Thursday, July 25, 2019

Sermon: 1 Peter 5: 1-14 True Grace

What do you find when you open your postbox or stoop to lift the post from the mat at your front door? You’re likely to find a whole series of different items, each sent with a particular purpose.

You might have some of those glossy leaflets showcasing the special offers at a local supermarket - their purpose is to make you buy your groceries from them. You might find an official looking envelope, with a bill inside it - their purpose is to get you to pay up. There might be a postcard sent by a friend from their exotic holiday (which maybe arrived after they’ve got home again!) - their purpose is to let you know that they’re having a great time. And you might have wedding invitations, or birthday cards, or a little hand written note.

This evening we’re coming to the end of Peter’s first letter. And as we’ve been reading along, week by week, perhaps you’ve been wondering what his purpose has been. Why did he write this letter? Well, you don’t need to wonder any more. You see, he tells us there in verse 12: ‘With the help of Silas, whom I regard as a faithful brother, I have written to you briefly, encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it.’

In this brief letter he is writing to encourage you and to testify that this is the true grace of God - and therefore stand fast in it. If you’ve been with us over recent weeks, you’ll hopefully have heard and experienced that encouragement. We’ve seen how Peter reminds us that Christians are God’s elect, strangers in the word. We have been chosen by God, made his children, saved by him through Jesus. But that means that we are strangers in the world. We stand out and are different. It can be hard to live like that; the temptation is to blend in. But Peter wants to encourage us in our Christian life. And he does that by confirming that this really is the true grace of God that we need to stand fast in.

Those twin themes of encouragement and true grace have been seen throughout the letter. But they are particularly clear in this final section as Peter addresses the elders, and then the young men, and then everybody. So let’s dive in as Peter turns to the elders, to the leaders of the churches.

‘To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers.’ (1-2).

Peter is speaking to the leaders of the churches, but notice that he doesn’t pull rank here. He doesn’t command them as an apostle speaking down to the elders. No, he appeals to them, on three grounds - 1. ‘as a fellow elder’ - he is also doing the same thing, he is an elder in his local church, so he knows what he’s talking about; 2. ‘a witness of Christ’s sufferings’ - he has seen up close the cost of Christian leadership, seen in Christ’s own sufferings for his people, as he died on the cross; and 3. ‘as... one who will also share in the glory to be revealed’ - he’s encouraging us that hardship now leads to glory then; that the struggle is worth it.

And what are the elders to do? ‘Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers.’ It’s the image of a shepherd with sheep, as he watches over them and cares for them. And Peter then goes on to give some conditions of their shepherding, in a series of ‘not this, but that’:

‘serving as overseers - not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.’ (2-3)

So the elders are to serve, not under compulsion because they have to; and not greedy for money; and not lording it over the flock. But rather, they’re to be willing to serve; and eager to serve; and examples to the flock. And notice that church leaders are only undershepherds - not the boss, but working for the Lord who is the chief shepherd.

‘And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.’ What an encouragement to pastors to keep going! It’s not always easy, but that imperishable crown awaits, when the Chief Shepherd appears. Please do pray for me, and for other church leaders - for encouragement, and grace to stand firm in the task.

Young men are to be submissive to those who are older. And that’s ‘in the same way’. But the main word is for everyone. ‘All of you, clothe yourselves with humility towards one another, because, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.’ (5-7).

As we relate to one another, we’re not to come across as proud, or put ourselves as high and mighty. Rather, we’re to be clothed in humility. It’s to be a conscious decision, something we do. So, earlier, you decided what to put on, what clothes you would wear. And you’re all looking well! But Peter’s urging us, as you button up your shirt or pull on your skirt, to also decide to put on humility, to be clothed in it.

Why? Because God says in his word that he opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. (5, quoting Prov 3:34) God only gives grace to the humble, not to the proud. You see, if you’re proud, you think that you have done it all yourself and you can do it all yourself. You don’t need help, don’t need God. You have no call for grace, if you’re proud. But if you’re humble, if you know your need of grace, then God is glad to give it to you.

We’re to humble ourselves, so that God will lift us up in due time. And we have a great illustration of that tonight as we gather at the Lord’s table. We come humbly, hands open, to receive from God. And we can be confident of God’s goodness. As verse 7 tells us, he cares for us. We can cast all our anxiety (or cares, in the older versions) on him, because he cares for us.

As we look to God, we’re also to be aware of the danger that comes from our enemy. Look at verse 8: ‘Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.’

The devil is likened to a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. But we don’t need to be the devil’s devouring. We are to be self-controlled and alert. And we can resist him as we stand firm in the faith. Remind yourself who you are - a child of God; and whose you are - Jesus’ blood bought people.

And Peter reminds us that we’re not alone, not the only ones suffering in this way. The family of God is suffering all over the world. So stand with them. Resist the devil together. That’s why the ending of the New Testament letters are so important. Ofter we might think the last couple of verses have nothing to tell us - they’re just lists of names. But those lists are people sending and receiving greetings; partners in the gospel; sharing together in suffering and encouragement. That reference to Babylon in verse 13 is a codename for Rome, where Peter is, Babylon the name of God’s enemies for a long time.

And the church in Rome, ‘she who is in Babylon, chosen together with you. sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark.’ You’re not alone. Christians are in it together, one family, one body, with that one great hope.

And it’s that hope that Peter finishes with. That benediction in verses 10-11 really does summarise the whole letter, as well as Peter’s purpose in writing it. Remember what we’ve seen. Peter is writing to encourage Christians, and to testify to the true grace of God, which we are to stand in. It’s by grace that we are chosen, by grace we are saved, and by grace that we live as strangers in the world. Now listen to the benediction:

‘And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.’

