“And though a tenth remains in the land, it will again be laid waste. But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land .”
At this time of year spring comes as a welcome relief. Although winter in the UK has not been too cold (although I’m aware there’s still time!), the gradual lengthening of the days is welcome relief from the darkness of deepest winter. So too a glimpse of colourful crocus blooms, pure white snow drops, and the yellow heads of early daffodils is enough to lift the spirits, a promise that the warmer days of spring and summer are just around the corner.
I’ve been reading through the book of Isaiah recently, a book that I will concede that I find very difficult. In places it is a bleak read. Throughout, however, there are green shoots of encouragement. Like a long, unremitting winter, it speaks of God’s anger at the people that he chose to call his own, and the total destruction he wreaks upon them. Like the colourful crocuses that peek through the soil at this time of year, however, there are sections in Isaiah that promise that all is not lost, that there is hope for the future, that someday there will be a spring that bursts forth from the winter of destruction. Isaiah 6:13 is one of those verses.
The verse does not get off to a particularly promising start. The Lord tells Isaiah in his commissioning that he is to take a message of God’s judgement to Israel. Isaiah asks how long this judgement will last, and the Lord replies, “until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged” (Isaiah 6:11). Only a tenth of the people will remain, but even they will be destroyed. All looks pretty bleak.
Yet all is not lost. A “holy seed” will remain that will be “the stump in the land.” God gives Isaiah hope that once those unfaithful to him are swept away, God’s kingdom will be rebuilt, seed by seed, sapling by sapling. And just as a tree has to be pruned to experience new growth, the Lord gives Isaiah hope that from this seed a stronger, more faithful people will grow.
A read through the pages of the Bible shows time and time again of people turning their backs on God, but we also see, in the pages of the New Testament, the hope of forgiveness of sins and new life brought about through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is the ultimate manifestation of the “holy seed” of this passage. And it is Jesus that brings light, love, peace and hope to the world. We, his people, are privileged to bask in this radiant light, but we’re also called to shine forth in the world as beacons of hope to others.
So whilst the world may at times seem to be a dark and depressing place, full of war, disease, death, and hatred, we are the saplings that represent the new spring’s arrival. The winter of sin is drawing to a close, and through the blood of Jesus, God’s son and our saviour, a bright summer lies ahead for all who truly believe-the brightest summer of all time.
What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 4th December 2011 at Cobham Methodist Church in Surrey. It is based on Isaiah 40:1-11, 2 Peter 3:8-15 and Mark 1:1-8.
I wonder if you were affected by the strikes this week? According to the TUC, two million people stayed away from work on Wednesday in protest at the government’s plans to make changes to public sector pensions. I have to say that, had it not been for the reports on the news and a few exchanges on Facebook, I wouldn’t have even noticed that the strikes took place.
The only effect the strikes had on me were the age old insults that are thrown at me because of my chosen profession. You see, I’m a teacher. Many of my friends believe I have it easy because they think I only work 9 to 3, and have long holidays. If only that were true, I tell them.
The life of a teacher is full of stresses and demands. Not only do we teach, but we have masses of marking to do, hundreds of hours of preparation to undertake, and at this very busy time of year, huge numbers of reports to write.
By far the most stressful time for a teacher, though, is when OFSTED visit for an inspection.
At my school we are currently awaiting the OFSTED inspectors with bated breath.
These days, we don’t get any advance warning. They could come anytime during the course of this year.
That puts a lot of pressure on us to ensure that everything is perfect all the time. We have to make sure our buildings are safe and attractive. We must ensure we are following all necessary legislation. Our lessons must be outstanding all year. And we must keep on top of marking.
We need to prepare the way for the inspectors.
We need to make everything right for them.
That idea of “preparing the way” is something that we reflect on at this time of year, during Advent.
As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the first arrival of our Messiah, our thoughts turn to the return of Jesus, not as a humble baby, but as the majestic defeater of death, the heroic bringer of new life.
That’s what we’re going to be thinking about today through our three readings. We’ll look first at ‘who is coming’? Then we’ll consider the coming of the Messiah and the response of ordinary people to this incredible news. Finally, we’ll reflect on the second coming of Jesus, and how we should prepare ourselves for this monumental event.
