The March of the Living

Jewish people from Britain have taken part in the “March of the Living” event in Krakow, Poland, to mark the 70 years since, on 15 April 1945, British troops liberated the people in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Bergen-Belsen, near Hanover, was a place where tens of thousands of people died in horrific circumstances. Those who died, many of them women and children, included Jews, Czechs, Poles, anti-Nazi Christians, homosexuals and Roma gypsies.

There were no gas chambers at Bergen-Belsen. The people died of disease: particularly typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, dysentery and malnutrition. Margot and Ann Frank died there just a few weeks before the camp was liberated. It is estimated that as many as 28,000 of the 38,500 prisoners in the camp when it was liberated, subsequently died.

At the “March of the Living” some of the survivors told their stories. Mala Tribich, then known as Mala Helfgott, arrived at Bergen-Belsen with her cousin, Ann, in February 1945. Mala was 14 years old and Ann was 7. She said, “It was like something out of hell. There was a kind of heavy smog, and a foul smell, with skeletal figures shuffling everywhere like zombies. The camp was built for 3,000 but, when we arrived, there were 69,000 there.”

After leaving Bergen-Belsen Mala spent 2 years in Sweden and then came to Britain where she was reunited with her brother, Ben Helfgott, who is thought to be the only Holocaust survivor to win an Olympic medal for Britain. He was a weightlifter. Mala married and rebuilt her family.

The history of Bergen-Belsen reminds us of the depths of wickedness to which human beings can descend. The callousness of those who ran the camps and their indifference to the suffering of their fellow human beings is chilling. Bergen-Belsen also reminds us of the strength and help that only God can give us. Many of those who suffered and died in the camp were familiar with the words of the Jewish Scriptures in Psalm 23. Out of the deep darkness of the horrors they were experiencing they held on to the hope promised to them in God’s Word. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death; I will fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

The story of Luke Shambrook

Luke Shambrook is 11 and has autism. Over the Easter weekend he and his family went on a camping holiday at Devil Cove, a bay near Melbourne. On Good Friday morning Luke went missing and an intensive search operation was launched involving the police, rescue authorities and more than 120 volunteer holidaymakers. They used motorcycles, sniffer dogs, horses, four-wheel drives, jet-skis and aircraft to search through the thick scrub and eucalyptus trees of the unforgiving Australian bush. At times thick cloud hampered the search reducing visibility to less than 30 feet. After 4 days and nights Luke had not been found and hopes were fading.

Then just before midday on Tuesday morning Brad Pascoe, on one of the search helicopters, spotted a little flash of something in the bush on the side of a peak. They turned the helicopter round and trained their camera on what Brad had seen. It was Luke! Everyone was overjoyed! Some of his police rescuers were close to tears of relief and joy, as were his family when they were reunited with Luke. Luke was dehydrated and suffering from hypothermia and was taken to hospital. He probably would not have survived another night in the bush. On behalf of the family Luke’s uncle thanked all the rescuers and volunteers and said, “We’re thankful to live in a society that puts a lot of effort into finding children who go missing.”

This story reminds us of a parable Jesus told about a shepherd who had 100 sheep and one of them went missing. He left the 99 other sheep in the open countryside and went in search of the lost sheep until he found it. He joyfully put the sheep on his shoulders and brought it home. Then he called together his friends and neighbours to rejoice with him. Jesus said, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who do not need to repent.”

As we look at our own lives, and the lives of so many in our world today, we can understand why Jesus said we are “lost”. Like little Luke, we have wandered away from the God who created us and loves us and have lost our bearings in life. Jesus came into the world to seek and save us. One hymn writer wrote, “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God; he, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood.”

The Lord is risen!

The wonderful message of Easter is “The Lord is risen!” After the crucifixion the disciples were devastated and despondent. The Lord whom they loved, and in whom all their hopes were centred, had died in the most terrible way. Early in the morning on the third day after Jesus died, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb where his body had been laid. She was horrified to find that the stone had been rolled away and assumed that someone had stolen his body. As she was weeping outside the tomb Jesus appeared to her and spoke her name, “Mary”. She was overwhelmed with joy to see her Lord again.

