Sunday, November 17, 2019

Sermon: Matthew 6: 19-34 Treasure

What is your treasure? What is it that you hold most precious? What are you giving your life to? For some, it might be kids, career or caravanning; money, motors or makeup; health or wealth; clothes or canapes. Whatever it might be, Jesus declares that the things we treasure show the location of our hearts.

You see, every person on earth is making some kind of investment; you and me - each of us is working towards amassing treasure of one kind or another. We see it all around us - and perhaps even in our own lives.

Over the course of a generation or so, we’ve witnessed a remarkable growth in consumerism in recent history - the race to have the biggest house; the fanciest car; the most attractive wife (or handsome husband); the most perfect children; the latest gadgets (plural!); the hottest designer fashions; the best restaurants; the two or three exotic holidays per year; and everything else that goes with the lifestyle.

The thing is, though, that we don’t even realise that we’re caught up as slaves; worshipping wealth; bowing down to Mammon. As we consume all these things, we find that they are actually consuming us. Wealth is a bad master.

‘No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.’ (24)

And yet, that’s exactly what so many of us do. Even those of us in the church, supposedly Christian, yet giving our devotion to wealth. We think that we can serve both God and wealth; we might even make sure that we put our envelope on the plate to satisfy God for another week; but Jesus says plainly that we cannot obey the orders of two masters.

It’s the stuff of a comedy sketch - imagine an employee in a shop where two managers keep giving her orders. One says to go on the tills, the other says to go and stack the shelves - they keep appearing from different parts of the shop, wondering why she hasn’t done what they’ve said yet - she simply can’t do both; she can’t obey two masters.

But that’s precisely what we try to do! We try to find the middle way, keeping in with both, but it simply can’t work - we’ll end up serving one or the other, either God or Money.

But which is the better master? Which is the one we should serve?

Here’s what Jesus says:

‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.’ (19) Imagine working hard to store up treasure, only for it to rust away; or be stolen away - what a wasted effort!

Designer fashions become food for moths; classic cars turn into rust buckets; money and goods are easy pickings for burglars. This earthly treasure ultimately lets you down - it will break your heart. And, it won’t last - as someone wisely said, there are no pockets in a shroud; you can’t take it with you.

Instead, Jesus tells us: ‘but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy; and where thieves do not break in and steal.’ (20) Only our investment in the bank of heaven is a sound investment. So how do we invest in this way? How can we store up treasure in heaven?

The same phrase is found in the incident when the rich young ruler comes to Jesus and declares that he has kept all the commandments. Jesus says to him: ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.’ (Matt 19:21) It seems that to store up treasure in heaven means we have to use the ‘treasure’ we have here and now - in heavenly ways.

It’s an open-handed generosity, seeking to help others and make an impact in their lives, rather than a tight-fisted selfishness, holding on to what you have for your own benefit.

It’s about changing your priorities and concerns; moving from following and serving money to instead serving God - our heavenly Father. And that will show itself in the values we live by - whether we worry about material things, or if we will trust our heavenly Father.

That’s why verse 25 begins with a ‘therefore.’ (It’s been said that if you ever see a ‘therefore’ in the Bible, you have to ask what it’s there for - make the connections to what has gone before). ‘You cannot serve God and Money. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life...’

You see, if you’re serving wealth and only ever investing in earthly treasure, then you’ll be given to worry about these material things - what to eat, drink and wear. Yet Jesus says that life is about more than just food; the body is more important than just being a clothes horse:

‘Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?’

Jesus is saying that God cares more about us than he does about the birds of the air, and because he cares, he will provide us with what we need. Did you ever see a bird sowing seed and growing its own food? Did you ever see a bird driving a tractor or combine harvester? Did you ever see a bird worrying about the price of things in Tesco? So if God provides for the birds of the air without them doing anything to help themselves, then how much more will God care for us, and provide for our needs?

Jesus then goes on to talk about worrying about clothes.
‘And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?’

Who would you say is the most fashionable person in the world? If you had to pick someone who was the best dressed, who would it be? Maybe you keep an eye on the latest styles on the catwalk, and know all about the supermodels. The example Jesus uses is King Solomon. Solomon had been king of Israel about 1000 years before, and had lived in luxury. Yet, Jesus says that the lilies of the field are better dressed than Solomon, who must have spent thousands on his clothes.

These days, most of the flowers have died in the garden. But think back to the summer blooms, or think ahead to what will come again in the spring. The flowers are glorious, with such variety of colour, and size. They don’t ponder the fashion magazines to see what’s in this year. They don’t labour or spin to create their vivid colours. They don’t have to do anything about it, they just have to be. So if God makes sure the lilies are looking well, then how much more will he look after us?

