Joy to the world! The Lord is come!

As we sat in Bali airport waiting for our flight it was a very pleasant surprise to hear the music of a familiar Christmas carol, “Joy to the world”, being played. The carol joyfully affirms that the coming of Jesus into the world is a reason for all to rejoice. “Joy to the world! The Lord is come, let earth receive her King! Let every heart prepare him room and heaven and nature sing.” Jesus, who was born in lowly circumstances in Bethlehem, is King of kings. “He rules the world with truth and grace and makes the nations prove, the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.”

It seems as if two different celebrations are being held at this time of year. For some it is “Winterval”. In the dark days of mid winter this festival offers happiness through spending, feasting and parties. It is very expensive and leaves the headache of paying the bills in January. It is really good, in the busyness of modern life, to take time to be with family and friends and to give and receive presents, but surely there is more.

Jesus is at the heart of Christmas. His birth is a wonderful reason to celebrate because his coming brought true and lasting joy. In the words of another Christmas carol, “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.”

There are real similarities between Bethlehem, when Jesus was born, and our 21st century world. The people in Bethlehem that night were busy because their lives had been disrupted by the demands of a Roman census. They had had to travel from their own communities to Bethlehem and many were stressed as they tried to find a place to stay. It wasn’t a good time to pause and take note that a child had been born in a nearby stable who fulfilled the promises made by God from the beginning of history.

God has given us his only Son, whose name is Jesus, because “he will save his people from their sins.” “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.”

The Hupla People receive the Bible

Last week I was in the beautiful mountain village of Soba in Papua for the dedication of the Hupla Bible. For the first time the 6000 Hupla people have the whole Bible in their own heart language. It was a time of great joy and celebration. It has taken more than 25 years work to translate the Bible and the main translators Mathias, who is a Hupla, and Sue, who is from Ireland, rejoiced in the completion of what, for them, has been a labour of love.

Sue first arrived in Papua in 1978 as a young nurse and for 19 years lived amongst the Hupla people in Soba. It took her 2 days to walk through the mountains from the highland city of Wamena to Soba. At other times the journey took 15 minutes by light aircraft to the small airstrip that had been cleared in the village. In 1994 Sue joined the Bible translation team.

Before they heard the good news of Jesus the Hupla people, like the other 250 tribes in Papua, lived in constant fear and oppression from evil spirits and the spirits of dead relatives. Fear of these spirits controlled every part of their lives and they offered many sacrifices to appease the anger of the spirits.

There was also frequent fighting amongst the clans within the tribe and with other neighbouring tribes. The practice of revenge and ‘pay back’ killings meant that there was no end to the fighting. Many died and others suffered terrible injuries. The people also practised cannibalism. Although the people lived in very beautiful mountains and valleys their lives were very dark. Now that many of the people know Jesus, things are very different.

In each village there were special places where only the men were allowed to go. If a woman or child entered that place the spirits would be angry and they had to be put to death. One day a little girl, who was looking for her father, unknowingly entered the forbidden place. She was taken to her father who knew what he must do to appease the spirits. He took his little girl to a nearby waterfall and threw her into it. Later when missionaries came to that village and told the people the good news of Jesus the father said, “If you had only come sooner my little girl would not have died!” All of us experience fear, but the perfect love of God in Jesus overcomes all our fears.

The transforming power of God’s love

I am visiting Papua in Indonesia. Papua is the Western part of a large island north of Australia. It is an amazingly complex society. The people of Papua, who number two and a half million, speak 250 different languages. Many of the people live in remote areas amongst the mountains and valleys of this very beautiful country. In the 1950s Christian missionaries first brought the good news of Jesus to the tribal peoples of Papua. They lived amongst the people, built relationships with them and learned their languages.

The missionaries faced many challenges and dangers. In 1968 two missionaries, Stan Dale and Phil Masters, were killed by warriors from the Yali tribe. Despite this tragedy others continued the work and many of the Yali people experienced God’s love and forgiveness in Jesus. Their lives, and the life of the tribe, was transformed.

