Knowing the Biggest Story

Key to properly understanding all of the little stories of the Bible is seeing how they fit into the big overarching story of the Bible.

The Biggest Story: The Animated Short Film is a great way for kids (and grown-ups) to get to know the story of the Bible. It’s free to stream until the 12th of April and I think it could really benefit you and your family as you read the Bible at home.

Click here to watch The Biggest Story:The Animated Short Film.

Your Bible Reading Toolkit

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

Following on from Sunday’s sermon, this week is “reading week”, where I hope to give you help and encouragement to read the Bible for yourself. I hope you find the following links helpful. The Bible is an incredible gift, evidence of God’s love for us and, very importantly, it is for you! The Bible is not just for scholars, or experts, or super-saintly people who never doubt or sin or make mistakes, it’s for us all.

Bible Apps and Websites

The most important thing is that we read the Bible, it doesn’t need to be from a fancy, leather-bound, ornate edition. There are many very beautiful looking Bibles sitting on shelves gathering dust. It doesn’t matter how fancy your Bible is if you’re not reading it. Reading from a website or app is just as good and I myself have found them very helpful. Here are some free apps and websites I have experience with.

  • The Bible App, by YouVersion is available for Android and iOS. It includes the Bible in many different translations. This app also has some great reading plans, short plans lasting only a few days as well as plans that will take you through the whole Bible in a year. They also make a Bible App for kids with interactive games and stories.
  • BibleGateway is a website I’ve been using for about as long as I’ve been a Christian. It has many different translations in multiple languages as well as reading plans.
  • The Bible Project. I love what these guys are doing! They create excellent animated videos to help people understand the Bible. I am a regular user of this website and a supporter of their ministry.
  • Biblia provide Bible translations for you to read online, as well as access to reading plans and to commentaries. It’s a useful tool for deeper study.

Regarding translations, I know it is easy to get lost in the sea of choices available on these apps and websites. Most will default to a popular English translation like the NIV or ESV, both are fine. If you’re wondering what we use regularly in church it’s the New International Version (NIV for short), which I think is a good translation and very accessible for daily reading. The NIV is what I use for my own daily reading, but for more in-depth study I will use other English translations as well as the original languages. You don’t have to do that. Like I said, this isn’t just for scholars or experts, but for everybody and the most important thing is to just read the Bible yourself.

If you have any questions please just let me know! I would be delighted to help you out! Seriously, that’s not an exaggeration, I am a big Bible nerd and I love helping other people to get to grips with the Bible.

Rev. John.

“Read” – Psalm 119:9-16

This reflection was addressed to the Bailieborough Group by Rev. John O’Donnell on the Sunday the 29th of March 2020. This was the second Sunday we could not meet together for worship due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first time I read Psalm 119 I was only a baby Christian. I became a Christian at the age 22 and I had a great desire to read the Bible and read Christian books that explain the faith. I read Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis, I read the Screwtape Letters also by Lewis, I read What’s So Amazing About Grace by Philip Yancey, I read Basic Christianity by John Stott, I tore through books and committed to reading through the Bible as well. In those early days I would read a chapter from the New Testament in the morning and before I went to sleep at night, I would read a psalm. And that routine was going great with a nice short bit of reading before bed at night with the psalms. That was until the night I met Psalm 119, not knowing what I was in for. Psalm 119 is huge. It’s an acrostic poem there is a stanza for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet and in the original Hebrew each verse within a given stanza also begins with that letter. 176 verses in all. This is a masterpiece. I started reading thinking that I would just have another short psalm to read before sleeping that night but ended up reading all 176 verses od Psalm 119. I was not prepared. But I still couldn’t fail to notice just how much love there was in this psalm for the word of God. This psalm, which we’re only reading a portion of today, is a celebration of the word of God. Let’s read Psalm 119:9-16 now. 

One of the most important theological concepts that Christians hold to is the concept of revelation. God reveals himself to us. God reaches out to us, allows us to know things about him. We believe that if we know anything about God it’s because he has shown us. It makes sense really. If there is an all-knowing, all-powerful Being it’s not like we’re going to be able to get one up on him and find out something he doesn’t want us to know. 

