I wonder what you’re like at obeying rules? Some folks just seem to be better disposed than others at following them. I read the other day that one conservative estimate would put the number of laws that exist in the world today at over 32 million. I cannot begin to fathom at how that figure was arrived at, but one thing is for sure .. mankind has created a huge number to adhere to! God created 10. Just 10, and they cover ‘all the bases’, providing that we do not disconnect ourselves from the first: ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ They are, a statement of God’s values and principles for a happy, healthy and prosperous life and they begin with a right relationship with Him.
In John’s gospel account we read of the reaction of Jesus when he sees these principles being ignored and the effect that this is having upon the Temple as a place of worship. The Religious leaders and the stall holders had turned it into a significant money-making business in which worshipers were being charged extortionate rates and the poor, in particular, were being made to suffer. A place which should have provided open access for all who wanted to worship there, had, instead, erected and instituted considerable barriers. One example of this was in the inspection service provided by the Temple in which all animals brought for sacrifice were scrutinised to ensure that they were of a high enough standard. Cynically, many who had brought their own animals instead of purchasing those from licensed stall holders in the Temple, were rejected and then charged as much as 18 times more than the realistic price if they wanted to worship there. After many had travelled considerable distances to be present, they were effectively being held to ransom, short changed and blackmailed in to compliance.
It’s easy enough for us to muster some righteous indignation at the barriers being placed in front of the faithful by the approach of the temple authority’s, but if, as Paul states, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, (1Cor.6:19) then how many of us, I wonder, are accountable for a whole clutch of barriers we might raise and place in front of our worship? They can come in lots of different shapes and sizes, and without even realizing it we can very easily create new laws and rules that we think we, or usually others, should adopt. Our attitudes, our preferences, our prejudices, even perhaps, our understanding? Where might we be short changing God in our worship I wonder? How welcoming are we to God’s Holy Spirit in our lives and our worship and where might we be creating barriers to those who visit our places of worship? Are we keeping the main thing … the main thing?
I heard a story of a lady who was lonely and so went to a pet shop to buy a parrot. Being persuaded that this particular one was a good talker she made the purchase and headed home. After a week she returned to the shop complaining that it wasn’t speaking but was told that this was probably because it needed a ladder in the cage. She bought one but returned the following week with the same complaint. This time she was persuaded to buy a swing. She returned again the next week and was advised to buy a mirror. The following week she appeared to tell the shopkeeper that the bird had unfortunately died. “That’s very sad to hear,” said the shopkeeper. “Did he not say anything at all?” “Yes, he did” she replied. “It said, ‘Have you any food?’”
We can put up all sorts of activities in our worship lives – ladders, swings, mirrors – but we need to keep asking ourselves; are we are keeping the main thing the main thing or are other things becoming a distraction and a barrier to us and to others? Is God first?
I recall an overheard conversation between two of our children when they were young. They were discussing the comparative merits of their parents when our youngest son declared: “Dad’s good fun, but you can trust mum with your crisps!” The more time you spend with someone, the more you get to know them and the more you get to know them, the more you realise if they can be trusted. Abram knew God – they had been through a great deal together and therefore, Abram trusted God. His trust and faith results in him receiving a new name and a new identity. Paul reminds us that when all was hopeless, Abraham believed and trusted not on what he could see but on what God had said. Abraham’s life was not his own. He was walking in the will of God and experiencing promised blessing as a result. Decisions matter.
Jesus was also walking in the Father’s will. He knew he had a very particular mission to complete; one that would cost him his life but have eternal consequences for all mankind, so, when a staggered and confused Peter rebukes him for what he sees as an unthinkable future for the Messiah, Jesus speaks to him very sternly and we have that phrase which has entered into the lexicon of so many cultures: ‘Get behind me Satan’. For in Peter’s words is the same temptation Satan delivered to Jesus in the wilderness; the call to abandon God’s will and to go his own way. Peter is wanting, in his ignorance, to shape Jesus into what he wants him to be rather than what God requires him to be. If we are honest with ourselves, we will all have done the same at some point in our lives.