One of the first Yali men to come to faith in Jesus was Dongla Kobak. His father, Andeng, was the cult priest of the tribe and Dongla had been expected to succeed him. But Dongla’s life was decisively changed when he became a Christian and he became a leader in the church. He could not read but he learned the Bible stories the missionaries taught the people and then he taught his children those stories.

One of his sons, Otto, came to know Jesus as his Saviour and Lord and worked amongst the young people in the churches. In 1988 he joined the team translating the Bible into the Yali language. He dedicated the next 12 years of his life to this work so that the all the Yali people would be able to hear and read the Word of God in their own heart language. The complete Bible in Yali was published in 2000. Earlier this year, at the age of 50, Otto died of TB.

Otto’s experience of God’s love for him in Jesus transformed his life. Like the Apostle Paul he could say, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Otto’s whole life was committed to sharing the good news of Jesus with others and he died secure in the knowledge that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Now he is in heaven, in the presence of God, and is experiencing his love more deeply than ever before.

The heavens declare the glory of God

The European Space Agency has made history by successfully landing a robot on a comet in deep space. After 10 years, and a journey of more than 4 billion miles, the Rosetta spacecraft sent its fridge-sized Philae lander down to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which was travelling at 40,000mph. Philae landed safely and, despite some technical problems, sent back data for 60 hours. Rosetta is also maintaining its orbit around the comet and sending back data. Scientists had hoped that this mission could help unlock answers about the formation of the Solar System, the origins of water on Earth and perhaps even life itself.

This amazing achievement is testimony to the intelligence and skills God has given us as human beings. Each of us is a little speck in a vast universe. We are fragile and vulnerable, yet the Bible tells us we have been created “in the image of God.” In the 17th century Johannes Kepler, a German mathematician and astronomer, discovered his laws of planetary motion. He said he was aware of “thinking God’s thoughts after him.”

In every generation scientists and philosophers have tried to understand the meaning of life through studying and observing the wonderful universe in which we live. The more they have learned the more they have been amazed and humbled. In the 18th century the philosopher Immanuel Kant said, “Two things fill my mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often I reflect on them, the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me.” In the 20th century Albert Einstein, the theoretical physicist and philosopher of science, said, “Everyone who is seriously interested in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe – a spirit vastly superior to man, and one in the face of which our modest powers must feel humble.”

Through his creation God speaks to people in all nations on earth. In Psalm 19 David says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the earth.” Reflecting on the coming of Jesus, God’s eternal Son, into the world, the apostle John wrote, “He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”

Remembering the Simba Rebellion

Fifty years ago the Democratic Republic of Congo was embroiled in a violent civil war. In 1964, just 4 years after independence, many Congolese people died as Simba rebels tried to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Moise Tshombe. One of the tactics of the Simbas was to take white people hostage. In November 1964 19 members of the Unevangelised Fields Mission were killed in the area around Stanleyville. The missionaries came from the USA, Canada, Australia and Great Britain and had been teaching in schools and running hospitals and dispensaries. Some of the Simbas who killed them were still in their teens.

Yet even in those dark days the light of God’s presence and grace shone through. The courage and kindness of the Congolese Christians was clearly seen. Although food was scarce they quietly left rice and plantains at the door of the house where their missionary friends were being held. When the Simbas threatened the missionaries the Church leaders, at great risk to their lives, stood up to the rebels. One pastor accompanied and protected a young English nurse for 4 weeks as she fled to the jungle to escape the rebels.

Some people, who are still alive today, were remarkably delivered from danger. Olive was a prisoner at Banalia with 8 other missionaries and children and 7 priests and 11 nuns. She describes what happened on 27 November 1964, “Simbas fleeing from Stanleyville brought the order that we were all to be killed. We were marched towards the river along a road lined with Simbas baying for our death. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of peace, knowing that, whatever we faced, God’s grace would be sufficient. Inexplicably half way to the river I and two of the ladies were turned back. We heard gunfire in the distance and were told that all the others had been killed. We could only silently commit them to the Lord.”

Congo has experienced other terrible wars. The civil war between 1998 and 2003 claimed up to 6 million lives. Yet through it all the churches have grown so much that today there are literally thousands of churches and hundreds of thousands of Christians. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Great is your faithfulness!

