Sunday, October 27, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Cafe Church Talk: Wisdom for Life - Work

Tumble out of bed
and stumble to the kitchen
Pour myself a cup of ambition
and yawn and stretch and try to come to life.
Jump in the shower
and the blood starts pumpin’
out on the streets, the traffic starts jumpin’
for folks like me on the job from 9 to 5.
Workin’ 9 to 5
what a way to make a livin’
barely gettin’ by
it’s all takin’ and no givin’
They just use your mind
and they never give you credit
It’s enough to drive you
crazy if you let it.

That’s what Dolly Parton thinks about working 9 to 5. But what does God think about work? And what wisdom does he give us about work in the book of Proverbs? That’s what we’re asking tonight. But before we get to the specifics of Proverbs, let’s set out the grand context of work in God’s world.

On Sunday mornings we’ve been working our way through the opening chapters of Genesis. And there, we’ve discovered that work is an essential element of God’s world. Work isn’t just something that came in after the fall, as part of the curse on mankind. No, work existed before the fall, part of the original creation mandate - but that work was then cursed because of Adam and Eve’s sin.

So in Genesis 1, the command is to ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’ (Gen 1:28). And in Genesis 2, Adam is placed in the Garden of Eden ‘to work it and take care of it.’ (Gen 2:15)

Even if Adam and Eve had never rebelled, they still would have been working. But now, in this paradise-lost world, we find that: ‘Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground...’ (Gen 3:17-19).

It’s because of this curse that we find that work can be frustrating, or painful. It’s why we experience (or see others experiencing) the Sunday night blues, or Monday-itis. The weekend has passed, and another week at work approaches. (Apologies if this is bringing on a case of the Sunday night blues right now...)

So how should we go about our work? Is God interested in that? Has he anything to say about work? Well, on the tables, you have a little booklet of all the collected wisdom about work from the book of Proverbs. As you can see, God has quite a bit to say about work - in lots of different ways.

First of all, there are some of the proverbs that encourage and motivate work. They draw out the contrast between working and not working. So consider 10:4 where it says ‘Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth.’ Or 12:11 which says ‘Those who work their land will have abundant food, but those who chase fantasies have no sense.’ And there are a few more similar proverbs.

When we read these proverbs, and the Book of Proverbs in general, we need to remember that these are probabilities, not promises. Perhaps you know of someone who worked hard, but didn’t reap the rewards. Or someone who was lazy but came into a fortune through some other means - inheritance or lottery win or something else. Proverbs is an observation of how life normally goes; of what you can usually expect. So generally, those who work are better off than those who don’t bother working.

And so Proverbs wants to motivate us to work. And throughout the book, Proverbs calls on a particular type of person to work. Even in the verses that are before you, you can see that time and time again, the sluggard is addressed.

The sluggard is the one who can’t really be bothered to do very much. In 26:13-16, there are excuses for not going out to work - ‘There’s a lion in the road!’ It’s too dangerous to go out. And so he’s happy to turn on his bed, like a door turns on its hinges. Roll over for a second sleep. But he’s so sluggish that he buries his hand in the dish, too lazy to lift his spoon to eat his porridge or cornflakes.

Now those are humorous characterisations, but there is a serious side too to sluggardliness. They don’t plough in season, then at harvest time, there’s nothing there when they go to look at their field. (20:4). Instead, everyone passing by sees thorns and weeds, and the stone wall in ruins. It’s serious because there was no social security system; no universal credit or Craigavon foodbank. So: ‘A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest - and poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man.’ (24:33-34).

Rather, the sluggard is called to look at the ant. It works, and stores provisions, and gets itself ready for the winter. It’s wiser than the sluggard! Could there be sluggardly ways in some of us?

Perhaps, though, some of us are more in danger of the opposite extreme - not underwork, but overwork. Of always being on; always working, and never resting. Never finding time for Sabbath, for rest and refreshment. The creation pattern (before the fall!) was six days work and one day of rest. Do we think that we can go 24/7, 7 days a week, without needing rest? That wouldn’t be very wise.

So now that we’re motivated to work, and not be sluggardly, how should we go about our work? There’s a collection of proverbs that show that God wants us to have integrity in our work - we should be fair and just. So at 11:1 we find: ‘The Lord detests dishonest scales, but accurate weights find favour with him.’ By contrast, at 16:11 ‘Honest scales and balances belong to the Lord; all the weights in the bag are of his making.’ Again in chapter 20 (verses 10 and 23) there are references to differing weights.

