August 28, 2014

An ugly beauty

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The photo above is of a “Common Darter” Dragonfly, (at least I think it is, I found a similar enough picture in our Collins British Wildlife book and online).  It’s probably a female or immature male!  (See Chris Brooks’ excellent site here for more.)

Usually these wonderful insects fly away the moment you get anywhere near, but I was able to get quite close on this occasion (with a 70-300mm) lens.  Even so this is a 16 megapixel file heavily cropped to get close enough to see the detail.  I came across one of these Darters before, you can see that post here (definitely a male on that occasion.)

There really is something magnificent about Dragonflies.  They truly are beautiful to look at as they fly into your vision, and as they do so you find yourself hoping that they will just settle somewhere nearby so that you can get a closer look.  I don’t know how something can be both beautiful and ugly but there you are. On one level it is a marvel of Creation, with such masterful intricacy and balance, perfect in it’s design and operation.  On another level it is a terrifying monster (particularly if you happen to be a smaller and edible insect nearby!)

Of course it is not just Dragonflies that are capable of beauty and ugliness, it is a contradiction which we humans exhibit to an even greater degree.  We want to be a good person, we want to do the right thing but all too often we mess up.  I love the way that the Apostle Paul describes this internal dilemma in the Bible:

I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate… Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Romans 7:15, 24-25 NLT)

Unlike the Dragonfly, we do have an option to change, an opportunity to be rescued from the ugliness of our sin.  That wonderful option is found in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ…

August 25, 2014

“But who do you say that I am?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is our Passion? Where is our commitment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 18, 2014

Connemara

We took our summer holiday in the West of Ireland this year, in beautiful Connemara:

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A friendly Donkey at Cleggan


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A “Galway Hooker”, traditional fishing boat.

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A lonely road on the Aughrus Peninsula.

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Stacks of turf with Derryclare lough and mountain in the background.

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Kylemore Abbey.

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Something about this granite wall adorned with fluffy clouds caught my eye (Aughrus Peninsula).

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 There are many beautiful Connemara Ponies around the place – this one was very interested in seeing if my camera was edible! 

 

August 13, 2014

Getting out of the boat

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(Photo: Inishbofin Ferry, July 2014)

Sermon for Sunday 10th August, 2014.

Text: Matthew 14:22-33

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

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

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

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

July 3, 2014

Random Light No. 9

Here are some photos taken in the last few months…

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A Worcestershire Poppy field

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Colourful Kinsale

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Evening Reflections at Trimpley reservoir, Worcestershire

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A family of ducks makes their way home in the last light of the day…

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One of Fota’s more colourful residents…

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Bantry harbour boats (with “cross-process” effect)

DSC_8811_wpMwnt, Ceredigion.

 

May 26, 2014

The Beach House

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It’s been a while since we have been to any of the beaches in East Cork.  The house above is in a wonderful location not too far from Garryvoe, a place that we often used to make a trip to when we lived nearby.  It’s a quiet, isolated location and would make a wonderful place to retreat to, a perfect weekend or holiday home.  Although it is up for sale, by the looks of things it would need a lot of work.  It would be lovely to think of somebody buying it who has the time and resources not only to repair it but to enjoy it as well…

May 9, 2014

Mizen head cliffs

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Back in mid March we took a trip down to Mizen Head, Ireland’s most south-westerly extremity.  It was a lovely clear day but quite cold and very windy (our youngest son lost his hat over the edge of the cliff during a particularly strong gust!).

The above view was well worth the climb to get there.  The transatlantic route lies just south of here and this is the last view of Ireland for the seafarer heading west.  It is not difficult to imagine the emotion that many must have felt as they stood on deck, making their way to a new life in a new world, excited by the new beginnings that lay ahead but sad at all that they were leaving behind…

May 3, 2014

Joy

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They are just some Tulips in a kitchen window, but I marvelled at how beautiful they were. One word came into my mind as I looked at them: “Joy”.

They seem to be radiating light and beautiful colour; perhaps it is not going too far to see them as an act of worship, pointing the viewer to the landscape beyond and ultimately to the Hand that made it all…

C. S. Lewis described nature as “a medium of the real joy”*, in other words a way in which God conveys to us all the wonder that is found in Him. His beauty is reflected in His work; the great Artist longing for us to love not only his nature, but Him…

*”Surprised by Joy”, Fount paperback edition (1977), p.66

April 29, 2014

Homeless

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From the upper deck of a double-decker I saw these two men sat chatting on St. Patrick’s Bridge in Cork city.  I wonder what they were talking about?  The man in the black hoodie on the left seems to be listening intently, his hands in a curious gesture, as if pushing something apart.  The little cardboard coffee cup between them seems to be for passers-by to put money in, but it only seems a half-hearted attempt to gather, as if they are a little embarrassed by the asking.

All curiosity aside, I pray these men will, if they don’t now, then one day very soon have a place to call home.

 

 

April 19, 2014

Sermon for Good Friday 2014

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Photo: The “Famine Cross”, Church of the Immaculate Conception, Clonakilty.

It seems like long while since I put a sermon on this blog, so here are the words I spoke from at the Methodist Church in Clonakilty last night, for Good Friday…

Text: Matthew 27:33-54

I read an extraordinary story in the news last night[1].  It happened in Iran.  A man was to be hanged for murdering a young man of 17 in a street fight.  The photos showed a large crowd all around him, pressing in on the scaffolding that surrounds the place of execution.  The condemned man is standing there on a chair with a noose around his neck.  There he was in tears and moments from death when the mother and father of the man he had killed came up to him and together removed the noose from around his neck, the mother declaring that she had forgiven him.  Understandably this has caused quite an uproar in Iran, enough of an uproar that it is even being reported about in Ireland…

Our reading for this evening concerns another place of execution and one in which the man being executed is entirely innocent.  The uproar caused by this particular execution has sent shockwaves through history ever since, shockwaves that transcend time and distance, language and culture, heaven and hell.

