Monday, February 26, 2018

Sermon: Ruth 4: 1-22 Redeemed!

‘Wait, my daughter, until you find out what happens.’ Those were the words of Naomi to Ruth at the end of chapter 3. And they were words to us as well, as we wait to see what will happen in the story of Ruth. When I did a Bible study in Ruth in my last parish, I told them not to read ahead each week - imagine a minister telling people to not read the Bible! (They could read any other part of it, just not the chapters in Ruth...) I wonder how you’ve coped with the suspense of waiting to hear what happens...

If chapter 3 was a cliffhanger, then it’s just what we’ve seen the whole way through the book. Back in chapter 1, after Naomi’s family had fled to the land of Moab because of a famine, her husband, and later her two sons all died. She urged her daughters-in-law to return to their own families - Orpah did, but Ruth committed herself to Naomi her mother-in-law. Where you go, I will go... Naomi complained of being bitter and empty, but the barley harvest was just beginning. What would happen when the harvest was being gathered?

In chapter 2, we saw how Ruth took the initiative to go out gleaning, gathering up the scraps to feed herself and her mother-in-law. And in the just-so-happened-to-be-there field of Boaz, she found favour (grace). He was abundantly kind to her. And, the big cliffhanger was that Boaz was one of their kinsman-redeemers (whatever that was...).

Chapter 3 showed us how Naomi sought to provide ‘rest’ for Ruth, by sending her to Boaz in the dead of night, to ask for him to act as their kinsman-redeemer - the relative who would buy them out of slavery and give them freedom. Ruth had asked Boaz to ‘spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer.’ And the cliffhanger in verse 12 was that there is someone with a prior claim, a closer connection, who is the kinsman-redeemer. So what will happen?

Just as Naomi predicted, Boaz would not rest until the matter is settled. Ruth has returned home, and Boaz went to the town gate, where he sat down. In lots of towns and villages, there’s normally a bench in the town square where some of the men gather - that’s what happens in Dromore anyway, where my dad will be found most mornings! In this culture, it was the town gate that was the place of trade and civic business.

Boaz is on a mission. He’s watching out for the kinsman-redeemer he told Ruth about. And when the man comes along, he gets him to sit down. He then gets ten of the town elders to also sit down. He has something to say.

In verse 3 he begins to tell this other man about Naomi’s situation. Naomi needs to sell the family land to a relative. This man has the first say on the land, and so Boaz asks if he’s going to redeem it, or if Boaz can do it.

Initially, the other man is interested. But then when he hears the full terms and conditions - that he will also have to marry Ruth, then he backs off. He’s not looking to the interests of Ruth or his relatives; he’s only really interested in himself and his own interests. He gives Boaz the green light to go ahead himself. In the words of the Dragon’s Den: ‘I’m out.’

Now, when you went to buy your house or some land, you probably sat in your solicitor’s office, and at some point, you signed on the dotted line. I’m fairly sure you didn’t take off your shoe and give it to them! But that’s what happened here. A sandal was removed and given to the other party to seal the deal. It was a deliberate act that no one could miss, or misconstrue. The witnesses would see it, and understand that the deal had been agreed. And that’s what happens in verse 8. The other man takes off his sandal. Boaz and Ruth can fix their wedding date. (By the way, I don’t think that the other person held on to the sandal. I think it was then given back, so that the first one didn’t have to hop home!).

In verse 9, we hear what Boaz, the kinsman-redeemer announces: ‘Today you are witnesses that I have bought from Naomi all the property of Elimelech, Kilion and Mahlon. I have also acquired Ruth the Moabitess, Mahlon’s widow, as my wife, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property, so that his name will not disappear from among his family or from the town records. Today you are witnesses!’

He has assumed their debts, gained their property, and acquired a wife. (Incidentally, you probably know by now that I like bad jokes. So, indulge me for a second. What was Boaz like before he married? He was ruthless!)

The redemption has been accomplished. Boaz has his bride. He has redeemed her. Do you remember the line from ‘The King of love my shepherd is’ - ‘I nothing lack if I am his, and he is mine for ever.’ What Boaz set out to do, he was able to complete. Just as we saw that Jesus was willing and able to heal the leper, so Boaz was willing and able to redeem his bride.

The elders reply to his double ‘Today you are witnesses’ with their own ‘We are witnesses.’ They then continue with a special blessing that would have been familiar to Boaz, but maybe needs a bit more explanation for us, if our Old Testament is a bit rusty.

V11: ‘May the LORD make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel.’ Here, they go back to the story of Israel (or Jacob), who was tricked into marrying the two sisters, Rachel and Leah. Between them (and their slave girls), they produced twelve sons, who became the twelve tribes of Israel. The elders pray that Ruth will also build up Boaz’ house.

They also pray that Boaz will have ‘standing in Ephrathah, and be famous in Bethlehem.’ And then they ask: ‘Through the offspring the LORD gives you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.’ Now, the story of Tamar and Judah is found in Genesis 38 - of a family situation out of control, with all sorts of strange things happening. But the focus is on Perez. And we aren’t really told much about Perez in the Bible, apart from the fact that he’s in the genealogies. What they seem to be saying is that the family of Perez had made it down to Boaz’ day - because Perez was Boaz’ great-great-great-great-grandfather. They’re praying that the family of Boaz will similarly continue for many generations.

All in all, they’re asking for God’s blessing on the newly married couple. And we see how God blesses them in the remaining verses. The Lord enables her to conceive, and a son is born.

If it was the (male) elders who prayed the blessing, it’s the women of the town who lead the praise. Notice that they’re speaking to Naomi (not Ruth) in V14: ‘Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a kinsman-redeemer.’ Now, who are they talking about? Boaz? Well, I don’t think so. Follow the ‘he’ in the next verses. ‘May he be famous throughout Israel! He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.’ It’s the newborn baby that they say will be famous in Israel (not just in Bethlehem, like his dad). But notice how Ruth is described - ‘who loves you and is better to you than seven sons.’

