Sunday, March 29, 2020

Sermon: Romans 8: 18-27 Groaning for Glory

May the words of my lips, and the thoughts of all our hearts, be now and always pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

We knew it was probably coming at some point, but when the Prime Minister announced the current lockdown on Monday evening, it seemed to take many of us by surprise. The clear command is to stay at home, except for very limited and specific purposes, such as getting basic necessities, daily exercise, seeking medical help, and travelling to and from work where absolutely necessary.

In the same address, Boris Johnston made it very clear why these restrictions were being put in place. He said this: ‘From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction - you must stay at home. Because the critical thing we must do it stop the disease spreading between households.’ And near the end he said, ‘In this fight we can be in no doubt that each and every one of us is directly enlisted. Each and every one of us is now obliged to join together. To halt the spread of this disease. To protect our NHS and to save many many thousands of lives. And I know that as they have in the past so many times. The people of this country will rise to that challenge. And we will come through it stronger than ever. We will beat the coronavirus and we will beat it together.’

Did you notice the reason why the restrictions have been put in place? To stop the spread, to protect the NHS and to save lives. For a time, we endure a period of hardship, because it will be worth it in the end. We may suffer for a while, but it will end, and we’ll be glad we did. And that’s what Paul tells us in our reading from Romans chapter 8 today.

On Sunday evenings before the lockdown, we were in a short series in Romans 8. In Romans, Paul is writing to the Christians in Rome, setting out the gospel in its fullness. Chapter 8 is the summary of all that he’s already written, and draws out the implications of the good news of Jesus for the believer.

In verse 1, we saw how ‘therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ We can already know God’s verdict on us here and now - as we trust in Jesus, the verdict is ‘not guilty.’ And as the chapter continues, we find that we’re not just forgiven, we are also given the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of adoption, who confirms that we are indeed God’s children - by him we call God, ‘Abba, Father.’ This is all amazingly wonderful news. And then in verse 17, just before our reading, Paul introduces the subject of suffering. He writes: ‘Now if we are children, then we are heirs - heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.’

And something inside of us reacts to that. We think - yes, we’re on board for all of God’s blessings and benefits, bring them on! But suffering? Maybe not. And that reaction might be even stronger when we hear verse 18 in our reading today: ‘I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.’ Really?

You might think that Paul doesn’t really understand suffering. Maybe he’s had a comfortable, easy life, hasn’t really undergone any suffering, and doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. In another part of the Bible, he shares some of his experiences:
beatings, stonings, shipwrecks, constant danger, toil and hardship, hunger, thirst, in cold and exposure. (See 2 Cor 11:23-29) He knew what it was to suffer, so he’s not making light of suffering, rather, he makes much of the glory to be revealed.

It’s as if Paul has a pair of balancing scales. He puts all of the suffering in one side, and on the other, the glory that will be revealed in us. It’s not that our sufferings are greater; and it’s not that the suffering and glory is about the same, perfectly balanced. No, there’s no comparison. The glory completely surpasses and totally outweighs the suffering. Anything we face or endure now will be more than worth it in the end.

And the word that expresses our current experience is the word: groaning. Is that the word that summarises your current experience of this lockdown? Groaning with frustration, perhaps, as your regular routine has been restricted. Groaning with boredom as you wonder how you’re going to put in another long day. Groaning with loneliness. Well that word, groaning, is the word that characterises today’s passage. Paul uses it three times, as he speaks of the current suffering and the incomparable glory that is to come.

First of all, the creation has been groaning. Verse 19: ‘The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.’ You know the way some people count down to their birthday, and know how many sleeps it is. Or you might wait for a delivery to arrive, and you’re watching out for it. Creation itself is on tip toes, watching and waiting, with eager longing, for the revealing of the sons of God. Why does the earth do that? Why are the animals and birds and trees and every blade of grass waiting in this way?

‘For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.’ (20-21)

At present, the creation is frustrated. It’s in bondage to decay. I don’t need to tell you that - you experience it every day. Things wear out and break down. The lovely banana you were going to eat has turned black and mouldy. Thorns and thistles and weeds spring up. ‘Change and decay in all around I see’ as the hymn puts it. It’s the world as we know it, but it’s not the way the world was originally made.

In Genesis 3 we hear of the bondage of creation - not by creation’s choice, but as a consequence of Adam and Eve’s decision to rebel against God’s good and gracious rule. The world is under the curse, but it’s done in the hope that one day bondage will cease, and creation will share in the glorious freedom of God’s children.

Paul describes creation’s groaning as in the pains of childbirth. The groans and pain are worth it, whenever the baby has been born. And that’s what is happening around us, as the creation groans, in anticipation of release and freedom. Can you imagine how glorious our world will be when decay has been stopped? When viruses are no more? When there’s no more sadness or sickness or suffering or sin?

The gospel is more than just me and my ticket to heaven. The victory that Jesus has won is for the whole creation. The natural world will share in our redemption. And in the meantime, the creation groans.

It’s not just the creation groaning, though. You see, we too share in that groaning. Believers are groaning too. ‘not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.’ (23)

We are living in the now, and the not yet. Already we have the firstfruits, the presence of the Spirit, and the final verdict. We get to taste what eternal life will be like, but there’s more to come. And so we groan, as we wait. We’re still weighed down with sin, and sorrow, and suffering. We long for the day when we receive our new resurrection bodies, when we see God face to face, and live with him forever. And so we groan as we wait.

But we wait in hope. Now, we use the word hope in lots of different ways. You might hope the weather will be good tomorrow; but it may not be. Often, our hopes are more like wishful thinking - wouldn’t it be nice if... But the Christian hope is not like those vague wishes. Our hope is sure and certain, as we trust God’s promises and wait for what he will give to us. ‘For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.’ (24-25)

If our present Christian experience is all that there is, then there’s nothing to hope for. But hope looks to the future, to what God will do. And we wait patiently, because the glory to be revealed in us is worth far more than anything we endure here and now.

The creation is groaning; and Christians are groaning. And, as Paul continues, we find that the Spirit is also groaning. Let’s read the last verses: ‘In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.’ (26-27)

All through this chapter, Paul has been reminding us about the power and presence of the Spirit in the life of the Christian. And the Spirit helps us in our weakness. Have you ever found yourself wanting to pray, but not knowing what to pray? You’ve promised that you’ll pray for a friend, but the words don’t come. Or you’re facing a situation in your own life, and you struggle to know what to pray for. You are not alone! When we struggle to find the words, the Spirit himself is praying for us, with groans that words cannot express. He takes our groaning, and groans our prayers for us, translating them into prayers in line with God’s will. He knows and understands our hearts, our sighs, our longings, and prays on our behalf.

