Sunday, March 31, 2019

Sermon: Psalm 139 Search me and know me

Today is Mothering Sunday, the day when we especially remember, and thank, and honour our mothers, and those who have been a mother to us. For most people, your mum was or is the person who knows you best of all. So with me, growing up, mum always seemed to know where I was, what I was up to, and everything about me. If I’d got into trouble, or done something I shouldn’t have, mum knew about it, and was waiting when I got home.

Now whether your mum was like that or not; whether you’ve had a good relationship with your mum or not; there is someone who knows you even better than that. That’s what we see in our Bible reading today, from Psalm 139. King David writes this Psalm, and it’s all about how God knows us, and loves us, and cares for us.

In verses 1-6, we see how God knows us. These days, every time you leave the house, you are being watched. And I don’t just mean by your neighbours. Just think of the number of CCTV cameras, police cameras, even dash-cams in lorries and cars - all keeping watch on what you’re up to. And that’s before you think of your Tesco clubcard and other loyalty cards - which monitor what you buy, in exchange for some discounts. OR the way Facebook or Amazon recommends adverts that you might be interested in. George Orwell talked about how ‘Big Brother is watching you’ in his novel 1984. But even more than all those various means, God knows you.

In almost every verse, we find the word ‘know’ or a similar word: ‘O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.’

Every time you stand up or sit down (and in church it can be quite a few times), God knows about it. Every thought that you think, God knows about it. Every time that you go out the door, every time that you lie down, God knows about it. Even before you speak, before you say anything, God already knows it. I could get you to guess what I was going to say next... no one might guess that I was going to say that african elephants have bigger ears than Indian elephants - but God knew that was going to come out of my mouth.

The question is, how does all that knowledge make you feel? Knowing that God knows everything about you - how do you respond to that? Are you happy that he knows? Or fearful? Or angry? Here’s what David says in verses 5-6:

‘You hem me in - behind and before;
you have laid your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.’

David’s response is amazement. He’s amazed that God has laid his hand on him, has chosen him, and knows all about him - he’s amazed that the great and awesome God of the whole universe knows all about little David - he’s amazed that God knows everything. It’s too much to really take it all in.

But God doesn’t just know everything about us, he is also always with us. That’s what he says in verses 7-12: ‘Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.’ (7-10)

You might be thinking about summer holidays, or holidays at Easter. And whether you’re planning to go to the other side of the world, or the other side of Richhill, the truth is, that no matter where you go, God is with us. So on Friday, my friend S has gone to NZ for a month. He might have just arrived, and even there, God is with him. You see, there’s nowhere that we can go that God is not already there. That’s true in New Zealand, or Norway, or Newry. It’s true in Paraguay and Portugal and Portadown.

It’s also true in the darkness. With the clocks springing forward today, this evening we’ll all be remarking about the great stretch in the evenings. But when darkness comes, we can’t see so well. Maybe in the darkness we’re hidden? But even the night is like day to the Lord. ‘even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.’

So God knows everything about us, and God is always with us. But there’s even more, because God has also made us. Here’s what David says: ‘For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with you.’ (13-18).

That tells us that God made us. Whether you’re tall or small; whatever your hair colour (or if you have hair); whatever your skills and talents and abilities; God made you to be you. He created us; he knit us together in our mothers’ womb. These days the scans can show the baby growing inside the mum’s tummy, can see in detail, but when David was writing this Psalm the first time the baby was seen was when it was born. But God sees, God knows, because God is at work, forming, making, knitting together. God knows all our days before even one of them came to be.

Isn’t that amazing? God knows us, God is with us, and God made us. It’s all amazing, and wonderful, and uplifting. And then the Psalm seems to take a weird turn. It’s almost as if it’s been tacked on at the end, out of place, like a copy and pasting error. Suddenly, David turns to talk about the wicked, and bloodthirsty men. So what is going on here? Well, let’s hear what he says:

‘If only you would slay the wicked, O God! Away from me, you bloodthirsty men! They speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name. Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD, and abhor those who rise up against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies. Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.’ (19-24).

David is concerned about the people who don’t follow God’s ways. God knows them too, because wherever they are, God is there, and God made them. But they have turned their back on God, they don’t want to know God, they don’t want to be with God.

And actually, this is all of us. You see, even though God made us, and knows us, and is with us, we have all turned away from God. If we have sometimes told our mums ‘leave me alone!’ we have definitely said that to God. We don’t want him! But that’s why Jesus came into the world. He lived the perfect life that we haven’t lived; he always and fully loved God and loved his neighbour - and fully honoured and obeyed his parents; and he died on the cross, the death that David says the wicked deserve.

On the cross, Jesus takes our burden of sin, our record of wrongs. Imagine if we had cameras following you all last week, every word you said, everywhere you went, everything you did, every thought you thought. Would you be happy for us to all watch that footage on the big screen? Or if we had a complete record of everything you’ve ever said, thought, and done?

Jesus died to take away all the wrong things we have done. He died to give us his perfect record, his perfect right standing with God; to give us his life - as a free gift of grace. All we have to do is receive it, by believing that Jesus died for us - by trusting him.

That’s what David is asking in those closing verses. He’s asking God, who already knows him, to search him; to forgive his sins, and to lead him in the way everlasting. Today, it’s our prayer that Noah will grow up to know Jesus as his Saviour, and to follow in the path of Jesus, wherever he may lead him. Jesus already knows Noah - our prayer is that Noah will know Jesus.

But it’s not just what we’re praying for Noah. We’re praying it for you as well - that just as God knows you, and is with you, and made you, that you would know God as well. Why not come to him today?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Mothering Sunday morning 31st March 2019.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Sermon: Psalm 114 Passover Praise

A picture paints a thousand words. I’m sure you know that phrase, and that you get what it’s saying. One picture is worth a thousand words - to see something helps to understand it in a way that it would take about a thousand words to explain.

Or think of a subject like English Literature. Students read, learn and memorise a poem of say, a hundred words, but then have to write an essay of two thousand or three thousand words on it. The poem is so simple, so concise, so well-written, but the explanation of it seems to be so much larger.

The Psalm that we’re focusing in on tonight might seem a bit like that. (Consider this your warning!). In 97 words, the writer packs in so much more, that the sermon will take a few more than 97 words to convey its sense and its meaning. (In fact, we’re already well over 97 words). Or to take the pictures - if each is worth a thousand words, then there is much to say on each of these word pictures. But don’t worry, we’ll be briefer than that.

Before we dive into the Psalm, just one brief introductory comment, particularly if you’re joining us tonight for the first time in our Psalms series. Psalm 114 is one of six Psalms that were set Psalms for the time of the Passover feast. So every year, when the Jews came to Jerusalem, these were the songs on their lips - the Passover praises. And so these were the songs that Jesus sang with his disciples on the night before he was crucified.

