Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sermon: Matthew 25: 31-46 The Sheep and the Goats

People are being divided up into groups all the time. So, you’re either right-handed or left-handed; you’re male or female; you wanted England to win the World Cup or you were happy to see them lose; you’re pro-Brexit or anti-Brexit. All the time, people are seen as part of a bigger group - on one side or the other; with us or against us.

But, in the grand scheme of things, all those divisions are petty and don’t really matter. There is just one division that really does matter. And we hear about it in our reading this evening - the separation of people, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at Matthew 25, listening in as Jesus teaches about the coming of his kingdom. He is preparing to leave the disciples, by way of the cross, resurrection and ascension, and so he is preparing them for life in between his first coming and his second coming. He’s preparing them to be ready for when Jesus returns.

A fortnight ago, the key word was ‘watch’ - the lesson of the parable of the ten virgins. Five were wise, and were watching, ready for the bridegroom’s arrival. Last week, the key word was ‘work’ - the lesson of the parable of the talents. We want to use all that the master has given us, to put it to work, in order to hear the ‘well done, good and faithful servant...’ Both those stories were parables - indeed, that’s what the publisher’s headings tell us.

But tonight’s story is a little bit different. I wonder did you notice that when it was read? It wasn’t introduced like the others - ‘At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like...’ (1) ‘Again, it will be like...’ (14). No, this one is different. Look at verse 31. ‘When...’

Jesus is telling us what is going to happen. It’s a bit like you saying, ‘when I get back from holiday I will...’ or ‘when the hosepipe ban is lifted, I’ll wash the car...’ This isn’t an earthly story with a heavenly meaning, no, this is a real story. Jesus is reporting on something in the future, telling us what is going to happen. This is how it’s going to be.

And ‘when’ will it be? ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.’ (31) Jesus is telling us about the day when he comes again to the earth. The term, ‘The Son of Man’ is Jesus’ favourite way to refer to himself in the gospels. It has its roots in Daniel 7 - the Son of Man is the one given authority, glory and sovereign power; an everlasting kingdom; and worshipped by all.

Jesus is telling us about who he is - the Christ, the Messiah, the King of the universe. And one day he will come in glory. He will sit on his throne. And everyone from every nation will be gathered before him. Look closely at the scene he is painting, and you’ll see yourself. (Isn’t that what we do when we look at a photo that we’re in? We look to see ourselves before we see who else is in it. Well, somewhere, in this scene, you’re there.).

The Son may not know when he will return (see Matt 24:36), but he knows what will happen when he does return. ‘All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.’ (32-33)

So what will the division be based on? In that moment it won’t be based on men and women; he’ll not worry about left-handed and right-handed. The division is sheep and goats. There just these two groups; two categories, and he speaks to each of them in turn.

To those on his right, he says in verse 34: ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world...’ To those on his left, however, he says in verse 41: ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels...’

Two different groups, with two different destinies. one is told to come, the other to depart; one of blessing, the other is cursed; one receives inheritance, the kingdom prepared for them; the other receives the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Now, when you see the two destinies side by side, it’s not hard to decide which you would prefer. The question, though, is how do some find themselves on his right and others on his left? And how can we be sure of being on his right?

Jesus gives the reason in verse 35 - to those on his right he says: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink...’ In the same way, he tells those on his left: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink...’ (42).

Now, if you were listening closely earlier on, you’ll have noticed that both groups were very surprised when they heard what they had done or not done. They both ask the same question: ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry...?’ (37, 44). They can’t remember seeing Jesus hungry, or thirsty, or as a stranger, or needing clothes, or being sick or being in prison.

Now, if that’s so for the righteous, it’s even more the case for the wicked. If they’d seen Jesus in this way, they’re pretty sure they would have done something to help him. But, they never did see Jesus in these positions, so how come they’ve ended up as goats, condemned?

And if our position on that day depends on how we have treated Jesus, how can we do that if we’ve never seen him? Have we got an excuse? Can we get out of doing it if we’ve never seen Jesus in the flesh?

It appears not. You see, Jesus explains it in verse 40. When do we see Jesus in these positions of need? ‘The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”’ How you treat the family of Jesus shows your attitude to Jesus himself.

Think back to your school days. If you had a little brother or sister at the same school as you, did you ever act as a minder for them? If they were being picked on, did you ever try to sort it out? Warn them off? What would you have said? Maybe something like - If you mess with them, then you mess with me. (that sounds a bit like the mafia, I’ll admit).

