Sunday, December 31, 2017

Watchnight Sermon: Lamentations 3: 19-33 New Year Mercies

It seems to be the done thing at this time of year to look back on the events of the past twelve months and review what has gone before. It seems that most TV channels have been doing their own celebrity quiz of the year, and the newspapers have been reminding us of the big stories of 2017.

It was the first year of President Trump; the year of elections - to Stormont (which doesn’t seem to have achieved much since March) and to Westminster in Theresa May’s snap election, after Brexit had been officially triggered. It’s been the year of revolution in Turkey, the independence referendum in Catalonia, and the end of Robert Mugabe’s rule in Zimbabwe. And that’s just a small sampling of what’s been going on.

But what about you? How was 2017 for you? As you look back on the year, what will you focus on? Will it be thought of as a good year, or a bad year? I’m aware of so many people who found Christmas a difficult time this year because of the loss of a loved one, or some bad news concerning their health, or for a multitude of reasons. And as we face into 2018, we face the unknown. We simply don’t know and can’t know what the future holds. That might leave you apprehensive or fearful, but I trust that our reading from Scripture tonight will give us hope and comfort on this new year’s eve.

Yet even as I say that, you might think to yourself, hope and comfort from a book called Lamentations? It doesn’t sound like a cheerful read! For the most part, it isn’t. Just as we remember a particular year because of some wonderful or terrible event, so it was for the people of Jerusalem. A few years ago, the Queen spoke of her annus horribilus, a year of horrors; Lamentations is the response to those horrors by the prophet Jeremiah.

Jersualem has been conquered, captured and destroyed by the Babylonian armies led by King Nebuchadnezzar. The temple is no more, its treasures stolen and removed. Most of the people have been taken away into exile. And for the first three chapters of Lamentations, Jeremiah spells out the horror of what has happened. Just before our reading, he says this: ‘He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord.”.’ (3:16-18).
As he walks through the remains of the city - just imagine it as one of the TV news reports showing the aftermath of the California forest fires. Darkness, despair, sadness and suffering. He’s at the lowest he could possibly go. All hope seems to have vanished.

It’s at that moment that he remembers something that brings him hope - something that even the darkest night can’t remove - something that strengthens him to continue: ‘Yet this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.’ (3:21-23)

Did you notice the timespan of the Lord’s love in that verse? The steadfast love of the Lord ceases when? Never! His mercies come to an end when? Never! His steadfast love never ceases - it is always with us, no matter what the date on the calendar is; no matter what we may be going through right now, or what the new year has in store for us. The Lord’s steadfast love will not cease tonight, or this year. His mercies will be new every morning, whether you wake early or lie on until lunchtime.

This is something to hold on to as we get used to writing 2018. This is something to cling to when things don’t work out as we planned. This is something to hold us up when we are brought low - God is in control; and his love is still for us. That love was demonstrated on the ultimate day of horrors, as the sinless Saviour died for his enemies in order to welcome us as his friends and give us the sure and certain hope of life with him.

God’s love has been displayed for all time on the cross. His love will never come to an end. It helps us to stand and endure and look forward with hope and confidence, through our pains and disappointments, our struggles and shocks; looking forward knowing that through all that happens God is working out his purposes, and making us more like the Lord Jesus. Do you know his love tonight? Will you trust in this faithful God this new year?

The Lord is my portion, says my soul, therefore I will trust in him.

This sermon was preached at the Watchnight Service in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday 31st December 2017.

Sermon: Luke 2: 21-40 Simeon's Bucket List

What do all the following things have in common?

Swim with dolphins
Learn a new language
See the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights)
Throw a dart at a map and travel to wherever it lands
Get a tattoo

Any ideas? They are among the most popular items on people’s bucket lists. So what’s on your bucket list? You may not know the term, but you might just have a bucket list.

It’s not a list of the buckets you own (if indeed, you own more than one bucket, just in case, like Liza in the song, there’s a hole in your bucket...) It’s a list of things you want to do before you... kick the bucket. The things that you could say, ‘I’ve done that, now I can die happy.’

So what would your bucket list include? What would you prioritise? As the new year dawns tomorrow, what would you like to have done by next new year’s eve?

I’m not going to share my bucket list, because in my last church, I mentioned that I would love to make it to the top of Cuilcagh mountain, the highest point in Fermanagh (and Cavan). You might have seen the photos of the stairway to heaven, the wooden walkway and staircase built over the bog. Well, I foolishly mentioned that I wanted to climb it, and so before I left, one of our parishioners marched me to the top of the staircase, in the snow and ice, to say that I’d done it!

So what would your bucket list include? What would you want to do so that you could die happy?

This morning in our reading, we meet a man with just one item on his bucket list. And the one thing on his list might not seem like a big deal for us. His bucket list says: ‘See a baby.’ He lives in Jerusalem, he must see loads of babies, as their parents brought them to the temple for dedication, as the Old Testament commanded.

