Church at Home – 25th of October 2020 – 1 Peter 4:12-19

Click here to read 1 Peter 4:12-19.

Children’s Address

Sermon & Prayer

This year has been exceptionally difficult for so many people in this country and all over the world. We were caught off-guard and so many of our plans and dreams for 2020 were derailed. This year will go down in history. But life, normal life, has its moments too. We get derailed, caught off-guard, unsettled. We don’t like to be unsettled. It’s not a pleasant feeling to be reminded of the uncertainties of life and how little control we have over things. 

Peter was writing to a church undergoing a difficult time. They were facing persecution from the society they lived in because of their faith and how that changed the way that they lived. Peter’s advice to them is to not be surprised that this is happening: 

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”  

(1 Peter 4:12, NIV (Anglicised, 2011))  

Why shouldn’t they be surprised at their hardship? I’m not disagreeing with Peter, but I want us to reflect on why these people shouldn’t be surprised at their hardship. Because this can change how you view your struggles. And we’re all struggling with something, especially now. 

Notice what language Peter uses: “fiery ordeal”. Not “painful ordeal”, nor “upsetting ordeal”, even though enduring persecution must have been both painful and upsetting. Peter says “fiery”. Fire doesn’t just destroy; it’s also used to purify and to refine. Peter is referencing something that he mentioned at the beginning of this letter. 

Peter mentions the trials that these Christians are suffering and says: 

These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.”  

(1 Peter 1:7, NIV (Anglicised, 2011))  

This is a “fiery ordeal” because it is a refining process. They are being transformed. Their faith is being refined in the fires of persecution. 

Christians should not be surprised that they are being refined. You cannot have a relationship with Jesus and not be transformed by him. If you view your Christian life as a refining, transforming, purifying process then you will not be surprised or disheartened by hardships. 

Transformation involves being stretched, being unsettled, being made uncomfortable. People who go to the gym are not surprised that they must work out. You wouldn’t be surprised to go to school and find that you must concentrate and study hard.  

You will be surprised and disheartened by fiery ordeals if you think that everything is already gold. If you think that nothing needs to be unsettled or refined, then you’ll just be upset. You will see it as nothing more than torment. But if we know that we need to be, and are being, transformed by God, refined by God, then we can have hope and even joy. 

This battle against COVID-19 has been hard on the church. We can’t currently meet for Sunday services, Bible studies, prayer meetings, youth fellowship, Sunday school, committee meetings, kirk session meetings and much of the normal socialising that is so important for fellowship and friendship. I’m glad that I can still communicate with you through our modern technology including these videos, or the CDs, or by post. But this isn’t church. This is a very poor substitute for meeting together and worshipping together. It’s easy to become disheartened, I know. 

Aside from our current situation, the church has other fiery ordeals that are just typical to the experience of being faithful followers of Christ in a world that does not know him. We have brothers and sisters around the world who are persecuted, beaten, jailed and killed for their faith. The opposition that believers face in Ireland is not so severe, but still it’s not insignificant. We can do our best to nurture the faith of young believers (either young in age or simply new to the faith) but when they encounter mockery or abuse for their beliefs that can really hurt. It’s not nice to face mockery and accusations from your neighbours or those who once were your friends. It’s heart-breaking.  

So, we shouldn’t be surprised when we suffer for our faith. What should be our response?  

But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”  

(1 Peter 4:13, NIV (Anglicised, 2011))  

We can rejoice when we suffer for our faith, because we know that we are not only suffering for Christ but suffering with Christ. We’re walking his way, and if our Lord encountered opposition and hardship in the world then so will we.  

In Acts, chapter 5, we can read of the time when Peter and the apostles were flogged by the High Council in Jerusalem for preaching the gospel. After they were released, they rejoiced: 

The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.”  

(Acts 5:41–42, NIV (Anglicised, 2011))  

As Peter says in this passage: 

If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.”  

(1 Peter 4:15–16, NIV (Anglicised, 2011))  

We have fellowship with Jesus in suffering for our faith, and just as we share in this suffering, we will share in his glory too. As Paul wrote to the Roman church: 

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.”  

(Romans 8:17, NIV (Anglicised, 2011))  

The path to true glory goes through suffering because we must be transformed if we want to see glory. And transformation, changing to something better, is an unsettling, uncomfortable and sometimes painful process. Jesus didn’t need to be transformed, but he endured suffering for our sake. As we walk this path, we walk it with Jesus and his Spirit will be with us in a special way. As Peter says in verse 14: 

If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.”  

(1 Peter 4:14, NIV (Anglicised, 2011))  

When our faith takes us through suffering the Spirit of God rests on us. Now the Spirit dwells in all Christians, but those who suffer for their faith can experience the presence of God in a very powerful way as the Spirit blesses them with what they need to endure, to bear witness, and to be transformed. Those who cling tightly to God in these hard times find their faith strengthened. That is a blessing worth rejoicing over. 