Jesus tells us not to worry about all these things. What happens when you worry about something? If you’re anything like me, then you’ll think about something over and over again. You’ll try to solve the problem, and look at it lots of different ways. Your mind will be like a washing machine, turning it around and around. You might not even be able to sleep if you keep thinking about your worries.

When we worry, we make our problems bigger. Perhaps you’ve heard this before: worry is like a rocking chair - it gives you something to do, but it gets you nowhere. But rather than just saying don’t worry, Jesus calls us to something positive: Jesus calls us to trust in the God who is our Father. Did you notice that? Your heavenly Father feeds the birds. God cares for us and provides for us because he is our Father in heaven.

Jesus says that it’s a matter of getting our priorities right. Here’s what he says. ‘So do not worry, saying, What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? or What shall we wear? For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’ (31-33)

CS Lewis once said that those who aim for earth miss out on heaven; those who aim for heaven get earth thrown in as well. As we serve God, our heavenly Father, as we make his priorities our priorities, we discover that money becomes a tool for the kingdom, rather than a rival king. We discover that God is well able to supply all we need to live and love and serve him. So where will you store your treasures this week? Whose kingdom will you seek? Will you serve your money as God, or will you use your money in the service of God?

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

Sermon: Romans 12: 1-8 Living Sacrifices

In a few minutes’ time, you will be enrolled in the BB or the GFS. You will be accepted into membership for the first time, or for another year. And as you do that, you are making a commitment that you will be a faithful member; that you’ll turn up, and get stuck in, and be involved in everything that your section and company or branch is doing.

In our second Bible reading today, Paul is calling on us to make a commitment - not just to BB or GFS, but to God himself. Here’s what he says:

‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers (and sisters), in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship.’

Now, there’s a lot in that one sentence, isn’t there? So let’s try to break it down, to see what God wants us to do. At the very centre of that verse are these words: ‘offer your bodies as living sacrifices.’

God wants us to give ourselves, all of us, every part of us, from the top of our head to our toes, to follow him and serve him. And we’re to live for him - as living sacrifices. In the Old Testament, people would sacrifice an animal - a bull or a sheep or a goat. But now, we offer ourselves, fully alive, to do what God wants us to do.

But please don’t think that God just wants you to follow him so that you can in some way earn his love and his favour. Every other religion is all about what you have to do - whether it’s going on pilgrimage, or giving, or fasting, or whatever - and then when you earn enough points you can be with God.

And it’s what we all work to all the time. Have you ever heard something like this: If you’re good today, then we’ll get a treat later on. Or, if you’re not good this week, then we’ll not do what you want at the weekend. When we live like that, then we’re always having to prove ourselves, trying to earn our own rewards for good behaviour. So, if I were to tell you now that I’ll give a bar of chocolate to the best GFS girl and best BB boy who listens during the talk, then would it make you want to sit up and listen in a little harder?

It might. And we’re so used to thinking in this way, that we think this is what God wants of us as well. Here’s what we think - if I go to BB or GFS and try really hard; and if I go to church, and pray and read my Bible, and help little old ladies across the road, and try really hard, then God will like me. That’s how I thought, when I was being enrolled in the BB.

But that’s not how God is. Every other religion is about what you have to do so that you earn your reward. But Christianity is different. Yes, we’re called to offer ourselves as living sacrifices - but only because Jesus has already sacrificed himself for us.

Jesus has already given all of himself for us, when he died for us on the cross. And Jesus has already offered us his mercy before we’ve done anything good or bad. Jesus took the first step - and we are called to receive his mercy and to offer ourselves in response to him.

That’s why the verse starts: ‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers (and sisters), in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices...’ Because we can see God’s mercy already given to us - then we can offer ourselves. Other religions say ‘Do this...’ But Christianity says ‘Done’. Jesus has already done all that is needed for us.

But what will it look like to offer ourselves as living sacrifices? What does it look like to follow Jesus day by day? Paul says:

‘Do not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’

Now, I’ve got a question for you. What’s your favourite dessert?

You might be able to tell that I have lots of favourite desserts. But one that I like is jelly and ice cream. Do you know how to make jelly? What do you need?

