Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Sermon: Nehemiah 5: 1-19 Good news for the poor

On Sunday evenings, we’re listening in to Nehemiah’s memoirs, as he rebuilds the city of Jerusalem in the 400s BC. Nehemiah had been born in exile, in Persia, but he had heard of the state of the city from others who had returned to their homeland. And so, under God’s call and the king’s command, Nehemiah is in Jerusalem, rebuilding the city. But, as we’ve seen in recent weeks, there were problems and difficulties galore.

Last week, we saw him deal with the opposition from outside - the ridicule, the threats, and the attacks from his neighbours. Perhaps by the end of chapter 4, he thought that with those threats sorted, things would be easier. Tonight, though, we come up against an even bigger problem within the walls, within the people of Israel.

It’s a problem that we all may face at one time or another, but it threatened the entire building project. It was the problem of money - or rather, the lack of it. Money might make the world go round; and money, money, money might be funny in a rich man’s world (Abba); but it’s not much fun when you’re without. In fact, it’s life or death, as we see in the outcry that comes to Nehemiah’s ears from verse 1 onwards.

In these opening verses we have three distinct groups, each with their own particular problems, but the uniting theme is the lack of money. Verse 2 is the outcry of the first group. ‘We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.’

They were facing a shortage of food. They didn’t have any grain, and in those days, no grain meant no food, meant no life. Hunger is their daily reality, and they’ve no means of getting grain.

The second outcry comes in verse 3: ‘We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our homes to get grain during the famine.’

So they have fields, vineyards, and homes, but with famine conditions, they are having to mortgage their property in order to get food to eat. Now, I know that the board game Monopoly isn’t everyone’s favourite, and it can lead to more rows than enough, but it’s probably in Monopoly that you first get to grips with the idea of mortgaging property - when you turn over the card to get some money, but then you can’t profit from the rent if anyone lands on it. It’s yours, but in a sense, it’s not really yours, the bank has a say as well.

And so, these people were in desperation, mortgaging in order to survive. Except, it wouldn’t have been the Ulster Bank or the Danske Bank they were dealing with - it would have been someone with money in the city.

The third group also cry out to Nehemiah about their situation. Do you see what they say in verse 4: ‘We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards...we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.’

They have property, but they’re not benefiting from it. So, when they need more money, they’ve had to put their daughters into slavery. Working for someone else, with no way out.

It’s the outcry of the poor; those who are needy; yet they are suffering at the hands of their own people. So what will Nehemiah do?

Well, we see his reaction in verse 6. ‘When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials.’

To hear of the situations that people find themselves in - that makes Nehemiah very angry. Why? Because what was happening was against God’s law. These people were suffering, because other people were profiting from their loss. We see that as Nehemiah confronts the nobles and officials: ‘You are exacting usury from your own countrymen!’

Now, that word usury - we may not really hear it much these days, but it basically means the charging of interest on a loan. And while we’re familiar with the rate of interest on loans and mortgages, back in the Old Testament law, usury on loans to fellow Israelites was forbidden.

So, Exodus 22:25 ‘If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a money-lender; charge him no interest.’ Or Leviticus 25: 36-37, speaking about your countrymen who becomes poor, ‘Do not take interest of any kind from him... You must not lend him money at interest or sell him food at a profit...’

So you see, this practice of usury, or profiting from people in need is outlawed. that was what was happening. It’s the reason why the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has been speaking out against payday loans - Wonga and so on.

So Nehemiah confronts the nobles and officials. Look at verse 9: ‘What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies?’ In the face of something so obviously wrong, he calls for it to stop. And more than that, he calls for restitution - for things to be put right.

‘Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the usury you are charging them - the hundredth part of the money, grain, new wine and oil.’ (11).

The interest rate was low - 1% - and yet even at that, it was wrong. So how much more the payday lenders, where some interest rates can be 40% and some even as high as 99% or more!

The nobles and officials promise to give back the property, and also to not demand anything more from them. But even then, Nehemiah wants to make sure that they’ll really do it. So he gets the priests to administer oaths for them to obey; and he dramatically acts out the consequences.

Now, maybe I should have worn my robes for this tonight, but you’ll get the idea. He shakes out his robe, so that anything caught up in it would be flung out. And he says: ‘In this way may God shake out of his house and possessions every man who does not keep this promise. So may such a man be shaken out and emptied!’