Now, all 6 Psalms were set for Passover, but it’s only our Psalm tonight, Psalm 114, that explicitly mentions the events of the Passover. We see that in the opening line of the Psalm:

‘When Israel came out of Egypt,
the house of Jacob from a people of a foreign tongue.’ (1)

In terms of the timeline of the Bible, we’re towards the start of it. In Genesis 12, God had called Abraham to be the father of a great multitude, in whose offspring all nations would be blessed. And so his family grew - Isaac, Jacob, and then his twelve sons. One of them, Joseph, of the amazing technicolour dreamcoat fame, went down into Egypt as a slave, sold by his brothers, only to rise to become Prime Minister - God having sent him for the saving of many people, including his own brothers. So the family of Jacob (also known as Israel), went down into Egypt.

That’s where Genesis finishes. By the time the book Exodus starts, they’ve been in Egypt for 400 years, and they are slaves. Back-breaking labour. Facing oppression. Calling for God to hear and help them. And he does. God calls Moses by the spectacle of the burning but not consumed bush, and sends him to Pharaoh saying ‘Let my people go.’

Pharaoh says no, and God sends a series of plagues on the land of Egypt. The last of the plagues is the death of the firstborn. In every home, the firstborn son would die. But for the children of Israel, the Passover Lamb died in their place - the blood sprinkled on the doorposts and lintel meant that God would ‘pass over’ that house.

So the events of the Passover are in view, and also the effects of the Passover. And we see the parallelism of Hebrew poetry - the two lines saying the same thing. Israel are the house of Jacob, and Egypt was the people of foreign tongue. And what happened when Israel came out of Egypt? We see in verse 2:

‘Judah became God’s sanctuary,
Israel his dominion.’

Both Israel and Judah are ways of speaking of the people of God. But it may well be that Judah refers to the tribe of Judah, from which king David came, and in whose territory the temple was eventually built (by Solomon). Sanctuary and dominion may well refer to the same idea of territory, saying it’s all God’s. but it might also be saying that Judah was God’s special sanctuary, his inner dwelling, while the whole nation was his dominion, his possession - kind of in the way that behind the Communion rail is the sanctuary, but the whole church building is dedicated and devoted to God.

In the next group of two verses, 3 and 4, we find a record of some of the big things that happened when Israel came out of Egypt. And again, what the writer says in five or four words might take a few more! Verse 3:

‘The sea looked and fled,
the Jordan turned back;
the mountains skipped like rams,
the hills like lambs.’ (3-4)

The sea looked and fled. That’s what we heard about in our first reading, from Exodus 14. The people have fled from Egypt, but in their way is a huge barrier - the Red Sea. Behind them, the Egyptians are in hot pursuit, having just let their entire slave labour workforce leave. And what happened? God made a way through the sea. It ‘fled’ to enable the Israelites to walk through on dry ground. They made it safe to the other side, and then the sea resumed its place, drowning the pursuing Egyptians.

That was at the start of their escape from Egypt. The next line comes at the other end of their wilderness wanderings, forty years later. By this stage, the people are on the brink of entering the promised land, the land that God had promised to give to Abraham and his descendants. But again, there’s a big barrier in their way. The river Jordan was in full flow, flooding its banks with the melted snow of springtime coming down from the mountains. Impassable. But what happened? ‘The Jordan turned back.’ It stopped flowing. And again, the people passed over on dry ground. (Joshua 3&4)

Verse 4 pictures something that happened in between those two miraculous events. ‘The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs.’ What’s in view there is the earthquake on Mount Sinai, when Moses was given the Law, the Ten Commandments. The mountains skipped, the hills also.

Now, it might seem that, having covered those events, telling us what happened in poetic language, that the writer is now just repeating himself. But notice what is happening here. Creation is being questioned. They’re being interviewed. So imagine a chat show, and you have four seats for the interviewees - the sea, the Jordan, the mountains, and the hills. And the question? ‘Why was it that you did what you did?’

‘Why was it, O sea, that you fled,
O Jordan, that you turned back,
you mountains, that you skipped like rams,
you hills, like lambs?’ (5-6)

The sea is normally in its place. The Jordan normally flows down hill, following its course. The mountains and hills normally stand still, not jumping and skipping. So what happened? Why was it you did what you did?

The answer comes in verse 7 - although we could have anticipated it from verse 2. ‘Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Judah.’

It is because God was with his people, in bringing them out of Egypt, and in bringing them through the wilderness, and bringing them into the promised land, that the creation acted in these weird ways. God’s presence cleared the way for his people through the sea, and through the river. God’s presence at the top of Mount Sinai caused it to quake and skip.

But verse 7 isn’t just the answer to the question of verses 5-6. In fact, the phrasing of verse 7 suggests that this is a command to the whole earth (both the land itself, and also the people who live on the land). It’s because the creation has already reacted in these ways to its Maker’s presence, that now the whole earth is advised to tremble at the presence of the Lord - his majesty and glory, his power and might, his holiness and his grace, his love and his mercy.

It can sometimes be that we emphasise God’s love, and grace and acceptance, but forget about how awesome God also is. The command to tremble is to be heeded. There is a proper fear and respect and honour due to God.

In the Book Revelation, we see the enemies of God trembling in this way, kings, princes, generals, rich, mighty, slave and free, when they call for the rocks and mountains to fall on them, to hide them from the face of God and from the wrath of the Lamb. (Rev 6:15-17) They tremble, because they fear God, but too late for mercy.

But we also see the creation itself trembling in our second reading. As Jesus sang these words with his disciples, he would have known what would happen the next day as he died on the cross. The sun refusing to shine, darkness over the land. The earth quaking and the rocks splitting, and even the curtain of the temple torn from top to bottom. (Matt 27:45-51). Creation trembling at the presence of God, at the death of the God-man, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Did you notice how verse 8 seems to be tacked on at the end? It’s another picture of what God did for his people in the wilderness, another sign of creation trembling at the presence of God - water from the rock, which happened twice (Exodus 17 and Numbers 20). A hard rock becomes a pool, a spring of water, a place of refreshment.

Paul, in 1 Corinthians 10 tells us that the people ‘drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.’ (1 Cor 10:4). And what was it that Jesus offers us through his death on the cross? ‘The water I give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’ (John 4:14).

Jesus is our Passover Lamb, the one who died to bring us freedom. He is the presence of God, who died to save us, causing the earth to tremble. And he offers us the river of the water of eternal life, flowing through him to satisfy our thirst.

Will you tremble now, filled with awe and wonder at the amazing, wonderful, free gift of salvation that Jesus offers? Or will you be brought to tremble eventually, in fear of the wrath of the Lamb?

Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 24th March 2019.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Sermon: Mark 4: 35-41 Who is this?

