Monday, December 31, 2018

2018 Books

It's the end of another year, and another year of reading. I've been keeping track of the books that I've read each year since 2007 - purely for my own interest. I'm glad to report that my 50 books this year is well up on last year's 31, but still not close to 2007's 78 books! This is partly due to the Arrow Leadership Course and its extensive reading list, and partly because I've been trying to use my phone less and read a bit more. Plus, when I'm on holiday, I read quite a bit, managing ten books in one week abroad!

Here are the books I read this year:

1. To Live is Christ, to Die is Gain - Matt Chandler & Jared C Wilson
2. Insight into Stress - Beverley Shepherd
3. The Emotionally Healthy Leader - Peter Scazzero
4. Do More Better - Tim Challies
5. Camino Island - John Grisham
6. The Work of Christ - RC Sproul
7. The American Future - Simon Schama
8. Anthems for a Dying Lamb - Philip S Ross
9. Death by Meeting - Patrick Lencioni
10. This Invitational Life - Steve Carter

11. A Resilient Life - Gordon MacDonald
12. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team - Patrick Lencioni
13. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas - John Boyne
14. Supernatural Power for Everyday People - Jared C Wilson
15. Reset - David Murray
16. Fierce Convictions - Karen S Prior
17. What is the Mission of the Church? - Kevin DeYoung & Greg Gilbert
18. The Lord of the Ring - Phil Anderson
19. The Future of Jesus - Peter Jensen
20. Perfect Sinners - Matt Fuller

21. Bring Me Back - BA Paris
22. Death of a Village - MC Beaton
23. The Rooster Bar - John Grisham
24. Micah - Dale Ralph Davis
25. Room - Emma Donoghue
26. The Gospel comes with a House Key - Rosaria Butterfield
27. The Secret Scripture - Sebastian Barry
28. Teaching Amos - Bob Fyall
29. The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins
30. Paul meets Muhammad: A Christian-Muslim Debate on the resurrection - Michael R Licona

31. The Hole in our Holiness - Kevin DeYoung
32. The Tattooist of Auschwitz - Heather Morris
33. Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng
34. God and the Transgender Debate - Andrew T Walker
35. Everything I Never Told You - Celeste Ng
36. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman
37. A Study in Scarlet / The Sign of the Four / The Hound of the Baskervilles / The Valley of Fear - Arthur Conan Doyle
38. If You Could Ask God One Question - Paul Williams & Barry Cooper
39. Growing Through Encouragement - Roger Carswell
40. The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood

41. Ten Reasons why the Rapture must be Left Behind - Stephen D Morrison
42. Milkman - Anna Burns
43. Hit the Ground Kneeling - Stephen Cottrell
44. A Long, Long Way - Sebastian Barry
45. The Ulster Plantation in the Counties of Armagh and Cavan 1608-1641 - RJ Hunter
46. God’s Word, Our Story - DA Carson & Kathleen B Nielsen (eds)
47. Luck and the Irish - RF Foster
48. Philip Pullman’s Jesus - Gerald O’Collins
49. Murphy’s Law - Colin Bateman
50. Good Tidings of Great Joy - Charles Spurgeon

My top five would have to be:
1. The Secret Scripture - Sebastian Barry
2. Milkman - Anna Burns
3. Micah - Dale Ralph Davis
4. Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng
5. God's Word, Our Story - DA Carson & Kathleen B Nielsen (eds)

Here are the links to previous years' book blogs: 2017 (31); 2016 (23); 2015 (21); 2014 (26); 2013 (45); 2012 (49); 2011 (37); 2010 (52); 2009 (41); 2008 (23); 2007 (78).

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Sermon: Colossians 1: 15-20 Who is he, in yonder stall?

What is your favourite Christmas song? It seems like the shops have been playing Christmas songs for about the last three months, so when you’re out and about you hear all the secular Christmas songs - all I want for Christmas is you; or last Christmas I gave you my heart; or the Fairytale of New York. But which is your favourite Christmas song? We’ve sung lots of Christmas songs over the past few weeks at our carol services - which one do you like the best?

Silent night? Hark the herald angels sing? Away in a manger? Hopefully we’ve sung your favourite this year. If not, you can let me know and we’ll try to include it next year. When you’ve picked your favourite, then the next question is this - why do you like it? Is it the tune, that makes you feel Christmassy? Is it the words, that remind you of the reason for Christmas? Perhaps there are special memories connected to that particular song.

Well tonight, we’re going to look at another Christmas song. Luke, in his gospel, records four special Christmas songs from the original Christmas playlist - the song of Mary, the song of Zechariah, the song of the angels, and the song of Simeon. But in other parts of the New Testament we find other songs, old Christian hymns that express the faith. So, in Philippians 2, we have the song of Christ’s glory, which we sometimes use as our creed. Our song tonight comes from Colossians 1: 15-20.

These verses have been identified as an early Christian hymn - either composed by Paul himself, or else used by Paul here in his letter to the church at Colossae. We may not know who wrote it, and we may not know the tune they sang it to, but we have the words, and we’ll look at them together.

The focus is on ‘the Son he loves’ - as we see in the lead-up to the song. Back in verse 13 we read: ‘For he (God) has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.’ So the focus is on the eternal Son of God, the Lord Jesus. These verses are all about who Jesus is, and what he has done.

So let’s look from verse 15: ‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.’

I’m not normally very good at seeing family likenesses - especially when it comes to babies. There can be lots of chat about who they look like, whose eyes or nose or ears they’ve got. But normally I can’t see the likeness at all - it has to be very obvious for me to notice! But whenever someone notices that you look like a family member, they might say, ‘you’re the spit of your dad.’ Or maybe more politely, you’re the picture of your dad. [People normally think I look very like my mum - so maybe that’s why I’m growing my beard again!]

And this ancient hymn is saying that the eternal Son, the Lord Jesus is the picture of his heavenly Father. In Genesis, we read of how Adam and Eve were made in the image and likeness of God - but you don’t have to read much further to see how those image-bearers messed up, and marred God’s image in them. We all still bear God’s image, but it’s twisted and distorted in us.

But Jesus is the image of the invisible God. As John says in his gospel, ‘No one has ever seen God, but God the Only Begotten, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.’ When you look at Jesus, you see what God is like. Jesus shows us the invisible God.

That verse continues ‘the firstborn over all creation.’ And it’s here that some people get confused, reckoning that it says that Jesus was the firstborn of creation, that God made Jesus first, and then used Jesus to make everything else. [So, for example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses argue this]. But that’s not what this means.

At the time, the firstborn was a position of honour in the family. The firstborn would inherit a double portion of the inheritance. And so the picture is of Jesus inheriting all things. Notice that it doesn’t say he’s the firstborn of creation, or the firstborn in creation. He is the firstborn over all creation. He is over the creation, not a part of it.

And that can be seen in how the hymn continues, in verse 16: ‘For by him all things were created; things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.’

Again, did you notice how this hymn is closely echoing John 1? John says, ‘Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.’ (Jn 1:3). So here, the assertion is made, not once but twice, ‘by him all things were made.’ It’s there at the start and end of verse 16. All things were made by him. There are no exception clauses, no exemptions, no opt-outs. All things - in all categories - whatever their location (heaven or earth); whatever their visibility (visible or invisible); whatever their rank (thrones, powers, rulers, authorities). No matter how high the earthly or heavenly authority structures, whatever was made was made by Jesus.

And, as verse 16 ends, they weren’t only made by Jesus, they were also made for Jesus. Jesus made everything - including you; and everything was made for Jesus - to give him glory and praise. All creation exists for Jesus. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. If it weren’t for Jesus, his word of power (Heb 1), then our universe would be finished. Each atom was made by him and for him, and is controlled by him.

Yet so many refuse to acknowledge this pre-eminent position of Jesus. They won’t admit that he is their creator - looking instead for alternative theories of existence. People have turned away, and the creation suffers the effects of their rebellion. It’s why there has to be a second part to this ancient hymn. Jesus is the firstborn over all creation, but he is now also firstborn twice over. (That sounds a bit strange, doesn’t it - how can you be firstborn twice over?) We see that as the hymn gives us its second verse, from verse 18:

‘And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.’

Jesus is head over creation, but he is also head over the new creation - the body which is the church. Have you ever thought of the church in that way? When we think of church, we maybe think of old buildings, and songs, and flower rotas, and cups of tea. But the church is the society of the new creation, the first glimpse of what the world will become. And Jesus is at its head, because he is the beginning of the new world, and he is the firstborn from among the dead.

Jesus, in his resurrection, has inaugurated a new world. He was the first to be raised to new life, resurrection life, but he won’t be the last. He is the firstborn, the one who starts it all off. And because he starts it, he has supremacy in this, as in everything else.

And why is Jesus in this elevated position? Why does he have the supremacy? Because of what he has done: ‘For God was pleased to have all his fulness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.’

