Posts tagged ‘sermon’

August 25, 2014

“But who do you say that I am?”

DSC_0458-Edit-Edit_wp

(Photo: Statue of Christ in the Gothic Memorial Church, Kylemore Abbey, Co. Galway.  July 2014)

Sermon for Sunday 24th August.  Text – Matthew 16:13-20

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14 And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15 He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’

Sooner or later we all have to deal with the Great Question. The great question is one that Jesus asked of His disciples and it is a question which each of us must give an answer to also. The question Jesus asks is: “But who do you say that I am?’ (Repeat).

Those who have grown up in the church and can recite the creeds in their sleep are perhaps most in danger. We are so used to the liturgy and the prayers that we go through a church service on autopilot, without ever actually really engaging with what we are (or should be) doing. We might answer the question from our head saying that, “Yes, Jesus is of course the Son of God our Saviour who died for us upon the cross and rose again on the third day etc. etc.” And we can say all this (and even sound convincing when we say it), but the reality is that even though our heads know the right thing to say, in actual fact our hardened hearts are far from Him. We need to let go of our protective wall of hardness because not only does it keep people out, it keeps Christ out too.

In the previous chapter (15), in verse 8, Jesus, speaking about the religious church-going folk of the day said: “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

I don’t like saying it, but that is a warning for us. We are guilty. We honour God with our lips when we are in church, but our hearts are far from Him. What do we need to do?

First of all we need to repent. We need to acknowledge our sin to God. We need to say sorry for just going through the motions of Christianity. We need to say sorry for coming to church merely out of a sense of duty. We need to say sorry for busying ourselves with all the activity of church and parish life and thinking that that is enough to make God like us.

Secondly we need to be thankful. God has provided the means for us to be right with Him. Jesus Christ, the Son of God took upon Himself our sins upon the cross. When we repent, when we say “sorry”, He will forgive us and He will cleanse us from our sins. Because of Jesus, God the Father sees us as spotless and without any blemish when we allow Jesus to be our Lord and Saviour. Let us fully take on board what God has done for us and let the roof of this place be lifted off with the power and strength and passion of our thankful praise and worship.

Thirdly we need to invite God to come into our hearts and dwell there. Perhaps we have been going to church all our lives and yet we have never unlocked the door of our hearts and let Him in. Maybe we let Him in years ago but over the time since the weeds have grown up and we have become closed to His working in our lives; we have built up barriers of resistance to the Spirit and we no longer know His power or His leading in and of our lives.

Fourthly, we need to get serious about serving Him. Let’s get this straight, turning up at church is not serving God. We can only truly serve God once we have got to know Him and we can only get to know Him once we have acknowledged Him as Lord and Saviour and invited Him into our hearts.   Once we have a relationship with God, He will then lead us and show us how, when and where He wants us to serve Him. This is a big obstacle for many people because we don’t want to be told what to do. We want to be in charge and we want to make our own decisions. But it is impossible to be a Christian and be our own boss. It is impossible to serve Christ and only go where we want to go and do what we want to do. It just doesn’t work like that. He has to be in charge, He has to be number one. If we look at our lives and wonder why God has never really used us, the answer most certainly is that it is because we have not let Him! To begin with, when we were a young Christian, God tried to gently lead us, but every step of the way we thought we knew best, and now look at us, we no longer know God’s leading and our life for Him is but a pale shadow of what it could have been. But don’t despair, whether we are 18 or 80 it is not too late. All we have to do is acknowledge our sin and rededicate our lives to God, to allow Him to come into our hearts and lives and then when He asks us to do something we do it! He will never ask us to do something without helping us and giving us the power to do it. Yes it will mean leaving our comfort zones but He is with us and as St. Paul said “If God is for us who can ever be against us?” (Rom. 8:31b).

Where is our Passion? Where is our commitment?

Benjamin Kwashi, a Christian leader from Jos, Nigeria, tells the following story of how the gospel came to his part of the country:

Missionaries came to my home area of Nigeria in 1907. One of them was a man named Reverend Fox. Reverend Fox was a professor at Cambridge University, and when he arrived his walk with Christ was so deep that he led many people to Christ. He founded a church and moved about 10 kilometers away to Amper, my own hometown, and founded the church there too. How a first-class [scholar] from the University of Cambridge was communicating to illiterates, I don’t know, but God suddenly gave him favour and people were turning to Jesus Christ. So many people came to Christ that he wrote to his younger brother, who was a physician also in Cambridge, and asked him to come and help him because medical practice was needed. As his brother started the journey from England, Reverend Fox fell ill and died. Soon after his brother arrived, he also fell ill and died.

The Church Mission Society wrote to their father, who was also a pastor. When they told him he had lost two sons, he and his wife [mourned deeply], but then in their grief they did something astounding. They sold their land and property, took the proceeds to the mission society, and said, “As much as we grieve the death of our two sons, we will only be consoled if the purpose for which they died continues.” They gave that money and walked away.

Recently I looked through the profile of those two missionaries who came to my hometown. They both had first-class educations and degrees from the best universities. They died as young men—the oldest was only 32. They gave up everything to serve Jesus and bring the gospel to my country. Were they crazy? No, they had heard what Jesus had said, they believed it, and they were willing to stake their whole lives on the truth of Jesus’ words. These men wanted to end their lives well. No matter how long or short their life, it wasn’t going to be wasted, but they would invest it for eternity.[1]

Will we give up everything to serve Jesus? Are we willing to stake our whole life on the truth of Jesus’ words? Today, right now He looks us in the eye and He says “What about you, who do you say that I am?” Will we give up everything to serve Him? Today is our opportunity to say enough is enough and to stop our old selfish and insecure way of living. Today is the day to invite Him into our hearts and say ‘here I am Lord, I am Yours, I will serve You from now on for the rest of my life. You are number One.’

Let us pray together: Dear Lord Jesus, I am so sorry for my sin, for going my own way and being my own boss. I acknowledge my sin before You now … Thank you Lord that You died for me, in my place upon the cross. I give my life to You now and I invite You to come into my life, into my heart. Please use me Lord to serve you in whatever way You wish. Please lead me and guide me in Your ways, because You are the way the truth and the life. Lord I ask all this in Your precious and Holy Name … Amen.

[1] http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/2014/august/3081814.html

Advertisements
August 13, 2014

Getting out of the boat

DSC_0641_wp

(Photo: Inishbofin Ferry, July 2014)

Sermon for Sunday 10th August, 2014.

Text: Matthew 14:22-33

As we look at the gospel reading this morning, many of us (if we are honest) will find ourselves identifying with the disciples in the boat. If you think about it, it is a picture of much of the church in our part of the world today. As we look beyond the confines of the boat, we are intimidated by the height of the waves and the strength of the wind. The world is in such a mess, with seemingly endless numbers of spiritually starving people all around us, and the world beyond appears to be nothing but war and rumours of war, disease and disaster, with countless numbers of innocent men, women and children caught up in it all. “It’s much better to say in the boat”, we say to ourselves, “where it is safe, where it is dry and where we can hide from the oceans of need all around us”.  

I have a memory from when I was about five or six years old of watching an episode of Dr. Who on TV – there I was, eyes glued to the old black-and-white television when all of a sudden a scary screaming monster type thing came on to the screen and I was terrified. I got up and ran around to the back of the sofa, occasionally peering over the top to see if it had gone away and then ducking for cover once more. My mother then came in to the room and told me not to be afraid, it was just a man dressed up in a silly costume and it was nothing to be frightened of. I didn’t need to hide behind the sofa any more after that.  

