Archive for January, 2015

Mark 1.14-20; 1Corinthians 7.29-31

This morning we think about time and eternity
The life story of Stephen Hawking is in the cinemas now
Modern physics tells us what a complicated thing time really is

Modern translations of the Bible often do a poor job of telling us what Jesus says about time
The Good News Bible often makes things seem too simple
In Mark 1.15 it has Jesus saying, “The right time has come, and the kingdom of God is near!”
That’s slightly more accurate than the NIV, which says, “The time has come!”

But some other translations say, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near!”
Which is something very different

If we say, “The right time,” that’s just another tick of the clock:
One moment in the series of moments that follow each other in our physical universe
A fixed point when something definite will happen
Like lunch time, dinner time, or bed time

But if we say, “The time is fulfilled,” that’s something completely different
The ‘time’ Jesus speaks of being ‘fulfilled’ is not a moment in a succession of ordinary moments
It is not the end of human time
It is nothing in our time at all: it is God’s time

Jesus says, “the time has been fulfilled,”
That means, in a sense, time is finished

Time, space and matter are all bound up together in our universe
– that’s what Einstein and Stephen Hawking tell us
Our time came into being with the physical universe

We know time isn’t actually finished, because here we all are this morning, 2,000 years later
But the coming of Jesus did something to time
Time is no longer just the sequence of moments we were used to
Everything in our experience after the coming of Christ is different:
We are living in a time when the kingdom has come near

That’s something that Paul recognised very clearly
He writes to the Corinthians, saying, “ brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short”

Once again, some Bible translations are clearer than others about what he means there
He’s not saying, “There isn’t much time left”, which is how the Good News Bible translates what he says
– if that’s what Paul said, he was clearly wrong, because here we still are

It’s not, “The time is short”, or even “The time has become limited”
It’s, “the appointed time has grown short” – which I think means, “the appointed time has drawn near”
– just as the kingdom of God has come near, with the coming of Christ

This view of time and the nearness of the kingdom is not easy to understand
But if we do understand it, we can avoid the common mistakes, of being either too worldly, or too unworldly

If we are too unworldly, we will deny this world
We will say, we should turn our backs on all human concerns and human needs
Because human problems do not matter any more
But of course, to Jesus and his followers, human problems did matter

But if we are too worldly, we will occupy ourselves excluively with good works and social action
— as if the aim of Christian life was to perfect this present world

Jesus speaks of repentance, which means turning around ourselves – turning back to God
Paul also speaks of a re-orientation
– He says, look at your life from another point of view
– instead of looking forwards at the remainder of your life from the present moment, look backwards
– Imagine how your life will look, when you look backwards from the end of ‘the appoiinted time’
– That is how your life will look, from God’s point of view
– All those things which seem so valuable, at the moment: how do they look, from this standpoint?

It’s worth remembering, Paul is talking in this chapter about marriage
About physical and emotional relationships between couples
He is talking to a community of people who think their new spiritual life makes physical things irrelevant
They think they are able to separate themselves from the flesh, and all worldly entanglements
Paul says to them, “Don’t be so sure: it’s not that simple”

It might seem on a superficial reading that Paul is preaching an ascetic life
– Celibacy
– Giving up relationships with family and friends
– Emotional detachment
– Refusing pleasures and shutting ourselves away from the celebrations of family and friends
– Renouncing possessions
– Ceasing to work at one’s occupation or conduct any business

We might imagine Paul is saying we should all live as monks and nuns
– Or that we should go out to the desert and live alone in huts or caves
But that is not what he is saying

He is saying, realise how near the kingdom has come
Know that the scale of human values has altered radically

Paul says, the ‘appointed time’ is so close, we must live now as if it had already come
We still have wives and husbands; we still mourn; we still rejoice; we still buy and sell
But all these things exist now in the shadow of a reality that eclipses them

Paul does not say, “Have no dealings with the world”; he says, “Deal with the world AS IF you had no dealings with it”
– Be in this world, but not of it
– A paradoxical way of saying, do the necessary; but maintain your detachment
– Admit you are flesh and blood: but realise that what is real about you is what Christ has redeemed
– Live your life: but don’t invest spiritually in this world
– Don’t let the things of this world become the treasures of your heart
Because anything created in time will end in time
But the time that is fulfilled in the coming of Christ will never end


