Posts tagged ‘Advent’

December 16, 2014

When God comes near

I came across this painting in the Chapel of one of the local nursing homes. As I saw it from a distance, at first I thought the foreground was the rolling waves of a tumultuous sea at night. I felt drawn in to the scene and as I got closer I saw the snowy landscape and that what I had originally thought to be the moon, was of course a star, and not just any old star, but The Star of Christmas.  The star is small and right on the edge of the picture but nevertheless it casts significant light on the mid and far distance, even if the way immediately in front of us (as we look at the scene) is still in darkness.

There is much here to meditate upon (whoever decided to hang this painting in the chapel knew what they were up to). In this season of Advent we are reminded that God comes near, very near and yet He is hidden also. We are called to seek Him and to find Him in unexpected places and in the lives of unexpected people. This is the season where darkness gives way to Light, where sin gives way to the Saviour and where death is overcomes by New Birth. Come O come Emmanuel, God is with us!

We have been greatly enjoying the Advent series of videos produced by 24-7 Prayer called “When God comes near” (the inspiration for the title of this blog post). Here is the link, they really are well worth watching.

December 16, 2012



(Photo: St. Brendan the Navigator, Bantry, perhaps rejoicing at the discovery of distant new shores.)

Sermon for Sunday 16th December, text: Philippians 4:4-7

Rejoice is not a word we use much, it seems quite old-fashioned sounding; we are not used to seeing it in a text message, or hearing it said on the nine o’clock news. Yet it is a beautiful word. It means ‘to delight in God’s grace’, to express our joy at the experience of His undeserved favour and to be conscious of His unconditional love for us[1]. See, I told you it was a beautiful word. As followers of the Lord Jesus, we have good reason to do a lot of rejoicing and our reading today from Paul’s letter to his friends in Philippi should help us rediscover the urge to rejoice that we may have lost somewhere along the way of our everyday lives.

Paul writes:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

It seems that the Philippians needed a reminder about rejoicing too, as Paul thinks it is worth repeating; “again I will say, Rejoice.”

In this season of Advent, let us rejoice in God’s love for us in sending Jesus, God born a baby to show us how much He loves us. God doesn’t keep his distance; He does not want or need us to work our way up to Him (we couldn’t anyway, even if we tried). God has come down to us in Jesus, and that is something to greatly rejoice about. Let us be like the wise men, who rejoiced when they saw the star leading them to Jesus (Matt. 2:10).

I saw something recently, which reminded me of Christmas and what it’s all about; it was at the swimming pool, where one of our boys was having a swimming lesson. The teacher was standing on the edge of the pool while her class were splashing away in the water beneath her. Everything was going fine except that there was a little girl who was getting increasingly frustrated; she just couldn’t keep us with the others in the class and she had started crying. So the teacher, wearing a tracksuit, got into the pool and held the little girl and spoke encouraging words to her and walked with her up and down the pool along with all the other children. Soon the little girl was smiling again. It reminded me of how God came down to us, to help us, to show us the way but of course Jesus did so much more than that; He was not only born for us, but as we know, he died on the cross for us too and rose again for us as well. What a God we have. Rejoice we must.

Next Paul wrote:

Let your gentleness be known to everyone.

The word ‘gentleness’ (ἐπιεικής), means to be gentle in terms of being fair and reasonable, not to judge by the ‘letter of the law’ but by the ‘spirit of the law’[2]. So when Paul says “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” He is talking about the way that the Philippians (and us) should live our lives everyday. What kind of reputation do we have outside of the walls of this church? Are we known as a hard-nosed businessman, as a ‘chancer’ or ‘cute hoor’? When people think of us do they think of someone who is gentle, someone who is fair and kind-hearted? We are to live lives where we reflect Jesus. Are people drawn towards Jesus or away from Jesus when they encounter us?

We have another link with Advent when Paul writes the four-word sentence:

The Lord is near.