It’s almost as if this confrontation triggers a passionate plea from Jesus to his disciples and the gathered crowd about making the right choice, and that the right one is not always the easiest. Jesus is always very realistic about the cost of following him. He invites us to lay down our lives for him as He has for us. It is not an equal exchange however, as Jesus did something we could never do for ourselves in purchasing eternal life through the forgiveness of sins. He tells us that it will require a life transforming decision but one that will have glorious eternal consequences. His blunt language does not hide the cost of such a decision but it is one that invites us to a life of bounty.
In the week that has witnessed the passing of Billy Graham, one of the greatest Christian voices of the twentieth century, it is perhaps right to close with his words regarding what it means to follow Christ.
‘True Christianity is faith in Christ alone. Christianity is not something you add to your life. Becoming a Christian means that Jesus Christ comes into your life and takes over. It is a totally new outlook that is not satisfied with anything less than penetration into the furthest corners of the soul and the understanding. Christianity is not a spectator sport – buying a ticket and sitting on the side-lines. Becoming a Christian means no longer living for yourself but for God in obedience to Him. You must leave the old life behind and step into a new way of living, where Christ makes possible what you think impossible. To say that you believe in Him and then continue living as though nothing has changed is to deny the power of God in your new life. Christ will not muscle his way in. We must invite him in. Accept his gift.’
As we continue our walk-through Lent, may we grow in our trust and knowledge of the God who loves us, knows us and desires that we should know Him. Decisions matter.
‘I can resist anything apart from temptation.’ So, wrote Oscar Wilde. As we begin the time of year in the churches calendar known as Lent, many people will decide to do without something as a way of acknowledging the 40 days and nights Jesus spent in the wilderness. Some may miss a meal, others a treat, yet others will take something on to replace that which they are giving up; such as, less TV and more reading. I remember as a young teacher regularly relying on two double Kit Kats eaten in the morning break to help me survive until lunch. One day I felt a question come into my heart; what am I relying more on for support – God or chocolate? Convicted, I began some self-denial and more conversation with the Holy Spirit.
We all have times when we’re feeling tired, lonely and challenged … ‘wilderness moments’. When we reach this point we often become weak, vulnerable and open to making mistakes we may later regret. A look at the auto biographical account of Jesus in the wilderness can give us all some very clear guidelines on how to handle just such challenges. I call it the ‘Jesus Model’.
The first thing to recognise is that God never tempts. Challenge, yes; tempt, no. The purpose of temptation is to draw us into a situation where we will feel a failure and question our character. The only one who will ever want to undermine us like that is the enemy himself, so we must not allow him that satisfaction. Temptation is not a sin but how we respond to it may be. The devil tempted Jesus when he knew he was vulnerable to try and trap him and he was persistent. If Jesus faced temptation, then so will we so perhaps a brief look at how Jesus ‘faced him down’ would be helpful.
If we have placed our trust in Jesus Christ and believe in why he came to earth then:
Your sins have been forgiven – Colossians 1:v14,
You are free from condemnation- Romans 8:v1,
You cannot be separated from the love of God – Romans 8:v35,
You are a child of God – John 1:v12,
The evil one cannot harm you – 1 John 5:v18,
God is your shield and your rock – Psalm 18,
God is your provider – Psalm 23,
God is our help in times of trouble – Psalm 46,
God is in control – Psalm 97,
God watches over you – Psalm 121,
God is always with us – Psalm 139 and literally hundreds more!
Why not ‘fast to feast’ this Lent. Give something up to create time and space to focus on the promises of God in the Bible so you can fight temptation like Jesus did. Read, pray, play a worship CD, join us at Sycamore Hall, Bainbridge, on a Wednesday night in Lent at 7pm for a time with the Bible?
With God’s blessing
I have always loved those moments when, through a black, brooding and menacing sky, a shaft of bright, brilliant sunlight breaks through and illuminates the ground beneath it. Or when in an airliner you’re thundering along the runway under dark skies to be thrust into the air, clawing your way through the black clouds until quite suddenly, you burst into clear skies and bright light, the brilliance of which is enhanced by the darkness that preceded it. The light was always there. It didn’t disappear. It just couldn’t be contained any longer and upon its release the world is transformed.
