Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Sermon: Titus 1: 5-16 Entrusted with God's work

The summer holidays are on the horizon. But where to go? So you check out the websites, or you go into the travel agents; you look at the brochures; you ask your friends. Crete seems to be nice: warm and sunny, scenic and peaceful, so long as you stay away from the party capitals with drunken teenagers from the UK and Ireland. Titus, the person Paul is writing this letter to is on Crete, but he’s not there for a holiday. There’s work to be done.

After the introduction (Paul the apostle telling Titus his son and fellow worker about God’s promised eternal life and the truth that leads to godliness), we’re straight into Titus’ task.

‘The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.’ Titus is to appoint elders (also called overseers (bishops) in v7 - the same people). But what should you look for in a church leader? In the life of the church there are all sorts of leaders doing all sorts of things. What should we be looking for in the parish, in organisations, in vestry? As we’ll see, the important things to look for in church leaders link in with the overall theme of the letter to Titus: ‘the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness.’ (1:1)

The two must go together - truth and godliness. It’s not an either/or pick and mix. It must be both together, truth leading to godliness. First up, then, we see in verses 6-8 the quality of godliness. The word that sums it up is in those verses twice: blameless. Let me be the first to say that this doesn’t mean perfection. None of us are perfect. So if the standard was perfection, then we wouldn’t have any Christian leaders.

Rather, what we’re looking for is someone with integrity. And this can be seen in three ways, in each of these verses - verse 6 at home; verse 7 in negative form; and verse 8 positively. At home (v6), blameless, as the husband of one wife, not running after lots of women; and whose children (if there are any) being believers. Just as the church is God’s family and household, so our families are the place where leadership is seen in practice.

Verse 7 shows what being blameless is not like: ‘not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain.’ It’s easy to see why these kinds of behaviour would make someone unsuitable for church leadership. Each of these are modes of selfishness - putting me, or my anger or my addictions or my fists or my wallet first; all a lack of self-control.

In verse 8, we see the opposite of selfishness - hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. These are the things to look for as we select new leaders. These are the things to pray for in our leaders, that they would be increasing.

Godliness is important for those in church leadership. But as we’ve said, that’s just one part. We also need the knowledge of the truth which leads to godliness. It’s truth we find in verse 9. ‘He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught...’

When I was a Curate in Dundonald I was visiting a home when a dog came and attached itself to the front of my shoe. It wasn’t for letting go. It hung on for ages. This is what Paul is looking for - a firm grasp, holding firmly to the trustworthy word.

You see, if God doesn’t lie, then we need to hold on his word - especially church leaders. Why? Because the work of the gospel is the work of the word. Paul gives us two parts of the work: so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine’ - so that what is preached is healthy, is sound. (That’s why it’s important for you to have your Bible open during the sermon to make sure that what I’m saying is what the Bible is saying). It would be great if that’s all that is needed, but there’s a second part of the work: ‘and refute those who oppose it.’

Do you see how the two parts fit together? encouraging other by sound doctrine, and refuting those who oppose it. Why’s this bit needed? There are those who contradict sound doctrine. There are those within the church who don’t hold to the trustworthy word. Not everyone who wears a clerical collar is a Christian preacher. I know this might be hard to believe, but it’s true today, just as it was true in Crete in the first century.

That’s why church leaders are needed. Do you see the ‘for’ at the start of verse 10? Here’s why we need sound teaching: Paul gives us a picture of what these false teachers were like. ‘rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers... ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach - and that for the sake of dishonest gain.’ You see, these false teachers were tapping into the natural Crete temperament. They were saying what the people wanted to hear, and were gaining, because it was an easy message.

It’s easy for us to see how the Cretans are far from godliness in their ‘always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons’ mode of being. But what about us? You see, we are also far from God and godliness by ourselves. What would Paul write of us? ‘People in County Armagh are...’ Richhillians are always... If someone came with a message that you’re basically all right the way you are, with no challenge or change needed, it would be popular enough. But it’s not the gospel. It’s not the trustworthy word that leads to godliness.

Titus is called to do something harder. As he holds to the trustworthy word, Paul tells him in verse 13: ‘Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith...’

