Here are some landscape photos which I took back in August when we were in the wonderfully rugged terrain around Wastwater in Cumbria, England. I’ll put up some colour ones next time but for now here are four Black & Whites from the hundred or so pictures that I took. By the way if you are wondering about the sky in the second picture and whether it’s real or not – yes it is – the trick is to use a polarizing filter and stand at 90 degrees to the sun…
These Rag Dolls are stuck on the shelf, but it’s O.K., they know that one day the waiting will be over and their time will come … ;-)
For anyone interested, I have been trying out the free ‘beta’ version of Lightroom 4, available for Mac and PC here. This photo was shot at 5600 ISO and as a result was very ‘noisy’ (lots of grainy stuff, especially in the shadow areas). Lightroom has a series of ’noise reduction’ sliders that are very effective at reducing the graininess. If you are into photography it’s something I would recommend, but hurry, it’s only going to be free until the end of March, after which it will probably be three hundred Euro or more…
The first “Random Light” was all pictures taken with film – this time around it’s all digital…
Bridge over the river by Youghal.
A wonderful selection of cheeses, Narberth, Wales.
Moria, Mid Wales
Japanese Maple, Co. Wicklow
This door knocker at Dún na Séad Castle in Baltimore reminded me of those famous words of Jesus:
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened…”
The search for meaning in life can be and is baffling for many people. These words of Jesus have always been a source of encouragement for me and for many others also. May they be, for you reading this, a great help too.
The ‘Apple’ logo on my computer often makes me think of Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden!
Sermon for Today, First Sunday in Lent Year A. Text Matthew 4:1-11
Temptation is a horrible thing! Even as I was trying to write this sermon the temptation to do just about anything else, such as having a walk around the garden in the sunshine, or to go and make a cup of tea or find a piece of cake or to check the cricket score just didn’t stop! It was so difficult to concentrate and so difficult to write, but with God’s help I got there in the end. And that is the key to dealing with temptation ‘with God’s help’. We all know that we are simply not strong enough to deal with temptation on our own, we need help, specifically God’s help, otherwise we will never be successful.
As we look at the reading for today from Matthew’s gospel, we learn a few very important lessons from the Lord Jesus, as we look at how He dealt with temptation. The Lord never asks of his followers anything that He has not already gone through Himself. He has been tempted, as we are often tempted so therefore, He is able to help us. Listen to this verse from Hebrews chapter 2:
“Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” (Heb.2:18)
So how did the Lord do it? First of all we read about how the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert in order to meet the trial ahead. The Lord fasts for forty days and forty nights and it is only after this time of preparation that the devil comes to him. As we read this text we might realise just how mysterious it all is; the boundaries of time and space don’t seem to matter very much – but taking all that on board we must not be tempted ourselves to think of this as some kind of parable or allegory. This is a real event, it’s not some kind of metaphor – these were real temptations by the chief devil, Satan himself. (Concerning the devil, good advice is given to us by C.S. Lewis, who wrote):
“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors…” (‘The Screwtape L.etters’ p.9)
Of course we need to be aware that when we are tempted by whom it is we are being tempted, it is not our imagination, it is from a very real and a very powerful enemy. Thankfully we have an infinity greater Lord and Saviour, but don’t let any of us ever think that we can conquer temptation without God’s help.
So then, the devil comes to the Lord Jesus and says:
‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’4But he answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’ (v. 3b, 4)
In the paragraph before today’s reading, we have the account of Jesus’ baptism and it is at His baptism that God the Father says in a voice from heaven:
“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matt.3:17)
So the devil is picking up on this as he says, “If you are the Son of God,” and tries to get the Lord to use his divine power to satisfy his natural desire for food. Of course there is nothing wrong with food and eating, God gives us many wonderful foods to enjoy and to share, but in this instance the timing was wrong. The Lord was in the desert to fast, not to eat and because he had come to live as a man on the earth he had willingly limited his divine power so that He might experience human frailty – he wouldn’t use his power to change stones into bread. We too may be tempted to satisfy perfectly good and God-given desires in the wrong way or at the wrong time, such as indulging in sex before marriage or in stealing food to eat. Many of our natural desires are good, but God wants us to satisfy them in the right way and at the right time.