I have always thought of the transfiguration of Jesus in a rather similar way. Imagine all the glory, all the brilliance, all the power and wonder of heaven, gathered, compressed and packed into a small, vulnerable physical body. The pressure it would be under to manage its containment. But here, just for a moment, it cannot be held anymore, and it bursts out in all its astonishing intensity.
For Jesus and for the three disciples present, it’s a moment of incredible significance and lasting encouragement. Indeed, Peter writes about it many years later in his 2nd letter and acknowledges God the Father honouring His son.
How did it happen? It came out of Jesus setting aside specific time with his close friends for worship and prayer and during that time God intervened. We’re told that the figures of Moses and Elijah appeared alongside Jesus. Two very significant figures, representing the supreme law of God and the supreme voice of God. We can only speculate as to what was said, but I can imagine their voices of encouragement: ‘Well done Jesus – Go on! Keep on!’ In Jesus was everything they had dreamt of and all that history had longed for. Jesus, being assured and affirmed that He had chosen the right path. And then, into this incredible moment, Peter dashes in with a desire to capture it, contain it and box it in. I have sympathy with that reaction; that overwhelming impulse to take the moment and wrap it up for later. But in doing so, Peter is missing out on the wonder of the moment, for what is happening, is happening now. How many times I wonder have I, have you, missed out on a significant encounter with God because we have been too absorbed with ‘the later’ rather than with ‘the now?’ Peter would have been better served by absorbing the moment, for the glory of God cannot be constricted or contained, and Jesus is not to be placed on the same level as any human figure, no matter how revered, and so God speaks: ‘This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to Him.’
Affirmation and instruction, but notice that the first thing they are instructed to do, is to listen.
How often, I wonder, do we try and do what Peter proposed? How often do we restrict and limit and shape God to what we want Him to be rather than what and who He really is? How often do we limit God to what we understand of Him or have experienced of Him? We could live a thousand lifetimes and still just be starting in that adventure. I wonder what areas of our lives may need barriers removing today? What is God saying to you and to me? Are we giving Him a time and a place to do that? What unique things is He wanting to reveal through you? How is He speaking to you about reading and understanding His word? What is he encouraging in you? What is He wanting to transform, revolutionize, transfigure in you? Are we listening?
May we all find the heart and the hunger to allow Him the opportunity to speak with us and to release so much more within us.
Having just returned from a very welcome short break away, I have been reminded this last week of what a world of choice we live in. The variety, quantity and quality of food being presented in the various Hotel restaurants was amazing to view and enjoy but most of the dishes on offer were done so with additions or subtractions. Fresh Salmon with .. , Steak without .. etc. Even the fast food outlet on the motorway as we drove home was advertising ‘Classic Burger Plus’, or ‘Classic Burger Light’. This dazzling possibility of variety and choice can, if we are not careful, easily infiltrate our spiritual lives as well, as we add to, or take away from, the truth that has been given to us from God himself in Jesus Christ. This was certainly the case for the church in Colossae and the reason why Paul was writing to them and encouraging them to stand firm in the simplicity of Jesus.
A quick trawl of the internet or any bookshop will reveal a staggering number of different philosophies, approaches, lifestyles and practices designed to lead us into spiritual wholeness and contentment. It was the same for the fledgling church in Colossae whose culture and society were regularly informing the population that God could not be known personally, that a good God could not have created the world, that salvation was an intellectual process and therefore unavailable to everyone and that man made popular philosophy of the day, not a living God, held the essential means of entry into desired enlightenment and freedom. The belief then, and the belief held by many now, is that the good news of Jesus Christ just cannot be true as it stands. We must be missing the small print. It’s too good; too simple. The message of Jesus must need something adding to it or removing from it to allow it to make sense to a contemporary audience; for it to become palatable for modern consumption it must require amending or adjusting in some way, and so our ‘pick and mix’ mentality is applied to eternal truths - we can have this bit but ignore that bit, believe and accept this but not that. But Jesus ‘Plus’ or Jesus ‘Light’ is not what Christianity is all about.