Notice that it’s the man’s own house he would be shaken out of - initially I had thought it said shaken out of God’s house, but it’s the man’s own house and possessions. These men who have sought profit at the misfortune of others - their consequences would be to suffer the same fate, being emptied and shaken out.

Notice also, that this isn’t a private thing. The whole assembly is there, witnessing what’s happening; rejoicing at the restoration of justice, the good news for the poor. It’s a forerunner of the good news for the poor prophesied by Isaiah and proclaimed by the Lord Jesus. You see, God cares for the poor and needy - and so must we. It’s been good to help Craigavon foodbank in recent weeks, but could we be doing more? Are there other ways in which we can help those in need in our community? Do we hear the outcry of the poor? Do we care?

Nehemiah shows that he goes even further, so that he personally doesn’t add to the exploitation or suffering of others. From verse 14 on, he notes that the earlier governors placed a heavy burden on the people, taking forty shekels of silver as well as the food and wine allowance; their assistants lording it over the people.

But Nehemiah didn’t do that. For the twelve years he was governor, he didn’t eat the food allotted to the governor. He worked away at the wall, and didn’t go about acquiring land. All this he did, verse 15 ‘out of reverence for God.’

Instead, he paid for his own food bill, feeding 150 people at his table (it must have been a big table!). now, if you haven’t had your tea yet, you might get a bit hungry in verse 18. Every day there was one ox, six choice sheep, some poultry, and every ten days an abundant supply of wine. That was his daily and ten-dayly shopping list at Tesco. But he paid it himself ‘because the demands were heavy on these people.’

Nehemiah isn’t out for himself, and what he can get. Instead, he models the servant leadership of the Lord Jesus, who from the riches of heaven became poor for our sake, so that we might be come rich. He came to serve, not to be served.

The statistics about personal debt and foodbank use are scary; the need is all around us, and even within our church family. Are there ways we can speak up for the poor and oppressed? That we can act for justice. That we can live out God’s good news for the poor, the release of captives. May we know God’s Spirit leading us and empowering us to live out this good news. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 28th October 2018.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 4: 1-12 Living a holy life

Have you ever been driving off the beaten track? There are no signposts; there’s grass up the middle of the road; and you come to a crossroads. You haven’t a clue where you are. You have to decide what to do, which way to go. How do you make your choice? Pick one at random? Take the one that looks the nicest? Follow your intuition?

That was my experience lots of times when I moved to County Fermanagh. There weren’t any road names; there were fewer signs; and there were lots of roads with grass up the middle of them. I managed to get lost many times!

It doesn’t really matter which way you go if you’re just out for a Sunday afternoon drive, just exploring, and you know that sooner or later you’ll get back to a main road with some kind of signpost. It does matter, though, if you’re on route to preach at a harvest service, or going to someone’s house for dinner. Then, you’re late, you’re lost, you need some direction. Where to turn?

As we travel through life, we’re faced with all sorts of decisions about all sorts of things. Where to live, whether to marry and if so, who to marry, what to work at, what to do with your money, and so on. How do we know which way to turn? Will we do what we want, what seems best, the path of least resistance and greatest happiness?

As Christians, though, we want to know what God’s will is for our life - what does God want us to do? Sometimes, younger Christians can get so worked up about knowing God’s will for every detail of their lives, and knowing everything now! In our Bible reading today, Paul tells us what God’s will is for our life. In this passage, it’s not complicated - but working it out might not always be easy.

So look at verse 3. ‘It is God’s will that you should be sanctified.’ God’s will is that we will be sanctified. But what does that mean? Sanctified (or sanctification) is one of those churchy words that sounds great, but we don’t really know what it’s saying. But it simply means to become (more) holy. And holy, or holy living, means being set apart for God.

I’ve mentioned this before, but just in case you haven’t heard it, the illustration of being holy is the spoon in the sugar bowl. That spoon is set apart and only to be used for lifting the sugar out of the bowl. You’re not allowed to use it to stir your tea and then put it back in the bowl. Because if you do, then you get the hard brown lumps of sugar. The sugar spoon is holy, set apart only for use in the sugar bowl.

In the same way, we are holy, set apart for God. There are lots of things we could do, but we’re set apart to only do the things God wants us to do. Back at the end of chapter 3, Paul prayed for the Thessalonians that God would ‘strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy...’ (3:13).

So now he gets to the heart of what that will look like. In verses 1-2, Paul reminds them that he had told them how to live to please God. Paul had been with the church in Thessalonica for a short time; he had given them some instructions, which they had been following, but now he urges them to do it more and more. He’s asking them and urging them to live out this holy, God-pleasing life, by the authority of the Lord Jesus.