But it’s not just any baby. It’s actually see ‘the’ baby. Simeon is described (25) as righteous and devout. He trusts in the Lord, he’s living by faith. But more than that, he is ‘waiting for the consolation of Israel.’

Now, when do you need consoled? It’s when you’re in distress. When things aren’t going right. You need someone to console you, to provide comfort. I haven’t played any bowls here yet, but in my last parish I sometimes played. And at Christmas there was always a party night. Everyone played three games, with the teams drawn at random, and at the end of the night, the scores were added up. There were prizes for the top scoring men and women.

I played as well as ever, and needed to be consoled, because I finished with the lowest score. But I was consoled - I for the booby prize, or the consolation prize. It made up for what was lacking. When I unwrapped my Terry’s Chocolate Orange, the pain of my terrible performance was forgotten!

Simeon is waiting for the consolation of Israel. Israel was in a bad way. They seemed to be far from God. God hadn’t spoken to them for about 400 years. The Romans had conquered the land. Israel was occupied, ruled over by the Romans. Israel needed to be consoled.

Look at v26: ‘It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.’ Another version puts it that Simeon wouldn’t SEE death until he had SEEN the Lord’s Christ. So Simeon knows that he won’t die until he has seen the Christ, the one through whom the consolation of Israel would come. So Simeon’s bucket list reads: ‘see the Christ.’

Out of all the babies in the temple that day, Simeon is guided to the right one. He takes the baby Jesus in his arms, and breaks into song. ‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’

I can die happy, because I have seen your salvation. He may not know how the salvation will come, but he knows who will bring the salvation. And by the Holy Spirit, he seems to base his song on our first reading, the servant song of Isaiah 49. He links Jesus to the servant in that song, who is the means of the Lord comforting his people; the way Israel will be gathered back to God; but also as a light to the nations.

Out of all the moments of Jesus’ life and ministry, which one would you most like to see and experience? If we could crank up a time machine so that you could be there, which would you choose? To sample the feeding of the 5000? To watch his crucifixion? To hear him tell the parable of the Good Samaritan firsthand? To see him raise Lazarus? It would be hard to choose.

Yet Simeon is pleased to simply see Jesus as a tiny baby, just 40 days old. Even though Simeon sees only the seed, he knows that the full flowering of salvation will come - by this baby. God’s word is sure. Just as God promised Simeon he would see his salvation, so God will fulfil that salvation in the Lord Jesus.

The baby didn’t stay a baby. He grew up, in lifelong obedience to God’s word and will. He lived the perfect life of obedience; he died the perfect death, to bear our sins, to bring us forgiveness. Through his death, we have life. Through his name being proclaimed to this day, Jews and Gentiles are bring brought back to God.

So what’s on your bucket list? You might have 1001 items on it. You might have so many ideas about what you should do before you can die happy. but Simeon tells us that only one will really matter after we die. That only one is important. And it’s the one that Simeon had on his bucket list - to meet and know Jesus. To see him as your Saviour. Because when you have his salvation, you can die happy - but more than that, you can die confident that you will live with him for all eternity.

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday 31st December 2017.

Friday, December 29, 2017

2017 Books

I like to keep track of the books I've read each year, and then select my top five. We're coming towards the end of the year, so here are the 2017 books! I'm glad to see that my reading has picked up again, breaking into the 30s again after a run of three years in the 20s. Still, not as many as my 78 in 2007!

Here are the books I read in 2017:

1. The Doctrine of God - Gerald Bray
2. Devoted to God - Sinclair Ferguson
3. Nine Inches - Colin Bateman
4. God in my Everything - Ken Shigematsu
5. Growing Leaders - James Lawrence
6. In the Name of Jesus - Henri Nouwen
7. You Can Really Grow - John Hindley
8. You Are What You Love - James KA Smith
9. What Does The Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality? - Kevin DeYoung
10. To Be Told - Dan Allender

11. Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership - Gary McIntosh & Samuel Rima
12. The Whistler - John Grisham
13. No Little Women - Aimee Byrd
14. Luther and the 9.5 Theses - Kenneth Brownell
15. Transgender - Vaughan Roberts
16. Convinced by Scripture - Andy Johnston
17. Assisted Dying - Vaughan Roberts
18. Is God anti-gay? - Sam Allberry
19. A Better Story - Glynn Harrison
20. Silence - Shushaku Endo

21. Us - David Nicholls
22. To Kill the President - Sam Bourne
23. Because of Bethlehem - Max Lucado
24. The Big Ego Trip - Glynn Harrison
25. The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne
26. Serving the Church, Reaching the World - Richard Cunningham (ed)
27. Katie Watson and the Painter's Plot - Mez Blume
28. A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
29. The One True Gift - Tim Chester
30. Challenges of Christian Leadership - John Stott

31. Dark Matter - Tony Watkins

My top five of the year?
1. A Better Story - Glynn Harrison
2. Devoted to God - Sinclair Ferguson
3. No Little Women - Aimee Byrd
4. To Kill the President - Sam Bourne
5. Convinced by Scripture - Andy Johnston

Here are the links to previous years' book blogs: 2016 (23); 2015 (21); 2014 (26); 2013 (45); 2012 (49); 2011 (37); 2010 (52); 2009 (41); 2008 (23); 2007 (78).

