Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Back in the land of the living...

Panasonic LX1, 1/320 sec, f4, ISO 80, 52mm equivalent, (Click to Enlarge)

Did I miss something?! Two days before Christmas Day was a terrible time to be flattened by the 'flu! Somehow I got through all the services standing upright - though I doubt anyone noticed any difference ;-)

The above photo was taken three days ago from Great Island looking across to Passage West...

A very HAPPY NEW YEAR to you all.


Saturday, December 20, 2008

Christmas Juxtaposition

Panasonic FZ50, 1/6sec, f2.8, ISO 200, 0EV, 35mm (35mm equivalent), (Click to Enlarge)

Here we have the tension of Christmas: The Virgin and Child in the foreground and the Virgin Megastore in the background. Two competing voices: one is the timeless truth of the awesome humility of the incarnation, the other is the brash, hollow and fleeting thing that persistently tries to rob us of what Christmas is about...

I took this picture in 1996, the Virgin Megastore has been re-branded since.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Reflecting the LIght

Olympus C310, 1/10 sec, f3.9, ISO 50, 10.9 mm, (Click to enlarge)

John 1:6-8, 19-28

John the Baptist was quite a character. If you were walking along the street today minding your own business and a man dressed in a coat made out of camel’s hair, eating wild honey and locusts came towards you, you couldn’t be blamed for wanting to cross over to the other side and out of the way of this tramp / hippie!

How deceptive appearances can sometimes be. John the Baptist was unique and perhaps a little out of the ordinary in what he looked like and what he ate. But what really mattered was what he said and what he did. He had a very important message given to him by God; in fact verse 6 tells us that John was sent by God as a witness to testify concerning the light.

The light is of course referring to the Lord Jesus, the Light of the World and it was John’s duty to tell everyone that Jesus was here, the King had come. I don’t know about you, but when I see the word “testify”, it conjures up an image of a courtroom, with someone standing in the dock giving evidence, (or maybe that’s just because I’ve read too many John Grisham books!) But that is sort of what John is doing, he is standing up, not in a courtroom, but in the Judean wilderness and he is testifying, he is proclaiming the truth of Jesus’ arrival as the promised Saviour.

"[In December 1952] a toxic mix of dense fog and sooty black coal smoke killed thousands of Londoners in four days. It remains the deadliest environmental episode in recorded history."

Here is what happened:
As the smoke coming out of London's chimneys mixed with natural fog, the air turned colder. Londoners heaped more coal on their fires, making more smoke. Soon it was so dark some said they couldn't see their feet. By Sunday, December 7, visibility fell to one foot. Roads were littered with abandoned cars. Midday concerts were cancelled due to total darkness. Archivists at the British Museum found smog lurking in the book stacks. Cattle in the city's Smithfield market were killed and thrown away before they could be slaughtered and sold—their lungs were black.
Funeral director Stan Cribb remembers the moment he saw the first gray wisps: "You had this swirling, like somebody had set a load of car tires on fire."
London's killer fog is a metaphor of the spiritual world into which Jesus came: a malevolent, sinister, deadly darkness covered the world when the Word "made his dwelling among us." (1)

Despite what he looked like, and despite where he was, John had really good news. It was the most important news the world had ever heard; the Saviour, the Deliverer of God’s people was coming …

Notice how John was very quick to make sure that he wasn’t the one being noticed. As far as he was concerned, he was just the messenger and he wanted people not to take any notice of him, but rather the message that he was giving and who the message was about, the Lord Jesus. As we read in verse 8:

He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

The light is Christ and John is only (I say only but it’s a very important task) the reflector of the light. As one writer puts it, “John testifies concerning the Christ like the moon testifies concerning the sun.” You know how the Moon has no light of its own to give, but we see it lit up in the night sky because it is reflecting the light of the Sun? (2) Well that is a picture of the relationship between John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus.

So then the first part of our reading shows the purpose of John the Baptist’s ministry, to focus everyone’s attention on Jesus, the Light of the world. In the next section we see John actually in the wilderness, Baptising people in the river Jordan (v.28). The religious authorities had got to hear about John, so they send a posse of priests and Levites to check him out. Some rumours had probably filtered their way back to Jerusalem that this John character was a bit out of the ordinary, some people thought that he might even be the Messiah – John would have been horrified at such a suggestion and that is the first thing that the religious men ask him. He replies very clearly “I am not the Christ” (v.20). So next they ask him, “Are you Elijah?” This is a bit strange don’t you think? But these guys knew their Scriptures, and they knew that the prophet Malachi, in chapter 4 of the book that bears his name said that Elijah (who was one of the greatest of the Old Testament prophets) would come to herald the arrival of the Lord (v.5). Of course John wasn’t Elijah, but he was a great prophet like Elijah, and he was indeed proclaiming the arrival of the Lord. But he was playing a bit of a game with this inquisitive bunch of religious men so he leads them to question him further by saying “No”. So next they ask him, “Are you the prophet”. By this they meant THE prophet (in capital letters), in other words, the Messiah. Of course, John said no to this question also.

