Sunday, September 29, 2019

Sermon: Genesis 4: 1-26 Beginnings: The Next Generation

Up on the north coast, near Benone, there is a Maize Maze. It’s a maze that has been cut in a field of maize (corn). Now, I’m not sure if it’s an amazing maize maze - I haven’t done it - but maybe if you’re up next summer you can give it a go. Nearer home, there’s the Peace Maze in Castlewellan Forest Park. I’m not sure if it’s been called the peace maze because if you send the kids in to have a go, you’ll get some peace for half an hour. Has anyone tried the Castlewellan maze?

Even if you haven’t, I’m sure you know how mazes work. You start at the start, and have to find your way to the end. (In Castlewellan, you get to ring the bell!) But it’s not as straightforward as following one simple path the whole way. Inside the maze there are lots of options, lots of ways that seem to be right, but that eventually turn into dead ends.

As we come to Genesis 4, it’s as if we’re just stepping into the maze. We are on the hunt for the Saviour promised by God after Adam and Eve had messed everything up. That’s what we saw last week in chapter 3. Paradise was lost through the disobedience of Adam and Eve. They had one rule to keep, and they disobeyed; they knew shame and guilt because of their sin. They expected to die straight away - because they deserved to die straight away.

But God showed mercy (in covering their sin) and grace (in promising a Saviour). Look back again to the promise, which is within the curse against the serpent who is the devil: ‘And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.’ (3:15)

Adam and Eve have been kicked out of Eden, but that promise is ringing in their ears. And the hunt is on. Who is the offspring of Eve who will crush the serpent’s head, and win the victory over sin and death and hell? We know that the offspring we’re waiting for is Jesus, but Adam and Eve don’t know that. And so they are just stepping into the maze, looking for the next step, for the right path to lead them to the victory.

In verse 1, it looks as if God’s promise has been fulfilled. In just one step, it looks as if Adam and Eve are on the right path. After all, God had said that it would be the woman’s offspring. And here we have the very first birth of the very first baby in the whole world. Adam and Eve are pleased to announce the birth of their first son, Cain; mother and baby doing well.

So well, in fact, that Eve says there: ‘With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.” (1) The name ‘Cain’ sounds like ‘brought forth’ or ‘acquired’ - and Eve thinks that she has acquired the child of promise, the Saviour. Abel’s birth (2) has no special words recorded. He’s not Cain.

When the boys grow up, they decide to diversify their farming - Cain going into arable, and Abel working with livestock. And in due course, they bring an offering to the LORD. It’s like the very first harvest thanksgiving. Cain brings some of the fruits of the soil, Abel brings fat portions from some of his firstborn sheep. And God accepts one, but not the other.

Look at verse 4: ‘The LORD looked with favour on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favour. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.’

Why the difference? Some think that Abel’s involved blood and Cain’s didn’t. That might be part of the answer. Or that Abel’s was from the firstborn of his flock, whereas Cain just brought some of the fruits of the soil. Perhaps. But notice that it wasn’t just the offerings that were accepted or rejected. It was also the offerer that was favoured or not. In 1 John 3:12 we’re told that ‘Cain’s actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous.’ God knows our hearts - he knows the motives and attitudes behind our actions. And so Cain doesn’t receive God’s favour. And it leads him to get angry.

Do you see how the LORD shows him grace? Tries to help him? Tries to turn him? ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.’ (6-7)

Cain has a choice to make. Just like his parents, he has heard God’s word to him. What will he do? The right thing? The wrong thing? Sin is pictured as crouching at the door, just waiting to pounce, to take over. It desires to have Cain (and each of us) - but he is to master it.

Sadly, we see that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Cain rejects God’s word, and attacks his brother, and murders him. And do you see how Abel is referred to in verses 8 and 9? He’s not just ‘Abel’ - he is ‘his brother Abel’ or ‘your brother Abel.’ So much for brotherly love. More like brotherly hate.

And so the LORD speaks to Cain again, asking, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ And do you see how Cain responds? ‘I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’ Answer - yes! You should be! But sin has mastered Cain - pride which refuses to repent; envy which resents his brother; murder to snuff out an image-bearer of God.

Are we our brother’s keeper? Our sister’s keeper? We should be! Caring for and protecting those who need our help. Especially those who have no voice. Those whose blood will cry out, like the blood of Abel. ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.’ (10-11)

Cain is sent to be a restless wanderer; protected by the mark put on him, so that no one will kill him. And if anyone does kill him, there will be vengeance seven times over. And so Cain leaves, under God’s curse, and goes to the land of Nod. (A place I hope none of us are in this morning!)

Cain is obviously not the promised Saviour. If anything, he’s part of the serpent’s offspring, under the power of sin, and the kingdom of darkness. But his dead end pathway goes a bit further. We’re told about his city, his family, his generations, and it all comes to a head with Lamech.

Here we see the fruit of Cain’s lifestyle, the end of his disobedience. He takes two wives (rather than just one); his family seems to be innovative and entrepreneurial - developing tents and musical instruments (harp and flute), and tools of bronze and iron. And yet, he seems thoroughly unpleasant. Listen to his poem - can you imagine being married to him?

‘Adah and Zillah, listen to me;
wives of Lamech, hear my words.
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for injuring me.
If Cain is avenged seven times,
then Lamech seventy-seven times.’

There’s an escalation of violence, a full flowering of the fruit of wickedness. The serpent’s offspring to the sixth generation. And so, by the time we get to Lamech, it’s very obvious that we have reached a dead end. We aren’t going to find the Saviour in this family line. We need to go back to where we started and try another path.

And that’s what we find in verse 25. We’re back to the start. Adam and Eve have another son, and Eve calls him ‘Seth’ - God has granted me another child in place of Abel, since Cain killed him. And in due course, Seth has a son, Enosh - and we are back on the right line. It’s not that Seth or Enosh were perfect; it’s not that they never sinned, of course they did; but something new is happening. ‘At that time men began to call on the name of the LORD.’ (26)

We’re on the right track again. The search for the Saviour is on; the hunt for the one who will crush the serpent’s head. Yet even here we are getting pointers to Jesus, signs along the way; echoes and glimpses of what our Saviour will be like when he comes. Despite the fiercest of temptations, he never gave in, not even once. He had full control, and was fully obedient to God’s will.

He was and is his brother’s and sister’s keeper - perfectly loving and caring for us; indeed giving up his own life for us, perfectly demonstrating what brotherly love looks like. That’s a theme that’s picked up in the early part of Hebrews - how Jesus is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters.

He offered not just a firstborn lamb - he offered himself, the Lamb of God, making the one complete and all-sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world on the cross. Abel was murdered because of his acceptable offering; Jesus was the acceptable offering.

And because of the cross, Jesus’ blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Heb 12:24). Abel’s blood cried out to God - and what did it cry? For justice! For vengeance! And what is the better word that Jesus’ blood speaks? It speaks of grace, of mercy, of pardon.