You need some jelly cubes, and some hot water and some cold water, and you mix them all together, and then where do you put the jelly? You put it into a mould. Whatever shape the mould is, the jelly will set in the same shape. So my moulds here have rounded bits at the bottom, but when it sets and you take off the mould, then the rounded bits will be at the top. The jelly is conformed to the mould, it follows the same pattern.

A while back we were at a friend’s 30th birthday party. And in their family, a special birthday tradition is that they get a jelly rabbit for their birthday. His mum has a jelly mould in the shape of a rabbit so when you take the mould away, you have a rabbit-shaped jelly.

And that’s what the world wants us to do - it wants to press us into its mould, to be conformed to its pattern - to do the same things as everybody else. And in school or in work, you might find yourself under pressure to be like everybody else in what you say, and think, and do. If you were to tell them you were in church, or that you go to BB or GFS, they might think that uncool or boring or stupid. And they want you to be like them. They want you to conform to their patterns.

But as we offer ourselves as living sacrifices (in view of God’s mercy to us), we’re not to be conformed - we’re to be transformed. We’re not to be the same as everybody else; we’re to be changed, to stand out from the crowd as we follow Jesus.

And that transformation - that change - comes about as our minds are renewed, as they are made new and refreshed. And we do that as we think about God, and read his word in the Bible, and as we pray to him.

Are you conforming to the world, or being transformed by God? Which voices are you listening to? Whose opinion is forming you and shaping you? Perhaps you need to change the channel that you’re listening to.

The world wants us to be like it, like other people, just the same. But Jesus wants us to be transformed, as we offer our whole bodies as living sacrifices to him - because he has already given himself for us.

So who are you following? Who are you becoming more like? The world? Or the Lord Jesus who loves you and calls you to follow him?

Today, as you make a commitment to be a good member of the BB or GFS, go further, and make the commitment to serve Jesus - and not just in BB or GFS, but in all that you do with all that you are - a living sacrifice in view of God’s mercy.

This sermon was preached at the BB and GFS Enrolment service in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 17th November 2019.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Cafe Church Talk: Wisdom for Life - Words

Over in the United States, there’s a debate raging on the right to carry a concealed weapon. Some claim that it’s their constitutional right, the Second Amendment allowing the right to bear arms. But others are worried about the possible danger. Weapons hidden, but always accessible, at the shops, in the street, even at church. You can’t see them, but they could be on the person you meet. Estimates suggest there are about 8 million active permits, out of a population of 320 million, 2.5% of people carrying these concealed weapons.

Yet Solomon, in Proverbs, warns us that everyone carries with them a deadly weapon. The wounds may not be physical, and yet the danger is just as real. Here’s what he says: ‘The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.’ (Prov 18:21). The little muscle in your mouth can be an agent of death, or a giver of life.

Have you ever considered the potential of the tongue? The tongue used to sing lullabys can also be used to criticise and demoralise the same child. The tongue which whispers sweet nothings to a lover can then hurl abuse. The tongue which shares pleasantries and shows politeness can be used to slander and gossip. The tongue which reports the truth can be turned to tell lies (even wee white ones). The tongue which sings God’s praise can also utter curses of God and people made in his image - maybe even before we’ve left the church building.

Perhaps we only realise the potential for harm when we’ve been on the receiving end of someone’s harsh words. We feel the sting; the words etched in our mind long after a physical wound would heal. Words have a way of getting under our skin and lodging in our mind.

Having been on the receiving end, we need to be careful how we speak to others. How many times have you had one of those toothpaste moments, when the words come out and you can’t put them back in. The words are out there, the arrow has been released, the poison unleashed.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that Proverbs contains so much about the tongue, lips, mouth and our words. Even in the little portion we read tonight from chapter 10, 11 of the 27 verses mention something to do with these. Proverbs is all about how we live wisely in God’s world; how we get on with those around us. The constant contrast is between those who are wise and those who are foolish. The wise are those who fear the Lord (as we saw in the first session, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom). The contrast is carried through between the righteous and the wicked, and tonight we see the contrast in the way we use our tongue.

Look at verse 11. ‘The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but violence overwhelms the mouth of the wicked.’ The words of the righteous are like a flowing fountain, bringing life. The mouth of the wicked, though, is overwhelmed by violence. Violence becomes the native language, the flow of the wicked mouth. This ties in with what Jesus said about impurity.

Do you remember when Jesus is tackled by the Pharisees for eating without washing his hands? He gets to the root of the problem. It’s not what goes into a person that makes him unclean. ‘what comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’

Your words may be a problem, but they’re the symptom, rather than the root cause. If you turn on the tap and dirty water comes out, it’s probably not a faulty tap. You have to go further back, to find where the problem lies. In the same way, our wrong words are the overflow of our wrong hearts - the problem lies deeper. To stop saying wrong things and bad things may help, but it won’t cure the deeper problem. It’s as our hearts are changed that our lives will be changed, and our words will be changed.

