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Resurrection joy

Easter is a time of great joy. The resurrection of Jesus lifted his first disciples from a spirit of defeat and despair to an experience of great joy and hope. They saw their risen Lord who sent them out into the world to proclaim the wonderful message of the resurrection. This message has transformed many lives and the very course of history. The Apostles faced great opposition from their own people, and from the Roman authorities, but were unafraid. Most of them died for their faith – some were beheaded, others were crucified – but through their message countless people from many nations have found new life in Jesus.

Christian faith centres on the person of Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again to give us hope. Christians put their faith in Jesus, not in their religious observances. They don’t think they are better than other people, or sit in judgement on them, but are deeply conscious of their personal failures and need. They rejoice that Jesus has done everything needed to secure their salvation and gratefully trust in him as their Saviour. They have been delivered from the need to achieve their own salvation and, in response to his love, are free to live for Jesus and to tell others about him.

Many in the Western world have turned away from a living faith in God and Jesus and the consequences are clear to see. Evolutionary theory dominates. It offers no hope to our deepest needs, but declares its doleful message, “When you’re dead, you’re dead!” Yet God’s wonderful creation, which is plain for all to see, constantly proclaims that he is. He created this amazing universe and our little planet, which teems with life. He created each of us and put eternity in our hearts. We were created to live with him for ever and God’s freely offers us eternal life through his Son, Jesus Christ, who died and rose again.

Every day during the Covid-19 pandemic we have been reminded of death. Nearly 3 million people around the world have died and their families feel the loss deeply. Most who have died were elderly, but that in no way diminishes the value of their lives. Every single life is precious in God’s sight. The great evangelist Billy Graham, who died at the age of 99 said, “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”

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King of kings

At the beginning of the last week of his life Jesus rode in triumph into Jerusalem. Great crowds of people, who had come to Jerusalem for the annual Passover Festival, acclaimed him as their king. Jesus was riding on a donkey as the crowds spread their garments on the road ahead of him while others cut branches from trees to spread on the road. Jesus was in the centre of the procession as the people cried out, “Praise God for the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the LORD! Praise God in highest heaven!”

The triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah, written more than 500 years before, “Tell the people of Jerusalem, ‘Look, your King is coming to you. He is humble, riding on a donkey – riding on a donkey’s colt.’” God had told the people how they would recognise their true Messiah. He would not come as a conquering king riding on a horse at the head of a mighty army but in humility because his kingdom was not a worldly kingdom.

As he came closer to Jerusalem and saw the city ahead, Jesus began to weep. “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes. Before long your enemies will build ramparts against your walls and encircle you and close in on you from every side. They will crush you into the ground, and your children with you. Your enemies will not leave a single stone in place, because you did not recognize it when God visited you.”

Human acclamation is fickle. A few days later the Roman Governor, Pilate, before whom Jesus was on trial, said to the same people, “Look, here is your king!” “Away with him,” they yelled. “Away with him! Crucify him!” “What? Crucify your king?” Pilate asked. “We have no king but Caesar,” the leading priests shouted back. So, Pilate turned Jesus over to them to be crucified.

Over the past 2000 years people from many nations have joyfully recognised Jesus as their King and gladly submitted to him. The words of a modern song express it well, “King of kings, majesty, God of Heaven living in me, gentle Saviour, closest friend, strong deliverer, beginning and end, all within me falls at your throne. Your majesty, I can but bow, I lay my all before you now. In royal robes I don’t deserve I live to serve your majesty.”

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Precious in the sight of God

Every individual life matters. No-one is unimportant. The “Black Lives Matter” protests around the world, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of policemen in Minneapolis, are rightly demanding that black people must not be treated as second-class citizens, each one matters. The renewed investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, who was abducted 13 years ago, shows that she matters. The British government has spent £12 million on the investigation because the life of a 4-year-old little girl matters. When a seriously ill person is taken into hospital doctors and nurses do everything they can to save their life, whatever their age or social circumstances, because every life matters.

Societies that have been deeply influenced by the Bible have a high view of the preciousness of every individual person because they understand what God is like. No-one is unimportant in God’s eyes. He knows each of us as individuals and cares deeply for us. In Psalm 139 David wrote, “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. How precious are your thoughts concerning me, O God! How vast is the sum of them!”

During his ministry many people came to Jesus for help and healing. Jesus never met an unimportant person and never turned anyone away. He welcomed people who were outcasts in their society and taught that there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. His love changed people and gave them new hope.

In his early life the apostle Paul hated the name of Jesus and persecuted Christians. He arrested men and women and put them into prison because they were followers of Jesus. When the ascended Jesus confronted him on the road to Damascus he was totally changed. He realised that, despite the evil things he had done, God was concerned for him and loved him. God’s love for him was revealed in the cross where Jesus died for his sins. Later Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

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Remembering Dr Li Wenliang

The coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic is in the news as more and more people are diagnosed with the virus. There are now 110,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 worldwide and nearly 4000 people have died. The countries most affected to date are China, Italy, South Korea and Iran with growing numbers in France and Germany. There are nearly 300 cases in Britain and 3 people have died. Medical staff are doing a great job treating people but their energies and the hospitals themselves are being stretched way beyond their normal capacity. People who think they may have the virus are being encouraged to self-isolate.

