The story of Jesus is the greatest story ever told. Joseph and Mary were a young couple living in the small Galilean town of Nazareth. Joseph was about 18 years old and was the village carpenter. He was very much in love with Mary, who was about 14 years old, and their families had agreed that they should marry. One day, before they had married, God sent the angel Gabriel to tell Mary that she had found favour in God’s sight and was going to conceive a very special son. She would conceive through the power of the Holy Spirit and the child would be the Son of God. Mary humbly responded, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.”
When Mary told Joseph she had conceived a child he was shocked and thought she must have been unfaithful to him. He decided to divorce her quietly to try to protect her from public disgrace. But an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” So, Joseph did what the angel had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.
When the time drew near for the baby to be born Joseph and Mary had to travel 80 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census. So it was in Bethlehem that their first-born son was born. An angel of the Lord announced the birth to some shepherds, ordinary working men, living in the nearby fields, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people, a Saviour has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord.” The shepherds went to see the baby and returned to their fields glorifying and praising God.
Later, Wise Men from the east, probably Persia, came in search of the child. They had followed a special star which signified the birth of a King. When they arrived at the house where Joseph and Mary and the child were staying they were overjoyed. They bowed down and worshipped him and presented gifts of gold, incense and myrrh. The shepherds and Wise Men show us that the birth of Jesus is reason for us all to wonder and worship him.
Some of the best-known hymns are Christmas carols. Familiar words express the wonder of the birth of Jesus Christ, God’s eternal Son, and all that his coming brings to people still today. In 1868 Phillips Brooks, the rector of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia, wrote “O little town of Bethlehem” after visiting the Holy Land and seeing Bethlehem from the hills of Palestine at night. He reflected that when Jesus was born in that little town many people were unaware of it. Yet Jesus had come to fulfil their greatest hopes and still their greatest fears. Our deepest needs are the same as theirs, and Jesus meets those needs.
“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by; yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. O morning stars, together proclaim the holy birth, and praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth; for Christ is born of Mary; and, gathered all above, while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.”
In Jesus, God drew near to our needy world. He is the greatest gift that has ever been given. Just as he was born quietly in Bethlehem so, over the years, he has gently drawn near to countless people of all nations who have received him as Saviour and Lord. “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming; but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”
Christmas is a busy time with so much to do. Some will rejoice with their families, others may be on their own and feel sad that those they loved are no longer with them. Whatever our situation we, like Phillips Brooks, can take time to reflect on the birth of Jesus so long ago in Bethlehem. The child who was born is an eternal person whom we can still encounter today when we pray that he will draw near to us and be with us. “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in; be born to us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”
The birth of Jesus Christ really is a cause for great celebration! His coming into the world has changed the lives of millions of people for the better. His birth was foretold in detail by prophets who lived more than 600 years earlier and their prophecies were fulfilled. The prophet Micah foretold where he would be born and spoke of his greatness. “But you, Bethlehem, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Jesus came from heaven to earth with kingly power to do us good.
The prophet Isaiah foretold that he would be born to a young virgin mother. “The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” The name Immanuel means “God with us.” As the eternal Son of God, Jesus reveals God to us. When he came into the world God himself drew near to a troubled world. Throughout history Christians have experienced the presence of God with them, often in very difficult circumstances. One of our greatest needs this Christmas is to know that God is with us.
The prophet Isaiah also spoke of the greatness of the child who would be born, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.” Jesus came into this world from the presence of his heavenly Father with divine power to execute God’s great plan of salvation for the peoples of this world and to do it as the “Prince of Peace.”
Charles Wesley wrote a hymn that is often sung at Christmas and expresses the deepest longings of our hearts. “Come, O long-expected Jesus, born to set your people free! from our fears and sins release us, Christ in whom our rest shall be. Israel’s strength and consolation, born salvation to impart; dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart. Born your people to deliver, born a child, and yet a king; born to reign in us for ever, now your gracious kingdom bring: By your own eternal Spirit rule in all our hearts alone; by your all-sufficient merit raise us to your glorious throne.”
This month rugby fans around Britain have gathered for the Autumn International matches. One of the features of matches played in Cardiff is that the Welsh supporters sing hymns, especially “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah.” In the past male voice choirs would stand together on the terraces to ensure the singing was high quality. Most of those who sing the hymns don’t attend church services yet the power of the words seems to move them.
Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah was written by William Williams Pantycelyn, who was born in 1717. He is Wales most famous hymn writer and was called “the sweet singer of Wales.” Williams was one of the leaders of the Calvinistic Methodists during the 18th century revival and wrote more than 900 hymns in either Welsh or English. A memorial plaque at Pantycelyn farm, where he lived, records that during his life he travelled 111,800 miles on foot or by horse visiting societies of Christians in every part of Wales. The tune Cwm Rhondda was written soon after the 1904-05 revival. The words and tune brought great strength and encouragement to the mining communities of the South Wales Valleys where life was hard.
Life is a journey and Williams hymn is a prayer based on the journey of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. They spent 40 years in the desert and felt a deep need to know the presence of their God, Jehovah, being with them on their difficult journey. They were small and weak, but he was great and powerful. The words of the hymn resonate with us today because, although outwardly our lives are very different, inwardly we have the same need to know that this all-powerful God is with us. “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land; I am weak, but thou are mighty; hold me with thy powerful hand: bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more.”
The last verse speaks of dying. As the Israelites had to cross the River Jordan to enter the Promised Land so all of us will one day face death, the last enemy. Then, more than ever, we will need God to be with us and the victory Jesus won by his death and resurrection to be ours. “When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside; death of death, and hell’s destruction, land me safe on Canaan’s side: songs of praises I will ever give to thee.”
Through the news media and internet we receive amazing insights into events around the world. On-the-spot reports and photographs enable us to see the people and their situations closeup. Sometimes the newsreader gives a warning that some of the images may be distressing. This weekend I saw a photograph of Rohingya Muslims crossing the Naf river to escape from Myanmar into Bangladesh. About fifty desperate men, women and children were crowded on a raft made of plastic containers that looked as if it was almost sinking.
Other photographs showed Rohingya women and children with wounds and burns received when they were attacked by soldiers and their houses were set on fire. They had escaped, but husbands and brothers had been killed. It is estimated that there are 1 million Rohingya Muslims refugees in Bangladesh in need of food, shelter and medical care.
Recent media reports from Yemen also show a terrible humanitarian crisis. The conflict between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis rebels has caused massive shortages of food and water. It is estimated that 3.2 million people are at risk of famine and 150,000 malnourished children could die in the next month. In both Myanmar and Yemen the conflict is caused by people who hate their fellow human beings.
An expert in the law once asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus answered the man by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. There was a long standing bitter rift between Jews and Samaritans. They had nothing to do with each other. In the parable a Jewish man was attacked and robbed on a lonely road and was left half dead. Two Jewish religious leaders passed the man and did nothing to help him. Then a Samaritan saw the man and took pity on him. He bandaged his wounds, put him on his donkey and took him to an inn where he took care of him. The next day he left the man in the care of the innkeeper and promised to pay whatever it cost.
Then Jesus asked the expert in the law, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He answered, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” God commands us all to “love our neighbour as we love ourselves.” God expects us to love all people, even those who may be our natural enemies, and to show that love in a practical way.
Last weekend was the 30th anniversary of the Enniskillen bomb. At 10.43am on 8 November 1987, as people were gathered at the town’s cenotaph for the Remembrance Day service, the Provisional IRA detonated a bomb. The explosion killed 11 people and injured 64. One of those who died was a 20-year-old nurse, Marie Wilson, who was with her father Gordon. As they lay buried under rubble Gordon held Marie’s hand as she told him, “Daddy, I love you very much.”
In an interview soon after the bombing Gordon Wilson said, “I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet. She’s dead. She’s in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.” One historian said, “No words in more than twenty-five years of violence in Northern Ireland had such a powerful, emotional impact.”
Gordon also pleaded that no Loyalists take revenge for Marie’s death and, until he died in 1995 at the age of 67, Gordon campaigned for peace and an end to the violence. When he was voted Man of the Year by the BBC’s Today programme, ahead of world-famous figures, Gordon said, “I’m not worthy of it. The others are very important people. I’m not in their class. I’m just an ordinary guy.”
