My wife and I have just celebrated our Golden Wedding Anniversary. 50 years is a long time and yet the years have passed so quickly. It has been good to look back and to remember the many things that have happened and the many people who have been important to us in our marriage. We invited family and friends to join us for a celebration and many people came. Some had known us from childhood, others were friends and neighbours.
Marriage is the most significant life commitment we ever make and we were young when we made our vows. We promised “to live together according to God’s ordinance in the holy estate of marriage, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, honour and cherish until God separates us by death.” On the day of our wedding we had little idea of what lay ahead of us and how much we would need the help and encouragement of family and friends, and the love and grace of God, if we were to keep our vows.
The traditional marriage vows are very realistic and true to life. There are good times and bad times. Sometimes we have had very little and at others more than we need. There have been some times of sickness and, as we get older, we know there will be more such times. The challenge to continue loving, honouring and cherishing each other, as we struggle with our own self-centredness, is very real. And we know that one day our marriage will end when “God separates us by death.” We cannot know which of us will be the first to go to heaven and which of us will be left, for a time, here on earth.
As I look back on the years we have shared together I am conscious most of all of the importance of forgiving and being forgiven. The marriage relationship is very close. The Bible says that we become “one flesh.” In part this is a reference to the physical intimacy of marriage, but it is more than that. Our lives and our joy and sorrows are intertwined. This is why marital breakdown is so painful. There are many times when I have said things and done things which have caused sadness and pain. At such times I have needed to be forgiven just as we have both experienced God’s forgiveness through Jesus.
The conflict in Iraq and Syria is having very serious consequences for Christians. The Christian message came to both countries in the 1st century and there has been a significant population of Christians ever since then. Now Christians are suffering along with other minorities. Many have been driven from their homes and communities and some have been killed. In recent weeks I have received news directly from those I know in Northern Iraq.
A Canadian Christian man sent news of what is happening in the town where he lives. IS has taken over the town and has gone to every Christian home demanding that the children denounce Jesus or be killed. None of the children has denounced their Saviour and so have been killed. The children’s courage and love for Jesus is deeply moving. They and their parents believe the promise Jesus made to persecuted Christians in the first century, “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” The Canadian man has remained in the town, at great risk to his life, to be with and comfort the Christian families.
A friend visiting Kurdistan has sent news from a town where there are more than 100,000 refugees from the conflict. The total number of refugees in Kurdistan, from both Syria and Iraq, is estimated at 1 million. They are in desperate need of housing and food. The unsanitary conditions mean that an epidemic is highly likely. My friend wrote, “I rejoice to see Christian people distributing food in small vehicles, but it’s a drop in the ocean. Muslim Kurds are helping as well and the government gave each family $800, but what of the future? Seeing the little portions there are to go around here made me think: can we not as Christians, whose Saviour gave up everything for us, simplify our menus a little and send the spare cash to the Yezidis?”
Jesus spoke about a day when all nations will be gathered before God’s throne. The King will separate the people into two groups and say to those on his right, “Come you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Richard Kiel died last week at the age of 74. Very few people recognise him from his own name, but remember him very well as “Jaws” in the James Bond films. Richard was 7 feet 2 inches tall and played the part of the metal-mouthed assassin in “The Spy Who Loved Me” and “Moonraker”. “Jaws” was a giant man with steel teeth who was employed by the bad men with whom James Bond was in conflict. He seemed to be invincible. Roger Moore’s punches had no effect. A construction site fell on him, and he survived. He drove a boat off a waterfall, and survived. He stopped a bullet with his metal teeth and bit through locks and wires.
The real Richard Kiel was very different from the role he is remembered for. Those who knew him well describe him as a sweet man and a gentle and generous giant. He was born in Detroit in 1939 and grew tall as a result of acromegaly, a hormonal condition that causes giantism. Richard said that by the time he was 12 years old his father became slightly concerned “because I started to wear all his clothes.” At the age of 14 he was 6 feet 7 inches tall.
For Richard, however, the most important part of his life was that he was a born-again Christian. He had been an alcoholic and came to personal faith in Jesus Christ. The phrase “born again” is often used to describe Christians who have found new life in Jesus. In the Gospel of John, Chapter 3, we read of a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, who was a Jewish religious leader. Nicodemus was a very religious man. He knew the Old Testament Scriptures well and lived a very strict life according to the teaching of the Pharisees. He prayed 18 times every day and fasted 2 days every week. The first thing Jesus said to him was, “I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
This is a wonderfully encouraging truth because it means that any of us can find new life in Jesus. This is what happened to Richard. He came to a point when he knew he needed to know God and to find forgiveness for his sins. As he trusted in Jesus as his Saviour he became a new man and was “born again”. Now the gentle giant is in heaven with the gracious Saviour who “loved him and gave himself for him.”
Last Thursday we had a very special visit to our local primary school. The two day NATO summit at the Celtic Manor in Newport was the largest gathering of international leaders ever to take place in Britain. On the first day of the summit President Barak Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron visited Mount Pleasant Primary School.
The US Presidential Cavalcade of more than 20 vehicles swept at speed into our community, flanked by police motor cycle outriders. Many police men and women were on duty, some of them armed. Some of the children met the most powerful man in the world, who sat on a small chair and talked with them for a few minutes, and saw the pictures they had drawn. Then after 20 minutes the President and his cavalcade swept out and life in our community returned to normal. It was a day the children and their parents and teachers will never forget.
This special visit made me think of another very special visit a long time ago. In his account of the life of Jesus John writes, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes. The one-of-a kind glory; like Father, like Son. Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.” The Bible tells us that Jesus, who had always been in heaven with his Father, came into our world and became a real man. He was the best man who ever lived. For most of his short life he lived in Nazareth with his parents and brothers and sisters and shared in the life of the community. Then, at the age of 33, he was falsely accused and condemned to die on a cross. On the third day he rose from the dead.
The visit of Jesus, the eternal Son of God, to our world decisively changed things. They will never be the same again. His death in our place, and for our sins, has brought life transforming grace to millions of people from every nation in the world. He came from heaven to give us eternal life. He came that we might experience his love now and then, when we die; go to be with him forever in heaven. In one of his hymns William Walsham How wrote, “It is a thing most wonderful, almost too wonderful to be, that God’s own Son should come from heaven, and die to save a child like me.”
The report of the independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham has highlighted the vulnerability of children and teenagers in our society. The inquiry found that as many as 1400 children had been sexually exploited in the town between 1997 and 2013. The abuses included abduction, rape and sex trafficking of children. In other parts of the world children are also suffering greatly. We have seen pictures of children in hospitals who have been seriously injured by the conflicts in Gaza, Syria and Iraq. Children have also been killed and many have lost their parents and families.
Children and young people in Britain today are more vulnerable to exploitation than any previous generation. The media generally and social media in particular are exposing children to ideas and influences which are detrimental to their wellbeing and development. There is a right concern that we look after the earth and the environment for the benefit of our children and their children, but we seem to show very little concern for the moral pollution which is so damaging to them.
Jesus loved children and spoke very strongly about the need to protect them. One day his disciples asked him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to stand among them and said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
Childlikeness is something to be cherished and protected. Children are naturally trusting and long to be loved. This makes them vulnerable to evil people, whose only concerned is to exploit them and satisfy their own evil lusts. Our failure to protect children from harmful influences is causing serious damage to many of them. Their childlikeness needs to be fostered and encouraged. In doing this we may also realise our own need to become like little children in our relationship with God. He is the only One who can satisfy our deep inner longing to be loved. He is, in Jesus, a heavenly Father who always gives good gifts to his children.