Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019 Books

It’s the end of another year, and time to review my reading over the past year. I've managed to increase my books again this year - up from 50 to 62, although still not as many as the 78 of 2007. Here are the books I've read this year:

1. 1342 QI Facts to leave you flabbergasted - John Lloyd
2. Unimaginable - Jeremiah J Johnston
3. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson
4. Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
5. Normal People - Sally Rooney
6. Organised - Sarah Reynolds
7. The Prodigal Prophet - Timothy Keller
8. Th1rt3en - Steve Cavanagh
9. Stump Kingdom - Dale Ralph Davis
10. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle

11. None Like Him - Jen Wilkin
12. Murphy’s Revenge - Colin Bateman
13. The Robots are Coming: Us, Them and God - Nigel Cameron
14. Real - Catherine Parks
15. That Hideous Strength: How The West Was Lost - Melvin Tinker
16. Even Better Than Eden - Nancy Guthrie
17. The Pilgrim’s Progress - John Bunyan
18. Long Story Short - Glen Scrivener
19. Hillbilly Elegy - JD Vance
20. Characters in Acts: A Matter of the Heart - Harry Uprichard

21. Why Can’t We Be Friends - Aimee Byrd
22. Gay Girl, Good God - Jackie Hill Perry
23. Can Science Explain Everything? - John Lennox
24. Sipping Saltwater - Steve Hoppe
25. Conversations With Friends - Sally Rooney
26. Paperboy - Tony Macaulay
27. Gilead - Marilynne Robinson
28. A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War - Joseph Loconte
29. Teaching Acts - David Cook
30. The Hunting Party - Lucy Foley

31. Outliers: The Story of Success - Malcolm Gladwell
32. Going the Distance - Peter Brain
33. Notes From The Tilt-A-Whirl - ND Wilson
34. The Choice - Edith Eger
35. Pray Big - Alistair Begg
36. Plugged In - Daniel Strange
37. The Reckoning - John Grisham
38. The Final Silence - Stuart Neville
39. Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You - Tony Reinke
40. Those We Left Behind - Stuart Neville

41. An Open Door - Maud Kells with Jean Gibson
42. So Say The Fallen - Stuart Neville
43. Fire and Brimstone - Colin Bateman
44. Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn
45. Preaching - Timothy Keller
46. Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come - Jessica Pan
47. Diary of a Somebody - Brian Bilston
48. Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury
49. Erasing Hell - Francis Chan & Preston Sprinkle
50. Burned - Sam McBride

51. The Book Your Pastor Wishes You Would Read (but is too embarrassed to ask) - Christopher Ash
52. Orpheus Rising - Colin Bateman
53. The Church of Ireland - RB McDowell
54. Is This It? - Rachel Jones
55. The Weirdest Nativity - Andrew Sach & Jonathan Gemmell
56. The Gift - Glen Scrivener
57. My Sister, The Serial Killer - Oyinkan Braithwaite
58. Agatha Raisin and the Curious Curate - MC Beaton
59. On the Incarnation - St Athanasius
60. God in the ICU - Dave Walker

61. Love Came Down at Christmas - Sinclair Ferguson
62. Little Women - Louisa May Alcott

My top five are:
1. Burned - Sam McBride
2. Diary of a Somebody - Brian Bilston
3. Pray Big - Alistair Begg
4. The Prodigal Prophet - Tim Keller
5. So Say The Fallen - Stuart Neville

Here are the links to previous years' book blogs: 2018 (50)
2017 (31); 2016 (23); 2015 (21); 2014 (26); 2013 (45); 2012 (49); 2011 (37); 2010 (52); 2009 (41); 2008 (23); 2007 (78).

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Sermon: Revelation 12 The Weirdest Nativity

Every year, there’s lots of excitement about the John Lewis Christmas advert. A few years back, it featured the hibernating bear that was woken up to enjoy his first ever Christmas. And then there was Monty the penguin, and who could forget Buster the boxer dog, playing on the trampoline? Have you seen this year’s advert?

It features excitable Edgar, a baby dragon, who seems to be ruining Christmas by getting excited. You see, every time he gets excited, he blows fire from his nostrils - melting the children’s snowmen; and the ice rink; and setting the village Christmas tree on fire. And then it’s Christmas Day, and Christmas dinner, and in he comes, and everyone ducks under the table. But he uses his fire breathing for good, by lighting the Christmas pudding. You can even get the excitable Edgar dragon stuffed toy. (Other brands and shops are available!).