Titus, and therefore church leaders must administer this rebuke in order to take people from their sin-sick nature to being sound in the faith. If you were sick, you would ring up the surgery and get an appointment to see a GP. You want them to stop you being sick and to make you well, healthy. This is what ministry is all about - we want to be healthy in the faith, but if we’re stuck in our sinful nature then we’re not healthy, we need the treatment of the gospel.

The false teachers had turned away from the truth, but it wasn’t that they believed in nothing; rather, they were now believing in anything - Jewish myths or the commands of those who reject the truth. But the end results of their belief and teaching is clearly to be seen. Throughout Titus we’re seeing that the truth leads to godliness. What you believe is seen in how you live your life.

We see it here with the false teachers. They rejected the truth. They still claim to know God, ‘but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient, and unfit for doing anything good.’ What they do doesn’t match up with what they say. False teaching needs to be rebuked; corrected; and instead the truth proclaimed.

So what do we look for in church leaders? People marked by holding firm to the truth which leads to godly living. People who proclaim sound doctrine and rebuke those in error.

If you’re in leadership, perhaps like me, you’re feeling the weight of the requirements. Could we possibly do this? So please do pray for those who lead in this parish. And please do pray for me - in study and in homes and in the pulpit to hold and hold forth the word of truth, to apply it to my own life and household, and to the church family.

Who could do this? Who is sufficient for these things? There’s a section of the ordination service, which is our answer: ‘Because none of us can bear the weight of this ministry in our own strength, but only by the grace and power of God, let us pray earnestly for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on these persons. Let us pray also that God will each day enlarge and enlighten their understanding of the Scriptures, so that they may grow stronger and more mature in their ministry, as they fashion their lives and the lives of the people they serve on the word of God.’

There’s that double emphasis on truth and godliness. So let’s pray.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 27th May 2018.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Sermon: Haggai 1: 1-15 Think Carefully

The greatest, and most dangerous invention, is one that you might use every day. When you use it, you really feel the benefit of those extra five or seven minutes... but it can also be dangerous, leaving you hassled and stressed and rushing about. The greatest and most dangerous invention may well be... the snooze button! The alarm goes off, and you think, just a few minutes more in bed. It’s not time yet.

Now, whether you jump out of bed at the first sound of your alarm, or use the snooze two or three times of a morning - you will have said those last few words at some point, in some situation - it’s not time yet.

That might be with homework - I’ll do it in a wee while. Or when the deadline for your tax return is due - I’ll get round to that tomorrow. I’ve never forgotten the advice shared on Facebook a few years ago - Ladies, if your husband says he’ll do something, you don’t need to remind him every six months about it!

It’s not time yet. If you’ve said that in the past week, or month, or year, then you’ve got company. Because that’s the very thing that the people of Israel were saying back in the time of Haggai. It’s what God focuses on as he sends Haggai to speak to the people - we see it in verse 2. ‘These people say, “The time has not yet come for the LORD’s house to be built.”’

Now, to help us understand Haggai, we need to do a very quick Bible overview, to see where Haggai fits into the big picture. So last week, Colin helped us see that God called Abraham; and from his line - Isaac, Jacob - came the people of Israel. After slavery in Egypt, God rescued them in Exodus (through Moses), then they wandered in the wilderness for forty years. Joshua led the people into the land, and they conquered it (mostly). The Judges followed, then the kings - Saul, then David and his line. Solomon built the temple, all was peace and prosperity, then it all went downhill. The kingdom split (into Israel and Judah); Israel the northern kingdom was conquered. Then finally, Judah (the sons of David) were conquered by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. The people were taken away into exile, and the temple destroyed.

But by now, some of the people have returned, by order of the king. They’ve been back in Jerusalem and Judah for eighteen years. And on a certain day - a day that people cleverer than me have worked out to be the 29th August, 520BC, Haggai steps up to share the word of the LORD. The word of the LORD that comes in verse 2. ‘These people say, “The time has not yet come for the LORD’s house to be built.”

We know that we need to build up the temple, but it’s not time just yet. We’ll do it eventually. The time hasn’t come. But God hasn’t finished. He continues to speak through Haggai in verse 3-4. ‘Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your panelled houses, while this house remains a ruin?’

God confronts them with their own words, and their own experience. So, it’s not time to build God’s house, but it is time to build up your own houses? And not just build up a basic house, but panelled houses. You can imagine the episode of Through the Keyhole - not the new version with Keith Lemon, but the old format with Lloyd Grossman asking ‘Who lives in a house like this?’