When I was in P7, our school trip went to York. I think it might have been the first time I was on a ferry. I had taken my travel sickness tablets, and, as we got out onto the Irish Sea, the boat began to rock, and I thought, oh no... I remember mentioning to some of the teachers that it was quite rough, only for them to laugh and say that it was actually very calm. And then they started telling all the horror stories of school trip sea crossings when it really was stormy!

In our reading today, the disciples find themselves in a boat a lot smaller than the Stranraer ferry. And on a sea a lot rougher than the gentle Irish Sea that day. And the boat trip leaves them asking questions. But we’ll come to them in a moment or two.

As we launch into the passage, we find that this episode comes ‘That day when evening came’ (35). In the rest of chapter 4, we’ve listened in as Jesus taught the crowds about God’s kingdom. Perhaps you remember the parables he told - of the sower, sowing the seed of God’s word, with the soils being the different reactions to it. Or the parable of the seed which grows, no matter what else the farmer does. Or the parable of the mustard seed, which starts off small, but ends up with exponential growth. And Mark reminded us that Jesus spoke the word to the crowd with many similar parables.

After the full day of teaching, now that evening has come, Jesus says to his disciples: ‘Let us go over to the other side.’ Back in verse 1 we saw that Jesus had used a boat as his pulpit, now he uses the boat as a boat, to travel across the Sea of Galilee. And they go straight away: ‘Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were other boats with him.’ (36).

These are eyewitness details - this is the record of someone who was in the boat, telling their story of what happened. And as the journey continues, you can hear the details of what was happening - and how frightening it all was: ‘A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.’ (37)

One of Northern Ireland’s national hobbies is talking about the weather, but even so, you may not use that word squall very often - I had to look it up to get the sense of it. A squall is a sudden violent gust of wind or localised storm. So imagine what a furious squall must have been like - an even more furious sudden violent gust of wind. A big wind, noisy, and fierce. And with it, the waves breaking over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.

Can you picture yourself there as one of the disciples? The wind blowing, the waves splashing, soaking you through, endangering the boat as it starts to fill up, desperately trying to get the water out again and take control of the boat, trying to weather the storm but not getting anywhere. Every hand to the deck, frantic stuff, life-or-death actions. And then someone looks to the back of the boat, and catches a glimpse of Jesus. He’s not pulling his weight, helping to keep the boat above the water. No, Jesus is (38)... sleeping on a cushion.

When I started driving, I would take my mum and dad and granny out for a drive on a Sunday afternoon. Somewhere different every week, somewhere we hadn’t been for a while. And every week, after a few miles of driving, at least one of them would fall asleep. Sometimes, all of them. And I’d think - why am I bothering to drive when you could all sit and sleep at home?! That might have been mildly annoying, but imagine the annoyance of the disciples. In fact, you don’t have to imagine it - look at the rest of verse 38: ‘The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”’

They can’t believe that Jesus, their Teacher, has been sleeping in the storm. They’re all in danger. They’re afraid, even the experienced fishermen among them. Yet Jesus has been sleeping in the storm. Don’t you care if we drown? In other words, get up and help. Maybe they expected him to help by throwing some of the water back out of the boat. Maybe he could help by rowing as they tried to get to safety. Whatever they expected from Jesus, it wasn’t what he actually did when he got up:

‘He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.’ (39).

Jesus, who was sleeping in the storm is now stilling the storm. The furious squall of wind, blowing a gale, dies down. It’s a bit like when the teacher leaves the classroom to go on a message. And slowly, the sound levels from the class begin to rise. Everyone is talking, laughing, enjoying a few moments to catch up in the middle of class, and then suddenly, the teacher returns. One word - quiet - and the class is deadly silent again. The sound of silence would be deafening.

And as for the waves? One moment, breaking over the boat, the next, completely calm. Growing up, we always had Matey for our bubble bath. It produced loads of bubbles, but we also worked out that if you started to make waves, by paddling, or by moving your legs back and forth, you got even more bubbles. It was great fun, right up until the moment when the water started splashing out of the bath and soaking the bathroom floor. But once the splashes started happening, I couldn’t say to the water, no, don’t go over the edge!

But that’s what Jesus does. He says: ‘Quiet! Be still!’ And suddenly, everything is calm. No more wind. No more waves. It is quiet.

Quiet, except for the voice of Jesus. Look at verse 40. ‘He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”’

Jesus had rebuked the wind and the waves, but now Jesus is rebuking his disciples. He’s questioning their fear. He’s challenging their lack of faith. He’s asking them those searching questions.

Why are you so afraid? The obvious answer is that they were so afraid because of the big bad storm that had hit their boat, threatening their very lives. Yet Jesus is asking why they were afraid, even in the midst of the storm. He’s saying that there was no reason for them to be afraid. They didn’t need to fear, no matter how big or bad the storm was. Not when Jesus was with them.

Do you still have no faith? What is he asking there? Jesus seems to think that they should have faith, they should be trusting him, believing in him. He seems to think that by now they should know who he is, and should be trusting him. It’s not even, ‘Do you have no faith?’ It’s, ‘Do you still have no faith?’ Earlier they maybe didn’t trust him, but do they still not trust him? After all they’ve seen already?

As you’ll see time and time again, the disciples are a bit slow to pick up on things. They don’t really get what’s happening. They misunderstand. That’s encouraging, because sometimes we can be a bit slow on the uptake - at least I can - and yet Jesus perseveres with the disciples. He gives them another opportunity, and another. He keeps teaching them, showing them, and he does that for us as well. If this is discipleship for slow learners, then we’re in we’re all in the same boat (pardon the pun).

Jesus, who was sleeping in the storm is the one who stills the storm. But rather than answering the disciples’ question, it leads them to a bigger question, a more troubling question, a more fundamental question. Look at verse 41: ‘They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

It’s obvious that the disciples were afraid in the midst of the storm. Jesus asks them, ‘Why are you so afraid?’ But do you see when we’re told that they were terrified? It’s not when the wind is blowing. It’s not when the waves are crashing over the side of the boat. ‘They were terrified’ in verse 41, when the wind had died down, and the waves were calm, and the danger was past.

They were scared before, but now they’re terrified. The original Greek says: ‘And they feared fear a great’. Why do they fear a great fear? Not because of the storm, but because of the stiller of the storm. Do you see what they ask? ‘Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!’

Next time you’re at the seaside, try this (making sure you’re not near other people, in case they wonder what you’re at) - tell the waves to be still. Would it work?

Or the next time the wind gets up, when Storm Hannah rolls in, tell the wind to be quiet. Will it work?

But Jesus speaks to the wind and the waves, and they obey him. They do what he says. So who is this Jesus? Do you see what they thought of him, back in verse 38? ‘Teacher, don’t you care that we drown?’ They see him as their teacher. But Jesus is more than a teacher. So who is he?

