Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019 Books

It’s the end of another year, and time to review my reading over the past year. I've managed to increase my books again this year - up from 50 to 62, although still not as many as the 78 of 2007. Here are the books I've read this year:

1. 1342 QI Facts to leave you flabbergasted - John Lloyd
2. Unimaginable - Jeremiah J Johnston
3. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson
4. Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
5. Normal People - Sally Rooney
6. Organised - Sarah Reynolds
7. The Prodigal Prophet - Timothy Keller
8. Th1rt3en - Steve Cavanagh
9. Stump Kingdom - Dale Ralph Davis
10. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle

11. None Like Him - Jen Wilkin
12. Murphy’s Revenge - Colin Bateman
13. The Robots are Coming: Us, Them and God - Nigel Cameron
14. Real - Catherine Parks
15. That Hideous Strength: How The West Was Lost - Melvin Tinker
16. Even Better Than Eden - Nancy Guthrie
17. The Pilgrim’s Progress - John Bunyan
18. Long Story Short - Glen Scrivener
19. Hillbilly Elegy - JD Vance
20. Characters in Acts: A Matter of the Heart - Harry Uprichard

21. Why Can’t We Be Friends - Aimee Byrd
22. Gay Girl, Good God - Jackie Hill Perry
23. Can Science Explain Everything? - John Lennox
24. Sipping Saltwater - Steve Hoppe
25. Conversations With Friends - Sally Rooney
26. Paperboy - Tony Macaulay
27. Gilead - Marilynne Robinson
28. A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War - Joseph Loconte
29. Teaching Acts - David Cook
30. The Hunting Party - Lucy Foley

31. Outliers: The Story of Success - Malcolm Gladwell
32. Going the Distance - Peter Brain
33. Notes From The Tilt-A-Whirl - ND Wilson
34. The Choice - Edith Eger
35. Pray Big - Alistair Begg
36. Plugged In - Daniel Strange
37. The Reckoning - John Grisham
38. The Final Silence - Stuart Neville
39. Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You - Tony Reinke
40. Those We Left Behind - Stuart Neville

41. An Open Door - Maud Kells with Jean Gibson
42. So Say The Fallen - Stuart Neville
43. Fire and Brimstone - Colin Bateman
44. Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn
45. Preaching - Timothy Keller
46. Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come - Jessica Pan
47. Diary of a Somebody - Brian Bilston
48. Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury
49. Erasing Hell - Francis Chan & Preston Sprinkle
50. Burned - Sam McBride

51. The Book Your Pastor Wishes You Would Read (but is too embarrassed to ask) - Christopher Ash
52. Orpheus Rising - Colin Bateman
53. The Church of Ireland - RB McDowell
54. Is This It? - Rachel Jones
55. The Weirdest Nativity - Andrew Sach & Jonathan Gemmell
56. The Gift - Glen Scrivener
57. My Sister, The Serial Killer - Oyinkan Braithwaite
58. Agatha Raisin and the Curious Curate - MC Beaton
59. On the Incarnation - St Athanasius
60. God in the ICU - Dave Walker

61. Love Came Down at Christmas - Sinclair Ferguson
62. Little Women - Louisa May Alcott

My top five are:
1. Burned - Sam McBride
2. Diary of a Somebody - Brian Bilston
3. Pray Big - Alistair Begg
4. The Prodigal Prophet - Tim Keller
5. So Say The Fallen - Stuart Neville

Here are the links to previous years' book blogs: 2018 (50)
2017 (31); 2016 (23); 2015 (21); 2014 (26); 2013 (45); 2012 (49); 2011 (37); 2010 (52); 2009 (41); 2008 (23); 2007 (78).

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Sermon: Revelation 12 The Weirdest Nativity

Every year, there’s lots of excitement about the John Lewis Christmas advert. A few years back, it featured the hibernating bear that was woken up to enjoy his first ever Christmas. And then there was Monty the penguin, and who could forget Buster the boxer dog, playing on the trampoline? Have you seen this year’s advert?

It features excitable Edgar, a baby dragon, who seems to be ruining Christmas by getting excited. You see, every time he gets excited, he blows fire from his nostrils - melting the children’s snowmen; and the ice rink; and setting the village Christmas tree on fire. And then it’s Christmas Day, and Christmas dinner, and in he comes, and everyone ducks under the table. But he uses his fire breathing for good, by lighting the Christmas pudding. You can even get the excitable Edgar dragon stuffed toy. (Other brands and shops are available!).

In our reading today, we find that there’s a dragon in this telling of the nativity story. And, perhaps when you heard it being read, you thought to yourself - what’s a dragon doing in the nativity? It’s definitely the weirdest nativity you’ve ever heard. Maybe, though, it’s a bit like some of the school nativity plays which have an abundance of extra characters - mostly famously in one movie, a lobster. Is that what’s going on here? We don’t find any of the shepherds or wise men, but we have this great red dragon. So what’s going on? What is this all about? And what could it possibly tell us about Christmas?

Well, before we dive into the passage, we need to get our bearings. We’re in the book of Revelation - a series of visions revealed to John the apostle, and written down for the church. These visions are painted in broad brushstrokes, almost like cartoons, using pictures to show what’s going on behind the scenes, explaining the way things are going, and encouraging Christians to keep faithful even in the midst of tremendous opposition and persecution.

As we get into verse 1, John sees a great and wondrous sign in heaven. ‘A woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.’ (1-2) Now, it sounds like this might be Mary, the pregnant lady of Christmas-time. And sometimes you might see statues of her portrayed in this way.

But this isn’t Mary as such. She wasn’t wearing the sun and resting her feet on the moon when she arrived in Bethlehem. This imagery is pointing to the people of Israel, the nation as a whole, as being this pregnant woman. Do you remember Joseph - not the adopted father of Jesus, but the Joseph in Genesis, the one with the technicolour dreamcoat? One of the dreams he has in Genesis 37 is of the sun and moon and eleven stars bowing down to him. And his father Jacob (also called Israel) interprets it as Joseph’s dad and mum and his eleven brothers bowing down to him.

And so the people of Israel are pregnant; they’re waiting for the arrival of the promised Messiah (King). They have come to the time of his arrival, of his birth.

And John sees a second sign: ‘An enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth.’ (3-4). It’s a fearsome beast! A dragon with one head would be bad enough, but seven heads? And the dragon has got into place. He’s ready and waiting for the birth - not to help out or give a nice gift. But to, verse 4: ‘The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born.’ (4)

The dragon is out to destroy and devour. It doesn’t want this child to be born, and so is waiting for the moment to get rid of him. I wonder does this remind you of anything from the Christmas story? Behind King Herod is this fiery dragon - when Herod hears the king of the Jews has been born, he sends his soldiers to destroy the baby king. But just as Herod wasn’t successful, so this dragon didn’t devour the baby.

In verse 5 we get a glimpse of exactly who the baby is. ‘She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron sceptre.’ The one who rules the nations with an iron sceptre is the anointed king (the Messiah, or Christ), who is God’s Son, from Psalm 2. So this is definitely the birth of Jesus in view here.

And the devouring dragon is unsuccessful in this vision. ‘And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.’ (5) In one sentence, we get an overview of the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus. The dragon didn’t devour him. Jesus was victorious, and rules from God’s throne.

But that doesn’t stop the dragon’s attempts at devouring. John sees that there is war in heaven - Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon and his angels. And again, the dragon loses - and loses more than the war, he loses his place in heaven.

If you were still in any doubt as to who this dragon was, it’s spelled out for us in verse 9: ‘The great dragon was hurled down - that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray.’ Do you remember back in Genesis 3 who it was that led Eve and Adam astray? The tempter was the serpent. But he didn’t stop with Adam and Eve - he continues to lead people astray, and not just one or two, but the whole world.

That’s his first tactic. Leading people astray. Tempting them. Taking them off the straight path. Devouring by disobedience. But then in verse 10 we see his second tactic. Satan literally means the accuser. He accuses Christians before God day and night. God, do you see what he has done wrong today? How can you still love him? God, did you hear what she said today? Do you really want her as part of your people?

He leads astray, and then he accuses. He tries to remind you of your past. He tries to tell you that God couldn’t really love you with all those wrong things you’ve done. Perhaps you’ve heard the dragon whispers this week. Maybe you’ve smelt the fiery breath of the dragon.

But as someone once said - if Satan reminds you of your past, then remind him of his future. Revelation 12 shows us that the dragon is on the losing side. However powerful he might appear, he is a defeated dragon. He didn’t devour Jesus, and he lost the war in heaven. And he loses against Christian believers. How is that possible?

It’s possible because of the victory of Christ (10) in the Christian’s life. There is salvation, and power, and the kingdom of God, and the authority of his Christ. And we share in that victory in verse 11: ‘They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.’

