There is a Place By Me

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’.



It was Frank’s first time as the department store Santa and just before the grotto opened for the day, he looked out through the curtains to see a queue of mums and dads and children snaking all the way from the grotto to the toy department. ‘What am I letting myself in for?’ he wondered.  ‘Am I going to be any good at this?  I think I look the part, I’ve got the glasses and the white beard, I’ve got the red robe with the white fur and a red suit and I’ve got the black boots, I’ve got plenty of padding.  I look like Santa, even if I don’t feel like him.  Hope I’m going to be okay.’

Jackie the elf sensed his trepidation.  Jackie usually worked behind the makeup counter but every December she took two weeks’ holiday to work beside Santa in the grotto because she just loved Christmas so much.  She’d seen plenty of Santas come and go, and she could tell Frank was nervous.

‘Look, don’t worry about it,’ she said.  ‘Try to relax and enjoy yourself.  Just, whatever you do, try not to scare the kids, won’t you?  Be jolly, be Santa.’

Frank did relax, and for a while everything was okay, and he did enjoy himself.  For the first half a dozen children, that is.  But the seventh one, well, it didn’t go so great.

Frank could tell the wee boy was scared of him.  As he came into the grotto he was half hiding behind his mum, looking at Frank as if he were some kind of ogre, not friendly old Santa Claus.  And as soon as his mum sat him down beside Frank, he started bawling and crying.  You could probably hear him in the menswear department, and that was on the floor above.  He just wouldn’t stop.  And his mum just looked at Frank expectantly, as if to say, ‘Well, you’re Santa, deal with it.’  Frank looked at Jackie the elf, but he didn’t get any support there – Jackie just folded her arms and looked amused.  She’d seen it all before.

None of Frank’s ‘Ho, ho, ho’s’ seemed to be having any effect.  And telling the wee boy he was definitely on the nice list and not the naughty one didn’t help either.  But then Frank had an idea.

First he took off the glasses, and the boy could see the eyes that were looking back at him weren’t the eyes of an old man, but they were young and they were twinkly.  Then he took off the white beard and the wee boy stopped crying and looked at him curiously.  Then Frank took off the red robe and jacket, leaving him in just an ordinary t-shirt.  The wee boy looked at him and laughed, the tears all gone.

Now both of them, Frank and the wee boy, were quite relaxed and happy in each other’s company.  And now they were the best of pals, Frank told the boy a story.  It was a story about how once, a very long time ago, God decided he was going to come down to earth to live alongside the people there, to be among them.  He didn’t want to frighten the people, so he was born the same way as they were, he wore the same clothes as they did, he lived an ordinary life just like them.  The wee boy listened, hanging on Frank’s every word, his eyes getting wider and wider.  And as Frank told the story, he started to put all the Santa gear back on again.  He put on the red jacket and the red robe, the glasses and, finally, the long white beard.  Eventually, dressed as Santa again, Frank gave the wee boy his gift and then, all too soon, time was up.  There was a whole queue of children waiting to see Santa, so the wee boy and his mum had to leave.  As they went, his mum turned to Jackie and said, ‘That was nice, but it’s a shame that your Santa spoiled all the magic.’

Looking back at Frank, the department store Santa, Jackie smiled and said, ‘Maybe it ended the magic, but I think it’s started a whole lot of wonder.’

We dress up Christmas in all sorts of ways, we give it a red suit and a white beard and, sometimes for us, like the wee boy in the department store, it all gets a bit overwhelming.  This year, maybe more than any other we can all remember, Christmas is pared back, stripped down – you could say it’s like Frank sitting there in his t-shirt instead of his Santa gear.  But I think this year gives us the perfect opportunity, if opportunity is needed, to remember the true message of Christmas – that God is with us, God is among us.  And next year, well, next year we’ll put all the gear back on again and Christmas will be just like we’ve come to know it.   But the message will still hold true, no matter how much we dress it up.


The birth of a child brings about emotions in the parents that cannot be described by words. Emotions that overwhelm, deep love, intense joy. After months of waiting, after all the pain that comes with giving birth, there is pure wonder.

And the child itself, as it grows, he or she discovers all sorts of things, with amazement, watched by its parents.

Pure wonder is something that happens to you, you’re captured by it. In our bible readings, it happens to the shepherds, and to the people who hear from the shepherds what has been told about this new born child in the stable.

