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God so loved the world

We all know Beethoven’s fifth symphony, the great C minor, even if we think we don’t. It is a sequence of four notes only - one short note there times repeated followed by a longer note lower down the scale. It’s a musical phrase that appears from the first bar of the symphony to the last. And in the Second World War these four notes were used as the secret Victory sign for conquered Europe. Beethoven was asked what the notes meant and he replied, famously, “Thus Fate knocks at the door”. It feels like that, certainly: the sudden dramatic opening, the repeated notes, the repeated echoes all convey a vividness - a rap, a tap at a closed door and a peremptory summons to draw back the locks and face whatever awaits you.

Do you recall De La Mare’s poem about a man knocking at the door of a lonely house in the depths of a dark forest? “For he suddenly smote on the door, even/Louder, and lifted his head:-/ ‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,/That I kept my word.”

Today, when the depressed fatalist can only hear the relentless march of history, when we see again and again the despair of a world deaf to God’s knocking, may I remind you of those beloved words found in Revelation 3:20? “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If ANYONE hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” Above the clamour of this confused, bewildered, violent, apathetic age there comes a deeper sound - a more penetrating, unmistakable call, a clarion announcement to wake us from our sleep - telling us that it isn’t Fate knocking on the door of our life, but God himself, who desires above all things to come in. He wants to be friends with us. He wants to be our companion. He wants intimacy with us. And opening the door means taking a deliberate personal decision to respond to him, to let him be involved in your life. And he says to us, to each one of us, echoing the words De La Mare put in his poem, “I have come, I have kept my word”.

The most famous verse in the bIble says it so well: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Now listen carefully. We measure Love by three indicators:

1. The IDENTITY of the Lover: The greater the Lover the

greater the Love

2. The OBJECT of that Love: The lesser the object the greater

the Love

3. The EXPRESSION of that Love: The greater the expression

the more marvellous the Love.

My purpose in being in Sligo, to quote some words of Anselm, is to speak of a love “than which no greater can be conceived.” And I tell you, with all my heart, this Love seeks entrance into your life - this love is knocking on the door of your life...can you hear him?

God’s love in Christ is as wide as the universe. The central fact of your life is not your nationality, or race, or colour, or education, or literacy, or orthodoxy, or whether you are a capitalist or a communist, or whether you are rich or poor, or whether you are male or female, or whether you are gay or straight - NO! The central fact of your life is that God is not ashamed to be friends with you.

From the heights of heaven, out of the infinite serenity of the eternal world, God in Christ came down to our level, bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh - and he came down, undressing all the way, and he came down into the inferno of sin’s ugliness and the shame that these sins create. He came, as David in one of his psalms, right down into the pit with us, right deep down into the miry clay, down, down to every poor pathetic creature who has ever sunk into hell. “Never yet abyss was found/Deeper than Thy love can sound.”

Here we are, “frail children of dust, feeble as frail”, we who have made a sorry messed up tangle of our lives, and yet we are lifted up by grace, treated like sons and daughters - no, better, like kings and queens. Do you not see how valued you are? Is not your breath taken away when you think of the lengths Christ went to, to bring us home.

God entered his own world the first Christmas. From henceforth, God will be human - for God is like Christ and in him there is no unChristlikeness at all. We human beings are taken up into God, for he became what we are so that we could become what he is. He takes his world that he created so seriously and we who live in it so seriously that he becomes embodied and embedded in it, sharing the very stuff of our lives, the very warp and woof so to speak, from the inside. That’s what it means when the Bible speaks, “The Word became flesh.” God crossed the widest gap in his universe, the gaping gulf between him and us, and he plumbed the depths, descending to our humanity, being both fully God and becoming fully man. (Think of a song: a song to be sung needs both words and music - so Jesus is both fully God and fully man, and as such he sings to us of the love of God before the world.)

The Ultimate became intimate. The Almighty God became a weak wee thing in his own creation. From then on, he was to walk around in our company, and he would eat and drink with us, and he promises to stay with us for ever, the same forever alongside us, the same in us by his Spirit, so that we too become God- carriers.

And the message of God’s love is contained in the three great keywords of John’s gospel: LIGHT, LOVE and LIFE.

Understand this, in this dark and baffled world, in this confused sinful world, there has broken the brightest dawn: a LIGHT stronger than any sin or confusion, a piercing, revealing light which is stronger and more splendid than any spiritual blindness. This LIGHT is pure and holy, and no darkness can master it, or overcome it. That’s why the skies thrilled with rapture at his first coming: “Glory to God in the heavenly heights, peace to all men and women on earth who please him.” (Luke 2:13,14, The Message.)

But then, and oh the wonder of it, lest we be overwhelmed with the terror of this brilliance, lest our flesh be overpowered, this LIGHT is LOVE. Light without Love would only breed despair. And LOVE without LIGHT would be powerless to reach my sinful soul. Remember the words of Charles Wesley? “Long my imprisoned spirit lay/Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;/Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, - /I woke, the dungeon famed with light;/My chains fell off, my heart was free,/I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.”

And on the Cross this LIGHT and LOVE endured the desolation of our sinful condition. It was as if he carried all the sins of the whole world. There, hanging between heaven and earth, he was plunged into the deepest experience of being lost, and desolate, of being abandoned. In his gracious desire to communicate with us, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity decided to become human and he entered all the darkness, the loneliness, the fear, the brokenness and estrangement, the frustration, the anger, the bitterness, the depression, the envy, the jealousy, the strife, the lust, the slander, the isolation, the guilt, the sorrow, the sadness, and even the murder of our human condition. Into this non-being and extinction (as Athanasius saw it) Christ entered, crossing all possible worlds, to lift us up out of the miry pit, and place us next to him, with a new song in our hearts - a song of praise and deliverance to our God.

Human existence, broken and estranged from God as it is, must be radically recreated, utterly transformed, and put back together again, whole and healed - what the Bible calls “reconciled.”

And Jesus died on the cross so all this could be accomplished. He died there because the Father could not and would not forsake us. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” He died not to change God, but to change us. He died that awful abandonment to do away with our alienation and estrangement. His life for ours. In TF Torrance’s memorable phrase, Christ hammered fallen Adamic existence back into real relationship with the Father - with every nail smashed into his body and every sin held to his account.

Darkness comes over the whole land as Jesus died, and the shining of the sun was miraculously obscured. It was as if the very universe itself expressed the displeasure of the sins of the world being laid on Jesus.

And thus together, the LIGHT and the LOVE produce LIFE. And this LIFE is sin-cleansing, sin-forgiving, death-defying, life-giving and eternally yours for the taking. “To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God - children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision, or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:12,13)

Can you hear him knocking? He’s kept his word and he has come for you. And he is the same saving Christ he has ever been, the rescuing God, who is the Word of the Lord for you, full of grace and truth. Everything you need, and everything you may ever need, is here for you: hope when all hope has failed, courage when all seems broken and bust, light in your most terrible darkness, forgiveness for all your sins, friendship when you are feeling lonely and afraid - a wonderful welcome awaits you.

The Christian faith is not a creed you have to recite, but something by which you are carried. Better, you are borne by someone - Jesus Christ, the Son of God himself - and he is here for you, release and liberty and life with an endless song at its heart, much more beautiful and powerful and illuminating than anything Beethoven ever composed.

To be a Christian is to know deep within the carrying, caring, loving power of God Almighty, and underneath you now, throughout life and when you come to die, you will know the support of everlasting arms, lifting you out of the grave, and bearing you to his joyful side.

As the carol says, “Though Christ a thousand times in Bethlehem be born/ if he is not born in you, you are still forlorn.”

Christ says to each of us right now: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20)

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