Friday, March 30, 2018

Good Friday Sermon: John 19:30 Famous Last Words - It is finished

‘He gave his life for strangers. He must have known that he didn’t really have a chance. If that doesn’t make him a hero, I don’t know what would.’

Those words formed part of the tribute paid to the French policeman Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Beltrame, who died last Friday. An Islamist terrorist had taken people hostage in a supermarket in southern France. And Arnaud traded places with one of the hostages. He took her place, and died in her stead. And on Wednesday, he was honoured with a national memorial service.

A new national hero was recognised. Here’s what the French President said of Arnaud: ‘To be willing to die so that innocent people continue to live, this is the heart of a soldier’s promise.’

Tonight, we have heard again the story of the first Good Friday. The betrayal, the arrest, the denial, the trial, the flogging, the condemnation, and the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus. What was it all for? Why did Jesus die? What makes Good Friday good?

The answer comes in the very last words that John records before Jesus gives up his spirit. All week we’ve been focusing on the famous last words of Jesus, and tonight we hear his very last words spoken on the cross. Three words in English, one word in the Greek: ‘It is finished.’

But what does he mean? Does he mean ‘I’m finished’? It might look as if Jesus has given up, that he’s been beaten and broken, and he is finished. But that’s not what he means.

Perhaps he is referring to the wine vinegar he had been given. Verse 30 says: ‘When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.”’ Was he saying that he had finished taking a drink - just like you might say ‘all done’ when a baby finishes a bottle? That’s not what he means either.

The clue to what Jesus means comes a little further back in verse 28. ‘Later, knowing that all was not completed...’ That word completed is the same word that Jesus says when he says ‘It is finished.’ So what he has completed? What is finished?

Jesus is saying that his work of salvation has been completed. The saving work that Jesus came to do has been finished. And the scale and scope of his work shows just how wondrous the cross is.

Arnaud, the French policeman, gave his life for strangers, but the Lord Jesus died for people he knew and loved - people like you and me, known by Jesus, and loved by Jesus. And while that’s a wonderful comfort, to be known by Jesus, and loved by Jesus, it also highlights just how amazing his death for us really is.

Remember what was said about Arnaud by the French President? ‘To be willing to die so that innocent people continue to live...’ The amazing truth about Jesus’ death for us is that he knows us - as we really are. None of us could be described as innocent. Jesus was - ‘I find no basis for a charge against him’ said Pilate - but he couldn’t say that about us.

Jesus died to pay the debt we could not pay. He died in our place for our sins. And as he dies, Jesus says ‘It is finished.’ That word, tetelestai, was the word written on an invoice to show that the bill had been paid in full. Completed. Paid in full.

Perhaps you’ve been in a shop with a dangerous looking device on the counter. A spike, or nail, pointing upwards. And whenever a bill is paid, the bill is put on the nail. It’s finished. It’s been satisfied, it’s been completed. Paid in full.

Our sins, however many, however serious, have been paid in full, as Jesus was nailed to the cross. These famous last words of Jesus aren’t a cry of defeat or disappointment. No, they are a cry of victory. Jesus has completed the work he came to do - to die for a world of lost sinners - to die for you and me.

May you know the joy of sins forgiven. Your burden lifted. The price paid, as Jesus says, ‘It is finished.’

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Good Friday 30th March 2018.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Sermon: John 17: 1-26 Famous Last Words - Glorify your Son

When we think of the Lord’s prayer, we immediately think of the prayer we say at every service - ‘Our Father, who art in heaven.’ But tonight, we’re focusing on the Lord’s other prayer, which comes right at the end of a long piece of teaching. Everything from chapter 13 through to chapter 16 happens over the course of one evening. And the prayer of chapter 17 comes at the end of everything Jesus has been teaching his disciples.

Jesus knows that in a few hours, he will be crucified, and so he takes time to prepare the disciples for his death, and for what will happen after his death and resurrection. And this prayer sums up all that he has been saying to them. As Jesus prays, he does so for his disciples to hear. In other places, Jesus had gone off on his own to pray, but not here. He wants the disciples to hear what he’s praying.

It’s a bit like the wee fella who was saying his prayers by the bed one night. And as he does so, he shouts out really loudly, ‘God, please let me have a new bike for my birthday.’ His mum says to him, why are you shouting? God isn’t deaf. No, he says, but granny is! This is a prayer that the disciples are meant to hear.

So as Jesus prays, it’s late on Thursday night. In a few hours the soldiers are going to come to arrest him. He’ll be tried, beaten, and crucified. How would you pray if that was you? If you’re like me, you might ask God for it not to happen. You might think, I’m Jesus, get me out of here... But that’s not how Jesus prays. So what is it Jesus prays for?

First of all, Jesus prays for himself. Now, that might seem strange. You might have been taught to pray using the ACTS guide - Adoration (praising God for who he is); Confession (saying sorry to God); Thanksgiving (thanking God for answered prayers); and then Supplication (which is asking God for things, for others and for self). Yourself comes last. But here, Jesus prays for himself first.

Here’s what he prays: ‘Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.’ Jesus asks the Father to glorify him, so that he may glorify the Father. Jesus isn’t out for himself and his own glory - it’s so that the Father is glorified. But what is glory? What does it mean to be glorified?

To glorify means to bring glory to; to honour; to praise; to lift high. A few years ago you might have heard the chorus ‘Glory, glory, Man United’ ringing around Old Trafford. Maybe not recently, though! Or think of the celebrations after Ireland’s Six Nations Grand Slam victory. All the clapping and cheering for the team that beat all-comers. Jesus prays that he will be able to glorify the Father. It’s a bit like the Lord’s prayer - ‘Hallowed be your name’ (may your name be honoured).

So how does Jesus glorify the Father? He does it by giving eternal life to his people. Jesus gives us eternal life - life that will go on forever; life that is of a different quality; life that is all about knowing God the Father, and the Lord Jesus.

Jesus was sent to earth with a mission. His job was to bring us eternal life, by completing the work the Father gave him to do. So say that your mum or dad sends you out on a mission. You’ve to go to the shop and get a few things. You’ll bring them joy if you get everything on the list, if you’ve completed their instructions. That’s what Jesus has done. He has perfectly fulfilled the Father’s instructions, in everything, every day for thirty-three or so years. And in a matter of hours he will complete the work by dying on the cross.

Jesus asks that he would again share in the glory of the Father which he had before the world began. Jesus came from heaven, and after the cross and the resurrection, Jesus is returning to heaven. He will be glorified, praised, lifted high.

But what about the disciples? If Jesus is leaving them, how are they going to cope without him? In verse 6-19, Jesus prays next for his first disciples, the men sitting with him as he prays. So what does he pray for his disciples?

The first prayer comes in verse 11. ‘I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one.’

Jesus asks the Father to protect his disciples. He says in verse 12 that when he was with them, he protected them, and kept them safe. BUt now they need to be safe - how are they kept safe? ‘By the power of your name.’ It’s a bit like when a wedding takes place, and the bride comes under her husband’s name. We belong to God, we are his, under his name, under his power, in his safe keeping.
Jesus prays for the disciples to be protected. From what? Or whom? Jesus says that the world will hate the disciples - and last week we heard of the work of Open Doors, working with persecuted Christians - people who are hated, even by their own families because they love Jesus. In verse 15 we see who we need protected from - ‘My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.’ We have an enemy. He is out to get us. But we have the Father’s protection.

Jesus prays for protection. Again, it’s a bit like the Lord’s prayer, where he tells us to pray ‘deliver us from evil.’ But then he also asks that his disciples will be purified. We see it in verse 17: ‘Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.’

Now that word sanctified just means being purified, or set apart for God. Jesus set himself apart by living the perfect holy life, and then dying on the cross for us. He wants us to become purified, set apart for God’s service.

Now, as we come towards the last section, in verses 20-26, we see that Jesus prays for us directly. He has prayed for himself - because if he didn’t go to the cross there wouldn’t have been any disciples, and we wouldn’t be here tonight. He prayed for himself, then the first disciples, and now he prays for you and me. ‘I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message.’

The Christian faith is like a big long relay race. Jesus passed the message to the first disciples, who went and told others, who told others, who told others, until eventually the good news reached here in Richhill, and reached you and me here tonight. And from the very beginning, Jesus was praying for you and me. So what does he pray for us?

