The Torch – 2014, Issue 5

Torch Trust
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The Torch Trust for the Blind
A charity registered in England and Wales no. 1095904
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“Incarnation” is a Christmassy word. It is one of those Christian big words that maybe so familiar to us through the words of Christmas carols and readings that the sound of it is comforting even if the meaning is unclear. Literally it means “taking on flesh” and Christians use it to capture how God’s Son was born as a human baby in Bethlehem about two thousand years ago.

Two of the four Gospel writers, Matthew and Luke, start with their accounts of the birth of Jesus. Mark opens with John the Baptist telling people to look out for Jesus. But John dives straight in with an explanation of what is really going on. Referring to Jesus, God’s Son, as “the Word” he explains: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14).

“Incarnation” is a big word and it expresses a bigger idea - it’s certainly easier to say it than it is to grasp everything it means! How can it be that Jesus can be both fully human and utterly divine at the same time? God and man. Creature and Creator. It’s mind-blowing.

Sometimes poetry helps express things that are beyond our understanding. Here are some words from a classic Christmas hymn, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, that eloquently express the truth of the incarnation:

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Something I heard a young preacher say recently has a startling clarity: “Jesus is God with skin on”. Philip, a disciple of Jesus, asked Jesus to show them the father and he replied: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). An old hymn has the beautiful poetic line: “Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man”.

The Incarnation. Incomprehensible? Beyond understanding? Yes, it is! Totally amazing, I’d say! Especially when we look at how it happened.

Jesus’ life in humanity started out in total weakness - as a newborn infant - and ended in total weakness - as crucified victim. In the way we tend to judge human worth, he amounted to nothing. He gained no qualifications, wrote no books, received no awards, held no office, built no monuments, owned no property. The nearest he got to recognition was the parody of a king’s triumphal entry to his capital involving an immature donkey!

This would have been no surprise to the prophet Isaiah who looked forward to the coming of Jesus, whom he called The Servant.

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised,
and we held him in low esteem. (Isaiah 53:2-3)

Yet God’s entry into humanity in Jesus changed everything and forever.

His extraordinary life revealed to us the character of God and sets the definitive pattern for our own living. His death on the cross secured our salvation and his resurrection assured us of eternal life. As Paul writes, “For God was in Christ [Jesus], reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19)

The Incarnation was a singular turning point in the whole of human history. Jesus changed people’s lives then and he still changes people’s lives today.  

So what does The Incarnation mean for me the day after Christmas Day? Jesus made it clear that when he was gone we were to carry on his work. Though none of us could ever be God incarnate in the way Jesus was - perfectly human and eternally God at one and the same time - we are to live incarnationally - to be the hands and feet and voice of Jesus in the world today. What does that look like when we are not in a holy huddle at church on Sunday? Best look at how Jesus lived!

Opposing evil and injustice, standing up for God’s way, concerned and compassionate, coming alongside the outcast, affirming the rejected and dejected, making a difference in the lives of ordinary people, encouraging and blessing.

Some follow the tradition of making New Year resolutions. By and large I don’t, mainly because I have so often failed to keep them, even for a day! But I’m going to make one this year and I invite you to join me. I’m going to resolve to live more like Jesus - Jesus who lived as God would have lived because he was God living a human existence in a physical place in a human community. That’s the amazing Incarnation!

So Christmas comes around again. It’s our annual opportunity to celebrate the amazing incarnation - of God becoming human - the coming of our Jesus, our Saviour and our Lord.

Because God forever knows what being human feels like, he understands the stresses and strains of life. Where is God when it’s all going wrong? The Incarnation tells us God is with us - and never more so than when there’s trouble. God is with us not just in the sense of being near - and that’s true whether we feel it or not - but is with us also in the sense of standing with us - of solidarity. He is our advocate.

There’s that other Christmas word that reinforces this vital truth: “Emmanuel”, which simply means God with us.