Proverbs gives us some suggestions on how the change needs to be brought about. Let me read from chapter 26. ‘Like a madman shooting firebrands or deadly arrows is a man who deceives his neighbour and says, “I was only joking.” Without wood a fire goes out, without gossip a quarrel dies down. As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife. The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s inmost parts.’ (Prov 26:18-22).

To deceive someone and then say after it all, I was only joking, well, that’s like someone throwing arrows and firebrands around in the street. The Bible isn’t saying that it’s wrong to have a joke. But the way we go about it can be dangerous.

Or what about the whisperer. Everyone loves a little bit of gossip, something to share about someone else. You might even dress it up as a request for prayer - Oh, did you hear about Sammy? You might like to pray for him after what happened... But Proverbs says that such whispering, such gossiping is like throwing more wood on the fire, it only continues quarrels.

The other day I saw a great definition of gossip and flattery. Gossiping is saying something behind one’s back you would never say to their face. Flattery is saying something to their face you would never say behind their back.

So how do we use our tongues? What do they say about us, as we talk about others? As they overflow from our hearts, what do they show about us? Even for Christians, the tongue is a problem. James addresses it in his letter, which is almost like a New Testament version of Proverbs. You could nearly even say that he goes further in condemning our tongues.

For such a small bit of us, it has a bigger influence - like a bit in the mouth of a horse to direct it where to go, or like a ship’s rudder. Yet the tongue is ‘a world of unrighteousness... set on fire by hell.’

We’re still prone to those double standards, the blessing God and cursing people. It’s like a stream that has both fresh water and salt water. Impossible! ‘My brothers, these things ought not to be so.’

So guard your tongue. Watch what you say. Check how you speak. You have the power of life or death in your mouth.

This talk was given at the Cafe Church in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 10th November 2019.

Sermon: Revelation 7: 9-17 Salvation belongs to God

‘They will beat their swords into ploughshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war any more.’ (Micah 4:3)

So says the prophet Micah, pointing forward to a time when war will be no more; when weapons of war won’t be needed; when swords and spears will be re-fashioned into farm implements; when peace and harmony will reign. And perhaps, as we gather on Remembrance Sunday, that’s our longing too. As we remember those from this village and district who marched off to war, or served in our province to keep the peace, we are only too aware of the pain, and suffering, and devastation of war and terrorism.

The names we recognise; the people we knew and loved. We remember them with pride and with sorrow. And we long for the day when war will be no more; when no one else has to suffer in the same way.

Following the horror of the Great War, the war to end all wars, or so they thought, the League of Nations was formed to be a group of nations that worked together to keep peace. The leaders of the nations said ‘never again’ and yet within 19 years, World War Two had begun. And so the nations tried again, after the ending of the Second World War, the United Nations was born.

Its primary purpose is to maintain international peace and security, as well as developing friendly relations among nations, achieving international cooperation, and being a centre for harmonising the actions of nations. By and large, it has helped maintain peace - and yet we’re all too aware of conflicts since 1945, and those ongoing today. The vision of Micah won’t be accomplished by the work of the United Nations.

But Micah’s prophecy will be fulfilled, and the nations will be united under one King, with one common purpose. And we see it in our second reading on page 1228 of the pew Bibles.

Revelation can sometimes be thought of as a strange book, one that’s hard to grasp and difficult to understand. But it can be summed up in just two words: Jesus wins. Revelation is a revealing, an unfurling of the story of world history - given to the apostle John to strengthen and encourage the churches who were facing trouble and danger and persecution.

And in chapter 7, John is given a vision of a great multitude that no one could count. Think of the biggest crowd you have ever been a part of, and then multiply that over and over. And in this huge multitude, the nations are united.

There are people in this great multitude from ‘every nation, tribe, people and language.’ (9) Somewhere in the crowd are Northern Irish people, Ulster-Scots, Scots, English, Welsh, Irish, and every other people group. However you identify yourself; whatever your heritage; there will be people like you among that crowd.

And where is this great multitude? ‘Standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.’ (9) The throne is God’s throne, and the Lamb is the Lord Jesus. This crowd is in heaven. And they are all dressed the same and doing the same thing: ‘They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ (9-10)

They’re joined by the angels and elders and the four living creatures in giving praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honour and power and strength to God. John had previously seen the angels and elders and four living creatures in chapters 4 and 5, but the crowd is new. He hasn’t seen them before.