The picture is of buying and selling grain, using the balancing scales. So if you have two different weights - they both say 1 kilogram, but one actually weighs 900grams, then you’d be making more money than the grain you were selling. It would be dishonest.

You may not use weights and scales in your work - but are there ways you could be dishonest? Things that you can get away with and nobody realises? Even if no one else realises, God sees, and God knows. God is looking for integrity and fairness in our work.

We see the perfect wisdom of God for work in the person and work of the Lord Jesus. For the majority of his life, he worked as a carpenter, in Joseph’s family business. Through that, and through his ministry, he completed everything he was to do; so that in John 17 he can say to God the Father: ‘I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.’ (Jn 17:4). In Jesus we see what it is to work, and to work wisely and well.

Our Saviour is also our example. As Paul writes to the Colossians: ‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.’

Doesn’t that sum up what Proverbs is teaching us? In all we do, in whatever job we’re working, we are working for the Lord. So let’s work in a way that will please him.

This talk was given at the Cafe Church in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 13th October 2019.

Sermon: Genesis 5:1 - 6:8 Beginnings: Grief and Grace

When I was still in primary school, I had to come home because I was sick. Mum and dad both worked, so I went to granny’s house. Of course I was spoiled, and tucked into bed. And rather than doing homework, I decided I would start to read through the whole Bible. (I don’t know how long I thought I was going to be off sick for, but that’s besides the point). So I started into Genesis 1, and read all about creation; then Genesis 2, and life in the garden of Eden; then Genesis 3, and the temptation and fall; then Genesis 4, and story of Cain and Abel. And then, Genesis 5, brought my reading through the whole Bible to a stop. All those names. All those numbers. I think I ended up doing homework instead.

Perhaps your heart sank as you looked up the reading today; or as you heard me attempting to read it. Perhaps you’re thinking to yourself - what could there possibly be in this chapter that will be useful or helpful? But please don’t write it off too quickly. Remember what Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16 - ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’ (2 Tim 3:16-17). All Scripture is God-breathed, not just the bits that we know really well, but even the bits that seem difficult or (dare we say it) appearing boring. So even this chapter today is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.

So we need to change that question from asking - what could there possible be in this chapter that will be useful or helpful - and instead ask: what is God saying through his breathed-out word? What is he teaching us today?

The first thing to note is that we’ve reached the next section of Genesis in 5:1. It begins with those words: ‘This is the written account of Adam’s line.’ Throughout Genesis, we have similar phrases marking out the different sections of the ongoing story. The last was in 2:4 (‘This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created’ and the next is in 6:9 (‘This is the account of Noah’).

So this is a new section. And we’re being told about Adam’s line - his family tree. Last time we were in Genesis, we heard about the dead end of the family line of Cain, who had murdered his brother Abel. But now we’re back on the mainline; we’re continuing the ongoing hunt for the promised Saviour and serpent-crusher down through the generations of Adam’s family.

In verses 1-2, we get a recap of the story so far, and a reminder of where people came from: ‘When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them ‘man.’’ Man here means male and female - mankind or people. And who are we? Created by God, made in his likeness; made either male or female. (Not like Facebook with a third ‘custom’ option).

I wonder have you noticed, though, that Adam had a son in his own likeness in verse 3. We’re made in God’s image and likeness (marred now as it is), but we are also in Adam’s likeness - we are like our parents and like our first parents as well. All of us are ‘in Adam’ (1 Cor 15:22) and we share in his sin - by nature and choice.

Now, from verse 3, we see a pattern emerging. When so and so had lived so many years, he became the father of yer man. After that, he lived so many more years, had other sons and daughters, lived so long in total, and then died.

The numbers may be different in each instance, but the pattern is the same. Now, some people read the ages of these men, and they think that it’s obviously nonsense. Adam living 930 years? Methuselah living 969 years? Surely that’s not true. And so some people will try to come up with other ways of reckoning with this information. Maybe they counted years differently to us. Or maybe we need to divide them all by 10. But that wouldn’t work. Plus, over the page in 6:3, God then limits man’s lifespan to 120 years.

This family tree is showing us the names of the succeeding generations - think of it like the credits that roll at the end of a movie. The names roll past and you’re not that bothered by them, you don’t know them, and so you leave the cinema. But if someone you knew had been involved in the movie, you’d sit and watch carefully to see their name. Well these are part of our family tree; part of our story of faith.