In our reading today, we find that there’s a dragon in this telling of the nativity story. And, perhaps when you heard it being read, you thought to yourself - what’s a dragon doing in the nativity? It’s definitely the weirdest nativity you’ve ever heard. Maybe, though, it’s a bit like some of the school nativity plays which have an abundance of extra characters - mostly famously in one movie, a lobster. Is that what’s going on here? We don’t find any of the shepherds or wise men, but we have this great red dragon. So what’s going on? What is this all about? And what could it possibly tell us about Christmas?

Well, before we dive into the passage, we need to get our bearings. We’re in the book of Revelation - a series of visions revealed to John the apostle, and written down for the church. These visions are painted in broad brushstrokes, almost like cartoons, using pictures to show what’s going on behind the scenes, explaining the way things are going, and encouraging Christians to keep faithful even in the midst of tremendous opposition and persecution.

As we get into verse 1, John sees a great and wondrous sign in heaven. ‘A woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.’ (1-2) Now, it sounds like this might be Mary, the pregnant lady of Christmas-time. And sometimes you might see statues of her portrayed in this way.

But this isn’t Mary as such. She wasn’t wearing the sun and resting her feet on the moon when she arrived in Bethlehem. This imagery is pointing to the people of Israel, the nation as a whole, as being this pregnant woman. Do you remember Joseph - not the adopted father of Jesus, but the Joseph in Genesis, the one with the technicolour dreamcoat? One of the dreams he has in Genesis 37 is of the sun and moon and eleven stars bowing down to him. And his father Jacob (also called Israel) interprets it as Joseph’s dad and mum and his eleven brothers bowing down to him.

And so the people of Israel are pregnant; they’re waiting for the arrival of the promised Messiah (King). They have come to the time of his arrival, of his birth.

And John sees a second sign: ‘An enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth.’ (3-4). It’s a fearsome beast! A dragon with one head would be bad enough, but seven heads? And the dragon has got into place. He’s ready and waiting for the birth - not to help out or give a nice gift. But to, verse 4: ‘The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born.’ (4)

The dragon is out to destroy and devour. It doesn’t want this child to be born, and so is waiting for the moment to get rid of him. I wonder does this remind you of anything from the Christmas story? Behind King Herod is this fiery dragon - when Herod hears the king of the Jews has been born, he sends his soldiers to destroy the baby king. But just as Herod wasn’t successful, so this dragon didn’t devour the baby.

In verse 5 we get a glimpse of exactly who the baby is. ‘She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron sceptre.’ The one who rules the nations with an iron sceptre is the anointed king (the Messiah, or Christ), who is God’s Son, from Psalm 2. So this is definitely the birth of Jesus in view here.

And the devouring dragon is unsuccessful in this vision. ‘And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.’ (5) In one sentence, we get an overview of the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus. The dragon didn’t devour him. Jesus was victorious, and rules from God’s throne.

But that doesn’t stop the dragon’s attempts at devouring. John sees that there is war in heaven - Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon and his angels. And again, the dragon loses - and loses more than the war, he loses his place in heaven.

If you were still in any doubt as to who this dragon was, it’s spelled out for us in verse 9: ‘The great dragon was hurled down - that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray.’ Do you remember back in Genesis 3 who it was that led Eve and Adam astray? The tempter was the serpent. But he didn’t stop with Adam and Eve - he continues to lead people astray, and not just one or two, but the whole world.

That’s his first tactic. Leading people astray. Tempting them. Taking them off the straight path. Devouring by disobedience. But then in verse 10 we see his second tactic. Satan literally means the accuser. He accuses Christians before God day and night. God, do you see what he has done wrong today? How can you still love him? God, did you hear what she said today? Do you really want her as part of your people?

He leads astray, and then he accuses. He tries to remind you of your past. He tries to tell you that God couldn’t really love you with all those wrong things you’ve done. Perhaps you’ve heard the dragon whispers this week. Maybe you’ve smelt the fiery breath of the dragon.

But as someone once said - if Satan reminds you of your past, then remind him of his future. Revelation 12 shows us that the dragon is on the losing side. However powerful he might appear, he is a defeated dragon. He didn’t devour Jesus, and he lost the war in heaven. And he loses against Christian believers. How is that possible?

It’s possible because of the victory of Christ (10) in the Christian’s life. There is salvation, and power, and the kingdom of God, and the authority of his Christ. And we share in that victory in verse 11: ‘They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.’