But staying in the boat, or hiding behind the sofa or just keeping ourselves busy with church activity is not where the Lord wants us to be. He does not want us to live in fear, He wants us to trust Him, He even wants us to get out of the boat…  

The reading starts off with the Lord Jesus telling the disciples to head out in the boat and go over to the other side of the lake whilst he goes up the mountain by himself to pray. Did the disciples know that their master and friend was going to pray? I’m not sure, but if they did, then perhaps they didn’t need to fear what was going to happen next. The same is of course true for us. In Hebrews 7:25, the Bible gives us the wonderful promise that Jesus prays for those who come to God through Him. Isn’t it a very special thing, to know that Jesus prays for us?  

So whilst Jesus is alone on the mountain, the disciples are making their way across the lake, but a storm has arisen, the boat is being battered by the wind and the waves and they are far from the shore. It’s quite a contrast don’t you think? Picture the serenity of Jesus in the place of prayer up on the mountain and then in the distance out on the water are the disciples, being lashed, buffeted and bashed by the waves and the wind which are coming hard against them. Remember that a number of the disciples are experienced professional fishermen, they have encountered many storms before, but this is a bad one. The disciples are in a state of panic and in fear of losing their lives and yet they were in fact perfectly safe, Jesus was praying not only for Himself but also for them and He very soon would come to them. How many times have we been in a state of anxiety and fear only to realise later that God was with us all along, looking after us, holding and protecting us?  

In verse 25 it says “In the early morning he came walking towards them on the lake”. In the original it says “In the fourth watch of the night”, which is between 3 am to 6 am. So the disciples had been battling the storm most of the night, and they were no doubt by this time not only frightened, but exhausted. The waves were still large and the wind still strong and there had been no let up. But Jesus comes to them ‘actually walking on the rising and falling waves’ (Hendriksen). ‘The disciples must discover that they have a Saviour who is able not only to still the storm but even to use it as His pathway’ (Ibid.) Initially they don’t realise that it is Jesus coming to them across the water, in the dim light and overcome with fear they cry out ‘It is a ghost!’ But now close to them Jesus says:  

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Beautiful words, words that give us strength and comfort to this day. If we look at the literal translation of what Jesus says, it is even more powerful, He says: “Take heart, I AM”. When Jesus says ‘I AM’, it is very significant, because this is the name for God in the Old Testament (Exodus 3:14). Jesus is telling the disciples, and us, that He is the great ‘I AM’, so there is no need to fear. In whatever situations you are in today, this is a huge reassurance to your heart that Jesus is in control.[1]   DSC_0801_wp

(Photo: “Jesus walking on the Water”, Stained-glass window, Church of the Ascension, Timoleague)

I think Peter is just such a great, larger-than-life character. He sometimes gets criticised for being a loud mouth who always seems to put his foot in it, but what we learn from him is that it is much better to do something and fail whilst trying, than to do nothing at all. It is much better to get out of the boat and sink and be saved than to never take the step of faith at all. Peter wants to be wherever Jesus is, even if that means doing something that is impossible, something that contradicts the laws of physics, such as walking on water. Of course it was Jesus who created water in the first place, it was He who determined the laws of physics and nature, He is Lord over all He has created and it is subject to Him in every way.  

Peter has enough faith and enough courage to step out of the boat, which at this time is still being buffeted about. To begin with it all goes well, he is actually walking on the water towards Jesus. But the initial wonder of what he is doing evaporates as Peter takes his eyes of Jesus and notices the strong wind. In so doing his faith is replaced by fear and he begins to sink. Turning back to Jesus he cries out “Lord, save me!” Jesus’ response is immediate, He reaches out and catches hold of him. Perhaps it is then as the two of them are walking back to the boat that Jesus says: ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ In other words, Peter should have taken to heart that He was in Christ’s presence, and he should not therefore have been afraid.  

Perhaps some of us can relate to Peter, yes we have faith, but mixed in with that faith is fear and doubt (Wright). It can seem that what Jesus has asked us to do is impossible, whether that is being a witness for Him in the home, in school or in the workplace; whether that is being involved in ministry of some kind to those in the church or to those outside; whether it is in helping those around us or helping those in far away places. It can all seem, at times, overwhelming. If like Peter we look at the wind and the waves we will conclude that what God has asked us to do is impossible. All we have to do though is keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, in prayer, in His Word, in worship and praise and as we go out into the world. Spending time with Him is key so that not only will we know what He wants us to do, but we will have the power, energy, strength and faith to do that which He asks of us.  

As Peter and Jesus get back into the boat all is calm, the wind stops and the disciples cry out now not in fear, but in worship, saying to Jesus ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’  Worship is of utmost importance.  

One of my favourite books of recent years is John Ortberg’s “If you want to walk on water You’ve got to get out of the boat.” He writes:   “When human beings get out of the boat, they are never quite the same. Their worship is never quite the same. Their world is never quite the same. Whatever the results, whether they sink or swim, something will have changed… Jesus is not finished yet. He is still looking for people who will dare to trust Him. He is still looking for people who will refuse to allow fear to have the final word. He is still looking for people who refuse to be deterred by failure … Just remember one thing: If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat.”[2]  

Let’s pray: Lord, we ask that You would give us courage to get up and to step out and to follow You and Your will and plan for our lives, now and always … Amen.  

Further Reading:

  • William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary, Matthew, Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1989
  • John Ortberg “If you want to walk on water You’ve got to get out of the boat.”, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2001
  • Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1, SPCK, London, 2004

[1] http://acs.alpha.org/bioy/commentary/765

[2] John Ortberg “If you want to walk on water You’ve got to get out of the boat.”, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2001, p.202

February 3, 2013

Worship is a way of life

Rainbow Panorama

Photo: A Rainbow from our garden, November 2010

Sermon for Sunday 3/2/13

Text – Revelation 4

I remember as a ten-year-old the mixture of fear and curiosity as I waited outside the headmaster’s study, I had been summoned to see him but I did not know what it was about.  He was Scottish, he had no sense of humour (at least as far as I could discern) and he had the temper of a hungry polar bear that had just been hit with a stick…

What’s the most important meeting to which you have ever been summoned?  Can you remember what it was like; the mixture of emotions that were going through your mind and how time seemed to pass by either so quickly or so slowly, depending upon how you felt?

In our second reading today, John, the disciple of Jesus has an important meeting, but it is not one that he had been expecting or could have planned for.  John was a prisoner on the Island of Patmos, about 35 miles off the coast of south-western Turkey.  The authorities put him there, in exile, as a punishment for being a follower of and such effective witness for Christ.  Of course, rather than stopping John from being effective for Christ, the exact opposite happens; he has the chance to pray and to reflect and he receives the most explosive vision of God’s power and love, written down in this incredible last book of the Bible called ‘Revelation’.[1]

John has a vision in which he sees a door, but it is no ordinary door, this one opens up into heaven!  No doubt John is aware of his surroundings, the sky is still blue (remember, this vision is not happening in Ireland), he can still hear the waves crashing on the shore nearby and he can still feel the wind on his face, but nevertheless there is a door that is clearly from a different realm and it is open.  And a voice, like a trumpet speaks to him saying,

‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’ (1)

The voice belongs to Jesus, John recognised the voice, it was loud, clear, penetrating, (like a trumpet), this was the voice of the risen Jesus.  Different but perhaps similar to Jesus’ voice with which John would have been so familiar from the three years they spent together during Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Once Jesus has spoken the vision becomes deeper, John now tells us that

‘at once I was in the spirit.’ (2)

What John sees next could not be seen with ordinary eyes, what he sees is the throne of God in heaven, yet he sees a highly symbolic view, perhaps an ‘actual’ or ‘real’ view of God’s throne would be too overwhelming to even approach, let alone describe.  He writes:

‘… and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne!  And the one seated there looks like jasper and cornelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. (3)

Then in verse 5 we see that:

‘Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God;’

Last Wednesday night do you remember the thunder and lightning we had?  Together with the howling wind and driving rain it was quite a night of weather!  On Thursday morning I opened the back door and I could see that we had a visitor – it was next door’s dog, he’s quite an old fella and he was cowering in the corner of the porch looking frightened.  The cat was there too, looking quite pleased with himself, thinking that he was the cause of the dog’s terror, but no, the dog had escaped from his own enclosure during the night because of the thunder and lightning.