Psa 139.1-6, 13-18; John 1.43-51

What does it mean to be followers of Jesus?
Jesus, we know, is the way, the truth and the life – we know he is, because he says he is
As followers of Jesus, we follow the way of truth, to the source of life

You can’t follow Jesus by standing still
For his disciples that was literally true – because Jesus moved around
For us it remains the case – because the truth of the gospel is revealed in action

But following is yet another of those common words whose meaning has begun to drift
And it we do not look after it carefully, we might begin to lost sight of it

‘Follow’ is an ordinary word: a common verb, one we probably use every day
But there are many ways of following, and different kinds of followers

Some people like to follow other people on social media, like Twitter
Some people like to follow their friends; some people like to follow politicans or celebrities

You can judge someone’s influence by how many followers they have on Twitter
This is worrying
The most popular person on Twitter is … Katy Perry
If you already knew this, you should be ashamed
There are some things it’s better not to know

Katy Perry has more than 63m followers
That’s 4m more than Justin Bieber; 10m more than Barrack Obama
30m more than Twitter itself; 43m more than Bill Gates, who helped make Twitter possible
50m more than BBC Breaking News; 53m more than the Dalai Lama (who has only slightly fewer followers than Puff Diddy)

What do you get if you follow Katy Perry?
Her last tweets were an odd mixture:
– She posted a picture of her dog
– She said she wants to be the Lucille Ball of pop music (thus mystifying two generations at once – one who didn’t know who Lucille Ball was, the other who had never heard of Katy Perry)
– She advertised a clothes shop
– She promoted someone else’s record
Sometimes she comments on other people’s tweets
Sometimes she posts selfies

Does this matter?
Katy Perry has less power than Barrack Obama, less credibility than the BBC, less moral authority than the Dalai Lama, and a lot less money than Bill Gates (and probably even Puff Diddy)

It doesn’t take much effort to follow Katy Perry (or even Puff Diddy)
All you have to do is open a Twitter account, then click on a link
You never know, she might decide to follow you too (but you stand a better chance with Justin Bieber)
But it’s hard to see what you get out of following Katy Perry on Twitter
Small effort; small rewards

Why do people follow celebrities online?
It’s a recent progression from being a fan

People began to talk about baseball ‘fans’ in the nineteenth century
It comes from the word ‘fancy’ – like ‘pigeon fanciers’ today
The point is, these terms point to an enthusiasm for something that is absorbing, and uncritical – when you become a fan, you suspend your normal judgment

There’s a large element of escapism in beng a fan
You become less of your own person, by identifying with someone else
You seek your own experiences and fulfil your own ambitions vicariously

Superstars and celebrities encourage this kind of excessive identification
They encourage it by sharing supposedly intimate and confidential details of their lives
At one time they did it through fan clubs, now they do it through social media

They turn their fans into virtual stalkers – and stalking someone else leaves you less time to be yourself
Your life and identity are swallowed up in the life of the celebrity you follow

The online life of celebrities is a fantasy
It’s cooked up between a star, their manager and their publicist
To follow that star is to invest in that fantasy; it makes everything less real

Some people think Christians are fans of Jesus Christ
To some extent that’s true
But to follow Jesus is not to invest in a fantasy – it’s precisely the opposite
It doesn’t mean your life is swallowed up in someone else’s
When we folow Christ our life becomes our own in a way it never was before

Paul talks about some parts of our life and experience being swallowed up in Christ
But the part that is swallowed up is death
Death, and the sin and false hopes that lead to death

So as Christians we are fans of Jesus; followers of Jesus
But you can’t be a passive follower of Jesus
You can’t follow Jesus by clicking on a link
You can’t follow Jesus by reading the gossip columns

Following Jesus means doing something: making a commitment
Letting go of some things; trying to lay hold of something else

Following Jesus is in some ways like a walker following a map – discovering where you are, and where you’re really going
Translating symbols on the page into features on the ground