Mark leaves the question there, for now unanswered. The disciples are slowly discovering who Jesus is. But remember that Mark has already told us in the very first verse of his gospel. ‘The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ And our readings from Job 38 and Psalm 65 show us that it is God who rebukes the waves, who tells the sea what to do. Can you see who he is? Jesus, the one whom the wind and waves obey, is more than just a man - he is also God the creator, who commands his creation. He is God over all, he’s in charge. He stills storms.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 24th March 2019.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Sermon: Psalm 113 - Passover Praise

When reading the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, there are lots of little details that seem to stand out. Small things that are mentioned, in passing, and then the story moves on. And, perhaps, as you read, there are things that you wonder about, things that you’d like to know more about, questions that you have. I have a few of them as well - stored up and ready for the day I meet Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and get to finally ask my questions!

Our series tonight begins to answer one of the questions that I had. You see, both Matthew and Luke tell us that at the end of the Last Supper, ‘When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.’ (Matt 26:30, Mark 24:26). Having been in the choir from the age of 8, any time I read that, I would always wonder, what hymn did they sing? And looking through the hymnbook, none of the hymns in the Church Hymnal seemed to be old enough, mot written from the 1700s on. So I stored up that question.

But now I know the answer! Within Judaism, there were set readings and set Psalms for every day and season. And at Passover, there were six Psalms that were set - the Psalms that we’ll look at between now and Palm Sunday - Psalms 113 - 118, the Egyptian Hallel. So as we study these Psalms in the run up to Easter, we are hearing the songs that Jesus sung as he celebrated Passover, as he prepared to go to the cross to be our Passover Lamb.

So let’s dive in to tonight’s Psalm, Psalm 113. And straight away, we see that it is a call to praise. That’s very obvious in the first three verses, isn’t it? In each of the verses, we find the word praise or praised.

I’m sure you know of the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah. Maybe some time we’ll sing it in church. But that word ‘Hallelujah’ is the first line of this Psalm in Hebrew. Where we have ‘Praise the LORD’, that literally says in Hebrew ‘Hallelu Yah’ (see footnote). So this Psalm is like an Old Testament Hallelujah chorus, calling people to praise the LORD. It’s the first line, and it’s the last line, so it’s all about praising the LORD.

But we’re told much more than just to praise the LORD. We’re also told the who, the when and the where in those opening verses. In the rest of verse 1 we find the who: ‘Praise, O servants of the LORD, praise the name of the LORD.’ So the call is going out to everyone who is a servant of the LORD, who serves the LORD, to praise the LORD. And, as we’ll see, this isn’t just a select few, it’s not just those who wear robes or dog collars - it’s for everyone who serves the LORD in whatever way. So are you a servant of the LORD? This Psalm calls you to praise the name of the LORD.

As well as the who, we’re also told the when. Verse 2: ‘Let the name of the LORD be praised, both now and for evermore.’ So when is the name of the LORD to be praised? Is it just for a short while? Just when it suits? Does it have an expiry date, a cut-off point, a backstop? No, it’s both now, here and now, and for evermore. The call is to permanent praise. So if it’s now, then it’s time to praise - it’s what we’ll be doing for ever, so why not start now?

So we’ve seen the who, the when, but what about the where? Is it just in the temple, or just in Jerusalem? No! The scope is much bigger than that - the call to praise goes out further: ‘From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets, the name of the LORD is to be praised.’ (3) The sun rises in the east, and sets in the west, so if the sun shines on you, this is a call to praise wherever you are. This is a world-wide call for worship.

Down beside the Odyssey in Belfast, there’s the W5 science exploration centre. Through lots of interactive displays, children are introduced to learning about their world while having fun. The name W5 comes from the 5 Ws - who, what, where, why, when. We’ve seen four of them already - the what of praising; the who - servants of the LORD; the when - now and for evermore; and the where - all over the world. The one we haven’t seen yet is the why - but that’s what verse 4-6 answer.

So why should we praise the name of the LORD? Why should we join in this Hallelujah chorus? We are called to praise the high-over-all LORD.

Do you see the sorts of words that are used to describe the LORD? He is exalted over (4), above (4), enthroned on high (5), stoops down to look (6). All those words combine to show us that the LORD is high-over-all. In Ulster-Scots, the chief executive of a company is the ‘high heid yin’, but the LORD really is high-over-all.

He is exalted high over all the nations. Remember that these are Psalms reflecting on the Passover experience of Israel - who had been slaves in Egypt. And so as the Israelites think of their past treatment at the hands of Egypt, or the current and future threats, and their time of exile in Babylon, time and again they had experienced the height of the power of other nations. Yet they remind themselves that God is higher than the nations - all the nations. He is exalted high over all the nations.

And linked to that, his glory is exalted above the heavens. Just think of the glory of the heavens - a glimpse of a rainbow, the majesty of a sunrise, or the glory of a beautiful sunset. Yet God’s glory is above the heavens. It’s above and beyond anything that we can see. So why should we praise? Because he is the high over all LORD.

And to make the point, in a slightly different way, verse 5 asks the question: ‘Who is like the LORD our God, the One who sits enthroned on high, who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth?”

Who is like the LORD our God? The short answer is just two small words. Answer? No one! But the question goes on to show why no one else is like the LORD. He is the one who sits enthroned on high. He is enthroned - he’s on the throne, ruling and reigning over the world and the universe. And so the use of height emphasises his position - enthroned on high.

And verse 6 builds on that idea of height to show just how high over all he really is. ‘... who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth.’ When was the last time you stooped down to look at something? Maybe it was in the shop, as you tried to decide which tin of custard to buy. For me, it was probably in a bookshop, stooping down to see what books were on the bottom shelf. The image carries the idea of getting down low, in order to better see something far below.

And what is it that God stoops down to see? The heavens and the earth! We look up at the heavens, but God has to stoop down to look on us, because he is so high above us, enthroned on high.

So far we have seen that Psalm 113 is a call to praise the high-over-all LORD. And you might be thinking that the ‘why’ has so far been a bit above you. Yes, God is high over all. But does that mean that he doesn’t really know us, or doesn’t really care for us? That even when he stoops down to see us, it’s like us stooping down to watch creepy crawlies in the garden, casually watching a few ants for a moment or two?

Nothing could be further from the truth. God is not distant, aloof, and uncaring. You see, as Jesus sang this Psalm with his followers at the Passover, he himself had more then stooped down to look on the heavens and the earth - he had stepped down to become man. And why did he do it? Was it just out of interest? A way to pass the time, to see what it was like to be human - a bit like the way the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip would drive around London in his own Black Cab?

Psalm 113 tells us why the LORD is worthy of praise. Did you notice back in verses 1-3 that in each verse it mentions ‘the name of the LORD.’ Your name is more than just what people call you when they want your attention. Your name also refers to your character, to what sort of person you are. And God’s name is to be praised because of his character - he is the loving, caring, redeeming, saving God. And that’s what we see in the closing verses. The LORD stoops down to look and steps down to save.