Perhaps you’re struggling under the current restrictions - remember what Boris has said - it’s just for a time, and it’ll be worth it. So how much more, what God has said here in Romans chapter 8. Our present sufferings, characterised by the groaning of creation, and our groaning, and the groaning of the Spirit - those sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. A short period of pain, leading to an infinitely greater pleasure. Suffering now, and glory after. That’s our story, here and now, because it is the story of the gospel; the pattern that Jesus himself followed - the cross before the crown.

Jesus endured the cross, bearing our sin and shame; wearing the symbol of the curse, the crown of thorns; in order to enter his glory by overturning the curse, and ushering in life and peace; victory over death, and bringing his new heavens and new earth, where righteousness dwells. We are called to follow his pattern, as we wait for the glory to be revealed - his glory in us.

So let’s pray. Lord God, whose blessed Son our Saviour
gave his back to the smiters
and did not hide his face from shame:
Give us grace to endure the sufferings of this present time
with sure confidence in the glory that shall be revealed,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 29th March 2020 for the broadcast service during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Friday, March 27, 2020


We’re living in very strange circumstances. At present, our freedom of movement has been restricted, so that we can only head out of our homes if we’re working in essential jobs, seeking medical care, helping the vulnerable, and getting one form of exercise. We’re approaching the second Sunday of not meeting together in the church building. We’re not used to such restrictions, applied so widely and so stringently. And yet they are desperately needed, as we seek to slow the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19.

When we consider the New Testament, we find lots of examples of physical distance and isolation. The early church, and especially the apostles, didn’t have the benefits of Facebook Live, or YouTube, or WhatsApp, Zoom and so many more technological solutions. Their technology was more basic, but was put to good use in combatting isolation.

John, in two of his three letters, says something similar: ‘I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.’ (2 John 1:12 cf 3 John 1:13-14) He has much to say, but longs for the day when he’ll see his recipients face to face to talk with them.

He was also familiar with imposed isolation, having been exiled on the island of Patmos ‘because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.’ (Rev 1:9). Even though he was exiled and far from his Christian brothers and sisters, he was ‘in the Spirit’ (Rev 1:10) and was joined by the Lord Jesus in all his glory. John’s isolation was used by God to produce the book of Revelation, a great encouragement to suffering Christians.

Peter addresses his first letter to ‘God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia.’ Yet these scattered strangers ‘have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood.’ (1 Peter 1:1-2) While they may seem small and insignificant in the world’s eyes, they are known and dearly loved by the Trinity.

The writer to the Hebrews encourages his readers to ‘Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching.’ (Heb 10:25) Some had obviously stopped coming together with other believers, not rating it high in their priorities. We’re looking forward to being able to meet together again when it’s safe to do so. Are there ways that we can encourage one another while we wait?

The author then demonstrates his own commitment to meeting together in the closing verses: ‘I want you to know that our brother Timothy has been released. If he arrives soon, I will come with him to see you.’ (Heb 13:23) People in three distinct locations, all looking forward to the day when they can meet again in one place - Timothy, the author, and the Hebrew Christians.

Perhaps the best examples of physical distance and isolation come from the pen of the apostle Paul. Having written so many letters to so many different churches and individuals, we get a glimpse of the experiences he endured as he served the Lord.

One of his earliest letters was to the church in Thessalonica. He had been in the city, proclaiming the gospel, and had to make a quick exit when a riot began. From there, he had travelled on to Berea and then Athens, from where he wrote 1 Thessalonians. Here’s how he describes his isolation:

‘But, brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you - certainly I, Paul, did, again and again - but Satan stopped us... So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow-worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials.’ (1 Thes 2:17-18, 3:1-3)

Paul wrote to the Thessalonian Christians after planting the church there. His letter to the Roman Christians was different, in that he hadn’t been there before. And yet he couldn’t wait to come and see them. ‘I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong - that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.’ (Rom 1:11-12) It wasn’t that Paul, the apostle, would encourage these other believers. No, everyone would be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith as they met together.

Paul spent some time in prison, cooped up in a cell. Compared to Her Majesty’s establishments, his prison would have been ghastly. His apostolic ministry of preaching and planting churches had been stopped. His friends may have despaired. And yet even that time of confinement was a time of flourishing, productive ministry. His prison epistles were written at that time - Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon - and they continue to speak of the encouragements Paul found even in prison.

As he reminds the Christians in Colossae, ‘All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing.’ (Col 1:6) Paul is in chains, but the gospel isn’t bound! Even in confinement, the gospel is advancing: ‘Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.’ (Phil 1:12-13) That letter to Philippians, penned in prison, is the epistle of joy!

Paul’s letters were written because he was at a distance from the Christians he was communicating with. In most of his letters we find lists of names of people he is greeting and others who are sending greetings. Without modern technology, Paul knew these people by name, and was aware of their situations and circumstances, maybe even better than we do today.

In his second letter to Timothy, we hear of Paul’s most painful experience of isolation. ‘At my first defence, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.’ (2 Tim 4:16-18)

Facing the might of Rome, and the threat of the death sentence, Paul stood alone. Alienated and isolated, but not totally abandoned. The Lord stood at his side and gave him strength. In these days of isolation, we are never truly alone, even if there’s no one else in the house with us. The Lord is always with us, giving us his strength. But the Lord gives us much more - he also gives us hope. No matter what may happen to us, as we trust in Jesus, we have the promise of being brought safely into his heavenly kingdom.

For Paul, that would involve an executioner’s block. Yet the moment the axe fell, the Lord ushered Paul into his heavenly kingdom. For all of eternity, we will not be isolated or alone, because we will be with the Lord and all his people. The good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the answer to all our feelings of loneliness and isolation.

These next weeks or months may be difficult. It might appear that there’s no end in sight, particularly if you’re on your own. But remember that you’re never alone - we have the fellowship of the church, and the Lord is with you, both now and for ever more.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Sermon: Psalms 42 & 43 Hoping in God

Father, we ask that your word would speak to us now, that it would bring hope to all who are downcast and disturbed, that it would lead us to praise you, our Saviour and our God. Amen.

There are many parts of our service today that are strange - the fact that you’re watching at home being the major one. But another strangeness is the lack of singing. It seems so odd to not sing together. No doubt when we gather together again properly, we’ll be overjoyed to sing together!

It’s from a song that you probably know the opening lines of Psalm 42: ‘As the deer pants for the water so my soul longs after you.’ Don’t worry, I’m not going to sing it for you. But that opening line expresses the sense of longing, the sense of desperation felt by the writer in verses 1-2:

‘As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?’

I’m sure you’ve been thirsty as some point in your life. Maybe you’ve been playing games, running about, and then, you’re parched, desperate for water. Or you’ve been hard at work, and the thirst is on you.

But have you been thirsty for God? Have you been so desperate to have him, to know him, to be with him, that it’s a thirst? That’s what Psalms 42&43 are all about. A deep longing for God.