All grace comes from the God of grace. He has called us to his eternal glory - and so we are his chosen people. but first comes a little while of suffering - because we are strangers. But look at what God will do in the end; how completely we will be transformed; how it will all have been worth it in the end: He will ‘himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.’

Stuart Townend sums it up so well in his song ‘There is a hope’. ‘When sufferings cease and sorrows die, and every longing satisfied. Then joy unspeakable will flood my soul, for I am truly home.’

This is the true grace of God. And it’s yours tonight. What an encouragement when life is difficult; when struggles seem unbearable; when you wonder if it would be easier to give up. We have grace now, and grace is our future, because we know the God of all grace.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 21st July 2019.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Sermon: 1 Peter 4: 12-19 Don't be Surprised!

I’ll never forget that night. It was just a normal Sunday evening. My usual routine was to go to the evening service in church, and then cross the street to the church hall where the youth fellowship would shortly begin. But that evening was slightly unusual. The Rector wanted to chat to me after the service. And wanted me to help him clear up. So I chatted, and helped, and then headed over to the hall, a wee bit later than normal. Into the hall, and it was quieter than normal. Opened the door into the room, and got a big surprise. A surprise party for my 21st birthday.

Somehow, they had kept it from me, and I really was surprised. I wasn’t expecting it at all. But imagine the Rector had told me while he was chatting, look, the only reason I’m wanting to talk to you tonight is because I’m stalling you and when you go into the hall there’s going to be a big party - then I wouldn’t have been surprised at all! I would have known what to expect. I would have known what was coming.

In our reading tonight, Peter wants his first readers - and us as well - to not be surprised. But it isn’t something like a surprise birthday party that he’s telling us about. Rather, it’s something much less pleasant than that. Look at verse 12: ‘Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.’

Now, maybe when you hear words like ‘painful trial’ and ‘suffering’, you are surprised. You might think to yourself - this doesn’t sound great. That wasn’t what I signed up for when I became a Christian. I was promised life, and joy, and peace, and hope. Health, wealth and happiness. So why is Peter talking about painful trials that his readers and suffering? And he thinks we shouldn’t be surprised if we’re going through them? He thinks we should think it normal, not strange for these things to be happening? What’s going on?

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been working our way through this letter. And the summary of the whole letter is summed up in the second line of 1:1. ‘To God’s elect, strangers in the world.’ The amazing truth is that if you are a Christian, you are God’s elect - you have been chosen by him, and made his child, and you have an imperishable inheritance waiting for you. That’s what Peter tells us about up until 2:10.

But being God’s elect means that we are also ‘strangers in the world.’ And that’s what we’ve seen since 2:11. We are in the world, but we are not of the world; we are different from those around us; and we are to live differently from those around us. We are to abstain from sinful desires, and instead to live such good lives among the pagans. And doing those two things together will mean that we stick out like healthy thumbs in a world of sore thumbs.

And because we are different, and distinct, and because we stick out, the truth is that we may well undergo trials. Painful trials. Various kinds of trials (1:6) And when these trials come along - whether it’s severe persecution as Christians in North Korea might face, or the kinds of things that we might face as believers - pressure, or mockery, or opposition - when these trials come along, we might be tempted to think, I didn’t sign up for this!

But Peter is telling us that suffering goes with the job. To be a Christian is to face some kind of trial or suffering. We shouldn’t be surprised about that. Now, maybe it does seem strange to us because we’ve been living in a strange situation, whereby we live in a so-called Christian country, with the last trappings of Christian privilege. But suffering shouldn’t seem strange to us. And it looks like the UK and Ireland are changing rapidly - bringing in a new state religion of secularism.

Now, why does Peter tell us to not be surprised when suffering comes? You might think he’s a pessimist or maybe even a realist. But his purpose is actually to encourage us in our sufferings. He does it in three ways:

Firstly, in verse 13, he calls us to find joy in our sufferings. It’s not that we like the pain; that we want the misery. But rather that the sufferings point us to future blessing: ‘But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.’

When we participate in the sufferings of Christ, we will also participate in his glory. The pattern of Christ is our pattern too - suffering now, glory later. So when we are going through suffering, we are to keep an eye on the future - the suffering won’t last forever. Jesus will have the last word, when his glory is revealed. So think of the future blessing.

Secondly, in verse 14, we should also focus on current blessings. ‘If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.’

When suffering comes, and when insults and opposition comes, it can seem as if we’re all alone. It might appear as if the whole world is against us. But we are never alone. We have the Holy Spirit with us, resting on us. Even though these people say all kinds of bad things about you, their word is not final; their say does not matter. What matters is God’s opinion - his word is blessing, guaranteed by the gift of the Spirit.

Thirdly, in verses 15-16, we’re to know whose we are. You see, it’s not just any and every kind of suffering Peter is talking about. It would be a disgrace to suffer as a a murderer or thief or criminal, or even as a meddler. But to suffer as a Christian - for that to be the reason you’re passed over for promotion at work; or to be sidelined from your friends; or to be teased (or worse) in the community - this is no disgrace, you shouldn’t be ashamed about that; rather, Peter says, it’s a reason to praise God that you bear that name.

What a privilege it is to bear the name of a Christian; to be united with Christ, to live as one of his chosen exiles. And yet, as we’ve been seeing over these weeks, it’s not easy. The world is watching. We need grace to live up to the name, to show our faith by our deeds.

The story goes of Alexander the Great, the Greek military general who had conquered almost the entire known world by the age of 30, who had a soldier brought before him on the charge of stealing a horse. What is your name, he asked the soldier. ‘Alexander’ came the reply. Here’s what Alexander the Great replied: ‘Soldier, change your name or change your conduct.’ He didn’t want someone to share his name and act in such a way. We bear the name of Christ, we are his - and we need to remember this in our suffering.

