Sunday, September 30, 2018

Sermon: Nehemiah 3: 1-32 Building Begins

So what did you make of tonight’s Bible reading? Did your heart sink as you heard and saw the list of unpronounceable names making up the entirety of Nehemiah 3? Perhaps you listened carefully to see how many would make the reader stumble (giving thanks that you weren’t doing the reading!). Or maybe you thought to yourself, I missed Countryfile and I came to church tonight, for this? So what do you make of tonight’s Bible reading?

At first glance, I too, I must confess, wondered what to do with it. A list of names, of people we don’t know and haven’t heard of. Should we just skip it and move on to the good stuff? And then I remembered the verse from 2 Timothy 3:16, which says that ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’

So God has told us that this chapter - even this chapter! - is God-breathed and is useful. And so, the question isn’t what am I going to do with this chapter, as much as it’s this: what is God going to do with us through this chapter. What is God saying to us in these words?

If tonight is your first night with us, then you might wonder where we are and what’s going on. This book is the memoir of Nehemiah, the cupbearer to the king of the Persian empire. Nehemiah was still in exile when he heard a report about the city of Jerusalem - its walls still broken down and its gates burned with fire. So Nehemiah mourned, and prayed, and planned. The king has sent him to the city to rebuild its walls, and at the end of last week he had arrived and surveyed the city, making his plans.

Chapter 3, then, is the official record of the building work. And while we might see it as just a list of names, it’s important to remember that these are people just like you and me - people involved in working for the Lord in building up his city. I was reminded of a fundraiser that my home parish organised when they were building one of the two church halls. Everyone could pay £1 and sign their name on a big white tablecloth. Then all those signatures were stitched or embroidered into the tablecloth, and it was put on display. If I went to see the tablecloth, I’d know quite a few of the names and the people, but you’d maybe only know my name (if you could read my writing!). And in a hundred years’ time, even people in Dromore might not know many of the names, let alone in two and a half thousand years’ time. But that tablecloth is a record of the people who contributed in some way to the building of either the Clayton Hall or the Cathedral Hall.

Nehemiah chapter 3 works in the same way. Here are people who were committed to the Lord’s work, who made their contribution, not just in financial terms, but in physical terms.

Finally (in the introductory remarks!), this chapter has a lot to teach us for the task that we are facing. We may not be building with stones and mortar, but we are called to building work - as we build the kingdom, each one being careful how we build - as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3. So how do we get on with our task of building up the church? Nehemiah will show us how he did it, and how we might get some insight into how we do it too.

So let’s dive into the chapter, in an entirely appropriate way - you see, this chapter is a list, and so the sermon structure tonight will be a list - of things that strike us as we read it.

Firstly, the leaders took the lead. It’s the high priest and his fellow priests who went to work and built the Sheep Gate and part of the wall. They took the lead, and set the example. This came out in a book on the Battle of Waterloo, which quoted one soldier’s testimony. It said that some officers were of the ‘Go on’ type; but the soldiers appreciated and respected the officers who were of the ‘Come on’ type.

The priests were the ‘come on’ type. They got going, and encouraged everyone else to join in. And it’s highly significant where they started. The Sheep Gate. That’s at the north-east corner of the city, at the temple, where the sheep for the sacrifices were brought into the city. ‘They dedicated it’. That’s maybe like our laying of the first stone ceremony. It’s certainly the start of the building up of Jerusalem. We need leaders who take the lead.

Secondly, the builders each do their bit. It’s not that the priests built the whole wall right around the city. But when they did their bit, then everyone else did their bit too. All in all, there are 41 sections of wall that are described here. Each person or team do their bit, and between them, the whole wall was built up.

Everyone seems to have known what they were doing, and where they were responsible for. One of the words that jump out at you is the word ‘next’. The next section, or next to him. Each person did their own bit, as everyone else did their bit too too.

Another repeated phrase is where people built the section outside their house - Jedaiah (10), Benjamin and Hasshub (23), priests (28) etc. Perhaps there was good reason to build those bits well, because they’d be looking at them, and those bits would be defending their houses! But it also meant that they didn’t have far to go to do their work.

How good are we at working together as a team? Each playing their part, sharing the workload? Or are we prone to just try to do everything ourselves?

Thirdly, we see some people went the extra mile. There are a few people who, when they had finished their section of wall, then went and built another section. Notable among them are Meremoth (4, 21) and the men of Tekoa (27). They could easily have said, we’ve done our bit, it’s someone else’s job to do that bit. But they got stuck in to work on a second section.

Are there other ways that you could get involved? Something more that you could be doing as we build the kingdom here?

Fourthly, some people refused to help. We’ve mentioned the noble men of Tekoa, who worked to complete not one, but two sections of the wall (5, 27). But that was no thanks to their nobles. These high ranking nobles thought that the work was beneath them, and so refused to get involved. As Nehemiah writes, ‘their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors.’ (5).

There’s a challenge here for us - do we think of ourselves too highly, or of some kingdom work as too lowly for us? Let’s remember that we serve the Lord of heaven, who humbled himself and made himself nothing, taking the form of a slave for our sake.

Fifthly, a variety of people were involved in the work. We see the variety in a number of ways. It’s striking that verse 12 mentions that Shallum repaired his section with the help of his daughters. It must have been unusual for girls or women to have been involved, but they too played their part.

Variety is also seen in the range of professions involved. We’ve already mentioned the priests, but there are also goldsmiths (8) and perfume-makers (8); temple servants (26), and merchants (32). Not quite the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, but not far off! In other words, it wasn’t just the professional builders who got in involved. Everyone, whatever their background, helped in the work.

And everyone, wherever their home, helped in the work. Many of the builders were residents of the city of Jerusalem - certainly those who built in front of their houses. But there are plenty of other placenames as well - Tekoa (5), Gibeon and Mizpah (7), Zanoah (13), Beth Hakkerem (14), Beth Zur (16), and Keilah (17). Wherever they lived, they cared about Jerusalem, the city of God, and worked for its welfare.

And for us, too, no matter our background - our family, our place, our past - we can be used by God in his building work. Even if we were strangers of the covenants and promises, Gentiles by birth, we are brought in by faith (see Eph 2:11-22). Even if we have committed wickedness, those sins that keep us outside the kingdom - sexual immorality, idolatry, theft, greed, drunkenness, slander and swindling - we have been washed and sanctified and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor 6:9-11).


So now that we’ve surveyed the chapter, what do you make of it? There’s more to see here than first met the eye. The list of ancient builders speaks to us of how to engage in God’s building work - as the leaders take the lead; and everyone does their bit; and even goes the extra mile; not thinking the work beneath them; and getting involved whatever their gender or age or background.