Jesus is the eternal Son, the image of the invisible God. And as the eternal Son, Jesus had something which Adam didn’t have - the fulness of God dwelling in him. Jesus is the God-Man, fully God and fully Man. And this means that Jesus is the perfect mediator, the only qualified go-between to bring about reconciliation.

You hear about reconciliation whenever a relationship has broken down. And we’ve seen how everything was made by Jesus and for Jesus, but people have turned their backs on God. There is reconciliation through Jesus. We can be reconciled to God, brought back to him, brought into relationship again with him. But notice that the reconciliation Jesus brings about is much bigger than just you and me being reconciled - it encompasses all things.

And it’s all things, echoing the all things created by Jesus in verse 16, only in reverse order. In verse 16 it was ‘things in heaven and on earth’ - here the reconciliation is ‘all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven.’

It’s a bit like an old piano. You can still play a tune on it, but occasionally there’s a duff note, and things are out of harmony. When the piano tuner comes, and works their magic, suddenly, the piano sounds like new. Everything is in perfect harmony again. And that’s how our world is, how our universe is. Slightly off-key, not quite harmonious. It still plays a tune, but it doesn’t sound quite right. But with Jesus’ work of reconciliation, the universe will sing with perfect harmony, and creation’s song, praising its maker will again sound.

And how does Jesus bring reconciliation? ‘By making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.’ Jesus takes away the hostility that was due to us; the threat of eternal death; and sheds his blood to bring us peace.

They may not have sung this song at the first Christmas, but it’s a song about the Christ of Christmas. Who is he, in yonder stall? He’s the firstborn over all creation, who made everything, and for whom everything was made. And he’s the firstborn from among the dead, the head of the new creation, of which we can be a member, as we trust in him for our peace, our reconciliation back to God. As our next song puts it so well:

Who is he, in yonder stall,
at whose feet the shepherds fall?
‘Tis the Lord! O wondrous story!
‘Tis the Lord! The King of glory!
At his feet we humbly fall;
crown him, crown him, Lord of all.

Will you bow before him? Worship him? Crown him Lord of all?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 30th December 2018.

Sermon: Matthew 2: 13-23 The Dark Side of Christmas

Did you get many Christmas cards this year? It’s always exciting to open the post in December - besides the bills and business letters, you hopefully get a Christmas card or two each day. You open up the inside to see who it’s from, but it’s the outside that is visible on your mantelpiece or stuck on the door or wherever you display them.

There are lots of types of Christmas card image. Some Santas and snowy scenes. Robins and reindeer. Choirs and carollers. And then there are the Bible images - stars and stables and shepherds; wise men and mangers and angels. But the part of the passage we’re looking at today wouldn’t be found on many (or indeed, any) Christmas cards.

It’s part of the story of that first Christmas, but it’s not the bit we like to think about. Give us angels and shepherds and wise men and Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus in the manger, but what about the rest of Matthew 2 - the dark side of Christmas.

Perhaps your Christmas hasn’t been an easy one. Perhaps it was less than perfect. Perhaps instead of joy, and excitement, and perfection, it was hard, and painful, and disappointing. Maybe you struggled your way through Christmas and you’re glad to be out the other side, just waiting for the clocks to roll on to tomorrow night so that 2018 can finally be over, and a new year will begin, a new year that will hopefully be better, because, you say to yourself, it could hardly be worse than what you’ve been through already.

This is the world that Jesus came into. Not a perfect world of tinsel and fairy lights, but of danger, threat, pain and confusion. Our world is messy, but that’s why Jesus came. He chose to step down from the delights of heaven to be born into our messy world. And he did it in order to be Immanuel, God with us, but more than that, God for us.

So let’s see what happened when Jesus was born into the world. Let’s focus on the dark side of Christmas. And we pick up the story in verse 13, where the keynote is the threat of Herod.

Next week we’ll look at the wise men’s arrival, but by verse 13, they have gone back home by a different way - so that they don’t go back by Jerusalem and Herod’s palace. When they had arrived, following the star, they had gone to the royal palace to see the one born king of the Jews. but King Herod was ‘disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.’ You see, for King Herod, it was a bit like the line you hear in old westerns - This town ain’t big enough for the two of us. To King Herod, this new king was a rival king, a threat to his power and position, and so he determined to destroy the baby at all costs.

Before he could do so, an angel of the Lord was on the ball. Just as he had appeared to Joseph in chapter 1 to reassure him of Mary’s pregnancy, so here he appears to Joseph in a another dream: ‘Get up, he said, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’

Herod had told the wise men that he wanted to worship Jesus, but his true intention was to kill him. Herod wants to get rid of his rival - and in so doing, is helping the devil in trying to prevent Jesus from completing the work he came to do - to save you and me. You see, if Jesus dies at Herod’s hands, then he couldn’t die on the cross to take away our sins. Do you see the danger here?

But God sends his angel, one step ahead, to ensure the survival of the Lord Jesus at this stage in the story. And as Joseph obeys the angel’s word, getting up, taking the child and his mother during the night, and leaving for Egypt, he is ensuring Jesus will escape the threat, and continue on his lifelong pathway to the cross.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the Sunday School class asked to draw a picture of a Bible story. And one wee boy draws an aeroplane with three people inside. And his teacher asks, Jonny, what have you drawn? So he names the people, Joseph, Mary and Jesus, and he says, this is the flight to Egypt.

But as they fly (on land rather than in a plane), as they escape, do you see what this means? It means that Jesus has been through and experienced what we see all too often on the news. For a part of his life, Jesus was a refugee. He and his family were asylum seekers, fleeing for their lives.

Would that knowledge change the way you look at the refugees you see on TV? To know that Jesus had to leave his homeland under threat of violence. To know that Joseph had no other choice but to get out of there straight away. The Lord of heaven and earth, giving up all to be born, and then to be forced to live as a refugee.

At the same time, Jesus is also fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy. Now, if you read some commentaries, they’ll talk for pages and pages about how this isn’t really a prophecy, and Matthew is clutching at straws and reading things into a verse from Hosea 11:1. But Matthew is writing Scripture too, guided by the Holy Spirit. And so he uses that verse ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’ to show that, just as God had called the nation of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt to be his people, so now Jesus follows the same pattern of going down to Egypt and being called out of it.

So the Dark Side of Christmas shows us that Jesus lived under threat, and was a refugee. But the next verses show just how set on violence King Herod was.

‘When Herod realised that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.’ (16)

Herod had been sitting around in his palace, waiting for the wise men to return. But he waits long enough, he realises that they’ve bypassed the palace, and he’s out for blood. Rather than targeting just one baby, he decides to kill all the baby boys, two years and under.

There’s a choir piece I used to sing growing up most years at the carol service in Dromore (The Coventry Carol):

Herod the king in his raging
charged he hath this day.
His men of might in his own sight
all young children to slay.

Such was Herod’s (and Satan’s) determination to destroy the Christ, he would stop at nothing to get rid of him. Some have argued that, if Bethlehem’s population was small, then the number of baby boys under two would also have been small, maybe just four or five were killed. But any would be too many.

Maybe you’ve noticed another link to the people of Israel in Egypt. Do you remember at the start of Exodus, Pharaoh does something the same - slaying the baby boys of Israel - and at that time one baby boy survived, one called Moses, who would lead his people out of Egypt. So here, one baby boy survives, the king of God’s people who would lead them out of slavery for ever.

But Matthew picks up on another connection to the Old Testament. He turns to the prophet Jeremiah (31:15), and these words being fulfilled:

‘A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’

Rachel is the wife of Jacob, and so the mother of the children of Israel. Here, she is pictured weeping for her children - the Holy Innocents (as their feast day is called). But in Jeremiah, Rachel weeps for her children who have been taken into exile, far away from the land of Israel. And the rest of Jeremiah 31 is full of hope, full of promise, that exile will end, that return will happen, that restoration will be brought about in the new covenant.

So for Matthew to include that verse here, with its wider context, sounds a note of hope in the midst of mourning. Rachel weeps, but Jeremiah looks forward to the day when the exiles will return. And Matthew is signposting that Jesus is the one who will overcome Satan, sin and death, that he will be the consolation of his people. That, in the words of Zechariah: ‘In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us. To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

Jesus came into our world of pain; he came to bring comfort to those who mourn; he came to give himself on the cross to die for us, and to rise from the dead to give us the hope of eternal life with him - and, as the Prayer Book Funeral service puts it, ‘a joyful reunion in the heavenly places’.

If everything was all right in the world, Jesus wouldn’t have needed to have come. If all was well, he could have stayed in paradise. But that’s not the world we live in. Every day we hear of others going through danger, threat, pain, suffering, sadness and mourning. And some days, we experience those things ourselves. And this is the world Jesus chose to come to. He came to our messy world, and he wasn’t immune from the mess. He didn’t hover half a foot off the ground. No, he got stuck in, to sort it out, to be our Saviour, Redeemer and Friend.

