We live in a violent world. Terrorists use bombs and vehicles to kill and injure innocent people. Drug gangs employ and intimidate young people to carry out their evil trade. Those who “fail” are killed or seriously wounded to teach them a lesson. The streets of our great cities are not safe places because of the increase in violent crimes. Prison staff struggle to control violent inmates. There are an increasing number of violent assaults on prison staff and on hospital staff in A&E departments. Is it possible for violent people to change?
Michael Franzese grew up as the son of the notorious Underboss of New York’s violent and feared Colombo crime family. Michael became a mafia boss and, in 1986, was named by Vanity Fair as one of the biggest money earners the mob had seen since Al Capone. At his most affluent he generated between $5 and $8 million per week from legal and illegal businesses. Rudy Guiliani, the Manhattan federal prosecutor, tried several times to put Michael in prison for his crimes, but failed. Life in the mob was dangerous and several of Michael’s fellow leaders died violent deaths on the orders of mob leaders. At times he himself was in danger.
However, Michael is now a changed man. It happened when he met Camille Garcia, who is a Christian. Michael fell in love with Camille and married her. Michael saw in Camille’s life what it means to be a real Christian. She was different from anyone he had ever met before. She told him that Jesus, God’s Son, came into the world to save people by dying on the cross to pay the price of their sins. Michael repented of his many sins and asked God to forgive him for the sake of Jesus and began a new life.
He went to the authorities and pleaded guilty to racketeering crimes. He received a 10-year prison sentence and vowed to walk away from the mob. Michael is the only high-ranking official of a major crime family to ever walk away, without protective custodies, and survive. As a Christian, Michael now seeks to help business people, student athletes and at-risk young people to overcome the odds and make positive changes in their lives. From his personal experience, he knows that with God’s help anyone, however bad they may be, can change and start a new life. Like the Apostle Paul, who had also been a violent man, Michael knows that “anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”
The Remembrance Services this year have been deeply moving as we have remembered the millions of people who died in the World Wars of the 20th century, and especially in the Great War of 1914-1918. The casualty statistics are hard to take in. In the Great War 65 million men were mobilised across Europe: more than 8 million soldiers and 7 million civilians died and 21 million were wounded. Many soldiers from countries in the Commonwealth, including India, Australia and New Zealand, Canada, Africa and the West Indies also died. In the Battle of the Somme, 1 July to 18 November 2016, 1 million people on all sides were killed. British forces suffered 57,000 casualties on the first day, of whom more than 19000 were killed.
Theo Chadburn, a miner from Sheffield, was a member of the Salvation Army and played in the band. He served at Ypres and, 3 days before he died, wrote a letter to his wife Lily in which he said, “I believe that every day I learn more of his goodness.” He told her that on Easter Day 1918 he saw 150 soldiers go forward to receive Jesus Christ as their Saviour and said, “It was the best Easter Sunday night meeting I have ever spent. I was greatly blessed.”
Albert Penn came from Hasland, near Chesterfield. He was married to Florence who was expecting their first child. They met at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in the village where Albert led the boys’ Bible class and Florence led the girls’ class. They were enjoying their first home and looking forward to the sharing the rest of their lives together. But the war changed all that. In 1916 Albert volunteered and was told to come back when their baby, Mary Estelle, was 3 months old. He did and was killed on 30 October 1917 at Passchendaele when Mary was just 11 months old. He was 28 years old and his body was never found.
A wounded solider, who had been a member of Albert’s Bible class at home, told the family that he had seen Albert standing in an open field with a Bible in his hand talking to the young soldiers and then leading them in singing the hymn “Rejoice the Lord is King!” Five days later Albert and his regiment went over the top and he died. His granddaughter said, “I know that, in that terrible time, it wasn’t so much that he kept his faith in God, but that the God in whom he trusted kept him.”
At 11am on 11 November 1918 -“the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”- a ceasefire came into effect. World War I, “the war to end all wars”, had finally come to an end. Across Europe, 9 million soldiers and 7 million civilians died as a direct result of the war. In Britain one in three men aged 19 to 22 were killed. In the largest battle of WWI, the Battle of the Somme, more than 1 million men were killed or wounded.