Verse 21: ‘that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’ Jesus prays that we may be one; together; united - as Jesus says in verse 23 ‘complete unity.’ In the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one, together. And Jesus wants us to be the same. Completely united. Standing and working and serving together.

It’s what Paul prays for the Philippians in his letter to them: ‘That you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel...’ (Phil 1:27). The picture to get in your mind is a Roman army unit, standing side by side with their shields linked up. All together like that they are safe. But if they start to break up, go off their own way, go in different directions, then they’ll not be safe. If even a small hole opens up they’ll be hit by enemy arrows. Perhaps the song from Old Trafford might sum up what Jesus is praying for - glory, glory, church united.

Jesus prays that we will be where he is; that we’ll see his glory. And because Jesus died on the cross, we have this promise, this sure future ahead of us, as we trust him.

Jesus is glorified, because he has obeyed the Father, and has died on the cross to show us his love. His prayer has been answered.

His disciples were protected and purified as they brought the good news of Jesus into all the world. Jesus’ prayer has been answered.

He wants us to be united, standing together as one, as we journey towards his glory, to be with him, enjoying that eternal life that only he gives. This prayer too will be answered. So let’s be together, helping and serving each other, because this is what Jesus wants; and this is what Jesus prayed for. Let’s pray that this prayer of Jesus will indeed be full answered, as we take our place with him in glory. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Wednesday 28th March 2018 as part of the Famous Last Words series in Holy Week.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Sermon: John 15: 1-17 Famous Last Words - I am the vine

I’ve brought along something tonight that you’ll hopefully be able to see. Here are my earphones! Now what are earphones used for? They’re for listening music. It’s great. You can be on the bus or sitting in the middle of a big crowd of people, and you can enjoy your favourite music - whether that’s George Ezra or Daniel O’Donnell or anyone in between! There’s just one problem... when I put them in my ears, I can’t hear anything. What’s wrong? They’re not connected. If this end isn’t connected into the ipod, then I won’t hear any music.

Or just think of your morning routine. If you’re not quite awake, you’re trying to get ready and wondering why the hairdryer or the toaster won’t work - they need to be plugged in. They need a connection with the power source to make them work; to do what they were made to do.

That’s what Jesus was telling us in our reading tonight. But rather than talk about earphones or hairdryers, Jesus uses another picture. But before we get to that, a little quiz. What country do you identify with the thistle? (Scotland). The shamrock? (Ireland) The maple leaf? (Canada). The fern? (New Zealand). The vine?

The vine was the national symbol of Israel. In the Old Testament, in Isaiah 5, God sings the song of his vineyard. He’s talking about Israel, his people, as his vineyard. But the vineyard he planted turned out to be wild. It didn’t produce good grapes. But now, here in John 15, Jesus says ‘I am the true vine.’ He’s the real thing.

Now I’ve brought some grapes with me tonight. So where did these grapes come from? How did they grow? They don’t have a factory making grapes like these - the branch has to be connected to the vine. It needs the sap, the power to produce the fruit. In the same way, Jesus says to his disciples: ‘Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.’ (John 15:4)

We need the power of Jesus to live as Christians. If we’re not connected to him, we won’t be able to do anything. That’s why Jesus tells us to remain in him - to rest in him, to abide in him, to be joined with him at all times. It’s only by this that we can produce fruit.

Now, here’s a spot the difference for you. What’s the difference between an apple tree and a Christmas tree? (By the way, it’s only 272 days to Christmas). A Christmas tree might look very nice with lights and baubles and tinsel and whatever else you put on a Christmas tree, but they have to be hung on it. The Christmas tree doesn’t produce all those things itself. The apple tree produces its own fruit.

But which are we like? Sometimes it can be very easy to come along to church or GFS, to look good, to seem to be a Christian with a great outward appearance, looking nice and respectable. But it’s all just decoration. Is that us? Or are we producing the fruit of being a Christian, living out of our relationship with Jesus - we’ll see what that looks like in a moment.

So that’s the basic point Jesus wants us to get tonight - we need to be connected to Jesus. It’s more important than being connected with 5000 friends on Facebook.

But Jesus goes on to show two ways in which being connected to him will impact our life. Here’s the first one: ‘If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given to you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.’ (John 15:7-8)

So how does that sound? Ask whatever you wish, and it will be given to you. Whatever you wish. It sounds a bit like a genie and a magic lamp, doesn’t it? Three friends were on a desert island when they found a lamp. The genie each gave them one wish. The first wished he was in Paris and he disappeared. The second wished he was in Hollywood and he disappeared. The third realised how lonely he was and wished his friends could come back...

So is Jesus saying that we can have whatever we want? Could we go outside after the service to find our cars have been changed into Ferraris or Porsches? But we’ve missed out the first part of the sentence. ‘If you remain in me and my words remain in you...’ It’s when we’re connected to Jesus, as his words remain in us, then we can ask whatever we wish and we’ll receive it. It’s not asking for things you want selfishly, rather, it’s about asking for the things Jesus wants because they are the things we want as well. When we’re connected to Jesus, we’ll see answered prayers.

There’s one more effect. Have you ever seen a domino display? You need a steady hand to set it up. One domino moves the next and on and on... We see something the same here as Jesus talks about love. ‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.’ (John 15:9) The Father loves the Son, who loves us, and who do we pass it on to? ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’

These words were said in the upper room, just hours before Jesus went to the cross. It was there that he demonstrated the greatest love of all: ‘Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.’ (14) It is as we receive his love - as we see just what Jesus did for us that we are connected to him. The cross is where we see the love of Jesus. Never wander from the love of Jesus. His love is the power that flows from him to us. His love will make us fruitful, as we become more like Jesus.

Jesus commands us to love one another. That’s because it isn’t easy. We’re all different, with different personalities and preferences. It takes the love of God to overflow in our hearts to each other as the fruit of the Spirit grows.

One of the problems of buying fruit is that sometimes it goes off quickly. It isn’t all eaten and it goes bad. My banana has seen better days. It’s past its best. It’s only good for the compost heap. But the fruit that we produce when we’re connected to Jesus endures for ever: ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit - fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other.’

Are you connected to Jesus? Perhaps you realise that you’re disconnected, far from him. You need to be plugged in, grafted on. Come to him tonight. Look at the cross, and discover his great love for you, to lay down his life for you.

But maybe you are a Christian. Stay connected. Return again to the cross, and let the love of Jesus flood your heart and overflow - as you pray like Jesus, and love like Jesus, producing spiritual fruit that will last forever.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Tuesday 27th March 2018, as part of the Famous Last Words series for Holy Week.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Sermon: John 14: 1-14 Famous Last Words - I am the way

Saying farewell is never easy. To know that someone isn’t going to be around, for whatever reason, can be difficult to get used to. And yet, it happens all the time. Your neighbours who’ve been there next door for ages sell up and move away. Your colleague or boss is shifted to another branch. Your children or grandchildren move off to university. Your relatives up sticks and settle in another country.

At least with most of those moves, you don’t lose contact. You can still keep in touch. But there is another farewell which (for the meantime) is a firmer, more final kind of farewell. Whether a sudden shock or a long, drawn out, gradual decline, it’s hard to say farewell when a loved one dies.

For the disciples of Jesus, our reading tonight is the shocking type of farewell. Just before our reading, at the end of chapter 13, Jesus has told the disciples that he is going to be with them only a little longer. That where he is going, they can’t come. It takes them by surprise. They weren’t expecting this news.

It’s now Thursday evening - everything from John 13 through to John 17 happens in one night, and that’s before the arrest, trial and crucifixion. Jesus is preparing his disciples for all that’s going to happen in the next day, and then life after Good Friday. They’re saddened by the new that he’s leaving them - after all, he’s been with them for three years. They’ve seen and done so much together. And on Palm Sunday, Jesus had been welcomed into the city.

They thought this was the victory they had been longing for. They imagined Jesus was about to take his rightful throne. And Jesus says he is leaving them? Where is he going? What’s happening? What sort of farewell is this?

It’s no wonder Peter jumps in to say that he’ll follow Jesus now, that he’ll lay down his life for Jesus. Very shortly Peter will deny even knowing Jesus. Peter can’t die for Jesus - Jesus has to die for Peter. That’s why Jesus must go.

Jesus is leaving them. Their friend, guide, master, and Lord is leaving them. It’s no wonder that chapter 14 begins with those very familiar words from the funeral service. It’s obvious that their hearts were troubled by this news; that they were anxious about the future, worried about what would happen. It’s why Jesus says this:

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.’ He doesn’t want them to be anxious, or to have troubled hearts. And the way to avoid troubled hearts is to trust God, and also trust Jesus - through all that is about to happen. Even when they don’t understand it.