Let’s first turn to the question of ‘who is coming’?
Advent is a time of expectation. We all look forward to the coming festivities. Television in particular really builds the sense of expectation that many of us feel. One of the most famous adverts on television at this time of year is one for Coca Cola that has been shown for many years. It shows a phalanx of trucks passing through woods, towns and villages. Everywhere they go, they light up the way, all to a sound track which gently reminds us that “holidays are coming, holidays are coming.”
Then, of course, there’s the much-discussed John Lewis advert, which shows a small boy eagerly anticipating Christmas day. We’re all supposed to think that he is looking forward to opening his presents, but in fact, he is most looking forward to giving his parents a present.
The Old Testament is full to bursting with anticipation. Anticipation for what God is going to do with his people. Anticipation for the arrival of the messiah who is going to save God’s people once and for all. That sense of anticipation is particularly pronounced in our reading today from Isaiah. The prophet talks of “a voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert for our God.”
Sometimes it feels like we’re living in a wilderness, in a desert where the love of God seems absent. We watch the news and see nothing but hatred and violence. We read the newspapers and see reports of our country teetering on the brink of economic meltdown. We see everywhere the consequences of trying to live our lives our own way, of pushing God out of our society. We see all around us the results of our own selfishness and lack of love. We see people starving. We see war and murder. We see young people taking their own lives because they are overwhelmed by a sense of despair, a bleakness that inhabits their hearts, their minds, and their souls.
Our world has become a wilderness, devoid of hope. Our lives have become deserts, devoid of love.
And yet there is hope.
There is hope because as the prophet foretells, the LORD is coming. Our God is coming. And he is going to transform our world.
He will raise up every valley.
He will make every mountain and every hill low.
Rough ground will be level.
Rugged places will become plains.
And there, in that world that has been turned upside down, back to front and inside out, the glory of the LORD will be revealed.
All people will see the glory of the Lord.
This is hope that is worth holding onto. This is anticipation that is valid.
This isn’t anticipation of a holiday, or a fizzy drink. This isn’t anticipation of a special episode of a favourite television programme. This is anticipation of a truly world changing event, the arrival of the messiah, of God himself.
It is not just the world itself that will be transformed by the arrival of the Messiah; lives, too, will be changed. The prophet promises us that the coming LORD “tends his flock like a shepherd. He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”
He will take all his people along the way for the LORD. He will not leave the weak behind, because he cares for each and every one of his people. He will carry those who need carrying, and lead those who need to be led.
Despite his tremendous power, he loves his people, cares for them, and will take them with him.
Our passage in Isaiah is a really useful introduction to the arrival of the Messiah. It vividly shows us the power he will have, and the glory the he will possess. It also shows us how much he cares for his people, the love he has for them, and the willingness with which he will lead us to his kingdom. But what the prophet does not do is put either a name or a face to this rather conceptual introduction.
To put a name and a face to the Messiah, we need to turn to the New Testament.
And that brings us onto our second point, which is the first coming of the Messiah and the response of ordinary people to his arrival.
I was lucky enough to begin my teaching career in quite a prestigious school. Once or twice each year, members of staff were invited to a rather special dinner. I love a free meal and the chance to dress up in my finery, so whenever I was invited, I jumped at the chance to go and cleared my diary. For some reason, these dinners also attracted the great and the good, and on several occasions I met members of foreign royal families who, for some reason, had turned up. Perhaps because of the presence of royalty, when we arrived at the venue, we were announced by a herald and the assembled throng would slow hand clap us as we entered. I always felt a little inadequate being announced as plain ordinary Simon Lucas, esquire, when others were introduced as the Right Honourable, or His Lordship, or Her Royal Highness! It was certainly an interesting experience nevertheless!
In our gospel reading, we witness two heralds announcing the arrival of the Messiah, as prophesied by Isaiah. Mark, the writer of the Gospel, and John the Baptist, leave us in doubt as to who is arriving on the scene, nor what his credentials are.