But remember that this isn’t going to be a ten-step programme to make God accept you. This letter is written to Christians, to people who have already turned away from idols and turned to the living and true God. This is instruction on how to live when we are saved; not how to live to be saved.

So what does holiness look like? What is God’s will for our lives? It means saying ‘no’ to lust. Paul breaks it down into three parts, which follow on from each other. In verse 3, we see the first of them: ‘that you should avoid sexual immorality.’

Notice that it doesn't say 'avoid sex.' Sex is God's idea. His good gift, to be enjoyed within God's proper boundaries - within marriage - husband and wife, as we see in Genesis 1-2 and affirmed by the Lord Jesus in the gospels. It's not 'avoid sex' but 'avoid sexual immorality.'

The word Paul uses there is the word ‘porneia’ - from which we get the word pornography. It’s any sexual activity outside of marriage. Adultery, affairs, flings, whatever they might be called. But it’s not just actions and deeds - remember that Jesus also says in Matthew 5 that to look lustfully is to commit adultery in your heart. We're to avoid immorality in our minds as much as in our bodies.

Following on from that - and so that we avoid sexual immorality - ‘that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honourable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God’ (4-5). The world around us will be different; they don’t know God, and so they live out their passionate lust. Just watch some adverts to see that sex sells. But we are called to be different - to control our bodies in holiness and honour. You’re not responsible for what someone else does, but you are responsible for yourself. God wants us to be self-controlled (one of the fruit of the Spirit).

But notice that it may not be easy and won’t come naturally - Paul says we’re to learn to control our bodies. So learn how to take control - if there are certain situations or places, or books or magazines or TV programmes, or websites that cause you to stumble, then control yourself - get away from them. Cut them out. Ask for help.

Thirdly, in this section, holiness will mean ‘and that in this matter no-one should wrong his brother (or sister!) or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you.’ (6)

We’re not to wrong our brothers or sisters in the church; not to exploit them, or take advantage of them. In fact, not to take advantage of anyone. Yet women, often, are being trafficked - brought to the UK, forced to work as prostitutes, in fear of their lives.

We are called to be different. That call is expressed in verse 7. ‘For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.’ (7-8).

God didn’t call us to live an impure live, to say yes to lustful passions. He has set us apart for himself. And these instructions - they aren’t something that Paul made up; they’re not something I’m making up. They are God’s instructions - the maker’s instructions. He has called us to live a holy life - and to do that, we need to say ‘no’ to lust.

At the same time, God wants us to say ‘yes’ to love. Look at verse 9: ‘Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught to love each other. And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more.’

Last week it was the parent-teacher interviews in the Hardy. The parents would have heard how their son or daughter was getting on - what they were doing well in, and what they needed to ‘must do better.’ The Thessalonians were top of the class at loving each other in a brotherly kind of way. They had already begun to do this; but even then, they’re urged to do so ‘more and more.’

And we see what it will look like in practice to love one another - but it might not be what we expect. So, fill in the blank. To love one another you would... Here’s how Paul completes the sentence, in verse 11: ‘Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.’

We might think of ambitions as super-successful, out of this world kind of achievements. Paul says that our ambitions should be an ordinary kind of quiet life, getting on with our work rather than minding other peoples’ business.

It seems that some people were so eagerly waiting for the return of the Lord Jesus, that they were giving up work to sit around waiting for his return. They expected Jesus to return today, or maybe tomorrow, so they wanted to sit around waiting for him. Why bother working? That was my approach to homework and essays - why bother doing my homework tonight if Jesus comes tomorrow and it's never needed. But then I found myself writing essays the night before they were due!

That's what some in Thessalonica were doing - sitting around, not working, just waiting. And without work, they were living off the kindness of others. But Paul says that the loving thing is to get on with your own work (if you’re able). In this way, outsiders will respect you; and you won’t be dependent on others.

God’s will is that we say yes to brotherly love. So how can we grow in love for one another? What are the ways that we can love one another, so that the outsiders watching on will see and say ‘see how these Christians love one another.’

As I said earlier, God’s will for our life isn’t complicated, but working it out may not be easy. Perhaps as you’ve heard what God wants for you, you’ve realised that you’ve taken a wrong turn or two. The good news is that there is always a way back. Today you can turn around, and God will welcome you with his grace and his mercy. It’s not too late to get back on track.