When sufferings come, we’re not to be surprised at them. Rather we’re to find encouragement here as we look to future blessing; current blessing; and remember whose we are. And these are especially important when we look around at the world and wonder why things are the way they are. How come Christians are the most persecuted religious group according to the report launched in Parliament the other day? How come those who persecute and oppose Christians seem to get away with it, and might even have a better life?

Peter says that we are already experiencing the testing that all will eventually face. For us, it will be a refining fire (just as he had said back in 1:7) to prove the genuineness of our faith. We already know the outcome of the judgement us sure, because we are God’s chosen. But how will others face judgement?

Can you imagine living a life of ease now, persecuting God’s people, thinking you have it made, thinking you’re on the right side of history, only to discover on that day of judgement that you’ve been wrong; that you missed the path of life - in fact, the very people you were persecuting and opposing were in the right all along?

‘For it is time for judgement to begin with the family of God; and if it beings with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, “if it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”’ (17-18)

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been listening in as Peter addresses the theme of living as strangers in the world - what it will look like, and what it will mean for us. We’ll stick out; and we’ll suffer in some way. But Peter gives us the encouragement to keep going; considering the future blessing, the current blessing, and remembering whose we are. And our last verse summarises this whole section:

‘So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.’ (19)

God is faithful. He won’t let you down. He is with you. And on that you can depend. Commit yourself to him; and continue to do good.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 14th July 2019.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Sermon: Acts 4: 22-31 Prayer Power

Wee Jonny was kneeling by his bed one night, saying his prayers. Suddenly, he shouted very loudly, ‘God, I’d really like a new bike for my birthday.’ His mum says to him, ‘Jonny, why did you shout like that? God’s not deaf, you know.’ To which Jonny replied, ‘No, but granny is.’

This morning, I’ve got a question for you: How do you pray? Now, I’m not asking if you shout like wee Jonny or if you whisper or just speaking them inwardly. But how do you pray? What do you ask for? If you were to write down all your prayers over the next week, what words would come up time and time again? Perhaps it would be the word ‘bless.’ When we’re small, we maybe learn to pray something like ‘God bless mummy and daddy and the cat.’ And so we always pray those good but vague kind of prayers. So how do you pray?

Perhaps another measure of our prayers is what we pray for when we’re in trouble. And in those kinds of situations, the dominant word is ‘help!’ Help me with this, or help her with that. Or even, you want to pray a kind of ‘I’m a Christian, get me out of here’ kind of prayer.

This morning, we’re going to listen in to a prayer meeting of the early church. And this was definitely a church in trouble. It had all started back in chapter 3, as Peter and John went up to the temple to pray. They had encountered a man crippled from birth, who asked for money. Peter and John gave him something even better, as they made him walk in the name of Jesus. It happened at the Beautiful Gate, and that beautiful miracle pointed to the beautiful Saviour who promises a beautiful future of restoration.

But not everyone thought it was beautiful. Some people came to faith in Jesus, but the religious leaders arrested Peter and John, and then put them on trial in front of the Sanhedrin, the religious council. Peter explained how it was in the name of Jesus that the man had walked, and how Jesus is the only Saviour, because there is ‘no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.’ (4:12)

The religious leaders were furious! They didn’t want people hearing about Jesus, or about the resurrection he gives. And so they commanded the apostles ‘not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.’ And they threatened them before sending them out.

That’s where the church finds itself. So how would they pray in that situation? If (and it’s becoming increasingly likely) we find ourselves in situations of greater opposition and even persecution, how will we pray? And, how do we pray for Christians in other places who do find themselves being persecuted, in dangerous circumstances?

So how do you pray? What do you say?

Notice first of all, that prayer was a natural reaction to the news they had heard. Peter and John are released in verse 23, and they go to their own people, to the church, and ‘reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them.’ They’re told the news, and then straight away, their response is to pray. ‘When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God...’ (24)

I think this is fairly challenging, isn’t it? Their first reaction to bad news, to trouble, wasn’t to post about it on Facebook; or to organise a petition; or to start a protest; or to ring and text everybody to tell them just how terrible it was. Their first reaction was to pray. Is that our reaction? Corrie Ten Boom asks a piercing question: ‘Is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tyre?’ Is prayer at the centre of everything we do, or just there for emergencies?

Their first reaction was to pray.

Secondly, they knew who they were praying to. Do you see how they address their prayer? ‘Sovereign Lord.’ They know that the God they are speaking to is the sovereign Lord. He’s in control. He’s in charge. And they know that for a few reasons.

He is the Sovereign Lord because he made everything. ‘Sovereign Lord, you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.’ (24) So everywhere that we go, God made it; and everything that we see, God made it. Now, why do they mention this? They’re reminding themselves that whoever is up against them - God made them. And God is in control of them.

Next, he is the Sovereign Lord because he knows the future. In verse 24, it was ‘you made’ and now in verse 25 it’s ‘you spoke.’ ‘You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: ‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.’ (25-26) They’re quoting there from Psalm 2, written about a thousand years beforehand.

It shows that God knows the future, that nations rage and peoples plot (albeit in vain), and kings and rulers gang up against the Lord and his Anointed One (that word is Messiah, or Christ). And in verse 26, we see that that’s exactly what happened in Jerusalem:

‘Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed.’

Do you see the cast of characters? Herod, the ruler of the region of Galilee; Pontius Pilate the Roman governor of Judea; Gentiles (the Romans) and Jews. They were all united in their opposition to Jesus. A full blown conspiracy, just as David had said a thousand years before. God is the Sovereign Lord because he know the future.

But God is also the Sovereign Lord because he can make even his enemies do what he wants without violating their free will. Look at verse 28: ‘They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.’