The story doesn’t say that they believed what they heard. It says that they wondered.

But then, can faith begin without wonder?

There are people who wonder about things a lot. There are people who do less so and there are people who just don’t.

How do we hear the story of the birth of Jesus; the story about Jesus’s mother and Joseph; the story about the shepherds. How do we hear the stories that follow from there? The story that tells about the twelve year old Jesus in the temple. Only twelve years old, He amazes the teachers of the Scriptures with his insight. And Jesus continues to amaze people when He heals the sick, when He speaks to people words that make them aware of new things.

Words that regularly amaze, shock His disciples, for instance when they stop children to come to Him. Jesus reacts to that by doing the opposite. He called the children to Him, saying:

“Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Luke 18:16-17)

 The little boy in John’s story was scared until Frank removed all the layers that made him Santa. That stripping off layers, that made the boy calm down. And then when Frank told the boy the story about how God chose to come down to earth to be with His people, the boy heard every word Fank was saying. And hearing them, the boy’s eyes got wider. He was amazed.

Just like the shepherds when they were told about the new born king by the angels; just like the people who, through the shepherds heard about the new born baby in the stable.

In the midst of all those wondering people there is one who starts to think deeper,

‘Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart’

Would she have begun to see connections between what she was told, knew, came to know, what she felt? All her pondering was brought about by that wonder, that came to her when she was told the Good News that she was going to give birth to God’s Son. The news that she, humbly, received, without understanding how that could be.

How much of our thinking allows for; is triggered by wonder? Is it not all too often played down, stifled even, by the layers that we are not so willing to remove:  the layer of the insistence on self-protection; the layer of ‘wanting to fix things’, the layer of ‘wanting to stay in control’.

That would be the reason why Jesus took a child as example for his disciples and for us now. For a child is free from those layers. Therefore, for a child, there is so much room for wonder.

As Frank could see in the eyes of the little boy who listened to Frank’s story about God coming down to earth; about how He chose to do it: as one of us, to be with us.

Following this new born boy in Bethlehem’s stable, we’re taken into lots of stories with people who wonder, amazed about what Jesus does, what He says, when He refers back to what has been said in stories that tell about His ancestors, in the Old Testament; to what has been said by the prophets who foretold His birth.

May the story of Jesus’ birth with all those other bible stories, kindle in our hearts a whole lot of wonder, encouraging us to discover more and more about the Holy One, who chose to come down in the vulnerability of new born baby, for us, to be with us.



Real Hope

When I was asked just the other day to give the service this week, the first thing I thought was, ‘No problem, it’s the first Sunday of advent, and advent is all about preparation, I’ll just speak about getting our preparations right, about getting ourselves ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus, about setting out on a journey that will end with Christmas and all that comes with it.’

But then I thought, wait, things are a bit different this year, aren’t they?  I mean, normally the shops would be mobbed, the excitement would be building, we’d all be talking about where we’re going to spend the day, who we’d be spending it with. The church would be getting ready for its busiest time of the year, with carol services, Christingles, Christmas tree festivals, Christmas fayres. This year, although I know it’s early yet, it’s all just a bit muted, isn’t it?  More than a bit, I think.  Most of these things, the festivals, the fayres, aren’t happening this year and I think we’re all in something of a limbo, not quite sure what’s going on and how we’re going to deal with it.

So how do you prepare for something when you don’t know what it looks like?  You wait for a clearer picture, I suppose, you wait for things to come into focus a bit.  And that’s what advent is about too.  It’s about preparation, but it’s also about waiting.

And we’ve been getting good at waiting, haven’t we?  We’ve had plenty of practice this year.  You could say that this year, most of it, at least, has all been one big advent.  We’ve done a lot of waiting.  Waiting in the queue outside Tesco, or Asda, or the chemist.  Waiting for that one hour a day when we were allowed out for a walk.  Waiting for the daily updates from the government at 5 o’clock.  Waiting for it all to be over.  And we’re still waiting.  We’re waiting each time there’s an announcement about which tier we’re going to be in, waiting to find out how much freedom we’ve got.  Waiting for the pubs and the shops to open.  Waiting for a vaccine.  We’re still waiting.