Paul and John remind us who Jesus is, what he has done and what we need to do in response. There is no amount of good works, no sufficient giving to charity, no limitless being nice or even attending countless church meetings that can ever secure our salvation. It’s all about Jesus and our identity in Him. Giving ourselves to Him. There are no human solutions to spiritual problems. Jesus is the first and the last. Jesus is the beginning and the end. Jesus is the image of God. Jesus is above all things. Jesus is the way to God. Jesus is everything. There are no shortcuts, amendments or alterations. There is no bargaining or bartering to be had. It’s Jesus. And for those who accept Him and receive him as he is, He gives power to become ‘Children of God’.
In one way, all of us are children of God because we owe our very creation to Him, but as a University Professor once said of a young man who claimed to be his student; ‘You may have attended my lectures, but you are no student of mine.’
God sent Jesus to live among us and gather us to himself that we might be at peace with God and to truly know what living is all about. It’s all about knowing Jesus. If I can help lead you in any way to the reality of this wonderful truth or into a deeper understanding of it, please let me know.
Jesus + Nothing = Everything.
From Joe Pilling
St Oswald’s Askrigg
Sermon on Lectionary Readings
Morning Prayer 4 February 2018 Second Sunday before Lent
Proverbs 8:1, 22-31
We could organise a small and harmless competition at the end of this morning’s service to see which of us heard the first fourteen verses of John’s gospel most often in December. I heard it at two carol services and on Christmas Day in London and at one carol service in Hawes – four readings in all. I am sure that someone here can beat that comfortably but, whether you can or not, you may share my initial astonishment that the drawers-up of the lectionary have it appearing again as soon as the first Sunday of February.
The other readings and the psalm with which it is linked in this service help to explain the mystery. The collect also sheds some light on its re-appearance. We are not expected to revisit John the Baptist or the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem so soon after Christmas. The passage, of course, has some claim to say more in a short space than any other fourteen verses in the Bible so there is no shortage of other themes to draw out.
I spent years listening to sermons that had three points, never less than three and never more than three. It seems to have become less fashionable in recent years. In keeping with new habits I plan to make just two points this morning but it doesn’t mean that I will only speak for two-thirds of the usual time, whatever that might be.
When I first read the collect, the psalm and the readings I saw only one point, in a word creation. The collect refers to God creating the heavens and the earth. The psalm captures the exuberance of creation. In the Authorised Version verse 26 reads “…there is that leviathan whom thou hast made to play therein.” We have “which you have made for the sport of it.” The meaning is not identical but both have a sense of fun, of creation for pleasure and not simply for functionality.
The passage from Proverbs mentions the mountains, the hills, the earth, the soil, the sky, the sea. The Colossians passage takes us back to the natural world, all things in heaven and on earth, but beyond that to what we might misleadingly call human institutions: “thrones or dominions or rulers or powers”.
The psalm spells out how we should react to God’s creation. We should sing, praise and rejoice. There are times and places where we might understand people forgetting how to respond but surely not here in Wensleydale. Over the centuries here, the people God created have handled the natural world he created to give us more reason rather than less to sing, praise and rejoice.
In a verse that isn’t normally picked up in Christmas sermons the gospel says “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being”. That is the bridge between my first point about creation and my second point this morning. All three readings, but particularly the epistle and the gospel, say something about Christ which we recognise but is not all that often central to our understanding of him.
Proverbs 8, including the ten verses that were read to us, is to do with an entity other the Lord God who was present before the beginning of the creation of the world. One commentary I consulted described the entity as Ms Wisdom. Wisdom, also described as understanding, is clearly female and was beside God in creation like a master worker, rejoicing and, not least, delighting in the human race.
The other readings don’t go so far as to say explicitly that the writer of Proverbs was half way to understanding the existence of Christ as the Son of God. Those readings do echo the language and thinking of Proverbs 8 which is no doubt why we have them all together in this service. God the Father was not alone in creation.
Proverbs says “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work”. Paul describes Christ as the firstborn of all creation and as the beginning. The first six words of John’s gospel are “In the beginning was the Word” and our passage ends with absolute clarity: “…the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
As the first Christian leaders thought through and prayed about all they knew of Christ’s birth, death and resurrection in the light of their Scriptures - what we call the Old Testament - they reached the conclusions that we have so powerfully and movingly set out for us in Colossians and John. I have heard many attempts to flatter someone in speeches or in conversation. The language of Colossians is well beyond flattery. It doesn’t have the feel of exaggeration in an attempt to please.