So, we believe God has revealed things about himself to us. God reveals himself in some way to all people everywhere. Psalm 19 tells us about how God’s creation is constantly declaring his glory whether we listen or not. 

“The heavens are telling the glory of God; 
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. 
Day to day pours forth speech, 
and night to night declares knowledge. 
There is no speech, nor are there words; 
their voice is not heard; 
yet their voice goes out through all the earth, 
and their words to the end of the world.” 
(Psalm 19:1-4) 

We are surrounded by God’s self-revelation.  

The very fact that there is something (anything!) rather than nothing should be a sign to us that Someone made this, Someone is in charge here. And we get these signs because God wants us to get them. 

That kind of revelation we call “general revelation”. It’s general — everyone gets it and you get the general idea that we are very small and something bigger than us is going on, there is a Creator, there is a Lord. But it won’t tell you all that a human being needs to know. We need a more direct, more specific type of revelation in order to truly know our Creator and know what it is that we need to know in order to be the kind of creatures he created us to be. 

So, God reached out to specific people, giving them instructions and guidance and revealing more about who he is, what he is like and why he created us, to them. We call that kind of revelation “special revelation. God directed this special revelation towards one particular person in a tribe of pagan people, a man named Abram: 

“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’” 
(Genesis 12:1-3) 

The man believed and obeyed, and God made a nation from him. That nation in turn God revealed himself to, so that they could show the world what God is like and bless all the families of the earth. God revealed himself, in direct speech, by inspiring prophets and dreamers, musicians and poets. And the highest point of this revelation is when God himself came among them. The fulfilment of God reaching out to us, by coming among us as one of us, as Jesus Christ, to live, die and rise again for us so that we can have fellowship with him. Jesus is the high point of God’s self-revelation. 

God reveals himself to us, shows us who he is and what he wants of us, because he loves us. He is always reaching out. Always seeking the lost. And the people of God, your brothers and sisters long ago, took these stories and treasured them and wrote them out. These stories of God’s interaction with them. God inspired them, guided their thoughts by his Spirit, to reflect on it and write about it. And it’s collected here in the Bible, the word of God. 

We must treasure it. Because in the Bible God shows us who he is, what he is like, who we are and what we are for. Because God loves us. When you hold the Bible or look at it, even just then, I want you to know that it is evidence of the great love that God has for you. Because everything we know about God, we know it because he wants us to know it, because he loves us. 

Because God created us and is always reaching out to us in love we must listen to what he says. There are so many voices that we will encounter in life but the most important voice we must listen to is the voice of God, our Creator, who loves us and wants us to know him. 

So, our text begins with the rhetorical question and answer: 

“How can a young person stay on the path of purity? 
By living according to your word.” 
(Psalm 119:9) 

This psalm is there to teach the reader. The “young person” here is the student, the disciple, the one who is eager to study God’s word and learn about him. This isn’t just for young people. The student wishes to keep their way pure and so the teacher instructs them to obey the word of God. What does it mean here to keep your way pure? 

Let’s look at some nearby parallels. Purity is paralleled with seeking God and not sinning against him: 

“I seek you with all my heart; 
do not let me stray from your commands.” 
“I have hidden your word in my heart 
that I might not sin against you.” 
(Psalm 119:10-11) 

A pure life is a life directed towards God. A life of seeking God, listening to him and obeying him. It’s the life of one who desires to be what God created them to be, who desires fellowship with God. Our Creator has spoken, he has reached out to us in love to tell us who he is, who we are and what we should do with the life he has given us. We must listen and obey. 

The psalmist loves God’s word, treasures it in his heart, declares it with his mouth, delights in it as much as in all riches. Look at the things this person asks of God: 

  • Verse 10: “do not let me stray from your commands.” 
  • Verse 12: “teach me your decrees.” 

They long to obey and learn more! Because they have found in God’s word a way to live the life that they were made for. They have found in God’s self-revelation, the love of God, a true relationship with God through his living word. And they rejoice in it, they praise God and his word! 