In our Old Testament reading this morning, Isaiah was waiting too.  Waiting, just like we are now, for things to get better.  But where we tend to wait patiently in silence, Isaiah wasn’t like that – he struck out, he wanted to know why things weren’t getting better and he wanted action.  You can hear his frustration as he prays to God: ‘Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence.’

They’re hard words to hear, aren’t they?  Isaiah’s prayer is the prayer of a man who’s struggling so much to make sense of the world he’s living in.  A man who wishes God would make himself known, come down and sort it all out, just like he used to do.  Maybe that sounds familiar?

We don’t know for sure exactly when Isaiah wrote these words, but what we do know is that the great days of Israel’s history, the days of David and Solomon, when Israel was, relatively speaking anyway, prosperous and peaceful, these days were in the past.

Isaiah lived in a much later time, when generations of ungodly kings had led the people badly, when people had turned from the God of Moses and Abraham to all sorts of other gods.  And it was a time when God was remote because he didn’t like the way Israel was going, so he left the people to their own devices.  The people had made their bed and God was letting them lie in it.  But the problem actually was not so much that God had abandoned the people, but that the people had abandoned God, and Isaiah knew this. ‘There is no-one who calls upon your name,’ he said, ‘No-one who rouses himself to take hold of you, for you have hidden your face and made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.’  Isaiah knew that the problem didn’t lie with God, it lay closer to home.

But where was God?  That’s what Isaiah wanted to know.  Why had he ‘hidden his face?’ How was Israel going to get out of the mess it had found itself in.  Was God going to come and bless his people again?

Isaiah wanted God to come down in a blaze of glory like he used to do, when he’d done awesome things and the mountains quaked.  That wasn’t going to happen.  But it didn’t stop him waiting and hoping.

As I say, maybe it sounds familiar.  Maybe we can identify with some of what Isaiah was going through.  Our situation isn’t the same, but there are similarities.  This is a tough time for us, just as Isaiah’s time was tough for him.  We find ourselves in an unfamiliar world, one that we wouldn’t have recognised this time last year.  Maybe it’s worse for us in a way, because we feel so helpless, it’s all so much out of our control.  Isaiah had a very black and white view of why Israel was in the state it was, but thankfully we don’t hold to his Old Testament concept that it’s our iniquities, our sins, that are to blame for the position we’ve found ourselves in.  There’s no-one, there’s nothing to pin the blame on.  So we feel helpless.

But where Isaiah was looking forward, waiting for the day God would come, we look back knowing that he did come, only not with fire and fury and quaking mountains but as a child in a manger in Bethlehem.  Isaiah waited, and he hoped.  And that’s what we do during Advent, we wait and we hope.  The first candle of Advent represents that hope.

I think I need to explain something at this point, and it’s that hope as we know it and biblical hope aren’t quite the same thing.  When we speak of hope in our day-to-day lives, what we’re really talking about is wishful thinking.  We hope that we’ll get the Christmas present we want.  We hope the sun’s going to shine tomorrow.  We hope that the vaccinations everyone’s talking about are on the way.  The way we think of hope is that something good will happen, or that something bad won’t happen.  And there’s always an element of uncertainty whether it’ll happen or not.  When we say we hope the sun will shine, what we’re saying as well is that there’s a chance it won’t.

But hope in the Bible isn’t the same.  Biblical hope isn’t just a wish that something will happen or not happen – biblical hope expects it to happen.  It’s called a confident expectation, or a secure assurance.

Isaiah waited, hoping and looking forward to the day that God would come down.  As we wait during Advent, our hope is our confident expectation, our secure assurance, that as he came to us in Bethlehem all those years ago, so he’ll come to us again.  That’s what we remember at Advent.

As I say, we’ve done a lot of waiting this year, and we keep waiting, patiently waiting for things to get better.  And the politicians and the health experts keep telling us to be patient, that a vaccination is on the way, sit tight, it’ll be alright.  But patience takes different forms, I think – there’s such a thing as passive patience and active patience.

Passive patience is when you wait and do nothing, stand still.  Active patience is when you slow down, take your time, but never give in.  Passive patience says stop, don’t move.  Active patience, I think it can be best summed up in the old wartime poster, ‘Keep calm and carry on.’