Judgement is coming. Evil will be dealt with and done away with. But when we think of evil, we must not think of it as something out there. Evil is in me too and it must be cut away by God. Because I belong to him, God is dedicated to cutting that evil away and transforming me. Sometimes it is a painful process. Sometimes God uses unlikely events or experiences to achieve this end, but I trust in him. As painful as it can be to go against the flow in this world and undergo the transformation that God is working in me, it is ultimately a far more painful and terrible thing to simply go the way of this world. That’s what Peter means in verses 17 and 18: 

For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, ‘If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’”  

(1 Peter 4:17–18, NIV (Anglicised, 2011))  

God may discipline me out of love, to correct my ways and transform me so I become more like Jesus. I know that God isn’t just punishing me when I suffer, because my punishment was taken by Jesus on the cross. I have faith in Jesus and his sacrifice in my place and so I am saved. My debt is paid. My sins are forgiven. I hope the same is true of you because this is a debt you could never afford to pay yourself. Thank God you don’t have to if you put your trust in Jesus. 

Cling tightly to God when you suffer, knowing that he is faithful and is working in you to bless you and transform you into what you were always meant to be. 

So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.”  

(1 Peter 4:19, NIV (Anglicised, 2011))  

Don’t be surprised that things are difficult. Commit to God and continue to do what he has called you to do. An athlete doesn’t get discouraged when their muscles ache after training. They know they’re putting in the work, they know that their body is changing and growing, that they are being transformed. Christians who suffer for their faith should have the same response, knowing that they’re being refined and transformed by God who loves them.  

Commit yourself to your faithful Creator and continue to do good during these difficult times, and always. 

Prayer 

Faithful Lord, help us to trust you in our fiery ordeals. Fill us with the faith and knowledge that you are good and are working all things for the good of us who love you. We pray again for healing and restoration. Heal the sick, comfort the mourning, protect our communities we pray. Help our health service to handle the enormous pressure they are under now. Help those out of work or barely scraping by because of the economic devastation this virus has brought. Help your church to grow in faith and in love for you and each other and to be a powerful and bright witness in a dark world. 

We pray for those who are lonely. Help us to remember to reach out to each other, by phone or letter, or other technology, and share friendship. 

We pray for the peace, protection, and justice for the people of Nigeria during the ongoing “End SARS” protests. 

We pray for our brothers and sisters around the world who are persecuted for their faith. May they be encouraged and strengthened by your presence with them and may they be a powerful witness for the gospel in their countries. 

We pray these things in Jesus’ name, 

Amen. 

Songs

Church at Home – 18th of October 2020 – 1 Peter 4:7-11

Click here to read 1 Peter 4:7-11.

Children’s Address

Sermon

“The end of all things is near” sounds like something out of a disaster movie. It sounds like something said to scare people. But to a Christian this isn’t doom and gloom. TV and Hollywood just don’t seem to get this. “The end” in films is a disaster, it’s destruction. But in the Bible, “the end” is glory. For Christians “the end of all things” does not mean destruction or doom, it means fulfilment. When we talk about the end of something, we could mean the closing or finishing of something, but that word can also mean the point or purpose of something. Like when we talk about “the ends justify the means” or we say “to what end” someone is doing something. It’s even in the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:

Q 1: What is the chief end of man?

Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.

What that question means by the word “end” is “purpose”. What is the chief purpose of human beings? What is the main point of people? Humanity’s chief purpose is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. So, “end” is not a bad, scary word.

The culmination of all things, the purpose of all things is at hand. All that needs to be done for God’s great plan of salvation has been done. Jesus has come, he has performed his rescue, dying for his people on the cross. Jesus has been resurrected. Jesus has ascended to heaven to reign. The Holy Spirit has been poured out on his people. Everything has been put in place. Christ can return in glory at any moment to make all things new and to put away evil, death, mourning and tears forever. Our role is not to just wait around for that, but to be alert, to pray and to be useful to our King.

Yes, there will be judgement, but in Christ, God has already declared us righteous because Jesus suffered in our place. So, for us, thanks to Jesus, the end is glory and joy. Since the end is near, let’s stay the course, let’s remain faithful. The finish line is near, so let’s keep going.

Above all, Peter says, we must love each other deeply.

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.

(1 Peter 4:8, NIV (Anglicised, 2011))

The work that the church is called to do in this world we must do together in the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s how God wants us to live: cooperating with one another, each using the gifts that God has given us by his Spirit, each of us a member of the body of Christ in this world. A holy community.

Just because this is a holy community doesn’t mean that we’re a perfect community. Like any community we are a community of sinners. Because we are still sinners there will be falling out, there will be hurt, there will be acts of selfishness. Although this is expected, we don’t have to accept it and surrender to it. We must fight against this with love. If we love one another, we will be less inclined to act in selfish ways that hurt each other. If we love one another, we will be able to forgive one another and reconcile when we fall out, and then we can get back to being that holy community that God calls us to. This is as true in the church as it is in the home. We simply must love each other, there’s no way we can be the church without love.

It’s not easy to forgive. True forgiveness is costly. Forgiveness means deciding not to make someone pay. It doesn’t mean pretending that everything’s okay. It doesn’t mean excusing sins. It doesn’t mean putting up with abusive relationships that endanger you. It means that you have decided that you are not going to make them pay.

