Sunday, April 21, 2019

Sermon: Luke 24: 1-12 Remember...

How good is your memory? Are you good at remembering things? We’re going to see just how good you are at remembering things.

Here’s a group of twenty objects. Take a wee while to look at them, and then we’ll see how many you can remember...

Ok, so, shout out which objects you can remember, Let’s see if we can get them all?
butterfly house lock apple
chair pencil scissors computer
clock ice cream guitar globe
rainbow phone bulb plant
kite plane hammer cake

Did anyone remember all twenty? Maybe you aren’t so good at remembering pictures. Are you better at remembering words? Here are twelve words. A research project suggests that 90% of people won’t be able to remember all twelve.

Is there anyone thinks they can remember all twelve?
vase cookie holiday bridge magic office
computer crown fox ink green vehicle

So how good are you at remembering things? In our Bible reading today there are three words that are repeated. Do you think you can remember what they are? The words are: find/found; wondering; remember. So listen out carefully for those words - they are important in all that we’ll hear about this morning.

This morning, very early, when it was still dark, some of us got up out of bed, and went along to the Argory. Has anyone ever been to the Argory? Have you been at 6am? now, what took us over at that time of the morning?

It’s because Easter starts at sunrise. Look at verse 1. On the first day of the week, that’s Sunday; very early in the morning, that was 6am; the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb.

These are the women who had watched Jesus die on the cross. And they watched where Jesus was buried in the tomb, a cave with a big stone rolled across the entrance. And they go with spices on Sunday morning. And there, we get the first of our special words. What is it? Find/found.

We’re told that they FOUND something when they got to the tomb. What was it they found? ‘They found the stone rolled away from the tomb.’ (2) The big heavy stone had been rolled away. That’s what they found when they got there.

But what did they not find? ‘But when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.’ (3) They had come to bring the spices for Jesus’ body, but they didn’t find him there.

So they found - the stone rolled away; and they didn’t find - Jesus. And that made them do the second of our words for this morning. What was it? ‘Wondering.’ They were wondering where Jesus’ body had gone to. They were wondering why Jesus wasn’t in the tomb.

It was ‘while they were wondering about this’ that two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning - angels - stood beside them. To misquote Bohemian Rhapsody, they gleamed like lightning, they were very, very frightening.

They ask the women a question: ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?’ They were looking for something that didn’t fit in. So, I’ll show you four objects - which doesn’t belong? Here’s the first - it’s the plane. They all have wings, but the plane isn’t a bird. Here’s the second - it’s the carrot, all the rest are fruit. They were looking for Jesus in the tomb - but they were looking in the wrong place, because Jesus wasn’t dead any more. The angel says: ‘He is not here; he has risen.’ It’s no wonder they were wondering why they couldn’t find him.

Now, so far we’ve seen two of our words - what were they? Find/found; and wondering. What’s the third? Remember! Did you remember that one?!

The angel uses that word as he tells the women what they need to do, to understand what they’re seeing. He says: Remember! ‘Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: “The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.”’ (6-7)

Earlier we were trying to remember the words that were on the screen. The women had to remember the words that Jesus had spoken about what was going to happen to him. You see, Jesus had already told them everything that was going to happen. They should have known, they should have remembered. But it took the angel to remind them, to help them to remember. And then they remembered what Jesus had told them, back in Luke 9:22:

‘The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.’ (Lk 9:22)

Sometimes to help me remember what I need to get, I’ll write a list. And when I get each thing, then I check it off the list. That’s what the women had to remember.

Jesus was going to be delivered into the hands of sinful men. Check. That happened on Thursday night. Jesus was going to be crucified. Check. That happened on Good Friday. Jesus was, on the third day, going to be raised again. Check. That happened on Easter Sunday. They should have known in advance, but they had forgotten those words of Jesus.

But now, with the angels reminding them, ‘Then they remembered his words.’ (8) Jesus had said what would happen. And now they’ve remembered that he knew what was going to happen to him.

But remember that each of our special words was going to appear twice in our reading. Which word have we only seen once? We’ve had find/found; we’ve had remembering. What’s the other one? It’s wondering.

The women go to tell the disciples the good news that Jesus is alive, that he has defeated death, that everything had happened just as Jesus had said. But the disciples, they can’t understand it all. In fact, look at verse 11: ‘But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.’ (11)

You’re having a laugh! You’re making it up! It seems like it’s nonsense. They know that Jesus died on the cross. How many disciples were there now? Eleven. How many go to look? Luke tells us that Peter got up and ran to the tomb, to have a look for himself.

He saw the strips of linen that had been wrapped around Jesus’ body, lying by themselves. And then he went away, ‘wondering to himself what had happened.’ (12) Even after he had been told, he was still wondering about it all. It was such a surprise - that Jesus who had died was now alive again. But it is true. Jesus really is alive. And we can celebrate. We might still be wondering about it all. But think about what the women found - the stone rolled away, and they didn’t find Jesus inside. And remember what Jesus had said in advance about what would happen - He has completed his checklist. Delivered over, crucified, raised again.

Will you remember this good news? And celebrate this good news. Jesus is alive!