There is a clever double meaning here. Yes the Lord is near to us, closer than we would think and there is nowhere we can go in this life where the Lord would not be near to us (Psalm 139:7-10). There is also the sense that the Lord is near as in the second coming. So the point is that we should be encouraged to let our gentleness be known to everyone because Jesus is with us and He will help us, but also that we should let our gentleness be known to everyone because time is short, we need to seize the opportunities that God gives us because we never know when time will come to an end. We could die tomorrow, the person we are trying to show God’s love to could die today. The Lord could return at any moment, so for God’s sake and for the sake of those around us, let our gentleness be known to everyone.

Next comes the bit we’ve all been waiting for; they are some of the most famous and popular verses in the whole Bible. Paul writes:

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Q. What lies at the bottom of the ocean and twitches?
A.  A nervous wreck.

The beginning of anxiety is the end of faith, and the beginning of true faith is the end of anxiety. (George Muller.)[3]

I heard a good definition of worry recently, that it is ‘meditation but without the prayer!’ I really hope that we all make time to meditate on Scripture, that is why we have our ‘memory verses’ in the Service Guide each week to help us get started. The idea is that you read the verse or verses over and over, again and again and you let the words sink into you and soak into your soul. You absorb them so that they become a part of you. Have you ever seen a professional wine taster at work? The way they breathe in deeply as they sip the wine and let flavours wash back and forth over their tongue and they savour the different nuances and characteristics of the grape is amazing to watch. Meditating on Scripture is a bit like that, though of course we do not spit it out at the end! When we worry about something, we let it roll over and over in our mind and it can be so bad that it can stop us eating or sleeping properly (or worse). Worry is self-destructive, but meditation is something that builds us up and gives us strength, it is nourishing and life-giving. Paul tells us not to worry about anything at all but instead to turn what is on our minds into a prayer. It is very easy to turn a worry into a prayer is it not? We just have to direct what is on our minds towards God; give Him a list of all the things that are worrying or concerning us. As we do this, we are to be thankful, thankful that we have a God who hears and answers our prayers. When we post a letter into the letter box, we don’t think that it is going to disappear into a hole in the ground and never be seen again, we have faith that it will arrive at its intended destination and that the person will read it. In a much greater way, when we pray we know that without delay our Heavenly Father hears us and that our prayer is answered even before we have finished praying.

When we realise this, it should fill us with a peace that can only come from God, a peace which is beyond all human understanding. The word used for peace (εἰρήνη) includes the idea of being whole or complete; when you have your shoe-laces undone the laces are all over the place and you may well trip over them, but when they are tied, they are whole and complete and as they should be. Similarly our minds are not at peace when we have thoughts all over the place, but in the place of prayer, where we lay all before God, He takes our thoughts, concerns and worries from us and onto Himself. Remember the Lord Jesus said:

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  (Matthew 11:29)

Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:7)

It’s funny isn’t it how often we seem to want to hold on to our worries, fears and anxieties, it is almost as if we find that they give us purpose and something to live for.  But God wants us to be free (John 8:36), Has has a wonderful plan and purpose for our lives, He longs for us to trust Him; trust Him with our hearts, our lives, our family, trust Him with our past, trust Him now and trust him for the future. He wants us to trust Him with our parents, our children our spouse and all our relationships. He wants us to take a hold of His outstretched nail-pierced hands and let Him lead us through the fullness of a life lived not for ourselves, but for Him, who made us for that very purpose, to have a relationship with Him.

If you are still awake at this point you might very well ask me:  How can I have this life that you are talking about? I go to church, I pray, I pay all my taxes but I just don’t know God the way you are describing. What do I need to do?