We all find ourselves, by birth and choice, to be sons of the serpent. Sin isn’t just something we do - it’s our operating system, it’s a part of us, infecting everything we do. But the woman’s offspring has won the victory, and in his blood we find our peace. Only through Jesus’ blood can we be forgiven, and cleansed, and set free. To depend on anyone else, or even ourselves, is to continue to wander in the maze, trapped in a dead end. But Jesus gives us victory, freedom, life, and peace. Will you call on the name of the Lord today?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 29th September 2019.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Sermon: Matthew 5: 27-32 Adultery

Back in the summer of 2015, a website’s user base was hacked, and its users’ personal information was publicly released. Over 11 million peoples’ names, addresses and credit card details were revealed. And what was the website? Ashley Madison .com. The name may not be familiar to you, (hopefully not!) but here’s what the strapline for the website was: ‘Life is short. Have an affair.’ In effect, Ashley Madison was a register of people actively seeking to have an affair. Or, in the words of the Bible, to commit adultery.

Now here’s the thing. What do you think of the people whose names were found in that database? They had signed up for this adultery website, they entered in their information, never expecting it to be revealed to the world. How do you think of them? Were they stupid? Immoral? Shameless? Sinful?

You see, when we hear some of the Ten Commandments, we can feel a bit like the rich young ruler who came to see Jesus in Matthew 19. Do you remember him? He came to Jesus, asking what he had to do to get eternal life. Jesus gives him some of the Commandments - ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honour your father and your mother, and love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Matt 19:18-19) And how does the man reply? ‘All these I have kept.’

When we hear those commandments, we might feel like congratulating ourselves - yup, I’ve never done that. Never committed murder; never committed adultery. If adultery is being unfaithful to marriage vows; having sex with someone who is not your husband or wife; then you’ve either done it or not - and if not, then you might think that you get a big tick beside that commandment. I’ve not done it. And I’ll congratulate myself on not doing it.

If you were here last week, though, you’ll realise that you shouldn’t be so quick to congratulate yourself on the keeping of the commandments. Last week, we looked at the command which says ‘Do not murder’ - and Jesus raised the bar, he lifted the standard even higher - he said that you can murder people in your hearts even if you never murder anyone with your hands. There’s a danger to our anger - that it’s just as guilty as murder.

And so, as Jesus addresses the theme of adultery, again we find that the bar is being raised higher; that he is going beyond the external and physical, and he goes deep down into our hearts. And as Jesus does that, we find that we need to move from congratulation to conviction.

Look at verse 27: ‘You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart.’

Now, ladies, just because Jesus addresses men here doesn’t mean that you are off the hook. The same principle applies for you as well. Adultery in the heart is still adultery. It may be unseen by anyone else, with no dangerous deeds and illicit liaisons risking being caught, but adultery in the heart is still adultery. Could it be that we’re under conviction?

Mostly when I’m driving around, I’ll be listening to sermons and podcasts. But sometimes I’ll have Radio Ulster on, and if it’s early afternoon, I’ll realise that Hugo Duncan’s on and swiftly change the channel. But a while back I left it on, and heard these lyrics: ‘I can say I’ve never been unfaithful, but I can’t say it’s never crossed my mind.’ I don’t know who it was who was singing, but those words stuck with me - it’s precisely what Jesus is saying about adultery of the heart. It’s still adultery!

So what is it that you think of? Or perhaps to phrase it more directly, who is it that you think of? They may be someone you know, or they may be a celebrity. Are you committing adultery in your heart, by unfaithfulness to your marriage partner; or if you’re not married, by unfaithfulness to your future husband or wife, or by unfaithfulness to your current single state of chastity.

But you may have noticed that Jesus went even further than just the heart - by specifically mentioning the eyes. ‘I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent...’ Jesus seems to be saying that adultery in the heart begins with this lustful look.

In our first reading we heard of King David’s adultery with Bathsheba. How did it begin? ‘One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her... Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her.’ (2 Sam 11:2-4).

David saw her (lustfully) and then sent for her, and then slept with her. It unleashed disaster in David’s personal life, and in the nation as a whole, and ended in him killing Bathsheba’s husband to cover up the fact that she was pregnant.

Looking lustfully is adultery in the heart. Yet it’s very obvious that our society is obsessed with sex; providing and promoting material for the eyes. The advertisers know that sex sells. And it’s everywhere. And that’s before you even think of the internet with its easy access. Never mind the people you know, work with, or pass on the street.

Jesus is not saying here that men should not look at women at all - or that women should cover up in a burkha like Muslim women. As John Stott says, we all know the difference between looking and lusting. It could be the second look, the forming of a memory, a fantasy. And because we know the difference between looking and lusting, we recognise the sin in our life. Conviction, rather than congratulation. Adultery in the heart is still adultery.

So what can we do about it? Jesus proposes a radical remedy, which sounds shocking. ‘If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lost one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.’ Your eye, and your hand - if they’re the cause of sin, then get rid of them.

Jesus is not expecting to be taken literally here - after all, to remove your right eye still leaves your left for lustful looks, and even if both eyes are removed, you can still lust in your heart. Rather, he is saying that we need to be firm with sin in our life. Mortification of sin (putting it to death), not mutilation of our bodies. To misquote an old manifesto pledge: Tough on sin, tough on the causes of sin. So if you use your eye to look lustfully, then act as if you were blind and look away at something else. Avoid it entirely. And if your hand is clicking on those websites, then stop clicking there! Cut it right out of your life. Get a dumbphone if a smartphone is your downfall. Don’t play with temptation; don’t toy with sin - you’re more vulnerable and weak that you imagine.

As Job says in chapter 31 of his book: ‘I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl.’ (Job 31:1) If you’re struggling with this, then make that covenant with your eyes. Use some accountability software. Get help - ask a Christian friend to ask those difficult questions; to come alongside and help you through.

Jesus is teaching that to not commit adultery is more than what we do with our bodies - it’s what we do with our eyes, minds, and hearts as well. But perhaps you’re wondering - why is it so wrong? Why does God need to be involved in what we do with our bodies, or who we sleep with, or who we think about?

It matters to God, because God made us, and the commandments are an expression of what it means to live in relationship with God as his people, his image bearers. Behind each of the commandments is an essential element of God’s character. You can puzzle through what each of the other commandments tells us about God, but the call to not commit adultery reflects the covenant faithfulness of God.

To not commit adultery is to positively promote faithfulness and love in God’s good idea of marriage. Our marriages are to reflect God’s covenant faithfulness to us, his people. The final scene of the Bible is the wedding of the Lamb (the Lord Jesus) and his bride (the church). But throughout the Old Testament, God uses the image of marriage to speak of his relationship with his people. We see the times when Israel is described as an unfaithful wife, an adulteress, running after other husbands, other gods. The prophet Hosea is called to love his unfaithful wife as a real life example of God’s love for his unfaithful people.

Yet by the time of Jesus, the religious leaders permitted divorce for any and every reason. All it would take was a certificate of divorce, and a man could throw his wife out. So, the dinner was burned, and that’s it, out you go. The man had the power, and the women was weak, vulnerable, with nowhere else to turn. She would need to find another husband. Yet Jesus confronts the situation head on. He says there in verse 32 that to divorce, except for marital unfaithfulness, is to force your wife into adultery.