So we send our heartfelt Christmas greetings and offer this reminder that God is with us wherever we are through every day of the year, and beyond.

Gordon Temple and the editors

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(taken from New Testament words by Canon Desmond Treanor)

Born in a stable and brought up in the home of a village carpenter, Jesus Christ was always one of the poor (John 12:8). He owned nothing and, because he was constantly on the move, he knew only too well that “foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). As Paul says, “He became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

To a young man who came to ask him what he should do in order to have eternal life, Jesus said, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Matthew 19:16-21). Francis Bacon was right when he observed that, “Money is like muck [fertiliser]: not good unless it is spread”.

Christ constantly pointed out the danger of riches which, he said, can be like thorns that choke the good seed of the Word (Matthew 13:22). But he did not condemn the possession of wealth or of worldly goods. Nor did he call the rich man who built larger barns “wicked”. He simply said that he was a fool (Luke 12:16-21) and underlined how difficult it is for anyone who is money-orientated to get his eternal priorities right. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:33ff). “How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:25). “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10).

The Old Testament has a great many references to “the poor”, meaning those who lack this world’s goods but also those who are downtrodden and oppressed; those who have no influence, prestige or power and who, in consequence, put their whole trust in God. The two main Greek words (used a total of just over 30 times in the NT) reflect these different shades of meaning. “Penes” describes the working man or any person for whom life is a struggle. But “ptochos” is a far stronger term. Coming from a verb which means to cower, it is the word for abject, not genteel, poverty. Applicable when someone has absolutely nothing and faces starvation, significantly this is the term used in the Beatitudes!

In the New Testament the words “poor” and “rich” frequently have an ethical and religious content rather than an economic one. An obvious illustration of this is when our Lord said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3) and “Blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20). He means blessed, or truly happy, is the person who has a deep sense of his own poverty in the sight of God and who sincerely feels that he must pray, like the tax collector in the temple, “God be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). Such a person fully appreciates his or her own helplessness and desperate need of the riches of God’s grace.

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A Pause for Christmas thought!

God became man to turn creatures into sons; not simply to produce better men of the old kind, but to produce a new kind of man.

C S Lewis

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Old Testament characters

By Michael Stafford

22. Elijah (part 2)

In the previous issue of The Torch we looked at the first part of Elijah’s life, involving his confidence, his triumph and his fear. We will now look at the remainder of his life and consider his boldness, his dire predictions and his translation to heaven.

1. The Prophet of Justice

1 Kings chapter 21 tells the story of how the wicked king of Israel, Ahab, tried to force a poor man called Naboth to let him have his vineyard. Naboth refused as it was his family inheritance, so Ahab sulked until his very wicked wife, Jezebel, contrived to get Naboth killed. Ahab then went and took the vineyard.

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite: “Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who rules in Samaria. He is now in Naboth’s vineyard, where he has gone to take possession of it. Say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?’ Then say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood - yes, yours!’”. (1 Kings 21:17-19)

Not only Ahab, but also his wicked wife, Jezebel, was to die for her sins. However, before either of them died, Ahab repented and God had mercy on him, but his wife never showed any sorrow for her actions. Eventually Ahab died in battle, and Jezebel’s death is recorded in 2 Kings 9:30-37. God had truly spoken through Elijah, and he had shown great courage and boldness in confronting the king.

2. The Prophet of Doom

Elijah was a rather fearsome character who conveyed to kings and others the anger and judgement of a holy God. In 2 Kings chapter 1 the son of Ahab, Ahaziah, who was now king in his father’s place, continued his father’s and mother’s reliance on false gods. When he was injured in a fall he never thought of asking the God of Israel for healing, but consulted a pagan god called Baal-Zebub. Elijah was given the unpleasant task of sending word to Ahaziah that he would not recover, but would die in his bed.