As we turn to Matthew 27, starting at verse 33, the Lord Jesus, who had already been flogged, mocked, spat at, and had a crown of thorns pushed onto His head is brought to the place of execution, known as Golgotha, the place of the skull.  The Lord refused the bitter wine he is offered; He wants to face what is ahead with full clarity of mind.  Matthew does not give us any details of the crucifixion, he merely writes: “And when they crucified him they divided his garments among them by casting lots.”  This is talking about the Roman soldiers who would have been the ones to nail Jesus to the cross, hoist him up and then keep watch.  It is their job to keep the people at least a spears distance away from the cross and it is easy for us to imagine a seething crowd of people around, some mocking, some grieving, and some just waiting to see what might happen.  In the crowd were Mary, Jesus’ mother, some of the disciples and many of Jesus’ friends, but also the chief priests, scribes and elders and many others who were only too glad to see the Lord Jesus as He now was.

The soldiers put up a sign above Jesus which read “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews”, we learn from John’s Gospel that the religious leaders did not like this sign at all (John 19:19-22), but Pilate, who had written it would not let it be changed.

We are told that two robbers were crucified with Jesus, one on His right and one on His left and so we can imagine the scene more clearly, soldiers around the three crosses, a sizeable crowd, many of whom were mocking Jesus and even passers by we are told, wag their heads, deriding Him, saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself.  If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” (v.39, 40).  Are we not reminded in these words of the words of satan as he tempted Jesus in the wilderness: “If you are the Son of God…” (Matthew 4:3).  Here again Jesus is being tempted to leave the cross, to show His power.  The words of the accusers, even the chief priests, elders and scribes ringing in His ears saying: “He saved others; he cannot save himself.  He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him…” Of course, Jesus could have come down from the cross if He had wanted to, He could have silenced the jeering and the mocking with a show of power or with legions of angels.  But He chose the path of suffering because He was on the cross not though human plan or action; He was not there because things had gone wrong.  He was there because it had been planned all along that He would give His life as a ransom for all (1 Timothy 2:6), to purchase freedom for all who would receive it.

Matthew tells us that at the sixth hour, (that is 12 noon); there was darkness over all the land.  This was no ordinary darkness; it can only have been a special act of God, as it lasted for three hours.  Obviously we cannot even begin to imagine the suffering that the Lord Jesus took on Himself during that time.  The pain of the nails in his hands and feet, the pain and exhaustion of hauling up His tired body to breathe, all this would have been nothing in comparison to taking upon Himself the sin of the whole world, including my sin and yours.  He experienced the full punishment that our sins deserve.  He experienced God’s anger and wrath that would otherwise have been directed at us.  He experienced the judgement of the Father that we deserved.  So great was this suffering that Jesus calls out a line from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  The Son of God, who had in all eternity known total oneness and intimacy with the father and with the Spirit, is now rejected and judged and punished for our sin, as He hangs in the place of execution, dying the death that we deserve to die.  Finally, when the time comes for Jesus to die He gives up His spirit not in weakness fading to death but with a loud voice, which John records as Jesus saying, “It is finished.” (John 19:30).

God the Father responds in a dramatic way.  The curtain of the temple is torn in two.  No longer would an elaborate system of animal sacrifices be necessary.  No longer would God be inaccessible and hidden.  No longer would there be an enormous unfathomable chasm between God and us.  There was now a bridge, in the shape of a cross, and we are free to cross over that bridge into the Holy of Holies.  The dividing barrier, symbolised by the curtain in the temple was now torn in two.  Next we see that there is an earthquake, strong enough that rocks are splitting and tombs opening.  Godly people who had died are now raised from the dead and come out of the tombs.  Later, after Jesus’ resurrection these risen saints go into the city and appear to many.

The reading ends with the Roman centurion being filled with awe.  What had started out as a day like any other day for him had become utterly like any other day in history.  He had seen how the Lord Jesus had calmly and silently dealt with the mocking and accusations, even uttering words of forgiveness (Luke 23:34).  He had seen the dignity and authority of Jesus even in the midst of unimaginable pain and suffering and he had witnessed the supernatural darkness, the earthquake and the raising of the dead saints coming out of their tombs.  All this had an effect, a profound effect on the centurion, enough for him to utter those famous words:  “Truly this was the Son of God!” (54)

This is the point where we come into the story.  What is our response to it?  This is not just ancient history, the cross of Christ transcends time and space and it is indeed a crossroads in all of our lives.  How do we respond to Jesus?  How do we respond to the fact that He died for us, that He willingly and totally gave His life for us in order that we might be forgiven and made right with God?  How do we respond to such incredible love?  Surely when such an overwhelming gift is offered to us, we take it, then with tears of gratitude in our eyes we say ‘thank you’.

The Lord Jesus not only takes the noose off our neck, He places it around His own neck and dies in our place.  Not only that but He wants us to be with Him, to allow Him to live in us and to be His friend and disciple and to walk with Him and talk with Him and share our whole life with Him.  How could we not want to do this?  It is the most beautiful gift and it is one that He offers to ever single one of us, please I ask you, accept it with all your heart.  Amen.

 

[1] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27070087

 

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