There are some times when divorce is necessary. But Jesus is pointing to the importance of marriage, and faithfulness in that marriage. In this way, we reflect the covenant faithfulness of God, and submit to his purpose for marriage.

But, as we finish, let me say one more thing. It’s very important to hear this very clearly. Sometimes the church can appear to suggest that the worst type of sin is sexual sin, as if there’s a league table of respectable sins and notorious sins. The truth is that all of us are sinners, and all of us need to know that the Gospel is a message of grace. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

It’s not that Jesus died for every other type of sin apart from sexual sin. It is not the unforgivable sin. So whether it’s the obvious adultery, plain to all; or the hidden but still sinful adultery of the heart, the good news is that Jesus died for your sin. All of it. No sin is too bad to be forgiven.

And in 1 Corinthians 6:9, Paul is writing to a church which was in a mess. All sorts of immorality and quarrelling, living in a city with all sorts of immorality going on. These were people with a past.

‘Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes or homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.’ (1 Cor 6:9-11)

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

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Sermon: Genesis 3: 1-24 Beginnings: Sin and Salvation

You’re driving along, and up in the sky is the most beautiful sunrise, and it’s amazing; while on the car radio the news tells of amazingly tragic events - a stabbing here; a bomb alert there; and much more pain and suffering. Or you’ve gone for a walk and you’re standing at a beauty spot, enjoying a scenic view; while all around and along the path were the takeaway wrappers and litter. Or you’ve heard of the great news of a new baby being born; while at the same time, you hear of a neighbour or friend who has got bad news; a diagnosis; or even has died.

Perhaps you’ve experienced something a bit like that yourself. You get a glimpse of God’s good creation, and yet at the same time know that we’re not in Eden now. So how did we get from there to here? How did things turn out so wrong? How was paradise lost, and can we ever get back there?

That’s what Genesis 3 tells us. Here we see how we got into this mess in the first place; how the circumstances of the first sin are so familiar to us; and how there might be the glimmers of hope even in the midst of despair.

To set the scene, you need to remember where our first parents are living. They’re in the Garden of Eden, that perfect paradise, created by God for Adam and Eve. There is perfect provision - all kinds of trees that are pleasing to the eye and good for food. They have a perfect relationship with each other - naked but with no shame. And they have perfect fellowship with God, who comes to walk with them in the garden in the cool of the day. God’s perfect paradise.

There was just one rule that they had to follow. Only one command to be obeyed; one limit. The tree in the middle of the garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They could eat of any other tree’s fruit; but they weren’t allowed to eat that tree’s fruit. ‘For when you eat of it you will surely die.’ (2:17)

And so, for a while, everything was perfect. Adam and Eve cared for the garden, enjoyed the perfection of paradise. But trouble was brewing. At the start of chapter 3 we’re told that the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. But don’t just think of a talking snake. Later in the Bible we discover that the ancient serpent is none other than the devil, or Satan. He stands in rebellion against God, and seeks to recruit Adam and Eve to his side.

And he does it by questioning God’s word. Do you see what he says in verse 1: ‘Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree of the garden”?’ He’s testing what God said, sowing doubt and confusion. Eve says that they can eat fruit from any of the trees in the garden, just not from the tree in the middle of the garden. But did you notice that either Eve herself, or maybe Adam in passing on the command, has added to God’s word. Do you see the extra bit? ‘and you must not touch it...’ (3)

Maybe it was an extra safety barrier. Maybe they thought - if we don’t touch it, then we definitely can’t eat it. But it’s the last phrase in verse 3 that the serpent seizes on: ‘You will not surely die... For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’

Again, the serpent denies God’s word; he suggests that God is holding something back from them; that God isn’t really good - as if God was afraid that they would become like him. And so Eve focuses her attention on the forbidden fruit. She knows God has said no. And yet she is gripped by it. It’s a but like the sign that says, ‘Wet paint, do not touch’. And you’re drawn to wanting to touch it. Or the sign that says ‘Do not walk on the grass’ and that’s precisely where you want to walk now!

So here, Eve sees that the fruit of the tree was ‘good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom.’ (6) She takes it, eats it; gives some to her husband, and he eats it. They imagined that this would be a glorious moment, a coming of age, of equality with God. And as they bite, and disobey God’s (only) command, suddenly they realise what they have done. They already knew what good was beforehand; but now they have the knowledge of evil - experiencing it and knowing it firsthand.

Their eyes were opened, they realise they are naked; and so they sew fig leaves together, to attempt to cover themselves up. They know shame for the first time. They try to hide from each other, but then, even worse, they try to hide from God.

God turns up for his usual evening walk with them, and they hide. And so the Lord God calls to the man, ‘Where are you?’

Now, it’s never happened to me, but there’s the story of the minister out on visits. And he knocks at a particular door. He has the sense that the lady is inside, but there’s no answer. So he leaves his card, and writes on the back Revelation 3:20. ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock...’ Well, on Sunday morning, the lady slips a card into his hand at the door, and it has Genesis 3:10 written on it. So he goes and gets his Bible, and finds these words: ‘I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.’

Adam and Eve his themselves from God because they knew they were naked. And we’ve been hiding from God ever since. We know that we can’t stand before him by ourselves; we have all done things that he doesn’t like; we’re naked before the all-seeing, all-knowing God. But then it gets even worse.

Rather than confessing his sin, Adam begins the first ever blame game. Maybe you’ve seen this in your workplace. Something happens, and it’s always someone else’s fault. Or maybe you’ve seen it at home. It wasn’t me!

So look at what Adam says: ‘The woman you put here with me - she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.’ (12) So it’s either Eve’s fault - she gave it to me. Or it’s God’s fault - because you put her here!

And Eve, she doesn’t own up either. ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate.’ (13). So, let’s recap. You could say that Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent, and the serpent didn’t have a leg to stand on!

So what happened next? Well, immediately we see God’s grace towards Adam and Eve. God could have executed the death penalty straight away - but then none of us would be around today. There are consequences and curses, but we also see God’s love, and grace, and mercy in operation as well.

First, God curses the serpent. He will crawl on his belly and eat dust. But the curse is given so that Adam and Eve hear it. And look at verse 15: ‘And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.’

God promises a serpent-crusher. God says there will be enmity between the serpent and the woman; his offspring and her offspring. But then comes the promise, and it’s different. Her offspring ‘he’ is set against ‘you’ the serpent. The serpent will strike his heel - a bad wound - but in doing so, the woman’s offspring will crush the serpent’s head - a fatal blow.

Next, God curses the women - pain in childbirth, and desiring to overcome her husband, to rule over him. And then comes the curse on Adam. Now, sometimes people read these verses and think that work itself is the curse - that having to go to work is the result of the fall. But God curses the work that was already in place. Adam and Eve were already employed in working and caring for the earth. The difference now is that there is frustration in work. Now, you don’t need to put your hand up, but have you ever known frustration in your work? When you’re experiencing this curse: painful toil, thorns and thistles, sweat, and finally, returning to the ground, dust to dust.