When I was growing up, I was able to make my brother do what I wanted. It’s the power of big brothers. So I would hold his hands, and he would be slapping himself and I’d say, why are you hitting yourself? It was because I could make him do it - but he didn’t want to do it. He would be trying to fight me off. (I’ve repented of such cruelty!)

But God is the Sovereign Lord so that even his enemies can choose what they want to do; but they end up doing what God had decided would happen. They freely chose to crucify Jesus, but God knew it would happen, and used it to bring about his will - the salvation we have in Jesus’ death on the cross.

So they know who they are praying to - the Sovereign Lord who made everything (including their oppressors); who knows the future; and who is in total control.

Do you realise just who you’re praying to? God isn’t someone who tries really hard to maybe possibly be able to make a difference. He is not impotent or unimportant. He is the Sovereign Lord. He’s in control. And you are praying directly into the throneroom of heaven.

So what do you say to this Sovereign Lord? How do you continue this prayer: ‘Now, Lord, consider their threats and...’

Consider their threats and keep us safe?
Consider their threats and stop them?
Consider their threats and help us all to get along?

Here’s how they pray: ‘Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’ (29-30)

They pray for boldness to keep on speaking God’s word! They don’t want a quiet life; they pray that God will give them boldness to live a faithful and obedient life. The danger is real; the trouble is threatening; but they want to keep speaking out God’s word, and so they need boldness, courage to do that. And they ask God to continue with the healings, signs and wonders that got them into this trouble in the first place.

Is this how we would pray in a similar circumstance? Is this how we’re praying when we’re threatened and told to stop talking about Jesus? They knew who they were praying to, the God is in control, the Sovereign Lord, and so they prayed for boldness.

And God answered their prayer. Do you see the aftermath of that prayer meeting? ‘After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.’ (31) The Sovereign Lord answered their prayer so that ‘they were all filled with the Holy Spirit’ and ‘all’ spoke the word of God boldly.

Over this next week, keep asking yourself this question - how do I pray? Is prayer my first response or my last resort? Do I know who I’m talking to - the Sovereign Lord who made, and spoke, and controls everything. And are my prayers safe, or too small, or are they bold prayers for boldness?

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Eph 3:20-21)

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 21st July 2019.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Sermon: Acts 4: 1-22 No Other Name

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been following the progress of the early church in the opening chapters of Acts. And so far, it’s all been plain sailing, a walk in the park. And perhaps, like me, you’re wishing that you were living there and then, experiencing these things as they happened; or maybe you’re wondering why things aren’t like this now. Just think of what we’ve seen up to now.

The risen Jesus has trained his apostles, getting them ready for their mission to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. The believers have been praying and preparing together, waiting for the gift of the Holy Spirit. When he was poured out, he gave power to proclaim the prophesied Saviour and three thousand became believers. Then we had the picture of the bliss of the early church - devoted to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. And they were ‘enjoying the favour of all the people.’ (2:47). Every day there were new people being saved. Amazingly wonderful days. And last week we watched the beautiful miracle pointing to the beautiful Saviour who promises a beautiful future.

Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time? It would, but it’s not. Church life is wonderful, but with it comes problems, and disagreements, and opposition. And Luke, as he writes this book, presents these things as they happened, warts and all. So even though it appears that everything has been plain sailing up to this point, there may be trouble ahead.

You see, many people hear and receive and believe the message of Jesus. But not everybody does. And often, it’s the very religious who are the strongest opponents to the message of Jesus. That’s what we’ll see today as we focus in on this dispute over the name of Jesus. And as you’ll see on page 1095, it follows on immediately from the passage we looked at last week.

Peter and John had healed a crippled man who was begging at the temple gate called Beautiful; and then used it as a way to proclaim the Beautiful Saviour, Jesus, who promises a Beautiful future. A crowd had gathered to listen, people who recognised the man who used to beg, who was now walking and leaping and praising God. And some others were drawn to the crowd as well. We see who they are in the first verse of chapter 4:

‘The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people.’ (1)

What did they think of Peter’s teaching? Were they pleased to see this miracle and hear about God’s beautiful Saviour? Hmm, not quite: ‘They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.’ (2) They didn’t like it at all! The Sadducees were sad, you see, because they didn’t believe in resurrection at all. This life is all there is. Yet the apostles were proclaiming, not just resurrection in general, but ‘in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.’ They didn’t like the doctrine, and they definitely didn’t like hearing the name of that troublemaker again. The one that they had made sure was crucified a few weeks before.

So they seize Peter and John, and put them in jail for the night. Yet even the sight of the apostles being led away in handcuffs doesn’t stop people believing - and there are now five thousand men who believe. (Women and children above and beyond that, perhaps).

The next day, the ‘rulers, elders and teachers of the law’ assemble. We hear some of those who are present - names familiar from the trial that condemned Jesus - Annas the high priest, Caiaphas; all their family, and the other leaders. And when Peter and John are brought in, here’s the question asked of them: ‘By what power or what name did you do this?’ (7)

How did you do it? What was the source of your power? In whose name did you do it? And once again, Peter doesn’t hold back. Remember, this is the group of men who condemned Jesus to death a couple of months back. These are the most powerful religious people in the land. And notice that Luke tells us that Peter was ‘filled with the Holy Spirit.’ (8)

‘Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.’ (8-10)

He doesn’t miss them and hit the wall! It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Remember him? You crucified him; you put him to death. But God raised him from the dead. And then Peter quotes Psalm 118:22, except he applies it personally to these religious leaders. The original text says, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone.’ But do you see how he has personalised it? ‘He is “the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone.”’