As Paul challenges the Corinthians, so he challenges us as well: ‘Each one should be careful how he builds.’ Are you building on the solid foundation of Jesus Christ? And what are you building with - things that will be burned up - the wood, hay and straw, or things that will survive - gold, silver and costly stones.

May each of us be careful how we build.

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

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 2: 9-16 Receiving God's Word

How many words do you hear or read in a day? A couple of thousand? A couple of million? Someone has reckoned that, between conversations, phone calls, TV, radio, newspapers, books, and the internet, you will hear or read around 100,000 words each day. That’s a lot to take in! But, when you think of it, you don’t give equal attention to every one of those 100,000 words.

Some words are more important than others. So, maybe you’ll turn on the radio for Good Morning Ulster, and then turn it off quickly when Stephen Nolan comes on. A chat with a friend is more important than the chatter on Coronation Street. You’ll stay on the phone when it’s a family member, but quickly hang up when someone rings about PPI or someone claiming to be from Microsoft wanting to talk about a problem with your computer.

The importance of the words depends on who is speaking. What we think about the person will affect how we listen. So, imagine the scene when Paul arrived in Thessalonica. He’s just got out of jail in Philippi, having been beaten. He’s walked the 100 miles, so he’s not in great shape, might not smell too good. You might not be inclined to listen to him.

But when the Thessalonians did listen to him, they discovered a remarkable thing. Paul was speaking the word of God to them. As Paul spoke and shared the gospel, they heard God’s word. Look at verse 13: ‘And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.’

They heard Paul speaking, but they accepted it for what it really was - not human words, manmade philosophy or made up stories - but God’s word. The God of the universe has spoken, and Paul was bringing a report of it.

Most days on the news, they’ll have, at some point, a report of what the Prime Minister has said. Probably about Brexit, or sometimes about something else as well. Theresa May said so and so about the NHS today... But this is so much more important. God has spoken. The God who created the universe by his powerful word, is speaking to us. This is God’s word. And it’s at work in you who believe.

Now if that’s the case, and this is indeed God’s word, then it must lead us to action. In our services, at the end of the readings, the reader says ‘This is the word of the Lord.’ And the response is ‘Thanks be to God.’ If that’s not just a bit of formal liturgy that we say without thinking, if we really are thankful for God’s word being read to us, then we must see that work out in our lives. As God’s word works in us who believe, we must see it worked out in our lives.

Paul shows us two things it calls us to do, even while circumstances are difficult: Having God’s word we practice it and plead for it, even while some prevent it.

So having God’s word, we practice it. This Thursday night at the Growth Group in the upper room, we’ll be looking at James’ letter, at the end of chapter 1 where he says this: ‘Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.’ (James 1:22). You see, it’s not enough to read what God’s word says; it’s not enough to know what God’s word says; you need to do what God’s word says. And that’s what we are urged to do here, in 1 Thessalonians as well. Doing what God’s word says.

So look at verse 10. ‘You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed.’ Paul and the other missionaries showed the Thessalonians how to do this - how to live out God’s word in practice. And what did it look like? Holy, righteous and blameless.

When we receive God’s word, when we become a Christian, when we start to live it out - it will bring changes into our lives. There’ll be something different about us. We’ll become more like Jesus. But it only comes when you practice God’s word, doing what it says.

And what might that look like? In the morning (or the evening, or whenever you do it), you open your Bible. You read a chapter or a few verses, and as you do, you know what God wants you to do. Maybe it’s to grow in patience, or to love an enemy, or to trust God. It’s highly likely that something’s going to happen later in the day that gives you an opportunity to do just that. So you’ve heard God’s word, are you going to do what it says? You’ve chosen the wrong queue in the supermarket, the one that’s taking ages. Will you grow in patience or try to find a shorter queue? Will you put God’s word into practice?

Having the word of God we practice it, but we also plead for it. We see this in verses 11-12, where Paul and the others not only live out God’s word themselves, but they urge and encourage others to do the same - pleading for them to live out God’s word.

‘For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.’ (11-12)

Last week, we heard how Paul was like a mother to the Thessalonians, gentle among them (7). Now he shows he was also like a father to them, giving a lead and example, so that they too would live out God’s word.

Do you see the action words in verse 12? ‘Encouraging, comforting and urging...’ They’re all positive, constructive, upbuilding sort of words. It’s like a dad watching his son play football, cheering him on. Except, this is even more important than football. Because the encouragement here is to ‘live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.’

God’s word calls us into his kingdom and his glory. As we hear it we need to heed it, and be moulded and shaped by it. Paul’s summary here is ‘lives worthy of God’ but we’ll see what that looks like in greater detail in chapter 4. For now, though, it means a life reflecting his glory, living under his kingdom and rule - a life of worship of God, because we have heard and responded to his word.

But it doesn’t come naturally or easy. Spiritual growth is hard work - we need to work at it, together, as we urge and encourage and comfort each other to stick at it. We need to be people who cheerlead for each other in our successes (the pom poms are optional!), and comfort and encourage when we mess things up. We’re probably more aware of the ways in which we fail - so that fatherlike encouragement is so precious as we respond to and apply God’s word, and live out the call he has made on our lives.

This is why the growth groups are so important - providing opportunity to talk out our challenges, and to encourage and build up one another in a small group. So who are you receiving encouragement from? And who are you encouraging?

Having God’s word, we practice it and plead for it. It’s amazing that God has spoken, that we can hear it, and pass it on. But not everyone thinks that. Some people jump to the other conclusion, the one the Thessalonians had rejected in verse 12, that it’s all just made up, the word of men.

It’s a viewpoint that we hear all the time on TV documentaries and discussions programmes, and on Stephen Nolan’s radio show. People will try to rubbish or reject or deny the Bible as God’s word. They’re just ancient stories, they don’t really deal with the complexities of life in the 21st century. We’ve moved beyond that nonsense. And so on.

And there seems to be greater hostility to Christians in the western world these days. The question arises, will we be punished or persecuted for holding to God’s word? Will we be silenced? Are things getting worse and worse? Well, it seems that things are getting back to normal - not the way things should be, but the way things really are for our brothers and sisters around the world, and for the way things always were.

Having received God’s word for what it was, and having that word working in their lives, the Thessalonians were feeling the pressure rise. They were suffering for God’s word - just as Paul had (2:2). But that wasn’t unusual. This was how the very first churches had suffered as well. 14: ‘You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out.’

The Jews were opposing the church, but they were actually opposing everyone, v15, ‘They displease God and are hostile to all men in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved.’ The pressure is there - to shut up. To keep quiet and not share God’s word.

But those who look at Christians and think they’re an easy target could find they’re picking the wrong fight. It’s like the school bully who picks on the new kid in school, only to later discover that the new kid is the new principal’s daughter. To take on Christians who hold God’s word is to take on the God whose word they hold. They might be able to intimidate Christians, but God cannot be silenced.