That’s what Jesus is saying here! The way we treat the family of Jesus, the least of his brothers, is an indication of what you think of Jesus. To help or ignore a brother or sister of Jesus is to help or ignore Jesus himself.

So, who are the brothers and sisters of Jesus? Sometimes people read this, and urge us that it’s everyone and anyone, the whole of humanity. But Jesus has a narrower focus. You see, Jesus has already asked and answered this very question. Back in chapter 12, Mary the mother of Jesus and his brothers and sisters hear about the crowds flocking to see Jesus. They’re concerned for him, so they go to bring him home. And what does Jesus say, when he’s told they’re outside wanting to see him? ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? Pointing to his disciples, he said, Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’ (12:48-50).

And, just to make sure, he says the same thing after his resurrection. So in Matt 28:10, Jesus says to Mary Magdalene and the other women, when she meets them near the empty tomb, ‘Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’ He’s speaking about his disciples again.

So how we treat the disciples of Jesus, his brothers, shows us what we think of the Lord Jesus himself. Now, let’s be clear - Jesus here is not saying that we will be saved by our works (and thereby overturning the whole of the rest of the Bible’s teaching on salvation by grace alone by faith alone in Jesus alone...). But our works show whether we are saved or not, by showing what we think of Jesus by how we treat his family.

So how are you treating his family? When you see his brothers and sisters who are hungry, or thirsty, or strangers, or needing clothes, or sick or in prison - how will you respond? Because the way that you respond to them shows what you think of their big brother.

Our entry into eternal life and the eternal inheritance is down to God’s grace. but the test of our words of love for Jesus is in our actions - if we love the family of Jesus, the least of his brothers in sisters.

So let’s resolve to show our love for Jesus in the way we love his family. Let’s see the face of Jesus in the face of Christians facing persecution and hardship. Let’s show our love in practical ways, to his praise and glory. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 15th July 2018.

Sermon: Psalm 44 Awake, O Lord!

If you’ve been watching any of the World Cup matches, then you’ll probably have heard some familiar phrases. Even if their team weren’t playing, the commentators will have managed to fit in something about 1966; something about ‘Football’s coming home’; and something about the England team. Right up until about 9.30pm on Wednesday evening, when their laments began.

Whether you’re interested in football or not; whether you saw the match or not; whether you wanted them to win or not; the plight of the English football team are an illustration of what’s going on in Psalm 44. You have the retelling of past glories (1966 and all that); you have the reality of present defeat (the players looking distraught); you have the reasoning of the situation, making sense of it (when the commentators watch the replay, to see what went wrong); and the response (what needs to happen now).

The retelling of past glories; The reality of present defeat; The reasoning of the situation; The response. Let’s dive into Psalm 44 on page 568.

First up, we have the retelling of past glories. Remember 1966 and all that. The Psalm looks back to the way things used to be. The stories of the good old days, of when God used to give his people great victories. That’s what verse 1 looks back to: ‘We have heard with our ears, O God; our fathers have told us what you did in their days, in days long ago. With your hand your drove out the nations and planted our fathers; you crushed the peoples and made our fathers flourish.’

The psalm retells the glory days of the past - when the people of Israel came into the promised land. They had escaped from Egypt, wandered in the desert, then came into and conquered the promised land, Canaan. And how did they do it? It wasn’t by their strength (3) - ‘it was your right hand, your arm, and the light of your face, for you loved them.’

God had given them the victory, because he loved them. They were his people, so he gave them the promised land. And that’s what happened in days long ago. But the glory days were also more recent. So in verses 4-8, he’s still retelling past glories. Victories in the current generation. If v1-3 was about God doing it for them, our fathers; v4-8 are about God doing it for ‘us’.

God is ‘my King and my God, who decrees victories for Jacob’. It’s through God ‘we push back our enemies... trample our foes... [God who] gives us victory... puts our adversaries to shame.’ The retelling of past glories leads to verse 8, the joyful praise of God who gives the victory:

‘In God we make our boast all day long, and we will praise your name for ever.’

Retelling of past glories brings praise for the God of glory. And it would be great to be able to stop the Psalm here. To rejoice in all that God has done - past, present and future. To only ever experience victory at his hands. To never suffer defeat, or to never suffer at all.