How does the Lord silence the tempter? By quoting from the Bible, which is a very powerful and potent weapon against the enemy. Ephesians 6:17 tells us that the sword of the Spirit is the word of God. We need to read our Bibles, we need to memorise verses of Scripture so that when we are tempted, we will be able to stand against the enemy.
For the second temptation, the devil comes to Jesus and leads Him to Jerusalem up to the very pinnacle of the temple and says:
‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’ (v.6)
Again, the devil uses the “if you are the Son of God” line, trying to put a seed of doubt into the Lord’s mind. First time around the devil tries to get Jesus to abuse His divine power, now similarly the devil tries to get Jesus to put on a spectacular and impressive display by throwing himself down from the top of the temple and letting an army of angels come dramatically to His rescue.
The Lord responds by quoting Scripture once More:
‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ (Deut. 6:16)
God is not some magician in the sky ready to perform tricks and God does not need to prove Himself to the devil!
Twice the devil tries to tempt the Lord to abuse His Divine power and twice he fails, so now he tries a different tack, in effect saying, “forget your heavenly Father. Just worship me and I’ll give you power and greatness like no one else ever had.” (phrase from Tom Wright, ‘Matthew for Everyone” Part 1, p.25). We read:
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; 9and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ (v. 8,9)
Of course the devil did not have the kingdoms of the world to give, but that did not stop him offering them! Likewise the devil will try to tempt us with materialism and power and he offers us so much without any intention of giving it to us. The Lord’s response to this ridiculous temptation was swift and decisive:
‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’ (v. 10)
Then we are told that the devil leaves and angels come to the Lord and wait on Him. So again, the Lord quotes Scripture to defeat the enemy. When we are tempted we need to resist those temptations in the same way that Jesus did, by wielding the sharp, double-edged sword that is the word of God. Perhaps it would be a good exercise in Lent to memorise some scriptures specifically to do with temptation?
I’ll finish with what author Brian Larson writes on the subject of temptation:
Temptation is always seductive, and so we can hardly have too many reminders of Satan’s purpose in it.
Last week I had a simple reminder. I was at a party over lunch with a dozen of my fellow workers. It was a warm day in early September, and we had the windows open wide. Soon a bee found its way in, and after buzzing near me it landed on some food on the table. One of my colleagues a few chairs away took hold of an empty bottle of sparkling grape juice and put the mouth of the bottle near the bee. When she did that, I expected the bee to be startled and fly away for its own safety, as a butterfly might do. Instead, without a moment’s hesitation, the bee flew to the mouth of the bottle as if it had done this a hundred times before and climbed inside the narrow opening. Immediately my colleague put the cap on the bottle and screwed it shut. The bee spent the rest of our party drinking at the bottom of the bottle. As far as I know, the bee was never released.
What was my colleague’s purpose in luring the bee into the bottle? Was she concerned about the bee, wanting it to enjoy our hospitality and have plenty to drink? No, she dislikes bees. Her purpose was capture and control. The bee had flown into a trap.
When Satan incites us to indulge in the pleasures of the world in a manner that oversteps God’s commands, what is his purpose? Is he concerned that we might miss out on the good things of God? No, he despises humans. His purpose is capture and control. We must never forget that when we follow Satan, we walk into a trap.
When the Tempter comes around, it is better to have the instincts of a butterfly than a bee.
Let us pray… Amen
Photo: Sunrise on the way to Timoleague, early one Sunday morning.
