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God’s promises

The Bible is the best-selling book of all time. Around 5 billion copies have been purchased, five times more than the next best-seller. It is also the most translated book in human history. The whole Bible has been translated into more than 700 languages, the New Testament has been translated into more than 1500 languages and portions of the Bible have been translated into 3400 languages.

The Bible is a big book and often lies on a shelf unread. The best places to start reading the Bible are the New Testament, which tells us about the life and teaching of Jesus, or the book of Psalms, which is in the middle of the Bible and tells us about people’s experiences of God. When we read the Bible God speaks to us so that we may know him and find strength to face the challenges of life. I know people who started reading the Bible during the pandemic and have come to know Jesus as their Saviour.

Before we read the Bible, we can ask God to speak to us. One psalmist prayed, “Open my eyes to see the wonderful truths in your instructions.” You don’t have to read large sections of the Bible to find help and strength. Many people have found help in single verses to which they often turn in times of stress and trouble. The night before my father had major surgery for cancer, he read the Gideons’ New Testament by his bedside and found comfort in these words, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

In the Bible God makes wonderful promises which we can fully trust. He spoke to his people through the prophet Isaiah, “For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, ‘Do not fear; I will help you.’” In Psalm 23 David wrote, “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

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Precious in God’s sight

In the summer of 2019 a young family set out from their home country of El Salvador to find safety and a new life in America. After a journey of 1500 miles Óscar Ramírez, his wife Ávalos and their 23-month-old daughter Valeria were in sight of Texas. They just had to cross a relatively narrow section of the Rio Grande River. The crossing ended in tragedy. Ávalos watched as Óscar and Valeria were swept away by the river.

Óscar took his daughter across the river and was returning to get his wife when he realised the little girl had not stayed on the bank – she was in the water. Valeria had apparently panicked when she saw her father go back across the river without her. Óscar was able to reach Valeria but couldn’t make it back to the riverbank. A photographer took a heart-breaking photo of Óscar and Valeria lying near the riverbank with their feet in the water and their heads on the reeds. Valeria is tucked into her dad’s T-shirt, as he tried to keep her safe, and her arm is around his neck.

Martín Espada has won the National Book Award for poetry for a collection of poems including the deeply moving poem “Floaters” influenced by the tragic deaths of Óscar and Valeria and many others. The first stanza sets the scene on the border between Mexico and the USA: “Like a beer bottle thrown into the river by a boy too drunk to cry, like the shard of a Styrofoam cup drained of coffee brown as the river, like the plank of a fishing boat broken in half by the river, the dead float. And the dead have a name: floaters, say the men of the Border Patrol, keeping watch all night by the river, hearts pumping coffee as they say the word floaters, soft as a bubble, hard as a shoe as it nudges the body, to see if it breathes, to see if it moans, to see if it sits up and speaks.”

No-one is insignificant in God’s sight. Every human being is precious in his sight. When a child was brought to Jesus he said, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” He also told his disciples, “What is the price of two sparrows – one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.”

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O come let us adore him!

Soon after he was born the infant Jesus faced a serious threat to his life. The Wise Men from the east who followed the star had asked King Herod for help in finding the new-born king. After consulting the religious teachers Herod told them to go to Bethlehem and said, “As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” After they found the infant Jesus, the Wise Men were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod and returned to their own country by another route. When Herod realized this, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under. Probably about 20 babies and little boys in Bethlehem were murdered and many families wept.

Herod the Great was a cruel tyrant. As he grew older, he became mentally unstable and was very jealous. Near the end of his life his sister poisoned his mind against his wife, Mariamne, whom he murdered, as well as her two sons, her brother, and her mother. After an unsuccessful attempt at suicide Herod died less than 2 years after Jesus was born. Like many other tyrannical rulers Herod didn’t face the fact that one day he would stand before his Maker and be called to account for everything he had done. There are no atheists in eternity.

