Well, after a rather manic month of spending far too much time travelling, or sitting around in airports we’ve finally made the move ‘down south’ to West Sussex. We’re living just up from the coast, but did manage a trip to Worthing for a break from the unpacking. Here’s a photo of Worthing Pier in the glorious February sunshine.
The prophets had long since been stilled. The voice of the Lord was not heard. Daily life went on with hope gradually fading with every passing year of occupation and subservience. Where was the promised Messiah?
In these days came the beginning of the Gospel. It started out with a priest – not the High Priest, just a priest, a godly one, and even that fact was notable and unusual. On an ordinary day as he went about his normal service in the temple an angel of the Lord appeared to him by the altar. The childless priest and his wife were to become parents. This child would be ‘Elijah come’, and he would be named John. The child would be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb – consecrated for a task. As the aged priest questioned the prophecy the angel announced himself: “I am Gabriel – I stand in the presence of God. I was sent to speak to you, but you will not speak until my announcement is fulfilled because you did not believe.”
Six months later God sent Gabriel to another town to Mary who was betrothed to Joseph in marriage. In this age of silence God’s messenger had come again. “Don’t be scared, Mary, I’m here because God approves of you, I’ve not come in judgement. You will conceive and bear a son and you will call his name Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, he will reign over Israel forever, his kingdom will never cease.” This would come about not through natural means. Mary was betrothed, but not yet married, but the Holy Spirit would overshadow her and give her this son.
So, in due course John was born and his father’s voice returned. This child, this son would be called the prophet of the Most High who would go before the Lord to prepare his ways and to give the knowledge of salvation to his people. God was speaking to his people once again!
And in these days as the Roman rulers demanded a census Joseph and Mary returned to Joseph’s family town – Bethlehem. Mary was pregnant and almost due. The town was in turmoil. All those who had left for the city of Jerusalem, or for larger towns had all returned for the census. There was nowhere to stay. And so Mary and Joseph were left with nothing but a stable to spend the night. When Jesus, the Son of the Most High was born, Mary wrapped him well, and laid him in a manger.
As Mary and Joseph lay and watched their child, amidst the noise and smells of the stable, they must have wondered: “Is this really the prophecy fulfilled?”
Meanwhile, far from the town, away from the lights of the inns and homes, out in the fields were shepherds, watching their flocks. There an angel of the Lord appeared and with the angel the glory of the Lord shone around. In the darkness of the fields at night it terrified the shepherds. But the angel said: “Don’t fear! I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. Today, in the city of David is born to you a Saviour who is the Messiah, the Lord. Here is the sign that proves it. You will find a newborn, wrapped and placed in a manager.”
And as the promised Messiah was revealed to these simple shepherds it was as if the heavens themselves couldn’t contain their silence any longer and suddenly with the angel, bursting forth into time and space in the fields outside Bethlehem is the entire host of heaven, myriads of angels praising God together and crying:
“Glory to God in the highest!
And on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
And when the angels had gone the shepherds left their sheep. They had something much more important than sheep on their minds. They went to Bethlehem, they found the newborn in the manger as the angel had told them and they found Mary and Joseph. As they told the parents the story of what had occurred out in the fields Mary in wonder treasured up all these things, the confirmation of the prophecy to her all those months before. And the shepherds returned to their sheep glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told to them.
At the right time, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to be presented to the Lord in the Temple, according to the law. There, in the Temple was Simeon, a godly and devout man, seeking God and waiting for God’s promised salvation. God’s Holy Spirit was upon him. He knew that he would see God’s Messiah before he died, and so he waited. When he saw Jesus he took him in his arms and blessed God.
“Now I can die in peace! Now I have seen with my own eyes your salvation, your light, shining for all nations, and for the glory of Israel.”
This is the beginning of the Gospel. Not the promise, but the fulfillment. This is the moment in time when God in grace broke into his creation with his own Son. God, the Word through whom the entire universe was brought to be was now in his creation. The Word become flesh!