But, and there is a but, it’s not like that now. The retelling of past glories almost makes the reality of present defeat even harder to bear. Because in verse 9, we see the reality of present defeat. And it begins with that ‘But now’. It used to be like this - 1966, and hope was high, football’s coming home - but now we lost in the semi-final.

The outline we’re using to look at the Psalm is all about the R’s - retelling, reality, reasoning and response. But in verses 9-16 we see even more R words to describe the reality of the present defeat: ‘you have REJECTED and humbled us’ (9). ‘You made us RETREAT before the enemy’ (10). You have made us a REPROACH to our neighbours’ (13). And the bonus verse 16 with 3 more R words: ‘My disgrace is before me all day long, and my face is covered with shame at the taunts of those who REPROACH and REVILE me, because of the enemy, who is bent on REVENGE’ (15-16).

The reality of the present is so painful because God seems to have rejected them. God used to do all these great things, but now, he has rejected them. He hasn’t helped them. Instead, they are devoured like sheep, scattered, and sold (11-12).

So, what do you do when something like this happens? You’ve heard how great God was, all the amazing things he did long ago. You retell them; but they don’t match up with your reality of present defeat. What are you likely to do when suffering comes? When things aren’t the way you planned or hoped or dreamed?

You’re likely to ask - why is this happening? Why me? Why this? Why now? And so you try to reason it out, try to work it out. So, the other night, the commentators showed the video replays, how the defence was getting tired, and the goals that should have been scored. They were searching for the reasons why the defeat happened.

And that’s what we do as well. Is this because of something I’ve done? Why has this happened? In verses 17-22, the writer looks for reasons. Had the people forgotten God, maybe? Had they been false to God’s covenant? Had they turned away from God, or strayed from his path? Had they begun to follow a foreign small-g god?

If any of those things had happened, then they might have understood why God had seemingly rejected them. There would have been a reason for the rejection; a reason for their reality. But, the psalm is quite emphatic. They haven’t done any of those things. He’s sure of it. Do you see how he puts it?

‘All this happened to us, though we had not forgotten you or been false to your covenant. Our hearts had not turned back; our feet had not strayed from your path. But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals and covered us over with deep darkness.’

We didn’t do any of those things. Yet we’re suffering. And, as verse 20 goes on, if we had have done those things, forgotten the name of God or spread out our hands to a foreign god, well, God would have known about it. ‘Would not God have discovered it, since he knows the secrets of the heart?’

God knows the secrets of the heart. He sees below the surface. He knows us deeper than anyone else could possibly know us. And so, the writer appeals to their innocence in this regard. They haven’t turned away from God; they’re still committed to God; so why are they suffering? What’s the reason?

Verse 22 seems to give a bit of a reason for the suffering. ‘Yet for your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ It’s for your sake; for God’s sake. Their suffering is because they are God’s people. And that suffering can even include facing death, being considered as sheep for the slaughter.

It’s not what they want. It’s not what they expect - not when they’ve heard of past glories, when God worked the victory for them. Yet now, their present reality is that of suffering, not because they’ve rejected God, but because they are God’s people. And that might be the place where you find yourself today. You’re suffering, not because you’ve done anything wrong, but because you are a child of God.

Isn’t this what was happening on the cross? The Lord Jesus had lived the perfect life. He had definitely never forgotten God, or been false, or followed a foreign god. Yet he suffered and died - the sheep to be slaughtered, the precious Lamb of God.

He suffered so that we could be saved and redeemed. That was the reason for his suffering. And God is at work even in and through our suffering. He is growing our dependence on him. He is growing our Christlikeness. He is using our faithful witness to show others how great our God is. These might be some of the reasons why the faithful suffer.

But that doesn’t stop us from asking God to intervene. In the last verses we see the response. Verses 23-26 are a prayer, calling on God to awake, to rouse yourself! ‘We are brought down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground. Rise up and help us; redeem us because of your unfailing love.’ It’s a prayer asking God to act, to help, to save. And it’s rooted in God’s unfailing love - the same love that was mentioned in verse 3. God you love us, so please, act. Redeem us. Save us.

It’s a prayer that God will answer. Maybe not immediately, but ultimately, he will act and answer. And we can still be sure of this today. How can we be sure? Because a portion of this Psalm is picked up and quoted in the New Testament. You may have heard it in our second reading.

