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’Prepare the Way of the Lord…!’

’Prepare the Way of the Lord…!’

“Prepare ye the way of the Lord …” are the opening words of the Broadway musical Godspell, that was released in 1971. The lyrics pick up the theme of John the Baptist’s preaching some two millennia ago as he prepared people for the coming of God’s promised Messiah or King. All four Gospels record John’s ministry.

John the Baptist was a great preacher. He drew thousands from the cities and towns to the wilderness region near the Jordan River. He may have been a member of the Qumran community which was located around the northern shores of the Dead Sea.

In his preaching John used the symbolism of the exodus from Egypt. God’s people, Israel had endured the wilderness for forty years because they had not listened to Moses. Now God, in his mercy, had sent John whose role was to prepare the way for God’s Messiah. John’s mission was to call Israel back to God through preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (3:3).

For John, repentance and baptism are tightly linked. We men and women fail to honor God in our lives. This is our real sin. And we need to change. ‘Repentance and baptism’, said John, ‘were signs of a change of heart towards God and a renewed relationship with God’s people.’ In calling both the Jewish people and Gentiles to repent and be baptised, John angered many Jewish leaders. Baptism was a ceremony typically used as a sign of the incorporation of non-Jewish people, that is, outsiders, into the Jewish faith. When John preached that Abraham’s descendants should also be baptized, he was implying that God saw them as outsiders and not automatically as his people.

The glory of the Lord. To enable us to understand the significance of John’s ministry, Luke quotes Isaiah 40:1-9, the chapter from which the opening lines of Handel’s Messiah are drawn: Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God …. Isaiah 40 continues in verse 3: In the wilderness a voice cries out, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight … a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;… Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (40:3-5).

The preaching of John the Baptist was a wake-up call for all of God’s people. ‘God is about to do a new thing; there will be a new exodus,’ John was saying. ‘God is going to fulfill his promises that prophets like Isaiah spoke about: he is about to send his Messiah who will offer comfort and hope to a broken world. My task,’ said John, ‘is to prepare you. You need to repent – to turn back to God – and, as a sign of your changed hearts, be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins’ (Luke 3:3).

Significantly, Luke emphasises LORD rather than God. John’s preaching is focused on God’s Messiah, namely, Jesus. This is significant. Luke is telling us that God is about to do a new thing. God is about to provide the means of the rescue of a lost world and with it, offer the comfort and hope the world longs for. All flesh shall see the salvation of God, we read in Luke 3:6. With reference to freeway or highway construction, cutting through mountains and filling in valleys, John’s ministry was to make the way ready for the Lord.

The priority of John’s ministry is preaching (3:7-18), the ministry of the sacrament is dependent on the ministry of God’s Word. This is important for us who live in an age when churches focus more on the outward signs of faith rather than an inner personal response. God uses the instrument of words, not signs, to bring people to himself and change their lives.

John likened his hearers to a brood of vipers (3:7). These people were descendants of Abraham and yet he told them that they were alienated from God. “Who warned you,” he asked, “to flee from the wrath to come?” (3:7).

The time is critical,’ he insisted: “Even now the axe is laid at the root of the tree” (3:9). The true children of God are not those who have the right credentials (physical descendants of Abraham, 3:8), but those who bear fruits that befit repentance (3:8). ‘Do not be complacent or self-satisfied about your lives,’ John declared, ‘for you do not bear the marks of godly living. Like the very desert you are standing in,’ he implied, ‘you are barren; be warned of God’s coming judgment’ (3:9).

Godspell dramatized the first coming of the Messiah. The words prepare ye now serve as a reminder of his return. The season of Advent, which is the first season in the annual Church calendar, and which began on Sunday, November 28, focuses on the second coming of the LORD Jesus.

The return of the King one day will surprise us all. We need to be prepared. We also have the task of preparing others for that great and glorious day. Will you join me in praying that all of us will look for and take up opportunities to introduce family and friends to Jesus, the Christ, especially over the Advent and Christmas seasons?

You can still register for the recent Anglican Connection seminar that introduced The Word One-to-One as an effective way we can introduce family and friends to Jesus. The Word One-to-One is an annotated version of the Gospel of St John. Here is the link: https://anglicanconnection.com/seminars/.