Here, at Israel’s lowest point, when God had been quiet for centuries, when hope had all but drained away, when religion had become perfunctory and a duty, here God broke in! The grace of God’s angel Gabriel to Zechariah and to Mary hides the momentous events that are unfolding. And yet, at the very point of the incarnation, of God breaking into his own creation for our salvation, at this point all of the heavens burst forth in praise! How can we imagine what it was like to be on that hilltop with the shepherds? This was something the like of which had never been before, and never will be until that same promised Messiah returns again!
How can we honour this promise in our lives at this time when we have chosen to remember Christ’s coming, Christmas? Please do celebrate, please do decorate your home and sing your songs and visit your families, but in so doing, treasure up in your heart the reality behind Christmas – the God of Creation become one of us to save all of us from our own sin and rebellion. And as you meet with families and friends, remember the grace that came to us all that first Christmas, the offer of redemption, salvation, forgiveness – hope and peace. And as you accept that from God for yourself, offer the same forgiveness, hope and peace to those you meet.
When we consider, when we treasure up these thoughts they almost defy description, but that should only drive us to praise and worship the more as we celebrate a Christmas that at it’s heart tells us:
“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight!”
I’ve been thinking for a long time about how it can be difficult to see the Bible as a whole, the entire story as a story. When I represent the Gideons at local schools I often present the Bible as a single book – a true story of God and us – yet if we haven’t read it from cover to cover it can be hard to see this, or grasp how one part fits into the whole. I had thought that it might help to give a summary of the story that the Bible contains, it’s true, it’s epic and it goes from history to eternity, and it’s ours to hear. All of that is much harder to describe than the end result is, so I’ve decided to put my ‘beginning’ up here for your consideration. I trust you will like it, I will understand if you don’t. I would very much value your comments for good or for bad.
It’s our story, it’s our history, us and the Creator. It’s where it all began, how it all began, why it all began, and where it’s all going to. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, as with all stories, let’s start at the beginning.
It all starts with the Creator, God, and his creation – that includes us.
Before the universe began, before men and women walked on the face of the earth, before plants grew and animals roamed there was still God. He started it, all of it, and he will one day finish it.
God, the Creator spoke it into existence. God brought existence into existence, and then, as with any creation, the Creator fashioned and moulded and made. At first there was no order and no content: unformed and unfilled
First came the substance, the raw material of the universe, the rules and laws that govern how it all works. The universe was formed. God spoke light into existence, a good light, a light to bring division of day and night. With the division came the days.
The heavens were formed: waters above, waters below. The earth itself began to take shape as God spoke the waters into place and revealed the habitation of mankind. Another good day.
Once formed, God filled the earth: plants sprung up at the Creator’s command, trees and their fruit grew strong. All good.
The Creator filled the expanse, the heavens. Structure, beauty, majesty for man and God to see. The lights were for signs and seasons – to mark the movement of the universe and time itself. Day four.
God once more spoke life into existence. The waters were to teem with life, the birds were to fill the skies. These were to increase, to reproduce, to fill God’s earth. The penultimate day.
Finally, the last scene of this first act: God speaks animals and mankind into existence. First the animals: domestic and wild, small and large, all by kind, made to grow and multiply and diversify within their kind across the face of the planet.
And man – ultimately – God’s crowning creative act in his creation. “I’ll make him like me”, God said. How like him we will learn from our story. How not like him we learn from creation.
God blessed his creation, spoke good of it and to it. God commanded his creation to be fruitful, to increase, to spread out and fulfill their destiny. To mankind alone he commanded dominion and rule. The authority to manage, to maintain, to order this world was given to those whom God made like him.
So, it was done, all of it finished and God rested. The Creator set aside one final day of the first week for contemplation of the previous six, the act of formation and filling and the Creator who not only created, but maintains to this day. The day was a day of rest from labour. This is the first chapter in our family history.
All this the man somehow knew, intuitively, as if it had been planted as seeds in his mind; all this he knew as he blinked his eyes wide open on a brand new world. The land was still raw to him as he began to take it in. Even the name ‘The Man’ was somehow appropriate. How did he understand the name? He had words, understanding, thinking and already a history.
