Danger in the Deep

A few weeks ago, a proposed bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland was back in the news, with a top architect claiming one would be viable. However it seems that the biggest obstacle wouldn't be cost, or even the depth of Beaufort's Dyke, the 250-metre deep underwater trench that lies a mere six miles off our coast. The real problem is that the dyke contains around a million tons of munitions, dumped by the Ministry of Defence between the end of World War I and 1976. In fact, many didn't even make it to their intended destination and were dumped in shallow waters around the dyke. In one month in 1995 more than 4500 World War II bombs were washed up on beaches after an attempt to plough a trench near the dyke for an underwater gas pipe linking Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Image: New Scientist

And so more than just scuppering plans for a bridge, the bigger concern is that we're living mere miles from Europe's largest underwater ammunition dump. Its very existence was denied for years, but once the bombs started washing up on the shore it became harder and harder to cover up. And as the munitions continue to age and lose their ability to withstand corrosion, the full consequences of what was done long ago are still to be revealed.

And yet we have a far more serious problem than buried bombs. As human beings, we have each committed millions of offences against our Creator. We may be moral, respected and even religious, but none of that can make up for our acts of treason against God. Many try and deny the existence of these acts which the Bible calls 'sins'. Others shrug their shoulders and say 'who cares'. But just like the discarded devices in the dyke, our sins are ticking time-bombs which will one day come back to bite us.

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There is one way to avoid that fate - but only one. It's not by cleaning up our act or taking up religion, but by trusting in Jesus Christ. By dying on the cross he jumped on the grenade of God's wrath that his people deserved to face. Yet if you refuse to let Jesus shield you from the blast, you will have to face the eternal effects of it yourself. So will you face up to those time-bombs now - or wait until it’s too late?

Published in Stranraer and Wigtownshire Free Press, 22nd February 2018

New year, new you?

We’re now ten days into the new year. There’s something about a new year that excites us isn’t there? The possibility of a fresh start, with new possibilities and opportunities. And yet not a lot has changed. Just days into the new year a suicide bombing in Kabul killed at least 20 and injured many more. On the same day a young Japanese man was murdered in Ireland, the victim of a random attack after he took a different route home from work. On Sunday night, a car bomb in Syria left 25 dead. Closer to home, a man who had £50,000 raised for him after claiming he rushed to the aid of victims of the Manchester bombing, admitted stealing a purse from a lady as she lay injured. In Northern Ireland, an MP has been suspended after a social media post which appeared to celebrate the 42nd anniversary of the terrorist massacre of 10 men on their way home from work.

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And yet while it’s always tempting to point the finger at others, if we look at ourselves we have to acknowledge that we haven’t really changed either. Even if we’ve made a big effort to turn over a new leaf, statistics show that 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by the second week of February. And even if we manage to beat the statistics, a few new resolutions can’t really change our in-built selfishness, anger, negativity or self-righteousness. Advances in technology and better education can’t mask the fact that humanity is fundamentally broken. And that includes each of us.

Now that might seem a negative note on which to start a new year. But if you go to the doctor and are diagnosed with cancer, you wouldn’t tell the doctor ‘Don’t be so negative’. Instead you would say: ‘Tell me what I have to do!’

The gospel of Jesus Christ is fundamentally ‘good news’ – it’s what the word means. But before we can see the good news for what it is, we must be willing to listen to the bad news. According to the Bible, humanity isn’t just sick but dead (Ephesians 2v1). And yet the reason the Bible was written is because there is a God who raises the dead. Don’t start another year trying to pretend that things are better than they are. Face up to the bad news, so that you can hear the good.

Published in Stranraer and Wigtownshire Free Press, 11th January 2018

End of Year lunch

After our final Wednesday Bible Study of 2017 we enjoyed having lunch together at Henry's Bay House. Those of us who are free during the day meet together each Wednesday in the church at 11am to discuss the Bible passage that was preached on the previous Lord's Day morning.

These Bible studies recommence on Wednesday 10th January 2018 - all welcome!

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This is becoming an annual event - here are the photos from last year's lunch!

Jerusalem, the Bible and Donald Trump

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On Sunday morning we began worship by singing from Psalm 122. Given the events of the past week, it's very important to be clear on what it means for us to 'Pray for the peace of Jerusalem' in 2017.

The city has been in the news after US President Donald Trump's highly controversial decision to recognise it as Israel's capital, in fulfilment of a campaign promise. As PBS reported:

"For Trump, the proclamation was an important way to make good on a pledge to his political base, which includes evangelical Christians and pro-Israel Republicans eager for such a move."
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And while it can't be denied that many evangelical Christians see this as a positive move, the fact that they do is due to a misunderstanding of the Bible.

As a church, we take the Jewish roots of Christianity seriously. We sing the psalms, we read from the Old Testament, and have sermons from it as often as we have ones from the New - things that aren't true of many churches.