This war was very different from past conflicts. Powerful new weapons were used for the first time resulting in many deaths and injuries. The big guns on the Western Front could be heard across the English Channel. 75% of all men who died in WWI were killed by artillery. The opposing armies dug long trenches, sometimes only 30 metres apart. The narrow trenches of the Western Front stretched from the Belgian coast to Switzerland. Many men, on both sides, died in those grim trenches. Tanks, biplanes and the gigantic Zeppelin airships were used for the first time. Large battleships shelled towns on the east coast killing many civilians.
In 2018, 100 years after the end of WWI, special services of remembrance are being held to remember those who gave their lives that others might live free from tyranny. A few weeks after the start of WWI, when heavy casualties had already been suffered, Laurence Binyon wrote a poem, “For the Fallen.” Words from the poem have been adopted by the Royal British Legion as an exhortation at ceremonies of remembrance for fallen servicemen and women. “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”
In 1977 a Bible was discovered which had belonged to Private George Ford. He was killed in 1918, at the age of 20. British soldiers on active service were given “The Daily Portion Testament” with an inscription inside from Lord Roberts, “I ask you to put your trust in God. He will watch over you and strengthen you. You will find in this little book guidance when you are in health, comfort when you are in sickness and strength when you are in adversity.” In the trenches many men found strength in the words of David in Psalm 23. As a young man David learned to trust God in times of danger and wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
The fourth Invictus Games has just been held in Sydney, Australia. The Games is an international event created by Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, in which wounded, injured or sick armed personnel and veterans compete in a wide range of sports. Invictus is a Latin word meaning “unconquered” or “undefeated.” The Sydney Games drew 500 competitors and 1000 family and friends from 17 countries and featured 11 sports.
The stories of the competitors are inspiring. Some have suffered terrible life-changing physical injuries in armed combat, others have struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and chronic illness. Invictus has inspired them not to be overcome by their injuries and suffering but to become overcomers and to do it together. There is a wonderful spirit of friendship and mutual encouragement amongst competitors in addition to the loving and persevering support of family and friends. People who thought their lives were over have found new hope and joy.
Davin ‘Bear’ Bretherton was one of the Australian competitors at the Sydney Games. He was seriously injured while serving in the military and had an amputation. He suffered from PTSD and found it difficult to face each day. He hit rock bottom when he attempted suicide. He said, “I was left lying on my shed floor crying and thinking to myself, ‘I need help and I need to do something about it. I need to try to find a way to regain my life.’ The biggest thing that I found on my road to recovery was how tough it was to ask for help. You know, I think that probably the manliest thing I’ve ever done in my life, was to reach out and physically ask someone for help. This is my life, I’ve only got one and I nearly lost it. So, I wish I’d asked for help a lot earlier.”
When bad things happen to us, as they have to ‘Bear’ and other competitors at the Invictus Games, we, too, need to ask for help. Many people have asked God to help them when they have been going through dark times in their lives and he has given them new strength and hope. The Bible says that Jesus “understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same trials we do”, and so we can “come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy and will find grace to help us when we need it most.”
The recent sunny days have shown the autumn colours in all their beauty. The summer has past, and winter is coming, and the world around us is beautifully clothed in orange, yellow, red and brown colours. The autumn colours are not a sign of death but of the cycles of life. As the days grow shorter and the temperatures cool many trees shed their leaves so that they can survive the winter. The leaves don’t simply fall but are actively pushed off their branches by the trees. The changes in weather and daylight trigger a hormone that releases a chemical message to each leaf that it is time to prepare for winter and slowly, but surely, the leaf is pushed from the tree branch. This process is essential if the tree is to survive the winter.
The world and the universe around us are constantly revealing the glory of God to all people everywhere. This revelation transcends differences in language and culture. In Psalm 19 we read, “The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world.”
God’s creation reveals his beauty and splendour. Through the year he beautifully clothes his world from the bright colours of the spring flowers to the russet colours of autumn. As each day dawns he floods the world with light and at the end of the day creates spectacular sunsets. The sun, moon and stars speak of his wisdom and greatness. He leaves nothing to chance. Through his creation he speaks to us and tells us that he is and that he cares.