Following Jesus is in some ways like an engineer following a drawing – turning lines on a page into something solid and three-dimensional
Something that others can see
Something fit for purpose

Following Jesus means trying to be more like Jesus
Looking at the world through Jesus’ eyes, and seeing where his word needs to be heard and lived out
Looking into ourselves, and finding ourselves called to become more like Jesus
Following Jesus means discovering more of what God intended for us, from the beginning
Because God’s will for humanity was perfectly revealed in Christ

When we follow Jesus, we discover for ourselves the true meaning of those words in Genesis: that we are ‘made in the image and likeness of God’

Genesis 1.1-5; Mark 1.4-11

At Christmas, the church remembers Christ’s birth
In early January, the church goes on to reflect on his baptism
Jesus was baptised, of course, in the Jordan by John
Baptism by John was the sign Jesus chose to mark the beginning of his ministry on earth

It’s the same every year, in churches that follow the common lectionary
The lectionary operates on a three year cycle
– In Year A, we hear Matthew’s version of the baptism; in Year B we hear Mark’s version, as we did today; in Year C we hear Luke’s version

Today, it’s also our covenant service
It’s the same in many Methodist churches: the first sacrament service after Christmas is the covenant service
That means, every year, we finding ourselves trying to answer the same question:
– What is the relationship between covenant and baptism?
That is a difficult question, and not every Christian theologian would answer it in the same way
Is baptism a human action, or a divine one?
Is it a transaction between God and the individual believer, or is it something that concerns the people of God collectively?
Do we make our vows at baptism once and for all, or do we have to go on renewing them because of our sins and our lack of faith?

Then we hear the other lectionary readings for today, on the theme of Creation
We realise that the compilers of the lectionary saw a connection between creation and baptism
We know the apostle Paul saw a similar connection, because he said so in Second Corinthians: “if anyone is in Christ, [in other words, if they have been baptised into Christ], there is a new creation “ (2Co 5.17)

So how are these three things related: covenant, sacraments, and creation?
What do they have in common?
How does understanding one of them help us understand the others?

Creation reveals to us how absolute God’s power is
The covenant reveals how determined he is to form a relationship with us
The sacraments reveal how far God will go, in order to come us

In all of these things, we are reminded that we have no power over God
– God creates and sustains the universe and everything in it without any help from us
– God makes a covenant with us, but it is not a negotiated settlement: God sets the terms
– It is God who commands us to perform the sacramental acts of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and it is God who determines what they mean and what they do

But these three things also remind us that we are not mere things: we have our own mind, we have our own will, and we have responsibilities
– We are part of God’s creation, but we are also stewards of God’s creation
– God makes his covenant with us, and because God is faithful it cannot be broken; but moment by moment we can choose whether or not to honour it in our lives
– Jesus commands us to share the sacraments in his name and in his memory, but we decide in what spirit we receive them

In other words, the ultimate power always lies with God: but it’s up to us by our own actions to determine whether we will experience God’s power as a blessing as a curse
– If we abuse our stewardship of creation, we will have to live with the results
– If we do not honour God’s covenant with us, we will live with our own brokenness
– If we do not properly share in the sacraments, we will with the consequences of our deliberate separation from the body of Christ

The alternative is,
– To make our lives in the midst of creation a continual act of praise and prayer to the God of creation
– To continually reflect on our relationship with God symbolised by the covenant
– to rejoice in the fact that we are the people God has chosen to bless, and chosen as the people through whom he will bless the whole world
– To reflect each time we share the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, that we all share in the salvation given through the one perfect man, that we share in the one blessing and the one perfect peace

The difference between these two ways of being is as radically opposed as order and chaos, curses and blessings
It’s as clear as night and day

Matthew 2.1-12

How do you picture your faith? Is it a treasure chest, or a medicine cabinet?
Do people know you have it?
Do you let people see it, or do you keep it hidden away?
Is it something that enriches your life? Do you glory in it?
Or is it just a painkiller?
Do you offer it to everyone, or is it just for your own private use?
Do you open it up every day, or is it just for emergencies?