Poor Ruth. She seems to get sidelined here, as Naomi takes the child, cares for him, and the women sum up the story. Do you see how verse 17 is the climax of the story? Naomi, who was bitter and empty, has come full circle. ‘Naomi has a son.’ Through Naomi’s painful days, her days of mourning, her days of being angry with God, all along, God was working out his purpose. Naomi has a son. The Lord has restored to her all that she lost, and more.

Now, just when you think that the story is over, you realise that the story of Ruth is far from over. What started out as the story of one family, their tragedy and recovery, turns out to be something much bigger, and much more significant.

We see it in the rest of verse 17: ‘And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.’ And we see it in the rest of the book, in the family line of Perez. It’s the same family line that is found in the opening chapter of the New Testament. Ruth is a part of the family line, not just of King David, but also of King Jesus.

When I was growing up I used to watch Art Attack on TV. Each week, the presenter Neil Buchanan would gather a load of different materials - tyres, poly wrap, pallets, grass, you name it. And you would watch as he arranged all the bits to make a picture. Along the way, you tried to guess, but it was only as he finished that you could work it out. Earlier guesses might have been completely wrong.

The story of Ruth isn’t just about a local famine; or a daughter-in-law’s commitment to her mother-in-law. It’s not just about kindness, and the redemption of two ladies living in poverty.

The story of Ruth is a picture of how God is redeeming his people. Because God saved Ruth in this way, King David came about. God was working in the details of Ruth’s life to pave the way for the king of Israel. And through David’s story, God is at work to bring about the ultimate act of redemption - the Lord Jesus redeeming his bride, bringing us to himself. God’s purposes were not defeated by the famine, or by the unwillingness of the first relative to redeem. His purposes for you can’t be defeated either - rather, he uses the things that happen to you, everything, happy or sad, to bring about your redemption, to bring you safely to his eternal home.

As Paul puts it in Romans 8: ‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels or demons, neither the present no the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Rom 8:38-39).

Whatever happens, God is at work through it all. Ruth shows us that. The Lord Jesus shows us that. He is your redeemer, your Saviour, if you’ll trust in him.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 25th February 2018.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Sermon: Mark 1: 40-45 Ready, Willing and Able

When someone asks you to do something, how you decide if you’ll do it or not? In a lot of cases, you’ll probably decide very quickly, almost on impulse, if you’re going to help them or not. So whether they ask you to get something from the shop, or post a letter, or lend them fifty pounds, or whatever it might be, you’ll decide on the spot. Instinctively, you’ll say yes and do it, or no you won’t do it.

But what’s behind your decision? How did you get to that decision so quickly? Whenever someone asks you to help them, your brain very quickly goes through two questions: 1. Do I want to do this?
Am I able to do this?

Now, how you answer those questions depends on who is asking, and what’s being asked of you. So here’s a wee example, to help you see those questions in action:

I’ll happily baptise little Harry later on in the service. But if I’m asked to change his nappy, then I’ll probably think - I don’t really want to do it, and actually, I’m not really able to do it either. So I’ll leave it to the experts in the front row!

So, for some things, you might well want to do something to help, but you know that you’re not able to do it. Maybe you’d love to be able to help clean out your neighbour’s guttering, but you don’t have a head for heights. So you (wisely) say no.

But for other things, you could very well do it, you’re able to do it, but you just don’t want to do it. You’re able, but not willing.

That’s the grid that you use, maybe even unthinkingly, just instinctively - asking yourself: am I willing? am I able? And when you ask someone else if they will help you, you might have worked this out in advance - might they be able to help me? And could they be willing to help?

In our reading from Mark’s gospel this morning, we find a man who thinks in these categories - willing and able. But before we even come to his request, we see that he is a man in great need. Look at the first four words of verse 40. (p1003) A man with leprosy.

You know the way people dread sitting in the doctor’s office to be given a diagnosis? Nowadays, it’s the ‘c’ word (cancer) that’s dreaded. In those days, they dreaded the ‘l’ word. Leprosy. The word covered a variety of infectious skin diseases (not just modern-day Hansen’s disease), but the end result was the same. The person diagnosed with leprosy would be an outcast. They couldn’t live with their family, or in the town, and everyone was afraid of them. Leprosy was feared, so they were shunned. Lonely. Isolated.

This man with leprosy comes to Jesus. He’s so desperate that he gets down on his knees in front of Jesus. He ‘begged him’ on his knees. And do you see what he says to Jesus? “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”

Do you see how he has worked through that willing and able set of questions? He must have heard about Jesus, heard about all the things that Jesus has already done - look back to verse 25, casting out an evil spirit. Verse 31, healing Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever. Verse 34 healing lots of people from various diseases. He knows that Jesus is able. He is sure that Jesus can do it.

He’s just not sure if Jesus will want to do it. “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” He’s sure Jesus can do it, he’s not sure if Jesus will want to do it. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience. You know all about Jesus, you’ve heard about his power, his miracles, even his salvation. You know that Jesus can do all things. The thing you’re not sure about is if Jesus wants to help you or save you. It’s not could he, but would he?

Picture the scene. The leper has asked for help. He has made himself vulnerable. And he waits for the answer. Maybe you’ve been in the same place. You’ve asked someone for help, and then you wait, to see what they say, how they’ll answer, what they’ll do. Will Jesus help this leper?

We see the answer in verse 41. ‘Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said, “Be clean!”

The man wasn’t sure if Jesus would want to help him. So while he knew some things about Jesus - his power and miracles; he didn’t know everything about Jesus. He didn’t know that Jesus is filled with compassion and love. Our word compassion means to suffer (passion, like patient) with, alongside (com- as in comany/companion). Jesus looks at him, and feels pity for him. He suffers with him - and does the unthinkable.

Everyone knew that you didn’t touch a leper, because you would also be unclean. Leprosy was contagious. If you touched a leper, then you would catch it, and you too would be unclean. Yet Jesus reaches out to him and touches him. The first touch since his diagnosis.