Covid-19 has created economic uncertainty with stock markets around the world registering big falls and factories in China being temporarily closed. Large sporting events are being affected, including possible problems for the summer Tokyo Olympic Games. In Italy, where 366 people have died, strict new quarantine measures have been imposed on 16 million people, a quarter of the population. In Britain some people have been panic-buying basic commodities and Tesco is restricting the sales of essential food and household items to discourage stockpiling.

The virus was first identified in December by Dr Li Wenliang, a young ophthalmologist working in Wuhan Central Hospital. He noticed seven patients with a Sars-like virus who were in quarantine in his hospital. On 30 December he sent a message to fellow doctors in a chat group warning them about the outbreak and advising them to wear protective clothing to avoid infection. Three days later police paid him a visit and told him to stop. He was accused of “making false comments” that had “severely disturbed the social order.” Dr Li returned to work and caught the virus from a glaucoma patient. At the end of January, he received an apology from the local authority but died from Covid-19 on 7 February.

Despite the persecution of Christians in Communist China the churches are growing. It seems that Dr Li had joined a chat room about Christianity and was a “seeker of the faith.” When he realised he was dying, and medical treatment could not save him, he may have called out for mercy to the God whom he was seeking. If he did, it is a prayer to which God always responds positively. On the day Jesus was crucified a criminal, who was dying alongside him, made a moving request, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

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The God of hope

As a new year and a new decade begin our world is a troubled place. Perhaps you have thought carefully before wishing family and friends a happy new year because you sense the coming year may be not be altogether happy. Increased tensions in the Middle East suggest there are turbulent times ahead. The bush fires in Australia continue to rage and make us all aware of the consequences of climate change. The increasing global influence of China and Russia brings new challenges. In many places in Africa there is conflict, drought, disease and poverty. Personally, family life may not be easy. We, or other family members and friends, may be facing serious illness or the challenges of living longer.

So where is hope to be found? When the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Christians in Rome he said, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Paul himself, and the Christians in Rome, knew what it was to suffer. The Roman Empire was cruel and severely punished those it disapproved of, especially Christians. Soon after Paul wrote this letter, he became a prisoner and was later beheaded by the Roman authorities. In 64 AD Emperor Nero blamed Christians for a great fire in Rome. Innocent Christians were nailed to crosses, torn apart by dogs the arena, and set on fire to provide evening lights.

However, Paul and the Christians knew that whatever happened to them in this life they had a sure future hope because they trusted in the living God who is “the God of hope.” They and their loved ones were powerless to stand against the unjust persecution they faced, but they were safe in the hands of God. Knowing God gave them a true peace and joy even in the face of the most terrible adversities and their hope even overflowed. They knew that whatever happened to them in this world they were safe in the care of Jesus and would one day go to be with him in heaven for ever.

One Sunday evening a Christian minister went to visit one of his members who was very seriously ill in hospital. Another Christian in the same ward overheard their conversation. The sick man said to his minister, “They’ve told me there’s no hope.” The minister replied, “Dear brother, from now on it’s all hope!” That’s what it means when we trust “the God of hope.”

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The Crown of Life

The widespread persecution of Christians has recently been highlighted in a report commissioned by Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary. Millions of Christians in the Middle East have been uprooted from their homes, and many have been killed, kidnapped, imprisoned and discriminated against. The Christians who are being persecuted are some of the poorest people in the world. In the Middle East the population of Christians used to be about 20%; now it’s 5%.

The report also highlights discrimination across southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and in east Asia – often driven by state authoritarianism. It concludes that the overwhelming majority (80%) of persecuted religious believers are Christians. In countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia the situation of Christians and other minorities has reached an alarming stage. In Saudi Arabia there are strict limitations on all forms of expression of Christianity including public acts of worship. The Arab-Israeli conflict has caused the majority of Palestinian Christians to leave their homeland. The population of Palestinian Christians has dropped from 15% to 2%.

It is good that the persecution of Christians is being recognised, but persecution is not something new for Christians. Jesus explicitly told his disciples they would face persecution. The night before he was crucified, he said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” When he sent his apostles out into the world to proclaim the good news about him, he promised, “I will be with you always even to the end of the age.”

On a visit to a country in southeast Asia I met a leader in the underground churches. He had been arrested, imprisoned and fined because he didn’t belong to an official, state-controlled, church. The Christians in the underground churches are always being harassed by the authorities who want to close the churches down. My friend said that he had once been asked by a security official why the underground churches were growing, despite the persecution they experienced, when the official churches were not growing. One reason is that even in the fires of persecution Jesus is with his people, as he promised, and the reality of their faith shines through. Heaven is very real for Christians who experience persecution. Jesus told persecuted first-century Christians, “If you remain faithful even when facing death, I will give you the crown of life.”