If someone owes me money and I forgive them I have decided not to make them pay. But it costs me. Now I end up short however much they owed me. If someone crashes my car and can’t afford to repair it and I forgive them, then I’m the one who must pay. If someone hurts me and I forgive them then that too is a painful and costly process, but it’s the way of Christ.

In the cross of Christ, we see God forgiving us and just how much it cost to do that. The cross is the best picture we have of God’s love for us. God forgave us, but the debt still needed to be paid. On the cross we see God paying that debt himself, we see God’s painful costly forgiveness.

If we are recipients of such a costly forgiveness, then we don’t get to begrudge anyone forgiveness. We don’t get to say that although God has forgiven such a great debt for me, I’m going to make sure you pay for all the little ways you’ve offended me. That’s not an option for those who have received such grace. If we want to call ourselves Christians, then refusal to forgive is not an option.

That means we don’t hold grudges. We don’t grumble, but we show hospitality to one another.

“Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.”

(1 Peter 4:9–11, NIV (Anglicised, 2011))

We have received the grace of God and so we are stewards of that grace. In other words, we must pass it along. Those who have received grace must be gracious. Being hospitable is more than just having guests in your home, which is good really because we can’t have guests in our homes right now. Being hospitable means being kind to strangers, loving those who are not like us.

We are to serve one another with the gifts that God has given us. Whether it’s speaking or serving, we do so in God’s strength and as agents of God so that God will be praised. This is the calling of the church: to do God’s work in God’s strength for God’s glory, If we are going to do that then it needs to be done together. And if we are to be together, then we will need to be forgiving. We are going to need to love one another. There’s no other way.

Prayer

Our loving Heavenly Father, we thank you for saving us and making us a people. We pray that you would help us to be that people: a people of grace, a people of mercy. Help us to be a gracious community, gracious to one another so that we can show Christ’s grace to the world.

We pray for those who lost jobs or are struggling with their business or finances during this time of increased restrictions. We pray that when this virus passes our economy would bounce back, but not just with more money for the rich. We pray that employment would be restored. We pray for a fair and equitable society for all.

We pray for protection from the virus, especially for those who are most vulnerable. We pray for healing for those who are sick. We pray for your comfort and strength for those who are grieving the loss of loved ones.

Help us to weather this storm we pray. Help those working on the front lines to keep society going. Help those who fight against this virus, caring for and treating people. Help those working to produce medicine and vaccines.

We pray that we would see the end of this soon and be able to enjoy community and fellowship again.

In Jesus’ name we pray,

Amen.

Songs

Engage for Teenagers

Engage

Another delivery!

Youth fellowship has also suffered greatly during these pandemic times, so I’ve bought these to help our BGPC teenagers. These “Engage” books are are designed to help teenagers engage with God’s word. If you or your teen would like one, please let me know and I’ll get one out to you.

Bailieborough Group members can request a copy by commenting here or by email or phone.

Also, I want to remind you please just let me know if you’d like a chat about anything.

Church at Home – 11th of October 2020 – Romans 5:1-11

Children’s Address

Sermon and Prayer

Today, as the churches all over the country are once again unable to meet in person, we in the Bailieborough group celebrate our second harvest Sunday. Welcome! Thank you for joining me, wherever you are.

Harvest, I think, is very naturally linked with hope. Harvest is what we hope for. Harvest is a celebration of receiving those things that we hoped for. And so I wanted to preach about hope today, because hope is needed.

So, I’ve chosen one of the great “hope passages” of the Bible: Romans, chapter 5, verses 1 to 11. Here Paul writes to the church in Rome about hope. Hope amid struggles. Hope that can’t be shaken. Hope that is the fruit of the justification that we have in Christ.

Harvest time is a time when people see the results of their labour – the fruit. They enjoy something at harvest because of work that was done months beforehand. They sowed, and now they reap. What Paul shows us here is some of the fruit that we get to enjoy, because of justification that we have in Christ through faith.

The fruits of our justification are peace, grace, and hope. We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have access to grace through Jesus. And we have hope. Hope in the glory of God. That’s the reality for a Christian.

Because of what Jesus has done, we are justified, declared righteous before God. Those words can sound a bit technical or legal and so maybe it’s hard to see the beauty of them. They conjure up images of a courtroom perhaps. Not the warmest of settings. But reflect on this blessing or fruit of justification: you have peace with God. God hasn’t just let us off the hook, he’s made peace between us and Himself. You are on good terms with the Creator of all things. God is your friend.

Sometimes we might think that we must make things up to God. We think we must punish ourselves or keep our distance because of something we’ve done. No! Jesus has made the way and done all the work needed for us to have peace with God. What you must do is believe. Believe that good news.

We don’t stand in condemnation; we stand in grace. That’s what Paul says in verse 2: “we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand”. That’s the second fruit we see here. That’s your standing, your position before God. Our position is one of blessing, and not an occasional blessing either. We’re not visiting grace every so often. We’re not passing through grace. We are standing in grace. We’re set there. This isn’t a temporary blessing.

