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He came down to earth from heaven

The birth of Jesus was both ordinary and extraordinary. His mother, Mary, was a teenage girl who lived in the small Galilean village of Nazareth. She had fallen in love with Joseph, the village carpenter, and they were planning their wedding. They loved each other deeply and were looking forward to making their vows before God and sharing their life together. Joseph respected Mary’s purity and was willing to wait until they were married before they slept together. Neither of them anticipated what lay ahead of them.

One day God sent the angel Gabriel to tell Mary an amazing message. He said, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.” When Mary asked how this could happened since she was a virgin the angel said, “The Holy Spirit will come on 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 your word to me be fulfilled.”

That day Mary’s life changed. What would the people of Nazareth say when they heard she was expecting a baby before she had been married? How would Joseph respond when she told him? He assumed that Mary must have been unfaithful to him and decided to call off the wedding until, one night, he had a dream in which an angel told him, “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.” So Joseph took Mary as his wife but did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son.

The birth of Jesus speaks to ordinary people everywhere about extraordinary things. 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.” Another carol speaks of receiving Jesus as Saviour, “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.”

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The love that transforms

Last week a man suddenly threatened to blow up the Fishmongers’ Hall, near London Bridge, where a prisoner rehabilitation conference, organised by Cambridge University, was being held. He then began attacking people with two knives. The man, who had been convicted of a terror offence, was invited to attend the conference. He had served half his 16-year sentence and had been released on licence in 2018 with an electronic tag. The man moved on to London Bridge where he was restrained by members of the public and then shot by the police. Two people were killed and 3 were injured.

As one hate-filled man was trying to kill people, others showed great courage in seeking to save lives. Lukasz from Poland, who works as a chef at Fishmongers’ Hall, bought time for others to escape by fighting the terrorist with a narwhal tusk he pulled off the wall. Despite being stabbed 5 times, he continued to confront the man. His actions, and those of others who confronted the terrorist, undoubtedly saved lives.

Tragically two young people who were attending the conference died. Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt were involved with Cambridge University’s Learning Together programme for prisoner rehabilitation. Jack’s father said, “Jack: you were a beautiful spirit. You lived your principles; believing in redemption and rehabilitation, not revenge, and always took the side of the underdog. Cambridge lost a proud son and champion for underdogs everywhere, but especially those dealt a losing hand by life, who ended up in the prison system.” He went on to say that Jack “would not wish his death to be used as a pretext for more draconian sentences or to detain people unnecessarily.”

Jesus was a man who was committed to helping and changing people. He is still doing that today by the power of the Holy Spirit. During his ministry many people who had failed in life, and wanted to change, were drawn to him. He loved them and gave them new hope. Knowing him and experiencing his love changed them. Jesus died not for his own sins, but for ours. He laid down his life that we might know God and receive the gift of eternal life. He loves people who are his enemies and changes their hearts so that they truly love him. The apostle Paul was an enemy of Jesus, but he was changed. Seeing the transformation in him Christians were amazed and said, “The one who used to persecute us is now preaching the very faith he tried to destroy!”

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God cares about you

Mental health is in the news. More people in Britain than ever before are experiencing depression and anxiety. In 2018 a total of 71 million prescriptions for anti-depressants were dispensed in England. This is almost double the number dispensed in 2008. The trend in other parts of Britain is similar. GPs fully investigate a patient’s circumstances and other alternatives, such as talking therapy, before prescribing anti-depressants and many people find their mental health improves when they take them.

This time of year creates additional anxiety for many people. The days are shorter and darker and financial pressures increase with Black Friday sales and the cost of paying for Christmas. Many people are already in debt and this is likely to increase in the coming weeks. The general election has added to the stress and the uncertainty about Brexit. The parties are displaying a greater level of hostility to one another and the genuine interests of different groups within our society are being set against each other. People are divided and there are fears for the future.

Jesus spoke about anxiety and how we can cope with it. He lived at a time when his country was under Roman rule and harsh taxes were imposed on the people. So Jesus reminded the people about God’s care for them, “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For your heavenly Father knows that you need them.”