Although Jesus had told his disciples that he would be killed and on the third day be raised to life, they did not remember his words. None of them was expecting him to rise from the dead. After his resurrection, however, Jesus appeared to his disciples over a period of 40 days and gave them many infallible proofs that he was alive. They did not simply have a general feeling that he was with them, or that all he had taught them was still relevant, they knew that just as he had really died so also he had really been raised bodily from the grave.

The resurrection of Jesus was a decisive event in the history of the church. Knowing that Jesus had overcome death, and seeing him alive, transformed the disciples. Now they were ready to go into all the world and preach the good news of Jesus. When they faced terrible persecution, and even death, they were not afraid because they knew he was with them and that when they died they would go to be with him in heaven. Millions of people in every nation on earth have found that same hope as they have received Jesus as their Saviour.

One thing that is certain for us all is that we will die. We don’t want to think about it or talk about it. We are afraid of death and the things that may happen to us in the process of dying. On the day that Jesus was crucified two other men, both criminals, died alongside him. One of them said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” None of us deserves God’s love, but no-one who has come to him and asked him to receive them has ever been turned away.

For God so loved the world

The tragic air crash in the French Alps claimed the lives of 150 people, including 16 school children. More people died in the crash than the total population of the nearby village of Seyne-les-Alpes. The cockpit voice recorder has revealed that the co-pilot was flying the Airbus 320 and deliberately crashed the plane into the mountainside killing himself and all the passengers entrusted to his care. Investigators are trying to discover the reasons why he decided to kill himself and also to murder so many strangers. Murder is an evil and callous act that displays total indifference to the rights of others and the preciousness of every human life.

How different are the events we remember this Easter weekend! On Good Friday we remember the day that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died. His death was the greatest act of love and self-sacrifice. He said, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”

Jesus laid down his life in the face of great hostility. He was surrounded by hatred from both the religious leaders and the people. Pilate, the Roman governor, offered to release him, because he knew Jesus had done nothing wrong, but the people cried out, “Crucify him!” The apostle Paul, who had been a totally opposed to Jesus, wrote, “You see, at just the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Jesus laid down his life so that we might be forgiven. He died to pay the price of our sins and to reconcile us to God. A well-known hymn says, “We may not know, we cannot tell, what pains he had to bear, but we believe it was for us he hung and suffered there. He died that we might be forgiven; he died to make us good, that we might go at last to heaven, saved by his precious blood. There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin, he only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in. O dearly, dearly has he loved, and we must love him too, and trust in his redeeming blood, and try his works to do.”

The day the Sun stopped shining

Last week millions of people in Britain and northern Europe witnessed the best solar eclipse for many years. A great swathe of the Earth’s surface was plunged into darkness as the Moon came between the Sun and us. In many parts of Britain, as the eclipse reached 83%, an eerie darkness came over the land and the temperature fell by 3 degrees.

In the Faroe Islands, hundreds of miles to the north of Britain, there was a total eclipse that lasted 2 minutes. One person who was in the Faroe Islands described the scene, “There was just silence and the sound of the wind. No one spoke; to utter words would have felt like sacrilege. You feel a deep sense of place. A thick shadow inched across us, then raced away, leaving silver light that leaked into blue, brightening quickly. It was over.”

Two thousand years ago, as Jesus hung dying on a cross outside the city of Jerusalem, eyewitnesses describe a great darkness that came over the whole land for 3 hours from midday to 3 o’clock. In his Gospel Luke says, “The sun stopped shining.” That darkness was deeply significant as the eternal Son of God became the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Near the end of those 3 hours of darkness Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” His words give an insight into what was happening. Jesus, who had never sinned, was dying in our place, suffering the punishment we deserve. In his Son, Jesus, God was reconciling the world to himself. As the darkness lifted and the light returned Jesus said, “It is finished.” His knew his reconciling work was complete.