Jesus says ‘trust me’ - I wonder if anyone has said those words to you recently. Maybe buying a car, and you’re not sure about it. Trust me. You’ve been let down by someone before. Trust me. They give you a promise, and you have to decide if you believe them, if they’ll actually do what they say they will do.

So what is it the disciples have to trust Jesus for? In verse 2 he gives them a promise - the reason why he is going away. ‘In my Father’s house are many rooms.’ Now, whether you’re used to hearing about mansions (dwelling places) or rooms, the point Jesus is making is that he’s making a home for us; a place prepared.

A while back we were doing an overnight stay in a hotel with friends. There was some confusion over the booking, and when I rang up the day we were due to go, it turned out that only one room had been booked. Our friends’ room. Thankfully they still had some left!

Worse, a friend of mine arrived at his hotel in London. He found that the hotel had double booked his room; there was definitely no room at the inn. So he had to traipse across London, wheeling his suitcase behind me, to go to another hotel from the same company.

But that won’t happen to any of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus is saying that our place is prepared; it’s certain. He is going to prepare a place for us. He goes to make everything ready. And not only that, he will personally come and take us to be with him.

This isn’t like the holidays that you might have been on. You arrive at the airport and you’re loaded onto a hot and sticky bus for the trip around half the hotels in the resort before you come to yours. No, this is more like Jesus personally escorting us, bringing us with him.

Now, when you think to yourself - Jesus has been preparing our place in glory for two thousand years, this will be some place! But it’s not that the preparation has taken so long. It’s the going that prepares the place. It’s by Jesus’ death on the cross that we are guaranteed our place, as we trust him.

As Jesus says ‘you know the way to the place where I am going’, Thomas jumps in and says, Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’

Isn’t that true? You need to know where you’re going, your end destination, before you know what way you’re going to get there. Do you see what Jesus says in verse 6? These are well-known words. Yet they tell us exactly who Jesus is.

‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’

Jesus says ‘I am the way.’ He is the way, the route, the path. Notice that he doesn’t say ‘I am a way’, one option among many; he is the only way, the only way to get to the Father.

Jesus says ‘I am the truth.’ He doesn’t only speak true things; he is the truth. As you hear in court, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So we can depend on what Jesus says. We can trust his words. We can trust him.

Jesus says, ‘I am the life.’ Real life is found only in Jesus. He gives us life because he is the life. Remember that Jesus is about to go to the cross. He’s about to lay down his life, in order to bring us to God, in order to give us his life.

There is no other way, no other truth, no other life. Only Jesus can show us the Father. Only Jesus can reveal God to us. In his life, works, words and witness, Jesus shows us what God is like, because the Father is in Jesus.

Through the death of Jesus on the cross we have the promise of our place prepared; our room in God’s house. It’s there for us, as we trust in God, and trust also in Jesus. So are you depending on him today?

Jesus is the way. Are you going his way? Are you going with Jesus, or going on your own way? Do you need to turn around, get back on track, to go with Jesus?

Jesus is the truth. Are you living by his truth? Or are you believing someone else’s truth? Who are you listening to? What are you building your life on?

Jesus is the life. Are you experiencing his abundant life today?Are you certain of his everlasting life when the time of your own farewell comes?

Jesus says to us, and to all his disciples: ‘Let not your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.’

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Monday 26th March 2018 in the 'Famous Last Words' Holy Week series.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Sermon: John 12: 20-36 The Hour Has Come

Today is the first day of British Summer Time, the day when the clocks go forward. And it’s lovely to get the longer, lighter evenings. But for that to happen, it meant that the alarm clock seemed extra early this morning - particularly if you’d been dancing the night away at the Ceilidh last night! The alarm sounded, and you knew it was time to get up.

Most people have some kind of alarm to let them know it’s the time to get up. Whether it’s your phone, or an actual alarm clock, you have some way of telling what time it is. Now, I must confess that I’m not really a morning person, and so I sometimes need to set multiple alarms to make sure that I do waken!

Now, if you’re like me, you can get some pretty advanced alarm clocks. There’s one that must be submerged in water for the alarm to stop ringing - so if you’ve made it as far as the bathroom, you might as well get into the shower. There’s another that releases four puzzle pieces which have to be put back in the proper place for the alarm to stop sounding. Strange alarms - alarming alarms even - but in our reading tonight, we hear of another sort of alarm. one that you might use now, or one that might take you back to childhood. And that’s the human alarm. It’s when someone else tells you what time it is. Maybe it was a parent who would come to you to tell you it’s time to get up. Maybe now it’s your partner, or maybe you’re the alarm for them!

Tonight in our reading, Jesus talks a lot about time. He says that ‘the hour has come’ in verse 23; that ‘now is the time for judgement on this world’ in verse 31; that ‘you are going to have the light just a little while longer’ in verse 34. Jesus is saying that the time is here, the hour has come. And how does he know? Well, it’s because of the human alarm clock we find in the opening verses.

‘Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the Feast. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. Sir, they said, we would like to see Jesus. Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.’ (20-22)

These Greeks were Gentiles - they weren’t Jews, but they may have been God-fearers, Gentiles who worshipped the God of Israel. They are in Jerusalem for Passover, just like the big crowds that welcomed Jesus in the passage we looked at this morning. And they have a simple request. ‘Sir, we would like to see Jesus.’

They want to see Jesus, to meet him, to hear from him. And it’s such a great request that those very words are carved into many a lectern and pulpit, as a little reminder to the preacher climbing into the pulpit that the people listening want to see Jesus.

What a privilege to be given that request! It’s what we long for our families and friends and everyone else to ask us - how do I get to know Jesus? So Philip was asked, he tells Andrew, and they go to tell Jesus.

Now, the way in which Jesus replies might come as a bit of a surprise. Jesus doesn’t say - ok, where are they, I’ll chat to them now. Neither does he say, well, I’m a wee bit busy now, but maybe we could meet up for a chat later on. In fact, he seems to ignore the Greeks themselves. Instead, Jesus takes this request as a sign that the hour has come.

The fact that the Gentiles have come wanting to see him is a sign that the time has come. And what is it the time for? Which hour has come? ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’ It’s time for the Lord Jesus to be glorified - and how will this happen? Jesus makes clear that his glory comes in his saving death. It is in his dying that Jesus will be glorified.

And he shows us this by pointing us to a farming illustration. ‘I tell you the truth, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.’ (24)

If you have a grain of wheat, and you set it up on the shelf, it won’t do much. It will still only be one seed. But if you put it into the ground, if it dies, then it will produce many seeds. One grain dies to produce an abundant harvest. And this is what the death of Jesus is like. He dies, a single seed; but his death produces an abundant harvest, as we all receive life through his death.

And this is the pattern that Jesus calls us to follow. We have a choice. how will we live our life? Will we keep ourselves safe, love our lives, look out for ourselves? In the end we will lose it. But if we ‘hate’ our life in this world - if we don’t set it up as our highest priority, if we instead give ourselves for others, just as Jesus gave himself for us, then we will keep it for eternal life.

There’s a challenge for each of us who call ourselves Christians. We see it in verse 26: ‘Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honour the one who serves me.’ So are we serving? Following? Giving ourselves for the good of others? Falling into the ground and dying so that others may live? Using our seed, our resources so that more seed will be produced? Because this is the pattern Jesus sets before us - dying produces life. One seed can produce many seeds - but only through death.

Now, as you hear that, perhaps you’re thinking - that sounds difficult, uncomfortable, maybe even painful. And it’s all that, and even more. You see, the way of the cross is so painful that it leads Jesus’ heart to be troubled. V27: ‘Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!’

Jesus counts the cost of the cross, and commits to it for our benefit. In his death we have life. In his giving, we have living. And he sets out the pattern for us to follow as we serve him. As Jesus commits to glorifying (not himself, but) the Father, the voice of the Father replies from heaven, as a confirmation that Jesus is on the right track, that he’s doing the right thing. It wasn’t thunder, or an angel, it was God the Father confirming God the Son in his commitment to go the way of the cross.

So it’s time for the Son of Man to be glorified by dying for his people. At the same time, we’re told that it’s time for something else as well. Look at verse 31: ‘Now is the time for judgement on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.