At the very end of the chapter, Adam and Eve are banished from the garden, separated from God’s presence, barred from eating from the tree of life. There’s no way back, past the cherubim and flaming sword. And so we find ourselves east of Eden. Living in this paradise lost world. It explains why the world is the way it is - through sin - Adam and Eve’s, and ours too. But is that it? Thankfully not. There is good news in this chapter.

Adam and Eve had sewed fig leaves to try to cover themselves. But in verse 21 God clothes them in garments of skin. It’s a picture of sacrifice and the covering of sin and shame - the animal died, its blood was shed, to provide covering for them. That’s a hint of the ultimate sacrifice of the cross.

But there’s more. You see, Jesus himself bore the curse for us. In Galatians 3 we read: ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.”’ (Gal 3:13). Jesus died on the cross, naked, in shame, so that we would be clothed and covered. And what did Jesus wear on the cross? His clothes had been gambled for by the soldiers; but on his head he wore the crown of thorns - the thorns of the curse are borne by the Saviour.

It’s at the cross that Jesus crushes the head of the serpent. You see, the serpent thought that he had finished Jesus, engineering his death. But it was like a strike to the heel - because Jesus rise again from the dead. But in doing so, Jesus crushed the head of the serpent, the devil. The cross was the means of the long-promised, long-anticipated victory.

And because Jesus died on the cross, he has opened up the new and living way for us to come to God. And he opens up the way for us to eat of the tree of life. In the very last chapter of the Bible, Revelation 22, we’re given a picture of the new heavens and the new earth - the new Jerusalem. And flowing from the throne is the river of the water of life. And on each side of the river is the tree of life - there for us to take, and eat, and live forever. Paradise may have been lost, but this is paradise regained.

Genesis 3 explains why this world is the way it is. Perhaps in it you’re getting a glimpse into your life - the pain and agony of broken relationships; the never-ending blame game; frustration at work; separation from God. This is life as you know it.

but Genesis 3 also points to the way life should be, and can be, when you turn back to God. All those glimpses and hints and pointers to the perfect work of the Lord Jesus - who lived the perfect life, and died an undeserved death, in order to bring rebellious sinners like you and me back to God. All it takes is to trust him. To believe that Jesus died for you. Your life will be turned around. Your future in heaven guaranteed. Because Jesus has carried the curse we deserve, and offers us life everlasting, and never-ending peace, and a hope that is sure and certain.

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

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Sermon: Matthew 5: 17-26 Fulfilling the Law

The other day we were driving through a town in County Down when we saw a sort of church that we hadn’t heard of before. It was a New Testament Pentecostal Church. It got us wondering if they don’t use the Old Testament at all, only focusing on the New Testament. I’m still not sure, having looked at their website. The thing is, though, that many of us can be New Testament believers, because we only really tend to read the New Testament and think about the New Testament.

We’re maybe more familiar with the New Testament; and so apart from the well known Sunday School stories and the much beloved Psalms, we feel out of our depth in the Old Testament; we find it harder to understand. After all, it’s in the Old Testament that you find all the wars and killing of entire nations; and you find all the wrath; and you find all the Laws that we don’t really know what to do with these days - you know the ones that are quoted when people are arguing that Christians are hypocrites: things like not eating shellfish, and not wearing clothes of mixed fibres. Isn’t it much easier just to stay in the safeness of the New Testament? Do we really need all those Old Testament Laws now that Jesus has come?

Tonight, we’ll start to see what Jesus thinks of the Old Testament as he continues to preach his Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has gathered his disciples to him (with the crowds listening in) up on a mountainside, and he is giving them his manifesto - what it will look like to live in his kingdom. And there are echoes of Moses going up the mountain, Mount Sinai, to receive the Law, including the Ten Commandments in Exodus 19. So can we just forget about the Old Testament now that Jesus have arrived? Should we just follow and live out the Sermon on the Mount, and rip out the Old Testament from our Bibles?

Well, no. Before we do any violence to the pew Bibles, it’s important to hear what Jesus says about the Old Testament. He hasn’t come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. He isn’t coming in like a wrecking ball to knock them down. Rather, Jesus says that the Law is fixed. Look at verse 18: ‘I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will be any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.’

The Law is fixed. It’s permanent - as permanent as earth and heaven. So have a look around; look down at the ground. If the earth is still there, then God’s Law is still fixed. And every part of it is fixed as well - even the smallest letter, the least stroke of a pen - the jot and tittle, every mark of a pen is fixed.

And the fixed Law is unchanging in its demands. And that’s where our problems begin. In the summer term at school, we had to do athletics. Alongside the running races were the field events. And we all had to try the high jump. Being short, I wasn’t really able to get very far off the ground. I couldn’t make it over the bar. Some of the guys were far more athletic, and the bar went higher and higher for them, but even they struggled eventually. But the Law is the ultimate high jump - the bar is so high that none of us can clear it.

And that’s the case when we read the Ten Commandments. We wouldn’t even make it to number 2 before we have all failed. No other gods before me? That’s me out, and that’s you out too. Now that’s enough of a problem, but Jesus seems to magnify the problem even more. In verse 2- he says: ‘For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ (20)

The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were the super-religious people of the day. They were like the SAS of the religious. They didn’t just obey the rules; they had rules about the rules, to make sure they were keeping the rules. Their righteousness was strict, something they worked hard at. And Jesus says that our righteousness needs to surpass theirs? That we need a better righteousness? It’s beyond us. I’m out, and you are too. The fixed law stands broken.

But the good news of the gospel is that Jesus came to do what we could not do for ourselves. The law stands over us in judgement. We have broken it and deserve punishment. But did you see what else Jesus says about the Law? It’s not just fixed; it will also be fulfilled:

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.’ (17)

Jesus hasn’t come to destroy the law; he has come to fulfil it - to perfectly meet its demands. Just think of the way in which Jesus fulfils the prophets - the location of his birth; his mother’s virginity; his tribe of birth; his ministry; his miracles; his betrayal, arrest and crucifixion; his rising again to new life. Over 300 prophecies all fulfilled in his life, death and resurrection.

But more than that, Jesus has also fulfilled the law’s demands. He was perfectly obedient in every moment of his life to the will of God. You know the confession we use at Communion? Jesus would say the opposite to what we say. He could say: ‘I have not sinned in thought and word and deed, or in what I left undone.’ Jesus perfectly fulfilled the Law and Prophets, so that he has that perfect righteousness of a perfect relationship with God the Father.

As we trust in him, we receive the great exchange. Jesus takes away our sin, and he gives us his righteousness. It is by trusting in Jesus that we enter the kingdom of heaven; and this is how our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.

So why do we need to worry about the law? Why would we still need the Ten Commandments? The law points us to the perfect obedience of Jesus; and Jesus calls us to obey him - not in order to gain acceptance from God (because we already have it!), but because we have been accepted. Jesus calls us to walk in his way, obeying the law from heart obedience, in grateful thanks; not out of a desire to earn our way.