That should be encouraging, as we seek to live lives worthy of God. It’s God’s word that we have received, God’s word that we are practicing, God’s word that we are pleading for. And it’ll be God’s word that counts on the last day, when the full measure of sin is judged, and God’s wrath is paid out for the unbeliever.

When you sit down to read your Bible, God is speaking. When we gather together on Sundays or in the midweek groups, and hear the Bible read and preached, God is speaking. What will you do with it? Paul urges us to receive God’s word, to practice it, and plead for it, even as some prevent it. Let’s live it out this week; and let’s encourage each other to live it out this week. For the glory of the God who calls us to his kingdom and glory. Amen.

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

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Sermon: Nehemiah 2: 1-20 Send Me

If you ever watch any of those American crime or drama series on TV or boxset, you normally get a little review clip, with the words ‘Previously on (show name)...’ It helps to remind you of what has already happened, or to catch you up on what you might have missed. Well, it seems like we need to do a Previously in Nehemiah... as we begin tonight!

Nehemiah is a Jew, who has grown up in exile, in the city of Susa, where the king of the Persian empire lives. Last time we heard how he got a report about the state of Jerusalem - its people in great trouble and disgrace, and the walls of the city broken down and its gates burned. That bad news leads Nehemiah to pray - a prayer of repentance, and a prayer asking God to restore his people from the farthest horizons. And every day, for four months, he has been praying this prayer, asking that God would give him success in the sight of this man - the king of the empire.

Every day, Nehemiah was watching for the opportunity God would give him. And in this next bit of his memoir, he tells of the day that he had been waiting for: the day when he would have success in the king’s sight.

The day started the same as any other. Nehemiah had prayed, and then gone to work. He worked as cupbearer to the king, so he was in close contact with the king. He was there to serve Artaxerxes, and do what he wanted - which was to bring him wine!

But when he brought the wine, the day was different from every other day. The king noticed something different about his cupbearer. It wasn’t that he had a new haircut, or anything like that. No, it was his facial expression. Normally, the cupbearer was expected to be pleasant, helpful, maybe even jovial. But Nehemiah’s face was in a frown.

‘Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.’ The king could tell he wasn’t ill. but he knew there was something wrong. Some sadness of heart, as he puts it.

Nehemiah is immediately afraid - very much afraid. It may well be that he wasn’t meant to be sad in the presence of the king - and that he would lose his job or his head. Or it may have been that he was afraid because he was stepping out into the unknown, speaking out about the subject of his long-prayed prayers. Even with the fear, he replies in verse 3:

‘May the king live for ever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my fathers are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?’

He pours out his heart, and shares the reason for his sadness. Do you see how the king answers? He asks: ‘What is it you want?’ (4) The king is going to help, if Nehemiah tells him.

So what did Nehemiah do? Well, he says that ‘I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king.’ In the moment, Nehemiah didn’t have time to go off and find a place to pray. He prayed a quick, Lord help me, type prayer - an arrow prayer, and answered the king.

Years ago, when I was just starting out doing wee talks at our Youth Fellowship, I remember doing one on all the different sorts of prayer. And I used this verse as an example of arrow prayers. Any time, wee quick prayers. What did I forget, or maybe not even realise? Nehemiah had been praying day and night about this for four months! The arrow prayer came out of his consistent and persistent prayer.

The other thing we find in the realm of prayer is that Nehemiah didn’t just pray and leave it at that. Alongside his praying, he was also preparing. When the opportunity came, he knew what he needed to ask for. So he makes his request in verse 5: ‘If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favour in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it.’

Do you see how he asks - if it pleases the king, if you’re happy with this... And so we find that it did please the king. And Nehemiah asks for a few more bits - his plans come together: for protection and safe-conduct the whole way; and for supplies of timber to build. It all pleased the king, he granted his requests. But Nehemiah again sees beyond the throne, to the higher throne, to the one who was answering his prayers. Look at verse 8, towards the end of it: ‘And because the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the king granted my requests.’

Nehemiah recognises that the king said yes because God said yes. And God said yes, not because Nehemiah deserved it, but simply because God was gracious to him. Nehemiah could see the grace of God in the actions of the king of Persia.

And so the sending is done, and Nehemiah becomes the sent one. But not everyone is excited to se him arrive in Jerusalem. In verse 10 we meet Sanballat and Tobiah, men we’ll meet again. They were very much disturbed that Nehemiah has come to promote the welfare of the Israelites.

When Nehemiah arrives, he spends a few days recovering from the journey, and then he begins a secret mission. He goes out at night, just a few men with him, just his own horse, with as little noise and fuss as he can manage. He hasn’t raised any hopes, he’s getting a realistic picture of the situation, making his plans as carefully as he can. Do you see in verse 12 how he describes his mission? ‘I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem.’

God has put it in his heart to rebuild the city. That’s the burden he has in his work for God’s kingdom. That may not be yours - but what is your burden? What is it that God has put in your heart? What is he calling you to do? Youth or children’s work? A morning Bible study for older people? A ministry to a particular group of people? Becoming adoptive parents or foster parents? Helping with a foodbank? What is it that God has put in your heart? It’s the thing you keep coming back to; the thing you can’t get away from; the thing that you keep debating with yourself if you would be able to do it.

Nehemiah has the re-building of the city of Jerusalem, God’s city, on his heart. And he’s carefully planning the way ahead - the work that needs to be done. So he goes out on his horse, with his helpers, surveying the situation. Examining the walls and the gates. Formulating his plan.

In verse 17 the sent one goes public. He gathers the people and reveals why he is in Jerusalem. He outlines the problem, and gives them the solution.

‘You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace. I also told them about the gracious hand of my God upon me and what the king had said to me.’

God’s sent one describes the disgrace, and then calls the people to rebuild, by God’s grace. That’s the pattern that we see throughout the Bible - in prophets, in apostles, and supremely in the Lord Jesus. He entered the mess and the muck in order to build God’s kingdom. And that’s what he calls us to do as well (as we saw this morning in the call to share God’s gospel with courage, conviction and compassion).

And, by God’s grace, the people respond to the call. They reply: ‘Let us start rebuilding.’ They are keen to join the work, to rebuild the city, and remove the disgrace they’ve been living in for a long time. And so, Nehemiah tells us, they began this good work. It’s an encouraging start to Nehemiah’s mission. He was sent, and has now begun his work of rebuilding.

But not everyone is so happy with the news. In verse 19 we meet Sanballat and Tobiah again. They’ve even got another ally., Geshem the Arab. They begin to oppose the work in a small kind of way. They started to mock and ridicule. Have you ever noticed that that’s often how opposition starts to rear its head? Maybe you’ve become a Christian, or you’ve started a new work for the Lord. And the gentle mocking and ridicule begins. Ah, you’re in the God Squad now! Or whatever might be said - the aim is the same, to give you pause for thought, to stop you from getting going, to out you off the good work you’re doing.