In our New Testament reading earlier, I think Jesus was telling the disciples something similar.  Don’t stop what you’re doing just because I’m not there in person, he was telling them.  Keep going, stay awake, be ready, do all the things I’ve told you to do, like take care of your people and live the way I’ve told you that you should be living.  Now, he was talking about the end of days, about the final judgement, his second coming, and that’s a subject for a whole different sermon so I’m not going to say too much about that today, but those words, ‘stay awake’, I think they speak to us now in all that we’re going through.

Because staying awake means actively waiting.  It means keeping calm and carrying on.  It means continuing with our lives despite all that’s happening.  It means continuing to care for those we love and those who need our help.  We can’t shut our eyes and ignore all that’s going on around us.  Because not staying awake and closing our eyes, well, that means we’re in the dark, and if there’s a place we don’t want to be at a time like this it’s in the dark.  And for the times when we struggle, when we feel the darkness close in, there’s always our candle, the candle of hope, and what it represents – the hope that God gave us by coming to the world to be among us and by being with us always.  Our candle, when we need it, is our light in the dark.

So Advent is here, and we begin our preparations for Christmas, we wait for a Christmas that we all know is going to be different in so many ways this year.  But most of the things that are different, well, maybe they’re things that shouldn’t matter so much to us.  I know it’s important to have all the family round, I know it’s important to give gifts and receive them, I know it’s important to some people to have parties and festive celebrations.  But this advent, and every advent, it’s more important to remember what and who God gave us that first Christmas, to give thanks for him, to recognise the impact and the effect he has on all our lives.  And I think if we remember these things first, it makes every Christmas, Covid or no Covid, a Christmas worth waiting for.



Revealing Revelation

So, what are we to make of our reading today?  The first thing we need to know is that we don’t have to take Revelation literally.  There are churches that do, of course, that believe every single word in the Bible is literal truth, word for word.  I’ll give you an example, there’s a Pentecostal church in Kentucky in the USA – the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus’ Name, it’s called – and it this church had a pastor called Reverend Jamie Coots.  Reverend Coots believed in the literal truth of the Bible, and he based a lot of his preaching around the book of Mark, specifically chapter 16, verses 16 to 18.  Let me read that to you: ‘Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned.  Believers will be given the power to perform miracles: they will drive out demons in my name; they will speak in strange tongues; if they pick up snakes or drink any poison, they will not be harmed; they will place their hands on sick people, who will get well.’  It’s a powerful image, so to drive home his point, Reverend Coots would regularly feature live snakes in his sermons, he’d bring them out and handle them in front of the congregation.  Very dramatic.  The thing is, you might have noticed I’m speaking about Reverend Coots in the past tense.  Unfortunately, he died a few years ago.  He was bitten by a rattlesnake during one of his services.

So yes, taking scripture too literally can bring its problems.  There’s no question of literalism in the passage I read from Revelation, though.  It’s quite clear that everything that takes place here is part of a dream, a vision.  Now, I’ve got to say that interpreting visions, or analysing dreams, isn’t an exact science.  Despite what psychotherapists like Freud and Jung would say, I’m not sure it’s really a science at all.  I remember one of the newspapers, I think it was the Daily Record on a Saturday, used to have a regular column where people would write in with their dreams and an expert would analyse them.  Just for fun, I used to cover up the analysis bit and read the letter and then come up with my own interpretation, and I honestly think I sometimes came up with a better analysis than the expert, and I don’t know anything.  I don’t really believe in dream analysis, I suppose.  But we’re not looking at a newspaper column here, we’re looking at words and images that have made their way into the Bible, into Holy Scripture – they have to mean something.  So let’s try and de-code them a little and work out just what they might be saying to us.

Revelation is written by a man called John – we don’t know who this John is, it’s almost certainly not the same one who wrote the Gospel – and John, in a vision, a dream, is in heaven.  And it’s dazzling.  A throne with a person sitting on it, his face gleaming – jasper is a kind of reddish brown, carnelian is orangey-red – there’s an emerald rainbow all around him and he’s surrounded by 24 other people on thrones, dressed in white, with gold crowns.  Flashes of lightning, lit torches.  Even reading it, hearing it, you want to shade your eyes, it’s so bright.  And light means Jesus, it means God.  We’ve heard it before, it’s a regular refrain throughout Scripture.

‘God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.’  (1 John 1:5)

‘I am the light of the world.’ (John 8:12)

In front of John is all this light, all this brightness, and that, to me, implies he’s come from a place of darkness.  It speaks to us of optimism, I think, that whatever darkness we’re going through, and let’s face it, we’ve been going through some dark times recently, whatever darkness we’re going through, there’s light ahead.