You can see that the priests and Levites are getting exasperated, so then they just say “Who are you? Give us an answer that we can take back to those who sent us”.

So then quoting from Isaiah, he says:

“I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” (v.23)

So then, they understand that John is saying that he is in fact the forerunner of the Christ, he has come to prepare the way for His coming. But he is saying more too, he is also implying strongly to the visitors that the religious authorities which they represent must make the road straight so that the Lord can come into their hearts and lives and those of the people. No longer must they place obstacles of a thousand-and-one rules and regulations for holiness for people to follow. It was not about what people do, it was rather about being forgiven, something that can only be achieved through faith and by God’s grace (3).

The image that John conjures up is one of a King returning to part of his realm. They must make the way clear for Him to return and they must remove all the obstacles that would hinder people coming to Him in repentance and faith.

Several years ago, I had the privilege of being invited to the official opening of an extension to a school not too far from here, at which the President would be performing the ceremony. As you would expect, there was a sense of excitement and anticipation in the air as we awaited her arrival. There was a long wide red carpet laid out for her, with lovely flower arrangements lining the pathway into the school. There were many Gardai and important looking people milling around, awaiting the arrival of the Presidential car and entourage. Now I am always one to arrive early whenever I can, and this occasion was no exception. I was feeling quite pleased with myself at being able to get a car parking space right next to the entrance gate, and thought nothing more of it, since I was one of the first to arrive. There I was sitting on the front row in the school hall, with several hundred people present and then it happened. You know how when you are in a public place, whether it be the theatre, a bus station or the airport and an announcement comes over the loud speaker “would the owner of car registration number …” and you think to yourself what eejit left their car there! Well this was about to happen to me. A rather flustered and hurried lady got up onto the stage and said, “would the owner of a dark red Honda Civic, with the registration number 97 C blah blah blah please move their car, as it is blocking the Presidents entry into the school.” Needless to say I went an even darker red than the car and rather sheepishly made my way through a dozen rows of tutting, head-shaking guests to remove the offending obstacle …

Now making way for the President is one thing, but what about making way for the Lord Jesus? John was preparing the way for the Lord by baptising, which is washing the people in the river. At that time, baptising was only performed by priests as an initiation rite for gentiles, (that is non-Jews), who were converting to Judaism. But here John was saying that the Jews, God’s people themselves were not clean, and they needed to be washed of their sins. Naturally the religious men took him up on this, to which John replied:

“I baptise with water … but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” (v.26-27)

So John, by washing the people in the water of the river Jordan was saying that what he did was only a sign. It was Jesus who would do the real cleansing work on people’s hearts. And so it is with Baptism today, it is only an outward sign of an inward action of God upon the hearts of all who put their faith and trust in Him.

And what about us? What if any obstacles are there in our lives hindering our relationship with God? Let us ask Him to remove them. Let us ask Him to level the mountains of our pride and lift up the valleys of our doubts and fears and let us in true and humble repentance and faith come to Him who left the glory of Heaven and gave His life for us ...

(1), National Public Radio, "All Things Considered," (12-10-02)
(2) William Hendriksen, John, p.77, Banner of Truth
(3) Ephesians 2:8

Saturday, December 13, 2008

So brief a time we have...

Panasonic LX1, 1/400 sec, f4, -0.33 EV, ISO 80, 28mm Equivalent (Click to Enlarge)

A voice says, "Cry out."
And I said, "What shall I cry?"
"All men are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.

The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the LORD blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.

The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God stands forever."

(Isaiah 40:6-8)

"All Flesh Is Grass"by Christina Rossetti

So brief a life, and then an endless life
Or endless death;
So brief a life, then endless peace or
Whoso considereth
How man but like a flower
Or shoot of grass
Blooms an hour,
Well may sigh "Alas!"

So brief a life, and then an endless grief
Or endless joy;
So brief a life, then ruin or relief:
What solace, what annoy
Of Time needs dwelling on?
It is, it was,
It is done,
While we sigh "Alas!"

Yet saints are singing in a happy hope
Forecasting pleasure,
Bright eyes of faith enlarging all their
Saints love beyond Time's measure:
Where love is, there is bliss
That will not pass;
Where love is,
Dies away "Alas!"

