Archive for December, 2010

December 24, 2010

“God bless Us, Every One!”

Christmas is many things to many people.  Homes all over the world will be full of laughter and joy as presents are opened and wonderful food consumed in the presence of loved ones.  Children and wise adults will soak up the magic of it all and even if only for a time will allow themselves to be transported in time and space to a place where all is well with the world, where people do look out for and look after one another.  Even if only briefly, hearts will be full of hope, whether they know it or not, a hope that reflects that Great Hope which came into the world.

Not all homes and families will be full of laughter and happiness.  Bereavement and grief are never more keenly felt than at this time of year.  The vacant chair at the table will never have seemed so empty, the echoes of laughter and happiness of bygone years never so vividly played out in bittersweet memory.  Perhaps more than for several generations on this Island, countless homes will be under the stress of uncertainty at what the New Year will bring.  How will we be able to afford to keep living in our home?  Will I still have a job in a few weeks or months time?  Will the children mind having presents that are much less than what they really wanted?

In the intensity of the celebration it seems that highs are higher and lows lower, hopes greater and fears magnified, but no matter how much the secular push against celebrating Christmas persists, it cannot take away something that has been there for generations and will adamantly remain until the end of time, namely hope.

There are many Scrooges today who would say ‘Bah!  Humbug’ and would seek to diminish and undermine in any way they can this most wonderful of Christian celebrations.  I am reminded of what Scrooge’s Nephew says to his uncle near the beginning of Charles Dickens’ great story, ‘A Christmas Carol’:

‘But I am sure that I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round – apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.  And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good and will do me good; and I say, God bless it.’

God bless it indeed.  Never have we been blessed more; Jesus Christ came into the world on a rescue mission so daring and so wonderful that it brings joy and peace to even the most troubled heart that to that Christ says “Yes Lord, be born in my heart this day.”

A very merry Christmas to you all and “God bless Us, Every One!”

December 20, 2010

To be rescued from ourselves.

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.

December 18, 2010

A Cold Breakfast

More sheep…

Here’s the view I saw of our ‘neighbours’ across the road as I was de-icing the car a few days ago. Made me appreciate my hot porridge all the more :-)

Verse for the day:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

(Psalm 23:1)

December 17, 2010

But I want to!

(Photo taken in the Great Langdale Valley, Cumbria, last Summer).

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

(Isaiah 53:6 ESV)

Christians have always been daily faced with the question, “do I go the way of the world or do I go the way that I know that is right.”

The way of the world is probably best summed up in the defence that people give for living how they want to, “I can do what ever I like, so long as it makes me happy.  I am not hurting anyone, why can’t I?”

Wouldn’t it be great if we could all do whatever we wanted, all of the time, with no one getting hurt?  Surely it would be like heaven on earth? Hmm, maybe not.  Maybe we do not actually know what’s best for ourselves anymore than children understand the responsibilities of adulthood.

Time and time again I find myself having to answer questions from people, moral and ethical questions about how we should (and should not) live our lives.  Naturally I like to sit on the fence, but that is not a luxury afforded to us.

“Why is it wrong for this gay couple get married?  They’ve been together for years and they love each other.”

“Why is abortion not O.K.?  Having a baby would be a real inconvenience right now.  Surely it’s not really a baby anyway, it’s not life, and why can’t a women make decisions about her own body?”

“Why can’t my grandmother choose when she wants to die?  She is in great pain.  Why can the doctor not give her a little injection to end the misery?”

Why shouldn’t scientists genetically modify these tomatoes/sheep/children, they would be much more juicy/cost effective/better behaved?!

“Why can’t I jump off this cliff, it looks like fun?  My friends are all running into that fire over there, why can’t I?  Oh you’re such a spoilsport for not letting me!

Ah ethics, what a mess you have got us into!  (O.K., that’s too many exclamation marks now!)