Praise be to you, Lord; 
teach me your decrees. 
With my lips I recount 
all the laws that come from your mouth. 
I rejoice in following your statutes 
as one rejoices in great riches. 
(Psalm 119:12-14) 

Do you think it’s a bit unusual to delight this much in the law, the ordinances, the decrees?We might think some rules are very important, we might agree with them. But when was the last time you rejoiced over the speed limit? Or when your software updates and you have to agree to the new terms and conditions. Do you read those and celebrate? Of course not! 

The difference is this is God’s law. God speaking into our lives to teach us and correct and call us on to something better, to that godly life where we walk closely with our Creator. That’s why these ordinances are treasured. 

Have you ever had an amazing teacher? Perhaps someone who taught you about something you were really interested in. They would teach you the right way to do things. They’d give you exercises to practice. They’d correct you and tell you when you were wrong. And you were grateful for it! You celebrate their instruction, the rules they placed on you, because they were wise and they helped you to do this thing that you love. 

So, the psalmist is glad of God’s decrees and statutes. He rejoices in the law of God, because it teaches him how to live the life that he was created for. 

We need this. We need to see God’s instruction as an act of God’s love for us, his little creatures. God cares enough about us to tell us the right way to be human. God’s instructions are not meant to put you down, but to put you on the right path. 

So what should we do? Verses 15-16: 

I meditate on your precepts 
and consider your ways. 
I delight in your decrees; 
I will not neglect your word. 
(Psalm 119:15-16) 

Get into the habit of the word. Read it, meditate on it, delight in it, do not neglect it. Here’s the practical advice: Decide you are going to read the Bible every day. Read every day. Not just your favourite passages either, and don’t jump about reading one verse from here, a couple of verses from there. Remember these are books, read them like books. If it helps you, get a reading plan and stick to it. For most of the history of Christianity most Christians couldn’t even dream of being able to read the Bible every day. So if you miss a few days don’t beat yourself up. But at the same time, since we have such great access to this amazing treasure, let’s make use of it. 

Family Worship

This reflection was addressed to the Bailieborough Group by Rev. John O’Donnell on Saturday, 28 March 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the current situation while we’re all sheltering in our homes, waiting out this pandemic, trying to flatten the curve and prevent the spread of the Coronavirus we can’t gather together. That means no meeting up for Sunday service. It means no Sunday School for the kids. It means no Bible Study or prayer meeting at the manse. I miss it. I miss seeing you all. I miss the children. I miss having you in my home and I miss dropping round to visit you in your homes. For the moment we must learn how to do church differently. 

I want to encourage you to practice family worship. Perhaps you already do that. Perhaps you need a little encouragement to get started. Or maybe this is a strange concept to you. But wherever you stand I want to encourage you and to help you with this practice. 

Family worship is a bit like handwashing I suppose. It’s something that we all should be doing anyway, but now in the current climate we can see just how important it is. 

At the end of the book of Joshua, Joshua spoke to the people and told them to stop wavering and choose who they will serve. Will they continue to run after the pagan gods of the nations, or will they worship the Lord? Joshua said: 

Joshua 24:14 ‘Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshipped beyond the River Euphrates and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.’ 

God’s people are commanded in Deuteronomy to make God’s word a part of their daily life and to teach it to their children: 

Deuteronomy 6:6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 

Our faith is not just something we practice for an hour on a Sunday in a special building. That kind of religion would certainly not survive this lockdown anyway. So, I want to encourage families to practice the faith at home together. Parents, you are the ones primarily responsible for teaching the faith to your children. That is a huge responsibility. But what I want to do is hopefully make this seem a little less intimidating and show you what a joy and a privilege it is. 

Timothy, our son, is three, so this year Sarah and I have been really trying to establish a routine of daily family worship together. We call it “Bible Time” in our home. I’ll tell you how we do it and what our experience has been, but you may end up doing things differently. This will have to be tailored to your situation. Maybe you don’t have kids. Maybe you have older kids. Maybe you have kids with special needs. You’ll know best how to adjust things for your setting. 

The 3 basic elements of family worship are: 

  1. Reading God’s word together 
  1. Praying together 
  1. Singing together 

Pick a book of the Bible and read through it together. If you have young children, you’ll probably want to focus on the stories of the Bible. The gospels would be good in that case. You’ll also maybe want to use a good Children’s Bible to keep things accessible for kids. 

