This weekend I led a Harvest Thanksgiving service in a nearby church. These services have changed over the years. Today harvest displays are mainly comprised of tins and packets rather than fresh fruit and vegetables. This is more practical when the harvest gifts are distributed because the food lasts longer. The food at the service I led was given to the local Foodbank. Such gifts give a boost to the Foodbanks around the country and provide much needed food for poorer families.
In the Western world today we are less conscious of the importance of the harvest than we were. Throughout the year our supermarket shelves are filled with a massive variety of different kinds of food from all parts of the world. Most of us don’t know, or even think to ask, whether the farmers have had a good harvest. The people in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, however, are experiencing severe food shortages because of a sustained drought. People are dying because the harvest has failed.
The Earth is a tiny planet in a vast universe and is, as far as we know, unique. We have an abundance of water and much of the land is fertile and can be cultivated. Enough food is grown every year to feed all the people in the world, but there is an unequal distribution. Many have more than they need and others go hungry. The World Food Programme says that one in nine people in the world don’t have enough food to lead an active and healthy life and the number is growing. Children, women and rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia are in the frontline of hunger.
It is important to remember God and to give thanks to him. He is the One who created the earth and the abundance of good things that sustain our lives. In the Old Testament the people were told, “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God. You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth.” One of the best known harvest hymns says, “All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above, then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord for all his love.”
Jesus is the heart of Christianity. He is the focus for the faith of his people. His life is the inspiration for their lives and his teaching is the light that guides them through the all the perplexing experiences of life. Christian are not adherents of a religion but followers of a divine person, Jesus, who is both God and man. Jesus can identify with us in every part of our lives because he has been where we are. He has been “touched with the feelings of our infirmities.” For this reason people from every nation are drawn to Jesus and find in him the strength and hope they need.
Jesus knew what it was to be an asylum seeker. Soon after he was born his parents had to flee from their own land to Egypt because of the threat from King Herod to kill him. This was no idle threat because Herod did kill all the little boys in Bethlehem under the age of 2. This wicked act caused great grief and weeping in the little town where Jesus was born.
Jesus grew up in a working class home in the small village of Nazareth in Galilee at a time when his home country was under enemy occupation. Throughout his ministry he had no home of his own. He said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” At the end of his life he was hated by the religious leaders, betrayed by one of his own disciples, falsely accused and unjustly condemned to die on a cross as if he was a criminal.
So whatever struggles we may face in life we can find in Jesus the help we need. He understands our needs and is able to give us his grace and strength and to supply our needs. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” A well-known hymn says, “I know not how this saving faith to me he did impart, nor how believing in his Word wrought peace within my heart. But I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto him against that day.”
The debate on the Assisted Dying Bill provoked strong views on both sides. The Bill proposed giving people the “right-to-die”. If the Bill had become law then terminally ill patients in England and Wales with less than 6 months to live, who understood the alternatives, would have been able to make a choice about the time of their death. Doctors would have been able to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs which the patient themselves would have administered. After a full, and often emotional, debate the Bill was defeated by 330 votes to 118.
Death is a fact of life. All of us will one day die, but we don’t know either the time of our death or the way in which we will die. Recently I visited the place where a friend who died at the age of 80 is buried and nearby was the grave of the baby daughter of some friends of ours who died when she was just a few hours old. I have ministered to people struggling with cruelly disabling conditions such as multiple sclerosis and motor neuron disease and also those dying of cancer. I have felt the pain of families watching a loved one dying and have also seen the amazing love and care with which the dying people have been surrounded. The love of the family, and the dedicated care of nurses and doctors, has meant so much to the dying person.
It is right for us to ask questions about death and dying. Anyone who has watched and cared for a loved one who is dying has asked the questions death raises. What is the meaning of life? Why do we die? Is there hope beyond death? Is heaven real?
The answers to all the big questions of life are found in Jesus. He is the eternal Son of God and came into this world to give us hope. He lived a perfect life and then, in love, gave up his life when he died on the cross to take away the sins of the world. His resurrection on the third day was the glorious affirmation of the decisive victory he had won on the cross. The apostle Paul wrote, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The picture of Turkish police officer Mehmet Ciplak carrying the lifeless body of little Aylan Kurdi from the beach at Bodrum has touched the hearts of millions of people around the world. When Mehmet saw the little body floating at the water’s edge he said, “Dear God, I hope he’s alive.” When he found that Aylan had died he said he felt crushed deep down inside. Aylan’s mother, Rehan, and brother, Gylip, had also died. Only his father, Abdullah, survived and he has now returned to his home town of Kobane in Syria to bury his loved ones in the “Martyrs’ Cemetery.”
The tragic pictures of one little boy who died have made real to many people the desperate plight of thousands of families who have left their homes to set off on a long and dangerous journey to find a place of safety. The town of Kobane has been reduced to rubble and the people have witnessed the barbarism of IS who have killed hundreds of men, women and children in their homes and in the streets. Abdullah, like many others, wanted to protect his wife and two little boys and to take them to a place where they could live in peace. Tragically, in the attempt to do this, he has lost them all.
How do we respond to this situation? Our news reports tell us about anonymous and faceless “migrants”. Some simply see them as just a big problem. In reality most of them are people like Abdullah and his family. They are our fellow human beings; people like us who, through no fault of their own, have been caught up in a terrible war that has destroyed their homes and communities and put their very lives at risk? When one young man was asked why he wanted to come to Britain he said, “Because the people there are kind and good.”
God has given us two great commandments. The first is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” The second is, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” Jesus taught that all our fellow human beings are our neighbours. So when we ask how we should respond to the many families desperately fleeing for safety, God’s answer is straightforward. He tells us to put ourselves in their situation and ask, “If I and my family were in that situation, how would I want people to help me?” Then it is very clear what we must do.