This work of being sanctified is a long term project, not a quick fix. It's what the colleges talk about - life long learning. There'll be progress, then a stumble or a falling back. We'll be doing this for the rest of our lives, but keep going as you live out the calling to a holy life.

We started with the wee country roads with no signposts, wondering what way to turn. Going to a friend’s house, we might have their directions. And as we come to those decisions, big and small, in our daily life, as we choose which way to go, and what to do, we have God’s directions - the maker’s instructions. God’s will is for us to be holy. He is guiding us, restoring us, forgiving us, and encouraging us. As you trust in him your home in heaven is guaranteed. And he will bring us home, as we listen to him.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 28th October 2018.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Sermon: 1 Peter 1: 1-9 Fruitful - Joy

What do you look like whenever you’re happy? You’ll have a big smile on your face, to show that you’re happy. And what sorts of things make you happy?

There are lots of things that might make you happy:
Not having to go to school tomorrow
ice cream
time with friends
having your favourite dinner
going on holiday
and lots and lots of other things.

So then, what do you look like when you’re unhappy (or sad)? You’ll have a big frown on your face. The smile has turned upside down into a frown. And everyone who looks at you knows that you’re not happy. So what sort of things make you unhappy?

There are lots of things that might make you unhappy:
having to go to school tomorrow
not getting ice cream
having to get a filling in your tooth at the dentist’s
being on your own
and lots and lots of things.

This morning we’re continuing to think about the fruit of the Spirit - the character and qualities that the Holy Spirit is wanting to grow in us. Can you remember which one we looked at last month? It was love.

Today, we’re focusing on joy - not someone you know who’s called Joy - but the character of joy that the Holy Spirit grows in us. Now, when we start to think about joy, we might just think that it’s the same as happiness. Sometimes we use the words in the same way so that you wouldn’t know the difference. But there’s a big difference in the way the Bible thinks about joy.

Have you ever been on a roller coaster? I don’t really like roller coasters, so whenever we went to Alton Towers with BB camp, I used to watch everyone’s cameras and bags and phones and wallets! What happens when you’re on a roller coaster? You go up and down and up and down. And our happiness, our feelings and emotions can go up and down, based on what is going on. You see, happiness depends on what is happening.

So if something good happens, then we’re happy. And if something bad happens, then we’re unhappy. Every day can be like being on a roller coaster. Up and down, happy or unhappy, depending on what happens - what the weather is like, and so on. Have you ever seen people being like that? Changing mood depending on what happens?

The Bible says that joy is different to happiness. Happiness comes and goes, but joy is something that we can have, even when things aren’t going well. So even if bad things happen, and we couldn’t possibly be happy, we can still be joyful.

That’s what we see in our Bible reading this morning. Peter is writing his letter to Christians who are described as strangers in the world - they don’t really fit in, they’re different to everyone else. And that’s what we are like as well.

Yet the mark of being a Christian is to have joy. Why are we joyful? Because of all that God has done for us:

We have been born again into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus. Because Jesus died for us and rose again to new life, we have the hope of heaven and living for ever with God and Jesus in the new heavens and the new earth. So no matter what might happen in life, we have this hope of eternal life!

We have been given an inheritance - does anyone know what an inheritance is? It’s something that you’re given, that you inherit from a family member. And the inheritance we’ve been given can never perish, spoil or fade. It’s always going to be as good as new! It will never rust away or fade away.

We have been given protection - God shields us by his power in all that we do.

Hope, inheritance, protection - it’s no wonder that Peter says that ‘in this you greatly rejoice.’ (6) We are filled with joy, when we realise everything that God has done for us and given to us.

But Peter says that we can still rejoice, ‘though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.’ (6). Suffering grief, undergoing trials - those sound like the things that would make us unhappy, and you’d be right! But through them, we can still know and experience God’s joy - because even when we go through bad things, God is still with us, and God is still for us.

We are looking forward to the day when we will see Jesus face to face. One day, Jesus will return, and we’ll see him, meet him, and worship him. But we have never seen Jesus. Peter had seen Jesus, and knew him, and spent lots of time with Jesus. But the people who first got this letter, they were in the same boat as us. They hadn’t seen Jesus either.

Yet Peter says something amazing: ‘Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.’ (8-9)

None of us have ever seen Jesus face to face. Yet when we love him, and believe in him, we will be filled with this joy: inexpressible - you can’t really explain it, but it’s real, and really inside you, bubbling up out of you, no matter what is going on; and glorious - filled with God’s glory.