The very first words that we read as we pick up Mark’s gospel are, “the beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” If we were in any doubt at all as to the identity of Jesus, Mark makes it explicit. As far as he is concerned, this Jesus of whom he writes is the Messiah, the anointed one, the Son of God.
This is the Christ who has been foretold throughout the Old Testament.
This is the Messiah who Isaiah introduced us to.
Now, though, we have a name for him.
The Messiah is Jesus.
And whilst Isaiah built up a sense of anticipation but did not suggest when the Messiah might arrive, Mark makes it plain that the Messiah is here. He’s come. He’s waiting in the wings, poised and ready to start his incredible work.
The Messiah is Jesus.
Just to make doubly sure that we are clear on this point, Mark quotes a verse from Malachi, “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way,” and also from the passage in Isaiah that we have just looked, at “prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”
We are then immediately introduced to John the Baptist who Mark fundamentally believes is the herald of the arrival of the Messiah.
The sense of anticipation really builds at this point. John the Baptist drew an enormous following, all eagerly anticipating the arrival of the Lord God himself, who will save his people. Mark tells us that thewhole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to John the Baptist.
During advent we anticipate Christmas. We anticipate the arrival of the baby Jesus.
At Christmas, people who do not normally go to Church attend their local services.
The sense of anticipation, however, is nowhere near the level that it was when John the Baptist announced the arrival of the adult Jesus.
In a survey published by YouGov this week it was revealed that 24% of British people expected to attend a Church service this Christmas. This is well up on the usual figure of 6% of people who usually attend Church at least once a month, but is nowhere near the level that Mark records turning out to see John the Baptist.
I wonder what it was about John the Baptist that attracted so many people?
Perhaps it was his unusual clothing.
Maybe it was news of his unusual diet of locusts and wild honey.
Was it because of his preaching of, as Mark records, “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Why did so many people turn out to hear this peculiar man speak? And what led them to confess their sins and be baptised?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but they are nevertheless worth asking. In the spiritual wilderness of the United Kingdom in the twenty first century, how do we point people to Jesus and his teaching, as John the Baptist did? How do we attract whole towns and cities to listen to the word of God and to repent of their sins? How do we heighten anticipation for the return of the Messiah?
Perhaps we might find some answers in our final point. Rather than looking at others and pondering why they do not respond to the gospel, perhaps we need to look first at ourselves, and to reflect on our own response. How does it bear up against the instructions we read about in Isaiah, or the attitude of John the Baptist.
My parents came to visit us recently. They were due to arrive on Sunday morning in time for church. Claire, my wife, and I got up early and set to work cleaning and tidying our flat. We thought we would have plenty of time, because my parents usually ring or text or ring as they’re leaving, which gives us a warning of at least two hours.
Apart from on this particular occasion when they rang to tell us they were ten minutes away.
A mad dash ensued as we tried to hide washing up, stuffed clutter into cupboards, and showered and dressed for their imminent arrival.
Of course, if we’d been more sensible, or less busy people, we would have readied the flat for their arrival the day before, if not earlier.
In the passage from Peter’s letter that we read this morning, he reminds us that Jesus will come again. He won’t give us a warning of his return, not even a ten minute warning. He will come “like a thief,” totally unannounced. We must, therefore, be ready for his return.
This is the unifying theme that runs through all of our readings today.
In Isaiah we heard that we must prepare a way for the Lord in the wilderness of our Godless world.
We also heard that we must make straight a highway in the desert of our own sinful lives.
We had a similar instruction in Mark’s gospel, in which we were told to “prepare the way for the Lord and make straight paths for him.”
We also read how John the Baptist preached a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Peter offers more advice, advice that we need to take on board as we await the return of the Messiah. Since the day of the return of Jesus is coming, we must always be ready, he says. He tells us that we must live “holy and godly lives.”
He continues that we must “make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.”
In all three of these passages it is clear that as we wait for the Messiah, for Jesus, we are called to action. We are called to transform our own lives and to transform the world.