We still live in a violent world and, at times, it may seem as if the terrorists have the power, but in reality it is extraordinary “ordinary” people like Gordon Wilson whose example and influence will ultimately triumph. Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
Gordon’s personal faith in Jesus as his Saviour and Lord was the source of his strength and his hope. Jesus is the Prince of Peace. When he died on the Cross he made a way of peace for sinful people like us all. In that apparently weak act God reconciled the world to himself and provided the way in which we can all experience forgiveness and know peace with him. Gordon was right. He and Marie have indeed been reunited in heaven in the presence of Jesus who has wiped every tear from their eyes.
When the Allied forces surrendered Singapore to the Japanese in 1942, Tony Lucas, who died recently, was one of 80,000 troops who became prisoners of war. For the next three and a half years he, along with many others, were slave labourers on the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway. Tony was one of 17,000 PoWs packed into Selarang barracks, which was designed to take 800, with all water supplies, barring one tap, disconnected to compel them to sign a pledge not to escape.
Tony was transported by rail to Thailand. Thirty prisoners were locked into each airless steel-roofed truck, in toxic heat. The journey lasted five days. Lucas thought he would die; several did. In Thailand, hacking out the 258-mile railway line, reveille was at 4.30am, followed by a three-mile march through the jungle to the area the Australians named “Hellfire Pass”. Men worked in pairs, alternately swinging a 7lb hammer and holding a 3ft iron bar. They never returned before 10.30pm.
He and the other prisoners survived on a daily ration of a cupful of degraded rice. Tony suffered dysentery, malaria and jungle ulcers; his weight dropped from 11-stone to 6. On his twenty-first bout of malaria, an Allied doctor gave him a massive dose of paludrine. After that he remained free from malaria, but contracted cholera whilst helping carry corpses out for burning. On one occasion a guard, who was nicknamed “The Undertaker” because he had killed prisoners with an iron bar, attacked Tony and knocked out 3 of his teeth.
After the war, Tony suffered nightmares and terrible bouts of depression. Understandably, he at first despised the Japanese. However, as he understood more he realised that it was the military in Japan and not the wider civilian population who were responsible for the atrocities. Later, in his work with an associate company of ICI, he visited Japan on business and showed a remarkable capacity to forgive the extreme suffering he experienced. A forgiving spirit is much more powerful than a spirit of hate and vengeance.
Tony was a private person who had a very deep Christian faith. His father was an Anglican clergyman and, from childhood, Tony had been taught about Jesus and his great love for a sinful world. Tony often prayed the Lord’s Prayer including the words “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” He also knew that when he was dying on the Cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Patience Bradley, a former Vogue model, has written a memoir telling the story of her life. She first went to London at the age of 14 at the invitation of Vogue magazine. In her mid to late teens she met some of the biggest names in show business and saw first-hand the party scene with its heavy drinking, drug taking, and sexual immorality. Soon after she arrived in London she saw a 14-year-old male model die of an overdose at a party and she determined not to end up like him.
Patience has had a successful career but has also battled dyslexia, anorexia and the psychological effects of emotional abuse. Throughout her life, she has had a faith and believes this helped her to steer clear of some temptations. She explains, “My mum had unbelievable faith and I always had this feeling that there was something wonderful there looking out for us – you only have to look out into the world and see that there is something or someone in the background making miracles.”
“I used to say that I certainly believed in God but I had terrible trouble with Jesus. What I meant was that because of my dyslexia, I never read the Bible, and I used to go to church and just listen to ministers of different churches pounding on about one man who was killed the same way as the two men beside him. Then just over four years ago I realised that he wasn’t just going through what they went through, he was going through everything that every person in this life has ever done. He was carrying everybody’s burden and that’s how I see it now.”
At that time, Patience had been very ill and was going through a bad time. She decided she wanted to find out more about herself, who she was and why she is here? She spoke to a Christian friend who invited her to attend a six-week course on Christianity Explored. A few weeks later she was given a tract in the street which she read. That night she invited Jesus into her life and said it was like a light was switched on. She wrote, “Now I have Jesus as my friend and no matter what happens nobody can take him away. If you ask me to put it into words I would say I was saved and if you asked me to describe my life before and after being a Christian I would absolutely say I was born again.”