Here, the mocking comes in the form of questions - What is this you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king? Huh! Does Artaxerxes know about this? what would he think if we let him know?

Do you see how Nehemiah answers? He doesn’t care so much about what the king thinks. His focus is further and higher - ‘The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.’

Nehemiah’s favourite way of talking about God is ‘the God of heaven.’ And he’s confident that the God of heaven will give them success. That’s who he’s looking to; that’s who he’s concerned with - pleasing God, not people.

Nehemiah’s prayers have been answered. His longing to be sent has resulted in his being sent. The thing that God has laid on his heart is coming to pass. There’s great encouragement here for us to keep on praying about the things that God has laid on our hearts. Keep looking for the ways God will give you opportunities to take a step forward. Plan as you pray. And then when the open door comes, step through, and follow his call.

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

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 2: 1-9 Ministry Motives

I’m sure you know our church’s mission statement. And I’m sure that you could recite it without much trouble. But just in case you’re not sure, you’ll find it at the top of every notice sheet. It’s what St Matthew’s Church exists to do. It’s why we’re here, and what everything we do is driven towards. ‘St Matthew’s is a gospel-centred church reaching out to our community and our world with the love of Christ.’

The question I want to pose this morning is this one - how do we actually do that? What does it look like to reach out to our community? When it comes to the dreaded e word, evangelism, how can we play our part in reaching out with the love of Christ?

In our Bible reading this morning, we discover how Paul and his team did it in Thessalonica. And to help us do that, we’ll see that Paul addresses a misunderstanding; examines motives, and recalls the manner in which they did evangelism. Those three aspects - the misunderstanding, their motives, and their manner - will help us to see that sharing the gospel of God needs courage, conviction and compassion.

This letter that we’re studying was written by Paul to the church of the Thessalonians. Paul and the others had been in Thessalonica for just three weeks, proclaiming that Jesus is the Christ, God’s promised king, before Paul was chased out of town. Some Jews and Gentiles had become Christians, had formed a church, but you can imagine how they were feeling now that Paul had gone.

Had they been taken in by him? Were they fools to have listened to him? Could they really continue to follow Paul’s teaching if he wasn’t going to come back to see them? And maybe as time goes on, they think, maybe it was all a big mistake. A misunderstanding. Perhaps Paul’s visit had been a failure, a damp squib.

But that’s exactly what Paul addresses in verse 1. He’s appealing to them to remember what happened: ‘You know, brothers, that our visit to you was not a failure.’ The very fact that he’s calling them brothers (and sisters - the Greek word means siblings) shows that he hadn’t failed. They had become brothers and sisters in the Christian family. They had become children of God the Father. His visit had been successful.

But in addressing this misunderstanding, of whether his visit was a failure or not, Paul shows us that sharing the gospel of God needs courage. You see, Acts 17 is the story of Paul in Thessalonica, and before 17 comes 16. Acts 16 is the story of Paul in Philippi, where they had been beaten and imprisoned for bringing freedom to a slave girl and proclaiming the Lord Jesus.

So if Paul had been through all that - what he refers to here as ‘we had previously suffered and been insulted in Philippi’ - you might think that Paul would just stop talking about Jesus. He must have been tempted to be quiet, just to have an easy life. But Paul has the courage to share the good news. ‘But with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in spite of strong opposition.’ (2)

It was only with God’s help that he would dare to speak up. But when he knew that God was with him, helping him, then he had the courage to speak boldly. So where might you need the courage to speak up? Let’s ask God that we will know his help, and that we will be courageous to speak up and share the gospel.

To share the gospel of God needs courage. But it needs even more than that. It also needs conviction. It may well be that some of the Thessalonians’ friends were questioning Paul’s motives. Why was it he was going from town to town? Was he out to fool people? Was he out for their money? The question of motives is what Paul moves on to from verse 3.

‘For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you.’ (3)

Paul makes clear what his motives were not. He wasn’t coming to them in error, because he had got the wrong end of the stick, spreading lies. He wasn’t coming to them with impure motives, for evil purposes. And he wasn’t coming to them to try to trick them, or deceive them, or lead them astray.

So what was motivating him to come to Thessalonica and share the good news with them? ‘On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel.’ (4)

Here’s Paul’s motive - he has been approved by God and entrusted with the gospel. Whenever you’re sending a letter, you have a couple of options. You either take it to the person yourself, or you entrust it to someone else to take it. Normally, if the letter is going far away, you’ll entrust it to Royal Mail. Postman Pat has been entrusted with the letter - it’s his job to carry it unchanged to the recipient. It’s not his job to open the letter and change it. He brings it as it is.

And so Paul and the others were entrusted with the gospel. They had to bring the message as it is - unchanged. Their motive is to please the one who has sent them, by delivering the true message. That’s what Paul says in verse 4. ‘We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts.’

It would be so tempting to try to please people, to say what they want to hear; to play down or ignore the fact that God is a holy God, that he cannot abide our sin, that we can’t just do what we like and expect to enter heaven. If Paul had been out to please the people of Thessalonica, his message would have been entirely different. But Paul isn’t a people-pleaser. His motive is to please God, to do what God wants him to do, and to say what God wants him to say.

And there’s a challenge there for us. who are we trying to please with our words (or our absence of words)? What’s the motive behind your words?

Sharing the gospel needs courage in opposition and conviction to share the good news faithfully. But these two together could lead to arrogance - that we have the truth. Some Christians may come across in that way, their manner suggests some sort of superiority. Paul was accused of flattery, of greed, and of seeking praise for himself. But Paul says he just wasn’t like that.

So what was the manner in which he shared the gospel? From verse 5 he says what he didn’t do: ‘You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed - God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else.’ That’s what he was not. And then we see what he did do: ‘As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children.’

Paul takes the image of the nursing mother, gently caring for her little children. This is how we’re to do mission - loving the people we’re talking to, caring for them. And caring about them so much that we don’t just shout the gospel at them from a distance.

‘We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.’ (8)

Now, for some, that might be the hardest step - to share ourselves; to grow closer together. But it comes from that compassion - caring for people leads to sharing with people. Take some time this week to think about three people you care for, who you would like to see come to faith in the Lord Jesus. Pray for them. Care for them, and then look for opportunities to share with them the good news about Jesus.

Paul mentions his toil and hardship - how they worked night and day in order to not be a burden on the Thessalonians. And the principle seems to be that people who aren’t believers shouldn’t have to pay to hear the good news. We should do all that we can to make it as easy for them to hear the gospel - out of our compassion for them.

This is why we support mission agencies, so that missionaries are provided to people and places where the gospel is not known, so that they can hear it for free. It’s why our parish organisations exist - indeed, it’s why this parish exists. Your contributions enable this church family to live out and share the good news here in this village and beyond. So your giving to church and mission is a sign of your compassion for the village, so that everyone will hear the good news of Jesus.