They weren’t there earlier, but now they are. It’s a bit of a mystery to him. Perhaps it’s like a flashmob - you know where you’re just going about your business in a shopping centre and suddenly someone starts singing, and then a choir appears out of nowhere and joins in, and then they disappear again?

Who are they? Where did they come from? They’re dressed the same and shouting the same. We’re used to people dressing the same and shouting the same thing at football matches - but not with white robes and palm branches. So who are they? Where did they come from?

That’s what John is wanting to know, and yet one of the elders asks him that question. Perhaps you’ve had something similar happen. Someone knows something that you don’t, so they ask you about it, so that you then ask them about it. They ask, so that they can tell you. And that’s what happens here. The elder asks who are they and where they came from, and John can only say, “Sir, you know.” (14)

And what’s the answer he’s given? ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’ (14)

The great tribulation speaks of tremendous suffering, of a difficult experience, of standing against the full forces of the world, the flesh and the devil. These people from every nation have served God.

They have washed their robes and made them white - but not in Daz or Bold or whichever detergent you use. Look at what has made the white robes white - the blood of the Lamb. It doesn’t seem possible, does it? One red sock in the wash turns your whites pink. But the dirty robe washed in the blood of the Lamb comes out spotless and white. The elder is saying that this crowd has trusted in the Lord Jesus; they depend on his blood shed for them at the cross; this is their hope, their means of pardon and peace.

The blood of Jesus is our only hope. Do you see the connection between verses 14 and 15? It is only those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb who. ‘Therefore...’

This is the present reality for those who have died trusting in Christ. They have not been lost - we know where they are - they are with God. ‘They are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.’ (15)

This is what the apostle Paul wrote about to the Philippians when he said ‘for me to live is Christ, to die is gain.’ Even though these Christian believers have been taunted in life - where is your God? We can’t see him! In death, they are with him, as near as could be, seeing him face to face.

And being with God, they lack nothing. ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heart.’ In life, they may have suffered hunger or thirst, but gathered before the throne there is no lack. And it’s because ‘the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water.’

The Lamb is the one who shepherds, guiding to springs of living water. Jesus himself is the shepherd, not just in this life, but even in glory. ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’ It’s as if God has the Kleenex tissues at the ready, wiping away any tears. It’s God who removes suffering and ushers us into his presence.

You can see how this would be a great comfort and encouragement for John’s first readers. People from their church, people they knew well, had died, maybe even killed as martyrs. And they are safe and secure - God’s sheltered people, shepherded by Jesus, in white robes of purity and joy.

There is comfort here for us as well. Our loved ones, who died in the love of Christ, are also found in this multitude. They too are safe and secure with Christ. We may experience loss, but they are at home with the Lord. Perhaps when grief overwhelms us, it would be good to read this passage again and read about where our loved ones are - before the throne of God.

But what about us - what about you? Is this your future? Are you in this picture? People from every nation are gathered in heaven, but not everybody from every nation - the rest of Revelation and the rest of the Bible makes that clear. Everybody doesn’t go to heaven. Heaven is only for those who trust in Jesus; who wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb - trusting in Jesus’ death on the cross to take away our sins.

Are you trusting in Jesus today? Have you asked him to take away your sins? It’s only in Jesus that our robes can be white, and our future bright. As the crowd cries out with a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill at the Remembrance Day parade service on Remembrance Sunday, 10th November 2019.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Sermon: Matthew 6: 5-15 Prayer

I’ll never forget that particular class in high school. It was an RE class, and we were in one of the mobiles that had sprouted up over half of the all-weather pitch. Normally, we had books and files and Bibles out on the desk, but on this particular day, we only needed one sheet of paper and a pen of our choice. And our task was simple: write out the Lord’s prayer.

I wonder how we’d get on if we tried it right now? You see, you know it, you’ve known it probably since childhood, but in the moment when you’re put on the spot, could you remember it? The RE teacher wanted to see if we knew the Lord’s prayer, word for word, off by heart, and written down on the page in front of us.

You’ll be glad to hear that we’re not going to try that exercise now. We’ll say it together later in the service, but it’s easier when you’re saying it out loud, and all together. So easy, in fact, that it can be rattled off fairly quickly, from our longterm memory to our lips without even registering what we’re actually saying or praying.