Why is it that as John looks at the place where God is, it is terrifying? Why is there lightning and thunder and flashes of fire?  Perhaps this is to remind us all that God is holy, He is powerful and mighty and awesome and scary – He is not some cuddly granddad figure floating on a cloud!  In the Old Testament for an Israelite to even touch the mountain where God had come down to meet Moses would mean certain death (Exodus 19:12,13,21).  God in all His glory is utterly unapproachable, He is so incomparably perfect in every way and we are so sinful and imperfect that the gulf between us is too big.  Yet His love for us is far greater than our sin.  He is determined that we should be able to approach Him and to know Him and love Him as our heavenly Father.  The good news is that He has made a way for us to approach Him and that is through Jesus.  As well as the thunder and lightning, John also tells us that there is a rainbow that looks like an emerald.  Perhaps the most famous rainbow in the Bible is the one God showed to Noah and his family when they came out of the Ark.  That rainbow was a promise from God that never again would there be a flood like the one Noah and all in the Ark had to be rescued from.  Every time a rainbow has appeared in the sky ever since it is a reminder to humankind that God always keeps His promises.  Yes we imperfect people will break promises and go back on our word, but God never has and He never will.  So the rainbow here in the vision that John is seeing in heaven is a reminder to us all of God’s faithfulness; He will never betray us and His love for us is perfect and holy and total and that love has been fully expressed to us in Jesus.  It is a love so great that it allowed His own Son to be nailed to a cross in our place, to die the death that we deserved (Isaiah 53:5).

There’s a lot more going on in this vision; we see that around God’s throne in the centre are twenty-four thrones and seated on those twenty-four thrones are twenty-four elders.  There were twelve tribes that made up the nation of Israel and there were twelve Apostles at the birth of the church, so put the two twelve’s together and you have ‘ta daa’ … twenty-four!  So this represents all God’s people through the ages; through the time of the Old Testament and through the age of the Church (which is where we are to this day).

Then we come to what are called four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind’. (6) Often when you talk to someone who has a group of rowdy children to look after they will say something like ‘you need eyes in the back of your head with this lot’!  Of course, what they mean is that it is really difficult to see everything that is going on and they are afraid that they might miss something, such as a child injuring themselves or another child during the course of play.  So these four living creatures being covered in eyes is symbolic of the fact that they see everything, there is no pulling the wool over their eyes, they don’t miss a trick!  As well as all the eyes, each creature has a different appearance; the first one has the appearance of a lion, the king of the untamed animals and who represents power.  The second creature has the appearance of an ox, the greatest of the tamed animals, representing strength.  The third creature has the face of a human, representing intelligence and showing the importance of the human race in God’s creation.  The fourth creature is like a flying eagle, the undisputed king of the birds, representing swiftness.  These creatures appear elsewhere in the Bible (Ezekiel 1, Isaiah 6) and they are called Seraphim, high ranking Angelic beings, they are the ones who surround the throne of God and who lead worship – and what worship it is!

I’ve sometimes heard grumpy people complain that in some other churches they sing too much (indeed I know I have sometimes moaned about it too); whether it be charismatic praise lasting twenty minutes or more, or choral evensong in a Cathedral taking far longer than we think it should.  If we think that is bad we might be in for a bit of a shock in heaven, where in this vision of John, the four angels around the throne of God never stop singing, day and night!  Of course this would be no ordinary singing; this would be the most beautiful noise and well beyond the scope of our earthly ears to fully appreciate… and what do they sing?

‘Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.’ (8)

The thing that happens next is so beautiful that I had tears in my eyes as I was typing the words at the computer – the twenty-four elders join in the worship too.  We as the church of God are included; the day will come when we are around the throne of God, there are absolutely no words to describe what that will be like; it will be beyond spine-tingling, it will be the most beautiful and awesome thing beyond what we could ever imagine and with countless numbers of others we will join in the worship and we will sing, with beautiful new voices:

‘You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.’ (11)

All Creation exists because of God the Creator and all creation exists to worship Him.  God made us as the pinnacle of His Creation and the whole point and meaning of our lives now and that new life which is to come finds its purpose and meaning only in worshipping Him who made us.  Let us worship him now and never let us stop worshiping Him in the way that we live our lives for Him who gave His life for us.  Worship is indeed a way of life and we will never be fully content or find peace and joy until we realise that God is worthy, more than worthy of our worship, not just singing worship but to worship Him with all of our lives, every moment, with all that we are and everything that we have… Amen.

Bibliography:

Tom Wright, ‘Revelation for Everyone’, SPCK 2011 (Kindle edition)
William Hendriksen “More than Conquerors”, Tyndale Press, 1962
John Richardson, “Revelation Unwrapped”, MPA Books, 1996


[1] Tom Wright, ‘Revelation for Everyone’, SPCK 2011 (Kindle) Location 315

January 27, 2013

The day they wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff

Inchydoney Sea Thrift

Photo: Sea Thrift flowers at Inchydoney, on the side of the small cliffs there.

Sermon for Sunday 27/1/13.  Text Luke 4:14-30

Many of you have I’m sure lived away from home for a time and if you have, can you remember what it was like coming home?  Perhaps you were nervous, perhaps you were excited about seeing your family and friends again and revisiting those places that were so much a part of your upbringing.  Think too of what it was like going back to the church in whose pews you sat as a child…

The Lord Jesus had been away from His home town for a while; He had been down in the south of the country and there he had been baptised by John in the river Jordan and then he had been in the desert wilderness and Samaria.  Now he was back in the North, back in Galilee and was returning to His home town of Nazareth, to his Mother and family and to the houses and streets and Synagogue with which He would have been so familiar from his growing up years.

Luke tells us that Jesus was ‘filled with the power of the Spirit’ (14)  There was something different about Jesus now, of course, he had always been different, he had after all never sinned (2 Cor.5:21), and as fully man and fully God, he had always been full of the Holy Spirit.  Now though there is a new power about him, his ministry has fully begun – He has been baptised and filled anew with the Spirit and he has overcome the devil in the desert.  He has a new focus, a new passion and commitment.  He has been going around the synagogues in the area and everyone has been really impressed with him and sung his praises.

So, the Lord is back in Nazareth and on Saturday morning, the Sabbath, he goes to church (I mean synagogue, but it really was quite like church).  The Synagogue in Nazareth would have been small, it would have been traditional, they wouldn’t have had the latest worship songs.  I think it’s safe to say that Mary and perhaps Jesus’ younger brothers and sisters would have been there and it’s not hard for us to imagine the anticipation in the air as the Lord stood up to read from Isaiah.  He unrolls the scroll and reads the words:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (from Isaiah 61:1,2).

As he rolls up the scroll and hands it back to the attendant you would have been able to hear a pin drop, all the eyes are fixed upon Him.  This is Jesus, the local boy made good.

It all starts off very well.  Jesus says in response to the reading from Isaiah:

‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’ (21)

Now this is a very bold statement, these words from Isaiah are part of a prophecy about the Messiah, that He will be the one sent to Israel to set them free from oppression and captivity and to usher in a new era of God’s blessing and favour.  Jesus’ audience like what He has to say; Luke tells us that, ‘All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.’ (22)

But the honeymoon doesn’t last long.  The awe of the people in the ‘pews’ doesn’t linger, they say, ‘hang on a minute, isn’t this Joseph’s son, we’ve known him since he was knee-high to a grasshopper?’  It is always easier for the outsider to be listened to; we take them at face value and give them the benefit of the doubt.  But when it is one of our own, one whom we have known since they were a child then it is much more difficult for us to accept them and what they have to say.  So for these people of Nazareth it is a difficult thing to accept that this child of Joseph as they thought, (see 3:23) is the Messiah.