With Jesus, cleanness is contagious. It’s not that the man will make Jesus unclean, but Jesus makes the man clean, whole, pure, and healthy.

And how long did the cure take? Was it a case of take three tablets twice a day for a week? No, Jesus was willing and able, and the cure was immediate! ‘Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.’ (42) Jesus was able to cure him, and willing to cure him, and so he was cured!

So why does Jesus go on to say what he says next, in verse 43? ‘Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”’ Why would Jesus not want anyone to know what had happened?

After all, the whole of the first chapter is about Jesus doing mighty deeds, and spreading the good news that God’s kingdom is here. So why does he tell this man not to tell anyone? And, the only person he does want him to tell is the priest!

Back in the Old Testament law, in Leviticus 13-14, there are the details of how Israel was to deal with people who came down with any infectious skin diseases like leprosy. Essentially, it was like an early Public Health Authority, or the NICE guidelines that doctors follow. (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) And the priest was the public health officer.

The priest would diagnose the problem, and banish the infected person - in order to prevent the spread of disease. It’s a bit like the measures to prevent the spread of Ebola. That’s what Lev 13 was all about. And Lev 14 outlines the sacrifice made when a priest declared that someone had been healed from their disease. It’s not that the sacrifice healed the patient - the sacrifice was only made if someone had been healed, as a sign that they were well again.

Jesus sends the man to the priest ‘as a testimony to them.’ The man is a witness to the priests that Jesus is willing and able to heal. It seems that the priests probably didn’t do these particular sacrifices often. When people had leprosy, that would have been it. but now healing is possible. And Jesus sends the man to the priests as a testimony to them.

Instead, the man went and told just about everybody else, apart from the priest! He ‘went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news.’ And you might think, what’s the problem? Surely it’s good for people to know what Jesus has done?

But here, Jesus had told him not to tall anyone. Jesus is filled with compassion, he is willing and able to heal. But his miracles weren’t his primary focus. Jesus came (v38) to preach the good news of the kingdom. But now, Jesus isn’t able to enter towns openly. Even when he stays out in lonely places, people are coming to him. But they aren’t coming because they want to hear the word about the kingdom. They’re coming because they want to see a trick. They’re wanting entertainment!

This little incident tells us a whole lot about the Lord Jesus. We see the compassion of the Lord Jesus - that he feels for the man in need, that he pities him, but more than that, that he suffers with him. In that touch, the man received from Jesus health and wholeness. At the same time, Jesus took his uncleanness. Because this little incident is a picture of what Jesus came to do - it’s a picture of what Jesus would do at the cross.

At the cross, Jesus takes our sins, but he also takes our sorrows. As Isaiah 53 puts it, ‘Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows... by his wounds we are healed.’ He takes our sins and our sickness; and he gives us his holiness and healing.

And you could know all that, you could know that Jesus is able to save. And yet you might wonder is Jesus willing to save - willing to save even me? His answer is still the same today. Jesus is both willing and able. He is able to save you. And he wants to save you. You just have to ask him. ‘I am willing. Be clean!’

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 25th February 2018.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Sermon: Luke 10: 25-37 Who is my neighbour?


Good - thumbs up ‘good, good’
Love - cross your heart ‘love love love’
Neighbour - shake hands ‘hello neighbour’
Priest - hands in air ‘hallelujah!’
Levite - hands together ‘hmm - praying meditation noise’
Samaritan - angry face ‘boo’

One day, a man asked Jesus what he had to do to get eternal life. How GOOD is GOOD enough? JEsus asked him what the Old Testament law said. 

To be GOOD enough for God, here’s what you need to do. You need to LOVE God with all of your heart - your feelings and emotions. You need to LOVE God with all your soul - your very being. You need to LOVE God with all your strength - in all you do. And you need to LOVE God with all your mind - in the thoughts you think. 

That means we are meant to always, fully and totally LOVE God with everything we are and have. And as if that’s not enough, we are also to LOVE our NEIGHBOUR as much as we LOVE ourselves. 

LOVE God and LOVE your neighbour. That’s the bar you have to reach to earn your own salvation - it’s like an impossibly high high jump bar. None of us can reach it. None of us can do it. 

But this man thought that he might be able to do it all by himself. And so he wants to check the terms and conditions - the small print of the agreement. So, wanting to justify himself, he asks Jesus a question. Just a small question. Four/five words: who is my NEIGHBOUR?

The man is thinking to himself that if your NEIGHBOUR is just the person who lives next door to you, then he might be able to LOVE that person. 

But Jesus answers his question by telling a story. It’s a story of a man who was on a journey. And on the way, he was attacked, beaten and robbed. He was sore, and left for dead. 

After a wee while, he heard someone coming along. He looked up, and saw that it was a PRIEST who was coming. Oh GOOD, the man thought. This PRIEST will help me. But, the PRIEST didn’t want to help. He pretended not to notice the man. He crossed the road, and walked past on the other side. The PRIEST was no help at all. 

Soon another person came along the road. He was a LEVITE, who also worked at the temple with the PRIEST. Surely he would do something GOOD to help him? But the LEVITE also pretended not to see him. He also crossed the road, and walked on by, just like the PRIEST. 

After a while, someone else was coming. But this man was a SAMARITAN. Now, the Jews didn’t like the SAMARITANS. The SAMARITANS were considered their enemies. Jews and SAMARITANS didn’t get on. He wouldn’t get any help from him. After all, the SAMARITANS couldn’t do any GOOD, they were such bad people. 

Yet the SAMARITAN stopped with the man. He had compassion on the man. He helped the man, by binding up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He brought the man to an inn, and paid for him to stay there and be looked after. This SAMARITAN did lots of GOOD for the beaten up man. 

Then Jesus asked this simple question. Think of the PRIEST, the LEVITE and the SAMARITAN. Which of them was a GOOD NEIGHBOUR to the man in need? It wasn’t the PRIEST. he ignored the man’s need. It wasn’t the LEVITE. he ignored the man’s need. The GOOD NEIGHBOUR was the SAMARITAN. (So I think we should stop boo-ing when we hear him mentioned...)