Do you see the verbs (doing words) in verses 7-9? Here’s what the LORD does. He raises (7), lifts (7), seats (8) and settles (9). He comes down in order to lift up. He comes down to make a difference by saving and redeeming.

So in verse 7, it’s the poor who are raised from the dust, and the needy who are lifted from the ash heap. They’re down and out and desperate and destitute. They’re in the lowest place possible, dust and ash heap. But the LORD intervenes, he steps down in order to raise them and lift them. And where are they lifted to?

‘He seats them with princes, with the princes of their people.’ Paupers are seated with princes, it’s a real rags to riches story. Or maybe rags to royalty. It’s what Graham Kendrick captures so well in his song ‘Meekness and Majesty’ - ‘Lord of infinity stooping so tenderly, lifts our humanity to the heights of his throne.’

This is why Jesus came, and why the next day, Jesus will go to the cross - in that down, down, down descent that Philippians 2 records, making himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, humbling himself, obedient to death, even death on a cross. But it was for us that Jesus came down, down, down, in order to lift us to be with him. It’s so amazing, and all of grace.

That’s why it’s so shocking that, as they eat the Passover and sing these songs with Jesus, the disciples are busy arguing about which of them is the greatest! They have been chosen to sit on the twelve thrones, the princes of Israel, by God’s grace, yet they want to make sure their crown is bigger and better than everyone else’s!

The LORD’s character is all of grace, to save and rescue. He raises, lifts, and seats. But verse 9 reminds us, he also settles the barren woman in her home as a happy mother of children. Through the Bible there are a number of times that this has happened. The one that springs to mind is the case of Hannah, the mother of Samuel. Indeed, verses 7-8 in this Psalm are a quotation of her song in 1 Samuel 2 (verse 8). Hannah herself was the barren woman given the child Samuel. But there were more besides - Samson’s mother (Judges 13), Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist (Luke 1), and Sarah, the wife of Abraham.

She waited for her promised son, Isaac for twenty-five years before he was born. And it seems that Sarah is in view here, as the mother of the children of Abraham. In view is the family of Abraham, the children of Israel, the people of God - God’s family. Together we are being brought into God’s family and household, through Jesus our Lord and our Redeemer.

Perhaps as Jesus sang this song with his disciples, as they shared the Passover, he was reminded again of what his mission involved, and what he would accomplish the next day as he died on the cross. Through his death and his resurrection, we see more clearly what our God is like - his name and character, his uniqueness, his universal reign - and it calls forth our praise.

And so Psalm 113, the first of our Passover Praise Psalms, is a call to praise the high-over-all God who came down to raise us up.

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

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Sermon: Mark 4: 21-34 Kingdom Parables

Last week, we tuned in to the Match of the Day highlights of one day of Jesus’ teaching. The main focus was on the parable of the sower - how the same seed is scattered over different sorts of soils, but the soils produce vastly different responses. We then got the inside track on what the parable is all about - the sowing of God’s word, and how people respond to it. Now, on Match of the Day, they’ll include bits from each of the games that have taken place, and from our reading this morning, we see that it’s further highlights from the same day of teaching.

Do you see that at the end of our reading, in verse 33? ‘With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.’ (33-34). We’re getting to listen in as Jesus speaks ‘the word’ - as he sows the good seed. There were many similar parables, but Mark is giving us these four so that we can hear Jesus’ words, and so that his word will produce a harvest in and among us.

That harvest theme comes in the two kingdom parables, which we’ll come to in a moment or two, but first, Jesus gives us two parables to encourage us to listen up, and to encourage us to think about the word that we’re hearing.

Maybe over the past week, you’ve been pondering the parable of the sower. You’ve been thinking about which of the soils you are. You’ve been reflecting on the ways in which you sow the seed of the word, and the responses that you’ve seen. Well here, Jesus is encouraging us to keep pondering, keep thinking about what we’ve heard him say.

In verse 21, Jesus asks a question. ‘Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed?’ So, even though there’s a quare stretch in the evenings, and the days are getting longer, there still comes a time when you need to turn on a lamp. For us, they’re electric, just a flick of the switch. For the people hearing Jesus that day, it would have been an oil lamp. But whether it’s electric or oil, the principle is the same. Would you turn on a lamp, and then cover it up, or put it under the bed? Answer - no, of course not! What good would it be?

He then continues by saying: ‘Instead, don’t you put it on its stand?’ With electric lamps, they’re probably in place on a table or unit. With oil lamps, they would be put on a stand. Why? So that things could be seen.

‘For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.’ (22-23).

Now, I must confess that I’ve been struggling to grasp what Jesus is saying here. And especially how it fits into this day of teaching. But I think I’ve got it now - and I think it helps us to see what Jesus is saying. Have you heard of a lightbulb moment? It’s the moment when you suddenly ‘get it’ - when you realise what something means. The Collins English Dictionary defines it as ‘a moment of sudden inspiration, revelation or recognition.’

Before it, we were in the dark about something, but now we can see it and understand it. And just as God’s word is like seed sown in our hearts, so it is also a light, or lamp. It shines in our darkness and helps us to see. Remember how last week (11), the secret of the kingdom of God’ had been given to the disciples? Jesus is encouraging all who hear to think about what they’ve heard - ‘If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.’ Because it’s as we think, and ponder, and reflect, that God’s word will turn on the light, and we’ll get it! We’ll have that lightbulb moment (or oil lamp moment!) as we hear what Jesus is saying.

And the next parable builds on that encouragement to listen, and particularly, (24) ‘Consider carefully what you hear.’ Think about it - because the more receptive you are, the more you’ll be given. ‘With the measure you use, it will be measured to you - and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.’ (24-25).

These days we bring along our own shopping bags, and you normally know what you’re planning to buy, so you have the right number of bags with you. But here, the image is of something being given out, and you get as much as you’re willing to receive. So imagine that grain is being given out, for free. The bigger the bag or container you bring, the more you’ll be given. Or, imagine an all-you-can-eat buffet. When you’re going there, you make sure you’re hungry, you’re ready to eat lots, because you can eat as much as you can eat. But if you go and only want one piece of toast, then it would be a waste!

But what is being given out is more precious than an all-you-can-eat buffet; more precious than grain; what’s being given out is God’s word. The hungrier you are for it, the more God will give you. The more you take in, the more you will be given. One commentator suggests that while in primary school, to be called big ears would be an insult - this is what Jesus wants us to have, spiritually speaking. When you sit down to read your Bible, or when you come to church, are your ears big, ready to listen, to take in what God is saying? With the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

So let’s ask God to shine his light in our hearts, to help us to grasp his word. And let’s ask God to give us big appetites and big ears to hear his word to us. Because when we do that, then we come to the promised harvest. This is how we’ll produce the thirty, sixty, or a hundred-fold crop from the parable of the sower. And we see the harvest in the two parables of the kingdom from verse 26 on.