It is extravagant, whole-hearted, awesome. Christ is the firstborn of all creation and also the firstborn from the dead. In him all visible and invisible things in heaven and earth were created. In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. Christ is before all things and in him all things hold together. Christ is the head of the body, the church.
Both Colossians and John could properly be described as poetic and have been. They are certainly powerfully expressed. I have quoted from Colossians and here is John. “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” The message in both cases is heavily reinforced by repeating it in parallel ways. But the main point to get hold of is that, however well expressed, we are hearing the literal truth.
How are we to square this picture of Jesus with the rather different picture that we hear more often: “Jesus, friend of little children”, “What a friend we have in Jesus”, “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild”? If there is a tendency to dwell more on Christ’s life on earth, on his teaching, on his friendships, on the miracles, it is understandable. His life on earth was hardly commonplace but it is easier to approach than his place within the Trinity and his role in creation.
The glorious answer to this conundrum is that it isn’t a conundrum at all. Unless both pictures are true and not in contradiction with one another our faith is vain, as Paul says about another aspect of what we believe. We shouldn’t shy away from this extravagant picture of Christ before Bethlehem. The more we dwell on it and the better we understand it the more we understand what was happening in his life on earth, his death and his resurrection. Jesus Christ as man and Jesus Christ as God are not in conflict. That they are both true is the whole point. Nor is it the case that this centre of our faith is something for the heart rather than for the brain. Many of us may come to it first through our feelings but it bears thinking about just as much as feeling about.
Towards the end of both passages there is a reference to the purpose of Christ being born as a man amongst us. In Colossians we are told “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross”. John tells us that “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God”.
Christ’s position before his birth in Bethlehem is as indispensable a part of these glorious truths as all that happened in Israel 2000 years ago. We can begin to understand them and make them our own because, as Paul says, “Christ is the image of the invisible God.”
I was hoping with the advent of digital technology, that the days of me experiencing interference on my radio would be gone; sadly not. I can still experience the frustration of knowing someone out there is trying to communicate with me, but the background crackle and hiss can often make this difficult to understand. It can be like that when trying to listen to God.
The reading from Samuel reminds us all that God knows us by name, that he will not force himself upon us, that he desires a relationship and that there is nothing wrong with his ‘transmitting’ equipment. The problem is always with our receivers. Some of the challenges in receiving and hearing God’s voice is that many don’t even know, or cannot believe that he is even trying to. There may be a lack of interest in that possibility, or the reality that it is our own behaviour that is causing the problem. Our ‘receivers’ are all too often tuned to a different channel – we’re following our own desires and ignoring the voice of the creator speaking into our lives.
All of these factors were playing out in the nation of Israel at the time of Samuel’s encounter in the temple. The nation had degenerated socially, morally, politically and spiritually. Even the priests, set to uphold the values of God, were corrupt and taking advantage of the people and Eli’s sons were part of the problem. It is into this situation that God raises Samuel to make a difference, and so, He speaks his name. Learning how to hear the voice and heart of God is the solution to a thousand and one problems we may face, but even more than that; it’s the key to discovering who we truly are, discovering our destiny and fulfilling the incredible God given potential that is locked within us.
On three occasions that night, God calls to Samuel, and, because we’re told that Samuel did not yet know the Lord, he thinks it is Eli calling him. The fact that it takes three times for Eli to realise what is happening may be down to his own ‘spiritual antenna’ being tainted by his behaviour and what he is surrounding his life with. Wrong thoughts and attitudes and behaviour, create noisy interference. It is to his credit, however, that he finally understands and is instrumental in leading Samuel to his first encounter with God. The situation needed explaining and the boy needed to be led towards the reality of God. This is a very important message for all of us with children, grand-children, god-children.