Verse 22 in Psalm 44 is quoted in Romans 8:36. The apostle Paul is asking, what shall we say in response to the good news of the Lord Jesus, everything that he has written about in Romans up to this point. We’ll do Romans sometime soon, but for now, Paul establishes that God is for us; that God, who gave his Son for us, will give us everything else; that God is the one who justifies us; that no one can condemn us; and then he asks that final question in verse 35: ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?’

He lists a range of possible answers - all the experiences of Christian believers in the first century, and still being experienced today. ‘Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?’ Will any of those things keep us from Christ’s love? Will any of our own experiences of suffering do it? And then he quotes Ps 44:22. He shows that far from being unusual, actually, this is the normal life experience of the Christian believer. ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’

So what is Paul’s response? ‘No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.’ So much so that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We may retell the past glories; we may struggle through the reality of present defeat; we may look for the reasons why; but our response must be rooted and grounded in the love of Christ. We may indeed suffer in all sorts of ways, but it is suffering with Christ, for his sake; not apart from Christ. So do not lose heart. Be assured of his love for you in the gospel. The love that you will never be separated from. His ‘unfailing love.’

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 15th July 2018.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Sermon: Matthew 25: 14-30 The Talents

Did you hear about the Church of Ireland church up in Eglinton, near Londonderry? A few weeks ago, everyone who was in church that morning was given something on the way out. Anyone know what it was? A crisp new £10 note. Now, please don’t be expecting the same thing tonight as you shake my hand at the door!

Some people think that the church is always out for your money, so why were they giving it away to everyone who attended? Was it a scheme to boost the numbers - come to church and make some money? Actually, it’s a fundraising initiative. But how can giving away money be fund - raising? It’s because six weeks later, the parishioners were to return their £10, as well as any profits they had made. Now, the six weeks are up, but I haven’t heard of the end result, how it all turned out.

The rector up there was interviewed by BBC News when the project was launched. And the idea for the scheme came directly from tonight’s Bible reading. Money being entrusted to others, and they’re expected to put it to work.

We’re here in the middle of Matthew 25, and Jesus is preparing his disciples for the time after his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. Jesus has been with them for three years, but shortly, he is returning to heaven. One day, he will return, his coming is sure, but what should they be doing in the meantime? How should we live between the ascension and his return?

Last week, the parable of the virgins (bridesmaids) called us to ‘watch’. This week, the parable of the talents calls us to ‘work’. We’re introduced to a man who is going off on a journey, he’ll be absent, and before he does, he puts everything in order, entrusting his property to his servants.

It’s like the arrangements you need to make before you set off on holiday. Someone to water the plants and feed the cat. He entrusts his property to the servants - it’s still his, but they have the charge of it.

Now it’s here that we sometimes run into difficulties. This is the parable of the talents, and as soon as we hear that word, we maybe think of Britain’s Got Talent - a special ability or skill. But the talent here is an amount of money. The footnote says that a talent was worth several hundred pounds. one talent was the equivalent of twenty years’ wages for a labourer. It’s a huge sum of money. And the amounts are given to each of the servants - 5 talents, 2 talents and 1 talent. ‘Each according to his ability.’

In verses 16-18, we get a montage, just a little update on how each one was getting on. The first two, working hard, putting the money to work and making more. The last one, getting a shovel, digging a hole, and hiding the money in the ground.

When we get to verse 19, the master has returned, and it’s time to settle accounts with them. And these verses remind me of the boardroom scene in The Apprentice. Lord Sugar is trying to find a new colleague, so he sets them business challenges. Then in the boardroom, all is evaluated, explained, argued, and eventually, someone wins the series - having avoided the famous words: ‘You’re Fired.’

Well here, there’s an account. A reckoning. The first servant with five talents, he now has five more. He has doubled his master’s money. And he’s greeted with praise: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness.’ (21).

Next up is the second slave. And it’s the same for him. He had received two talents, and now he has two more. The same response, the same welcome, in the exact same words greets him: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness.’ (23)

The master is delighted with their work. They have been ‘good and faithful.’ They’ve done what he expected, they’ve pleased him, and he welcomes them into his happiness (or, as other versions put it, enter into the joy of your master). You see, it’s not about doing the same as someone else - one had five, the other had two - but they both were commended. They were faithful with what they had been given. They got on with the work they had been entrusted with, big or small, so that faithfulness in small things brings the reward of being entrusted with more.