‘This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces corn... As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.’ (26-29).

Jesus is teaching us how the kingdom of God comes. At the start, comes the sowing - the seed is scattered on the ground. And at the end, comes the harvesting. By then the plant has grown and is ready and ripe.

So how did it come about? Does it depend on the farmer? Not really - so long as the seed is sown, he doesn’t really have anything else to do with it until harvest time. Whether he slept from sowing time until harvest, the plant would grow. Whether he tried to stay awake the whole time, he wouldn’t make any difference to it. He doesn’t even know how it works - he just knows it does. Seed into soil equals a harvest.

And, building on the parable of the sower, we know that the seed is the word, God’s word. So when the word has been sown in the good soil, the harvest will come - you can depend on it. We can’t do anything to help propagate the seeds, we don’t need to keep digging them up to see if anything is happening below the surface. We can trust that God’s word sown in peoples’ hearts will bring a harvest.

You might have heard Martin Luther’s summary of how the reformation came about just over 500 years ago. ‘I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.’

That was Luther’s summary - I did nothing; the Word did everything. I don’t think I’d like Wittenberg beer; I don’t like any beer. But am I content to preach the word and let the word do the work? Are you? That’s what Jesus is saying - when we sow, the word grows and produces a harvest.

In God’s kingdom, his word is effective. But then Jesus goes on to show how in God’s kingdom, his word is also exponential. Look at verse 30:

‘What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.’ (30-32).

The contrast here is between how it starts, and how it ends up. You have the smallness of the mustard seed, something very tiny, 1-2 millimetres (0.039 to 0.079 in). It’s so small, unimpressive, it looks like it wouldn’t amount to much. Yet it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, big enough for birds to perch in its shade. The smallest becomes the biggest. We’ve a similar saying - great oaks from little acorns grow.

And Jesus says this is what God’s kingdom is like. It seems so small, so unimpressive - just Jesus, and his twelve apostles. But history shows how that ragtag bunch has grown into something much bigger. A while back, Regatta clothing company were running a special advertising campaign looking back at the history of the company, how a group of people had started to make affordable outdoor products back in 1981. Here was their strapline: ‘There were 12 of us. Now there are millions.’

Couldn’t that be our strapline? There were 12 of us, but now there are billions. And it’s because God’s kingdom is like the mustard seed, starting small but growing exponentially, beyond all expectation. You’re invited to become part of his kingdom, and it comes about as God’s word is sown and grows in your heart - as you hungrily hear God’s word, and as God gives you the lightbulb moment of understanding. The harvest is coming. God’s word is effective, beyond all expectation.

If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 10th March 2019.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Sermon: Nehemiah 13: 1-31 Remember Me

We all know how fairy tales are meant to end. From no age, we’ve heard the stories of Cinderella, or Snow White, or Sleeping Beauty. And they all the same way, with a fairy tale ending. You know how it goes: And they all lived happily ever after. We know how fairy tales end - and we are brought up to have the same kinds of expectation for our own real life stories. But I don’t have to tell you that real life stories don’t always end in the fairy tale way.

Too often we see in others, or experience in our own lives that, actually, things don’t always work out the way we expect, and people don’t always have the happy ever after.

I wonder if you were surprised when you heard the closing chapter of Nehemiah’s story? No matter what way you look at it, this is far from a happy ever after. Just in case you need to be brought up to speed, we’ll do a quick recap. Nehemiah had been cupbearer to the king of the Persian empire. He had been born in exile, far from Jerusalem. He had heard of the state of the city (walls broken down, gates burned with fire), and the people of the city (in great trouble and disgrace). And so he wept, and prayed, and answered God’s call to build up the city and the people - so that, in time, God’s promised Messiah Jesus would come from that nation.

And this book has told Nehemiah’s story - oftentimes like a journal, where Nehemiah records what happened, and also his personal thoughts and reflections on what was happening. And through the first twelve chapters, we’ve seen how God was gracious to him, and helped him and the people to complete the work, building the city wall in 52 days (despite opposition, taunts and threats); and building up the people of God through hearing, understanding and obeying God’s word. A day of repentance brought about a new agreement to follow God’s Law. And last week we saw how they celebrated the dedication of the wall, with much joy and rejoicing. That would have been the moment to end the movie, to roll the credits, and rejoice in all that God had done. And the caption on the screen would have said: ‘All they all lived happily ever after.’

Except, that’s not quite how everything turned out. From the highs of chapter 12, we plunge into the depths of chapter 13. And everything seems to have gone wrong. All Nehemiah’s hard work seems to have been for nothing. And so Nehemiah records what happened - and with it, records a series of prayers in the light of those events, each time asking God to ‘remember me.’

We get the timescale in verse 6. Nehemiah had arrived in Jerusalem in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes, and in the thirty-second year and returned to Susa, to the king. Some time later (we’re not told how long), he comes back to Jerusalem. And it’s on his return that he discovers how things have been going in his absence. And to his horror, he discovers that their determination to follow God’s Law has slipped away, and they’re repeating the disobedience of previous generations of the people of God.

So what went wrong? And how would Nehemiah sort it all out? That’s what we see in this chapter. And the first instance is in verses 1-3, where they were actually over-zealous in applying God’s Law. Mostly, when we think of falling away from God, we think of letting things go, not being so strict, of licentiousness, whatever goes. But obedience to God is like walking a tightrope. On one hand, there’s the danger of being casual about things (we’ll see that in the rest of the chapter), but on the other side of the tightrope, there’s the danger of legalism, trying to be more strict than God.

So when the people hear the Book of Moses being read, and they hear that ‘no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God’, the people are over-zealous in their response to the Law. In verse 3, we see that ‘they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.’

But that was an over-reaction. It wasn’t even what God had said! In verse 2 we see why the Ammonites and Moabites were to be excluded. ‘Because they had not met the Israelites with food and water but had hired Balaam to call a curse down on them.’ We’re back in the days when God had rescued his people from Egypt. And the Ammonites and Moabites were afraid of the Israelites, so that they refused to help them in the wilderness, and tried to call down curses. God turned Balaam’s curses into blessing).

So with verses 1-3 in front of you, listen to Deuteronomy 23:3, and compare and contrast. ‘No Ammonite or Moabite or any of his descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, even down to the tenth generation.’ Now, how did they get it wrong? By this stage, 1000 years later, they were long past the tenth generation, so any Ammonites or Moabites who wanted to come and worship the true God should have been welcomed; after all, Ruth was a Moabite, and she came to worship the God of Israel, and even ended up in the Messiah’s family line! But also, the short-term restriction of ten generations had only been for those two nations. Not, as verse 3 says, ‘all who were of foreign descent.’ They’re over-zealous, and getting it just as wrong.

