The best news ever!

Like many people around the world I like to follow the news. Every morning I listen to the radio to hear what’s been happening. Most news stories are bad news. Reports cover economic uncertainty, corruption, child abuse, refugees, unaccompanied children, violence, conflict, crime, terrorism, pollution, climate change, disease, earthquakes, drought and famine. For many of us the stories are about what is happening to other people in other parts of the world, but for millions of people the stories are about them and the troubles and sorrows they face in their daily lives.

The message of the New Testament is called the “Gospel”, which means “Good News.” It is a message about what God has done through his Son, Jesus Christ. This message speaks into the real experiences of our broken world and of our daily lives. It is a message about reconciliation, peace and hope for the future. It lifts us out of despair. It is a true message. When people want to emphasise that they are telling the truth they sometimes say that they are speaking the gospel truth. Today we hear about fake news, but this message about Jesus is absolutely genuine.

Strangely, perhaps, one of the great themes of the Good News is sin. This is an unpopular word to many, yet the daily news stories are full of the sinful actions of people. It is the greatest problem the world faces. We all sin every day in our thoughts, words and actions. However hard we try, we cannot stop sinning. We sin when we break God’s moral commands. We misuse God’s name, dishonour our parents, hate and kill, commit sexual immorality, steal, lie, and covet what other people have. Our sinful behaviour brings great sadness to us and to others. It spoils everything.

The solution to the problems we face is not religion, but reconciliation. We need to be reconciled to God. In a letter to Christians living in Corinth the apostle Paul explained the heart of the Good News in this way, “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.” This is the best news ever!

Two courageous doctors

Dr David Nott is a remarkable doctor. He is a consultant surgeon at Royal Marsden, St Mary’s and Chelsea and Westminster Hospitals. For more than 20 years he has spent several months each year working as a volunteer war surgeon with Médecins Sans Frontières and the International Committee of the Red Cross. He has worked in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Darfur, Gaza, Haiti, Iraq, Libya, Nepal, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Syria and Yemen. This year he was presented with the Robert Burns’ Humanitarian Award that recognizes those who help to change people’s lives for the better.

As well as treating victims of conflict and catastrophe, Dr Nott teaches advanced surgical skills to local medics and surgeons. One of the doctors he helps and encourages is Dr Hamza al-Khatib, who lives and works in war-torn Aleppo in Syria. Dr Khatib moved back to his home in rebel-held eastern Aleppo four years ago. He made the journey on foot with his wife and 6-month-old daughter. The journey was very dangerous and he was afraid for their safety.

Aleppo used to have 9 hospitals. All have been bombed by government and Russian forces. The situation in Aleppo is a daily nightmare for medics and the people because of barrel bombs and Russian fighter jets’ missiles. Recently a 9-year-old boy brought his 7-year-old brother to the hospital. The younger boy died and they had to give his body to his brother to take away. Every day Dr Khatib survives is a victory, yet he never regrets returning to Aleppo. He said, “The presence of every single one of us is important. We help each other. If I went back in time I would do the same again.”

One of the two great commandments God has given us is, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus spoke of a Samaritan man who helped a Jewish man who had been robbed and beaten by thieves who left him half dead. Two priests saw the wounded man, but passed by on the other side. The Samaritan, at risk to his own life, stopped, treated the man’s wounds and took him to a place of safety. After telling the parable Jesus said to the people, “Go and do likewise.” We can pray for people like David Nott and Hamza al-Khatib as they seek to save the lives of people terribly injured in today’s conflicts. We can also ask ourselves what we can do to truly love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

I was a stranger and you invited me in

The conflict in Eastern Ukraine shows little sign of ending despite the recent high-level meetings. Ukraine has two official languages: those in the west speak Ukrainian and those in the east speak Russian. Russia, and the rebels they are backing, are exploiting this by appearing to support the grievances some Russian speaking Ukrainians in the east have against the government in Kiev.

Over the past year Russia has illegally annexed Crimea, which conveniently gives them control of the warm water seaport of Sebastopol. A Malaysian civilian airliner was shot down killing 298 people. Major cities in eastern Ukraine are now war zones with massive destruction of property. The brand new international airport in Donetsk, built for the European Football Championships in 2012, is now rubble. Donetsk is the same size as Birmingham. In the conflict 5300 people have died and 1.5 million have been made homeless. Thousands of men, women and children have fled for safety to cities outside the war zone including Kharkov, the second city of Ukraine.