The last autumn leaves will soon have fallen. Once again we have witnessed the spectacular autumn colours – yellows, browns and red. On bright sunny mornings the kaleidoscope of colour has been glorious. This is one of the ways in which the great God of creation tells us that he is there and this is his world. Even in the process of dying there is beauty in his world and as the trees stand stark and bare through winter there is the promise that they will spring to life again.

The passing seasons are a testimony to the order that God has established in his world. His creation is never random and accidental, but always purposeful. As the years pass God is accomplishing his purposes for his creation and all of us who live in it. One well known hymn says, “Summer and winter and springtime and harvest, sun, moon and stars in their courses above, join with all nature in manifold witness to thy great faithfulness, mercy and love. Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see; all I have needed thy hand has provided; great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!”

We all need to know and rest in the faithfulness of God. He is both the great God of creation and the One who knows and cares for us in a very personal way. Every human being is precious in his sight. Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. Even the hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” So when a young child in a remote rural village in Sierra Leone is dying of Ebola the heart broken parents can find comfort, strength and hope in the living God because he cares for them.

We are more precious to God than the amazing creation in which we live. King Solomon wrote, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.” This is why the things we have in this world can never satisfy our deepest longings. God created us to live for his glory and to enjoy him forever. Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand.”

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

The “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” display at the Tower of London has caught the public imagination. More than 4 million people have visited the display which marks the centenary of Britain’s involvement in World War I. From 5 August to 11 November the moat of the Tower of London has been progressively filled with 888,246 ceramic poppies. Each poppy represents one of the British and Colonial soldiers, sailors and airmen who died in the Great War. The scale of the display visibly and powerfully commemorates the massive loss of life which happened 100 years ago. More than 16 million people, military and civilians, died and 20 million were wounded.

When war broke out the British Army desperately needed to recruit more soldiers because the German Army was five times larger. Among those who volunteered were 250,000 boys and young men under the age of 19, the legal limit for armed service overseas. Most of them had little idea of what they would face. It is estimated that half of those who fought on the front line were wounded, died or taken prisoner.

Our commemoration of the centenary of World War I coincides with the withdrawal of British service personnel from Afghanistan. The conflict in Afghanistan has vividly reminded us of the great human cost of war. Many young men and women have died. Many others have suffered life-changing injuries. Many families have lost sons and daughters, husbands and wives and brothers and sisters. Long after the Union Flag was lowered at Camp Bastion injured soldiers will struggle to cope with the rest of their lives and families will grieve the loss of deeply loved family members. There will be official help and support for a time, but the sense of pain and loss is deep and profound.

The message of the Gospel speaks to our deepest heart needs. Jesus was a young man who dedicated his life to seeking the eternal happiness of others. As God’s eternal Son he was entitled to enjoy all the privileges which were rightfully his, but he voluntarily came into this broken world “not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” His death and resurrection stand as a beacon of hope to people of all nations. He understands our deepest pain and loss because he has personally experienced profound pain and loss, and in great love and compassion he comes alongside us in our darkest times to give us comfort, strength and hope.

They will beat their swords into ploughshares

The Union Flag has been lowered for the last time at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province. After 13 years British troops are being withdrawn from Afghanistan and Bastion has been handed over to Afghans. Bastion was once the largest British military base in the world housing up to 14000 troops with a 20 miles long perimeter wall and up to 600 aircraft movements a day. Bastion’s memorial wall, which bears the names of the 453 British military personnel killed in the conflict, has been removed and will be rebuilt at the National Arboretum in Staffordshire.

The conflict in Afghanistan has been long and costly. Thousands have died, both military personnel and civilians, and many more have suffered life-changing injuries. The British military personnel have been a great example of courage and commitment as they have fought alongside others to give the Afghan people a chance of a better life. The conflict is not over but, across the country, 6.7 million children now attend school, nearly 50% of them girls. This would have been unthinkable under Taliban rule. Healthcare has improved and life expectancy has increased.

