(Sermon preached at Cromer on 10th December 2017)
By way of an illustration of Isaiah 40:1-11 may I introduce you to Deborah Ajulu. She came from Teso, a tribal area in Eastern Uganda. She had done well at school, going on to get a degree and then a doctorate. When I met her she had done something rather unusual. Instead of making the most of her qualifications to feather her own nest, she had returned to rural Teso to set up a Christian development charity, which she called Vision Terudo – Terudo standing for Teso Rural Development Organisation. She was based at a small town in Teso called Ngora, where we also lived, and we got to know her quite well.
Vision Terudo was only a fledgling organisation when we arrived in Ngora, but through hard work and a dedicated team it grew. It won the support of World Vision and TearFund; but it was an uphill struggle to win the support of the local people. I think they were suspicious of Deborah’s motives – why would someone so highly qualified want to return to rural Teso? Or maybe they were jealous, or …. Anyway, it took a lot of work to win them over – and that work was necessary, because the idea of Vision Terudo was to help local people help themselves without depending on charity from outside.
One day Deborah heard that the President of Uganda was planning to visit Teso, and that he would probably come to Ngora. Her eyes lit up. Here was an opportunity! Vision Terudo had never been officially opened; and if the President of Uganda opened it that would give it his seal of approval, and would make it much more acceptable to the local people. To cut a long story short, the President eventually accepted her invitation, and Vision Terudo was included in his itinerary.
The visit was scheduled for the next May. We knew it definitely was happening when plain clothed people arrived from Kampala to help with the organisation and of course the security. Lots of preparations had to be made. Deborah had to write a speech well in advance, so that it could be vetted by the people from Kampala. Vision Terudo had to prepare a gift for him – an album with photos explaining all about Vision Terudo’s work. The town had to be spruced up. Most importantly, the roads into the town had to be prepared. The problem was that no-one knew which way the President would come! He had many enemies, and his exact route had to be kept secret for as long as possible. He would come in a convoy, of course – and the convoy would travel at high speed, not stopping for anyone. But the roads were dreadful. They were dirt roads, full of ruts and large pot-holes. Parts of it were through rocky hills, parts ran through marshes, and the going was always slow. In those days, when you asked which side of the road you drove on in Uganda, the answer was, ‘The best side’. You could tell a drunk driver by the fact that he drove straight. So the roads had to be mended for the president. Every valley had to be raised up, the rough ground made level. Big machinery appeared, and gangs of men got to work. We were amazed how quick the progress was! And the result was lovely smooth roads into Ngora – journeys in and out were suddenly a pleasure!
In due time the President arrived. I can’t remember how his arrival happened. There were no mobile phones to warn people in advance that he was on his way – if people expected an honoured guest, the reception committee and the crowds would just wait by the road until the guest arrived. We remember a time when someone special was expected at Ngora to arrive in the middle of the morning, but hadn’t arrived by late afternoon. I said to the reception committee, why are you still here? Surely your guest won’t arrive now. They replied, Oh yes, they’re coming, they promised. And sure enough, just before nightfall the guest did arrive, and found the reception committee still there, ready to welcome them. I don’t think the President arrived late – he had a busy schedule to keep up. There were rocks around Ngora, reaching high above the trees; they could provide a vantage point for people keeping a look-out, so that a slight early warning could be given – Here he comes! Anyway, his visit was a success; he duly heard Deborah’s speech and received the album and unveiled the commemorative plaque to open Vision Terudo, and everyone was happy. Especially Deborah.
Rewind a little. Imagine again Deborah’s situation in the run up to the President’s visit. She had a family, so daily life had to carry on as usual. But in addition there were the urgent tasks in preparation for the visit, and the excitement and anticipation mounting as the day drew closer. Why, she would actually get to talk to her President, the most important person in the country! There would be all the celebrations to enjoy during the visit – such fun! And afterwards, she’d have the joy of knowing Vision Terudo had his seal of approval – doors would open to grow the work. What an exciting time!
How much more exciting is the time we now live in! Yes, our own daily lives have to carry on, amidst all the hardships and heartbreaks, and the bad news on our screens. But at the same time we know that the King of the Universe is coming back home to stay! And as Isaiah says, we have to make ready for his arrival, whenever it happens. It could be any day! There’s lots to do!
When Jesus comes, we want him to come to a world that is as close to paradise as we can make it. We know won’t be perfect – the devil is doing his best to spoil it, all the more so as he sees his time getting shorter. And Jesus might come at any moment, when there’s still lots to do. But when he comes, he’ll want to find us doing our bit. We start with ourselves: how can we be more like Jesus? What are the valleys in our lives that need to be raised up? What are the mountains that need to be levelled? What rough places need to be made smooth?
When he comes, we want as large a crowd as possible to welcome him. Jesus asked, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth? Will we be able to answer, ‘We haven’t given up hope – we’re still encouraging each other, and we’re still trying to infect those around us with the same excitement we have!’
Jesus is certainly coming back to earth. What a fantastic time that will be! We know he is already with us, living in our hearts by his Spirit. But then he is going to appear in all his glory, and every eye will see it. What a spectacle! A visit of a President, or a Queen, with all its pomp and splendour, isn’t a patch on the coming of the Sovereign Lord!
True, it will be a solemn time as well, for it will be the time for all accounts to be settled. But for us who know that our sins have been fully pardoned by the Sovereign Lord’s death on the cross, it will be a time of unimaginable joy! The Lord Jesus Christ is coming into his kingdom. He’s coming home! And we are his family, the people who are most dear to him, the people he loved and gave his life for – his home is our home! He comes with power; but he also comes as a loving shepherd, carrying the lambs close to his heart. No more tears in his Kingdom! No more suffering! Only glory!
As we live in this fallen world, it remains true that we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God. Yet we catch glimpses of his love and power in the beauty we see, in answers to prayer, in healing and help. These are the merest foretastes of what is to come. And he’s on his way! Lord, fill us with expectancy! Lord, fill us with joy at the prospect! Our Lord, come!