The dragon is defeated by the blood of the Lamb - trusting that Jesus died for you and has taken away all the things that Satan accuses you of - and by the word of their testimony - your witness to God’s power in your life. That word testimony is the word from which we get the word martyr - who is a witness through their death. Are we prepared to stand up for Jesus, to witness for him, even if it brings the death of our social standing, or our social life, or even our physical death?

The devil dragon has lost. His final doom is now certain. And he knows that his time is short. But that doesn’t mean that he gives up fighting and settles for a quiet life. Look at the end of verse 12: ‘Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.’

And that’s what we see in the rest of the chapter. He first tries to pursue the woman who had given birth to the male child. The people of Israel have often been on the receiving end of opposition, persecution, and violence. And yet God provides for her preservation through it all.

And so the devil changes tack. Who is in his sights now? Verse 17: ‘Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring - those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.’ Who’s that? You and me. Christians. You see, the devil doesn’t really take you seriously if you’re already following him. He doesn’t need to worry about you if you’re his. But when you repent, and trust in Jesus, and follow Jesus, then he is your enemy. When you take the Christian faith seriously, then the devil takes an interest in you. And when churches are seeing growth, and seeing people come to faith and grow in faith, then that’s when you can be sure the devil will come knocking.

But that shouldn’t cause us to worry. You see, we have the victory in Jesus. The blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony guarantee us victory over our defeated devilish dragony foe.

The dragon shows up in the nativity, perhaps the weirdest nativity you’ve ever heard or seen. But the dragon didn’t get to devour the Christ-child; and he won’t devour Christ’s brothers and sisters, because Jesus wins - and Jesus has won.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 22nd December 2019.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Sermon: Luke 2: 8-20 Good News

You almost cannot escape the news these days. On the radio, there are news updates every hour on the hour on most stations. On TV there are the news bulletins, as well as the 24-hour news channels, constantly broadcasting the latest news. News is shared on Facebook and Twitter and all sorts of social media. And the good old newspapers are sitting when you walk into the shop. News is everywhere.

Now, if you happen to have avoided all the news in the last week or so, then you might not have heard that we had a General Election on Thursday, and Boris is back as Prime Minister, with a huge majority in the House of Commons. And as you can imagine, the news has been full of him over the past few days. He’s on nearly every broadcast, and on nearly every front page.

The people in power quite often make the news. We’re used to seeing their face and hearing their voice, as the news tells us what they’ve been up to. And, had there been newspapers about 2000 years ago, then it would have been exactly the same. The front pages would have been packed with photos and news about the main man in the Roman Empire - Caesar Augustus. He ruled the roost, and set the news agenda. And the big news was that a census was getting underway.

Everyone had to go back to their own town to register. Augustus said ‘go’ and everyone had to go, whether they liked it or not. No doubt the radio programmes and newspapers would be full of discussion and debate about the news of the census.

Now, I don’t know what you think about Boris - whether you think his victory is terrific or terrible - but have you noticed that so much of the news that we see or read is all bad? Whether it’s the volcano in New Zealand, the earthquake in Albania, break ins, stabbings, drugs and more - the news seems to be all bad news.

But out of sight of Caesar Augustus; and unnoticed by the Israel newspapers; there was something happening in Bethlehem that was totally amazing; something that was truly good news. But to tell you about it, I’ll need some newspapers.

You see, out in the fields near Bethlehem, there were some shepherds, keeping watching over their sheep. It was getting dark, and they were getting drowsy. Suddenly, there was something bright in the sky - brighter than a STAR or the SUN (now, I didn’t bring a copy of either paper with me, maybe for obvious reasons!). And what was it? An angel, a HERALD, bringing some good news for them - and not just for them, but for everybody.

So what was this good news? ‘Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.’ (11)

You see, we all need a Saviour. No matter who we are; how young or old; how tall or short; whoever we are, we need a Saviour. That’s because we all have become INDEPENDENT of God - we tell him that we don’t need him; we don’t want him to be in charge of our lives; and we go our own way, doing what we want to do - independent of God.

But when we go our own way, we get trapped in sin. It doesn’t work out when we do our own thing. We get lost. We can’t change by ourselves. We need God’s help - and we need the Saviour God has sent.

The good news is that the Saviour has been born in Bethlehem. He is Christ the Lord. That word Christ means king (anointed one) - and so Jesus is our GUARDIAN. He saves us from our sins; he comes to be with us; and he comes to help us every day.

But the shepherds didn’t just hear about Jesus, the angel told them to go and see him. ‘This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ (12)

Before they started off on their journey, though, even more angels appeared in the sky, praising God, and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.’

Having heard the angel choir, and remembering their instructions, they set off into Bethlehem, like an EXPRESS - they weren’t going to stop until they found this special baby. Having followed their instructions to the (NEWS) LETTER, they found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger just as they had been told. They took a while to GAZETTE (gaze at) Jesus, before sharing what they had seen and heard.

The shepherds wanted to TELegraph the good news about Jesus to everyone they met. And everyone they told was amazed at what they heard.

In this world there is lots of bad news. We don’t need to look very far to find it. We know only too well about the bad things that happen. But the TIMES are changing, and there is some really good news, because Jesus has been born - born to be our Saviour; born to be our King.

So when you get up tomorrow morning, and when you look in the bathroom MIRROR, remind yourself that Jesus came to this world because he loves you. And he wants you to be his friend, and to follow him, to make him your Saviour and your King. And that really is the best news we could hear this Christmas - good news of great joy for all the people.

This sermon was preached at the Family Carol Service in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 15th December 2019.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Sermon: Genesis 11: 1-9 Beginnings: Scattering

A few years ago we were on holiday in Lanzarote. We went on a bus tour, and the guide was pointing out various features of the island. And as we drove along between stops, she was telling us about other things we might like to visit - including a town that has an Amy Grant museum. Now, Amy Grant is a famous Christian singer, but neither of us realised just how popular she must be in the Canary Islands. Slightly strange, but ok. Until we realised, as the tour guide continued to talk about the museum, that it was an Emigrant Museum, dedicated to the people who have emigrated from the islands, and not an Amy Grant museum!

We were both speaking English, but confusion reigned supreme. Or think of when you encounter Americans, and they say some words we’re not used to - what do they mean by trash? (rubbish); gas (petrol); sidewalk (footpath); and diapers (nappies). As someone once said, two nations divided by a common language.

Now, imagine that you’re working on a building site, you’re working on a big tower, and suddenly, you can’t understand a word your colleagues are saying! They can’t make you out either, there’s just confused looks all around. You were able to communicate yesterday all right, but now, it’s all Double Dutch. What’s going on?

Over the autumn, we’ve been tracing the story of the opening chapters of the Bible. We’re been hearing about our beginnings - where our world came from; how we lost the original paradise; and how sin and death has been reigning over the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve from their first rebellion. And yet there have been moments of grace - the promise of the son who would crush the serpent’s head; the covering of Adam and Eve’s shame through sacrifice; the grace shown to Noah, who was saved with his family in his floating zoo, and started afresh when he came out of the ark with God’s rainbow covenant promise.

So now, having come out of the ark, we are back on track. But what are we on track to do? Well, in Genesis 9, Noah is given a command - the same command, in fact, that God had originally given to Adam and Eve. Back in 1:28 we read these words: ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it...’ And then in 9:1 we read these words: ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth...’

Adam and Eve’s original purpose was to increase and fill the earth. And when Noah with his wife and sons and their wives step out of the ark, God tells them the same. They’re not to stay in one place, all huddled together. They’re to fill the whole earth, to steward and use all that God has given.

Now, we didn’t read Genesis 10 - if you like, I’ll read it to you over tea and coffee in the hall - but it’s the listing of the nations and people groups who came from each of Noah’s three sons. And if you glance up to 10:32, it looks as if the nations have obeyed God’s command to fill the earth: ‘These are the clans of Noah’s sons, according to their lines of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread our over the earth after the flood.’

It looks as if God’s word has been obeyed. Except, in Genesis 11, we find the circumstances that led to the scattering. In verse 1, we’re told that ‘the whole world had one language and a common speech.’ The same word means the same thing wherever you are. Everyone is together, banded together, as they move eastward, and they settle at Shinar. Rather than filling the earth, they stay together - safety in numbers and all that.

It’s here in Shinar that they develop some skill as they work together. They work out how to make bricks by baking them thoroughly, so they don’t need to use stone, and they work out how to use bitumen as mortar. And then, the sky’s the limit.

The town planners and architects get to work; the builders start building, and the plan is to build, not just a city, but also a tower ‘that reaches to the heavens.’ Just think of a city skyline, with the skyscrapers standing tall - the Empire State Building or the Burj Khalifa in Dubai (the tallest building in the world at 2722 feet high). They’re working on the first ever skyscraper.

And they’re doing it together. Did you see what they said each time? Verse 3: ‘Come let’s make...’ Verse 4: ‘Come, let us build...’ They’re in it together. And they are quite clear about their motives. Why are they building a city and a tower that reaches to the heavens?