It’s October, just a couple of weeks until the clocks change, an extra hour of daylight in the morning.  You know, I used to collect watches and it was important to me that they all showed the right time, even if I wasn’t wearing them, and when it came time for the clocks to change, it used to take me ages to change all my watches so my extra hour was pretty much wasted.  It was even worse in the spring when we move the clocks back.  I don’t collect watches anymore, and because everything’s electronic now the clocks on all my gadgets manage to change themselves, it’s like magic.  But, of course, the reason we turn the clocks back at this time of year is so we that extra hour of light in the mornings.  We need the light to get us up and get us going.  We need the light to overcome the darkness.  And, in his vision in Revelation, the first impression John gets of heaven, of God, is pure light.

So far, so good.  The benefit of light over darkness – I think we can all understand that.  But here’s where things get, okay, I’ll say it, things start to get really weird.  We hear about four creatures, one like a lion, another like an ox, number three with the face of a man and a fourth that looks like an eagle.  And they’ve all got six wings and they’re covered with eyes.  Now, I’m fairly sure it’s passages like this that led George Bernard Shaw to write that Revelation is, and I quote, ‘a peculiar record of the visions of a drug addict.’  But it’s all symbolism, we can’t take these descriptions literally.  Possibly the most common interpretation of these four creatures is that the lion represents wild animals, the ox stands for domesticated animals, the eagle symbolises animals that fly, and the one with the face of a man is – well, that one’s obvious, I think.  And taken as a whole, the four creatures represent all of God’s created species.  Six wings?  What’s that all about?  Well, I think we can turn to the Book of Isaiah for that one, Isaiah speaks of angels with six wings, two to cover their faces as they couldn’t gaze upon God, two to cover their feet as they stood on holy ground, and two to fly with.  And all the eyes?  Well, those are to see God’s work wherever they look.

I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking, how could I be expected to know this, without having to look it up?  Well, you couldn’t, I suppose.  I guess that’s my job, to try to explain it to you.  Although, to be honest with you and I’m sure you won’t be too surprised, I didn’t come up with this explanation myself, I had to go to my books for help.  And believe me, this isn’t the only interpretation!  Another is that the four creatures represent the four gospels – I can’t help but think all they’ve got in common is the number four, though.

I think there’s always a line in every Bible passage that helps make things clearer, though.  And in this one, for me at least, it’s when we are told ‘day and night they never cease to say. Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty.’  Isaiah says that too, about his angels with six wings, only he has them singing.  And I think it kind of ties it all together.  What, or who, these creatures are, to me is less important than what they do.  ‘Day and night they never cease to say.’  Or sing.  In John’s vision, all of God’s creation, all of these bizarre creatures, they sing his praises all the time, they’re totally focused on him.

We all know the story about David and Goliath.  David had his focus right, he focused on the help he could be guaranteed by God in defeating the giant he was squaring up to.  And there’s a great quote by the Christian author Max Lucado, it says ‘Focus on giants, you stumble.  Focus on God, giants tumble.’  ‘Focus on giants, you stumble.  Focus on God, giants tumble.’  So it doesn’t matter to God how big our giants are, it doesn’t matter to God how big our problems, our worries are, but it matters to our giants, our problems, our worries, how big our God is.  If we keep our focus on God and what he does for us, if day and night we don’t stop singing to him – not literally, and we’re not allowed to in here anyway, but with our minds – if we don’t stop singing to him then our problems and our worries, our doubts, our fears, the discouragement we feel sometimes, well, they all have a way of working themselves out.

The last image I want to mention from our passage in Revelation this morning, from John’s dream, his vision, is of 24 elders casting their crowns in front of ‘the one who sits on the throne.’  Why 24?  Well, some say it’s counting up the 12 apostles and the 12 tribes of Israel – again, we can’t know for sure.  Other interpretations are available.  But if there’s confirmation needed that the 24 elders are facing God, it comes now, as they say, ‘Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power.’  And those words are really pretty close to the ones we said together earlier on in the Lord’s Prayer, aren’t they?  ‘Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory.’  When it all comes down to it, the elders in John’s vision pray the same way as we do, they’re not so different from us.