A Prayer. Blessed Lord, you have caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning, grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them that, encouraged and supported by your holy Word, we may embrace and always hold fast the joyful hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

© John G. Mason

Note: My comments on Luke 3 are drawn from my book, Luke: An Unexpected God, Second Edition, Aquila: 2019.

’Prepare the Way of the Lord…!’

’The Return of the King…’

From New Testament times anyone who has said that Jesus Christ will return one day has been considered crazy. Certainly, the idea of him bursting through the skies in a blazing display of power and glory, doesn’t come easily. And now centuries have passed and nothing has happened.

The return of the king (21:25-33). There are times when unexpectedly, momentous upheavals occur – events that can impact the course of history. We saw this with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and with the destruction of the twin towers in New York on September 11, 2001. The first was accompanied with joy, the second with fear and anger – which led to war.

In Luke 21:25-28 we are taken to another of Jesus’ key predictions. In Luke chapter 21 we read his prediction of events before his return: “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, …” (21:25). The words about signs in sun and moon and stars are apocalyptic language, speaking of times to come in a highly metaphorical form of expression. People will faint with fear and foreboding… at strange and forbidding events, he says.

Furthermore, he speaks his return as the coming of ‘the Son of Man’. His Jewish hearers would have understood this as the fulfilment of the prophecy of Daniel 7:13f: “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came from the Ancient of Days and he was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, …”

Daniel 7 speaks of ‘the Son of Man’ being publicly enthroned at God’s right hand. All peoples, nations and languages will be brought under his rule. Everyone throughout the universe will see it and understand its significance.

It is important that we feel the narrative impact of this prophecy. Having spoken of his arrest, death and resurrection, the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, Jesus now speaks of his return. His first predictions came true. So too will his prediction concerning his return. On that day everyone “will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27).

We can only begin to imagine what this will mean. It might be helpful to take the splendor and pageantry of royal occasions on earth – such as a royal coronation – and then multiply the scene a million times, and then a million times more. We might then begin to imagine the dazzling glory, might and majesty, power and purity of the coming of the Son of Man.

That said, we easily forget that it is a fearful thing to come near the living God. Three thousand years ago the giving of the law to Moses caused people to tremble with fear as they stood at the foot of Mt Sinai (Exodus 19:16). Isaiah’s vision of the Lord in the temple caused him to cry out, “Woe is me, …” (Isaiah 6:5). And in 2 Corinthians 5:11, Paul the Apostle says: Knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others…

So it’s essential to keep in mind Jesus’ words to his people: “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28). We are not to be fearful or downcast, but rather lift our eyes to see the fulfillment of all that our hearts have longed for – the return of the great King in all his glory.

Jesus points to an end-time and the beginning of a totally new age – one where there will be no crying or mourning, where death itself will have passed away (Revelation 21:4).

What then should we be doing before the end time? (21:34-36) Jesus concludes with an exhortation. He wants us to start living in the light of his coming kingdom. In Luke 21:34, 35 he warns of dangers, dissipation and drunkenness. He speaks of lives dominated by short-term pleasures, dulling us to the deeper issues of life about which he is speaking.

In an earlier parable he spoke of people worn down by the cares of the world, their lives dominated by a longing for success. But such people, Jesus warns, will not be ready for the events that will unfold. To avoid disaster we need to be ‘alert at all times’. This means being aware of the Lord’s gifts and requirements to guide us through life.

Jesus wants to prepare us for his coming, which will be truly the return of the King. On that great and awesome day he does not want us to cower in fear but rather to stand before him, having the confidence of true and faithful servants. “Stay awake at all times,” he says, “praying that that you may have the strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (21:36).

A prayer. Almighty God, give us grace so that we may cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light now in the time of this mortal life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came amongst us in great humility: so that on the last day, when he comes again in his glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead, we may rise to life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

© John G. Mason

’Prepare the Way of the Lord…!’

’Thanksgiving…’

King Lear, one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, tells the story of a king who voluntarily set aside his titles and property in favor of two of his three daughters, only to find himself reduced to poverty and homelessness because they reject him.

“Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend,” King Lear sighs. “How sharper than the serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.”