‘... so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’ (4)

They’re out to make a name for themselves; they’re motivated by pride and prestige; wanting to be famous for their achievements; reaching for the top.

Reaching, in fact, for the very top - to heaven itself. As they labour and build and climb, they’re seeking to prove themselves, wanting to succeed, to replace God, to do away with God. So they press on, doing all they can, working for their own name and glory. We don’t need or want God!

As they reach up, they’re repeating the folly of the first sin. Adam and Eve wanted to be like God, or rather, wanted to be God. And so these Shinarites are doing the same. They want to be famous, to make a name for themselves, so that they aren’t scattered as God wants them to do.

Come, let us. Higher and higher they go, building their tower and their empire. Come, let us. Higher and higher we go? Building our empire? What is it that we give ourselves to? What is it that our pride pushes us to do? How are you trying to make a name for yourself, to be known for?

Is it in your family, to have the best, most perfect children, the highest achievers? Perhaps it’s to have the cleanest tidiest house. The most beautiful Christmas tree. The Christmas lights that can almost be seen from space. Maybe it’s in your work to succeed and make it to the very top. Perhaps you’re building your tower of wealth and riches, wanting everyone to be in awe of your success, your power, your position. What are you giving your energy to?

They were reaching up, building up to make it to the heavens. In verse 5, we find the start of the Lord’s response. It’s like a little bit of humour, it’s a moment of irony. They’re building up, reaching towards the heavens, but verse 5: ‘But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building.’

Imagine you have ants in the garden. (not your mother’s sisters; the wee creepy-crawly type of ants). And imagine that they start to build an ant city. They’re working away. It’s something very grand and impressive in the ant world, never been seen or done before. They even start to build a tower, because they think they’re going to know you off your perch and take over your garden. But for you to see what they’re doing, you have to get down on your knees, get the magnifying glass out, stoop down and look carefully. That’s a bit like what’s happening here. The LORD comes down - it’s as if he couldn’t even see it from heaven!

The people had banded together with their ‘Come, let us’. Now the LORD responds with his own ‘Come, let us’: ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’ (6-7)

The people reached up in sinful pride; and the LORD stoops to curse by bringing confusion of their language. The scattering happens, the nations are divided, the peoples spread out over the face of the whole earth. The city lies unfinished, it’s ruins a testimony to the folly of pride. It’s name? Babel - babble.

Later, the city would be built, and a mighty empire would come from it - the city of Babylon. And in its later form, it was still known for proud rebellion against God - so that even in Revelation, the empire standing against God is known by the codename Babylon.

So when it comes to our own prideful ambitions and projects, what will come of them? Do we really think God will allow them to continue? Will we forever get away with making a name for ourselves and building our own kingdoms? Whether suddenly or slowly, confusion creeps in; our plans are frustrated; our pride leads to a fall; our towers lie in ruins.

We simply cannot reach up to heaven. We can’t build our way up to heaven. It’s not possible. Indeed, as we’ve seen right through these opening chapters of Genesis, our first parents are just like us. We’re scattered, lost, alone. Our achievements are temporary, they’re soon toppled.

But the good news is that in Jesus, the curse is reversed. In Jesus, God comes down, not in judgement, but in grace to seek and to save the lost. In Jesus, God comes down to lift our humanity to the heights of his throne.

We see that in Philippians 2 - Jesus didn’t grasp or exploit his equality with God the Father, but made himself nothing, took on the nature of a servant, made in human likeness, and humbled himself to death - even death on a cross. He went down, down, down, in order to rescue us from our pride, our achievements, our ambitions.

And in Jesus the confusion of languages and the scattering is reversed, as the risen Jesus sends out his disciples to preach the good news and make disciples of all nations, so that on the day of Pentecost, people from all over the place hear the good news in their own languages, and on the last day, gathered around the throne, will be people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages praising God as they sing: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ (Rev 8:9-10).

We can never build our way up to heaven. But we have a God who has stooped to save; who is calling us, and gathering us - and gathering others too. We have a way of calling people to him, as the Christmas flyers go out this week. Have you come to Jesus? Have you repented of your pride, seeking to make a name for yourself? One day he will return, and on that day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Are you ready?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday 8th December 2019.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Sermon: Matthew 6: 19-34 Treasure

What is your treasure? What is it that you hold most precious? What are you giving your life to? For some, it might be kids, career or caravanning; money, motors or makeup; health or wealth; clothes or canapes. Whatever it might be, Jesus declares that the things we treasure show the location of our hearts.

You see, every person on earth is making some kind of investment; you and me - each of us is working towards amassing treasure of one kind or another. We see it all around us - and perhaps even in our own lives.

Over the course of a generation or so, we’ve witnessed a remarkable growth in consumerism in recent history - the race to have the biggest house; the fanciest car; the most attractive wife (or handsome husband); the most perfect children; the latest gadgets (plural!); the hottest designer fashions; the best restaurants; the two or three exotic holidays per year; and everything else that goes with the lifestyle.

The thing is, though, that we don’t even realise that we’re caught up as slaves; worshipping wealth; bowing down to Mammon. As we consume all these things, we find that they are actually consuming us. Wealth is a bad master.

‘No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.’ (24)

And yet, that’s exactly what so many of us do. Even those of us in the church, supposedly Christian, yet giving our devotion to wealth. We think that we can serve both God and wealth; we might even make sure that we put our envelope on the plate to satisfy God for another week; but Jesus says plainly that we cannot obey the orders of two masters.

It’s the stuff of a comedy sketch - imagine an employee in a shop where two managers keep giving her orders. One says to go on the tills, the other says to go and stack the shelves - they keep appearing from different parts of the shop, wondering why she hasn’t done what they’ve said yet - she simply can’t do both; she can’t obey two masters.

But that’s precisely what we try to do! We try to find the middle way, keeping in with both, but it simply can’t work - we’ll end up serving one or the other, either God or Money.

But which is the better master? Which is the one we should serve?

Here’s what Jesus says:

‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.’ (19) Imagine working hard to store up treasure, only for it to rust away; or be stolen away - what a wasted effort!

Designer fashions become food for moths; classic cars turn into rust buckets; money and goods are easy pickings for burglars. This earthly treasure ultimately lets you down - it will break your heart. And, it won’t last - as someone wisely said, there are no pockets in a shroud; you can’t take it with you.

Instead, Jesus tells us: ‘but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy; and where thieves do not break in and steal.’ (20) Only our investment in the bank of heaven is a sound investment. So how do we invest in this way? How can we store up treasure in heaven?

The same phrase is found in the incident when the rich young ruler comes to Jesus and declares that he has kept all the commandments. Jesus says to him: ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.’ (Matt 19:21) It seems that to store up treasure in heaven means we have to use the ‘treasure’ we have here and now - in heavenly ways.

It’s an open-handed generosity, seeking to help others and make an impact in their lives, rather than a tight-fisted selfishness, holding on to what you have for your own benefit.

It’s about changing your priorities and concerns; moving from following and serving money to instead serving God - our heavenly Father. And that will show itself in the values we live by - whether we worry about material things, or if we will trust our heavenly Father.

That’s why verse 25 begins with a ‘therefore.’ (It’s been said that if you ever see a ‘therefore’ in the Bible, you have to ask what it’s there for - make the connections to what has gone before). ‘You cannot serve God and Money. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life...’

You see, if you’re serving wealth and only ever investing in earthly treasure, then you’ll be given to worry about these material things - what to eat, drink and wear. Yet Jesus says that life is about more than just food; the body is more important than just being a clothes horse:

‘Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?’

Jesus is saying that God cares more about us than he does about the birds of the air, and because he cares, he will provide us with what we need. Did you ever see a bird sowing seed and growing its own food? Did you ever see a bird driving a tractor or combine harvester? Did you ever see a bird worrying about the price of things in Tesco? So if God provides for the birds of the air without them doing anything to help themselves, then how much more will God care for us, and provide for our needs?

Jesus then goes on to talk about worrying about clothes.
‘And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?’

Who would you say is the most fashionable person in the world? If you had to pick someone who was the best dressed, who would it be? Maybe you keep an eye on the latest styles on the catwalk, and know all about the supermodels. The example Jesus uses is King Solomon. Solomon had been king of Israel about 1000 years before, and had lived in luxury. Yet, Jesus says that the lilies of the field are better dressed than Solomon, who must have spent thousands on his clothes.

These days, most of the flowers have died in the garden. But think back to the summer blooms, or think ahead to what will come again in the spring. The flowers are glorious, with such variety of colour, and size. They don’t ponder the fashion magazines to see what’s in this year. They don’t labour or spin to create their vivid colours. They don’t have to do anything about it, they just have to be. So if God makes sure the lilies are looking well, then how much more will he look after us?

Jesus tells us not to worry about all these things. What happens when you worry about something? If you’re anything like me, then you’ll think about something over and over again. You’ll try to solve the problem, and look at it lots of different ways. Your mind will be like a washing machine, turning it around and around. You might not even be able to sleep if you keep thinking about your worries.

