Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Sermon: Jonah 2: 1-10 Salvation comes from the Lord

Some of you may know this already, but you almost didn’t have me as your Rector. Our church youth club went on regular trips to different places throughout the year. Normally, when we were going swimming, we went to Portadown pool. But once, as a special treat, we went to Shankill leisure centre in Belfast. The reason was because of the wave machine.

Everyone would be in the pool, having lots of fun, and then every so often a siren would sound, indicating that for the next five minutes, the waves would be turned on. We had been in the pool a while, when the siren went off again, and the waves started up. And I was out from the edge, and a little too far down the pool, and I went under. And I couldn’t swim. (Still can’t).

Down I went, clutching and grabbing and trying to get to safety, but the others (friends and strangers) thought I was just having a laugh. And down I went. The lifeguards hadn’t spotted me. I was in danger. And then my rescuer arrived. Tommy, one of our youth club leaders, saw what was happening, and pulled me up by the hair, and got me to safety. A scary experience. Plucked from near death and brought to dry land.

So as we read of what happened to Jonah, my chest starts to tighten and my panic starts to rise at the thought of being under the water - not just in the Shankill Leisure Centre, but in the open sea. But it wouldn’t matter if you can swim or not - in the open sea, to find yourself thrown overboard means certain death. There’s no RNLI lifeboat coming for you, and no Irish Coastguard helicopter searching for you. There’s just you and the wide open sea; you and the deep blue sea.

Now, last week we saw how Jonah had got into this situation in the first place. God’s word had come to Jonah, telling him to go east to preach against the city of Nineveh, one of the big cities of the Assyrian empire (modern-day Mosul in Iraq). God had said go, and Jonah said no. He hot-footed it in the opposite direction, getting on a boat to flee to Tarshish, running away from the Lord.

But Jonah should have known that you can’t run away from the God who made everything, who is present everywhere. And so a storm came on the boat, terrifying the sailors, who cried to their gods. Jonah was blamed for the calamity, and he told them to throw him into the sea. When every other option failed, then the sailors did so. And at once the storm ceased. And the sailors worshipped the one true living God, the God of Jonah.

But what happened to Jonah? We know from the end of chapter 1 that the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and he was in it for three days and three nights. And in chapter 2, we get to hear Jonah’s prayer from inside the great fish.

As you look at it, set out in the pew Bibles, it looks a bit like a Psalm - and it sounds like some of the Psalms as well. But no other Psalm and no other scripture was composed in the belly of a great fish under the sea. So what does he pray?

In verse 2, he acknowledges that God heard and answered his prayer: ‘In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry.’

No matter our circumstances, our feelings and emotions; no matter our location (even in the depths of the grave), God hears and God answers our prayers. That was certainly true for Jonah, and it’s still true for us today. No matter how low (emotionally or physically), God will hear us when we call to him.

And that’s even the case when God is the reason that we find ourselves in those low circumstances. Do you see how Jonah speaks so directly to God:

‘You hurled me into the deep,
into the very heart of the seas,
and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers
swept over me.’ (3)

In the deep, under the waves, swirled about by the currents, Jonah feels himself cut off from God, banished from his sight. (Of course, he isn’t - God always sees us in darkness as well as in light). Yet even in that deep, dark situation, Jonah turns his sights towards God and his temple:

‘I have been banished from your sight;
yet I will look again towards your holy temple.’ (4)

And as he looks towards the temple, as he orients himself back towards God, as he repents, so he finds that God will hear his cry. And yet still, he sinks:

‘The engulfing waters threatened me,
the deep surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.
To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
the earth beneath barred me in for ever.
But you brought my life up from the pit,
O LORD my God.’ (5-6)

Have you noticed that up to this point, all the movement has been down, down, down. Jonah had gone down to Joppa (1:3), down into the ship (1:4). And when he was thrown into the sea, he’s in the depths, the deep, sinking down to the roots of the mountains. He is at rock bottom, the lowest point he could possibly reach. And it’s when you reach rock bottom you discover that the Lord saves, and the Lord lifts us up.

In a few minutes we’ll use Philippians 2 as our creed - reminding ourselves of how the Lord Jesus, equal with God, came down, down, down in order to save us. he became one of us; he died, even the death of the cross; in order to be our rescuer. He descended to the depths that we had got ourselves in, he took the lowest place, in order to lift us to the heights of his throne.