Now the third fruit: Hope. We have peace with God. We stand in grace. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God (v. 3). Even if you don’t feel it right now, you have a sure hope of future glory, a solid guarantee that does not depend on subjective feelings, but on the finished work of Jesus Christ. Christian hope isn’t like an everyday hope. You hope that the weather will be nice enough for a walk later, but you’re not certain. You hope that you’ll get to your destination on time, but traffic might be bad, so you’re not certain. That’s everyday hope. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s different from the hope Paul is describing here. Paul says that this hope we have is hope in the glory of God. God’s glory will be displayed. We can catch glimpses of it in God’s creation. Our clearest sign of the glory to come is in Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection. The amazing thing about this glory is that God involves us in it. God is glorified in us as he works in and through us and when his glory is fully revealed we will share in that glory. As Paul wrote to the Colossians:

When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:4, NIV (Anglicised, 2011))

Our hope has a certainty that everyday hope lacks. This hope doesn’t depend on the changeable weather or on the traffic on the road, not on the economy or ups and downs of our fight against COVID. Our hope is in God Himself being glorified and us sharing in that glory. We’re always progressing towards that glory, even as we endure suffering.

Suffering too has its fruit:

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3–4, NIV (Anglicised, 2011))

Paul speaks to the suffering Christians, telling them that in light of our future hope in the glory of God it is possible to rejoice even in the midst of suffering, because ultimately that suffering goes to produce greater hope and the hope that the Christian has does not put us to shame (v. 5) – it’s not a silly hope, a vain wishing that things will all turn out right in the end.

Paul shows the security of this hope in two ways. In the second half of verse 5 Paul gives the first reason for our hope: the experience of the love of God in our hearts through the Holy Spirit. Do you know what he’s talking about there? Have you ever caught a glimpse of the sheer massiveness of God’s love? God works in our hearts, to soften them and open them up to the reality of His love through the work of His Holy Spirit. That’s a subjective proof, based on an internal experience – something within us changes when we trust in Jesus. If you don’t know what that feels like, then ask God to show you.

Maybe you do remember a time when you felt that, but things are really bad at the moment, and it seems so distant now that it’s hard to recall and you wonder did it ever really happen. Paul doesn’t just leave us with subjectivity. Feelings come and go but truth does not depend on our feelings. Paul follows this subjective personal experience with the objective fact of the cross in verses 6 to 10.

While we were still God’s enemies, while we had done nothing to deserve it, Christ died for us to reconcile us to God. That is how much God loves us – though we had no righteousness to boast of, God sent His perfect Son to redeem us by His death and make us righteous through faith in Him.

I’m not a farmer. My dad’s not a farmer, he’s a retired mechanic. So, I don’t have a lot of experience with harvesting. But I know that harvest and hope are linked. To sow something and care for it and wait for harvest is an act of hope. You hope you’ve done a good job. You hope that the pests and the frost will won’t get at it. You hope that the weather will mean a good harvest.

The justification that is available through faith in Jesus Christ leads to a harvest of peace, grace, and hope. What utterly secures this harvest of hope is the fact that it’s not relying on me. It’s not about me being a good farmer or gardener, it’s not about my work. This is God’s harvest.

Christ died for the ungodly – us – while we were still sinners (vv. 6-8). That’s the work and it’s already been done. That work that leads to the fruit of peace with God, standing in grace before Him and rejoicing in the hope of His glory, it’s been done. You don’t have to strive to do this. You don’t have to make yourself good enough. You don’t have to toil and sweat for this harvest. The work has been done by God already.

How can we have this peace and grace and hope? Faith. Believe in Jesus. Believe that when Paul writes about Jesus dying for the ungodly, he’s writing about you. I am a sinner saved by Jesus Christ. He paid the price for all my sins on the cross. Because of Jesus I have peace with God. I stand in grace. I boast in the hope of the glory of God. I hope you know that hope too. It’s a hope that rests not on the changeable things of this world, but on God Himself.

Songs to Sing

Table Talk for Families

Look what the courier just delivered!

I know that family Bible time can be difficult, but they are so important for the spiritual development of our children. To help parents, especially in the absence of church Sunday school, I’ve ordered these great little Table Talk books. The books are designed to be quick and easy to use to help you to share in some Bible time with children aged 4 to 12.

Please just let me know you would like a copy for your family and I will get one out to you. Bailieborough Group members can request a copy by commenting here or by email or phone.

Refined – A Digital Conference by PCI

PCI’s first digital conference is now available for congregational use. With present restrictions on gatherings, we cannot come together for conferencing and events in the usual way. Instead, we share the challenge and encouragement of this digital conference at this crucial moment of a very irregular season of our denomination’s life and witness.

As part of the new Refined digital programme for supporting and developing congregational life and witness, the conference material offers encouragement to reflect on recent circumstances and seek God’s leading and guiding for this next season of church life together. 

Neil Hudson, author of Imagine Church and Scattered and Gathered and a long-standing friend of PCI, brings a voice from outside our denomination, calling us back to God’s Word as we find it in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. A panel discussion teases out the application of some of what Neil has said to us in PCI at this time. Other features invite us to personally reflect and respond to God in prayer and praise.