Monday, December 8, 2008

Belvelly Sunrise

Panasonic LX1, 1/400 sec, f4, ISO 80, EV-0.66, 28mm equivalent (Click to enlarge)

I am blessed to have a very scenic drive to church on Sunday mornings. This one was taken from the Belvelly Bridge which links Fota Island to Great Island yesterday morning on my way to Cobh.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Raising Up Valleys And Bringing Down Mountains

Nikon D70s, 1/160 sec, F6.3, ISO 200, EV+0.4, 37 mm equivalent, (Click to enlarge)

Apart from the cold and the rain, one of the things that we often dislike about the wintertime is the darkness, or rather the lack of light. A few years ago, my wife and I went on a tour of a disused slate mine in North Wales that has been turned into a museum. After taking a short ride underground to the first level of caverns (of which there were a further six below us) we got to appreciate just how hard life was for those miners, working six days a week by dim lanterns and in the winter never seeing the sun from one day to the next as they travelled to and from their homes. Today I feel for those tens of thousands of commuters who travel both to and from work at this time of year under sunless skies, so that during the week anytime that they have at home is in the dark.

In our part of the world, Christmas comes in the middle of winter, which is great, because we have something to look forward to. Imagine if as in the Narnia books, “It was always winter and never Christmas”!(1) Christmas is a time of fun and joy and bright lights that shine amidst the darkness of short days and long winter nights. How appropriate it is then that we have our Bible readings from Isaiah and Mark. In a spiritual sense, things had been very dark for God's people. Isaiah's audience were captives in Babylon and Marks audience, although not taken captive, were nevertheless under the control of the brutal and all-powerful Roman Empire. God's people in both settings are feeling rather sorry for themselves, but their deliverer is coming...

So God gives Isaiah this message:

“Comfort my people ... Comfort them. Encourage the people of Jerusalem. Tell them they have suffered long enough and their sins are now forgiven. I have punished them in full for all their sins.” (v.1,2)

OK so the people had been taken captive to Babylon and they'd had a pretty tough time and they'd been there for about 70 years but surely this isn't enough to make up for all the rebellion against God that had taken place over generations? No, of course it isn't but then again the same wonderful thing applies to us too. No amount of serving God will make us clean and without sin – it is all down to God’s grace, in giving His Son to die for us on the cross. Do you know (I’m sure you do), that all our sins deserve to be punished? We discipline our children and we punish them appropriately when they deliberately do wrong things. In a much greater way, so our Heavenly Father needs to punish our rebellion against Him – but in His infinite love and mercy He chose to punish His own Son in our stead. I’m reading a book at the moment, a work of fiction called the “Shack”(2) . In one chapter the central character of the story, Mack, a Father of five children finds himself in the seat of judgement. A heavenly being puts him in a terrible situation – of his five children two will go to heaven and three will go to hell, and he has to choose which go where. He falls on the floor in agony pleading that he as their Father be allowed to go to hell and suffer for eternity so that his children be spared. When he looks up from his place of agony the heavenly being is smiling at him and says, well done, now you know what Jesus did for you, he pleaded to the Father to die in your stead. And that is what the cross is all about, Jesus dying in our place, taking the punishment that we deserve.

Isaiah put it powerfully, when writing hundreds of years beforehand he said of the Lord Jesus:

“But he endured the suffering that should have been ours, the pain that we should have borne … But because of our sins he was wounded … we are healed by the punishment he suffered, made whole by the blows he received.” (Isaiah 53:4-6)

It’s unfair; we don’t deserve this amount of love! Too right we don’t, but God loves us perfectly and we are very special and precious to Him, as are all people, because He created us and made us in His own image.

Have you heard of the Trans-Sahara Highway? It’s a fairly new road that runs from the city of Algiers in Algeria down through the Sahara desert to Lagos, the capital city of Nigeria. Building this road was an enormous challenge. The desert sands are always moving and the road is often covered, so nylon curtains had to be put up to protect the highway at certain points along the route. The curtains need frequent repairs as the wind and sand break through them. Trees that can survive in the desert have been planted along the new road to grow into a more permanent defence, but many have already died.

Temperatures can vary from below minus 10°C to above plus 40°C, which makes the surface of the road expand and shrink much more than in most places, so there has to be a special roadbed made of sand and seashells to stop it from cracking.

There are many fierce sandstorms, strong enough to blow empty oil drums across the desert and to damage vehicles along the route. As well as all these physical problems, groups of armed bandits work in this area and attack unwary travellers. (3)

Makes travelling on the Dublin road seem almost safe in comparison!

You can almost imagine the wise old prophet Isaiah calling out:

“Prepare in the wilderness a road for the LORD! Clear the way in the desert for our God! Fill every valley; level every mountain. The hills will become a plain and the rough country will be made smooth. Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and the whole human race will see it…” (Isaiah 40:3-5).

