Category Archives: Advent

Whispers of comfort

“Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you. “O afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will build you with stones of turquoise, your foundations with sapphires. 

 (Isa 54.10-11)

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. 

(2Cor 1.3)

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

(Rev 21.3&4)

Lashed by storms and not comforted, surrounded by a land laid waste by disaster and conflict.. This image in Isaiah’s prophecy of the desolation suffered by Jerusalem is a powerful and heart-rending one – calling to mind for us in these days places like the Syrian city of Aleppo, where distress beyond telling is the daily experience of so many people. Our globe continues to suffer the consequences of human rebellion against God – and humanity’s exaltation of itself.

Sometimes it can be a very private and personal desolation, a series of losses, setbacks and disappointments – in others and ourselves – which leave us reeling, breathless and weak. It was into such a personal situation many years ago that my mother read these words to me, bringing word from God of his tender compassion for my grief and agony. They were a lifeline, a trustworthy and secure connection to the solid ground of God’s over-arching provision for me through Jesus’s death and resurrection. All would one day be well, and I could hang on in the dark to that promise.

Is this not one of the most precious elements of the riches which we find in the coming of Jesus to be our Saviour? We are to be comforted – held closely by loving arms, like frightened or lonely children; warmed by the fiery love of God dwelling within us; quieted in our spirits by the knowledge that there is one in control who is all-powerful and ultimately victorious. Do we not all carry around in our adult bodies the spirits of little children, looking for a home and security, a place to lay down a burden of responsibility which is too great for us? Surely this is what Jesus meant when he called us to bear his yoke, which is light, and to allow the Almighty and Everlasting God to be God, to take from us those things which crush and destroy?

Our guilt for past sins – gone, by the grace of God in the atoning death of Christ on the cross. Our regrets for what might have been – lifted by the promise of eternal life in a new creation with infinite possibilities for good, and by God’s ability to work all things together for good for those who love him. Our fears for the future – transformed into quiet hope and expectation, that with God, we can do all that needs to be done, and that He sees and knows how to value our desire to obey and keep faith with him.

“Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Tell her that her sad days are gone and her sins are pardoned.”( Isa 40.1)

The comfort which God offers is ultimately guaranteed by the fulfillment of all the prophecies about the coming of a Saviour. That comfort comes to us at the price of God’s son taking on human flesh, and then taking that flesh to the cross – for me, for you – where he was not comforted in his appalling isolation and pain, but mocked and abandoned.

What we receive, Jesus gave up. In his darkness there was no comfort, only agony and degradation as sin shut him out from his Father’s presence. Do I even begin to grasp what the perfect Son of God suffered for love of me? No, I can only wonder, and worship, and reach out passionately to grasp the precious comfort which his death provides for me – how I need this!

Be comforted, be warmed and reassured this Christmas, as you celebrate the coming of such a Saviour, and have confidence in telling others. We have tidings of great comfort and joy!

Whispers of peace

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron and his sons to bless the people of Israel with this special blessing: ‘May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord smile on you and be gracious to you. may the Lord show you his favour and give you his peace.’

(Numbers 6.22-26)

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel, whose origins are in the distant past, will come from you on my behalf…then at last his fellow countrymen will return from exile to their own land. And he will stand to lead his flock with the Lord’s strength, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. Then his people will live there undisturbed, for he will be highly honoured around the world. And he will be the source of peace.

(Micah 5.2-5)

Our world has been tormented and scarred by warfare and disharmony between individuals and nations ever since the beginning; we are incapable of living peaceably together. But the kind of peace which is being promised all through the bible narrative is much more than simply that absence of conflict for which we long. The Hebrew word which we translate as peace, is ‘shalom’, and it has a much richer meaning including a sense of completion; health; thriving and fulfillment. All the barriers to fullness of life will be gone, and every created being will be able to rejoice without fear or restriction in what and who God made them to be.

The story of how the people of Israel should have entered and conquered the land promised to them is for us a picture of the unfettered, fruitful living which God desires for all his children. If the people had obeyed and driven out all the nations living in the land, they would indeed have dwelt in peace, receiving all the blessing God intended for them. Instead they compromised, chose to live alongside the other nations, and in time, were led away from worship of the living God into idolatry, with its disastrous consequences of destruction and exile. It is a warning to us to be aware of those things in our lives which we know pull us away from God, and which we yet cherish. Where then will our peace go?