We need to begin with ourselves. We must ensure that we are right before God, that we repent our sins and that we strive to live lives that are holy and godly. We are fortunate that we live between the first and second comings of the Messiah, because we have Jesus as a guide for how to live our lives. We need to strive to be spotless and blameless, just as he was. We need to try our hardest to live lives free from sin, to sacrifice all that we have to serve Christ, and to put the needs of others before ourselves. Above everything else, we need to ensure that we love; that we love God, that we love ourselves, and that we love others.
Before we can make make paths through the wilderness we first need to deal with the deserts of our own lives.
Perhaps this is why John the Baptist attracted whole communities out to see him.
Maybe this is why Jesus was followed by thousands of people wherever he went.
Because there was something that set them apart from the rest of us, that made them different.
They were living the gospel that they preached, whereas so often we fall short and fail to do so.
Maybe our churches are not full to bursting at Christmas because we fail in our quest to live holy and godly lives, to be spotless, blameless and at peace with God. Maybe when people look at us they don’t see anything that marks us out as different in our sinful, fallen world.
Perhaps we don’t recognise the significance of the message that we have to proclaim and fail in the instruction that we read about in Isaiah, to shout the good news from mountain tops, to lift up our voices with shouts proclaiming, “Here is the Lord!” Maybe that cry isn’t loud and clear, but muffled and hidden.
If we fail to live in this way we fail God, but we also fail our society. The crowds following John the Baptist and Jesus reveal something about ordinary people that perhaps we might have forgotten. Everyone longs for a sense of greater good, for belief in something better than themselves and for hope in the future. Everyone longs for forgiveness, the opportunity to say sorry and to start their lives afresh. If we do not demonstrate that through Jesus Christ these opportunities are freely available for all, we have failed in our ultimate calling.
So as Christmas approaches lets stand firm against the commercialism and nonsense of the modern festival and reclaim it for Jesus.
Let’s use this time of advent to reflect on how we live in the light, not of the first coming, but the second coming.
Are we ready for Jesus’ return?
Are our lives worthy of him?
Are we distinctive and different because of our beliefs?
And let’s ensure that we embrace every opportunity to present the gospel to others.
Do we proclaim the gospel at every opportunity, shouting it from the hilltops?
Do we offer people an opportunity to find hope in future resurrection through Jesus Christ?
Do we offer an opportunity for repentance, for a fresh start, and for the love and support not just of God, but the whole of our Christian family?
Let’s ensure that this Christmas we seize every opportunity to point the world to Jesus Christ. Not just the baby Jesus in the stable, though, but to the Jesus who conquered death and will return in glory to lead us to his new creation.
What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on Remembrance Sunday, 13th November 2011, at Leatherhead Methodist Church in Surrey. It is based on Isaiah 53, Mark 16:1-8 and Romans 6:1-10.
Today we think about those who have given their lives fighting for our country. It is estimated that during the twentieth century, more than 160 million people died fighting in wars. Of these, it is thought that 15 million people died during the First World War, whilst a further 66 million died during the Second. The scale of war casualties over just the last hundred years or so is just devastating and truly shocking. It is difficult to come to terms with the scale. The numbers are so vast that they can become meaningless.
What helped me to better understand the scale of the horror of war was a visit to Tyne Cot cemetery in Belgium, where 12,000 Allied soldiers who died during the First World War are buried. This vast cemetery, with its never ending “row on row” of headstones, is the resting place of just a small proportion of the brave soldiers who fought for their country. A memorial at the back of the cemetery lists the names of a further 34,000 soldiers whose remains were never recovered.
We have a lot to be thankful to these brave soldiers, and the thousands of others who died fighting for our country. If it were not for them, we would not be able to enjoy the considerable freedoms that we do.
Of course, British soldiers did not cease fighting and dying with the end of the First or even the Second World War. The British Army is still busy today, working around the world, and particularly in Afghanistan, supporting those who stand up to brutal regimes, and espousing the values of freedom and fairness wherever they go. Indeed, since 2001, 385 British soldiers have lost their life fighting in Afghanistan. If freedom can be brought to people in areas that otherwise would be subject to violence and oppression, whilst clearly very hard for their loved ones, the deaths of these brave men and women will not have been in vain.