Sermon for Sunday 20th February. Text: Matthew 5:38-48
Timoleague, Clonakilty HC, Year A 3rd Sunday Before Lent (Proper 2), 20/2/11. Matthew 5:38-48
Humility is a difficult thing to grasp. I had to laugh last week when I saw a politician on television puffing out his chest and saying “I am a humble man”! Poor chap, I think the irony of boasting about his humility was lost upon him! But of course politicians are easy targets, what about ourselves, are we in danger of being proud of our humility? Well if we are then the few verses of our reading from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel will give us a jolt back into reality…
The Lord Jesus starts off by quoting a well-known phrase from the Old Testament law (from Exodus 21:24) and then He expands upon it:
‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; (Matthew 5:38, 39)
How do we react when we are wronged? Think about when you are in the car and somebody pulls out in front of you or cuts you up at a roundabout, or you are trying to turn on to the main road but some eejit is blocking the yellow box junction! We can get a bit upset – perhaps we even secretly wish that our car was equipped with a mobile rocket-launcher! When someone does wrong to us we want revenge!
The Old Testament law of ‘an eye for an eye’ was there to make sure that the punishment fitted the crime, so that a sentence was neither too harsh nor too lenient. What does the Lord want us to do? Does He want us to demand our rights? No. Does He want us to make sure that those who wrong us are punished? No. (This is not so much talking about crimes against the state which are punishable under law, it is talking about our relationships and dealings with people). Do we have a readiness to resentment? Are we easily offended? Do we go into a sulk when we don’t get our way? Are we keen to assert our rights?
The Lord does not want us to be like this, we are not to be a miserable selfish grouch who everybody avoids because they are afraid of upsetting. As Mahatma Ghandi (who though a Hindu greatly admired Jesus’ teaching) said ‘an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.’ If we want God’s Kingdom to come, if we want His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven , then we have to let go of our natural wishes and desires and we have to respond as Jesus did. If someone slaps us on the cheek, our first thought might be to punch their lights out, but no, we are to not retaliate. If someone takes from us we are not to resist but offer them more! If someone compels us to do something to help them we are to go the ‘whole hog’ and help them as fully as we are able to do so.
We are to return good for evil and blessing for cursing. We are to love not only in word but in deed also.
Next, the Lord says:
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
Of course, nowhere in the Old Testament law does it say to hate enemies, rather the words had been misinterpreted over time. It’s one thing to turn the other cheek but when the Lord asks us to love our enemies is that not going a bit far? What is an enemy? According to my dictionary, an enemy is someone who is opposed to something, and actively tries to damage it. (Collins English Dictionary sixth ed. 2003). Is Jesus mad? No, He definitely is not. Perhaps we forget that once we were His enemy, and did He not treat us with overwhelming love? We might say ‘I was never God’s enemy’, well before you gave your life to Christ, you were a sinner, what is a sinner, but someone who lives their life apart from God. There is no sitting on the fence, either we are for God or we are against Him and to be against Him is to be His enemy. Listen to this, from Romans chapter 5:
8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.9Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.
So in other words, the Lord Jesus wants us to behave towards others as He has behaved towards us, with unconditional love, grace and acceptance.
A professor of New Testament Studies, Gary M. Burge, writes the following true story
A few years ago in Jerusalem’s famed Hadassh Hospital, an Israeli soldier lay dying. He had contracted AIDS as a result of his reckless lifestyle and was now in the last stages of the disease’s terrible course. His father was a famous Jerusalem rabbi, and both he and the rest of his family had disowned him. He was condemned to die in his shame. The nursing staff on his floor knew his story and carefully avoided his room. Everyone was simply waiting for his life to expire.
The soldier happened to be part of a regiment that patrolled the Occupied West Bank, and his unit was known for its ferocity and war-fighting skills. The Palestinians living there hated these troops. They were merciless and could be cruel. Their green berets always gave them away.
One evening the soldier went into cardiac arrest. All the usual alarms went off, but the nursing staff did not respond. Even the doctors looked the other way. Yet on the floor another man was at work—a Palestinian Janitor, a Christian—who knew this soldiers story as well and also knew the meaning of the emergency. The Janitor’s own village had even been attacked by this soldier’s unit. When the Palestinian heard the alarm and witnessed the neglect, his heart was filled with compassion. He dropped his broom, entered the soldier’s room, and attempted to resuscitate the man by giving him cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The scene was remarkable: a poor Palestinian man, a victim of this soldier’s violence, now tried to save his enemy while those who should have been doing this stood on the sidelines. …
When you understand what it means for an enemy to love an enemy—and for the righteous to show neglect—then you will have a picture of the power of God’s grace at work in a person’s heart.