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Sermon: Luke 2: 1-7 O little town of Bethlehem

Well, ready or not, Christmas has arrived. And even though we know it’s coming, the date is the same every year, yet still we find ourselves running about, getting things sorted. And this year it seems strange that Christmas Eve is on a Sunday - giving us a pause before Christmas Day itself.

This morning gives us an opportunity to look back to the very first Christmas, to see what really happened. And we’re in the hands of Dr Luke, the writer of this gospel, who tells us in the very first verses of the book that he has ‘carefully investigated everything from the beginning.’ (1:3). Dr Luke gives us the true story of the first Christmas.

And in this morning’s seven verses, he tells us about the events of the first Christmas - the time, the place, and the circumstances of the birth of Jesus. So let’s look at each in turn, starting with the time of Jesus’ birth.

V1: ‘In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)’

The focus at the very start of the passage is on the people in power. There’s Caesar Augustus, who is the Roman Emperor; and that hard-to-pronounce-at-carol-services name, Quirinius, the governor of Syria. Augustus was ruling over the entire Roman world - and one word from him impacted on lots of other people.

It’s a bit like today. Our focus and attention can be on the few very powerful people who control the world. With us, it’s Teresa May leading the Brexit negotiations - whatever she decides (or, ok, agrees to with the EU), it will have an impact on all of us when we finally leave the European Union. Or think of Donald Trump. There are fears that he might decide to launch a nuclear missile - which will certainly impact lots of other people. Well, at this point in history, it was Augustus who was calling the shots.

Whatever his reasons, Augustus decides to take a census. It may be that, as the King James Version puts it, everyone should be taxed. It was at least, some form of registration. So the word goes out from Augustus, and everyone is caught up in his demands. We see this in verse 3: ‘And everyone went to his own town to register.’

Someone on Twitter the other day said this: ‘For too long I thought that it was awfully inconvenient for the King to call a census at Christmas time.’ (@ngorlly)

They thought that it’s busy enough at Christmas, without having to deal with a census as well. but it’s not that the census was called at Christmas, but that Christmas called during the census.

Caesar Augustus decided he would call a census, but behind the scenes, God was calling the shots. And God was working through the decisions and decrees of the powerful to bring about his purposes.

The time of Jesus’ birth was the time of the census, but as we saw in Galatians 4: ‘But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.’ (Gal 4:4-5).

In the next verses, we see the place of Jesus’ birth. We’ve already sung about it this morning - O little town of Bethlehem. And in these verses we see how the decree of the Roman emperor impacts on one particular family. The focus shifts from the powerful and important, to the ordinary and (in the world’s eyes) unimportant.

‘So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.’ (4-5)

Joseph is living in Nazareth, in the province of Galilee. But he can’t register there, as he’s not from there. At some stage he must have been a blow-in. And so he sets off, along with Mary his betrothed - his fiancee. A journey of about 70-80 miles - from here to either Londonderry or Dublin. With no planes, trains or automobiles.

Think of the upheaval, the uncertainty, the inconvenience of having to move, having to travel. And yet, God is at work when we’re being shaken up.

Now why does Joe have to go the whole way to Bethlehem? It is the city of David (as we heard in our Old Testament reading). And Joseph belongs to ‘the house and line of David.’ There hasn’t been a king of Israel/Judah for about 500 years. But Joseph is from David’s family, and David’s line.

The old promises that David would never fail to have a son on the throne seems to have fallen aside. But it’s not been forgotten. And perhaps Joseph has the promise given to Mary back in 1:32 singing in his ears - ‘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.’

Through the decree of Augustus, Joseph and Mary move from Nazareth to Bethlehem, getting them there just in time for the birth of the baby - as promised in Micah 5 - ‘But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel...’ (Micah 5:2).

You can see how things are coming together - the right time and the right place to fulfil God’s purposes, to bring about the birth of the king. But even as I say those words, the birth of the king, you know that it’s not quite as fancy as the birth of Prince George, or even Princess Charlotte, or the new Prince or Princess to be born in April.

The birth of this king didn’t take place in the Lindo Wing of St Mary’s Hospital in London, with the world’s journalists outside. Nor was it in a royal palace. In fact, try to hear these words as if you’ve never heard them before.

‘While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.’