The Lord is willing to save. The Lord is able to save. The Lord will save all who call on him. Jonah is proof of this:

‘When my life was ebbing away,
I remembered you, LORD,
and my prayer rose to you,
to your holy temple.’ (7)

Jonah was close to death, his life was ebbing away. And in that moment, he remembered the Lord, and called on the Lord. It’s why we can’t be sure that so-and-so isn’t in heaven. Who is to say what happens between a person and the Lord in their final moments, as their life ebbs away? [Of course, it’s better to be sorted long before that moment, to be sure of salvation without waiting for a deathbed conversion]

We see the contrast between trusting in anyone or anything else; and trusting in the Lord as Jonah’s prayer comes to an end: ‘Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the LORD.’ (8-9)

Grace is available, but to receive it takes open hands; empty hands ready to receive. To cling to worthless idols means that we can’t receive God’s grace.

We need to receive God’s grace, and recognise that salvation comes only from the LORD. He is the one who saves, if we will look to him, call on him, and receive from him. And so far we have seen that salvation comes from the LORD for the sailors who gave up their worthless idols, their old gods, to call on the LORD. And salvation comes from the LORD for Jonah.

His prayer was heard, and his life didn’t ebb away under the depths of the sea. His salvation came in the form of a great fish, provided by the LORD. Can you imagine it? The smell, and the darkness, and the general unpleasantness. It might not seem very attractive, and yet it is the means of the Lord’s salvation.

To have witnessed the events of the first Good Friday, they also wouldn’t have appeared very pleasant, or attractive. The bruised and beaten body of Jesus, bleeding, and hung on the cross, abused and mocked by those who stood watching. And yet, the means of salvation, the most precious event in the history of the world.

And three days later, Jonah appears from the fish, a sign pointing to the resurrection of Jesus, as God continues to be in control of everything, commanding the fish to vomit him out onto dry land.

Jonah’s prayer acknowledges that salvation comes from the Lord. But it is also a declaration of praise to the source of his salvation.

A few months back I was in Dromore, and happened to bump into Tommy. And we chatted about that night in the Shankill Leisure Centre. And my gratitude to him was deepened - the one who lifted me from the depths, and saved me from near death that night.

When we realise the depths from which we have been rescued; the desperate state of our sin; the nearness to certain death; how deep must our gratitude be to the Lord who has saved us! The only one who can save us: Salvation comes from the LORD.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 26th January 2020.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Sermon: Mark 6: 1-13 Who is Jesus? Rejected Prophet

In 180 days, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games will begin. Athletes from all disciplines are working hard in their training to be ready for the world’s biggest competition. Their focus is on winning the gold medal, and standing on the podium to hear their national anthem played. Yet another amazing experience would also await them a few days later, when they arrive back at Heathrow, or in Belfast, or Dublin, when they experience a triumphant homecoming. Can you imagine that? Being back in your hometown, being welcomed with crowds and cheering and jubilation? A homecoming hero.

You see the same with football teams. So last season (apologies if this is a painful reminder), Manchester City won the domestic treble - the league and both cups - and thousands turned out to celebrate as they drove around Manchester on an open top bus. The city turned blue as they celebrated their homecoming heroes.

Now, if that’s how homecoming heroes are celebrated for kicking a ball around a field, or being fast at running, then can you imagine what sort of homecoming welcome someone like Jesus would deserve? Flags and banners and balloons, songs and music and dancing, crowds and cheering and celebration - he’s one of our own! He’s one of us!

I mean, if Dungannon has a sign up stating that it’s the home of Darren Clarke, then surely Nazareth would be cashing in on the fact that Jesus grew up in its streets? [Now, you’re right, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but he then grew up in Nazareth, as Matthew 2:23 tells us] So when we read in Mark 6:1 that Jesus went to his home town, we’re expecting quite a homecoming hero’s welcome.

It’s what we would expect, having heard all that we’ve already heard in Mark’s gospel about Jesus. Last time, we heard about him healing the woman who had been ill for twelve years, and raising Jairus’ daughter from the dead. No doubt people would have talked about that, and word would have spread. And that’s besides all the other healings Jesus has performed, and the crowds that were following him, and all his teaching. He’s been touring about Galilee, but now he’s coming home. The home town hero.