It’s all about passion. How much do you want to know God? Do you hunger after Him, thirst with longing, or are you just content with an on-off relationship without real commitment? What if you were to say to your wife or husband: “Well I can see you this Sunday morning for an hour and maybe one evening a week for another hour or two, but that’s all.” They probably wouldn’t be too impressed would they! In fact you couldn’t have a marriage like that, so what makes us think we can have a relationship with our Creator like that?[4]  We need to be in relationship with God ALL THE TIME, and if we only limit God to a couple of slots a week, then that is why our relationship with him is lukewarm at best. In Jeremiah 29:13, God says to His people:

When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.

If we seek God with all of our heart, we really will find Him.

May we pray: … Amen

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 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.


November 28, 2010

In the days of Noah.

rainbow_Panorama b&w
Today’s Sermon.  Text Matthew 24:36-44

Even just a short time ago hardly anyone would have predicted the enormity of what is now happening to our country. The thought that we would be plunged into a recession so low and debt levels so high that we will never be able to afford even the interest on the loans let alone the loans themselves would have been laughed off. In the midst of the ‘Celtic Tiger’, whilst the Property Bubble was still expanding, no one predicted how great the fall that we are now experiencing would be. Anytime an economist came on the radio and said that the whole thing was unsustainable, they were laughed at and not taken seriously. The mentality of so many was ‘eat drink and be merry’; with no thought to the consequences of endless spending and borrowing of money that was not ours. It turns out that predicting the future is a hard thing to do.

When I was a boy, I was fortunate enough to go with my parents on a holiday to Italy. My favourite part was when we visited the ancient city of Pompeii. This city in Roman times was full of life and home to 18,000 people. They were just living their lives when, out of the blue, there was an enormous volcanic eruption which rained down hot ash on the city. Many managed to escape, but 2000 people didn’t, they were buried alive. Today you can walk through the city streets and see ancient shop signs, houses, and theatres and it’s not hard to imagine that the people there had no idea when they woke up that morning on August 24th AD 79 that it would be their last day on earth.

The second coming seems all a bit like something from a Hollywood movie, something fantastic and theatrical. I think it’s one of those times when the Bible uses metaphorical (or picture) language to convey to us what it will be like.

The most important thing about chapter 24 in Mathew’s Gospel is to remember that it is primarily about the end of the world’s history. History is in a real sense “His Story”. The Kingdom of God came with Jesus’ Incarnation; when He lived among us. The Lord’s disciples, both then and now are citizens of two countries; we belong to this age and in the age to come. As Micheal Green puts it “”We are not what we were, but equally, we are not yet what we shall be”(1). History is steadily moving to the day when God’s Kingdom will be “Consummated”, that is achieved and fully realised. Jesus’ return will settle forever the destiny of all people. There will be no sitting on the fence, either we are with Him or we are against Him (cf. Matthew 12:30)

Our reading begins with the Lord saying:

‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father…’ (36)

Only the Father knows when the end will come, not even the Lord Jesus in His human nature knew, nor should we give any heed to anyone who claims they know when it will be either! There have over the centuries been many people who have tried to predict when the second coming would be. One of the most famous was a chap called John Napier, a sixteenth-century mathematician. He applied logarithms and all sorts of clever formulae he had invented and applied it to the book of Revelation (the last book of the New Testament). He then calculated that Jesus would return sometime between 1688 and 1700. His book sold like hot cakes and went into twenty-three editions – until 1701, when sales unaccountably plummeted!(2)

To help His disciples understand what His second coming would be like, the Lord Jesus then says:

For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. (37-39).

The people In Noah’s day would have had a hard time believing the warnings that a great cataclysmic flood was going to sweep them away, even though Noah was building a great big Ark (as a more than subtle hint)! If they really suspected that the end was coming they would have asked Noah if they could get on board. The people in Noah’s day were just getting on with their lives, just like we do today, they were eating and drinking and marrying right up until the end. The warnings are there for us too, though we have something much greater than an Ark to find safety in, we have the Lord Jesus Christ; He is our Ark, it is through believing and trusting in Him as our Lord and Saviour that we find eternal safety and salvation.