No maternity ward; no midwife; nobody, it seems, except for Mary and Joseph. The circumstances are humble, poor, and - I was going to say ordinary, but this is far from ordinary. Mary herself wraps the baby in cloths - swaddling bands as the hymn puts it - strips of cloth to provide some warmth. A sign of poverty, of making do with whatever comes to hand. Perhaps, even, a pointer to the strips of linen that would encircle the body of Jesus after his crucifixion.

Mary also places the baby, not in a Moses basket, or a cot, but in a manger. We’re so used to it, we fail to realise how odd this is! It’s the sign that the shepherds will be given to find the baby, because babies don’t normally lie in the livestock’s lunchbox. The feeding trough becomes the king’s bed.

And why did these things happen? The strange circumstances of Jesus’ birth? ‘Because there was no room for them in the inn.’ A thousand nativity plays hone in on this little detail, providing a part for two, three, four innkeepers all saying ‘no room at the inn’ before one takes pity on them and offers his stable.

The inn could simply be the guestroom, with someone else already ‘in’ it - and so the birth may have been in the lower part of the family home, where the animals stayed, rather than a separate stable or outhouse. But however, even in these circumstances, God was at work. Later Jesus would say that the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head - at his birth, a borrowed manger was his bed.

Dr Luke shares his carefully researched history - the time, the place, and the circumstances of the birth of Jesus. And through them all, God was at work - to use the census decree of Caesar Augustus to bring Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, the city of David; where in the strangest of circumstances, the Son of David would be born.

On that first Christmas, there was no room for Jesus. This Christmas, are you making room for Jesus?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Christmas Eve, Sunday 24th December 2017

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Carol Service Epilogue: Luke 2:12 Christmas Unwrapped

Richhill 17/12/17 pm
Luke 2:12 Christmas Unwrapped

Are you all set for Christmas? Have you all the presents wrapped and under the tree? It’s one of the most exciting parts of Christmas - seeing all the beautifully wrapped gifts with coloured paper and bows - and the best bit: the gift tag that says it’s a present for you!

When we were growing up, dad had a rule that we weren’t allowed to open any presents until Christmas morning. Now that wasn’t too bad, except our great-aunt and uncle lived in Belfast, and always came to visit granny early in December, bringing presents with them. The mysterious presents (and they were always brilliant) sat under the tree for several weeks. We weren’t allowed to open them, but that didn’t stop us from poking and prodding them, trying to work out what was inside. You see, the wrappings were nice, but they’re not the most important part.

Up until the big day, it’s the wrapping that holds the attention. But come Christmas Day, the wrapping paper is torn away, the gift inside is revealed, and the real enjoyment can begin. Whether the paper ends up in a plastic bag, carefully collected at the time, or the room looks like it’s been re-carpeted with fragments of wrapping paper, the wrapping is forgotten, and the presents are finally present.

But sometimes, you hear of the child who takes more enjoyment from the box, rather than the expensive gift inside. The box becomes all sorts of things in the imagination, the toy itself is left abandoned. If it’s your child, you want to show them the real present, not just the wrappings. Otherwise, they’re missing the precious gift.

We might laugh when it comes to a child, and yet sometimes we too can be so caught up in the tinsel and trappings, and yet miss the treasure. We come round to another Christmas time, and we think we’ve heard it all before. We know the story so well, we reckon it’s just for the kids. We get wrapped up in the wrappings of Christmas, that we miss the gift itself.

You see Christmas is about more than cooking the perfect brussell sprouts and attending the parties and being visited by the jolly man in red and spending time together as a family. If we unwrap the Christmas package, what is it we find at the centre? What is the heart of Christmas? Our Bible readings tonight help us to discover Christmas unwrapped:

Take away the tinsel and turkey and tree; pass on the parties and puddings and mince pies; strip away the shepherds and angels and wisemen; and gaze on the glorious gift - which is wrapped up, but not in paper and bows. Luke tells us that the gift is wrapped... in strips of cloth, and lying in a manger, where the animals feed. This is THE Christmas present: He is the Christmas gift: a tiny newborn baby.

But this is no ordinary baby. Every parent knows that their baby is special, their child is amazing - but none can compare with the baby in the manger. We discover that this is the long-awaited king, the rescuer. As the angels told the shepherds: ‘Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.’ (Luke 2:11)

Isaiah helps us remove the wrapping to see just who Jesus is: ‘He will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’ It’s the message of the most famous verse in the Bible: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.’

You might be a present-poker; you might have sneaked a peek; or you might be waiting patiently to see what’s under the tree. But don’t get caught up in the wrapping paper and miss the real Christmas gift.

The gift tag has your name on it. The gift is for you. God gives us his Son, the Saviour. Will you receive him this Christmas time?

This sermon was preached at the Carols by Candlelight Service in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday 17th December 2017.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sermon: Galatians 6: 1-18 Freedom to do good

We’re getting into that time of year when you start thinking about the year that is almost past, and you start thinking about the year that is coming up. It’s three weeks today until New Year’s Eve, and 2017 will be behind us, a new year will be opening up before us. And perhaps that makes you think of New Year’s Resolutions.