The best talking therapy is talking to God in prayer. He knows us, cares about us and is willing and able to help us. The apostle Peter said, “Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you.”

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The uncertainties of riches

Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, has just become the richest person in the world again with a net worth of $110 billion ($110,000,000,000). He has overtaken the Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos who, because of a fall in Amazon’s profits, now has a net worth of $108 billion. The number of billionaires in the world is increasing and has reached a total of more than 2500. There are 700 billionaires in North America with a total wealth of more than $3 trillion. The combined total wealth of the billionaires in the next 8 countries on the billionaire list is $2.9 trillion. In total, the world’s richest 1% owns about half of the world’s wealth.

Many people think that being rich will make them happy and that the more money they have the happier they will be. Every week people buy lottery tickets in the hope of winning large sums of money. The EuroMillions jackpot last week was £98 million. When people win the lottery there are pictures of them celebrating and looking very happy but, sadly, their new-found wealth often leads to great sadness in broken marriages, addictions and loneliness through losing their friends.

A man once asked Jesus to settle a dispute between him and his brother over an inheritance. His brother was refusing to give him his share. Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” He then told a parable about a rich farmer who had a bumper harvest and wondered how he could store all his crops. The farmer said, “This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’”

On the face of it the farmer was being prudent, but he had not considered the uncertainties of life and the ultimate importance of eternity. Jesus went on to say, “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” Jesus is the supreme example of selflessness because although he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, so that we through his poverty might become rich.

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We will remember them

In 1919 King George V inaugurated Remembrance Day when Commonwealth member states remember those of their armed forces who have died in the line of duty. It is held each year at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, which was the time when hostilities ceased in World War I. Many other non-Commonwealth countries also observe the day. There are now very few former soldiers alive who experienced the terrible conflicts of World War II, but what they say reminds us of the horrific nature of battles like those on the beaches of Normandy following the D-Day landings.

On 6 June 1944 infantry and armoured divisions from America, Britain and Canada began landing on the French coast. As soon as they landed, they came under heavy enemy gunfire. Many of the 24,000 Allied soldiers who landed on the beaches died or were seriously injured on the first day. Alan King, who survived D-Day, said, “We weren’t heroes, we were just boys. We were terrified. Since our life expectancy after landing was just one hour, we kept each other going. After I got back, for the first 40 years, I didn’t think about it. Didn’t want to.”

Harry Billinge, a 94-year-old veteran of D-Day, decided to raise £22,442, a pound for every British soldier who died in the Normandy campaign, to help with the construction of the British Normandy Memorial at Ver-sur-Mer. He has exceeded his target. When he was interviewed on the BBC’s Breakfast programme and was shown the Memorial under construction, he choked back tears as he saw the names of those who had died. He said, “Don’t thank me and don’t say I’m a hero. All the heroes are dead, and I’ll never forget them as long as I live. My generation saved the world and I’ll never forget any of them.”

Harry said that when he was 4 years old, he went to Sunday School where his teacher, Miss Thompson, taught the children a chorus that he said was as source of strength to him amidst the horrors on the Normandy beaches on D-Day. “In loving-kindness Jesus came my soul in mercy to reclaim, and from the depths of sin and shame through grace he lifted me. Now on a higher plain I dwell, and with my soul I know ‘tis well; yet how or why, I cannot tell, he should have lifted me. From sinking sand he lifted me, with tender hand he lifted me, from shades of night to plains of light, O praise his name, he lifted me!”

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Siya Kolisi’s Story

On Saturday 2 November Siya Kolisi raised the Webb Ellis Cup high after the South African team won the Rugby World Cup 2019. It was an historic moment because Siya is the first black man to captain the Springboks and to lead the team to success in the World Cup. Siya is a great example of a man who has overcome adversity to become a role model and symbol of hope for young black people in South Africa. After winning the Rugby World Cup he said he hoped their victory will “inspire every kid” back home and pull the country together, “we had one goal and we achieved it, a lot of us in South Africa just need an opportunity.”

Siya grew up in the poor Zwide township outside Port Elizabeth. His mother, Phakama, was 16 when Siya was born and his father, Fezakele, was in his final year of school. Siya’s mother died when he was 15 and his grandmother, Nolulamile, cared for him for a few months until she died in his arms. Siya remembers many days with only one meal and many nights spent sleeping on the floor.