The dragon is defeated by the blood of the Lamb - trusting that Jesus died for you and has taken away all the things that Satan accuses you of - and by the word of their testimony - your witness to God’s power in your life. That word testimony is the word from which we get the word martyr - who is a witness through their death. Are we prepared to stand up for Jesus, to witness for him, even if it brings the death of our social standing, or our social life, or even our physical death?

The devil dragon has lost. His final doom is now certain. And he knows that his time is short. But that doesn’t mean that he gives up fighting and settles for a quiet life. Look at the end of verse 12: ‘Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.’

And that’s what we see in the rest of the chapter. He first tries to pursue the woman who had given birth to the male child. The people of Israel have often been on the receiving end of opposition, persecution, and violence. And yet God provides for her preservation through it all.

And so the devil changes tack. Who is in his sights now? Verse 17: ‘Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring - those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.’ Who’s that? You and me. Christians. You see, the devil doesn’t really take you seriously if you’re already following him. He doesn’t need to worry about you if you’re his. But when you repent, and trust in Jesus, and follow Jesus, then he is your enemy. When you take the Christian faith seriously, then the devil takes an interest in you. And when churches are seeing growth, and seeing people come to faith and grow in faith, then that’s when you can be sure the devil will come knocking.

But that shouldn’t cause us to worry. You see, we have the victory in Jesus. The blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony guarantee us victory over our defeated devilish dragony foe.

The dragon shows up in the nativity, perhaps the weirdest nativity you’ve ever heard or seen. But the dragon didn’t get to devour the Christ-child; and he won’t devour Christ’s brothers and sisters, because Jesus wins - and Jesus has won.

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

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Sermon: Luke 2: 8-20 Good News

You almost cannot escape the news these days. On the radio, there are news updates every hour on the hour on most stations. On TV there are the news bulletins, as well as the 24-hour news channels, constantly broadcasting the latest news. News is shared on Facebook and Twitter and all sorts of social media. And the good old newspapers are sitting when you walk into the shop. News is everywhere.

Now, if you happen to have avoided all the news in the last week or so, then you might not have heard that we had a General Election on Thursday, and Boris is back as Prime Minister, with a huge majority in the House of Commons. And as you can imagine, the news has been full of him over the past few days. He’s on nearly every broadcast, and on nearly every front page.

The people in power quite often make the news. We’re used to seeing their face and hearing their voice, as the news tells us what they’ve been up to. And, had there been newspapers about 2000 years ago, then it would have been exactly the same. The front pages would have been packed with photos and news about the main man in the Roman Empire - Caesar Augustus. He ruled the roost, and set the news agenda. And the big news was that a census was getting underway.

Everyone had to go back to their own town to register. Augustus said ‘go’ and everyone had to go, whether they liked it or not. No doubt the radio programmes and newspapers would be full of discussion and debate about the news of the census.

Now, I don’t know what you think about Boris - whether you think his victory is terrific or terrible - but have you noticed that so much of the news that we see or read is all bad? Whether it’s the volcano in New Zealand, the earthquake in Albania, break ins, stabbings, drugs and more - the news seems to be all bad news.

But out of sight of Caesar Augustus; and unnoticed by the Israel newspapers; there was something happening in Bethlehem that was totally amazing; something that was truly good news. But to tell you about it, I’ll need some newspapers.

You see, out in the fields near Bethlehem, there were some shepherds, keeping watching over their sheep. It was getting dark, and they were getting drowsy. Suddenly, there was something bright in the sky - brighter than a STAR or the SUN (now, I didn’t bring a copy of either paper with me, maybe for obvious reasons!). And what was it? An angel, a HERALD, bringing some good news for them - and not just for them, but for everybody.

So what was this good news? ‘Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.’ (11)

You see, we all need a Saviour. No matter who we are; how young or old; how tall or short; whoever we are, we need a Saviour. That’s because we all have become INDEPENDENT of God - we tell him that we don’t need him; we don’t want him to be in charge of our lives; and we go our own way, doing what we want to do - independent of God.

But when we go our own way, we get trapped in sin. It doesn’t work out when we do our own thing. We get lost. We can’t change by ourselves. We need God’s help - and we need the Saviour God has sent.

The good news is that the Saviour has been born in Bethlehem. He is Christ the Lord. That word Christ means king (anointed one) - and so Jesus is our GUARDIAN. He saves us from our sins; he comes to be with us; and he comes to help us every day.