But let’s move on to see the opposite danger of letting things slip. We see that from verse 4, with the neglect of the God’s house. Within the temple buildings, there were a number of storerooms, with a priest in charge of them. Now, this priest, Eliashib, he was closely associated with a name that should be familiar - Tobiah. He had been one of the main opponents of Nehemiah. And yet Eliashib allows Tobiah to move in to the large room in the temple buildings. It would be like us sub-letting the Vestry.

With Tobiah moved in, there was no room for the things that should have been stored in the storeroom - the grain offerings, incense, temple articles, and tithes. And so, things had slipped. Verse 7 describes it as an ‘evil thing’ and so it’s no wonder that Nehemiah threw all of Tobiah’s stuff out of the room.

Imagine Tobiah coming home, and finding everything he owns out on the street. The locks changed. And no room to move his stuff back in, because Nehemiah has purified the rooms and moved all the equipment and offerings back into the room again.

So why was this such an evil thing? Tobiah was doing his friend a favour, but he was damaging the worship of the temple. We see that because of the knock-on effect of Tobiah’s occupation of the room. With nowhere to store the offerings, the Levites and singers hadn’t been paid (in the food they were to eat), and so they had gone back home to their own fields. So you turn up to temple worship, you wait for the choir to sing, and there’s no choir. You look for the Levites to do their bit in the worship, and they’re not around either. The house of God is suffering, and the worship of God is suffering.

Remember back in the big agreement everyone had agreed to in chapter 10? What was the last line summary of the whole thing? ‘We will not neglect the house of our God.’ (10:39). Yet now, Nehemiah asks the question in verse 11: ‘Why is the house of God neglected?’

Nehemiah’s remedy is to re-establish the tithes (from ‘All Judah’), and to appoint different men to take charge of the storerooms, men who were ‘considered trustworthy.’ (13). And after that, we get the first of Nehemiah’s prayers: ‘Remember me for this, O my God, and do not blot out what I have so faithfully done for the house of my God and its services.’

He’s asking God to remember him, but there almost seems to be a bit of self-pity - he has been faithful, even if everyone else hasn’t been.

In the next section, the problem is the desecrating of the Sabbath. Again, this had been part of the big agreement, that they wouldn’t buy from neighbouring peoples on the Sabbath day. But again, they have slipped away from God’s standards. Men from Judah are treading winepresses, bringing in grain, as well as wine, grapes, figs and other kinds of loads. In other words, they are working on the day of rest. And others are getting in on the act too - the men of Tyre, bringing in fish to sell on the Sabbath. So Nehemiah confronts the nobles of Judah, the leaders of the people, and rebukes them (17). ‘What is this wicked thing you are doing - desecrating the Sabbath day? Didn’t your forefathers do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity upon us and upon this city? Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath.’ History was repeating itself.

The remedy was that Nehemiah ordered the gates to be shut, and not opened during the Sabbath. A few times the merchants came and spend the whole night outside Jerusalem, but Nehemiah chased them. And again, we get the second of Nehemiah’s prayers: ‘Remember me for this also, O my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love.’ (22)

He’s still appealing for God to remember him based on his actions, but now he’s asking for mercy, according to God’s great love (or steadfast love).

In the last section, we see the problem of inter-marrying with the surrounding nations. It’s not so much that other nations are wrong in themselves, it’s more that they don’t worship Israel’s God - it’s the not being unequally yoked with unbelievers that we find in the New Testament. But Nehemiah discovers the problem for himself with these marriages - half the children ‘did not know how to speak the language of Judah.’ In other words, they didn’t know and couldn’t understand God’s word and couldn’t worship Israel’s God.

Nehemiah is frustrated by this ‘terrible wickedness’ and takes out his frustrations on some of the men - rebuking, beating, cursing, and pulling out their hair. Why? Because he sees history repeating itself all over again. He points to Solomon, the great king, but he was led into sin ‘by foreign women.’

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, it turns out that the grandson of the high priest was married to a foreigner, and no ordinary foreigner at that, but the daughter of Sanballat the Horonite. Sanaballat had been the one who had mocked the work (2:19), had plotted against the work (4:7), and had tried to frustrate the work (6:2-5). Back in 2:20, Nehemiah had said: ‘As for you, you have no share in Jerusalem.’ Yet now, here he is, the father-in-law of the high priestly family.

So now we get another of Nehemiah’s prayers - the same word, but a different sentiment: ‘Remember them, O my God, because they defiled the priestly office and the covenant of the priesthood and of the Levites.’ (29). Remember them, not in blessing, but in judgement. That’s the tone of that prayer. And it comes out of a passion for God’s glory and holiness.

The remedy comes in verse 30 - Nehemiah purifying the priests and Levites of everything foreign, assigning them duties, and making provision for the worship of God in the temple through firewood and firstfruits.

By the end, Nehemiah appears to be demoralised, and disappointed. His efforts for reformation and revival have been frustrated, time and again. So what are we to make of his story?

We see that just trying really hard to keep God’s Law doesn’t really work. None of us can do it. We’ll fall into legalism or licence. And we simply can’t do it.

We see that sometimes, even our best efforts for God don’t seem to make much of a difference - at least not in our lifetime. Yet here we are, two and a half thousand years later, reading the story of Nehemiah, warts and all, something that Nehemiah could probably never have imagined possible.

And we see that while we may not have the fairytale ending in this life, God has prepared something so much better for his people. The book finishes with Nehemiah’s final prayer. A short prayer. Gone are his merits. Gone are his brownie points. And he closes with a simple prayer that goes like this: ‘Remember me with favour, O my God.’ A simple prayer for grace.

It’s a prayer not unlike the other prayer we heard in our second reading. It too came from a man at the end of himself, yet a man who was the complete opposite of Nehemiah. Nehemiah had struggled to obey God’s word, the other man was hanging on a cross, his crimes having caught up with him. Yet he prays a similar prayer that Nehemiah’s: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’

There’s no reason why Jesus should remember him. No list of merits, achievements and accomplishments. But none are much of a help. We simply need to come, nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling. And Jesus, the innocent one, dying on the cross for lawbreakers and sinners, gives this other dying man a great promise - the assurance of salvation: ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’

Jesus answers prayers like that, and prayers like Nehemiah’s last one, because he is the Saviour of religious types and sinner types and all types of people. And what is promised? Much better than a fairytale ending - paradise itself. No matter how things go in this life, or how our lives come to an end, like a fairytale or not, we have this promise of paradise to look forward to, and to enjoy forever.