In some ways, the death of a soldier fighting for peace and freedom is a helpful metaphor for the death of Jesus Christ, which we will be considering today. That’s what we’ll be considering today as we reflect on the ultimate sacrifice that a person can make; laying down their life so that others might enjoy freedom. We’ll consider how the death of a soldier during war can be a metaphor for the death of Jesus Christ. We’ll reflect on the crucial difference between Jesus’ sacrifice and that of a member of the armed forces. Finally, we’ll see that through all this talk of death, there is a bright hope for the future which is open to all.
Our first point this morning, then is that of the ultimate sacrifice; the surrendering of ones life so that others might be set free.
It’s remarkable that so many people over the generations have chosen to fight for their country gladly, and without concern for their own welfare. We can see this clearly during the First World War One of the most brutal battles that the British army has ever fought is the Battle of the Somme, which took place during this so-called “war to end all wars.” On the first day alone, the 1st July 1916, 20,000 men were killed, whilst another 146,000 Allied troops and 164,000 Germans died during the coming of the weeks. Those who died were to a large extent cannon fodder in a war of attrition which would have a huge impact on post-war Britain. With the order on the first day to calmly walk across the battle lines facing the full brunt of the German machine guns, they were like lambs going to slaughter.
You may recognise that expression. We encountered it today in our first reading from Isaiah 53. The chapter records how the Servant of God was “led like a lamb to the slaughter.” Just as the men at the Somme did their duty and confronted the Germans, the Servant in Isaiah “did not open his mouth,” but calmly faced the death that he knew was coming.
This prophecy foreshadows the death of Jesus Christ. Whilst Jesus pleaded with God in the Garden of Gethsemane to take away the cup of suffering that he had been presented with, ultimately he sought to conform his actions to the will of his Father, and for him, that meant death on the cross. He was willing to pay the ultimate price, because he knew that doing so would set us all free from a life of sin and despair, separated from the creator God.
There is another remarkable parallel between this passage in Isaiah, and the life and death of Jesus Christ. Isaiah, considering the death of the Servant, continues by asking the question, “yet who of his generation protested?” When the Servant goes to his death, there is no one who is willing to speak out in his defence, there is no one willing to question whether the Servant’s death is right or not.
This is similarly the case for Jesus. When Jesus went to the cross, it was with the support of many of the people. Certainly the Romans and the Jewish authorities were keen to despatch him. Even the crowd, when asked by Pontius Pilate whom they wished to pardon demanded the release of Barabbas rather than the innocent and righteous Jesus.
Whilst the many British soldiers whose deaths we remember today lost their lives fighting for what they believed to be a better world, or at least a less imperfect world, the Servant in Isaiah dies for a higher purpose still. In his death he took on the “transgression of the people,” namely sinners like us who daily fall short of the expectations that God has of us. The life of the servant was “an offering for sin,” as it says in verse 10. In his death, the Servant “bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”
Just as the fallen of the two world wars, and numerous battles and wars since 1945, gave their lives for the benefit of the many, this servant, Jesus Christ, gave his life for all transgressors, including you and me.
This brings us to our second point, that death is not the end. Death was not the end for the Servant in Isaiah, and it certainly was not the end for Jesus.
The story of the Servant, as I’m sure we all know, clearly does not end with his death. In verse 10 of the Isaiah passage, we read, “yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him, he was put to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.” Despite being killed, we are told that God will “prolong his days.” The Servant will receive eternal life.
This is what we saw in our passage from Mark 16. Three days after the death of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome, took spices to anoint the body of Jesus. When they got to the tomb, however, they were astonished and afraid by what they saw. Jesus was not in the tomb. Instead, they were confronted by a “young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe.” Quite naturally, they were alarmed by his presence.
The message this mysterious man in white had for them was truly earth shattering. He told them that Jesus, whom they are seeking, has risen. “He is not here,” he tells them. “He has risen.” If they head to Galilee, he says, they will see Jesus there.
This staggering proclamation stunned and staggered the women. They had expected to find a closed tomb with the body of their beloved Jesus in his final resting place. Even after all that Jesus had said during his ministry, they were confused and upset by the absence of his body.
