Bethlehem and the Shadow of the Cross (Luke 2: 1-7 & Mark 15: 33-39)

The Christmas story tells us that God is with us now, the incarnate God made real in the vulnerability of a child and later in the agony of a dying man on a cross. The Word became flesh and did indeed dwell among us full of grace and truth. We can see in the helplessness of a child born in humble circumstances the prequel of a life which embraced the rejected of society and overthrew the man-made structures of both religious and secular power in favour of the justice and love of God.  The Advent story shown us God embracing all humanity in a invitation is offered to all of us. No longer need we feel God is remote and far off because now we can imagine a new intimacy with God, and a new openness to others, because He became one of us.  Understanding the facts that Jesus came to earth as a baby and died some 33 years later is one thing.  However, knowing the significance of that life and death is quite another. The significance of that one life, means that even in the nativity story the shadow of the cross falls upon the manger in the stable. Whilst many people in the world know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and he died crucified on Calvary, most still don’t know what that really means.

Marks Gospel tells us; account tell us that Christ had hung on the cross for six hours, and for the last 3 hours the whole land has been covered in darkness, Then, “at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. This is the only time in the New Testament where Jesus calls God, God, at all other times He addressed Him as Father, and this is significant. The big question this raises is in what way did God the Father forsake God the Son? The answer is that it was at this point Jesus became our sin and died for the sins of the world and therefore because of that sin God the father by necessity had to turn away. However, the point at which we recognise that Jesus Christ did that for us is also the point at which we as believers, become Children of God. When we understand that Jesus Christ died for our sins and trust in him then, at that precise moment we become Children of God. To say that same thing another way is to say that God becomes our father on that day and if we become His children. When Jesus Christ died for your sins it was in order to enable

In Mark 15:37 it tells us, “With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last”. We are told in John Gospel that it was at this point Jesus cried “it is finished”. Furthermore, Luke also added that Jesus also said, “into your hands I commit my spirit” The important point is illustrated by what happens next. “The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom”. Jesus dies, and the temple veil is torn. This is one of the deeply significant things about the death of Christ, but in order to fully appreciate it fully you have to understand something about the tabernacle and later the temple.

The whole tabernacle structure and area is teaching the whole nations was that if you were an ordinary man or woman you didn’t have access to God. If you were lucky enough to be a man you could get part way there, and if you were a priest, you could go into the Holy place. However only if you were a high priest could you actually enter into the Holy of Holies, and the presence of God, and he could only do that on one day, once a year. The tabernacle was portable place for the presence of God to dwell amongst his people which was carried around and constructed anywhere and everywhere they paused to rest.

Later the tabernacle was replaced by a permanent structure called the temple. The whole area around the Temple buildings is called the Court of the gentiles, anybody can visit that area, but if you were a gentile you could only go there but no further. Passing through the main gate and you could then enter what was called the women’s courtyard. Jewish men and woman could both go into that courtyard, but not the gentiles and the woman could go no further than that. However, beyond that was the court of the Israelites, and only men could go there. Then just beyond the slaughter tables and the alter lay the court of the Priests, and guess what you had to be a priest to go that far. Then again beyond that was the building that was the temple proper. Within this temple proper you first entered through the vestibule into the holy place, then beyond that up some steps you entered into the Holy of Holies. These two compartments of the temple proper were separated by a veil, and it is this veil that is being talked about here. A veil that was about 30 feet wide and estimated at about 45 feet high. Just like the tabernacle, the whole edifice said that all of us can only go so far. If you were a gentile, you could only go so far. If you were a woman you could go a little bit further but only go so far. If you were an Israelite, you could go a little bit further but only go so far, and even if you were a priest you could only go so far. Once again only the high priest could enter beyond the veil, into the holiest of holies, into the presence of God, and then only once a year. One man on the whole of Gods creation, and only once a year could enter into the presence of God, in that one particular place.

However, at the moment that Jesus died on the cross we are told that that barrier, that curtain was torn from the top to the bottom. That which separated people from the presence of God was torn wide open. When Jesus died everyone man and woman on this planet, that day and every day thereafter was invited and offered a welcome into the presence of God as Gods special children. We just had to cry out in repentance and faith to enter in. The death of Christ and the tearing of the veil represents the fact that believers can now enter into the very presence of God, and you can do it today, even this morning. Prior to this it was one man (The High Priest) on one day (the Day of Atonement), once a year. However, this means that every believer can now enter the presence of God not just today, but in every minute of every day.

