Isaiah 54: 1-8
John 1: 1-4
Maybe some of you know that I’m fond of a good walk. And over the past few months, nearly a year now, I suppose, I’ve been walking even more than I used to. When the government advised us back in March that we should stay at home and only go out to the shops or for an hour’s exercise, I took them at their word – I made sure that I spent that hour outside, walking. And I wasn’t the only one. It seemed like everyone was doing the same, I saw people out walking I’d never seen before, crowds of them – the canal towpath was busier than I’d ever seen. It didn’t last. The canal towpath didn’t last, for a start – remember the storm that caused the canal to break its banks and overflow? That put paid to anyone walking on that stretch, at least. That bit still hasn’t re-opened, I’d like it if it would before I leave Polmont, although I can’t see that happening.
But for many people, the daily walks didn’t last either – I could see it as the weeks and the months went by, fewer and fewer people were out on the streets and the paths. Maybe as lockdown eased, they didn’t find it as necessary as they did before, they had other things to do. That’s to be expected, I suppose. But I kept going.
And I walked lots of paths and trails I’d never known before. All within just a few miles of home, or even less. Like, for instance, do you know in all my years of living in Polmont I’d never actually seen the reservoir, far less walk all the way around it. You could go out of here and be there in 10 minutes. And up at the canal, just past Beattock Cottage at Gilston Park, I’d always thought the bridge over the canal there didn’t lead anywhere anymore, but cross it and you’ll find a really nice half mile woodland walk that’ll take you out at Ercall Road in Brightons. It’s a bit icy and muddy just now, though, so if you fancy going, mind and wear your wellies. A wee bit further afield, up at Maddiston there’s a path that leads all the way to California – that’s really become a favourite walk of mine. I’m going to miss it. I’ll miss all the trails and pathways that criss-cross this wee part of the world that we live in.
But where I’m going, of course, there will be new paths to discover, new places to visit, new routes to take, new walks to make. And in just under a couple of weeks I’ll have the chance to set out, exploring the highways and byways of my new home. I don’t plan on doing any camping, but in the reading I just gave from Isaiah today, the prophet says, ‘Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back.’ I think, in a way, with my walking and my discovering, that’s what I’m doing and what I believe God wants all of us to do. We all live in our own tents and sometimes it’s tempting to hunker down in them and let the world revolve without our input. Maybe this past year has just strengthened that resolve in some people and, again, that’s understandable, but the truth is it’s not good for us to stay in our tents forever. The curtains have to be opened, our habitations have to be stretched out.
You know, I can remember, right at the very start of my journey towards becoming a minister in the Church of Scotland, I was in a psychologist’s office (yes, we have to take psychology tests to make sure we’re suitable for the job!) and there was a poster on the wall that said, ‘A ship is safe in harbour, but that’s not what ships are for.’ And that’s stayed with me throughout. ‘A ship is safe in harbour, but that’s not what ships are for.’ I suppose it’s kind of fitting that I’m going to a place where the harbour is the main focus of the town, hopefully the harbour and the church, if I’ve anything to do with it, but the real message is that like ships we’re not supposed to stay in the harbour, we’re meant to explore and make the most of all that the world, God’s world, has to offer.
Going back to Isaiah, and turning back from my ship metaphor to his image of tents, he says, ‘lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes.’ We become stronger by making our tents bigger, by opening them out, by being part of the world, not just being an observer of it. We’ve been restricted lately, we all know that, but as things begin to improve, which they are doing, thanks to the scientists and the specialists, slowly but surely, we’ll have every opportunity to lengthen our cords.
So I’m in the middle of packing to leave, I’m filling boxes and, I’ve got to be honest and say I’m not enjoying it in the least. The one thing that’s keeping me going, though, is the knowledge that the boxes will all soon be opened again, but in a new place. And, in a way, that’s what we’re all doing just now as we enter this new year. The boxes we’ve filled over the past year, what we’ve piled in to them; the frustrations over lockdowns, over wearing face coverings, keeping distances, they’ll all eventually be opened in a new place, but a better place. And I think it’s up to us to make the best of it, by being as much a part of it as we can. Not everyone can walk miles through the countryside, seeing God’s creation in action all around us, I know that. But we can all stretch our boundaries just a bit, because I think one of the things Isaiah was telling us that last thing God wants us to do in that new place, that better place, is hide away in our tents.
We’ve heard, words from the book of Isaiah
My hand laid the foundation of the earth,
and my right hand spread out the heavens;
when I call to them,
they stand forth together. (48:13)
These words and those of our New Testament reading, In the beginning was the Word,’ take us back to the beginning of the first bible book. To the creation story that tells how God created the heavens and earth with His word. How He created Adam and put him in His perfect garden; the garden of Eden. And then Eve was created by God, while Adam was asleep.
And then, when Adam wakes up, we hear the first human speech, in jubilation, in amazement. Now, don’t forget this is a story, a story that holds a truth within it; that tells about something that still happens. When someone realizes, recognizes, discovers the love of his or her life. A discovery filled with joy: This is the one!
And living in paradise, in the garden of Eden, they were allowed to eat of every tree of the garden, except of one tree: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Of all the trees they could eat, except of one. The accent here lies on, ‘all the trees’, to emphasize God’s generosity; who wants us to enjoy what He has created for us, as John has been doing and will continue to do in Portsoy, through his walks, discovering new places, that he hadn’t known about first.
God gives freely, but He also gives boundaries. In the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, that boundary is symbolized by that one tree that is not to be touched. Live, freely but don’t touch that tree, for that tree says: This is God’s. Let only God be God. Don’t start behaving as if you are God. Only He has all the knowledge, the insights of life and its secrets. There’s a limit that must not be exceeded. You go past it, and you forget that our world isn’t ours, our life isn’t ours. They are His.
But Adam and Eve did overstep that boundary, again symbolized through this encounter with the snake who was twisting God’s words.
And they fell for it.
Overstepping boundaries is what people did and continue to do. It’s the sin of all generations.
But that what humans do or fail to do, sin, doesn’t make an end to God’s faithfulness to what He once began.
Our Old Testament passage is exactly about that. Israel had overstepped God’s boundaries. They had disobeyed God in the promised land. The consequence of that, the consequence of their unfaithfulness was that they ended up in exile, in Babylon. But in Isaiah’s passage of today, we hear God’s own words of hope. Israel’s time of facing and going through the consequences of their disobedience to God, He Himself makes an end to that. And by doing that, He is back to what He intended: to give space in abundance.
Enlarge the place of your tent
And let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
Do not hold back, lengthen your cords
And strengthen your stakes
Our God is a God of new beginnings. It is in the light of that truth that we stand, at the beginning of this new year. In the light of His hope. It was His purpose that the place He had created for us, the space around us was to be used, enjoyed by us. Through the restrictions it has been taken away from us, and it may have felt as if God wasn’t there. But God doesn’t let go what He once began; His purpose isn’t annulled by anything.
The words, ‘There is a place by me’, are words from God Himself spoken to Moses, in the book of Exodus (33:21). These are words without end. They are words spoken to us, now.
But let us not only take, receive from Him. Let’s give Him the space of our heart; the heart you’ve been given by Him. Give to Him, without reservations. The more we give to him, the more He can plant seeds of love, which we then can spread.
For He has given, that what is most precious and therefore most vulnerable of Himself: His own heart, His Son our Lord Jesus Christ, for whom there was no place in the inns.
Let’s say to Him, ‘There’s a place by me’.