Now, John gives us a little help to understand what Jesus is saying. His being lifted up from the earth isn’t his ascension; it’s his death on the cross. Do you see v33? ‘He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.

Three times in John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of bring lifted up - 3:14 ‘Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up’; and 8:28 ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.’ Jesus being lifted up is the way he speaks of his death on the cross.

The time for Jesus to die on the cross is, in the same moment, the time for the devil to be defeated. Don’t think for a moment that the cross is a defeat for Jesus. It is through the shame and agony of the cross that he is winning his greatest victory. As Jesus dies, he will drive out ‘the prince of this world.’ You see, the devil may have some sort of foothold, may think that he rules the world, has everyone in his power. But Jesus is at work to defeat him, through the cross.

And the defeat of the devil is shown by Jesus drawing all men (people) to himself. It’s as Jesus opens wide his arms upon the cross that he brings us to himself. We’re welcomed in, escaping the judgement that is coming. The cross brings glory to Jesus, and defeat for the devil, but it also brings a warning that time is short.

We’re used to warnings like this all the time. Your car will have a warning light when you’ve got enough petrol or diesel for about 50 miles or so. Some people refill ages before the light ever comes on; some people live on the edge, driving almost on fumes. Your mobile phone will have a battery indicator to show how much you’ve got left on it.

And Jesus says that the cross brings the warning that time is short. The crowd are wondering about Jesus talking about the Son of Man bring lifted up. They know he’s talking about death, but they can’t work it out. You see, they also know that the Old Testament talks about how the Christ will remain for ever. So how can Jesus talk about death? Who is this Son of Man?

We get the warning in verse 35: ‘You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. The man who walks in the dark does not know where he is going. Put your trust in the light while you have it, so that you may become sons of light.’

We’re probably not as used to this image as we once would have been. With streetlights and lamps and so on, we’re able to see even when it gets dark. But for the people in Jesus’ day, you might have had a lamp in the house, but outside it would be pitch black. You did what you needed in the light, because you wouldn’t be able to see in the dark.

Jesus says that he is the light, but that there will come a time when it’s impossible for people to come to the light. Darkness will overtake them. Then it will be too late. Just think of the darkness that descended at midday on that first Good Friday - light of the world by darkness slain. Jesus still offers us his light; but again, time is short, judgement is coming, and with it a division - between the outer darkness of hell and the brightness of the new heavens and new earth, which needs no sun, because God and the Lamb are its light.

The Greeks wanting to see Jesus was the alarm clock, the signal that the time had come for Jesus to go to the cross. It’s the time for Jesus to be glorified by dying for us; it’s the time for the devil to be defeated; and it’s a warning that time is short, eternity is long, that we need to grasp hold of the light that is offered while it’s still time.

Sir, we would like to see Jesus. Is that your heart’s desire tonight? This week will be a great opportunity to see more of Jesus, as we hear his famous last words. To see him glorified, as he wins the victory, and gives us his light. Will you come to him tonight?

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

Sermon: John 12: 12-19 Your King is coming

The other day, Prince Harry and his fiancee Meghan Markle were on a visit to Belfast. We’re used to Royal visits happening every so often, when some of the Royal Family fly into Northern Ireland for a day or two. Wherever they go, there’ll be crowds and flags and lots of excitement.

Now I’ve a question for you. How would you recognise the Queen, if she arrived into Richhill? Now, you might think that’s a silly question - of course you’d recognise the Queen. You know what she looks like You’ve seen her on TV, and you’ve seen photos of her. And if you still weren’t sure, you could check by pulling a coin out of your pocket or purse; you could have a look at a stamp, just to make sure it really was her.

Of course you would recognise the Queen. But it helps us to get into our reading this morning from John’s Gospel. Because the question driving this passage is this: how would the people of Israel recognise their king, when he came to them? They didn’t have stamps; they hadn’t seen him on TV; there weren’t any newspapers to see his picture in. How would they recognise their King when he came? How would they know when God’s promised king had come?

They might not have had stamps or TV or newspapers, but there was a detailed description available to them. It was almost like the photofit picture you might have seen on Crimewatch - details about him put together from lots of different Old Testament Scriptures. Long before Jesus appeared on the scene, God had been preparing his people to recognise and receive the king. He had given them the portrait of the promised king in the Scriptures. The people had been watching and waiting for so long. And now, he’s here.

That’s why, as Jesus comes towards the city of Jerusalem (12), we’re told that the great crowd in the city go out to meet him, waving palm branches. They reckon that Jesus is the king. After all, he has raised Lazarus from the dead. (17). If someone can walk up to a tomb, and call someone inside to come out, and raise him from the dead, then he must be fairly special. They are sure that Jesus is the king, and so they begin to shout out some of the Old Testament promises about him.

Look at verse 13. ‘They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna!’ ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ‘Blessed is the King of Israel!’

They’re quoting from Psalm 118, our Psalm this morning. That word ‘Hosanna’ is a cry to God - a cry of praise, but also a cry to ask God to save them, to rescue them. So as Jesus comes towards Jerusalem, they’re saying to Jesus - you’re the one God has sent; you’re the one who’s going to rescue us; you’re the king.

They’re shouting, and praising, and getting very excited. God’s king is coming to them to save them. And they knew exactly what they wanted saving from. They wanted to be saved from Roman rule. For a long time, Israel wasn’t free. The Romans had come and conquered their land. Caesar was lord, and Pontius Pilate was the local governor. The people were waiting for God’s king to come and kick the Romans out of the land. To save them from Rome Rule.

They’re right that Jesus is God’s king. But they don’t get it all right. We see that in the way Jesus responds to them. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say anything in our reading today. Normally we’re used to listening in to Jesus’ words, to hear what he has to say. But here, he doesn’t say anything. He’s entirely silent. But sometimes actions speak louder than words. And it’s true here. Jesus’ actions speak louder than any words he might have said.

So what does Jesus do? We see it in verse 14. ‘Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it.’ We’ve heard the Palm Sunday story before - we know what happens; we know that ‘we have a king who rides a donkey.’ But imagine for a moment that you haven’t heard the story before.

The crowd are welcoming their all-conquering king. The crowds are getting behind him, the tension is rising, the moment of victory is coming. You would expect the hero to arrive on a war horse - a white horse, to show that he’s the king, the military leader, the great hero!

But Jesus doesn’t ride a white horse or a war horse. He found a young donkey and sat upon it. Why does he do that? Because the people’s picture of the king wasn’t complete. They were right that Jesus is the king - but he’s not the sort of king they were expecting. They needed to get to grips with another piece of the puzzle, another detail of the king’s description. He rides a donkey because of what is written in Zechariah 9 (our Old Testament reading):

‘Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.’

They expected a war horse, a conquering king; Jesus comes as the humble king, riding on a donkey, fulfilling what has been written hundreds of years before. Yes, there will be victory and rescue, but it will come through the humble action of the king, bringing salvation through his own death.

As Jesus enters Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, he knows what lies before him. He has been on the way of the cross since he took his first steps. But even though he has told his disciples so many times, they still don’t get it. John tells us that in verse 16:

‘At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realise that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him.’

Perhaps you’re still putting together the pieces, still trying to make sense of who Jesus is and why he came to die on the cross. You have a great opportunity to do that this week. Even though Jesus doesn’t speak in our reading today, he has a lot to say in the next few chapters of John’s gospel - about himself, about his death, and about what it means to follow him. We’re going to listen in to his famous last words each night this week at 7.30pm. Do come along, to hear what Jesus has to say.

As Jesus enters the city, a massive crowd of people are with him. They’re spreading the word about how Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead. Even more people, when they hear this, come out to meet him. Wouldn’t you want to know someone who can raise people from the dead?!

Jesus the king comes to his people. The excitement levels are high. But not everyone is excited. Verse 19 shows us the Pharisees, the religious leaders, as they watch what’s happening. They’re not shouting with joy. Rather, they’re angry. Do you hear what they’re saying? ‘See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!’

The whole world has gone after him. The whole city seems to be on Jesus’ side. But it’s only Palm Sunday. By Friday, the crowd will be baying for his blood, calling for his crucifixion, declaring that ‘we have no king but Ceasar.’ Their king has come, but they will not have him. They, and we, and everyone since Adam and Eve, have chosen to rebel against our true king. We shove him off the throne, and crown ourselves as king or queen of our lives.