Even though the two men weren’t from the same country, or supported the same team, or liked the same things - the Samaritan was an example of a good neighbour. He helped whoever needed his help, whoever they were. 

So our neighbour isn’t just the person who lives next door. Our neighbour is everyone in the whole world. To be perfect, to earn our own salvation by ourselves, to be good enough to gain heaven - we would have to love God perfectly, and love everyone in the whole world. And that is impossible. We’ve already realised that today, and confessed our failures to God. We can’t do it ourselves. 

But Jesus did live this perfect life. He loved God with his heart, soul, strength and mind. He always perfectly obeyed his Father’s will. And he loved his neighbours as he loved himself. Who are Jesus’ neighbours? That’s everyone who ever lived. That’s you and me. And Jesus loved us perfectly, by laying down his life for us. 

Jesus is the Good Samaritan, because he had compassion on us. He gave himself for us in our need. He helped us by dying on the cross for us. 

We can’t do it by ourselves. But Jesus has done it for us. He has been our Good Samaritan, the one who loves you. And in response he calls us to love one another. To put others first. Even the people we don’t like and don’t get on with. And you might think - that’s still impossible! But when Jesus is your friend, when you follow him, he gives us his Holy Spirit to help us love God and love others. He makes us to become more like Jesus, who did love like this. It’s amazing love. It’s love that is so amazing that we ask: Amazing love how can it be that you my King would die for me?

This sermon was preached at the Love So Amazing family service in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 18th February 2018.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Sermon: Ruth 3: 1-18 Requesting Redemption

The story of Ruth feels as if it’s a four-part television series. So forgive me if we start (as we did this morning!) with a ‘Previously in the Romance of Redemption...’ Whether this is a reminder or a catch-up, here’s the story so far. Naomi, her husband and two sons had left Bethlehem in a time of famine. They went to the land of Moab, where tragedy struck. Naomi’s husband died, then after their weddings to Moabite women, the two sons also died.

Naomi returned to Bethlehem - intending to come alone, but was joined by her daughter-in-law Ruth, who pledged her loyalty to her. Naomi was bitter and empty, blaming God for all her troubles. That was chapter 1. Then last week, we saw the Ruth took the initiative to go and glean, picking up the spare heads of grain behind the harvesters in order to feed her and Naomi. She sought, and then found favour in the fields of Boaz, as he modelled the favour and grace of God in his kindness and compassion for her. And last week’s cliffhanger was that Naomi revealed (2:20) that he was a kinsman-redeemer. We didn’t really know what that was last week, but we’ll see what that means as we follow the latest instalment in Ruth’s redemption story.

As the chapter begins, we find the driving force, the big need in verse 1: ‘My daughter, should I not try to find rest for you, where you will be well provided for?’ Now, the NIV says ‘find a home for you...’, but the footnote which says that the Hebrew actually says ‘rest’ shows the main concern of Naomi.

You see, it’s not just a home that Naomi wants for Ruth. After all, they must have a home where they’re living already - Ruth and Naomi. But Ruth needs ‘rest’, she needs that place of security and provision, which in that culture at that time meant married life. Naomi realises that Ruth can’t keep gleaning from harvest to harvest - she needs the security of a home, the place of rest for the rest of her life.

And Naomi realises that she needs to sort it out for Ruth. Notice that back in chapter 2 it was Ruth who took the initiative, suggesting the gleaning that would give them something to eat. But now Naomi is taking charge, caring for her daughter-in-law, seeking to provide the rest that Ruth needs.

And right in the centre of her target is this man called Boaz (2). Ruth is already aware of him, having worked with his servant girls, and having met him in the fields. And we’re reminded again in verse 2 that he is ‘a kinsman of ours.’ Now, kinsman is just another way of saying relative, a member of the extended Elimelech family. But bear in mind that Naomi uses that word kinsman. It’ll help us later on.

And so Naomi tells Ruth to go and get ready. She’s going out tonight. But it’s not on a date, as such. And it’s not to dinner, or to a nightclub. But she is going to get her man. Now, if you are planning to get ready for a date this Valentine’s Day, then you might find some sensible wisdom here about how to get ready - wash and perfume yourself, and put on your best clothes. Now she isn’t getting dressed up for dinner in a fancy five star restaurant. Instead, she’s going to the threshing floor.

It’s the end of the barley harvest, Boaz will be winnowing, separating the grain from the chaff. And it’ll be party time. He’ll be in a good mood, because the work is done. And when he has eaten and drank, and lay down, then, Naomi says, go and uncover his feet, and lie down.

Now, how would you react if you had been told to do all that? Put on your best clothes, to lie down in the farmyard, at the feet of the man you hope will marry you. To our ears it seems like strange advice. And, in the dead of night, it may seem slightly dodgy.

But Ruth does what she was told. And then in verse 8, Boaz is startled in the middle of the night, to find someone at his feet. Remember, it’s properly dark - no streetlights or security lights. It’s impossible to see clearly. He’s had a shock. So what’s going on?

I wonder if you’ve ever had a similar experience. One time at BB Camp, our tent was a little bit too rowdy when we were meant to be settling for sleep. And from the lights of the cookhouse, we could see one of the officers standing outside the tent. So someone had the bright idea to shout out - oh look, it must be Robert outside, look at the shadow of his big ears... But it wasn’t Robert. It was the strictest of the officers, who told us all to report to him at 6am the next morning to do some extra duties...

Boaz can’t really see, doesn’t know what is happening, or why there’s a woman lying at his feet. So he asks the right question: ‘Who are you?’ And in the rest of verse 9 we get Ruth’s answer, and also her request: ‘I am your servant Ruth. Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer.’

Now, Ruth isn’t just asking that he put some of his blanket over her because she is cold. No, she’s asking him for coverage, protection, even redemption - and we know that because of those last words: ‘You are a kinsman-redeemer.’