What is Isaiah talking about, major road works?! Well yes and no… It’s all about access to God. As you know, in the Old Testament, the people did have access to God through the priests in the temple, who would make sacrifices of animals to God on their behalf. This was messy in more ways than one and it was only a temporary arrangement that pointed forward towards the time when there would be a “once and for all supreme sacrifice”. Jesus, God the Son, sacrifices Himself voluntarily and because Jesus is perfect in every way, His sacrifice is sufficient, there is no need for any other. So even though the way to God was at one time difficult, there is now a highway to God via the cross of Christ – all the obstacles have been removed.

The problem though is that we personally, and the church also, often places obstacles to people coming to Christ. Do you remember in the Gospel, where the Lord Jesus says:

“ … Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19:24)

And you may remember also that there was a gate in the walls of Jerusalem that was called the needle gate. It is still there today, and it was used when the city's main gates were closed at night. It was designed for security so that enemies could not simply ride into the city. The gate was so small, that a rich man would have to unload his camel and then with great effort, lead his camel through –a slow & difficult process. The Lord Jesus likened the process to entering heaven: we must come to God stripped of all our importance –a seemingly impossible task until we realise with God, all things are possible.(4)

Well, we have mountains of pride that need to be brought down and valleys of doubt and fear that need to be raised up – a task that might seem impossible, but thankfully is possible by surrendering our lives to Christ.

And how does all this tie in with Advent when we look forward to celebrating Christ’s first coming at Christmas, but with a joyful eye on His second coming also?

We are reminded in our reading from Isaiah that God is with us. He wants us to be encouraged and comforted by the fact that He has forgiven all our sins, the debt has been paid; the slate has been wiped clean. He wants us to know that He has opened up a highway for us to come into His presence – all brought about because He sent His Son to earth to be born and to live and to die and to rise again for us.

On several occasions, King Abdullah II of Jordan has disguised himself and mingled with his subjects. Taking the character of an ordinary old Arab man, he has appeared in public with a fake white beard, wearing the traditional Jordanian kufiah, and the Arabic white dress. While so disguised, the king walked around two government buildings without security and was not noticed. While waiting in a long line, he engaged people in conversation and listened to their point of view.

Such incognito appearances have marked the 42-year-old monarch's reign since he assumed the throne in 1999. He disguised himself as an old man previously while visiting a hospital. Another time, he circulated around Amman behind the wheel of a taxicab. Still another time, he passed himself off as a television reporter trying to cover a story at a duty-free shop.

According to reporter Costa Tadros, "I think that being in disguise and going around as a normal civilian to listen to their problems and know more about their needs is a good thing. I think it would make a great movie."

Jordanian government employees aren't taking any chances. They have started to spend time looking at people's faces, fearing they could meet the king in disguise.(5)

So in a much greater way, the Lord Jesus came to us. He therefore understands us perfectly and longs for us to seek and know His comfort, His encouragement, His forgiveness and His peace. He longs for and invites each of to live our lives in a relationship with Him, a relationship beginning now and lasting for eternity. The winter of our hearts is over...

1 C.S. Lewis The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, p.14
2 The Shack, William, P. Young, Hodder & Stoughton 2008
3 Jacqui Hyde,, copyright © Roots for Churches Ltd 2005.
5 Greg Asimakoupoulos, preaching

Friday, December 5, 2008

Walking along the beach with the Lord

Panasonic LX1, 1/400 sec, f5.6, ISO 80, Ev-0.3, RAW, 28mm equivalent. (Click to enlarge)

One of the joys of winter is being able to find a beach and have the whole place to yourself. The blissful solitude of such a walk is the perfect antidote to the busyness and hurry of the workplace.

I suppose some might call it "connecting with nature", but when for example walking on the above beach a couple of weeks ago, to me at least there was a strong sense of God's presence. It was like being absorbed into a work of art, the stunning low winter light, the breathtaking wind like the ruach of God's Spirit and the gentle, almost hypnotic sound of the waves all combining to bring peace and soothing to the soul. God's Creation, God's handiwork, I think He loves us to enjoy it, like a parent giving a gift to a child not because they have been good, but because they are loved...

I thought of the famous "Footprints poem" - having done a Google search for this, I was surprised to discover that there are three versions of it (though all pretty similar) and a rather poignant Leona Lewis song of the same name.

One night a man had a dream. He dreamed He was walking along the beach with the LORD. Across the sky flashed scenes from His life. For each scene He noticed two sets of footprints in the sand. One belonging to Him and the other to the LORD.

When the last scene of His life flashed before Him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of His life there was only one set of footprints. He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times of His life.

This really bothered Him and He questioned the LORD about it. LORD you said that once I decided to follow you, you'd walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life there is only one set of footprints. I don't understand why when I needed you most you would leave me.

The LORD replied, my precious, precious child, I Love you and I would never leave you! During your times of trial and suffering when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.

Carolyn Carty, 1963