Preached on: Sunday 31st December 2023
The sermon text is available as subtitles in the Youtube video (the accuracy of which is not guaranteed). A transcript of the sermon can be made available on request. There is no PowerPoint PDF accompanying this message.
Bible references: 2 Timothy 2:23-24 & Matthew 2:1-12
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Sermon keypoints:
– Kind kings
– Kind King of kings
– Kind like Jesus:
– kind words
– kind actions
– kind smiles

B.C. and A.D.

Preached on: Sunday 12th February 2023
The sermon text is available as subtitles in the Youtube video (the accuracy of which is not guaranteed). A transcript of the sermon can be made available on request. There is no PowerPoint PDF accompanying this message
Bible references: Ephesians 2:11-22
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Sermon keypoints:
– What difference does Jesus make in our lives today?
– Before Jesus – hopelessness
– After Jesus – harmony
– relationship not religion
– Christ centred and Spirit driven

Who’s counting?

Preached on: Sunday 16th October 2022
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. There is no PowerPoint PDF accompanying this sermon.
Bible references: Numbers 1:1-4, 17-19, 45-50 & Matthew 28:16-20
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Sermon keypoints:
– Gathering
– Giving
– Groups

If like me you’re a fan of tennis and, in particular, Andy Murray, you’ll understand why I say that as long as he is winning it’s a joy to watch but as soon as the score is not going his way well, I don’t know about you, but I often have to leave the room. I can’t bear the tension.

In any sport from football or rugby to ice hockey, cricket to tennis, if you don’t count the goals, the tries, the runs or the points, you don’t know who’s winning.

Well, what about the church? How can you tell who’s winning in the church?

I can remember when every Church of Scotland had to count the number of people attending communion at least once annually and send it into Presbytery who in turn sent it in to 121 and that exercise was supposed to be a good way of keeping count of how many people attend a church regularly. So, someone who is in church every Sunday for example but happened to miss the twice or thrice yearly communion because they were away on holiday or they were unwell, well, they were counted as a non-attender whereas someone could roll up once a year just to keep their name on the congregational role and be counted as regularly attending. What a piece of nonsense! Thankfully, those days are gone.

We need to be wise when it comes to counting numbers in church. Obsessing over numbers as a so-called measure of success can cause wrongful pride. Which church do you go to? Oh, I go to !!!!!!!! church. Oh, how many people go on a Sunday? Um, just a few. Oh well, I go to Brightons Church and every Sunday there’s at least 200 in church.

I/we wish. Well, sometimes anyway!

Rural congregations, for example, have no opportunity whatsoever to gather in that kind of number of people. But we can go too far in the opposite direction, if we dismiss keeping numbers, keeping track of numbers all together.

Interestingly, in his book Anatomy of a Revived Church, consultant Tom Rayner discovered, completely unexpectedly, and I might add, that revitalized congregations were counting. They were keeping track of their numbers.

So, continuing the series based on this book that Scott began two Sundays back, and I’m doing what I’m told Scott, if you’re watching this morning, we come to Who’s Counting?, that’s the title of my sermon, Who’s Counting?, and we begin firstly with Gathering.

Now, just in case anyone is thinking this isn’t very biblical can I remind you of our first reading from the Old Testament that Margo read to us. Numbers is called Numbers, in English it’s not known as that, in the Hebrew but it’s known as Numbers in the English translations because it takes its title from the first few verses. As Margo read to us, we heard that, instructed by The Lord, Moses was told ‘You and Aaron are to number by their divisions, all the men in Israel 20 years old or more who are able to serve in the army.’ and that was in verse 3.

Now, let me give you a little bit of background to Numbers because it’s one of those books that well, if we’re honest, we don’t read that much you know with the people who decide ‘Right, I’m going to read the Bible from the very beginning.’ Genesis, Exodus and then they get to Leviticus and yeah, the struggle and of course Numbers comes next so maybe skip over it but it’s actually quite an interesting book. It came at a pivotal point in the history of God’s people. Having been rescued from Egyptian slavery, the people of God arrived at Mount Sinai. God had provided for their spiritual and their physical needs. He’d given them the Covenant Law by which to live and a Tent of Meeting in which to worship and also a system of sacrifice to ensure forgiveness of sins. So, in Numbers, the people of God, the Israelites, are finally ready to make the journey to Canaan, the Promised Land.

Now, counting the number of men suitable for army service was part of that preparation. To set off along the way they would learn some valuable lessons about holy living, the importance of good leadership, the dangers of temptation and perhaps, most importantly, that God is gracious and keeps His promises.