When we worry, we make our problems bigger. Perhaps you’ve heard this before: worry is like a rocking chair - it gives you something to do, but it gets you nowhere. But rather than just saying don’t worry, Jesus calls us to something positive: Jesus calls us to trust in the God who is our Father. Did you notice that? Your heavenly Father feeds the birds. God cares for us and provides for us because he is our Father in heaven.

Jesus says that it’s a matter of getting our priorities right. Here’s what he says. ‘So do not worry, saying, What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? or What shall we wear? For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’ (31-33)

CS Lewis once said that those who aim for earth miss out on heaven; those who aim for heaven get earth thrown in as well. As we serve God, our heavenly Father, as we make his priorities our priorities, we discover that money becomes a tool for the kingdom, rather than a rival king. We discover that God is well able to supply all we need to live and love and serve him. So where will you store your treasures this week? Whose kingdom will you seek? Will you serve your money as God, or will you use your money in the service of God?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 17th November 2019.

Sermon: Romans 12: 1-8 Living Sacrifices

In a few minutes’ time, you will be enrolled in the BB or the GFS. You will be accepted into membership for the first time, or for another year. And as you do that, you are making a commitment that you will be a faithful member; that you’ll turn up, and get stuck in, and be involved in everything that your section and company or branch is doing.

In our second Bible reading today, Paul is calling on us to make a commitment - not just to BB or GFS, but to God himself. Here’s what he says:

‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers (and sisters), in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship.’

Now, there’s a lot in that one sentence, isn’t there? So let’s try to break it down, to see what God wants us to do. At the very centre of that verse are these words: ‘offer your bodies as living sacrifices.’

God wants us to give ourselves, all of us, every part of us, from the top of our head to our toes, to follow him and serve him. And we’re to live for him - as living sacrifices. In the Old Testament, people would sacrifice an animal - a bull or a sheep or a goat. But now, we offer ourselves, fully alive, to do what God wants us to do.

But please don’t think that God just wants you to follow him so that you can in some way earn his love and his favour. Every other religion is all about what you have to do - whether it’s going on pilgrimage, or giving, or fasting, or whatever - and then when you earn enough points you can be with God.

And it’s what we all work to all the time. Have you ever heard something like this: If you’re good today, then we’ll get a treat later on. Or, if you’re not good this week, then we’ll not do what you want at the weekend. When we live like that, then we’re always having to prove ourselves, trying to earn our own rewards for good behaviour. So, if I were to tell you now that I’ll give a bar of chocolate to the best GFS girl and best BB boy who listens during the talk, then would it make you want to sit up and listen in a little harder?

It might. And we’re so used to thinking in this way, that we think this is what God wants of us as well. Here’s what we think - if I go to BB or GFS and try really hard; and if I go to church, and pray and read my Bible, and help little old ladies across the road, and try really hard, then God will like me. That’s how I thought, when I was being enrolled in the BB.

But that’s not how God is. Every other religion is about what you have to do so that you earn your reward. But Christianity is different. Yes, we’re called to offer ourselves as living sacrifices - but only because Jesus has already sacrificed himself for us.

Jesus has already given all of himself for us, when he died for us on the cross. And Jesus has already offered us his mercy before we’ve done anything good or bad. Jesus took the first step - and we are called to receive his mercy and to offer ourselves in response to him.

That’s why the verse starts: ‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers (and sisters), in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices...’ Because we can see God’s mercy already given to us - then we can offer ourselves. Other religions say ‘Do this...’ But Christianity says ‘Done’. Jesus has already done all that is needed for us.

But what will it look like to offer ourselves as living sacrifices? What does it look like to follow Jesus day by day? Paul says:

‘Do not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’

Now, I’ve got a question for you. What’s your favourite dessert?

You might be able to tell that I have lots of favourite desserts. But one that I like is jelly and ice cream. Do you know how to make jelly? What do you need?

You need some jelly cubes, and some hot water and some cold water, and you mix them all together, and then where do you put the jelly? You put it into a mould. Whatever shape the mould is, the jelly will set in the same shape. So my moulds here have rounded bits at the bottom, but when it sets and you take off the mould, then the rounded bits will be at the top. The jelly is conformed to the mould, it follows the same pattern.

A while back we were at a friend’s 30th birthday party. And in their family, a special birthday tradition is that they get a jelly rabbit for their birthday. His mum has a jelly mould in the shape of a rabbit so when you take the mould away, you have a rabbit-shaped jelly.

And that’s what the world wants us to do - it wants to press us into its mould, to be conformed to its pattern - to do the same things as everybody else. And in school or in work, you might find yourself under pressure to be like everybody else in what you say, and think, and do. If you were to tell them you were in church, or that you go to BB or GFS, they might think that uncool or boring or stupid. And they want you to be like them. They want you to conform to their patterns.

But as we offer ourselves as living sacrifices (in view of God’s mercy to us), we’re not to be conformed - we’re to be transformed. We’re not to be the same as everybody else; we’re to be changed, to stand out from the crowd as we follow Jesus.

And that transformation - that change - comes about as our minds are renewed, as they are made new and refreshed. And we do that as we think about God, and read his word in the Bible, and as we pray to him.

Are you conforming to the world, or being transformed by God? Which voices are you listening to? Whose opinion is forming you and shaping you? Perhaps you need to change the channel that you’re listening to.

The world wants us to be like it, like other people, just the same. But Jesus wants us to be transformed, as we offer our whole bodies as living sacrifices to him - because he has already given himself for us.

So who are you following? Who are you becoming more like? The world? Or the Lord Jesus who loves you and calls you to follow him?

Today, as you make a commitment to be a good member of the BB or GFS, go further, and make the commitment to serve Jesus - and not just in BB or GFS, but in all that you do with all that you are - a living sacrifice in view of God’s mercy.

This sermon was preached at the BB and GFS Enrolment service in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 17th November 2019.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Cafe Church Talk: Wisdom for Life - Words

Over in the United States, there’s a debate raging on the right to carry a concealed weapon. Some claim that it’s their constitutional right, the Second Amendment allowing the right to bear arms. But others are worried about the possible danger. Weapons hidden, but always accessible, at the shops, in the street, even at church. You can’t see them, but they could be on the person you meet. Estimates suggest there are about 8 million active permits, out of a population of 320 million, 2.5% of people carrying these concealed weapons.

Yet Solomon, in Proverbs, warns us that everyone carries with them a deadly weapon. The wounds may not be physical, and yet the danger is just as real. Here’s what he says: ‘The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.’ (Prov 18:21). The little muscle in your mouth can be an agent of death, or a giver of life.

Have you ever considered the potential of the tongue? The tongue used to sing lullabys can also be used to criticise and demoralise the same child. The tongue which whispers sweet nothings to a lover can then hurl abuse. The tongue which shares pleasantries and shows politeness can be used to slander and gossip. The tongue which reports the truth can be turned to tell lies (even wee white ones). The tongue which sings God’s praise can also utter curses of God and people made in his image - maybe even before we’ve left the church building.

Perhaps we only realise the potential for harm when we’ve been on the receiving end of someone’s harsh words. We feel the sting; the words etched in our mind long after a physical wound would heal. Words have a way of getting under our skin and lodging in our mind.

Having been on the receiving end, we need to be careful how we speak to others. How many times have you had one of those toothpaste moments, when the words come out and you can’t put them back in. The words are out there, the arrow has been released, the poison unleashed.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that Proverbs contains so much about the tongue, lips, mouth and our words. Even in the little portion we read tonight from chapter 10, 11 of the 27 verses mention something to do with these. Proverbs is all about how we live wisely in God’s world; how we get on with those around us. The constant contrast is between those who are wise and those who are foolish. The wise are those who fear the Lord (as we saw in the first session, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom). The contrast is carried through between the righteous and the wicked, and tonight we see the contrast in the way we use our tongue.

Look at verse 11. ‘The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but violence overwhelms the mouth of the wicked.’ The words of the righteous are like a flowing fountain, bringing life. The mouth of the wicked, though, is overwhelmed by violence. Violence becomes the native language, the flow of the wicked mouth. This ties in with what Jesus said about impurity.

Do you remember when Jesus is tackled by the Pharisees for eating without washing his hands? He gets to the root of the problem. It’s not what goes into a person that makes him unclean. ‘what comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’

Your words may be a problem, but they’re the symptom, rather than the root cause. If you turn on the tap and dirty water comes out, it’s probably not a faulty tap. You have to go further back, to find where the problem lies. In the same way, our wrong words are the overflow of our wrong hearts - the problem lies deeper. To stop saying wrong things and bad things may help, but it won’t cure the deeper problem. It’s as our hearts are changed that our lives will be changed, and our words will be changed.

