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Showing posts from December, 2007

The Real Meaning of Christmas

Isaiah 63:7-9
This passage is truly prophetic. It doesn't predict the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem. It doesn't say that his mother would be a virgin when he was born, nor that he would eventually be rejected, crucified and raised from death. But it's prophetic in the true sense of that word. All true prophecy contains profound insights into the nature of God and into our relationship with God. And this passage is truly prophetic for, without recognising exactly how it might happen, the writer - the third prophet in the Isaiah tradition - understands that God will chose, out of a mixture of love and pity, to save the human race from its distress, and that he will do this not by sending a messenger or an angel to tell us how to change things for the better but by his own personal presence among us. Was the prophet thinking of incarnation, of God becoming a human baby lying in a manger? Probably not. That would have been beyond his wildest imagining. But he had sens…

The Real Glory of Christmas

Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1.18-25

Isaiah's prophecy seems harsh. Ahaz loyally refuses to ask God for a sign. He says that he doesn't want to put the Lord to the test - a sentiment later echoed by none other than Jesus himself! But it would appear that, on this occasion at least, it's the wrong answer to give! The Prophet tells him that he should have asked for a sign, after all, and now he will be given one whether he likes it or not.

What's going on here? Perhaps Isaiah realizes that the real reason why Ahaz didn't ask for a sign is that he already suspects it will be inauspicious. Is this the royal equivalent of putting your hands over your ears and singing 'La, la, la!' to drown out the sound of bad news?

If so, the King is showing remarkable faithlessness because, in fact, the sign is not going to be the bad news he dreads. Instead, the sign is going to be full of hope. And what could be more hopeful than new life? Within two years - in other wo…

A New Kind of Judgement

Matthew 11:2-11
James 5.7—10
The newspapers have been full in the last week of the amazing story of John Darwin, the canoeist who returned from the dead after going missing in the North Sea more than five years ago. At first it seemed like a miracle, but now his wife has admitted that – at least for most of the time – his disappearance had become a scam. People are still speculating about his motives but newspaper reports suggest that it had to do with escaping debts.

From his prison cell, John the Baptist began to hear similar stories about amazing events – blind people receiving their sight, lame people walking, the deaf hearing, even the dead being raised to life. Only this was no scam. John's disciples were able to report what they had actually seen and heard. Isaiah's prophecy seemed to be coming true before their very eyes.

But were people pleased about it? Jesus clearly implies that they were not! 'Blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me,' he says, as if anyone…

The Desert That Becomes a Garden

Isaiah 35:1-10
This passage mixes beautiful images of peace and regeneration with more disturbing themes about the nature of God's justice.

Years ago our family was toiling through an Alpine meadow in the hot sunshine when one of our children turned to us and asked, rather crossly, 'Why are you making us go through this barren wilderness?' It was an incredible thing to say because only someone walking with their head down could have failed to notice that, on both sides of the path – as far as the eye could see – there were literally millions of flowers of every colour and shade. If this was a wilderness, it was a wilderness which was rejoicing and blossoming like the one pictured by the Prophet.

In the prophet's vision, not only shall the wilderness blossom abundantly but the burning sand shall become like a pool, and the thirsty ground shall gush with springs of water. And this will be no empty mirage. The sparse desert grass will mutate into water-loving beds of reeds a…

The Wicked Wolf and The Lamb

Matthew 3.1—12
John the Baptist, too, has been reading the prophecy of Isaiah and – like the Prophet – he expects the Messiah to wreak powerful vengeance on wrong doers. He pictures God's special agent and new ruler arriving on Earth with his winnowing fork in his hand, ready – in the days before combine harvesters or threshing machines – to begin the laborious task of separating the nourishing wheat from the inedible chaff. The chaff, he observes ominously, will be burned with unquenchable fire.

Hundreds of years before, Isaiah had warned that God would be compelled to chop down the decaying nation of Israel so that righteous new growth could spring from its roots. Once again, warns John, the axe is at the root of the tree. And this time the Jewish nation may not be so fortunate, for God may cause those new shoots of righteousness and spiritual vigour to grow up among Gentile peoples instead of giving Israel another chance.

Once again, too, snakes feature in the story. This time the…

Living Together in Harmony

Romans 15:4-13
Paul here seizes on just one verse from Isaiah's memorable prophecy in order to prove that Jesus was given a special mission to take God's saving message to Gentile people as well as to members of the Jewish race. He was having a hard task in convincing some Jewish Christians that he was right about this, and Isaiah's words, 'The root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples', seemed to lend powerful support to his argument.

Of course, then as now, some Christians probably said that Isaiah had been talking about the people, or the kings, of Israel and Judah, not about Jesus. Paul will have none of it. He asserts that whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, to give us hope and encouragement on our own faith pilgrimage. This doesn't mean that the prophecies of Isaiah and others didn't have a different meaning at the time, only that they have a special meaning for Christians too, and that meaning is just as vali…

Looking Backwards and Forwards

Isaiah 11:1-10
Once, years ago, a neighbour and his son helped me cut down a large sycamore tree which was too close to the manse. Actually, they did all the cutting and I just shouted, 'Timber'. The neighbour, who had been a forestry worker in his youth, painted the stump with tar to try and kill it. But his efforts were in vain. In no time at all vigorous new shoots grew from the stump and it took me all of my time to keep them in check. In a year they could easily grow six or seven feet tall and almost too thick to prune without lopping tools.

Of course, this method of harvesting quick growing wood has been known by human beings for thousands of years. The technical terms for cutting down an old tree in order to encourage new and vigorous growth which can be easily harvested is 'coppicing'.

In their attempts to explain why God had allowed his chosen nation to be enslaved, the Bible writers seized on this image of coppicing. Israel, they believed, had become morally and…