This sermon was preached at the Family Service in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Easter Sunday 21st April 2019.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Sermon: Luke 23: 38-43 Characters Around the Cross: The Criminal

All week we have been looking at the characters around the cross. Pilate, who sought to wash his hands of Jesus, who in his indecision decided against Jesus. Mary, who poured out her worship as she poured out her expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet - costly, unashamed, extravagant worship. Judas, who sold Jesus for thirty silver coins, betraying by a kiss. And Peter, who was one minute ready for prison and death with Jesus, and who later that night denied even knowing him - but who was restored and commissioned to strengthen his brothers.

Tonight, our characters are quite literally around the cross of Jesus. As we heard Luke’s account of the passion, we were told that Jesus was crucified along with the criminals - one on his right, the other on his left. All week, there has been a spelling mistake on the sheets - and at the head of tonight’s service too. You see, we aren’t just focusing (as I had originally planned) on one criminal. We need to consider them both.

In the two crucified criminals, we see two different reactions to Jesus - in fact, the only two ways to respond to Jesus. So as we consider each in turn, ask yourself, which am I like?

The first criminal, he sides with the crowd. Luke tells us about the people watching as Jesus was crucified. The rulers sneered at him: ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.’ (35) They remember how Jesus has helped and healed so many other people. But they turn it into a jibe. He saved others, but he can’t save himself. It would be like a champion lifeguard who had saved others from drowning, who drowned himself.

Besides the rulers, the soldiers also mock him. ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’ (36) They were showing what happened to people who thought they were the king of the Jews. They would end up on a Roman cross, unable to rescue themselves. Come on, if you’re a king, prove it!

So the first criminal joins in with the mocking. He hurled insults at Jesus. He says: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ (39) If you’re really the Christ, the anointed one, the long-promised king, then you should be able to save, not just yourself, but me as well. Did you notice the word each of them used? Save. Save yourself. Come down from the cross. Get yourself out of this mess. And while you’re at it, save me as well. If Jesus really is the Christ, then he should save himself, and save the criminal.

But in order to save others, Jesus cannot save himself. Jesus could have saved himself - but he could not have saved anyone else. It was to save you that Jesus hung on the cross.

The first criminal mocks and sneers, and ultimately rejects Jesus. But the second criminal has a different response to Jesus. Perhaps it was in seeing how Jesus died - in praying forgiveness for the soldiers who crucified him; but he recognises that there is something different about Jesus.

He rebukes his friend, because he recognises that Jesus is innocent. These two men, they were hardened criminals. They deserved all they got. ‘Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.’ (40-41) But Jesus was different. ‘This man has done nothing wrong.’ (41) The wages of sin are death - but Jesus hadn’t sinned; he hadn’t done anything wrong; he didn’t deserve to die at all, let alone on a cruel Roman cross.

He recognises that Jesus is innocent. But he also recognises that Jesus is the king. The sign above Jesus’ head proclaims that he is the king of the Jews. It was a further attempt to mock - look at the so-called king of the Jews, and what we have done to him. At this very moment, Jesus is like no king the world had ever seen.

He wears a scarlet robe - of his own blood, flowing freely from the beating and scourging he received; on his head he wears a crown of thorns. His royal throne is the cruel cross. Yet this man cries out: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. (42)

Despite the circumstances, this criminal recognises that Jesus is the King. And so he entrusts himself to this King. He seeks to join his kingdom, by naming Jesus as his King. And when he does so, he receives an amazingly wonderful promise: ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’ (43) Jesus, by his death on the cross, the righteous dying for the unrighteous, has instituted his kingdom, and opened the way for sinners like you and me, and this penitent thief, to be with him in paradise. All we need to do is trust in Jesus, who endured the punishment for our sins. When we name Jesus as our king, we have the promise of paradise.

The dying thief, in his final moments, is rescued from his hellward path and finds himself in heaven. You might hear this and then think to yourself, there’s loads of time yet. I will wait until my dying moments, on my deathbed aged 99. But can you be certain of that? Would you chance all on that day in the future, when you’re not certain of tomorrow? Bishop JC Ryle once said: ‘The penitent thief shows that it is possible to receive Christ just before death - but there were two thieves that day, and only one received Christ and was welcomed into paradise.’

Two criminals. Two responses to Jesus. To ask the question we started the week with - the question that was on Pilate’s lips: What will I do with Jesus? Will you reject him, and mock him? Or will you trust him as king, and receive his promise of paradise?

May this be your prayer tonight: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill in the Characters Around the Cross Holy Week series on Good Friday 19th April 2019.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Sermon: Luke 22: 31-34, 54-62 Characters Around the Cross: Peter

Hopefully by now you’ve had the opportunity to visit the prayer room in the hall. Among the many prompts for prayer, you’ll find the ‘pray for the world’ corner. And on the table, there are some fact sheets from the Open Doors World Watch List. Each year, Open Doors produces the World Watch List, highlighting the countries where Christian believers face the worst persecution. You can read about (and pray for) the top 5 - North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, and Pakistan.

Christians in those nations (and in the other 45 from the World Watch List) face danger and persecution just because they are Christians. Many face the choice between denying Jesus or dying. And, time and again, Christians choose Christ and death, rather than denying their Lord. When we hear of what is happening around the world, we realise just how easy we have it here in Northern Ireland. It’s not illegal for us to meet together; we aren’t in danger of the secret police interrupting our meetings, of being arrested, or of facing death.