But the shepherds didn’t just hear about Jesus, the angel told them to go and see him. ‘This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ (12)

Before they started off on their journey, though, even more angels appeared in the sky, praising God, and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.’

Having heard the angel choir, and remembering their instructions, they set off into Bethlehem, like an EXPRESS - they weren’t going to stop until they found this special baby. Having followed their instructions to the (NEWS) LETTER, they found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger just as they had been told. They took a while to GAZETTE (gaze at) Jesus, before sharing what they had seen and heard.

The shepherds wanted to TELegraph the good news about Jesus to everyone they met. And everyone they told was amazed at what they heard.

In this world there is lots of bad news. We don’t need to look very far to find it. We know only too well about the bad things that happen. But the TIMES are changing, and there is some really good news, because Jesus has been born - born to be our Saviour; born to be our King.

So when you get up tomorrow morning, and when you look in the bathroom MIRROR, remind yourself that Jesus came to this world because he loves you. And he wants you to be his friend, and to follow him, to make him your Saviour and your King. And that really is the best news we could hear this Christmas - good news of great joy for all the people.

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

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Sermon: Genesis 11: 1-9 Beginnings: Scattering

A few years ago we were on holiday in Lanzarote. We went on a bus tour, and the guide was pointing out various features of the island. And as we drove along between stops, she was telling us about other things we might like to visit - including a town that has an Amy Grant museum. Now, Amy Grant is a famous Christian singer, but neither of us realised just how popular she must be in the Canary Islands. Slightly strange, but ok. Until we realised, as the tour guide continued to talk about the museum, that it was an Emigrant Museum, dedicated to the people who have emigrated from the islands, and not an Amy Grant museum!

We were both speaking English, but confusion reigned supreme. Or think of when you encounter Americans, and they say some words we’re not used to - what do they mean by trash? (rubbish); gas (petrol); sidewalk (footpath); and diapers (nappies). As someone once said, two nations divided by a common language.

Now, imagine that you’re working on a building site, you’re working on a big tower, and suddenly, you can’t understand a word your colleagues are saying! They can’t make you out either, there’s just confused looks all around. You were able to communicate yesterday all right, but now, it’s all Double Dutch. What’s going on?

Over the autumn, we’ve been tracing the story of the opening chapters of the Bible. We’re been hearing about our beginnings - where our world came from; how we lost the original paradise; and how sin and death has been reigning over the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve from their first rebellion. And yet there have been moments of grace - the promise of the son who would crush the serpent’s head; the covering of Adam and Eve’s shame through sacrifice; the grace shown to Noah, who was saved with his family in his floating zoo, and started afresh when he came out of the ark with God’s rainbow covenant promise.

So now, having come out of the ark, we are back on track. But what are we on track to do? Well, in Genesis 9, Noah is given a command - the same command, in fact, that God had originally given to Adam and Eve. Back in 1:28 we read these words: ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it...’ And then in 9:1 we read these words: ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth...’

Adam and Eve’s original purpose was to increase and fill the earth. And when Noah with his wife and sons and their wives step out of the ark, God tells them the same. They’re not to stay in one place, all huddled together. They’re to fill the whole earth, to steward and use all that God has given.

Now, we didn’t read Genesis 10 - if you like, I’ll read it to you over tea and coffee in the hall - but it’s the listing of the nations and people groups who came from each of Noah’s three sons. And if you glance up to 10:32, it looks as if the nations have obeyed God’s command to fill the earth: ‘These are the clans of Noah’s sons, according to their lines of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread our over the earth after the flood.’

It looks as if God’s word has been obeyed. Except, in Genesis 11, we find the circumstances that led to the scattering. In verse 1, we’re told that ‘the whole world had one language and a common speech.’ The same word means the same thing wherever you are. Everyone is together, banded together, as they move eastward, and they settle at Shinar. Rather than filling the earth, they stay together - safety in numbers and all that.

It’s here in Shinar that they develop some skill as they work together. They work out how to make bricks by baking them thoroughly, so they don’t need to use stone, and they work out how to use bitumen as mortar. And then, the sky’s the limit.

The town planners and architects get to work; the builders start building, and the plan is to build, not just a city, but also a tower ‘that reaches to the heavens.’ Just think of a city skyline, with the skyscrapers standing tall - the Empire State Building or the Burj Khalifa in Dubai (the tallest building in the world at 2722 feet high). They’re working on the first ever skyscraper.