Siya’s love of rugby often provided an escape from the struggles and temptations he faced as he was growing up. When he was 12 he was offered a scholarship at Grey Junior in Port Elizabeth. He walked 7 miles each way to go to school. Later he was offered a rugby scholarship to the prestigious Grey High School. In 2016 Siya married Rachel and they have two children.

Siya is a Christian and has spoken of the real spiritual struggles he has faced, as we all do. Earlier this year he experienced stresses in his marriage which led him to a deeper understanding of what it means to truly follow Jesus. In a recent interview he said, “While struggling with a lot of things personally – temptations, sins and lifestyle choices – I realized I wasn’t living according to what I was calling myself: a follower of Christ. I was getting by, but I hadn’t decided to fully commit myself to Jesus Christ and start living according to his way. I’ve been able to discover the truth and saving power of Christ in a whole new way. This new life has given me a peace in my heart I’d never experienced before. I don’t have to understand everything in life, and there are so many things I don’t, but I know God is in control of it all. My job is to do the best I can and leave the rest in his hands.”

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All things bright and beautiful

Amidst the many dark and wet days, we have also enjoyed some beautiful autumn days. The beauty of autumn is striking as the leaves change to reds, yellows and browns and the low sun brings out the depth of their colours. The early morning mists clothe the world in a gentle mantle of beauty. Autumn is one stage in the annual cycle of this beautiful planet on which we live. Earth is a tiny speck in a massive universe, but it is uniquely beautiful.

Many of us live in urban areas in which the beauty of creation is not so easy to see. We are surrounded by buildings and roads, traffic and noise. Life is busy and frantic. One of the blessings of some big cities, like London, is the parks to which office workers can escape for a few minutes at lunch time and mothers can take their children to play. The parks are oases of peace and beauty in the concrete jungles men have created. Parks and fields and hills and streams remind us of God. Wherever we live it is important to find time to be still and to look up and around and to marvel at the handiwork of the Creator.

The hymns many of us learned as children in school or Sunday School have a profound simplicity and speak into our adult world. “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.” God’s creative power embraces all things. He is the source of all that is bright and beautiful in a world in which, sadly, many things are dark and ugly. He made the great things and the small things. None of us is so small that we are insignificant to him. This amazingly complex world reveals the perfect wisdom of God’s heart and mind.

When we catch glimpses of God’s glory revealed in his creation we spontaneously respond with awe and worship. We are responding to the One who gave us life. “He gave us eyes to see them and lips that we might tell, how great is God Almighty, who has made all things well!” He is the same God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, his Son. During his ministry Jesus showed his love for people as he healed and restored all who came to him. We, too, can come to him in the sadness and struggles of our lives and experience his wonderful love for us.

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The promise of the rainbow

In Britain the autumn has been very wet. Most days there has been some rain and often it has been very heavy. Some places have experienced flooding and the water table is higher than usual. One of the blessings of sunshine and showers is the beautiful rainbows we have seen. Recently I was driving through Mid Wales and saw some stunning rainbows over the mountains on which the trees are already displaying their autumn colours. God’s creation reminds us so eloquently of his greatness and glory. He truly has made everything beautiful in its time.

The rainbow is a particularly encouraging sign, especially at this time when we are seriously concerned about climate change. The book of Genesis describes a great Flood in the time of Noah which affected the whole world. The historic traditions of many peoples and nations around the world also bear witness to this event. The Flood was God’s righteous judgement on great human wickedness. Violence and depravity could be seen everywhere, and the thoughts of people’s hearts were consistently and totally evil. The Flood was devastating and destroyed all people and animals except those who were in the ark that Noah built.

Today there is great wickedness in our world. People in our world are doing things that deserve God’s righteous judgement. Yet the stability of the natural world is being maintained by God who, after the Flood, made a wonderful promise to Noah. God said, “I solemnly promise never to send another flood to kill all living creatures and destroy the earth. I have placed my rainbow in the clouds. It is the sign of my permanent promise to you and all the earth. When I send clouds over the earth, the rainbow will be seen in the clouds, and I will remember my covenant with you and everything that lives. Never again will there be a flood that will destroy all life.”