There’s something closed in and cautious about a medicine cabinet
A medicine cabinet has all the potential ingredients for self-pity
Faith should be like a treasure chest: full of riches ready to be shared

We don’t know much about the wise men from the East
We don’t know if they were priests or kings
We don’t know if they were scientists or astrologers
We do know they had treasure chests

The treasure chests in this story puzzle me
The image we all have in our minds I’m sure is of three wise men
Three treasure chests
Three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh
One lump of gold, one stick of incense, one bottle of perfume

If that’s all they bring, why do they need the treasure chests?
If you only have one little bit of something, do you really need a treasure chest to put it in?
Why not just stick it in your pocket?

So I think we need to change our mental image
These weren’t just little token gifts: these were chests overflowing with treasure
With the gold and spices and perfumes of the land they traveled from

We think too often about the negative things the Bible says about riches
It’s impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven
Sell all you have and give to the poor: Then come and follow me

We think the life of a disciple is one of poverty
We think it involves self-denial
Living in want; lots of hunger and hardship

But Jesus actually wants us to be rich
Not rich in money or worldly goods, but rich with the treasures of the Word

Jesus said to his disciples, “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” Matthew 13:52 (NRSV)

A lot of people have a medicinal attitude to Scripture
They force down a chapter a day, then sit back and wait for it to do them some good
To create a warm, spiritual feeling

That’s not how it works
You study Scripture to fill up your treasure chest
Then you pick it up, take it out, and look for someone else who needs it

The value of this kind of treasure isn’t measured in money
The value of this kind of treasure is its beauty
When you keep it in the dark it’s dull, and nobody sees it
But when you bring it out of its treasure house, it catches the light
It shines; it sparkles; it becomes radiant

A couple of months ago I talked about the cult of celebrity in modern society
The cult of celebrity that also grows up in some churches, and around certain leaders
I said, what God wants isn’t shiny people; it’s people who will shine
Not people who cultivate an image, but people who project his light
How do we do that?

Earlier on this morning we looked at a pasage from Isaiah
A passage that seems to prophecy the coming of the wise men
And also the proclamation of the light of the gospel to all nations

The first two words of that passage are, ‘Arise; shine:
Arise, shine; for your light has come,

and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

This is a prophetic passage
Prophetic, because it points like a sign to things we expect to come
But prophetic too because it challenges us:

The story of the wise men is a challenge
The wise men show us how to respond to the revelation of the glory of God in the coming of Christ
They see that the light has come; and in response, they rise and shine

They arise: they get up and go
They bring out their treasure from their treasure store, and carry it as a gift
They faithfully follow the light of the star
They proclaim its significance to other people – even if they make mistakes in the process

Later, other people may follow them
But now, all that matters is to find the baby and worship Him

They arise, and they also shine
Their story shines with a light we can still see and follow today

This is the end of the Christmas season
The January gloom wants to swallow us up
The world wants us to sit and home and say nothing about what we have seen, and what we believe

But Scripture says, Arise: shine
Jesus says, bring out your treasure; let it shine in the world, and reveal the coming glory of God

Luke 2.1-14

It’s very odd, this pronouncement: This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.
When you’ve seen an angel, surely that’s enough?
Even if one angel doesn’t convince you, surely a whole choir of angels will to the trick?
Do you need the swaddling bands as well?
Did the shepherds need these homely items to confirm the angel’s words?

There are different traditions surrounding the significance of swaddling bands at this time
One is that the bride spent the time before her wedding embroidering the bands with which the couple’s hands would be wrapped under the wedding canopy.
Later these bands would also be used to secure blankets or swaddling clothes around the couple’s infant children.

Another tradition is that shepherds would bind the newborn lambs used in the Temple sacrifice with strips of cloth and lay them in a manger so they would not get trampled, as they could not be blemished.
These preparations are said to have been made at a place near Bethlehem

What exactly was a “swaddling band”?
It was made from linen or cotton material and was five to six yards long, and four or five inches wide

When the baby was born, the mid-wife first washed the baby in water
Then laid out the baby on a square piece of cloth
Then sprinkle and gently rub the baby’s body was with finely powdered salt.