And they’re doing it together. Did you see what they said each time? Verse 3: ‘Come let’s make...’ Verse 4: ‘Come, let us build...’ They’re in it together. And they are quite clear about their motives. Why are they building a city and a tower that reaches to the heavens?

‘... so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’ (4)

They’re out to make a name for themselves; they’re motivated by pride and prestige; wanting to be famous for their achievements; reaching for the top.

Reaching, in fact, for the very top - to heaven itself. As they labour and build and climb, they’re seeking to prove themselves, wanting to succeed, to replace God, to do away with God. So they press on, doing all they can, working for their own name and glory. We don’t need or want God!

As they reach up, they’re repeating the folly of the first sin. Adam and Eve wanted to be like God, or rather, wanted to be God. And so these Shinarites are doing the same. They want to be famous, to make a name for themselves, so that they aren’t scattered as God wants them to do.

Come, let us. Higher and higher they go, building their tower and their empire. Come, let us. Higher and higher we go? Building our empire? What is it that we give ourselves to? What is it that our pride pushes us to do? How are you trying to make a name for yourself, to be known for?

Is it in your family, to have the best, most perfect children, the highest achievers? Perhaps it’s to have the cleanest tidiest house. The most beautiful Christmas tree. The Christmas lights that can almost be seen from space. Maybe it’s in your work to succeed and make it to the very top. Perhaps you’re building your tower of wealth and riches, wanting everyone to be in awe of your success, your power, your position. What are you giving your energy to?

They were reaching up, building up to make it to the heavens. In verse 5, we find the start of the Lord’s response. It’s like a little bit of humour, it’s a moment of irony. They’re building up, reaching towards the heavens, but verse 5: ‘But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building.’

Imagine you have ants in the garden. (not your mother’s sisters; the wee creepy-crawly type of ants). And imagine that they start to build an ant city. They’re working away. It’s something very grand and impressive in the ant world, never been seen or done before. They even start to build a tower, because they think they’re going to know you off your perch and take over your garden. But for you to see what they’re doing, you have to get down on your knees, get the magnifying glass out, stoop down and look carefully. That’s a bit like what’s happening here. The LORD comes down - it’s as if he couldn’t even see it from heaven!

The people had banded together with their ‘Come, let us’. Now the LORD responds with his own ‘Come, let us’: ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’ (6-7)

The people reached up in sinful pride; and the LORD stoops to curse by bringing confusion of their language. The scattering happens, the nations are divided, the peoples spread out over the face of the whole earth. The city lies unfinished, it’s ruins a testimony to the folly of pride. It’s name? Babel - babble.

Later, the city would be built, and a mighty empire would come from it - the city of Babylon. And in its later form, it was still known for proud rebellion against God - so that even in Revelation, the empire standing against God is known by the codename Babylon.

So when it comes to our own prideful ambitions and projects, what will come of them? Do we really think God will allow them to continue? Will we forever get away with making a name for ourselves and building our own kingdoms? Whether suddenly or slowly, confusion creeps in; our plans are frustrated; our pride leads to a fall; our towers lie in ruins.

We simply cannot reach up to heaven. We can’t build our way up to heaven. It’s not possible. Indeed, as we’ve seen right through these opening chapters of Genesis, our first parents are just like us. We’re scattered, lost, alone. Our achievements are temporary, they’re soon toppled.

But the good news is that in Jesus, the curse is reversed. In Jesus, God comes down, not in judgement, but in grace to seek and to save the lost. In Jesus, God comes down to lift our humanity to the heights of his throne.

We see that in Philippians 2 - Jesus didn’t grasp or exploit his equality with God the Father, but made himself nothing, took on the nature of a servant, made in human likeness, and humbled himself to death - even death on a cross. He went down, down, down, in order to rescue us from our pride, our achievements, our ambitions.

And in Jesus the confusion of languages and the scattering is reversed, as the risen Jesus sends out his disciples to preach the good news and make disciples of all nations, so that on the day of Pentecost, people from all over the place hear the good news in their own languages, and on the last day, gathered around the throne, will be people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages praising God as they sing: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ (Rev 8:9-10).

We can never build our way up to heaven. But we have a God who has stooped to save; who is calling us, and gathering us - and gathering others too. We have a way of calling people to him, as the Christmas flyers go out this week. Have you come to Jesus? Have you repented of your pride, seeking to make a name for yourself? One day he will return, and on that day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Are you ready?

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