Small acts of faithfulness are an indicator of being faithful in bigger things as well.

Have you ever had to give a presentation after other people, and as the time goes on, you get more nervous. you see how great theirs is, and you realise yours isn’t as good, and so you’re afraid of what will happen? Well, eventually, it’s the turn of the one talent servant.

Rather than saying what he has done with the money, he rounds on the master. ‘Master, I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ (24-25).

The servant had received this amazing trust, he was given twenty year’s worth of wages to use, and yet he turns on his master. He accuses him of being hard. So he buried the talent, and now he gives it back, untouched, unused, unloved. He thinks he’s being safe, making sure he didn’t lose it or waste it, but he never used it, didn’t put it to work, not even gaining interest from the bank.

Far from being faithful, the master calls him for what he is - ‘You wicked, lazy servant!’ What a tragedy - to receive so much from the master, and to bury it. He thought that it didn’t matter how he got on while the master was absent - he didn’t need to worry about working. but that slave loses even the little he has, and is thrown outside, into the darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Jesus is calling us to work faithfully as we look towards his return. So how are you getting on? The summer time is a great time to think about how we’re getting on; how we’re working in the kingdom. So take some time this week, or this month, to ask yourself these questions:

How do I view the master? If we were to ask you, what would you say Jesus is like? The last slave thought the master was hard, someone to be feared. Is your Christian life just a dull and dreary duty? Or are you filled with wonder as you recognise the master’s grace and generosity? Think of how much Jesus has given you, involving you in the task of being his church in this generation and passing on the good news to the next.

Ask yourself - What is the work I’ve been given to do? Just as there were different amounts of talents, so there are different jobs and tasks and opportunities for each of us. If you have children or grandchildren, then you’re seeking to teach them about Jesus - -not just when you read or pray with them, but in every moment. They’re always watching to see if you’re consistent! Maybe you’re on your own through the day - could you spend time in prayer for our church, or for a mission agency?

There are many, many ways you can serve in the church family - too many to mention, but there are always ways to help, and serve.

As we rejoice in the gifts that God has given us, so we’ll work for him with all our heart, seeking to do out best in his service. Look forward, imagine that moment when you hear the ‘well done, good and faithful servant.’ It will all be worth it, to discover his pleasure.

This evening, as you leave the church building, I’m sorry, I don’t have a tenner for each of you. But we each have something better - the grace of the Lord Jesus, the challenge to serve him, and the promise of sharing in his happiness. Better be far. So let’s go, and serve, to his glory, amen.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 8th July 2018.

Sermon: Psalms 42 & 43 Thirsty for God

When was the last time you were thirsty? With all this good weather we’ve been having, you’ve probably felt thirsty at some point recently. You didn’t even need to be doing anything energetic! Even just sitting brought the drouth on you.

When I sat down to write this sermon, and thinking about thirst, I suddenly felt thirsty. So I had to go and get a big glass of water. (Could it be that when you think of being thirsty, and then you are thirsty - in the same way that when you think of yawning, and then all you can do is yawn, even if you aren’t tired? Hopefully you all won’t start yawning now! I’ll be watching!)

So, at the risk of making you all feel dehydrated, think about the last time you were thirsty. Maybe it was after a hard day’s work; or after some gardening; or playing; or shopping. Whatever it was, your thirst told you that you needed some water. You were thirsty for it; desperately needing it.

That’s the picture in verse 1 of Psalm 42. ‘As the deer pants for streams of water...’ The deer is panting for water, needing a drink (maybe it’s being chased, as one of the hymn versions put it). And that picture of the deer panting for water, is like the writer of the Psalm. Except, he’s not thirsty for water. He is thirsty for God. ‘As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.’ (1-2)

I’m sure you’ve been thirsty for water. Have you ever been thirsty for God?

If thirst for water is because you’re dry and you don’t have it, then thirst for God is because we don’t have him, we aren’t experiencing him. Have you ever had dry times in your faith? have you ever felt that longing for God?

Now, maybe you’re thinking to yourself - this being thirsty for God must only be for people who aren’t Christians. Only non-Christians would have this thirst, because they don’t know God, and so they’re searching, depserate, like a man lost in a desert searching for water.