You might be the sort of person who feels as if they’re living on a roller coaster; you’re up and down depending on what happens. But God offers us his joy - a constant character of contentment in God, because of all that he has done for us, is doing in us, and will do for us.

You can be happy, and be joyful, but you can still be joyful even if you’re unhappy. Because joy is different to happiness. And joy is what God is wanting to grow in us by his Spirit - as we receive his blessings and promises, and grow in trusting him whatever happens.

This sermon was preached at the Church Family Service in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 21st October 2018.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Cafe Church Sermon: Romans 8: 18-39 How can I believe that God is good?

When you look at the world, you might be tempted to ask - what’s going on? You only have to watch the news, or read a newspaper, to see plenty of bad things happening. War and terrorism. Crime. Intimidation. Poverty and hunger. Suffering. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis.

Or maybe we don’t have to turn on the news, or go outside. We see bad things happening in our families, to our friends, or even in our own lives. And when we see bad things happen, it leads us to ask the question - why?

Why do bad things happen? Or rather, why does a God who is meant to be good allow bad things to happen? The question leads us to question what we know about God - the God who is good, and sovereign, and powerful, and love. If something had has happened, then there must be some breakdown in God’s character: Does God not care? Is God not powerful to stop them from happening? Or is God simply not good?

As we start to tackle that question, we need to work out what we actually mean by ‘good’. When we say that something is good, what do we mean? Is it just whatever feels good for us, something we like? Or is there an ultimate standard? There must be an ultimate standard, an objective good, beyond our feelings and desires and wants.

So imagine, two children being given sweeties. If one gets more than the other, then there’ll be cries of ‘That’s not fair!’ From we’re no age, we appeal to fairness, we know there is such a thing as right and wrong, good and evil.

Those notions and right and wrong, good and evil, they’re not just evolutionary concepts, passed along the line in order to ensure the continuation of the species. Right and wrong, good and evil, are external to us - they’re objective, a shadow of the divine image we were created with - an echo of the goodness of God.

Yet, when we hear that phrase - the goodness of God - you may well question it. And so the table talk discussion took you to the question behind the question. How can I believe that God is good when... you fill in the blank. You know the particular question you’ve been asking. It might be global, thinking about suffering and natural disasters and a world that seems out of control. Or it might be personal, in the face of illness, suffering or death. But it’s the question you keep asking. How can I believe that God is good?

We get an answer to both the global problem and the personal problem in the reading from Romans 8. In Romans, Paul sets out the gospel that he is preaching, so that the church in Rome will welcome him and support his efforts to move on to Spain to preach there too. And chapter 8 is all about the hope that we have in the Lord Jesus.

He talks about how ‘creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.’ How it is currently subjected to frustration, in bondage to decay. All that happened because Adam and Eve questioned the goodness of God, right back in the Garden of Eden.

God had provided everything they needed - an abundance of food, perfect relationships, enjoying God’s company - they were in Paradise. There was just one rule - they were not to eat of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden - the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The serpent (who we’re later told is Satan), comes along and starts asking questions. Why did God say no? Was he holding something back from them? Or, to put it another way, was God not good? He also doubts the goodness of God’s word - and says, you will surely not die.

Adam and Eve doubted God’s goodness, they believed the lie, so they took and ate. And immediately they realised their mistake. The world was different. They blamed each other; they were banished from the garden; and life and work became more difficult - thorns and thistles and death became an everyday experience.

This paradise lost world is our world. The creation is in bondage because of us. Verse 22 talks of the creation groaning as in the pains of childbirth. The world is waiting for the coming of the Lord Jesus, and everything being made right.

But Paul goes on to say that, as well as the creation groaning, we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit (Christians), we also groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. There’s a frustration that we feel too, as we wait for the coming of the Lord, for our new resurrection bodies, when there will be no more sadness or suffering or sickness or sin.

Knowing that we have this hope, this glorious future, it almost makes the waiting and the suffering worse. And yet Paul gives a comparison back in verse 18. Imagine those old baking scales where you have the two pans. In one, all our present sufferings. And you imagine, that’s very weighty. They’re hard to bear, they weigh us down. Yet, says Paul, in the other pan is the glory that will be revealed in us. It doesn’t even compare - it far outweighs the suffering.

Knowing that we have this hope is great. But how do we get through each day? How do we react when something bad happens to us? What do we need to know? We have the Spirit, who helps us in our weakness, by praying for us when we don’t know what to pray.