After the Wise Men left Bethlehem an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream telling him to take Jesus and Mary to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous plans and to stay there until Herod was dead. God protected his Son who, as a young child, was so vulnerable. Herod’s kingdom came to an inevitable end but the gracious rule of Jesus, who is King of kings, was established and grew as people from every nation under heaven received him as Saviour and Lord.

The Wise Men travelled hundreds of miles to find the new-born king and worship him. Herod lived just a few miles from Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, but was never a true worshipper. This Christmas many people around the world have bowed for the first time in worship of Jesus, God’s eternal Son. The well-known Christmas carol is now true for them, “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem; come and behold him, born the King of Angels: O come, let us adore him Christ the Lord!”

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Good news of great joy

The birth of Jesus was announced to shepherds keeping watch over their flocks in the fields near Bethlehem. The darkness of the night was suddenly banished as an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them. The angel said, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Then the angel was joined by a vast host of others – the armies of heaven – praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

God has broken into his world to give us hope. The angel messengers, who came from heaven, were accompanied by heavenly glory but the all-important sign was “a baby lying in a manager.” This baby was the long-promised Messiah, God’s eternal Son, yet the circumstances of his birth were so simple and unadorned – he was lying in a manager, an animal feeder. The baby was called Jesus because he had come to save his people from their sins. He was also called Immanuel because in his coming God has drawn near to us.

Whatever our circumstances this Christmas, it is important for us to follow the sign that points us to the Christ-child who gives hope and joy. He was born to an oppressed people living in a troubled world. Today our world is very troubled, and many people are suffering greatly. Many are afraid and hope is in short supply. A well-known Christmas carol says, “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie, above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

Jesus came to give us peace on earth now. We will never be at peace with each other until we know peace with God through his Son, who died on the cross to secure forgiveness of sins and peace with God. He offers the wonderful prospect of a joyful new beginning. The last verse of the same carol is a prayer, “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel!”

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Mary was a remarkable young woman

Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a remarkable young woman. She grew up in the family home in Nazareth, a small village in Galilee. While she was in her early teens Mary fell in love with Joseph, the village carpenter, who was a few years older than her. Mary and Joseph made a solemn promise to each other that they would marry. Then God sent the angel Gabriel to communicate an amazing message to Mary. The angel said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, Mary. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.”

Mary asked, “How will this be since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” Mary replied, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.

Mary’s whole life changed! The fact that she had conceived a child before she was married was misunderstood. People thought she must have been unfaithful to Joseph and had brought shame on her family. When she told Joseph what the angel had said, at first, he did not believe her. He decided to quietly end their relationship until God spoke to him in a dream. Then Joseph took his beloved Mary home as his wife.

Mary is an example of a spiritual woman who loved and honoured God. She rejoiced in God who had been mindful of her humble state and was her Saviour. Like all of us she sinned and needed to know God’s forgiveness. She knew that the precious child she was carrying was the long-promised Messiah and that he would be called Jesus because he would save his people, including her, from their sins.

The birth of Jesus is a great encouragement to all people on earth. He is the eternal Son of God yet when he entered our world his parents were an ordinary young couple. He was born in a stable not a palace. No one is too unimportant to be valued by God. One carol says, “He came down to earth from heaven,
who is God and Lord of all. And his shelter was a stable, and his cradle was a stall. With the poor, and mean, and lowly, lived on earth our Saviour holy.”

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Joseph was a good man

Christmas will be more normal this year with some carol services and school nativity plays being held. One character in the Christmas story who tends to be in the background is Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus. The Gospels show him to be an upright, loving, and spiritual man. In our society there is a great need for true manhood to be rediscovered and for good fathers to be recognised and encouraged. The absence of a good father is detrimental to the development of any child and to the wellbeing of society.

Joseph was a skilled carpenter. He worked with his hands and was a respected person in the village life of Nazareth. While he was in his late teens he fell in love with Mary, who was a few years younger than him. Joseph made a solemn promise to marry Mary. Their families and the community in Nazareth rejoiced with them and eagerly looked forward to their wedding. Although they loved each other deeply, Joseph and Mary resolved not to have sexual relations until they were married.