If you think that Jesus wouldn’t understand what you’re going through - he has been there. He knows. He cares. And he is with you through the mess, to rescue and redeem. That’s why he came. he came for you. Hallelujah! What a Saviour!

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 30th December 2018.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Sermon: Isaiah 11: 1-10 The Branch of Jesse

The closing months of this year have marked a couple of major centenaries. November was, of course, the centenary of the ending of World War One. December has its own special centenary. It’s one hundred years since the very first Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in Kings College, Cambridge. And over the past hundred years, that service has been adopted and adapted all around the world - and we’ll use it this evening at our Carols by Candlelight service.

The idea is simple. In nine Bible readings, we are taken through the story of God’s rescue plan - from Genesis 3, through some of the prophecies, to the events of the first Christmas, ending with the reading of the Christmas Gospel from John chapter 1: ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory...’

In the run-up to Christmas, we’ve been looking at some of the nine lessons. And, while we won’t use this one tonight (we’re using the alternative reading from Micah 5), it’s part of the traditional Nine Lessons set. It’s a prophecy all about the baby in the manger, who is the king of the universe. And in vivid images, we get a glimpse of who Jesus is, and what his kingdom will be like.

So let’s dive in to verses 1-3, where we find the King’s qualifications. The first qualification of being king is coming from the right family line. So, while I wouldn’t mind being king of the United Kingdom, I’m not qualified, because I don’t come from the Windsor family line. The people who are qualified are Prince Charles, Prince William, Prince George.

And here in the reading, the qualifying family line is that of King David. A couple of weeks ago we heard the promise to David that one of his sons would reign forever. So to be the Messiah, you need to come from David’s line. But do you see how it’s described in verse 1?

‘A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.’

If you’ve been out for a walk in Gosford or Clare Glen or Loughgall Country Park, you might have seen something like this. A tree has been cut down. There’s just a stump. It looks done for. Dead wood. But if you look closely, over time, there’s one little shoot coming up. It’s nowhere near as big as the stump, but it’s coming up, there’s life, there’s hope, there’s a new start.

And that’s the picture here, that Isaiah gives. When Isaiah was prophesying, the kingdom of Judah (David’s sons) still reigned, but they were effectively dead wood. A long way short of what David had been; a long way short of what God had promised. And shortly after Isaiah, the kingdom would go into exile. The tree would be felled. Only the stump remaining.

It would look tiny, ineffectual compared to the other nations round about. But if you look back to the end of chapter 10, God says through Isaiah that the lofty trees (the nations) will be felled - and instead this shoot will come from the stump of Jesse - Jesse the father of David, the root of the whole family line. And more, the shoot will grow, will become ‘a Branch’ that ‘will bear fruit.’

The King comes from the right family line. That’s important (which is why Matthew starts his gospel with the family tree of Jesus). But it’s not the only qualification. The other is to be Spirit-empowered:

‘The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him - the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD - and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.’ (2-3)

The ideal king will be empowered by the Holy Spirit. And in those verses, we see what the Spirit is like, and what the Spirit will give to the king. He is the Spirit of the LORD, the promise-making, promise-keeping God. He is the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and power, knowledge and of the fear of the LORD. The Spirit will enable the king to rule wisely, powerfully, as he walks in the fear of the LORD.

That fear of the LORD isn’t a phobia type of fear - you know, like arachnophobia is being afraid of spiders, or pognophobia is being afraid of beards. No, the fear of the LORD is an awe-filled, respect and honour for the LORD. And it’s this qualification that marks out the true king. Before King David, there was King Saul, but God rejected him for disobedience. Instead, God told Samuel the prophet that he was going to appoint ‘a man after my own heart.’ David was that man, but here we see the perfect king, Spirit-empowered, and truly delighting in the fear of the LORD.

Now those qualifications combined mean that, as much as we may think it, we are not the Messiah. We are not the world’s Saviour! That position is already filled, by the one who was descended from Jesse, the shoot and Branch, who was anointed with the Holy Spirit at his Baptism, as the dove descended on him. Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the king. He is uniquely qualified.

Next, we see the characteristics of his reign - justice and righteousness. First up, he judges justly:

‘He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.’

So if he doesn’t judge by what he sees and hears, then how will he judge? Isaiah is pointing to the fact that this king doesn’t only see and hear the outside - our words and deeds. This king knows and judges based on our internal motives - our intentions and ambitions and motives for doing or saying something.

Sometimes we do good things for the wrong reasons - because we want to be thought well of by others; or to look good; or to shame others. While others only see our actions or hear our words, and might indeed think well of us, Jesus the King sees our heart and knows our motives. It’s that he is judging. And so his judgement is effective, and fair, and truly impartial. He will ensure justice for all, especially for the needy, and the poor of the earth.

But more than that, righteousness will be characteristic of his reign. So everything that is right, and in right relationship with God will flourish and prosper, but whatever stands opposed to God will be destroyed. No longer will sin spoil God’s creation:

He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash round his waist.’ (3-5)

It’s not that he has halitosis, a case of bad breath so deadly that he will slay the wicked with it. Rather, it’s the breath of his lips, the rod of his mouth, his word that will slay the wicked (as picked up by 2 Thess).

We’ve seen the qualifications of the King (the shoot of Jesse, Spirit-empowered), and the characteristics of his reign (justice and righteousness). In the last verses (6-9) we see the effects of his reign.

If you’ve been to Belfast Zoo recently, or Dublin Zoo - it’s all on the flat - then you’ll know that all the animals are in their own enclosures. They’re all kept separate. Lions in one. Leopards in another. The zoo farm in another area. Here and now, you wouldn’t find these verses in a zookeeper’s instruction manual:

‘The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.’ (6-7)

As Woody Allen once said, the lion will lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep. To try this now would be a disaster - wolves and lambs; calves and lions, and a little child in with them? Cows and bears together? Not a chance! Not now anyway, but this is a picture of Messiah’s kingdom of peace. Enemies reconciled. No more danger or threat of violence. And that’s seen in how children will play:

‘The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest.’

The cobra and the viper are both poisonous snakes, deadly especially to infants. These days you stay away from them, but then, the danger will be gone. Christ’s reign of peace will have come to fruition:

‘They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.’

No harm, no destroying, no death. Instead, the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD. Everyone will know him, be in relationship with him, live out that righteousness, and flourish in this reign of peace. And the knowledge of the LORD will be so full it’ll be like the waters cover the sea. Whenever you see the sea, there’s water. Waters and sea are the same - the sea is full of water! And the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD. We’ll all know him fully, as we are fully known. The effect of Messiah’s reign will be peace.

And, just beyond the poem part, we see verse 10. ‘In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious.’

The Lord Jesus is a banner for the peoples - a standard, a flag, calling people to himself - good news of great joy for all the people, because the Saviour has been born. It’s what Jesus himself says in John 12: ‘But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.’ The cross stands as a banner, calling you to Jesus, the qualified king, who rules justly and will destroy the wicked, who offers you his peace through his salvation. It’s all possible because Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the Son of David, the Son of God. Will you come to him today?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 23rd December 2018.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Sermon: Isaiah 9: 1-7 What child is this?

Whenever a baby is born, there are a few questions that are always asked. When was the baby born? How heavy was the baby? And, what are they calling it? And so I’ve learned to listen carefully, to try to remember the answers, because the questions are bound to be asked again!

In our reading tonight from Isaiah, we hear of a birth announcement. Now, normally, birth announcements are made after the birth has happened. So, maybe in the Irish Times, so-and-so and so-and-so announce the birth of their baby so-and-so. Or maybe something will be posted on Facebook. But this birth announcement in Isaiah 9 was made seven hundred years before the baby was born.

But forget about what weight the baby was. It’s not mentioned, and probably doesn’t matter. What does matter is found in verse 6 - that the baby has been born, and what the baby will be called.

‘For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’

The important facts are recorded there in verse 6. That the baby has been born, and what the baby has been called. But to see why that matters, we need to see verse 6 in the wider context of the chapter and section of Isaiah’s prophecy.

The section begins back in chapter 7, in dangerous days in Jerusalem. King Ahaz, is on the throne in Jerusalem, the son of David ruling in David’s city. But by this time, the kingdom he’s ruling over is only a fragment of King David’s kingdom. The majority of tribes turned away from the kingdom to form the kingdom of Israel (slightly confusing!). And the sons of David rule over the bit called Judah.

And there’s a threat against Jerusalem from the nations of Aram and Israel. Everyone is fearful. But God promises that the nations won’t conquer Jerusalem. And in chapter 7 we find the sign of Immanuel (which we looked at this morning - the virgin giving birth to a son, called Immanuel, which means God with us.).