The people are confused and that confusion will very soon turn to anger.  They had heard about the miracles that Jesus had been performing and His reputation was growing all the time, but could He really be the Messiah?

Perhaps any ordinary preacher would have snuck out the back door by now, but Jesus is no ordinary preacher, and He will certainly not let anyone get in the way of God’s Word.  There is more to say and He is going to say it:

‘…there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine all over the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.’ (25, 26)

The citizens of Nazareth were just like their fellow countrymen and women throughout Israel, they were a proud people.  As far as they were concerned, they had the monopoly on God.  Their history showed that they were God’s chosen, special and blessed people.  They would have treasured the promise of Deuteronomy 7:6, which says:

For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.

The Lord Jesus is saying that God also loves the other nations; Jesus will die not just for the sins of Israel but for the world: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)  Jesus reminds them of how God sent the prophet Elijah to a foreign widow for food and shelter when he was on the run from king Ahab (1 Kings 17,18).  In case the point has not hit home, Jesus gives them another example, of the Syrian army commander Naaman, who was healed of leprosy through the ministry of Elisha.  In other words yes God loves Israel, but He also loves the rest of the world and He wants to reach out and save them too.

For the people of Nazareth this was a great insult, it wounded their national pride and conceit.  It would be like God saying to the flag-waving Unionists that He also loved and deeply cared about their Roman Catholic neighbours and wanted them to do the same.  How outrageous, how insulting, how blasphemous!  We don’t mind hearing that God is great and just and holy and pure, but when we are told that he will have mercy on people who we don’t like and with whom we strongly disagree, we cannot stand it.[1]  To find out that God loves those whom we hate will make us furious and so it was with the people in church that morning.

‘They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.’ (29)

What drove the people to fury was that God was rescuing the wrong people.  It would be someone in Britain or France during world war two speaking about God’s healing and restoration for Nazi Germany[2].

One of the beautiful things about the unity service we shared in the Roman Catholic Church last week was the joy of just being able to be together, free of the past, the past where we were suspicious of each other, the past where each saw themselves as the ‘real’ church and the other somehow not part of God’s true church on earth.  The joy was not ours alone but a joy that, I believe, was and is a gift given to us by God.  Generations of mutual suspicion and mistrust are, all over the country coming to an end.  None of us know what God has in store for His united Church on this Island, but the Spirit is leading us and it is wonderfully exciting.  Yes, there will always be those who will cling on to the past, who are able to give lots of reasons and examples as to why this cannot be God’s will, but so long as we keep focusing on the Lord Jesus, we will not fall into that trap.  We don’t want to find ourselves unwittingly in that angry mob as they bundled Jesus out of the church and marched Him to the cliff edge.  Jesus had returned to the town and to his home church full of the Holy Spirit and they did not like it.  God was in their midst, it should have been the start of a wonderful revival, there should have been many conversions and healings, it should have been a time of wonderful blessing and joy.  But what did they want to do when God showed up in power?  They wanted to kill Him, to kill God!  No longer was God in the box they wanted to keep Him in, so they wanted to hurl Him off a cliff.

What on earth must be going through Mary’s mind at this point?  Luke doesn’t tell us; instead we are left to ask ourselves the question, ‘What would I have done had I been there?  Would I have gone along with the crowd, would I have tried to stop them?  Am I angry at Jesus for loving the people that I don’t like, the people I disagree with and the person I can’t forgive?’  It’s OK to be angry, but in that place of rage let’s not push Jesus away, rather let us fall on our knees and surrender.  Remember that He loved us even though before we gave our life to Him, we were God’s enemies (Colossians 1:21).  Let us surrender ourselves now and always to the one who loves even us, loves us so much that He gave His life in our place.  Not only does He love us, He loves our enemies too and He wants us to do the same (Matt.5:44)… Amen.

 


[1] J.C. Ryle, Expository thoughts on the Gospel, Luke, Vol.1, James Clarke & Co. 1956, p.122

[2] Tom Wright, ‘Luke for Everyone’, SPCK 2004, p.47

January 13, 2013

When you pass through the waters

DSC_5642_wp

Photo: Glencar Lough, Co. Leitrim, January 2013.

Sermon for Sunday 13/1/13.  Text: Isaiah 43:1-7

Have you ever been in that place where you just want to give up? The pressures of your work, your family situation, your finances or whatever sphere of life you are concerned with just becomes too great, too overwhelming? You wish that you could get on a boat or a plane and find a desert island somewhere where there would be no telephone, only the sound of lapping waves, no bank statements, only leaves falling from the trees and no one to be cross with you or gossip about you, only the feeling of the warm sand running through your fingers…

All of us who have lived for any length of time know that life can be great but it can also seem like hell at times too. Sometimes as Christians we think that we cannot get emotional with God, we have to keep a stiff upper lip and pretend that everything is alright. Really what we want to do is find somewhere where we can shout and something that we can punch, but instead we think that God would not approve of such behaviour so we bottle it all up somehow until it bursts out of us in some other way, such as during an argument with a friend or when we beep the horn ferociously at someone who cuts us up at a roundabout!

Martin Luther King Jr. was perhaps the leading light of the movement in the United States in the 1950s for racial equality through nonviolent resistance. I doubt any of us could imagine the pressure and stress he was under; he received as many as 30 to 40 threatening phone calls a day. One night in January 1956 he returned home late after a long day of meetings. His wife and young daughter were in bed and he was eager to join them, but then the phone rang; it was yet another threatening call. He wanted to go to bed, but he could not shake the menacing voice of that phone caller that kept repeating the hateful words in his head. He made some coffee and sat down at the kitchen table. With his head buried in his hands he cried out to God. There in his kitchen in the middle of the night, when he had come to the end of his strength, God spoke to him. King later wrote: “I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on … He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone, no never alone.’ In the stillness of the night the voice of Jesus was greater than the voices of hate and it gave King the courage to press on, to press on for the rest of his life[1]. That is what each of us needs, the voice of Jesus speaking into our lives, into our situations. It is a Voice that is greater than anything or anyone that can come against us.  If we are a Christian, then we have a relationship with God. In our reading from Isaiah, God says of that relationship:

But now thus says the LORD, he who created you … he who formed you … Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

Aren’t those phenomenal words? God created us, he knitted us together in our mothers wombs (cf. Ps.139:13), He knows us completely and He speaks to us as He spoke to the people of Israel and he tells us not to fear, he has redeemed us (in other words he has freed us from blame, we are forgiven), and not only has He redeemed us through the cross of Christ, he also calls us by name.  I remember in the equivalent to National School that I went to all the girls were referred to by their Christian names but all the boys were simply called ‘boy’. It was wonderful then in my next school to hear my new teacher, Mrs. Jenkins, call me by my name.  I felt like a real person, I felt valued and it made me want to do my best work for this kind teacher.  God knows us by name, He knows us intimately and He cares about us and we matter to Him.  I love the bit at the end of the verse where God says, ‘you are mine’. Can you imagine God punching the air, saying your name and going ‘yes, you are mine’? We are not an afterthought for God, He is passionate about us.

Verse 2 has appeared in lots of songs, the words are poetic and beautiful:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.

There’s a magnificent song by U2 called ‘drowning man’ about a man drowning in the “winds and tides” of life. As you listen to the song you can imagine him being swept down a fast moving river and he is about to be carried away out of sight when suddenly out of the darkness comes a voice saying “Take my hand … hold on tightly … hold on and don’t let go of my love … hold on tightly to this love which will last for ever…” All of us go through troublesome waters in life and if we try and swim in our own strength we are more likely to fail. But God’s promise is that the waters shall not overwhelm us.