Maybe you think back to 1st January this year, to see how you got on this year with those resolutions... if you kept them past January, or if you’ve still been keeping them up. So, with January coming, you think to yourself, next year, I’ll give it a go. Next year I’ll make a change. New Year, New Me, and all that.

But you don’t have to wait for the new year to have a new you. You don’t need to have a new calendar or diary to make a change. You can do it today. As Paul closes his letter to the Galatians, he calls us to do good.

But this isn’t the Santa Claus is coming to town kind of command to be good - you know, he’s making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice... he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake!’ Be good or you won’t get anything. Now it seems it’s the elf on the shelf doing the same job of you better be good...

But as we’ve seen throughout Galatians, we can’t be good without God - it’s only God who gives us the freedom to do good, because we are his.

The Galatians were suffering from false teachers, who were promoting a kind of DIY religion - you can Do It Yourself, by obeying the law and earning your place by your own efforts. But the whole way through the letter, Paul has been showing us that we can’t do it by ourselves. We’ve all broken the law - it only condemns us. We can only be ransomed, freed through the death of Jesus for us, giving us his undeserved grace - received by faith alone in Jesus alone.

But now that we ARE saved, we have the freedom to live by the Spirit. We saw that last week, as the Spirit wants to grow his fruit in us - that love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control that only he can bring. It’s as we keep in step with the Spirit that we become more like Jesus. And this morning’s reading shows us how this works out in a church community. How can we, together, live out our freedom by the power of the Spirit? How can we do good?

Church should be the place where we bear one another’s burdens. V1: ‘Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.’

Paul doesn’t say - if someone is caught in a sin, then go and tell everyone about it; gossip it far and wide. No, if (or when!) someone is caught in sin - then we are to restore them gently. Gossiping relentlessly, or gently restoring? And who is to do it? You who are spiritual - those who belong to the Spirit, the Christians. Not just the pastor or elders. We’re to be a community of caring Christians - bearing one another’s burdens - and watching out in case we are tempted in the same way.

Is this a picture of what St Matthew’s is like; or something we need to grow into?

The next verses (3-5) ask us to evaluate ourselves individually - to take a good hard look at ourselves. I was reading recently about Illusory Superiority. What it means is that people tend to think more highly of themselves. So, in an American survey, 93% of people thought they were an above average driver (but only 50% can be above the average...). This effect plays out all the time in surveys where people are asked to rate themselves.

And Paul says it can happen with us as well, in the spiritual realm. ‘If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load.’

Paul says we’re deceiving ourselves if we think of ourselves more highly than we should. Rather, we should test our actions. Don’t compare yourself with anyone else - because at the end of the day, you’ll stand before the judge by yourself - carrying your own load.

We’re to share one another’s burdens, but we have to carry our own load (a different word, a different idea). (And therefore not a contradiction!)

As we think about ourselves, our actions, our choices, Paul wants us to consider what it is we’re sowing; what we’re investing in; what we’re working towards. That image of sowing and reaping runs through verses 6-10. The principle is in v7: ‘Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.’

The farmer decides what he wants to harvest, and then has to sow that very thing. It’s no good sowing potatoes if you want to grow carrots. Or planting apple seeds if you want strawberries. Whatever you sow, you will reap. Whatever you invest in is what you will receive in return. ANd it’s no good deciding at the harvest time what you want to get - you’ve already made that decision beforehand.

So if we sow to please our sinful nature - we will reap destruction. But if we sow to please the Spirit - we will reap eternal life.

So what are you sowing towards? How are you investing your time, your money, your talents? When you have a free half hour, what do you turn your mind to? We’re called to sow to please the Spirit, to do good. John Wesley put it like this: Do all the good you can by all the means you can in all the ways you can in all the places you can at all the times you can to all the people you can as long as ever you can.

And yet, sometimes, you can get a bit fed up of doing good. When you give, and give, and give. Or when you’ve given up your time to serve in an organisation so that boys and girls get to hear about Jesus. Or when you see how much easier people without faith seem to have it. So in verse 9 Paul becomes a cheerleader, urging us on, wanting us to keep going, like the people cheering on the marathon runners... ‘Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.’ Don’t give up. Don’t become weary. Keep an eye on the harvest to come. And therefore, v 10: ‘Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.’

Our doing good is for all people, everyone, but with a special focus on the family of believers. We have been freed from our sins in order to do good, as we sow to the Spirit. So let’s do it. Let’s share the good news as we do good.

It’s at this point that Paul takes the pen to write a bit himself. Normally there was someone acting as scribe, writing down the letter, but here, Paul writes: ‘See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!’ He’s wanting to emphasise this last bit of the letter. It’s as if we’re using bold type, underlined, font size 50 (this sermon is font size 12).