The history of the world is scarred by wars and armed conflicts. In their lust for power and domination nations and individuals have been willing to sacrifice the lives of countless people. The military personnel in Afghanistan have stood between evil men and ordinary people who lived every day in fear and oppression. As they have served in a very difficult place far from their own homes, their presence has given hope to many. We pray that the Afghan people will find peace and security and that those who have lost loved ones, or suffered serious physical and psychological injuries, will know God’s comfort and his love for them.

What is the future for our world where seemingly irresolvable conflicts abound? The prophet Micah spoke of a coming day when God will intervene decisively in his world. “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and peoples will stream to it. He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.”

My help comes from the Lord

Tragically 39 trekkers have died in the Himalayas. 400 others have been rescued. They were trekking with local guides in the Thorong Pass, which is one of the final stages of the “Annapurna Circuit”, a 200 mile route around Annapurna 1. This is the 10th highest mountain in the world standing at 26,500 feet. It takes two to three weeks to complete the circuit which attracts more than 100,000 trekkers each year. The route comprises footpaths between villages and teashops and does not require great hill walking experience.

October is the peak season for trekkers because the weather is normally good and the views of the mountains are majestic. This year, however, a cyclone in India moved quickly into Nepal. At altitudes of more than 15000 feet the biting winds and severe cold engulfed the trekkers. Few were equipped to cope with the extreme conditions which were so cold that people’s eyelids were frozen. In April this year 16 people died on Mount Everest and the world’s highest mountain was shut down for the first time.

Those who walk in the Himalayas are attracted by their spectacular grandeur and beauty. Those who complete the Annapurna Circuit, or climb a great mountain, have a real sense of achievement. Yet the sight of towering mountain peaks also makes you aware of your smallness. The Himalayas have stood through the millennia and have been left unmoved by countless severe storms, but we are far more vulnerable. In times of trouble the mountains, for all their greatness, cannot help us, but there is One who hears our cry.

All of us experience the storms of life, which often come suddenly and unexpectedly. To whom can we turn for help? In Psalm 121 the psalmist says, “I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. The Lord will keep you from all harm – he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and for evermore.” It is wise to turn to the Lord before the storms come. In one of his hymns Charles Wesley speaks of the safety and security he found in Jesus Christ. “Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly, while the nearer waters roll, while the tempest still is high. Hide me, O my Saviour, hide, till the storm of life is past; safe into the haven guide; Oh receive my soul at last.”

The God who reconciles us to himself

At 2.54am on 12 October 1984 an IRA bomb exploded in The Grand Hotel, Brighton. It was the week of the Conservative Party Conference and the intended target was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She was not injured, but 5 people were killed and 34 were taken to hospital. Margaret Tebbit, the wife of Norman, was left paralysed. She spent nearly a year being treated at Stoke Mandeville Hospital and another year at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital at Stanmore before returning to her home. For the past 30 years she and her husband have lived daily with the devastating personal consequences of that bomb.

The Brighton bombing and more recent events in Iraq and Syria remind us of the potential for great evil in human beings. The bombers carefully planned the atrocity in cold blood; just as Alan Henning was executed by IS militants in cold blood. The IRA statement claiming responsibility for the Brighton bombing said, “Mrs Thatcher will now realise that Britain cannot occupy our country and torture our prisoners and shoot our people in their own streets and get away with it. Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always. Give Ireland peace and there will be no more war.”

The reference to “getting away with it” implies that people have a right to commit any kind of atrocity as “pay back” for the actions of those whom they hate and in pursuit of their cause. It fails, however, to recognise that God has created us all as morally accountable beings. None of us ultimately “gets away with it.” Death does not pay all debts. The New Testament says, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

The survivors of acts of atrocity are sometimes asked whether they can forgive the perpetrators. Norman Tebbit, in a very moving article about his and his wife’s experience over the past 30 years, has said that forgiveness is not possible because the bombers have not repented and justice has not been done. This takes us to the heart of the Christian message. In his Son, Jesus, God reconciled a sinful world to himself. His divine justice was satisfied when his Son died for our sins and so opened the way for each of us to repent and be forgiven. As one hymn says, “The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”