And it has come about because the writer of the Psalm finds himself far away from God. It’s not social distancing that he’s undergoing, but he feels himself to be in isolation, unable to come near to meet with God. Perhaps you’re experiencing something similar today. You would love to be here in church, with the rest of the church family, meeting with God together.

We see how hard it is for him in verses 3-4:

‘My tears have been my food day and night,
while men say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”
These things I remember as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go with the multitude,
leading the procession to the house of God,
with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng.’

His tears have been his food, day and night - they trickle down his cheek and into his mouth. He’s sad, disappointed, distressed. And it’s made even worse by other people saying to him: ‘Where is your God?”

Perhaps you’ve seen similar going round social media. People asking - where’s God in all this? Asking - if God is so good, then why did he let this happen? Asking - if God is so great, why doesn’t he stop it and cure everybody straight away? Where is your God?

Now as if his tears and his tormentors aren’t bad enough, his distress is deepened as he remembers how things used to be. At the top of the Psalm we’re told it was written by ‘the Sons of Korah.’ They were worship leaders in the temple, and he remembers better times, going with the multitude, worshipping together; leading God’s people with shouts of joy and thanksgiving. He remembers, and it causes him pain, because he’s not there now. He’s cut off, isolated. Does it sound familiar?

In verse 5, we get the first of a repeated refrain, which is found twice in Psalm 42 and again at the end of Psalm 43. In the refrain, the writer is talking to himself, encouraging himself in his distress:

‘Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Saviour and my God.’

He recognises that he is downcast and disturbed. In a recent phrase, it’s ok to not be ok. But then he reminds himself of where he can turn; he connects himself to the one who brings hope. Even in the midst of difficulties, he will put his hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God. It’s hard now, but hope looks to the future; and waits for our Saviour God.

Yet even as he puts his hope in God, he still finds himself downcast. In verse 6, he is still far away from God’s temple. He mentions the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon, Mount Mizar - the place where the river Jordan begins. It’s about 111 miles or so, but for this son of Korah, that’s a fair distance.

And with the image of waterfalls, waves and breakers, he feels overwhelmed, as they sweep over him. And yet he hears the call of God in the waterfalls - deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls.

And even though he is physically distant, he knows that God is with him in verse 8:

‘By day the LORD directs his love,
at night his song is with me -
a prayer to the God of my life.’

Even if you’re by yourself, or if you’re self-isolating as a family, the LORD is with you by day and night, directing his love to you, and singing over you as you sing to him. No matter where you find yourself, God is with you, and God hears your prayer.

And notice in verse 9, that God doesn’t just hear our easy prayers. He also hears when we challenge him, and complain to him. Lament is part of our language of prayer - and that’s what we find in verses 9 and 10:

‘I say to God my Rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
oppressed by the enemy?”
My bones suffer mortal agony
as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”’

The men of verse 3 have become the foes of verse 10. And the question remains - where is your God? Has God forgotten him? Does God not care that he’s going through all this? Has God abandoned him?

By no means! The writer continues to talk to himself, as he resolves to put his hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.

Now, we’ve come to the end of Psalm 42, but as you can see, Psalm 43 continues it and completes it, leading to the last repeated refrain in verse 5.

The writer pleads for vindication in God’s sight - and in the face of an ungodly nation, and deceitful and wicked men. He longs for rescue, yet still experiences rejection. And so he asks God to intervene, to launch a rescue mission:

‘Send forth your light and your truth,
let them guide me;
let them bring me to your holy mountain,
to the place where you dwell.
Then will I go to the altar of God,
to God, my joy and delight.
I will praise you with the harp,
O God, my God.’

He recognises that God must act; that only God can bring him back and satisfy his thirst. He asks for God’s light for his path, and God’s truth, surrounded by the enemy’s lies. And he wants to be brought back, in order to praise God in his dwelling.

As we’ve heard these Psalms today, we’ve heard the voice of the sons of Korah. And perhaps we’ve heard our own voice, echoing this longing for God. But there’s another voice that we can hear as we listen in to these Psalms. We can be brought near to God, because God is our Saviour and our God.

And the Lord Jesus took these words upon his lips, and experienced this deep longing in order to be our Saviour. In the Garden of Gethsemane, as the shadow of the cross loomed large before him, he says to his disciples: ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.’ (Matt 26:38).

He would be let down by his closest friends; betrayed and abandoned. His enemies would taunt him as he hung on the cross: ‘He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him...’ Where is your God? He was forgotten and rejected - truly isolated and let alone.

And yet Jesus fully trusted the Father’s plan. He endured the cross, because he knew that vindication would come. He endured the cross, because he knew that God would be glorified. He endured the cross, in order to be our Saviour and our God.

Are you thirsty today? The Lord Jesus has stood in our place. He has opened the way home; and comes to bring us to himself - the light of the world, the way the truth and the life. And he is with you today, and every day, as you put your hope in him.

Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Saviour and my God.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church on Sunday morning 22nd March 2020 for the broadcast service during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Sermon: Romans 8: 12-17 Children of God

This evening I want you to take a chance on me. I’ll need you to gimme gimme gimme your attention, because knowing me knowing you, this is something you need to hear today. In fact, it’s better than money, money, money, and if you get what this evening’s sermon is all about, then you’ll get on like a dancing queen.

This evening we’re thinking about Abba - but not the Swedish pop group. Instead, we’re thinking about our Abba, and being able to call God Abba, as Paul says in verse 15. ‘And by him we cry, Abba! Father!’

We’re in a short series, as we work our way through Romans 8, and think about living by the Spirit. A fortnight ago, we heard about the wonderful good news that ‘therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ We already know the verdict on the last day; we’re already confident that nothing can condemn us because we are in Christ. Now that is good, and great, and wonderful, but there is even more to the Christian life than just knowing that truth.

Tonight, Paul opens up a bit more of what that means for us, as we are brought into God’s family and receive the inheritance. So let’s dive in at verse 12, as we unpack the glorious riches of Christ.

Verse 12: ‘Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation - but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it.’ Paul says that we have an obligation, that we owe something to someone. He doesn’t spell it out here, we’ll work it out in a second, but notice that he tells us who we don’t owe anything to.

‘Not to the sinful nature, to live according to it.’ I wonder if you’ve ever changed jobs. You’ve worked hard for your previous employer, but now you work for your new boss. And then your old employer comes round, asking would you do a wee something for them. Could you help out? You would be able to say, I don’t owe you anything. I’ve finished working for you, you don’t control me any more!

That’s what’s going on here. Paul has showed how we have been rescued from living according to the sinful nature, our natural flesh, living according to our own desires. We don’t owe it anything - our time for living by the flesh is finished. But you might still be wondering, well, who do we owe something to, what is our obligation?

Look at the contrast Paul sets out in verse 13: ‘For if you live according to the sinful nature you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.’

These are the only two ways we can live - either by the sinful nature (the path that leads to death), or by the Spirit. So it must be to the Spirit, to God, that we owe everything. We’ve been ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven - everything we have is because of God. So how do we pay our debts? How do we respond to God’s good news?