So he works his way up Temple Street. The first house is big, luxurious, with the wooden panelling on the walls. It speaks of wealth, and comfort, and work that has taken lots of time and effort. The next house is even bigger, even better. Even more time, money and effort has gone into it. And then he comes to a heap of ruins. Burned stone. Dusty and dirty. Who lives in a house like this? This is God’s house. Abandoned. Derelict. In wrack and ruin.

So Haggai says to the people, delivering God’s message to them - you say you’ve had no time to work on my house, the temple; but you’ve had plenty of time to work on your own house! It’s not about time, it’s about priorities.

In verse 5, God invites the people to consider their ways - to think carefully. ‘Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but have harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.’

This has been their experience. They never seem to have enough. Things don’t turn out as well as they expected. They have food and drink, but it’s never just enough to satisfy. they feel a chill, but can never get warm, no matter how many jumpers they put on. It’s as if they’re throwing their hard-earned wages away, and never know where it goes.

So again, in verse 7, God repeats the same words - ‘Give careful thought to your ways.’ But this time, it’s a call to action. To consider what they’re now going to do. How they’re going to respond. Think it through. And he suggests a plan of action in verse 8. ‘Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honoured.’

It’s a call to build the temple. And why should they do it? ‘So that I may take pleasure in it’ - for God’s pleasure - ‘and be honoured’ - for God’s glory. Building the temple is so that God will delight in it; and so that God’s glory is displayed in it.

God gives this call to action, as he combines the two ways of thinking carefully - about experience in the past, and action in the future. You see, they expected much, but it turned out to be little. How had it turned out this way? It was God who was bringing about these difficult circumstances, to bring the people back to himself. They were working on their own houses while God’s house lay in ruins. That’s why God called for a drought on fields and mountains, grain, new wine, oil, and everything else. There’s a play on words here - God’s house is in ruin - ‘hareb’ so God sends a ‘horeb’ - a drought.

Haggai calls the people to ‘Give careful thought to your ways.’ And through him, God is calling us to give careful thought to our ways. Are there things that we’ve been putting off, saying it isn’t the right time, while we’ve been finding time to do all sorts of other things?

Have we been building up our own houses while neglecting God’s house? Now, we need to be careful to see what the temple is these days. The temple - God’s house - is the place where God dwells, where he is at home, where you meet with God. And through the Old Testament, God’s house was first the tabernacle (a tent) in the wilderness; then the big building in Jerusalem built by Solomon and destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. A temple would eventually be rebuilt.

But that all changed with the coming of Jesus. God’s presence was no longer in a building, but in a person. Do you remember in John 1, ‘The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory...’ (1:14). And in John 2, Jesus says, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’ He’s speaking about his body, the place where God dwells, where God’s glory is seen.

And then we come to the rest of the New Testament. And 1 Corinthians is just one of the many places where we, the church, are presented as the temple, the dwelling place of God. ‘Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit lives in you? This building isn’t the temple, we are. We used to sing a song - church is not a building, it’s the people there inside, people who love Jesus, and wear his badge with pride.

So if we are the temple, if this fellowship of God’s people are God’s dwelling place, his house, then what will this challenge of Haggai look like for us? How do we need to give careful thought to our ways?

Are there things we’ve been putting off, saying that the time isn’t right? Have we been building up our own houses while neglecting this church family? Is this church family a house that God takes pleasure in, and is glorified by? When people in Richhill go through the keyhole, what do they see? Do they see a group of people where God is first priority? Where we’re committed to building one another up, encouraging one another, welcoming new people, being there for one another, giving generously so that we can fulfil the mission of God in this place? Or will we get round to all that some time?

While we’re pondering our response, we see how the people responded in verse 12. The governor, Zerubbabel, high priest, Joshua, ‘and the whole remnant of the people obeyed the voice of the LORD their God... And the people feared the LORD.’ So God speaks again with a word of encouragement. We see it in v13. ‘I am with you.’

As we hear God’s word, as challenging as it may be, we have the promise of his presence with us as we step up in obedience. The people knew it that day, as their spirits were stirred up. And 23 days later, they got going. They began work on the house of the LORD Almighty, their God.