Proverbs gives us some suggestions on how the change needs to be brought about. Let me read from chapter 26. ‘Like a madman shooting firebrands or deadly arrows is a man who deceives his neighbour and says, “I was only joking.” Without wood a fire goes out, without gossip a quarrel dies down. As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife. The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s inmost parts.’ (Prov 26:18-22).

To deceive someone and then say after it all, I was only joking, well, that’s like someone throwing arrows and firebrands around in the street. The Bible isn’t saying that it’s wrong to have a joke. But the way we go about it can be dangerous.

Or what about the whisperer. Everyone loves a little bit of gossip, something to share about someone else. You might even dress it up as a request for prayer - Oh, did you hear about Sammy? You might like to pray for him after what happened... But Proverbs says that such whispering, such gossiping is like throwing more wood on the fire, it only continues quarrels.

The other day I saw a great definition of gossip and flattery. Gossiping is saying something behind one’s back you would never say to their face. Flattery is saying something to their face you would never say behind their back.

So how do we use our tongues? What do they say about us, as we talk about others? As they overflow from our hearts, what do they show about us? Even for Christians, the tongue is a problem. James addresses it in his letter, which is almost like a New Testament version of Proverbs. You could nearly even say that he goes further in condemning our tongues.

For such a small bit of us, it has a bigger influence - like a bit in the mouth of a horse to direct it where to go, or like a ship’s rudder. Yet the tongue is ‘a world of unrighteousness... set on fire by hell.’

We’re still prone to those double standards, the blessing God and cursing people. It’s like a stream that has both fresh water and salt water. Impossible! ‘My brothers, these things ought not to be so.’

So guard your tongue. Watch what you say. Check how you speak. You have the power of life or death in your mouth.

This talk was given at the Cafe Church in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 10th November 2019.

Sermon: Revelation 7: 9-17 Salvation belongs to God

‘They will beat their swords into ploughshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war any more.’ (Micah 4:3)

So says the prophet Micah, pointing forward to a time when war will be no more; when weapons of war won’t be needed; when swords and spears will be re-fashioned into farm implements; when peace and harmony will reign. And perhaps, as we gather on Remembrance Sunday, that’s our longing too. As we remember those from this village and district who marched off to war, or served in our province to keep the peace, we are only too aware of the pain, and suffering, and devastation of war and terrorism.

The names we recognise; the people we knew and loved. We remember them with pride and with sorrow. And we long for the day when war will be no more; when no one else has to suffer in the same way.

Following the horror of the Great War, the war to end all wars, or so they thought, the League of Nations was formed to be a group of nations that worked together to keep peace. The leaders of the nations said ‘never again’ and yet within 19 years, World War Two had begun. And so the nations tried again, after the ending of the Second World War, the United Nations was born.

Its primary purpose is to maintain international peace and security, as well as developing friendly relations among nations, achieving international cooperation, and being a centre for harmonising the actions of nations. By and large, it has helped maintain peace - and yet we’re all too aware of conflicts since 1945, and those ongoing today. The vision of Micah won’t be accomplished by the work of the United Nations.

But Micah’s prophecy will be fulfilled, and the nations will be united under one King, with one common purpose. And we see it in our second reading on page 1228 of the pew Bibles.

Revelation can sometimes be thought of as a strange book, one that’s hard to grasp and difficult to understand. But it can be summed up in just two words: Jesus wins. Revelation is a revealing, an unfurling of the story of world history - given to the apostle John to strengthen and encourage the churches who were facing trouble and danger and persecution.

And in chapter 7, John is given a vision of a great multitude that no one could count. Think of the biggest crowd you have ever been a part of, and then multiply that over and over. And in this huge multitude, the nations are united.

There are people in this great multitude from ‘every nation, tribe, people and language.’ (9) Somewhere in the crowd are Northern Irish people, Ulster-Scots, Scots, English, Welsh, Irish, and every other people group. However you identify yourself; whatever your heritage; there will be people like you among that crowd.

And where is this great multitude? ‘Standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.’ (9) The throne is God’s throne, and the Lamb is the Lord Jesus. This crowd is in heaven. And they are all dressed the same and doing the same thing: ‘They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ (9-10)

They’re joined by the angels and elders and the four living creatures in giving praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honour and power and strength to God. John had previously seen the angels and elders and four living creatures in chapters 4 and 5, but the crowd is new. He hasn’t seen them before.

They weren’t there earlier, but now they are. It’s a bit of a mystery to him. Perhaps it’s like a flashmob - you know where you’re just going about your business in a shopping centre and suddenly someone starts singing, and then a choir appears out of nowhere and joins in, and then they disappear again?

Who are they? Where did they come from? They’re dressed the same and shouting the same. We’re used to people dressing the same and shouting the same thing at football matches - but not with white robes and palm branches. So who are they? Where did they come from?

That’s what John is wanting to know, and yet one of the elders asks him that question. Perhaps you’ve had something similar happen. Someone knows something that you don’t, so they ask you about it, so that you then ask them about it. They ask, so that they can tell you. And that’s what happens here. The elder asks who are they and where they came from, and John can only say, “Sir, you know.” (14)

And what’s the answer he’s given? ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’ (14)

The great tribulation speaks of tremendous suffering, of a difficult experience, of standing against the full forces of the world, the flesh and the devil. These people from every nation have served God.

They have washed their robes and made them white - but not in Daz or Bold or whichever detergent you use. Look at what has made the white robes white - the blood of the Lamb. It doesn’t seem possible, does it? One red sock in the wash turns your whites pink. But the dirty robe washed in the blood of the Lamb comes out spotless and white. The elder is saying that this crowd has trusted in the Lord Jesus; they depend on his blood shed for them at the cross; this is their hope, their means of pardon and peace.

The blood of Jesus is our only hope. Do you see the connection between verses 14 and 15? It is only those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb who. ‘Therefore...’

This is the present reality for those who have died trusting in Christ. They have not been lost - we know where they are - they are with God. ‘They are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.’ (15)

This is what the apostle Paul wrote about to the Philippians when he said ‘for me to live is Christ, to die is gain.’ Even though these Christian believers have been taunted in life - where is your God? We can’t see him! In death, they are with him, as near as could be, seeing him face to face.

And being with God, they lack nothing. ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heart.’ In life, they may have suffered hunger or thirst, but gathered before the throne there is no lack. And it’s because ‘the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water.’

The Lamb is the one who shepherds, guiding to springs of living water. Jesus himself is the shepherd, not just in this life, but even in glory. ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’ It’s as if God has the Kleenex tissues at the ready, wiping away any tears. It’s God who removes suffering and ushers us into his presence.

You can see how this would be a great comfort and encouragement for John’s first readers. People from their church, people they knew well, had died, maybe even killed as martyrs. And they are safe and secure - God’s sheltered people, shepherded by Jesus, in white robes of purity and joy.

There is comfort here for us as well. Our loved ones, who died in the love of Christ, are also found in this multitude. They too are safe and secure with Christ. We may experience loss, but they are at home with the Lord. Perhaps when grief overwhelms us, it would be good to read this passage again and read about where our loved ones are - before the throne of God.

But what about us - what about you? Is this your future? Are you in this picture? People from every nation are gathered in heaven, but not everybody from every nation - the rest of Revelation and the rest of the Bible makes that clear. Everybody doesn’t go to heaven. Heaven is only for those who trust in Jesus; who wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb - trusting in Jesus’ death on the cross to take away our sins.

Are you trusting in Jesus today? Have you asked him to take away your sins? It’s only in Jesus that our robes can be white, and our future bright. As the crowd cries out with a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill at the Remembrance Day parade service on Remembrance Sunday, 10th November 2019.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Sermon: Matthew 6: 5-15 Prayer

I’ll never forget that particular class in high school. It was an RE class, and we were in one of the mobiles that had sprouted up over half of the all-weather pitch. Normally, we had books and files and Bibles out on the desk, but on this particular day, we only needed one sheet of paper and a pen of our choice. And our task was simple: write out the Lord’s prayer.

I wonder how we’d get on if we tried it right now? You see, you know it, you’ve known it probably since childhood, but in the moment when you’re put on the spot, could you remember it? The RE teacher wanted to see if we knew the Lord’s prayer, word for word, off by heart, and written down on the page in front of us.

You’ll be glad to hear that we’re not going to try that exercise now. We’ll say it together later in the service, but it’s easier when you’re saying it out loud, and all together. So easy, in fact, that it can be rattled off fairly quickly, from our longterm memory to our lips without even registering what we’re actually saying or praying.

Tonight, though, we’ll take it a bit slower when we say it later, and even slower now, as we think about it together. Here, in Matthew’s gospel, we find a version of the Lord’s prayer. But as you’ll notice, the Lord’s prayer didn’t just drop from the sky, written down for us to use. No, it comes with a context, within a chapter and section of Matthew’s gospel. So for us to get to grips with the Lord’s prayer, we need to get to grips with the Lord of the prayer.