When I read the words ‘walk through the fire, I am reminded of the event recorded in Daniel chapter 3, where Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are thrown into the Fiery Furnace for refusing to worship a 90’ high gold statute. But rather than be burnt up in the flames they were completely unharmed, with even their hair left unsigned! When King Nebuchadnezzar looked into the furnace he exclaimed to his soldiers:

Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire? They replied “Certainly, O king,” To which he replied:

Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.

God sent a heavenly visitor to help the three men during a time of great trial. God will help us too. Perhaps some of you have stories of how God has helped you through great trials and difficulties in ordinary or extraordinary ways. Perhaps we would be amazed too at all the times and in different ways God has saved us in different situations which we have no idea about…

Fire and water represent the totality of trials, of whatever sort and however they come – in all things, the Lord is with us[2].  As I was thinking about this I remembered the story of Terry Waite, a representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury who went to the Lebanon to try to secure the release of four hostages but ended up being held hostage himself for four long years. In his autobiography he writes much about his faith in the midst of intense difficulty. One of the bits I remember is where he used to save a little bread when it was given to him and together with a little water in a plastic cup he used to recite the Communion Service from memory. In solitary confinement, far from home, frightened, he nevertheless drew great comfort and support from the fact that God was with Him in the midst of his great trial, He did not allow Terry Waite to be overwhelmed or drown in despair, God carried him through until he was released.

In the next few verses, God shows His people how much they mean to Him, by naming the nations he has saved them from and punished in their stead, Egypt (remember Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea) and Ethiopia and Seba (countries beyond the borders of Egypt). Then Isaiah plunges forward in time to a regathering of God’s people from the ends of the earth at a time far removed from the day of writing.  Some people say that the modern day nation of Israel is a fulfillment of this prophecy, with Jews from all over the world leaving the countries of their birth and setting up a new home in the land of their ancient ancestry.

In the past God gave nations in exchange for His people, with Christ though He did much more than that.  Isaiah himself would give a clear indication of this in chapter 53 when he wrote of the Messiah, the suffering servant:

But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.

In Christ we have the ultimate fulfillment of all that Isaiah wrote. Through Him, we have a special relationship with God; we are His children, called by name, knitted together by Him in our mother’s womb. He is with us before we were formed; he is with us through life and through death. Certainly we are his if we want to be.  Often I come across people who are going through trials of one kind or another and it breaks my heart to see them trying to cope without God’s help. For different reasons people try to cope on their own – but it really doesn’t have to be like that.   He calls your name, He tells you not to fear, He has redeemed you and you are His now and always… Amen.


[2] Alec Motyer ‘The Prophecy of Isaiah’, Inter Varsity Press, 1995, p.331

December 16, 2012

Rejoice

DSC_7822_wp

(Photo: St. Brendan the Navigator, Bantry, perhaps rejoicing at the discovery of distant new shores.)

Sermon for Sunday 16th December, text: Philippians 4:4-7

Rejoice is not a word we use much, it seems quite old-fashioned sounding; we are not used to seeing it in a text message, or hearing it said on the nine o’clock news. Yet it is a beautiful word. It means ‘to delight in God’s grace’, to express our joy at the experience of His undeserved favour and to be conscious of His unconditional love for us[1]. See, I told you it was a beautiful word. As followers of the Lord Jesus, we have good reason to do a lot of rejoicing and our reading today from Paul’s letter to his friends in Philippi should help us rediscover the urge to rejoice that we may have lost somewhere along the way of our everyday lives.

Paul writes:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

It seems that the Philippians needed a reminder about rejoicing too, as Paul thinks it is worth repeating; “again I will say, Rejoice.”

In this season of Advent, let us rejoice in God’s love for us in sending Jesus, God born a baby to show us how much He loves us. God doesn’t keep his distance; He does not want or need us to work our way up to Him (we couldn’t anyway, even if we tried). God has come down to us in Jesus, and that is something to greatly rejoice about. Let us be like the wise men, who rejoiced when they saw the star leading them to Jesus (Matt. 2:10).

I saw something recently, which reminded me of Christmas and what it’s all about; it was at the swimming pool, where one of our boys was having a swimming lesson. The teacher was standing on the edge of the pool while her class were splashing away in the water beneath her. Everything was going fine except that there was a little girl who was getting increasingly frustrated; she just couldn’t keep us with the others in the class and she had started crying. So the teacher, wearing a tracksuit, got into the pool and held the little girl and spoke encouraging words to her and walked with her up and down the pool along with all the other children. Soon the little girl was smiling again. It reminded me of how God came down to us, to help us, to show us the way but of course Jesus did so much more than that; He was not only born for us, but as we know, he died on the cross for us too and rose again for us as well. What a God we have. Rejoice we must.

Next Paul wrote:

Let your gentleness be known to everyone.

The word ‘gentleness’ (ἐπιεικής), means to be gentle in terms of being fair and reasonable, not to judge by the ‘letter of the law’ but by the ‘spirit of the law’[2]. So when Paul says “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” He is talking about the way that the Philippians (and us) should live our lives everyday. What kind of reputation do we have outside of the walls of this church? Are we known as a hard-nosed businessman, as a ‘chancer’ or ‘cute hoor’? When people think of us do they think of someone who is gentle, someone who is fair and kind-hearted? We are to live lives where we reflect Jesus. Are people drawn towards Jesus or away from Jesus when they encounter us?

We have another link with Advent when Paul writes the four-word sentence:

The Lord is near.

There is a clever double meaning here. Yes the Lord is near to us, closer than we would think and there is nowhere we can go in this life where the Lord would not be near to us (Psalm 139:7-10). There is also the sense that the Lord is near as in the second coming. So the point is that we should be encouraged to let our gentleness be known to everyone because Jesus is with us and He will help us, but also that we should let our gentleness be known to everyone because time is short, we need to seize the opportunities that God gives us because we never know when time will come to an end. We could die tomorrow, the person we are trying to show God’s love to could die today. The Lord could return at any moment, so for God’s sake and for the sake of those around us, let our gentleness be known to everyone.

Next comes the bit we’ve all been waiting for; they are some of the most famous and popular verses in the whole Bible. Paul writes:

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Q. What lies at the bottom of the ocean and twitches?
A.  A nervous wreck.

The beginning of anxiety is the end of faith, and the beginning of true faith is the end of anxiety. (George Muller.)[3]

I heard a good definition of worry recently, that it is ‘meditation but without the prayer!’ I really hope that we all make time to meditate on Scripture, that is why we have our ‘memory verses’ in the Service Guide each week to help us get started. The idea is that you read the verse or verses over and over, again and again and you let the words sink into you and soak into your soul. You absorb them so that they become a part of you. Have you ever seen a professional wine taster at work? The way they breathe in deeply as they sip the wine and let flavours wash back and forth over their tongue and they savour the different nuances and characteristics of the grape is amazing to watch. Meditating on Scripture is a bit like that, though of course we do not spit it out at the end! When we worry about something, we let it roll over and over in our mind and it can be so bad that it can stop us eating or sleeping properly (or worse). Worry is self-destructive, but meditation is something that builds us up and gives us strength, it is nourishing and life-giving. Paul tells us not to worry about anything at all but instead to turn what is on our minds into a prayer. It is very easy to turn a worry into a prayer is it not? We just have to direct what is on our minds towards God; give Him a list of all the things that are worrying or concerning us. As we do this, we are to be thankful, thankful that we have a God who hears and answers our prayers. When we post a letter into the letter box, we don’t think that it is going to disappear into a hole in the ground and never be seen again, we have faith that it will arrive at its intended destination and that the person will read it. In a much greater way, when we pray we know that without delay our Heavenly Father hears us and that our prayer is answered even before we have finished praying.