The first version (50 minutes) features the message from Neil Hudson based on 1 Corinthians 3: 9-17 and a panel discussion between the Moderator, Dr David Bruce and Rev Nigel McCullough, facilitated by Rick Hill, PCI’s Discipleship Development Officer. The conference concludes with a prayer.

The reduced version (28 minutes) of the conference features the message from Neil Hudson based on 1 Corinthians 3: 9-17 and concludes with a prayer.

From PCI’s resources for Congregational Life: https://www.presbyterianireland.org/Resources/Congregational-Life/Resources-for-returning-to-church-life.aspx

Church Closure During Stage 3

Dear friends,

Due to the rise in cases of COVID-19, the government has decided move the whole country to Stage 3 of the government’s “National Framework for Living with COVID-19” from midnight on Tuesday the 6th of October. This means that church services must go online for at least three weeks.

This has been all over the news this week, so you probably knew all this already, but I wanted to write to encourage you to continue on. Continue to sow seeds. Continue your worship at home. Continue to join me on for the reflections and prayers online. Continue to play your part in our fellowship. I know missing this Sunday in church is particularly difficult for the Trinity and Corraneary congregations who were planning to have harvest thanksgiving services this Sunday. I know it’s tough going and we’re all tired of this virus and the fight against it has wearied us, but God has brought us together and given us fellowship with one another. Even though we must physically keep our distance from one another, we can still support and love one another and enjoy that fellowship.

Please join us as we seek hope and peace in God’s word during these difficult times. Online sermons and prayer will continue to be provided. For those who would prefer them, I am more than happy to send out audio CDs or sermons in written form.

Please pray for the country, for those who are sick and for those in the front line of this battle against the Coronavirus – those who are fighting directly against the disease, and those who are fighting to keep essential services up and running. Pray for wisdom for our leaders. Pray for those who are anxious or lonely. This is a very difficult time, but God is our strength and fortress.

I encourage you all now to read and reflect on the words of Psalm 46.

God bless,
Rev. John.

Psalm 46 (NIV (Anglicised, 2011))

For the director of music. Of the Sons of Korah. According to alamoth. A song.

1 God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
3 though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.

4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
5 God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
6 Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

7 The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

8 Come and see what the Lord has done,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10 He says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.’

11 The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Church at Home – 4th of October 2020 – Psalm 126

We are going through some tough times now as a church. We can’t celebrate as we would like to. It’s hard to keep spirits up and to keep that sense of community when, for the sake of one another, we must remain at a distance from one another. This is one of those times when we long for the way things used to be. The way things should be.

There’s nothing wrong with remembering the past. In fact, I want to encourage you to do that today. But we can’t leave it at nostalgia. Just feeling a sense of longing won’t do. It won’t help. What we need to do is look back and be thankful. Remember and give thanks.

That’s what’s going on in the first three verses of Psalm 126:

Psalm 126:1–3 (NIV (Anglicised, 2011))

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,

we were like those who dreamed.

Our mouths were filled with laughter,

our tongues with songs of joy.

Then it was said among the nations,

‘The Lord has done great things for them.’

The Lord has done great things for us,

and we are filled with joy.

This is a psalm of lament. It’s written for a community going through a tough time. It shows us what to do with these feelings that we have, this sense of longing for the way things were. Don’t just remember. Remember and give thanks.

I’m not just talking about church either. Look back on your life. Just take a while today, tomorrow, this week. Just sit and remember. Remember what God has done for you. Remember the trials you’ve overcome. The times you didn’t think you could make it. The times when things seemed impossible. The times when God saw you through. Look back. Remember. Give thanks.

People long for a great religious experience, a vision, they want to see God move. Well here’s your vision. It’s this wonderful gift from God: the ability to remember and reflect. See how God has already moved in your life and give thanks.

Let yesterday’s trials be today’s testimony. Those opening verses talk about a time when God restored the fortunes of Zion (Jerusalem). A time when things were bad before and then God rescued the people. They rejoiced and sang, and the nations could see that God had done this great thing for them.

Look at verse 3: “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.” That’s remembering the past, and not just leaving it at longing or nostalgia, but being thankful right now in the present. “We are filled with joy,” is what it says. Joy felt now, even amid hardship, because of what God has already done in the past. We can look back and see what God has done and what God is able to do.

What this Psalm also reminds us is the truth that, with God, we are never truly far from joy. Even at the worst of times we are between victories. We live between glory and glory. We may endure hardship, but we’re never defeated.

This psalm is a prayer of faith and hope in God, it looks back at times of joy and knows that there is more joy to come. There will be restoration. We can say this with confidence because it’s not about us. The victory is God’s victory and it’s already been won.

Christians get a clearer glimpse of how this works out than God’s people had back when this psalm was composed. We can look back and see the cross and the resurrection of Jesus and we know that this is a sign of what is to come.

Saint Paul wrote:

1 Corinthians 15:20 (NIV (Anglicised, 2011))

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

Jesus is alive. His resurrection is like the firstfruits of a harvest, pointing us to the glory that awaits those who have put their faith in him and his sacrifice to atone for our sins.