But Psalms 42 & 43 are the experience of a believer. And even if you can’t get your head around that, even if you think that couldn’t be you - your Christian life is always abounding, everything is always wonderful, you’re always joyful, then listen up! You never know when you might need this word from the Lord. You need know when your circumstances might change and you do feel this way.

Now, if you do feel this way, if you find yourself in this situation, you’re longing, thirsty for God, feeling far from him, then let’s see how we can hold on in hope.

In these opening verses, the thirst is great. ‘When can I go and meet with God?’ (2) He’s thirsty for God, but all he’s drinking are his tears. ‘My tears have been my food day and night.’ It’s as if he sits down for breakfast, and he swallows his tears. What’s on the menu for lunch? More tears. Dinner time? Tears. Supper time? More tears. And it’s made worse as people around him say: ‘Where is your God?’ (3) It’s not once or twice, but all the time.

Now, if that wasn’t bad enough, he remembers when things were different in verse 4: ‘These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to lead the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng.’

He looks back and remembers how things used to be. You see, back at the top of the Psalm, the little tiny writing (superscription) tells us this is a maskil (a Psalm) of the Sons of Korah. They were the Levites who had charge of leading worship in the temple. He was a musician, a singer, in the thick of it, leading God’s people in praise. But now, now he’s far away, thirsty, longing for God.

Often, this is how the housebound can feel. They used to be here, part of the services, but now they’re stuck at home or in a nursing home. They wish they could get along to church, but they can’t make it any more.

Perhaps you feel this way too. Maybe you look back to when things were different. You remember a time when you were involved in lots of things, but now you’re on the fringes, or even further away. You felt so near to God, but now, so distant. And you think, where is God? When can I meet with him?

Up to this point, the writer has been speaking to God. But now, he speaks to someone else. Not, to anyone around him... himself. I wonder, do you talk to yourself? Don’t be afraid to say yes, because, whether you realise it or not, we’re always talking to ourselves. There’s always some sort of conversation going on.

It might be worries that are being recycled and repeated on and on; or you’re wondering how you’re feeling; or processing what someone said to you or about you; or what you said to someone else; or psyching yourself up to get out of bed, or make that awkward phonecall.

So here, the writer talks to himself, and asks himself; ‘Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?’ He already knows the reason - he’s mentioned it in the opening verses of the Psalm. But do you see the answer? He gives himself a good talking to:

‘Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.’

He turns the focus from himself and his own problems, and instead turns his focus on God. He’s preaching to himself, reminding himself of the gospel, encouraging himself based on God’s promises. He looks forward to the time when he will again praise God, because he is my Saviour and my God.

Sometimes we might think that if we pray about something once, then it’ll be all sorted and solved instantly. But the Psalm continues. And in this second section, the pain almost seems to get worse.

His soul is downcast within him (6). ‘Therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon - from Mount Mizar.’ Hermon is the mountain where the river Jordan begins - it’s about 120 miles away from Jerusalem. He’s separated from the temple, and from God.

God seems to have forgotten him. His enemies keep oppressing him, taunting him, asking, again, ‘Where is your God?’ You keep talking about him, but where is he? He doesn’t seem to be much use to you. Where is he?

What the writer experiences physically, being so far from Jerusalem, we can also experience spiritually. It seems as if God is distant. And it’s even more painful because of how he describes God. He’s the capital letters LORD, who directs his love by day, the God of his life, whose song is with him at night. (8) God is his Rock. (9), But even these great and glorious things about God can seem like a burden, when God is silent and distant.

So once again, the writer talks to himself. Again he repeats the chorus - asking why he’s downcast; again preaching to gospel to himself - to hope in God, that one day he will praise him, because he is ‘my Saviour and my God.’ (11) Don’t give up, even when prayers seem to go unanswered. Keep talking to yourself. Hold in there!

When we get to the third section, to Psalm 43, the cry becomes even more desperate. Here, the call is for vindication - for God to act and defend his cause. If you were accused of doing something wrong, then someone came forward and showed that you hadn’t done anything wrong, then you would be vindicated. You would be in the clear.

That’s what he wants God to do - to intervene, to show his power. You see, even in his darkest moments, the writer never loses his trust. Even when things are going against him, and God seems distant, he still continues to call out to God.

In verses 3&4, the writer calls for resolution. ‘Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell. Then will I go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight. I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.’

