Finding God in the Depths

During his life Jonathan Aitken has risen to great heights and also plumbed the depths. He was a Cabinet member and member of the Privy Council, but was found guilty of perjury and perverting the course of justice and was given a prison sentence. Because of the pressure of the case his first wife later left him and he was also declared bankrupt. Through these events Jonathan began to seek God and became a Christian. He preached a sermon in July 2008 entitled “Finding God in the Depths.” In July 2003 he married his second wife, Elizabeth.

On 1 July 2013 Elizabeth suffered a subarachnoid haemorrhage, which often proves fatal. Those who survive may suffer brain impairment and lifelong disability. The medical team at Charing Cross Hospital told Jonathan that urgent major surgery would be needed to save Elizabeth’s life. As Jonathan listened to the doctors his eyes began filling with tears. One young doctor said, “Our professor tells us we haven’t done our job properly if our briefings don’t make the patient’s family cry.” Before taking Elizabeth to the operating theatre the consultant told Jonathan, “It is a simple procedure, but it carries high risk. The brain does not give second chances.”

As the family waited they were conscious of the prayers of many people. The congregation at St Matthew’s Church, Westminster, where Jonathan and Elizabeth had married, were praying. The chaplain at Wormwood Scrubs, where Jonathan had preached the previous Sunday, sent a message to say the chapel-going prisoners were praying for Elizabeth. They also sent a giant-sized card to the hospital signed by 60 prisoners saying, “We are praying for you.” God wonderfully answered these prayers and brought Elizabeth safely through a successful operation and then the long period of convalescence.

Reflecting on the past year Jonathan recognises how various factors all came together. One was the skill and dedication of the medical team at Charing Cross, who work at the cutting edge of neurosurgery. The loving support of the family was also important as they were alongside Elizabeth through the time of crisis, and after, encouraging her in her will to live. Then there were the prayers of thousands of people from all over the world, which God graciously answered. Jonathan wrote, “As a husband I love Elizabeth all the more after walking with her through the valley of the shadow of death.” It is clear that in that darkest valley the Lord was with them, as he promised he would be.

The God of second chances

It is not easy to cope with failure, especially when it is very public. The England football team went to the World Cup in Brazil with high hopes. The team is a blend of youth and experience and carried the expectations of a nation. They were drawn against strong teams and had to play in hot and humid conditions to which none of the players is used. The performance of this England team is the worst ever at a World Cup and some of the players have publicly apologised to their fans. It remains to be seen whether the fans and the pundits will forgive them.

God is a God of second chances. He knows that we have all failed and have fallen short of his moral standards. We fall short even of our own standards. The Bible is a very straightforward book. It doesn’t hide the weaknesses and failings of even the great men and women of faith. We read of the serious failures of Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David and many others. The wonderful thing is that God didn’t give up on them, but graciously restored them.

Peter was a Galilean fisherman whom Jesus called to be one of his disciples. He emerged as a leader amongst the twelve disciples and was close to Jesus. It was Peter who first recognised who Jesus was saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” He was with Jesus, together with James and John, on the mount of Transfiguration when the divine glory of Jesus was revealed to them. On the night before he died Jesus told Peter that he would deny him three times before the morning cockerel crowed. Peter said he would never deny Jesus and was ready, if necessary, to die for him. But before the next morning dawned Peter had denied his Lord and was devastated.

One morning, after the resurrection, Peter and the other disciples met Jesus on the shores of Lake Galilee. After breakfast Jesus asked Peter three times, “Simon, son of John, do you really love me?” Each time Peter said he did. Jesus told him to take care of his sheep. In this way Peter was forgiven and restored to leadership and ministry in the church. This is a great example of the wonderful grace of God we can all experience. No matter how often and how seriously we have failed; the God of second chances is ready and willing to offer us a new beginning.

World Cup 2014

World Cup 2014 has begun. The people of Brazil are experiencing football fever. International footballers are amongst the highest paid sportsmen in the world. One of the England players is paid £300,000 per week. Brazil has spent £7 billion on the World Cup. After the Final on 13 July the people of Brazil will return to the challenges of their normal lives.

In the days before the World Cup began there were demonstrations in at least 10 Brazilian cities. Riot police fired percussion grenades and used tear gas to subdue the demonstrators. Some of the protests are against the high cost of building new stadiums and other facilities for the World Cup. Trade union leaders have also used the occasion of the World Cup to press claims for higher wages for their members.