You see, in the Old Testament Law, it says ‘If one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells some of his property, his nearest relative is to come and redeem what his countryman has sold.’ (Lev 25:25). So if someone fell into poverty, and sold their family inheritance, their share of the promised land, then a family member could redeem it - to buy it back, and to buy them out of slavery.

Because Naomi and Ruth had no husbands or sons, they needed this kinsman-redeemer, a cousin or uncle or some other relative to act as their go-el, their redeemer. And that’s the request Ruth is making in this midnight encounter. You know that I’m in need Boaz – not just in terms of my poverty and my need; but also for the good of the family lands – spread the corner of your garment over me! It is a request for protection, for cover, for redemption. Ruth acknowledges her poverty to Boaz, confesses her need, and appeals for Boaz to act for her.

We’ve heard the request, and now we see how Boaz responds. Last week in chapter 2 we saw how Boaz was ‘a man of standing’ - a worthy man. And again we see the worthy man in action, as he cares for her, and expresses his admiration for her. He identifies her kindness - in not running after younger men, but rather fixing her attention on him (we get a hint that he’s older than her).

He also highlights the fact that she is ‘a woman of noble character’ - with those echoes of Proverbs 31, the wife of noble character, who can find? So our fears that this whole business of her going to him at night is immoral, or dodgy, should be put at ease. She’s a noble character. He’s a man of standing. In this culture, this is acceptable.

It all sounds so positive, things seem to be coming together so well, and then the next problem arises in verse 12. Naomi had got her calculations with her relatives wrong. Although it’s probably easy enough done. I remember at my granny’s wake being introduced to family members I’d never met before! When it comes to families, it’s all relative. And Naomi had made a mistake. Yes, Boaz is a kinsman, but there’s someone closer connected who should have first opportunity to help.

And so Boaz will sort it out in the morning. He’ll offer him the chance to redeem, to buy back out of slavery. If he takes it, good, but if not, then Boaz will jump at the chance himself. In the meantime, Ruth spends the rest of the night at his feet, then leaves before sunrise, so that no one knows she has been to see him. And again, he doesn’t let her leave empty handed, again he graces her with an abundant gift - six measures of barley.

And at this point, with the last verse in the chapter, we hear the echo of those Eastender cliffhanger dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dums again. ‘Wait, my daughter, until you find out what happens. For the man will not rest until the matter is settled today.’

Naomi wanted to give Ruth rest - now we’re told that Boaz won’t rest until he has sorted the matter. But for us, it won’t be today that we find out what happens. It’ll be in a fortnight. Do come back to hear how it all ends!

But tonight, what is God showing us in this chapter? We’ve seen Ruth’s trouble, her need, and how she appeals for help to her kinsman-redeemer. She requests redemption. Can you see the parallels with our situation? Have you cried out to your kinsman-redeemer?

You know the need we have. Ruth was in need because of her poverty, her slavery, because her inheritance had been sold. We are also in need, in poverty and slavery. We’ve sold ourselves to the devil, given up our birthright - through the action and choice of Adam and Eve in believing the lie of the serpent.

By nature and choice, we agree with that original sin. We’re just as needy, even though we can’t see it. As Jesus says to the church in Laodicea, ‘You say, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor blind and naked.’ (Rev 3:17)

That’s our need. But we have a kinsman-redeemer, a relative who is able to buy us back from slavery, to redeem us from our need. Ephesians 1 tells us that we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins. We have the Holy Spirit as a deposit, a guarantee of our inheritance until our redemption. On the cross, Jesus has done the work of redemption - paying the price so that we could be forgiven, bought back from sin, and freed from our slavery. The redemption is freely available, if we will just cry out to our redeemer!

Just acknowledge your need. Confess to him that you can’t do it on your own. That you need his help. His rescue. His redemption. And he will indeed redeem you.

Can you echo these words of Ruth, and make them your own, as you cry out to Jesus?

‘I am your servant. Spread the corner of your garment over me, for you are a kinsman-redeemer.’

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

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sermon: Mark 1: 29-39 Why did Jesus come?

On this Sunday a year ago, we announced in Aghavea that we were moving to Richhill. And a similar announcement was made here. And I know that the news spread rapidly after the two morning services here and there. People in Fermanagh were ringing round to share the news (good or bad?) that we were going. People here were ringing or googling to try to find out who this new boyo was. From a worship service, the news of what had happened spread rapidly.

And that’s what’s happening in our reading this morning. We’re hearing about the aftermath of a worship service; we’re seeing how news of what happened was spreading rapidly. There were no phones, or social media, so it was word of mouth, people going to tell others, but as we’ll see, it creates quite a stir.

You might have noticed that we’ve skipped from verse 20 to verse 29. That’s because David McComb preached on that passage the other week in the evening. But to understand what’s happening now, we need a recap. It’s a bit like in some TV boxsets - ‘Previously in Mark’s Gospel...’ Jesus is in the synagogue, the local Jewish place of worship, prayer and preaching in Capernaum. And two things happened that morning to cause amazement.

First, the people were amazed at Jesus’ teaching, with authority. He spoke like no one else they had ever heard preaching. And second, the people were amazed at his authority over evil spirits, as he cast one out of a man. All this happened in the synagogue in the one day. It’s no wonder that verse 28 tells us that ‘News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.’

So in our reading we see what happened next. After church, they go to Simon and Andrew’s house, maybe for a cup of tea. And in the house, Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. She’s not well. So they tell Jesus about her. They simply let him know that she isn’t well. They’ve seen what he was able to do in the synagogue - maybe he could help her too.

So Jesus goes to her, takes her hand, helps her up, and the fever left her. Jesus is able to heal and restore. He takes away the fever and instantly gives her health and strength. You know the way when you’ve been ill, you’ve spent some time in bed, it can take a few days or weeks to get fully better? Not here with Peter’s mother-in-law. she is healed, and immediately begins to wait on them. She is healed by Jesus and then starts serving Jesus.