On 31 October 1517 Martin Luther, until then a little-known monk, nailed a copy of his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church. Luther’s intention was to initiate a debate within the Church of his time about how people come to know peace with God. However, for Luther personally his action led to his excommunication by the Church in 1521 when he refused to recant his views saying, “Here I stand. I can do no other, God help me!” His rediscovery of the Gospel message led to the Protestant Reformation that changed the history of Europe and the Western World.
At the age of 13 Martin Luther went to the University of Erfurt to study law. He earned both his baccalaureate and master’s degrees in the shortest possible time. In 1505, when he was 21, he was nearly struck by lightning during a severe thunderstorm. He cried out in fear to St. Anne for help and promised to become a monk. He kept his vow and gave away all his possessions before entering a monastery.
Luther became a totally dedicated monk plunging himself into prayer, fasting, and ascetic practices, including going without sleep, enduring bone-chilling cold without a blanket, and flagellating himself. He later wrote, “If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was me.” Yet he did not find peace with God and was increasingly terrified by the wrath of God. Whenever he thought of the righteousness of God he felt condemned because he knew the sinfulness of his own heart.
After completing a doctorate in theology Luther became a professor in Wittenberg Cathedral and gave lectures on the Book of Romans in the New Testament. During this time, he came to understand the meaning of the righteousness of God through reading Romans, Chapter 1, verse 17; “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed – a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” He realised that, as we put our faith in Jesus Christ, God gives us his righteousness based on the perfect life and atoning death of Jesus.
Luther found peace with God and wrote, “At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith. Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.”
Longevity is one of the greatest achievements of our modern era. The United Nations calls it one of the most significant social transformations of the 21st century. Advances in health care are a major factor in lengthening our lives. Over the past 20 years the number of people in Britain aged 100, or over, has quadrupled. There are now 2.7 million people in Britain aged over 80 and life expectancy continues to increase. But increasing length of life does not guarantee quality of life or make us more ready to face death and eternity.
The increase in life expectancy is bringing major challenges to our society, especially in caring for older people. A recent report highlighted a shortage of care home beds. In 5 years there will be 42,000 fewer care home beds than are needed. This raises big questions for those who are elderly, for their families and for our society. Our modern “progressive” society is changing. The influence of churches has significantly decreased and secular thinking is more common. An increasing number of families are reluctant to take on the care of their elderly parents.
The Bible encourages us all to consider how we live and how we prepare for our old age. We all need to lay down the essential foundations for our later years. In Psalm 71 the psalmist says to God, “My life is an example to many, because you have been my strength and protection. That is why I can never stop praising you; I declare your glory all day long. And now, in my old age, don’t set me aside. Don’t abandon me when my strength is failing.” Older people can be a great example to the younger generation. In Psalm 92 we read, “The godly will flourish like palm trees and grow strong like the cedars of Lebanon. Even in old age they will still produce fruit; they will remain vital and green.”
The early Christians lovingly cared for widows but also encouraged their families to care for them. “Take care of any widow who has no one else to care for her. But if she has children or grandchildren, their first responsibility is to show godliness at home and repay their parents by taking care of them. This is something that pleases God.” When we reach the end of our lives, as all of us must, it is a great blessing to be surrounded by our loved ones as we leave this world and pass into the presence of God.
Farmers have safely gathered in the harvest for another year. The early season was very dry and during the harvesting period there has been a lot of rain. One farmer said that out of a harvest period of 70 days only 10 were good days for using the combine harvester because the ground was so wet. Some crops have been harvested when they were damp and will need to be dried out. A new strain of blight has also caused problems so that crops in the barns will need to be carefully monitored over winter.
Most of us are almost totally unaware of the challenges farmers are facing. Supermarkets source produce from many parts of the world so we are less aware of the seasonal nature of our food. In the Western World we are protected from the vagaries of uncertain harvests. We expect to be able to buy many things all the year round.
But it’s not like that for millions of people in the world. In East Africa this year there has been a severe and prolonged drought, made worse by ongoing conflicts, that has caused a major food crisis. As crops have failed and animals have died people, including many children, are seriously malnourished and some have died. The shortage of safe water has also led to deaths from cholera-like diseases. It is estimated that in South Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, 20 million people are in urgent need of food supplies.
In many places around the country, in churches and in schools, Harvest Thanksgiving services are being held. Many will remember our dependence on God for our daily bread and give thanks to him as they sing, “We plough the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand. All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above, then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all his love.”