We will have highs and lows in this world, but we know how this ends. For us it ends in glory. It ends in joy.

What God has done in the past shows us God’s power and his faithfulness to his people. The cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the greatest example of that. But you can just look at your own life too. Look at what God has done for you in the past. Can’t he do it again? Hasn’t he shown himself faithful?

Encouraged by the past and putting their hope in God the psalmist writes a prayer for the future in verses 4-6:

Psalm 126:4–6 (NIV (Anglicised, 2011))

Restore our fortunes, Lord,

like streams in the Negev.

Those who sow with tears

will reap with songs of joy.

Those who go out weeping,

carrying seed to sow,

will return with songs of joy,

carrying sheaves with them.

I have a video on my phone of Timothy taking his first steps. I don’t really show it to people, and if I do show it, I keep the sound muted. The reason being that if you were to listen to the sound of that video all you’d really hear as Timothy took his first steps towards me would be me laughing my head off like a madman. I am looking forward to teaching another child to walk and laughing like a madman again. When babies learn to walk, they must be motivated to walk to something. They can’t just let go of what was supporting them. They let go and move forward knowing that they will be caught. They must have that period where nobody is holding their hands and there’s nothing to lean on. They must have that challenge to grow. Or they could just sit on the floor and put off learning to walk.

We can’t just stay in the past. Neither can we just sit and wallow now. We must take those little baby steps of faith and move forward. The psalmist talks about “those who sow with tears” (v. 5) and “Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow” (v.6).

The weeping, the tears, or the nostalgia and regret, these are natural normal reactions to difficult circumstances. The sowing of seeds is an act of faith. It’s a refusal to give up. We must keep sowing seeds. Those who do so, “will reap with songs of joy”.

Paul wrote to the Galatians:

Galatians 6:9 (NIV (Anglicised, 2011))

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.

Keep doing good. Keep making those acts of faith. Keep looking forward to the day of harvest. Today’s trials will be tomorrows testimony. God is able. God is faithful.

Look back, remember, and reflect on all that God has done for you. Give thanks. And as you look at the present difficulties lift your voice to God. Pray and ask him to restore us once again. Keep taking those steps of faith. Keep sowing those seeds. Do good. Take care of one another. Be kind.

The restrictions we must put up with now are there to protect each other. They are there out of love. So, let’s be careful for each other’s sake.

We will return with songs of joy!

Pray

Father we thank you for your faithfulness to your people. We thank you for all the ways you have rescued us and sustained us in the past. We thank you most of all for that great rescue that we have in Jesus Christ our Saviour.  Help us to remember and be thankful. Help us to put our trust in you to face our current difficulties with hope and grace.

As cases of COVID-19 in Ireland continue to rise please protect us. We pray for healing for those who are sick, we especially remember those in our own community in the Bailieborough Group. We pray for your protection for those working on the front lines. We pray for the development of effective treatments and vaccines. We pray for the death of this virus.

We pray for a spirit of cooperation and kindness to prevail, even as we cannot socialise like we used to.

We pray that this time of year might remind us and all people that you are faithful, that you provide and are ready to bless those who seek you.

We pray in Jesus’ name,

Amen.

Sing

Church at Home – 27th September 2020 – 1 Peter 4:1-6

“Is it worth it?” When we make sacrifices and endure hardship that’s the question that we sometimes ask, isn’t it? Or other questions like “What am I even doing this for? “or “What’s the point anyway?”. 

Athletes, train with the finish line in mind. The medal. The congratulations. The parade in their hometown. That confirmation that all the early mornings, the sweat and tears, the strict diet were all worth it in the end because they pushed themselves to give their best and achieved their dreams. 

Peter writes to Christians under pressure. They are enduring persecution from their neighbours and the internal pressure that they feel: that pressure to conform. Sometimes it’s tiring being the odd one out isn’t it? Their neighbours continue with their worldly pleasures and their idolatry and they enjoy the pleasure of fitting in and being normal. Whereas the Christians abstain and repent and discipline themselves and that does get hard. So, like an athlete we need to keep the finish line in sight. Whether it’s suffering the same hardships as everyone else (like these current COVID-related restrictions we all must endure), or suffering alienation and mockery and persecution because of our faith, or suffering those temptations to conform you have a fight on your hands if you are to be a Christian in this world. 

In this passage Peter instructs Christians to have the same attitude regarding suffering as Jesus had. Peter talks about suffering a lot in this letter because the people he was writing to were suffering. We are suffering too. The people of Ireland are suffering. These are hard times. Lonely times. We find ourselves isolated from family and isolated from community. The simple things of a normal, quiet life are now infected with fear. I see it in my own family. My four-year-old son has started talking about death. If we go out in public together, he clings to me. Maybe you’ve noticed similar things in your own family. That’s just suffering these restrictions that have been put in place to protect us. And let me say that it is our duty to protect one another. It is our Christian duty to love our neighbours and these days that means keeping our distance and taking the precautions we need to take. The restrictions we abide by out of love for one another are good, but they can result in loneliness and hardship too. Aside from the restrictions some of us have fallen sick, so there is that suffering too. Numbers are increasing. We are suffering in Ireland and Ireland is not alone in this. People all over the world are suffering. 

