m free to say whatever I, whatever I like if it’s wrong or right it’s alright... Whatever you do, whatever you say, yeah I know it’s alright... Whatever you do, whatever you say, yeah I know it’s alright.’ (Oasis)

So when Jesus sets us free, is it for us to be whatever, say whatever, do whatever we want? Well, imagine that you had a goldfish in a bowl in your living room. And, if it could think for long enough (because it has its short term memory), and it decided that it was imprisoned in the water in the bowl. Goldie might decide that freedom for him is to jump out of the bowl, to be free of the water. But if Goldie does manage to jump out of the water, and free himself, is he really free? Well, no. He can’t survive outside the bowl! He’s only free in the water.

In our reading today, Paul shows us what our freedom in Christ really looks like. In verse 1, we are free to not be slaves again. Jesus died to free us from the demands of the Old Testament law. We simply couldn’t obey them by ourselves. That was what Paul taught the Galatians when they became Christians. But now other teachers, false teachers had arrived, and they said that to be a real Christian, you needed to become a Jew. You needed to obey the Old Testament laws, in every detail. And it was as if they were coming to make the Galatians slaves all over again.

But what the false teachers were doing was stopping the Galatians from being free. And Paul uses a couple of pictures of what they were doing in verses 7-8.

So, imagine it’s sports day, and you’re running in one of the races. You’re doing really well, you might win a medal, and then someone gets in your way, trips you up, and puts you out of the race. The Galatians had been running a good race, but someone had cut in on them and kept them from obeying the truth.

Or, imagine you’re baking some bread. You’re going to make some flatbread, but you accidentally add in some yeast. The yeast will work through the whole batch of dough, it will affect everything. And the false teaching in these churches was affecting everyone.

So much so that, if they followed that teaching, they would be alienated from Christ, fallen from grace. So in Christ, we are free to not be slaves.

In verse 13, we are free, but not to sin. Paul says: ‘You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature.’

We are free, but not to do whatever we want. You see, each of us has a sinful nature, we want to do what we want to do. We want to please ourselves and have other people serve us. We want to go our own way, rather than God’s way.

But Jesus has freed us from our sinful nature. So we don’t have to follow it any more. We shouldn’t follow it any more.

Rather, we are free, to serve one another in love. That’s what Paul says in verse 13. ‘Do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.’ This is why Jesus freed us - not to be selfish, but to serve one another, in the way that Jesus has first served us, as he gave himself for us in love.

And what does it look like to serve one another in love? It looks like the summary of the law - the whole law is summed up in one command, from Leviticus 19: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

Originally, this command was a demand we couldn’t attain. Could you ever really say that you always, in every moment, with every effort, were loving your neighbour as much as you love yourself? The law condemned us. But Jesus perfectly obeyed this command, he freed us from the demand; and he now makes this a delight. We have been set free, so that we serve one another in love, and do what we otherwise couldn’t do.

One of the greatest war films is Saving Private Ryan. When the American Army realise that all three of Private Ryan’s brothers have been killed in the war, a group of 8 soldiers are sent behind enemy lines to find Private Ryan, to save him, to be able to send him home to be with his mother. The film charts the efforts of Captain Miller and his men to find Ryan.When they eventually find him, Miller dies as the Germans advance. And Miller whispers in Ryan’s ear: ‘Earn this. Earn it.’

Miller wants Ryan to live in such a way that he deserves the sacrifice of the men who came to save him. As the film ends, an elderly Private Ryan stands at the war grave of Captain Miller, and he’s still haunted by those words - Earn this. He asks his wife, surrounded by his family - tell me I’ve lived a good life, tell me I’m a good man. Has he earned it? That’s the question that haunts him.

But Jesus doesn’t need or want us to earn our freedom, or somehow pay him back for all he’s done for us. We couldn’t do it! Instead, he gives us freedom - freedom to not be slaves again; freedom to not sin; freedom to serve one another in love.

So have you received the love of Jesus? The love that caused him to give himself for you.

Have you received the freedom Jesus gives? Receive it today!