It’s by the Spirit, as we put to death the misdeeds of the body. Do you see how strong this language is here? It’s not just ‘don’t do those things you used to do’, it’s ‘put to death the misdeeds of the body.’ We’re not to cuddle them, or pet them - we’re to put them to the sword.The Puritan writer John Owen urged his readers to ‘be killing sin or sin will be killing you.’

At the minute we’re seeing the danger of a contagious virus, spreading and causing illness and death, fear and uncertainty, and bare shelves in the supermarkets. And behind the scenes, in labs around the world, scientists and medics are trying to find ways to stop the virus; and hygiene standards have been raised to try to kill the virus. We need to be fighting the threat of sin much as we’re fighting the threat of coronavirus.

But notice that it’s not something we can do by ourselves - it’s ‘by the Spirit’ - we need his power to lead us and change us, to kill off our sins. And it’s an ongoing process, not just a once-for-all event. Sin will spring up again, and needs to be killed again, over and over again.

When you look at the two ways to live, which do you think is the easy one? Living by what pleases you, or killing off your sin and living to please the Spirit? It would be far easier to do what you want. The struggle is to put to death the deeds of the body, because, deep down, we might still want to do those things. But there is encouragement here.

You see, if you’re struggling, if you’re fighting against your sin, then that’s a good sign. As verse 14 continues: ‘because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.’ If you’re struggling with sin, if you’re (by the Spirit) putting it to death, then you’re being led by the Spirit. And if you’re led by the Spirit of God, you are a son of God. (Or a daughter! The language of sonship is because at this time only the sons inherited from their father).

What an encouragement! Perhaps this week you have been discouraged by your weakness; by how easily you’ve slipped again. You know better, you try harder, and still you fall. The fact that you’re frustrated is a good sign! It shows that you’re led by the Spirit, and that you are a child of God.

And it comes through the Holy Spirit, verse 15: ‘For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’

The Holy Spirit doesn’t come to bring fear and slavery. Rather, he is the Spirit of sonship, or adoption. He brings us into God’s family, he makes us into a child of God, and teaches us how to call God our Father. Abba (not the Swedish pop group), Abba is the word for dada, daddy, dad, in Aramaic. It’s by the Spirit that we can call the God of the universe our dad. We who were on the outside are brought in by the sacrifice of Jesus, and the work of the Spirit confirms what has happened in our hearts.

‘The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs - heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.’ (16-17)

The Spirit confirms that we really are God’s children, and he also confirms that we are God’s heirs. God’s inheritance is for us, for all who believe, for all who are his children, and the brothers and sisters of Jesus.

What a transformation in a few verses! From owing everything for our very lives in verse 12, to inheriting everything in verse 17. Everything the Father has is ours in Christ. The glory lies ahead, and in the meantime, as children of our Abba Father, we are called to live by the Spirit, and put to death the deeds of the body.

Perhaps as you hear of what the Christian life looks like, you think to yourself, that sounds great, but I’m not there. I just do what I please. I live according to the flesh. Turn around today! Don’t stand around on the outside any longer! Come in, come home, and know the God of the universe as your Abba, your dad.

But maybe you are a Christian. You’re finding things tough. Sin keeps popping up. You keep doing things you don’t want to do. You’re struggling. Be encouraged by the Spirit living in you, leading you to keep fighting as you put your sin to death. You don’t need to live in slavery and fear; you’re adopted as a son, a child of God.

God gives you what you need to live for him - the power of his Holy Spirit dwelling in you. Keep going! Keep fighting!

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 15th March 2020.

Sermon: Titus 2: 1-15 Fruitful - Self-Control

Which of the following would you prefer - you could have one marshmallow now, or, if you waited a wee while, you could have two? Here’s a video where young children were given that choice...

[Play video]

The marshmallow test was first conducted in the 1960s, to see if nursery age children had any self-control. And the idea is simple - you can either have a small reward now, or a greater reward after a bit of a wait. Some had no self-control, immediately grabbing whatever was on offer there and then. But others reckoned that the ‘later’ reward was better - delayed gratification to use big words - and used a variety of strategies to try to keep them from the temptation of the one marshmallow.

So how would you get on with the marshmallow test? And how is your self-control? When we think about our daily life, there are lots of opportunities to exercise self-control (or not). There’s the whole realm of money - when payday comes, do you splash out, treat yourself, not thinking that you’ve got a whole week or month for the money to last. I used to work in a corner shop when I was growing up, and one of our colleagues would nearly have blown his week’s wages on sweets and crisps before he’d even left the shop on payday!

Perhaps you struggle with self-control when it comes to food, or drink, or some other substance. And so, perhaps you’ve given up something for Lent, and now two and a half weeks in, you’re either managing fine without it, or else you’re having withdrawal struggles. I heard recently of the Catholic Bishop of Cork in the 1950s, Cornelius Lucey. He decreed that during Lent, his people should only eat one biscuit with a cup of tea. So fairly quickly afterwards, a bakery in Cork produced what they called ‘Connie Dodgers’ - enormous biscuits, so that you were still only eating one biscuit!

Perhaps your self-control is lacking in other ways, and there’s a particular temptation or two that you always fall for; a particular sin that you indulge in, and then feel awful about afterwards. Perhaps you think like Oscar Wilde, who famously said, ‘I can resist everything except temptation.’

This morning we’ve come to the last of the nine-fold fruit of the Spirit. We’ve covered love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and now we’re looking at self-control.

Like so many of the others, self-control is a quality that some people have, and that everyone can work on. The researcher from the Marshmallow Test tracked the lives of the original group of children, and could trace the patterns of their life based on how they reacted to one marshmallow or two. And it might be that in some areas of life, you’re very self-controlled and in other areas of your life you’re not as self-controlled. And you could, quite possible, try really, really hard to be more self-controlled, just by your own effort.

But that’s not what we’re thinking about, and it’s not what I’m recommending. You see, the self-control that we’re thinking about today is part of the fruit of the Spirit - it’s something that the Holy Spirit is growing in us as he helps us to live for Jesus and become more like Jesus.

We see this spiritual self-control as Jesus determined to live a perfect life of obedience to God’s law - Jesus was so self-controlled that he never did anything wrong in what he said, or thought, or did. Can you imagine that? But on top of that, Jesus determined to go to the cross. He controlled himself to fully obey. As Hebrews says: ‘Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God.’ (Heb 12:2)

You remember the one marshmallow or two? The great reward for Jesus was fulfilling the Father’s plan, and bringing us to share in his salvation. That’s why Jesus endured the pain and agony of the cross. That’s how self-controlled he was.