It’s a picture from a building site. Don’t think of uniform bricks, but more the rough stones in a dry stone wall in the Mournes. This particular stone is rejected by the builders, they can’t see a use for it, and so they throw it aside. But actually, it turns out to be just the right size to finish the whole building, the capstone to fit everything together. And that’s what the leaders thought of Jesus. They carefully examined him, and rejected him. Crucified him. But actually, Jesus is the one who completes God’s plans and purposes in the world. He is the one who is the capstone. Why?

‘Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.’ (12)

Jesus is the capstone, because he is the only Saviour. No one else will save you. Nothing else will save you. Only Jesus. No other name. No other saviour. Jesus alone.

Are you convinced of that? Are you sure of that? It means that other religions will not save. Only Jesus. Are you trusting in Jesus alone for your salvation? And if not, why not?

Now, so far, every time Peter has proclaimed a similar message in Acts, we’ve seen people come to repentance and faith. But this time is different. This time there is no revival. No repentance. Just opposition. Notice what Luke tells us about what happened next:

‘When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realised that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. But since they could see the man who had been healed standing there with them, there was nothing they could say.’ (13-14)

Do you see how they describe Peter and John? ‘Unschooled, ordinary men.’ They weren’t highly educated; they hadn’t been to theological college; they were rough fishermen from Galilee. And yet they had courage. How brave it was to stand in the council that condemned Jesus, and tell them that Jesus is their only hope of salvation! But what made the difference? ‘They had been with Jesus.’

The leaders are in a bit of a pickle. They don’t want to accept Peter’s message. But the man who was healed is standing in front of them. ‘There was nothing they could say.’ (14) So they order Peter and John out, while they confer together on their response.

‘What are we going to do with these men?’ Everyone knows they’ve done an outstanding miracle. We can’t deny that. But neither do they want to believe. And they don’t want it going any further. So here’s their plan: ‘But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn these men to speak no longer to anyone in this name.’ (17)

They want to nip it in the bud. Speak no longer in this name! That will stop it from spreading. And so they bring in Peter and John and ‘commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.’ (18).

Stop talking about Jesus. Stop insisting that Jesus is the only Saviour. Stop sharing the good news. Doesn’t that sound very much like our society new? It’s not very politically correct to insist that Jesus is the only Saviour. It goes against the prevailing mood of pluralism, where every opinion and every outlook is equally valid and equally true. To stop speaking in the name of Jesus is to stop people from being saved.

That’s what Peter and John say as well: ‘Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.’ (19-20)

Following Jesus and engaging in his mission to the ends of the earth will sometimes mean that we face opposition. People will try to silence us. They don’t want to hear themselves, and they don’t want others to hear. But it is right to obey God, rather than people. And the good news just comes out; we can’t help it!

There was nothing special about Peter and John. They were unschooled, ordinary men - who had been with Jesus, and filled with his Spirit, and given courage to speak out to share the good news of Jesus, and the power of his name.

What about us? Are we convinced that there is no other name by which we must be saved? Are we convinced that people need to hear the name of Jesus? Will we speak up?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 14th July 2019.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Sermon: 1 Peter 4: 1-11 Time's Up

I wonder if you’ve heard of the Time’s Up movement? It was launched in 1st January 2018 by Hollywood celebrities in response to the allegations surrounding the movie director Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo, and the casting couch culture. Over the past year and a half, the campaign has broadened from Hollywood to every sector of society, and every industry. Here’s what they say front and centre on the website: ‘The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.’

We’re familiar with the idea of the clock running out, of time being up - whether it’s on the sports field, or an egg timer, or sitting an exam. When time’s up, then it’s done, finished, completed. And this campaign says that Time’s Up for sexual assault, harassment and inequality. Those bad things shouldn’t happen any more; they should be finished.

That’s what’s driving the Time’s Up movement; and it’s also what is driving our reading tonight in 1 Peter. Long before the Hollywood celebrities were writing their open letter in the New York Times, the apostle Peter was writing his letter to say that the time’s up.

As we’ve seen in recent weeks, Peter’s letter is to people he describes as ‘God’s elect, strangers in the world.’ (1:1) That is, as Christians we are God’s elect, chosen by him, and brought near to him through the death of the Lord Jesus. But as well as being elect, we are also strangers in the world - we belong to a different kingdom, we’re different to everyone around us; we stand out like healthy thumbs in a world of sore thumbs. (h/t to St Helen’s Bishopsgate).

And this whole part of the letter is about living as aliens and strangers in the world. It might involve suffering, but we’re to follow the Lord Jesus’ example; and fear him; and be ready to give an answer for the hope we have - the hope of heaven with Jesus who reigns over all.

So as we get into tonight’s passage, we’ll see how the time’s up for living like the pagans do. But in order to get us there, first Peter gives us the pattern to follow in verses 1-2: ‘Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin. As a result, he does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God.’

Jesus is our Saviour, but he is also our example. It’s because Jesus suffered in his body, that we are also to be prepared to suffer in our struggle against sin. Back in 2:11 those sinful desires are warring against your soul; here’s what we’re to arm ourselves with - here’s our weapon against sin - suffering. This isn’t a masochistic kind of thing, as if we enjoy pain; but rather we embrace the cost of following Jesus as we commit ourselves to following him.

And what will it mean to follow Jesus? It means that Time’s Up! Verse 3: ‘For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do - living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry.’

However much time you devoted to these things in the past, that’s enough time spent doing them. The time’s up - don’t keep doing them the way the pagans continue to do them. And, when you look at the list, it sounds remarkably like our society as well, doesn’t it? The pagans around us choose to do these things, but for the Christian, time’s up.

Here’s another aspect of being aliens and strangers, standing out - because the pagans will notice that we’re not taking part in their activities; that we’re not joining in: ‘They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you.’ (4) They notice, they think it strange, and then they heap abuse - all because we don’t plunge into the flood. (Remember he spoke about Noah a few verses before!)

