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.

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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’.

Amen

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?

Amen.