But even though the threat of Aram and Israel has gone, the people of Judah are going down a deadly path. They’re turning from God, turning instead to consult mediums and spiritists, turning from light to darkness. And that’s what we see by the end of chapter 8. ‘Then they will look towards the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.’ (8:22)

Yet, as chapter 9 starts, God promises that even the dark places, will see light. The places that have suffered from enemy devastation will instead see honour and life. There’s the promise of light:

‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.’ (2)

We’re not used to pitch blackness these days with streetlights and electric lamps and car headlights. But without all those, when it was dark, it really was dark. And the darkness is a picture of our spiritual condition without God. Unable to see. Unseen. Without God’s light. But here God promises not just a tiny light, but a great light. A light dawning - the sun rise.
And because of that light, there will be joy. ‘You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder.’

There’s an increase in joy that comes through the light. And it’s compared to two other circumstances of joy. Imagine the joy of people rejoicing at harvest. The earth has yielded its increase, they’ll have food to eat, and so they rejoice, And that rejoicing is a picture of this rejoicing.

Or, imagine the joy when men are dividing the plunder. They’ve fought a battle, they’ve won a war, and now anything belonging to the enemy is theirs. They’re rejoicing because they’ve won, and because they’ve profited. This rejoicing is like that rejoicing.

The military picture continues, as the light and joy is compared to a previous victory. ‘For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.’ (4-5).

Isaiah looks back to the defeat of Midian, when an enemy was destroyed. Except this is an even bigger day that’s coming. It will mean that the yoke that burdens God’s people will be shattered. God’s people are pictured as the oxen, under a yoke, slaves, burdened. A bar across their shoulders. Being oppressed by a rod wielded by the enemy. The yoke, the bar, the rod, all shattered. Gone for good. There’s freedom and liberation. And more than that, there is peace.

There’ll be no more need of warriors’ boots. No more need of army camouflage outfits. They’ll all be used in the fire. All burned up.

So how is this possible? How can we have this light, this joy, this peace? It all comes through verse 6. As John Lennon sang: Merry Christmas (war is over). But it’s not just because of the Christmas pop tunes that peace comes. It’s because of the Christ of Christmas, the baby announced in verse 6.

This child is born, this son is given, ‘and the government will be on his shoulders.’ They say that a week is a long time in politics. I’m sure for Teresa May, this past year has seemed like an eternity, as the government seems to be at war amongst itself, and as Teresa faced that confidence vote.

But here, this promised baby will shoulder the burden of government himself. And he is the one for the job, as we see because of what he is called. When you look at verse 6, these aren’t the kinds of names that you’ll hear in a playground or a school roll call. These are names that are only fit for one person in the whole of history - the baby born in Bethlehem:

First up, he is the Wonderful Counsellor. Now that’s not a lovely member of the local district council. This isn’t someone serving on Armagh Banbridge and Craigavon Council! This counsellor provides wonderful counsel, advice, encouragement. He’s the one who draws alongside, stands with you, who provides wisdom, giving help in time of need.

Remember when some of the crowds will leave when Jesus says some hard things in John 6? Jesus says to the twelve, will you also leave? Peter answers, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ If you’re wondering about the future; if you’re unsure where to turn; if you need some wisdom - come to the Wonderful Counsellor, the fount of wisdom.

This baby is also the Mighty God. This is no ordinary baby - this is God himself, stepping down to be born as a baby, still powerful and mighty. It doesn’t take long to think of the ways in which this baby will show his power - as he walks on water; as he calms the storm; as he drives out diseases, and makes the lame leap for joy. God has come near, and is lying in the manger. He is almighty, all-powerful, and can do all things. What is it you need him to do? Come to the Mighty God, the source of power.

Thirdly, we see that this baby is the Everlasting Father, or as some would suggest, ‘Father of eternity’. He is in the position of authority for all eternity. Indeed, as Isaiah goes on to say, ‘of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end.’ We’re so used to things having expiry dates - the first mince pies that Tesco had on their shelves back in September would be out of date by now! We update our cars and clothes. But the kingdom of Jesus goes on for eternity, and we’re invited to be with him. Come to the Everlasting Father, and worship him now and forevermore.

The final name for the baby is Prince of Peace. The baby lying in the manger is the one who brings peace. That’s what the host of angels confirmed, as they sang ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’ In a world of war, we long for the peace that he brings. Even in recent days, when we hear of ; as well as the places that don’t make it into the news, or which we’ve simply forgotten about; we long for peace.

The promised Son is the one who brings peace, because he gave himself for us rebels, to bring us back to God and bring an end to our conflict. Peace comes through the death of the Prince of Peace.

As you come close to Christmas, as you gaze into the manger, don’t just see a tiny baby, wrapped in swaddling cloths. Ask yourself - what child is this? He is the Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. He is the source of our light, our joy, and our peace. And he was born to us, and was given to us. Will you receive him, this Christmas?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 16th December 2018.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Family Carol Service Talk: Matthew 1: 18-25 The Christmas Cracker

This morning I’ve brought along something to do with Christmas. It’s going to help us understand what Christmas is all about. But I wonder if you can guess what it might be. It’s something that is normally found on the table at Christmas dinner, but you can’t eat it. Anyone know? It’s a Christmas cracker.

Here’s a question for you: what do you normally find in a Christmas cracker? You normally get a joke, a hat, and a toy. This is a special Christmas cracker, all about the first Christmas.

So let’s see what’s inside it. What do we need to do to find what’s inside? We need to pull it. So can I have two helpers to pull the cracker?

Now, normally you get a joke inside a Christmas cracker. There are no jokes inside this one, but don’t worry - by now you might know that I like a good Christmas cracker joke. So here are a few for you!

How does good king Wenceslas like his pizza? Deep pan, crisp and even.

What did one snowman say to the other snowman? ‘Can you smell carrots?’

What do you get if you eat Christmas decorations? Tinsellitis.

What did Adam say the day before Christmas? It’s Christmas, Eve.

Which side of a turkey has the most feathers? The outside.

What kind of motorbike does Santa ride? A holly Davidson.

Why was Cinderella no good at football? Her coach was a pumpkin and she kept running away from the ball.


So, there’s no joke in this special Christmas cracker, but there is a bit of paper. And it gives us our Bible reading for this morning - Matthew 1: 18-25.

In that Bible reading, there are three names for the Christmas baby. And in our cracker, there are three special items to help us see what those names mean.

The first one is a crown. We normally find a crown in a cracker, and people think that it’s because of the three kings who came to see Jesus. but this crown in this cracker is telling us that Jesus is the King.

In verse 18 it says: ‘This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.’ That word Christ is the Greek version of the Hebrew word Messiah. Both mean the anointed one - the one who has been set apart as God’s king.

Christ isn’t Jesus’ surname, in the way that mine is McMurray, and you have your surname. No, this is a title, a job description. He is Jesus the Christ, the King.

And last week we saw how Jesus is the son of David, who was a great king in Israel. God had promised that one of David’s sons would reign as king forever. And that’s exactly what Jesus does. So the crown tells us that Jesus is the King.

Next up, we have a cross. Now, why would we find a cross in this special Christmas cracker? Have I got a bit mixed up in my seasons and special services? Surely the cross is for Good Friday and Easter. What is it doing in this Christmas cracker?

It’s because right from the very beginning, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, he was already on his way to die on the cross. It’s the reason that Jesus came into the world. The wooden manger leads to the wooden cross.

And we know this because of what the angel says in verse 21. ‘She (Mary) will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’

I wonder do you know what your name means? My name means ‘strength’ or ‘battle spear.’ But Jesus is given the name Jesus ‘because he will save his people from their sins.’ Jesus is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Joshua, and it simply means ‘God saves.’

So Jesus is called Jesus because he is our Saviour - the one who saves his people from their sins. And he does that by going to the cross, and dying to take away our sins. So Christmas leads to Good Friday and Easter. It’s why Jesus is called Jesus, and why Jesus came. The cross tells us that Jesus is the Saviour.

Now we’ve got one more item left in the cracker, and one more name to consider. And the item is... some sticky tape! This is a Christmas essential, when you’re wrapping up presents, to be able to stick the wrapping paper, and keep things together.

And we have sticky tape because the third and final name we have in the reading is in verse 22=23. ‘All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call his name Immanuel - which means God with us.’

Another name for the baby Jesus is Immanuel. And Immanuel means God with us. Whenever we look into the manger in Bethlehem, we see the face of God. God the Son, has become one of us, and God is with us. In Jesus, God is always with us - experiencing what it is to be human; sharing our joys and sorrows; and forever he shares our humanity.

The sticky tape holds things together - and in Colossians 1 we read that in Jesus, all things hold together. He is the sticky tape at the centre of the universe. And he has stuck himself to us, to be with us, forever. Jesus our Immanuel.

Our Christmas cracker shows us why we can have a cracking Christmas - because it shows us who the baby in the manger is:

The crown tells us that Jesus is the King, the Christ.

The cross tells us that Jesus is the Saviour, who came to save us from our sins.