But we can also know something else. Verse 28: ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.’ (28-30).

These verses tell us that no matter how things may appear; no matter what might be going on in your life; God is at work. It’s not that in some things God is working; no, in all things God works... And what is he working? ‘God works for the good of those who love him.’

In all things, whether we think that they are good or bad, God is at work. And he’s working for our good. Now, maybe you think to yourself, but that doesn’t really help. Because for my good should mean that everything runs smoothly, there’s never any pain or hardship or frustration, rather, that I’m always happy. Those are the only good things that I want.

But do you see what God defines as our ultimate good? The thing that God purposes for us is: ‘to be conformed to the likeness of his Son.’ In everything, in all things, God is at work to make us more like Jesus. This is the good that he is working towards. And he will use everything that happens - even the wrong things others do to us; even the everyday events of life; even the catastrophic, to make us more like Jesus.

With this perspective, the question changes from why is this happening to me? to what is God doing through this?Sometimes we may only see it in retrospect, looking back on a particular period or experience. Sometimes we may never know why. But we can be sure that God is still in control, and working out his purposes for our ultimate good.

Just think of the man in prison, for allegedly assaulting his boss’ wife. It’s the low point amidst much unhappiness. Attacked by his brothers. Sold as a slave. Far from home and family. Yet he continues to trust in his God. Eventually, he gets the most amazing promotion - from the prison to the palace; from prisoner to Prime Minister. Joseph is used to guide Egypt through the seven years of plenty and the seven years of famine.

His brothers come calling, wanting grain. And years later, after his father dies, the brothers are fearful of what Joseph will do now. How does he respond? ‘As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive.’ (Gen 50:20). God was working for good, even in Joseph’s experience of evil.

And that’s what we see in the events of Good Friday. Three crosses stand outside the city wall. The man on the middle cross - he had done nothing wrong. Rather, he had gone around doing good - healing the sick, driving out demons, even raising the dead. But now he hangs on the cross, his back lacerated from the flogging, his head pierced with the crown of thorns, struggling to breathe, in agony.

He saved others - let him save himself, the crowd mocks. Yet this good man - the only good man who ever lived - he dies, a cruel death on a Roman cross. The mocking continued - where is your God? Yet in the pain and the agony, the darkness and the desolation, God was working his purpose for good. In the very darkest day, Jesus died - to save you.

God did not spare him, so that you could be saved. No one will be able to bring a charge against you, because he has borne your sins. And no one will be able to separate you from the love of Christ - nothing that happens makes him love you any less.

How can I believe that God is good? When we look at the cross, and hear of God’s purpose, and the hope that we have in Jesus, how could we not believe that God is good?

This talk was presented at the Cafe Church event in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 14th October 2018.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 2:17 - 3:13 Dealing with Afflictions

The bing-bong announcement comes over the loudspeaker in the shopping centre.’ Could the parents of Jimmy Jones please make their way to the security desk?’ Wee Jimmy had wandered off, got separated from his mum and dad, and is now in floods of tears. Or, as happened to a friend of mine, he went into the toilet, and his whole family hid on him. He thought he had been abandoned...

The pain of separation might be particularly acute in a young child, but anyone can know that sense of separation, that loneliness. Maybe lying sick in bed while everyone is away out to work. The empty nest syndrome when the children grow up and leave home.

Do you remember back in Genesis 2, amidst everything that is good and very good, there is one thing that is not good. What was it? The fact that Adam was alone. That’s pointing to the union of man and wife in marriage, but it’s also pointing to the fact that we are social beings, made for relating to one another in community.

In our reading today, Paul is experiencing that sense of separation. He had spent three weeks in Thessalonica, preaching the gospel, planting the church, before he was driven out of town by the Jewish opposition. He had travelled on to Berea, then Athens, and is now probably in Corinth, but he was worried about his new Christians.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen how he became so attached to the Thessalonian Christians: gentle, like a mother caring for her little children (2:7), dealing with them as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging them... (2:11). So look at how he describes his absence from Thessalonica in verse 17:

‘But, brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought)...’ For Paul, it’s not that the Thessalonians are out of sight, out of mind; rather it’s that absence makes the heart grow fonder. And the phrase he uses, ‘torn away from you’ has, in its roots, the idea of being orphaned. If Paul was like a father and mother to these Christians, he feels the absence like an orphan.