The church is affected in its own way. Our services are restricted. Numbers are restricted and the elements of our worship are restricted out of a need to protect one another. Many have made the decision to stay home, and I support them in that. Nobody should feel forced to come and I will help those who wish to worship at home. We have our website. We have our CD ministry. I can send the text of sermons to people. 

Even in pre-pandemic times the church has its struggles, and we’ll have the same troubles in post-pandemic times when they come, and they will come. Peter describes those kinds of struggles here in this passage. Worldly people have a great time engaging in worldly pleasures and are surprised at these oddballs, these Christians, who won’t join in. Society is increasingly intolerant of genuine Christian faith. You’re seen as a delusional person if you believe the gospel and strive to live in obedience to Christ. The only kind of faith that society appears to accept these days is a kind of box-ticking religious observance for about an hour on Sundays, and then after that you’re supposed to go back to being “normal”. Anything beyond that is mocked and even met with abuse. 

So, whether it is COVID or even just “normal” life, in this word the church will suffer. If we know that we have a struggle, a fight on our hands, what should we do? 

Here’s what Peter says we should do: 

1 Peter 4:1 (NIV (Anglicised, 2011))  

Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body has finished with sin.  

Arm yourselves. That’s the only imperative in this passage, it’s the only point here in today’s text where we’re told to do something. Let me faithfully pass on that message to you today, with your struggles. Here is what God’s word says to do: arm yourself! What are we to arm ourselves with? Hope! We must arm ourselves with hope! 

I want to be clear: I’m not talking about optimism. I’m not talking about putting on rose-tinted glasses. I’m not talking about “ah it’ll be grand”. What was writing about and what I’m talking about, is the attitude of Christ. 

Jesus never denied the reality of his suffering. Jesus never tried to pretend that it wasn’t really that bad. Jesus was betrayed, abandoned, abused, tortured, and killed in a way that was deliberately designed by the Romans to make a death slow, painful, and humiliating. On top of that Jesus bore the weight of God’s wrath taking the full punishment that was due to us, his people, for our sins. This was not an easy thing. This was not “grand”. If ever there was suffering this was it. 

But Jesus had hope. Jesus was able to endure this agony because he trusted in the Father. Jesus trusted that out of this darkness God would bring a great and glorious light – the salvation of sinners like you and me. 

Jesus was able to endure, and not only endure, but continue to be loving and gracious, because he had armed himself with hope. Because he trusted in the Father. 

The more we trust in God the less we will seek comfort in the things of this world. The more we trust in God the less we will despair when those things fail us or turn against us. We can trust God to see us through darkness because God Himself has gone down into deepest darkness. God knows suffering. God knows mourning. God knows. God has been there, and he will be there with us.  

Worldly people, people who don’t have the hope and the life that only God can give, will seek the comforts of this world, or “what pagans choose to do,” as Peter refers to them in verse 3. 

Christians have a greater treasure, a greater hope: living for the will of God, knowing that God is in control, that they belong to him. What can the world do? What do we have to fear in this life if we have been made right with God, if we know that God loves us and is taking care of us?  

What do those who belong to God have to fear? We know that Jesus is alive. We know that he died to save us and so all our sins have been atoned for in him. We know that God is not waiting to condemn us, but to embrace us. Even death has been defeated. How could we put our trust in anything but Jesus? Now that our trust is in Jesus, we have nothing to fear. 

I’ll never ask you to pretend that things aren’t so bad. I’ll never ask you to put on a fake smile and pretend like your heart isn’t breaking. Things are bad. What we’re going through, it’s bad. But never forget to arm yourself with the attitude of Christ, with the hope that comes from knowing that you belong to God and he is in control. 

It is worth it. We know the finish line is glorious and we know that Christ has already won the prize for us. Your faith making you the odd one out: it’s worth it. The precautions that we must take to protect one another: it’s worth it. We’ll rejoice together. Soon enough. We’ll have a proper celebration. 

Now, in these dark times, and even when things get a bit more normal again, let us arm ourselves with hope. 

Pray 

Lord, we pray that you would keep us in this day of trouble. Help us to put our hope in you our loving Father. Help us to take care of each other. Help us to be imaginative in how we show love and kindness as we minister to one another during this time of restrictions. 

We pray for our government. Bless them with wisdom and help them to govern this country with justice. We pray for all our frontline workers. Protect them and help them in their work. 

We pray for those who feel lonely and isolated. Comfort them, Lord, with the knowledge of your love. Give them hope. 

We pray for those who grieve the loss of loved ones. We pray for those who are sick, and their family. Lord, bring your healing, comfort and peace into these awful situations. 

We pray all these things in Jesus’ name. 

Amen. 

Sing

Church at Home – 20 September 2020 – 1 Peter 3:13-22

Hello everyone, thank you for joining me! Today we will be looking at 1 Peter 3:13-22, which you can read by clicking here.