We do not know when the end will come but the door of the Ark is still open and there is still time to get on board, why wait, we do not know how long we have, it may be tomorrow for all we know?

The Lord Jesus explains things further when He says:

Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. (40-42)

It is clear that once the final day arrives, all opportunity for repentance will be gone, the door is shut. These are very sobering verses which act as a clear warning to us. If we are not on board the Ark of Christ we shall be left behind, lost forever, there will be no second chance.
Jesus is pleading with us – ‘get on board, take my hand, quickly, now before it is too late.’

He continues:

But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. (43-44)

Anyone that has had their house broken into will be able to relate to this. It happened to Sonja and I once, in our previous Rectory. We came back one evening to see a couple of windows broken open and saw that they had tried to break into the very strong filing cabinet in the study, making quite a mess of it in the process. Of course, if we had known what time the burglar was coming we would have been ready, we would have had all the lights on in the house and let it be obvious that we were there, so the burglar would not have bothered trying to break in. The Lord Jesus urges us to live lives of constant readiness for His return, to live in joyful hope and expectation that He is coming at an unexpected hour.

Probably most of you have heard of or read some of John Grisham’s novels, such as The Firm, Pelican Brief, and The Client. Despite his fame and wealth, Grisham makes a concerted effort to focus on things that have lasting meaning, including his faith in God. Grisham remembers, as a young law student, the remarkable advice of a friend:
“One of my best friends in college died when he was 25, just a few years after we graduated from Mississippi State University. I was in law school, and he called me one day and wanted to get together. So we had lunch, and he told me he had cancer. I couldn’t believe it.
“What do you do when you realize you are about to die?” I asked.
“It’s real simple,” he said. “You get things right with God, and you spend as much time with those you love as you can. Then you settle up with everybody else.”
Finally he said, “You know, really, you ought to live every day like you have only a few more days to live.”
Grisham concludes: ‘I haven’t forgotten those words’”.
Will Norton, Jr., in Christianity Today.Christian Reader, Vol. 32, no. 6.(3)

Let us make the very best use of the time we have left, because no matter who we are the time is short and will go very quickly. Let us make sure that we know Christ as our Lord and Saviour and let us make sure that we are living lives of readiness and expectancy: What would we like Jesus to find us doing when He returns? Then let us be doing that thing. Amen.

(1) Matthew for Today, Michael Green, Hodder & Stoughton, 1999, p.229
(2) From Scripture Union Bible Notes “Closer to God”, No.12, 2001.

November 26, 2009

In the face of gathering clouds

Panasonic LX1, f4, 1/500 sec, ISO 80, 60mm equivalent, (click to enlarge)

We always expect rain, especially in the winter, but the amount of rain we’ve had in recent weeks is more than anyone can remember. The floods that have resulted are also worse than any living memory can recall. We were driving through Bandon on Sunday evening and the mop-up was well underway. We passed a newsagents where row upon row of soggy magazines were draped on ruined shelving propped up against the window. As we passed the entrance to the shop we could see there were people inside. I expected downcast faces, but no, there were perhaps three or four men of good cheer sat on plastic crates drinking pints of the black stuff – good ol’ Irish stoicism!

I took the above picture last Saturday near Sandycove, which itself is near Kinsale. It was cold and windy, though the rain was (temporarily) holding off. The menacing swirl of cloud above the hovering seagull captures the mood of these times for many. (If you can’t see it, turn up the contrast on your monitor!)

Of course we are now on the cusp of the Advent Season; we celebrate Christ’s coming and there are all sorts of symbols about Light coming into the darkness. Just this morning I was reading these wonderful and encouraging words from chapter 1 of John’s Gospel:

3-5Everything was created through him;
nothing—not one thing!—
came into being without him.
What came into existence was Life,
and the Life was Light to live by.
The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness;
the darkness couldn’t put it out.