Except, that’s not quite what happens. Jesus is not so much the home town hero as he is the prophet without honour in his home town. It seems so promising at the start, though, doesn’t it? Look at verse 2: ‘When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.’

That sounds good! Jesus is teaching, and the people in church that morning are amazed. Now, that could be really positive - it could be that they’re amazed at just how great Jesus is, and amazed at the excellent teaching that he is giving. Except, that’s not how they’re reacting: instead, their amazement is entirely negative.

First of all, they wonder at what Jesus is teaching: ‘“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles?”’ (2) In effect they’re saying, who does he think he is? He went away from here and now he thinks he’s all high and mighty.

And then they show that they know exactly who Jesus is: ‘“Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offence at him.’ (3)

All through this term, through this section of Mark’s gospel, we’re asking the question: Who is Jesus? And the people of Nazareth have no doubt about who Jesus is. He’s nothing special, he’s just a wee fella from about here who now thinks he is something. He used to do a bit of woodwork but now he thinks he’s a preacher and miracle worker. But sure we know his family, we know all about him.

Can you imagine that? They knew Jesus better than anyone else. He had grown up in their town. He had played in their streets. And they can’t get beyond that, to see who Jesus really is; to see how great Jesus really is. So much so, that they’re offended at him! It’s almost as if they were over-familiar with him - they had their notions about him and couldn’t see him in any other way.

Could that happen to us as well? That we’ve always thought of Jesus in a certain way; maybe a particular image from a children’s Bible or a picture, and no matter what else we hear about Jesus, no matter what else he may say to us in his word, we will only think of him in that one way, whether it’s right or wrong.

And so Jesus recognises that, far from the homecoming hero, he is, to the people of Nazareth, the prophet without honour in his home town: ‘Only in his home town, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honour.’ (4) Perhaps you’ve found this yourself. You might be ready, and willing, and able to talk to anybody about your faith in Jesus. And who are the hardest people to talk to about your faith in Jesus? The people who know you best - your own family. Do you know what? Me too.

But did you notice what Jesus claims about himself in those words? The people of Nazareth see him as a carpenter, but Jesus says that he is (at the very least) a prophet - a prophet without honour, granted, but he is at least a prophet. And yet they couldn’t even accept that. And they couldn’t accept him. And so they couldn’t accept his ministry - no miracles, except for a few healings. And it’s Jesus who is amazed in verse 6 - amazed at their lack of faith.

It’s homecoming heartbreak, as Jesus is treated as a prophet without honour in his home town. But that doesn’t stop Jesus in his mission. It’s not that he is rejected at Nazareth and he gives it all up to become a carpenter again, having heard the truth in the Nazareth synagogue. No, he is undeterred in his mission, and in fact, ramps it up.

Up to now, the mission has been centred exclusively on Jesus. The proclamation of the kingdom has only been happening where Jesus is. But now, the mission is shared, and as Jesus goes, teaching village to village, he sends out the disciples two by two (just like the animals going into the ark!). Jesus shares his mission with the twelve, and he also shares his authority with them - authority over evil spirits. What Jesus has done, the disciples will now do as well.

And their work is by faith. Nazareth were faithless, but the disciples are to live by faith - not by bringing along a packed lunch or loads of supplies or even a change of clothes. They can take a staff, but no bread, bag or money; sandals but no extra tunic. They’re to stay at one house in the town (not shifting about as they get better offers). And they’re to shake the dust from their feet if they are rejected.

It’s a short-term strategy for effective ministry in this particular period of time, as Jesus proclaims the gospel in Galilee. Now, there isn’t just Jesus doing it; there is Jesus plus six pairs of disciples - meaning that seven villages at once are all hearing the good news, as the disciples go on work experience, practicing what they’ve seen Jesus doing.

And we see the effects in verses 12 and 13. ‘They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.’ They preached, and they healed. And it wasn’t just a few sick people who were healed (as it had been in Nazareth). No, now there are ‘many’ demons drive out and ‘many’ sick people who are anointed and healed.

Just think of the stir going around the country. Villages are turned upside and turned around by the visit of Jesus and his disciples. Everyone is talking about it - and as we’ll see next week, word even reaches to the palace of King Herod. The kingdom is coming all over the place, except in Jesus’ hometown.

Could it be that we think that we know all about Jesus? We’ve grown up with him, hearing stories about him since our childhood. We’ve always been aware of him. But nothing will move us from our settled opinion about him; our pre-conceived notions about him.