We have that promise as well - the Lord Jesus says, ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ The Holy Spirit dwells within us. Perhaps this word is a wake-up call. Just don’t hit the snooze button, thinking, it’s not yet time. God asks: where do our priorities lie? Our own house and interests? Or God’s interests - his pleasure and his honour? Give careful thought to your ways. And may we be stirred up in our spirits, for God’s glory.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 27th May 2018.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 15: 50-58 Raised: in victory

Over the past few days, the General Synod of the Church of Ireland met in Armagh. And among the many items of business, we discussed a new order of service for Morning and Evening Prayer for use on Sundays. The material was passed, so you can watch this space for when the service starts being used. But in the middle of the service there was one line that some people didn’t like. An amendment was proposed to take the line out.

It comes in one of the opening prayers, and says this: ‘In the fulness of time, you made us in your image, and in these last days you have spoken to us in your Son Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.’ And the bit that some wanted to remove was ‘In these last days.’ It was suggested that we aren’t in the last days, that there’s no prospect of the Lord Jesus returning any time soon, and so we don’t need that line.

Now, that phrase is a quotation of Hebrews 1 ‘in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son’. And thankfully, the synod voted to keep it in. But it was the thought that we don’t need to worry about the last days because we aren’t in them that made me think of today’s reading. This morning, we mark the Sunday after the Ascension Day, when Jesus returned to heaven, to sit at the right hand of the Father. But we also remember that he has promised to return. And it’s Jesus’ return that we focus on this morning, as we look forward to the full and final victory of Jesus - the victory we will share in.

Over these past few weeks, we’ve been seeing what the resurrection of Jesus means for us. And last week, we saw that when the dead in Christ are raised, they will be transformed - look back to verse 42 to remind yourself of the change. ‘The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.’

And in verse 50, we see why this new body is needed. Look at it with me: ‘I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.’ These flesh and blood bodies cannot survive in the kingdom of God. Our perishable bodies, bodies which fade and fail and fall ill - they wouldn’t be suitable for an imperishable existence. Our current bodies would be as useful as a chocolate teapot in the new heavens and the new earth. But don’t worry about that. As we were reminded last week, God has it all under control.

And the way God has it under control is seen in verse 51. Paul tells us ‘a mystery’ - something that has long been secret, but is now being revealed. And, when you look at it, it sounds like a warning or advice to new parents: ‘We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed...’

But Paul is revealing God’s word about what will happen on the last day. And when he says, ‘we will not all sleep’ he means that there will be Christians who are alive when Jesus returns. That some will not sleep - will not die - but will be alive to welcome the Lord Jesus.

And if we are alive when Jesus returns, we won’t die - but we will be changed. All change. It’s like the announcement on a bus or train. This one can only take you so far, after that, you need to get on another one to get to your final destination.

And when will this change happen? ‘In a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.’ In a moment - in any moment! In the time it takes you to bat an eyelid, or blink, the Lord Jesus will return. It could happen at any moment. A friend was telling us that he recently talked to his 4 year old about how Jesus could return any day. So now, every morning, the first question he’s asked is - is it today, daddy?

Well, we don’t know when it will happen, but we do know what will happen. ‘For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.’ Notice that it’s immortality, not immorality!

So when the trumpet sounds, it’ll be time to be changed. And I was trying to think of what it might be like. So, think of when the factory hooter goes to signal the start of a shift. The workers have to get changed from their ordinary clothes and put on their special uniform which is suitable for their environment.

And did you notice that everyone will be imperishable by then - the dead are raised imperishable, and the living are clothed with the imperishable. Everyone who knows and trusts Jesus will be imperishable, never to spoil or fade or fall again.

Now, when that happens, verse 54, then will come the moment we’ve all been waiting for. ‘When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”’

When all God’s people are imperishable and immortal, then death will no longer have any say, will no longer claim any victories over us. Instead, we will share in Christ’s victory over death. And the long-ago promise will finally come true.

You see, right from the Garden of Eden, death has been our enemy. And slowly, but surely, death has claimed everyone. As someone once said, the only things that are certain in life are death and taxes. Death is our great enemy. But God promised, back in Isaiah 25, that Death would be swallowed up in victory.

Will you turn there, briefly, to see what God had promised? P708. Verse 7 shows the universal problem - death is like a shroud, like a blanket over all peoples - full blanket coverage. None are exempt. But, ‘he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth.’