In one of his hymns Isaac Watts, the great English hymn writer, wrote, “Alas! and did my Saviour bleed, and did my Sovereign die! Would he devote that sacred head for sinners such as I? Was it for crimes that I have done, he groaned upon the tree? Amazing pity! Grace unknown! And love beyond degree! Well might the sun in darkness hide, and shut its glories in, when God, the mighty Maker, died for man the creature’s sin. Thus might I hide my blushing face while his dear cross appears; dissolve my heart in thankfulness, and melt mine eyes to tears. But drops of tears can ne’er repay the debt of love I owe. Here, Lord, I give myself away; ’tis all that I can do.”

The Prince of Peace

The lust for power has dominated the history of the world. The ancient empires of Egypt, Syria, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome were all supreme for a time. The two World Wars of the 20th century were caused by a desire to rule the world. Today the United States of America is the superpower. President Putin is actively seeking to extend the power of Russia. Some Muslim groups are seeking to extend their power. In a few weeks time we will be voting for those who aspire to rule us for the next 5 years.

How different it was 2000 years ago when a young man rode into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey. The crowds acclaimed him as their King. In his triumphal entry Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey.” The kingdom Jesus established was very different from earthly kingdoms. He is the Prince of peace. He never commanded an army and told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest.”

Over the years the kingdom of Jesus has spread to all parts of the world while the great empires of the world have come and gone. The alliance of the church with political power in places like Europe has been a distortion of his kingdom. The gracious rule of King Jesus has been spread through the proclamation of the good news of the salvation that he promises to all who follow him. When we know him as Saviour and Lord he gives us fulness of life. His rule blesses his people with “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.”

Yet, many of us want to retain our “freedom”. The strange thing is that it is only in acknowledging that Jesus is our King that we find true freedom. George Matheson’s hymn explains this very well. “Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free; Force me to render up my sword, and I shall conqueror be. I sink in life’s alarms when by myself I stand, imprison me within Thine arms, and strong shall be my hand. My will is not my own till Thou hast made it Thine. If it would reach the monarch’s throne it must its crown resign. It only stands unbent amid the clashing strife, when on Thy bosom it has leant, and found in Thee its life.”

Don’t worry about anything

The Bible is a best selling book. More than 100 million copies of the Bible are sold or given away every year. Gideons International gives away a Bible every second. The Bible is available as a whole or in part in more than 2400 languages, covering 95% of the people of the world. Yet, for many people, the Bible is an unread book. The Bible is very big and it isn’t easy to know where to start reading. Yet in the Bible God speaks to us. Christians believe that the Bible is God’s Word. What the Bible says, God says. The Bible speaks into every situation that you and I face.

In the letter he wrote to the Christians living in Philippi the apostle Paul says, “Don’t worry about anything, instead pray about everything. Tell God what you need and thank him for all he has done. If you do this, you will experience God’s peace, which is far more wonderful that the human mind can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.”

Worry is a universal human experience. We lie awake at night worrying. We go the doctor to ask for medication to help us cope with our worries. We worry about our families, about our work or study, about money, about our health and about the future. We usually worry about things we can’t do anything about and people may say to us, “Don’t worry, it may never happen!” But this doesn’t help us and we continue to worry because what will we do if it does happen? So how do Paul’s words help us?

Paul didn’t simply say, “Don’t worry.” He said, “Instead pray about everything.” Because God is there we can talk to him. We don’t need special words to speak to him, we can simply tell him what’s on our hearts. We can speak to him every day about everything, big things and small things, and ask him to help us. We can tell him the things we are worrying about and ask him to be with us and to give us strength to face whatever may come. It’s important to remember how he has helped us in the past and to thank him for being with us in difficult times. As we speak to God, he gives us his peace. One hymn says, “O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry, everything to God in prayer.”

The refugee children from Eritrea

Eritrea is a small and little known country in the Horn of Africa. It emerged in 1993 after a long war for independence from Ethiopia. Since then military conflict with Ethiopia and Yemen has continued, although today there is a fragile peace. Eritrea is one of the world’s most secretive countries, similar to North Korea. It’s 5.6 million people have suffered from droughts and famines, along with other countries in that region, but the government has never given any details or sought outside help.