While some parents might identify with these sentiments let me ask, how often do we express our gratitude to the LORD? He is so good to us, far beyond our imagining. Do we thank him daily for his countless mercies – and not least in this season of Thanksgiving?

The opening lines of Psalm 95 read: O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving.

Singing is a great way to express our love for God. We sing when we are happy and there is joy in our hearts. Have you ever heard the singing of the Welsh Rugby Union supporters? They can’t stop, and their singing is enthusiastic – especially when they’re winning.

The opening lines of Psalm 95 are the words of people who know God as their creator and savior. We feel the repetition of the verbs: sing, make a joyful noise,… How different this is from times when we drift into church pre-occupied, late and apathetic.

Furthermore, Psalm 95 suggests that singing is not just a matter of joy in the LORD. We also exhort and encourage one another. And so our songs need to be strong on Bible and not insipid and sentimental. Our songs are not intended simply to arouse some spiritual ecstasy: they are instruments of instruction.

And as the psalm unfolds we see why we should sing: For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also… (Psalm 95:3-4).

One of the distinct features of biblically grounded Christianity is the insistence that there is a living, personal God at the heart of the universe. God not only created all that there is; he also continues to sustain it.

Significantly, the more scientists discover, the more extraordinary the universe seems. There are chemists and physicists who tell us what the Scriptures reveal: the universe has not come into existence by chance, but rather is the work of God’s design and purpose.

Consider the personal pronouns in verses 4 and 5: In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it; for his hands formed the dry land. These are personal images.

The word hands speaks of a God who is not some robotic brain behind the universe. When we plumb the depths of the cosmos we find not so much a mathematical equation or scientific formula, but a divine personality.

All this tells us something else – God sustains and directs all things. It’s important to know this and remind one another of it, for it helps us make sense of our lives. We see that we’re not just part of a meaningless journey going nowhere.

The New Testament gives us all the more reason to see how true this is. In his public ministry Jesus showed that he has divine authority and divine power. At a word and in a moment he healed the sick, raised the dead, and stilled a storm. The New Testament speaks of Jesus as God incarnate who holds all things in his hands.

It’s sometimes said that people who go to church leave their brains at the door. But worship of God is not a mindless activity. Songs of praise are not simply a strategy to create the right psychological atmosphere. Vital faith in the LORD always awakens joyful singing because there are sound reasons for this response of thanksgiving.

And there is another great reason for singing to the LORD. Our lives have a purpose, a goal. And that purpose and that goal are bound up with knowing this God who is our refuge. No wonder Psalm 95 insists that we make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!

But the Psalm brings a solemn warning in verse 8: O that today you would listen to his voice! Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness…

At the very point when we might want to dance and shout, the psalm takes a solemn turn. The poet wants us to consider what true worship involves. Our actions might seem worshipful but our real self remains unchanged towards God.

Meribah and Massah marked places when Israel forgot God’s goodness when he brought them out of slavery in Egypt. On both occasions the people doubted God’s promise and his power. When the going got tough in the desert, they faltered and bitterly complained. ‘We were better off as slaves in Egypt,’ they said.

The Letter to the Hebrews quotes this Psalm. The writer knows how easy it is, even for people who have been bought and bound to God by the perfect Savior, Jesus Christ, to neglect such a great salvation. Through the obedience of this one man, Jesus Christ, God executed a masterstroke when he opened up a new and perfect way into his presence and to life forever.

Psalm 95 exhorts us to sing to Lord with joy in our hearts. It also warns us against turning our back on the salvation he has won for us. We who live on the other side of Jesus’ death and resurrection, express our joy in him and trust his promises. Having grasped his great gift with thanksgiving, let’s not turn away.

Thanksgiving. How often do you think about God’s mercy with thanksgiving in your heart and a song of praise on your lips – not only when you go to church, but also when you rise in the morning and go to bed at night?

A prayer of thanksgiving – You might like to use it at your Thanksgiving table.

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble and hearty thanks for all your goodness and loving kindness to us and to all people. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your amazing love in the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us that due sense of all your mercies, that our hearts may be truly thankful, and that we may declare your praise not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory, now and forever.  Amen.

© John G. Mason

’Prepare the Way of the Lord…!’