Now isn’t that bang up to date for the 21st century? The kind of things that we need to know as individual followers of Jesus but also as a church community and congregation and family.

Our aim, of course, is not to enter into the land of Canaan but, as Jesus commanded us in our second reading, our aim is this ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them everything I have commanded you.’ That’s Matthew 28 verse 19 as Margo read. That is our aim.

Just for a moment, to go back to the people of Israel, in order to ensure that they could defend themselves Moses counted the Israelite men who could fight should that be needed and, as we know, the journey to the promised land did not go rather smoothly but rather lonely, rather long, longer than this sermon is going to be, 40 years exact and well, a lot of problems on the way. But, in order to work out if what we are doing in church is actually reaching people outwith the church, we actually also need to count numbers.

Now, one group of church leaders, sensing that things in their congregation were declining, called this consultant who wrote the book to ask for help, and he analyzed their Sunday worship attendance over the past 10 years. In the words of one elder the results were breathtakingly shocking.

Now, to their credit the leaders of that congregation didn’t panic nor did they stick their heads in the sand and refuse to change, you know that well-oft used phrase in the Church of Scotland ‘Well, if it sees me oot, it’ll day fine!’ Well, actually, it won’t. They didn’t panic, they didn’t refuse to change, instead they decided to take seriously their mission to their community and they began to prayerfully plan. Their focus changed. In other words, from being inward to being outward.

So, by engaging with where people’s actual needs were, showing that they cared, sharing God’s love slowly, new people started to come and they kept track of church attendance because they reckoned that if what they were doing was working then it would increase and, in fact, in that congregation it did, So, Gathering is my first point.

My second point is Giving. Financial giving can make more people more nervous than any other subject in church life especially if that congregation is behind budget and it can also make more people more apathetic if that congregation is doing well. Now, I don’t know if Brightons still has a Deacons Court. Have you still got? You do, well, in Larbert East we had a Deacons Court as well, but we changed over to the new constitution a couple of years before I retired in preparation for what was coming but a number of years ago a lovely godly church member left quite a large legacy to the church. It was actually a quarter of a million pounds and that’s, I can say that because it’s out in the public domain. When the Deacons Court learned about this, I saw the pound signs appear in their eyes and I told them, I’m usually quite a gentle person, but on this occasion, I was less than gentle, and I said to them ‘I can see what you’re thinking so, if you think that money is going to be used to pretty up the church building, or if you think you’re going to invest it in something like the lottery then you’ll be looking for a new minister.’ Well, to their credit, they realized what I was saying. That money was invested with the Church of Scotland and is used to finance 80 percent through its interest, 80 percent of the salary of the part-time family worker in the church. Parish Outreach worker. So, money can be a blessing if it’s used in a godly way.

I know of other congregations, I was ministering one who received a legacy and the congregational board in that church sat back and folded their arms, whereas the other congregation with which it was linked wasn’t so, wasn’t so fortunate in one sense and they worked hard and they were the ones who increased their financial giving and saw life in the church. You see, congregational giving is an indicator of leading trends of the spiritual state of the congregation and, interestingly, in this book, Rainer discovered that people often stop giving before they stop coming to church altogether. So, if someone is struggling for whatever reason and stops giving it is a pastoral matter not just a financial one.

So, before we rub our hands together and start counting the offering, here are three simple principles to note that come from the book, and they’re biblical as well, and I share them with you in the hope that your Deacons Court will take them on board and prayerfully consider them. It may be that you’re already doing them so forgive me if I’m doing repeat, saying something that you’re already doing.

But the first is a systematic approach to first-time givers works wonders. People need to know that they are appreciated. That’s actually a Biblical principle, to show someone, you know, to thank them, to be kind to them.

Secondly, tie money to mission. Using an offering to showcase how givers are supporting God’s work is the surest way of making sure that it continues to be supported.

And thirdly, thank generous givers because it appears that some people don’t even know if anyone in their congregation cares that they are supporting their congregations. Now, I’m not saying that about Brightons. That is just a general principle that has been discovered in the study of the anatomy of revitalized churches.

So, that leads us thirdly to Groups, I hope you notice the alliteration Gathering, Giving, Groups, specially done for you. Seven out of ten revitalized churches also tracked attendance at groups associated with their congregations.