When we realise this, it should fill us with a peace that can only come from God, a peace which is beyond all human understanding. The word used for peace (εἰρήνη) includes the idea of being whole or complete; when you have your shoe-laces undone the laces are all over the place and you may well trip over them, but when they are tied, they are whole and complete and as they should be. Similarly our minds are not at peace when we have thoughts all over the place, but in the place of prayer, where we lay all before God, He takes our thoughts, concerns and worries from us and onto Himself. Remember the Lord Jesus said:

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  (Matthew 11:29)

Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:7)

It’s funny isn’t it how often we seem to want to hold on to our worries, fears and anxieties, it is almost as if we find that they give us purpose and something to live for.  But God wants us to be free (John 8:36), Has has a wonderful plan and purpose for our lives, He longs for us to trust Him; trust Him with our hearts, our lives, our family, trust Him with our past, trust Him now and trust him for the future. He wants us to trust Him with our parents, our children our spouse and all our relationships. He wants us to take a hold of His outstretched nail-pierced hands and let Him lead us through the fullness of a life lived not for ourselves, but for Him, who made us for that very purpose, to have a relationship with Him.

If you are still awake at this point you might very well ask me:  How can I have this life that you are talking about? I go to church, I pray, I pay all my taxes but I just don’t know God the way you are describing. What do I need to do?

It’s all about passion. How much do you want to know God? Do you hunger after Him, thirst with longing, or are you just content with an on-off relationship without real commitment? What if you were to say to your wife or husband: “Well I can see you this Sunday morning for an hour and maybe one evening a week for another hour or two, but that’s all.” They probably wouldn’t be too impressed would they! In fact you couldn’t have a marriage like that, so what makes us think we can have a relationship with our Creator like that?[4]  We need to be in relationship with God ALL THE TIME, and if we only limit God to a couple of slots a week, then that is why our relationship with him is lukewarm at best. In Jeremiah 29:13, God says to His people:

When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.

If we seek God with all of our heart, we really will find Him.

May we pray: … Amen

April 23, 2012

What we will be…

(Photo: Window reflections at All Saints, Kilmalooda.)

Sermon for the third Sunday of Easter, 22/4/12. Text: 1 John 3:1-7

When you were a child did you ever wish that you had different parents? Perhaps your friend was allowed to stay up late to watch T.V. and you weren’t and you wished you could swap parents with them! We might also be tempted to wish we looked different from them, that our nose had a better shape that our ears were more ‘normal’ and didn’t stick out like two radar dishes, and that we weren’t so short, balding or tubby! But as we get older, so long as everything was O.K. with our parents, we realise that things could have been worse and in fact they were actually a blessing to us in so many ways. One thing that often comes to us as a bit of a shock is when we realise just how like our parents we actually are, but of course our likeness to them is the proof of the relationship we have. We are like our parents because we are their children. Even children with step-parents or those who are adopted develop a likeness to their parents, even if genetically speaking they are different. My step-father and I always found it funny when people who thought he was my natural father said that I looked like him!

In our reading today from the first letter of John, the Apostle takes the concept of parents being like their children and applies it to our relationship with God. He says:

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.

We are a ‘rags to riches’ story; it is as if we are an orphaned child living in the gutter, covered in muck and wearing tattered rags. We look up from the filth we are in and we see the King! Our eyes can hardly believe what we are seeing, but the King comes over to us, He reaches down into the gutter and he grabs hold of us and He lifts us out of the darkness and holds us up in the air against the light. He knows our name and He speaks to us softly and He says, ‘Now if you are willing you will be my child. I am not forcing you, you can stay here in the gutter if you wish, but I would much rather you came with me back to the palace – I will carry you there and I will wash you clean and give you new clothes and you will be my own child and live with me for ever…’

The love that God has for us is a love beyond all measure, that He, Almighty God, Creator of the Universe should not only know I even exist but have actually created me and made me to be His child, this is a wonder beyond all wonders and a joy above all joys. Why would He do such a thing? The answer is beautiful and simple: God is love and love by its very nature gives. Because God loves so much He gives so much. He gave us His one and only Son, that we might not die in the gutter but have everlasting life with Him.

Many of us find this unconditional and limitless love hard to accept. Perhaps a reason for this is that with our parents it always felt like we had to earn their love and approval. Maybe that still is the case for us even if our parents are old or have died, we are still trying to please them but they just never seem (either in reality or in our imagination) to be happy with our achievements and we never feel totally accepted by them. It is of course all to easy then to see our Heavenly Father like this. Let us lie back and bask in the fact that God loves us, yes He really really does. We do not need to rush around doing things trying to please Him, He already is pleased with us! We must not fall into the trap of making our relationship with God one that is based on our works or achievements. God’s love and grace is not conditional on whether we have scored a B+ in our Christian life this week, He loves us perfectly, unconditionally all of the time.

Once we have accepted God’s offer to become one of His children, we will start to develop the family likeness. We will start to become more and more like Him and less and less like our old selves that we left behind in the gutter. We don’t do good works because we think they will make God love us more, He cannot love us more than He does already! We serve God and do all we can in His guidance and strength because we love Him and want to show Him that we love Him and how grateful we are to Him for the fact that He loves us.

John then goes on to say:

The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.

Maybe when you gave your life to Christ (and if you have not yet done so, what are you waiting for?), you soon realised that some people were overjoyed for you and others just didn’t get it at all, they might even have been hostile towards you. Well, we are in good company; many people did not ‘get’ the Lord Jesus at all and even though at times He was followed around by great crowds, many people just wanted what they could get from Him so that in the end His followers were very few. Thousands were with Him on the grassy slopes sitting in the sunshine, listening to His teaching and getting their fill of loaves and fishes, but only a very small number of them stood around Him when the sky turned black and He was dying upon the cross.

If we were to take a good long look at ourselves in the mirror and saw who we really were we would be astonished. John tells us:

Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.

As we look in the mirror and notice all the physical blemishes, we are wowed by the fact that we will not always look like this. John continues:

What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.

One day we shall be like Jesus, as a caterpillar becomes a butterfly so shall we be changed into His likeness. To bring us back down to earth for a moment, think of Charles, the Prince of Wales. He is heir to the throne of Great Britain and his whole life has been lived in the light of what he will be one day. He does not yet possess his full inheritance, but his whole life has been, and is shaped by it. In a much greater way, one day we shall be like Jesus, changed into His likeness. In the meantime however, with the help and grace that God gives us, we need to live up to what we shall one day become.

So John says:

And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

I don’t know about you, but I feel very much more like the caterpillar than the butterfly; I despair at my lack of progress and find it all too easy to look at my many weaknesses and failings. I turn around and the gutter from where I have come from does not seem very far away… But we have a sure hope don’t we? We have a sure hope that we shall be changed, we really will one day become how God meant us to be all along, we will no longer be human becomings, we will be like Christ. John says that in the meantime we must ‘purify ourselves’. This means cutting out of our lives all the bad stuff that is there. Of course we need help to do this, we need God’s help and we need the help of those to whom we are closest and who we can trust. But as you look back on your Christian life can you not at least see some small victories, so that things you used to do you do no longer? Perhaps you no longer cheat on your tax return, perhaps you have given up destructive habits or addictions, perhaps you are much more generous, thoughtful and kind. Maybe people have even commented on how you have changed. Slowly but surely, with the help of the Holy Spirit who works in us like a gardener getting rid of weeds and planting that which is good, we are being changed, the old is falling away and what we shall become is slowly (very slowly we might say) being revealed.