But the thing that most stands out from this repeated pattern of names and ages is that, no matter how old they were, eventually their years came to an end. ‘And then he died... And then he died... And then he died.’ The pattern is demonstrating what Paul says in Romans 5:14 ‘Death reigned from the time of Adam’ - why? ‘For the wages of sin is death...’ (Rom 6:23). Genesis is realistic that in the midst of life, we are in death. And it’s coming, some day, for each of us as well. Genesis 5 is telling us about the grief of being part of the human family.

We’re so used to patterns - maybe in wallpaper, or a check shirt, or wherever you see them. When you recognise the pattern, then it’s very noticeable when something doesn’t fit into the pattern. Did you notice the bits that don’t quite fit the pattern of this family tree?

There’s Enoch, first of all. His paragraph starts like all the others, but then it goes a bit different. ‘And after he became the father of Methuselah, Enoch walked with God 300 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Enoch lived 365 years. Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.’ (5:22-24)

Enoch is different. We’re told that he ‘walked with God’ - that he was in close relationship with God, that he was in step with God; and then we’re not told that he died (like everyone else) - he ‘was no more, because God took him away.’ So what happened him? And why? To find the answer, we need to look at Hebrews 11:5.

‘By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death; he could not be found, because God had taken him away. For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please God...’ (Heb 11:5-6)

So Enoch didn’t die in the usual way. Instead, God took him to heaven, as one who pleased him. He wasn’t perfect - he was a sinner, in this family line of Adam - and yet he had such faith in God that he was commended by God.

But there’s another bit that doesn’t fit the usual pattern. Did you notice that no one speaks in this family tree - we’re not told any words, wise or otherwise, from any of these men, until we get to Lamech. He has a son, names him Naoh, and tells us why: ‘He will comfort us in the labour and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the LORD has cursed.’ (5:29).

The name Noah means ‘comfort’ - and it’s Lamech’s hope that Noah will bring comfort. As each generation goes by, there is grief from the reign of death; and there is grief in the labour and painful toil because of the curse brought about by Adam’s sin. The pattern of human existence is that of grief.

And, we see in those opening verses of chapter 6, that it grieves God’s heart. (Don’t worry about the Nephilim or the sons and God and the daughters of men. It seems to be an aside). Look at 6:5: ‘The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.’

Every waking moment, every waking thought, was always and only towards evil. Wickedness has free reign. Can you imagine living in such a society? Actually, it doesn’t take very much imagination, does it? This sounds very much like society around us. The theological term is ‘total depravity’ - every part of us is infected by sin, and inclined towards wickedness.

And it grieves God’s heart. We probably always feel the effects of other peoples’ sin towards us. It pains us. And we’re probably aware of the effects of our sin on other people - maybe less so, but with some awareness. But have we considered the effect of our sin on God? The God who made us, and blesses us - only for us to use and abuse his gifts, to exploit and manipulate others, and to be self-serving and selfish at every turn?

God is grieved. So he decides to wipe out mankind from the face of the earth. Everyone is already under the sentence of death, and it will be executed in one single sweep. It’s the end for the world as they knew it. But in the midst of all this grief - over death, and sin, and our wickedness, grace is also found.

The death penalty has been passed on all mankind. ‘But Noah found favour in the eyes of the LORD.’ (6:8). It’s not that Noah was different to anybody else - he was just as much a sinner. It’s not that Noah was more religious or tried harder or prayed more - he was a sinner. But grace found him. God was gracious to him because God was gracious to him.

And God’s grace is given to us as well. We too deserve the penalty of death because we are in Adam’s family. We too are inclined to evil all the time. And yet God’s grace comes to us in the Lord Jesus, who took our sin upon him. The Lord’s supper is a reminder of the grace we have from the Lord. He has dealt with our sin; he gives us his comfort. We need only receive it with open hands and a thankful heart, as we trust him and his death for us.

In among these hard to pronounce names and repeating phrases, in amongst the grief of living in this world, as children of Adam; we discover the grace that reaches for us, to make us children of God, saved by him, and comforted.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 13th October 2019.

Monday, October 07, 2019

Harvest Sermon: Psalm 65 The Lord of the Harvest

Which is your favourite harvest hymn? Over the course of the weekend, we’ve sung a good number of harvest hymns, and I hope that at some point we’ve sung one of your favourites. If not, then let me know on the way out and we’ll try to include it next year. (Or you can sing a verse of it after the tea next door! No, don’t worry, we’ll not make you do that; you can safely come in for tea!)