Our mission statement might look well on the top of the service sheet. And it might sound nice. But if it only ever stays there, then it’s ultimately worthless. We need to take it, and live it out, as we - you and me together - as we reach out to our community and our world with the love of Christ. And how will we do that?

Sharing the gospel of God needs courage in the face of opposition; it needs conviction to speak rightly and please God who has entrusted us with his gospel; and it needs compassion, as we share our lives and show that we care.

Are you up for the challenge? Let’s do it together.

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

Monday, September 17, 2018

Sermon: Nehemiah 1: 1-11 Returning to God

I wonder do any of you keep a diary? Most of us may well have a diary to write down things that are coming up - keeping track of appointments and meetings and parties. But do any of us keep a diary, looking backwards? Perhaps you do. You take some time each day to write down what has happened, so that in the future you’ll be able to look back to the events of today. Or maybe you journal, keeping a book to write and think and pray in, perhaps to collect the Bible verses that have spoken to you each day.

The book that stands before us tonight is a bit like a diary, a bit like a journal, and a lot like a memoir. When I was growing up, I remember reading The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 133/4. But these days, it’s autobiography that is very popular. Rather than reading a biography, we want the autobiography - the person’s story in their own words. I heard recently on the radio that the motorbike racer Jonathan Rea is publishing his autobiography - at the age of 31. In the world of politics, the memoir is the big deal - where the person involved can tell their story. The title of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election campaign is very simple, but is what everyone wanted to know: ‘What Happened.’

The book of Nehemiah is his memoir, his telling of ‘What Happened.’ And as he begins his book, we come across some strange words and strange places. It’s the month of Kislev when the story starts - around November/December for us. And Nehemiah is in the citadel of Susa. Where’s that? And what’s he doing there?

Susa is in modern-day Iran, but in Nehemiah’s day, it was one of the cities of the Persian empire. So what is a Jew doing in Susa, in Persia? Nehemiah is far from home, in exile.

After Moses had brought the people of Israel out of Egypt, and they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, Joshua led them into the land. The judges ruled, then the kings - Saul, David, Solomon and so on. The kingdom of Israel split into two - the northern kingdom of Israel (centred on Samaria) and the southern kingdom of Judah (centred on Jerusalem). Israel fell first, to the Assyrians, and then Judah was conquered by the Babylonians. But later, the Babylonians were conquered by the Medes and the Persians. And so Nehemiah finds himself in Susa.

And the beginning of the story concerns an important day in Nehemiah’s life. It was a day he wouldn’t forget, indeed, he couldn’t forget it. His brother and some other men had arrived into Susa from Judah. And Nehemiah, who had never been to Jerusalem, wanted to know all about it, and the people who had returned there after the exile.

The answer to Nehemiah’s question brings a devastating report. We see it in verse 3: ‘Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.’

The city isn’t in great shape - the gates burned with fire, and the wall broken down. Think of the city wall that runs around Londonderry. Built for security and protection, the wall would be useless if its been broken down. But it’s not just the city that’s bad. It’s also the people. They’re in great trouble and disgrace. They’re back in the promised land, but it doesn’t sound promising for them.

So how does Nehemiah respond to this devastating report? We see his initial response in verse 4. ‘When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.’

Such is his concern for Jerusalem and its people, all he can do is weep. He cares for them. He loves them. And he is devastated to hear of their fallen condition - their great trouble and disgrace. In Nehemiah, we see a hint of another one who would weep for the people of Jerusalem - the very people who would soon cry out ‘Crucify!’ The Lord Jesus is full of compassion. But he didn’t just sit in heaven, thinking how terrible our situation was. He moved in action. And that’s what we’ll see Nehemiah do as his story unfolds.

In the meantime, though, the news was so devastating that Nehemiah tells us he mourned and fasted and prayed ‘for some days.’ He continued to think and pray about this one issue. He was focused on it. Perhaps you know someone who is persistent and consistent about the same issue every time you see them? For most of us, the news cycle moves on so quickly that we move on from the victims of this hurricane to whatever happens on Tuesday, or Thursday. But Nehemiah’s focus is on the people and the city. It’s all that occupies his thoughts and prayers.

And it leads him to formulate his settled response - this prayer that takes up the rest of the chapter. The prayer arises out of the devastating news, and Nehemiah wants to do something about it - but much more than that, he wants God to do something about it.

In verse 5, he is focused on who he is praying to. Who is God? ‘O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands...’

He’s speaking to the LORD - the capital letters LORD, the promise-making, promise-keeping God. The LORD is the God of heaven, who sits enthroned as sovereign over all. And he is great and awesome. And we get the reminder which LORD points to - he keeps his covenant of love...

It’s a good reminder, as we begin to pray, to think of who it is we are praying to. His name, his character, his power. Nehemiah knows his God, and is confident of his God.

In verse 6, he makes a request to the Lord. ‘Let your ears be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before day and night for your servants, the people of Israel.’ He’s asking God to hear his prayer - which he prays day and night. He’s persistent, just like the persistent widow in Jesus’ parable. He wants God to hear and answer his prayer.

And what is it he is praying? Before he asks for anything, he first of all confesses the sins of the people. We see the details in verse 7 - acting very wickedly towards God; not obeying God’s commands, decrees and laws. He’s confessing on behalf of the nation - but notice that he doesn’t just say, yeah, they’re all bad. He includes himself in the confession. He puts his own hands up and acknowledges his own sin, and that of his father’s house.

But, as John tells us - as we saw this morning, when we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Nehemiah confesses on behalf of his people, confessing the sins that have led them to be disgraced.

From confessing his sin, Nehemiah then moves on to reminding God of his promises. That’s in verse 8. He reminds God of what God had previously said through Moses - that unfaithfulness would lead to scattering and exile; but a return to God would bring a return to the promised land. And that promise was even for people at the farthest horizon - the place where Nehemiah probably felt he was. Far away. Distant.

Have you ever prayed God’s word back to him? God, you say in your word ... so please do it! But to be able to do that, we need to know what God’s word says. Nehemiah knew the promises, and prayed the promises.

Verse 10 also prays for God to help his people, because he has done it in the past. He’s reminding God that these people are his people - people he has redeemed (probably looking back to the Exodus). They belong to him, so he should act to help them.

In the last verse, he repeats the request for his prayer to be heard, for God’s ear to be attentive - not only to his prayer, but to all the prayers of all his servants who delight in revering his name. Nehemiah knows that he is not the only one praying.

But Nehemiah is the only one praying his last phrase. ‘Give your servant success today by granting him favour in the presence of his man.’ This is his prayer before he steps out of his room in the morning. He wants to be successful - but successful in God’s eyes - receiving favour (grace) in the presence of this man. And who is ‘this man’? Up to now, we don’t know. But the last line of the chapter lets us in on a secret. Nehemiah is cupbearer to the king, someone in close contact with the ruler of the whole Persian empire.