December 7, 2008

Raising Up Valleys And Bringing Down Mountains

Nikon D70s, 1/160 sec, F6.3, ISO 200, EV+0.4, 37 mm equivalent, (Click to enlarge)

Apart from the cold and the rain, one of the things that we often dislike about the wintertime is the darkness, or rather the lack of light. A few years ago, my wife and I went on a tour of a disused slate mine in North Wales that has been turned into a museum. After taking a short ride underground to the first level of caverns (of which there were a further six below us) we got to appreciate just how hard life was for those miners, working six days a week by dim lanterns and in the winter never seeing the sun from one day to the next as they travelled to and from their homes. Today I feel for those tens of thousands of commuters who travel both to and from work at this time of year under sunless skies, so that during the week anytime that they have at home is in the dark.

In our part of the world, Christmas comes in the middle of winter, which is great, because we have something to look forward to. Imagine if as in the Narnia books, “It was always winter and never Christmas”!(1) Christmas is a time of fun and joy and bright lights that shine amidst the darkness of short days and long winter nights. How appropriate it is then that we have our Bible readings from Isaiah and Mark. In a spiritual sense, things had been very dark for God’s people. Isaiah’s audience were captives in Babylon and Marks audience, although not taken captive, were nevertheless under the control of the brutal and all-powerful Roman Empire. God’s people in both settings are feeling rather sorry for themselves, but their deliverer is coming…

So God gives Isaiah this message:

“Comfort my people … Comfort them. Encourage the people of Jerusalem. Tell them they have suffered long enough and their sins are now forgiven. I have punished them in full for all their sins.” (v.1,2)

OK so the people had been taken captive to Babylon and they’d had a pretty tough time and they’d been there for about 70 years but surely this isn’t enough to make up for all the rebellion against God that had taken place over generations? No, of course it isn’t but then again the same wonderful thing applies to us too. No amount of serving God will make us clean and without sin – it is all down to God’s grace, in giving His Son to die for us on the cross. Do you know (I’m sure you do), that all our sins deserve to be punished? We discipline our children and we punish them appropriately when they deliberately do wrong things. In a much greater way, so our Heavenly Father needs to punish our rebellion against Him – but in His infinite love and mercy He chose to punish His own Son in our stead. I’m reading a book at the moment, a work of fiction called the “Shack”(2) . In one chapter the central character of the story, Mack, a Father of five children finds himself in the seat of judgement. A heavenly being puts him in a terrible situation – of his five children two will go to heaven and three will go to hell, and he has to choose which go where. He falls on the floor in agony pleading that he as their Father be allowed to go to hell and suffer for eternity so that his children be spared. When he looks up from his place of agony the heavenly being is smiling at him and says, well done, now you know what Jesus did for you, he pleaded to the Father to die in your stead. And that is what the cross is all about, Jesus dying in our place, taking the punishment that we deserve.

Isaiah put it powerfully, when writing hundreds of years beforehand he said of the Lord Jesus:

“But he endured the suffering that should have been ours, the pain that we should have borne … But because of our sins he was wounded … we are healed by the punishment he suffered, made whole by the blows he received.” (Isaiah 53:4-6)

It’s unfair; we don’t deserve this amount of love! Too right we don’t, but God loves us perfectly and we are very special and precious to Him, as are all people, because He created us and made us in His own image.

Have you heard of the Trans-Sahara Highway? It’s a fairly new road that runs from the city of Algiers in Algeria down through the Sahara desert to Lagos, the capital city of Nigeria. Building this road was an enormous challenge. The desert sands are always moving and the road is often covered, so nylon curtains had to be put up to protect the highway at certain points along the route. The curtains need frequent repairs as the wind and sand break through them. Trees that can survive in the desert have been planted along the new road to grow into a more permanent defence, but many have already died.

Temperatures can vary from below minus 10°C to above plus 40°C, which makes the surface of the road expand and shrink much more than in most places, so there has to be a special roadbed made of sand and seashells to stop it from cracking.

