To us a Son is given

Christmas is a special time as people around the world remember the birth of Jesus Christ. His birth was prophesied hundreds of years before he was born. The prophet Micah said where he would be born: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel.” The prophet Isaiah spoke about his special conception: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.” Isaiah also said this child would be a gift from God: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

Now more than 2000 years after the birth of Jesus, he is still remembered with joy and thanksgiving by countless people from many nations. Christmas carols will be heard in shopping centres, schools will have nativity plays and many people who don’t normally go to church will attend carol services. The focus will be on this special child who was born so long ago. Well-known carols explain why his coming was so important.

Jesus brought light into this dark world: “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.”

Angels, and the very creation itself, rejoiced at his birth: “For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above, while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love. O morning stars together proclaim the holy birth and praises sing to God the King and peace to men on earth.”

Jesus has transformed the lives of countless people and is still changing lives today. This Christmas many will come to know him for the first time: “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still the dear Christ enters in. 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”

Mary’s Son

Preparations for Christmas are well under way. It’s a very expensive time. Last month an estimated £7billion was spent on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. In the run up to Christmas 2017 people in Britain spent £50billion and then spent another £12billion between Christmas and New Year. Why, in the middle of winter, do many of us spend money we can’t afford on food and drink and expensive presents our family and friends may not really need? Why do poorer families feel left out because they don’t have either money or access to credit?

We don’t need to spend money and incur crippling debt to focus on the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem more than 2000 years ago. Familiar carols recount the wonder of it all. “Once in royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed, where a mother laid her baby in a manger for his bed: Mary was that mother mild, Jesus Christ her little child. 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.”

Mary and Joseph were a newly married young couple. They weren’t rich or famous. Joseph was a carpenter in Nazareth and Mary was expecting their first child. When it was nearly time for the baby to be born, they had to travel on foot to Bethlehem because the Roman Emperor was taking a census. Everyone had to go to their family town for the census. Because Joseph was descended from King David, he and Mary had to go to Bethlehem which was David’s town. When they arrived in Bethlehem there were no guest rooms available in which they could stay so Mary gave birth to her firstborn son in a stable.

Mary’s son was God’s Son. He came into the world to give hope to all who receive him, rich and poor, both in this life and the next. The carol lifts our eyes and thoughts above this often sad world to the glory of heaven. “And our eyes at last shall see him, through his own redeeming love; for that child so dear and gentle is our Lord in heaven above, and he leads his children on to the place where he is gone. Not in that poor lowly stable, with the oxen standing by, we shall see him, but in heaven, set at God’s right hand on high; where like stars his children crowned all in white shall wait around.”

My grace is sufficient for you

When my father was in hospital waiting for an operation to remove his bladder he was, understandably, anxious. Scans had revealed a cancerous tumour in his bladder and surgery was the best way to deal with it. After evening visiting on the day before the operation, when my father was on his own in his room, he opened the Gideons’ New Testament at the side of his bed. He found an index in the front of the New Testament that suggested Bible verses to read when experiencing different situations in life. He turned to the one suggested for those who are ill.

He read 2 Corinthians Chapter 12 where the Apostle Paul writes of an illness he had. We don’t know what it was, but Paul calls it “a thorn in the flesh” and makes it clear it was something that caused him to suffer. In verses 8 and 9 Paul says, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Like Paul, my father had prayed that God would heal him but that evening he felt that God had spoken to him through those words and had promised to be with him and to give him the strength to face whatever lay ahead. The operation did not fully resolve the problem and, after further surgery, my father died in hospital a few weeks later. He was able to face death confident from the verses he read in the Bible that the Lord was with him.

Gideons distribute free copies of the Bible and New Testament in many countries in the world. Children starting secondary school are given a New Testament and copies of the Bible are also placed in hotel rooms, hospitals and care homes. In April 2015 the Gideons placed their two billionth copy of the Scriptures. Many people have found comfort and strength in times of crisis when they have picked up a Gideons’ Bible and read it. It has literally saved lives.