The sticky tape tells us that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us.

Normally you only get jokes and novelty items in a cracker - but our cracker this morning tells us the good news of Christmas, the good news of Jesus Christ, our Immanuel. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached at the Family Carol Service in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 16th December 2018.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Cafe Church Talk: How can I believe the Christmas story?

We’re well into the season of Nativity plays, as a cast of shepherds, angels, wisemen, donkeys, sheep, and Mary and Joseph are assembled. And, as teachers and Sunday School leaders try to include everyone in some way, they even find additional roles in the Nativity play. So one year, in my last church, I had the special honour of being a donkey, dressed in an Ey-ore onesie. (Sadly I wasn’t able to find any photos of that...). And, in the movie Love, Actually, you get this scene. [Lobster clip].

Shepherds and angels, wisemen and even lobsters, is the nativity story all just made up? Is is something nice for the kids to do, but doesn’t really bear any relation to reality? With all the cookery programmes on TV this time of year, is the recipe for Christmas something like this: take one ordinary baby, add in all sorts of legends and myths, and voila, there you have Christmas?

As seems to be happening in some places, do we need to forget about Christmas, and instead celebrate some sort of winterval? Should we just go along with saying happy holidays or seasons greetings, and forget about merry Christmas? I don’t think so, because Christmas starts with Christ. But how do you answer those who do think that we should leave the Christ of Christmas behind? How can we believe the Christmas story?

Christmas starts with Christ, and it’s with him that we need to start. It’s clear that, whatever you may think of him, Jesus existed. Scholars of all religious beliefs and none accept that there is more than enough historical evidence to show that Jesus lived, and was highly influential.

Besides the evidence of the New Testament, they can also point to non-Christian sources - Josephus the Jewish historian mentions ‘Jesus, who was called Christ’ and the Roman historian Tacitus, writing about the Christians blamed by Nero for the Fire in Rome says that the founder of their sect was Christus, he was executed under Pontius Pilate, and it had spread through Judea and even to Rome.

So there’s no doubt that Jesus the Christ existed. He was indeed born. But could it be that all these other stories have been added on at a later date? So, if you have someone who is important, or a great hero, then you get more and more legends and stories told about him. Is that what’s going on with Jesus?

That brings us to the way that Luke writes his gospel. Luke, the gospel writer, was a doctor, an educated man. And in the opening verses of his gospel, he tells us how he approached his task.

‘Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, 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, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.’ (Luke 1: 1-4).

Dr Luke has spoken to the eyewitnesses. He has carefully investigated everything. And he writes an orderly account. So through the passage we’re focusing on, there are historical details - people like Caesar Augustus and Quirinius, Joseph and Mary; there are places like Nazareth and Bethlehem; there are time references - the census, the one that happened when Quirinius was governor of Syria. This isn’t ‘once upon a time...’ fairytale stuff. This is history. Garnered from his eyewitness - Mary the mother of Jesus.

And within the story, there are details that might seem far-fetched or pure legend to the sceptic. Angels appearing to shepherds to tell them about a baby. Wise men being guided by a star. But perhaps the biggest stumbling block is the baby himself.

At the very least, there was more than an element of scandal in the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. His mother Mary is probably a teenager, about 15. She is engaged to Joseph. And then, suddenly, she is pregnant. With the Son of God growing inside her womb. And some people today say, yeah right.

But you can’t read the early chapters of Matthew and Luke without realising just how difficult this circumstance must have been. They weren’t in the dark as to where babies came from. They knew it as well as we do. That’s why Mary asks the question of the angel Gabriel: ‘How will this be?’ It’s why Joseph resolves to divorce Mary quietly, because she must have been unfaithful. But both Mary and Joseph are told about this special baby.

So, Mary is told: ‘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. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.’ (Luke 1: 30-33)

Joseph is told: ‘Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ (Matt 1:20-21).

The baby is the Son of the Most High, conceived from the Holy Spirit. Both Mary and Joseph are told that Jesus is the Son of God. That the second person of the Trinity is living inside her womb, waiting to be born - fully God and fully man.

This is why Jesus Christ is so special; why Christmas is so important. What we see in Bethlehem is God becoming man, taking on our flesh, becoming one of us, the word becoming flesh. The big word that theologians use is the ‘incarnation.’ - when God takes on our flesh, he is in carne - just as chilli con carne is chilli with meat (flesh). The incarnation means that to gaze into the manger is to see the face of God. God with skin on.

For CS Lewis, the incarnation is the Grand Miracle. We think of all the miracles of Jesus. But the greatest miracle is the incarnation. He writes: ‘What had happened on Earth, when [God] was born a man at Bethlehem, had altered the universe for ever.’ Again: ‘The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became Man. Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this.’

But there’s a line in the Chronicles of Narnia that CS Lewis best pictures the miracle of Christmas. In The Last Battle, King Tirian goes into a stable, and discovers a whole new world inside.

‘“It seems, then,” said Tirian, smiling himself, “that the stable seen from within and the stable seen from without are two different places.”
“Yes,” said the Lord Digory. “Its inside is bigger than its outside.”
“Yes,” said Queen Lucy. “In our world too, a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.”

In the manger, we discover one inside it, who is bigger than our whole world. The eternal Son, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, lying in a manger. Why did he do it? What’s the Christmas story all about?

It’s about invasion, and rescue. To quote Lewis again,“Enemy-occupied territory---that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”

Love invades our world, wrapped up in strips of cloth, laid in a manger. It’s the message of the angels to the shepherds: ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.’

How can we believe the Christmas story? We can believe, because it is the true story of God becoming one of us, to be our Saviour. The Grand Miracle has taken place. The saviour is here. And it’s good news for everybody.

I wonder if you’ve heard of Andy Park. Here he is. He has celebrated Christmas every day since 1993 (except for a fortnight after Christmas 2015). He has turkey every day. He watches the Queen’s Speech every day. Wizzard may have sung ‘I wish it could be Christmas every day’ but Andy Park does it.

You know the way you hear the advertising slogan around this time - A dog is for life, not just for Christmas? The good news of Christmas means that Christmas is for life, not just for Christmas! You don’t need to have a turkey dinner every day. But every day can be Christmas, when Jesus is your Saviour. He loves you, he came to save you. You just have to receive him, and believe him.

This sermon was preached at the Cafe Church in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 9th December 2018.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Sermon: Matthew 1: 1-17 The Christmas (Family) Tree

Every year, as the dark nights are drawing in, and we’re driving anywhere at night, the lookout begins. On every drive we’re watching out to see when we’ll see our first Christmas tree. It seems that they go up earlier and earlier each year. Which leads me to ask the question. Have you got your Christmas tree up yet?

Even though the Christmas tree only really came into popularity in Britain through the influence of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, these days, nearly everyone has a Christmas tree. They come in all sizes and shapes, and can be decorated in all sorts of ways.

Our Bible reading from Matthew’s gospel is a bit like a Christmas tree, standing tall, drawing the eye. And this might be the only tree you need this Christmas, so even if you don’t have a Christmas tree in your house, you can have this one. It’s the best Christmas tree of all.

And yet, on first glance, you might be put off. And even more so, if it’s the first page of Matthew’s gospel, the first page of the whole New Testament. Perhaps, as the new year comes, you’ll decide that you want to start reading the Bible every day. But rather than starting into the Old Testament and working through it, you think it might be better to start in the New Testament. So you open up your Bible to Matthew 1:1, and your heart sinks.

You want to get to reading about Jesus, but this is more like reading a page from the Jerusalem phone book. All those hard to pronounce names, many of them you’ve never heard of before, and you wonder, what on earth is Matthew playing at? Why does he start his gospel in this way?

You might be tempted to do what some kids do when they’re counting. We used to play hide and seek in a neighbour’s garden. Someone would count and the rest of us would scarper to climb up into the trees or hide behind a fence. But every so often, someone would cheat. They would count like this: 1, 2, skip a few, 99, 100, coming, ready or not!’ It might be tempting to skip these verses, but Matthew has deliberately included these verses here, right at the start. So what’s his purpose? Why does he write it this way?

Well, look at verse 1: ‘A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham.’ Matthew is recording the genealogy, the family line of Jesus Christ. He’s showing us who Jesus the Christ is. And even in verse 1, he wants us to know for sure that Jesus is the son of David, the son of Abraham.

David was the great king of Israel, the shepherd boy king, whom God set over his people. And God had made a promise to David, that one of his sons would reign forever. Matthew is going to show, through his gospel, that Jesus is this promised king - the Christ.

But Jesus is also the son of Abraham - the one whom God called, with the promise of children, land, and blessing. And Matthew will show how Jesus is the promised Christ, ministering to the house of Israel, through whom blessings will come to all the nations.