God will swallow up death. He’ll wipe away tears. He’ll take away our disgrace. And where will this happen? ‘On this mountain.’ Jerusalem, the mountain of the Lord, where Jesus was crucified, and rose from the dead, and swallowed death whole. Death does not have the last word. Jesus has triumphed!

That’s why Paul can mock death in those words of verse 55. ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ A good few years ago now, Northern Ireland beat England at Windsor Park, when David Healy scored the only goal of the game. Ever since, when lowly Northern Ireland were beating bigger and better teams like Spain and Sweden and so on, the fans would start singing ‘Are you England in disguise?’

Fans like to mock and make fun of the other team. Well here, we can mock death. Death, which for so long seemed so powerful, so mighty, has now been defeated. And on that day when sin no longer has any power to touch us or threaten us, we too will sing and shout and mock.

You see, for now, death has a sting in the tail. Just like a bee or a wasp, it has a stinger. And the sting of death is sin. The sharpness that gets into our skin and does the damage. Death comes as a result of our sin, and brings pain, and grief, and loss. And sin gets its power from the law - from God’s good standard. As we break God’s law, as we disobey and rebel, then that sin stings us, and we fall into the hands of our enemy.

Sometimes bee stings can be fatal, and can kill the person who has been stung. But with the sin sting, death is a certainty. But that is not now the end of the story. Why? Because of verse 57. ‘But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’

Jesus has won the victory singlehandedly over sin and death. Back in verse 3, we’re told that Christ died for our sins - they are no longer counted against us. And because Jesus lives, death has been defeated. God gives us the victory, we can share in a triumph not our own, through our Lord Jesus Christ.

What a glorious future we have - whether we have died when Christ returns, or if we’re still living - we will all be transformed, made imperishable, and can share in Christ’s victory.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I almost want Paul to finish on the high triumphant note of verse 57. That note of thanks and praise as we clearly see the victory won, and how we will share in it. But that’s not where Paul ends. Instead he adds verse 58, as he draws out the implications of the whole chapter. Because of Jesus’ resurrection, and our resurrection; because of the world to come; because what we do matters, ‘therefore, my beloved brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.’ (58)

The doctrine of the resurrection will lead to two things - being firmly faithful, and fully committed. First of all, firmly faithful. Paul’s teaching on the resurrection is the answer to the Corinthian’s tendency to be blown about by false doctrine.

Some had listened to those who say there’s no such thing as the resurrection. (12). Others doubted the power of God or the promises of God. But now that they know the truth, they must stand firm on it. Not moving about, not being moved from it. Standing firm on the rock of Christ.

Isn’t that how Paul started this chapter? ‘Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you.’ (1 Cor 15:1-2) Right doctrine - firmly faithful.

But they are also called (and we are called), to be fully committed. Because Jesus has died and been raised, and he has entrusted us with the work of the gospel, and because Jesus will return victorious, then we are to ‘Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord.’

Paul urges us to always gives ourselves fully. Not just on the odd occasions when it suits. Not just a half-hearted effort. But fully, always, doing the Lord’s work, whatever it is that he has called and gifted and equipped you to do for him. And why should we do that? ‘because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.’

There are two ‘ins’ there - together, they summarise the whole chapter, and provide the motivation for doing the Lord’s work:

Our labour is in the Lord. It is done for his glory, with his power, and his blessing. To be in the Lord is to be united to him, one with him. And as we labour for him, our work for the Lord, and in the Lord is not in vain - just as our faith in Christ is not in vain.

Our faith is not empty because Jeus is alive. our work is therefore also not empty or useless. It’s productive, and fruitful, as we spread the good news of Jesus, the triumph of his victory over sin and death.

The English crickteter, CT Studd, played in the very first Ashes match against Australia. Yet he gave up his sport and his fame, in order to go to China as a missionary. He wrote these lines to show what really mattered in his life.

Only one life, twill soon be past,
only what’s done for Christ will last.

Victory is already secured, is already sure. we can celebrate now, as we stand firm in the truth of the resurrection, and spread the good news to others - Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 13th May 2018.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Sermon: 2 Timothy 3:10 - 4:8 Bible and Crown

The summer term at school was the one that I always looked forward to. Not just because it meant that the summer holidays were just around the corner, but also because it meant that our PE routines changed. Autumn term was always rugby - and much as I love watching it, I was never either strong enough or fast enough, so we would endure the rugby passing drills all autumn.