The harvest season has its own section in the hymnbook, with lots of hymns written to sing primarily at harvest services. Some, like: ‘Come, ye thankful people. come’ - help us to call one another to worship. Others, like ‘Good is the Lord’ help us to remind one another of God’s goodness to us. But some harvest hymns are addressed directly to God - our last hymn does that: ‘God, whose farm is all creation, take the gratitude we give.’

Our Psalm tonight, Psalm 65, is a harvest song, addressed directly to God. In the closing verses, we see the abundance of God’s goodness in the harvest, with grasslands and hills, meadows and valleys all surveyed and celebrated. But before you get your wellies on to get out and explore the whole harvest, David begins closer to his home, in Zion itself.

In verses 1-4, we see that God is the God of Zion. So where is Zion? Zion is another name for the city of Jerusalem, the city God had chosen to be the place where his name would dwell, in the temple that would be built by David’s son, Solomon. And we’re see that God is the God of Zion:

‘Praise awaits you, O God, in Zion;
to you our vows will be fulfilled.
O you who hear prayer,
to you all men will come.’ (1-2)

The God of Zion is worthy to be praised. And praise awaits him - it’s coming his way. His people have promised that they will indeed praise him. They have made vows to him, and their vows will be fulfilled. Nothing will keep them back or stop them from praising God.

All of them are going to come to God. And do you see how God is described there? ‘O you who hear prayer.’ God is the one who hears prayer. No matter how weak we may be, no matter how faint our faith may be, no matter how quiet our prayer may be - God hears it. And God has heard their prayer, and their vows, and has answered.

And the prayer that God has heard and answered in this instance is one of confession. Look at verse 3:

‘When we were overwhelmed by sins,
you forgave our transgressions.’ (3)

Have you ever felt like that? Sometimes we are quite happy with our sins, we play with them, get comfortable with them. But here, they were overwhelmed by them, they were despairing in their sinfulness, weighed down by the sinfulness of sin. But they had cried for mercy - and God, who hears prayer, forgave our transgressions.

And as they experience the joy of sins forgiven, they also experience the full measure of God’s grace. You see, God doesn’t just wipe away our sins and give us a blank slate so that we’re back to neutral. God is amazingly generous in giving us his grace, and bringing us into relationship with him:

‘Blessed are those you choose
and bring near to live in your courts!
We are filled with the good things of your house,
of your holy temple.’ (4)

God doesn’t just forgive our sins and then leave us in isolation. He brings us to himself, to be with him, to live with him. When we trust him, we are given a new identity and a new address - we are ‘in Christ.’ It’s no wonder that we are called to praise the God of Zion.

God is not just the God of Zion, though. He is the God of the whole world, in fact, the whole universe. That’s what we see in the next section of the Psalm. God is the God of the whole earth:

‘You answer us with awesome deeds of righteousness,
O God our Saviour,
the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas.’ (5)

God hears our prayers, and he answers them - with awesome deeds of righteousness. God acts entirely in line with his character to save, and to act righteously. And he is the only God who saves, the only hope of the whole world. There are many other so-called gods (with a small g), and many religions, but the only hope of the world is in the one, true, living God. He is the God who made everything, and controls everything, and calms everything:

‘who formed the mountains by your power,
having armed yourself with strength,
who stilled the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
and the turmoil of the nations.’ (6-7)

The mountains, which seem so strong and sure, are in place because God put them there by his strength. The seas, which to the Israelite were dangerous and fearsome because they were constantly in motion, well, only God can still the seas (with a word!); and only he can still the turmoil of the nations.

It feels as if we’re living in the middle of the turmoil of the nations at present, doesn’t it? Like the sea, we’re back and forward and here and there and we don’t really know what the outcome will be or where we’ll end up politically and economically and morally. But God can still the turmoil of the nations. He can grant peace - as we put our hope in him who is the hope of all the ends of the earth.

Did you notice the contrast between those who are near to God (4), and those who are far away? It’s mentioned again in verse 8:

‘Those living far away fear your wonders;
where morning dawns and evening fades
you call forth songs of joy.’

The picture is of people living far away from Zion; people in other nations, who do not know the Lord. They see the wonders of God - snow and hail, thunder and lightning, ferocious winds and hurricanes, earthquakes and all - and they fear. But through his creation, God is calling out to them, telling them that there is a God; calling them to praise, even where the morning dawns and the evening fades, in the farthest east and west.