Tonight, though, we’ll take it a bit slower when we say it later, and even slower now, as we think about it together. Here, in Matthew’s gospel, we find a version of the Lord’s prayer. But as you’ll notice, the Lord’s prayer didn’t just drop from the sky, written down for us to use. No, it comes with a context, within a chapter and section of Matthew’s gospel. So for us to get to grips with the Lord’s prayer, we need to get to grips with the Lord of the prayer.

In Matthew 6, we’re right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, a lengthy section of teaching, as Jesus spells out what it looks like to be a member of his kingdom. And last week, we started this mini section, which deals particularly with practical Christianity - our ‘acts of righteousness’ (1). Last week we looked at how we give to the needy and how we fast - and we saw that we’re not to do these things in order to be seen by other people and to be honoured by them. But rather, we’re to be secret agents, giving and fasting in secret, because our Father sees what is done in secret and will reward us.

And straight away as we turn to verse 5, we can see the same principle in work as we think about how we pray. Listen to what Jesus says: ‘And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.’ (5)

Now, in a little while, I will be standing here, praying and leading us in prayer. And next Sunday morning, if the Lord spares me, I will be standing at the junction of Main Street and Maynooth Road praying and leading the village in prayer at the war memorial. Should I not be doing these things? Am I acting in disobedience to Jesus by praying in these ways?

I could be, but I don’t think so. You see, it’s not so much the location that’s the issue, as the heart with which it is done. The motive of the hypocrite (the person playing a role, saying one thing and doing something else) is to be seen. The hypocrite here wants to be seen by everybody to be praying, so that people think - look at just how spiritual they are!

While there may be a danger that I want to be seen and thought well of - in our services here or at the war memorial, I’m there to facilitate worship and prayer; directing attention to God, rather than Gary. As we saw last week, to give or pray or fast in order to be honoured by people means that the honour of people is all we’ll ever receive - the fleeting, faint praise that won’t count for anything.

And for all of us, there’s always a temptation to be praised by people for something we’ve done; and the desire to be seen to be giving or praying or fasting. So what’s the answer? It’s to embrace the secret, hidden life of prayer:

‘But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.’ (6)

As we pray to God who is our Father, with all that nearness and intimacy, we’re not to parade it before anybody else. We’re to go in, out of the way, where we won’t be disturbed, or seen, and talk to our Father. He sees the secret places, and will reward us - with nearness, and intimacy, and will hear and answer our prayers.

Now again, Jesus isn’t saying that we should never pray in the presence of anybody else ever. Otherwise, our prayer time later in the service would be a quiet affair, and we would have to cut short our Growth Groups and All Together meetings so that we don’t pray in the hearing of anybody else. No, Jesus isn’t saying that at all. But when we do pray with others, are we praying so that they’ll think well of us; praying so that we’ll look good? Or praying so that our Father hears and answers our prayers?

To that end, Jesus gives us some further instruction on praying in verse 7: ‘And when you pray, do not keep babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.’ So the hypocrites, they prayed to be seen. And the pagans, they prayed to be heard - by babbling on, using ten words when two would do, in vain repetition as some versions put it.

Jesus says we don’t need to pray like that. It’s not that we need to use a certain number of words for God to hear us. Instead, we’re to come to our Father. He sees what is done in secret, and he knows what we need before we ask.

Rather than babbling on, Jesus gives us a prayer to pray (and to base our prayers on). In just 52 words in this version, he teaches us to pray for God’s glory, and our needs - in that order.

First on the agenda is God’s glory. We recognise who it is we are praying to, and the great privilege it is to call God our Father. The God of all the universe, who by his power sustains all things, is our Father. He is tuned in to our cry. He delights to hear our prayer.

But before we ask of anything for ourselves, we centre ourselves on God’s priorities, and God’s honour and glory. We do that as we pray: ‘hallowed be your name.’ It’s not, as one wee fella thought one time, that God’s name was Harold; no, but his name is to be hallowed, made holy. On Thursday it was Hallowe’en, which comes from All Hallow’s Eve - the night before All Hallow’s Day, or All Saints’ Day. The Saints are God’s holy people. And so for God’s name to be hallowed is for it to be regarded as holy, and honoured. and glorified.

And we do that as we align ourselves with him, as we seek for things on earth to be the way they already are in heaven: ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ (10) As we pray the Lord’s prayer, we desire what God desires - his kingdom to come, and his will to be done on earth. Every time we pray this prayer, there’s a challenge - is this what we really want? Is this how we’re living? Are we aligned with God’s priorities and God’s will?