Gary M. Burge, Jesus, the Middle-Eastern Storyteller (Zondervan, 2009), pp. 24-25 (From preachingtoday.com)
It is of course easy for us to love those who love us, but the ability to love those who are actively hostile to us is another thing altogether. One of the things that makes the Christian and indeed the Church of God different from the world is the ability to love unconditionally.
To live like this might seem like the bar is set just too high, but are we not children of God, and as children of God should we not be like our Heavenly Father? If we only love those who love us, then where is the evidence of our conversion? As Bishop J.C. Ryle puts it:
Do we flinch from the test? Do we find it impossible to do good to our enemies? If that be the case we may be sure we have yet to be converted. As yet we have not received the “Spirit of God.” (1 Cor. ii. 12.)
(J.C. Ryle, Expository thoughts on the Gospel, Matthew, 1856).
So who are our enemies? The answer will be different for each of us. They may be persons we do not even know, but who would wish us ill because of our association with Christ. Sadly, our enemy may even be a family member or former friend or work colleague. They may make no secret in delighting in our failures and resenting our successes.
Here is the challenge: You can be sure that if you are a follower of the Lord Jesus that you will have the opportunity to minister to those who hate you. What will we do when that time comes; will we turn away and pretend not to notice, or will we reach out in love?
How happy would the world be if we were all able to live as Jesus taught. But we are weak and we are proud and so stubborn. Yet if there is a small spark of hope in us that is able to say “Thy will be done”, we can be assured that the very second we say “yes” to God, He is there and He will help us and He will give us every strength, resource and encouragement in Christ that we need to love, yes to unconditionally love even those who hate us.
Yesterday’s Sermon from Matthew 1:18-25 “The Birth of Jesus the Messiah”.
As one of the most important events in all history, the birth of the Lord Jesus stands out so much it cannot be ignored. It stands out not for its splendour and pomp and ceremony, it stands out so much because it is so humble. When we hear about it we cannot help but be intrigued and fascinated. Now if we didn’t know better, we’d have thought that the King of kings, God Himself made flesh would have a very dramatic entrance on to the stage of humanity – but no, quite the opposite is true.
We’d have thought that at the very least He would have been born to very important people, in a big palace in the wealthiest of cities. But the reason why the events surrounding the birth of the Lord Jesus stand out as much as they do is because everything is just the opposite from what you would expect them to be if you had never heard the story before.
First of all we have an ordinary young girl called Mary; she’s not a daughter of a King, she doesn’t wake up in royal splendour every morning, her every whim is not catered for by an army of servants. Mary lives in an ordinary house in a little village called Nazareth, she is engaged to be married, not to a prince or wealthy merchant, but to a carpenter named Joseph. We don’t know much about Joseph except that Matthew describes him as a “righteous man”. He needed to be with what would happen next!
No doubt Joseph was looking forward to getting married to Mary; they had the whole of their lives together to look forward to. But then Mary tells Joseph that she is pregnant and that the child is from the Holy Spirit! Understandably, Joseph panics – in those days a woman could be stoned to death for adultery, (which is what it would have been seen as). Clearly Joseph thinks that Mary no longer wants to be his wife so he thinks about divorcing her from their engagement on the quiet so that nobody would find out about it.
Somehow, Joseph manages to get some sleep with all this milling around in his mind. While he is asleep, an Angel appears to him in a dream to explain what is really going on. Yes Mary is telling the truth, the child really is from the Holy Spirit – Joseph must not be afraid to take Mary as his wife – she will give birth to a son, and Joseph is to give him the name “Jesus”. (Jesus being the Greek version of the Hebrew name Joshua), which means “The LORD saves”. The angel finishes off by telling Joseph that the son that his fiancée will have, whom he is to call Jesus will save his people from their sins.