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The day Jesus died

This week Christians will remember the death and resurrection of their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. On Good Friday they will especially remember his death. During his 3-year ministry Jesus had brought great blessing to many people through his teaching and his miracles. He made blind people to see, deaf people to hear, dumb people to speak. He healed lepers, cast out evil spirits and raised back to life people who had died. Wherever he went great crowds flocked to hear him and to be healed. Just 5 days before he died, Jesus was acclaimed by thousands of people as he entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey. But he was also hated by the religious leaders and even the people turned against him and demanded that he be crucified.

The death of Jesus was a great injustice. He was a good man, the best man who has ever lived. Pilate, the Roman Governor who condemned him, said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.” One of the criminals who died alongside him said, “We are being punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” A Roman centurion who supervised the crucifixion said, “Surely this was a righteous man.”

The death of Jesus was also a great demonstration of God’s love. The Apostle Paul said, “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.” Religions teach us what we must do if we are to find acceptance with God. Our salvation depends on what we do. But Christianity tells us what God has done for us. We cannot stop sinning. Every day of our lives we break God’s moral law and are, therefore, guilty before him. Yet, amazingly, Jesus, God’s Son, died to take away our sins.

So Good Friday really is good because on that day we remember the best of all men who loved us so much that he died for us so that we might experience God’s forgiveness. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. 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.”

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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.”

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Call on me in the day of trouble

When Guatemala’s Volcan de Fuego (Volcano of Fire) erupted on Sunday 3 June it shot a plume of ash and gas nearly 6 miles into the sky and spread ash and debris across towns and farms more than 10 miles away. The pyroclastic flow of lava, rocks and ash poured down the mountain burying homes and people. The deadly black flow moved at speeds in excess of 50mph and reached a temperature of between 400 and 1300 degrees Fahrenheit. Its power demolished, shattered, buried and carried away nearly everything in its path. It was inescapable. More than 100 people are known to have died and at least 200 others are missing.

The reports from Guatemala have been deeply moving. Our hearts go out to those who have survived but have lost everything – family, homes and possessions. One man spoke of how all his family perished in a few moments and he himself feared he would die. He said, “I cried out to Almighty God to save me!” Sensing the imminent danger he was in, and feeling utterly helpless to do anything about it, this man cried out to God. Many others probably did the same.

The Bible offers great encouragement to those who call on God for help. In Psalm 50 God says, “Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honour me.” In Psalm 145 we read, “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” In Psalm 34 David writes about a time when his life was in danger. He testifies to the way God heard him and helped him, “I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles.”

Jesus was crucified on the same day as two other men. Both had been convicted of serious crimes and had been condemned to die. One man was full of anger and bitterness and cursed those who were supervising his execution. But the second man became very aware of Jesus and said to the other man, “Don’t you fear God since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

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The Prince of Peace

We live in a world of conflict. Every day we see vivid pictures of violent conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, and other places. Bombs, bullets, catastrophic destruction of homes and communities, life-changing injuries and deaths, have become an integral part of our modern world. Men, women and children are helpless as they are caught up in violent conflict between some of the most powerful armies in the world using advanced weapons. What’s it all about? Often the parties to the conflict are motivated by a political or religious ideology that makes them hate their enemies and want to destroy them.

2000 years ago a young man rode into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey. The people spread their coats on the road and waved palm branches. They were acknowledging their King and looking to him for deliverance as they shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” The people hoped Jesus would deliver them from the Roman occupation of their land, but he was a very different kind of King. Within 5 days the same people had rejected him and handed him over to the Romans, who crucified him. Even his closest friends thought that that was the end, but on the third day Jesus was raised from the dead and today millions of people gladly live under his gracious rule.

Jesus is the Prince of Peace. Whenever the Christian church identifies itself with political powers, whether it be the Roman Emperor Constantine or King Henry VIII or the Russian government today, it compromises its allegiance to Jesus, it’s true King. His kingdom is not like the kingdoms of the world that use military power to advance their cause. His kingdom advances by peaceful means. Those who live under his rule find peace with God and a wonderful inner peace of mind and heart.

During a Sunday morning service on 11 December 2016 a bomb ripped through a section of Cairo’s main Coptic Cathedral reserved for women. Most of the 25 who died and the 49 who were injured were women and children. One of those who died was a young girl, Maggie Samir, and her mother was seriously injured. In an interview a year later Maggie’s grandfather, Abdo, said “I forgive the people who killed my granddaughter Maggie.” He said Jesus had taught his disciples to love their enemies, pray for them and be kind to them. The gracious strength and dignity of people like Abdo is a deeply-moving testimony to the life-changing influence of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.