Mary went to visit one of her relatives, Elizabeth, who lived in the Judean hills. When she returned to Nazareth, she told Joseph that before going to see Elizabeth she had conceived and was carrying a child in her womb. She assured him that she had not been unfaithful to him but that the baby had been conceived by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit and was a very special child. Joseph was shocked and decided to end their relationship. He didn’t want to expose Mary to public disgrace but to divorce her quietly so that she would be free to marry someone else.

While he was thinking about this an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. He did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son, and he gave him the name Jesus. By marrying Mary Joseph assumed responsibility for her pregnancy and embraced her shame. He honoured her and the child she bore whom he knew was the Saviour he and Mary and all of us need.

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Abraham’s Table

In June 2020, 13-year-old Adeola “Abraham” Olagbegi, who lives in Jackson, Mississippi, was diagnosed with aplastic anaemia, a rare and life-threatening blood disorder. His body was not producing enough blood cells to support itself and Abraham’s life was in danger because of possible bone marrow damage. When he was asked how he felt about this serious diagnosis Abraham said, “I am a person of hope, so when you come against a big mountain, you have to remember you have a big God.” Thankfully, in November 2020 Abraham had a successful bone marrow transplant.

When he was recovering Abraham was told he could make a wish through the Make-A-Wish charity that grants wishes to children with serious illnesses. Most children choose a special treat like a PlayStation, or a special trip out, or to meet a celebrity. Abraham was different; he wanted a long-lasting wish. On his way home from a doctor’s appointment Abraham shared his idea with his mom, Miriam, “Mom, I’ve thought about it, and I really want to feed the homeless.” Abraham’s mom replied, “Are you sure Abraham? Are you sure you don’t want a PlayStation?” In an interview Miriam said, “As parents, we could only hope to raise good, God-fearing, productive members of society. We’ve always tied to instil giving into our children. Sometimes we get things wrong and sometimes we get things right; so, it’s nice when things go right.”

In September 2021, Make-A-Wish helped Abraham organise a day to hand out free food in Jackson, with food and donated by local businesses. They fed about 80 people that day. Abraham said, “When the homeless people get the plate, some of them would come back and sing to us and thank us. And it just really feels good, it warms our hearts. My parents always taught us that it’s a blessing to be a blessing.”

Abraham’s wish is still not fulfilled. Make-A-Wish will help Abraham feed the homeless every month for a year. Every third Saturday of the month, with the help of local churches and businesses, food will be provided to feed up to 80 homeless people. Abraham has called his new ministry “Abraham’s Table” and hopes it will continue after August 2022. Miriam says, “If I was out there on the streets, homeless, I would want somebody to think of me and to do something special for me.” Abraham also wants the people whom Abraham’s Table helps to know God’s love. Psalm 34, verse 8 expresses his heart for homeless people in Jackson, “O taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.”

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Time to change

Is it possible for people to change? How do we cope with things we’ve done in the past which we deeply regret? Our society can be very unforgiving. The lives of those in the public eye are unmercifully scrutinised. Things which people said or did in the past, or posted on social media, are discovered and reported as if they alone define a person. None of us can stand up to that kind of scrutiny before the court of public opinion. Such judgements may also be hypocritical. The Apostle Paul wrote, “You have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”

Th ultimate issue for each of us is not the judgement of other people but the judgement of God who sees and knows everything we do. The psalmist reflects on this in Psalm 130, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy. If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.”

In responding to recent important issues reported in the news it has been said that if someone apologises for what they did in the past they deserve a second chance. This gives people an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and to change. In the Bible such a change of mind is called repentance and has to do with our relationship with God. We repent when we hate our sins and forsake them because they are displeasing to God. This change of mind turns us towards God and enables us to understand why Jesus died on the cross. He took the punishment our sins deserve and in his great love died to pay the price of our sins. This is the reason Christians love Jesus as their Saviour.

