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, http://www.rootsontheweb.com, copyright © Roots for Churches Ltd 2005.
5 Greg Asimakoupoulos, preaching today.com