It’s in Jesus that those who were far away are now brought near. Jesus died to bring peace with God, and with one another; by bringing us into God’s family, and building us into God’s temple. And that’s what God has done, and is doing, for us. We, who live where David would have imagined the evening faded, so far west we are, yet here we sing songs of joy because we have been saved, by putting our trust in the hope of all the earth.

The God of Zion is the God of the whole earth. And he is the God of harvest. While we acknowledge the hard work of farmers, particularly in difficult and dangerous circumstances, the farmers couldn’t do what they do without God’s oversight and provision:

‘You care for the land and water it;
you enrich it abundantly.
The streams of God are filled with water
to provide the people with corn,
for so you have ordained it.
You drench its furrows
and level its ridges;
you soften it with showers
and bless its crops.’ (9-10)

God is the one who provides the water to grow the crops that we need to survive. Without the water, the crops wouldn’t grow. And so this Psalm recognises God’s vital role in producing any kind of a harvest.

But this isn’t just any kind of a harvest. This isn’t even a Marks and Spencer harvest. This is God’s good harvest, where he provides so richly:

‘You crown the year with your bounty,
and your carts overflow with abundance.’ (11)

Bounty (not the chocolate bar) and abundance - the crown of the whole year, the cherry on top; with so much, in fact, that as the carts take in the produce, they are overflowing. And that’s the picture across the countryside:

‘The grasslands of the desert overflow;
the hills are clothed with gladness.
The meadows are covered with flocks
and the valleys are mantled with corn;
they shout for joy and sing.’ (12-13)

It’s like an episode of Countryfile. Everywhere you look, there is abundance and plenty. The hills and valleys have been clothed, mantled - in their new season’s fashion; they’ve got dressed up and are ready to shout and sing for joy. The God of the harvest is gracious and generous - in his provision of plenty in the fields; in his power over all creation; and in his providing for the forgiveness of sins.

If even the valleys shout for joy and sing, will you give him your praise?

This sermon was preached at the Harvest Thanksgiving Service in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 6th October 2019.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Sermon: Psalm 145 An A-Z of Praise

Tonight we are celebrating the 60th anniversary of St Matthew’s Bowling Club. We acknowledge the vision and hard work of all those who founded the club back in 1959; and the ongoing dedication and commitment of all those who have been involved in the club ever since; especially those who lead the club, organising matches and teams and tournaments and practices and everything else that goes into making St Matthew’s Bowling Club all that it is today. And it is right and proper that we gather tonight to give thanks to God, for our Bowling Club, and for all his blessings to us.

To help us to give God our thanks and praise, we’re going to focus in on Psalm 145, our Bible reading. (p. 631). We’re told in the little heading that it is ‘A psalm of praise. Of David.’ (superscription). David is singing his song of praise. It starts out as a solo performance, but he wants everyone to join in with him. So let’s listen in, as we prepare to sing along with him.

You can see that it starts off as a solo performance because the the first two verses are all ‘I’. This is what David is going to do. And what is he going to do? ‘I will exalt you, my God the King; I will praise your name for ever and ever. Every day I will praise you and extol your name for ever and ever.’ (1-2)

David is going to praise God. All those words - exalt, praise, extol - they’re all about praising; praising ‘you, my God the King.’ King David is praising his King - God, who rules over all. And when is he going to do this? Every day, and for ever and ever. He’s committed to doing it - he says, ‘I will, I will, I will.’ (I’m reminded of Mrs Doyle, the housekeeper in Father Ted offering a cup of tea - you will, you will, you will...) David says I will praise God, I will praise God every day for ever.

But that raises the question - why will you praise God every day for ever? Why praise? It’s not immediately obvious to us reading it in English, but in the Hebrew, this Psalm is written as an acrostic - each verse starts with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It’s an A-Z of praise, and it tells us why we should praise. And it breaks down into four sections, each of which tell us something about God the King. Here’s the first: The LORD is great.

‘Great is the LORD and most worthy of praise;
his greatness no one can fathom.’ (3)

God is not just great, but he is so great that you can’t even measure his greatness. As great as you think God is, he is actually even greater. We just can’t get our heads around it. But we are to get our tongues speaking of it, telling the next generation about how great God is.