He recognises that God must act; that only God can bring him back and satisfy his thirst. He asks for God’s light and truth to guide him, and bring him to praise. It’s precisely what he needs - light for the path, being so far away; and truth, surrounded by the enemy’s lies.

It’s what we need as well - whether we’re far from God because we’ve never really known him, and we’re still far from him; or whether we’ve been a Christian for a long time, but things have slipped, we’ve found ourselves far away, lost our joy. What we need is for God to send his light and truth - or rather, the one who is the light of the world; the one who is the way, the truth and the life - the Lord Jesus, the one who brings us near to God, brings us into his family and causes us to worship, the one who takes away our thirst by giving us the water of life.

And as these Psalms finish, there comes the chorus again. As he continues to pray, so he continues to talk to himself as well. He repeats the exact same words, but sometimes that’s exactly what we need - we hold on to a promise, to a commitment, like a dog with a bone, not letting go, holding on for dear life.

If you had a friend who was discouraged, you would hopefully draw alongside them and gently remind them of the hope of the gospel in Jesus. So why not do it to yourself? Talk to yourself in the best possible way. Remind yourself of the gospel as you preach to yourself. Encourage yourself to put your hope in God (not in anyone or anything else); because it’s only as we do that that we will praise him, our Saviour and our God.

Our thirst for God is only satisfied when we come to the one who says in John 7 ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’

Jesus gives us the living water to satisfy our thirst for God - he gives us the Holy Spirit, who flows within, and flows out, so that others can share in this life-giving, thirst-quenching water.

Are you thirsty today? Come to Jesus. Drink deeply, and live.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 8th July 2018.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Sermon: Haggai 2: 20-23 The Signet Ring

Did you hear the story about the burglar who was in prison? His dad wrote him a letter, saying that he would find it a struggle on account of his old age, but he was getting ready to dig the back field to plant some spuds. So the son wrote a letter back to him, telling him not to bother digging in the field - that was where he had buried the loot. A few days went by, and the father wrote again to say that the police had come and dug about in the field and found nothing. The son replied and said, it was the only way he could help - and he could now plant his spuds!

The message was for one person, his dad, but he knew it would have a wider audience. That's a bit like our reading from Haggai today. It's a message for one person, but it's not just for him. We're allowed to listen in, to benefit from it as well. It's not like the post that mum and dad would receive to their address, 42 xxxxxx xxxxxx, Dromore - except it was for the same address in Dromore, County Tyrone, and a Mr Mcxxxxxx. Here, we're meant to be receiving it, learning from the message addressed to Zerubbabel.

We're now in the final chunk of Haggai's book, in the series of four messages he delivered in Jerusalem in the year 520BC. After Jerusalem had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and his army, the people had been taken away to Babylon for about 70 years. They've now returned to their own land, to Jerusalem, but they were more keen to build their own panelled houses than to build the temple, the house of the LORD. Over a few months, Haggai challenged the people to ‘give careful thought to your ways’ (and build God’s house); he encouraged them to keep working even though the building was small and unimpressive; and he confronted them with their uncleanness, the anti-Midas touch, yet promised that God would bless them regardless.

So now, on the same day as the previous message, Haggai has another word of the LORD, this time for Zerubbabel. Zerubbabel is the governor of Judah, the person in charge of the city and region. This would be like someone calling at 10 Downing Street, with a personal message for Teresa May. And what is it that God is saying to Zerubbabel?

Well, the message breaks into two parts - the shaking and the signet ring. Let's look at them in turn.

Tell Zerubbabel governor of Judah that I will shake the heavens and the earth. I will overturn royal thrones and shatter the power of the foreign kingdoms. I will overthrow chariots and their drivers; horses and their riders will fall, each by the sword of his brother.’ (21-22)

God says what he is going to do. Did you see that? ‘I will, I will, I will.’ And what is God going to do? He is going to shake the heavens and the earth. So it's not just an earthquake that is in view, but rather a universe quake.

Perhaps you've heard of the question - what if everyone on earth gathered in the same location and we all jumped and landed together - could we shift the earth's orbit? And the answer is... No. You wouldn't even notice... Now, seemingly in Mexico, the celebrations of the football fans when they scored the goal against Germany set off the earthquake sensors, but even then, they couldn’t shake the whole earth. It's impossible for us, but it’s as easy for God as shaking the sand off your feet or shoes after a walk on the beach.

