Oxfam International published a report as 2500 of the world’s political and business elites met in Davos in Switzerland for the annual World Economic Forum. The most striking statistic in the report is that the 85 richest people in the world have as much money as the 3.5billion poorest people put together, half the total world population. The top 1% of earners in the world own 46% of the world’s total wealth. The Executive Director of Oxfam International, Ms Winnie Byanyima, said, “Extreme inequality is undermining social stability and threatening global security.”
God cares deeply about poor people. In the Old Testament he gave laws to safeguard the poor from being exploited by the rich and powerful. He commanded a weekly day of rest for all people, including servants. It was to be a Sabbath to the Lord their God. Every 7 years there was a Sabbath Year of rest for the land when “the poor among your people may get food from it.” In the Sabbath Year slaves were set free and debts were cancelled.
Every 50 years there was also a Jubilee Year when those who had bought land returned it to its original owners, all debts were cancelled and all slaves set free. For 2 years the people lived in dependence on God to provide for all their needs. The Jubilee Year was a time of joyful celebration of God’s goodness and faithfulness. The Jubilee Year restored equality. No Israelite could forever remain a slave. The Jubilee Year ensured social justice as the poor were lifted up. The good things God provides are not for a favoured few, but for us all.
Jesus spoke very clearly about the danger of riches. A rich religious leader once asked him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus knew this man’s wealth meant everything to him and had taken God’s place in his life. So he said to him, “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” When he heard this the young man went away very sad. Looking at him Jesus said, “How hard it is for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!” True wealth is spiritual. What counts, ultimately, for us all is not our “net worth” but that we have a rich relationship with God.
Mikhail Kalashnikov died on 23 December 2013 at the age of 94. He designed the legendary AK-47 assault rifle. He began designing weapons after he was wounded during the Second World War. He designed the AK-47 rifle for use in defending Russia against the Nazis. Since then the Kalashnikov AK-47 has been the weapon of choice for many around the world, including terrorists. It is a lethal weapon and has killed hundreds of thousands of people all over the world.
Kalashnikov was the son of a Russian peasant family who loved his nation. He became a national hero in the fiercely secular Communist state. For most of his life he was not a religious man. In the last few years of his life, however, he experienced great spiritual concern as he thought of the carnage the AK-47 rifle had wreaked around the world.
At the age of 91 Kalashnikov turned to God. When he first entered an Orthodox church he experienced a sense of “excitement.” Later he was baptised in the Orthodox Church, professing his faith in Jesus Christ as his Saviour, but still did not find the peace he was seeking. Six months before he died he wrote a long letter to Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church in which he wrote, “My spiritual torment is unbearable. I keep having the same unsolved question: If my rifle killed people does that mean that I, Mikhail Kalashnikov, am responsible for people’s deaths, even if they were enemies?”
The experience of Mikhail Kalashnikov reminds us that if we are to be ready to die and appear before God we need to experience his forgiveness. We, too, can reflect on our lives and all we have done. We may not have designed a lethal rifle, but all of us have done many wrong things which we cannot change. Our words and actions have broken God’s moral law and have often caused pain and sorrow to others.
Kalashnikov could not simply forget what he had done. He needed to find forgiveness. He turned to the only One who can and will forgive. In Jesus, God makes wonderful promises. “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, purifies us from all sin.” It is never too late, or too soon, to come to him and experience the forgiveness Kalashnikov sought and we all also need to find.
Large parts of southern Britain have been affected by flooding which has caused serious damage to homes and businesses. Our hearts go out to those whose property has been damaged and destroyed, in some cases not for the first time. Many houses have been built on a flood plane with inadequate flood protection. Rivers naturally overflowing their banks cause little damage when it leads simply to flooded fields. Storms have also hit coastal areas with high tides and strong winds. Parts of the promenade at Aberystwyth have been seriously damaged. I studied for 4 years in Aberystwyth and have walked that promenade hundreds of times. I have often seen waves breaking over the prom, and stones being thrown high into the air, but the recent storms have been much more powerful and destructive.
The power of the wind and the sea makes us realise our limitations. We stand helpless in the face of them. The cost of repairing the damage caused by the storms and floods will be very high and the work will take a long time. It took workmen with JCBs a few days to clear the main road through Newgale in Pembrokeshire of the stones which the sea had moved in a few hours.
The Bible describes a great Flood in the time of Noah which affected the whole world. The historic traditions of many peoples and nations around the world also remember this. The Flood was God’s judgement on great human wickedness. Violence and depravity was everywhere and the thoughts of people’s hearts were consistently and totally evil. The Flood was devastating and destroyed all people and animals except those who were in the ark that Noah built.
Today there is also great wickedness in our world, as the daily news reports remind us. People in our world are doing many things which deserve God’s righteous judgement. Yet the stability of the natural world is being maintained by God who, after the Flood, made a wonderful promise to Noah. God said, “I solemnly promise never to send another flood to kill all living creatures and destroy the earth. I have placed my rainbow in the clouds. It is the sign of my permanent promise to you and all the earth. When I send clouds over the earth, the rainbow will be seen in the clouds, and I will remember my covenant with you and everything that lives. Never again will there be a flood that will destroy all life.”
When he boarded a Wizz Air flight from Romania to Luton Victor Spiersau had no idea that he would be front page news in Britain. Victor comes from Transylvania, a very poor region in Romania which itself is not a wealthy country. He left his 19 year old fiancée Catalina Curcean in the dilapidated home they have bought in the remote village of Pelisor. Victor, who is a construction worker, has come to Britain to work and earn money to enable him to return to Pelisor to renovate his home and marry Catalina. Within 24 hours of arriving in Britain Victor started work in a car wash.
Migration has always been part of our human experience. It is often a response to problems in our home country and a desire to find a better life. My mother’s grandmother came from Tramore in Ireland to Wales during the Irish famine in the mid 19th century. It is estimated that as many as a million people in Ireland, nearly an eighth of the population, died of starvation and epidemic diseases between 1846 and 1851 and 2 million people emigrated. The Pilgrim Fathers left Britain in 1620 for America seeking freedom to worship God. They played a significant part in the development of that great country. Today the American national anthem rejoices that it is “the land of the free and the home of the brave!”
The Bible teaches us to exercise special care for strangers and foreigners. During a time of famine the Israelites went to Egypt where they later became slaves. When God brought them out of Egypt he commanded them, “Do not oppress the foreigners living among you. You know what it is like to be a foreigner. They should be treated like everyone else, and you must love them as you love yourself. Remember your experience in the land of Egypt.”
Jesus spoke about the final judgement when all people will stand before God. The King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home.” Then the King will explain how they had cared for him, “When you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!”