You know, I said earlier that I don’t really believe in analysing dreams.  Well, maybe I’ve spent the last 10 minutes or so proving that I am to dream analysis what politicians are to plain speech – maybe I’ve confused you more than I’ve informed you.  If that’s the case, maybe this’ll help.  I was told once by one of my tutors that you should be able to sum up your sermons in one sentence, so here goes.  God is the light we need when darkness threatens, and if we focus on him, in our thoughts and our prayers, then all will be well in our lives.  And that’s not really too big a Revelation, is it?


Building for the Better

There was a man once, and building was the man’s business.  He’d made his fortune by building luxury homes, the property boom throughout the 80s and 90s had seen him do alright in life and now he could afford to retire and enjoy the fruits of his labour.  It wasn’t just his labour, of course, he didn’t build the houses himself, he had a team he trusted, a team he knew would always do their best for him.  And they always did their best for him because he was a good boss, he was fair with them, he treated them well.  And he paid them well too.

The man he trusted most of all was his project manager.  His project manager had been with him from the start, always working away in the background organising things, buying materials, supervising the contractors they had to bring in.  So it wasn’t too much of a surprise to his project manager when the man said to him one day, ‘I want you to build a retirement house for me.  Spend whatever you need to, I’m not going to interfere, I don’t want to be involved, but I want no expense spared, I’ll cover it. I want the best of materials, the best fixtures and fittings, I want this to be the best house my company has ever built.  I’m going to leave it completely in your hands.’

Now, the trouble was that the project manager realised that if his boss was retiring, it was going to mean he’d have to retire too, he’d lose the job he’d had for what seemed like forever.  How was he going to get another job at his age?  So he took his chance to pad out his own retirement plan.  Instead of the best of materials, he ordered the worst and charged his boss for the best.  Instead of luxury fixtures and fittings, he ordered the ones that looked good, but that underneath the gloss were cheap and shoddy.  And he charged his boss for the best.  Instead of their usual team of skilled craftsmen and contractors, he brought in all the cowboy builders he could find, he brought in inexperienced electricians, poor plumbers, rookie roofers.  And he charged his boss for the best.   When the house was finally built, oh yes, it looked good, it looked like quality – but it wasn’t quality.  If you tried to get a mortgage on a house like that, you’d have no chance.  But the project manager had made himself a tidy wee sum by pocketing the difference between what he said he’d spent and what he actually had spent.  As soon as he handed it over, he’d be off like a shot.

His boss was true to his word.  He hadn’t interfered.  He’d paid all the bills without a second look at them.  He didn’t even turn up on site until after the house was finished.  And when he did, he looked around at what was, at first glance, a great house, but one that was actually pretty much worthless.  Worse than that, it’d take more money to put everything right than what it cost to build.  And he said to the project manager, ‘Remember when I said I’d leave it completely in your hands?   I meant it.  I don’t need a new house for my retirement, but I know you do.  It’s yours.’  And he gave him the keys.

Our New Testament reading today is what’s become known as the Parable of the Tenants, some say the Wicked Tenants.  It’s part of a conversation Jesus has with the priests and the elders of the temple of Jerusalem, not long after he’d arrived there for what would be the last time.  The master plants a vineyard and leaves it in the care of his tenants.  He trusts them but they don’t live up to his trust (a bit like our business owner and his project manager), only they kill the servants who go to gather his fruit on two occasions, then kill his son too.  Jesus asks the priests and the elders what should happen to the tenants.  They give it the old ‘eye for an eye’, well, they would, wouldn’t they, as the priests are steeped in the Judaic tradition and that’s how they see justice, they say the tenants should suffer and that the vineyard should be given to those who deserve it.  As I say, steeped in the Judaic traditions, so they’d have known the book of Isaiah, they’d have known our Old Testament reading from Isaiah.  They’d have known the vineyard in Isaiah represents Israel, its owner is God and that the Israelites, despite having been given all they needed, despite God fulfilling all his promises to them, the Israelites failed to live up to God’s expectations.  The fruit that came from their vineyard wasn’t good fruit, as Isaiah says, ‘He looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.’ (Isa. 5:2)

 And the priests, on hearing Jesus’ parable and making all the Isaiah connections, they might have been self-satisfied, smug, they might have sat back and thought they’d had it all figured out.  They might have thought, well, that’s all in the past, we’ve learned from that, we are where we are.  We’re God’s people, he’s chosen us and we do everything his laws tell us to do, we’re untouchable.  But Jesus’ words take on an ominous tone.  When he says, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures: the stone that the builder rejected has become the cornerstone’, he’s quoting word-for-word from Psalm 118, and the priests would suddenly be aware of the real point of the story.  When he says, ‘the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits,’ suddenly they’re in no doubt he’s talking about himself, and he’s talking about them.  Jesus is saying that clinging to the old laws isn’t good enough anymore.  Jesus is the stone, the cornerstone, the builders are the Jewish priests who reject him.  And they’re not untouchable anymore.

