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The Greatest Gift

The last days leading up to Christmas are normally very busy. A few cards to write and post and presents to find and buy. Making sure we have everything for Christmas dinner and the days following as we look forward to getting together with our extended family and friends. But this year it’s very different. Christmas plans have had to be changed; only small family gatherings are permitted and only on Christmas Day. Most shops are closed; pubs and restaurants are closed; travel is restricted; and we must stay at home.

Christmas is a time for giving and receiving. At Christmas we give special gifts to those we love. Perhaps you won’t be able to buy the presents you had planned to give, but the person who gives us the gift, and the love it expresses, are far more precious than the gift itself.

At the first Christmas God gave a very special gift to the people of his world. It is the greatest gift ever given. Then, as now, the world was a sad place with many troubles. The Roman Empire dominated many nations, and most people were poor. Jesus came, not to solve the problems of the day, but to solve the biggest problem we all face – our sinful hearts and lives. The message of the angels to the shepherds was, “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!” Our sins spoil our relationship with God and separate us from him. Jesus came to reconcile us to God through his perfect life and his death on the cross to pay the price of our sins. The name Jesus means “Saviour!” In love God, against whom we have all rebelled, took the initiative by giving his one and only Son to be our Saviour.

Opening a present from someone we love brings great joy. Parents enjoy watching their children opening their present and seeing their delight when they see what it is. The child’s instinctive response is to give their parents a hug and to tell them they love them. Have you ever responded to God’s gift of Jesus like that? Do you love him for giving you such an amazing gift? It brings great joy to God when anyone receives Jesus as their Saviour. This Christmas, like the shepherds, why not take time to receive Jesus, God’s gift to you, and to thank him for his love for you.

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Because he lives

This year we’ve lived in a very different world from the one we have known in the past and the one we hoped to one day see. The future remains uncertain, despite the vaccines that thankfully are now becoming available. Many hopes and dreams have faded. We need to find a foundation on which to build our lives even when things are really tough, and from that foundation to find a true and substantial hope for the future, both for ourselves and our children.

In 1971, when the horrors of the Vietnam war were impacting many people, John Lennon wrote a song which became very popular. It was called “Imagine”. These are the words, “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine all the people, living for today. Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion, too. Imagine all the people, living life in peace. Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can. No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man. Imagine all the people, sharing all the world. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.”

John Lennon was not the first to promote utopian optimism. In the early 20th century, there was a great optimism that mankind was coming of age. It was believed that people are essentially good and through education would progress morally and in love for one another. Tragically two world wars, the Holocaust and the invention of atomic weapons put an end to that optimism. A shallow optimism was no longer convincing.

At Christmas we remember the birth of Jesus who brought hope to the world. One Christian song sums it up; “God sent his Son, they called him Jesus, he came to love, heal and forgive. He lived and died to buy my pardon, an empty grave is there to prove my Saviour lives. How sweet to hold a new-born baby and feel the pride and joy he gives, but greater still the calm assurance this child can face uncertain days, because he lives. And then one day, I’ll cross the river, I’ll fight life’s final war with pain, and then, as death gives way to victory, I’ll see the lights of glory and I’ll know he reigns. Because he lives, I can face tomorrow, because he lives, all fear is gone, because I know he holds the future and life is worth the living, just because he lives.”

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When life changes

I have a friend who has experienced a number of life-changing events. Kristian grew up in Barry in South Wales. His father suffered from mental health issues and the family home was a place of fear and guilt. Kristian felt guilty because he couldn’t stop the violence against his mother. He also experienced bullying at school, but he was very good at football, and when he was on the pitch, he didn’t have any worries.

The first big change in Kristian’s life happened in his early teens. He started playing for Cardiff Academy then Swansea and played internationally for Wales. When he was 15, he was signed by Crystal Palace and moved to London. The football club looked after everything for him and even paid him while he was still in school. Kristian was being recognised as a technically gifted midfield/central defender. He had lots of money and was offered a contract by Tottenham Hotspur and Inter Milan.

Then he broke his ankle very badly. Despite the best possible treatment his ankle didn’t fully heal, and it soon became clear to him that, at the age of 20, his football career was over. He was devastated but threw himself into building a successful business career. He was determined to regain the money and lifestyle he had had in football. He returned to Barry, married his girlfriend and had a family. He bought a big house, had nice cars, expensive holidays and extravagant things he bought for himself and his family. He was successful and happy.