So how does he close the letter? What is it he wants to leave with us? He returns to circumcision, and to boasting. All the way through the letter, Paul has been warning them about the dangers of being circumcised. And there’s one last warning here. Why did the false teachers want them to be circumcised? So that they wouldn’t be persecuted for the cross, so that they would boast in the Galatians’ flesh.

The false teachers could avoid the persecution from the Jews if they could show that they were obeying the law. In that way, the cross wouldn’t matter to them. The important thing, the thing they would boast in, was their circumcision. The false teachers wanted to boast in the flesh, the skin of the Galatians. That was what they valued above everything else.

But Paul says there’s only one thing to boast in. It’s not our achievements; not our religious observance; not our goodness or our good deeds; it’s simply the cross: ‘May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.’

The only thing to boast in; the only place to find our value; the only thing that frees us from our sins, and frees us to live lives of good by the power of the Spirit - it’s the cross. We can’t boast in ourselves, we must boast in Jesus, what he has done for us. Because it’s only his death for us, that makes us a new creation - the only thing that matters.

Circumcision doesn’t matter. uncircumcision means nothing. ‘What counts is a new creation.’ As Paul says elsewhere, ‘if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.’

Have you been made new? Forget about new year’s resolutions, or diets that always start tomorrow. Jesus will make you new. A new creation. A fresh start. It comes as you trust in Jesus. So have you trusted in Christ for your forgiveness and salvation? Then boast only in Christ and his cross. See the whole world as your mission, to live out the life of love that Christ has set you free to live. You’re free to love, free to do good, so don’t be weary. Look to the harvest, and keep going.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 10th December 2017.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Sermon: Luke 1: 39-56 A People Prepared (3) - Mary's Melody of Mercy

We haven’t been to London recently, but whenever we’re there, we like to take in a show. And if you’ve been to London for the West End, or New York for Broadway, you’ll know that musical theatre is big business. Packed theatres, telling a story through song and dance. One of our friends regularly takes trips to London to make it to two or three shows per day, and then writes reviews of them.

But musicals strike me as slightly strange, if you think about them logically. As you watch in the theatre, or maybe as you watch the Sound of Music on TV this Christmas - think of it this way. It’s a normal day, people going about their business, when suddenly, someone starts singing. They burst out into a song, and everyone else is able to join in! If you were walking down the street after church and you started into a song, people would wonder what you were doing! It just doesn’t happen in real life - this spontaneous singing... or does it?

As Luke tells us about the preparations for the first Christmas, the things that God was doing to make a people prepared for the coming of Jesus, so far he has told us about the important missions of the angel Gabriel. Bringing news of two babies to be born in unlikely circumstances - John, to Zechariah and Elizabeth, the elderly parents; and Jesus to Mary the virgin. This week and next, we’ll hear the responses of Mary and Zechariah. And we’ll see that, just like musical theatre, they both break into song, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

We’re told that when Mary heard the angel’s news, she packed up, and went off to visit Elizabeth, where she stayed three months. When Mary arrives, Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit, and declares: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!... Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!’

Elizabeth recognises the blessing God has given Mary - and even the baby in Elizabeth’s womb recognises the mother of his Lord - leaping for joy in her womb! And then Mary begins her salvation song; her melody of mercy.

Now if you’ve been around the Church of Ireland long enough, you’ll recognise this song as the Magnificat, from the opening line in the prayer book, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord.’ Well our version here has ‘My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.’

Whichever word you use - magnify or glorify, they both have the same idea. If you have a magnifying glass, it helps you to make something bigger, to make it easier to read the newspaper or your Bible. For Mary to magnify the Lord is to glorify him, to ‘big up’ his reputation; to rejoice in him.

So why is she rejoicing? Her song seems to divide into two sections, each of which end with the theme of mercy. The words and phrases are Bible words and phrases - you might even notice links to Hannah’s song, sung when she gave birth to the great prophet Samuel. So why is Mary rejoicing?

Mary rejoices because of 1. What God has done for Mary. ‘...for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.

We’re nearly at the time of year when the next round of the Queen’s Honours will be announced, at the new year. All over the country, people will receive letters from the Queen, inviting them to receive an MBE or OBE for their community service, or charity work or whatever. Now, the Queen doesn’t sit down herself, going through the phonebook thinking, who will I honour this year? There’s a network of nominations, advisors, and yet it’s a great honour to go to Buckingham Palace to receive the award.

Put yourself in Mary’s sandals. The God who is mighty, ruling over the universe, the all-powerful one - he has chosen and blessed Mary! That’s why all generations will call her blessed - she has been blessed by God, chosen to be the mother of the Messiah - not even a once in a lifetime opportunity - a once in the entire history of the world opportunity!