Now, take, for example, James had been a minister at a certain church for 12 years, it was in decline before he was called to be the minister but that decline continued gradually in his time too, so the church decided to get serious about Jesus’ command in Matthew 28. and to make some more disciples. They track Church attendance but also Church groups. It enabled them to see where the greater spiritual fruit was growing in terms of the groups connected with the congregation and they also discovered, incidentally, that those who had stayed with the church through its decline were all part, every single one of them, was part of an existing group within the church. So, they learned from this that pouring resources into groups that were working was the way ahead instead of wasting energy and time on those groups that weren’t, and the growth in that congregation was slow but steady. The trend reversed and it went up. Everybody in the congregation didn’t have to do everything or go to everything. Remember our passage in Numbers where the Levites the members of the tribe of Levi, the Levites, weren’t counted as fighting men because their job was to take care of the worship side and the tent of The Lord’s presence. In other words, people should use their God-given gifts where they are most suited. Not forced into doing that which isn’t their gifting. So, if you aren’t good with children, resist all pressure to go and teach children. If you aren’t good at finance like me, get your wife to do it and make sure you’ve got people in the congregation who know what they’re doing. We don’t have to do everything. We don’t have to go to every group but there’s all always something where we can become more involved and use our gifts and that way, the church family grows.

So, who’s counting? It’s a proven fact that revived churches are. They are counting people who are gathering for worship and incidentally, remember to include those who are worshiping online because there are still people who, after the pandemic, are worried about coming back to church and there are people who are two and a half years older and a wee bit more frail but they can still watch online and, if you’re watching today, you are part of the worshiping community of Brightons Church just as much as everyone sitting in the pew.

So, growing churches are counting people who are gathering for worship. They’re also counting how people are giving financially and of their time and talents, and also the groups in which people are involved.

This is not about counting for counting’s sake. Nor this about counting so we can boast about our increased church attendance. This is about counting for accountability. We are all accountable to The Lord, for how we are serving Him in our church congregations.

Now, Rainer did not expect to find this aspect of counting amongst churches that were revitalized but, when he did and thought about it, it made sense because, if what a church is doing for example in worship is still seeing decline then it isn’t working. Hard questions need to be asked and that isn’t just about the minister, in case anybody thinks that I’ll blame Scott.

Do you know, a number of years ago, my wife and I went to a church, I won’t say which church it is, it was in Falkirk Presbytery where I knew, as Presbytery Chaplain, that the minister was struggling and when we arrived at the door there were two elders that were greeting people and I knew who these Elders were because one was a Presbytery Elder and the other was an additional Elder on Presbytery and when they saw us walking towards them this is what they did – they looked us up and down, folded their arms and turned their backs. That’s true. An utter disgrace! No wonder the minister was struggling. And that’s why what’s happening in church is not just the minister, it’s the entire congregation. I can’t tell you what a joy it is to hear you singing this morning. It’s absolutely amazing. I can sense that you’re worshiping The Lord.

So, if what’s happening in worship is not working, it’s everyone’s responsibility, together. It’s about the entire congregation, to seek where God is leading because you see, what really matters, is making disciples of Jesus. It’s what he commanded us to do, and that’s why I’m going to reissue my challenge that I raised with the children earlier. Those people that you’ve thought about that you could invite to church. Please do it. If they say no, then you’ve done your part. Maybe God will work on them. But maybe go back in a wee while and try again and pray for them.

You see, let’s not forget that along with His command to make more disciples, Jesus also said this ‘And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.’



Preached on: Sunday 22nd May 2022
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 22-05-22 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: Nehemiah 5:1-14
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Sermon keypoints:
• Presence – God’s presence and our presence
• Problem – not all are treated equal
• Politicians – not recognising/admitting responsibility
• Plan – preoccupation

Well, my goodness, wherever I look in this church musicians pop up from left and right. You are truly blessed. Thank-you.

Now, time is getting on, we’ve had a wee bit extra this morning so, I’m going to put this to the vote. If you want the shorter version of the sermon or the longer version of the sermon. For the shorter version raise your hands. The longer version.

Sorry, you’ve lost out.

Once upon a time there was a young teacher. His mum had just died. The family home was broken up. He had to find a new house near his work and began his first teaching job. All within the space of four weeks. He had never felt more alone. So, not knowing anybody, his neighbors or colleagues at work, just to hear the sound of another human voice in the house he bought a small portable, black and white TV. It was a long time ago. Because he’d not had his first installment of the salary, he bought it on higher purchase. It was a very long time ago! But, having paid it off nine months later, he realized that it cost nearly 20 percent more than its original cost price and so, he never again bought anything until he saved for it.