In the past year the number of refugees fleeing Eritrea has significantly increased. In October last year 5000 Eritreans crossed into Ethiopia and 90% of them were between the ages of 18-24. Seventy-eight children arrived on their own without an adult family member. In a recent Panorama programme Paul Kenyon visited the Shagarab refugee camp in Sudan and talked to some of these children. They had risked their lives in leaving Eritrea and face a very uncertain future on their own. They want to reach Europe and, in order to do this, will have to cross hundreds of miles of desert and undertake a dangerous boat journey across the Mediterranean Sea. They all said their reason for fleeing Eritrea was the fear of conscription into the army.

As I listened to a 15 year old boy talking I thought of our own grandchildren. Humanly speaking this boy is alone in the world. He is at the mercy of the elements and the people traffickers who force children of his age to take small boats with hundreds of people on board across the Mediterranean. Some boats make it, but many don’t. The sheer numbers of refugees seeking asylum in Europe is a massive problem, especially for Italy, but we do have a responsibility for these children, some of whom come from Muslim homes and others from Christian homes.

Two things put us under an obligation to help people who are in need – seeing them and having the means to help them. In his first letter the apostle John wrote, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”

The God of Hope

The signs of new life are beginning to appear in the gardens. How encouraging it is to see the delicate snowdrops, the crocuses and the first of the daffodils. They create in us the anticipation of the coming of Spring, and the end of another winter. Winter can be a difficult time with the long dark days, the frost and the snow, and the violent storms. But now the days are getting longer, the mornings are lighter and each day sunset is a little later. These things give us hope; something to which we can look forward.

Hope is in short supply today. Our world leaders are struggling to cope with many crises. There is little hope for the future. Economic prospects are not good, even for the prosperous countries of Europe. Austerity must continue for some time yet. In parts of Africa, South America and Asia poverty blights the lives of millions of people. They live in simple homes, eat one meal a day and find it hard to find the fees for their children, the next generation, to go to school. Life is very fragile and uncertain in the face of diseases like Ebola and HIV/AIDS. The threat of extremism and terrorism is growing and will, we are told, be with us for at least a generation.

Hope comes from God even when we are passing through the darkest of situations. The apostle Paul wrote a letter to Christians living in Rome. They were already experiencing persecution and within a few years would face terrible persecution under Emperor Nero. Near the end of the letter Paul writes, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” What a wonderful view of the living God; he is “the God of hope!” He can “fill us with all joy and peace”, so that we “overflow with hope.” He gives us power and strength by his Holy Spirit to face the future with hope.

This hope becomes real in our lives as we look to God and “trust in him.” In Psalm 146 the psalmist writes, “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing. Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God.”

Footprints in the Sand

Mary Stevenson was born on 8 November 1922 in Chester, Pennsylvania. Her life was far from easy. She was one of 8 children and lost her mother when she was just 6 years old. As a child she lived through the Great Depression that was a very difficult time for the whole family. While still in her teens, Mary married a man who became very abusive to her. She ran away with her infant son to an Indian reservation in Oklahoma. After World War II she was divorced and her son was taken away from her. She moved to Los Angeles where she met and married Basil Zangare. Soon after Mary contracted polio. In 1980 Basil died following a heart attack and Mary herself died in January 1999.

When she was in her early teens Mary wrote a poem, “Footprints in the Sand”, that has become very well known and has been a help and comfort to many people. This is what Mary wrote:

“One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky. In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, other times there was only one. This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see only one set of footprints. So I said to the Lord,‘You promised me Lord, that if I followed you, you would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has only been one set of footprints in the sand. Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?’ The Lord replied, ‘The times when you have seen only one set of footprints, my child, is when I carried you.’”

Like Mary, we all experience low periods in our lives. It is so important at those times, even though we cannot understand what is happening to us, that we draw near to God and trust him. He is able to carry us, and our problems, and to give us a sense of his presence and peace. The early Christians faced great persecution; some were put in prison and many were executed. Through it all they found great comfort and strength in the promise of their Risen Lord, “Surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.”