Kristian wasn’t expecting the next, and biggest change, in his life. His wife, Carla, started going to a mums and tots’ group at a local church and soon became a Christian. Kristian didn’t like her talking about her Saviour Jesus but could see that she had completely changed and was so caring towards him. Reluctantly Kristian went to some church services. As he listened to one sermon he said, “Suddenly I realised that God loved me. I realised that Jesus had come to this world to live the perfect life and that he died on the cross to take the punishment I deserved.”

Kristian and Carla now live in a village near Hereford with their 5 children where Kristian is the minister of a small church. He says, “I once had thought that contentment was to be found by having the best and the latest stuff, but I’ve realised that life is more than that. Life is about a relationship with God and knowing his love and forgiveness through Jesus. That is something that will last.”

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Finding contentment

The lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has led many people to reassess their situations. The length of the lockdown and continuing uncertainty about the future have had a significant impact on people’s jobs and young people’s plans for employment training and university courses. Many people are experiencing mental health problems. The “new normal” will be very different from the past. The impact of lockdown on many people’s lives has been negative.

During lockdown Billy Vunipola, who plays international rugby for England, has engaged in serious self-reflection. He has suffered injuries and experienced the disappointment of losing the Rugby World Cup 2019 final to South Africa. He says that during the Rugby World Cup “his head was in the clouds” and feels he has to grow up and set a better example to others. He feels that during the tournament he personally let England down and failed to support his brother Mako, who also plays for England. He has apologised to his team-mates and his brother and now wants to make up for lost time.

Billy, and his brother Mako, were born in Tonga. Their parents were Christians and from an early age they taught their children the priorities of life – God, school and rugby. Billy recognised that in recent years his priorities had changed and spoke to his parents. He said, “I always looked to blame someone else or something else and I finally realised, when I spoke to my parents, that I need to take ownership. Those guys never lie to me. It was hard to look at myself and I didn’t want to take ownership for things that I did. It’s hard to admit it sometimes and tell people around you that you are wrong.”

Billy has spoken about how he has rediscovered his faith in Jesus Christ. Despite being prevented from playing rugby, he has found contentment because of his faith in God. He said, “I went back to what I had been taught all my life about Jesus: whatever we do, whether we are playing rugby, or we’ve just woken up, we say thank you to God. Everything is a gift. Everything I have has been given to me; even my talent is a gift from God. I’m thankful for this gift. Knowing that Jesus is with me makes me a stronger person. I know that whatever I try to do, even if it doesn’t work out, I’ll always have Jesus to lean back on. I know there is more to life than winning and losing rugby games. Everything I do must be backed up by the love of Christ.”

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The world’s most astonished atheist

Memorial events have been held in Hiroshima to mark the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the world’s first atomic bomb. On 6 August 1945 a US bomber dropped a uranium bomb above the city killing 140,000 people. At least 70,000 people were killed immediately and in the following weeks and months tens of thousands died from radiation poisoning. On 9 August 1945 a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, killing at least 74,000 people. Two weeks later Japan surrendered, bringing an end to World War Two. These bombs are the only nuclear weapons ever to be deployed in war and showed their terrifying destructive power. Today Hiroshima is a City of Peace promoting nuclear disarmament in a world where an increasing number of nations have a nuclear capability.

When the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki Joy Davidman, who later married C.S. Lewis, was living in New York with her first husband Bill Gresham and was expecting her second son. Joy was from a Jewish family and grew up in the Bronx. From her childhood she had been an atheist and, in her early 20s, became a member of the Communist Party.

When Joy saw the devastation and deaths cause by the atomic bombs, she suddenly realised that civilisation could be obliterated. Her whole worldview was shaken. She was bringing her second child into a world where, she wrote in a poem, “ashes that were babies blew among the bamboo trees.” She had always believed that science would be society’s salvation but now she realised that it might be the world’s damnation.