In Matthew 6, we’re right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, a lengthy section of teaching, as Jesus spells out what it looks like to be a member of his kingdom. And last week, we started this mini section, which deals particularly with practical Christianity - our ‘acts of righteousness’ (1). Last week we looked at how we give to the needy and how we fast - and we saw that we’re not to do these things in order to be seen by other people and to be honoured by them. But rather, we’re to be secret agents, giving and fasting in secret, because our Father sees what is done in secret and will reward us.

And straight away as we turn to verse 5, we can see the same principle in work as we think about how we pray. Listen to what Jesus says: ‘And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.’ (5)

Now, in a little while, I will be standing here, praying and leading us in prayer. And next Sunday morning, if the Lord spares me, I will be standing at the junction of Main Street and Maynooth Road praying and leading the village in prayer at the war memorial. Should I not be doing these things? Am I acting in disobedience to Jesus by praying in these ways?

I could be, but I don’t think so. You see, it’s not so much the location that’s the issue, as the heart with which it is done. The motive of the hypocrite (the person playing a role, saying one thing and doing something else) is to be seen. The hypocrite here wants to be seen by everybody to be praying, so that people think - look at just how spiritual they are!

While there may be a danger that I want to be seen and thought well of - in our services here or at the war memorial, I’m there to facilitate worship and prayer; directing attention to God, rather than Gary. As we saw last week, to give or pray or fast in order to be honoured by people means that the honour of people is all we’ll ever receive - the fleeting, faint praise that won’t count for anything.

And for all of us, there’s always a temptation to be praised by people for something we’ve done; and the desire to be seen to be giving or praying or fasting. So what’s the answer? It’s to embrace the secret, hidden life of prayer:

‘But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.’ (6)

As we pray to God who is our Father, with all that nearness and intimacy, we’re not to parade it before anybody else. We’re to go in, out of the way, where we won’t be disturbed, or seen, and talk to our Father. He sees the secret places, and will reward us - with nearness, and intimacy, and will hear and answer our prayers.

Now again, Jesus isn’t saying that we should never pray in the presence of anybody else ever. Otherwise, our prayer time later in the service would be a quiet affair, and we would have to cut short our Growth Groups and All Together meetings so that we don’t pray in the hearing of anybody else. No, Jesus isn’t saying that at all. But when we do pray with others, are we praying so that they’ll think well of us; praying so that we’ll look good? Or praying so that our Father hears and answers our prayers?

To that end, Jesus gives us some further instruction on praying in verse 7: ‘And when you pray, do not keep babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.’ So the hypocrites, they prayed to be seen. And the pagans, they prayed to be heard - by babbling on, using ten words when two would do, in vain repetition as some versions put it.

Jesus says we don’t need to pray like that. It’s not that we need to use a certain number of words for God to hear us. Instead, we’re to come to our Father. He sees what is done in secret, and he knows what we need before we ask.

Rather than babbling on, Jesus gives us a prayer to pray (and to base our prayers on). In just 52 words in this version, he teaches us to pray for God’s glory, and our needs - in that order.

First on the agenda is God’s glory. We recognise who it is we are praying to, and the great privilege it is to call God our Father. The God of all the universe, who by his power sustains all things, is our Father. He is tuned in to our cry. He delights to hear our prayer.

But before we ask of anything for ourselves, we centre ourselves on God’s priorities, and God’s honour and glory. We do that as we pray: ‘hallowed be your name.’ It’s not, as one wee fella thought one time, that God’s name was Harold; no, but his name is to be hallowed, made holy. On Thursday it was Hallowe’en, which comes from All Hallow’s Eve - the night before All Hallow’s Day, or All Saints’ Day. The Saints are God’s holy people. And so for God’s name to be hallowed is for it to be regarded as holy, and honoured. and glorified.

And we do that as we align ourselves with him, as we seek for things on earth to be the way they already are in heaven: ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ (10) As we pray the Lord’s prayer, we desire what God desires - his kingdom to come, and his will to be done on earth. Every time we pray this prayer, there’s a challenge - is this what we really want? Is this how we’re living? Are we aligned with God’s priorities and God’s will?

Having first concentrated on God’s priorities, we then seek our needs. Not our wants, but our needs - those things we need the most. And you can summarise them in three words: provision, pardon, and protection.

Provision: ‘Give us today our daily bread.’ (11) We recognise that everything we need to survive comes from God. He is the giver of our daily bread. And so we look to him for this urgent need.

Pardon: ‘Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.’ (12) We’re used to saying the word trespasses here, but in Scotland they use the word debts and debts. I remember when visiting Lynsey, I would always get a gentle reminder when we came to the Lord’s prayer in her church not to loudly say the wrong word!

Whether we use the word trespasses or debts, we are acknowledging to God our Father that we have failed him, that we are his debtors, that we have stepped over a line, over a boundary, in what we have done, or in what we have failed to do. And we need his forgiveness, his pardon.

But the Lord’s prayer goes further than that. Jesus teaches us to not just seek forgiveness from God, but to offer the same forgiveness to those who have wronged us. Indeed, as he continues teaching after the prayer, in verse 14, he says that the two are connected, or even dependent. That our forgiveness of others will be reflected in God forgiving us; and our unwillingness to forgive will lead to our own sins being unforgiven.

In other parts of the gospels, we hear further teaching on this from Jesus, such as the parable of the unmerciful servant, who, when forgiven a huge debt he owes turns around and is unwilling to forgive a very small debt that he’s owed by another servant.

Forgiveness is never easy. Hurts can be painful. But when we reflect on the great debt that we owe to God, which has been forgiven, that same mercy and grace should flow through us to others.

Provision, pardon, and finally, protection: ‘And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’ (13). We pray for protection from temptation, and from the devil, the enemy of our souls, who roams about seeking to devour us. When we pray in this way, we acknowledge that we need God’s help, that we can’t do it by ourselves.

Jesus expects us to pray. And he helps us to know what to do as well as what not to do. We’re not to be like the hypocrites, who like to be seen; and we’re not to be like the pagans who like to be heard babbling away. But rather we’re to pray in secret, to our Father who sees in secret; and we’re to pray with simple words to our Father who knows what we need before we ask.

As we align ourselves with his priorities - his name, his kingdom, his will - then we can seek his provision, pardon, and protection.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 3rd November 2019.

Sermon: Genesis 8: 1-22 Beginnings: Out of the Ark

Hallowe’en is now over, and we’re already onto the next big thing. The adverts have already started, and soon you won’t be able to escape it. Now, I’m not talking about Christmas - I’m talking about I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! As I was thinking about Noah and his ark this week, I was reminded of how it’s a bit like I’m a Celebrity. Being cooped up in a confined space with a whole variety of creatures and critters - were there ever moments when Mr Noah thought to himself: get me out of here?

You might empathise if you’ve ever had an experience of cabin fever. You know if you’re stuck inside for a few days because you’re sick, or when the snow comes, and you just want to get out of the house and do something different? Imagine how Noah felt - not so much cabin fever as ark fever. After all, he wasn’t in the ark with the animals for a few minutes like on I’m a Celebrity, or for a few days like our snowed in days. He was in the ark - well, how long was he in the ark?

Last week we heard about the forty days and forty nights of rain. But he was in the ark longer than that. And at the end of chapter 7 we see that the water flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty days. But he was in the ark longer than that. A hundred and fifty days would be about five months, less than half a year. In total, though, Noah was in the ark for over a year.

Last week, we saw how God gave Noah some instructions - build the ark (all that hard work, over a long period of time, with the neighbours questioning and mocking the whole time); then go into the ark (with all the animals, two by two); then stay in the ark (the only place of safety and refuge as the flood judgement came on the whole earth and everyone else perished). This morning, we’ll see how Noah came out of the ark, and hear the first of the promises God makes to him, and to us in the world after the flood.

When chapter 8 begins, though, Noah is still inside the ark. He’s counted off the 150th day of his lark in the ark, and perhaps by now he’s getting narky in the arky. Verse 1 is the turning point, the high water mark. Do you see how it begins? ‘But God remembered Noah...’

Now that doesn’t mean that up until this point, God had forgotten all about Noah. God isn’t forgetful like that, or like we can be. Have you had those moments when you suddenly remember something you were meant to do, and it puts you into a panic? Or you remember you were meant to see somebody, and you’re all flustered? God is not like that. He has perfect knowledge of everything all of the time.

What it’s saying here is that God remembered in order to act on Noah’s behalf. So, at the start of Exodus, God remembers the Israelites who are slaves in Egypt - and his remembering them is his rescuing of them. So also here, God remembers Noah (and the animals) in order to rescue him from his confinement, to bring him out into a spacious new world.

You can see that as the sentence continues: ‘But God remembered Noah... and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded.’ (1) God remembers in order to rescue, and for Noah to get out of the ark, he needs the waters to recede. But it doesn’t happen immediately, and all of a sudden. Rather, it takes time.