The Bible is a unique book in which the living God speaks to us. What the Bible says, God says. He makes wonderful promises in which we can put our trust like the promise of Jesus, “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.”

Change is possible

We live in a violent world. Terrorists use bombs and vehicles to kill and injure innocent people. Drug gangs employ and intimidate young people to carry out their evil trade. Those who “fail” are killed or seriously wounded to teach them a lesson. The streets of our great cities are not safe places because of the increase in violent crimes. Prison staff struggle to control violent inmates. There are an increasing number of violent assaults on prison staff and on hospital staff in A&E departments. Is it possible for violent people to change?

Michael Franzese grew up as the son of the notorious Underboss of New York’s violent and feared Colombo crime family. Michael became a mafia boss and, in 1986, was named by Vanity Fair as one of the biggest money earners the mob had seen since Al Capone. At his most affluent he generated between $5 and $8 million per week from legal and illegal businesses. Rudy Guiliani, the Manhattan federal prosecutor, tried several times to put Michael in prison for his crimes, but failed. Life in the mob was dangerous and several of Michael’s fellow leaders died violent deaths on the orders of mob leaders. At times he himself was in danger.

However, Michael is now a changed man. It happened when he met Camille Garcia, who is a Christian. Michael fell in love with Camille and married her. Michael saw in Camille’s life what it means to be a real Christian. She was different from anyone he had ever met before. She told him that Jesus, God’s Son, came into the world to save people by dying on the cross to pay the price of their sins. Michael repented of his many sins and asked God to forgive him for the sake of Jesus and began a new life.

He went to the authorities and pleaded guilty to racketeering crimes. He received a 10-year prison sentence and vowed to walk away from the mob. Michael is the only high-ranking official of a major crime family to ever walk away, without protective custodies, and survive. As a Christian, Michael now seeks to help business people, student athletes and at-risk young people to overcome the odds and make positive changes in their lives. From his personal experience, he knows that with God’s help anyone, however bad they may be, can change and start a new life. Like the Apostle Paul, who had also been a violent man, Michael knows that “anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”

I am with you always

The Remembrance Services this year have been deeply moving as we have remembered the millions of people who died in the World Wars of the 20th century, and especially in the Great War of 1914-1918. The casualty statistics are hard to take in. In the Great War 65 million men were mobilised across Europe: more than 8 million soldiers and 7 million civilians died and 21 million were wounded. Many soldiers from countries in the Commonwealth, including India, Australia and New Zealand, Canada, Africa and the West Indies also died. In the Battle of the Somme, 1 July to 18 November 2016, 1 million people on all sides were killed. British forces suffered 57,000 casualties on the first day, of whom more than 19000 were killed.

Theo Chadburn, a miner from Sheffield, was a member of the Salvation Army and played in the band. He served at Ypres and, 3 days before he died, wrote a letter to his wife Lily in which he said, “I believe that every day I learn more of his goodness.” He told her that on Easter Day 1918 he saw 150 soldiers go forward to receive Jesus Christ as their Saviour and said, “It was the best Easter Sunday night meeting I have ever spent. I was greatly blessed.”

Albert Penn came from Hasland, near Chesterfield. He was married to Florence who was expecting their first child. They met at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in the village where Albert led the boys’ Bible class and Florence led the girls’ class. They were enjoying their first home and looking forward to the sharing the rest of their lives together. But the war changed all that. In 1916 Albert volunteered and was told to come back when their baby, Mary Estelle, was 3 months old. He did and was killed on 30 October 1917 at Passchendaele when Mary was just 11 months old. He was 28 years old and his body was never found.

A wounded solider, who had been a member of Albert’s Bible class at home, told the family that he had seen Albert standing in an open field with a Bible in his hand talking to the young soldiers and then leading them in singing the hymn “Rejoice the Lord is King!” Five days later Albert and his regiment went over the top and he died. His granddaughter said, “I know that, in that terrible time, it wasn’t so much that he kept his faith in God, but that the God in whom he trusted kept him.”