We have a critical responsibility to them to do the same. I have no time for the argument that proposes, ‘if they want to find out, then they will do it for themselves’. To what other area of life do we apply this approach? If we consider something is important for our children, we ensure we let them know about it and lead them into it. I truly believe, that knowing God and encountering him for ourselves is the most significant discovery anyone of us can ever make in our lifetime. It is far too important to be ever left to chance. God calls Samuel by name, because He wants Samuel to understand that He knows him personally and to help Samuel to get to know the sound of His voice. This encounter changes Samuel’s life and the life of the nation.
We live in a culture were so many want to be heard but sadly, have so little to say. Consequently, we are losing our ability and willingness to really listen .. especially to God. The tragedy is, that it is only ever by listening to Him that we will ever have anything of consequence to contribute. Be prepared though, for God will speak comfort into our lives but He will also speak conviction and it is often what we want to hear least that we need to hear the most. So … when was the last time you heard God speak to you? When was the last time you gave him the slightest opportunity to do so? It may take time and practice, but I encourage you to find a quiet place and the mental space to speak the words of Samuel and await a response: ‘Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.’
With the Lord’s blessing
For many of us the Christmas season is a period of travel. We, or family members may undergo a journey to be able to spend time with one another, and watching our family arrive for delayed festivities on the 27th, I was reminded of just how much ‘stuff’ often accompanies mum and dad and two small children on just such a trip! We make decisions about what to bring but equally, of what to leave behind and the consequences of getting that wrong can have significant ramifications. I speak from experience !
The events that Matthew details are those of a very significant journey; the journey of the Magi, or wise men as they are popularly known. They too had to make decisions on what to take with them and what to leave behind, both before their adventure began and, crucially, during it. But their journey has significance beyond their immediate circumstances, for it is a journey that we are all invited to make.
The birth of Jesus brought three distinct reactions when it took place, and it still does today.
The Magi were Persian priests / scientists who were noted for their study of the skies. What they saw in the sky has been discussed across the centuries and still is, but they saw something which for them, signalled the need to make an important journey. This was a decision that could not have been taken lightly. It would be a journey that would take many months and lead them across dangerous terrain and situations, yet they set off to search for a King and in doing so they follow a Biblical pattern of revelation that had taken place countless times before them, and, has been repeated countless times since; God reveals knowledge about himself, a journey (physical or spiritual) begins, and at the end, there is greater understanding. It’s a sequence played out in the lives of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Gideon, David, Solomon, Daniel, Jonah, the Disciples, St Paul etc, countless billions since and is still happening today.
So, what can we learn from this familiar story? 1) That Jesus is for everyone and frequently sought out by the most unlikely of people. Yet, for all those who do search, He makes himself known and He is found. 2) That the Magi made sacrifices to discover the truth and that they left behind a great deal to make the journey. What I wonder, might we be being called to leave behind in our search? What areas in our lives do we need to discard or move away from as we search to discover more and more of Jesus?
As part of their journey an Angel of the Lord appeared and instructed them to avoid meeting with Herod again, and so, they return home by a different path. When we meet Jesus, he always takes us in a new direction as we are called to leave behind those things in our lives which bring distraction, confusion, deception and danger to our physical and spiritual well-being.
God wants us to discover Jesus. Some reading this may never have taken that step – God calls you to that adventure. Why delay? To those who already know Jesus as a living reality in your lives, He is always calling us into a deeper and more powerful understanding and knowledge of who He is. Start afresh.
The Magi brought precious gifts that symbolised the importance and significance of Jesus in their lives. Today, we are invited to do the same; the thing that is most precious to Jesus is our heart, our longing, our trust, our faith. He wants our whole heart in order that he might make our heart whole.
Wise men sought Jesus … wise people still do.
Happy New Year to you all
I remember the dismay I felt as a child, as the days in December moved ever closer to the 25th, being instructed by my mother to “Sort out my bedroom”. This was for her, an annual declaration of war, against clutter and general disorder. In our home, as in millions of others, Christmas was different, so it needed to look different, and we needed to make room for it to be different. Out went the old and unused items and toys, to be given away to local charities, to make room for the new. Change was anticipated and so preparations were made to make room for that change. I always found this such a challenge as I was convinced, that one day that certain ‘thing’ will most certainly be needed and should, therefore, quite sensibly, be retain. My wife Sarah, my children and my friends will tell you that this is still deeply ingrained in my psyche. A quick look behind the garage door will confirm this!