And yet, even here in Richhill, there might still be pressures to deny Jesus. They may be more subtle, but they will still come. It might be as you call into a friend’s house on the way home, and they tease you about being in church on a Thursday night. Or maybe in your workplace when you’re asked what you did at the weekend, and you share all sorts of things, except where you were between 11am and 12noon on Sunday morning. Or a friend will challenge you about something the Bible says - you don’t really believe that, do you? The pressure is to conform, to avoid embarrassment, to not be put on the spot. So you smile, and dodge the question.

In case you’re feeling guilty, and just before you switch off, take heart. You see, rather than the Bible portraying perfect people and honourable heroes; God in his grace gives us the fill picture - as Oliver Cromwell is reported to have asked while having his portrait painted: ‘warts and all.’

We think of Peter as one of the heroes of the faith - the bold, outspoken, courageous, first off the mark, leading disciple. We look at him and think he must be in a league of his won; so high above us in rank and power; he wouldn’t do the things we have done. Yet look at him as our reading ends tonight: ‘He went outside and wept bitterly.’ (62)

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back to the start, and see how Peter finds himself weeping bitterly - and what it might mean for us.

Back in verse 31, Jesus is still in the upper room with his disciples. They’ve shared in the Last Supper, when suddenly Jesus shared some surprising words with Peter (who is also called Simon):

‘Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail.’ (31-32)

Jesus says that Satan has asked God for something. Other versions suggest something even stronger - that Satan has demanded. What has Satan asked for? ‘To sift you as wheat.’ That ‘you’ is plural - you all (or yousins). Satan wants to sift all the disciples as wheat.

Now, when I hear of sifting, it normally makes me happy. It means that Lynsey is busy in the kitchen with a sieve and some flour, which means that in a little while there’ll be some cakes or buns to sample. Good times. It’s not such a good time for the flour in the sieve though. It is shaken around, bumped about. It wouldn’t be so pleasant.

For the wheat being sifted, it was to be shaken up so that the chaff would be removed, and the wheat held in the sieve. But this is Satan asking for the disciples to be sifted, to be buffetted, to be tested, to see if they will give up on Jesus. All the disciples will be sifted, but Jesus tells Peter that he is praying for him, that his faith may not fail.

Do you see how Peter responds to these words? ‘But he replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”’ (33) The other gospels recall similar words of bravado, where Peter says something like - even if all the rest fail you, I never will. They might fall away, but I’ll remain with you. Even at this point, Peter is being sifted, tested.

Jesus speaks the unthinkable for bold Peter: “I tell you, Peter, before the cock crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.” (34) Now, we’re not told how Peter responds here. Matthew and Mark both tell us that Peter says, ‘Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.’ (Mt 26:35, Mk 14:31) He doesn’t believe what Jesus has just told him.

But it’s one thing to declare that we love Jesus and stand with him in the upper room where it’s safe. It’s another thing on the dark hillside of the Mount of Olives, or by the fire in the courtyard of the high priest’s house. It’s one thing to sing our praise to Jesus here in church, but another thing by the fireside of a friend. What will happen to Peter?

By verse 54, Jesus has been arrested on the Mount of Olives. He has been taken to the high priest’s house. The rest of the disciples aren’t mentioned. They have fled. But Peter ‘followed at a distance.’ He hasn’t given up yet. Peter joins the crowd by the fire, he’s settling into his place, getting warmed up, when the first accusation comes.

‘A servant girl say him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with him.”’ (56) She may have been among the crowd which had gone to arrest Jesus. She may have watched as Peter swung the sword and lopped off the ear of the high priest’s servant. She knew him, had seen him with Jesus. But he quickly denies it: ‘Woman, I don’t know him.’ (57)

Time passed, and again the accusations come. ‘You also are one of them.’ ‘Man, I am not!’ (58). And an hour later, a third accusation comes: ‘Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.’ (59) This is all taking place in Jerusalem, among the city slickers. Galilee was away to the north, a more rural place, with a different accent, maybe seen as a bit more backward. It would be like someone from a rural part of Northern Ireland being up in Belfast, you can tell they’re from somewhere else. So to be a Galilean, where Jesus was also from, was to be seen as part of Jesus’ group.

‘Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the cock crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.’ (60-62)

In just a few words, we get the drama of the scene. The Lord turns and looks straight at Peter. And Peter weeps bitterly. What a turn around, in the course of one evening. I am ready for prison and death. Then, I don’t know him.

Was Satan triumphant in his request? He had requested that the disciples be sifted like wheat. It looks like they have all failed the test. They have all abandoned Jesus. And Peter, despite Jesus’ prayer that his faith may not fail, Peter has failed and denied his master. Is Satan victorious? Are we pawns in Satan’s hand and power?

Definitely not! You see, Satan does not have any power over us by himself. He is on a leash; he had to ask God and be granted permission to sift the disciples. His testing of them still lies within the power and sovereignty of God. In the heat of the trial we can easily forget that God is still in control.