Having first concentrated on God’s priorities, we then seek our needs. Not our wants, but our needs - those things we need the most. And you can summarise them in three words: provision, pardon, and protection.

Provision: ‘Give us today our daily bread.’ (11) We recognise that everything we need to survive comes from God. He is the giver of our daily bread. And so we look to him for this urgent need.

Pardon: ‘Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.’ (12) We’re used to saying the word trespasses here, but in Scotland they use the word debts and debts. I remember when visiting Lynsey, I would always get a gentle reminder when we came to the Lord’s prayer in her church not to loudly say the wrong word!

Whether we use the word trespasses or debts, we are acknowledging to God our Father that we have failed him, that we are his debtors, that we have stepped over a line, over a boundary, in what we have done, or in what we have failed to do. And we need his forgiveness, his pardon.

But the Lord’s prayer goes further than that. Jesus teaches us to not just seek forgiveness from God, but to offer the same forgiveness to those who have wronged us. Indeed, as he continues teaching after the prayer, in verse 14, he says that the two are connected, or even dependent. That our forgiveness of others will be reflected in God forgiving us; and our unwillingness to forgive will lead to our own sins being unforgiven.

In other parts of the gospels, we hear further teaching on this from Jesus, such as the parable of the unmerciful servant, who, when forgiven a huge debt he owes turns around and is unwilling to forgive a very small debt that he’s owed by another servant.

Forgiveness is never easy. Hurts can be painful. But when we reflect on the great debt that we owe to God, which has been forgiven, that same mercy and grace should flow through us to others.

Provision, pardon, and finally, protection: ‘And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’ (13). We pray for protection from temptation, and from the devil, the enemy of our souls, who roams about seeking to devour us. When we pray in this way, we acknowledge that we need God’s help, that we can’t do it by ourselves.

Jesus expects us to pray. And he helps us to know what to do as well as what not to do. We’re not to be like the hypocrites, who like to be seen; and we’re not to be like the pagans who like to be heard babbling away. But rather we’re to pray in secret, to our Father who sees in secret; and we’re to pray with simple words to our Father who knows what we need before we ask.

As we align ourselves with his priorities - his name, his kingdom, his will - then we can seek his provision, pardon, and protection.

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

Sermon: Genesis 8: 1-22 Beginnings: Out of the Ark

Hallowe’en is now over, and we’re already onto the next big thing. The adverts have already started, and soon you won’t be able to escape it. Now, I’m not talking about Christmas - I’m talking about I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! As I was thinking about Noah and his ark this week, I was reminded of how it’s a bit like I’m a Celebrity. Being cooped up in a confined space with a whole variety of creatures and critters - were there ever moments when Mr Noah thought to himself: get me out of here?

You might empathise if you’ve ever had an experience of cabin fever. You know if you’re stuck inside for a few days because you’re sick, or when the snow comes, and you just want to get out of the house and do something different? Imagine how Noah felt - not so much cabin fever as ark fever. After all, he wasn’t in the ark with the animals for a few minutes like on I’m a Celebrity, or for a few days like our snowed in days. He was in the ark - well, how long was he in the ark?

Last week we heard about the forty days and forty nights of rain. But he was in the ark longer than that. And at the end of chapter 7 we see that the water flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty days. But he was in the ark longer than that. A hundred and fifty days would be about five months, less than half a year. In total, though, Noah was in the ark for over a year.

Last week, we saw how God gave Noah some instructions - build the ark (all that hard work, over a long period of time, with the neighbours questioning and mocking the whole time); then go into the ark (with all the animals, two by two); then stay in the ark (the only place of safety and refuge as the flood judgement came on the whole earth and everyone else perished). This morning, we’ll see how Noah came out of the ark, and hear the first of the promises God makes to him, and to us in the world after the flood.

When chapter 8 begins, though, Noah is still inside the ark. He’s counted off the 150th day of his lark in the ark, and perhaps by now he’s getting narky in the arky. Verse 1 is the turning point, the high water mark. Do you see how it begins? ‘But God remembered Noah...’

Now that doesn’t mean that up until this point, God had forgotten all about Noah. God isn’t forgetful like that, or like we can be. Have you had those moments when you suddenly remember something you were meant to do, and it puts you into a panic? Or you remember you were meant to see somebody, and you’re all flustered? God is not like that. He has perfect knowledge of everything all of the time.

What it’s saying here is that God remembered in order to act on Noah’s behalf. So, at the start of Exodus, God remembers the Israelites who are slaves in Egypt - and his remembering them is his rescuing of them. So also here, God remembers Noah (and the animals) in order to rescue him from his confinement, to bring him out into a spacious new world.