And as you can see in the rest of chapter 5, Jesus teaches us what it really looks like to obey the Law. At the start of each section he says something like ‘You have heard it said’ or ‘It has been said’ - and then he gives his authoritative teaching on what it really means. Over the next few weeks we’ll work through them in turn, but for the few moments that remain, let’s focus on his first example - that of murder.

You see, when you read the Ten Commandments and hear ‘do not murder’ you can think to yourself, I’m good on that one. I’ve never murdered anyone. But Jesus is saying here that you can commit murder in the heart without murdering with hands. You see, the same judgement awaits the person who is angry with his brother as it does the person who is a murderer.

Murder can be an internal attitude, even if it never appears on the outside. And so the God who knows our hearts knows what’s going on in the inside. Anger without cause is as guilty as murder.

A while back I was visiting a harbour, and the warning sign on the wall was meant to read ‘Danger: Slipway.’ As you know, slipways can be dangerous; with water or seaweed or algae they can be very slippery; and there was the tragedy in Buncrana three years ago. Danger Slipway. Except on the sign, the ‘D’ had fallen off. And the sign read: ‘Anger Slipway.’

Our anger can be a slipway, so gradual, so justified in our own eyes that we don’t realise where it is taking us - to judgement; to the fire of hell. [Notice that all the wrath and hellfire isn’t just found in the Old Testament - Jesus speaks of hell more than anyone else in the Bible].

Think of those times when anger rises within us. Behind the wheel - where do you think you’re going?! In a queue - could you be any slower?! On social media - You fool! It can seem so right, but if it’s unrighteous anger, without cause, then it can be very wrong - even murderous in its intentions.

So what do we do about it? Jesus tells us to be reconciled, and to sort it out quickly. In verse 23, he brings us to the temple, to the altar, and just about to bring an offering. And in that moment, we remember ‘that your brother has something against you.’ The thing to do is to leave the gift; be reconciled; and then offer the gift. He’s not saying if you have a problem with someone else... he says if someone has a problem with you, then be reconciled.

And we need to do it quickly. ‘Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court...’ (25) Better to sort things out before you get to court, or you may indeed be found liable, guilty, and end up in prison.

Suddenly, as we listen to Jesus, the bar of ‘do not murder’ has become even higher; the standard is higher than we would have imagined. Our guilt may well be increased. And yet we can take heart tonight that the guiltless one stood condemned in our place, that Jesus fulfilled the fullest requirements of this law on our behalf, and through him we can go free, can be assured of heaven, and a perfect righteousness. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 15th September 2019.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Sermon: Matthew 9: 35-38 Harvest Workers

Boys and girls, I’ve got a question for you today. What would you like to do when you grow up? Maybe some of you would like to be a police officer, or work for the fire service. Maybe you’d like to be a journalist or a sports star. Maybe you’d like to be a doctor or a nurse.

This morning I want to challenge everyone here - boys and girls, mums and dads, grannies and grandas and everybody - to become a harvest worker. You can’t be too young for the job; and you’re never too old for the job - you can start today; and you don’t even have to give up whatever job you already do.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself - what’s involved in this job as a harvest worker? What would I have to do? What are the hours like? What’s the pay like? And I have to be upfront with you - it’s a fulltime commitment, but the rewards are out of this world. So let’s look at the job advert from this morning’s Bible reading.

In Matthew 9, we find that Jesus has been travelling through all the towns and villages. And what has he been doing in all these places? ‘Teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.’ (35) Jesus has been teaching, and preaching, and healing. He’s sharing the good news about his kingdom; he’s putting wrong things right. And as he goes about the country, Matthew tells us what Jesus sees:

‘When he saw the crowds...’ (36)

What do you see when you see a big crowd of people? When you walk into the school assembly hall full of teachers and pupils, what do you see? When you walk up the street in Portadown or Armagh or Belfast, what do you see? You might know a few people: you normally bump into someone you know; but even the people you know, never mind the people you don’t know - what do you see?

Jesus sees the crowds of people, and he feels something:

‘When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them.’

Jesus sees the crowds of people, and he cares about them. He feels for them. He had compassion on them. That word compassion means to suffer alongside. Jesus sees the people, he knows what they’re going through, and he has compassion for them. He’s concerned for them. He enters into their situations and their suffering, and cares about them - because he loves them.

And why does Jesus feel this way?

‘When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.’ (36)

When Jesus sees the crowds, he sees their situations, he sees their hearts, and he sees that they are ‘harassed and helpless.’ Perhaps you feel this way today. Perhaps you know what it’s like to be harassed and helpless. You’re stressed out; feeling the weight of the world on your shoulders; knocked down or knocked out; and you don’t know what to do, or where to turn; feeling all alone, without any flicker of hope.

Matthew gives us a picture of what being harassed and helpless is like - ‘like sheep without a shepherd.’ Normally the sheep follow the shepherd, and are protected by the shepherd, and are provided for by the shepherd; but if they have no shepherd, then they’re lost. They feel harassed and helpless and don’t know where to turn.

And that’s how people are when they’re not following the Lord who is our shepherd. And so Jesus sees the crowds, he sees their situations, and he has compassion for them. Do we see people the way Jesus sees them? Do we care for people who don’t know Jesus? Do we care that they’re harassed and helpless, that they don’t know the shepherd Lord?

And what Jesus sees leads him to say something. Do you see what Jesus says:

‘Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”’ (37-38)

He says that there’s a big job to do, but there aren’t enough people to do the job. There’s loads to do, but not loads of people to do it. There’s a big harvest to gather in - it’s plentiful; but there are a small number of harvest workers. Do you see the problem?

A plentiful harvest but few workers. So what needs to happen? What do you need if there’s more work than there are workers? You need more workers! Do you see what Jesus says next? ‘Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’

Jesus tells the disciples to ask for more harvest workers. And who is the Lord of the harvest? Who is the person who owns the field, that we have to ask? It’s Jesus!

Jesus tells us to ask him for more harvest workers - to pray for more people to go out and gather in the harvest, as they share the good news of Jesus the king. To be a harvest worker is to tell people about Jesus, and to bring them to Jesus. And there is more work to be done. More people who are harassed and helpless need to be brought to Jesus. And so we need to pray for harvest workers - people who will share the gospel wherever they are, or wherever God sends them. Because here in Richhill and in Northern Ireland and right around the world there is a harvest to be gathered in.

So Jesus sees the need; and he says to ask him for harvest workers; and finally, Jesus sends out the workers. The disciples are told to ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field. And the very next thing that happens is that their prayer is answered. The Lord of the harvest does send out workers - and who does he send? He sends the disciples! The disciples were the answer to their own prayers.

That’s sometimes how God works. We might see a particular need; something that needs to be done. And so we pray to God, asking for more people to work with young people; or for someone to start a seniors outreach; or whatever it is - and we find that we are the answer to our own prayers, as God sends us to do the thing that is on our hearts.