But more than that, Jesus’ prayer was answered. It might look as if it wasn’t - Peter denied Jesus, after all - but this was a momentary stumble; this was a final, fatal fall like Judas in his betrayal. Rather here’s what Jesus prayed: ‘But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’ (32)

Jesus knew that Peter would deny him; yet even before the fact, he paves the way back; he gives him the job of strengthening his brothers ‘when you have turned back.’ After Jesus is raised from the dead, he restores Peter, on the beach, by another charcoal fire. Three times, he asks: ‘Do you love me?’ And three times Peter replies, ‘You know that I love you.’ (Jn 21)

Peter would strengthen the brothers when he had turned back. And he still continues to encourage and strengthen us as we see how he denied Jesus, but turned back again to his Lord. This episode is written for us, to show God’s grace in Peter’s life.

And just seven weeks later on the Day of Pentecost, Peter would stand in the very same city and declare that Jesus is the Messiah - he would not deny Jesus again. So if you’re feeling the heat; if you’re under pressure; if you’re being sifted - remember that Jesus is praying for you; he is interceding at the right hand of the Father for you right now. And remember that in Jesus, your failures are not final, and they are not fatal. In Jesus, we have the victory.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill in the Characters Around the Cross Holy Week Series on Maundy Thursday 18th April 2019.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Sermon: Matthew 26-27 Characters Around the Cross: Judas

Each year, newspapers have a report on the most popular baby names of the previous year. For Northern Ireland, the top girls’ names in 2017 were: Emily, Grace, Olivia, Isla and Anna. The top boys’ names were: James, Jack, Noah, Charlie and Jacob. One boy’s name that didn’t make the top ten, probably didn’t make the top hundred, and may not have been given to any babies was the name that we’re considering tonight. Judas.

Two of Jesus’ twelve disciples were called by that name, but Judas has entered the popular culture as a name for a traitor, a betrayer. So it’s no surprise that you don’t find many baby Judases around these days. All week, we’re focusing on the characters around the cross. And tonight we turn our attention to Judas - not the other Judas, but Judas Iscariot, the betrayer.

How did it all end up the way it did? Why is Judas so infamous? And what might we learn from him? That’s our focus tonight. We’ll mainly be in the sections that were read for us, so it would be good to have your Bible open at page 996.

And there we find Jesus and the disciples sharing in the Passover meal. It’s the night before Jesus is crucified; or, as the Communion service puts it, ‘on the night that he was betrayed...’ But up to this point, the disciples are unaware of the presence of a betrayer in their midst. Only John, in chapter 6, remembers that after the feeding of the 5000, and then some hard teaching, some of the wider crowd of disciples stopped following Jesus. Jesus says to the Twelve ‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ And Peter says where would we go? You have the words of eternal life.

It’s at this point that Jesus says: ‘Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!’ John adds in a wee note as to who Jesus means. But none of the disciples suspected that Judas was a false brother. None of them imagined that he would betray Jesus.

You see, we already know about Judas. And every time you get a list of the Twelve in the gospels, Judas’ name always comes last, and is always followed by the comment ‘who betrayed him’ or ‘who became a traitor’. But the disciples don’t know this at this point. You can see how much of a bombshell the prospect of betrayal was in Matt 26:21.

‘While they were eating, he said, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me.” They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, “Surely not I, Lord?” (21-22).

What did they not do? They didn’t all turn round and point at Judas and say, it must be him! No, they were all sad, they were all worried that it might be them. The other eleven were afraid that they might do it. But Judas knew that it was him. He had held back, not saying anything.

Jesus had said that one of his closest friends would betray him: ‘The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.’ (24)

Then Judas echoes the words of the other disciples, but do you see how they’re subtly different? ‘Surely not I, Rabbi?’ He refers to Jesus as Rabbi, teacher. The others spoke to Jesus as Lord. And Jesus confirms that it is indeed Judas.

In John’s eyewitness account, Judas leaves the Feast, he goes outside, and, as John remembers, ‘And it was night.’ The darkness of the night reflecting the darkness of Judas’ deed.

The next time we meet Judas is later in Matthew 26. Jesus had gone to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. It seems this was a regular place for him to go, and it’s there that Judas brings ‘a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people.’ (47)

You can imagine that, in the darkness, and with so many people around, and without any images or wanted posters or artists’ impressions of what Jesus looked like, the soldiers needed some way of knowing who they were meant to arrest. And so Judas had a signal for them. ‘The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.’ (48).

Judas’ betrayal is sealed with a kiss. That sign of love, becomes the signal of betrayal. Jesus is seized and arrested, and is taken to Caiaphas the high priest, and begins the last journey to the cross.

So far we’ve been tracking with the disciples, experiencing the events as they unfolded for them. But just before our reading, we’re told how Judas ended up leading the mob to arrest Jesus.

It’s there in verse 14. ‘Then one of the Twelve - the one called Judas Iscariot - went to the chief priests and asked, ‘What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?’ So they counted out thirty silver coins. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.’ (14-16)

The people who write commentaries on the Bible have lots of different theories as to why Judas did this. Some reckon that he was expecting Jesus to defeat the Romans. There were many zealots, who hoped to take back their country from the invading enemy. And so they reckon that hopes had been high when Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem on the donkey, and they waited for the uprising. But it never came. Was Judas trying to provoke Jesus into action? Getting him to start a fight? Or was he just disillusioned with Jesus?