“Come on and join in,” they’ll say. “Sure, why not? Everybody else is having fun. Who do you think you are, all high and mighty? Are you a holy Joe, too good for all this? Who will know? Who will care?”

Peer pressure on children and teenagers can be particularly high, but peer pressure can still affect older people. Maybe we fear missing out on fun. being thought odd, or a loser. Is time really up? Would it really matter, just this once?

‘But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.’ (5)

They might think it strange that you don’t join in; they might heap abuse on you; but they will have to give account for their actions. The judge is ready; the judgement is coming; and everyone will be judged - both those who are living and those who are dead. That’s why it matters; that’s why it’s time up for us as Christians when we have been saved. How could we continue in sin when Jesus has died for us? We will, sadly, often, every day fall into sin. But how could we gladly plunge into it?

Our answer is the gospel, our only hope. And it’s why the gospel, the good news, was preached to those who have now died. ‘So that they might be judged according to man in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.’ (6) Everyone will die, but those who trust in Jesus live according to God. There is life beyond this life, and as we trust in Jesus we will pass through the judgement safe and secure. Jesus, our Judge is also our Saviour who died for us.

So the time’s up for living for sin. In the rest of our reading tonight, Peter goes on to show that time’s almost up. And just in case that wasn’t clear enough, let me say it again - time itself is almost up. Look at how he puts it in verse 7: ‘The end of all things is near.’ Time is almost up for this life as we know it.

Maybe you’ve caught some of the Women’s World Cup matches on the BBC. Lots of goals have been scored in the last few minutes of the games. Why is that? When time is short, it clarifies and concentrates the mind! Or, to something more serious than football - when the doctor says someone has years, or months, or weeks, or days to live, doesn’t it clarify the things that really matter?

That’s what Peter is saying here. Time is almost up; the end of all things is near. Jesus is returning (as we heard this morning). So how should we live, knowing time’s almost up?

‘Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.’ (7-9)

We need to be clear minded (sober minded, as some versions put it), thinking clearly, knowing what’s going on. We need to be self-controlled, not losing the run of ourselves. Why? So that you can pray.

We need to love each other deeply (as he has also said in 1:22 and 3:8), and offer hospitality to one another - without grumbling! Why do these things? Why give ourselves in service to one another when the time’s short? Because love covers over a multitude of sins.

Finally, because my time is almost up, and time itself is almost up, Peter urges each of us to use the gift God has given to us - to serve others.You see, God gives us gifts, not for ourselves, but for each other’s benefit. His gifts are given to build one another up, ‘faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.’

He mentions two examples, but there could be many, many more. ‘If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.’

Whatever God has given you, use it for the good of others, and for the glory of God. If that’s speaking, as you share the good news in a growth group or in a youth group or as you stand having a cup of tea after the morning service or when you talk to your nextdoor neighbour - do it as one speaking the very words of God. You are God’s mouthpiece in the situation you find yourself in. You are communicating on behalf of God. So how will you speak? What will you say? Time’s short, remember, it’s almost up.

As you serve, in whatever way that may be here in the church family, don’t just try to do it in your own power. Do it with the strength God provides, for his glory, by his grace. So what are you doing? What could you do? Time’s short, remember, it’s almost up.

What are the opportunities that God is giving you, using the grace gifts he has given you, to make a difference, to share the gospel so that someone else will live according to God when they die? As the summer break continues, and planning begins for the new term, what could you do to build others up and bring others in and stand out like a healthy thumb?

The time’s almost up for life as we know it. Judgement is coming. That must clarify our priorities and hurry us along as we use the grace gifts God has given to us to build one another up. And time is already up for indulging in sin. What do you need to call time on? What do you need to stop? The time’s up. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 7th July 2019.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Sermon: Acts 3: 1-26 A Beautiful Miracle

Most of us can’t remember our first steps. Normally they happen when we’re very wee, the next stage of our development. Maybe these days they are captured on a phone camera, to be kept for posterity. But we don’t remember them ourselves. This morning, though, we get to hear about a man who definitely remembered his first steps. You see, Acts 4 tells us that he was over forty years old (4:22). And his first steps involved more than an uncertain stumble - he was walking and jumping from the start.

As Luke writes about the church’s beginnings, he tells us the story of this man, who used to sit begging at the Beautiful Gate. And in Acts 3 we hear of a Beautiful Miracle, pointing to the Beautiful Saviour, who promises a Beautiful Future. If you’ve closed your Bible, you’ll find the passage on p. 1094 of the pew Bibles.

Last week we heard of how ‘many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.’ (2:43) And perhaps those wonders got you wondering as to what they were. Well here, in Acts 3, verses 1-10, we see a Beautiful Miracle. Peter and John are going up to the temple at the time of prayer. Every day there were set times of prayer, and one of them was at 3pm. And as they make their way up into the temple, another man is on his way there. He’s not walking though - he is being carried, because he was ‘crippled from birth’ (2). Every day he was brought to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he would beg.

The man sees Peter and John, and ‘asked them for money.’ (3) He was hoping to get a coin or two from them. And his hopes are raised even higher when Peter and John look straight at him and tell him to ‘Look at us!’ (4).

I’m sure his hopes were dashed though, at the next words out of Peter’s mouth: ‘Silver or gold I do not have...’ (6) He’s sitting begging, he’s expecting money, and this pair say they’ve no money? But it turns out that Peter and John have something even better than money. And they’re going to give it to him. What could it be? What is better than money?

‘“Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God.’ (6-8)

His initial disappointment at not getting money was immediately forgotten, because he had received something far better. Healing. The ability to walk and leap. And when did it happen? ‘Instantly.’ (7) It wasn’t after months of intensive physio. It was straight away. A miracle. A beautiful miracle.