And that’s what the Holy Spirit wants to grow in us. It’s the image of the athletes who are currently preparing for the Olympics - if they go ahead this summer. As they get up at 5am and run or row or life weights; as they spend hours in the gym doing all their training; as they eat very carefully designed meals that will give them all the things they need to perform to the best of their abilities; they have their eyes on the end goal - standing on the podium and receiving the gold medal.

Imagine how much they might rather stay in bed when their alarm goes off. Or how much they might like to finish at the gym early and just watch a boxset on the sofa. Or how much they would want to have a big bar of chocolate or a big fry-up. But they control themselves, they discipline themselves, with an eye on the future glory.

And that’s what the Spirit is doing in us. It’s why, when Titus is on the island of Crete, helping to establish the new churches, he is to teach the people to live in the way that matches up to the gospel. Now, you can decide yourselves whether you’re in the older or younger categories, but older men, younger women and young men are all explicitly urged to be self-controlled. And (in case you think the older women don’t have to be), they are to do things that would be the same as self-controlled.

At another of these Family Services we looked at Titus 2:11-15, when we thought about goodness. But look again at verse 12 to see how self-control fits into God’s purposes. We all naturally live for ungodliness and worldly passions. But God’s grace helps us to say no to them, and instead to say yes to self-controlled, upright and godly lives.

Grace helps us in two ways - first, because our past has been dealt with. All those times when we didn’t have self-control, all those sins we’ve committed - Jesus gave himself to redeem us from all our wickedness.

But grace also helps us by pointing us forward. What is the reward that we’re looking forward to? What will be better than whatever we’re tempted to do here and now? we’re waiting for our ‘blessed hope - the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.’

That’s what we’re looking forward to; that’s what drives us in our choices, and helps to keep us from temptations - one day I will see Jesus, face to face. And in the meantime, every day from this day until that day, we have the Holy Spirit living in us, producing his fruit in our lives as he takes control of us, and we gain control over ourselves.

Perhaps there are things you want to say to the Lord - things you want to say sorry for; struggles that you need his help with; so let’s take a moment or two to do that before I pray.

This sermon was preached at the Family Service in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 15th March 2020.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Sermon: Proverbs 31: 10-31 The Proverbs 31 Woman

The quest to find a partner is becoming big business. From speed dating nights to ‘Take Me Out’ events where guys have to try to impress a group of girls, there’s money to be made in the hunt for a husband or wife. The rise of the dating website is evidence of this. When we were in America a few years ago we were surprised to find even had TV adverts and billboard posters. But what are you looking for in a partner? Or what do you bring to a relationship?

Over This year at Cafe Church, we’ve been sampling some of the Proverbs. We looked at some of the major themes, all building on the basic building block of wisdom - the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge / wisdom. Tonight we come to the final chapter of Proverbs, to a passage which might be slightly better known. Whole ministries have been built on the basis of these verses, encouraging ladies to be a Proverbs 31 woman.

As the women get the last word in the book of Proverbs, let’s look at the Proverbs 31 woman, to see what she’s like, and how we can become more like her. The first thing to note (although it’s hard for us to see in the English) is that this is an acrostic. From verse 10, each verse begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It would be like a poem where each line starts with A, B, C and so on. It’s an A-Z of an excellent woman. So let’s dive in with the very first verse, verse 10.

‘A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies.’ Another version asks, who can find an excellent wife? This isn’t because such an excellent wife is unattainable, but rather because Proverbs has already highlighted the fact that not all wives (and, I have to add, not all husbands) are excellent. In another part of Proverbs we find these words: ‘It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife’ (Prov 21:9). None of us have moved onto the roof, but perhaps some men (or women) do consider such a move.

To have a wife of noble character, then, is beyond value. ‘She is worth far more than rubies.’ As we would say, she is worth her weight in gold. The following verses show why she is so precious, but what I noticed was how this excellent wife is described in terms of the themes we’ve looked at over the past few cafe church nights.

We looked at relationships - drinking from your own cistern, keeping pure and faithful. We see that here in our chapter. Look at verses 11-12. ‘Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.’ Here we find that faithfulness, that trust that is the centre of any relationship. It’s a marriage that builds up, that brings good and not harm, leading to them flourishing together.

We also looked at work and thought about the sluggard. You remember the picture of the lazy lump lying on his bed, turning like a door on its hinges; too lazy to even lift the spoon to his mouth? The Proverbs 31 woman isn’t like that. It seems that she never stops, always at something. There’s mention of wool and flax, working with eager hands in verse 13. Bringing food, cooking breakfast while it is still dark in verse 14-15. She’s involved in property deals, buying fields and planting vineyards (16). Buying and selling, working into the evening by lamp light when the sun goes down. Using the distaff - what’s a distaff? It’s used for spinning wool or yarn, used with the spindle. Her family have scarlet clothing (which might be double thickness for the snow), and she makes her own bedclothes; linen garments and sashes...

Is anyone feeling tired listening to all that? By the time you say it all, it would be time for a tea break! She is certainly no sluggard. The picture is of someone who makes sure that her family is provided for, keeping busy, using the talents she has been given by God.

But she isn’t selfish, or greedy. In our series we also thought about good news for the poor, using our wealth not just for ourselves, and the importance of caring for and helping those less fortunate than yourself. The Proverbs 31 woman has that covered too. Look at the way verses 19-20 sit together. ‘In her hand she holds the distaff, and grasps the spindle with her fingers. She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.’

The hands busy in work at distaff and spindle as she makes yarn are also held out to the poor and needy. She opens her arms, she reaches out her hands. She models God’s concern for the poor, the ministry of mercy.

Through Proverbs we also looked at our words, and the tongue, which has the power of life and death. Here, we hear what comes out of her mouth: ‘She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come. She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.’ She has no fear of the future, she is able to laugh at whatever may come. Her hope is secure. And when she speaks, there are words of wisdom and kindness. Her speech is gracious.

In every way, in each of our key themes, she passes the test. She really is an excellent wife, worth far more than rubies. That’s the opinion of her children and her husband too. Do you see it in verse 28? ‘Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: ‘Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.’’

So how does hearing all that make you feel? Encouraged and proud, because your ears are burning, because we’ve been talking about you all night? Thankful and delighted because this is your wife that we’ve heard described? Perhaps. Another common reaction to hearing those verses is to feel deflated, aware of shortcomings, frustrated because you don’t think it would be possible to reach those unattainable heights. Convinced that this is just out of reach, like the airbrushed supermodel adverts; that you’d need to be Superwoman to do all this?

Remember where we started in Proverbs. The very first thing we learnt was that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. And that’s where the book ends as well. We’ve come round in a circle. The first note is also the last one. Verse 30-31: ‘Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Honour her for all that her hands have done, and let her works praise her at the city gate.’ What a motto for a dating website in particular, and life in general.

You could be oh so charming, but it’s just a front, all a deception, just a tool to get what you want. Beauty might turn heads, but it is fleeting. The thing that counts is the fear of the Lord. A woman (or indeed a man) who fears the Lord is to be praised. This is the thing that matters. Everything else flows from this.