And all along, since the Garden of Eden, God has been preparing the stage for his king. Providing the details of his loving king. Painting the portrait of the promise king - the one who loves rebels so much that he will willingly die to bring them back; the humble king who gives his life in their place; who offers peace and forgiveness and rescue through the death of the cross.

One day he will return, riding on a war horse, as Revelation 19 tells us - to judge and make war on those who still oppose him. But here and now, he has come, humbly, offering us his peace. See, your king is coming. Will you trust him for your salvation? Will you cry out Hosanna - save us!

Will you continue to follow him, and trust him even when things are difficult, and you don’t understand what’s happening? See, your king is coming. Give him your praise, but more than that, give him your whole self. He is worthy. He is Lord of all.

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

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sermon: Isaiah 49: 1-18 St Patrick's Call

We’re thinking today about St Patrick, but to get us thinking about him and Ireland, we’ve got a quiz to get us going:

In which county is Ireland’s highest mountain? Carrauntoohil, County Kerry (1038m / 3406ft)
In which county did St Patrick build his first church? Saul church, Co. Down.
Which is the smallest county in Ireland? Louth
How many points did Ireland finish the 2018 Six Nations tournament with?
How many seats are there in Stormont and Dail Eireann? Stormont - 90; Dail - 158 (as well as 60 seats in the Seanad)
In which county can you kiss the Blarney stone? Cork
What is the official colour of St Patrick and of Ireland? Blue, not green!
Which other countries also have St Patrick as their patron saint? Nigeria, Montserrat, Puerto Rico

The world turned green for St Patrick's Day! For one day at least, everyone is Irish! All over the world, people drank green beer in honour of St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. Yet, incredibly, Patrick wasn't even Irish! Born at Bannavem Taburniae, which is somewhere in either Wales or Scotland, Patrick came from a Christian family. His dad was a deacon, and his grandfather a priest/presbyter. But as he grew up, Patrick didn't believe. "We would not listen to our priests, who advised us about how we could be saved." (Conf 1).

At the age of 16, Patrick was captured by Irish raiders, sold into slavery, and found himself tending sheep (traditionally thought to be at Slemish mountain outside Ballymena). It was here that Patrick came to faith. "More and more the love of God increased, and my sense of awe before God. Faith grew, and my spirit was moved, so that in one day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same." (Conf 16).

After about six years, he heard a voice in the night telling him to get up, "Look, your ship is ready." He walked for about two hundred miles to get to the boat which took him back to Britain. Initially, the captain didn't want to take him onboard, but Patrick prayed, and his mind was changed. When they landed on the mainland, they walked twenty-eight days without finding any food. The captain (a pagan) challenged Patrick: "What about this, Christian? You tell us that your God is great and all-powerful - why can't you pray for us, since we're in a bad state of hunger?" As Patrick prayed, a herd of pigs appeared before them, providing food for them all.

Eventually, Patrick made it back home to his family. His family urged him to never leave them again, after all his tribulations. But Patrick had a dream, a vision of a man called Victoricus coming from Ireland with a pile of letters - 'the voice of the Irish'. As he began to read one of these letters in his dream, he heard the voices of the Irish people: "We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us." (Conf 23). In their voice, he heard God's voice, calling him back to Ireland, to bring the good news of Jesus.

This is what drove Patrick to come back to Ireland, the place of his slavery - he wanted the pagans to know the true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Here's what he writes:

"That is why I cannot be silent - nor would it be good to do so - about such great blessings and such a gift that the Lord so kindly bestowed in the land of my captivity. This is how we can repay such blessings, when our lives change and we come to know God, to praise and bear witness to his great wonders before every nation under heaven." (Conf 3)

He describes Ireland as "the nations to whom the love of Christ brought me." (Conf 13).

But more than that, throughout his Confession, he repeatedly mentions his desire to obey God's command to bring the good news to the ends of the earth, to every nation, and even to Ireland. We're so used to thinking of Ireland as the centre of our universe. We look at a map of the world, and we're fairly central. But to the Roman empire, and Patrick, Ireland was seen as the very edge of the world. Nothing beyond it, and nothing much in it. As Patrick says:

"In this way I can imitate somewhat those whom the Lord foretold would announce his gospel in witness to all nations before the end of the world. This is what we see has been fulfilled. Look at us: we are witnesses that the gospel has been preached right out to where there is nobody else there!" (Conf 34).

He describes himself as "a saving letter of Christ even to the ends of the earth." (Conf 11).

In sections 38-40 of his Confession, Patrick quotes from 9 Bible passages in quick succession, each of them about the nations, the ends of the earth coming to God. One of them is the Great Commission found in Matthew 28, but we’ve looked at it before. So we’re going to focus on our reading from Isaiah 49.

The servant of the LORD is speaking. It’s as if he has a giant megaphone, because, v 1, he’s speaking to places far away: ‘Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations.’ He’s got a message for every nation, even the very far away places, like Ireland!

Bringing a message is the reason for his existence - called before birth, with a mouth like a sharpened sword. (We’re told in Heb 4 that God’s word is like a sharp two edged sword).

This servant was formed to be God’s servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and gather Israel to himself. The focus there is on the people of Israel, the Jews. But then his job description is expanded.

Maybe you’ve had this in your workplace. You’re getting on with things, doing what you’re meant to do, and then your boss decides to give you even more work to do, more responsibility. We see that happening in verse 6:

‘It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.’

The servant isn’t just going to restore the Israelites. He is also going to be a light for the Gentiles, to bring God’s salvation to the ends of the earth. Including Ireland.

That’s why Patrick came to Ireland - to bring the good news of God’s salvation here. This picture was going around Facebook yesterday: St Patrick's Day isn't about green beer... it's about a man wanting Ireland to know Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the light of the world, and yet, this passage is also used in Acts to speak of Jesus’ disciples. (Acts 13:47). We are called to shine brightly for God, as the light of Jesus shines in us. That’s what the first disciples did as Jesus sent them out. It’s what Patrick did in his day. And it’s what we’re called to do, here and now.

If we're Christians, these are still our instructions; this is our mission. How can we play our part in fulfilling Christ's command? There's a great little phrase Crosslinks mission agency uses: pray, give, go. We can pray for the work of mission; we can give to support the work of mission; we can go to do the work of mission. You don't have to go across the world to introduce someone to Jesus, you can go across the road.

As we go, we have the promise of Jesus that he is with us always, to the very end of the age. Patrick knew that Jesus was with him - it’s why he wrote his ‘breastplate’, the words of our opening praise. Jesus is with us as we share his good news, so let’s do it!

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 18th March 2018.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Sermon: Leviticus 16: 1-34 Scripture Fulfilled - Atonement

When you come along to a Church of Ireland service, you have a fair idea of the way things are going to happen. And that’s particularly true if you’ve been a member of the Church of Ireland for a long time. You know how things work. You’re familiar with the different types of services we have. There’s Holy Communion, and Morning and Evening Prayer, and then the Service of the Word which we’re using tonight - which follows a pattern from the Book of Common Prayer (page 165).

I imagine that we’re not just as familiar with the type of ceremony described in our reading tonight from Leviticus 16. And, in fact, it might even make you a bit uneasy, if you’re vegetarian; or even uncomfortable, if you’re a bit squeamish about blood. And you might think - that’s in the Bible? Or what’s that all about?

Tonight we’re looking at this ceremony, the Day of Atonement, as we continue to see how the cross of Jesus fulfils the prophecies of the Old Testament. And hopefully we’ll see that, through the blood and guts and gore of this chapter, we see another aspect of the cross, and what Jesus has done for us as he died on the cross for us. But in order to see Jesus, we need to take in some of the details of this seemingly strange ceremony.

We find ourselves tonight in the book called Leviticus. And this book is mostly instructions for the priests of the tribe of Levi (hence the name Leviticus). So, in a sense, this is like a handbook for the priests to know how to do the various different types of sacrifices. Maybe even a bit like the BCP.

I said it’s mostly about instructions, because there’s just one piece of narrative, just one action story among all the commands. Now, it happens in ch 10, but it’s referenced here in 16:1 - ‘The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they approached the LORD.’

Back in 10:1, we’re told that Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron, offered ‘unauthorised fire before the LORD, contrary to his command.’ They died instantly, when fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them. They had gone about things their own way, disregarding God’s commands. And they died for their misdeeds.

So here, in the instructions for the Day of Atonement, we’re reminded straight away that we’re meant to do things the way God wants, not whatever way we want. We see it in verse 2: ‘Tell your brother Aaron not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die, because I appear in the cloud over the atonement cover.’