The prophecy of the Servant in Isaiah is borne out here with Jesus. Just as the Servant was “led like a lamb to the slaughter,” “cut off from the land of the living,” “bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors,” yet would live to “see the light of life” and have his days prolonged, Jesus took the place of sinners on the cross, died, and was resurrected by the power of God.
The incredible revelation brought to the women here in Mark’s gospel has provoked many different feelings in people throughout the generations. The resurrection of a person nailed to a cross is something which, unsurprisingly, people have difficulty accepting. Some have simply dismissed the resurrection as a made up story, a myth circulated by the early Church. Some have sought to find a rational explanation, and have tried to explain the resurrection away by saying that Jesus did not actually die on the cross.
Others have accepted the miracle of the resurrection, believing that Jesus himself had explained throughout his earthly ministry that it was what would happen. Those who have accepted the truth of the resurrection have themselves been divided; some, like the two Mary’s and Salome, were nervous, whilst others have been excited not just by the resurrection itself, but also the implications it has for the whole of humankind. The resurrection, after all, offers hope, hope of a life that continues beyond the grave. A hope that is wonderful to consider as we contemplate today the loss of all of those who have lost their lives fighting for their country.
This brings us to our third and final point, the point that lies at the heart of the Christian gospel. Just as death was not the end for the Servant in Isaiah, just as death was not the end for Jesus Christ, neither is death the end for us today. Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can have hope in a future that is eternal. What’s more, as we reflect today on the horrors of war and the loss of human life that flows from fighting, this eternal future is one free from violence and war, where love and peace abound.
This hope is brought out by Paul in his letter to the Romans. In our reading from the letter this morning, Paul described how “all who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death.” Paul is not giving baptism in itself some magical power here to transform our lives, but is recognising that baptism is simply an outward sign of the inward, spiritual conversion of Christians. If we turn to Christ, renounce our old, sinful ways, and strive to live like him, we are dead to our old selves. If we live in this way, we can share in Jesus’ death, since in dying Jesus took on our sin. To return to our Isaiah passage, Jesus “bore the sin of many,” and if we truly follow him, that applies to us, as it does to all those who love Christ.
Paul continues by saying, in verse five, that, “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” This verse reflects the true magnificence of the Gospel message. Not only are we freed from sin by sharing in Christ’s death, we are also united in his resurrection. Just as Jesus died and was resurrected and taken to be with his Father in heaven, so too will we. Paul is in no doubt at all as to the truthfulness of this statement; his words are that we shall certainly be united in a resurrection like Jesus’. There is no doubt. It is a certainty. Just as we can be certain that night will follow day, and that Spring will follow Winter, we can be certain that new life will follow death.
In verse seven of our Roman’s reading, Paul states that “anyone who has died has been set free from sin.” The expression “to be set free” has great resonance on Remembrance Sunday. Our armed forces have, throughout our history, fought to defend us and to uphold the values that we aspire to. This is, perhaps, no clearer than during the Second World War, when the western world battled against the forces of Fascism and Nazism. There is a very real sense in which those who fought during the Second World War fought, if not to set us free, then certainly they fought to ensure that we remained free from tyrannical ideas that were threatening lifestyles and even lives in countries not that far from our own. Today, two of the most important tasks of our armed services are to protect the freedoms that we enjoy at home, whilst also striving to set free those in other countries whose liberty and human rights are being abused. It is right that today we remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and paid with their lives for the freedom of others.
How much more, though, should we rejoice that Jesus sacrificed his life in order to set us free from sin? This is not just freedom in the here and now, but eternal freedom. Freedom that lasts beyond the grave. Had it not been for the death and resurrection of Jesus, we would be weighed down by our sin. We would not be able to approach God, much less have a relationship with him or to enter into his heavenly kingdom. There would be no eternal life if Jesus had not set us free from sin. It is only through his actions on the cross that we can be free.
In conclusion, then, how do we respond to all that we have heard today? How do we respond both to the sacrifice of those who have given their lives up for the good of others, so that they might be set free from earthly injustice, and to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who died so that we might be set free from sin for eternity? Well, today is primarily a day for remembrance. Let’s make a point in the days ahead, just as we have done today, to reflect on the sacrifices made both by our armed forces, and that sacrifice with eternal consequences by Jesus Christ. Let’s hold our armed forces in our prayers, those who are fighting, those who have been injured, mentally or physically, and those who have been killed in the line of duty. And let’s pray for those who have lost a loved one serving in the armed forces, as well as those who care and look after those who have been injured by war.