As Mary finishes off her first section, she celebrates God’s mercy - mercy for her, yes, but mercy extending ‘to those who fear him, from generation to generation.’ God is holy - holy is his name (his character) - but Mary knows that she is a sinner, there’s nothing special about her. She wasn’t chosen because she was sinless or immaculate; yet she fears God - she acknowledges him as God her Saviour. And she says this mercy is for all who fear him

I wonder if you can echo these words? Just as Mary speaks out about what God has done for her, I wonder if you could do the same? Testimony might not be a very Church of Ireland thing, yet there’s power in being able to say what God has done for you. this past week, I marked 25 years since the night I became a Christian. What’s your story? Has the Mighty One done great things for you?

Mary rejoices because of what God has done for her. but Mary also rejoices because of 2. what God has done for all his people. Her song is connected to her son, and what he will achieve as the kingdom is unleashed. And yet, you might see, that it’s all past tense. Every sentence starts ‘he has...’ Why is that? It’s a bit like the prophets - when God says something, or promises something, it’s as good as done, it’s so certain, you can say it as if it has already happened. So, he has performed mighty deeds with his arm...

Things are being turned upside down, as God performs his mighty deeds, as he shows strength (old BCP). The proud, the rulers, the rich, they are scattered, brought down, sent away empty; while the humble and hungry are lifted up and filled with good things.

Remember that Mary lives in Israel, under occupation, under the evil King Herod, who was under the even more evil Caesar. Various Zealot movements had tried to get rid of the Romans, and had failed miserably, their leaders executed on crosses. But Mary can celebrate because God us putting his plan into action, and nothing will stop it. God’s kingdom will turn these earthly kingdoms upside down. The mighty rulers will be dethroned, the meek will inherit the earth.

And all this, in fulfilment of those promises of mercy for Israel, for God’s people going right back to Abraham. God had promised that through Abraham’s seed every nation will be blessed - and it’s in Mary’s child these promises are going ahead, and God’s mercy is spreading to all who fear him.

What Mary sings about, Jesus puts into action when he says that those who humble themselves will be exalted, but those who exalt themselves will be humbled. This song is like the gospel before the gospel, the first taster of life in the kingdom. But the question remains - where will we put ourselves? When the world is turned upside down, where will we be? Will we be clinging to our pride in our achievements or our goodness? If so, we’ll be brought down in the judgement to come.

Or will we humble ourselves, acknowledge our sin and poverty, our low estate, and find his rich mercy in Jesus, and so rejoice in God our Saviour?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 3rd December 2017.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Sermon: Galatians 5: 16-26 Freedom to live by the Spirit

Sermons can sometimes be lengthy affairs. A few years ago, the former rector of Lambeg preached a record-breaking sermon, which lasted for five hours and fifty minutes without a break. But the Guinness World Record for the longest speech was a sermon preached by Pastor Zach Zehnder from Florida, which lasted 53 hours and 18 minutes. Now, as Roy Castle would have said on his TV programme, dedication’s what you need if you want to be a record-breaker, so, if you’re sitting comfortably, let’s break some records!

No, don’t worry, we’ll not try to beat five hours or fifty-three hours today. In fact, this could have been the shortest sermon ever. Could have been - not will be! You see, we can sum up the whole sermon in four words that Paul gives us in the first verse of our reading. Just four words. Do you see them there in verse 16? ‘Live by the Spirit.’ That’s what Paul wants to emphasise; it’s what God wants us to hear today; it’s the application right at the very start of the sermon.

God says: Live by the Spirit. So go and do it.

It might have been the shortest sermon, but I’m not sure it would be the most helpful sermon. So let’s take some time to unpack those four words, to understand what we’re being told to do - and then how to do it.

You might have noticed that we’re near the end of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. And in quite a few of his letters, Paul arranges them into two parts. First up, the doctrine; and then the doing. He gives us the truth, and then shows us how to live it out. It’s a bit like doing your driving test - you do the theory first, and then the practical.

So over the autumn term, we’ve worked our way through this letter. And we’ve seen that the Galatians were in danger of forgetting the free grace of God. They had started by believing, but now they were trying to earn their way by observing the Old Testament law, and by submitting to circumcision. So Paul has reminded them of the grace God has given us in the Lord Jesus - how he was crucified for us to redeem us, and so that we would receive the promise given to Abraham - the promise of the Holy Spirit. That’s the theory bit. As we trust in Jesus, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Now comes the practical instructions.

We have the Holy Spirit if we’re believers, but we need to live by the Spirit - not being like Walt Disney’s housekeeper whose story I told a few weeks ago. Remember? She was given these bits of paper for her birthday and Christmas, and put them away safely. She died a millionaire, and she didn’t even realise. She didn’t know the resources she had. So don’t be like her. Live by the Spirit.

You see, God has given us his Holy Spirit in order to help us live out our Christian faith. We just can’t do it by ourselves. And yet many of us think that we CAN do it by ourselves. That’s what the Galatians were trying to do, as they tried to add what Jesus has done for us on the cross. Or, to think of Roy Castle again, we think that to live out the Christian life, to defeat the sin that so easily entangles us and the powerful sinful desires that rise within us, dedication’s what we need.