This ripping of the veil made God not only our father but is made God “Abba father”. “Abba” is a term of endearment and equivalent to our term Daddy, it indicates intimacy and trust. In other words, your father God is now approachable. Under the Old Testament system God was not approachable by everybody, the presence of God was limited to one person once a year. The arrival of Jesus is the beginning of the opening up of an initiation to approach God as our father without fear.

As well as being approachable, Abba Father is now available Previously before the coming of Jesus, access to God was limited not only physically to one man, but it was also limited geographically to one place, ‘The Holy of Holies’. God presence was literally penned in.

In John Chapter 4 Jesus speaking says this;

“Jesus replied, ‘believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem……. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks”. (John 4: 21-23)

God is no longer accessible by a particular location, He is accessible in Spirit and in truth, anywhere. God is now available wherever and whenever you need Him. God has made himself approachable, but remember you still have to approach him. He may be available any-time and anywhere, but you still have to go to Him. Remember back in the day, when you wanted to call someone you had to find a phone box or go home. Well God has given you a spiritual mobile phone, he has placed it on/in your person and you can call him any-time. Abba Father is now not just approachable, he is now available. When you approach Him, you will never get a engaged signal, and you never get a answering machine message telling you to call back later. Call upon him when you need Him, and he will answer you all the time.

Why do you think he did all this, why did he rip the veil from top to bottom. Why do you think he make himself approachable and available? Perhaps it’s because, He wants to hear from you. He wants to hear from you because He is your loving father, and He wants to hear from you, and He wants to help you. He just wants you to talk to him and lead your life according to the direction you gain from spending time with Him.

God is now your Father, and because Jesus Christ came and walked this earth, and then died for our sins, we now have the opportunity to call upon God not just as Father, but more so as “Abba Father”. Anywhere, any-time, an yplace. Now and always.

I wish you a happy and peaceful  Advent

Advent – Are You Ready

Advent—Are You Ready

Malachi 3: 1-4 & Luke 3: 1-6

How do we know Christmas is just around the corner?  Is it because next year’s holiday brochures start coming to you through the post? Or is it because they’ve started advertising the Boxing Day and New Year sales on the TV. The consumer mentality tries to overwhelm us and demands a fever pitch of activity. Through TV and the media, advertising, we are always called to desire the next big thing and to plan and book are purchases. One event follows another, Christmas it seems is just another in a long line of annual sales opportunities. Rather than being filled with hope and joy, many wait in a state of anxiety, or cynicism, or even stress.

In all of our business, we sometimes miss the gift of just waiting an being called to take time out, to not be drawn into the things of the world. To try and step aside from the drives of our modern day and to stop and ponder the deeper things of life and of this advent season.

  • We too should take time to prepare.
  • We too should take time to think.
  • We too should take time to pray.

We too should take time to be properly ready for the amazing, earth shattering event that was the Incarnation. How should we live out the Advent journey. Advent is a time for preparation, a time to ‘get ready’ for the momentous arrival of our Incarnate God. The emergence of John the Baptist in the Gospel of Luke was a crucial point in time in the Gospel narrative. He places these events historically by giving us four different anchor points.

  1. 15th year of the reign of Tiberius.
  2. When Pontius Pilate was governor. of Judea
  3. When Herod the Great was Tetrarch of Galilee
  4. During the priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.

Luke discloses this hugely important moment in a time and place of recordable history and having anchored the event in historical, political and religious contexts, Luke then gives authenticity to the appearance of John the Baptist  by quoting verses from the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3-5).

When a king proposed to tour a part of his dominions at that time, he sent an ambassador, a courier before him to tell the people to prepare the roads. It is clear in Luke’s eyes that John is the ‘courier’ of the King. In the historical, political and religious contexts, the people needed to be prepared, to be made ready. That is John the Baptist’s task, but his preparation is not about roads and, mountain paths or rough tracks.  These are metaphors – which would be well understood and very familiar to the people of that day. What is being called for here is a “preparation of the life and of the heart” This metaphor was easy for them to understand at that time for they recognised the significance of preparing for the arrival of the King. John the Baptist’s task is to open everyone to be both the necessity and the opportunity to be truly ready for the arrival of the King of kings. When you are ready, he’s saying, only then will you know what salvation really means, and when you realise what it’s all about, you will know that Christ is closer than ever before.