The Man: A’dam in his words, the word for earth, the ground from which he came. Adam could see the creation around him, the plants and creatures the water and the earth and yet there was more. God made a home for Adam, a garden that would meet his every need, apart from the need for his Creator. The garden was pleasant, a true home. It had life and food and beauty. And in the middle of the garden: two trees. One gave life, one gave knowledge.
Water flowed up and out from the garden. The garden was the centre, the lands were blessed from Eden. And God placed Adam in the garden to begin the work of managing the land. The trees were made available for food; all except one were to be eaten of freely. A solitary tree, the tree of knowledge was marked out – “Do not eat of this” God commanded “or you will surely die”.
The creation, the land was good, and yet Adam stood apart from the rest of that creation. Made with the likeness of God, but solitary, alone. Adam was one man among many creatures. God showed his creatures to Adam. One kind after another was brought to Adam to view and to name – Adam at work in God’s creation. But not one was like him. Not another creature was made in God’s image as Adam was. Not another creature was fit to work with or to live with the man.
And, so soon after he first opened his eyes, Adam slept, and God worked. One last act of creation, and yet even in his sleep Adam was included in this last creation. From Adam’s own flesh God brought the woman, truly of his flesh and of God. “Bone of my bones,” Adam said, “flesh of my flesh!” She’s a woman! This is the reason men and women of each generation leave one family to begin a new one: man and wife. In all this Adam and Eve his wife were naive and innocent – naked in the garden and unashamed.
Our story doesn’t tell us how the serpent arrived in the garden, we glimpse fragments of this story now and throughout our history, but we don’t know it all. What we do know is that the serpent possessed guile – directly opposing the naivety and innocence that characterised the first husband and wife.
The serpent started with a question, innocently framed, but not innocently asked. “Did God really say?” Question the Creator, take responsibility for yourself, take control of your life – allow first of all that you have the right to decide for yourself – original sin – pride. And to help the decision making process the serpent adds: “You will not surely die!” The irony of taking control of your own destiny, yet paying heed to a serpent…
So Eve looked, and she considered, and she weighed up – she took control and took responsibility. She reached out her hand to take that which she was expressly forbidden to take – she sinned, and Adam with her.
Something did die in them both that very instant, their innocence – and mortality took hold of their physical bodies. So new, and now already dying. But something else died along with their innocence: a rent was torn between them and their Maker. Not only did they hide their bodies from one another, but they tried to hide from God.
They were expecting God, they were used to his coming among them, walking and talking, it’s called fellowship. But now they were afraid of him who made them and walked with them. Fear came with their grasped knowledge. So, when God came walking they hid. But God called, God reached out and the truth was told. The serpent questioned and brought deceit, God questioned and brought truth. Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent. All of them had disobeyed God. And so the world was cursed. The serpent was consigned to the dust, the woman and her offspring became the serpent’s enemies. The woman would suffer in her family life; the man would suffer in his role of husband and worker. Both had overstepped their role in God’s given realm, both would pass on that failure to every generation to come. Both would one day return to the ground from which they came.
And to cover their new found shame? An innocent life was taken on their behalf. Clothes of skin were provided as a substitute for the lost innocence of Adam and Eve.
The final falling in this first Fall was to be cast out of the garden that was their home. The relationship was gone, the source of life was to be withheld too – access to the tree of life was cut off with the closing of the garden.
The First Family
Adam and Eve did obey God in beginning to multiply and populate the earth. From Adam and Eve came the first family on earth. How large this family was we do not know, but two brothers stand tall in the story. Cain and Abel lived outside the garden, working as God had intended, cursed as Adam and Eve had made them. But God was not altogether apart from his creatures and offerings were brought – a more formal relationship than what had been, but a way to respond to the Creator for the gift of his earth. Cain worked the land, Abel tended the flocks. A family who still somehow belonged to God and looked to him.
If pride motivated Adam and Eve, then it seems that anger moved Cain. Did he struggle with the curse on the land? He was certainly jealous of his brother. Remarkably, God still speaks, questions, brings truth: “Why let anger rule? If you do well, you will be accepted, but beware, sin can and will consume those who give themselves over to it!”