So let us be encouraged and blessed, especially in those times when we despair, when we are all to aware of our sin and failures. Let us live now in the light of what we will one day become, let us remember the wonderful and beautiful truth that God has called us His children because that is what we are.  Amen.

———————————————————————-
(Numerous thoughts and ideas in this sermon are taken from David Jackman’s book: The Message of John’s Letters, The Bible Speaks Today, I.V.P., 2nd ed. 1996.  In particular the idea of wanting to change our parents in the opening paragraph and then the reference to Prince Charles’ heirship to the throne.)

April 15, 2012

Unity

Leaving a mark...

Today’s Sermon.  Text: Psalm 133.

Parents, Aunts, Uncles, Grandparents and teachers love it when the children they are looking after are getting on together. It makes life so much easier doesn’t it? When we see children sharing and caring, when they remember to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when they use their knife and fork rather than shoveling the food into their mouths with their hands (or something they have found in the garden), it makes us happy and realise that all the hard work in trying to bring them up was actually worth it. Of course the reality is that often children are selfish and rude and forget how to behave towards each other and to grown-ups and it can often be very difficult for those who have responsibility for them.

One of the greatest privileges for those who are parents is that the actual experience of bringing up children gives them a deep insight into the relationship we all have with our heavenly Father. When confronted with a stubborn child stamping their foot and shouting ‘NO’, we hopefully realise that we too have done this sort of thing with our heavenly Parent, God! We might not have actually stamped our foot and stuck out our bottom lip, but we have been just as defiant in wanting our way rather than the right way.

As we look at the church, we remember that we are all God’s children and as such we ought to admit that we are not particularly obedient children at that; we are always bickering about this that and the other thing (and that is even within our denomination, let alone between different Christian traditions). Every way that we can let our Heavenly Father down we have and every way we could have hindered Christ’s mission, we have. Have you ever been in the supermarket and seen and heard a child screaming at their poor mother of father? Perhaps the child is lying on the floor, clutching a bag of sweets they are not allowed to have and the red-faced parent is trying in vain to be in charge. In looking at so much of the debate and dissension in the church today, are we not just like that child in the supermarket? We shout out ‘I am right, my way is best’!  Worse still, we mock our brothers and sisters who disagree with us, if not face to face, then in hushed conversation with others in the church car park, or on the pages of the Gazette or on Facebook or Twitter. Sometimes it is just heartbreaking, that whether it be between members of our own church congregation, or between different churches or between clergy there always seems to be some issue that threatens to divide and break up any kind of fellowship that we have. What does God think of all this I wonder? Perhaps our Psalm for today, Psalm 133 will help us:

How very good and pleasant it is to dwell in unity.

When we walk into a house where everyone is at each other, arguing and fighting, we can sense the atmosphere almost immediately. On the other hand, when we walk into a house where the occupants are together and at peace with one another, what a difference it makes! Isn’t it lovely to walk into a peaceful and unified home, a genuine pleasure? The context of today’s Psalm could have originated in a number of different places – perhaps it refers to the relationship between Abram and Lot in Genesis chapter 13:8, where Abram said:

Let there be no strife between you and me … for we are kindred.

Perhaps this verse refers back to tensions between the tribes of Israel or perhaps even between the sons of King David, but I don’t suppose any of that matters to us too much because it is as wonderful today when people live together in unity as it always was.

The next couple of lines are interesting, we read:

It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, Even on Aaron’s beard, running down upon the collar of his clothing.

Interesting it might be, but what on earth is it saying? You may remember the character of Aaron, as Moses’ brother, Israel’s spokesman to Pharaoh and the first high priest in Israel’s history. When Aaron was made priest, special and expensive oil was used to anoint him (and all those after him too). The oil was consecrated, which means dedicated, devoted and set apart for God. A generous amount of oil was used, hence the fact that it ran down over his beard and the collar of his robes. So how then is living together in unity like this oil? The idea is that when God’s people are unified then it is a community of people that are genuinely set apart for Him and carrying out their calling in the world. Unity, like the sacred oil, is a precious thing.

When we as brothers and sisters are living in disunity then we are set apart from God, but when we are together then we are set apart for God.

I think that there are few things that give the devil more pleasure than infighting between God’s children; it is a gift to him and a gift that we should at all costs avoid giving to him! But when we are together, when (as it were) we are all singing from the same hymn sheet, all pulling in the same direction, all playing for the same team, then wow, look at what God can do!

Next in our Psalm we read:

It is like the dew of Hermon running down upon the hills of Zion. For there the Lord has promised his blessing: even life for evermore.

Mount Hermon is a high snow-capped mountain in the north of the land. Today the region is between Syria and Lebanon. We might not think too much of dew in our green and wet climate, but if you are a farmer in an arid climate then the morning dew is crucial for the survival of vegetation during the dry season. The dew ran down the sides of the mountain and gave life to the plants round about. This then is a picture of what unity does amongst God’s people, it brings life and blessing to the church, it brings growth and a harvest. Without the water from the mountain, the plants would wither and die; without unity the church withers and dies and there is no blessing, no harvest and no future.

It is very exciting to see God at work in this Parish; I could not even begin to list the many great things He has done, they are too many to mention here. Someone recently had the idea of writing a book of people’s stories and I think that would be an excellent idea. We must not be complacent though because the enemy is constantly trying to sow seeds of disunity amongst us.  We must fiercely and jealously guard our unity. We need to pray for each other and we need to look out for each other. When someone comes at you with some gossip, ‘Did you know, so-and-so did this, and they didn’t do that,’ remember this: gossip is not harmless fun, it is evil, it destroys. Every time we say an unkind word we destroy a little bit of that person’s character and the devil gets very excited about it.

Sadly I hear a lot of gossip and I have to tell you that I hate it. I have never seen any good come from gossip, it destroys friendships and trust and unity, it is an evil thing that has no place in the life of the church where we are to dwell together in unity. We have to learn to fight each others corner, to stand up for each other, we are family! If someone or something attacks one of us, then we are all attacked, if one of us is gossiped about then all of us are gossiped about – we are one body – does a body fight itself? No! All the parts of one body work together to fight off the common enemy, and that is how we as the body of Christ should be, fighting off all that comes against us with God’s strength, which is there for us when we live together in unity. God loves it when we get on together and He will continue to bless us so long as we are.

Let us pray … Amen.

April 8, 2012

Night had become day, death had become life.

Welcoming the Sunrise

Easter Sunday, John 20:1-18

I suppose that Mary Magdalene thought that things could not get any worse. Her Lord had been brutally killed and the horror of it all was still very fresh in her mind. Like any of us who have lost someone close, she wanted to go to where the body was. We feel that if we can go to where our loved one is buried that somehow it will help, we cannot find the words to express our loss and our sorrow, the bleakness and finality of it all, but we think that just being there will help, and it does. Perhaps this is what is going through Mary’s mind; she knows Jesus is dead, she saw it happen, but if she can just be near where His body is, perhaps it will help. She probably has had very little if any sleep and so before the sun has even come up she makes her way to the tomb. As she nears the place where Joseph and Nicodemus had laid Jesus’ body to her utter dismay, she sees that the large stone in front of the tomb has been removed and she knows that this can only mean one thing, that Jesus’ body is no longer there. She runs, as fast as she can, on legs that will barely support her to Simon Peter and to John and she says:

> ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ (2)

Peter and John waste no time, the news that Mary Magdalen has told them requires an immediate response. I wonder what they are thinking, is it horror at the possibility of Jesus’ body being stolen or at this point is even just a chink of light and hope entering their thoughts? Everything is happening quickly now, Mary had run from the tomb to tell them, now Peter and John run back from where Mary had come. John, the younger of the two men reaches the tomb first, he is cautious and he stops at the entrance and peers inside, he sees the linen wrappings lying there, but does not go in to investigate. Then Peter arrives, perhaps puffing and panting and with no caution whatsoever runs straight into the tomb, he too sees the linen wrappings lying there and also the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself (7). John then lets go of whatever it is that is stopping him entering the tomb and he steps inside. Describing his own reaction he says:

> … ‘he saw and believed.'(8)

‘Believed what?’ We might say. Certainly John believed that Jesus was no longer dead. He had seen Lazarus raised from the dead and Jesus had given enough strong hints that He would die and be raised again too (Mark 8:31, Luke 9:22) and now it seems that even as the sun is beginning to rise on that first Easter morning that the light is dawning in John’s mind, that what is happening what was Jesus had been telling them all along, He really was going to be killed and He really was going to rise from the dead. We don’t know why but Peter and John decide to go back to their homes, perhaps it’s to tell the others, perhaps it’s just to try and take in the enormity of the fact of the empty tomb, but as they depart we see that Mary has returned to the place of the tomb once again. Any of us who have stood weeping at a grave will know how she felt, though how much more so if the body we had come to be near was no longer there and we thought it had been stolen? Through her tears, Mary sums up the courage to peer inside the tomb. Instead of darkness, instead of a place of death she sees light, two angels in white sitting where Jesus’ body had been. One angel sits where Jesus’ head had been and the other where his feet once were. The angels speak to Mary saying:

> ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’

Mary replies:

> ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ (13)

Something makes her turn around and she sees a man standing there. She does not know who he is, she thinks he is the gardener. The man speaks to her, as the angels had already done, saying:

> ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ and then ‘For whom are you looking?’

Still thinking this man was the gardener Mary says:

> ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ (15)

The man says her name, ‘Mary!’ And now he is no longer just a man, it is Jesus, it really is Jesus! To one moment be in utter despair and in the next be in complete surprise and joy must have been overwhelmingly wonderful for Mary; one moment her world was in chaos, the pattern of her life in shreds and tatters and in the next moment it was utterly transformed; night had become day, hell had become heaven, death had become life.

All Mary can do is turn to Him and say, ‘Rabbouni, teacher’. She clings on to Him, overcome at all that has happened. He is alive! He is not dead! This is the happiest moment, the turning point of history, of his-story, ‘death (as the Apostle Paul would later describe it) has been swallowed up in victory’ (1 Cor. 15:54).

Yes, Jesus was alive, more alive than ever He was in His earthly body. Mary and the others would soon see that Jesus’ resurrected body was different; He could appear before them suddenly in a locked room and He was not a ghost because he could be touched and because he could eat and drink.

Jesus does not wish for Mary to cling on to Him for long, there is something that she needs to do. He says:

> … ‘go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”‘ (17)

Here is a new level of friendship; Jesus’ Father is their Father too, His God is their God. The same level of intimacy that Jesus has with His Father they can have too. He is their Daddy and they are His dear children.

Of course it is Mary who has the important job of telling the disciples, of bringing them the Good News of Jesus’ message. She goes to them and says:

> ‘I have seen the Lord’

Mary then tells them what Jesus had said. The wonderful thing here is that if someone in the first century had wanted to invent a story about people seeing the risen Jesus, they certainly would not have dreamed about giving the star part to a woman, let alone Mary Magdalene! (From Tom Wright, ‘John for Everyone’ (Part 2) SPCK 2002, p.146)

But there it is, a true story, but one where the ending has not yet been written because the end of the story is up to you. You are standing there with the others at the empty tomb, what do you do, how do you respond? Perhaps you were too busy thinking about lunch or wishing that you had not eaten so much chocolate already this morning, but don’t worry about that now, the risen Jesus is standing before you, as He spoke to Mary, He speaks to you. Listen as He calls you by your name… Let us respond to him now, let us pray:

Lord Jesus, I am overwhelmed that you have risen from the dead and that you would call my name. I feel so totally unworthy and unclean to even be near you, and yet I know that it was because of this, because of my sin that You chose to die. Lord, to say ‘thank you’ seems wholly inadequate, but I say it anyway, with all of my heart, “THANK YOU”. Help me off my knees Lord, help me to follow you, help me to love you, not just now this moment, but for always… Amen.

March 17, 2012

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

St. Patrick

Statue of St. Patrick in Timoleague, Co. Cork

St. Patrick’s Day Sermon, 17/3/12
Text: John 4:31-38

Of course we don’t know a whole lot about St. Patrick and it can be hard to know sometimes where the facts end and the legend begins, but one thing we do know is that he was passionate about serving his Master. In Patrick we have a man of God and someone who was willing to give up everything in order to follow God’s call upon his life. For Patrick God was everything; he would have wholeheartedly agreed with the Psalmist when he wrote of God:

Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside you. (Psalm 73:25)

Wouldn’t it be great if we could have this same passion, this same focus and drive and commitment?

In the Gospel reading for today, we see that the Lord Jesus is tired from the long journey that He is making with His disciples, as they walk from Judea to Galilee. He is sat down by Jacob’s well, where he has just had that famous conversation with the Samaritan woman and the disciples come up to him and urge him, saying:

‘Rabbi, eat something.’ (31)

To which Jesus replies:

‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ (32) and
‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work’ (34)

It is as if Jesus is saying to his disciples that doing God’s will is even more important than eating! It is from doing God’s will and God’s work that Jesus gains spiritual strength and sustenance. Yes, we make sure that we are physically fed and nourished but what about spiritual food (in other words doing God’s will for our lives)? Perhaps one of the things that we are reminded of in Lent is that food is just for the physical nourishment of our bodies. Yes, we can enjoy food (and who doesn’t), but let it not preoccupy us so much. Let us spend more time being preoccupied with Spiritual food, doing God’s will, for that is where true nourishment is found.

We see a great and godly example in the life of St. Patrick. In his early twenties he was willing to leave his parents and homeland for the sake of following God’s call. Patrick heeded God’s call to come to Ireland, a land where the Good News of Jesus Christ had been little heard, a land of hardship and warring kings, a land of pagan worship practices and a land of spiritual darkness. But with the eyes that God gave him, what did Patrick see? He saw the same thing as Jesus saw when he said to his disciples:

‘… But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.’ (35)

Patrick saw a land of people who were starving, not for lack of food but for lack of God. In his own words he wrote:

I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish”. As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.

Just as the Lord Jesus, in the land of the Samaritans, saw people who were ready and eager to receive God’s word, so Patrick saw that the Irish were hungry for truth and thirsty for salvation.

For someone without faith, it would have seemed an impossible task; to go to another country, where many of the people were hostile and speak to them of a God of love, a God who gave his Son to die in their stead upon a cross, in a place far away in time and distance from their own and yet Patrick did it anyway. Patrick took the risk, he did not play it safe. He did not try and form a committee or organise a mission conference or plan a direct mailing campaign, he just went.

As I think about that I find it exhilarating, exciting and liberating. We do not need to carry the weight on our shoulders of what we need to do and when and how we need to do it; it is not our work, but God’s. He is leader, we just need to follow.

As we look over Ireland today, in almost every conceivable way it is a very different Ireland from the one whose shores St. Patrick would have landed upon all those centuries ago. In Patrick’s time there were no tarmacadamed roads, no means of instant communication over long distances, no cars, no computers, no shopping centres or multiplex cinemas, none of the ‘stuff’ that occupies so much of the time we always complain we don’t have enough of today. Yes, the landscape might be very different, but the people are not so different really; just like our ancient forbears, we have hopes and dreams, ambitions and fears and we all like they need a Saviour.

The fields are as ripe for harvest today as they ever were. How many of the people thronging the streets of our towns and cities and celebrating this day are lost, lonely and hurting inside? For how many of them does life seem hopeless and bleak with no apparent purpose and meaning? And who are the St. Patrick’s today who will tell them and show them Jesus?

We are.