What steps might we take to be properly ready? How might we avoid falling into a litany of the ‘doing’ things for Advent. When God came amongst us in the person of Jesus 2000 years ago, he did not come to set in motion a list of things to do. Rather God came to show how divine love could change our lives. John the Baptist’s task was not to prepare physical roads and paths, to smooth rough tracks and make travelling easier for the people of Israel. His message was to prepare our attitude of faith, and not by the busyness of doing stuff!  God came in human form to a stable in Bethlehem not to start a set of traditions that we always have to keep up. Neither did he come to set us a catalogue of impossible things to do or achieve. God came to offer us forgiveness and fullness of life.   The Incarnation is about who we are and what we are and how we are, and not what we do.

We should always choose to focus on the meaning not the activity, however, this thinking about meaning won’t just happen by accident.  It only happens when we deliberately make time and space to focus on the Lord.  If we don’t use this preparation time well, we’ll just be swept along by the things of this modern world and miss the real meaning altogether. Don’t be so busy you don’t have time to pray, or to do your daily devotions and certainly don’t be so busy so that you don’t have time to visit a friend or a neighbour. We must remember, to be ‘ready in the heart’ for the coming of the Lord.  We have to take time to prepare, to take time to look for the wonder, the light and the life that is to come. We have to be ready to see, to know, to experience how amazing this Christmas incarnation stuff really is. Take time to receive the God-given gift of life in all its redemptive fullness, or else, we might miss it!

It is all too easy consumed by our mobile phones or computers or newspapers; carried along without looking around us; consumed by our troubles, or our self-centerdness. Let’s take time to be amazed at the wonder of it all, because when we do all of that, we will know how wonderful Christmas actually is. At the heart of all the Christmas TV adverts we see, I think there is a real sadness. When we turn Christmas just into a cute message about Christmas bears or family get together’s we miss the main point. The sadness I fell is because they make Christmas too small, from confining it, trapping it, or wrapping it up in only what we can know or understand.

The truth about this Advent Season should points us to a Christmas which is mind-boggling, remarkable, world-changing, cataclysmic, unbelievable. Don’t make it too familiar, and don’t allow it to be too ordinary, or to be too small. Be amazed, but most importantly be changed. Be transformed and share this Good News.  For then we will know how wonderful this season actually is.

In Conclusion

The Advent season extends an invitation for us to watch and to wait. To wait for the coming of the King and to wait for the Christ who comes in new ways into the very messy stuff of our lives. But not just once a year, because advent invites us to wait for the God who will always shows up.

Those of you who are familiar with mobile phones, and tablets, and laptops, and desktop computers, will know about the tyranny of the  “update”, When a message flashes up on your screen, “UPDATE AVAILABLE”  Right in the middle of doing something important. a pop up appears which says something along the lines of “DO YOU WANT TO INSTALL THIS UPDATE NOW. OR POSTPONE TO A LATER DATE OR IGNORE IT”. Right in the middle of our busy and we think important lives, we get a message. How many of us ignore it? How many of us postpone it? How many of us shout at our computer screen? Advent tells us that in the middle of our busy time of preparing for Christmas, a message comes …  an update …  a different way of taking on board the Good News. An important update because it is an opportunity for a “re-start” to occur, a new beginning to initiate.  Will we grumble that it’s annoying?  Will we ignore it because we feel it is irrelevant to us, or will we postpone accepting it until it’s convenient to our busy schedule? Or will we pick up the message, take it on board, and perhaps even to say to God, “Install it now” please Lord. Come Lord Jesus and do it now! The Message has been given, the upgrade is available, download and install it today.

Real encouragement can be found in the celebration of Christmas if we wait and listen and approach it correctly. For it is at heart a celebration proclaiming that God has come and that God will come again for those who are looking to and waiting for him….

Amen

The Mocking of Jesus

Being Mocked – Mark 15: 16-32

 There was a lot going on in that passage and a lot of it happening in quick succession. First the soldiers mock and beat Jesus, then he is crucified and both during his crucifixion and as he lies dying on the cross He is continually ridiculed and mocked. The passage then ends with not only the religious leaders ridiculing him but random people and even the other people crucified beside him also mocking Him. At almost every interaction Jesus has with people through these last tragic events involves people mocking him and this seems to me one of the main points that Mark wants to make in his account of these events. It seem to me that God, through this passage, Mark wants us to know something about the consequences of mocking people.

Other parts of the New Testament focus on this area also. We are warned against it by Jesus whilst during his Mount of Olives message. Peter in his 2 Epistle warns us that mockers will come in the last days and people continue to mock today, they mock both Christ and Christianity, and they mock Christians. I don’t mean they just question our faith, yes, some do that, but I mean people sometimes ridicule the Christian faith and they mock the Lord and sometimes they even make fun of us. I want to ask some questions of this text this morning. Like who is doing the mocking? Why are they doing it, and what does it mean. I also want to ask is if we too are mocked then how should we handle it?

