Being thankful and content

Many people in the world experience profound suffering and sadness. Sometimes it comes through natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and tsunamis in which people lose everything – loved ones, homes and possessions. Some die from deadly diseases like Ebola. Others perish in the deserts of Africa or the Mediterranean Sea as they flee oppressive regimes and persecution. Some are imprisoned or executed by religious fanatics or megalomaniac rulers.

The pictures of the Rohingya Muslim people on boats in the Andaman Sea vividly portrayed human misery and helplessness. They come from Myanmar where they are not recognized as citizens and face persecution. The people have paid people smugglers to take them to Thailand but have been turned away. Malaysia and Indonesia have also refused to accept them. Men, women and children have been trapped on dilapidated boats with little food or water for weeks. Many are sick and dying. No one seems ready to accept them; they have nowhere to turn.

Watching the report of the people on the boat I felt both a compassion for their plight and a deep thankfulness that I, and my family, have never been in such a terrible situation. We have faced difficulties in our lives but have always had someone to turn to for help. It is easy to complain about relatively minor things that go wrong and not to realize the amazing privileges we enjoy. Seeing the people in the boat puts our problems into their proper perspective.

In the Western world today contentment is very rare. Complaining seems to be the norm in our materialistic society. We are encouraged never to be content with what we have and always to want more. Yet no amount of material possessions can ever bring lasting fulfilment. The apostle Paul wrote, “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.”

Every human being is precious because we have been created in God’s image. When everyone rejects the people in the boats, and they have nowhere to turn, God sees and cares. He hears their cries for help and will hold to account those who are so terribly mistreating them. He is also the one to whom we can give thanks for the many blessings he has given us, none of which we deserve. His greatest gift to a lost and dying world was his Son, Jesus, who came that through him we might have eternal life.

Give to God what is God’s

The General Election is over. The people have spoken. A new government has been elected. In our parliamentary democracy we have been able to vote for the people and party we want to govern us. It is a great privilege and blessing to live in a democratic country; a privilege denied to many people in our world today. In 1863, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln said the war was a struggle for the preservation of the Union and democracy, that he defined as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Jesus lived in a country ruled by a Roman governor where Roman soldiers enforced the so-called “Pax Romana”. It is interesting, therefore, to see how Jesus and his followers responded to the Roman Emperor and his absolute power. Jesus was once asked a question about paying Roman taxes, which were deeply resented by his fellow countrymen. Some religious leaders asked him, “Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” Jesus replied, “Show me a coin used for paying the tax. Whose image is this and whose inscription?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

The early Christians lived under totalitarian Roman rule and experienced cruel and unjust persecution. Men, women and children were imprisoned, crucified, and killed by wild animals in the arena to “entertain” wealthy and privileged Roman citizens. Yet Christian leaders, who were themselves eventually executed by the Romans, encouraged Christians to obey the authorities and to pray for kings and rulers. The apostle Peter wrote, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor.”

So whichever party governs us, it is good to pray for them. Ultimately they are accountable not to the electorate but to God for the way they rule. Each of us must also face the challenge of giving to God what is rightfully his because he is the ultimate ruler of us all.

VE Day Remembered

This week is the 70th anniversary of VE Day when, on 8 May 1945, Nazi Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allies. As World War II in Europe came to an end celebrations erupted from Moscow to Los Angeles. In Britain more than one million people celebrated on the streets of London. King George VI and the Queen, accompanied by Winston Churchill, appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret were allowed to join the celebrating crowds incognito.

It is no wonder there were great celebrations. The dark years of World War II, the deadliest conflict in history, were over in Europe, and 3 months later the war in the Pacific also ended. During the War the Allies lost 61 million people, of whom 45 million were civilians. The Axis countries lost 12 million people, including 4 million civilians. Many millions of people were also injured.

The history of the world reveals the constant reality of evil and wickedness. In every generation wicked people kill and maim men, women and children in pursuit of their own evil ambitions. Every day we hear reports of the wars and conflicts in our world today. Will it ever come to an end?

The Bible answers this question and provides a coherent view of history. The universe didn’t come into existence by chance, but by the creative act of God. He created the heavens and the earth. Everything he created, including men and women, was good. In early history, however, sin entered the world as the first man, Adam, disobeyed the command of God. From that time on sin and evil have always been with us and stem from our rebellion against our Creator. The course of human history reveals the tragic consequences of this rebellion.

In his Son, Jesus, God decisively intervened in the history of the world to bring hope to the nations. By his death on the cross Jesus defeated death and the devil and brought a new age of hope for the peoples of the world. He sent his disciples into all the world to preach a message of good news and hope to all. As they have received Jesus as their Saviour, people from all nations have found peace with God and hope for the future. One day the Kingdom of God will be consummated and “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.” What a celebration there will be when that day comes!

Tragedy strikes Nepal

More than 3000 people are known to have died in the massive earthquake which has hit Nepal. Thousands of people have been injured. Buildings and houses in the capital city Kathmandu have been destroyed and many rural villages have been devastated. Tented villages have sprung up around Kathmandu providing shelter for thousands of people. Up to 1 million children need help. International aid agencies have begun an emergency operation to help the homeless people who are short of food and water.

The 7.8 magnitude quake also hit Mount Everest causing avalanches killing at least 18 people. Many more are missing. Nepal is home to 8 out of the 10 highest mountains in the world and has more than 240 peaks over 20,000 feet high. The grandeur of the mountains, and the challenge of climbing them, draws thousands of people to the Himalayas every year. The earthquake came at the start of the climbing season.

Tragedies like the Nepal earthquake make us feel small and helpless before the immense power of natural forces. Our hearts go out to the thousands of men, women and children whose lives have been so suddenly and unexpectedly devastated. To whom can they, and we, turn to find comfort and help at such times?

The book of Psalms has been a source and strength and comfort to generations of people. In Psalm 121 we read, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” The mighty mountain peaks of Nepal create a sense of awe and wonder but are powerless to help us in times of need. Many people have perished on those impassive mountains. So we must look beyond them to the Lord, the living God, who created the mountains and who is able to draw near to us in our times of deepest need.

In Psalm 46 we read “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.” In the face of the uncertainties of life, and the fears we all experience, we need a place of refuge from danger where we can find strength to face the future. When tragedy strikes only God can fully meet our deepest needs and give us his comfort and strength.

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.”