I am Barabbas.

As I listen to the doves calling out in the tree outside – I am aware of the fact that You said Your whole creation will praise You. All your works will praise You.

“Against the background of all the events of Christmas, I have wanted to remind you of My great love for you and all of My creation. My love for you is so great that I have given and continue to give all of Me. This sacrifice has only one acceptable response. I want all of you in return. As you have been singing words asking to walk closer to me – I am using all of life to make you aware of how close I am already to you. You already have all I have to give. You are in Me and I am in you – we are one, yet I am taking you forwards, using all of life to make you more and more aware of that. I am allowing you a glimpse of glory – My glory – but also the glory I have prepared for you. So walk into the New Year looking up at the bright shining light which represents me.”

As I read through the account of the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion in Matthew 27, I need to stop and take stock. Much of this is so familiar that it may just lose its impact on me the reader. So I try and visualize the scene. I have never been in a riot, but there are plenty of reports of riots in SA at the moment in the media. Very quickly the temper out of control, born along by the bravery of anonymity. So I imagine this scene of a perfectly innocent man being accused of crimes He did not commit, the crazy crowd baying for His blood, calling out their blood-thirsty cries of, “Crucify, crucify Him”!

As they mock Jesus, painfully hurting Him as well as insulting Him, I am reminded of experiences I had as a young boy at boarding school, where the bullies would gather around me and taunt me, pinching and pushing and punching me. I remember the feelings of helplessness and fear. God gave me a tiny window into what Jesus must have been feeling here.

Pilate tries to use the practice of releasing a criminal to get Jesus released. “Who should I release, Jesus or Barabbas?” “Barabbas,” they cry! Barabbas, Barabbas. Then the truth strikes me, “I am Barabbas”. I am that criminal who deserves to die and be eternally separated from The Father and everything that is good. I am the one who should be calling out, “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” But because Jesus called those words out, on my behalf, I can go free. A sinner, condemned, on the edge of the death penalty, set free. The doors of the prison thrown open by a mighty hand who has stepped in to take my sentence.

Matthew, with divine skill calls us to make a choice. Who is this Man? Is He a common criminal, that deserves to die? Someone who was trying to impersonate Yahweh? What an almighty cheek, if in fact that He is not who He claims He is. Or is He the figure which is painted by several other parts of the picture. Was He, is He, “The king of the Jews”? He surely wants us to stand next to the centurion in v 54 and call out, “This Man really was God’s Son”. “This Man still is really God’s Son’!

Who does the reader identify with? Pilate, standing aloof, washing his hands, not wanting to be involved? One of the fickle crowd who could adulate Him and a moment later call out, “Crucify, crucify”? Or like the women, following, be it at a distance, and Joseph of Aramathea, prepared to lay His life on the line for identifying with the “criminal”?

The telling of this story should never become usual, because one has heard it so often. It should fill us with wonder every time we read it. The words which struck me as I read it stay with me. “I am Barabbas”. That is how I am going to enter the New Year, with that realization.

Back in a Garden.

Hope! In my minds eye I see a little baby in a manger with a light shining around Him and the word hope comes to mind.

“Yes that Baby embodied hope – hope for a world which is lost and devastated – a baby held the first vestiges of hope – hope that was only going to be fulfilled many years later. By its very nature hope is usually a long term feeling. It is easy to be filled with hope on the mountain top, but when adversity crowds in then the full depth of the root of hope in you is revealed. It is easy then to become despondent and allow doubts to creep in. That is why I allow every one of my precious children to go through trials from time to time – so that it will build the treasure of hope in them, which is the mainstay of the Christian life. So as Sunday approaches and you view that Baby remember, He embodied the hope of the whole world. The hope which keeps you joyously on the path, even through adversity.”

Even as the many faithful believers around the world gather on Sunday to remember and celebrate the birth of the One who was going to bring hope to a lost and drowning world, my reading this week has taken me to what must be one of the most intimate moments in the whole of the bible. The scene in the Garden of Gethsemane. In reality from the very birth of the Saviour the whole thrust of His life has been towards this scene and the events following it.

Faced with the hostile Religious leaders and a “friend” who was going to betray Him. With the knowledge that even His closest followers would soon desert Him Jesus enters the garden (Matthew 27:36). I don’t know if you, dear reader have ever considered the significance of this garden. Reflect back to the beginning of the bible story, to another garden, a perfect garden in a perfect environment, where satan whispered the words, “you will not surely die” into the ears of the innocent couple standing there. That event which resulted in a cataclysm of disaster for the entire world, was also the springboard from which God would launch His rescue program, which He announced in Gen 3:15:

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head and you will strike His heel”.