As we continue to follow Mark’s gospel story, please don’t think to yourself, oh I know all about Jesus, I know who he is. Keep listening, and thinking, and growing in your 2020 vision of who he is - in all his power and might and majesty. Make him your hometown hero, rather than regarding him as a prophet without honour.

And, as we think about Jesus, let’s also consider what he thinks about us. May it never be that Jesus would think of us as he thought of the people of the synagogue in Nazareth that day, in the words of verse 6. They were religious, they were in the church of their day, and yet, they were, ultimately, faithless: ‘And he was amazed at their lack of faith.’

We are so familiar with Jesus; with his word; with his stories. May it never be that we have all that, and yet lack faith in him. So keep listening and thinking, as you grow in your faith in Jesus, this rejected prophet without honour, and yet, our hometown hero, our prophet, priest and king.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 26th January 2019.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Sermon: Jonah 1: 1-17 Running from God

It’s a whale of a tale, and one we’ve heard from Sunday School days. If we’d asked you on the way in tonight, tell me what you know about the story of Jonah, we would have pieced together a good bit of it, I’m sure. But front and centre of all that you would have said was the whale, or the big fish. It’s probably what Jonah is best known for - and it’s where he ends up at the end of chapter 1.

Now, there’s no doubt that the big fish is a big character in the story of Jonah. But no matter how big the big fish was, there’s someone else who is at the centre of Jonah’s story. And it’s not Jonah, either! At the centre of Jonah’s story, just as at the centre of the whole Bible’s story, is the Lord. So while we’ll hear something about the big fish; and we’ll learn something about Jonah; the whole story is teaching us lots about the Lord.

In the very first words of the story, we see that God speaks and sends. ‘The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”’ (1-2)

God is not silent. He spoke creation into being, and he continues to speak, revealing himself, revealing his will, calling us to himself. We have his word written down for us, through which he speaks to us. But more than that, God speaks and sends.

God sends Jonah to Nineveh. Now, that name might not mean much to us, but Nineveh was one of the cities of the nation of Assyria, one of the superpowers of the day, an enemy and a threat, who would eventually come and destroy the northern kingdom of Israel. Today, it doesn’t go by Nineveh, but you’ve probably heard of it - the city of Mosul in Iraq. And that’s where God sends Jonah to go and preach against it.

So God says ‘Go’ and Jonah says ‘No’. Instead of going east to Nineveh, Jonah heads west, for Tarshish (modern-day Spain). To get there, he has to go by boat, and so he heads to the port at Joppa, he finds a boat going west, pays his fare, and sets sail. And, just to be sure, we’re told in both verse 3 and 4 that he ‘ran away from the LORD... to flee from the LORD.’

Now, quick question for you. Do you think that it’s possible to run away from the Lord? The answer is no! Jonah would have known Psalm 139 which includes these lines: ‘Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand hold me fast.’ (Ps 139:7-10)

Jonah knows this, and yet he persists in trying to run from the Lord. And we know it too, but it doesn’t stop us from trying to run. We know what God wants us to do, and we say no. We try to go the opposite way. Does it work? Did it work for Jonah? Well, let’s see.

It turns out, in verse 4, that the LORD is present on the sea as well. ‘Then the LORD sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up.’ (4) The Lord who sent Jonah, also sent the great wind.

It’s such a bad storm that the seasoned sailors are afraid, and they’re crying out to their small-g gods. In fact, it’s so bad, that they even throw the cargo overboard in an attempt to lighten the ship. By doing that, they wouldn’t be paid if they ever made it back to shore - no cargo, no pay. But this was life or death. Better to live and lose out on a payday than to lose their lives at sea.

All this is going on above deck. You can imagine it as a movie - it’s hard to see, the wind howls, the waves lash over the side of the ship, it’s all very dangerous and dramatic. And then the scene changes. It’s all peaceful and calm below deck. Apart from the sound of a snore, coming from Jonah’s mouth. In all that’s happening, Jonah is asleep, blissfully unaware of the danger.

He’s woken by the captain: ‘How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish.’ (6) How ironic! The prophet is called to pray by the pagan captain.