This side of the winding up of time, we cannot hope for complete peace, the power and consequences of sin in our broken world are too much present. But as followers of Jesus we can trace this promise of peace, of wholeness and freedom to thrive, with confidence that it  applies to us. We live between the first coming of the one who – as Micah said – is the ‘source of our peace’, and his triumphant return, when all the opposing forces will be finally swept away.

In his letter to the Roman church – which experienced appalling persecution and had little hope of ‘peace’ in the sense of being free from assault – Paul writes these incredible words:

Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory.

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation.

(Romans 5.1-4)

We have peace, that freedom from grinding fear, because we are already regarded by God as right with him – no longer at enmity with him – all through Christ’s redeeming work on the cross. None of the the things that ultimately matter can be damaged or stolen from us – our Saviour has made us secure for ever and we will share God’s glory.

And not one of the difficulties which yet lie ahead, or which have dogged our lives for years, can undermine that peace. In fact, Paul seems to be saying that because we are safe in Christ, our very difficulties can be received as sources of blessing because God is at work through them to make us more like Christ – more like the glorious original he had in mind when he conceived us!

We need not worry, or fret that our struggles or sufferings will endanger our relationship with God because NOTHING can do that, and so we can accept each one with a peaceful heart. What a wonderful reason for celebration as we look forward to celebrating again the birth of the Prince of Peace, and praying once more with fervour for his speedy return!

Whispers of hope

Rejoice greatly; O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey…… He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.

As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners.. Return to your fortress, O prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you!

(Zechariah 9.9,10b-12)

The bible narrative from Genesis onward is not an easy read, as the consequences of sin make themselves felt at a personal and national level for God’s chosen people. Time and again they rebel and pay the price for their disobedience. But alongside this sadly realistic picture of human nature, we find words of hope – hope for temporary relief from distress, but also of a future perfect peace, a dwelling together of God and his creatures in mutual delight and harmony. This prophecy from Zechariah, addressed to a people in long-term exile, is one such word. The promise of a coming deliverer, bringing freedom, rejoicing and justice without borders.

The exiles circumstances were bad; there was no earthly reason to hope that the future might see an improvement – and their hopelessness was compounded by the knowledge that their exile was a direct result of persistent disobedience to God, and of breaking the terms of the covenant God had made with them!

Once again, God sends through his prophet a word of encouragement to the people, a word of grace, of unmerited favour and his faithfulness to an unfaithful people. Once again, God is revealed as the  hero of the story, preparing to bless those who have so deeply grieved him and got themselves into a dreadful mess as a result. He alone can and will deliver the imprisoned and despairing. Any hope for salvation depends utterly on this grace of God, who chooses to act because he must be true to his own promises.

 What makes us prisoners? Too often it is our fears; sometimes it is our success in the world’s eyes; and for some it will be circumstances which are beyond their control and which bring great distress. Think of the prophet Daniel, who spent his entire life in captivity in Babylon, or the exiled Ezekiel, born to be a priest in the temple but doomed never to fulfill his ambition.This passage in Zechariah promises that in God, we have a deliverer, and a sure hope for future freedom from whatever binds us now. We are called by faith to turn again to the stronghold which in this case is not a physical fortress, but the Lord God himself! The psalmist writes enthusiastically of this truth:

In you O Lord, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame…Be my rock of refuge, to which I can always go; give the command to save me for you are my rock and my fortress… For you have been my hope, O Sovereign Lord, my confidence since my youth. (Ps 71.1,3&5)

When by faith we are drawn to hide ourselves in God, our fortress, then we are no longer prisoners of our fears or circumstances.Our obedience in clinging to him means that we are now capable of receiving his blessings – and our whole view of our lives is transformed.

We will be hope-prisoners in the tower of the Lord, walled about by his promises, with the light of his love shining in our lives and holding us as close to him as the tightest chains. This kind of imprisonment is not something to shun, but rather to seek! There is no safer place than in God: our great,powerful and good God.