Have you ever been told a piece of news that is so big that you cannot take it all in at once? Sometimes on telling a very significant piece of news, a person will say, “you might want to sit down before I tell you this”. It was just as well then that Joseph was lying down at this point, otherwise he might have collapsed with the news of all that he was hearing and seeing!
So upon waking, Joseph did what was asked of him, he took Mary home as his wife, but had no union with her until after Jesus was born.
Matthew then is keen then to emphasise two things: Firstly (as we have just seen), that Mary was a virgin, her child was of the Holy Spirit. Secondly, that Jesus’ birth is the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. Quoting from Isaiah 7, he says:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Immanuel” – which means, ‘God is with us.’
In other words, Matthew is telling his audience that Jesus is the Messiah. He is the one who will save his people. Israel had been waiting for hundreds of years for their Messiah. They were just so fed up with being oppressed; If it wasn’t the Egyptians, it was the Babylonians or the Assyrians, then along came Greeks and after the Greeks came the Romans. The people of Israel had been under the oppressive rule of one foreign power or another for most of their history. They wanted so desperately to be free – free from foreigners telling them what to do the whole time.
So the Messiah was going to be the one who was going to set them free from all this oppression. In the mind of the average person, the Messiah would be some kind of superhero who would send the Romans packing. Like a kind of spiritual Arnold Schwarzenegger, He would terminate the enemy and restore Israel back to the days of when king David was on the throne, a nation that was both feared and respected by the other nations of the world.
But few realised He was going to do something far more significant, something far more powerful and something that would have consequences not just for the people of Israel but for all people throughout history.
What did the Angel say to Joseph?
“… for he will save his people from their sins”.
The biggest enemy that the people of Israel had was not the Romans. The enemies of the past, the Greeks and the Babylonians were not the real problem either. No the real problem and the real enemy was themselves (or more specifically, their sin). It was these people’s rebellion against God that was the real enemy. They had turned away from Him. Their worship had become dry, empty and meaningless. They were not so much concerned about living their lives for God; it was all about outward show, to be seen to do the right thing. (Sound familiar?)
In His ministry, the Lord Jesus brought this subject up many times, for example in Luke 18, where the religious leader, the Pharisee goes up to the temple to pray. He makes sure that everyone can see how religious and holy he is and no doubt with a fake serious expression on his face he says, ”I thank God that I’m not a sinner like everyone else, I don’t cheat, I don’t sin and I don’t commit adultery. I fast twice a week and give away a tenth of my income”. In contrast, the outcast of society, the tax collector stood at a distance with his head bowed and said “O God be merciful to me a sinner”. The Lord Jesus tells us that it is of course the second man who returned home justified before God.
The Lord Jesus had a much bigger job to do than ridding the people of Roman oppression. Hearts that were hardened towards God needed to be softened; minds that were only concerned with the things of this world needed to be re-orientated towards heaven. The people didn’t need to be changed on the outside, no people needed to be changed on the INSIDE….
That is why Jesus’ birth is so humble. The Lord wants us to get the message that outward appearances count for nothing in God’s Kingdom. In the Old Testament, speaking to the prophet Samuel, God says:
“The LORD doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7 – NLT)
This is a lesson that we need to learn again and again throughout our lives. We all know the saying “don’t judge a book by the cover”. Thankfully God does not judge us by our outward appearance, but He looks at our hearts.
Now if it weren’t for Jesus, this would be a very heartbreaking truth. We know that our hearts are not very pretty. We are full of sin. We might look not too bad on the outside, but inside, if we are honest, it’s not too good in there. We might be like a nice ripe apple on the outside, but all mouldy and rotten on the inside!
But the reason why we celebrate Christmas is because God came down as Jesus to save us, so that when God looks at the hearts of his people He finds Jesus there, it is no longer rotten and mouldy, it is clean and made new.
Why do we give each other presents at Christmas? We do so to remind ourselves of the best gift of all, the gift of forgiveness and the gift of new life that the Lord Jesus has won for us.