Pilate asked Jesus “What is truth?” (John 18:38).  Most people would be happy to answer that truth is whatever we make it; that truth is different depending upon the situation and circumstances, that it is flexible.  Truth therefore is seen as subjective, based on feelings, tastes, opinions, trends and fashion.

But what if truth were Objective, something that was beyond and outside of the sphere of our choosing?  What if truth was placed there as a framework, a paradigm for our lives that was actually in itself good and right and well … true?

Jesus said:

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”(John 14:6 ESV)

If we want truth, if we want to know what is right and if we want to know the best way to live our lives, then we need to look at God’s word, Jesus.  I am not going to attempt to blog about Biblical ethics, as I would not have any time left over to do anything else today.  A good place to start is WWJD “What would Jesus do?” (Sounds naive and simplistic until we actually try and do it!)  The Bible gives us God’s manual, His instruction book on how to live our lives.  The better we know and understand God’s word, the more we are able to apply the holiness of God to our everyday human lives.  Yes there will be times when people simply don’t understand our stance on certain issues;  we are not judging people, we are not telling them that they are wrong, rather it is that we know where the right answer(s) may be found.  This can only be done properly with love, humility and great respect, something that the church has historically been catastrophically bad at.  :-(

We are simply beggars, telling other beggars where they might go to find bread.

December 16, 2010

Red sky in the morning…

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)

December 14, 2010

Photographic notepad

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…

By the way this blog post was written on and all the photos taken using my mobile phone – hence the strange formatting :-)

December 8, 2010

and the busy world is hushed

Clonakilty Snowscape
The past week or so has been unusual; many meetings, visits and school days have been cancelled and we have had the sort of weather that “only happens once in a generation” (except of course we had it last year as well.)  
Personally there has been an up-side to being confined to home – more family time, time for catching up on reading etc.  But there is more, a deeper sense of peace, perhaps because of being forced to slow down a little and to reflect upon the things that matter and the things that are important in life and in work.  
(Photography Bit).  Of course I have enjoyed taking a few photographs too :-)  Snow photography is pretty tricky because of all the light reflecting back; my little compact camera has a ‘snow’ scene setting, which is cheating a bit but really all it does (I think) is overexpose things by about a stop.  The above picture was taken from our garden using good old Tri-x film, with a Nikon F100 and 50mm lens.  Developed in Rodinal means that the grain is very grainy but I like the effect here.  
The scene above was as I was standing there in the stillness of the early morning light, very peaceful and  tranquil.  As I look at it now (and as I think about the memorial service I am doing this afternoon) I am reminded of one of the prayers from the funeral service (by John Henry Newman):  
O Lord,
support us all the day long
until the shades lengthen, and the evening comes,
and the busy world is hushed,
the fever of life is over,
and our work is done.
Then, Lord, in your mercy grant us safe lodging,
a holy rest, and peace at the last;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  
December 5, 2010

JtheB and the road to the Lord

Clonakilty in the snow

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.
(Micah 7:19)

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.


December 2, 2010

Sparing a thought for Farmers

Kilmalooda Cows

Many of the Parishioners here are Farmers or in some way connected to Agriculture.  Having spoken with a couple of dairy farmers in the last few days I am getting a greater understanding of how tough this cold, icy weather can be.  Their work takes much longer in these freezing conditions, as they do everything to stop the water pipes from freezing, keeping the yard from getting too slippery and trying to prevent the cows skating around!  Then there’s loads of other stuff which to a layman like myself I wouldn’t get or understand, but nevertheless farmers have both my sympathy and my prayers at this time.

Kilmalooda Church Panorama

Yesterday I was driving (very slowly) through Kilmalooda on my way to a visit.  I had set out too early and had some time to spare so I took a few pictures.  Firstly the one at the top of the cows, (which got me thinking again about the farmers), then one of the church (or rather 21 pictures merged together to form a giant picture on the computer),

Kilmalooda road

then one of the icy road

Kilmalooda Valley and Castle

and finally one of the old raiding Castle in the valley.  For all its harshness, the snow and ice is at the same time, quite beautiful…