Paul is showing that it’s not good for us to be alone - especially in our Christian walk. To be cut off from fellow believers is a painful reality - something the housebound mention regularly. They wish they could be here, if only they were able to. They echo those words of Paul in verse 17-18 - intense longing, made every effort, wanted to come to you. Yet even with his desire, he found his way blocked. ‘Satan stopped us.’

Have you felt this pain of separation from other Christians? Perhaps it comes on a Sunday we don’t make it to church. It doesn’t really feel like a Sunday! Or maybe it was an extended period of illness, when we weren’t able to be with other believers. Or we miss the singing or voice of someone who always sat beside us or behind us. (There’s great encouragement for each other as you take part in the singing, and praying, you know!). Perhaps we can gain a greater understanding for those who wish they were here, but now feel cut off, lonely and separated.

It got so bad for Paul, he could stand it no longer (3:1). He thought it was best to be without Timothy for a while, so that he could send him to be with them, to strengthen and encourage them. You see, Paul recognised the spiritual dangers of the pain of separation. We see them at the start of chapter 3.

Verse 3 shows that they could have been shaken by these trials, of opposition and persecution and suffering. They were new Christians, facing opposition, and on top of all that, they were separated from the only other Christians they knew.

Paul had promised that persecution would come, but it’s another thing to actually experience it. They had watched as the persecution drove Paul out of town. They were now facing the same opposition themselves. What would they do? Would they stand firm, or would they give up?

So Timothy is sent - to strengthen and encourage, but also to ‘find out about your faith.’ Paul’s great fear was that the tempter might have caused them to give up, and so his efforts would have been useless. So Timothy leaves, and Paul waits. Was it all in vain? As we wait for the answer, let’s consider who we, like Timothy, can go to - to bring strength and encouragement. Is there a neighbour we can look in on, and share a wee something from the service with? Or read the Bible with?

Eventually, the wait was over, and as soon as Timothy returns, Paul writes this letter. You see, in verse 6, the report was good - their faith and love continues! They too long to see Paul and the others again. They are continuing to believe, even in those difficult circumstances, through the pain of separation, because they found strength in the partnership demonstrated by Timothy. His visit and return sparks immense thankfulness and praise, with the mutual encouragement and strength and joy.

Paul has been encouraged in his distress and persecution (7), just as the Thessalonians were as well. The strength of Christian fellowship and partnership blesses and benefits everyone. That’s something that you find in pastoral work - when you think you’re there to bless someone else, often you find yourself blessed even more - as you see someone’s faith grow, or hear them pray. Paul puts it this way in verse 8: ‘For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.’

What are the encouragements you’ve found from being with and standing with other Christians? The cup of tea after church is a great way of getting to know one another, but could we take it a bit deeper - and talk about faith as well as football and the weather? Ask someone to pray for you (or with you) - and watch as God answers those prayers. Perhaps you’ve had an answer to prayer - share that encouragement with someone else, it’ll encourage them in their prayers too!

Paul is seeking to overcome the pain of separation, and so he prays day and night that he may see them again - so that he can supply what is lacking in their faith. He has more to tell them. And so he prays all the time that he’ll be able to see them face to face.

But it’s in the closing verses of chapter 3 that he tells them what it is he is praying. And this prayer sums up the whole letter. The first two bits round up what we’ve seen so far:

‘Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.’

If it’s Satan that has blocked their way (2:18), then they ask the Father and the Son to remove the roadblock. He prays that he will be able to see them again. But more than that, he prays that their love will be like his love. You can’t doubt Paul’s love for them - his nursing mother, father-like, orphaned love for them. He prays that they will love like this - love each other like this, and love everyone else like this. We’ve seen those things already in the letter.

But the last part of the prayer points us forward. Here’s what we’re coming to now; what the rest of the letter will be all about. ‘May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.’

The Christian life can often bring these times of separation. We’re isolated for various reasons, but the partnership of the church gives us strength for the road. Paul lifts our eyes from the here and now, and points us to the end. One day we won’t be on our own. One day we’ll know the fullness of joy, when Jesus comes with all his saints, when we are gathered with Jesus.

But between this day and that day, Paul prays that we will be strengthened in holiness, to be one of the saints, God’s holy people. Now that might sound very churchy, but as we’ll see, it’s very practical, and very down to earth - it’s about living in purity, in hope, and in everyday life.

The pain of separation may be real, with all its spiritual dangers. But God has given us the strength of partnership, as we come together, to encourage one another, to build one another up, and also as we pray for one another. So let’s pray now...