When we receive the love of Jesus, we’re to pass it on. When we receive the freedom he has given, we’re to live it out in love, in a life of service, for the good of others.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Remembrance Sunday, 12th November 2017.

Monday, November 06, 2017

BB Enrolment Sermon: Mark 1: 14-20 Attention! About Turn! Quick March!

Now I’ve got a question for the members of the BB. What is so great about BB?

And what kinds of things do you do at BB? Anchor Boys? Junior Section? Company Section?

I know that there are lots of things you do at BB. But the one I want to focus on this evening is drill. So who is the best boy at drill? Come on up.

Now, you’re going to take on one of the officers at drill. Who are you going to take on? Who will win?

Drill competition - Stand at ease; attention; turn about - about turn; move to the left, left turn; move to the right, right turn.

Well done!

When you’re doing drill in the BB, you need to know who you’re listening to. So imagine, when the BB Battalion parade comes around, and you’re marching down the road towards the church, when someone from the crowd shouts out something. In the middle of the parade, this voice suddenly shouts out ‘squad will retire, about turn!’ Would you do what the voice told you?

Hopefully not! Instead, you listen out for the officer who is giving you commands. You don’t just listen to some randomer on the street. You listen to your commanding officer, and do what they say.

Well tonight, we’re listening in to something our commanding officer is saying - not James, or John, but the Lord Jesus himself. He is our great Captain and Saviour, so we want to listen to him. And the things he says in our reading from Mark’s gospel are illustrated by some of the drill moves.

So first up, if you’re standing at ease, what’s the first command? Attention! And what does that look like?

So when you hear the command - attention - you know that you’re to be listening, ready to obey. Some important commands are coming, so you need to be ready for them. And we see that in verse 15. Jesus says: ‘The time has come. The kingdom of God is near.’

Jesus appears on the scene here at the start of Mark’s gospel. And he says - pay attention!

I’ve got a question for you - whose alarm goes off the earliest in the morning? You’ve maybe been off school for a week, and tomorrow is back to school, but who gets up the earliest? What time does your alarm go off?... Any of the adults beat that for an early alarm?

The alarm clock in the morning is saying - pay attention! It’s time to get up, the time has come for you to get up for school. And Jesus appears on the scene saying, pay attention - the time has come, I have arrived, I’m here.

Jesus is the king, and so the kingdom of God is near (or has arrived). For thousands of years, the people had been waiting for God’s kingdom to come. For the last 400 years, there had been no prophets. No word from God. Then Jesus appears - the king is here. So pay attention. Listen up! Get ready for action!

The next drill movement is this - about turn. So what happens in an about turn? You change direction. If you’re facing this way, you face that way. Or if you’re marching, then you move from going one direction to going the opposite direction. You turn around.

Jesus the king says that we need to turn around. That’s what the next word in verse 15 means: repent.

Jesus says that we all need to repent, to change direction, to turn around. We’ve been going our own way, we’ve been doing things that are wrong, and we need to turn back to him.

If I decided to go to Portadown some day, so I go out onto the main road, but instead I’m heading towards Armagh, is it ok if I keep going the wrong way? Well, no, not if I want to get to Portadown! I need to realise I’m going the wrong way. I need to admit my mistake, and turn around and go the right way.

Jesus the king says, repent, about turn. Stop going away from God (by your sin), and instead turn back to God.

The last drill movement is this - quick march. What happens when you hear that command? You go! And that’s what Jesus wants us to do - when we hear him telling us to pay attention; when he calls us to about turn; then he tells us to go in the right direction - ‘repent and believe the good news.’

Believe the good news means to hear that Jesus is our Saviour, that he went to the cross to take away our sins, and to give us new life - to hear that good news, and then believe it - to throw our weight upon Jesus.

To go with Jesus as our Saviour, and to go with Jesus as our Lord, obeying all that he wants us to do. And we see in the rest of the reading what that looks like - Jesus calls Simon and Andrew to follow him, and they leave everything to follow him. James and John are next - he calls them, and they also followed him.