When someone is lonely, has little or no prospect of work, debts pile up, considered choices often go out of the window and, since the pandemic and now, with a frightening rise in living costs as Rachel referred to in the prayer, many more are having to choose between feeding their families or heating their homes. Because we live in a fallen world there are always unscrupulous people who are ready to take advantage of those who are struggling.

But the people of Israel returned from exile in Babylon to their crumbling city of Jerusalem, found themselves in not a dissimilar situation. If you picture the scenes for example of the devastation in Ukraine, from the places where Russian troops have now withdrawn, you will have a picture of something like the ruins of Jerusalem to which many of those who’d been in exile in Babylon had returned to their homeland in their city.

That was the experience of the people of God in Nehemiah’s day, and their leaders were so preoccupied with the rebuilding of the city walls that they hadn’t really noticed the growing crisis around them. So, what relevance does this have for us in the 21st century church today?

Well, the answer is plenty, and it’s all to do with presence, which is the title of my sermon this morning. God’s presence and our presence.

But let’s first go to Nehemiah who emerged of, who emerged as the leaders of those trying to rebuild their lives and first of all consider the huge problem that he faced.

Now Ann read to us in the first verse of Nehemiah chapter five ‘Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their Jewish brothers. Some were saying ‘we and our sons and daughters are numerous in order for us to eat and stay alive we must get grain.’’

Please note the mention of wives and daughters, a sure sign that whole families were actually starving. And you can guarantee that the women came off worst.

We’ve just heard from the gender-based violence team some of the things that they’re planning. Now, whilst there were many loving men amongst the Jewish people and the Jewish law did try to protect the position of women and children nevertheless, in biblical times, women were very much second-class citizens. In fact, even in Jewish law both women and children were seen more as possessions than people. Now, that seems shocking to us today, but that is a historical fact.

But, by contrast, if you move forward a few thousand years to the time of Jesus and His disciples, you will find that amongst His closest followers there were a group of women as well as the 12 recognized disciples. And so, following Jesus’ example, it is our responsibility as His 21st century followers to ensure that all are equal before God, regardless of gender, regardless of age.

Now, I could of course go on to say you need to read ‘Men are from Mars and women are from Venus’ to say that there are differences between men and women and, if you doubt me, just ask a man who is a husband if his wife looks nice in something from the fat wardrobe or something from the thin wardrobe, and you’ll know a man who doesn’t know what to say whereas a woman would always know.

But, to be more serious, back to Nehemiah, why were some starving? Why was the position of women so difficult?

Well, Ann read to us in verses four and five ‘Others were saying ‘we are mortgaging our fields our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine’ and still others were saying ‘we have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax’ that’s to the emperor in the the Babylonian empire which had been taken over by the Persians ‘and pay the kings tax on our fields and vineyards.’

Now, the passage goes on to explain that these struggling families were being forced to sell their children into slavery. Jewish law did permit that after a debt had been owed for more than six years the debtor or members of his family could be sold as slaves for a time in order for the debt to be paid, but then they could be bought back in the year of jubilee. But it’s clear from this passage that a great deal of mistreatment and rule bending and law bending had been going on.

Of course, nothing like that would ever happen in the Church of Scotland today, would it? Wouldn’t it?

Years ago, when I was training, I did a placement with a minister whom, well let us say, I found it hard to like, there was something about him. I and the student deaconess who was also on placement, were invited to the mans for Sunday lunch after the service and both of us noticed that his wife, her hands were trembling as she was serving us at the table and then, instructed by her husband, to pour some orange juice as she trembled, she spilt it all over the table. ‘Clean that up!’ he hissed. If looks could kill, she would have dropped dead at that very moment.

I was horrified, absolutely horrified, and so was my fellow student and we talked about it afterwards and well, in our naivety, I think we probably concluded he was just a bit of a bully, but looking back, I’m pretty certain that something more sinister was going on.

If anyone here is experiencing that kind of treatment at home, anyone watching online or if you know anyone or even if you’re scared, as Angela was saying about walking along the streets, please speak to Scott or another member of the gender-based violence team. Please do not suffer in silence.

But back to Nehemiah.

What did he and the other leaders do about the injustice that was experienced by ordinary people? What about, secondly, the politicians?

