…I took this picture last week during the "BIG freeze" as the trees in the garden, so thick with frost, looked really beautiful. The cold grip of winter can sometimes tighten us in its icy clutches, but when the sun sparkles through the barren branches and the ice starts to thaw – somehow – everything is transformed. It reminds me of the land of Narnia springing back into life as the witch’s evil reign – "it’s always winter, never Christmas" – diminishes under the power of good represented by Aslan the lion – the King of that imaginative place.
Speaking of which, who’s seen the new Narnia film The Voyage of the Dawn Treader ? Who’s read the book? It’s not just a great tale of adventure on the high seas, but also a valuable resource for Christians. For those who don’t know, the writer, C.S. Lewis, was an atheist who was converted after much searching, debating and doubt. After becoming a Christian, he then went on throughout his life exploring and explaining the faith in books. Often from his own experiences of pain, suffering and disbelief. He’s a great author, who has a brilliant way of bringing gospel truths to life. Lewis found the Way. What do I mean by that? Well, Isaiah, describing the coming of Jesus Christ, proclaims: "The Road of Holiness" (35:8) – that’s my subject today. I want to talk to you about the Road or, if you prefer, the Way.
First we need to imagine what it felt like to be living in Judea in the years before Jesus: God’s people were divided, the Romans were in power, the rulers were corrupt and many people were poor and hungry. People also knew that God had promised to send a Messiah to sort things out, but they only had a vague idea about what that would involve. Last week we looked at John the Baptist’s dramatic entrance onto the scene. At first some thought He was the Saviour, but John made it clear that he was only preparing the Way for someone much greater. Nevertheless he got people panicking with his message – asking them to change their ways before Jesus arrived as the coming of the Saviour was associated with judgement, destruction and the rule of God. It was both frightening and eagerly awaited. However, the kingdom of God is also characterized by something we’ve sung and read about this AM: "JOY to the world the Lord has come." Yes, it’s been over 2,000 years since God sent His Son, but Advent brings the assurance that that truth is not destroyed. Lewis once said that "infinite joy is offered to us", but because, "we are half hearted creatures fooling about with all the wrong things", when the offer comes our way we’re "like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday by the sea!"
I think that’s quite profound – as often we’re looking in the wrong places to make ourselves happy. A couple of weeks ago the government announced plans to measure the nation’s happiness. David Cameron’s thinking behind this is to say that it’s not about money -"prosperity alone cannot bring happiness" – but about people volunteering to help their community and reconnect with their neighbours. But in tough economic times and with the difficulties families face in not earning a decent wage or being out of work – is this simply "airy-fairy" politics – harking back to an ideal world which probably has never really existed? Also, it’s going to cost £2 million pounds to measure our happiness – which makes me "unhappy" as there are more important things. Actually most of us are not satisfied with empty philosophy. Of course in hard and uncertain times we want to see more charity, more kindness, more joy and less war and bloodshed. But we don’t have to return to Narnia to find it. Instead we need to look to Jesus Christ whose birth we celebrate at Christmas "who brought tidings of comfort and joy!" – who brings sustenance and growth to dry lives and as Isaiah puts it: "The desert will rejoice and flowers will bloom in the wastelands. The desert will sing and shout for joy…Everyone will see the Lord’s splendour, his greatness and power." (35:1-2).
Perhaps you’ve seen the standard movie scene where a man is crawling along the desert floor inches from death’s door. His lips are swollen and cracked—tongue parched and dry dust clinging to a sweating brow. He sees an oasis just ahead—only to be crushed as the mirage disappears and despair comes crashing in! Our reading from Isaiah points to an amazing joy. In the desert, where nothing can grow and life is lived in the extreme, God comes with blessing and the desert is transformed. It’s a representation of Jesus, who came into the world to bring peace and happiness; to bring friendship instead of fear. To transform our dry and dusty lives, our broken hearts and parched souls, to give "strength to hands that are tired and to knees that tremble with weakness…don’t be afraid – God is coming to your rescue!" (35:3-4).
Where human hearts seem hard and hope is often all but gone – God is at work in our world. So rejoice with the prophet who anticipates a time when the blind can see, the deaf can hear, the lame will dance and those who cannot speak, will shout the Lord’s praises with joy – for there will be no more desert of pain. Just look to our Advent candles – 3 out of 5 are lit – the significant symbolism of this Sunday is that now the light is greater than the darkness – with Christ’s light new things are possible, as little grows in the dark. When you realise that God cares for you – your heart can’t but help leap for joy. That’s how you measure happiness – as that’s the Way, the Truth, the Life! So rejoice when you see what Christ is doing and this Christmas why not walk with Him on the Road of Holiness!
Jesus reminds us in Matthew’s Gospel, that often we only see what we expect to see. We can be blind and deaf ourselves to what Christmas is all about. We need "our eyes of faith" re-focused, "our ears of faith" cleaned out. John was disappointed when he heard what Jesus was doing. He wasn’t conquering the Romans. He wasn’t cleansing the nation as John believed He should be. Instead Jesus was befriending outsiders, the lost, the destitute, the lonely. He was healing people – setting them free from the bondage of evil – bringing Christmas into a world of winter – which according to Jesus is the Messiah’s main task. And when we make an effort to strive for the road of holiness, to see or even glimpse what the Bible tells us about our Lord and Saviour, we will, like John’s disciples, be able to testify, that everything Isaiah predicted is taking place: "The blind see, the lame can walk, the deaf hear, those who suffer from disease are made clean…Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me." (Mt.11:5-6).
Today, many of us are following "the wrong Way". Our wilderness comes as anxiety, insecurity and fear. Yet this is a wonderful time of year to open our hearts to the One who came to a manger so long ago – as into the barren sands of our toughest times – He can make us bloom as the Desert Flower! Although this joy will transform our Christmas – it’s not the time of greatest joy. For Christians, that comes on Easter AM, when we echo Matthew’s words:"the dead are brought back to life". This side of the cross, we cannot ever forget the joy that we have then, when we greet the resurrected Christ. There is no other Way, but the King’s Highway. Come to Jesus this Christmas!
And all God’s people said…………AMEN!