Now that’s all been happening inside the house. But outside, it’s been a hive of activity. News has spread about Jesus and his authority to teach and heal. So everyone has come to him. Verse 32: ‘That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door.’

Can you imagine that? If everyone from Richhill was standing outside your door? Or perhaps another scene that we’ve witnessed recently, the queues at A&E, with people waiting in ambulances, on trolleys, in corridors, and anywhere else there’s a seat or a space. That’s what it looked like outside Peter’s house. The whole town is there, having brought all the sick and demon-possessed people.

So Jesus does what he is able to do to help. He has the authority to heal, and so he does it. It’s a sign of the kingdom of God, bringing order where there is chaos; putting wrong things right; bringing health and wholeness where there is sickness and disease. Verse 34: ‘Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.’

Whatever the problem, physical, mental or spiritual, Jesus was able to bring healing and restoration. But he doesn’t allow the demons to speak - they know who he is. Look back at verse 24 - the demon in the synagogue had named Jesus as ‘the Holy One of God.’ But at this point, Jesus doesn’t want people to know - because they’ll misunderstand, just as Peter does in chapter 8 when he finally realises that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ.

Now, imagine that you were Peter, watching on, taking stock of everything that had happened that day. You’d reckon it was a fairly successful day. No one would need the doctor or A&E that night. The local hospital could shut because they had no patients. It was a good day. And imagine if Jesus just kept doing this kind of thing - no one would ever be unhealthy again. The solution to all the NHS problems in one go. Ok, it had been a late night, by the time Jesus had dealt with everyone, but what a night it had been!

But it seems that the next morning, more people from further away had heard about the miracle man. They too had come looking for healing. They were waiting their turn for Jesus to heal them. They had their numbered ticket from the queueing system. They waited outside the house for Jesus to come out and start doing it all over again.

But, there was no sign of Jesus. Peter was inside, thinking Jesus was already out, busy at his work of healing. But then the door started knocking. Where is Jesus? Can he see me? Can he help my relative? So Peter looks round the house, and Jesus isn’t inside. And Jesus isn’t out on the street either. Where can he be?

Peter and the other disciples go to look for Jesus, and eventually they find him. Do you see what he says to Jesus? ‘Everyone is looking for you!’ What are you doing out here, Jesus? There are more people wanting to see you and be healed by you back in the town. Come on and get started - they’re getting impatient. You’ve a job to do - to heal all those people.

It would have been so easy for Jesus to go along with what the crowd wanted. The temptation may have been there to please all these people - and after all, it would be doing good and helping people. But look where Jesus had been. Verse 35 tells us - ‘Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.’ It may have been a late night, but Jesus was awake early, to check in with his Father, to pray, and seek the Father’s direction as to the next steps; to find the Father’s priorities for the day ahead.

That’s why Jesus says something so surprising in verse 38, in response to Peter saying, ‘Everyone is looking for you.’ Jesus says: ‘Let us go somewhere else - to the nearby villages - so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come.’

There are things he could do right here, right now. There are people he could help back in the town. But Jesus moves on, to go somewhere else. And notice it isn’t even to heal people there. Jesus’ priority is to preach there also. This is the reason Jesus came - to proclaim the good news (as we saw back in verse 14-15).

To heal people in Capernaum wouldn’t be enough. You see, you could be healed today, but fall ill again in a week’s time. This temporary healing might be of some benefit, but only the hearing and receiving of the good news of God will bring eternal benefit and blessing. That’s why Jesus sets off to go and preach in other places. And he was assured of this priority in the time he spent in prayer with his heavenly Father.

Where is your place of prayer? Where do you meet with your Father, to re-align yourself to his priorities for your day? It might be a particular chair where you sit to pray; or maybe on your way to work (just don’t close your eyes if you’re driving!); it can be any time, whenever suits you best, early morning or lunchtime or in the evening, so long as you’re spending time with God.

And how are we following Jesus’ priority of sharing the good news? That’s our aim - to be a gospel-centred church reaching out to our community and our world with the love of Christ. So how are we doing? Are the people of Richhill being reached? Are the people of the world being reached?

Could you get involved with a summer mission project? Could we plan for a church team for 2019?

Why did Jesus come? So that people would hear and respond to the good news. Have you heard the good news for yourself? If not, that's your first and greatest need. Then the next priority is to share it with others. It’s the reason Jesus came - to share the gospel, the good news far and wide.

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

Monday, February 05, 2018

Sermon: Ruth 2: 1-23 Finding Favour

Would you do me a wee favour? Would you nudge the person beside you if they fall asleep? I’m sure you’re familiar with the idea of doing someone a wee favour. They ask you to help out, and so you do something they need done, you do it out of the kindness of your heart. You don’t expect or want anything for doing it, it’s just a wee favour.

Favour is the theme of our reading tonight in Ruth. It’s the driving force behind the developing story, as Ruth looks to find favour - but the question is, will she find it? Remember that she finds herself in Bethlehem, a new and strange place for her, a Moabite. Ruth had been married, but her husband had died young. Her mother-in-law Noami had decided to return home to Bethlehem, and told her two daughters-in-law to go back to their own homes.

But Ruth had pledged her loyalty to her mother-in-law, so here she is. A foreigner, far from home, far from family, living with Naomi. What would happen to her? Particularly since immigration seems to be such a contentious topic these days. How do we treat the foreigner and stranger? How will Ruth be treated?

Before we get to Ruth’s story, verse 1 seems almost a wee bit out of place, doesn’t it? We’re hearing about Noami and Ruth, when suddenly there’s this mention of Boaz, a relative of Elimelech. And all we’re told about him is that he is a man of standing. A man of good reputation. And then by verse 2, we’re back with Ruth and Naomi.