You may not be working morning noon and night to provide and clean and cook and do all else; but the fear of the Lord will lead you to live, in your situation, with your particular opportunities and challenges, for his glory.

This sermon was preached at the Cafe Church series 'Wisdom for Life' in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 8th March 2020.

Sermon: Mark 7: 24-37 Who is Jesus? Lord of all

When we were on holiday a few years back, part of the hotel we were staying in had been transformed into a movie set. There were all sorts of rumours going around about who was filming their movie, and we wondered if we’d see any celebrities. And then, one evening as we were eating our dinner, filming had just ended and Will Ferrell walked through, saying hello to everyone on the way past.

Contrast that to when we lived in east Belfast and had popped into the big Tesco near Ikea to get a few things on Saturday night. And there, wandering the aisles, with his coat up high and a baseball cap was none other than the comedian Peter Kay. (I resisted the urge to give him a packet of garlic bread). He had been appearing in the Odyssey, but it was clear that he didn’t want to be recognised or engage with anyone.

Now that’s my only two celebrity encounters - I’m not a stalker - but in our reading this morning, it seems that Jesus is slightly more like the second of the celebrities I spotted. When we get to verse 24 (p 1010), we find that Jesus has left Galilee and Israel behind, and has crossed the border into the vicinity of Tyre. And just like Mr Kay in Knocknagoney Tesco, he ‘entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret.’ (24)

It could be that the threat of Herod was still there while he was in Galilee; and he had just had another confrontation with the Pharisees, who were already plotting to kill him. And so Jesus is away from home, where maybe no one will know him. But he just can’t keep it secret that he is there. Someone has recognised him. someone knows him, and the word gets out. Jesus is here. His presence is never a secret. When he’s in your heart and in your life, then it’s obvious. And so here, the secret gets out.

And soon enough, as soon as she heard about him, a woman comes to see Jesus. She fell at his feet. She was desperate, begging Jesus to do something. You see, her little daughter was possessed by an evil spirit (25). She begs Jesus to ‘drive the demon out of her daughter.’ (26).

Now, I wonder were you surprised when you heard what happened next. You see, so far in Mark’s gospel we’ve seen how Jesus immediately helps people who are in need. He heals people, drives out demons, restores sight and even raised a little girl back to life. That’s what you expect to happen, because that’s what Jesus does. Isn’t it?

But here, rather than helping straight away, Jesus starts a discussion. It’s almost as if he’s objecting to being asked to do the miracle, to help this woman and her daughter. That seems strange, doesn’t it? And even stranger, is what Jesus then says to the distressed mother: ‘First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ (27)

So what’s going on here? Is Jesus being cheeky? Rude? Racist? There’s the contrast that he brings in between the children and the dogs. Now, you know the way there are words used by one people group about another? So in Northern Ireland there are words used when describing someone from the other community - words not to be used in the pulpit. For the Jews, anyone who was a Gentile was seen as unclean, and one of the words used about them was ‘dog.’

So it seems that Jesus is buying into this in some way, likening the Jews to the children, and the Gentiles to the dogs - not (as would normally have been thought) a wild dog, but (here) a pet dog. But he says it all the same. That it wouldn’t be fair to take what is for the Jews and to instead give it to the Gentiles. What we don’t have, and can’t immediately tell, is the way in which he said it. We just have the words on the page. We can’t tell if he said it in a harsh way, to shut down the conversation; or in a jokey way, to see if she would play along.

But perhaps her answer helps us to see how he said it and how it was taken. She grasps onto his first word - the word ‘first’. You see, Jesus wasn’t saying that he is only for the Jews. And he wasn’t saying that his grace was only for the Jews. But it was for the Jews first of all. And there she finds hope to continue; there she presses into the grace on offer:

‘Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ (28) Ok, she says, if you want to think we’re dogs, then even the dogs get the crumbs and scraps that fall from the table. So won’t you let a crumb of grace fall to me? She’s playing the game, and displaying her faith that Jesus can make a difference, and that he will make the difference for her daughter. Did you see what she called him? Lord! This Gentile woman recognises who Jesus is. She calls him Lord.

And he shows it by sending her home - saying the demon has left her daughter. And that’s exactly what she finds when she gets home. Jesus is Lord, not just in Israel, but even in Tyre. He is Lord, Lord of all.

We see that in another place that is outside of Israel’s borders. Jesus has travelled from Tyre, through Sidon to the region of the Decapolis. That’s where he had sent the man who was previously demon possessed that we met in chapter 5 back in January. Do you remember him? He had been possessed by many demons, Legion, and Jesus had driven out the demons into the pigs and restored the man. He had wanted to come too, but Jesus sent him home to tell of all that God had done. So they’ve heard of Jesus in the Decapolis (the ten cities).

And again, he’s quickly recognised. This time, some people bring to Jesus a man who is deaf and could hardly talk. They begged Jesus to place his hand on the man. And once again, we find that Jesus does something strange, something unusual. With the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter, Jesus healed her from a distance. With some of the other healings we’ve seen, Jesus healed with a word. But here, Jesus does much more.

Now, we’re still in the midst of the no-touching advice of the Coronavirus guidelines, but Jesus is really touchy-feely here. Look at verse 33. ‘Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spat and touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him “Ephphatha!” (which means, “Be opened!”)

Now why did he do all that? He’s telling the man what’s about to happen. The man may be deaf and mute, but he’s not blind. And so Jesus is showing him what he’s going to do. He touches his ears. He spits to show the clearing of a blockage, then touches the man’s tongue. As he looks up to heaven, he’s showing the man how he’s going to be healed - from God, by God’s power - and then with the sigh says ‘Be opened!’

‘At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.’ (35) The blockage is removed, and the man can hear. The blockage is removed and the man can speak. And only by God’s power. In the Old Testament, in Exodus 4, at the burning bush, Moses is arguing against God’s call on his life to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. And God says this to him: ‘Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute?... Is it not I, the LORD?’ (Ex 4:11) God is the one who has the power over the ear and the tongue, making deaf or restoring hearing; making mute or restoring the power of speech. And that’s exactly what Jesus can do - even in this Gentile territory.

Now we’ve heard some strange things that Jesus said and did in our reading today. But there’s one more just before we finish. And it’s there in verse 36: ‘Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it.’

Jesus didn’t want his picture in the local paper, or a post on Facebook about what he had done. Jesus didn’t want people to talk about what he had done. Doesn’t that seem strange? Why might that be so?

He’s already had crowds gathering to him in Galilee. And as we’ll see next time we’re in Mark’s gospel, crowds gather to him in these Gentile regions too. Isn’t that a good thing? Wouldn’t he want a bigger crowd? And especially when you read verse 37 - people are speaking of him so favourably, his approval rating is through the roof, they are overwhelmed with amazement as they say: ‘He has done everything well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.’