We will remember them

At 11am on 11 November 1918 -“the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”- a ceasefire came into effect. World War I, “the war to end all wars”, had finally come to an end. Across Europe, 9 million soldiers and 7 million civilians died as a direct result of the war. In Britain one in three men aged 19 to 22 were killed. In the largest battle of WWI, the Battle of the Somme, more than 1 million men were killed or wounded.

This war was very different from past conflicts. Powerful new weapons were used for the first time resulting in many deaths and injuries. The big guns on the Western Front could be heard across the English Channel. 75% of all men who died in WWI were killed by artillery. The opposing armies dug long trenches, sometimes only 30 metres apart. The narrow trenches of the Western Front stretched from the Belgian coast to Switzerland. Many men, on both sides, died in those grim trenches. Tanks, biplanes and the gigantic Zeppelin airships were used for the first time. Large battleships shelled towns on the east coast killing many civilians.

In 2018, 100 years after the end of WWI, special services of remembrance are being held to remember those who gave their lives that others might live free from tyranny. A few weeks after the start of WWI, when heavy casualties had already been suffered, Laurence Binyon wrote a poem, “For the Fallen.” Words from the poem have been adopted by the Royal British Legion as an exhortation at ceremonies of remembrance for fallen servicemen and women. “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”

In 1977 a Bible was discovered which had belonged to Private George Ford. He was killed in 1918, at the age of 20. British soldiers on active service were given “The Daily Portion Testament” with an inscription inside from Lord Roberts, “I ask you to put your trust in God. He will watch over you and strengthen you. You will find in this little book guidance when you are in health, comfort when you are in sickness and strength when you are in adversity.” In the trenches many men found strength in the words of David in Psalm 23. As a young man David learned to trust God in times of danger and wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

Being inspired by the Invictus Games

The fourth Invictus Games has just been held in Sydney, Australia. The Games is an international event created by Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, in which wounded, injured or sick armed personnel and veterans compete in a wide range of sports. Invictus is a Latin word meaning “unconquered” or “undefeated.” The Sydney Games drew 500 competitors and 1000 family and friends from 17 countries and featured 11 sports.

The stories of the competitors are inspiring. Some have suffered terrible life-changing physical injuries in armed combat, others have struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and chronic illness. Invictus has inspired them not to be overcome by their injuries and suffering but to become overcomers and to do it together. There is a wonderful spirit of friendship and mutual encouragement amongst competitors in addition to the loving and persevering support of family and friends. People who thought their lives were over have found new hope and joy.

Davin ‘Bear’ Bretherton was one of the Australian competitors at the Sydney Games. He was seriously injured while serving in the military and had an amputation. He suffered from PTSD and found it difficult to face each day. He hit rock bottom when he attempted suicide. He said, “I was left lying on my shed floor crying and thinking to myself, ‘I need help and I need to do something about it. I need to try to find a way to regain my life.’ The biggest thing that I found on my road to recovery was how tough it was to ask for help. You know, I think that probably the manliest thing I’ve ever done in my life, was to reach out and physically ask someone for help. This is my life, I’ve only got one and I nearly lost it. So, I wish I’d asked for help a lot earlier.”

When bad things happen to us, as they have to ‘Bear’ and other competitors at the Invictus Games, we, too, need to ask for help. Many people have asked God to help them when they have been going through dark times in their lives and he has given them new strength and hope. The Bible says that Jesus “understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same trials we do”, and so we can “come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy and will find grace to help us when we need it most.”

The beauty of autumn

The recent sunny days have shown the autumn colours in all their beauty. The summer has past, and winter is coming, and the world around us is beautifully clothed in orange, yellow, red and brown colours. The autumn colours are not a sign of death but of the cycles of life. As the days grow shorter and the temperatures cool many trees shed their leaves so that they can survive the winter. The leaves don’t simply fall but are actively pushed off their branches by the trees. The changes in weather and daylight trigger a hormone that releases a chemical message to each leaf that it is time to prepare for winter and slowly, but surely, the leaf is pushed from the tree branch. This process is essential if the tree is to survive the winter.

The world and the universe around us are constantly revealing the glory of God to all people everywhere. This revelation transcends differences in language and culture. In Psalm 19 we read, “The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world.”