When Nehemiah heard about all of this he was angry but then as Ann read ‘calling a large meeting to challenge his fellow leaders. He confronted them about their use of charging interest at unfair rates’ The older versions of the NIV used the word ‘usury’ – I had to go and look that up in the dictionary actually, but it’s charging interest at an unfair rate. What was the reaction of the politicians and read in verse 8 ‘they kept quiet because they could find nothing to say’ because they knew they were guilty. Would that be some of today’s politicians? Would say nothing rather than try and justify wrong actions only to dig a bigger hole for themselves?

But by contrast Nehemiah didn’t shirk the truth but he realized that being by so concerned with the rebuilding of the city wall in some ways he was complicit in the injustice because he had not noticed what was happening, and that is the difference that having the presence of God can have in the life of a politician or a leader. Now, we all know that our Queen will be celebrates or is celebrating her platinum jubilee. She is a constitutional monarch not a politician, but her integrity, which stems from her faith in Jesus, has shone through her entire life.

Now, I don’t know if you’re a republican or not, I’m not going into that. I’m not, by the way, nail my colors to the mast. But what a contrast our queen presents to some of our leading politicians, because of the presence of God in her life.

In today’s western culture, we have a what we call a ‘culture of blame’. We blame the politicians, we blame the media, we blame the people out there, everybody but ourselves. Conveniently forgetting that well, as well as rights, all of us have responsibilities. We all need to play our part, we all need to be the presence of God, not just the politicians.

But, as a leader, Nehemiah played his part, He came up with thirdly, a plan. He ensured that not just the other leaders but all those in positions of financial power gave back straight away, ordinary people’s property along with the unfair interest they’d been charging. The leaders agreed and as a sign of their agreement and God’s judgment, if they did not keep their word as Ann read Nehemiah ‘shook out his robe’ and, of course, it goes on to describe how he and those who worked for him made sure that they too treated others fairly and to all of this ‘the whole assembly said ‘Amen’’ just like you and I do in church.

Do you know that the word ‘amen’ literally means ‘let it be so’. But none of it will be so unless we show Jesus love, as well as talk about it, and it’s not just the responsibility of the minister or the kirk session, it’s our collective responsibility.

Now, just now the Church of Scotland and its General Assembly is very preoccupied with plans. Plans for restructuring presbyteries and parish reappraisal. I know you’ve been doing this embraced and you’ve tackled it in the best way possible. I’m ashamed to say that some of the churches in the Larbert area were not as open. Mine was, others weren’t. And any of them are listening, pay attention.

If we become so preoccupied with plans and forget to be the presence of Jesus, not just in our churches but out there in the community, then we are falling short of our calling, our calling. Not just Scott, not just the kirk session, but all of us.

I asked Scott about some of your plans in Brightons about reaching out to the community. Rachel mentioned in the prayer the SU group in Wallacestone Primary. Scott’s the chaplain there, is one of the chaplains at Braes High School. These are all wonderful things. There’s plans to afoot, I gather, for a youth worker, but if any, especially of you older members, and I can address you as an older member, now, if anyone is thinking ‘Why do we need a youth worker when we’ve got a young minister?’ Scott cannot do everything. There is a huge shortage of ministers in the Church of Scotland so a youth worker is an excellent idea. The Larbert church has worked in conjunction with Scripture Union Scotland to form a trust, Larbert Churches Youth Trust that now employs one full-time and one part-time schools’ workers. In my own congregation, my former congregation now, employs a part-time parish outreach worker and I cannot tell you the difference it has made, not just to the schools, but to the parish, people outside the church buildings actually understand that the people inside really care, there’s something different. These are the things that you, as a congregation, have in your plans, to be the presence of God. The days of flinging wide the church doors and saying ‘Come on in, we’re a wonderful church’ and you are wonderful, you really are, they’re gone, people walk on by. The days of the 99 sheep in the fold and going out to find the one, are gone too, because, actually, there’s about four or five left in the fold and the other 90 odd are outside. They need to be met. You need to be the presence of God. You need to show Jesus’ love and then invite them in.

So, Nehemiah’s problem of social injustice ruining people’s lives and the complicity of the politicians led him to plan to right the wrongs and what was needed then is needed now in 21st century, western culture. But the Church of Scotland especially needs to concentrate, especially on finding, rediscovering the presence of God and we, as the church, are called to be His presence to others. Where do we start?

Right here, of course! Because God uses our experiences to shape and form us into the people that He wants us to be.

And so, finally, you’ll be pleased to know, what happened to that young teacher with whom we began. Well, God used his experiences too. Because, well over 42 years later he’s standing right in front of you and if He can use me believe me, He can use all of you even more. Please be the presence of God. Amen.