Luke records that ‘Satan entered Judas’ (Luke 22:3). John says something similar - how ‘the devil had already prompted Judas’ to betray Jesus. Was Judas just the unfortunate pawn, the one the devil picked to do his bidding?

I think there’s more to it than that. Back at verse 14, it begins with the word ‘then’. What follows came after what had come before. And what comes before? It’s the incident we looked at last night - Mary’s extravagant outpouring of worship as she poured out her expensive perfume on the head and feet of Jesus. It was Judas who criticised her actions - seemingly because the perfume should have been sold and given to the poor - but John tells us that Judas was a thief and helped himself to the contents of the common money bag.

It’s ‘then’ after Mary’s devotion and Jesus’ rebuke of Judas that Judas turns to the chief priests, offering to betray Jesus; wanting to know what he could gain. Where Mary offered true devotion, Judas was out for himself. Could the selling of Jesus just be another symptom of his profiteering and selfishness?

By Matthew 27. Jesus has been sent on to Pilate, having been condemned by the Jewish leaders. Judas appears to relent - he is facing conviction; but does he repent? ‘When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.” (3-4).

He declares that he has sinned. He returns the coins. But is it remorse, or repentance? You see, Paul in 2 Corinthians compares godly sorrow with worldly sorrow. ‘Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.’ (2 Cor 7:10) Which is Judas experiencing?

Or to put it another way. Tomorrow evening we’ll focus on Peter, who denies that he knows Jesus. What’s the difference between Judas and Peter? Peter knows the joy of restoration, because he knows that Jesus died for him. Was that true of Judas? It seems not. Remember Jesus’ words in 26:24 ‘It would be better for him if he had not been born.’

[In passing, did you notice the hypocrisy of the chief priests? They couldn’t put those thirty silver coins into the treasury, because they were blood money - the same blood money they had no qualms about paying out of the treasury in the first place! Even in their hypocrisy, they were fulfilling the Old Testament prophecy of the price put on the head of Jesus, thirty pieces of silver.]

There may not be any hope for Judas in the Scriptures; but we may well learn from him. So what does he show us?

Not everyone who is numbered among the disciples is a disciple. Judas was among the Twelve, he had a position of responsibility, and yet he was a devil. Money was his god, and everything was to be sacrificed in pursuit of his god, even the Lord Jesus. Yet the other disciples didn’t even suspect that it might be Judas who would betray Jesus.

Oh how we need the grace of the Lord Jesus; that we would be true disciples; that we would not betray him for gain; that we would know godly sorrow for our sin and real repentance and the reality of restoration. Because the truth is that every day, we fail our Lord. Every day, we sin against him. But every day, we can find his forgiveness when we confess our sin to him.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill in the Characters Around the Cross Holy Week series on Wednesday 17th April 2019.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Sermon: John 12: 1-11 Characters Around the Cross: Mary

I wonder if you’ve ever had a memorable meal. A dinner that really sticks out in the mind. Now, maybe you can remember every meal you’ve ever eaten, but I could hardly tell you what I had for dinner last week, let alone ten years ago. But you might remember some memorable meals. Perhaps you remember the best steak you’ve ever tasted (apologies to the vegetarians). Or maybe the most delicious dessert you’ve had (all with no calories, of course!).

Sometimes, though, it isn’t the food itself that makes a meal so memorable. Something happens, and the meal will be remembered for a long time. Ages ago now, I was out for lunch with mum and dad. I had ordered chicken Maryland, and out the plate came, piled high. Chips, bacon, banana fritter, battered pineapple, peas and sweetcorn - it was all there. But what was missing? The chicken Maryland itself! They had forgot to put it on the plate!

Meals can be memorable if they’re for a special occasion - a wedding meal, or a birthday celebration. We had mum out for her birthday one time and we had ordered dessert, when suddenly a birthday cake emerged. Mum saw it coming out from the kitchen and said, oh look, it must be somebody’s birthday - and then realised it was hers!

Or perhaps you’ve had a memorable meal when a ring was presented and you asked (or answered) the question - will you marry me? Meals can be memorable because of what happens at them. And that’s what we find in our reading tonight. We’re not told anything about the food, just that Martha served it, but this meal was unforgettable because of what happened at it - an act of unashamed, extravagant worship.

Jesus is in Bethany. That’s where Lazarus lived - who in chapter 11 had died, but Jesus brought him back to life. Martha, the sister of Lazarus, served the meal, while Jesus and Lazarus and others reclined at the table. For this meal, don’t think of them sitting at the kitchen table or the dining room table. No, at this time, the table was lower, and you lay on your side, feet out behind you, eating with one hand.

Normally when you hear about Martha, you also hear of Mary. And that’s what we hear in verse 3. Mary does something unforgettable: ‘Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair.’

I’ve brought along my bottle of aftershave. This is 200ml, so a pint would be two and a half of this bottle. Enough to fill this measuring jug. Except in Mary’s hands isn’t Hugo by Hugo Boss. She has an alabaster jar of pure nard. John says here it’s an expensive perfume.