How should we respond to God’s revelation through his creation? The trees are wise enough to prepare for winter, but we may not be so wise. God is the living God. He gives life and breath to everything and satisfies every need. He watched over us in our mother’s womb from the moment of conception until the day we were born. He created us to live and to enjoy him forever. He sent his Son into the world so that we might have life and have it to the full. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die.”
Words matter. At the marriage of Jack Brooksbank and Princess Eugenie last week their deep love for each other was obvious. The Dean of Windsor declared them to be husband and wife because they made solemn, lifelong promises to each other. Eugenie was asked, “Eugenie, wilt thou have this Man to be thy wedded husband, to live together according to God’s law in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou love him, comfort him, honour and keep him, in sickness and in health and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?” She replied, “I will.” Jack made a similar promise.
One media organisation hired professional lip-readers to tell them what the Royal guests were saying to each other. It seems even small talk matters! Jesus taught that our words reveal the condition of our inner self and that God will judge us for everything we say. He said, “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the housetops for all to hear!”
Those who heard Jesus speaking recognised the authority of his words. During a difficult time in his ministry, when some people turned away from him, Jesus asked his close disciples, “Are you also going to leave?” Simon Peter replied, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life.” Jesus made wonderful promises in which we can have total confidence. One of his promises is, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Some Christian friends of ours invited a neighbour, who is not a Christian, to a meal. After the meal the wife asked the neighbour if she could read a passage from the Bible. The neighbour agreed and the wife read one of the Psalms. As she was reading the neighbour began to cry. When the reading was finished the neighbour explained why she had cried, “In my religion we speak to God but he never speaks to us. As you were reading I felt God was speaking to me!”
The story of the remarkable life of Louis Zamperini has been told in the film “Unbroken” which came out in 2014, the same year in which he died at the age of 97. After a troubled adolescence Louis took up athletics and competed in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. When World War II broke out he became a bombardier on a B-24 bomber. In 1943 his plane was shot down over the South Pacific and he was reported missing, presumed dead. He and another airman spent 47 days clinging to a raft only to be captured by the Japanese and to become prisoners of war.
While he was a prisoner of war, Louis endured constant brutality at the hands of a man the prisoners called “The Bird.” His real name was Mutsuhiro Watanabe who was a sadistically cruel and abusive man who terrorised the prisoners. He singled Louis out for particularly harsh treatment. After the war ended Watanabe was on the list of the most wanted war criminals in Japan but was never brought to justice.
When the war ended Louis returned to the United States and went on speaking tours. He was treated as a hero but, despite outward appearances, his life was falling apart. He was struggling to cope with his horrific experiences as a prisoner of war and had frequent nightmares about Watanabe. Louis was filled with anger, anxiety and hatred. He sought solace in alcohol and planned to return to Japan to murder Watanabe. He realised he needed help.
In 1949 Louis reluctantly attended a Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles. He didn’t like what he heard and told his wife he would not go to another meeting, but he did. One night he responded to the invitation to experience forgiveness and salvation and received Jesus Christ as his saviour. That same night his nightmares stopped, and he poured all his alcohol down the drain.
Louis was a new man and started a camp for young people from troubled backgrounds. Amazingly, after his conversion his desire for vengeance left him completely. He forgave his former captors and met many of his fellow prisoners. He also met with 850 Japanese war criminals and warmly greeted them. When one former Japanese soldier said he couldn’t understand how he could forgive them Louis replied, “Well, Mr Sasaki, when Christ was crucified he said, ‘Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.’ It is only through the Cross that I can come back here and say this, but I do forgive you.”
Debt is a growing problem for many families in Britain. In 2017 the average annual overspend for families in Britain was £900. It is estimated that £19bn is owed for utility bills, missed council tax payments and repayment of overpaid benefits. There has also been a rapid increase in borrowing on credit cards and poorer families are increasingly looking to payday loan companies for loans to cover daily living costs. The interest charged by these companies is astronomical.
It is only too easy to be enticed into taking credit when companies offer interest-free or low interest credit for new cars, furniture, the latest technological gadgets, new bathrooms and kitchens. The cost of getting everything needed for their children to go to school at the beginning of a new academic year has recently put real pressure on many families. Children experience peer pressure to wear high-cost clothes with designer labels and to have the latest smartphone and tablet.