Today is Vocations Sunday in the Church of Ireland. It’s a reminder that every Christian is called to ministry. Each of us is called to use the gifts God has given us to serve him and other people. Each of us is called to be harvest workers, as we point people to Jesus and bring them to Jesus. So pray for harvest workers - for people to go out into God’s harvest field at home or away - and then see where God sends you to work in his harvest field.

It may be that God is calling you to ordained ministry. Consider it seriously, and carefully, and prayerfully. I’d love to chat with you about it.

Jesus sees the need - people who are harassed and helpless - and he feels compassion for them. Jesus says to pray to him, asking for harvest workers because the harvest is plenty but the workers are few. And as we pray to the Lord of the harvest, we’ll find that Jesus sends us to be harvest workers. Let’s pray now to the Lord of the harvest, as we ask, and offer ourselves in his service.

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

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Sermon: Proverbs 1: 1-7 Wisdom for Life: Wise Up!

Here in Northern Ireland, we seem to have an overabundance of memorable phrases. Every so often, you’ll come across a list of Northern Irish phrases that don’t really seem to make sense to anybody else. It’s a bit like the books from the 1980s and 1990s that John Pepper produced in Belfast - John Pepper’s Ulster-English Dictionary and his Ulster Haunbook. He would take Northern Irish phrases, and then translate them into proper English. So, for example, ‘Bout ye, wee man!’ would be translated as ‘How are you, my fine fellow?’ You get the idea.

Tonight we’re starting to think about wisdom, and there are a couple of relevant Northern Irish sayings that you have either said or heard. Here’s the first: ‘He’s not wise!’ meaning, the person in question doesn’t appear to have carefully thought the matter through. And the second: ‘Wise up!’ or in other words, reconsider and get a bit of sense.

Over the next few cafe church nights, we’re going to try to wise up. The question is, though, how do we go about it? We’ve already asked the question tonight - what is wisdom? We’ll think about that a bit more. And we’ll try to discover where we can get wisdom from. So as we start, let’s ask: what is wisdom?

Some people might think that wisdom is the same as common sense. Have you noticed, though, that common sense doesn’t seem to be very common? What you might think is common sense isn’t what someone else might think - so it’s not common; and everybody doesn’t think the same way about everything, so it might not be very sensible either. So wisdom is not just common sense.

Some people might think that wisdom is the same as knowledge. But there seems to be a but more to wisdom than just mere knowledge. As someone once said, ‘knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, but wisdom is not putting it into a fruit salad.’ Wisdom is doing something with knowledge - working it out practically; applied knowledge, perhaps, but it is more than just knowledge. Many’s a time I remember dad coming home from work despairing about these graduates with their degrees and letters after their name, but without an ounce of wisdom between them. So wisdom isn’t just the same as knowledge. There’s more to it.

Perhaps the way to consider what something means is to look at its opposite. So the opposite of tallness is ... shortness; the opposite of hot is... cold. And the opposite of wisdom is...? Folly, or foolishness. Throughout the Bible, we see this contrast between wisdom and folly. On the other Sunday nights in the month we’re working through the Sermon on the Mount, and at the end of it (spoiler alert!), Jesus contrasts the wise and foolish builders - the wise man builds his house upon the rock (I think I know a song about that!), whereas the foolish man builds his house on the sand. And when the storms came down and the floods went whoosh, only one house remained standing.

So wisdom is the opposite of folly. And in the Bible, foolishness isn’t just being silly; there’s also a moral quality to it, a moral deficiency. So, for example, Psalm 14 says ‘The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”’

If there’s a moral quality to foolishness, that is also mirrored in the idea of Biblical wisdom. So someone has suggested that the idea of wisdom is living well in God’s world in God’s way. And if that’s the case, then who wouldn’t want to live well in God’s world in God’s way? Just think of the situations you come across every day - the many choices you make, big and small, which can change the outcome of your day, your month, your life and even your eternity. How do you decide what to do, or not do? Where do you turn for help? Who do you look to for advice? Where will you get wisdom for tomorrow morning?

If, like me, you want to grow in wisdom; if you too want to wise up; then how do we do it? Where will we find wisdom?

That’s the question that Job asks in chapter 28 of his book. He says: ‘There is a mine for silver and a place where gold is refined. Iron is taken from the earth, and copper is smelted from ore... The earth, from which food comes, is transformed below as by fire; sapphires come from its rocks, and its dust contains nuggets of gold... Man’s hand assaults the flinty rock and lays bare the roots of the mountains. He tunnels through the rock; his eyes see all its treasures. He searches the sources of the rivers and brings hidden things to light.’ (Job 28:1-2, 5-6, 9-11)

Humans have been able to mine and explore and discover all sorts of treasures and all sorts of precious metals. But here’s his next question... ‘But where can wisdom be found? Where does understanding dwell? Man does not comprehend its worth; it cannot be found in the land of the living.’ (Job 28:12-13) It’s a mystery. And then, in the last verse of the chapter, the mystery is revealed. But we’ll keep it hidden for a moment or two longer.

Within the Bible, there are lots of different types of writing. There is history and narrative (telling stories); there are poems and songs, like the Psalms; there are letters written to churches and individuals; there is apocalyptic (like Revelation - which we’ll be doing on Thursday nights at Growth Group); and there are the wisdom books - Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. We’ll be focusing in on Proverbs at Cafe Church, and next time we’ll look at what we typically expect Proverbs to be like - short, pithy, wise sayings. But the start of the book is a father’s instruction to his son, an introduction to what wisdom is like. And our reading tonight stands at the entrance to the whole book, ushering the reader in.

So what will the book of Proverbs do for you? ‘for gaining wisdom and instruction; for understanding words of insight; for receiving instruction in prudent behaviour, doing what is right and just and fair; for giving prudence to those who are simple, knowledge and discretion to the young - let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance - for understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise.’

So to read this book will help you to increase in wisdom, or in the Northern Irish version, to wise up. And did you notice who is included in its reach? The simple, the young, the wise and the discerning. So however you see yourself; whatever you may think of yourself; there is something here for you. No matter how wise you already are, you will grow in wisdom and learn something more.

And where does wisdom start? What is the first baby step of being wise? Here’s what Solomon says:

‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and instruction.’ (Prov 1:7)

And remember Job’s mystery of finding wisdom? God answers his question in this way:

‘The fear of the LORD - that is wisdom,
and to shun evil is understanding.’ (Job 28:28)

To fear the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, the beginning of wisdom. But when the Bible talks about the fear of the Lord, it doesn’t mean a phobia type of fear - the way people can be afraid of spiders or confined spaces or open spaces - no, the fear of the Lord is a healthy sense of awe and reverence for God. To put God first is the first step of wisdom. But to refuse to listen, to refuse to bow the knee - this is folly to the fullest.

God is wise. And, like every aspect of his character, we see it expressed in the cross. Just think for a moment of the cross - in it we see the love of God, and the holiness of God; the wrath of God, and the justice of God; the grace of God, and the mercy of God. And in the cross we see the wisdom of God.