Joy’s philosophy had always been “rigid and admitted no thought of God, of religion, of anything outside of dialectic materialism.” A self-assured woman who believed she had all the answers, she was now forced to admit helplessness. One night, alone in her room, everything changed. “All my defences – the walls of arrogance and cocksureness and self-love behind which I had hid from God – went down momentarily. And God came in.” Joy later described that experience: “There was a Person with me in the room, a Person so real that all my previous life was by comparison mere shadow play. My perception of God lasted perhaps half a minute, but when it was over, I found myself on my knees, praying. I think I must have been the world’s most astonished atheist.” It was a moment of grace when God revealed himself to Joy leading her to a sure future hope for herself, her children and God’s world.

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Holidays and holy days

The holiday season this year is different. For some months many people have not been going to their place work either because they were on furlough or were working at home. Schools and universities have been closed. Until recently, travel restrictions have made it difficult to book a holiday. As restrictions have been eased there has been a rush to book self-catering in the UK. Some have travelled to Europe on holiday, but now face an unexpected period of quarantine when they return.

The word holiday comes from an Old English word meaning “holy day”. Many holidays were linked to special religious days. This is still true of Christmas and Easter. In the Old Testament the great annual feasts were times to remember great events in the spiritual history of the nation. The Feast of Passover remembered the Exodus from Egypt when God delivered his people from slavery. The Feast of Tabernacles remembered God’s provision for and protection of his people during the 40 years in the wilderness.

In our increasingly secular society, our essentially spiritual nature as human beings has been marginalised. During the Covid-19 pandemic church buildings have been closed and spiritual leaders have been all but invisible. A notice on the locked door of a rural church in England informed people that the church building was closed and that they could pray to God anywhere “but not here.” People dying in hospital have often had no visits from a chaplain and funeral services have been attended by only a handful of family members and the funeral director and his staff.

We all need times for rest and reflection that holidays provide. From the beginning of time God provided a weekly day of rest for all people and commanded us “to keep the sabbath day holy.” Sadly, in the Western world Sunday is now “just another day.” When our children were growing up Sunday was their favourite day because we all went to church together and enjoyed a different kind of day with time to be together and to rest.

At a time when every day we are told about our fellow human beings who have died it’s also important to take time to reflect on eternity. The Bible describes heaven as a place of rest in the presence of God. In the book of Revelation John writes, “Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labour, for their deeds will follow them.’”

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John Wesley’s Story

The 24th May 1738 was a very significant day in the life of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism in England. He became one of the greatest spiritual leaders in English history playing a key role in the 18th century revival of religion. John was the son of Samuel and Susanna Wesley. Of the 19 children Susanna bore, only 3 sons and 7 daughters survived. Samuel was the Rector of Epworth and Susanna was a strongminded mother who practised strict discipline with her children.

John and his brother Charles, the great hymnwriter, went to Oxford University, where they started a small group of students, nicknamed “the Holy Club”, which met for prayer and Bible study. The group stressed the need for both a deep inward faith and practical service to those in need. They visited the sick and those in prison. When he left Oxford in 1735, John accepted an invitation to go, with his brother Charles, as missionaries to the recently founded colony of Georgia.

During the voyage to America there was a terrifying storm and John was afraid he was going to die. He attended a service on board ship with a group of German Moravian Christians. During the service a huge wave engulfed the ship and water poured down into the cabins. The Moravians continued singing – men, women and children – seemingly unafraid. Later John asked one of the Moravians why they hadn’t been afraid. The man told him that because they knew God they were not afraid to die. John realised that they had something he didn’t have. They were able to face death because they knew that God was never going to let them go.

After returning from Georgia, John attended a meeting of Moravian Christians in Aldersgate Street on 24th May 1738. He was not keen to go but at that meeting he had a profound spiritual experience. John described what happened to him, “About a quarter before nine, while the man was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” John was no longer afraid of dying. Between 1738 and his death in 1791 he travelled more than 250,000 miles and preached more than 40,000 sermons proclaiming to many people the same message by which he had come to know God and England was transformed.

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Give us this day our daily bread

The coronavirus pandemic is having a massive financial impact on the world. Governments are borrowing very large sums of money in order to help their people and keep their economies going. Businesses, both large and small, are suffering and some may never reopen. Many people are likely to lose their jobs, with far-reaching consequences for them and their families. Britain’s billionaires have lost £54 billion in the past two months. At the other end of the social scale more people than ever are now dependent on food banks to feed their families. At the end of December 2019, the total personal debt in Britain was £225 billion, the equivalent of £4300 for every adult. Now, because of the virus, personal debt has significantly increased.