Were the words spoken as they were driven out of that garden of Paradise.

Here, back in a garden outside Jerusalem this conflict had reached a climax which symbolically begins in this “restful” place. The final battle has commenced, appropriately once again in a garden. Who will ever know how our Lord felt at that moment. Although most people think Jesus’ great suffering was the prospect of a gruesome, painful death on a Roman cross. While I’m sure there would have been some consideration of that. No, the real reason for His suffering was he prospect of “the cup“, which He asks God to take away from Him. The nature of that cup is revealed in Isaiah 51:22;

“See I have taken out of your hand the cup that makes you stagger; the goblet of My wrath.”

The picture in Luke’s gospel is even more dramatic as it describes Jesus as His sweat being like drops of blood falling on the ground (Luke 22:44). There is a medical condition “haemathydrosis”, where severe stress can actually cause bleeding into the sweat glands.

We, the reader are taken into that scene for a purpose. We need to see the full extent of what it took for Jesus to take the full wrath of His Father upon Himself, so that you and I can go free. Free from having to face that wrath on judgement day. That is what He has won for us the hope that we have. Truly the serpent struck the heel of the Offspring”, but his head was about to be crushed on the cross.

As we gaze in adoration and wonder at the birth of the One and Only, unique Son of God this weekend, may the joy of our celebrations not be removed from the seriousness of His ultimate purpose for coming. As I read various articles in the newspaper about Christmas and the meaning of Jesus’ coming, much is said about His role in reconciliation among people, of His compassion to all the lonely and broken, to the overall sense of love and peace He has come to bring and much else in this line. However, nowhere do I read of this aspect of His mission. Yet it underlies all the others, as valid as they may be. Without this incredible sacrifice none of the rest would ever happen.

It seems to me that the world has become insensitive to the awfulness of sin. People, even many Christians look among them, not recognizing that the chaos that they see is all part of God’s judgement for sin. That it is firstly sin which must be dealt with before the peace Jesus brings can be realized. Equally we will never really appreciate the extent of Jesus sacrifice unless we understand this.

So let us rejoice and celebrate the great Gift God has given us, recognizing essentially why He is such a great Gift. May I wish you all a new and deep sense of Joy as we celebrate His birth on Sunday. God bless you all.

How do I respond to the King?

Know, a treasured word, that appears on the surface to have an obvious meaning, but in reality hides a far deeper significance. From the beginning I have sought to know the people I have called – and encouraged them to know Me. Knowing Me is far more than an esoteric exercise – where you learn more about Me. Because for you to truly know Me you must experience Me and to do that you need to move beyond understanding to interaction with Me through faith. I have known you before I implanted you in your mother’s womb. Yet in a way my knowledge of you has been enriched by your response and interaction with Me over the years. You pray that the eyes of your heart may be opened so that you may know Me better. There will come a time when that knowledge is complete when you see me face-to-face in all My glory in your glorified body. So continue on this path of getting to know Me better as I lead you through dark valleys and over a mountain tops. It’s in the walk that you get to fully know Me”.

As we reach the critical point of the gospel, Matthew gives us a beautiful little cameo, which is easy to miss, with one’s eyes fixed on the awful events to come. Why don’t you read Matthew 26:1-16 and try and see what the main point Matthew is making?

There are three stories. The first verse sets up the background for us. The prospect of Jesus’ crucifixion, set against the backdrop of the timing – the Passover. How is this going to happen? Different people are going to be involved. The chief priests and elders are playing a key part in moving this story along. Hidden in the story there are four different responses to Jesus, which Mathew presents to us. This is skillfully worked in with the object of ultimately getting the reader to ask him/herself which one do I relate to. Where do I stand?

Can you see them? Firstly, of course there are the religious leaders. They are the people who have the intellectual knowledge, that should have put them in a position to understand and welcome this Man, who over the past few years has proved over and over that He is the expected Messiah. However their eyes are blinded by pride, jealousy and prejudgment. So not only are they not willing to accept Him, they are actually planning to kill Him. There are plenty of people around today who fit that category, I’m sure none of you who read this does.

The second person, who is the central character in vv 6-13, is the women with the alabaster jar of perfume. Completely opposite to the previous group, she shows by a unique action of self-sacrifice her love for Jesus. Her act is in line with the “widow’s mite”. She offers her all to Jesus. Her heart, soul and body. Does that apply to me? I bow my head in shame as I feel I have not got there yet, but it spurs me on to aspire to have that love. (Of course there is a deeper meaning to the act as she is symbolically anointing Jesus for His burial).