’From Despair to Hope…’

Last week we reflected on the reality of the depression many experience – and not least in these surreal times of the Covid pandemic. Psalms 42 and 43 testify to this very real experience. The psalms are an example of the timeless wisdom and counsel that we find in the Bible.

They are a cry from the heart. The writer asks why he is depressed. ‘I believe’ he says, ‘Why then should I feel as I do? Why am I so inwardly disturbed? What’s happened to me?’ Three times he asks: Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? (Ps 42:5, 11; Ps 43:5).

Speaking about his feelings, the poet doesn’t do what many who are depressed do: he doesn’t try to bury his emotional distress. And certainly, he doesn’t turn to alcohol, drugs, or some other diversion. Nor does he try to pretend he’s doing well: he admits his feelings.

We find here a very helpful lesson. It takes courage to identify that we have a problem. Men especially find this difficult, for generally they don’t like to talk about their feelings or admit to what might be perceived as weakness. Both Psalms 42 and 43 imply that if we are depressed, we need to acknowledge it. We don’t have to announce it on Facebook, but it’s worth speaking with a trustworthy friend, a pastor or a physician. And there may come a time when we will want to tell a wider audience – by way of testimony.

The point is that if we are lonely, or feel guilty about something, or if we have lost someone dear to us, we need to talk about it. There’s nothing to be gained by brushing it off or burying it. Look at the poet’s response in Psalm 42:9: I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?” He’s almost making an accusation: ‘God, where are you? You’re supposed to be my rock and my security. Well God, the rock has moved. You have let me down. Why?’

Now, it’s important that we ask questions like this. Not because there’s necessarily an immediate answer, but because we need to express our frustration, even despair. Indeed, there can be times when we’re depressed because we repress our anger. One psychotherapist speaks of it as ‘frozen rage’.

When we feel angry with God, we must remember that he is no stranger to emotion. He knows what it is like to be treated unjustly and to be sinned against. And he certainly knows what it is like to feel alone. We should never forget Jesus’ own cry of dereliction that he uttered from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

We cannot even begin to understand the depths of aloneness Jesus experienced over three hours as he suffered the full power of God’s justice that we justly deserve. Time would have seemed to stood still as Jesus, the eternal Son of God, suffered the full force of the horrifying darkness and separation from all that is pure and good, from God, his eternal Father, as the weight of human sin was laid on his shoulders. In our moments of despair, it is easy to forget the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. Every day we need to keep it before us.

Remember. To return to the psalms we are considering, in Psalm 42:4 we read: These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God,… Recalling past blessings brought comfort to the writer in his spiritual drought. Many people find it helpful to keep what some Christians used to speak of as a journal of the soul. Reading it in the tough times can be a great encouragement.

Address our soul: Throughout the two psalms the theme cry is: Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? The conscious mind of the poet is speaking to his inner self. Talking to yourself is sometimes reckoned to be a sign of mental aberration. But the poet is telling us that there are times when this can be a way to climb out of the pit of despair. A great danger for someone who is depressed is self-pity. Ironically, so self-preoccupied can we become that we can even relish in our misery. ‘Speak to your soul’, the poet advises.

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a renowned 20th century English preacher wrote: ‘The main trouble in this whole matter of depression is that we allow our Self to talk to us instead of us talking to our Self.’ The writer’s soul has been depressing him, crushing him, so he stands up and says, ‘Soul, listen! I will speak to you: “Hope in God; I shall again praise him, my help and my God”.’

This is not the same as saying to anyone who is depressed, ‘Pull yourself together’. That kind of counsel won’t help. But, if we’re depressed, it would be helpful to say to ourselves, ‘Look to the Lord, for he is my light and my help. My hope is in him’.

Throughout these two psalms there is a movement from depression, to admission, and to self-exhortation. But there is something else: Prayer.

In Psalm 43:1 we read: Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people… And in verse 3: Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me…

The psalm-writer is confident in God’s grace at work in his life. Because of this he knows that the day will come when, again filled with joy, he will sing songs of praise to God.

Psalms 42-43 urge us to move beyond believing things about God, to sensing the Lord’s living presence in our lives – whoever we are, and whatever our situation in life.

A prayer. Almighty God, who taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending them the light of your Holy Spirit: so enable us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things and always to rejoice in his holy comfort; through the merits of Christ Jesus our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

© John G. Mason

’Prepare the Way of the Lord…!’