As powerful as the king surely is, Nehemiah goes to the higher authority, to the king of kings, asking for favour and success. His people are disgraced, he asks for grace. His people are far from God, he asks for return. And every day when he’s at work, he’s watching to see how God will answer his prayer.

In this chapter we get a glimpse of Nehemiah’s compassion, and his earnestness in prayer. Are we like that? What is it that you cry over? Do your prayers match your tears? Are you willing to confess your own failings? The glimpse of Nehemiah’s compassion and earnestness is eclipsed and surpassed by the glimpse of Nehemiah’s God - the God of the promises of covenant commitment; the God of compassion; the God of the second and third and thousandth chance; the God who hears our prayers. Do you know him tonight? You’ll get to know him as we take bread and wine, because he is the God who gave himself for us and offers himself to us.

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

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10 Model Christians

Over my working life, I’ve had a few different jobs. I’ve worked in a corner shop. I’ve worked in a shoe factory. Worked a couple of production line jobs. Worked with a victims’ support group. And I’ve been a minister for the past ten years. A few years’ ago, though, I could add another entry onto my CV, when, not once but twice, I did a little turn on the catwalk.

Yes, for two nights only, I was a catwalk fashion model. The local primary school (and later the Methodist church) were doing fundraisers and I got roped into modelling some clothes. Walk down the catwalk, stop, turn, and walk back and make sure you don’t trip! Several times each evening, while the compere described what I was wearing and where to buy it.

The idea of the fashion model is fairly easy to grasp. You wear some fancy clothes, so that others will say - yes, I like that shirt, or that dress or whatever. I want to have that, be like that. An example, a model.

So if we jump from fashion models to Christian models, who do you think of? Who are the Christians you look up to? Could you be a model for other Christians? Now, maybe when you hear the phrase ‘model Christians’ you are already shrinking in your seat, thinking that could never be you - not with the doubts you have or the sins you’re still dealing with or whatever. So what do you think a model Christian would look like? What would make someone a model Christian?

We’ll see in our reading this morning from 1 Thessalonians. You see, the Christians in Thessalonica were described in verse 7 in that very way. Do you see? ‘And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.’ So how did they come to be thought of so highly by Paul? What was it that made them model Christians? Could we also be model Christians throughout Armagh and beyond?

This morning we’re starting into Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, but we got the background story last week. Remember, Paul had been a missionary in Thessalonica for just about three weeks before he was chased out of town. He flees to Berea, then Athens, then Corinth. When he gets there, he writes this letter back to the church in Thessalonica. He didn’t get to tell them everything he wanted to (we’ll see that later in the letter, as he fills in some gaps); but even in that short time, they have become model Christians. They are recent converts, but they are an example to others.

It all starts in verse 6, where we’re told ‘You became imitators of us and of the Lord...’ You see, to be a Christian is to be a ‘little Christ’ - to be modelled on Christ, to become like him. This group of people are copying Christ (and the apostles), so they are a model to others. And we see this especially in how they received and believed the word of God. In a sense, that’s it. Nothing special or secretive - no ten top tips to becoming a model Christian. Model Christians have received and believed the word of God.

Down in verse 9, Paul mentions ‘what kind of reception you gave us.’ Everyone in the whole region knew about the Thessalonian’s reception of Paul and the others - it was a warm welcome. A joyful welcome. And that warmth was because of what the missionaries were bringing to them. You see, they received not just the missionaries, but they received the word of God. Look at verses 6-7. They imitated Paul and the others, and the Lord, because ‘in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.’

They received the word with the joy that comes by the Holy Spirit. Paul preached the gospel, the word of God, and they welcomed it. The church was mixed, there were Jews and Gentiles, but all received the word of God, in contrast to the jealous Jews that we saw last week.

But there’s one more thing about receiving the word of God. Something we’ve glossed over so far, but which is vital to grasp. You see, when we think of receiving the word of God, and hear how the Thessalonians are described as model believers, you might think to yourself - but it was easy for them! They’re in the Bible! It was easier and less complicated then than in our non-stop busy world.

But just think what they’ve been through. Paul covers it in two words in verse 6 - ‘severe suffering.’ Last week we saw the riot that started when the jealous Jews tried to get rid of Paul. And it’s the reason why the Thessalonians are model Christians - they received the word in spite of severe suffering. They were not fair weather believers. They were in at the deep end. One of the church leaders (Jason) had a criminal record, bailed by the city authorities. It’s not what we might expect to copy. Yet the Thessalonians received the word in spite of severe suffering with the joy of the Holy Spirit.

As Paul writes in verses 4-5, it’s a mark of their being loved and chosen by God - that they received the word in such circumstances and are still holding on - ‘our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit, and with deep conviction.’

Model Christians receive the word of God. So what steps are you taking to receive the word of God? Coming along to church is great, but it’s just the start. The All Togethers and Growth Groups will be ways to engage with the Bible. Or you could start up a daily reading plan. Or even, read one Psalm per day, as a way of getting going. So how are you receiving the word of God?

Model Christians receive the word of God. but more than that, they also believe the word of God. You see, just hearing God’s word read and preached, or reading the Bible every day won’t do much for you if you still don’t believe the word of God! So we see in the letter how the Christians in Thessalonica received AND believed the word of God.

Believing God’s word was revolutionary for them. Literally. Look at verse 9: Everyone in Macedonia and Achaia is talking about ‘how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God...’ What a turn around! Believing God’s word means turning away FROM dead and false idols, small g gods, and turning instead TO the living and true God.

They believe that God is, that he exists (the theme of tonight’s Cafe Church - come along to find out more tonight). But they also believe his word, about his Son, the Lord Jesus: ‘...and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead - Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.’

For such a short visit from Paul, they have certainly grasped and believed the key doctrines of the faith. In a little while we’ll say the Creed, and here we have a good part of it covered. They know that Jesus is God’s Son. They know that Jesus’ death rescues us from the coming wrath - because he died for our sins. They know that God raised him from the dead. And they know that Jesus will return from heaven. Are you convinced about all this? Is this what you believe?

It’s what the Thessalonians believed, and because of it, they were thoroughly converted. There was evidence of a changed life. Look at verses 2-3. Paul gives thanks to God for them, every time he prays for them, because he remembers ‘your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope.’ Faith, hope and love - these are the three essential Christian characteristics - and we’ll see them as we work our way through this letter. Are they evident in our lives, as believers?

The Thessalonians, having received and believed the word of God, were the talk of the town. In verse 8, Paul says ‘The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia - your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it...’