I don’t know for certain, but I would say it’s highly likely that you are a better gardener than me. I think most people are. The poor plants that are sometimes given to me to take care of all seem to wither and die on me soon afterwards. I like plants but I just don’t seem to know what I’m doing. I give them too much water, or I don’t give them enough water, or put them in the wrong place. So, at home, my study doesn’t have any plants in it, even though I’d like a bit of greenery to brighten the place up. But even though I’m a terrible gardener I do at least know that sometimes plants need a bit of pruning. This is especially true if you’re hoping to grow some fruit. You prune off the plant to direct its growth and so it grows some nice fruit.

The Bible often talks to God’s people with that kind of gardening or farming language. Jesus said:

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.

John 15:1–2 (NIV (Anglicised, 2011))

God’s people are like a garden and he is the gardener, so he removes dead branches and he prunes the living branches. That branch that gets pruned might feel those sharp pruning shears and get worried or scared, but what God is doing will help that branch to grow fruit.

The Bible tells us:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:28 (NIV (Anglicised, 2011))

If we belong to God, if we love him, then no matter what happens to us in this world God is working it all together for our spiritual good. God is working in us, making us more like Jesus.

Peter used a different kind of imagery earlier in this letter. He writes in chapter 1:

In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.

1 Peter 1:6–7 (NIV (Anglicised, 2011))

Peter is writing to people who are being persecuted for their faith. They are suffering because they are Christians. When we suffer for our faith Peter says that suffering is like fire that that refines our faith, just like metal is refined to purify it. It’s different imagery, but it’s still about this thing that hurts but is ultimately being used for our good.

When we suffer as we follow Jesus, we are in fact being blessed, like that branch that’s being pruned or the metal that’s being refined. God works things for our good. God is taking care of us even in the dark times.

Peter repeats that message here in today’s passage. He tells them in verse 14:

But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. ‘Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.’

1 Peter 3:14 (NIV (Anglicised, 2011))

He says in verse 17:

For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.

1 Peter 3:17–18 (NIV (Anglicised, 2011))

We followers of Jesus, this is the path that we’re called to walk. Through suffering, glory. Peter’s argument for how to endure suffering has been “be like Jesus”. We are encouraged in our suffering because God himself has suffered. When the world hates us we are consoled with the knowledge that Jesus was hated first.

But it’s not just suffering. Peter want us to see that the way to true strength, the way to true glory and true victory is this way of Jesus. We’re not just suffering for the sake of suffering. We suffer on the path to glory. The pruning produces fruit. The heat of the furnace produces pure gold. The story of Jesus does not end at the cross, in darkness and despair as an innocent man dies. There was a resurrection. The tomb is empty.

Peter paints this picture for his readers of the absolute victory of Christ over all powers. He even makes this obscure reference to Christ proclaiming his victory to rebellious spirits from the time of Noah. It’s probably mentioned to emphasise Jesus’ complete victory over all and to remind us of that time when being obedient to God was such rare thing – just eight people on that boat.

Peter reminds us too that Christ’s victory is our victory. By faith we are saved by his death for us on the cross.

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.

1 Peter 3:18 (NIV (Anglicised, 2011))

He died to bring us to God, and he was victorious, so we have been brought to God. We’ve been forgiven. Just as Jesus is risen, we are raised to new life in him.

We have nothing to fear from this world. We belong to God and God is working all things, even the things that cause us pain, for our good. God is pruning us to bear fruit. God is refining us to purify our faith. We are walking along the path that Jesus set, through suffering and on to glory.

Peter tells us what we should do instead of fearing this world:

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

1 Peter 3:15–16 (NIV (Anglicised, 2011))

Remind yourself that Christ is Lord and that he is your Lord. Submit to Christ. And be prepared to give an answer to those who ask you about your hope.

Because Christ is victorious, and we belong to God we have a hope that the world doesn’t have. We don’t just feel the cut of the pruning shears. We know that we are being taking care of and made fruitful and that gives us a strange hope that will make the world curious. We demonstrate our hope by refusing to give in and return hatred for hatred, by refusing to stop loving each other and even the people who hate and mistreat us.

We’re called to walk the path of Jesus. It’s a hard road but it’s the only one that leads to true joy, true hope, true life, true glory. If we stick to the path even when things get tough, even those who mock us will have to stop and think maybe we’re going the right way.

Pray

Lord, we thank you that we have a real living hope because Jesus is alive. We thank you that you are always taking care of us. We pray that you would increase our trust in you and help us to be your witnesses in this world. Help us to follow Jesus, even when it gets tough.

Father we know that the hardship we endure is being used to refine our faith, but it is still hard. We pray that you would also give us comfort. We pray for those who have been bereaved, especially in our own congregation. Those who have lost loved ones and family members. Be near them in their mourning, we pray.

We pray for our young people and the young people all over the country, moving on in their education or looking towards careers. It’s normally a time of great transition and uncertainty and even anxiety and that is heightened this year with the added worries over the Coronavirus. Bring your peace and your wisdom to those who worry and feel uncertain of how things will go for them or their loved ones.

We pray that cases of the virus in this country would decrease again. We pray that you would protect all our healthcare workers, carers, and frontline workers. We pray for an end to this soon and, for the time being, the strength to endure.

We pray all these things in Jesus’ name.

Amen.

Sing