’A Cry from the Heart…’

One of the consequences of the lockdowns associated with the spread of Covid-19 has been the alarming rise of emotional distress. Lacking community and the opportunity to work, many have experienced depression. And being isolated from family and friends they have had nowhere to turn.

Depression is not something new, nor should it be lightly dismissed. Some people experience it more than others. Furthermore, it is not something that only people who have no religious faith experience. Great ones of the Bible, such as Elijah, King David, Jeremiah, and Paul the Apostle, all experienced it.

A cry from the heart. Psalms 42 & 43 which open Book II of the Psalms, reveal lessons we can learn from the experiences described in them. Far from home, in exile in the north, the psalm-writer asks three times: Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you so disquieted within me? (42:5, 11; 43:5).

In the opening line of Psalm 42 the poet reveals his desire: As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? He longs for God’s presence. There are times when we too echo his feeling – times when prayer is difficult and talk of joy and peace is meaningless.

But notice what underlies these occasions – feelings, emotions, depression. Because we are psychosomatic beings, a disturbance in our body chemistry which may be caused by external physical factors, can affect our emotional balance as well as our spiritual awareness.

We can see what the writer is doing: he is telling us that it’s important we view our feelings and experiences through the lens of the wisdom of our faith. If we have a migraine we don’t shout, ‘Alleluia’. And so, if we’re suffering depression, we’re not going to feel close to God. But that shouldn’t prevent us from asking questions. Indeed, we should understand that there’s all the difference between feeling forsaken by God and being forsaken by him.

Now, that said, depression can be a result of spiritual factors. If, for example, we are burdened with guilt about something we’ve done, we may feel God is remote. There may also be times when we experience a spiritual attack from opposing forces. However, in most instances what might be called spiritual depression is in fact a natural depression impacting a spiritually minded person. This seems to be what the writer is experiencing.

And so he records his experiences. He speaks of his spiritual isolation: My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?” (42:3) The verbal barbs went home. It’s easy to trust God in the comfort and security of God’s people. But now he was alone, without emotional support or personal encouragement. Situations like this can depress us for we are social creatures.

Furthermore, he reveals his physical isolation: These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.

A high point of the writer’s life had been religious festivals. He is homesick as he remembers them. Anyone who has moved to a new city or a new country knows how real this can be. It’s enough to make anyone depressed.

But again, his experience was not necessarily spiritual depression. Yes, he felt isolated from God, but that didn’t mean there was an underlying spiritual cause. His issue wasn’t sin or lack of faith. It was the consequence of his situation.

His depression so disturbed him that he burst into uncontrollable tears: My tears have been my food day and night,.. (42:3) Three times he also tells us that he was downcast. He felt flat. He felt no spark of enthusiasm or energy. Depressed people often feel tired.

He also says three times that he is disturbed: ‘Why are you so disturbed within me, o my soul?’ We sense his anxious sighs and groans. And in verse 7 he tells us that he feels overwhelmed: Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your waterfalls (or, cataracts); all your waves and your billows have gone over me.

Socially and physically alone, the writer was emotionally distraught. He was flat emotionally, anxious, and overwhelmed. Which led to something else: spiritual rejection. In verse 9 he says: I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?” Torn with a sense of loss, he is like someone grieving the loss of a loved one. He feels spiritually bereft, devastated, and heartbroken.

But this writer is a believer. The dominant person in his life is God. We recall his opening line: As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. The poet feels spiritually depressed, not because he was spiritually negligent but because of his situation as one of God’s people. ‘I believe’ he is saying, ‘Why should I feel like I do? Why am I so inwardly disturbed? What’s happened to me? What’s happened to my faith?’

We may think this man is spiritually weak but there’s no hint of this in the psalm. In fact, the way he wrestles with his depression testifies to the reality of his faith and to his perseverance.

Psalms 42 and 43 are most important for they provide lessons for us when we are in the depths of despair. What was the writer’s response? We’ll consider this next Wednesday.

A prayer. Almighty God, we commend to your fatherly goodness all who are in any way afflicted or distressed, especially those who are known to us. May it please you to comfort and relieve them according to their needs, giving them patience in their sufferings, and a happy issue out of all their afflictions. All this we ask for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

© John G. Mason