A miracle that was instantly recognisable. I wonder if you’ve heard of a condition called prosopagnosia? It’s an inability to recognise faces. So if you see someone you know, you may not recognise them; or if you see someone out of context, you might not know them. Well, the people in verse 9 weren’t suffering from prosopagnosia. ‘When all the people say him walking and praising God, they recognised him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.’ (9-10)

It was a Beautiful Miracle at the Beautiful gate, as this forty-year old took his very first steps. But how did it happen? That was the question the crowd were wondering about this wonder. And as the crowd gather, with people running up to Peter and John and the beggar, Peter begins to speak. This Beautiful Miracle points to the Beautiful Saviour. (10-16)

As Peter begins to speak, notice that he first of all deflects attention from himself and John. It’s not that Peter and John are great people: ‘Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?’ (12) Don’t look at us - we’re nothing! Rather, look to Jesus!

‘The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus.’ (13)

Jesus has been glorified, raised and exalted by God the Father. But that’s not how the people of Jerusalem would have thought of him. Look at the next three sentences. They all start with the same word. ‘You.’ What had they done with Jesus?

‘You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate... You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead.’ (13-15)

Do you see how Jesus is described on those verses? He’s God’s servant. He is the Holy and Righteous One. He is the author of life. And yet they handed him over; disowned him; killed him. They didn’t think much of him. They wanted rid of him. But God thought much of him - so much, that ‘God raised him from the dead.’ (15) Peter and John are witnesses of this. And so Jesus is the Beautiful Saviour, the one who has won the victory over death. And he brings life into being.

That’s what happened with the beggar: ‘By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see.’ (16) The man’s faith was in Jesus - and was demonstrated when he stood up and began walking and leaping and praising God. Jesus is the Beautiful Saviour, who promises a Beautiful Future.

Do you see how Peter seeks to bring them with him in verses 17-18? ‘I know that you acted in ignorance...’ You didn’t realise what you were doing. And it was in this way that God fulfilled what he had said in advance through the prophets, that the Christ would suffer. But even so, that’s no excuse! And so he calls on them to, v19, ‘Repent, then, and turn to God...’

You’ve heard me say before that repentance is an about turn, to change direction, to turn from sin and turn to God. That’s what Peter calls on them to do. But do you see why he calls on them to do it? It’s so that they will have a Beautiful Future, brought about by the Beautiful Saviour:

‘Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you - even Jesus.’ (19-20).

Three distinct, but connected ways in which a beautiful future is guaranteed when we turn to the Lord Jesus. Are you sharing in this beautiful future?

One - ‘so that your sins may be wiped out.’ Imagine all your sins written up on a blackboard or a whiteboard. Then they’re wiped away. Dealt with. Forgotten. Sorted. And if the very sin of putting Jesus to death could be wiped out, then all of your sins, even the very worst of them, can also be wiped out. Sometimes, this is what we focus on, but there’s even more involved in our beautiful future:

Two - ‘that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.’ Think back to some of those hot weather days we’ve had recently. You get so hot that you need a nice cooling drink, or an ice cream, something to refresh you. This is what God does for his people, refreshing us, blessing us, when we turn from being his enemies and live under his rule and blessing. And yet, there’s even more involved in our beautiful future:

Three - ‘that he may send the Christ.’ The full climax of our beautiful future is the return of the Lord Jesus, when we will see him face to face, and be welcomed into his eternal kingdom. Sometimes, when people talk about what they think heaven will be like, there’s a lot about what they would like - fishing or golfing or travelling or whatever it might be. But they forget the central feature of our beautiful future - our beautiful Saviour himself.

But you might be thinking - where is he? Why’s he not come back already? Peter tells us in verse 21: ‘He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.’

In our beautiful future brought about by our beautiful Saviour, everything will be restored. Or, in the words of Lord of the Rings, ‘everything sad will come untrue.’ The healing of the beggar is a sign of that restoration, that putting right everything that is wrong. And this is what lies ahead, when Jesus returns. Just think - the restoration of your body; of relationships; of the universe. A beautiful future.

And it can be ours, if we will listen to Jesus, and trust him. That’s what Peter’s driving at in the closing verses. He goes to the Scriptures to show how Jesus had been promised by Moses, and all the prophets from Samuel on. And he reminds them of God’s promise to Abraham how ‘through your offspring all people on earth will be blessed.’ (25). This blessing is for everyone, and anyone, who will trust Jesus and listen to him. These Jews in Jerusalem were the first to hear of the blessing, but it’s for everyone - as Jesus had sent out the apostles: Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.

As we close, let’s focus in on those words of Moses in verse 22: ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you must listen to everything he tells you. Anyone who does not listen to him will be completely cut off from among his people.’

Will we listen to Jesus, and put our faith in him? To fail to listen to him, or to listen and not put his words into practice, is to build on sand. But to listen to him, and do what he says, is to build on solid rock; to stand in the storms of life; and to have this glorious future with Jesus our Saviour.

The crippled beggar would never forget his first steps, recorded for us here in Acts 3. Perhaps today is the day when you take your first step of faith, as you trust Jesus. This beautiful miracle points to the beautiful Saviour who promises a beautiful future. May that future be our future today, through Jesus, our beautiful Saviour. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 7th July 2019.

Friday, July 05, 2019

Sermon: 1 Peter 3: 1-22 Live in Harmony

The story goes of two young fish swimming along, when they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way. He nods at them and says, ‘Morning boys. How’s the water?’ The two young fish swim on for a while before one of them turns to the other and asks, ‘What is water?’ (David Foster Wallace)

They were living in the water, and swimming in the water, but they didn’t even realise it - it was just so natural and obvious. That story challenges us to think about what we take for granted - the culture and attitudes and opinions we swim in every day, without even realising it. And it’s helpful as a way of reminding us what Peter has been teaching us up to this point.