Meanwhile, the sailors want to find the scapegoat. They cast lots to find out who to blame. And the lot falls on Jonah. So they want to know who he is and why this is all happening. And his response terrifies them: ‘I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.’ (9)

You see, these pagan sailors would have thought that there were lots of small-g gods. Each of those gods had some sort of speciality, or some sort of local influence. So they believed in gods of war, and love, and travel, and each village or nation would have had its own deity. But Jonah says that he is part of the one true God’s people - the God over all, who made everything, including the sea which troubles them!

You’ve heard the phrase, ‘out of the mouths of babes’ - well here, it’s ‘out of the mouths of pagans’ as they ask him: ‘What have you done?’ How could you try to run away from the God who made everything? He had already told them that he was running away from the Lord. It takes these pagan sailors to point out Jonah’s stupidity!

While they’ve been talking, the sea has been getting rougher. It’s getting worse, rather than better. And so they ask what they can do to make the sea calm again. Jonah says to throw him overboard. But they can’t even think of doing that. It would be certain death. And so they try even harder to row back to land, but the sea gets worse again. And so, eventually, they agree to Jonah’s idea.

And as they prepare to throw him overboard, as they sacrifice him to the sea, they cry out to the LORD. ‘O LORD, please do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O LORD, have done as you pleased.’ (14)

Remember back in verse 6 when the captain told Jonah to call on his god? Now the whole crew are calling on Jonah’s God, wondering if he will take notice of them, so that they don’t perish.

Then they threw him overboard, splash, and the raging sea grew calm. Just like that. In an instant. The roaring wind and the raging waves are stilled. And in an instant, they know that their pagan gods are worthless. They know that Jonah’s God is the one true God. Do you see how they respond? ‘At this the men greatly feared the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows to him.’ (16)

Jonah, the world’s worst prophet, and most reluctant missionary, was the means by which a group of pagan sailors encountered the one true God. But it isn’t just that God was entirely at the mercy of Jonah, and God sits around wondering what we’re going to do, and maybe has to frantically change his plans based on what we decide to do or not do. God wasn’t sitting on heaven’s throne getting updates from an angel, saying things like, what? He’s not going to Nineveh? What? He’s getting on a boat? Ok, plan B everyone, let’s try to turn this thing around.

No, as the whole Bible shows us, and as Jonah’s story shows us, God is sovereign over everything. He is so sovereign that even our rebellion can be used by him to bring glory to his name. God knew what Jonah would do, and had purposed to bring those sailors to himself through Jonah’s running away.

And we see God’s sovereignty in the last thing he sends in this first chapter. It’s the thing that Jonah is best known for, and yet we’re not quite sure exactly what it was. A whale? A big fish? Whatever it was, it was provided by the Lord, as Jonah’s submarine accommodation for three days and three nights.

As big as the big fish is, though, we see that God is bigger, and is front and centre in this whale of a tale. We see how God speaks, and sends, and is sovereign as he calls people to call on his name.

You see, we all have run away from the Lord. All of us know what the Lord requires of us, and we go our own way. And we think we can get away with it. Yet God, in his grace, sends his own Son to save us.

It was Jesus who came to give himself to appease God’s wrath. Jesus was thrown into the stormy sea to bring us peace. He took our sins, the wrong things we have done, and our sinfulness, and he paid the penalty for them.

And Jonah points us towards the Lord Jesus. You see, just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the fish, so Jesus was three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matt 12:40) Jesus died, and was buried, but on the third day rose again, as God’s sovereign saving purpose had always planned.

So if you’re running from the Lord, stop running. You can’t outrun God. You can’t outfox God’s sovereign purpose. He calls you to call on his name and give him the glory.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 19th January 2020.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Sermon: Mark 5: 21-43 Who is Jesus? Powerful Healer

Who is Jesus? That’s the question we’re asking as we follow the unfolding story of Mark’s gospel. And it’s the question that is again being answered as he lands back in Galilee after his short visit to the other side of the lake. Last week, we saw how Jesus is the merciful Lord, who brings cleansing and restoration to the demon-possessed man, overpowering what had overpowered the man, because he is the Son of the Most High God.

And when people in the town and area heard of what had happened, and saw the change in the demon-possessed man, they turned up to tell Jesus to go away. And now, as Jesus arrives back in Galilee again, there’s another crowd gathering around him. They’ve heard about Jesus, and they want to see what he can do. They’re maybe there for different reasons - something to do; something to see; but we’re introduced to one man who has a pressing, urgent need - a man called Jairus.