Was it a deliberate choice to kill? Was it murder or manslaughter? Cain arranged the meeting: “Come out and meet me, brother.” The act was premeditated. Whatever words were said, actions ended the business. Cain rose up and killed his brother. Anger consumed, sin controlled.
Yet again the Creator has to intervene. God pursues Cain. Again it starts with a question “Where’s Cain, your brother, your nearest?” Cain is beyond caring, reckless in responding to the one he knows is the Lord of all. “How should I know? I’m not the shepherd’s shepherd!” But God knows and God cares. “What have you done?” The horror of one creature, made in his image taking by force the life of another. The grace of God shows in the fact that angry, rebellious Cain is allowed to live, to talk back. But life will never be the same for the murderer. The very ground that soaked up his brother’s blood will become as hard as stone. Cain will wander, far from men and women, and far from God.
And yet even as a rebel and a murderer Cain begins to multiply and to build. And as Cain did, so did Adam and Eve. Living outside the garden they bore more children and began to spread across the land. They began to call on the name of the Lord – to worship as a people the God they only knew at a distance. This is Adam’s story.
Excerpt from ‘something I’m writing’
Looking out at the world can be a soul destroying thing. This world is full of evil, and full of evildoers, who somehow always seem to thrive and do well. And as we look out we are inclined to stumble. The natural instinct is to envy the wicked their ease, to see their unpunished prosperity and wonder why they do wrong and yet prosper. The more we look, the worse it appears. It makes life to be a wearisome task.
But, if we are to free ourselves from stumbling we must enter into the sanctuary, the place where God is – only there will this life make sense. We can only come into God’s presence resting on the reconciliation to God won by his Son. But, as we enter into God’s nearer presence, our embittered souls are sweetened and our spiritual compasses are realigned. God is our goal, our measure of what is good and right; God, and not this world is our goal and our glory. No-one else, nothing else matters except our relationship with the living God, the Creator God, the Redeemer God, the Consummating God who will one day reveal himself and his purposes in fullness.
The more we look at the world, the less we look at God. The more we look at God, the better we see the reality of this world and the world to come.
For every son and daughter of Adam the bottom line is:
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
But God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever!
If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs you obviously don’t realise the seriousness of the situation! So goes the tongue in cheek rewriting of Kipling’s poem. Of course, Kipling is pointing us towards the mark of a true man – the ability to hold your head up high in the face of all that the world and mankind throw at you. But Kipling missed the spiritual dimension. It’s all very well being a man in this big bad world if this big bad world is all there is, but it’s not. We’re inundated with ‘how to live your dream’ and ‘how to stand firm’ memes. We’re encouraged to find in ourselves and in our humanity all that there is to be a fine upstanding human in our own world. There are two problems with this: 1. It doesn’t hold true for most people and 2. It ignores the spiritual realm: God, providence and the spiritual forces at work in the world and the heavenly places.
So where does this leave us? How do we live in a troubled world in circumstances that are less than perfect? Keep calm and trust in God! This is the message of the whole Bible, but particularly in Psalm 46.
Our assertion must be with the Psalmist, not that we have within what we need to succeed, but that God is our refuge and strength. God is our help, now, in our trouble. It takes a big man to admit he needs help. It’s somehow easier to put on that Kiplingesque inner manliness and play the strong quiet tower of strength. But that’s not what God requires of us!
God is our strength, not us, therefore we will not fear – not because we have our own grounds for keeping our heads, but because we know someone who is stronger than our situation. Though the mountains be thrown into the sea God is in control!
So, as Christians we don’t look inward to our core strength – it’s not sufficient. We look to God. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. We look to the God indwelt city of God’s people. We look to his divine presence, help, & hope. “Come behold the works of the LORD…” the Psalmist says – this is where we look to and find strength.
Though the world truly and literally be falling apart around us we have a hope:
Be still and know that I am God,
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!
The LORD of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our fortress.
Keep calm and trust in God