This hope can open the door of the deepest, darkest places, bringing assurance that our God is always with us, and where he is, there is life now and will be abundance to come. Our hope is certain because it is based on the character of God, not on our own strengths, or ability to work out our own salvation. And it is the fulfillment of this hope which we celebrate in the birth of Christ, who would one day ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, deliberately recalling this prophecy, and through whose death, the basis for peace between God and man would finally be established.

Let us rejoice in this promise fulfilled. Let us live as prisoners of this great hope, turning ever and again to the stronghold which is our God, and seeking to share the good news with our neighbours.

Whispers of wings?

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.

“I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you ; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

(Genesis 12.1-3)

A perfect world, created to give a home to humankind, with whom God in his generous loving kindness has desired to share himself – not that he needs us, but his nature overflows with love, and the delight of the trinity in one another is to be shared with us! And in order that we might fully and freely enter into that love, we are made capable of rejecting it. In our folly, we chose to distrust our God and to put ourselves first.

So the beauty is broken, the relationship is fractured, and humanity learns the hard way that getting what we want is not always the good we expect it to be.. The earliest recorded stories of God’s dealings with humanity show that from the very beginning, he had a plan, an incredible scheme of rescue, which will ultimately bring into being the beautiful and satisfying relationship he always desired for us. Traces of it can be followed, like whispered hints of something wonderful yet hidden, through the old testament narrative, until it finds full expression in the gospels in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son and Saviour himself.

The readings at a Christmas carol service will often trace that thread, going right back to the promise given by God as Adam and Eve were banished from Eden, that the seed or offspring of the woman would crush the head of the serpent – a picture of the victory which would ultimately be won by Christ on the cross, defeating forever the power of evil to separate humanity from God.

The steady focus and continuity of God’s purpose is a source of great encouragement to us, because it shows that he is never deflected from his plans, no matter what it may look like from our limited human perspective. Those who were caught up in the days of the Exodus – the long desert journeys, the threat of starvation and armed attack – had no idea that this part of their corporate history as God’s people would stand for the rest of time as a clear example of God’s power to keep his promises. The Midianite refugee who followed her mother-in-law home and found a welcome, and a new life with Boaz, had no idea that her small acts of love and service were part of the plan of God to create a king, David, who would bless the nation.

With hindsight, we can see that there are hints all along the way, as in the covenant promise made to Abram, that all nations would be blessed through him – through his great descendant, Jesus. But for those living the story as it unfolded, there was no such understanding. They were called to obedience and faith in the world as they could see it, without God’s blueprint for redemption and re-creation in front of them.

How much more should we be willing to serve and obey, since we have that plan, revealed in all its fulness in Jesus himself! God, in his mercy and loving-kindness to a helpless and forlorn humanity, has opened the way for us to come home, and has provided all that we need for the journey. The promise which was only whispered at the beginning, is now trumpeted abroad by the angelic heralds, who proclaim at Christ’s birth that here at last is the Saviour, the Anointed and promised one!

Let us rejoice this Christmas in the goodness of our God, in providing from the very beginning, a way for his estranged people to come home. And let us take heart, in the midst of a world which continues to be wracked by the consequences of sin, that we might be confident that God, who began this great work, will bring it to an end. He is faithful, and calls us only to be obedient in fulfilling our role in his plan. We have good news, the best gift anyone could receive, let us eagerly look for ways to share it in love, with our communities.

Jesus Christ, the apple tree?

The tree of life my soul hath seen, laden with fruit, and always green,

The trees of nature fruitless be, compar’d with Christ the apple tree.

His beauty doth all things excel, by faith I know, but ne’er can tell,

The glory which I now can see, in Jesus Christ the apple tree.

For happiness I long have sought, and pleasure dearly I have bought; 

I missed of all but now I see ’tis found in Christ the apple tree.

I’m wearied with my former toil, here I will sit and rest a while; 

Under the shadow I will be of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

With great delight I make my stay, there’s none shall fright my soul away,

Among the sons of men I see, there’s none like Christ the apple tree.

I’ll sit and eat this fruit divine, it cheers my heart like spiritual wine.