So in these opening verses, Matthew is giving us a family tree - the father of so and so, who was the father of so and so, and so on. So let’s climb into this tree to see what we find. It’s a family tree, but it’s also the Christmas family tree - we wouldn’t have a Christmas Day without this unlikely family tree. So let’s explore it, using a Christmas tree as our guide.

The first thing you have to decide when you’re getting a Christmas tree is this - real or artificial? Artificial trees might last you years, and can look very realistic, but some prefer the smell and feel and look of a real Christmas tree. And that’s the first thing to notice about this Christmas family tree. It’s a real one. It’s 100% genuine.

These days, when it comes to family history, some people are really into it, while others don’t really know much about their ancestors. In my family, we can only go back about five generations. But for the Jews, they knew their family history. Their ancestry was important to them, so they knew who they were and where they came from.

So the names that we find here are all real people, tracing their family line from Abraham. This isn’t like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter - lots of names and stories, but all made up. And so, every name from Abraham in verse 2 through to Zerubbabel in verse 13 is mentioned at least once in the Old Testament. This is the real life fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham. It’s a real Christmas family tree.

So, you’ve decided you want to get a real Christmas tree. You might go along to a Christmas tree farm where you pick your tree and they cut it down, or you go along to a shop, where they are sitting netted up and ready to go. I overheard someone the other day looking at netted Christmas trees saying that you never really know what it’s going to be like, if it’s a good one, until you get it home. Because you want a good one, a healthy looking one, one that will look good.

They say that you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family. But God picked out this family for his Son to be born into. Jesus picked this family as his own. But if you were looking for a family tree, this might be one to avoid.

There are more than a few bad apples growing on this tree. Forget about the names that you don’t know, and focus for a moment on the names that you do. Abraham himself, the father of faith, and yet he passed off his wife Sarah as his sister to save his own skin, not once but twice! Abraham also took matters into his own hands when it seemed that God was too slow in fulfilling his promise of giving him a son. Instead, Abraham took Hagar, his wife’s slave girl and got her pregnant.

Isaac, the son of the promise, when he grew up, pulled the same trick of passing off his wife Rebekah as his sister to save his own skin. He also played the favouritism game, favouring one son, Esau over the other son, Jacob. Jacob, whose name means ‘he deceives’ was a slimy trickster, always out to take advantage of you. David was king, yes, but was also an adulterer and a murderer (attempting to cover up his adultery).

That’s the first fourteen generations, Abraham to David. The next fourteen generations, David to Jeconiah, that covers the period of the kings. Solomon who had 700 wives and 300 concubines. And the rest of the kings follow the pattern of good king, bad king, good king, bad king, but even the good kings aren’t that good. Then the kings are finished. The nation goes into exile to Babylon, and eventually returns, but with no more kings, suffering under foreign rule.

If you were to choose a family tree to work with, to bring the Christ from, it probably wouldn’t be this one. You’d write it off - too many problems, too many scandals, we’ll politely avoid them. Yet this is the tree that God chooses to work with. This is the family line that God has chosen for his Son to be born into.

So, when you’re getting your Christmas tree, you’ve decided you want a real tree; you’ve picked one, and when you bring it home, then you have to decorate it. In this family tree, we’ve seen that it’s real, that it’s maybe not the best, but that its decoration sets it apart. You see, this rotten family tree is lit up by God’s grace.

Yes, Abraham didn’t always get it right, and David was a murderer, but God shows his grace in using them for his glory, to advance his rescue plan. God’s grace is powerful enough to turn around the worst of sinners, to draw them to himself, and to use them in his plans.

But God’s grace is seen especially in this Christmas family tree, because of who Matthew includes in it. Sorry ladies, but normally, family trees and genealogies only ever focused on the men. It was who your father was that counted, not who your mum was. The family tree traced the fathers and sons. But Matthew includes the names of five women in this family tree, to highlight and focus on God’s grace in a most remarkable way.

Tamar (3) had been wronged by her father-in-law Judah, so tricked him by acting like a prostitute. Yet God used that incident to advance the line of promise. Rahab (5) was a pagan foreigner prostitute who lived in the city of Jericho up until the moment that Joshua marched the people of Israel around the walls and they collapsed. Rahab had hid the spies, and converted to trust in Israel’s God because she knew that he was the only true God. The rest of the city died, but she and her family lived, becoming part of this family tree.

Ruth was a Moabite, another foreigner who was brought into the people of Israel - married to Naomi’s son who died, then pledged her allegiance to Naomi to return to Bethlehem, being redeemed by Boaz, finding refuge under the wing of the God of Israel.

The wife of Uriah in verse 6, not named, is Bathsheba. David had seen her bathing on her roof, had sent for her and committed adultery with her. She became pregnant, so David sent for her husband, back from the war that David should have been fighting, but Uriah was more honourable, and wouldn’t go in to his wife when his fellow soldiers were still encamped on the battlefield. So David had him murdered.

And then, finally, in verse 16, there’s Mary. A teenage pregnancy, while engaged, the talk of the town. Just another scandal to add to the rest of the family’s history. Yet this is the family that God has chosen, protected and guided. In the weakness and failure, God’s grace shines ever clearer. This was the family Jesus had chosen to join, to be identified with, to fulfil the promise of becoming the son of Abraham (the chosen offspring in whom the nations of the earth would be blessed), the son of David (the royal king who would reign forever), the Christ (the anointed one).

When you look at your Christmas tree, even if it’s a bit wonky, or it doesn’t sit as you’d like, remember this Christmas family tree. God is at work to connect the Old Testament to the New Testament, to bring all his promises to be yes in Christ Jesus. This is who Jesus is. And God’s grace continues to shine as he bring us into this family, not because of our goodness, but because of his grace.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 9th December 2018.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Sermon: Nehemiah 6: 1-19 Carrying on a great work

As some of you may know, last week we were in Bulgaria for a few days. Normally, people from here go to Bulgaria for the skiing, but we didn’t do any skiing. Instead, we visited with missionaries and a pastor. It was a humbling experience, to sit and talk with a man whose church building had been confiscated by the Communists; and who then began to lead an underground church, meeting secretly. With new legislation being debated in Bulgaria, religious freedoms are under threat, and the pastor reckoned things would be worse than under the Communists.

The question that arises is this - why are people who are seeking to be faithful to God, and proclaiming the name of Jesus, facing such pressure and threat and opposition? We don’t think it should be this way. And yet these saints are facing danger and threat in the very near future (all over again).

The thing is, though, that no matter where you might be reading in the Bible, God’s people always seem to be under some sort of threat, facing some sort of opposition. So it’s not as strange as we might think it to be. It seems to be the usual pattern for God’s people - opposition of one sort or another. And why does it happen? Well, to put it simply, we have an enemy, who doesn’t want us to prosper, who seeks to make things difficult for us as we seek to follow Jesus.

So as we turn to Nehemiah 6, we discover that he is facing all sorts of opposition. Again. You see, back in chapters 2 and 4, there was some initial opposition to Nehemiah’s building project from Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem. And, as chapter 6 opens, those same three names come up again.

So, what’s Nehemiah doing, and why is he being opposed as he tries to do it? The big picture is that Nehemiah, born in exile, far away, has heard of the state of the city of Jerusalem. Its walls were broken down and burned. Its people weren’t much better off. And so Nehemiah, by God’s providence, cupbearer to the king, comes with the king’s blessing to rebuild the city walls of Jerusalem.

And there’s opposition to the building work. A few years ago, Channel 5 had a tv programme ‘Neighbours from Hell’ about neighbours who caused hassle. Nehemiah was living with neighbours, if not from hell themselves, then inspired by hell. You see, Nehemiah is building up the city of Jerusalem - the city of the people of God, the people of God’s promise, that the Messiah, God’s king would come from. Without the people of God, there can be no Messiah from God. Without Nehemiah’s work, Jesus could not have come to be our Saviour.

And so the devil, through these neighbours from hell, is trying to prevent God fulfilling his promises, and stopping Jesus from coming into the world. Do you see how important Nehemiah’s work is? And why the opposition is increasing in pressure - all to prevent God’s purposes from being fulfilled.

In verse 1 we see the context of this renewed opposition. Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem (and all the rest of the enemies) hear that Nehemiah has rebuilt the wall with no gaps (although the doors aren’t in place yet). The project they had mocked is coming to an end, the walls of safety and security are being finished, and so they need to do something to try to stop the work at the eleventh hour.

The first plan of attack comes in verse 2. The message from Sanballat and Geshem: ‘Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono’ But Nehemiah sees through their scheme, they were scheming to harm him, so he’s invited to the plain of Ono, and he says Oh no! I won’t go! Well, that’s the paraphrase. He actually says: ‘I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?’

At the basic level, it’s an attempt to distract him from carrying on a great work. Especially given they try the same message four time! But the deeper threat is them scheming to harm him. The devil is trying to take Nehemiah out of the game, to prevent the work from happening.