So Aaron can’t just get up one day and think ‘I’ll pop in behind the curtain today.’ No, he can only come when God tells him to. Now, straight away, you might be thinking to yourself - what’s all this about the Most Holy Place, and the curtain, and the atonement cover, and the ark...?

We find ourselves at the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, right at the centre of the Israelite camp. Last week, we saw how the people were rescued from slavery in Egypt through the Passover Lamb. Now, they’re still in the wilderness, having crossed the Red Sea. At the centre of the camp is the Tent of Meeting. Outside the tent is the altar for sacrifices. Inside the tent is the Holy Place (where the Lampstand and the Table for bread are); but behind a curtain is the Most Holy Place (or the Holy of Holies). Inside it, you find the Ark of the Covenant, the top of which is called the atonement cover. Or at least, you would find it inside if you were allowed to go in. But you weren’t to go in. No one was, except only Aaron; and not at any time of his choosing, but only on one day of the year. The Day of Atonement, or as is was known sometimes, The Day.

In verses 3-5, we see the preparations Aaron has to undergo for the day. There’s quite a shopping list of animals - the young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering (3), as well as the two male goats for a sin offering and another ram for a burnt offering. There are also special garments to wear - a sacred linen tunic, with linen undergarments, a linen sash and a linen turban. And before he puts them on, he has to bathe, to purify himself.

Now, the two rams for the burnt offering are left until later on, but our focus is on the bull and the two goats. We see what happens to each of them in turn.

The bull is Aaron’s sin offering for himself and his household. It is to make ‘atonement’ (6). Now, that English word atonement was invented by William Tyndale to translate the Hebrew here. And, it simply means ‘at-one-ment’. To atone is to make at-one, that is, to reconcile, to bring together again. And we see how that works in Aaron’s case in verse 11. The bull is offered as his sin offering. It dies, and he takes some of the blood and sprinkles it on the front of the atonement cover and before it, seven times.

The blood of the bull has been shed, and is sprinkled to allow him to gain access to the Most Holy Place. Without the blood, he couldn’t go in. And yet, even the blood isn’t enough. He also takes coals from the altar and two handfuls of incense, to create a smokescreen to enable him to enter. If he saw God, he would die, and so the smoke and incense allows him to enter, shielded from the sight of God.

The bull is offered for his sin, and its blood is shed to allow him to come near to God, to take part in the sacrifice. But the bull was just for Aaron. The main atonement ceremony hasn’t even begun yet. For that, you need the two goats.

Back in verse 7, we’re reminded of the two goats. They’re presented before the LORD. Lots are cast to decide which will be which - one will be the LORD’s. It’s the sin offering, and we pick it up again in verse 15. It is slaughtered as a sin offering - not just for Aaron this time, but for the people, for all Israel. Again, its blood is taken behind the curtain. It’s sprinkled on the atonement cover (as atonement is made, the people reconciled to God). but do you see that atonement is also ‘for’ the Most Holy Place (16) ‘because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites.’

We’re getting into the time of year for spring cleaning. It seems as if the Tent was being cleaned, the uncleanness and pollution caused by the people all being cleaned away.

The Most Holy Place is sprinkled, then the Tent of Meeting, then the altar too. All sprinkled with the blood of the goat. Atonement is made, the goat has died in place of the people, and the blood has been applied.

That all happens with the first goat. But now we come to the second goat, in verse 20. The first one died, but this one is still bleating. In verse 21, Aaron lays his hands on the head of the goat, and confesses over it all the sins of the people. By this, he transfers their sins from the people to the goat. Its name is the scapegoat. The one who takes the blame.

So what happens to the scapegoat? It is taken away, led off into the desert, to a solitary place, carrying the peoples’ sins. Do you see what’s happening? The sins of the people are put onto the head of the goat. The goat is taken away, and you’ll never see it (or your sins) again. The goat is gone, and your sins are gone.

With that, the ceremony is almost complete. Aaron goes and changes out of the sacred garments, then offers the burnt offerings. The fat of the sin offering is burnt on the altar, but the rest of it is taken outside the camp and burned up. Atonement has been made for all the sins of the Israelites - at least for that year, until next time, when it happens all over again.

These sacrifices, and the Day of Atonement, they all continued up until the end of the temple in Jerusalem in AD70. They had come to an end, because what they pointed forward to had now been completed. If you’re driving to Dublin, and you’re not sure where you’re going, then you’ll follow the signposts. They’ll point you in the right direction. But once you’re in Dublin, you don’t need the signposts any more. You’ve arrived. And the Day of Atonement is a signpost pointing us to the cross. The letter to the Hebrews helps us to understand what it’s all about.

Jesus is our great high priest, the one who makes the sacrifice that we need. And unlike Aaron, Jesus has no sin of his own. Aaron had to sacrifice the bull for his own sin, but Jesus has no sin - he is our perfect, sinless high priest.

And Jesus is also our offering for sin. Our high priest offers himself for our sin, to make at-onement for us. So both of the goats point us to the work of Jesus on the cross. Jesus, like the sin offering goat, died, for our sins - he brings his own blood through the veil / curtain - not in the earthly tabernacle or temple, but into heaven’s throne room itself. (Heb 9:12)

But that’s not all. Jesus is also like the scapegoat - he carries our sins far away. We’ll never see them again! As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us (Ps 103).

Jesus is our great high priest; Jesus is our sin offering; Jesus is our scapegoat. And he did it... once. In Heb 10, the writer says that the blood of bulls and goats can’t take away sin - it’s only Christ’s blood that can do it. And he doesn’t have to repeat the sacrifice time and time again. He has done it once for all time.

Our Day of Atonement was the first Good Friday, as Jesus died on the cross. He has fulfilled the details of Leviticus, bearing our sin, dying for our sin, making us at-one with God through his blood. The writer to the Hebrews picks up on one of the smaller details and shows that even it is fulfilled. Can you remember what happened to the remains of the sin bearing goat?

The blood was taken into the Most Holy Place. The fat was burned on the altar. The rest was taken outside the camp. A small detail, unimportant, perhaps. But the writer to the Hebrews picks up on it. Where was Jesus crucified?

As the hymn puts it, ‘there is a green hill far away without a city wall.’ Without, or outside a city wall. Jesus was taken out of the city to be crucified. Calvary / Golgotha was outside the city. Now listen to Hebrews 13: ‘The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking forward for the city that is to come.’

Even the location of the cross fulfils the Day of Atonement detailed in Leviticus 16. In this chapter, we see the shadow of the cross. We see just what the cross involved - the death in our place for our sins; the removal of those sins; and our spotless, sinless Saviour, our great high priest, who lives to intercede for us.

The sacrifice has been made. Your sins have been covered. This may not be the tenth day of the seventh month, but this can be your Day of Atonement, the day you are reconciled to God, through the cross of Christ. So don’t delay. Don’t wait any longer. Come today, to the foot of the cross. Be reconciled to God.

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

Sermon: Exodus 2: 1-10 The First Moses Basket

This morning I’ve brought along something to show you. Does anyone know what this is?

It’s a Moses basket. And what is it for?

The Moses basket is to put a baby in, a safe place for the baby to sleep.

This morning, we’re going to hear about the very first Moses basket. And to do that, we’re going back to Exodus chapter 2, to the land of Egypt.

Has anyone ever been to Egypt? Maybe you’ve been there on holiday. Or maybe you’ll plan to go some day, to see the pyramids...

Well back at the start of Exodus, the people of Israel are in Egypt. But they’re not there on holiday. They were slaves in the land. At the end of Genesis, the people of Israel went into Egypt through the dreams of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. There were 70 (or 75) people, just one extended family.

By the start of Exodus, there are more than 1 million Israelites. And the Egyptians were afraid of the Israelites. They were scared in case the Israelites would turn around and help Egypt’s enemies. And so they made the Israelites slaves.

They forced them to work long hours, making bricks and building cities. All day every day, that was all they did. Can you imagine living as a slave?

Now that was bad enough. But what came next was even worse. Pharaoh the king of Egypt decided that he wanted to get rid of the Israelites. So he said that any baby boys that were born should be killed. Girls could live, but not boys.

And eventually, he told all his people that if they found a baby boy born to the Israelites (the Hebrews), they were to throw him into the river Nile.

In our reading today, we hear the story of one mother who had faith in God. She had a baby boy, and she decided that she wasn’t going to throw him into the Nile. V2 says that the baby boy was ‘a fine child’. So she decided to hide her baby.