We must also remember those who are in great need and are starving. The Apostle John wrote, “We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion – how can God’s love be in that person? Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions.”
Asking the big questions
In December 2015, Major Tim Peake became the first British European Space Agency astronaut to visit the International Space Station. In a recent interview, he said that one of the things he misses most is seeing his home planet from space. He said, “I might see a picture of a spacecraft and suddenly it takes me right back to being on board the space station and looking out at the universe. You do have to kind of pinch yourself and say, ‘Yes, I was up there, looking back at Earth’. It’s mesmerizing; it’s constantly changing, every time you look out of the window you see a different part of the world. You might be at a night part of the orbit looking at thunderstorms or the aurora; you might be in a day time looking at volcanoes erupting and glaciers and lakes, so it’s just stunning both by day and by night.”
Tim has started a new role as an official UK Scout Association ambassador. He said, “As a cub scout I remember going out on those early night hikes and first sleepovers in the outdoors. Sleeping under the stars and looking up is when the big questions come out: What’s out there? How did life begin? Where is it all going?” These are the big questions for us all.
Johannes Kepler was an eminent scientist and a Christian. He developed a love for astronomy at an early age. In 1577, when he was six, he observed the Great Comet and in 1580 the Lunar Eclipse. Kepler is best known for discovering the three mathematical laws of planetary motion. He also discovered the elliptical patterns in which the planets travel around the sun. As he studied the universe Kepler said, “O God, I am thinking your thoughts after you.”
The heavens bear eloquent testimony to God. He created all things, guides history, and knows every one of us intimately. In Psalm 8 the psalmist says, “O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth! Your glory is higher than the heavens. When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers – the moon and the stars you set in place – what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? Yet you made them only a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honour. You gave them charge of everything you made, putting all things under their authority.”
The 2017 Invictus Games are being held in Toronto. Invictus means unconquered. The Games were created by Prince Harry for former military personnel who have been wounded or injured in action as they have served their countries. Invictus is about the dedication of men and women who have confronted hardship and refused to be defined by their injuries. They and their families and friends have faced the shock of life-changing injuries and have together faced the long road to recovery.
In his opening speech, Prince Harry spoke of seeing three severely injured British soldiers while waiting to deploy to Afghanistan. He said, “The way I viewed service and sacrifice changed forever, and the direction of my life changed with it. I knew it was my responsibility to use a great platform that I have to help the world understand and be inspired by the spirit of those who wear the uniform. In the world where so many have reasons to feel cynical, and apathetic, I wanted to find a way for veterans to be a beacon of light and show us all that we have a role to play.”
He went on the speak of the impact the Games would have on those who came to watch, “I hope you are ready for some fierce competition. I hope you are ready to see the meaning of teamwork, the proof that anything is possible when we work together. I hope you are ready to see courage and determination that will inspire you to power through the challenges in your own life. I hope you are ready to see the role models in action that any parent would want their children to look up to. And I hope you’re ready to see lives changing in front of your eyes.”
The Gospel story is about love and sacrifice. Jesus is God’s Son and the King of kings. He came from heaven to earth not to be served but to serve others and give his life as a ransom for many. He was ready to pay the ultimate sacrifice in order to redeem people like you and me. On the cross he paid the price of our sins and experienced a depth of suffering we can never fully comprehend. On the third day he rose from the dead. He is the supreme conqueror. Understanding what he did and experiencing his love is life transforming. He lifts us from our own struggles and sorrows and fills our hearts with hope.
The findings of the recent British Social Attitudes Survey on religion reveal a marked decline in religious affiliation in Britain today. For the first time, more people identify themselves as being of ‘no religion’ (53%) than those who profess an affiliation to a particular religion. Only 15% of adults in Britain now regard themselves as Anglicans, whereas in 2000 half the population identified themselves with the Church of England. The decline in living faith in Britain is in marked contrast to the situation in the majority world, where Christianity is growing strongly.
Some of those who identify themselves as being of ’no religion’ do, however, have some faith. For example, one in five of them a say they believe in life after death. This shows that, even if we opt out of formal religion, which can be less than inspiring, we cannot avoid the fundamental questions posed by our life in this world. Very few are committed atheists. Someone I know attended the funeral service of man who was an atheist. Nothing was said. The family sat at the front of the crematorium for a short time then stood by the coffin briefly before leaving. For an atheist death is the end, there is nothing to say.