Verse 1 is a bit like the start of Casualty. Normally at the very start of Casualty you see someone you don’t know before, maybe someone on their bike, or a family setting off on a car journey, or someone making a cup of tea. And you know that very soon, something is going to happen to this person - they’re going to have some sort of mishap, and they’ll be brought to Casualty. Well verse 1 is a bit like that. We don’t know Boaz, haven’t met him before, but keep him in mind... we’ll soon get to know him better!

Do you remember how Naomi described herself at the end of chapter 1? She was Mara (bitter) and empty. And she’s still empty, because it was the men who went out to work. There’s no universal credit, no welfare system, and so the two women are hungry.

But Ruth takes the initiative. Here’s her plan in verse 2: ‘Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favour.’ There were no welfare benefits, but there was a system of provision for the poor. It was the idea of gleaning. Nowadays the combine harvester gathers the full harvest in fairly quickly, but in these days, you had a line of harvest workers, pulling the stalks. Sometimes they would maybe miss some, or drop some.

The Law said you weren’t allowed to reap right to the very edges of your field, or go over the field a second time. You were to leave some for the poor and the alien. (Lev 19:9-10). And so that’s what Ruth set out to do. She was looking for favour, for some kindness, to allow her to go gleaning.

Look at the middle of verse 3. ‘As it turned out, she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech.’ As it turned out - it just so happened. I’m reminded of that line from Casablanca - ‘of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.’ Of all the fields around Bethlehem, Ruth just happens to be in Boaz’s. Coincidence? or God-incidence?

Just then, Boaz arrives. Now, I wonder what happens/ed when the boss arrives at your place of work? Or if you are the boss, how do you greet your workers? We see the greeting in verse 4 - the greeting we began our service with: The Lord be with you! And the workers reply ‘The Lord bless you.’ We’re getting a glimpse of Boaz’s standing. He certainly talks about God... but is it all just talk?

Boaz is sharp - he immediately sees someone in his field who he doesn’t know. So he asks his foreman - who’s that? And it’s Ruth. Her foreignness is emphasised - do you see how the foreman answers? She is the Moabitess who came back from Moab with Naomi. The Moabitess from Moab. She’s not from around here. She had been polite, asking to glean - and we see that she’s been a hard worker, steadily all morning, except for a short rest.

From verse 8 we hear the words of Boaz to her. She is granted welcome (Don’t go and glean in another field and don’t go away from here. Stay here with my servant girls);
work (Watch the field where the men are harvesting, and follow after the girls.)
protection (I have told the men not to touch you.);
provision (And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled.) Boaz didn’t have to do any of these for her. Yet he goes out of his way to help her. And Ruth recognises just how kind he is:

‘At this, she bowed down with her face to the ground. She exclaimed. “Why have I found such favour in your eyes that you notice me - a foreigner?”’ (10)

She went out looking for favour, just a few scrap ends of the harvest to feed herself and her mother-in-law. But she’s overwhelmed with the favour she has received. It’s all the more remarkable because she is a foreigner. So why has he been so kind?

‘I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband - how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not now before.’ Boaz knows who she is. He knows her story. And then he gets to the heart of what Ruth had done, as he blesses her:

‘May the LORD repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.’ (12)

Boaz was showing her favour, but that was nothing compared to the favour that God bestows on anyone who comes to him. Or, as we might know it better, the grace that God lavishes on us - that totally undeserved free gift, given to all who trust in him. And that’s what Ruth had done. She had taken refuge under the wings of the Lord.

(And that’s what the people of Jesus’ day refused to do in our second reading. He pictures himself like a hen wanting to gather her chicks under her wings, but they would not.)

Boaz is gracious to Ruth, because he knows the grace of God in his own life. And so he passes it on, he shares it widely and freely. And Ruth is so grateful - she knows her lowly position, she doesn’t even have the standing of one of his slave girls. Yet this man of standing has given her comfort and kindness.

We see that kindness continuing at mealtime, giving her bread, vinegar and grain, more than enough. We see his kindness in the way he instructs his workers to leave some out for her. So much so that she has gathered an ephah of barley - 22 litres (22 kilograms or 3 stone 6lb). In one day of gleaning! Imagine her carrying home this heavy load! And she also brings home the rest of her unfinished lunch.

At such a sight Naomi is excited! In verse 19 she speaks out a blessing on the mystery man - ‘Blessed be the man who took notice of you!’ And then in verse 21 she utters another blessing: ‘The LORD bless him! He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead.’

The favour of Boaz is bringing about a tranformation in Naomi’s heart. No longer is she talking of being bitter, or of being empty. And that’s what God’s grace does to us. Even when we feel far from him; even when we know that we don’t deserve anything; God’s grace give us an overabundance of blessing. He gives us far more over and above what we would deserve.

That Jesus would come, to take on our sins, to give his life, to die on the cross for us - his enemies. Foreigners to him. Yet he shows us this favour, this kindness, this grace. How marvellous, how wonderful is our Saviour’s love for us. It’s wonderful grace. And it’s available to you tonight, if you’ve never experienced it before. Look to the cross, look to the kindness of God, and receive that grace.

As we come to the end of the chapter, we come up to another cliffhanger. We have the detail revealed to Ruth that Boaz is a close relative, that he is a kinsman-redeemer. But to find out what that is, you’ll have to join us next week.

For now, though, we’re focusing on finding favour, gazing on this glorious grace. This grace which can be yours tonight, as you trust in Christ.

May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 4th February 2018.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Sermon: Mark 1: 14-20 Follow Me

Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the Vestry door? While you’re sitting in your pew, waiting for the service to begin, behind that door, lots of things are going on in the five minutes before we begin. We have a run through the service to make sure we know what’s happening. We put all the gear on. We pray. But at the same time, we’re also listening for the signal to start the service. Whenever we hear the Richhill chimes, the clock striking eleven, then we know that the time has come, and we come out to start the service.

Just think how many times you’ve heard or said these words: ‘It’s time.’ It might be when you’re getting up in the morning, when the alarm sounds, and it’s time to get up. Or if you’ve been up and you’re now waking the other people in the house. Maybe it’s when the exams come around, there’s no more revising, you have to sit the exams. It’s time. Or your first day at a new job; an appointment; or whatever. It’s time.