God’s creation reveals his beauty and splendour. Through the year he beautifully clothes his world from the bright colours of the spring flowers to the russet colours of autumn. As each day dawns he floods the world with light and at the end of the day creates spectacular sunsets. The sun, moon and stars speak of his wisdom and greatness. He leaves nothing to chance. Through his creation he speaks to us and tells us that he is and that he cares.

How should we respond to God’s revelation through his creation? The trees are wise enough to prepare for winter, but we may not be so wise. God is the living God. He gives life and breath to everything and satisfies every need. He watched over us in our mother’s womb from the moment of conception until the day we were born. He created us to live and to enjoy him forever. He sent his Son into the world so that we might have life and have it to the full. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die.”

Words matter

Words matter. At the marriage of Jack Brooksbank and Princess Eugenie last week their deep love for each other was obvious. The Dean of Windsor declared them to be husband and wife because they made solemn, lifelong promises to each other. Eugenie was asked, “Eugenie, wilt thou have this Man to be thy wedded husband, to live together according to God’s law in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou love him, comfort him, honour and keep him, in sickness and in health and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?” She replied, “I will.” Jack made a similar promise.

One media organisation hired professional lip-readers to tell them what the Royal guests were saying to each other. It seems even small talk matters! Jesus taught that our words reveal the condition of our inner self and that God will judge us for everything we say. He said, “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the housetops for all to hear!”

Those who heard Jesus speaking recognised the authority of his words. During a difficult time in his ministry, when some people turned away from him, Jesus asked his close disciples, “Are you also going to leave?” Simon Peter replied, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life.” Jesus made wonderful promises in which we can have total confidence. One of his promises is, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Some Christian friends of ours invited a neighbour, who is not a Christian, to a meal. After the meal the wife asked the neighbour if she could read a passage from the Bible. The neighbour agreed and the wife read one of the Psalms. As she was reading the neighbour began to cry. When the reading was finished the neighbour explained why she had cried, “In my religion we speak to God but he never speaks to us. As you were reading I felt God was speaking to me!”

Unbroken – the story of Louis Zamperini

The story of the remarkable life of Louis Zamperini has been told in the film “Unbroken” which came out in 2014, the same year in which he died at the age of 97. After a troubled adolescence Louis took up athletics and competed in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. When World War II broke out he became a bombardier on a B-24 bomber. In 1943 his plane was shot down over the South Pacific and he was reported missing, presumed dead. He and another airman spent 47 days clinging to a raft only to be captured by the Japanese and to become prisoners of war.

While he was a prisoner of war, Louis endured constant brutality at the hands of a man the prisoners called “The Bird.” His real name was Mutsuhiro Watanabe who was a sadistically cruel and abusive man who terrorised the prisoners. He singled Louis out for particularly harsh treatment. After the war ended Watanabe was on the list of the most wanted war criminals in Japan but was never brought to justice.

When the war ended Louis returned to the United States and went on speaking tours. He was treated as a hero but, despite outward appearances, his life was falling apart. He was struggling to cope with his horrific experiences as a prisoner of war and had frequent nightmares about Watanabe. Louis was filled with anger, anxiety and hatred. He sought solace in alcohol and planned to return to Japan to murder Watanabe. He realised he needed help.

In 1949 Louis reluctantly attended a Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles. He didn’t like what he heard and told his wife he would not go to another meeting, but he did. One night he responded to the invitation to experience forgiveness and salvation and received Jesus Christ as his saviour. That same night his nightmares stopped, and he poured all his alcohol down the drain.

Louis was a new man and started a camp for young people from troubled backgrounds. Amazingly, after his conversion his desire for vengeance left him completely. He forgave his former captors and met many of his fellow prisoners. He also met with 850 Japanese war criminals and warmly greeted them. When one former Japanese soldier said he couldn’t understand how he could forgive them Louis replied, “Well, Mr Sasaki, when Christ was crucified he said, ‘Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.’ It is only through the Cross that I can come back here and say this, but I do forgive you.”