After Christmas, we got to play some football. But the summer term was much more interesting. After Easter, we moved into athletics mode - both track and field. So there were heavy things to throw (the shot putt); and pointy things to throw (the javelin); long jump and triple jump; and the running races.

Now, most of the running races were just running, but there was one that demanded more skill and coordination between the members of the team. What was it? The relay race. One runner started around the track, carrying the baton. Then someone else would take it on and keep running. The skill came from passing on the baton.

In our second Bible reading today, we’re watching the passing on of the baton. It’s not a practice run in the Dromore High pitches; not even at the Olympics; it’s much more important than that. The apostle Paul is writing to his young friend Timothy, giving him instructions as he passes on the baton of Christian ministry to him.

Paul has given his life to the work of the gospel, travelling around the known world telling people about Jesus, planting churches, and declaring the good news. But now he is in prison. Execution is not too far away. Paul’s race is almost over, as he says in 4:7 - ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.’ It’s up to Timothy now to take up the baton and run his race, to continue on Paul’s work of teaching.

Yet, as Timothy looks to the future, as he sees what lies ahead of him, it’s not going to be easy. He isn’t going to be running on a nice new athletic track. No, what lies ahead of him is more like an army assault course, with obstacles and dangers to face. The very same things that Paul has already endured - the persecutions and sufferings he faced in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra. In those places, Palu had been driven out of town, opposed, and was stoned - that is, attacked with stones, he wasn’t drugged up...

Paul says that these sorts of sufferings shouldn’t surprise us. Do you see what he says in verse 12? Here’s a Bible promise for you, one that you may not want! ‘Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.’ If you are a Christian, then you will face persecution of some sort or another.

Now, as Timothy hears these words, as he faces the future, he might be thinking to himself - how am I going to manage? How can I keep running my race? How will I get on as I take on the baton of gospel ministry? Paul gives him two great encouragements as he looks to the future in faith. Two things that we are given by God to help us as we love and serve him.

The first comes at the end of chapter 3. Paul has said that the evil people and impostors will go from bad to worse. That may be the way they’re going. ‘But as for you...’ Timothy, don’t follow the crowd. Don’t go the way the world is going. As for you... ‘continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed...’

What is it he has learned? What has he firmly believed? ‘the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.’

The Bible is able to make us wise - to give us the information we need in order to find salvation - salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. There are 66 books, written by around 40 different authors over a couple of thousand years, but there is one uniting subject. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is all about Jesus, sharing the good news about him, showing us his glory.

How can this be so, with so many different authors? Behind them, and through them, Paul says there is one author, one source. ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God.’ Just as my words are coming out with my breath, so the Scriptures are breathed out by God. Scripture says what God is saying. When we read the Bible, it’s not just ancient words on a page - it’s God speaking to us now.

I suspect that I’m a fairly typical man. When I get a new piece of equipment, straight away, I want to turn it on and get stuck in. I’ll footer about with it, trying to make it work. It’s only when I get stuck that I go back to the box to find the instruction manual. We can think - I can sort this myself. I don’t need any help! Until we realise that we do.

Life can be like that. We get stuck in, we have a little bit of freedom, and off we go, making our own mistakes, trying to sort things out ourselves. We live the way we want to, then wonder why we end up getting things so very wrong. We need the instruction manual. We need to hear from the Maker, who knows how life is meant to work.

That’s what the Bible is for. ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.’

Perhaps today you’re wandering, you’re lost. You recognise yourself among the evil people and impostors going from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. You’ve gone your own way, and can’t seem to work out what life is all about, how it should be lived. The remedy is to be rescued. To turn from error and return to the living God who has spoken. To become wise in the way of salvation, through faith in Christ Jesus. To learn about the Saviour and to trust him. To be taught and corrected and straightened out by his word so that we can love and serve him.

Here’s a question for you - who has the most followers on Twitter? Barack Obama is 3rd with 102 million; Justin Bieber is 2nd with 106 million; and Katy Perry is 1st with 109 million. All watching out for their latest tweet, hanging on their latest word. Yet we have the words of the living God in our homes, often in a box, out of the way on a shelf, gathering dust. Will you take up your Bible and read and hear God’s word to you?