In verse 16 soldiers led Jesus away into the palace and called together the whole company of soldiers. They take him to the courtyard of the Roman fortress that is built at the side of the temple grounds and they call out the whole garrison of soldiers. At this point he is surrounded by a very large number of Roman soldiers and Verse 17 then tells us;  They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him and they began to mockingly call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!”. They also put a crown of thorns on His head combining mockery with brutality in one action. Interestingly the focus of their mockery is the claim that He is “King of the Jews”; Jesus is so physically weakened by His scourging and His beatings he crumples beneath the load and the soldiers force somebody on the spot to carry the cross for him.

Then they bring Jesus to a hill called Golgotha and they crucify him. There was a tradition among the woman of Jerusalem that they would offer victims of crucifixion wine mixed with myrrh to help deaden the pain slightly of what was to come. But in this case, Jesus refused it. One commentator I read said Jesus did this not because he desired to suffer any more than necessary, but because He wanted to go into the presence of His father with his eyes wide open. Then we are told they separated His garments and hang Him on a cross, and from there He would have watched as they cast lots for the only thing he owned, a cloak. Then they put a written notice of the charge against him reading: the king of the Jews.

People make fun of Christians and say things like we use God as a crutch. In other words, they mock us for relying upon and being upheld by the Lord. They are of course absolutely correct in what they say. The next time someone says, your faith is a crutch. Try saying, yes. Perhaps then ask what they use for a crutch, is it a bottle, drugs, shopping, an affair. You might want to add, you know what, I like my crutch, better than you’re crutch.  We are then told, they crucified him between  two rebels, and the mocking continues, this time it is the passers-by who mock him. They say, save yourself and come down, and He choose to save us and stay up there. William Booth the founder of the salvation Army said; “It’s the fact that He stayed on the cross that makes me believe in Him”. The mockers wanted evidence He was the Messiah by coming down from the cross. Those who know Him as Lord  recognise that it was His staying up there that made Him our saviour.

The Chief Priests mock Him. The Religious teachers mock Him, and even those crucified alongside Him mocked Him. Saying “He saved others”. Again, in the very mocking they mock him by saying exactly what He did. Even the soldiers who nailed Him to that cross heaped insults on Him as well. They all get in on the act, almost everyone in this passage in one way or another is seen to mock, make fun or insult Jesus.

Why does Mark draw attention to all this Mocking and abuse al this insulting? I believe is the main point is to show Jesus endured the mocking in order to continue doing the will of God. In simple terms, he endured the ridicule and he didn’t come down from the cross even though He had the power to do so, in order that he might continue to follow the will of the father. Jesus was mocked by religious sinners,  Jesus was mocked by ignorant sinners and, Jesus was mocked by condemned sinners. So, here is the lesson. When you are mocked for being a believer, consider the source of the ridicule.  Are they mocking because they are jealous, or are they mocking because they are frightened. Or are they mocking because underneath they feel convicted and want to project their feeling onto someone else. Are they in fact ridiculing you for something that is actually true. Are they mocking you because you love the Lord, because you rely on the Lord. Are they by ridiculing you, really just ridiculing the Lord. Like so many before them have done for over 2000 years.

Sometimes when we are mocked or mistreated or misunderstood, we naturally get upset.  Jesus never respond to such verbal abuse. He did not listen to their demands that he come down from the cross. Jesus didn’t respond in the way they wanted, because they weren’t asking in a genuine way, and even if he had responded in the way they asked it would not have taught them anything. One of the lessons I believe this passage teaches is that we are not to listen to or respond to those who make fun of what we believe or who we believe in. Their ridiculing of the Lord should remain their problem, not something that become our problem or at worse something that influences what we believe. So, accept that, and don’t get discouraged, however, don’t get distracted. If you start living your Christian life as a reaction to them, you will not only get discouraged but you may get distracted from doing the work of the Lord. As believers it may be a hard message to hear but in a spiritual sense we need to stay on the cross. Imagine Jesus had listened to His mockers, and Jesus has responded to His mockers and done what they said. Imagine he had saved himself, and not us. If He had come down off that cross none of us would be sitting in this church here this morning. This room and this community of people would not even exist…. worldwide.

The lesson to learn from all this is that if you pay attention to, or listen to the wrong message, then great damage can be done, not only to you but to other believers. So, don’t get distracted, don’t listen to the mockers, just remain committed to doing the work of God regardless of what other say or do. Continue to follow Jesus in your work life, in your home life and in your personal life

Amen