Christians are followers of Jesus who died on a cross and rose from the dead on the third day. The apostles were eye-witnesses of the resurrection. Seeing the resurrected Jesus transformed them and they fearlessly proclaimed the good news about him everywhere they went. The early Christians were so committed to Jesus that they were prepared to suffer persecution for their faith in him and even to die for him. It is like that for some Christians today. For them, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
The apostle Paul wrote about the hope the resurrection of Jesus inspires, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died. So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. But there is an order to this resurrection: Christ was raised as the first of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back. For Christ must reign until he humbles all his enemies beneath his feet. And the last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
What do you do when you lose everything? Pictures of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma on islands in the Caribbean, such as Barbuda and the British Virgin Islands, are heart-breaking. People have lost their homes and all their possessions. They were helpless in the face of the power of the hurricane. When reporters talked to them you could see the shock and bewilderment on their faces as they looked at the ruins of what was once their home. Re-establishing normal life again is a daunting task. Some, however, said that, although they have lost everything, they are thankful to God that they and their loved ones are alive.
In America people have been remembering the events of the 9th September 2001, when the attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York killed 2,997 people and injured more than 6000 others. The total collapse of the towers stunned all who witnessed it and those around the world who saw the pictures. Hearing the stories of those who lost loved ones in the attacks brings home their sense of absolute helplessness as, in the minutes after the attacks, they spoke on the telephone to relatives who were trapped in the towers with no possibility of escape. All they could do was tell each other “I love you” and pray.
The Bible tells the story of a man called Job. He was a blameless and upright man who feared God. He had seven sons and three daughters, and owned thousands of sheep, camels, oxen and donkeys. He also had many servants. On the same day, all his animals were stolen or killed by lightning and all his sons and daughters died as the house in which they were enjoying a meal together was struck by a tornado and collapsed. He lost everything. When the news of these devastating events came to Job, he tore his robe and shaved his head and fell to the ground in worship saying, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”
Devastating loss is not a sign of God’s displeasure or an indication that those who experience it are worse people than others. We can pray for those who are seeking to rebuild their lives that God will give them the strength they need and also that he will make us truly thankful for all the blessings he has graciously given us.
When you read the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus you are struck by the number of individuals he met and helped. He responded to people of all kinds and always had time for them. No-one was unimportant to Jesus. An encounter with Jesus was a life-changing experience. Jesus visited the house of Zacchaeus, a covetous tax collector, and that day Zacchaeus became a changed man. A woman, who had lived a very sad life, talked to Jesus at a well and, for the first time, met someone who truly loved her.
The transforming love of Jesus is still being experienced by people today. We know a young lady who has had a very sad life. She grew up in a very unhappy home and in her teens moved into a hostel where she was, humanly speaking, alone. There was no-one to love and support her. Later, she had to leave the town in which she lived to find a place of safety for herself and her children. She has been a wonderful mother but, during a time of very great stress, all her children were taken into care. She, and they, were heartbroken.
On Christmas Day last year, she went to an evening service at the church she had been attending. She was feeling very low, but that night God showed her that the story of Jesus is true and she experienced God’s love in a way she had never known before. She knew a real peace in her heart and was transformed. She was a new person. She still had to face all the problems she had before, but the love of Jesus had transformed her and given her new life. Everyone who knows her can see the change knowing Jesus has brought to her life.
When she was baptised she told her story. She said, “Since I have known Jesus as my Saviour I have found peace in my life. I still experience hard times but have learned how to deal with them. I listen to hymns and sing along with them. I read my Bible and pray to God and he gives me the strength to cope and to come through the hard times. I find strength and great encouragement in God’s promises. I know that in the future there will be other hard times but I know that because my saviour Jesus Christ is with me I will be able to face them and deal with them. I can do everything through Jesus who gives me strength.”