Woven into that passage is the group of disciples. Jesus’ closes companions now for two years. But wait. They are actually complaining about the beautiful act that the nameless woman has performed. “A waste” they say. Do they not love and treasure Jesus as much as she does? Why are they so miffed? Is it jealousy? I consider this and measure myself against this group. Easy to feel superior and look down on them. But am I any better? Do I not hold my own interest often above those of Lord? Do I truly love Him with all my heart, body, soul and mind?

Then even worse. From among their own number, Judas actively betrays his Master. Horrific! Horrific indeed. I hope I will never descend to that, although I may even come close to Peter’s denial.

So this cameo introduces us to this last phase of Jesus’ life here on earth. Set against the backdrop of the Passover to be the reminder of why Jesus was going to the altar of the cross. To be the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. I find it fitting to be here in our reading as we approach Christmas. Christmas can never truly be celebrated without the shadow of the cross behind the celebrations to remind us of the real reason Jesus came to be one of us.

Let us all prepare ourselves for the real Christmas celebration, ready to give an answer for the hope we have.

Waiting Expectantly for the King.

As I was singing some Christmas songs – I had this Bizarre picture. A picture from 2000 years ago, of a heavenly baby shower. As the universe waited expectantly for the most important baby of all time to be born.

“ Just compare the expected reception of any baby, a baby loved and anticipated. Room decorated, baby clothes laid out, names chosen – to the reception that was waiting for Baby Jesus. No place to be born – rejected by everyone except those closest to him. Born into a hostile environment with a foe determined to annihilate him before he grew up. Destined for a life of poverty with a small band of friends who ultimately would also desert Him at the time of His greatest need. No transport except feet on dusty paths and an occasional donkey. ‘Unfair’ you cry! Stop and think. Why was he coming? Because of sin. You easily under estimate the evil effects of sin. That is what devastated the world and continues to do it. Take stock now as Christmas approaches that you fully appreciate the power of sin and understand and appreciate the coming of this Baby – our Saviour from the evil of this all pervading scourge called sin.”

As we come to Matthew 25, I remember the greater context. The greater context of the breaking in of the kingdom of God into this world, as Jesus explained from the beginning of The Sermon on the Mount. This action of God through Jesus was rapidly approaching fulfilment as the cross loomed ahead. Against that background are these last parables which have a common theme. They are highlighting various aspects of the urgency of the times, then and now.

The key vs is 24:44 “This is why you must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour you do not expect.” Then again in 25:13 “Therefore be alert, because you do not know either the day or the hour”.

How does this play out? Ch 25 sets out 3 parables showing various aspects of what it means to “be ready”.

They are well-known stories. Perhaps so well-known that we may read through them quickly and say to yourself, “Oh yes, that is what it means”. I meditated on each one this last week and realized a few things which I thought were important for me to understand, that I will share with you.

Firstly, “the ten virgins”. What does the oil represent? I have often heard that it represents the Holy Spirit. After all, the Holy Spirit is often referred to in terms of oil. However there is a problem. There are 5 virgins who have some oil, not enough, but some, which would indicate they are Christians, because the presence of the Spirit is surely a sign of being a real Christian. The key seems to lie in vs 12, though. “I assure you I do not know you. So these ladies had some knowledge of Christianity, but had never come to know the Lord personally. What demonstrates that one is a real Christian? You have a vibrant and living relationship with God through Jesus. That is what Jesus has called us into and why He saved us. So the fact that the wise virgins have enough oil in reserve says to me that that demonstrates a real relationship and a constant replenishment of the Spirit through this relationship. There is no place to be lazy in the kingdom of heaven.

The second parable focusses on using the opportunities and abilities that the Lord gives. Those who have been given 10 talents are not necessarily of greater value than those with 5. They have both used their opportunities equally effectively. What is important is the principle lying behind this parable in vs 29, “For everyone who has, more will be given“. This parable is parallel to the one of the sower, who sowed on good soil. God is looking for fruit in His servants and for those who produce fruit, more and more opportunities will be given to them.

Finally the parable of the sheep and goats. Once again I don’t think it is the actual act of feeding the bretheren who are hungry, as such that commends them. It speaks to me of a totally different attitude in those who are saved. One best described as being ‘other people centered’. Notice the focus of care is firstly on, “these brothers of mine.” (vs 40.) As a family, we Christians firstly have a responsibility towards one another. I would hasten to say that it does not stop there, but that is our first responsibility. Remember, some of the early Christians sold land and other possessions to help those in need. That demonstrates a converted heart and I dare say that is what the Lord is looking for.

So friends this all boils down ultimately to the genuine change that happens when we are born again and that being nurtured by building on the relationship that arises from there. Jesus is helping us all the way, as long as we remain in the vine.

May God bless you as you anticipate celebrating that Birthday.