But, at the same time, by taking the Old Testament language of Israel and the temple and applying it to Christians, the New Testament makes it clear that the it's those who have faith in the Messiah (whether Jew or Gentile) who are the true 'Israel of God'.

That isn’t to say that the church has replaced Israel (as some would claim we teach). There is one church of God in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament it was largely Jewish. However the prophets foretold that the gospel would go out to the nations of the world, which is exactly what we see happening after the resurrection of Jesus.

In Romans 11, the Apostle Paul describes the church as an olive tree. The natural branches of that tree are Jewish, and we as Gentiles have been added on - but there only ever has been one olive tree. The book of Revelation describes 24 elders which represent the 12 tribes of Israel and Jesus’ 12 Apostles. The church is made up of all who have believed in Jesus, both Jew and Gentile.

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However the Judaism of today is the religion of those who rejected and killed their own Messiah. It’s not the Judaism of the Old Testament, which as we’ve seen from Galatians was a religion of faith in God’s promised Messiah. The Judaism of today is a works religion. Jews today don’t worship the God of the Bible ('No one who denies the Son has the Father' - 1 John 2:23). The book of Revelation even refuses to apply the name ‘Jew’ to the first century Jews (2:9; 3:9). It describes them as: ‘those who say they are Jews but are not, but are a synagogue of Satan’. If they really were Jews, they would have accepted the Jewish Messiah.

Nor is there still an earthly promised land today. The earthly promised land was always a picture of Heaven. Hebrews 11:10 tells us that even Abraham, who received the promise of the land, was looking for something better - something beyond this world.

The Promised Land of Israel has served its purpose. The Modern Day state of Israel is a human creation and not the fulfilment of any Biblical prophecy. So whatever our take on the politics of the Middle East today, we can’t claim the Bible supports one side or the other. Being a Christian and believing the Bible doesn’t obligate you to support the State of Israel today, any more than it obligates you to support Palestine.

Donald Trump declaring Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has no more Biblical significance than it would if he declared that the 2013 UK City of Culture was called Londonderry rather than Derry.

None of this should be controversial in a church of the Reformation - it's what the Reformers taught. So, when Paul describes the church as 'the Israel of God' in Galatians (6:16), Luther comments: ‘The Israel of God are not the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel but those who, with Abraham the believer (3:9), believe in the promises of God now disclosed in Christ, whether they are Jews or Gentiles.’

And so, to bring it back to Psalm 122: When we pray for the peace of Jerusalem today, we’re not to think of the city in the Middle East. Yes we should pray for peace there, just as we should pray for peace in Lebanon and Pyongyang. However as the second half of verse 6 explains, this is a call to pray for 'those who love you'. Psalm 122, then, is calling us to pray for peace among those who are the spiritual descendants of Abraham, who believe in the promises of God and who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, whether they are Jew or Gentile. 

Some helpful books and resources by RP ministers:

Fred Leahy (former principal of Reformed Theological College) - God, Satan and the Jews: the place of the Jews in prophecy and history (Cameron Press, 2015)

'Appendix: Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism' in David McKay (Shaftesbury Square RPCThe Bond of Love: Covenant Theology and the Contemporary World (Christian Focus,  2001)

Jonny McCollum (Milford RPC) - Replacement Theology? (Reformed Theological Journal, 2016)

Some other helpful resources:

R. Scott Clark - Covenant Theology is not Replacement Theology

Keith Mathison - Dispensationalism: Rightly dividing the people of God?

Can a church turn around?

The following was written in 2006 to describe the turnaround which had taken place in the RP church in Airdrie over the previous 12 years. Many of the things that were true of the church in Airdrie could also have been said of the church in Stranraer.

We're grateful to have had the input of two men who experienced the transformation of the congregation in Airdrie serving as interim elders in Stranraer and are confident that what God has done elsewhere he can do here.

The Airdrie congregation today

"What’s the purpose of church? Why does it exist?

It’s a question we had to face a few years ago as it became clear that our church was dying. Attendances were falling year after year, reaching a weekly average in the 20’s, and an average age in the 70’s. People would ‘come to church’ on a Sunday morning, but beyond that there wasn’t any real interest in being together as the church.

As we began to face the question of what could be done, we were soon reminded that the church is God’s, not ours. This in turn led us to realise that unless we did things his way, our descent into oblivion would continue. So we stopped doing things just for the sake of doing them, and started focusing on what God wants from his church. This didn’t happen overnight, it took time. First we concentrated on getting everyone to enjoy worshiping God twice on a Sunday, morning and evening. Then we considered how we could help one another in our study of God’s Word, which gave rise to weekly Bible studies in people's homes, and in the past couple of years we have been encouraging each other to meet together for prayer on a Sunday morning just before worship. The result - God has been transforming our church. We are no longer a small group of elderly people wandering fairly aimlessly along. We now have a clear sense of our purpose as a community of God’s people.

This change in focus has seen God bring new people into the church, people from all sorts of different backgrounds but with one thing in common - a desire to know more about God."