Debt can be crushing. I remember visiting a man who was seriously in debt. He had been injured in a car crash and could no longer work. His marriage had broken down and he had run out of money. He was afraid of the post arriving because there would be more red letters demanding payments he couldn’t make. His bank refused to lend him any more money and he was afraid that one day the bailiffs would arrive. He was imprisoned in his house and deeply depressed. He needed someone to come alongside him. Together we were able to work through his situation and find a way to address his debts. Today Christians Against Poverty is one organisation which helps people to manage their debts and to face the future with hope.
The Bible also speaks about another debt we owe because we break God’s laws. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus encouraged his disciples to pray “Forgive us our debts.” All of us have this debt problem, whether we are rich or poor. Every day we do and say things we know are wrong and so our debt to God increases. As many people try to ignore financial debts so we may push this debt to the back of our minds. But Jesus encourages us to face up to our moral and spiritual debt and to ask God to forgive us. Jesus died on the Cross to pay the price of our sins and so through him we can experience the joy of forgiveness and the cancelling of the debt we owe to God.
We have passed the autumn equinox as the sun has crossed the equator. Traditionally, the full Harvest Moon reminded farmers of the need to complete the harvest. Because of the very hot and dry summer harvesting began early this year and generally the yields have been good. In many churches harvest thanksgiving services are being held and are attended by larger than normal congregations, especially in rural areas. Farmers, more than most people, know how dependent we are on the annual crops their land produces. Those crops will provide us with food for the coming year.
It is good to give thanks to God for all the good things he gives us. Many people, young and old, in churches and in schools, will this year again sing well-known harvest hymns. One harvest hymn gives thanks to God for the way he provides us with our daily food and also gives us so many other blessings as well. “We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand: he sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain, the breezes and the sunshine, and soft, refreshing rain. All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above; then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all his love.”
True thankfulness, however, is more than words sung once a year. It involves an ongoing response of love for and delight in God who blesses us in so many ways. The last verse of that harvest hymn says, “We thank thee then, O Father, for all things bright and good, the seed time and the harvest, our life, our health, our food. Accept the gifts we offer for all thy love imparts, and what thou most desirest, our humble, thankful hearts.”
The greatest gift God has given to the people of this world is his Son, Jesus. One of the best-known verses in the Bible says, “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.” Out of love for us, Jesus came from heaven to live among us and then to die on a cross to pay the price for all the sins we have committed. Those who acknowledge their need for forgiveness and believe in him receive God’s gift of eternal life; a life that begins now and lasts for ever. Their response is always, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”
In 1965 John Lennon wrote the song “Help!” It went to number one in the charts in both the UK and USA. In an interview some years later, John spoke of the stress he experienced because of his sudden rise to success, “The whole Beatles thing was just beyond comprehension. I was fat and depressed and was subconsciously crying out for help.”
Many people can identify with the words of the song; “Help, I need somebody. Help, not just anybody. Help, you know, I need someone. Help! When I was younger, so much younger than today, I never needed anybody’s help in any way. But now these days are gone, I’m not so self- assured and now I find I’ve changed my mind, I’ve opened up the doors. And now my life has changed in, oh, so many ways. My independence seems to vanish in the haze, but every now and then I feel so insecure, I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before. Help me if you can, I’m feeling down, and I do appreciate you being ’round. Help me get my feet back on the ground. Won’t you, please, please help me?”
Many of us go through experiences which shake our self-confidence and make us feel insecure. Even when we are surrounded by people we become conscious that we need help from someone, and not just anybody. At such times a cry of “Help!” comes from our hearts. We need to know, as we have never needed before, that there is someone there.
The Bible declares that there is someone there and he is willing to help us. The opening words of the Bible are, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The universe and our lives have meaning and purpose because God is there. We are not alone. Augustine, an early Christian leader, wrote, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”
One day Jesus saw a widow following the coffin of her only son. A large crowd of people was with her. The heart of Jesus went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.” Then he went up and touched the coffin and said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. The people were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.”