Salt symbolized the qualities of truth and honesty. Bathing a newborn in salt water indicated that the child would have these characteristics. His words would be “salted”.

This ritual was also a formal acknowledgement by the family of the child’s legitimacy
Hence that reading in Ezekiel comparing unfaithful Israel to a child that wasn’t washed, and wasn’t salted, and wasn’t swaddled

I’d like to mention one more passage
That passage comes from an apocryphal book, the Wisdom of Solomon
Which goes like this:

I also am mortal, like everyone else,

a descendant of the first-formed child of earth;

and in the womb of a mother I was moulded into flesh …

And when I was born, I began to breathe the common air,

and fell upon the kindred earth;

my first sound was a cry, as is true of all.

I was nursed with care in swaddling cloths.

For no king has had a different beginning of existence;

there is for all one entrance into life, and one way out.

The great tradition about Solomon is that when God appeared to him in a dream and offered to grant him anything he asked for, Solomon asked for nothing
– Nothing but wisdom
So God granted him wisdom, and everything else too
Riches and power and greatness above all other kings

Greatness above all other kings is the quality that links Solomon to the Messiah
The swaddling bands are a symbol of their common humanity – the humanity they share with us all

No one tells Mary to wrap the child in swaddlnig bands, at least not in the accounts we have in the Bible – she just does it
It’s a practical thing to do
It may also may a symbolic thing to do – a prophetic gesture
A proclamation of who and what she knows her child to be

The ordinariness of this prophetic act is the message for Christians
We don’t go about our lives surrounded by angels proclaiming the wonder of what we do in the name of Christ
– At least we can’t see or hear them
But we can be conscious of offering the world a sign
A sign of the reality of what we believe in
A sign that we believe in the reign of the coming king, whose coming into the world we remember and celebrate this morning

Colossians 1.13-20

It’s Christmas, and naturally lots of families are preparing for a good old festive dust up
People who don’t see each other every day and don’t usually spend much time with each other are going to shut themselves up together
They are going to eat too much, and have too much to drink
They are going to deprive themselves of their comfortable routines, and most of their usual safety valves, like nipping down to the shops or seeing other friends
They are going to try to be unnaturally jolly to everyone at all times
They are going to try going without their usual alone time
No wonder people snap

Hopefully the quarrels are over and the apologies made before Boxing Day
Hopefully everyone goes home happy

Sometimes a quarrel sets the scene for a better relationship afterwards
Sometimes there is a genuine reconciliation

‘Reconciliation’ is a funny word
You find it often in the Old Testament: and there it usually means paying the price of sin, by offering a sacrifice
But in the New Testament Paul is the only writer who uses it:
and even he uses it just a few times
Like here: ‘through [Christ], God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Reconciliation has several senses in English
It means re-establishing friendship and respect between people who have quarreled
In diplomacy, it means ending a conflict by creating a new agreement
In accounting, it means checking that the books are straight: for example, that your bank statement agrees with your own accounts

In theology, reconcliation is a shift from hostility to peace
That doesn’t mean God stops being hostile to us: divine hostility was never the problem
The problem was, the hostility of a sinful world to God
Animal sacrifice isn’t the answer
The world’s hostility can only be overcome through Christ
Christ makes God’s forgiveness possible, by surrendering himself to the world’s hostility:
not sinners in the hand of an angry God, but God in the hands of angry sinners

Let’s ask ourselves a difficult question: after a quarrel have we just smoothed things over?
Or have we genuinely reached a better understanding?
Have we both confessed our faults to each other and offered forgiveness?
Or have we held something back?
Did we just say ‘sorry’ for the sake of politeness?
Or pounce on someone else’s weakness, their unwillingness to make a scene, and extort an apology we didn’t deserve?