Now, boys and girls. Do you think it would be easy or hard to hide a baby? Who thinks easy? Who thinks hard?

It would be really hard, wouldn’t it? Why? Because babies cry! They make a lot of noise! And so for three months, she hid her baby. Every time he cried, his mother was there to try to settle him quickly, to make no noise, to not let on that he was in the house.

And she managed to do it for three months. But then, she knew she had to do something else. She couldn’t hide him any longer. So she decided to do what Pharaoh commanded. She was going to take her son to the river.

Imagine that! She hid him for three months, and then she was going to take him to the river, like all the other baby boys. Except, she had a plan.

She took a basket, and covered it with tar and pitch. She made it watertight, so that it would float. She then placed her baby into the basket, and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile.

Moses was in the river, like all the rest, except he was safe. Now, I’m not very good at Hebrew, but people smarter than me have written books that help to explain the Bible. And the word that says basket here is found in another Old Testament story. Another story involving water, and people being safe inside.

Noah’s ark is the same word here - now Noah’s ark was massive, and saved 8 people and all the animals that were inside. Moses’ basket, his ark, was only big enough for one baby, but it was big enough to save him.

Or, at least, we hope so. In verse 4, it’s as if we’re standing with Moses’ sister, waiting to see what would happen to him.

Now, of all the people in Egypt, who should come along next? Pharaoh’s daughter! Her dad wants to kill all the baby boys, and now here she comes. She’s coming for a dip, to bathe in the river, and she spots the basket among the reeds. She sends one of the slaves to get it.

When she opens it, what does she find inside? The baby! Moses! And, no wonder, he was crying. Now, what would she do? Would she tip him out of the basket into the water?

Thankfully not! She felt sorry for him. She didn’t want to do him any harm. Instead, Pharaoh’s daughter decides that she’s going to keep him. But remember, he’s still only three months old. He needs someone to care for him and nurse him until he’s older.

So Moses’ sister comes along and asks if she can go and get one of the Hebrew women to care for him. Pharaoh’s daughter says yes, and who does his sister bring back? His own mum!

And even better than that, listen to what Pharaoh’s daughter says: ‘Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you.’

Pharaoh was paying Moses’ mum to look after Moses. His mum had saved him, and God was even using Pharaoh to care for him!

Later, the time came for the child to go and live in the palace as Pharaoh’s daughter’s son. And it’s now that he gets the name Moses, meaning ‘I drew him out of the water.’ This story in Exodus is why these baby cots are called Moses baskets. A safe place for a baby to sleep.

But this story also tells us about one ordinary woman who trusted God. It was ‘by faith’ that this mother (and father) hid their baby, because they saw he was no ordinary child. Their baby would grow up to be Moses, the leader of the Israelites, the one who would lead them out of slavery when he heard and answered God’s call (eighty years later).

So mums and dads, keep trusting God as you bring up your children. Don’t go the way the world wants you to go - trust God, and look to him to be at work in your house, your family, and your children’s lives.

God is at work. He was at work to use Moses to save his people. And do you remember what happened when Jesus was born? The King at the time tried to kill him as well. Herod wanted to get rid of Jesus, but God saved him in order to save us. God was working to save you through Jesus. You can trust him. Let’s pray that we continue to look to shod.

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

Monday, March 05, 2018

Sermon: Exodus 12: 1-42 Scripture Fulfilled: The Passover

Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast. Those words opened our service tonight. They’re words that were spoken this morning at our Communion service. But what does it mean? What’s the Passover, and how is Christ our Passover?

On these Sunday nights leading up to Easter, we’re going to dig into the Old Testament. We’re going to see how the cross of Jesus fulfils some of the Old Testament promises and prophecies. And tonight we begin with the Passover. So what is it all about?

In our (very) long reading, we heard of all the instructions for the very first Passover meal. Now, I don’t know whether in your house you have certain days for certain meals. Maybe Monday night is pasta night; or Friday night is a chippy tea. For this first Passover, there was only one dish on the menu, in every Israelite home. Roasted lamb, bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. What’s for dinner tonight? It was going to be lamb, by divine decree.

As we’ve landed into the middle of a Bible book, we need to get our bearings. We’re in Exodus, the 2nd book of the Bible, and watching as the story continues. You see, Genesis, the first book, is all about beginnings - the creation, the fall, the flood, and then the story of Abraham and his family line. By the end of Genesis there are 75 (or 70) Israelites in the land of Egypt (brought there by Joseph and his amazing technicolour dreamcoat).

When Exodus begins, there are a whole lot more Israelites - so many in fact, that Pharaoh is afraid of them. He begins to enslave them, tries to kill off their babies, but one of those babies is rescued from the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter. That baby, now grown up, is called by the LORD (capital letters, covenant name of God) to lead his people out of slavery and into the promised land. But when Moses went to the new Pharaoh, and asked him to ‘let my people go’, Pharaoh said no. Then no. Then no. Time and time again.

The LORD sent a series of plagues on Egypt, to demonstrate his power (and also to ridicule the Egyptian small g gods), but Pharaoh just kept hardening his heart. We heard them in Psalm 78 - the water turned to blood, frogs, gnats, flies, plague on livestock, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness. But still Pharaoh said no.

And so the LORD prepared to send his last plague. A plague even worse than the previous nine combined. The plague to end all plagues - the death of the firstborn. God said that there would be a death in every house, that the firstborn would die. Then Pharaoh and the Egyptians would know that the LORD is God. Then the Israelites would be saved and rescued.

Death was coming to every house on the same night. But for the Israelites, there was a way for the death of their firstborn to be avoided. It involved the Passover Lamb. And we find the details in chapter 12.

The man was to choose a lamb for his household - a year-old male without defect, big enough to feed his family. Over several days they were to care for it, look after it, until the fourteenth day of the month. At twilight, just as evening is coming in, the lamb was to be slaughtered. Before they cook the meal, though, the blood of the lamb had to be painted on the sides and top of the door frame of the house.

They even have cooking instructions - roasted over the fire (not raw or cooked in water). And they have table instructions - with your coat on, cloak tucked into your belt, sandals on feet, staff in hand, ready to move. This isn’t going to be a leisurely meal to take all night and chat into the morning. This is a meal eaten quickly, in haste, waiting to move out.

So how did the Passover work? Well, we’re told in verses 12-13. Let’s focus in on these verses. ‘On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn - both men and animals - and I will bring judgement on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.’

We get the same idea over in verse 23: ‘When the LORD goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the door-frame and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.’

So here we get the idea of the Passover. The Lord will ‘pass over’ the Israelite houses. Why? Because of the blood on the door-frame. You see, the blood is the sign that a death has occurred in this house. And so the firstborn inside is safe, sheltered by the blood. The Egyptian homes didn’t have the blood on the door frame, and so the destroyer visited death in those homes.

Now, this is easy for me to imagine, because I’m the firstborn in our family. But imagine that you’re the firstborn in your house. You’d want to make sure that your dad did it all according to the Lord’s instructions, wouldn’t you? That your dad had killed the lamb. That he hadn’t forgotten to paint the blood on the door-frame. You see, for the firstborn, it’s either that lamb that dies tonight, or else it’s you. But you’ll be safe, so long as it has died in your place.

The Passover Lamb is a substitutional sacrifice. We’re familiar with the idea of substitutes in football. My own football career didn’t last very long. I was picked as a substitute for our school team for an away match against Rathfriland High School. It was a cold, rainy day, and for the whole match, I stood on the sidelines. I never got the chance to grace the pitch. So I gave up football shortly after that. But the idea of a substitute is that they take your place. You’re injured, or you can’t play, then someone else takes your place.

For the firstborn, the Passover lamb is their substitute. It dies instead of the firstborn. It takes his place. It dies, and allows the firstborn to live. And that’s exactly what happened. When midnight struck, the Lord struck down all the firstborn in Egypt (29). Every house in Egypt mourned, from Pharaoh to the dungeon.

That same night, Pharaoh gave the order for the Israelites to leave, to get out, to exit (hence exodus). That’s why the meal was eaten in haste. Over a million people were suddenly on the move, free from their slavery, saved by the Passover lamb.

It’s when we put ourselves in the sandals of the firstborn that we appreciate the blessing of the Passover lamb. It dies to let us live. It dies in our place as our substitute.