So I had a look at Boots website (other retailers are available), and their most expensive perfume is (pardon my French) the Dior J’adore Eau de Parfum spray 150ml at £142. The dearest by price by millilitre is Dior J’adore L’or Essence de Parfum spray 40 ml at £112 - or £280 per 100ml. That’s dear, but nowhere near as expensive as the nard Mary brings. She must have saved up for ages in order to have this pint of pure nard.

And what did she do with it? ‘She poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair.’ Mark tells us that she broke the jar. She held nothing back. She poured out the whole lot, giving her all to Jesus. This is costly devotion.

But there’s more going on here. You see, it’s not just costly worship, it’s also unashamed worship. She was anointing the feet of Jesus. For a single woman to let down her hair, to touch and anoint a single man’s feet; this was shocking in that culture. This wasn’t how you were meant to get on.

But Mary doesn’t care what other people think. She is pouring out her worship as she pours out her perfume, as she anoints the anointed one (the Christ). This is unashamed worship, not held back by what other people might think. Sometimes we can be held back because we’re fearful of what someone else might think or say. They might not like it, but don’t hold back. Be unashamed in your worship. Clap your hands if you want to! Raise your hands if you want to! Sing out even if the others around you aren’t.

This was unashamed worship - it had to be, because no one could miss what was happening. John says ‘the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.’ (3) Sometimes when I’m in one of the big shops, I have to take a deep breath before walking through the perfume counters. Candle shops can be overpowering. If I spray one or two sprays of this, you’ll smell it. Imagine if I poured out the whole bottle, and then again with another bottle and a half? You’d definitely smell it!

Unashamed worship. I wonder if we’re in the same category? Is the fragrance of our devotion to Jesus obvious? Can your friends and neighbours tell that there’s something different about you? Or would people be surprised you’re here, surprised that you identify as a Christian?

Extravagant worship is costly and unashamed. But sometimes it can be misunderstood, even criticised by those who should know better.

One of the disciples, Judas Iscariot, he objects to what has just happened. He says: ‘Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.’ (5) What a waste it was! A year’s wages poured out in one go - think of the hungry mouths to feed. Think of the hands outstretched to receive even a little bit of it.

Perhaps you find yourself nodding along. But the only hungry mouth Judas was worried about was his own. The only eager hand wanting to receive a fraction of the money was his own. John tells us (with the benefit of looking back afterwards), that Lazarus didn’t care about the poor. He was a thief - he helped himself to what was put into the disciples’ money bag. Judas was about to betray Jesus, but he had done that already many times before.

We’ll focus in on his story tomorrow night. But could there be times when we want to sound righteous, and look better than we really are? Caring not for anyone else, but only for ourselves.

But Jesus will not let Judas criticise Mary in this way. ‘Leave her alone. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.’ (7-8)

Jesus says that ‘you will always have the poor among you’ - I remember one of my teachers saying that the poor would always be with us, so no matter what we did, there would still be poor people, so we shouldn’t bother helping. That is not what Jesus is saying! In Mark’s gospel, Jesus goes on to say, ‘and you can help them any time you want.’We can and should help the poor. The GFS coffee evening for Craigavon Foodbank was a great success. Maybe we need to be doing more things like that.

But Jesus says: ‘But you will not always have me.’ Mary has anointed Jesus, has prepared him for his burial. Jesus knows that the cross is coming closer, that his death is very near. And Mary has offered her worship to Jesus, her Saviour who will die for her. She did it while she could, before Jesus went to the cross.

Jesus is worthy of this costly, unashamed extravagant worship. Jesus, who raised Lazarus from the dead, would himself die - crucified for us, dying in our place, to give us life and hope and peace. Jesus is worthy to receive our worship, and our praise, and everything we have, and everything we are - with our whole selves, we should worship Jesus, who died for us.

It was a memorable meal. No one would ever forget what had happened, when Mary poured out her worship as she poured out her expensive perfume.

Mary challenges us - will we worship Jesus?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill in the Characters Around the Cross Holy Week series on Tuesday 16th April 2019.

Sermon: Matthew 27: 11-26 Characters Around the Cross: Pilate

Through this Holy Week, we are considering the characters around the cross. Tonight, we’re looking at Pontius Pilate. Pilate’s name is so familiar to us, since we say it every time we use the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. When we say that Jesus ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’ and ‘For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate’ - what are we saying, and how it did come about?

The first thing to note is that every time we say the creeds we are affirming a historical fact. We don’t just believe in fairy tales, legends that have grown up through the mists of time. No, Pontius Pilate existed, he was the prefect of the Roman Province of Judea, and he oversaw the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ.

History tells us that Pilate had ‘vindictiveness and furious temper’ and was ‘naturally inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness.’ (Philo). He was also insensitive to Jewish customs, causing offence time and time again, and brutally murdering protestors to get his own way.

We know him, though, because of his connection to the crucifixion of Jesus. It was under him and his authority that Jesus suffered and was crucified. So let’s consider Pilate for a few moments, from our reading in Matthew 27.

Jesus the prisoner is brought before him. Jesus has already been beaten, slapped, spat at. And now he stands before Caesar’s representative in Jerusalem. Pilate has the power of life or death. That’s why the religious leaders have brought Jesus to him - they reckon he deserves to die, but they don’t have the authority to enforce the death penalty any more. For that, they need Roman power. Hence, why Jesus stands before Pilate, with the religious leaders out for blood.