Most buildings these days don’t have cornerstones.  The building I spoke about in my own wee parable about the crooked project manager, it wasn’t built with a stone which, if was taken away, would cause the whole place to come tumbling down.  A cornerstone, when they were used, at least, was usually the first to be laid, it was the one that determined the position of the whole structure, in effect it held the whole thing up.  And everything built up from the cornerstone.  It gets me thinking, what are the cornerstones in our lives?

I need you to use your imagination here as you read or listen to this.  Imagine a jar with a lid.  This jar is our lives, your life, if you like.  I’m sure you’ll be imagining an empty jar.  But our lives aren’t empty, our lives are full of all sorts of things.

Imagine pouring seeds into the jar, imagine filling about half the jar with seeds.  These seeds are the small things.  These are the things we do every day that take up our time.  Going to the shops, making meals, eating and drinking.  All the things that we do because we’ve got to.  Washing our hands – there’s plenty of that going on just now – putting on our masks going into the shops, taking them off again when we get out.  Walking the dog, mowing the lawn, doing the housework.  Making the bed, getting into it and getting out of it.  Things that we do without even thinking about them.  Putting a washing on, getting the car serviced.  None of them very exciting things, but things we have to do to keep our lives going.

Then there are the things we want to do, when we get the chance.  Imagine adding half a dozen tomatoes to the jar on top of the seeds.  These represent things like going out for dinner, watching football matches – if that’s your thing, although we’re not going to be watching many for the next while, except on telly.  Trips to the cinema if we’re brave enough.  Holidays, when we can travel.  Nice things.  Good things, things we enjoy.

And then there are the people that we have to make time for in our lives. Imagine adding two or three apples on top of the seeds and the tomatoes.  These are our family, husbands, wives, children.  Our other relatives.  Our friends.  People at work.  Some we have to make time for, some we want to make time for. The church is part of our life too, and these represent our church life.  The time we spend here on a Sunday morning.

And when we’ve filled up our lives with all of this, then there’s God to fit in too – our relationship with him, the time we spend reading his word, the time we spend speaking to him, praying to him.  Imagine adding something big – it’s only fitting, after all, it represents God – imagine adding a grapefruit on top of everything else.

Unless you’ve pictured a really large jar, there probably isn’t room in the jar.  You can’t get the lid on.  We’ve filled our lives with so much else, we haven’t left room for God.  So what do we do?

We start again.  Take everything out of the jar and start again.

Only this time we start with God, and the time we spend with him.  The grapefruit goes in the jar first.  We put God at the centre of our lives, make him the foundation of our lives, the cornerstone.  Then we add in the apples, time we spend on our church life, the time we spend with the people in our lives.  The important things come first.  Then if we add in the things we have to do every day to keep our lives going, the tomatoes and the seeds in our  imaginary jar, the boring stuff, and the things we enjoy, the things that make us happy, that we want to do – well, somehow, the seeds will find the gaps and flow around them, and everything just fits.  The lid goes on, our lives are full.  We can’t see God in here, you can’t see Jesus, but he’s there, at the heart of it all.  Start with the cornerstone, it just makes sense.  And the cornerstone in our lives may not be visible, but it’s there, and it’s holding everything else up.

That’s what the temple priests didn’t realise when Jesus told them the parable of the tenants.  They focused on the tenants, on their misdoings, on their inadequacies.  They focused on the law, and sticking to it no matter what.  And they thought the landowner should be strict with the tenants, should punish them according to the law, should keep them in their place.  What they didn’t realise was that the landowner was right there among them, right where they were.  And I think that’s the same with us, the landowner is God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, call him what you will, and if we start with him, make him our cornerstone, well, everything else in our lives has a way of fitting into place.