And now this fruit is sweet to me, that grows on Christ the apple tree.

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive, it keeps my dying faith alive;

Which makes my soul in haste to be with Jesus Christ the apple tree.

(  Anon , first published in the 18th century)

Old songs can be hard to sing, hard to understand, because their language is antique and unwieldy, words have shifted in their meaning, and images and allegories which were once familiar are now strange.

Many of the older songs traditionally sung at Christmas come under this heading, and I appreciate that for this reason, few modern leaders choose to use them in congregational worship. But if – like me – you have enough of a taste for old language, for rich imagery in praise, then there is great sweetness in these pieces.

The picture of a tree full of fruit and goodness is an attractive one, and for the Christian, the image immediately conjures up the tree of the Garden of Eden – of the knowledge of good and evil – where humankind first rebelled against God and rejected his authority in their lives. But the tree of life is described in detail in Revelation 22, with its continual fruit and leaves for the healing of the nations. This tree is not a source of curse and loss, but of healing and life! And we know that it is in Christ, by his work on the cross, that we are healed and restored to newness of life.

The beauty of Christ’s love for us, that heart-piercing loveliness which brings us to our knees in adoration of the one who counted us worth dying for, makes this tree the one above all which we cherish, and prefer. Nowhere else are we so satisfied as here, and here we rest, as in the shade of a tree on a hot day. In Christ we rest, because all the labour of our salvation was his, not ours, and he has extended to us all the privileges of glory to treasure.

And so we live by his fruit, because it is the forgiveness which he won for us which lifts us out of darkness into light and God’s favour; it is the new life which is ours in him that enables us to live in hope in this world and with confidence for the next; it is the constant presence of his spirit within us, like the food which nurtures our bodies, that feeds our souls, our faith, our walk with God. If I do not eat, I die; and if I refuse the fruit of my precious Lord, then surely I will starve and waste away, and the life which Christ died to give me will be a travesty, a ghost and dreadful to see.

So as I anticipate the feast of Christmas, celebrating the coming of Jesus, God with us, I will feast on the great images which deepen my understanding of him – the Shepherd; the Gate; the Water of Life; the Bread of Life; the Alpha and the Omega; the bright morning star; the Messiah; the son of David… and the apple tree!

May we be richly nourished in the days ahead..

May I come in?

“If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor to be with you for ever – the Spirit of truth…you know him for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you….. If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

(John 14. 15-17 &23)

Human beings are made in the image of God, made to reflect creativity, strength, compassion, love, to one another and the world. We are made by a God who is three-in-one, a God who is community and endless loving communication. We are made for community, to give and receive, to speak and to listen, to exist in relationships of such trust that we have no need to hide anything of ourselves. That is what lies behind the picture of Adam and Eve walking naked in the Garden of Eden, sharing with God in the cool of the day.

And when we rebelled against God, we broke the image; we all now live with the curse of needing community, but struggling to create it because of the ways our fallen nature has twisted us. We project images of ourselves which we hope will give us a peaceful life, protect us from abuse or ridicule, enable others to accept and like us. But so often these are not the truth, rather a facade behind which we hide – longing to be known utterly, but afraid to be known, full of shame and fearful of rejection.

So we live, even within the closest human relationships, behind closed doors, locked away and unable to enjoy that sweet ease which comes from being with one who accepts and loves us unconditionally. We cannot make and keep the connections which create deep relationships without exposing our secrets, trusting another flawed human being to be gentle with us, willing to forgive them when they hurt us – as those closest to us surely can. How many of us truly manage to do this?

What hope is there then for meeting this deep need within our beings, for finding that soul food of fellowship and acceptance from which we can then give unconditional love and acceptance to others?

Our hope is in our good and gracious God, who knows better than the greatest physician or psychologist just exactly what ails us! When once we have seen and loved Christ, acknowledging his mercy and majesty and accepting his forgiveness, we are made new, made fit for the most intimate fellowship with God. That is what Jesus was telling the apostles in his last conversations with them as recorded by John. We need never feel alone or isolated again, because Father, Son and Spirit are ever present with us. Every aspect of our character and experience is known and accepted in love. As we rest more and more in that heart of God’s love for us, we are able to give love without expectation of return, and no longer depend on the approval of anyone else for our peace of mind and sense of worth.