When Pilate asks a straight question, he gets a straight answer. ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ ‘Yet, it is as you say.’ Jesus affirms that he is indeed the king of the Jews. But the other Jews who are there oppose him and accuse him. And notice that it isn’t any Jews - these are the top Jews, the chief priests and elders, the religious leaders. And they accuse him many times. But like a lamb led to the slaughter, Jesus is silent. He gives no answer, no reply, not even to a single charge.

Pilate intervenes to make sure he hears what they’re saying, and is greatly amazed that he doesn’t defend himself, doesn’t answer, doesn’t reply.

But then Pilate finds a possible escape route. Throughout his time in Jerusalem, he’s had a custom of releasing one prisoner chosen by the crowd. And so maybe he thinks he’ll be able to have Jesus released by the mechanism, to save him from having to make a decision about Jesus. And it appears that he is going to make it really easy for the crowd to decide between two prisoners.

On one hand, you have the notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. (Some versions even name him Jesus Barabbas). He had been involved in a rebellion, and was a murderer. And on the other hand, you have Jesus who is called Christ. Jesus who had healed the lame, gave the blind their sight, and even raised the dead to life. It should be a fairly easy decision, shouldn’t it? Do you want a murderer roaming the streets, or one who restores life? Would you prefer Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus Christ?

Matthew tells us that Pilate ‘knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him.’ And so he makes it easy for the crowd to choose the right answer, free Jesus, and get on with his day, in whatever way Roman governors lived out their days.

While all this was going on - and remember, it was early in the morning, the cock has crowed signalling Peter’s denials, and Pilate’s wife sends him a message. ‘Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.’ (19)

Mrs Pilate recognises that Jesus is innocent. She urges Pilate to not have anything to do with Jesus. But that’s not going to happen. Unless the crowd go for his plan to release Jesus and keep Barabbas safely behind bars.

As we see in verse 20, though, that isn’t going to happen. The chief priests and elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas, and to have Jesus executed. So who do they want released? And they answer ‘Barabbas.’

‘What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?’ Pilate asked. And how do the crowd reply? ‘Crucify him!’ It’s not what Pilate expected, not what he wanted to hear. You can see that Pilate shares his wife’s opinion that Jesus is indeed innocent. Do you see his next question: ‘Why? What crime has he committed?’ (23)

Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent. In Luke’s account, he even says: ‘I find no basis for a charge against this man.’ (Lk 23:4) and later, ‘he has done nothing to deserve death.’ (Lk 23:15) But all sense of justice has gone by this stage. There are no reasoned arguments. Just a louder and louder shout of ‘Crucify him!’

Pilate was the governor, he should have been in control. But the peace of Jerusalem is threatened by the way this trial was going. As uproar was starting, and so the governor gives in to the mob’s demands. Instead of insisting on justice, he allows the mob to rule the day. He gives in to the crowd’s demands for crucifixion.

But did you see how he tried, even at the last minute, to get out of it? He has water brought, and washes his hands in front of the crowd. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase to wash your hands of something - it’s to say that you’re not involved, that you’ve no part in it. And that’s what Pilate was trying to do here. He’s trying to distance himself from what is about to happen. He’s trying to say that he’s not responsible for the cross. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood. It is your responsibility.’ (24).

While the crowd here accept the responsibility, does that mean that Pilate has clean hands? Are we unfair to mention his name in the creeds? Does he get a raw deal? Not at all! He allowed Jesus to be crucified. It couldn’t have happened without his agreement. He had to decide what to do about Jesus.

He had asked the right question in verse 22: ‘What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?’ What shall I do with Jesus? So what did he do with Jesus? Ultimately, he decided against Jesus. In washing his hands of the matter, he tried to avoid making a decision. But he decided against Jesus (whether actively or passively).

You see, to make no decision about Jesus is to decide against Jesus. Perhaps you’ve heard all about the cross so many times before. You know all about Jesus. You know that you need to make a decision about Jesus - whether you will follow him or forget him. But to put it off, to defer it a little bit longer, to make no decision is to decide - against Jesus.

Please do ask yourself - what shall I do with Jesus? And don’t put it off - decide to follow the Jesus who died for you. He was innocent, had done no wrong. But he suffered under Pontius Pilate; he was crucified under his authority - so that you, the guilty one, could go free - just like Barabbas. Well could Barabbas say that first Good Friday evening ‘He died in my place.’

Can you say that as well? Can you look at the cross and see Jesus dying there for you, in your place, for your sins? He had done no wrong, but he died for you, so that your sins could be wiped away. Your slate wiped clean.

So what will you do with Jesus? Pilate tried to wash his hands of the whole thing. He tried to avoid making a decision. But to not make a decision is to decide against Jesus. And one day, each of us will stand on trial before the judge - not Pilate, but Jesus. Will you meet him as your Saviour, or your Judge?

What will you do with Jesus?
Neutral you cannot be;
someday your heart will be asking,
‘What will he do with me?’

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill in the Characters Around the Cross Holy Week series on Monday 15th April 2019.