We are living in very uncertain times. Climate change is causing great concern. Economic instability threatens our future prosperity with unsustainable levels of national and personal debt. Unemployment is increasing, especially amongst the young. Progressive social policies are establishing a new morality with, as yet, unknown consequences. Political extremism of both left and right is becoming more active. Nuclear proliferation raises the real possibility of international conflict. Terrorist movements have proved impossible to defeat even by the massive military strength of the “super powers”. Mass migration is causing social tension and instability. Political leaders are either weak and ineffective or strong and erratic. Hope is in desperately short supply.
The Bible teaches that world history is in God’s hands. From beginning to end it is “his story.” He is the One who created the amazing universe around us and this beautiful, tiny, planet on which we live. The whole creation points to him from the simplest life forms to the complex laws of physics. Is it possible that all these things could have come about by pure chance? God created this world, and gave life to each one of us, for a purpose.
Jesus spoke about future world history. He said, “Watch out that no one deceives you. You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.”
The last book of the Bible, Revelation, also promises a new creation. The apostle John wrote, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!'”
Last week mudslides in Freetown, Sierra Leone, killed 400 people, with 600 still missing. Homes in the hilltop community of Regent were covered after part of Sugar Loaf mountain collapsed following heavy rain. Many victims were asleep in bed when the disaster struck. August is the height of the rainy season when the average rainfall is 21”. A mass burial of 300 people has been held on the outskirts of Freetown. The cemetery is known as the Ebola cemetery because many of the 4000 people who died in 2014 are buried there.
Freetown, a city of 1 million people, is squeezed into a small space between heavily-forested mountains and the sea, in a country with the highest rainfall in Africa. It was first established in the late 1700s as a home for freed slaves from the US and UK. It has the world’s third largest natural harbour. The population of the city grew significantly during the brutal civil war between 1991 and 2002 in which 250,000 people died and many more were maimed. I visited Sierra Leone in 1998 and met some of the 18,000 refugees living in a camp at Hastings. Many men had lost hands, legs or ears, which the rebels had amputated with machetes.
Humanly speaking, the people of Sierra Leone have little hope for the future. They live in a desperately poor country with a dilapidated infrastructure. The wealthy nations of the world show little interest in helping them, even though the country is rich in natural resources. So where can the poor people of Sierra Leone, and the world, look for future hope? Many people in Sierra Leone are Christians and are sustained in the struggle of their daily lives, and as they face natural disasters, by their faith in Jesus.
The hymns of John Newton, who, before he came to faith in Jesus, visited Freetown as the captain of a slave ship, express the faith and hope in which Christians in Sierra Leone find real comfort. Newton wrote, “How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear! It soothes his sorrow, heals his wounds, and drives away his fear. It makes the wounded spirit whole, and calms the troubled breast; ‘tis manna to the hungry soul, and to the weary rest. Weak is the effort of my heart, and cold my warmest thought; but when I see you as you are, I’ll praise you as I ought. Till then I would your love proclaim with every fleeting breath; and may the music of your Name refresh my soul in death!”
At the World Athletics’ Championships two great athletes completed outstanding careers. Usain Bolt is the first person to hold both the 100 metres and 200 metres world records. He has won 8 Olympic gold medals and 11 World Championships. He is the only sprinter to win gold medals in both the 100 metres and 200 metres in three consecutive Olympics. Mo Farah is the most successful British track athlete in modern Olympic history, winning gold medals in both the 5,000 and 10,000 metres in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. Between 2011 and 2017 he won 10 successive global finals. It has been a delight to watch both men run.
At this World Championships, however, Usain won a bronze medal in the 100 metres and Mo won a silver medal in the 5,000 metres. Both were disappointed and the sports’ commentators spoke as if they were “failures” when they had won world championship medals; something most athletes only dream of doing. After completing a lap of honour, Usain said, “It’s really sad, I’m saying goodbye to everything.” From now on Mo wants to be known as Mohamed. He said, “I just feel like Mo is done. I need to forget about what I achieved and what I’ve done.”
The story of South African long jumper, Luvo Manyonga, is remarkable and encouraging. He won the gold medal at the World Championships. Just 3 years ago his life was very different. Luvo grew up in poverty in Mbekweni township. His mother, a domestic cleaner, raised him on her own. Luvo was an outstanding young athlete winning the world junior championship in 2010 and the All-Africa Games’ in 2011. However, the prize money disrupted his life. He started using tik, a recreational drug commonly used in the townships, and as a result gave a positive drug test in competition. He described his drug-taking as “hooking up with the devil.” He admitted taking the drug for non-performance-enhancing reasons and was suspended from competition for 18 months. The lower sentence was based on his “exceptional social circumstances.” Luvo underwent drug rehabilitation and was greatly helped by two new coaches.