There are many fierce sandstorms, strong enough to blow empty oil drums across the desert and to damage vehicles along the route. As well as all these physical problems, groups of armed bandits work in this area and attack unwary travellers. (3)

Makes travelling on the Dublin road seem almost safe in comparison!

You can almost imagine the wise old prophet Isaiah calling out:

“Prepare in the wilderness a road for the LORD! Clear the way in the desert for our God! Fill every valley; level every mountain. The hills will become a plain and the rough country will be made smooth. Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and the whole human race will see it…” (Isaiah 40:3-5).

What is Isaiah talking about, major road works?! Well yes and no… It’s all about access to God. As you know, in the Old Testament, the people did have access to God through the priests in the temple, who would make sacrifices of animals to God on their behalf. This was messy in more ways than one and it was only a temporary arrangement that pointed forward towards the time when there would be a “once and for all supreme sacrifice”. Jesus, God the Son, sacrifices Himself voluntarily and because Jesus is perfect in every way, His sacrifice is sufficient, there is no need for any other. So even though the way to God was at one time difficult, there is now a highway to God via the cross of Christ – all the obstacles have been removed.

The problem though is that we personally, and the church also, often places obstacles to people coming to Christ. Do you remember in the Gospel, where the Lord Jesus says:

“ … Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24)

And you may remember also that there was a gate in the walls of Jerusalem that was called the needle gate. It is still there today, and it was used when the city’s main gates were closed at night. It was designed for security so that enemies could not simply ride into the city. The gate was so small, that a rich man would have to unload his camel and then with great effort, lead his camel through –a slow & difficult process. The Lord Jesus likened the process to entering heaven: we must come to God stripped of all our importance –a seemingly impossible task until we realise with God, all things are possible.(4)

Well, we have mountains of pride that need to be brought down and valleys of doubt and fear that need to be raised up – a task that might seem impossible, but thankfully is possible by surrendering our lives to Christ.

And how does all this tie in with Advent when we look forward to celebrating Christ’s first coming at Christmas, but with a joyful eye on His second coming also?

We are reminded in our reading from Isaiah that God is with us. He wants us to be encouraged and comforted by the fact that He has forgiven all our sins, the debt has been paid; the slate has been wiped clean. He wants us to know that He has opened up a highway for us to come into His presence – all brought about because He sent His Son to earth to be born and to live and to die and to rise again for us.

On several occasions, King Abdullah II of Jordan has disguised himself and mingled with his subjects. Taking the character of an ordinary old Arab man, he has appeared in public with a fake white beard, wearing the traditional Jordanian kufiah, and the Arabic white dress. While so disguised, the king walked around two government buildings without security and was not noticed. While waiting in a long line, he engaged people in conversation and listened to their point of view.

Such incognito appearances have marked the 42-year-old monarch’s reign since he assumed the throne in 1999. He disguised himself as an old man previously while visiting a hospital. Another time, he circulated around Amman behind the wheel of a taxicab. Still another time, he passed himself off as a television reporter trying to cover a story at a duty-free shop.

According to reporter Costa Tadros, “I think that being in disguise and going around as a normal civilian to listen to their problems and know more about their needs is a good thing. I think it would make a great movie.”

Jordanian government employees aren’t taking any chances. They have started to spend time looking at people’s faces, fearing they could meet the king in disguise.(5)

So in a much greater way, the Lord Jesus came to us. He therefore understands us perfectly and longs for us to seek and know His comfort, His encouragement, His forgiveness and His peace. He longs for and invites each of to live our lives in a relationship with Him, a relationship beginning now and lasting for eternity. The winter of our hearts is over…

1 C.S. Lewis The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, p.14
2 The Shack, William, P. Young, Hodder & Stoughton 2008
3 Jacqui Hyde,, copyright © Roots for Churches Ltd 2005.
5 Greg Asimakoupoulos, preaching