Twenty-five years ago this month, I heard Jesus calling to me. The time had come for me to follow him - I was always in church, I was involved in the BB, I thought I was good, but I needed to repent (to about turn, turn around), and quick march with Jesus. I was the same age as some of you - I was 11. And it was the best decision I ever made. It’s why I’m here tonight in Richhill.

It’s why the BB exists, to help you to hear and follow Jesus. Through the BB I went on the Mid-Ulster Battalion camps. I made some of my best friends there. I even got a brother-in-law through that camp - Lynsey’s sister married one of my best friends from BB Camp, and he’s now a Presbyterian minister (we’ll not hold that against him!). At last count, out of the boys and officers from my few years at the camp, six or seven of us are now ministers, and many others are still or became Christians through the camp.

Jesus says pay attention - the time has come, the kingdom of God is here, because the king is here - Jesus is here.

Jesus says about turn - change your direction, turn back to God.

Jesus says quick march - Go on with God, as you follow Jesus and trust him to be your Saviour.

This sermon was preached at the BB Enrolment Service for 1st Richhill Boys' Brigade Company in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 5th November 2017.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Sermon: Galatians 4: 8-31 Freedom from slavery

I wonder if you’ve heard of Stockholm Syndrome? It’s not where you start to shop in Ikea and develop a fondness for Abba music. The idea of Stockholm Syndrome was developed after a hostage situation in a bank in Stockholm, Sweden in 1973. Two men walked into the bank, and took four staff hostage. After six days, the four were released - but ended up siding with their captors. None of them would testify in court against their captors - indeed, they even raised money for their defence fund.

That was the first time it had been analysed and identified, but now it’s a seemingly common problem in hostage or kidnapping situations. The person who was a slave is freed, but then decides to go back to the person who enslaved them.

Or think of some who have been in prison, they’ve been released, but they just can’t cope with life on the outside, and so they reoffend, to be able to get back into prison. They can’t cope with freedom, they would rather be on the inside, prisoners again.

Now perhaps those thoughts seem strange to you - the idea of Stockholm Syndrome, falling for your enslaver; or reoffending to re-enter the prison system. We like our freedom, we wonder why anyone wouldn’t want it. We would find it strange that someone, having been freed would want to become a slave again. And yet that’s exactly what Paul says the Galatian Christians were in danger of doing.

And it could be that we are in the same danger. It seems as if our Galatians series has been significant for some of us; that we’ve been understanding the gospel of grace through Christ alone in a fresh way; that we’ve been enjoying the freedom of knowing that we are forgiven and welcomed into God’s family; that we have been saved, and we’re now sons of God. Now if that’s you, Paul has a warning - you’ve been freed, so don’t become a slave again!

As we dive into the passage, we see that Paul is reminding them of how they were freed; as he warns them of the dangers of slavery. V8: ‘Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God - or rather are known by God - how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?’ Do you see what he says there? You used to be slaves - slaves to the pagan way of thinking, slaves to the demons.

They were freed from being slaves, by knowing God (and being known by him) - isn’t that what we pray in one of the morning collects? ‘To know you is eternal life, and to serve you is perfect freedom...’

But now, they’re turning back to the weak and miserable principles they knew before - in a different form, perhaps, but with the same basic idea. Do all this, and you’ll succeed. Observe these rules, do these things, keep these feast days, and you’ll make it by your own efforts. They’re in danger of being enslaved all over again.

In verse 12, Paul makes his appeal to them. He’s pleading with them. (This is the first imperative, the first command, the first thing they should do in the letter). ‘I plead with you, brothers, become like me, for I became like you.’ He reminds them of how he became like them - how he lived among them, because of an episode of ill health. Now we’re not told what it was, but there’s a hint it might have been eye trouble of some sort. He says there in v15 that they would have torn out their eyes and given them to him.

