Last week the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo declared an outbreak of Ebola. Two cases have been confirmed in the northwest of the country. Ebola was first identified in DR Congo in 1976. The virus can be transmitted from wild animals to people and spreads through human-to-human transmission. The average fatality rate is 50%. The World Health organisation has made $1 million available to contain the outbreak.
DR Congo is two-thirds the size of Western Europe and is potentially one of the richest countries in the world. It has an abundant water supply from the world’s second-largest river, a benign climate, fertile soil and abundant deposits of copper, gold, diamonds, cobalt, uranium and oil. Yet its 79 million people have experienced great suffering through corrupt government and a long running civil war in which more than 5 million people have died. Millions of people now live in extreme poverty.
Yet there are also bright lights of love and hope that shine in DR Congo. A friend of mine, who lives and works in Shalom University in Bunia, recently wrote to me. In February and March violence flared in the area near Bunia and over a two-week period 50,000 people fled into the city. They arrived on foot with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. My friend described the response of Christians to the needs of these displaced people.
“On the first Sunday after the displaced began arriving, it was blazing hot. The pastor of the main church in Bunia preached on Abraham’s hospitality of three strangers, one of whom turned out to be God himself. The pastor invited a refugee family up to the front to tell their story. At the end of their story the pastor started singing and the people began to stream forward to give a love offering for the displaced. Soon a large pink laundry basket was overflowing with bundles of money. This came from the people of a city where £70 a month is a good salary.”
The pastor then asked the Christians to prepare for a bigger offering the next Sunday. He told them they should bring their best food and clothes. The following Sunday, the offering was even larger and large bags of clothes were donated. For a month, the Christians throughout Bunia provided the main support for the displaced people. The loving actions of these Christians was inspired by their own experience of God’s love in Jesus who, “though he was rich, yet for their sake became poor, so that you through his poverty they might become rich.”
Mary and Joseph lived in the small Galilean village of Nazareth. Joseph had known Mary from a very early age and she had been promised to him in marriage. She was still in her teens and he was the village carpenter. They loved each other very much and were looking forward to being married and making their home in the village. They could not have known that God had wonderful plans for them that would fulfil his promise that through the descendants of Abraham all nations on earth would be blessed.
One day the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her not to be afraid because the Lord was with her. The angel told her that she would supernaturally conceive a child and give birth to a son. He said, “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’s humble response to God’s purpose for her life was, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”
When Joseph realised that Mary was pregnant he was devastated and assumed, very understandably, that she had been unfaithful to him. He did not want to her to be publicly disgraced so planned to end their relationship quietly. Then, one night, God revealed the truth to him in a dream. An angel 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.” So Joseph married Mary and had no union with her until she gave birth to a son.
This was the beginning of the greatest story ever told. God had promised to provide a saviour and out of love for a sad and sinful world he gave the gift of his only Son to be that Saviour. Jesus was also called Immanuel, which means “God with us.” This Christmas, and every day of our lives, each of us needs to know God’s love for us, the forgiveness of our sins and that he is with us. Then we can joyfully sing, “Hark! The herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the new born King: peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!’ Joyful all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies; with the angelic host proclaim ‘Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Divers continue to search for the bodies of those who died when a boat carrying migrants from Eritrea and Somalia sank off the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa last week. The official death toll stands at 194, and 200 people are still missing. 155 people survived when the boat carrying them sank in deep water just 1000 metres from the island. Every year tens of thousands of migrants attempt the perilous crossing from North Africa to Italian islands. In the past two decades 20,000 people from Africa and the Middle East have lost their lives trying to reach southern Europe. In 2011, at the height of the Arab uprisings, 1500 died in one year.
The people who board over-crowded and unseaworthy boats pay large sums to unscrupulous criminal gangs who earn their living through people trafficking. The migrants are desperate. Many are fleeing from countries where there is conflict and persecution. They are willing to spend all they have, and even risk their and their children’s lives, in order to escape poverty and turmoil and find a place of safety and peace.
How do we respond to the plight of these people? Today in European countries, like Britain, immigration is a big issue. The Bible makes it clear that God cares deeply for the plight of migrant people and understands their needs. In the Old Testament there are many examples of people leaving their own countries and going to another. Abraham left his country and his family and went to the land of Canaan. He lived there all his life, but the only land he ever owned was the plot he bought to bury his wife Sarah. In a time of famine Jacob and his family went to Egypt. Later they became slaves there and suffered greatly under hard taskmasters until God brought them out and gave them their own land.
Soon after he was born Jesus was taken by his parents to Egypt because King Herod was determined to kill the new born king. He only returned to Nazareth after Herod has died and it was safe to do so. Jesus is a compassionate Saviour who is “touched with the feeling of our infirmities.” He understands our needs because he has been where we are. He came into this world to give us hope and real life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”