But the reality and the necessity of clearing out the old to make way for the new was valid then and it is valid now; just as it was valid for those hearing the words of ‘John the Baptist’. His cry, however, was directed to a spiritual ‘de-tox’ and inner preparation rather than to any contemporary physical ‘downsizing’ or ‘clutter cleansing’.
John spoke of a ‘baptism of repentance’, a symbolic washing of a person’s life to announce their preparedness for the arrival of the much-anticipated Messiah. Jews were familiar with baptism, but this was always for Gentiles, (non-Jews), who wanted to accept the Jewish faith. To see it as being a relevant process for themselves to engage in is quite remarkable, as it centred around confession. Confession to themselves of the reality of their need for God, confession to any people they had hurt along the way, and fundamentally, confession to God himself. The first step of truly experiencing the power and love of God in our lives is acknowledging our very real need of him. Everyone needs forgiveness and the pivotal moment of freedom and release in your life and mine, is accepting that gift from Jesus. Removing the worn and damaged obstacles in our lives to create space for God himself to do something wonderfully new and exciting.
Yet despite the level of self-disclosure required, Mark’s gospel account informs us that the response to John’s message and appeal was literally, massive!
I wonder why? Perhaps it was because the timing was right. The people had been waiting for an authentic word from God for 500 years and now they were hearing it. Perhaps it was because his message was confronting them with a decision that they knew in their deepest heart that they needed to make; or perhaps it was because John and his message were authentic. He didn’t just ‘talk the talk’ but he ‘walked the walk’ as well. His life symbolised everything he was saying to them. His actions became such a part of him that his name was accompanied by a description that characterised his behaviour. ‘Baptiser’. What a challenge to us all. How, I wonder, might the world characterise my behaviour, or yours? Does it point to God? Does it lead others to Jesus?
In a contemporary world that is so suspicious and cautious of commitment to anything other than self, John reminds us that there is something else, someone else, greater to look to and to build our lives upon. John’s life continually directed others to one greater than himself and encouraged them to experience so much more than they were doing.
Are you ready for that?
If you have never taken that step, I wonder what is holding you back?
Dare you miss out on everything that God is promising you?
With the Lord’s blessing.
Our reading speaks of a hope, a promise, a future and a new heart. A new heart from mankind to God; given not under obligation or duress but because they want to. Why? Because God is a generous God bringing forgiveness, love, peace, freedom and hope.
Advent is primarily a season of hope where we look to the future with expectation and anticipation. Remembering and celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ into our world and looking forward to his return. In a world where we are so used to having things exactly when we want them, it’s also good to remember and experience that there can be joy in the waiting. But what are we waiting for I wonder?
Perhaps it’s counting off how many sleeps are left until the 25th, or waiting for the greeting card from family or friend to hear their news, or waiting for that longed-for gift, or for family to arrive – for better or for worse(!) – or maybe it’s waiting for the feasting that is to come. In amongst all the business and frantic activity there is perhaps an expression of the basic human desire to know love, be loved and share love. God’s nature is to love, and his desire is that mankind might know and experience that love.
Things and people will always disappoint – even with the best will in the world we will at some point let someone down – but God never does and never will and His promise has been revealed in the presence of Jesus Christ, made man.
In all the rush, we stand the risk of missing out on the blessing of Advent and the giving of God’s perfect gift. I wonder what you consider would be the best gift you could receive? What might it look like? How long might it last? The best gift we can ever give ourselves is spending time with God this advent, and the best gift we could give God? … have you ever even thought about that before? … would be creating the opportunity for him to spend time with us. Spend time in his presence. Be still, listen, read some scripture, read some study notes, watch a podcast, (I can suggest some good ones), listen to some worship music … whatever works for you, but spend some designated time with the God who made you, loves you and longs for you to know him better.
I read the other day that if we arrive at the 25th having had enough of Christmas, then we will not have experienced advent as we should have.
May you know his peace and his presence in these days that lead to the celebration of his birth.
With the Lord’s blessing
Rev Dave Clark
Vicar of the Benefice of Upper Wensleydale