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

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Sermon: Mark 4: 1-20 Sowing Seed

Saturday evening’s TV schedule from August through to May is fairly predictable. After the game shows and Casualty, when the News has finished, then the familiar theme tune begins, and Match of the Day kicks off. I’m sure you’ll know how it works even if you don’t watch it. Every Premier League game played that day is featured, but they don’t show the whole game. Instead, they show the highlights, and then they talk about what they’ve seen.

This morning, we’re getting the Match of the Day highlights from another day of Jesus’ teaching. As we’ve already noticed with Mark, he tells us where Jesus is - he’s by the lake (1). And as we’ve also noticed with Mark, he focuses on the crowds that are gathering to hear and see Jesus. This time, the crowd is so large that Jesus has to get into a boat, out on the lake, with everyone along the shore, listening to all that he’s saying.

It’s in verse 2 that we see that we’re getting the Match of the Day type highlights. ‘He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said...’ So Jesus taught many things, but Mark is picking out one memorable parable to present here in his gospel. And it’s certainly a memorable parable. I’m sure that as you heard it being read, you thought to yourself, here we go, the parable of the sower. We know what that’s about. You’ve heard it all before.

But don’t switch off just yet! Don’t start organising your week, or counting the number of panes on the windows, or seeing how many sweets you can eat before the sermon finishes. Because this is a story about you. I’m not sure if Premier League stars tune in to Match of the Day to see what’s said about them. But this story that Jesus tells today is about you. You’re featured in it, somewhere. I wonder can you find yourself in it?

The story itself is well known. The farmer goes out to sow his seed. But don’t think of a high precision type of operation, where each individual seed is guided into a purpose-dug hole, for maximum yield. The word Jesus uses is (4) ‘scattering the seed.’ Think of a bag of seed, and the farmer scatters it as he walks along. And, as Jesus tells the story, we see that the seed really does go everywhere. Some on the path, which (Mary Poppins-style) feeds the birds. Some seed on rocky places, with quick growth and quick withering. Some seed among the thorns, where it doesn’t really get a chance to grow. And some seed on good soil, producing a bumper crop, thirty, sixty or a hundred times what was sown.

And that’s the story over. To round off the story, Jesus says, there in verse 9, ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’ So, did you hear what Jesus said? And if you did, what did he really say?

You see, it sounds as if Jesus was giving a lesson in agriculture - helping people to work out where they should sow their seed to get maximum output. Or maybe he was dictating a column for the Farming Life on sowing techniques. Is that what he wants us to hear? Or what is it all about?

Well, there’s something more going on here. You see, verse 2 had said that Jesus taught in parables. And a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. But what is the meaning? And why does he bother speaking in parables? Why not just come out and tell us what he means?

That’s a good question, and it’s the one that the disciples ask in verse 10. The crowds are away. It’s just Jesus with the Twelve and the others around him. And they ‘asked him about the parables.’ (10). They’re confused as well, they don’t really understand what he was saying. (So we’re in good company if we’re not sure either!).

Verse 11: ‘The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, “they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!”’

Jesus says there are insiders and outsiders. The insiders are his disciples, and they receive the secret of the kingdom of God. But those on the outside hear the parable, but don’t really understand what’s being said. Jesus is quoting there from Isaiah 6 (our first reading), where the prophet Isaiah is sent out by God to preach, even though the people aren’t going to listen to him. The same thing is happening here - the crowds are flocking to hear Jesus, but they don’t really hear him, they don’t really understand him.

We are in a privileged position, because we get to hear the inside story. We get to hear what the parable is all about, and so we can find where we are in the story. But first, there’s a little bit of a rebuke for the disciples there in verse 12. ‘Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?’ This is a basic parable, an easy one to grasp, so let’s see what it’s all about.

Verse 14: ‘The farmer sows the word.’ So in the parable, every time you see the seed, what is being sown is the word - God’s word. It’s the same seed, the same word. And God’s word is scattered, it’s sown everywhere and anywhere. But that word falls in four different types of soils, four different types of hearers. Every time the word is sown, you’ll have these four different reactions. So which of these are you?

First of all, some people are like seed along the path, with the birds. ‘As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them.’ (15) That might be some of us here today. You hear what’s said, you hear God’s word, but before we stand to sing the next hymn, it’s gone. You’ll not think of it again. Satan has taken it away, so that it doesn’t even have a chance of growing in you.

Other people, they’re like the rocky places. They quickly respond to what they’ve heard - ‘they receive it with joy.’ (16). And you think - brilliant! They’ve got it, and they’re making quick progress in growing up as Christians! But in the rocky places there are no roots, and so ‘they only last a short time.’ (17). Quick response, and quick falling away. Why do they fall away? They’re not rooted and able to keep going when trouble comes. ‘When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.’ It’s not about how you start, but about how you finish.

Other people, they’re like the thorny places. They’ve heard the word, they’re starting to grow up, but other things are growing in the same place. ‘But the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.’ (18-19).

So far, the farmer’s labours haven’t really seemed worth it, have they? Three quarters of his seed has been sown and he has nothing to show for it. And if you’re involved in sowing the seed of God’s word in whatever way, perhaps you can too easily focus on the discouragements - the people who don’t really seem to get it; or the people who started well and then fell away; or the people who got choked up on everything else.

But don’t give up just yet. You see, the last type of soil more than makes up for the rest. Alongside the path, and the rocky soil and the thorny ground, there is also the good soil. The soil where the seed produces a bumper crop, multiplying thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown. It’s all worth it, and the harvest will be gathered in.

So why does Jesus tell the parable, and what does it mean for us? I wonder did you notice how the parable started and ended. At the start of it in verse 3, he says: ‘Listen!’ And at the end of it in verse 9, he says: ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’

Jesus is calling us to listen, to hear what he’s saying, for the word to take root in our hearts. The only way it can take root in our hearts is by listening to Jesus, hearing his word, and responding to it. So listen carefully!

And perhaps, as you hear the parable, and you identify yourself in the story as one of the soils - perhaps Jesus is challenging you to improve your soil, by removing the rocks or the weeds that keep us back from hearing and growing. So how soil-y are you?

But the focus is really on the sower. And we can find ourselves sowing the seed of God’s word in a variety of ways - formally and informally. Maybe in church, preaching, or in Sunday School or some of the youth organisations as you share something from the Bible; maybe as you share a nugget from the sermon with someone you meet; maybe as you share a verse on your Facebook or other social media; maybe as you have family Bible times around the kitchen table. But as you sow, you’ll encounter these differing responses. And you might be tempted to give up. To not bother sharing God’s word. But Jesus says to keep doing it! Because as you scatter, it will sometimes land on the path, or the rocky ground, or the thorny ground. But sometimes it will land on good soil, soil that is ready for God’s word, and the growth will be amazing, far bigger than you could ever imagine.

So this is a word for sowers - keep sowing, wherever and whenever you can. And this is a word for everyone who hears God’s word - listen up!

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