To the world it seems entirely weak and utterly foolish. A man dying on a cross, in agony, abandoned and alone. As Paul writes to the Corinthians:

‘For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.’ (1 Cor 1:21-25)

The cross looks so weak and so foolish, but this is the way God saves - Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. To refuse to come to Christ is to refuse God’s wisdom, which is the ultimate expression of folly.

But here we have the invitation to wise up - to begin to be wise, or to grow in wisdom - as we learn from Christ, the wisdom of God. Wisdom calls out - will you listen? Will you heed the call? There are 35 days until the next Cafe Church, and 31 chapters in Proverbs (so you’ve a couple of catch-up days built in!). Why not read a chapter a day; slowly, carefully - see what jumps out at you; what speaks to the day you’re having; what helps you along the way.

Will you wise up, as I seek to wise up too?

This sermon was preached at Cafe Church in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 8th September 2019.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

Sermon: Genesis 2: 4-25 Beginnings - Provision

I see trees of green, red roses too,
I see them bloom for me and you,
and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

And if you were here last week, you’re thinking to yourself, ‘The Rector has picked up last week’s sermon. Are we going to hear it all over again?’ You’ll be relieved to hear that it’s not the same sermon again. But perhaps as I read Genesis 2, you were thinking that it seems awfully similar to Genesis 1. After all, it’s another telling of the creation story. So what’s going on?

Think for a moment of watching football on TV. When a goal is scored, they don’t just show it from one angle - they show it from one side, then the other, then from behind the goal, and from overhead. You get a bigger picture when you see it from different angles. And that’s part of what’s going on here. But also, while it looks as if it’s the same old story again, this is a new departure - the story is going somewhere.

You can tell that by the start of verse 4. ‘This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created.’ The way that line starts is the way the writer of Genesis divides up his material. You see, we’re so used to chapters in the Bible - so it seemed strange that last week we read a chapter and a bit. But Genesis is divided up by the places where it says ‘This is the account of...’ (or ‘These are the generations of...’ in the ESV). There are eleven of these, each time indicating a new part of the story, the next stage of God’s unfolding plan. (e.g. 5:1, 6:9 etc)

And what do we find in this account of the heavens and the earth? We find that the subject is God. It’s all about what the LORD God did and is doing in his world. God is active, working, creating, fulfilling his plans and purposes for his creation. He’s putting the patterns in place in God’s big design. And he is providing all that we need.

But that’s maybe to get ahead of ourselves. Because as we begin the chapter, people aren’t around yet. We get an idea of the timeframe in verse 4-6. The shrubs and plants of the field haven’t sprung up yet. They’re ready, they’re full of potential, but they haven’t grown up yet because: ‘for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no man to work the ground, but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground.’ (5-6) Maybe that sounds like paradise - no rain and no men. But of course, there are no women either! Not yet!

That’s all about to change, though, as God makes man. ‘the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.’ (7)

Can you remember what we saw last week? How did God create everything else? How did light come about? God spoke, and it was so. He said something, and it happened. His words were powerful. But here, God gets his hands dirty. He formed the man from the dust of the ground. He scoops up some mud, like a child playing with plasticine or playdough, and forms the man.

And that’s not all - he also breathes into his nostrils. This isn’t the Sistine Chapel image by Michaelangelo (as seen on the opening of The South Bank Show), you know the one, the finger of God touching the finger of Adam and zapping him into life. No, God gives the kiss of life, breathing life into his creation, this first man.

And God is the God who provides. He provides a home for the man, in the Garden of Eden. When you hear Eden, you think of paradise - and so this is God’s Ideal Home Exhibition and the Chelsea Flower Show all in one. All kinds of trees are there - ‘trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.’ And right in the centre of the garden are two special trees - the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The paradise God provides is also supplied with water - a river flowing from Eden, dividing into four headwaters (slightly tricky to pronounce); and there is even gold, and resin and onyx all provided.

God provides a home, and water, and work. You see, the man isn’t in paradise just to lie back and take it easy. He’s there ‘to work it and take care of it’ (15). The man’s task is to work the ground, to extend the kingdom of Eden into all the world, and to take care of it - to guard it and keep it. So work isn’t something that only started after the fall (even though it can sometimes feel that way) - work is part of God’s plan. [Next week we’ll be thinking about the idea of vocation in work and ministry]

God has provided a home, and water, and work, and food. In Eden, though, there aren’t any juicy steaks or chicken dinners. The food is hanging on the trees: ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.’ God provides the fruit as food - and God also provides a warning, a barrier. There’s an abundance, but there’s one tree he can’t eat from. Just one restriction in a garden full of trees. This is God’s only commandment - will Adam obey or not?

We’ve seen how God has provided so much - a home, water, work, food, his good command - and you could think to yourself, what a wonderful world, what a perfect paradise. And you’d be right. The echoing chorus of last week - And God saw that it was good - could come again. But suddenly, right in the middle of Eden, there is something that is not good. Verse 18: ‘The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”’

Remember that we’ve been made in God’s image - for love and community as well as for God’s plan and purpose - and so it’s not good for this man to be alone. He needs a helper, someone to share in his work and his world. And so the search is on. God brings all the beasts of the field and the birds of the air to the man. The man names them, exercising authority over them. Can you imagine what that was like? After he has named them all, aardvark to zebra and everything in between, he has come to the end, but ‘for Adam no suitable helper was found.’

So again, God takes the initiative, and performs surgery. He causes Adam to fall into a deep sleep, takes a rib, and makes a woman from the rib. Matthew Henry, writing in the 1700s, said this: ‘Women were created from the rib of man to be beside him, not from his head to top him, nor from his feet to be trampled by him, but from under his arm to be protected by him, near to his heart to be loved by him.’

And then comes the moment of meeting, when the man and the woman are introduced. And for the first time in the Bible, the man speaks:

‘This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called woman
for she was taken out of man.’

It’s the original love poem, for the very first love story. And do you see how man and woman are so intimately connected? Bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh. And our English words with the common part of ‘man’ in both - man and woman reflect the Hebrew words ‘ish’ and ‘ishah’. Equal but different; the complementary nature of male and female. And that’s reflected in God’s plan for marriage, as we see in the next verse:

‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.’ (24)

God’s pattern for marriage is one man and one woman living faithfully together for life in a public covenant. The two become one. And in our New Testament reading we see that Jesus, when asked about marriage and divorce, refers back to this verse as the foundation for the Bible’s teaching on sex and marriage. Marriage is God’s idea, his plan. And so the man and his wife were naked, but felt no shame.

In Genesis 2, we’re still marvelling at the wonderful world God has made; we get a glimpse of God’s perfect paradise; and in a sense, we wish we were there. We know that paradise has been lost, but God is still the same God, who is a generous and gracious provider. And here we see the ways in which God provides - a home, and water, and work, and food, and companionship, and marriage.

When you realise just how much God has given to us, it should move us to praise and thanksgiving - to say thank you to God for the many, many ways in which he has provided.