And we can see in the life of Jesus the same attack being tried time and again. When Herod gave the order for all the baby boys of Bethlehem to be slaughtered. When the crowd in Nazareth try to push Jesus over the edge of the cliff. The storm that arises when Jesus is in the boat. Even the crucifixion itself! But none of those attempts on Jesus’ life were successful until the moment God had planned - when Jesus’ death would fulfil his purpose.

After four failed attempts, the enemies decide eventually(!) to try something else. This time, verse 5, they send the same message, but also with an unsealed letter, for anyone to read. And the message tells how a report is going around (and Geshem says it’s true, so it must be true...) about how the Jews are going to revolt, and how Nehemiah is going to proclaim himself king. It’s a bit of bribery or blackmail - when they say, now you wouldn’t want the king to hear about this, would you? You’d better come here to us and we’ll sort it all out.

Nehemiah’s reply is straightforward and fairly blunt: ‘Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.’ It’s all lies and nonsense. Pure fantasy. But do you see their motive this time? Not so much to harm Nehemiah physically, but to harm him mentally. ‘They were all trying to frighten us, thinking. “Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.”’ (9)

They’re trying to weaken Nehemiah and the workers through fear. You’ve heard that expression ‘paralysed by fear’ - that was their aim. They were trying to stop the work from being completed. But remember, no building work, no Jewish nation, no Jesus.

And we hear the same devilish accent in the words of the Pharisees in Luke 13:31, when they say that Herod (another Herod from when Jesus was a baby) wants to kill him, so he should go somewhere else. They were trying to use fear, trying to stop Jesus from completing his life’s work. But Jesus responds that he will stay on course and complete his work, and reach his goal.

So the threat of harm hasn’t worked. Neither has the threat of fear. And we see that in Nehemiah’s prayer: ‘Now strengthen my hands.’ (9). Give me strength to keep going, even when there are fearful threats.

But that doesn’t stop the neighbours from hell. Now, they try a different approach. One that, at first glance, might sound reasonable. Nehemiah is visiting Shemaiah, who appears to be a prophet in the city. He advises that Nehemiah should meet him in the temple, the house of God, behind closed doors, taking refuge there, because men are coming to kill Nehemiah.

Doesn’t that sound reasonable, maybe even sensible? And we’ve heard of the idea of taking sanctuary, taking refuge in religious buildings. But we see Nehemiah’s answer in verse 11: ‘Should a man like me run away? Or should one like me go into the temple to save his life? I will not go!’ So Nehemiah isn’t going to run away, or hide away.

But there’s more going on below the surface. You see, the prophet wasn’t saying these things because God had sent him. He was saying these things because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. He who pays the piper calls the tune - and they wanted to intimidate Nehemiah.

And the aim was to make Nehemiah ‘commit a sin by doing this and then they would give me a bad name to discredit me.’ (13). How would this be a sin? By going into the temple, the holy place, Nehemiah would be sinning, disobeying God’s command. He would be trespassing the boundaries God had set in place. If he had done that, then his name would be mud, he’d have a bad name, he’d be discredited.

It was a temptation to sin by seeking self-preservation. And while Nehemiah didn’t sin in this regard, he had sinned in lots of other ways (we see his confession in chapter 1). Jesus was tempted in the same way, over and over. Tempted to make stones into bread to satisfy his hunger after forty days of fasting. Tempted to throw himself down from the top of the temple to test God’s protection. Tempted to bypass the pain of the cross and receive the kingdoms of the world by worshipping Satan. Tempted (by Peter) to not go the way of the cross. But in all these temptations, and in every temptation, Jesus committed no sin! That’s why he is our perfect Saviour, the one who covers our sins through his perfect life, and his perfect death on the cross for us.

The Satan who tried to prevent Jesus from fulfilling his mission (and was unsuccessful in that endeavour!) also tried to prevent Jesus from coming into the world through his opposition to Nehemiah. But as Nehemiah joyfully records, this opposition was also unsuccessful.

The wall was completed in fifty-two days. That’s some going, with all that had been going on in the background. And when the enemies hear the news, they ‘were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realised that this work had been done with the help of our God.’

Project fear hadn’t worked, and now the enemies are themselves afraid. They begin to realise that there is a God, and he has been helping his people to bring about his purposes. Nehemiah shows us how God’s enemies (and the enemy) seek to prevent God from fulfilling his promises. The enemy’s plans never change - he was at it in Nehemiah’s day, he was at the same tricks in Jesus’ day, and he is at the same tricks here in Richhill, and in Bulgaria, and all around the world in our day. But we have God’s help as we carry on a great project, the building up of God’s people, as we call people to turn from their opposition and turn to the living and true God, as we wait for his Son from heaven.

[How ironic, then, that when Nehemiah’s enemies realised that God was at work to help his people, some of God’s people were at work to help his enemies! The nobles of Judah were bound in closely with Tobiah - through oaths, and relationships, and letter-writing, and advocacy for him. They talked about his good deeds, and how wonderful he was! All while the letters come seeking to intimidate Nehemiah and prevent God’s work from going forward.

So where do we find ourselves in this story? Where do we fit in? Are we among the godly but confused, advocating for the enemy, blindsided by his charm? Are we on the enemy’s side? In both cases, we need to turn back to God, surrender to him.

But if we’re facing opposition of one sort or another; if we’re seeing the enemy’s tactics deployed against us - threat of harm, project fear, temptations to sin - then take heart! You are on God’s team, the winning team, and God will help, and God will bring about his plans and purposes. Pray for his strength, and stick at it.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 2nd December 2018.

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 5: 12-28 A string of pearls

I wonder if you’ve ever seen a wee girl being given a necklace making kit? In the kit, there’s some string, and then a big box of different sizes and shapes and colours and types of beads. Red ones, pink ones, blue ones, green ones, and all sorts of colours and shades. And then the wee girl sits down and picks one of those, and one of those, and one of those, and threads them all onto the string. There’s no pattern, rhyme or reason. They don’t all ‘go’ together; they’ve just been chosen at random. But she loves it, thinks it’s very stylish, and insists on wearing it. Or makes you wear it!

When I sat down to consider this final section of 1 Thessalonians, that was my initial thought. Is this all just random? Does it all fit together? It seems to be all over the place. Lots of random ideas jotted down in quick succession. It’s a bit like the student sitting an exam, running out of time, so rather than writing structured, well-argued paragraphs, they just jot down some bullet points, some notes to try to show their learning for a few extra marks.

It’s like when I used to write to penpals all over Europe. The special airmail paper was precious, and seemed expensive, so if you were coming near the end of a page you thought - will I cram everything in here and finish up? Is this what Paul was doing here? He’s coming to the end of the scroll and wanted to get in all his ideas? Is this a string of random beads, each interesting, but not really connected?

If you have a look in the pew Bible (p. 1188), you’ll see what the Bible publisher makes of this section. You see, often, Bible publishers add in headings in italics. They’re not part of the original text, they’re just there to hopefully help the reader understand what’s going on. Well here, the heading before verse 12 isn’t terribly helpful - final instructions. Or even worse, another version I looked at said ‘various exhortations.’

So what do we do with these verses? What is it all about? How do we make sense of them? There’s so much here that we could approach them in a couple of ways.

First of all, there’s the approach that says: ‘Wow!’ Look at this verse, and this verse, and this verse, and we could go for a really long and indepth sermon, bringing out the meaning and application of each individual verse. Now, even five minutes on each verse would take just 85 minutes, so I hope you’re sitting comfortably... No, don’t worry, we’ll not go down that way today.

Another possible approach is for us to look along the string of beads, and just pick one that we like, or that stands out for us, and forget about all the rest. And sometimes, that approach can be really helpful - and God is speaking to us about something in particular. I don’t expect you to remember everything I ever say in every sermon - so if there’s one nugget that speaks to you, hold on to it and focus on that!

But the more I thought about the passage, the more I realised that it’s not entirely random. God’s word is given to us for a purpose, and God worked through Paul to write down what God intended us to hear. This isn’t like twitter or a facebook feed, with lots of random ideas coming from lots of different places. This is a letter, written for a specific purpose. And these verses fit into the bigger picture.

You may remember that, ever since 3:13, Paul has been showing the Thessalonian Christians what it looks like to be sanctified, to be set apart, to become holy. He went indepth on sexual purity (saying no to lust and yes to love); he fixed our minds on the hope we have in Jesus to transform our grief and help us wait for the day of the Lord. And this last section shows us how we live out our becoming more holy in everyday life. Each of these verses is driving towards the destination of the prayer and promise of verses 23&24.

Here’s the prayer: ‘May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.’

As Paul directs our thoughts towards the coming of Jesus (as he’s done at the end of every chapter in the letter); that coming of Jesus that we especially look forward to in this season of Advent; we might think that it’ll be impossible for us to stand before him... how? Blameless. Maybe your heart accuses you. The devil accuses you. Is it really possible that we will be able to be blameless, whenever we still seem to prefer sin to righteousness, as this battle continues to war within us?