That’s the difference between us and God
When God decided we should be reconciled, he held nothing back
The fault wasn’t his: but he made the first move
To achieve reconciliation, he made a very costly sacrifice

He didn’t ask us to meet him halfway
All he asked us to do, was to recognise how far he had come
The infant Christ in the manger is a historic reality
He is also a potent symbol of what God was prepared to do to reconcile us to himself

Last time I was here, two weeks ago, you might remember I talked about the different sense of the Hebrew word galaw, which means ‘reveal’
As in Isaiah 40.5, ‘the glory of the Lord shall be revealed’

I went through some of its less obvious meanings
Like its root meaning, which is to humiliate someone, by stripping them naked
Or its more symbolic meaning of captivity or exile, because invading armies would strip their captives naked before they marched them off to sell them as slaves

I missed out the most obvious example of those different meanings
The nakedness of the newborn Christ child is the greatest revelation in history up to that point of the glory of God
Christ is truly an exile; he is exiled twice over
He leaves the side of the Father and comes to his own, but his people reject him: he becomes the outcast who has no place to lay his head
Christ takes the form of a slave, as Paul says in Philippians: he lays aside his dignity and his title
In all these ways, Christ reveals the glory of God

Why did God do this?
Because the greatest revelation of his glory we can receive is to be reconciled to him
God reconciles us not by punishing us, or forcing us to apologise on our knees
But by offering through Christ a genuine reconciliation
Making atonement possible: making us genuinely one with him

Colossians 1.13-20

Who was Jesus? Who was the baby in the manger?
If we say he was a great moral teacher, that is not saying very much
There are plenty of other great moral teachers
Moses, the Hebrew prophets, the Buddha, the Chinese philosophers, Mohammed

We don’t really need other people inventing clever ways to tell us we are wrong
We already know
We live in a world filled with examples of the wrongs people do
We might hire people to think about the nature of wrongdoing: that’s what philosophers do
We might hire people to catch people doing wrong: that’s what the police do
We might hire people to put wrongdoers in prison: that’s what judges do
We might hire people to take money from people we think have done us wrong: that’s what lawyers do [Though they always take our own money first]

What we can’t hire anyone to do is to point out where evil really comes from
To track it right back to its source, and then do something to put it right

Only God can do that: God, the creator of the moral universe
And even then, he can only do it by entering the world he made: God, the creator of the physical universe
And even then, he can only do it by entering the world as one of the creatures in whom sin and wrongdoing originated
By entering the world as a human being
By living a life in which he simply sought to follow God
To bend his human will to the will of God the Father in heaven

The world has moved on since the time of Jesus
Anyone born in the time of Jesus would hardly recognise the world we live in today
Except for the problem of sin: the difference between what we are, and what God wants us to be
And all the evils that spring from that difference

We can hardly begin to imagine all that Christ has done for us
We can only picture it as the difference between light and darkness
The contrast between freedom and captivity: between the open air and the dungeon

It’s like waking up to a world made fresh and new
Like stepping off a treadmill

Faith in Christ isn’t one of the options: it’s the only option
Christ is the way, the truth and the life
way of reconciliation: the truth of God’s Word speaking directly to us: the life of purpose, hope and meaning we have been searching for hopelessly on our own

Isaiah 40.1-11

As Christmas approaches we probably feel ready for some cosy familiar stories and some old familiar songs
But Advent is a time of preparation: a time to put in some serious effort to understand just what the coming of Christ really means
So today we’re going to study a little bit of Hebrew

Preachers often used to let their congregations hear a long passage of Scripture
And then announce that they were going to take as their text for the day just one verse
Or maybe not even whole verse: just half a verse
Or even just a few words

Today, I am going one better
I am going to preach on a single word from these verses from Isaiah
The Hebrew word gahlaw – a word which is translated here in verse 5 as ‘reveal’

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

I’m sure you’ve heard of Strong’s Concordance
Or Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible to give it its full title.
It appeared in 1890. James Strong was a Methodist minister

What Strong’s concordance allows you to do easily, is to find every occurrence of any given Hebrew or Greek word in the Bible
But in case you don’t have time to do that, he also gives you a definition for each word

What Strong’s Concordance shows is that our word gahlaw is a word that crops up very often: 188 times
It has been in use for a very long time
Over its history, it has appeared with many different meanings: because Hebrew evolved, just as English and other contemporary languages have evolved, and continue to evolve