In this season of Advent, I will be celebrating the coming of Immanuel, which means ‘God with us’.

With me – here, today, in my mess and weariness:

With me – tomorrow, in the unknown future:

With me – in joy and triumph, as well as fear and doubt:

With me; loving me; listening to me; sharing his heart with me; taking joy in my joys and feeling my sorrows:

With me from now until the day comes when all things are made new, when all the remaining hindrances that hold my attention away from him are removed, when I shall see him and know even as I am known.

Alleluia, Come Lord, Come!

Alpha and Omega

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

(Hebrews 12 v 2)

Last year, I did a new thing for Advent, searching the bible for names of Jesus, and using one each day to help me to focus on him, the reason for this season! I pick them out of the bowl at random, and then make an effort to think during the ensuing day about what that title means, and how it enriches my understanding of Jesus and all that he is.

Yesterday, it was this verse from Hebrews, reminding me that Jesus is both the author – the source of the plan of salvation – and also the perfecter of our faith. He not only drew up the blueprint, but came from heaven, from the glory of his father’s throne, and worked it out down to the last detail in his own body. Stuart Townend & Keith Getty put it succinctly in their song  ‘See what a morning’ –     ” See God’s salvation plan, born in love, wrought in pain, paid in sacrifice”.

There is nothing left for me to add…. no ticking of boxes, no achieving of prescribed standards of behaviour, or conforming to a particular mould. I can only receive, agreeing in my heart with a holy God, that I have nothing worthwhile to offer him, and that I stand in desperate need of a Saviour. My human pride rebels over and against this, seeking any way that I might put God in my debt, and somehow deserve this priceless gift which he is offering me. Surely, if I pray with great persistence, give sacrificially, witness at every opportunity, then I will have earned God’s favour?

What did Paul say in 1 Corinthians chapter 13? That one can be the most gifted, dedicated servant but without love – without that response to God in my heart – I am NOTHING. All my labours achieve is to wear me out with well-doing, creating a bitter and resentful heart as I see that God continues to bless others who do not try as much as I do, and that hard and painful things continue to happen to me.

What a relief it is by comparison to accept that it is only in Christ that I have any claim on God, and then to recognise that Christ’s claim is absolute! In him, I am a beloved child of the King of Kings,  acceptable to a holy God, secure in my new family ties and with an eternal life in which to enjoy and work them out. The perfect son of God is the one who planned my salvation from the beginning, and is also the one who carries it through to completion, so that in the end he will present us – all his people – pure and spotless before the throne of God. It is not my labours after perfection which determine my future, but his finished work which guarantees it.

Yes, it is right and proper that in our response to this love we should desire to become like Jesus in his holiness, that we should long to share the good news of his death and resurrection, and to care for all his children. But while we remain in frail human flesh, our efforts will remain flawed and compromised. It’s ok! God knows and understands, welcoming our desire to be changed, to serve and love in his name, and enabling us more and more to live in this way as we trust him for daily strength and perseverance.

I don’t have to be perfect, because Jesus is perfect for me. I just need to remain in his presence, depending on and loving him more than anything else. The apostle Paul wrote to his Philippian church to encourage them in this kind of faithful living, reminding them that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus”. (Phil 1 v 6)

The title of this piece, two Greek letters which stand at the beginning and end of that alphabet, is another of the names given to Jesus (Rev 22 v 13). This idea that he is before and after all things, somehow holding it all together, is a richly satisfying picture for me, and ties in very closely with the verse from Hebrews with its sense of the completeness of his work. The words are also quoted in a very old hymn, not often sung nowadays, but full of good theology and worth revisiting! I will close with it this week, and pray that as you take these words and think over them, you will be filled with praise for Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.

Of the Father’s love begotten ere the worlds began to be,

He is Alpha and Omega, he the source, the ending he,

Of the things that are, that have been, and that future years shall see,

Evermore and evermore!

(Aurelius Clemens Prudentius 348-413, translated by J M Neale 1818-66)