A modern hymn expresses this love. “Wonderful grace that gives what I don’t deserve, pays me what Christ has earned, then lets me go free. Wonderful grace that gives me the time to change, washes away the stain that once covered me. Wonderful love that held in the face of death, breathed in its final breath forgiveness for me. Wonderful love whose power can break every chain, giving us life again, setting us free. And all that I am I lay at the feet of the wonderful Saviour who loves me.”

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A Great Rescue

Early on Saturday afternoon Matt, a good friend of mine, who is a member of his local cave rescue team, received an emergency call. A caver was seriously injured in the Ogof Ffynnon Ddu cave system in South Wales and needed urgently to be rescued. Matt responded immediately and joined the 300 volunteers from across the country who also responded to the call. Ogof Ffynnon Ddu is one of the deepest cave systems in the UK, with its lowest passageways 901ft below the surface. It is suitable only for experienced cavers who see everything from huge chambers, beautiful formations, to yawning chasms and thundering river passages. The rescue operation was very complex and Matt and the other team members would not get home until Monday evening.

The injured caver, George, and his partner were a mile into the 43-mile cave network when George fell suffering injuries to his tibia, fibula, jaw, and chest. He couldn’t move. When the rescuers found George, they immobilised him on a stretcher and began the long journey to the surface. There were many natural obstacles to negotiate including narrow passages, boulders, potholes, and waterfalls. It was exhausting work, so the rescuers worked in shifts.
It was necessary to undertake a long journey underground to get George to an exit big enough to get the stretcher through, but the rescuers were determined to rescue him however long it took. On Monday evening George and the rescue team emerged from the caves and he was taken to hospital. One person said, “Volunteers from everywhere were ready to put their own lives on the line to rescue a fellow caver.”

The greatest ever rescue operation was undertaken by Jesus Christ. We were all in great danger, so Jesus came from heaven to rescue us. The apostle John tells us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Jesus laid down his life on the cross to rescue us by suffering the punishment our sins deserve. One hymn says, “He held the highest place above, adored by all the sons of flame. Yet such his self-denying love, he laid aside his crown and came to seek the lost, and at the cost of heavenly rank and earthly fame, he sought me – blessed be his name! Then dawned at last that day of dread, when desolate, yet undismayed, with wearied frame and thorn-crowned head, he, now forsaken and betrayed, went up for me to Calvary, and dying there in grief and shame, he saved me – blessed be his name!”

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Facing our fears

Fear is in the air. During the pandemic many people have been afraid of catching the virus, of being seriously ill and even dying. Every day we are told on national television how many people are infected and how many have died. Some scientists are forecasting a very difficult winter ahead with more people dying from the virus and from seasonal flu. At the COP26 Climate Change Conference some scientists have projected the devastating consequences of global warming. Unless world leaders act now it will be too late.

Young people are being especially impacted by fear. They look to people like Greta Thunberg who has become a global voice on climate change. She is disdainful of the broken promises of world leaders to effect change while saying, “We owe it to young people to give them hope.” Greta says, “But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day, and then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

Fear can be a good response. Good parents teach their children to be careful crossing roads because they may be knocked down by a car. They teach their children that fire burns and that electricity can give them a nasty shock. Such fear protects us from danger. It only does us good. But fear can also paralyse us, especially when there is little we can do to avoid the danger, and our safety depends totally on the actions of others. This fear is increased when people constantly tell us there is no God. We are on our own in this vast universe and there’s no one there to help.

The Bible tells us that knowing the living God enables us to face our fears. David, who was a courageous man, said, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” In a time of national crisis, God spoke to the people through the prophet Isaiah, “You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you! Trust in the Lord always, for the Lord God is the eternal Rock.” In Psalm 23 David says that when the Lord is our shepherd, we can even face death without fear: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”