If we acknowledge Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, we are free from oppression. Today we are not oppressed by Romans or Babylonians or even the IMF, but we are oppressed by ourselves, our own sin and rebellion against God. And that is what the Lord Jesus frees us from.
So this Christmastime let us receive into our hearts and lives that greatest gift of all, Jesus. What does the name Jesus mean again? “The Lord saves”. Amen.
The sky this morning was rather ominous looking. We know that there is some very cold weather on the way brrr!
“When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. (Matthew 16:2, 3 ESV)
I heard of someone who was forever complaining that they had their best ideas in the middle of the night, but of course the ideas themselves were long forgotten by the morning.
Someone else suggested to them that they leave a pen and paper beside the bed to write down these great ideas so they could be read In the morning. This was duly done but the problem was that, what was in the middle of the night thought to be an earth-shattering brainwave turned out, in the cold light of day, to just be a load of gibberish scrawled across the page!
I can’t tell you the number if times I have come across what I thought would make a good photograph, (with the light just right), only for the moment to be gone by the time I have got the camera to hand and ready to take the picture. Sometimes you come across a moment and it is a very fleeting moment, the light will not wait for you, you have to be quick. That is perhaps one of the reasons why mobile phones have become so popular now for taking pictures; we nearly always have them on us and in no time at all they can take a picture of whatever it is that has caught our eye.
Of course, so often the image is then very disappointing when we look at it on our computer screen later on, but just occasionally it comes out ok. Mobile phone cameras have come on a long way (though i.m.h.o. not yet as good as a dedicated compact camera, the image sensor is just too small). They are like photographic note pads, great for ideas and sketches and there have been many times when I have been glad of one…
Thank you so much to the person (who wishes to remain anonymous) who posted me a Facebook message answering my call for help. The message picked me up and got me writing again – thank you!
Today’s Sermon (Text: Matthew 3:1-12) Advent 2, Year A
In his poem “St. John the Baptist’s Day”, John Keble writes:
Where is the lore the Baptist taught,
The soul unswerving and the fearless tongue?
The much-enduring wisdom, sought
By lonely prayer the haunted rocks among?
Who counts it gain
His light should wane,
So the whole world to Jesus throng?(1)
The Lord Jesus said of John:
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist… (Matthew 11:11a)
John the Baptist was an amazing character. He lived in the desert wilderness, and Matthew tells us that he had raggedy old clothes made from camel’s hair, held up by an old leather belt. For his food / Bush Tucker Trial, he had a strict diet of locusts and wild honey. The honey sounds nice, but I’m not so sure about the locusts! He doesn’t really sound like the type of character one would normally listen to, does he? But what an awesome character John was, so holy and so humble, never seeking any credit for himself and always directing attention away from himself and onto Christ.
When I was at theological college, a Rector who I did a parish placement with discussed John the Baptist with me as I was preparing to write a sermon for that Sunday. He told me about a sermon he did on John the Baptist when he was a Curate at a well-to-do parish in Dublin. Unbeknown to the very proper elderly ladies sitting a couple of pews back from the front, a friend of his had been hiding behind the Communion Table from before the start of the service. This friend was dressed as near as possible to what John the Baptist would have looked like; he was all messy and dressed in old rags, looking like he had wandered in from the nearest desert. Right in the middle of the sermon at the pre-selected point of time, he jumped out and shouted at the top of his voice “Repent, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near”. I’m told that the old ladies had such a shock that the preacher feared for their health. It took much apologising from both rector and curate to smooth things over afterwards!
You’ll be pleased to know that there are no hidden John the Baptists here this morning, behind the Communion Table or anywhere else!
Matthew tells us that John the Baptist came preaching in the desert. Here was a man who had given his life to God, and now God had a very important job for him to do. Firstly, he had to awaken the people to see their need to be converted and secondly he was going to introduce them to the Messiah, who would make it possible for the people to be converted.