An even greater sign of God’s love is that he sent his only Son, Jesus, into the world to save us. One of the Bible’s great promises is, “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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Just as Noah and his family entered the ark and were safe so everyone who puts their trust in Jesus receives the gift of eternal life.

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I want the best for you

On 26 September 2018 Amber Guyger, a Dallas policewoman, returned to her apartment building after a 14-hour shift. Still in her uniform and in a state she later described as “autopilot”, she entered the wrong flat. She lived at flat 1378 but went into flat 1478, one floor above hers, where Botham Jean, a black accountant, lived. The door was unlocked, and Botham was sitting on the sofa eating ice cream. Thinking he was an intruder, Amber drew her gun, and shot him twice, intending to kill him.

When giving evidence, she wept and said, “I ask God for forgiveness. I hate myself every single day. I never wanted to take an innocent person’s life. I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” The mostly black jury of eight women and four men convicted her of murder. She could have been sentenced to life in prison but received 10 years. Protesters outside the court building were outraged by the lenient sentence.

After sentence had been passed Brandt Jean, Botham’s 18-year-old brother, told Amber, “If you truly are sorry, I forgive you. And I know, if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you. I’m speaking for myself, but I love you just like anyone else. I don’t wish anything bad on you. I want the best for you, I don’t even want you to go to jail, because I know that that’s exactly what Botham would want, and the best is to give your life to Christ.” Then he asked the judge if he could hug his brother’s killer and embraced Amber for about a minute. It was an act of Christian forgiveness that brought tears to many eyes.

Botham’s mother Allison said she had no idea that Brandt was going to hug the killer. She, too, spoke of forgiving Amber but said, “I don’t want forgiveness to be mistaken for a total relinquishing of responsibility.”

The response of the Jean family to the tragic death of Botham illustrates the importance of both justice and forgiveness. How can our sins, that deserve to be punished, be forgiven by God? When Jesus died on the cross he both satisfied the just demands of God’s law and also opened the way for us to be forgiven. One hymn says, “Here is love, vast as the ocean, loving kindness as the flood, when the Prince of Life, our ransom, shed for us his precious blood. Grace and love, like mighty rivers, poured incessant from above, and heaven’s peace and perfect justice kissed a guilty world in love.”

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Always giving thanks

Being thankful is a great blessing. At this time of year many churches hold Harvest Thanksgiving services. We have enjoyed sunny weather this summer and the harvest has been really good. The farmers have done well, and we have enough food to eat for another year. There is good reason for us all to rejoice and give thanks.

One of the problems, however, of living in a secular society is, “To whom do we give thanks when things go well?” The politicians would like us to thank them, but few of us find that an attractive option! In an atheistic society like North Korea the people are commanded to give thanks for everything to their tyrannical President, Kim Jong-un. If they are not enthusiastic enough in giving thanks they are in serious trouble. Thankfully, we are under no such pressure.

The Bible gives us many exhortations to be thankful. The Psalmist says, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” The Apostle Paul says, “Sing and make melody from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.”

A modern hymn by Bishop Michael Baughen expresses thanks for simple daily blessings and for God’s amazing love in Jesus. “Thank you for every new good morning, thank you for every fresh new day, thank you that I may cast my burdens, wholly on to you. Thank you for every friend I have Lord, thank you for everyone I know, thank you when I can feel forgiveness, to my greatest foe. Thank you for leisure and employment, thank you for every heartfelt joy, thank you for all that makes me happy, and for melody. Thank you for free and full salvation, thank you for grace to hold it fast, thank you, O Lord I want to thank you, that I’m free to thank.”

It makes a great difference to our lives when we realise that there really is a God who is good and who is the Giver of every good and perfect gift. When things go well, we can gladly thank him and when hard times come, we can trust him to be with us and to help us. In one of his hymns Joseph Hart expressed his delight in his God and Father, “How good is the God we adore, our faithful unchangeable friend, we’ll praise him for all that is past and trust him for all that’s to come.”