But we also have the promise. ‘The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.’ We have our part to play in choosing to obey God, but look who will bring it about. The one who called you will do it, because he is faithful.

God gives us the means to become holy in our everyday life - and God will do it. That’s what verses 12-22 are all about. They’re not random beads thrown together, rather it’s a string of pearls, describing the ways God has provided for our being made holy.

In verses 12-13, we see that God has given church leaders. ‘Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another.’

Paul asks the church to respect leaders, working hard, overseeing the church, who admonish. Sometimes there are hard things to say, urging earnestly, so that we continue to grow. There is always more to do than time to do it. And we don’t always get it right. I need your patience and love. God gives church leaders to help us progress in holiness.

But alongside church leaders, God also provides every member of the church family. You see, it’s not just leaders who have a ministry. It’s not just people in dog collars who do ministry. It’s all of us. So, everyone, all the brothers, are urged to ‘warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone.’ There’s wisdom in knowing who is who, and what to do with each type of person, but this is every member ministry. And there’s another type of every member ministry in verse 15 as well:

‘Make sure that no one pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.’ We don’t pay back wrongs, but instead, we’re called to be kind - not just to each other, but also to everyone else. Are we known as kind people? Here in church, but also in our workplace and our homes?

Verses 16-18 shows us how to react to the events of life, in the way that God wants us to react. ‘Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you.’ This isn’t just telling us to think positive thoughts and everything will be ok. This is urging us to tune our thoughts towards heaven - rejoicing in God’s love and care for us, and in what he has done for us. Bringing every moment of our day to him - all our concerns, all our thoughts, and giving thanks to God, recognising that he is the good giver.

But did you see what Paul doesn’t say? he doesn’t say give thanks FOR all circumstances. Paul isn’t saying that we’re to thank God for a flat wheel, or a worrying diagnosis. He says give thanks IN all circumstances. When these things happen, are there things we can thank God for? It changes our perspective, it tunes us into what God is doing, as he works every detail for his glory and our good.

And to bring us along the way, God provides us with guides. ‘Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.’

The Holy Spirit is at work in our lives - he wants to help us to grow and develop in our Christian life, and to make us more like Jesus. So we shouldn’t quench the Spirit - so don’t pour cold water on what the Spirit is doing and leading you to do. Don’t despise prophecy - God’s word to you, listen carefully, test it, to make sure it’s what God is saying, and hold on to the good. It’s like the wee boy who brought a lollipop into school for the show and tell. The teacher asks him to put it down on the table and share with the class which Bible verse he was thinking about. But he refused to set it down, as he said: ‘hold on to the good.’ He wasn’t going to let go, and neither should we. Hold on to the good, and avoid every kind of evil.

These are the dance moves, the steps to take as we become holy, more and more, as we look to the day of Christ’s coming. Sometimes our steps can falter, sometimes we might step on toes, but together we can learn the steps, we can do this together, as we prepare for the wedding party of the Lamb, and we join the dance.

For the new believers in Thessalonica, just starting out in the Christian life, they must have wondered would they be able to keep the faith, in face of opposition and persecution. Would they make it to the coming of the Lord? Would they really be blameless?

God has called us. God is faithful. He has provided for us in the death and resurrection of his Son - which we celebrate at his table today. And he has provided the way to become holy in everyday life - it’s in the church, as we encourage and strengthen and support one another. And the God who calls us is faithful. He will surely do it.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 2nd December 2018.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11 The Day of the Lord

Today is an important day. Not only is it Remembrance Sunday, but it also falls on the centenary of the Armistice. One hundred years ago, at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month, the guns fell silent, and the World War was finished. And so today is an important day, as we look back on that momentous day.

But we don’t just look back and remember past days - we also look forward to days that are coming in the future. This is the time of year when you start to get your new diary (has anyone got a 2019 diary yet?). And when you get your new diary, you go through it to write in all sorts of important days.

You write in your family birthdays, so that you don’t forget them. You might write in wedding anniversaries - not that you would forget that day! You might write in when your holidays are, looking forward to particular days. But there’s one day that we can’t write in. We know it will happen some day, we just don’t know when. We’re talking about the day of the Lord, when Jesus will return to the earth.

Last week, we were reminded of the hope that we have because of Jesus - that those who have died trusting in Jesus will be raised when Jesus returns. Today, we see what the day of the Lord means for those of us who are alive and waiting for him. So let’s look at what the Bible says about the return of the Lord Jesus:

‘Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.’ (1-2)

The return of Jesus is described as the day of the Lord. That’s a phrase that is used lots of times in the Old Testament, pointing to God’s victory over his enemies, bringing judgement to the earth and triumph for his people. But do you see how the DAY is described? It will come like a thief in the night.

Now, I hope this doesn’t happen, but imagine someone breaks into your house tonight. Do you think they would have texted to say they were planning to drop round tonight at 2.30am? Would they ring to check if it was ok to rob you? No, the thief in the night goes for surprise. It’s sudden, unexpected. You’re lying in bed, all is well, just turning over for your second sleep, when the window breaks and the burglar is in.

And the day of the Lord will be like that. Sudden, unexpected: ‘While people are saying, “Peace and safety”, destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.’ (3)

Jesus’ return will be sudden. A pregnant woman might have the bag packed for the hospital, but she doesn’t know when those labour pains will kick in. And once they do, that’s it. You can’t say to the baby, ok, hang on a wee while, I want to finish watching this film!

The day of the Lord will be sudden. ‘They’ will be caught out, not expecting it. You see, Paul is writing to the Christians in Thessalonica. He writes about ‘they’ and ‘them’ - someone else, not the people reading the letter. They think they’re ok, but they’re not. No escape.

The day of the Lord is sudden, but for the Christian, it will not be surprising. We might not know the exact date. We can’t write it in our diary. We can’t put it on the calendar in the kitchen. But we know it is coming.

Do you see the contrast in verse 4? Verse 3 is all they and them, ‘But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.’ (4-5)

Has anyone ever been to a surprise party? I remember we had one when my granny was turning 80. Mum and dad had arranged it. All our family and granny’s friends were all in the function room, keeping quiet. Granny walked in, and got the shock of her life! It really was a surprise. She was in the dark, she didn’t know it was happening. but we knew!

And we, Paul says, aren’t in the dark about the day of the Lord. We know that Jesus is going to return. We’ll not be caught out, or shocked at the sudden surprise.

Do you see how Paul describes the Christians? ‘You are all sons of the light and sons of the day.’ We belong to the light, not the darkness. We are children of the day, we are connected to the day of the Lord. So for us, the day of the Lord will be sudden, but not surprising.

Have you heard the phrase where two things are as different as day and night? They’re so different, there’s no comparison, they’ve nothing in common. From verse 6, Paul continues the day and night theme. Here’s how the children of the day are to live. It’s completely different from those in darkness, because we are watching for the day.

Have you ever experienced jet lag? It’s when you fly far enough around the world to get into a different time zone. Your body thinks it’s midnight and needs to sleep, but it’s only 2pm in the afternoon. Or you waken at 3 am, thinking it’s morning time. Verse 6 is a bit like that. ‘So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. for those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night.’

Those in darkness think it’s night, and do night time things - sleep or get drunk. But for the Christian, we are in the day time. How could we do night time things when the day is here? ‘But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.’ (8)

The night time can be a scary time. Paul says we’re to be alert, not distracted. We’re to guard our heart and our mind - the breastplate of faith and love, and the hope of salvation guarding our head. This is God’s armour, the God-given protection we need for every day between this day and that day.

Perhaps you look at the world, and see the way things are going, and you wonder what this world is coming to? One hundred years on from the war to end all wars, and yet wars continue to be fought. The freedom fought for continues to need defending. The darkness seems to get darker. but God wants us to hold on, and keep alert. We already have the day of the Lord in our hearts, and the dawn will break. Jesus will return suddenly, and your endurance and hardship will be worth it.

The hope of salvation keeps us going. This is what we’re waiting for - what we can already be sure of. Verse 9: ‘For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.’

In Jesus, we already know the verdict. We know how the story ends. We can be sure that our destiny is not wrath, but salvation. Jesus died to make it happen. That’s how the helmet of the hope of salvation works. We know where we’re going. And that changes how we live each day. Even when we slip (and we all do), we have the assurance that Jesus died for us, and he has destined us for life with him.

We have a future with Jesus, secured by his blood, already in promise, and one day made final and complete. No wonder we watch and wait for that day with eager anticipation! We don’t know when it will be. We can’t write it in our diary that on a certain day, Jesus will return. But over the top of each day, we should write - maybe today. Today could be the day of the Lord.

The day of the Lord will be sudden but for the Christian it will not be surprising. So keep alert, watching for his arrival. And as we wait, we’re to encourage each other, and build each other up as we watch and wait for the return of Jesus.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 11th November 2018.