But the matter didn’t end there. The king determined to get Elijah to come to him, probably to rebuke or punish him. A troop of 50 soldiers was sent to get him, and it is a measure of the king’s realisation that Elijah had a powerful God behind him, that he found it necessary to send so many men just to get him to come! However, the captain who had confronted Elijah and called him “man of God” was to learn to his cost that Elijah’s God was a God of justice. The captain and his 50 men were destroyed by the fire of God, and a second captain with 50 men also suffered the same fate. When a third group were sent, however, the captain recognised Elijah as truly a man of God who had power to destroy him, so he came humbly and beseeched Elijah for himself and his men.

“The angel of the Lord said to Elijah, ‘Go down with him; do not be afraid of him.’ So Elijah got up and went down with him to the king” (2 Kings 1:15). He confirmed to the king that he would die because of his reliance on false gods rather than on the God of Israel. This sad incident is a reminder that “God is not mocked, whatever a man sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7).

3. The Prophet who never died

Elijah had the privilege of being one of only two who were translated to heaven without dying. The other one in the Old Testament was Enoch in Genesis 5:21-24. Elijah was accompanied by his successor, Elisha, as he went to Gilgal where he was to be taken up to heaven. Elijah several times tried to deter Elisha from continuing to accompany him, but Elisha insisted on remaining with him right to the last moment. At the Jordan river Elijah worked his last miracle when he struck the water with his cloak and the water divided and let the two prophets cross on dry ground.

Elisha, realising what an awesome task he was to inherit from Elijah, requested a double portion of Elijah’s spirit to be upon him. This was agreed, provided Elisha actually saw his master going up to heaven. At that, God’s chariot of fire appeared and separated the two prophets. Contrary to what is often said, Elijah did not go up to heaven in the chariot but was taken up in a whirlwind.

As he left the earth, Elijah dropped his cloak on the ground and Elisha picked it up. This cloak was a symbol of the power that Elijah had had, and Elisha straightaway used it to divide the waters of the Jordan and let him cross. This was a proof to him and to a company of prophets who were watching, that the spirit of Elijah now rested on him.

Elijah could be called the father of the prophets, and this was confirmed when Jesus was transfigured before three of his disciples as recorded in Mark’s Gospel chapter 9. Both Moses and Elijah appeared with the Lord Jesus – Moses representing the Law of God and Elijah representing the prophets of God. Peter made the mistake of wanting to honour all three equally, but God’s voice was heard, saying “This is My Son, whom I love, Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7). However important and powerful both Moses and Elijah were, only God’s Son is worthy of our worship. We may admire Elijah as a great man of God, but he and all the prophets are eclipsed by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

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The story of Handel’s Messiah (adapted)

By Lindsay Terry

The town is Dublin, Ireland; the date is April 13, 1742; the place is Neal’s Music hall. A choir rises and HALLELUJAH, HALLELUJAH, HALLELUJAH fills the auditorium. A great crowd has gathered to hear the premiere of what is destined to be the most widely known musical in the world.

The most notable guest in attendance is King George II of England. He is so moved by the exhilarating music that he springs to his feet, an action that seemed to prompt the whole audience to do the same. From that day, wherever in the world you hear the “Hallelujah Chorus,” which is part of the Messiah, the audience stands.

Each year during the Christmas season millions of people are inspired and thrilled by that great oratorio, the composer of which, like no other, has captivated the music world during the holidays. Who was he?

George Frederick Handel was born in Germany on February 23, 1685. He developed his innate music talent very early in life, playing the clavier - a stringed keyboard instrument - by age seven and mastering most of the orchestral instruments before the age of nineteen.

Handel’s mother, daughter of a Lutheran preacher, made sure of his early spiritual training. Although his father, a surgeon, insisted that he study law, he was able to continue his music career after his father’s death, which occurred while he was still in college.

After several years of a modest career in Italy, writing and producing operas and oratorios, Handel went to England where he quickly found fame, favour, and fortune, especially among royalty and noblemen. He continued his musical experiences, becoming one of the most famous composers in the world.