Let’s also reflect, though, on the hope that we have of a life after death, both for those killed in action, but also for ourselves. Let’s give thanks to God for his unending love for us that we can see through his eternal plan of salvation, which culminated in the death and resurrection of Jesus. And let’s praise Jesus for going willingly to the cross, to take the punishment for our sin, so that we might have eternal life.
The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.”
When I was at university, a worryingly long time ago now, I used to attend the meeting of the campus Christian Union religiously every week. It was wonderful to meet together with other young Christians, learn about God together, and sing his praises. There were occasions, however, when I wondered if I was going along as part of a spiritual act of worship, or if I simply turned up because the other members had become my friends. Would I have got just as much out of attending the student choir, for instance? I soon began to wonder whether there were other members who were “social Christians” too.
“Social Christians” are more common than you might think. Particularly in middle class circles, attending church is similar to going to a Rotary Club or Women’s Institute meeting; it’s a place to be seen, to chat with like-minded people, network and maybe do a bit of charity work. Many “social Christians” do great things within their community.
Are “social Christians” missing the point, however?
According to scripture, they most certainly are.
God knows why people attend church. He knows our motivation. As today’s verse shows, he knows when people honour him with their lips whilst their hearts have no love for him. He knows when we attend church not to worship him, but simply because we are following unwritten rules that lay down how a ‘decent’ person behaves.
When we’re singing in church, or praying, or putting cash into the offering plate, or contributing to the church roof fund, those around us have no idea what is in our hearts and minds. But God does. He knows if we love him with all our heart, and if our worship is a genuine outpouring of our love for him. He also knows if we’re just goi through the motions because that is what is expected of people like us.
Be honest with yourself today. Is your faith sincere? Do you love God with your whole heart? Or is your faith a charade, lacking any substance, an act that you out on for the benefit of those around you? Why not decide today to consider all that God has done for you, and consider whether your response to him is sufficient?
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare.”
My friend Ian works at Harrods, the world-famous department store in Knightsbridge. Sometimes, if I’m meeting Ian after work, I’ll have a browse in the Harrods Food Hall. If you’ve never been, it’s well worth popping in if you should ever find yourself in that part of the world. The food is just unbelievable. From the finest handmade chocolates, to the world’s best caviar, fish like you’ve never seen to meat pies you’d sell your grandmother for, everything is simply exquisite. Of course, if you wanted to do your weekly food shop at Harrods, you’d eat well, but you’d also need to be a multi-millionaire; the price tags are just as unbelievable as the food itself.
Imagine what would happen if one day, the Qatar Investment Authority (the catchily-named owners of Harrods) decided to fling the doors of the shop open, and give away for free all the stock in the food hall, there’d be a stampede. Thousands of people would descend on Knightsbridge to try to grab anything that they could. The police would have to be called in to control the crowds, and no doubt there would even be casualties.
In today’s verse, we are called to a feast by God. The food at God’s feast is even more incredible than any you’ll find in Harrods. It’s described in today’s passage as “the richest of fare,” the best there is. What is even better, though, is that this amazing food and drink won’t cost us anything. We won’t need money, because what we’ll receive at the banquet is priceless. The food that we’ll receive at this banquet will satisfy in a way that no food here on earth could possibly do.
This feast, of course, awaits us in heaven. Whilst it will cost us nothing, someone obviously has to pay for it. Banquets like this don’t come free. Our admission to this feast, to heaven, has been paid for by Jesus, by God himself, who took on human form and died on the cross to pay the price that would otherwise be required of us. In doing so, God flung open the doors of heaven and invited us all in. We’re all invited to the feast, to the party that will never end!
What an amazing invitation this is, and how fantastic that it will cost us nothing! Let’s praise God today for all that he has done for us. Let’s give thanks to Jesus for paying the ultimate price, so that we could attend this feast!