Sermon: Romans 3: 21-26 Redeemed

Have you ever stopped to consider just how strange it is, that Christians are identified with the cross? This morning we are singing some familiar and well-loved hymns about the cross, and we’re used to seeing a cross on buildings and books and Bibles, and maybe on a chain around your neck. But have you stopped to consider just how strange that might seem? Maybe you’re not a Christian - you’re very welcome to be with us - but you wonder why we go on so much about the cross. And well you might wonder.

After all, to be crucified was a terrible death. The agony was, well, excruciating - a word which literally means ‘out of the cross’. It doesn’t bear thinking about. In fact, polite Roman society wouldn’t even talk about crucifixion, much less think about it, so terrible it was. It was a death reserved for the lowest of the low, a form of execution. To give you a modern equivalent, it would be like having an electric chair or a guillotine on your necklace.

Given its gruesomeness, why do Christians sing about the cross, and talk about the cross, and rejoice in the cross? To help us discover just how important the cross is, we’re going to look at this short snippet of a letter written by the apostle Paul to the Christians in Rome. In these six verses, we see just how wonderful the cross of Jesus really is - and why it matters so much to us.

The passage starts with these two words: ‘But now.’ (21) That means that a change has been brought about. It used to be like this, but now it’s like that. And what is the change that has been brought about? Well, up to this point in the letter, Paul has been showing how none of us are in right standing with God. First of all, he showed how the Gentile world was far from God in a number of ways. And he could hear the Jews looking down on the Gentiles, condemning them for their sinfulness.

The problem was, though, that even the Jews were just as bad. They knew what God wanted. They had the Law. But still they failed to do it. And just before our reading, do you see, Paul gives a series of quotations from the Old Testament to show that ‘There is no-one righteous, not even one.’ None of us are in right standing with God. That’s the bad news. But now Paul gets to the good news.

‘But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.’ (21) The Old Testament Law and Prophets point forward to this righteousness, but it’s not earned by keeping the law. We can’t make it by ourselves. So how do we receive it?

‘This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.’ (22)

Just in case we miss it the first time, we’re given two related words to show how we can receive this righteousness. It comes ‘through faith in Jesus Christ’ and it’s ‘to all who believe.’ When we believe this promise, when we place our faith in Jesus Christ, then we receive this righteousness. And it’s available to all who believe - Jew or Gentile; no matter your religious background; no matter where you come from; if you believe you will be made right with God.

That’s what Paul goes on to show: ‘There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.’ (22-24).

Maybe you remember learning Romans 3:23 as a memory verse at Sunday School. ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ It’s a helpful summary of our condition without Jesus - what Paul has been showing up to this point in the letter. It’s a picture of an archer firing his arrow at the target, only for it to fall short, to miss the mark, to fail to meet the standard.

But did you notice that it comes within a bigger sentence? And the point Paul is making is that there is no difference whether you’re a Jew or a Gentile, whether you’re male or female, whether you’re right-handed or left-handed - all sorts of people have sinned, and all sorts of people are justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

That word redemption is a word from the slave market, where a slave is redeemed, bought back, freed. And that’s what Jesus does for us - he buys us back for God. He frees us from our slavery to sin. And how did he do it?

‘God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.’ (25)

Jesus gave his life on the cross as a sacrifice to pay the price of our sins. Jesus, dying on the cross, was ‘a sacrifice of atonement.’ To atone is to make ‘at-one’ - to bring together again, to reconcile. We, who have fallen short, have been separated from God, we are brought back to him through the blood of Jesus. We are made at-one with God. But did you notice again that it only happens when we trust the promise, when we believe that he did it for us, ‘through faith in his blood.’

In the cross, we see the love of God - Jesus dying to bring us back to God because he loves you so much. But in the cross we also see the justice of God. You see, God is so holy that he must punish sin. But God also longs for you to be with him and to glorify him and enjoy him for ever. How can the two fit together?

God punishes our sin in the Lord Jesus. Jesus, the only perfect man who never sinned, he stood in our place, condemned and guilty - dying the death we deserved. And he gives us his perfect righteousness. He gives us his life. God is just, and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

Do you see again - it’s faith in Jesus that means we are justified, declared innocent, just-as-if-I’d never sinned. And it’s made possible through the cross of Jesus. This is why we delight to sing these songs about the cross. This is why we make such a big deal of Holy Week and Easter. This is why we are people of the cross. Because in the cross we are redeemed. In the cross we find atonement. In the cross we are free. In the cross we are forgiven.

Perhaps you’ve never really understood the significance of the cross before. Perhaps you’ve never knelt at the cross, and felt the burden of your sins roll away. Jesus offers you forgiveness and peace and life and so many more blessings today, if you’ll come to him, and trust in him to be your Saviour.

Perhaps you would find it helpful to pray this prayer. I’ll read it out first, and if you’d like to pray it, then you can join me the second time through:

Lord God,
I’m sorry for my sins, all the wrong things I have done.
Thank you that Jesus died for me.
Thank you that you will forgive my sins and make me new.
I trust in Jesus today.
Help me to live for him. Amen.

This sermon was preached at the Seniors' Easter Service in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Monday in Holy Week 15th April 2019.