Some of these meanings might surprise us, if we think of ‘reveal’ as a biblical word that mainly refers to divine revelation

Strong’s Concordance tells us its earliest meaning is to denude (especially in a disgraceful or shameful sense)
The first time it appears in the Bible is in Genesis, in the story of Noah, after the Flood
Noah becomes a farmer, he plants a vineyard, and he makes wine
He gets drunk and collapses in an undignified heap: as Genesis puts it,

He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. (Gen 9:21)

Much later, priests in the temple are also warned not to go demeaning their office by undignified public behaviour. Priests are told in the book of Exodus,

You shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it.’ (Exo 20:26)

Don’t let anyone look up your skirt, in other words: celebrities please take note

Uncovering becomes a sexual metaphor, and so gahlaw appears literally dozens of times in Leviticus and the other books of the Law to refer to forbidden behaviours:

None of you shall approach any one of his close relatives to uncover their nakedness. (Lev 18:6)

A surprising meaning of gahlaw is to send into exile or go into captivity
We won’t see the connection between nakedness and being sent into exile unless we realise that in the Ancient Near East, captives being marched off into slavery were usually stripped;
– we see naked captives in ancient Assyrian carvings being led off in chains

Captivity and exile are the senses of gahlaw we find in the books of Kings and Chronicles: first the northern kingdom of Israel is marched into exile by the Assyrians
Then the southern kingdom of Judea is exiled by the Babylonians

The king of Assyria captured Samaria, and he carried the Israelites away to Assyria … And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt (2Ki 17:6-7)

[The king of Babylon] carried away all Jerusalem and all the officials and all the mighty men of valour, 10,000 captives, and all the craftsmen and the smiths. None remained, except the poorest people of the land. (2Ki 24:14)

So that’s two sense of gahlaw: physical exposure, and captivity or exile

But divine revelation is also one of the meanings of gahlaw we see in Genesis:

Jacob built an altar and called the place El-bethel, because there God had revealed himself to him when he fled from his brother. (Gen 35:7)

Sometimes God is revealed in visions; but more often he is revealed in Scripture
The Law is the most important form of divine revelation, because it is available to all God’s people. In Deuteronomy:

The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. (Deu 29:29)

In the Psalms:

Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law. (Psa 119:18)

We see all these senses coming together when we hear how God reveals his glory by redeeming his people, freeing them from captivity and bringing them out of darkness:

In the book of Job:

[God] uncovers the deeps out of darkness and brings deep darkness to light. (Job 12:22)

In the Psalms:

His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him. The LORD has made known his salvation; he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations. (Psa 98:1-2)

In Isaiah, speaking when the exiles had been called home from Babylon:

Thus says the LORD: “In a time of favour I have answered you; in a day of salvation I have helped you; I will keep you and give you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages, saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out,’ to those who are in darkness, ‘Appear.’ (Isa 49:8-9)

Let’s remind ourselves of the verse we are studying:

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

We might ask, did whoever wrote this passage in Isaiah intend us to see all these meanings in this single word, revealed?

We can’t answer that question
We don’t even know exactly when this passage was written, nor who wrote it, let alone what was in their minds
The only evidence we have for what this passage means is what we see on the page

But I think you can easily see, in the history of this ancient Hebrew word you can find the whole of salvation history
God reveals himself to us in creation
He reveals himself by giving us his law
Our human folly robs us of the dignity God intended for us: we reveal our fallen nature by our shameful behaviour

God constantly reveals himself to us: but we just as constantly turn away
So finally God reveals himself to us by judging us, and sending us away from his presence into exile

But then, when the time of judgment is over, he reveals himself by bringing us out of darkness, freeing us from captivity and leading us home

In this time of Advent, we remember the time of Christ’s coming
We reflect on how, in the the Incarnation, all of salvation history and all previous revelations of the divine presence come together
The Incarnation brings everything into sharp focus

God reveals himself to us perfectly in Jesus Christ
What do we know of Christ? How do we reveal Christ to others?
Those are the things we ought to think about in these days leading up to Christmas