I wonder can you begin to see how Christ might be our Passover? One of the aspects of the Lord Jesus is that he came to be our Passover Lamb, the one who dies on our behalf, in our place. We see glimpses of this all the way through the gospels, little hints of what is to come. So, John the Baptist points at Jesus and says ‘Look, the Lamb of God!’ (Jn 1:36). Or, at the time of the Transfiguration, Luke tells us that when Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus, ‘They spoke about his departure (Greek: exodus), which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem.’ (Lk 9:31).

The Passover became one of the three great festivals, which all the Israelites were to celebrate each year in Jerusalem. On their way, they would sing the songs of ascents (Ps 120-134) which we’re studying in the Fellowship. The Passover ritual remained the same every year. The same menu, with the same questions and answers and the same remembering of the Lord’s Passover.

The same, that is, until one particular Passover. It started as normal, but then Jesus departed from the well known script. Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples saying, ‘Take it; this is my body.’ Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it. ‘This is my blood of the (new) covenant, which is poured out for many.’

The bread and wine are the body and blood of Jesus - our Passover Lamb. In changing the Passover liturgy, Jesus is saying that he is the ultimate Passover Lamb. That the Old Testament Passover points to him and his sacrifice for us.

Jesus is our Passover lamb. He died in our place, for our sins, as our substitute. We can find shelter under his blood. We are freed by his blood - freed from the slavery of sin. We just need to trust in him.

We are safe under his blood, knowing that he has died for us. Are you trusting him tonight for your salvation?

Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the Feast!

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

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Sermon: Mark 2: 1-12 Who does he think he is?

When were you last surprised by something you read in the Bible? For many of us, who have grown up through Sunday School and church, we think we know all about it. We’ve heard it all before. So maybe, as you heard our Bible readings this morning, you thought to yourself, oh aye, this is the one about the wee man coming down through the roof and Jesus heals him. I know that one.

If that’s you, then I hope you’ll find at least one surprise in our reading today. You see, they come thick and fast in this story from Mark’s Gospel. Normally, I might give a wee hint of where we’re going, but I want the surprise to really surprise you, so stick with me, and we’ll see what jumps out at us.

Last week we saw how Jesus was willing and able to help the man with leprosy. Jesus was filled with compassion, as he reached out to touch the unclean leper and heal him. And we saw that the man completely disregarded Jesus’ words to him - Jesus had told him to tell no one apart from the priest. But the man had told just about everyone apart from the priest!

The end result was that Jesus couldn’t enter towns any more. He stayed out in lonely places. And even there, people kept coming to him. In verse 1, it’s a few days later, and Jesus is back in Capernaum. Remember, this is where it all began (1:21). It was here that Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law and then everyone else. It was here that Jesus had moved on from, in order to preach in other villages (1:38).

Now he’s back home, and everyone comes to see him. There are so many (2) that there’s no room left inside or out. But Jesus isn’t healing this time. ‘He preached the word to them.’ Jesus is proclaiming the good news. Perhaps that’s a surprise - the repeated focus on preaching which Mark has in these opening chapters. Jesus was a preacher.

Now we’re not told how long he spoke for, or the details of what he said, but he preached the word. God’s word. The good news he came to share.

In verse 3, we’re introduced to the four men bringing their friend, the paralytic. The man can’t walk by himself, and so they bring him to Jesus. Except, there’s a problem. They can’t get near Jesus. The crowd is so great that they haven’t a hope of getting in to see Jesus themselves, let alone bringing their friend with them. At least, not through the front door.

Now, you know the story, and you know what happens next. Mark tells us in verse 4: ‘Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and, after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralysed man was lying on.’

They couldn’t get through the door, so they went via the roof. The houses of the time would have been single storey with a clay roof, so they could dig through it. But isn’t this a surprise? Imagine being inside the house that day. You’re listening to Jesus, when suddenly, there’s some dust and dirt falling from the ceiling, then daylight, then a stretcher being let down above your head! What a surprise! (Especially for the owner of the house!)

The big surprise of the story comes in verse 5. Look at it with me. We’re told what Jesus sees, and what he says. What does he see? ‘When Jesus saw their faith...’ He sees their faith. Now, whether this is the four stretcher bearers, or the five of them, we’re not told. But as one writer puts it, ‘It seems more likely that the ill man also had faith, bearing in mind all that he went through simply in order to be where he was!’ (English, p.66, BST) Jesus sees their faith - faith expressed in their actions.

And in response to what he sees, we’re told what he says. Now, if you’ve ever watched A Question of Sport (or even You’ve Been Framed), you’ll know the question ‘What happens next?’ They show a part of a video clip, pause it, and ask what happens next. So, don’t look, and tell me, what would you expect to happen next?

The man is paralysed. Mark has told us that in verse 3, 4 and 5. So you expect Jesus to heal him. You expect Jesus to say to him, get up. No one was expecting Jesus to say what he said. It’s a surprise, isn’t it? He completely ignores the man’s problem with walking, and instead says, verse 5: ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’

When we see the paralysed man, we think that his biggest problem and his greatest need is to be able to walk. But Jesus shows us that his biggest problem and his greatest need is to be forgiven. That’s a surprise for us. Whatever else may be affecting you today, your greatest need isn’t your health, it’s your need to be forgiven.

So, if you’re able to go into town tomorrow, everyone you meet has a sin problem, whether you can see another problem that’s more visible. And if you go to the surgery or the hospital, more urgent than people’s sickness is their problem with sin.

Perhaps you’ve never thought like this before; never seen other people this way before - maybe never even thought of yourself like this. our most fundamental and most important problem is our problem with sin - but there is someone who can deal with it. There is someone who can say to you, Son, Daughter, your sins are forgiven.

There’s another surprise here. Those very words almost caused some people to fall off their chairs in amazement, and/or anger. These teachers of the law, they hear the words. And look what they’re thinking to themselves: ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’

They’re surprised to hear Jesus declare forgiveness for the paralysed man. Why’s that? Because they are correct - only God can forgive sins. It’s what God says through the prophet Isaiah: ‘I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.’ (Is 43:25). God is the only one who can forgive sins. They’re right on that. But they’re wrong on the rest of what they say. In effect, they’re asking ‘Who does he think he is?’ The charge of blasphemy is to make yourself equal to God, to think that you are God. If anyone else said it, they’d be right. But the one who stands before them is indeed God.

Jesus knows what they’re thinking, and so answers their thoughts. (Was this a surprise for them! They think something, and Jesus answers them). In verse 9 he asks them a question. Have a go at answering it: ‘Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Get up, take your mat and walk”?

So which is easier? It’s not that any of the words are difficult. But it would be easier to say you’re forgiven, wouldn’t it? You can say that, and no one can see the difference. But if you say get up... then everyone will instantly know if you’re spoofing or the real thing. It’s far easier to say, you’re forgiven.

But do you see how Jesus carries on? V10: ‘But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins... He said to the paralytic, I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’ And the man got up, took his mat, and walked out in full view of them all.

Jesus says the more difficult thing - telling the paralysed man to get up. And what a miracle this is! If you’ve ever broken a leg, or been in bed for several weeks, you’ll know that you don’t just get up out of bed one day able to walk. It can take a while to build up your muscles again, weeks or months of physio. But this man, paralysed, gets up and walks straight away!

Jesus is able to heal the man. But Jesus does so to prove something else. Verse 10: ‘that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.’ Jesus heals the man (the hard thing to say) to show that he has the authority to forgive sins (the easy thing to say).

And how can Jesus declare that sins are forgiven? It’s because he will give his own life to bear the punishment that our sins deserve. Jesus himself will pay the price, will foot the bill for sin - not just this paralysed man’s, but yours and mine as well.

We have a sin problem, but we also have a Saviour. And he offers you those same words today. You see, whatever needs you might have; whatever might be weighing on your mind; whatever you would like some help with; even more urgent is your sin problem. There is a Saviour, the one who bore your sins, who offers you forgiveness today, full and free.

How do you receive it? It’s simply by faith. Taking Jesus at his word. Believing his promise. You’re invited today, whoever you are, to take that step of faith. You don’t need to climb onto the roof and abseil down. You can step forward and receive the bread and wine - the sign and symbol of his sacrifice for you, his body broken and blood shed, for you, and for your forgiveness.

There are lots of surprises in our reading today. These men brought their friend to Jesus for healing, but he left with something even more precious. Who does Jesus think he is? Well, he is God, and he speaks this precious word: ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’

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