Yet in the midst of this appalling situation good things are happening. I have friends who live in Kharkov. They are Christians and attend a small Baptist church. Christians in the Baptist churches have been helping the refugees who are fleeing the fighting. When buses carrying refugees arrive in Kharkov they are met by Christians who provide food and clothing for the people and help them to find somewhere to stay. The Baptist church buildings have become temporary homes for refugee families and the Christians have also welcomed refugees into their own homes. Ukraine is a poor country and the war has increased the price of everything, yet the Christians are willing to share their own limited resources with strangers who are in great need. Christians in Britain are also sending gifts to help them.

One of the greatest commandments God has given us is, “You shall love your neighbour as you love yourself.” Jesus said that his people feed the hungry, give drinks to the thirsty, clothe the naked and provide homes for the homeless. Then he added, “Whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you do for me.” Jesus himself is the supreme example of self-sacrificing love. The apostle Paul wrote, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

They will beat their swords into ploughshares

The Union Flag has been lowered for the last time at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province. After 13 years British troops are being withdrawn from Afghanistan and Bastion has been handed over to Afghans. Bastion was once the largest British military base in the world housing up to 14000 troops with a 20 miles long perimeter wall and up to 600 aircraft movements a day. Bastion’s memorial wall, which bears the names of the 453 British military personnel killed in the conflict, has been removed and will be rebuilt at the National Arboretum in Staffordshire.

The conflict in Afghanistan has been long and costly. Thousands have died, both military personnel and civilians, and many more have suffered life-changing injuries. The British military personnel have been a great example of courage and commitment as they have fought alongside others to give the Afghan people a chance of a better life. The conflict is not over but, across the country, 6.7 million children now attend school, nearly 50% of them girls. This would have been unthinkable under Taliban rule. Healthcare has improved and life expectancy has increased.

The history of the world is scarred by wars and armed conflicts. In their lust for power and domination nations and individuals have been willing to sacrifice the lives of countless people. The military personnel in Afghanistan have stood between evil men and ordinary people who lived every day in fear and oppression. As they have served in a very difficult place far from their own homes, their presence has given hope to many. We pray that the Afghan people will find peace and security and that those who have lost loved ones, or suffered serious physical and psychological injuries, will know God’s comfort and his love for them.

What is the future for our world where seemingly irresolvable conflicts abound? The prophet Micah spoke of a coming day when God will intervene decisively in his world. “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and peoples will stream to it. He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.”

Jesus gives us hope and real life

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.”

The transforming power of God’s love

Sadly, the conflict in Syria continues despite the attempts of the UN and their special adviser, Kofi Annan, to establish a peace plan. The conflict began in January 2011, as part of the Arab Spring, when protesters demanded the resignation of President Bashar-al-Assad and the overthrow of his government. In response the government has used the Syrian Army to quell the uprising and several cities have been besieged. It is estimated that 10,000 people have been killed, half of whom were civilians, including hundreds of children. Many more have been injured and imprisoned, and tens of thousands have become refugees in neighbouring countries. This month, for the first time, there have been suicide car bombs in Damascus.

Syria is a country with a proud history of power and influence in the Middle East. More than 2500 years ago Israel was dominated by Syria, which was the world super power at that time. In the Old Testament there is a remarkable story about how the supreme commander of the Syrian army, Naaman, came to know the true God. His soldiers raided villages in Israel and brought back slaves to Syria. One of them, a young girl, was taken to Naaman’s house and served his wife.

This young girl had a remarkable spirit of love and concern, even for her enemies. We might have expected her to be full of anger and hatred, but she was not. Although Naaman was a very powerful man, he had a big problem, he had leprosy. The young girl was genuinely concerned for Naaman and told his wife that she believed that her God could heal him of his leprosy. The young girl is an example of how we should respond to other people, even those who cause us pain. She knew and trusted God personally and understood that he loves people from all nations.

Naaman decided to go to Israel in search of healing. He was told by the prophet Elisha to dip himself seven times in the Jordan and he would be healed. Although, at first, he felt insulted and responded in anger to this command from God, eventually he did obey and was wonderfully healed. He experienced God’s amazing love for him and became a changed man. He said to Elisha, “I will never again offer sacrifices to any other god except the Lord.” Conflict and violence do not change hearts, but a personal experience of God’s gracious kindness always does.