Through the chapter you get the various time markers - the ark resting on the mountains of Ararat in the seventh month (4); the tops of the mountains becoming visible in the tenth month. (5) Another forty days and Noah sends out the first of the birds on a wing and a prayer. The raven, which doesn’t come back, and the dove which comes back because the water is still over all the surface of the earth.

Another week, and then the dove is sent out again and returns this time with a freshly plucked olive leaf! (11) To us, the olive leaf / branch speaks of peace, but for Noah it was a sign of new life, that the water had receded from the earth. (12) A week later, and the dove doesn’t return when it’s sent out.

And yet, still Noah is in the ark. He’s watched the year change, and sung auld lang syne, and he’s still inside his now not floating zoo. Noah has taken the covering off and sees that the surface of the ground is dry, and over a month later, the earth was completely dry. Look back to 2:11 - it was the seventeenth day of the second month when the rain started. And it’s now the twenty-seventh day of the second month, just over a year later. Each of the family have celebrated at least one birthday inside the ark, but now the moment has come, the moment they were waiting for for so long - the day when they could leave the ark and walk on dry ground in a whole new world.

‘Then God said to Noah, “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you - the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground - so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number upon it.’ (15-17)

Have you ever seen animals leaping as they are released from their winter confines? I’m sure it was quite a sight to see the aardvarks and zebras and everything in between enjoying their freedom after a year in the ark. And never mind the animals, I’m sure that the humans were glad to get out into the fresh air and the open space. No matter how good your family relationships might be, and no matter how close you may be to your nearest and dearest, you might be glad of a bit of space for once after a year in close quarters!

But what is the first thing that Noah did when he came out of the ark? He didn’t go exploring, or hill walking, or anything else like that. No, the first thing he did when he came out of the ark was to build something else. An altar, a place of sacrifice.

Now, last week, I asked how many of each animal did Noah take into the ark. We sang that the animals went in two by two, and then (at least some of us) were surprised to find that in 7:2 Noah took seven (footnote: seven pairs) of every kind of clean animal and two of every kind of unclean animal. I said you’d have to wait until today to find out why. Well, here’s the answer in 8:20:

‘Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it.’ (20)

If Noah had only had two sheep in the ark, and he’d then sacrificed them when he came out, then we wouldn’t have any sheep now! So the extra clean animals were for this sacrifice of thanksgiving. Noah was recognising that he and his family had been rescued even though they too were guilty and under the same sentence as everyone who had perished. And so he offers to God this sacrifice of burnt animals, their life for his, in thanks and praise.

God accepts his sacrifice. He smells the pleasing aroma, and makes a promise - a promise that he has kept right up to today, over all those many years since the days of Noah: ‘Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.
As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.’ (21-22)

Our hearts are still evil - just as they were before the flood - but now God has promised never to destroy the earth in another flood. Rather, he has pledged that life will continue, in those opposites that sit together and define our days: ‘seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night.’ As we go to sleep tonight, we can be sure that another day will roll around; as the cold comes in, we can be assured that some day it’ll warm up again and summer will come again - so long as the earth endures, until the Lord returns.

The Lord is remembering this promise he made long ago in the days of Noah. Because God doesn’t forget. We can depend on him because he is faithful. And just as he remembered Noah, confined in the ark, and acted for his rescue, so we can trust that the Lord remembers us as well.

Perhaps it seems as if you’ve been waiting for a long time, too long maybe. You’re confined in your circumstances - even in the place that God has led you. And sometimes it can be dirty, or smelly, or unpleasant. And you might even wonder if God has forgotten all about you. Take heart today! God doesn’t forget. He has remembered you - and is acting to rescue you.

The Lord Jesus is our perfect sacrifice - the pleasing sacrifice that takes away our sin. And as Jesus was dying on the cross, one of the two thieves who were crucified with him cried out to him: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ (Lk 23:42) And how did Jesus reply? ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’

The Lord remembers his people, and has acted to rescue us by way of the cross. As we trust him, our future is secure, no matter what we’re going through in the meantime. And today, the Lord calls us to himself, and to his table, to do this in remembrance of him. We remember the Lord who remembers us.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 3rd November 2019.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Sermon: Matthew 6: 1-4, 16-18 Giving and Fasting

Who are you trying to impress? Have you ever asked that question, or been asked it? Perhaps you’ve had a colleague who doesn’t really seem to bother to do much work, until the boss walks in and suddenly they’re the most attentive, helpful worker ever. Or maybe it’s a teenage boy, attempting to look cool in front of the girl he fancies, acting completely different than when she’s not around and he’s with his friends. Who are you trying to impress? Who are you wanting to be seen by?

When it comes to living out the Christian faith, there’s a chance that we can do something similar. We can be aware of our audience, and seek to impress them. Thinking to ourselves - how do I look to them? What will they think of me? Will they be impressed with what they see?

Over this autumn term we’ve been listening in to Jesus as he gives the Sermon on the Mount. He’s spelling out what it looks like to live in his kingdom. He starts with the blessings that can only come from God, and aren’t based on our performance. He continues by showing us how his law goes deeper than the externals, as he calls us to love God and our neighbour with all our heart. And now tonight, he begins a new section in the sermon, as he addresses three very practical parts of living out the Christian faith: giving, praying, and fasting.

Jesus says that there are different ways we can do each of these things. Tonight we’re going to focus in on giving and fasting and we’ll come back to praying next week. But for each of them, verse 1 is the key to understanding what Jesus is saying in this section:

‘Be careful not to do your “acts of righteousness” before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.’ (1)

Jesus is saying that we shouldn’t seek to do these things in order to be seen to be doing them by other people. That even these good things can be done for bad motives. So again, Jesus is getting below the surface, and getting to the heart of the matter. Challenging how we do things, and why we do them.

So, first up, think about giving to the needy. How do you go about it? I wonder, when you give to charity or give to the needy, do you make sure that everyone knows that you’re giving? Would you hire Hamiltonsbawn Silver Band to come and parade in front of you to make a big show so that everyone could see what a good person you are?

The whole band might be a bit much. But it seems that in Jesus’ day, some outwardly good people had a trumpet sounded, like a fanfare, as they gave to the needy. So they’re in the synagogue, and there’s a trumpet blast do-do-do-doooo! Everyone looks round in time to see a couple of coins being given to someone in need. And everyone thinks, wow, what a good person, giving in such a way.

Or they’re in the street, there’s someone sitting begging, and before they give something, they make sure do-do-do-doooo! Everyone sees, and maybe even applauds their generosity. Blowing their own trumpet.

Now that’s not quite the way we’re likely to do it these days, is it? Or maybe I’ve just not been in Portadown to hear the trumpet when you’re being generous. We may not have musical accompaniment to announce our generosity, but we could still have the same desire to be seen and to be thought well of by other people. We might be aware of our audience and try to play to it - perhaps with a big cheque and a photo in the local paper; a plaque showing our generosity; or some other means.

But Jesus has a name for people who act in this way: hypocrites. We all know what a hypocrite is - someone who says one thing and does another. It comes from the Greek theatre where an actor would put on a mask to become another character. Outwardly, we appear as generous, zealous for God; yet inwardly our motive is for our own praise and a good standing in other people’s opinion.

Listen to what Jesus says: ‘So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.’ (2)

If you live to be honoured by other people and you receive that honour, then that’s your reward. That’s all you’ll receive by way of reward. But these hypocrites (and the danger for us) is that we focus on the seen, and forget about the unseen. Jesus warns us against hypocrisy, and instead calls us to live by faith: ‘But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.’ (3-4)

Do you see the contrast in how we should give? Not with trumpets and a big show, but rather in secret - so secretive that even the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Quietly, secretly, and yet seen by the Father, who sees what is done in secret.

Proverbs 19:17 says that ‘Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward them for what they have done.’ That’s not necessarily promising that if you give to the poor then you’re going to receive back even more financially. But God is no one’s debtor. And his rewards are more than we can imagine.

The question is - whose applause are we living for? Who are we seeking to be honoured by? Other people? Or our Father in heaven? We should give, as we’re able, but seen only by the one who sees in secret.

[Perhaps you can take up this challenge. Think about how you can give to the needy so that no one else will know about it. Its like entering ‘stealth mode’ in computer games, trying to not be seen.]

The same principle applies in the other theme we’re going to look at tonight. Next week we’ll see how stealth mode applies to our prayer life; but tonight, let’s focus in on fasting. Just so we’re clear, fasting is to give up something, like food (or Facebook or something) in order to focus attention on God. And, just like giving, we can go about it with wrong motives.

So, there aren’t any trumpets around this time, but there can still be an attempt to make sure everyone knows that we’re fasting, so that everyone thinks well of us: ‘When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.’ (16)

So these hypocrites made sure that everyone knew they were fasting. They wouldn’t wash their face; they’d make sure to have plenty of ashes on their head; and they’d pull a big gurn, to show just how miserable they were. They might look like a false face that you could have calling at your door this week trick or treating.

