The Olympic Torch Relay is making its way around the British Isles. 8000 torch bearers are carrying the Olympic Flame to 1019 communities. Some torch bearers are famous, others have been chosen because of their bravery in the face of adversity or their service to others. Most of the torch bearers are young people, some as young as 12. The flame was ignited from the rays of the sun at Olympia in Greece, the site of the ancient Olympics. The Torch Relay will end on the day of the opening ceremony when the flame is lit in the cauldron in the Olympic Stadium, where it will burn until the closing ceremony.
The motto of the modern Olympic Games is “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” In every Olympics new world records are set as athletes achieve success. The Games demonstrate what can be accomplished by people who are single-minded and dedicated. The Paralympic Games show this in a very special way. The hope is that this Olympic Games will inspire a new generation of young people in Britain and the world and bring a new spirit of hope to us all.
The Olympic Games will be a brief interlude in our lives, an opportunity to focus on human achievements rather than human failures. I remember hearing Jack Dain, Bishop of Sydney, say that when he read his daily newspaper he always started with the back page, to see what people had achieved before turning to the front pages to see their failures. Today our failures are great and potentially very serious. All of us, young and old, need to find real and lasting hope.
The apostle Paul speaks of life as being like a race. We are all running in the race. Like any good athlete we need to keep our ultimate goal before us. Near the end of his life Paul wrote, “The time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” Not many have the honour of competing in the Olympic Games, but all of us can live our lives in loving fellowship with Jesus Christ who guarantees us a safe and happy arrival in heaven.
The success of Chelsea in the Champions League Final was unexpected, but brought great happiness to their many supporters. It was interesting to hear what the commentators said as Chelsea fought back and then went on to win the penalty shoot out as their goalkeeper saved three out of the six penalties he faced. The commentators said, “It looks as if their name is on the cup this year,” and “The result was written in the stars.” The conclusion seemed to be that they were destined to win the cup whatever their opponents did!
Many people are superstitious. They believe in fate and destiny, although it is by no means clear who or what determines this. In some parts of the world people believe their lives are dominated by unseen spirits and they live in fear of offending them. If something bad happens they offer sacrifices to appease the spirits. As the influence of Christianity has declined in Western Europe, there has been a big increase in the number of mediums and the people who consult them. Horoscopes and astrology are now popular. People want to know what is going to happen in the future.
The Bible teaches us that there is one true and living God who is all powerful and all wise. He is a personal God who sovereignly directs the world he has made. He rules in such a way that our decisions and actions matter and make a difference. We are not robots, nor are we at the mercy of blind fate. Our lives are not under the care of someone who acts on whim or out of malevolence. God is good and always acts justly. He is love and is the source of all that is good and beautiful.
One of the great privileges we can all enjoy is to live in daily fellowship with the living God, who has revealed himself in his Son, Jesus Christ. This gives meaning and purpose to our lives and guarantees that everything that happens brings us nearer to the day when we shall see him and be with him forever in heaven. The hymn writer, Anne Ross Cousin, wrote, “With mercy and with judgement my web of time he wove, and aye the dews of sorrow were lustred with his love: I’ll bless the hand that guided, I’ll bless the heart that planned, when throned where glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s land.”
Sadly, the conflict in Syria continues despite the attempts of the UN and their special adviser, Kofi Annan, to establish a peace plan. The conflict began in January 2011, as part of the Arab Spring, when protesters demanded the resignation of President Bashar-al-Assad and the overthrow of his government. In response the government has used the Syrian Army to quell the uprising and several cities have been besieged. It is estimated that 10,000 people have been killed, half of whom were civilians, including hundreds of children. Many more have been injured and imprisoned, and tens of thousands have become refugees in neighbouring countries. This month, for the first time, there have been suicide car bombs in Damascus.
Syria is a country with a proud history of power and influence in the Middle East. More than 2500 years ago Israel was dominated by Syria, which was the world super power at that time. In the Old Testament there is a remarkable story about how the supreme commander of the Syrian army, Naaman, came to know the true God. His soldiers raided villages in Israel and brought back slaves to Syria. One of them, a young girl, was taken to Naaman’s house and served his wife.
This young girl had a remarkable spirit of love and concern, even for her enemies. We might have expected her to be full of anger and hatred, but she was not. Although Naaman was a very powerful man, he had a big problem, he had leprosy. The young girl was genuinely concerned for Naaman and told his wife that she believed that her God could heal him of his leprosy. The young girl is an example of how we should respond to other people, even those who cause us pain. She knew and trusted God personally and understood that he loves people from all nations.
Naaman decided to go to Israel in search of healing. He was told by the prophet Elisha to dip himself seven times in the Jordan and he would be healed. Although, at first, he felt insulted and responded in anger to this command from God, eventually he did obey and was wonderfully healed. He experienced God’s amazing love for him and became a changed man. He said to Elisha, “I will never again offer sacrifices to any other god except the Lord.” Conflict and violence do not change hearts, but a personal experience of God’s gracious kindness always does.
In the recent elections in the UK, France and Greece, large numbers of people have voted against the austerity measures being adopted by their governments. These measures include higher taxes and spending cuts, which will reduce the level of public services. People will need to work longer before retiring and public sector wages and pensions are being reduced. The lives of many people are being affected and, so, it is no wonder that they are not happy.
The reason austerity is necessary is that for many years governments have spent more money than they received in taxes. The financial crisis in the world has highlighted this problem, so that, now, some governments are no longer able to borrow the money they need. Some countries, such as Greece, are facing bankruptcy. In the past people have benefited from their government’s over-spending, but now the time has come when the debts must be repaid. The election results suggest that many people have unrealistic expectations.
Many of us who live in Western Europe enjoy a level of affluence millions of people in the world can only dream about. Some Christian friends of mine have set up a project in South Africa to care for children who have become orphans because of HIV/AIDS. In 2009 it was estimated that 5.6 million people in South Africa were living with HIV and AIDS and that in the same year more than 300,000 had died from AIDS-related causes. Young adults aged 15-49 have been particularly affected. It is estimated that there are nearly 2 million orphan children, who have lost one or both of their parents through AIDS. The care of these orphans has been taken on by grandparents and they struggle to cope physically and financially.
When I visited the project I saw the houses where some orphans are being cared for and also visited a feeding programme run in a local church. Children, who live with their grandparents, come after school on 3 days a week to the church where a good meal has been prepared for them. These meals are the only substantial meals the children eat each week. These children face many big problems, but were smiling and thankful. I came away from the project humbled and challenged by these children and by those who are caring for them. I have so much, but do I really appreciate it and do I thank God for it? Even in “austerity” we still have so much.