The first thing we’re given is the Bible, the scriptures. This is what Timothy is to give himself to, to learn and teach and proclaim, in and through the dark days that lie ahead. At the end of our passage, Paul tells us the second thing we’re given, which encourages us to keep going as we love and serve the Lord Jesus.

‘For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.’

As Paul comes towards the end of his life, as he completes his race, he looks towards the finish line, towards the podium. The reward isn’t a gold medal and a wee posy of flowers. Instead, what awaits is the crown of righteousness. The crown is the sign of being accepted by God, of being in the right with God. It is awarded by the Lord, the righteous judge, who judges with absolute fairness and justice.

Remember where Paul is - he’s on remand, sitting in prison, awaiting the death sentence, which the unjust judge Nero will pass on him. His earthly life will cease, condemned as a prisoner. But Nero’s judgement doesn’t concern him. Rather, he is looking forward to the only opinion that finally matters - the Lord’s opinion, the righteous judge’s verdict - who will award the crown of righteousness.

Now you might be thinking to yourself that of course Paul deserves such a crown. He’s in the Bible, he wrote books of the Bible, he was so very good. But you couldn’t be further from the truth. If Paul deserves his crown then it would be by merit, by effort, by his good works. But the truth is, Paul didn’t deserve his crown. He too was a sinner, who needed to be saved through faith in Christ Jesus. Paul needed that rescue, just as we do as well. As Jesus died on the cross, he took our sins from us, and instead gives us his perfect righteousness. It’s by faith that we receive God’s grace and mercy.

Paul could face the future with confidence. His heavenly reward is certain. His crown is laid up, ready for him. And you can be just as certain about your future. You see, it’s not just Paul who has such a crown. ‘Not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.’

Jesus is returning, the righteous judge, who died to save us. We too can be sure of receiving the crown of righteousness as we hear God’s word of grace and respond in faith. Jesus has died to win your salvation. Will you hear and heed him today? Will you trust in the Lord for your salvation? Will you welcome him on that great Day when he appears as judge? The Bible, God’s breathed-out word points us to the crown, God’s gracious gift, freely offered.

This sermon was preached at the RBP Service in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday afternoon 6th May 2018.

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 15: 35-49 Raised: in glory

Over the course of ministry, I meet lots of people. Some, in particular stick out. And one lady, F, stands out. You see, when I’d call to see her, we’d spend a bit of time chatting about her latest ailments. But sooner or later, I knew that she would have some questions waiting for me. F was a thinker. She would think carefully about her faith, then have all these difficult questions to hit me with. Where did God come from? Why did he make us in the first place? Why was he keeping her alive (by this stage in her late 90s)?

One of her favourite topics, though, was heaven. What will it be like? Will we know each other? How can God put us back together again? Will it really last forever? But the question that we came back to what - how will it all work?

Perhaps you’ve thought about those questions yourself. It’s good to think about them, good to ask those questions - and good to search the scriptures to see how they answer those questions. As we come to our reading today, the question comes in verse 35: ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?’

Now that question comes in the middle of the chapter, in the middle of a sustained argument by the apostle Paul. In 1 Cor 15 he’s dealing with the theme of the resurrection - the resurrection of Jesus and what that means for us. And already he’s shown us that Jesus was raised according to the scriptures (and seen by the eyewitnesses); he was raised indeed (because we’d be pitiful if Jesus only gives us hope for this life); he was raised as the firstfruits (we too will be raised with him, when he comes again).

But as Paul teaches all this, he’s aware that there might be a question arising in someone’s mind. Some of the Corinthians didn’t believe in resurrection at all - and so they might have been thinking to themselves, well, how does this all work, then? Will we be like zombies, like some horror movie? How are the dead raised?

Now, when F asked me questions, I wouldn’t have responded in the way Paul does in verse 36. As the introduction to Christianity Explored puts it - there are no silly questions. Yet Paul reckons that this question about the resurrection is foolish. Why does he think that? Well, because the answer is all around us.

Paul takes us to the garden, or the farm, to answer the question. He wants us to think about sowing and reaping. Because the way the world works, the natural order of creation points us to God’s work of re-creation. And in these verses he gives us two simple principles:

Principle 1 - dying brings life. We see this in verse 36. ‘What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.’ To reap a harvest, you first have to sow the seed. If you keep it sitting in the container in the shed, it’ll never grow. It must die to give. It’s only when the seed is buried, planted in the ground, that the seed will die and then spring into new life. Dying brings new life. Sowing leads to growing.