And when 2pm on Friday 16th February rolls around, we’ll be saying it’s time. All the preparations will be completed, the doors will open, the time will have come. Love So Amazing will have begun, after months of anticipation. It’ll be time.

It’s that sense of the preparations being complete that starts our reading today. Remember, in Mark’s gospel we’re reading the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. But last week we saw that, before Jesus arrived, John was the messenger preparing the way. John was getting things ready for Jesus.

And now, the preparations are complete. John has stopped baptising, and Jesus appears on the scene. Look at verse 14 with me. ‘After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.’ It wasn’t that John had retired from his baptising work - he had been given his redundancy. He’s in prison - that’s all we’re told here. You have to read on into chapter 6 to discover why he’s in prison, and what happens to him.

But it’s the fact that John is in prison that seems to be the sign for Jesus to begin his preaching ministry. And what is it he is proclaiming? ‘The good news of God.’ Jesus comes to proclaim good news. There can be all sorts of good news - hearing about a baby being born, or an engagement, or an act of heroism, or kindness. Good news is always being told, if we listen out for it. But notice that this is the good news of God. This is God’s good news. You might be asked, did you hear of Ermentrude’s good news? That she’s engaged. Or of Henrietta’s good news, that she had her baby... Well this is God’s good news. And what is the news? We see it in verse 15.

“The time has come, he said. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.”

Three short sentences. And they sum up the good news of God.

The time has come. The right moment has arrived, after a long period of anticipation. It’s a bit like in a show, the announcer says, ‘And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for...’ The time has been fulfilled - like one of those egg timers, where the sand has fallen from the top to the bottom, and the very last grain has landed, the time is filled full. And what is it time for?

The kingdom of God is near. Look back to verse 2. Remember last week we looked at the promises made in the Old Testament that the Lord would come, and bring the kingdom? Just how long had they been waiting for these promises? The bit in verse 2 ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you’ - that’s from Malachi, the last book in the Old Testament, written about 400 years before Jesus. The bit in verse 3, ‘A voice of one calling in the desert, Prepare the way for the Lord...’ - that’s from Isaiah, written about 700 years before Jesus.

The other day, someone on Twitter shared a series of cartoons from the 1910s, imagining the embarrassment of having a pocket telephone (as they called them) - it ringing when you’re on the train, or when your hands are full, or when you’re at a concert. And less than a hundred years later, nearly everyone has a pocket telephone. (Is yours on silent?!) But the people of Israel had been waiting for 700 years for the kingdom of God to come.

Such a long wait, but the good news is that the kingdom is near, it’s at hand, it’s here. Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, is here. The rule of Jesus is beginning. But that demands a response.

Imagine this for good news. Imagine that I write you a cheque for £1 million. (It’s just imagining!) In one moment, I could make you a millionaire, or, if you’re already that, then you would become a multi-millionaire. What would be good news, wouldn’t it? But for that to happen, you would need to believe the good news. You’d need to do something with it. You would have to take the cheque, and pay it into your bank account. Only then would you believe it, and benefit from it the good news.

The £1 million cheque is just imagined. But this good news of God is real, and really good news. The kingdom of God is here - and Jesus tells us how to respond. ‘Repent and believe the good news.’ We’ve been living the way we want to; doing the things we want to; disobeying God’s kingdom rule. So we need to repent, turn around, change our mind, to instead obey God - by believing the good news that Jesus is proclaiming. The kingdom is here, because the King is here.

In the rest of the passage, we see what this looks like in practice. Jesus is walking beside the Sea of Galilee. He sees Simon and his brother Andrew. Look at what Mark writes next. ‘Casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen.’ As if there’d be another reason for casting a net into the lake!

So they’ve thrown the net into the lake, then Jesus speaks to them: ‘Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Jesus calls them to follow him. And with all the social media, we’re familiar with this idea of following - you can follow people on Twitter, or Instagram, or Facebook.

But this isn’t just keeping up to date with their pictures of their dinner, or whatever they’re tweeting. Jesus calls them (and us) to follow him - to be involved, to walk with him, to be part of what he’s doing. And do you see the purpose of following Jesus? ‘Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’

Up to now, they were fishing for fish. Now, they will fish for people. It’s a picture of making disciples, as we go fishing. Gathering people in, bringing them to Jesus, introducing them to him. So what do they do? Well, they have a choice - Jesus calls: will they follow him or forget him? ‘At once they left their nets and followed him.’

They had thrown the nets into the water, but they left them behind. They believe the good news, so they turn away from what lies behind, and they go to follow Jesus. It’s the same story a little bit farther down the shore. James and John are in their boat, preparing their nets. Jesus called them ‘without delay’ and they left their father Zebedee with the hired men, and ‘followed him.’

What is it that you need to leave behind as you repent and believe the good news? It might not be your job, but there will be some things you leave behind as you follow Jesus. The old life of sin. Your fishing for the things you wanted. Choosing what you do and how you spend your time and money.

And how will you follow Jesus? We’re not literally walking behind Jesus as these two sets of brothers did; but we are called to follow him, to go where he wants us to go; to do what he wants us to do; and more specifically - to be fishers of people.

What a great opportunity we’ll have in a fortnight, as we welcome people in to encounter God’s amazing love. And you can play your part, to welcome and steward, to provide hospitality, to simply chat to people and share how God’s love has changed your life - and how it can change theirs too.

But we don’t need to wait for a special event. We shouldn’t just think of fishing here, in the church building. That’s like only ever fishing in a fish tank or garden pond. Wherever you are tomorrow, you can fish for people. As you might say when someone breaks up with their boyfriend or girlfriend, there’s plenty more fish in the sea. So don’t stay in the fish tank - go deep sea fishing! Look out for the person you can talk to tomorrow about Jesus. Share the good news that Jesus has come.

Jesus says: ‘Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday 4th February 2018.