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 14th October 2018.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Harvest Sermon: Matthew 20: 1-16 Grapes, Gripes and Grace

Boys, and girls, I’ve got a question for you this morning. What would you like to work at when you grow up?

In the time of Jesus, some people had permanent jobs, but lots and lots of people were day labourers. They didn’t have a regular place of work. They just turned up in the town square in the morning, and someone who had some work for them would give them a job for the day.

And that’s what’s happening in our Bible reading today. It’s a great reading for a Harvest service, because it’s all about bringing in a harvest. Jesus tells the story of a man who has a harvest to bring in from his vineyards. So what was he going to gather? Grapes!

The story is all about grapes, and harvesting the grapes. So very early, the man went to the square to hire some workers. It was 6am, and he agreed to their wages for the day. 1 denarius. In today’s money, we’ll say £100, for the twelve hours work. [volunteer] So off the workers go, into the vineyard.

But as the day went on, he realised that he had so many grapes, he needed more people to help with the harvest. So he went again at 9am, saw some other people standing about looking for work, so he hired them as well. ‘I will pay you whatever is right.’ [volunteer]

The day went on, and he hired more workers at 12 noon, and again at 3pm. Whatever is right, I’ll pay you at the end of the day. [volunteers...]

Now, at 5pm, the eleventh hour, when there was just one hour of work left in the day, he went out into the square, and found some people still standing around. They hadn’t done any work all day, no one had hired them. So the man told them to go and work in his vineyard as well - for the last hour. [volunteer].

At 6pm the working day was over. The grapes had been gathered. It was time to gather up, and get ready to go home. But first, the workers had to be paid for their work.

So, the workers who had only been hired at 5pm, and had only worked for one hour came forward. They were given a denarius. They were given £100. And then the other workers came forward. They had worked for longer than these ones, and so they expected to get even more money! But for each group of workers - the three hours, six hours, nine hours and twelve hours, they all got... what? Exactly the same A denarius, or £100.

Now, how would you feel if you were one of those long working people? Would you be happy that you’d received the same as someone else, who hadn’t done as much work? No! You’d be shouting about it. You might even say ‘That’s not fair!’ There were grapes, and now there are gripes - complaints, and grumbling. That’s not fair!

We can sometimes feel the same way. You might think to yourself - I’ve been working hard at something for ages and ages, and then someone else comes in at the last minute and gets the same amount of credit and praise.

But Jesus is teaching us something about what God is like here. he starts the story by saying that ‘the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner...’ This is a story about God and his vineyard, the church. Are there times when we might grumble against God and say, that’s not fair! That we’ve been used in the Lord’s service for a long time, and then new people come in and we think that’s not fair! Or that God gives people the same promise of eternal life if they only trust in him on their deathbed?

Could we be the people who have worked hard, and yet feel that God isn’t fair? If so, let’s see how Jesus ends the story. What’s the answer of the landowner to these gripes about the grapes?

‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

Remember away back at the start of the story, the all-day workers agreed to a denarius. That was what a day of work was worth. They got what they agreed to, and what they deserved.

But the landowner decides to give the other workers the same. Because a denarius was what was needed to survive, to pay for food for the family for the day. And what word does the landowner use to describe himself? It’s the punchline to his speech - ‘Are you envious because I am... GENEROUS?’

This is what God is like. He’s more than fair, he is generous. He gives us far more than we really deserve. And there’s another word for generous, a word that we use to describe this in relation to God - it’s the word grace. It’s when God gives us what we don’t deserve.

You see, whether you’ve been a Christian for a long, long time; or if you’ve only been a Christian for a few weeks; or even if you only decide to become a Christian today - God is gracious to us, and gives you the very same gifts of eternal life, and forgiveness of sins, and peace with him, and the hope of heaven, and so much more!

In our reading today we see grapes bring harvested; we hear gripes about unfairness; and we rejoice in the grace of our God, who gives us far more than we deserve.

That grace is seen all around us - in the flowers and fruit and vegetables and foods that we enjoy; in the beauty of the creation seen in mountains and seas and fields and sky and sunrises and sunsets. But that grace is seen especially in the Lord Jesus, who gave his life so that we might live with him. God offers you his grace today, as he calls you to serve him and follow him. It’s far better than being fair - it’s God’s generous, free offer of grace. So will you praise him today for his grace? Will you rejoice in all that he has given you, and will give you?

This sermon was preached at the Family Harvest Service in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 7th October 2018.