But Paul tells us what we need to do. Look again at verse 16. ‘So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.’ Notice what he doesn’t say - he doesn’t say try really hard to resist your sinful desires, and then you’ll be able to live by the Spirit. He doesn’t even say, live by the Spirit and then try really hard... No, he says, live by the Spirit (by his power), and you WILL NOT gratify the desires of the sinful nature. Live in this way, by the power of the Spirit, and you will not gratify those desires.

You see, there are two ways to live presented in these verses. We either live by the Spirit, or we live by the sinful nature (the flesh). But it’s not a take it or leave it kind of choice - that it doesn’t really matter which you follow. Rather, they are in conflict. It’s like the line from Dad’s Army - ‘Don’t you know there’s a war on?’ But the battle isn’t out there somewhere else - it’s a battle on the inside, for our heart, our choices, our actions.

Have you ever had a time when you want to do something good, but then you follow a different prompting and so something selfish, or downright evil instead? Like, maybe seeing someone waiting for a bus, so you think to yourself, I’ll stop and give them a lift... only for you to instead drive up close to the kerb and splashing them... I hope that hasn’t happened, but you get the idea? We’re in a war - or rather, a war is in us, between the Spirit and our sinful nature.

Whenever you do not do what you want - this is what’s going on. Now that’s not to give us a way out, an easy excuse, to just go and be nasty to someone and then say, sorry, it’s my sinful nature just getting the better of me! No, Paul calls us to live by the Spirit, and so not gratify those desires that rise within us. As he says in verse 18: ‘but if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.’

The law has no hold on us if we’re led by the Spirit, because if we have the Spirit, then we’ve already been justified, declared righteous. So what are you being led by? Your sinful desires, or the Spirit of God?

To follow our sinful desires is to follow a path of destruction. That’s the point of v19-21. Paul lists out the acts of the sinful nature - obvious things. And he seems to group them into four categories (indicated by the semi-colon in the NIV) - sex; religion; relationships; and drink. When you’re following your sinful nature, these are the outcomes - sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.’

And look at where these lead: ‘I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.’ To live by the sinful nature, to do what we like, is to end up outside God’s kingdom. To go through life saying, ‘my will be done’ will end with God saying, ok, your will be done.

But there is another way to live. Not following our sinful desires, but living by the Spirit. Taking our lead from him, letting his power guide us, and grow us. Do you see the contrast at the start of verse 22? The acts of the sinful nature are like this... ‘But the fruit of the Spirit is...’

Have you got your Christmas tree up yet? What’s the difference between a Christmas tree and an apple tree? The decorations are hung on the Christmas tree (and getting the lights untangled...), but the apples on the apple tree are produced by the tree itself. And the Holy Spirit wants to produce his fruit in our lives. As we live by his power, and we allow him to lead us, he will produce the fruit of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Do you see how they contrast with the acts of the sinful nature?

Some writers point to the three groups of three - the first three (love, joy, peace) all about our attitude to God; the next three (patience, kindness, goodness) in relation to other people - ‘social virtues’ (Stott); and the last three (faithfulness, gentleness, self-control) in relation to self.

We can’t work these things up by ourselves - they come as the power of the Holy Spirit works through us, moulding us, shaping us, changing us to be more like the Lord Jesus. The fruit of the Spirit point us to Jesus - his life of perfect love, perfect joy, perfect peace and so on. There’s no law against this fruit.

So how do we do it? How do we live by the Spirit, triumph over our sinful desires, and produce the fruit of the Spirit? In our final two verses we’re told how - one past, one present continuous.

V24: ‘Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.’ If we are Christ’s, then we have crucified our sinful nature. We’ve nailed it to the cross. We have put it to death. We don’t need to listen to it any more.

And instead of following our sinful nature, we’re told the positive steps to take in v25. ‘Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.’ A long time ago, the BB World Council was held in Newcastle. On the Sunday, all the companies from Down Battalion took part in the parade to church - which was in the Slieve Donard hotel. But our company made their way up the street like Brown’s cows. What was the problem? We were a good bit back from the band we were following, trying to keep in step with it. But the band behind was keeping a different beat, a different step. So some of us were in step with the band in front, some with the band behind. Brown’s cows.

Paul says we’re to keep in step with the Spirit. March to the beat of his drum. Live by his power, following what he wants us to do, and what he wants to do in us. And one of the ways we do that is by not being conceited (proud); provoking and envying each other. (26)

Well, it didn’t turn out to be a short sermon. But it does have just one point, and one big application - live by the Spirit. You’ve crucified your sinful nature, so don’t listen to it; yield to the power of the Spirit, producing his fruit, keeping in step with him.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday 3rd December 2017.