His letter is all about the fact that Christians are elect strangers; elect exiles; chosen aliens. We are God’s chosen people; but we also find ourselves as aliens and strangers in this world. We belong to another kingdom, another world, and yet we’re remarkably comfortable in the world. But because we are elect, and chosen, we are to live as aliens in the world - to stand out and be different.

Perhaps the best illustration I’ve ever heard was from a preacher from St Helen’s Bishopsgate. You’ve heard of how someone sticks out like a sore thumb. That phrase suggests that a sore thumb is noticeable, that it’s obviously different. But the preacher turned it around - that in a world of sore thumbs, we’re to stick out like a healthy thumb. That we’re obviously different, in a very good way.

Last week, we saw how that is worked out in relation to the state and to our employer/manager. And tonight we see how it makes an impact in our marriages and in our daily life. So let’s look first, at marriage from verse 1:

‘Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.’ (1-2)

Last time, we saw the word ‘submit’ in connection with authority and with masters. And here the word submissive is to characterise marriage. Now, let’s be clear that Peter is not saying that domestic violence or abuse is fine, and he’s not saying to put up with it. Rather, he’s saying that the wife is to submit to her husband, even if he’s not a believer.

It’s obviously better for Christians to marry Christians, but it might happen that the wife has come to faith and her husband hasn’t. What do you do in that situation? Well, what you don’t do is try to nag him into the kingdom - it won’t work! Rather, it’s by winning him to the word without words as he sees your life, characterised by ‘purity and reverence.’

A beautiful life - not skin deep, not focused on externals like braided hair and gold jewellery and fine clothes - but a beautiful inner self, ‘the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.’ (4)

Peter points to Sarah, the wife of Abraham, who was the prototype of this kind of wife. Trusting in God; not giving way to fear. Beauty that doesn’t come from a spa weekend or a salon, but from hope and faith in God.

Now, husbands, if you’ve been daydreaming, the Bible has some words for you too. ‘Husbands, in the same way, be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.’ (7)

Remember that Peter was writing in a culture where marriages were probably arranged, almost certainly not for love; where wives may have been seen as property. The Christian husband is to be different - ‘in the same way’ acting considerately (almost submitting, in a sense), loving and respecting them and caring for them. To fail to respect your wife is to hinder your prayers.

Now, maybe some have tuned out entirely, thinking that those verses have nothing for them. Well, here, from verse 8, everyone is in view - this is for you! ‘Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.’ (8-9)

This is how we’re to get on together. Do you see how it’s the same ideas of submitting, loving, being compassionate? We’re to live in harmony with one another. That doesn’t mean we’re all the same, but rather that we fit together, that we ‘gel’ It’s not that we’re all just on one note, but that our notes ‘sing’ together, as we love and care for each other.

Evil will come. Insults will come. The question is - how will we respond to them? Not by returning the same - evil for evil and insult for insult. Rather, we’re called to repay with blessing, seeking the other’s good. We are inheriting blessing, we’re have been blessed - and so blessing is to be our native language. That’s what Psalm 34 directs us to do, it’s how we’re to live out our days.

Why? Because the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are attentive to their prayer. The Lord’s eyes and ears are on his people. He’s with us, and watching out for us as we live for him.

We’re living in this world, in this culture, but we’re to be different, we’re to stick out like healthy thumbs, eager to do what is good. And you’d think that everyone would support your efforts to do good, wouldn’t you? Peter seems to think that as well in verse 13 with that question. ‘But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed.’ (14)

You see, when someone has a sore thumb that’s sticking out, or they’re in a support, or in plaster, or on crutches, the normal question is - what happened you? What have you done to yourself? Peter’s saying, though, that we’re to stick out like healthy thumbs in a world of sore thumbs, so that people ask us - why are you like that? How’d you get like that?

We’ll stand out in terms of what we fear. ‘Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.’ (14) People around us fear all kinds of things - like a bad diagnosis, or death. But we’re not to fear those things - rather we’re to fear God, to set apart Christ as Lord, to live for his honour and glory. And as we do that, we will provoke all kinds of questions.

‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.’ (15-16)

We’re to be ready to give an answer when people ask us about our hope. They’ll see we’re different, and they’ll want to know why. So are you ready with your answer? How come you aren’t afraid of death like everybody else? How come you’re always so joyful? How come you don’t lie and cheat and steal like everybody else in the office?

Now, in case you’re not sure of how you would answer, Peter gives us a reminder in verse 18. For the third time in the letter, he circles round to the cross again. Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. We’ve been saved, and changed. And it’s all because the only good person gave himself for us.

Now, I must confess, that the next few verses are perhaps among the hardest in the New Testament to understand. Commentators and scholars have come up with lots of different possible explanations. Some reckon that that Jesus was opening up heaven to everybody held in prison; or offering another chance. Neither holds any water. The best two options are that Jesus preached through Noah when he was building the ark; or else that Jesus proclaimed his victory (and therefore judgement) in hell between his death and his resurrection, when he descended to the dead.

What is clear is that Noah and his family were saved through water in the ark. And we too are saved through water, in the waters of baptism, when we take hold of the promise by faith. Because Jesus died and was raised, we too live with him. And this is our hope, the hope that sees beyond this life, the hope that affects us in this life; the hope that makes us stick out like healthy thumbs, so that others will be provoked to ask about our hope.

We’re swimming in water; living in a culture we’re very comfortable in, almost entirely unaware of its values and attitudes. But we’re called to be different - responding with blessing and not curse, setting apart Christ as Lord. We may be misunderstood; we may even suffer for it; but this is what we have been called to, because we are inheriting God’s eternal blessing.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 30th June 2019.