You don’t need to be an expert in the Bible. You don’t need to prepare a study. Just open the book and read it together. 

Then pray. Keep it simple. I would encourage you to pray for something that came up in the Bible reading. For instance, if you’ve just read about Jesus healing someone you could pray that God would protect and heal someone you know about, or that God would help you to be kind and compassionate like Jesus. 

After the short prayer you can sing. Sing a hymn or worship song perhaps related to the passage, or one that the kids will know, or one that you really like. Don’t worry about singing the same song a few days in a row, that’s fine. Some people might feel a bit awkward singing, but this is an important part of Christian worship. God’s people have been a singing people from the beginning. You don’t need to be a great singer. This isn’t a performance. If you can sing Happy Birthday you can do this. 

This will all take only a few moments, but it’s so important in terms of nurturing your faith and the faith of your children. Don’t try to be a perfectionist here. Consistency is key. Those of you with young children especially, don’t worry if your kids seem uninterested or easily distracted. Timothy sometimes switches off or goes to play with Lego or something and what I do then is… let him. He’s three! There have been days when I wondered if this had any impact on Timothy at all, but there have been other days when Timothy has sat up on the couch, unprompted, opened his children’s Bible and waited for us to begin, before I was even ready. There have been great conversations about Jesus and God that seem to have come out of nowhere. It has been a joy. 

Like I said earlier, this is a bit like handwashing. It’s something we should always have been doing, but in these days, it has become more apparent just how important family worship is. So, I encourage you to engage with this practice. Do it imperfectly, messily, awkwardly, but do it. God blesses our sincere attempts to worship him and seek his presence in our daily lives. You will be surprised what a joy and a blessing this can be. 

Over the coming Sundays I hope to give a reflection on each of the 3 core elements we find in family worship: reading scripture, praying and singing. I hope that will help you to see the importance of these practices and feel equipped to do them together in your own home. 

Psalm 91 – Our Fortress

This reflection was addressed to the Bailieborough Group by Rev. John O’Donnell on the Sunday the 22nd of March 2020. This was the first Sunday we could not meet together for worship due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read Psalm 91 on

When I was a little boy I went shopping with my mother. I got distracted for a second and when I looked up she was gone. This was just my local Dunnes and she was probably just on the other side of a rail of clothes. I was only “lost” for the briefest of moments, but to me, back then, this was a crisis! I can still remember that sense of panic and doom. When you’re that age your parents are everything. They’re your security, your refuge, your fortress. 

Everybody needs a fortress, we all need security, not just little kids. Our big problem is that we seek our security in the things of this world, rather than our Creator. In the Old Testament we read about how Israel kept running to false fortresses instead of God. They ran to false gods, to powerful nations, they leaned on their own strength.  

We do the same thing today. We seek security in our wealth, our beauty, our intelligence, our health, our strength. We seek security in the approval of others, or in being part of a powerful group. All these are just things of the world, they are not God and so, even if they might be good things, they can’t give us the security only God can provide.  

Psalm 91 is a mini sermon, written to point us to the only one who can truly provide that security that we all deeply need. It calls us to put our trust in God and look to him and him only for our ultimate security. May we dwell in the shelter of the Most High, the shadow of the Almighty, and may we be able to say of God “My refuge and my fortress” (vv. 1-2) 

The message of Psalm 91 is that those who trust in God will not be let down.  

There is nothing that God cannot deliver His people from. The dangers of night or day, attack or illness. God will protect. 

You might object: Is this Psalm saying that those who love God are invincible? That nothing bad will happen to them? Or if you look at it another way it sounds even worse – does this mean that those who are suffering must not be loving God properly?  

I really don’t want anyone to think that if you or your loved ones are suffering it means that they just aren’t trusting enough in God.   

It’s important to remember that the Psalms are poetry and this poem is a celebration of the faithfulness, goodness and sovereignty of God. It’s not meant to be a comprehensive lesson on suffering or blessings.  

It’s also important to remember to read this in conversation with the rest of Scripture. And you’ll find all through the Bible faithful people who suffer. Abel, who was murdered by Cain, Job who loved God but went through terrible suffering, the apostles and early church disciples and martyrs – even God himself: Jesus Christ. They all loved God. They all knew suffering. 