The impact, however, is even greater in the Developing World. The World Bank estimates that 1.4 billion people worldwide normally live on under a $1.25 a day and another 2.5 billion people live on less than $2 a day. In Sub-Saharan Africa nearly 75% of the population fall into this category. We have a doctor friend who works in a rural Christian hospital in Uganda where the government has imposed a very strict lockdown to stop the virus spreading. This has had a devastating impact on the poorest people who are struggling to buy food and, also, on seriously sick people and expectant mothers who can’t get to the hospital.

The Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus taught his disciples, is very realistic and relevant to us all. The prayer begins with the words “Our Father in heaven.” As good human fathers care for their children and provide for them, so God is the One who provides for us. One of the petitions, which in normal times we hardly notice, is especially meaningful in hard times and for those facing crushing poverty – “Give us this day our daily bread.”

A few years ago, the 4-year-old daughter of a good friend of ours was taken into foster care. Her foster parents noticed that, before each meal, the little girl’s lips were moving as she spoke silently. They asked her what she was saying. She said she was praying to God, thanking him for her food and for the kind people who were looking after her. Praying, too, for her Mummy and her brothers and sisters. The foster parents were deeply moved and asked the little girl to pray out loud for them all at every meal. Through that little girl they became conscious of God, their heavenly Father, in a new way. They said, “she has changed our lives.”

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Light in the darkness

The VE Celebrations last weekend were very moving. Seeing thousands of young men boarding ships on their way to serve in faraway places reminded us of the great cost paid by a whole generation. Many never returned, others came back with life-changing physical injuries or psychological traumas, which today we recognise as PTSD. My father served in India and my wife’s father was involved in the D-Day landings. Thankfully both returned safely. The dignity of the survivors who were interviewed was impressive. Most were ordinary soldiers who faithfully served their country and put their lives on the line. Some were moved to tears as they remembered their fallen comrades.

Vera Lynn, now 103 years old, spoke of her visit to the troops in Japanese-occupied Burma. She said she decided to go to Burma in 1944 because the men who served there had not been visited. Seeing footage of the men listening to her sing you could see that her visit lifted their morale. Her courage in making that 4-month visit encouraged them and made them realise they were not forgotten. The songs she sang also gave them hope as they longed for the hellish war, from which they could not escape, to be over and to be able to return to their homes and loved ones.

Those troops so much needed hope, as we all do. As Vera sang, for a brief moment, they could look beyond the present horrors to being reunited with their loved ones far away. “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day. Keep smiling through just like you always do, ’till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away.” “There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover tomorrow, just you wait and see. There’ll be love and laughter and peace ever after, tomorrow, when the world is free.”

The generation of men and women who served in World War II were familiar with the Bible and the Christian gospel. Tens of thousands of them had attended Sunday School as children and had learned about Jesus who died for our sins and rose from the dead to give us hope. They had learned memory verses such as John 3:16, “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.” No doubt, in the heat of battle, as they faced certain death, many asked God to help them and he heard them and took them safely to heaven.

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Remember your Creator

People are living longer. The Queen now sends more 100th birthday cards than ever before – over 10,000 cards each year to people who are 100 years old or more. However, living a long life often brings significant challenges. In the past few months three elderly friends have died. Two were over 80 years old and one was in his nineties. Each faced difficulty in the last years of their lives. One had cancer and needed surgery and chemotherapy which meant many weeks in hospital and a severely restricted quality of life. One suffered from dementia and moved into a care home where, sadly, he no longer recognised his children and grandchildren. One fell at home and was no longer able to live independently. He moved into a care home where, because of immobility, he spend many long days in his room with little variation in the routine.

Each of them was a Christian and found comfort and strength through their relationship with God. They put their trust in Jesus as their Saviour when they were young, healthy and active; old age seemed a long way off. But as they grew older the promises of the Bible gave them strength and hope. They knew the personal love and care of God and experienced the truth of Psalm 23 where David wrote, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.”

When they realised their life was drawing to a close they were able to face death with confidence and hope because they knew their Saviour was with them. David wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

David’s son Solomon was a wise king. In the book of Ecclesiastes he considered the meaning of life and came to a clear conclusion, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them.’ Remember him – before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”