The lame will leap like a deer

Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.

Isaiah 35:6

Today it’s been a beautiful sunny day in Belfast. It’s been warm and sunny, and I’m on holiday. Things don’t get much better than that! There are times, though, when things don’t go so well. There are many people who, in the middle of winter, find themselves affected with SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, a form of depression triggered by the dark, dismal days. It is inevitable that at times we will be affected by illness, sometimes our own, sometimes of people we are close to and love dearly. On days like that, things really don’t seem quite so cheery.

In today’s verse, we see negativity transformed into positivity. The prophet writes of a time when “the lame will leap like a dear,” and the mute will “shout for joy.” Wildernesses and deserts will be transformed into lush and fertile fields, watered by rivers and streams. The picture painted is a hopeful one, in which any disappointment, depression or disability is taken away from us.

This verse paints a picture of God’s new creation that we can look forward to. That new creation began when Jesus came to live amongst us. His ministry saw him healing a great number of people, and transforming their lives. This continued after he ascended into heaven; in Acts 3, our current Bible study, we see Peter healing a beggar outside the temple, and we literally see the lame man “leap like a deer.” God’s new creation continues to affect positive changes around the world, ushered in by the Holy Spirit that filled the apostles at Pentecost, and which fills all those who accept Jesus as their saviour today.

Why not give thanks for all that God has done for you, ask that you may play your part in the emerging new creation, and pray that one day we will all live in a place like that described in today’s verse?

We Like Sheep

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Isaiah 53:6

I’m very fortunate to own shares in a bit of land near a river estuary. On a bit of this land, we let someone we know as the ‘sheep lady’ keep a small flock of sheep. For this privilege, we charge her an annual rent of £1. The truth is that she does us a favour keeping her sheep on our field, because it means that we don’t have to pay someone to cut the grass for us!

Her sheep are crazy creatures. Over the years, I’ve attempted to see how close I can get to them, to feel their thick, woolly coats. I never manage to get very close at all, though! Before I get anywhere near them, one of them always takes fright and goes running off across the field. Before I know it, all the sheep in their field have taken fright, and scatter themselves right across the field! It’s not even as if they all follow one another, they all run in different directions, and it’s as if they’ve decided that it’s every sheep for themselves!

People are not dissimilar to sheep, really. We might not look much like the crazy fluffy animals, but we can certainly act in a similar way! If you’ve ever seen news footage of a cataclysmic event – maybe a bombing or a natural disaster – everyone seems to take off in a separate direction, much like the sheep when they are frightened!

This sheep-like behaviour is exactly what today’s verse mentions. We’re told that we’ve all gone astray, and everyone has turned to his own way. We all seem to have decided that we make our own luck in this world, and are trusting in our own judgement to take us the right way. This verse, however, sees that wisdom as little more than the idiocy of the sheep. We might think we know what we’re doing, but the reality is that we do not at all. This is particularly true when it comes to following God’s pattern for living as laid down in the Bible. You’d think that we’d follow the advice set out in the Bible, but like someone trying to set up a piece of high-tech electrical equipment without the manual and inadvertently snapping off a vital piece, we choose not to follow our creator’s advice, and that too usually ends up in disaster.

The good news is that God is willing to forgive us our pig headedness, however. He sent Jesus, his only son, to live amongst us. As well as teaching us how God wants us to live, he himself lived a pure, blameless and sin free life. Consequently, he was able to take all of our sin upon himself, and to die in our place. God laid all of our wrong doing on him, so that we could be reconciled with our maker.

That is the fundamental message of Christmas. We might get carried away thinking about Wiis or celebrity autobiographies, turkey and roast potatoes, shepherds and the wisemen, but often we get nowhere near the true meaning of Christmas. Jesus came to die for you. For me. He took our deserved punishment, so that we could have eternal life.

I doubt you’ll get a better present this Christmas.

The Man of Sorrows

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Isaiah 53:3

When I was a child, I went to a school that was considered quite posh. Not posh by Eton or Harrow standards, but still posh enough. At my school, the pupils liked to jostle each other about who was better. How much money our parents had, or how smart our parents’ cars were, or what their personalised number plates were seemed to be a big issue. Interestingly, it tended to be those with the most to prove who participated more forcefully in these discussions – the ones whose parents were not actually all that rich, but had scrimped and saved to send them to independent school. They were the ones who seemed most intent on proving their worth, and undermining the worth of others.

School children can be funny creatures!

In today’s reading, we have a direct prophecy of Jesus, the messiah. This prophecy would have shocked and surprised many Jewish people who were expecting the messiah to be a triumphant leader, and an incredible king who would save God’s people. That is certainly not the picture of the messiah we see here, though. Here, we see a man who is despised and rejected, a sad man who has experienced sadness and suffering to the full. This man will not be held in high esteem by anyone.