Jairus was an important man in the local community. He’s a ruler of the synagogue, a religious man, responsible for services, inviting people to speak and read the Scriptures. He was well respected, and well known. But despite his lofty position, he falls at Jesus’ feet, begging him to come to his house. There, something terrible is happening.

We hear about it in verse 22: ‘ “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.”’ Perhaps he had watched out especially for Jesus’ return - his situation was desperate. Even going for help would be agony, being away from his daughter. And so Jesus went with him. And the crowds come too.

And then, suddenly, Jesus stops, looks around and asks, verse 30: ‘Who touched my clothes?’ When was the last time you were part of a big crowd, of people jostling and bumping into one another as you move along? It’s what happens in a crowd. And that’s what the disciples say as well: ‘You see the people crowding against you, and yet you can ask, “Who touched me?”

But Jesus keeps looking to see who had done it. Back in verse 30 we’re told that Jesus realised that power had gone out from him. He’s looking for the one person who received power from him.

Now as we read the passage, we already know who had touched him. We’re introduced to her in verse 25. If you were looking for a complete opposite of Jairus, then this is her. Jairus was a man of standing in the community; the woman was probably an outcast. Jairus was a religious man, observing the Law read and preached in the synagogue; the woman probably hadn’t been to synagogue in years. You see, her bleeding made her ceremonially unclean. Jairus was probably wealthy, financially secure; the woman had spent all her money on doctor’s bills, getting second opinion after second opinion, all the time getting worse, not better.

The woman had heard about Jesus, she came up to him and touched his cloak. Why did she do this? ‘...she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.”’ (28). And that’s exactly what happened: ‘Immediately, her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was free from her suffering.’ (29)

Perhaps she thought that she could just touch him, and slip away into the crowd again. But Jesus won’t let that happen. He knew that power had gone out from him, that the woman had been powerfully healed. And by verse 33, the woman knows that she can’t remain hidden, and so, ‘trembling with fear’, ‘came and fell at his feet and... told the whole truth.’ Notice that she appears in the same position as Jairus back in verse 22 - they both ‘fell at his feet.’

As she speaks out the truth of what has happened, she gives her testimony of what Jesus has done for her. But more than that - the people who knew this woman would have known about her affliction. They would have known her shame at being ceremonially unclean all the time - this had gone on for twelve years. This was the way that she could be received back into the life of the community.

And do you see what Jesus says to her in verse 34: ‘Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.’ This is the only time that Jesus calls someone ‘daughter’ - a word of tenderness and compassion. Her faith in Jesus brought about her healing.

That word ‘healed’ also means ‘saved’ or to be made whole. This is what Jesus still offers today - to be saved, healed. And how do we achieve this salvation, this wholeness? It’s only by faith - faith alone in Christ alone. Jesus shows us that it’s not a superstitious touch or action that saves the woman - it’s simply her faith in Jesus. We can’t touch Jesus’ cloak these days, but we can approach him in faith, taking hold of his promises.

We get to the bottom of the page, the end of verse 34, and we might have forgotten that there was another pressing situation that was interrupted. Remember, Jesus was on his way to the house of Jairus, where his daughter was dying. But now, in verse 35, some men arrive from his house to break bad news. Jairus’ daughter has died. ‘Why bother the teacher any more?’ There’s no point taking up Jesus’ time any more, seeing the girl is dead. Do you see what they’re really saying? They’re saying that there are limits to Jesus’ power - he might be able to heal someone who is still alive, but once they’ve died then he’s powerless, and all hope is gone.

Perhaps Jairus was thinking the very same thing. Maybe it would have been all right if Jesus hadn’t been distracted by that woman. He had been on the way. But do you see how Jesus responds to the news? ‘Ignoring what they said, Jesus told the synagogue ruler, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.”’ (36) The outcast woman is held up as an example for Jairus the synagogue ruler. She had faith, Jairus; you believe too.

When they arrive at the house, it’s a scene of mourning. There’s a commotion, people crying and wailing loudly. A scene without hope. And Jesus asks why they’re crying - ‘The child is not dead but asleep.’ And they laugh at him. They know better than him. Of course the girl is dead!