You can see that as the sentence continues: ‘But God remembered Noah... and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded.’ (1) God remembers in order to rescue, and for Noah to get out of the ark, he needs the waters to recede. But it doesn’t happen immediately, and all of a sudden. Rather, it takes time.

Through the chapter you get the various time markers - the ark resting on the mountains of Ararat in the seventh month (4); the tops of the mountains becoming visible in the tenth month. (5) Another forty days and Noah sends out the first of the birds on a wing and a prayer. The raven, which doesn’t come back, and the dove which comes back because the water is still over all the surface of the earth.

Another week, and then the dove is sent out again and returns this time with a freshly plucked olive leaf! (11) To us, the olive leaf / branch speaks of peace, but for Noah it was a sign of new life, that the water had receded from the earth. (12) A week later, and the dove doesn’t return when it’s sent out.

And yet, still Noah is in the ark. He’s watched the year change, and sung auld lang syne, and he’s still inside his now not floating zoo. Noah has taken the covering off and sees that the surface of the ground is dry, and over a month later, the earth was completely dry. Look back to 2:11 - it was the seventeenth day of the second month when the rain started. And it’s now the twenty-seventh day of the second month, just over a year later. Each of the family have celebrated at least one birthday inside the ark, but now the moment has come, the moment they were waiting for for so long - the day when they could leave the ark and walk on dry ground in a whole new world.

‘Then God said to Noah, “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you - the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground - so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number upon it.’ (15-17)

Have you ever seen animals leaping as they are released from their winter confines? I’m sure it was quite a sight to see the aardvarks and zebras and everything in between enjoying their freedom after a year in the ark. And never mind the animals, I’m sure that the humans were glad to get out into the fresh air and the open space. No matter how good your family relationships might be, and no matter how close you may be to your nearest and dearest, you might be glad of a bit of space for once after a year in close quarters!

But what is the first thing that Noah did when he came out of the ark? He didn’t go exploring, or hill walking, or anything else like that. No, the first thing he did when he came out of the ark was to build something else. An altar, a place of sacrifice.

Now, last week, I asked how many of each animal did Noah take into the ark. We sang that the animals went in two by two, and then (at least some of us) were surprised to find that in 7:2 Noah took seven (footnote: seven pairs) of every kind of clean animal and two of every kind of unclean animal. I said you’d have to wait until today to find out why. Well, here’s the answer in 8:20:

‘Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it.’ (20)

If Noah had only had two sheep in the ark, and he’d then sacrificed them when he came out, then we wouldn’t have any sheep now! So the extra clean animals were for this sacrifice of thanksgiving. Noah was recognising that he and his family had been rescued even though they too were guilty and under the same sentence as everyone who had perished. And so he offers to God this sacrifice of burnt animals, their life for his, in thanks and praise.

God accepts his sacrifice. He smells the pleasing aroma, and makes a promise - a promise that he has kept right up to today, over all those many years since the days of Noah: ‘Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.
As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.’ (21-22)

Our hearts are still evil - just as they were before the flood - but now God has promised never to destroy the earth in another flood. Rather, he has pledged that life will continue, in those opposites that sit together and define our days: ‘seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night.’ As we go to sleep tonight, we can be sure that another day will roll around; as the cold comes in, we can be assured that some day it’ll warm up again and summer will come again - so long as the earth endures, until the Lord returns.

The Lord is remembering this promise he made long ago in the days of Noah. Because God doesn’t forget. We can depend on him because he is faithful. And just as he remembered Noah, confined in the ark, and acted for his rescue, so we can trust that the Lord remembers us as well.

Perhaps it seems as if you’ve been waiting for a long time, too long maybe. You’re confined in your circumstances - even in the place that God has led you. And sometimes it can be dirty, or smelly, or unpleasant. And you might even wonder if God has forgotten all about you. Take heart today! God doesn’t forget. He has remembered you - and is acting to rescue you.

The Lord Jesus is our perfect sacrifice - the pleasing sacrifice that takes away our sin. And as Jesus was dying on the cross, one of the two thieves who were crucified with him cried out to him: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ (Lk 23:42) And how did Jesus reply? ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’

The Lord remembers his people, and has acted to rescue us by way of the cross. As we trust him, our future is secure, no matter what we’re going through in the meantime. And today, the Lord calls us to himself, and to his table, to do this in remembrance of him. We remember the Lord who remembers us.

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