Principle 2 - you don’t sow what eventually grows. Verse 37: ‘When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or something else.’ If you look at a sunflower seed, you wouldn’t imagine that a big tall, colourful sunflower could grow from it. Or think of the phrase - big oaks from little acorns grow. The seed that is sown looks entirely different to the end product, to the thing that grows.

God gives each seed its new body, just as he has determined - whatever is just right for it. Just think how many different types of body there are. Paul gives us some of them in v39 and on. People, animals, birds, fish, all have their own sort of body. There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies - each different, each with its own glory.

Paul is saying that God will give us the right sort of body for the new heavens and the new earth. God has got it all under control. It’ll be just right.

So we have these two principles - dying brings life; and you don’t sow what eventually grows. The way creation works shows us how God will work in our re-creation. So here’s how it will work in our bodies. Here is our great hope.

You see, we’re all getting older. Our bodies are wearing out or giving up. As someone once said, the sign of getting older was that when you bend down to tie your shoelaces, you see what else you could do while you’re down that far. And despite the anti-ageing creams or the ten years younger programmes, we’re still getting older. And perhaps you think to yourself - would I be able to manage eternal life if it’s just perpetually getting older? Could you go another 1000 years in the skin you’re in?

But remember what Paul has shown us from the creation. In verse 42 we see how it applies to our resurrection: ‘The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.’

Our earthly bodies are just the seed. When we have a funeral, it’s like a seed being planted. The Moravian church calls its graveyards ‘God’s acre’, God’s field, as they await the harvest, the resurrection.

Just think of that promised transformation. We lay our loved one to rest, perhaps having sat with them for weeks, watching as they go down, as their bodies fail. Even the best of us end up perishable, in dishonour, weakness, and all too aware of the frailty of our natural body. But these bodies will be transformed at the resurrection - raised imperishable, in glory, in power, a spiritual body.

Now, that doesn’t mean that we’re just a spirit, just a ghost. It means that we’ll have a body made alive by the Holy Spirit, empowered by heaven. You see, we won’t spend eternity in a dress on a cloud playing a harp, as some images of heaven would suggest. You won’t become an angel when you die. You’ll be you, raised to new life, in a new resurrection body. We’ll have the same kind of new body that Jesus has already, because he is the firstfruits - the first example of the new resurrection body.

So what was Jesus’ body like? He could appear in locked rooms with the disciples; he could be touched, his wounds inspected; he could walk along; he could cook breakfast for the disciples; he could eat. He’s not Casper - just a friendly ghost. He is raised to new life, real life, in a glorified, imperishable body.

If you remember last week, Paul gave us a comparison between Adam and Christ. In Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. (22). He now continues to compare Adam and Jesus. Look at verse 45: ‘The first man Adam became a living being; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.’ Adam was given life, but Jesus gives life.

And that makes all the difference. We’re all born in Adam. V47: ‘The first man was of the dust of the earth.’ The life given to Adam is also given to us. But that life is temporary, all too short. And in the life, we bear Adam’s image and likeness. ‘As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth.’

And some day, those words spoken of Adam, will also be spoken over us - earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Our Adam-ness shows that we bear the image of our first father, Adam, the man of the earth.

But Jesus is from heaven. He belongs to a different sphere. And he gives us a different destiny. If we belong to him, then we will be like him. Look at verse 49: ‘And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.’

We are like Adam, we come from dust and return to dust. But as we trust in Christ, we become like him. We will share his risen life. And we will have resurrection bodies like his. This world is not the end. Death does not have the last word. And we will be raised in glory, to be like Jesus, in resurrection bodies like Jesus. That’s a truth to hold on to when we grieve for loved ones, or when we’re faced with our own mortality. Burial is a seed sown, as we wait for the harvest - you and me, personally raised, personally known, but in new bodies, just like Jesus’ own.

My dear friend F died recently. Her frail body finally gave up. But now she sees the Lord, face to face, even as she awaits her resurrection body. And what will it be like?

Look at the world around you - dying brings life, and you don’t sow what eventually grows. We’ll be raised imperishable, in glory, in power, a spiritual body, in the likeness of Jesus Christ himself. So let’s look forward in hope.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 6th May 2018.