Churches can sometimes end up in the news and the gossip for the wrong reasons, but here, people are talking about the church for all the right reasons. Their faith has become famous. Wouldn’t it be great if people were talking about St Matthew’s like this? how we are a group of Christians who have turned from our idols and are serving the Lord in single-minded devotion?

Model Christians receive and believe the word of God. We’ve already thought about receiving the word, but what can we do to believe the word of God? Maybe this morning, you need to believe it for the first time. To turn from your idols and turn to the Lord as your Saviour. Or perhaps you take his promises seriously, and depend totally on them, no matter what comes. It might be that you develop a holy boldness to live for Christ even under persecution from family or friends.

Let’s seek to make sure that we receive and believe the word of God so that it really does change us. Then we will be model Christians, an example to others, known for our faith.

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

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Sermon: Mark 8: 27-39 Who is Jesus?

Whenever we’re having a Baptism, notice is always given on the announcements sheet the week before. And often, someone will ask - who’s being baptised? Who is it? So, tonight, who is P ? There are lots of ways that she can be described - in relation to being A & S ‘s daughter, and A ‘s sister. And maybe when she was born there was the question of which side of the family she looked like.

By now, P is becoming herself, her personality coming through - whether she’s loud or quiet; into books or music or sports or dressing-up; and so you would be able to say who P is; what she’s like. Distinct and different from everyone else. And we’ll continue to see how she grows and develops and becomes herself, more and more.

It’s that question of identity that I want to focus on for a few minutes this evening. It’s the question that Jesus asks his disciples as they’re travelling along the road together. Now, maybe you have some games that you play as you drive along in the car - looking out for yellow cars, or I-spy. Jesus has a question for his disciples - related to his identity.

First of all, he asks a lead-in question, in verse 27. ‘Who do people say I am?’ You’ve known P for almost two years. And the disciples have been with Jesus for about the same amount of time. Jesus has been going around, doing all sorts of amazing things - teaching people about God’s kingdom; healing people; feeding the five thousand; walking on water; and so much more.

So who do people say I am, Jesus asks. What’s the word on the street? What have you heard the crowd saying as they chat about me? And the disciples shout out the answers. ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ (28). The crowd are divided, they’re not sure who Jesus is, but they’re sure of what he is - all the answers point to a prophet of some sort. They know Jesus is special in some kind of way, and so they compare him to some of the prophets they’ve known or heard of.

But then Jesus changes the question. Now, it isn’t, what do other people think of me - now, it’s more personal. ‘But what about you? Who do you say I am?’ (29) It’s easier to talk about what other people think of Jesus, rather than answering the question of what we think of him. But Jesus asks the question directly. Who do you say I am? What do you make of me? What do you think about what I’ve been doing?

Straight away, Peter launches in with his answer. Peter always seems to be the first to speak, the first to answer, the first to action. And he comes straight out with it: ‘You are the Christ.’

That word Christ is one that we’re used to hearing in relation to Jesus Christ. but it wasn’t Jesus’ surname, the way mine is McMurray, or P ’s is N . Christ is a title. It refers to the anointed one (and means the same as the Hebrew word Messiah). Kings were anointed with oil, to set them apart as king, and so the title Messiah or Christ became linked to the promised King who would be sent by God to rule over his kingdom.

And Peter gets it right. Jesus is indeed the Christ, the King sent by God. It seems strange, then, doesn’t it, that Jesus tells them to not tell anyone about him! We would expect that Jesus would want everyone to know that he is the Christ, the King. So why the secrecy?

Well, we see why he says it in the next verses. Now that Peter and the other disciples know that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus begins to explain what being the Christ will involve. And to get the full weight of surprise that the disciples felt, we need to know that the Christ was expected to be an all-conquering king coming to kick the Romans out of Israel. That’s what people wanted and expected. The Romans had invaded, and so everyone thought that the Christ would come and conquer and kick them out.

But that’s not what Jesus came to do. Instead, we see what Jesus will be like as the Christ: ‘the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.’ (31). And these things weren’t optional extras - things that he might do, or choose not to do. No, did you notice the word ‘must’? Twice he says that he ‘must’ suffer and ‘must’ be killed.

This is the job description of the Christ. And it was all written down in the Old Testament hundreds of years before Jesus was born. Jesus is the Christ, the suffering Saviour. You see, everything that Jesus suffered, he did it for you. His death on the cross was to take away your sin. He did it all because he loves you. And he offers us a fresh start, and new life in him and with him. Who is Jesus? He’s the Christ, the suffering Saviour.

But Peter - the same Peter who knew that Jesus was the Christ - Peter doesn’t like this idea. He takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Surely you won’t suffer and die? Do you see how Jesus responds? ‘Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.’

Peter, who got it so right, now gets it so wrong. He’s echoing the devil, Satan, who opposes God’s plans, and had tempted Jesus, trying to take him off course before. But Jesus is committed to his job description, to the way of the cross, in order to be the Christ, the suffering Saviour.

This is who Jesus is. And as we hear his words tonight, his question still comes to us - who do you say I am? He’s asking you that same question. So how will you respond? Is he just a good man? An amazing miracle worker? A prophet? Or is he your King, your suffering Saviour? In a little while, P , through her sponsors will answer that question in a series of questions. Do you turn to Christ? Do you submit to Christ? Do you come to Christ?

But what does that really look like? If you know that Jesus is your King, your suffering Saviour, what does it look like to follow him? Well, he tells us, as he calls us to do precisely that - to come after him, and follow him.

‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’ (34) The path of following Jesus is one of denying oneself, and taking up our cross. It means following Jesus, and doing what he wants - rather than what we want. It means dying to our desires, and walking in the way Jesus walked - the way of the cross.

When Jesus said these words, the crowd would have seen people carrying their cross. It was showing that they were on the way to die. And Jesus calls us to follow him - because in dying to ourself and our desires, we find what it is to truly live.

And we see the contrast in the pictures Jesus paints in the next verses. If we try to save our lives, we’ll lose them; but if we lose our life for Jesus and the gospel, then we save it. Or, imagine that someone worked hard, and ended up with all the money in the world. Gaining the whole world would be amazing - but what good would it be if you’ve forfeited your soul?

Jesus calls us to what really matters - not just in this life, but in light of eternity. And he wants us to see things from the perspective of eternity, when Jesus comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels. To be ashamed of Jesus now, will mean that Jesus is ashamed of us on that day. Will we follow him? Not be ashamed of his words? Live by them, even when it hurts, even when it causes us to seem strange in the world’s eyes?

At the end of the day, it all comes down to how we answer that question which Jesus is asking us. And he asks us individually, to answer for ourselves - not what someone else might think, but your own answer, your own opinion. So who do you say Jesus is? My prayer is that each of us will know him, and be able to answer him - that Jesus is the Christ, the suffering Saviour, who calls us to follow him. Or to answer him directly, you are the Christ, my suffering Saviour, the one I’m following.