Those categories, making the deaf hear and the mute speak, they’re part of the checklist for the Messiah that we read earlier in Isaiah 35. They’re grasping who Jesus is, and seeing that he’s Lord of all, (which is more than the disciples have managed so far), but they would still get the wrong end of the stick.

It’s true that Jesus is Lord of all; that his church will continue his mission from Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth. It’s true that Jesus will bring healing and wholeness to all his people - some here and now, but for all in the fullness of his kingdom.

But as much as these Gentiles have grasped Jesus’ identity, they still can’t grasp the fullness of Jesus’ mission. And, as we’ll see, the disciples haven’t grasped it yet. No one else can see it yet, but for Jesus to be Lord of all, and for Jesus to bring healing and wholeness to all his people, he has to go the way of the cross.

And so, he wants them to keep it secret. To not tell anyone. For now. Who is Jesus? Lord of all, the Lord of healing and wholeness, the long-promised Messiah.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 8th March 2020.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

Sermon: Romans 8: 1-11 No Condemnation

I wonder if you can remember the feelings you had when you sat down in the exam hall at school. Maybe you were nervous, trying to remember everything you had learned on that particular subject. Maybe you felt sick, wanting to do well, or hoping you’d get through. How much better would you have felt, if you knew the end result before you sat down, or as you were furiously scribbling your answers down?

Or what about the moment when you drive up to the MOT test centre. How flustered you feel when they ask you to turn on your lights and you can’t think how to do it! How nervous you feel when they do the braking test, or when they lift your car up and give it a good shake. One time, the tester took ages with my car up on the lift, then he called over a colleague, then he disappeared into the office, and then came back, stood for ages before eventually letting me know the car had passed with flying colours! How much better, to already know the verdict before you drive the car in to the centre.

Or maybe Saturday night for you means sitting down to watch Match of the Day. You know your team’s result, and so even if they go down 2 goals in the first half, you know that they’re going to win 3-2. Knowing the end result changes how we feel about the experience. Knowing the final verdict can give us confidence, no matter what might be going on in the meantime.

Now if that would be true of exams, or MOTs, or Match of the Day; then how much more would it be true of life? How amazing to be able to know God’s verdict of our life here and now - without having to wait until we stand before his judgement seat. As we begin looking at Romans 8, this is what Paul tells us is possible, here and now.

Look at what he says in verse 1. ‘Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ No condemnation. A ‘not guilty’ verdict. A declaration of innocence is available for us - for those who are in Christ Jesus. Now this verse is the summary of everything Paul has said from chapters 1-7 (and it might be good for you to read them, to see how it has come about).

You see, people may say lots of things about us; they can have their opinion of the things we do or say. Or maybe you have your own opinion about yourself - the shame or guilt for something you have done; the thing you hope no one ever finds out about; you see yourself as sinful, as guilty, as condemned. But the only opinion that really matters is what God thinks of us. It’s his verdict that counts in the end. And his verdict can be known now - no condemnation for those in Christ.

It’s as if we have been set free. The law of sin and death holds each of us - our sin leads to death. But those in Christ are set free, the prison doors opened, the chains removed, as we are declared innocent. But how does this happen? How can we know the verdict in advance?

Verse 3 shows us what God has done for us. He sent his own Son, the Lord Jesus, ‘in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering’. Jesus came in our skin, sharing our human nature, to die for our sins. He condemned sin in our flesh, and has taken away our sins. It’s as if we had a huge debt, and Jesus has paid our debt. He has dealt with our sin. But Paul says Jesus has done even more for us than just paying our debts. Verse 4: ‘In order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.’

Jesus not only takes away our law-breaking. He also gives us the power to obey the law. He helps us to do the things we never could do before, when we walk according to the Spirit.

When you think of it, there are lots of ways we divide people. Men and women. Old and young. Rich and poor. Manchester United fans and ABUs (Anyone But United). But Paul says there are only two types of people - you’re either one, or the other, there is no middle ground, no sitting on the fence. So which are you - do you live according to the sinful nature, or according to the Spirit?

From verse 5, Paul helps us to see which group we’re in. ‘Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.’ The way to see which group you’re in is to see where you have set your mind. What is it you think about when you don’t think about anything? What is it that sets your goals, dreams and ambitions? Is it your sinful nature, your sinful desires? Or is it the Spirit - to want what he wants?

It’s one or the other. It’s as if you come to a fork in the road. Two roads lead to very different destinations. ‘The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace.’ (6) It’s a matter of life and death, heaven and hell. And your thoughts are a diagnosis of your heart, your desires. To pursue sinful pleasure is to be hostile to God, to love the things God hates, and hate the things God loves, to be unable to please God.

Now, by nature, that’s all of us. We naturally are out for ourselves. It doesn’t take long for a baby to start to look out for themselves. And even if we’ve grown up, and know not to say it out loud, we can still think it, and work towards it: ‘Mine!’

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are two groups of people in the world - people who live by the sinful nature, but there are also those who live by the Spirit. Paul says that the Christians in Rome, the people who received the letter, are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit. And how do you know? How can we tell if we’re in the Spirit? It’s ‘if the Spirit of God lives in you.’ (9)

If we belong to Christ, if we are in him, and he is in us, then he gives us the Holy Spirit, he gives us the power to change, and the guarantee of the final verdict. Do you see how Paul refers to the Holy Spirit here? He is the Spirit of God. The Spirit of Christ. (9) The Spirit of life. (2) The Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead. Each points us to the work of the Spirit, in bringing the power of God to live in us, and in giving us life.

Living as a Christian can be frustrating. You know what you should be doing, but you don’t always do it. You want to change, but you stumble and fall into sin. You feel the power of sin, the pull of death, as you do that thing you hate once again. But look at what God gives us. He gives us his Holy Spirit - the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead to dwell in us. He will do the very same in our lives.

He gives us life. Satan may try to condemn you. He might try to bring you down with the weight of guilt. How could God really love you after you did that? But the Holy Spirit whispers into our soul that we already know the verdict of the last day - not guilty. No condemnation. Life and peace, because we stand in Christ’s righteousness, as we live by the Spirit, and follow his leading. It’s as if we can open our exam results before we’ve sat the exam. We already know the final result, as we trust in Christ, and live by the power of his Holy Spirit.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 1st March 2020.

Sermon: Mark 7: 1-23 Who is Jesus? Clean or Unclean?

For the last few weeks we’ve been hearing about the threat of Coronavirus - seeing the devastation in parts of China, and watching how it has been spreading to different parts of the world, coming closer, to north Italy, and now, inevitably, to Northern Ireland. Coronavirus is here, and there’s all the advice about self-isolation if you’re at risk, and if you cough or sneeze, to catch it in a tissue, bin it, and wash your hands. To try to prevent the spread of this virus, and to try to make sure you don’t get it, it’s important to practice good hygiene and good hand washing.

