It is a beautiful autumn morning. The sun is shining and the sky is blue. The evenings are noticeably colder and there have been a few slight frosts. The summer is passing and the winter is approaching. Another year will soon be over.
The passing seasons remind us that time is always moving and our little lives pass by so quickly. Those who are older say that, for them, it seems as if time passes even more quickly than it used to. It is only too easy to look backwards and to wish that we could regain our youth or return to the happiest days of our lives. But there is no way back. It is to the future that we are travelling. We cannot stop the world and get off.
One of the recurring themes of the Bible is hope for the future. At the beginning of time, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s command and were sent from his immediate presence, God gave a wonderful promise, which pointed forward to the coming of Jesus. A man born of the woman’s line would reverse the defeat and disaster of Eden and win a great victory for his people. When the Jewish people were facing 70 years of painful exile in Babylon, God gave them a promise to hold on to. “I will come to you and fulfil my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you; plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”
The last night before he went to the Cross Jesus spoke to his disciples about his resurrection and told them, “you will see me again.” He also told them that he was going to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house and promised, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”
God is the source of all hope. In Jesus he broke into the apparent futility of this world to give us a future and a hope. Trusting in him we know the best is yet to come. There is a place where there is no night, no pain, no tears, no parting, and no death. There God dwells with his people in blissful and unending blessing. We have his word for it.
The visit of the Pope to the UK has been in the news. His visit has been surrounded by controversy, but his presence and his speeches have brought spiritual and moral issues to the fore. Some prominent individuals have taken the opportunity to attack the privileges they say are enjoyed by some churches in what, they claim, is now a secular society. The Pope spoke a number of times about the growth of an aggressive secularism in Britain, which seeks to deny people of religious faith the freedom to believe and propagate their views.
Secular thinking has certainly become more prominent in Britain and often displays a high level of intolerance of other views. Secularists seek to promote a way of life that has nothing to do with God, religion or the spiritual nature of human beings. Belief in God is declared to be “unscientific” and irrational. Secularists believe in the hypothesis of evolution and believe that the universe evolved over millions of years by a series of chance events. They totally reject any claim that there is a divine mind and hand behind this wonderful world in which we live, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Secularism flourishes most in prosperous societies and is also propagated in communist countries by atheistic regimes.
The Bible teaches that our lives on earth have real meaning because of who God is. In him we live and move and have our being. He “knit us together” in our mother’s womb and made us the people we are. He blesses us every day and provides for all our needs. In his great love he sent his only Son into this world to save us by dying on the Cross to pay the penalty our sins deserve. He rose again to give us hope that though we die, yet shall we live. Knowing Jesus as our Saviour and Lord brings us new life.
So the challenge to each one of us is, who will you believe? Will you believe the secularists’ message, as they proclaim that there is no-one there and that life ends in nothingness? For them life is ultimately meaningless. Or will you believe in the living God, revealed in his amazing creation and, most clearly of all, in his Son, Jesus Christ? Jesus came that we might have life and have it to the full. As we walk though life in fellowship with him, everything is meaningful.
This week I have been visiting Sierra Leone in West Africa. In the 1990s the country suffered a very violent civil war. Many people were killed and thousands were maimed; losing hands and legs. The whole country was traumatised by these experiences. Many of the rebels were young boys who, under the influence of drink or drugs, were told to brutalise their friends and neighbours. Since 2002 there has been peace and the people have been able to begin rebuilding their lives.
It has been a great privilege for me to meet leaders from some of the churches in Sierra Leone. These men are working amongst people in some of the poorest communities, where people live on less than £1 per day. The pastors themselves receive very low salaries. One young man is working, with the help of some Christian ladies, amongst young girls in their early teens who work as prostitutes and live in appalling circumstances. They are seeing lives being transformed as these girls are helped to escape and find new hope and dignity in Jesus Christ.
Early this year one of the pastors was ministering to 7 families who each had a seriously ill child. All the children died. Shortly after his own 8 year old daughter, Efia, became very ill and, despite the best efforts of the doctors and nurses, she died. While she was ill Efia showed a bright faith in Jesus. She spoke to all who visited her of his love for her and her love for him. She brought comfort to many who were in the hospital with her. She seemed to know that she was going to die and she was ready to go to heaven to be with Jesus.
Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In our affluent and, often, cynical society we can learn so much from the short life of little Efia. God often “chooses the poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised to those who love him.” I pray that the people of Sierra Leone will succeed in rebuilding their country and will escape grinding poverty. I also pray we will find that childlike faith which puts our trust in Jesus Christ for this life and the one to come.
The teaching of Jesus is very challenging. The Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew chapters 5-7, can make uncomfortable reading. In that sermon Jesus said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
Jesus had observed something in the people amongst whom he lived which is true of us today. They had no televisions, newspapers or internet, but they loved to talk about the sins and failures of other people. They highlighted even minor blemishes and talked in a self-righteous and negative way about others. In doing this they conveniently overlooked their own sins and failures, which were often much more serious.
Much of the news we read and hear today focuses on the alleged failures and sins of politicians, sports men and women, famous, and not so famous, people. The intimate details of their lives are exposed to public scrutiny, all in the cause of the “public interest.” It is strange paradox that on the one hand we have, as a society, cast aside God’s moral law and on the other we rigorously impose our own version of morality on others.
We need to take the teaching of Jesus to heart and begin with our own lives. This is true for us all whether we are religious or not. Are there big issues in my life which I am conveniently overlooking? Am I quick to point out the faults in others to draw attention away from my own faults? How would I cope if the same standards I use where applied to my life? Can my life stand the scrutiny of God’s all seeing and all-knowing judgement?
Personal integrity begins with self-examination and a humble recognition of our own faults. This makes us aware of our need for God’s forgiveness through Jesus and makes it possible to get alongside others who have the same frailties we have.