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

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Sermon: Acts 17: 1-15 Riots and Revivals

A former Archbishop of Canterbury once said this: ‘Everywhere the Apostle Paul went, there was a riot or a revival. Everywhere I go, they serve tea,‘ It’s entirely coincidental that we’ll be serving tea after the service today, but will there be a riot or a revival? We’ll wait to see!

Over the autumn term, we’re going to be looking at Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians - written to the church in Thessalonica. But rather than diving straight into the letter, I thought it would be helpful to get the back story first. Where did the church of the Thessalonians come from? How did it get going? Who was in it, and around it? All that’s what we find in our reading from Acts 17, on page 1113.

And as you turn there, you discover that the Archbishop’s summary is fairly accurate. Except, it wasn’t one or the other, riot or revival - it’s both at the same time. Riot and revival. Or even, riot because of revival.

We find the revival first of all, in verses 1-4. Paul and Silas, fresh from a prison cell in Philippi, are on the move, spreading the good news of Jesus in response to his commission. They arrive in Thessalonica, where there’s a Jewish synagogue - the place of worship and prayer.

And so Paul follows his custom, he goes to the synagogue, in order to proclaim the good news about Jesus. He does that for three Sabbaths, three weeks in a row. Do you see how Luke describes what Paul was doing? Look at the verbs (What are verbs? The doing words - the boys and girls are back at school, so we’re going to go back to school too!) - ‘...he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead.’ (2-3)

They would have known the Scriptures - what we know as the Old Testament - and so Paul reasons with them, engaging their minds. Christianity isn’t irrational, or unreasonable - you don’t leave your minds at the door or turn off your brain. It’s reasonable, rational, it makes sense. It’s why we’ll be engaging with big questions at Cafe Church - How can I believe that God exists? (next Sunday evening). And so Paul explains and proves that the Old Testament was all about how the Christ, the promised King, the anointed one, had to suffer and rise from the dead. (That’s what the risen Jesus was explaining to the disciples in Luke 24).

So as Paul established the foundations - what the Christ had to do - he also proclaims who the Christ is. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.’ That’s how Luke summarises the three Sabbath’s worth of sermons. Jesus is the Christ, the one who had to suffer and rise from the dead - following God’s plan revealed in the Old Testament.

And we see the result of Paul’s message in verse 4. Revival breaks out, as people become Christians. ‘Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women.’ They were persuaded, they were convinced, and so they commit, they join Paul and Silas. There’s revival.

[And it’s happening here too, as people come to faith...]

Revival, but with it comes a riot. And we see how that happens in verse 5. ‘But the Jews were jealous.’ They obviously didn’t like the fact that Paul had come to preach about Jesus, and some of their members were leaving them, joining Paul and Silas. So we see how they respond to the proclamation of Jesus as the Christ. Again, look at the verbs, the doing words from verse 5 on.

‘They rounded up some bad characters... formed a mob... started a riot... rushed to Jason’s house... dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials... shouting...’ Lots of action, as they rent-a-mob, start a riot, and then have the cheek to shout what they shout in verse 6.

‘These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them in to his house.’ Do you see the irony? Paul and Silas hadn’t formed a mob and started a riot. It was the Jews who are causing trouble! But such is their opposition to Jesus, that they will stop at nothing to stop to word being proclaimed.

That phrase about causing trouble literally means ‘they have turned the world upside down.’ And they’re right. The gospel message is revolutionary. It does turn things upside down - rather than God and everyone serving our needs and wants and desires, we put things in their proper place. God on the throne, and us his servants. But the message isn’t always welcome. It brings trouble and opposition from those who don’t want to know.

Yet even the opponents of the message, these rioters, even they proclaim the message - they share that there is another king, one called Jesus. And when the crowd and the officials hear this, they are thrown into turmoil. Why? Because for them, there was only one king - Caesar. To say there is another king, to say Jesus is Lord (rather than Caesar is Lord) is to be disloyal and even treasonous to the empire and the emperor.

Turmoil, but Jason and the others and bailed. We don’t know the names of the others - but we know that they all had a new identity when they received the message and joined Paul and Silas. Did you spot it in verse 6? Jason and some other brothers. When they received the message, they became part of God’s family, they are now known as brothers.

So as night falls, and they send Paul and Silas away on to Berea, what do you think these new brothers were thinking? Paul had been with them for just three weeks. He has now gone, and probably daren’t show his face again. You probably won’t see Paul again. You might not hear from him again. What do you make of all that has gone on? The joy of finding faith. The fear of facing the mob. The threat of being bailed. Would you forget all about Paul and his message? Shrug it off as a fun few weeks, but something to move on from? Or do you keep going? Meeting together as brothers and sisters. Remembering what you’ve been taught. Trying to learn and grow in your new faith? And how are you going to do that?

That’s the position the new believers find themselves in Thessalonica. Paul has gone. And, as the chapter goes on, the pattern repeats. Paul goes to the synagogue (again!). The revival as the Bereans hear, and study the Scriptures to check that Paul is speaking the truth. The ‘Many’ Jews as well as the prominent Greek women and many Greek men. All rejoicing in their new faith. Revival all over again.

But soon comes the riot. Not, as you might expect from Berea itself. But the same Jews from Thessalonica go a long way to be offended. They follow Paul the 45 miles to agitate the crowds and stir them up. Such is their opposition to the gospel that they will stop at nothing to stop it being proclaimed. So Paul moves on again, to Athens, with Silas and Timothy coming behind him. There’s no way back for Paul. He’s been moved on from Berea, so he definitely can’t go back to Thessalonica. But he can write to the little church. And it’s the letter that he writes to them that we’re going to be looking at this term. How will Paul encourage them? What do they need to be reminded of? And what do they need to be taught? We’ll see as we work our way through it from next week.

So that’s the background to 1 Thessalonians. The gospel comes to town and brings riot and revival. It was true in Thessalonica when Paul and Silas arrived there, and it’s still true today.

It’s why, when you invite someone to come along to church, some people will give it a go while others will refuse to come along. Or, if you mention that you’re a Christian to a colleague, you may not get a favourable reaction - or maybe even a complaint against you.

And the same reactions will happen inside us as well. When you hear God’s word, you are reacting and responding in one way or the other. Either you are being brought to life, being revived, as you rejoice in the gospel of Jesus and become a brother or sister. Or you are fighting it and opposing it, starting a riot within - and maybe even recruiting others to stand against it and cause trouble for the brothers.

Even this morning, you are either lining up with King Jesus, who suffered on the cross and rose from the dead according to the Scriptures, or you are living up against him, trying to ignore him. Revival or riot. Both happening at the same time. Even in the same pew. Whichever it is, though, riot or revival, I’d be glad to talk to you about it - after the service over a cup of tea.

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