In our reading this morning, we find a group of people who are also concerned about washing hands. But it’s not really about preventing the spreading of disease. No, their concern was about being clean and keeping clean - in a ceremonial, ritualistic kind of way. And as we’ll see, they get upset that Jesus’ disciples aren’t as concerned about it in the same way.

So who were these people? They were the Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law. Remember them? We haven’t encountered them in this whole section, but we’ve previously met them in Mark’s gospel, back in chapter 2 and 3. They’ve already fallen out with Jesus over Jesus’ teaching on fasting, and Sabbath, and about him eating with tax collectors and sinners. And that whole row ended up with them plotting how they might kill Jesus (3:6).

For a few chapters they’ve been absent, but now they’re back. They’ve come from Jerusalem for more observation and investigation of this man on their hitlist. And they’re watching closely, to make sure that things are being done properly (or maybe they’re watching to note down all the things that are being done incorrectly in their eyes). If we’ve got the Public Health Agency advising on the coronavirus; then these guys see themselves as the Spiritual Health Agency.

And what do they see, as they gather round Jesus? They see (verse 2) ‘some of his disciples eating food with hands that were “unclean”, that is, unwashed.’ And immediately, their alarm bells are going off! They can’t believe what they’re seeing! Unclean hands making the disciples unclean.

Now, it’s not that the disciples’ hands were filthy. It’s just that they hadn’t done what the Pharisees would have done. We see that in the brackets in verses 3-4. They ‘do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders... And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.’ What they mean by a ceremonial washing was pouring water over the hands from a wee jug - not washing hands with soap and water as we would expect.

Do you see the issue? The Pharisees do it, the disciples don’t, and so they ask Jesus the question in verse 5: ‘Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their hands with ‘unclean’ hands?’

The Spiritual Health Agency have noticed a problem. They’ve made an intervention. But they didn’t expect Jesus to say what he says to them: ‘Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.”’ (6-7)

Jesus confronts them, and calls them hypocrites. They seem to care about God, they honour him with their lips, but their hearts are far from God. So they say that they care about being clean, but it’s all on the outside, all show. They can wash their hands as many times as they like, but it won’t make them clean. Why? Because they’re only following their own rules, not God’s word.

Did you notice that? It’s all about the tradition of the elders; other traditions; the tradition of the elders. That’s what they’re concerned about, rather than God’s word. And Jesus summarises it for us in verse 8: ‘You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.’

If you can only hold on to one thing, which do you hold onto? God’s word or human traditions? The Pharisees had chosen to drop God’s word, to let it go; and they were clinging on to their traditions, elevating them to the ultimate level, and seeking to obey them.

Now Jesus isn’t saying that traditions are bad. We have lots of traditions in the Church of Ireland. The Prayer Book is part of our tradition of how we do church. But our traditions always must submit to God’s word. If we have to choose between them, then God’s word must come first. And the Pharisees had gone the other way, holding on to their traditions, insisting everyone needed to do what they did, even though God hadn’t commanded it.

Jesus then gives them an example of how they had chosen to set aside God’s commands in order to observe their traditions. In the commandments we heard earlier, we heard God’s word say that we are to honour our father and mother. But the Pharisees had a special procedure called Corban (not Jeremy Corbyn!) - rather than spending your money looking after elderly parents, you could instead dedicate your money to God, and keep it for yourself. So their tradition trumped God’s word. And that was just one example.

Could it be that we care more about our traditions than about God’s word? Could we have formulated rules that we live by and expect others to follow, but which aren’t mandated by God in his word? Could we be like the Pharisees in trying to be the Spiritual Health Agency, judging others based on our rules or preferences or traditions? May it not be so!

The Pharisees were concerned about being clean and not being unclean. It was a good desire, but they were going about it the wrong way. By insisting on outward rituals and pouring water, they thought they would be clean. But Jesus goes on to show us that the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart.

He calls the crowd to him and says, verse 15: ‘Nothing outside a man can make him unclean by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him unclean.’ Do you get it? Do you grasp what he’s saying? Yes? Maybe? No? Well neither did the disciples. we said last week that they’re slow to grasp what’s happening. And it’s the case here as well, so they ask Jesus later, privately about it.

He explains it in verses 18 onwards. Nothing you eat will make you unclean, whether you’ve washed your hands or not. (Now, if you haven’t washed your hands you might get an upset tummy, but it won’t make you unclean spiritually). Why? Because the food goes in your mouth, into your stomach, and eventually out again (and we’ll say no more about the process). It doesn’t go into your heart, to make you unclean.

So what makes us unclean? Look with me at verse 20: ‘What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean’. For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils comes from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’’

That’s quite a catalogue of corruption, an index of iniquity, a shopping list of sin. And they all come from within, from our hearts. The Pharisees were concerned about the outside, all those washings, all those ceremonies. But no matter how many times you wash the outside of a cup, it won’t make the inside of it clean. And so, despite their outward concern about purity, they were unclean on the inside, where the washings couldn’t reach.

Isn’t that the same with us? Now, we scrub up well on a Sunday, we look respectable and clean and tidy; we look as if we have it all sorted. But inside each of us, at the heart of the matter is the matter of our heart, and our hearts are manufacturing all kinds of evil thoughts and desires and actions. Each of us will be different, tempted by and prone to different sorts of sin, but our hearts are all the same. It’s why we have to pray a prayer of confession when we meet together, acknowledging that this is us, that this is what we’ve been like since we last met together.

We’re unclean. And so some people use religion (any religion!) to try to improve themselves. And others use traditions and man-made rules. And others just try really, really hard to be better. But all those efforts can lead to more sin - pride in our achievements. Or they’ll lead us to despair at our predicament. Is there any answer to our uncleanness? Any hope of being made clean?

Our only hope is in the only one who is clean. That list of sins that flow out of our hearts - they are our normal existence, our daily reality. But they were completely absent from the Lord Jesus. Take each one - evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly - they were not to be found in Jesus’ heart, or Jesus’ life.

Peter, who spent three years with Jesus, summed it up with these words: ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ (1 Pet 2:22) The only person who is clean. He perfectly obeyed God’s commands, every one of them, so that he could take our sins upon himself, and die in our place. As Peter goes on to say:

‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.’ (1 Pet 2:24)

With Coronavirus here now, good hygiene will be important. Washing hands will be vital. But even more important than that is to be cleansed - not by water, but by the blood of Jesus, who died to take our sins and make us clean and pure and new. Don’t be tempted to seek your own cleansing routine, or to try and do it yourself. Come to Jesus, and be cleansed by him. Every sin, paid for. And a new heart provided for you. Come for the first time, and trust in Jesus to be your Saviour. Come for the hundredth time, as you seek his grace for the ways you’ve messed up. But come to Jesus, the Saviour, the one who brings cleansing.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 1st March 2020.