Most people in Brazil are poor. Brazil has a thriving economy, one of the strongest in the world, but the rich are becoming richer and the poor are still poor. The richest 1% of Brazil’s population control 50% of its income. The poorest 50% of society live on just 10% of the country’s wealth, while the poorest 10% receive less than 1%!

Many people live in favelas, which are shanty towns. They have sprung up as people from the rural areas have moved into big cities and built homes on spare ground. Often there is no water supply, sanitation or legal electricity. Millions of children in Brazil live on the streets because of problems in their families. They live in abandoned buildings, parks, cardboard boxes, or on the streets themselves. Drugs, crime and sexual exploitation are a way of life for these tragic children. When the 600,000 foreign fans attending the World Cup leave Brazil little will have changed for the better for ordinary Brazilians.

How very different Jesus is! He came into our world to transform our lives for the better at great cost to himself. Paul wrote, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Jesus left all the privileges of heaven, which were rightly his, to share our life and to die on the Cross to pay the price of our sins. Because of his visit to this world, and all he did while he was here, we can experience the forgiveness of our sins and one day go to be with him in heaven.

I will fear no evil, for you are with me

The commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings was a very moving event. Almost 2000 veterans were there, as well as many world leaders. They gathered at Sword beach in Normandy on a beautiful sunny day, under blue skies, to remember a very dark day when many soldiers died in terrible circumstances. The dignity of the veterans was striking as they stood by the graves of their fallen friends, shed tears, and spoke of their experiences. For many this would be their last visit to Normandy.

The soldiers in the Allied forces were part of the D-Day landings because they had been called up to serve in the armed forces. They were doing their duty to their country alongside friends from their communities and those with whom they had trained. Whilst they could not really envisage what the landings would be like, they knew they were facing great danger. They, and their comrades, were facing death or serious injury. Many would never return. They had to be brave and courageous, and to overcome their understandable fears. It was clear that, 70 years later, the painful memories of that day are still deeply etched on their memories.

David, who wrote Psalm 23, was a shepherd. He was the youngest of seven brothers and looked after his father’s sheep. One of his jobs was to protect the sheep from wild animals, like lions and bears. When Israel was being dominated by a neighbouring nation, the Philistines, David was called into action to fight the giant Goliath. Because the Lord was with him, David killed Goliath and delivered his people.

In Psalm 23 David reflects on the wonderful love of the Lord. He knew that life is not always “green pastures” and “still waters”. There are also dark days. So he wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Fear is a powerful influence on us all, and our greatest fear is death. The veterans, who saw their young comrades die in Normandy, have lived another 70 years, but they, and we all, must still walk through that dark valley. As we face “the last enemy” we need someone to be with us and to take away our fears. The Lord Jesus Christ is the only One who is great enough and kind enough to accompany us on that last journey of life and to bring us safely to his Father’s house in heaven.

D-Day Remembered

This week the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Normandy landings will be commemorated. On 6 June 1944 the Allied Forces began a major offensive which was to prove decisive to the outcome of World War II. It was the largest seaborne invasion in history. The invasion fleet was drawn from 8 different navies, comprising 6,939 vessels: 1,213 warships, 4,126 landing craft of various types, 736 ancillary craft, and 864 merchant vessels. There were 195,700 naval personnel involved. The landings were preceded by air attacks involving 1300 RAF planes and 1000 American bombers.

My father-in-law was there. He saw many of his friends die in the fierce fighting that followed the invasion. When the war was over he returned safely to his family, but he didn’t speak of what he had experienced and seen. It was only shortly before he died, when his grandson and great grandson were preparing to visit Normandy on the 60th anniversary, that he got a map out and told them where he had landed and fought. Of the 61,000 British troops who stormed the beaches of Normandy 70 years ago fewer than 500 are alive today.

We owe a great debt of gratitude to those who gave their lives in the D-Day landings and in all the battles of World War II. For our tomorrow they gave their today. Over the past 70 years we have lived in peace and security. We also owe a great debt of gratitude to God who was pleased to spare us as a country from being invaded and occupied. The night before the Normandy landings King George VI broadcast a message in which he said the Allies faced the “supreme test” and called on the nation to pray for the liberation of Europe.

I’m sure many in Britain responded to the King’s call to pray. Certainly many of the young men preparing for the landings, and the great danger they faced, also prayed. They prayed to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and read from the New Testaments they had been given. God understood their situation and the fear that gripped their hearts. When he was a young man, Jesus had faced danger and death and had willingly laid down his life out of love for them. He also made a great promise, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”