Do you see the purpose of the shaking? 'I will overthrow royal thrones and shatter the power of the foreign kingdoms.' God is going to overthrow and destroy the power of the nations of the world. By this stage, the Babylonian empire had been conquered by the Medo-Persian empire. But God says they too will be overthrown. They won't be able to stand - just like a Jenga tower that collapses when the wrong block is removed; or like a Monopoly board overturned because someone is losing, and the houses and hotels go flying!

God is saying that he is in control of the nations. He can bring ruin whenever he chooses. He can raise up, and he can overturn. And this is good news for the people of Jerusalem. They're fed up with kingdoms coming to conquer; they've seen enough of chariots and riders coming into their land. So no matter how powerful the King might appear; no matter what the chariots come to do, they are not all-powerful. God is in control. And he tells Zerubbabel about a day that is coming. This day of shaking, of overturning, the kingdoms of the world.

Now perhaps when Zerubbabel heard this word of shaking, perhaps he was frightened himself. After all, he was the governor of the city. He was in charge in the region of Judah. What would the shaking mean for him? Perhaps his legs were shaking and his knees were knocking at the thought of it.

But Haggai has a final word - this word for Zerubbabel, which we too can listen in to hear - a word of grace and promise. The final verse of Haggai: ‘On that day, declares the LORD Almighty, I will take you, my servant Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, declares the LORD, and I will make you like my signet ring, for I have chosen you, declares the LORD Almighty.’ (23)

On that self same day, the day of shaking, Zerubbabel will be made like God’s signet ring. Now, when I read that, I wasn’t entirely sure what a signet ring was. So i had a look into it. The signet ring was the mark of authority. So if the king was sending out a letter, he would get a bit of wax, and then imprint his sign, his signet ring, to show it came from him.

It’s something we still do - normally at the bottom of graduation certificates there’s the seal of the university - although when I pulled out my Trinity certificate, there’s no seal at the bottom. I promise I really did pass my exams to be a minister! But here’s my Institution certificate - and in the red bit there’s the seal of the Archbishop of Armagh.

Do you see what God is saying here? The nations may be in uproar, the kingdoms will be overthrown, but Zerubbabel has been chosen, and will be like a signet ring, the symbol and agent of God’s power in the world. God has his eye on Zerubbabel; his purposes will involve Zerubbabel.

Now, you might be thinking, well, that’s nice for Zerubbabel, but what does that mean for me? Well, remember who Zerubbabel is. We’re told that he’s the son of Shealtiel, and those names might not mean much to us, but the opening chapter of Matthew helps us to see the bigger picture.

Zerubbabel is the son of Shealtiel, who was the son of Jeconiah, who was the great (x12) grandson of King David. And that means that God taking an interest in him is good news for him, and good news for us as well. Despite being born in exile (his name means ‘seed of Babylon’), God had chosen him. Despite the ways the kings from David to Jeconiah had messed up, leading to exile in the first place, God was still fulfilling his promise to David, that one of his sons would rule. God has not finished with his promise. He’s still interested in the line of David, still working to bring the long-awaited Christ from this family line.

Matthew 1 connects the dots, and brings us to Jesus, who is called Christ, the successor of this same Zerubbabel. But what has this to do with us? How does a message for Zerubbabel impact on us? God promises a day of shaking, when the kingdoms opposed to him are overthrown, and his chosen servant king will be his signet ring, his power in the world.

And in Hebrews 12, we find these words:

‘At that time [speaking about the giving of the law at Mount Sinai] his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens. The words once more indicate the removing of what can be shaken - that is, created things - so taht what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.’ (Heb 12: 26-29)

This day of shaking is still in the future. A day when some will be removed, but the unshakable will remain.

It made me think of a BBC news report after the earthquake in Amatrice back in August of 2016. Almost 300 people died, and the reporter, standing among the rubble of the village said that the Italian government had a choice - deciding whether it was happy with around 300 deaths per earthquake, leaving people’s houses and buildings as they were; or if it would invest millions of euros in making homes safe, making them earthquake proof.

That contrasting image of the shakable and the unshakable; the earthquake prone and the earthquake proof - this is what Haggai’s last message to Zerubbabel is all about. The day is coming when the earth and heavens will be shaken. Kingdoms and people will be overthrown. The only safe place is to be in God’s unshakable kingdom; to shelter in the signet ring, the chosen of the Lord. His name is Jesus.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 1st July 2018.