This prophecy is, of course, startlingly accurate. Jesus was not born into a privileged family; his mother was an unmarried teenager, whose boyfriend, and later husband, was a carpenter. Jesus was born not in a grand palace, but in a cold and dirty stable, surrounded by animals. Jesus experienced plenty of sorrow in his life, ranging from the death of close friends to rejection by those who should have known better. He was certainly familiar with suffering – he was executed in the most cruel way the Romans had devised.

Of course, it’s easy to read this, and think about how poorly Jesus was treated, and reason that we would have been better. But can we really say that? One of the hymns that I find most moving is called, “How Deep the Father’s Love For Us.” It has the words:

Behold the man upon a cross,
My sin upon his shoulders.
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice,
Call out among the scoffers.

Would we really have been any different to the people shouting for Jesus to be crucified? Would we really not have rejected Christ? Would we really not have followed the crowd? It’s a pretty unpleasant thought.

Of course, we may still be in that crowd of scoffers. Do we really give Jesus the respect that he deserves? After all, he died for us! Or do we reject him on a daily basis by ignoring his pattern for living, and continuing to do things our own way? Do we really honour Christ with our thoughts, our words and our deeds?

The Exalted Servant

See, my servant will act wisely he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.

Isaiah 52:13

When I was studying at Cambridge, I had a “bedder,” an unseen person who came into my room every day whilst I was at lectures, who would make my bed and empty my bin. It took me a while to work out what was going on. I thought at first that I had somehow managed to turn into a tidy person without even realising it! Then I thought that there must be some friendly elves who would come in every day. Finally, I learnt the truth about “bedders.” It was rather nice having someone sort my room out for me every day!

Now, quite a few people in my college were unpleasant to the bedders. They could also be unpleasant to the cleaners and the kitchen staff, seeing themselves as somehow superior to the domestic staff that kept the college running. They viewed the staff as little more than servants to carry out their every whim, and who it was excusable to be quite unpleasant to.

In our current Isaiah article, we see the prophet explaining about God’s suffering servant, who would come to earth to take on the sins of every believer. If we are sinful, then a price must be paid for our sin before we can be reconciled to God. The prophet tells us that the suffering servant will take on the burden of our sin.

In today’s reading we encounter God talking about his servant. Rather than a servant who God regards as lowly, we see that God says that this servant will be “raised,” “lifted up,” and “highly exalted.” This servant is to have a very special relationship with God indeed. The servant will, in turn, act wisely. He will know what to do. He will know how to live his life in a way that glorifies and honours God.

There’s a lot that we can glean from this one, short, verse. We can be joyful because God has chosen a servant to pay for our sin. We can see just how much confidence God has in his servant to do the right thing, which tells us not just about the servant himself, but gives us an indication of how we, too, can please God. And we can see God’s attitude towards his servant, raising him up to be with him. We too can be raised if we have confidence in God, and seek to please him. Finally, if God treats his suffering servant in such a positive way, maybe we, too, should think about how we treat people we see as “less good” than us?

The Sovereign Lord comes

See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and his arm rules for him. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. He 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.

Isaiah 40:10-11

If I was to head out into the wild streets of East Grinstead today, and ask a selection of people what their view of Jesus was, I suspect that I would get a lot of different answers. I should think that some people will tell me he is a mythical character, some would say he was a good teacher, some might suggest that he was nuts, and some might even tell me that he was the Son of God. I should think that quite a lot of people at this time of year would tell me that Jesus was a small baby, born in a stable, and who received presents of gold, frankincense and myrrh from the three kings who came to visit him. This, after all, is the image that we have of Christ at the moment.

If you were to ask the Jewish people of the first century what the messiah would look like, I should think that most would tell you that he would be a strong and powerful king, who would lead an army against the Romans, and liberate God’s chosen people. This was certainly a very common view of what the Messiah would look like.

In today’s verse, however, we see not one, but three different facets of the messiah. The prophet tells us that he will be a strong and powerful ruler, perhaps similar to the envisaged by the Jews. The prophet also tells us that the messiah will be generous, and reward those who honour him. Finally, he says that the messiah will be like a shepherd tending his flock, holding them close to his heart.

It is useful to reflect on these three different facet of the messiah’s – Jesus’ – character as we appraoach the celebration of his birth. The little baby that we remember was no ordinary little baby. He was a powerful ruler, with the right to rule over all of our lives. Like all rulers, he wants us to be obedient to him, and to serve him as faithfully as we can. This ruler, though, is generous, and will reward those who honour him. He will help and support us as we lead our daily lives, but will also reward us with eternal life. In a seemingly contradictory manner, the messiah – Jesus – also cares for each and one of his people. He wants to hear our concerns and to support us in our daily burdens. He will look out for us when we struggle, and sustain us when we are tired.

We remember at Christmas the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, the messiah. When we think of that little baby in the stable, let’s not forget who he was.