When bowlers get together, the chat will inevitably roll round to talking about the really good players you’ve played against. And how do you know a player is good, or great? It’s by the way they play; what they’ve done, or what they’ve won. So we see and know that God is great because of what he has done.

One generation will tell the next generation about God’s works, his mighty acts, the glorious splendour of his majesty, the power of his awesome works, and his abundant goodness. These mighty acts include the way that God rescued the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt through the Passover Lamb; and brought them into the promised land.

But supremely for us, the Lord’s mighty acts focus in on the cross, where Jesus died to save us. Just think of how we have come to hear about the Lord Jesus. one generation told another generation, and another generation, until we got to hear the good news of the gospel ourselves. And it shouldn’t stop with us! When we know the greatness of the Lord, we need to pass it on to the next generation.

So God is great. But he’s not only great, he is also gracious. That is, God is overflowing in loving-kindness towards us. Verse 8 is found in quite a few places in the Bible, a short summary of what God is like:

‘The LORD is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and rich in love.’

Jesus shows how God is gracious in the way that he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matt 5:45) And just think of the many ways in which God is gracious towards us every day. He is good to all, he has compassion on all he has made.

And again, the idea is that when we know that God is gracious, we need to pass it on, we need to tell others the good news. As the saints, God’s people, extol God, so they tell of the glory of God’s kingdom, and speak of his might - and whats the purpose of this praise? ‘So that all men may know of your mighty acts and the glorious splendour of your kingdom.’ (11-12)

When we praise, we are spreading the news of God’s kingdom, telling people who don’t already know, so that they will know. God’s kingdom will endure for ever; and so we are inviting people to come under God’s kingship, to receive his saving grace.

We praise because God is great, and God is gracious. Next, we see that God is also faithful. The word ‘LORD’ in capital letters is the personal name God, who makes promises and keeps promises. And David spells that out in the second half of verse 13:

‘The LORD is faithful to all his promises
and loving towards all he has made.’

Sometimes we aren’t so good to keeping our promises. Just think how easily we make them, only to turn around and break them. I’ll give you a ring tomorrow. Don’t worry about that, I’ll sort it out. Give me a shout any time. We can so easily break our promises, but God is faithful to all his promises. He keeps every one he has made. You can depend on his word. But don’t just take my word for it. Look at what David says:

‘The LORD upholds all those who fall
and lifts up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food at the proper time.
You open your hand
and satisfy the desires of every living thing.’ (14-16)

We’re coming into harvest season, and we find that again God has kept the promise given to Noah that as long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest will not fail. We can depend on God, and depend on his word. He is faithful to his promises.

And finally, God is righteous. We find that in verse 17. ‘The LORD is righteous in all his ways and loving towards all he has made.’

To be righteous is to be in a right relationship with God. And so for God to be righteous, it means that he always acts in ways that are consistent with his character. He always does what is right. He never has a bad day; he never gets out of bed on the wrong side; he is always perfect in all he does, and is righteous in all his ways.

We see what this looks like in verses 18-20. ‘The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfils the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cry and saves them. The LORD watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy.’

To call on the LORD is to confess that we can’t do it by ourselves - that we need God’s help. It’s to say that God, you are righteous, but we are not; that we fall short in so many ways. It’s to experience that proper fear of the LORD - not a phobia type of scared fear, but a proper reverence and awe and respect for God who is great, and gracious, and faithful and righteous. To admit that we need God’s help.

And do you see the great promise of this Psalm? That when we call on him, he is near to us. He’s at hand to help; he hears, and he saves. He will hold us safe in the day when he destroys the wicked - all who mar his glorious creation; who persist in rebellion against him; who refuse his offer of grace and salvation.

Why does David praise? He praises because God is great, and gracious, and faithful and righteous. It’s no wonder that he returns to his opening idea as he brings the Psalm to a close in verse 21. ‘My mouth will speak in praise of the LORD.’ David is committed to praising.

But David wants us to join in with him, so that we also praise the LORD. The Psalm started as a solo, just David praising. Through the Psalm, we’ve heard hints of others joining in - one generation telling the next generation; those who know God’s glory telling those who don’t know - but now comes to climax, the prayer that is also an invitation, as David calls us to join in with his song of praise:

‘Let every creature praise his holy name for ever and ever.’ (21)

That’s your cue, now comes your part, it’s time to join in, and sing praise to the God who is great, and gracious, and faithful, and righteous. Take it away.

This sermon was preached at the St Matthew's Bowling Club 60th anniversary service in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 29th September 2019.