There will be hard times in life.  Even in Psalm 91 we are told that there will be trouble. Verse 15: God himself says “I will be with him in trouble,”. There will be trouble, but God will be with us. 

So, what can we say about security for those who run to God? We can say this – Psalm 91 says it, and the rest of Scripture agrees: Christian, God will not let you go. God will be with you. God will hold you safe in His love. Everything else may let you down, but God will not. Your health may fail you, you may lose your wealth, your family and friends may even desert you. But God will not, He will never. God is our refuge and fortress. We are safe with Him. 

Let’s look at some reasons to trust God that this Psalm shows us. 

Number 1: God is sovereign. God is in control. This psalm describes God as “Almighty” and “Most High” in the first verse. Nothing can push God around. Nothing can force his hand. Nothing can overwhelm him. Nothing gets the jump on God. Even on the world’s darkest day, God was still in control. After Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to be with the Father. Peter addressed the crowds in Jerusalem and said that Jesus, whom they crucified and God raised up was handed over to them “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (see Acts 2:23) No matter how bad things look, God is in charge.  

Number 2: God is Good. Verse 8 tells us that God punishes the wicked. Verse 10 tells us that he protects from harm and disaster. God is good. When you’re in trouble or scared it’s good to know that someone is in charge, but power and control aren’t everything. A tyrant and a righteous ruler might be equally powerful, but only one is good. To run to someone for security you need to know that they are good.  

Finally, Number 3: God is loving. The knowledge that God is in control and that God is good give us some good reasons to us to trust Him, but still this isn’t enough. Power can be something that we run away from if it is not accompanied by goodness. But goodness too can also cause us to flee – or want to avoid it.  

More than 700 years before Jesus, the prophet Isaiah had a vision. He saw God seated on a throne and surrounded by angels praising Him. The angels called out to each other and praised God’s holiness and power and glory. Isaiah saw this vision of perfect power and perfect goodness and holiness.  

His response was:  

“‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’”  

(Isaiah 6:1-5). 

 When Peter met Jesus he saw that Jesus came from God. Peter knew that God is holy and good. 

So, he fell before Jesus and said  

‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ (Luke 5:8) 

When faced with the goodness of God we can’t help but notice our sinfulness. We may understand that God is in charge and trust that He is good, but we still will not come to God unless we get it into our heads and our hearts that God loves us. We need to believe in the grace of God. That God loves those who have not earned that love and never could. 

 Psalm 91 doesn’t just use the image of a strong fortress to portray God’s protection.  It says in verse 4 that God  

“He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge;”  

(Psalm 91:4).  

God is like a bird protecting its young under its wings. God protects those who trust in Him because they are His children and He loves them. 

The Psalm concludes in verses 14 to 16 with direct speech from God about those who love and trust in Him.  

‘Because he loves me,’ says the Lord, ‘I will rescue him;  

I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. 

He will call on me, and I will answer him; 

I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honour him. 

With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.’ 

(vv. 14-16) 

In Christ, God has delivered His people out of sin and death. He protects us so that nothing will ever separate us from Him. He answers when we call and is always with us – even on the darkest days.  

In Christ, God satisfies His people, saving them to a life that never ends. We all have our fortresses. We all run somewhere. We seek strength somewhere. We seek protection somewhere. But only God is sovereign over all. Only God is truly good and holy. And no love compares to the love of God. 

God called and called and still the people would keep wandering away from Him. So what do you do when your child won’t come when you call? What do you do when your sheep has gotten itself lost You go get it! This is what God did. God’s response to us always going to the wrong places was to come and get us. When Jesus came He came for the lost.  He came for those who had sought shelter in the wrong places.  “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (see Luke 19:10). This is what we believe – that God came to get us when we wouldn’t come to him. 

That is the message of the cross – not only that God wants us to seek Him, but that God Himself came seeking us, died to rescue us from our lostness and bring us back to God and rose again to give us new life in Him. And those who trust in Him, who trust in Jesus and His sacrifice for us, God will never let go. 

May you know God as your fortress in these strange and anxious days. May you know that he is sovereign, good and more loving than you can imagine.