After winning the World Championship gold medal, Luvo knelt by the side of the long jump pit and gave thanks to God. When he was interviewed by Gabby Logan, he told her he was a Christian and that Jesus had changed his life. What a wonderful encouragement this is. When we fail, as we all do, we can find new life and hope through experiencing the transforming love of Jesus.
It is interesting to read the obituaries of people who have recently died. Many, who are not well-known, have lived very interesting lives. The obituaries usually do not give details of the cause of death and often make no reference to the person’s faith in God. However, the Daily Telegraph recently published an obituary of Joan Winmill Brown, who died at the end of June at the age of 89. I had never heard of the lady, but her story was unusual.
Joan was a successful actress. In the years following World War II, when she was a rising star of the British stage and screen, she was introduced to Bobby Kennedy. He was attracted to the beautiful young actress and she became his secret girlfriend. When Bobby’s father, Joe Kennedy, found out about their relationship he ordered his son to end it. Their break-up, in early 1950, hit Joan hard; she sank into a depression during which she drank too much. She even considered suicide. She said, “At that time my world fell apart, but in hindsight I don’t believe I truly loved him. I think I was infatuated with his aura of wealth as much as the man himself.”
In 1954, a friend persuaded Joan to go to a Billy Graham Crusade in Harringay Arena. She recalled, “As I walked in the crowds were singing Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine. I didn’t get it at all.” That night she was introduced to Ruth Bell, Billy Graham’s wife, and a lifelong friendship began that helped turn Joan’s life around. Later Joan received Jesus as her personal saviour and said, “God in Jesus showed me the way to happiness.” In 1952, she met Billy Brown whom she married. They both worked with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and, after they retired, lived in Hawaii. Billy died just a few months before Joan.
A hymn often sung at Billy Graham Crusades well expresses Joan’s testimony; “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore, very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more. But the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry, from the waters lifted me, now safe am I. All my heart to him I give, ever to him I’ll cling, in his blessed presence live, ever his praises sing. Love so mighty and so true, merits my soul’s best songs. Faithful, loving service, too, to him belongs. Love lifted me! Love lifted me! When nothing else could help, Love lifted me!
Following their latest test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, there is growing concern around the world about North Korea. Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, claims that the entire US is now within striking range of his missiles. The North Koreans are also working on a project to miniaturise a nuclear warhead to fit on their long-range missiles. The leaders of South Korea, Japan and the USA are not sure how to respond. China is a key player in influencing Kim Jong-un, but is reluctant to act.
Throughout history there have been leaders who have been ambitious to extend and display their power. The Bible tells the story of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon that was the world super-power of that day. One night Nebuchadnezzar had a dream that deeply disturbed him. He saw a large tree in the middle of the earth that reached high into the heavens for all the world to see. Then a messenger shouted, “Cut down the tree and lop off its branches! But leave the stump and the roots in the ground, bound with a band of iron and bronze. Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him live with the wild animals among the plants of the field. Let him have the mind of a wild animal instead of the mind of a man.”
King Nebuchadnezzar asked Daniel to interpret his dream. He told Nebuchadnezzar that the tree represented him. Nebuchadnezzar had grown strong and great; his rule reached up to heaven and to the ends of the earth. Through the dream, God was telling Nebuchadnezzar that he would be driven from human society and would live in the fields with the wild animals until he learned “that the Most High rules over the kingdoms of the world and gives them to anyone he chooses.” Nebuchadnezzar would receive his kingdom back when he learned that heaven rules. Then Daniel gave the King some advice, “Stop sinning and do what is right. Break from your wicked past and be merciful to the poor.”
The dream God gave Nebuchadnezzar came to pass. After his sanity returned he praised and worshipped God and said, “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and glorify and honour the King of heaven. All his acts are just and true, and he is able to humble the proud.” Today the leaders of the nations, and those who aspire to great power, should humbly remember that heaven rules. All of us can also find great comfort in knowing that the Lord God omnipotent reigns!