Whatever the exact problem, this was the reason Paul stopped in Galatia and preached the gospel to them. And even though his illness was a trial to them, they welcomed him with a great welcome - as if he was an angel, or even as if he was Christ Jesus himself. Why the welcome? Because they heard the good news of the gospel, and they experienced the freedom Paul proclaimed - freedom in Christ. But now - ‘What has happened to all your joy?... Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?’

They knew the joy of being freed, but the joy had long gone. Now, they were trying to get back into prison, submitting to a new slavery. And they’re cross with Paul for pointing it out to them!

We see the enslavers crouching in v17. ‘Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want us to alienate you from us, so that you may be zealous for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you.’ There’s a lot of zealousness in those verses! The enslavers are zealous to win them over - but not for good. They want the Galatians to be zealous for them, not for Paul or for the gospel.

The Galatians were really taken by the Judaizers. They felt important, because these guys were taking an interest in them. They seemed as if they were trying to help them! But Paul gives the warning - don’t fall for it! Don’t become slaves again!

These Judaizers are a bit like the Child Catcher in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He brings his horse-drawn wagon into the town square, offering free lollipops and ice cream to the children. When they wee boy hears there’s treacle tarts, he rushes out. But when the children climb into the wagon where the free treats are, they find it’s a trick; they’re trapped; they’ve become slaves. This is the danger the Galatians were in, and it’s the danger we might find ourselves in.

Someone who sounds as if they’re helping, wanting to explain things better, but they’re actually working against the gospel, making you a slave all over again. It’s no wonder Paul was concerned, it’s as if he’s experiencing the pains of childbirth all over again, wanting Christ to be formed in them. He wishes he was with them to change his tone.

Now in the last part of the passage, Paul shows from the story of Abraham that there are two ways you can go about something. You see, we imagine that the people in the Bible were all good, and moral, and perfect - that is, until we read their stories! Abraham could well inspired a storyline on Eastenders or Emmerdale; you could almost see him appearing on Jeremy Kyle.

You see, Abraham had received the promise of a great nation through his son in Genesis 12. By Genesis 16, 11 years have passed and still no son. So Sarah his wife says to Abraham - go and have a child with my slave girl Hagar. They try to take matters into their own hands, and work things out by themselves. So Ishmael is born, a son by the flesh, but not the son of promise.

Fourteen years later, the promised son, Isaac, is born. At his weaning, Ishmael is mocking Isaac, and Sarah gets upset. So she tells Abraham to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael. And Abraham does it.

And Paul takes this story and sets out the two ways you can go about something - you can work it out yourself; or you can trust God for what he has promised. And those two ways are represented by the two women - Hagar the slave, and Sarah the free. The slave woman can only produce slaves, and only the free woman can produce free children.

And what Paul says there in verses 24-26 would have been shocking to those who read it. We know that because Jesus basically says the same thing in our gospel reading from John’s gospel. Here in v24, he looks at the covenant from Mount Sinai, when God gave the law to the people of Israel through Moses. So which woman is it? Slave or free? Paul says that the Law, Mount Sinai, is like the slave woman, Hagar - it can only produce slaves (as we’ve seen in recent weeks). Hagar is like the present city of Jerusalem - the temple was still standing, in slavery with her children.

Remember in John’s gospel when the Jews say ‘We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone.’ (Jn 8:33). But Jesus says they are slaves - ‘everyone who sins is a slave to sin.’ (Jn 8:34) And they’re not children of Abraham, because they aren’t doing what Abraham did - believing God and the one he sent.

Do it yourself religion of whatever flavour - they produce slaves, slaves to sin who will never inherit, who will be driven out, as Hagar and Ishmael were.

v26 ‘But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.’ The heavenly Jerusalem is our mother, We are her children, the children of God’s promise, just as Isaac was all those years ago. The child of promise was persecuted by the slave son then, and it’s still happening now. Therefore, as Paul sums up, in v31 ‘Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.’

You used to be slaves. You’ve been set free. So don’t become slaves again. As we take bread and wine, we rejoice in our rescuer, the one who gave himself to free us. You’ve been released, so live out your freedom, live out your inheritance, and don’t become slaves all over again.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 5th November.