Everyone is put out of the house apart from the girl’s parents, and three disciples (Peter, James and John). ‘He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means, “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”) Immediately the girl stood up and walked around (she was twelve years old).’ (41-42)

Little girl, get up. The power of Jesus has no limits, no restrictions. It wasn’t that he could help the woman, and might have been able to help the little girl if she had still been alive, but death was beyond his power. No, Jesus is powerful to heal and to save everyone and anyone. He even has power over life and death.

Isn’t it good to know that? And yet, it leads us to wonder why Jesus doesn’t heal everybody when we pray for them; and why believers get sick, and don’t always get better, and even die. And we ask why, God? Why did you let so-and-so get sick? Or why did you not heal so-and-so?

We’re back to the question we asked last week, aren’t we? Why would Jesus say no to the believer’s request? And we saw last week that Jesus’ wisdom is wiser than our wisdom; and his purpose is greater than we can take in. And that applies to our questions about healing too.

Jesus calls us, like this woman and like Jairus, to believe; to have faith in him. And our faith will save us, even if we don’t experience healing here and now. But that ultimate salvation is what really matters - being saved and healed and made whole in the new heavens and the new earth. One day, Jairus’ daughter would die again; and one day this woman would die; but through faith in Jesus, they will live forever.

And there’s a hint of that in what Jesus says to the little girl. The NIV has rendered it ‘get up.’ Other versions render it ‘arise.’ Because the word used by Jesus there is the same word that is used to describe what would happen to Jesus as he arose from the tomb on the third day.

Who is Jesus? He’s our powerful healer who will remove all suffering and sickness when he ushers in his kingdom rule. And we will be healed as we come to Jesus, and trust him.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 12th January 2020.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Sermon: Mark 5: 1-20 Who is Jesus? Merciful Lord

Happy new year! The new year can be a time when we evaluate and review how things are going; a time when we chart the direction of our life; when we make commitments and resolutions in order to ‘this year’ make the change we’ve always wanted - whether it’s to take up a new hobby or get fit or whatever. I’m praying, though, that this year will be particularly significant for us as a church family. I’m praying that in 2020, we will have 20/20 vision.

Now, I’m not saying that if you wear glasses or contact lenses, then your sight will improve and you can throw them away. What I’m praying for is perfect clarity in our spiritual vision - and especially in regard to this question: ‘Who is Jesus?’

If we were to stop people on the street and ask them the same question, how would they respond? How would you answer that question? What would you say?

However you would answer it, I’m praying that our Sunday mornings from now until Easter will help us to gain clarity, and improve our vision, so that we can see with 2020 vision, just who Jesus is - because that’s the question that runs through the next section of Mark’s gospel (chapters 5-8).

Over the last couple of years from January to Easter we’ve been working our way through Mark’s gospel. We’ve seen how in chapter 1 verse 1, Mark tells us exactly who Jesus is - Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. But the gospel shows us how people gradually come to realise those truths about who Jesus is. We find ourselves listening in as Jesus has called his disciples, and has gone about teaching, and healing; watching as the disciples work out who Jesus is.

And the last time we were in Mark’s gospel (back on 24th March), we finished on an Eastenders-style cliffhanger. You know the dum-dum-dum-dum-dum kind of thing. If you’ve forgotten, you can see it at the bottom of page 1006. Jesus and his disciples were in the boat, and a storm broke so that the experienced fishermen disciples were afraid; while Jesus slept on a cushion. They rebuke him, but Jesus stands, and rebukes the wind and the waves. He calms them with a word.

And it’s only then, when peace has descended on the lake and on the boat, that the disciples are terrified. Here’s the cliffhanger question they ask: ‘Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!’ (4:41)

Who is this Jesus? The disciples are still piecing together the puzzle. They’re still trying to figure him out. And others are asking the same question as we’ll see in the coming weeks. Will you ask that question too? Will you try to work it out, as you commit to being here on Sunday mornings, so that together, we’ll develop 2020 vision? [And that’s not just a challenge to people who aren’t already Christians - if you are a Christian there is much to see, and learn, and clarify as we grow ever closer and more like the Lord Jesus.]

Now, that’s a rather longer than normal introduction, but it helps us to set up the whole series. And it leads into this morning’s passage quite nicely too. You see, the disciples are asking, ‘who is this?’ and if they’re listening, they’ll hear the answer from a most unlikely source.