In 1741, at age fifty-six, Handel began to reflect on his career. He longed to write something that would be lasting and would make people better. Following a season of prayer he began his work. After twenty-three days of near constant writing, he rose from his labour a victor. He had finished his immortal Messiah, an oratorio that has become the most widely performed musical in the world. To this day thousands of performances are heard each year during the holiday season.

In the hours just before his death he remarked, “I want to die ... in the hope of rejoining the good God, my sweet Lord and Saviour on the day of his resurrection.”

Nearly one hundred years after the first performance of the Messiah, Lowell Mason, a Boston choir director, composer, and publisher, took a melody line from the Messiah and arranged it to fit a poem written by Isaac Watts, one of England’s greatest theologians and hymn writers. Handel had known and respected Watts whose poem, based on Psalm 98, was written twenty-seven years before the Messiah. The result was one of our most popular Christmas carols, “Joy to the World.”

Joy to the world, the Lord is come.
Let earth receive her King.
Let every heart prepare him room,
And Heaven and nature sing.

Handel wrote in his Messiah, “And he shall reign forever and ever, HALLELUJAH! King of kings and Lord of lords, FOREVER!”

* * * * *

How wonderful that we can know the joy spoken of in the carol and have the prospect of reigning with Christ forever! All through God’s free gift of salvation and joy. All that is necessary is to:


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Let the Scriptures speak

John 1:1-5; 14 (The Living Bible)

Before anything else existed, there was Christ, with God. He has always been alive and is himself God. He created everything there is – nothing exists that he didn’t make. Eternal life is in him, and this life gives light to all mankind. His life is the light that shines through the darkness – and the darkness can never extinguish it.

And Christ became a human being and lived here on earth among us and was full of loving forgiveness and truth. And some of us have seen his glory – and the glory of the only Son of the heavenly Father!

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Wise men still seek him

(taken from UCB Word for Today – 23 December 2013)

Hungry for God

Wise men came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:1-2 NKJV)

Why would someone leave the comfort of their home, travel two thousand miles by camel, brave blistering deserts fraught with highwaymen and hazards, and follow a star to an unfamiliar destination? There’s only one answer: wise men and women have always hungered for God.

It’s said that the three most sought-out words on the internet today are work, sex and God. Work addresses our need for security; sex addresses our need for companionship and intimacy; God addresses our need to be forgiven, to experience peace and joy, and understand our life’s purpose on earth. It’s why primitive tribes who don’t know God make gods out of mountains, trees and rocks. Deep down we all have a need to experience something bigger than ourselves; someone capable of loving us, protecting and directing us. When his life fell apart Job cried, “Oh that I knew where I might find him, that I might come to his seat” (Job 23:3 NKJV).

The ancient Greeks had an altar on Mars Hill with the inscription, “To the unknown God”. Then Paul told them, “What you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23 NIV). The good news of Christmas is, you can seek God and find him, by coming to know Jesus as your own personal Saviour. Hosea called Israel back to God with these words: “Oh, that we might know the Lord! Let us press on to know him. He will respond to us as surely as the arrival of dawn.” (Hosea 6:3 NLT).

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Christmas thoughts

by Mum Heath (co-founder of Torch Trust)

He came -
He knocked at the door of mankind that day
When as a babe, in a manger he lay.

He came -
Mary, the peasant girl opened her heart
In wonder and gladness accepted her part.

He came -
Very few noticed - preoccupied,
Yet wise men, they searched for him, with star to guide.

He came -
Not to a life that was famous or great,
But to die on a cross, for my sinful state.

He came -
Men bruised him and beat him until he died,
Nailed to a cross, he was crucified.

He comes -
Tender and loving, he offers today
Forgiveness to those who will walk his way.
True peace and deep joy and a reason to live,
These are the blessings he’s waiting to give
To all who will welcome him in.

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