So let’s do that; let’s pause and take a moment, quietly, to thank God for his provision. Let’s pray.

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

Sunday, September 01, 2019

Sermon: Genesis 1:1 - 2:3 Beginnings: Creation

I see trees of green, red roses too,
I see them bloom for me and you,
and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

I’m sure you know that song by Louis Armstrong. He sings about all sorts of things - skies of blue, clouds of white, colours of the rainbow, the faces of people, friends shaking hands, babies crying. And his end point is: ‘Yes I think to myself, what a wonderful world.’

What is it for you that makes you think of how wonderful our world is? Perhaps it’s the way your garden grows up; or a beautiful landscape or spectacular mountain range; or some of David Attenborough’s wildlife programmes. Whatever it might be, your wonder is inspired and you’re amazed, and perhaps it even leads you to ask the question - where did this wonderful world come from?

As you’re probably aware, many people think that this wonderful world came about by pure random chance. Some sort of chemical reaction, a big bang of some kind, and it just so happened to produce everything that we see in this wonderful world. We started with a song - so here’s another, the theme song to The Big Bang Theory:

Our whole universe was in a hot, dense state
Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started, wait
The earth began to cool, the autotrophs began to drool
Neanderthals developed tools
We built a wall (we built the pyramids)
Math, science, history, unraveling the mysteries
That all started with the big bang! Hey!

The book of Genesis tells us how the world came about - not by random chance, but by the direction of the God who made everything. So who is the God we are introduced to in this opening chapter of the Bible?

He is the eternal God. Look at verse 1: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’ The word ‘Genesis’ means beginnings - we hear of the beginning of the heavens and the earth, but God already existed. God was already here before the beginning. He is the eternal being - the creator of time itself, but himself without beginning or end - the Alpha and the Omega.

The eternal God is also the God who speaks. You can’t miss it in this chapter. Verses 3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26, 29 contain either ‘And God said’ or ‘Then God said.’ God is a speaking God. He didn’t just speak creation into being, he has also revealed it to us. Back in the day, day one of creation, there was no Facebook or Twitter; no one was live-blogging creation as it happened; making snap judgements on what had happened. People hadn’t even been formed yet. We wouldn’t and couldn’t know about how God created if he hadn’t told us. And so he revealed it to Moses, who wrote it down for us.

Genesis is not necessarily a ‘how to’ - even though the order and sequence of creation is being corroborated by the work of scientists. God is showing us the ‘why’. God speaks, and tells us what we need to know about himself, and ourselves and our place in his creation.

The eternal, speaking God is also the God of power. We see this because when God speaks, things happen. Have you ever had the frustration of saying something and nothing happens - telling the kids to get ready for bed; or asking for a cup of tea - you might as well be talking to the wall! But not so with God. Look at verse 3. ‘And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.’ He just says it, and it happens. Do you see that pattern running through the chapter? ‘And God said... And it was so.’ (7, 9, 11, 15, 24) God is powerful, his words have power.

And what is it he says - this eternal, powerful, speaking God? His words show that he is the God of order. In verse 2 we see that the earth was ‘formless and empty’ (tohu wabohu). As the days of creation unfold, we watch as God forms the world (days 1-3) and fills the world (days 4-6).

There is separation as God forms the world - separating the light from the darkness (day 1), separating the waters under and above the sky (day 2), and separating the day land and the water (day 3). And then he repeats the pattern, as he fills the world - light and darkness match up to the lights in the expanse of the sky, the sun and moon [which aren’t even named, as some of the Israelites’ neighbours worshipped the sun and moon - Genesis reminds us that God made the sun, the moon, and v16 ‘he also made the stars’ - we worship the creator, not the creation]; the waters and sky of day 2 are filled by the fish and the birds of day 5; and the dry land is filled by animals and people (last of all) on day 6. God is the God of order.

The eternal, powerful, speaking, orderly God is also good. And the things he makes are good. Did you notice the constant chorus, the repeated refrain: ‘And God saw that it was good.’ The good God works goodness, and when he makes humans, the climax of all his work, we see God’s verdict on everything in verse 31: ‘God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.’

The God who made everything is the eternal, powerful, speaking, orderly, good God. And this is our God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Right at the very beginning we see God the Father, who creates and speaks; we see the Spirit of God hovering over the waters; and we see the Son, the Word of God, by whom all things were made. There is one God, in three persons - the Trinity. And we see that again in verse 26: ‘Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness.”’ If not the Trinity, then who would God be speaking to or about when he says ‘Let us...’

This is the God who made everything: the eternal, powerful, speaking, orderly, good God who made the first humans in his own image and likeness. It is only as we see and know the God who made us that we can see who we are.

In Genesis 1:27 we find the only rational foundation for human rights. The secular world argues strongly for human rights, but underneath they have little basis for equality and rights; and that’s why many reckon that the unborn, the elderly and the sick should be conveniently dealt with. But here we see that every human, male and female, is made in the image of God and is precious.

We also see our purpose in verse 26: ‘Let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ And it’s found in the blessing God gives in verse 28: ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule...’

We have been made according to God’s plan and purpose, shaping the world and us by his power and goodness to be like him and image him to the world - in love and community, dependent on our maker who gives us our place as stewards over the creation, and gives us food and everything we need for life in this world. We are called to care for creation, under God’s rule and care.

The good God made everything good. And we continue to get glimpses of what a wonderful world we live in. But alongside the trees of green and red roses too, our world is also full of pain and sadness and sickness. In a few week’s time we’ll see how that came about, but this morning we acknowledge that God’s good world has been marred and broken by sin; just as God’s image in us has been marred and broken by sin. We have turned our backs on God; we have exploited and abused his good gifts to us.

But one man did walk on the earth, perfectly displaying what it is to be the image of God. God himself became one of us. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

The Lord Jesus calls us back to relationship with him; calls us to turn to him by faith; to receive his blessings (won for us by his perfect life and spotless, sinless death); and to enter into his rest. God made the heavens and the earth and everything in six days, and on the seventh day he rested. It wasn’t that God was tired after all his work and needed to take it easy for a day or so. No, it was a day of enjoying all he had made, a day of blessing.

On the seventh day, the pattern is broken. Six days of work, one day of rest. And that’s what we find in the Ten Commandments also. But notice also that the pattern of numbering the days is broken. In verse 5, 8, 13, 19, 23 and 31 we have a pattern: ‘And there was evening, and there was morning, the day.’ But for the seventh day, you don’t get the same. The pattern is broken. And that’s an indication that God is continually resting from his work of creation - an unending Sabbath rest, which he is inviting us to share in.

Our weekly rest day (now the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day), when we rest from our labours, is a sign and symbol pointing forward to the perfect rest of heaven. Jesus invites us to share in his rest - a rest from labours, a rest from trying to earn our way, a rest from religious striving, and to instead receive his blessing and his rest:

‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’ (Matthew 11:28).

This is our God: the eternal, powerful, speaking, orderly good God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are made in his image, made for his purpose, and made for relationship with him. Will you come to him, and find your true identity in him today?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 1st September 2019.