But to fast so that people know you’re fasting, and therefore think well of you, and be impressed at how super-spiritual you are, means that you already have your reward. To live for the praise of people means that you’ll only ever receive the praise of people.

So what would this look like for us? Maybe when Lent rolls round again, making a big fuss so that everyone knows what you’re giving up, and how well you’re doing it, and how much you’re suffering through it.

And what should it look like? Here’s what Jesus says: ‘But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.’ (17-18)

When you fast (not if) - when you abstain from certain things (safely, and carefully, and if health allows), keep it between you and God. No one else needs to know about it. Otherwise you run the danger of doing it for the wrong audience, trying to impress others by appearing super-spiritual.

A while back I read an article on the rise of social media, trying to explain why people post so much, and share too much, like what they’ve had for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and every random thought in between. The author explained it as an attempt to be seen and be validated - because society no longer believes in God who is always watching us.

Do you see what they were saying (pardon the pun!)? If people don’t believe in God, then they have no one who is watching over them, and so they strive to be seen and acknowledged by someone, anyone, and so they post on social media. They want to be seen, and known.

But we have a Father who sees us, and knows us, and sees what is done in secret. So that even if no one else knows what we have done, and no one applauds us - he sees, and knows, and honours and rewards us. Whose applause is worth more? The temporary applause of the crowd? Or the enduring, eternal applause of our Father in heaven?

We’re called to give, and to pray, and to fast, in such a way that no one else knows. Because God sees, and knows, and will reward in his own way and his own time.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 27th October 2019.

Sermon: Genesis 6:9 - 7:24 Mr Noah Built an Ark

I’m sure that Thomas has a few children’s Bibles at home. They normally don’t cover every chapter and verse of the Bible, but instead choose to tell some of the stories found in the Bible. I’m also sure that nearly every one of those children’s Bibles will have the story of Noah. Isn’t it a great story for children? A great big boat, and loads of animals, going in two by two - a floating zoo! So you’ll get lots of colourful pictures and smiling animals of Noah and his ark.

We’re so used to this kind of image that it’s quite a shock to read the Bible’s account of Noah, and think through the details. The reality is less colourful cartoon, and closer to the desperate attempts made by people climbing into containers or trailers in the hope of a better life and a new start. But while those 39 who died on Tuesday morning, were in the trailer through peoples’ greed and wickedness; Noah and his family are in their box, their ark through God’s grace and goodness.

Now, perhaps as you hear about Noah and the ark, you’re thinking to yourself, well, that’s a nice story for a children’s story Bible, but surely it didn’t really happen? Is it more like a nursery rhyme, something that was just made up? Well, the Bible isn’t the only place that we find some kind of flood story. In just about every continent there are folk stories about a worldwide flood. So the cultural memory of what happened has been passed down in some way. And in our reading we hear that Jesus affirms that Noah existed and entered the ark.

So let’s look at Genesis 6 and 7 under three headings; three instructions given to Noah; to see what God is saying to us in these chapters.

The first instruction is this: Build The Ark. We’ve already sung about it this morning, but how did it come about? And why was it Mr Noah in the first place? When we start to read from verse 9, it sounds as if Noah is good, whereas everyone else is bad. You see, in verse 9, Noah is described as ‘a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.’ And the contrast is there in verse 12, and we think it’s saying that everybody else had corrupted their ways. Noah good, everyone bad?

But that’s not what the Bible is saying! You see, in a little while, if not already, Thomas will be learning how to count. And when he does that, he’ll learn that eight comes before nine. Now, that’s obvious, isn’t it? But we need to see here how verse 8 comes before verse 9. You see, in verse 8, it says this: ‘But Noah found favour in the eyes of the LORD.’ That word ‘favour’ is another word for ‘grace’. Noah found grace - or, to put it another way, God’s grace found Noah.

You see, it wasn’t that Noah was good and everyone else was bad. Noah was just as bad. But God showed him favour. God gave him grace, showered his love upon Noah - to make him righteous (that is, in a right relationship with God) and blameless. And God in his grace freely chose to save Noah from the coming judgement.

God had made the world, and everything in it, and throughout Genesis 1 we heard the repeated chorus: ‘God saw that it was good.’ And on day 6 of creation, ‘God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.’ (Gen 1:31). But since then sin has entered the world, as first Adam and Eve disobeyed, and then one of their sons killed his brother, and then the spiral of wickedness has continued to get worse and worse. So now, in chapter 6, what does God see when he looks on the world he has made? Look at verse 12: ‘God saw how corrupt the earth had become.’

And so God is going to send judgement, in the form of a flood. The people and the earth itself will be destroyed. Nothing will remain. Everyone is under the same sentence, but for Noah and his family there is the promise of rescue, in a place of safety. And it’s inside the ark that Noah is to build.

We see the dimensions of the ark there in verse 15: 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, 45 feet high. Made of cypress wood, covered inside and outside with pitch (tar), with rooms on three decks. And we’re given the passenger list - Noah and Mrs Noah, their three sons and their wives; as well as two of every living creature to be kept alive; and enough food for them all.

So Noah is told to build the ark, and verse 25 tells us that ‘Noah did everything just as God commanded him.’ We read that one sentence and move on, but just think what it took for Noah to do everything just as God commanded him. The number of trees to be cut down, and then cut up, and hammered together. The hard work to construct the ark, and cover it with pitch. And on top of all that, the ridicule from his neighbours. You can hear them laughing at him: ‘So, Noah, you’re miles from the sea, and you’re building a boat? You say there’s a flood coming? That it’s going to rain and rain and rain? Sure there isn’t even a cloud in the sky. And you say that God told you to do all this? You’re having a laugh!

It can’t have been easy. Peter describes him as a preacher of righteousness, persevering in his task even when the whole world laughed at him. And that’s what it can look like to trust God. Taking God at his word and acting on it - even when it looks like foolishness to everybody else. God told Noah to build the ark, and that’s what Noah did.

The second instruction is this: ‘Go into the ark.’ All the hard work has finished, and the ark is ready. And now God says that it’s time to go into the ark. In just seven days, the rain will start, and the flood will come. Now, how many of each animal went into the ark? Two by two? Yes, but there were seven (pairs) of each clean animal and two of each unclean animal. We’ll see why next week.

The ark is the place of safety, but they had to go inside it. It wouldn’t have been enough to know that you would be safe if you went into the ark, if you didn’t then go into it! To be on the outside of the ark is to be wiped from the face of the earth. But there is safety inside. And so even though Noah had pleaded with his neighbours, they wouldn’t join him. Only Noah and his family went into the ark. Just eight people were saved. Because only eight were inside the ark, the place of safety.

God had told Noah to build the ark, and then to go into the ark. The final instruction is implicit, rather than stated explicitly in the text, but it is this: stay in the ark!

When Noah and his family are inside, then the rain starts and the floodgates are opened. It rained for forty days and forty nights - in Ireland we call that summer. And as the rain falls, the ark is lifted high on the waters. Imagine being inside - the darkness, the smell, the not knowing what the future would hold, the not knowing if the ark you had made would be watertight and would float. But, as you may have heard, the Titanic was built by professionals whereas the ark was built by amateurs, and only one of them didn’t sink.

The flood covered the earth, so that every living thing that moved on the earth perished. God had fulfilled what he had promised in advance. Everything wiped out. Everything, except (v23) ‘Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.’ Having gone into the ark, Noah had to stay in it. No matter how difficult it was going to be, he had to persevere in obeying God’s voice, by staying in the ark, waiting for the future that God would provide.

The apostle Peter mentions Noah in the two letters he writes in the Bible. And in one of them, he uses the story of Noah as a picture of baptism - just as by faith Noah was brought safely through the water, so we are brought through the water by faith to be united to the Lord Jesus and find salvation in him.

You see, Jesus has promised that some day, he will return to judge everyone who has ever lived. And we, like the people of Noah’s day, are corrupted. We don’t even live up to our own standards, let alone God’s standards. And so we are guilty; we can’t stand before God.

But Jesus has taken upon himself the wrong things we have done. He has stood condemned in our place, and was drowned in the flood of God’s judgement, for us. He is our ark, the place of safety in the flood; the only refuge from God’s judgement.

Today, we celebrate that God’s grace is being offered to Thomas. And it’s our prayer that Thomas will grow up to rejoice in the unmerited favour of God. But just like Noah, it has to be received by faith - today, on the part of his sponsors, but some day, we pray, when he will trust in Jesus for himself.

But God’s grace isn’t just for Thomas. It’s offered to you today as well. There is room in God’s grace for you, a place in the lifeboat if you’ll come to him, and trust in him.

One day Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead. And right up to that point, life will be going on as normal, eating and drinking and marrying - just as it was when Noah entered the ark. But don’t be too late - get ready for that day now today. Receive his grace today.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 27th October 2019.