At the end of chapter 4 they were in the boat on the freshly calmed lake. When they step out onto dry land at the start of chapter 5 (across the lake), they find a fearsome fellow. Or rather, this fearsome fellow finds them. He comes to meet Jesus. You know the expression, wouldn’t want to meet someone on a dark night? This guy fits the bill.

He’s tormented by an evil spirit - a demon of some kind. He has cut himself off from normal society - he lives among the tombs, he’s been bound hand and foot, but breaks the chains and irons, and no one is strong enough to subdue him. Everyone knew about him, and everyone feared him.

And look - in verse 7 - he knows exactly who Jesus is! The disciples were wondering, asking the question, but this man knows the answer: ‘What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won’t torture me!’ He recognises who Jesus is - the Son of the Most High God. How does he know when the disciples didn’t? Because the demon knows - and trembles.

He says all that because Jesus had already ordered the evil spirit out of the man. (8) And, as it turns out, the man had more than one evil spirit living in him - he was called Legion, because there were so many. And the demons beg Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area. And then the demons beg that they be sent into a large herd of pigs feeding nearby. It’s only when Jesus gives permission that the evil spirits go into the pigs, who then rush down the hillside into the lake and were drowned. So Jesus, the Son of the Most High God, has power over the evil spirits or demons. He is stronger than them; he has authority over them.

Imagine, a flock? a herd? a collective group of pigs (a team) all suddenly running downhill and into the lake. The people who had been tending the pigs ran off into the town to tell about what had happened. Pigs acting like lemmings - they hadn’t seen anything like it before. And then everyone comes out to see what had happened. And what do they see?

‘When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid.’ (15) The pigherders told what had happened to the man, and to the pigs.

Now, how would you react? What would you think? What should happen next? They held a great party and rejoiced at the man’s freedom? Nope. They asked Jesus to help them with their problems? Nope. Here’s what they actually did: ‘Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.’ (17)

God the Son has arrived, bringing his power over sin and evil spirits, and they ask him to leave. They’ve seen or heard how he can change people, restore people, bring freedom and new life... and they want no part of it. They want him gone, out of their lives.

Could that be us as well? We see how some of our family or friends begin to follow Jesus, and we see the change it brings in their life, and we don’t want it for ourselves. We’re happy the way we are. We’re afraid of what we might have to give up, or might lose, if we turn to Jesus. And so we ask him to leave us alone, the way things are.

May that not be us in this new year! May we have 2020 vision in the year 2020, so that we see who Jesus is - the Son of the Most High, the one who is stronger than whatever may have overpowered us, so that we find our peace in him.

A while back I heard a sermon by the Scottish minister and author Sinclair Ferguson. He asked a very provocative question in the sermon. Here it is: Why did Jesus say yes to the pleading of the demons, but no to the request of his follower? It sounds strange, doesn’t it? Almost topsy turvy. Jesus granted the request of the demons, to send them into the pigs; but Jesus says no to the request of his new follower. Why would Jesus do that?

And when you see his request, it seems even more unfair. Jesus is getting into the boat. He’s leaving the area again, going back across the lake. And the man who had been demon-possessed wants to come with him. He wants to be with Jesus. That’s a fair enough request - a good request, isn’t it? But Jesus says no. How unfair! How cruel it seems!

But Jesus says no to his request, because Jesus has a better task for him to do. In our wisdom, we maybe can’t understand what Jesus is doing, or why he says no to our requests and prayers. But God’s wisdom is higher than ours, and he knows his purpose.

You see, here, in this case, Jesus has been drummed out of the area. They won’t listen to him. They don’t want him around. But he will not be left without a witness. That’s why Jesus says what he says: ‘Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.’ (19)

The man can’t come with Jesus, because he can witness for Jesus in his own town, and among his family. And notice his order - tell them how much the Lord has done for you. In Luke’s version of this event, it’s ‘tell how much God has done for you.’ (Lk 8:39)

He’s told to talk about the Lord. And who does he talk about? He knows who the Lord is; he knows who God is: ‘So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.’

From one afternoon with Jesus, he knows that Jesus is the Son of the Most High God; that he is the Lord, that he is God. He’s a witness to how God’s power and love and mercy can change a person, and overpower whatever has overpowered a person.

What’s your story? How have you been changed by Jesus? My prayer is that as we see Jesus ever clearer, and gain 2020 vision, we’ll see him at work in our lives to change, and heal, and restore - and amaze the community around us.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 5th January 2020.