If any of you have ever been to see a famous band or act such as U2, Lady Gaga or the Munster Ramblers :-/ perform, they will usually have what is known as a “support band”. This is a kind of “warm-up” act, to get everyone in the mood for the main performance. Usually however, people tend to ignore the support band and not bother coming out of the bar until the main performance starts. John is a bit like the warm-up act, though his job is infinitely more important. Perhaps a better example is whenever a head of state, such as a King or Queen does something important, they may be announced with a fanfare of trumpets, the red carpet will be rolled out, and people will have spent time beforehand making sure that everything is ready for the important person to arrive. This is exactly what John the Baptist is doing for the immanent arrival of the Lord Jesus and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. John is blowing Jesus’ trumpet and he’s laying out the red carpet to prepare the way for the coming Messiah.
So John went into the countryside all around the River Jordan and he preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The word Repent in Greek is μετάνοία (metanoia), It means ‘to change one’s mind for the better, knowing that you have offended someone (in this case God) and to look with abhorrence on your past sins’ (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon). Of course, repentance then is not just once off, it must be the way of life for the Christian. Every day in prayer and through reading God’s word we allow Him to work in us to align us to His will, to His plan and purpose for our lives and to repent of our old way of living.
Baptism was nothing new. The Jewish people had for a long time performed a ceremonial washing of Gentiles who had converted to Judaism. The idea being that Gentiles were unclean and they needed to be washed before they could become one of God’s people. But here John is having the cheek to tell the Jewish people themselves that they needed to be washed, they too were unclean! But he’s saying to them, “Yes, you are unclean, but you can be forgiven, your sins can be washed away.” His audience would have been well aware of some wonderful verses in the Hebrew Scriptures that tell us about God’s forgiveness, for example:
As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:12)
You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.
A family member told me about a dream they had once, where they were looking out to sea. The tide was out and in the mud there was lots of junk, you know the sort of thing, old shopping trolleys, washing machines and so on. The person understood these to represent all the junk in their life, in other words, all the sin. But then the tide turned, the sea came in and completely covered over all the junk. This represented what God does with our sins when we say “sorry” to Him. Even more than that, because in the dream the junk was still there under the surface – but God does much more than that, He removes our sin completely.
In other words, when God forgives, He sends our sins away to a place from which they can never be brought back. When we forgive someone, we might occasionally remind them of the bad thing that they did to us, thereby showing that we haven’t totally forgiven them at all. But God doesn’t do that. He doesn’t remind us of our sins, He completely wipes them out, so that they are no more, literally, as far as the east is from the west, or as if they had been cast into the depths of the sea.
Quoting from Isaiah, John says that there will be:
A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight …’ The voice in the desert is of course John himself, but what does he mean when he says about making straight paths for the Lord? Perhaps that his audience should provide the Lord with ready access to their hearts and lives. May we let God’s access to us not be a windy narrow West Cork Boreen full of pot holes, but a highway where we openly welcome Him into our hearts and lives.
Later on, the Lord Jesus was to declare that John was in fact the most important of all the prophets. But even he is only a forerunner, he is only the one to announce the arrival of the coming King, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Lamb of God and Saviour of the world.
John welcomed the King himself, and many people who heard John’s message also welcomed Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. Let’s ask ourselves, how straight the paths are between us and God; are there obstacles in the way? Let’s be encouraged by John’s message. Let us allow ourselves to be converted, to repent, to walk in the direction of God’s will for our lives. If we’ve done this already, let’s keep going, and let us allow God by His grace to remove every obstacle in our lives that prevents us from having an increasingly full relationship with Him. Let us pray:
Lord God, you know our lives so completely, you know my life. You know the obstacles, all the pit falls, all that hinders my relationship with you. Lord there are things I try to hide, things that I am ashamed of, things I avoid; words I should say and words I shouldn’t, things I should do and things I shouldn’t … I give this all to you now and I say ‘sorry’ with all my heart. Help me Lord, help me every day to follow you, every day and every moment of my life now and into eternity. For the glory of Your Name. Amen.