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.”

I was a stranger and you invited me in

The conflict in Eastern Ukraine shows little sign of ending despite the recent high-level meetings. Ukraine has two official languages: those in the west speak Ukrainian and those in the east speak Russian. Russia, and the rebels they are backing, are exploiting this by appearing to support the grievances some Russian speaking Ukrainians in the east have against the government in Kiev.

Over the past year Russia has illegally annexed Crimea, which conveniently gives them control of the warm water seaport of Sebastopol. A Malaysian civilian airliner was shot down killing 298 people. Major cities in eastern Ukraine are now war zones with massive destruction of property. The brand new international airport in Donetsk, built for the European Football Championships in 2012, is now rubble. Donetsk is the same size as Birmingham. In the conflict 5300 people have died and 1.5 million have been made homeless. Thousands of men, women and children have fled for safety to cities outside the war zone including Kharkov, the second city of Ukraine.

Yet in the midst of this appalling situation good things are happening. I have friends who live in Kharkov. They are Christians and attend a small Baptist church. Christians in the Baptist churches have been helping the refugees who are fleeing the fighting. When buses carrying refugees arrive in Kharkov they are met by Christians who provide food and clothing for the people and help them to find somewhere to stay. The Baptist church buildings have become temporary homes for refugee families and the Christians have also welcomed refugees into their own homes. Ukraine is a poor country and the war has increased the price of everything, yet the Christians are willing to share their own limited resources with strangers who are in great need. Christians in Britain are also sending gifts to help them.

One of the greatest commandments God has given us is, “You shall love your neighbour as you love yourself.” Jesus said that his people feed the hungry, give drinks to the thirsty, clothe the naked and provide homes for the homeless. Then he added, “Whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you do for me.” Jesus himself is the supreme example of self-sacrificing love. The apostle Paul wrote, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

In all their suffering he also suffered

The television programmes commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp brought home afresh the terrifying capacity of human beings to commit acts of great evil and wickedness. The systematic slaughter of millions of helpless Jewish people ranks amongst the darkest chapters in human history. They were first incarcerated in ghettos and then transported like animals to camps like Auschwitz where men, women and children were mercilessly gassed and then buried or incinerated. The emaciated bodies of those living in the camps clearly portray the diabolical treatment they suffered.

In contrast the programmes remembering the funeral of Winston Churchill, who died 50 years ago, reminded us that human beings are also capable of acts of great courage in confronting evil men and bringing liberty to many. Churchill was our greatest wartime Prime Minister who inspired a nation to stand against and, together with our allies, to defeat the megalomaniac ambitions of Adolph Hitler and the Nazis. In the dark days following the Dunkirk evacuation, Churchill inspired a nation to rise from a massive defeat and to courageously confront, and ultimately defeat, a very powerful enemy.

Human beings are an enigma. Reflecting on the life of his grandfather, who was the commandant of Auschwitz, one grandson struggled to understand how his grandfather could be a kind and loving husband and father to his own family while at the same time he was supervising the merciless extermination of Jewish families. At a personal level we all struggle with the daily contradictions of our lives. The apostle Paul was conscious of this and wrote, “I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I don’t do it.”

God has decisively intervened in our world to give us hope in the face of both the continuing acts of great evil and our daily personal struggles. He cares deeply for those experiencing great suffering. The prophet Isaiah spoke God’s word to his suffering people, “In all their suffering he also suffered, and he personally rescued them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them. He lifted them up and carried them.” These words of comfort were ultimately fulfilled In Jesus Christ who died in our place. On the cross he suffered the punishment our sins deserve in order to redeem us and give us hope. As one hymn says, “There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin, he only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.”

Pauline Cafferkey recovers from Ebola

The interview with nurse Pauline Cafferkey, now recovered from the Ebola which nearly took her life, was cause for great joy. This courageous lady went to Sierra Leone to help save lives amidst the deadly Ebola outbreak that continues to ravage that country and others nearby. Out of love for other people she put her own life at risk. There are, no doubt, people in Kerry Town, Sierra Leone, alive today because of the dedication of Pauline and her colleagues working with Save the Children.

On her return, soon after Christmas, she was unwell and was, eventually, diagnosed with Ebola. She was taken to a specialist isolation unit in the Royal Free Hospital in Barnet. There a highly skilled medical team used their skills and the available resources to save Pauline’s life. Having seen patients dying in Sierra Leone she said she was “definitely frightened.” She remembers one point, when she was critically ill and it seemed she might die, when she said, “That’s it, I’ve had enough.” But she came through that crisis and is now clear of Ebola. She is looking forward to going back to her family and her normal life and normal job.

Today good news stories are like oases in the desert. We are bombarded by accounts of the wicked deeds of evil people and the dreary preoccupations of our political leaders. It is no wonder that many suffer from some degree of depression. So the story of a Scottish lady who loves and cares for others at great personal cost is refreshing and heartwarming. We rejoice that her life has been spared and wish her well for the future.

The Christian message is good news. It tells us of Jesus who, motivated by a deep love, came into this world so that through him we might find abundant life. When he was unjustly sentenced to death and crucified his disciples were devastated. They felt as if there was no hope for the future. On the third day, however, everything changed when they saw their risen Lord and their hearts were filled with joy. Jesus had triumphed over sin and death and had given them a sure and certain hope. His promise to them was, “Because I live, you will also live.” He can also give us hope in the darkest experiences of life. One hymn says, “When all things seem against us, to drive us to despair, we know one gate is open, one ear will hear our prayer.”

A new morality

In the Western world we are experiencing a moral revolution. There is now a new morality. What has, for hundreds of years, been regarded as wrong is now right. What was right is wrong. Positive words are used to give the impression that this is all for the better. Promoting the new morality is “progressive”. Politicians tell us they are doing “the right thing.” This is not a claim to be acting morally but that they believe they are adopting the right policy to deal with an issue.

The new morality involves key words and ideas: “freedom”, “choice”, “equality”, “discrimination”, “phobic”, and “human rights”. Armed with theses concepts we can justify almost any action and can present anyone who disagrees as bigoted, out of touch or opposed to the onward march of “progress”. The new morality is intolerant of anyone who disagrees. Anyone who disagrees is attacked, denied the right to express their views and, sometimes, even criminalised.

But morality is fundamental to the lives of every one of us and to any society. Being honest matters. Being faithful to our marriage partners is vital to social stability. Respecting people who are different from us is really important. To disagree with people of another faith or of another sexual disorientation is not “phobic”, but arises from our moral convictions and spiritual beliefs.

A Muslim may fundamentally disagree with a Christian who believes that Jesus is the Son of God, but he isn’t Christian-phobic, which means being afraid of Christians or Christianity. He just disagrees with them. Normally such a disagreement does not lead to violence. I have Muslim friends. Love and respect for one another transcend differences of religious belief and practice.

The new morality has no place for God or for absolute moral principles that apply to us all. But God has given us two great commandments, which embrace all the important principles of true morality. We are to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. Love for God involves worshipping him, honouring his Name and enjoying the weekly day of rest he has ordained. Loving our neighbour means honouring our parents, not killing our neighbour or taking his wife, not stealing his possessions or telling lies about him, and not being jealous of what he has. Any individual or society that abandons these moral principles is like a ship adrift on the ocean without power or compass.