Heaven is real

The recent warm, sunny days have lifted our spirits after the cold days of early Spring. The cloudless blue skies, awakening nature, and the quiet, warmth of longer evenings have brought joy to our hearts. The beauty of the natural world around us, with the magnolia and cherry blossoms, the daffodils and primroses, and the green of the new leaves now beginning to adorn the trees, reveals the unique splendour of planet Earth, on which we are privileged to live. At such times we might wish to be able to stop and stay in the pleasure and happiness of the moment, but it isn’t possible. The daffodils fade, the blossoms fall and the most glorious of sunsets leads only to the darkness of the night.

The deep longing to find lasting peace, joy and fulfilment is something we all experience. The joys and pleasures of this world are real, but all transient. Because we have been created by God with an eternal soul we, inevitably, long for more, for that which endures. King Solomon, who was famous for his wisdom, wrote, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.” A prayer, based on words of Augustine, expresses the desires of many, “Almighty God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you; so lead us by your Spirit that in this life we may live to your glory and in the life to come enjoy you for ever.”

Today we seldom talk about heaven and the life to come, but it is fundamental to our very being. We can only make sense of the sadnesses and mysteries of this life in the light of eternity. God is passionately concerned about justice and has set a day when he will righteously judge all people. Heaven is real and is the realm where God dwells in glory, love and unending blessing. Jesus said he was the Way to heaven.

The book of Revelation beautifully describes heaven, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever. The one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new! To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. I will be their God, and they will be my children.”

I am with you always

Many people in the UK today live on their own. In 2016, there were 7.7 million one person households; 54% of whom were women and 46 % were men. Between 1996 and 2016 the number of one person households increased by 15% for those aged over 65 and by 51% for those aged 45-64. In contrast, during that period the number of one person households fell by 12% amongst those aged 25-44. Some younger people are living with their parents longer than in previous generations and others are sharing accommodation with friends. In wealthy societies increasing numbers of people are choosing to live alone. In Scandinavia, for example, nearly 50% of the adult population live alone.

Not everyone who lives on their own is lonely, but many are. Those who have experienced the pain of marriage breakdown and those who have been bereaved feel it acutely. For them, living alone, eating alone and returning to an empty house at the end of each day is something they never really get used to. Communicating with “friends” through social media may help, but is not the same as human companionship and sharing the ups and downs of daily life with someone we love. It is good to have to consider someone else’s needs as well as our own. An elderly widow who lived next door to us told us that living on her own meant she could be tempted to be very selfish.

Jesus experienced profound loneliness when he died on the cross. On the night before he died he told his disciples, who had been his close companions over the past 3 years, “The time is coming – indeed it’s here now – when you will be scattered, each one going his own way, leaving me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me.” Yet, the next day, as he suffered on the cross, he experienced total aloneness as he paid the price of our sins. Out of the darkness he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Later, as he prepared to die, he knew the Father’s presence again. His last words were, “Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands.”

One of the great promises Jesus made to his disciples, as he sent them out into a hostile world to proclaim the good news of the Gospel, was “I am with you always.” Knowing Jesus as Saviour and Lord means we are never alone because, through the Holy Spirit, he really is with us.

God is Light

The days are getting longer. It’s good to go to work and school in the light and to return before dark. Light is essential for life and lifts our spirits. The Bible tells us, “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” God’s first creative command was “Let there be light!”

Throughout history people have tried to discover what God is like. The gods of ancient Greece were very much like human beings. They were capricious; for no apparent reason their mood and behaviour would change. They were envious and spiteful and people tried to keep on the right side of them. Animists in many parts of the world today believe in spirits which live in trees, rocks and rivers and govern their lives. The spirits need constantly to be appeased if your crops are to flourish and you are to enjoy good health. Animistic people live in constant fear of the spirits.

The God of the Bible is so very different from the gods of people’s imagination. He isn’t like us. He is light. He is holy, righteous, pure and good. He is unchanging; in him there is no darkness at all. Human history reveals the very dark side of our human nature. Powerful people have imprisoned, tortured and killed those they hate. Today there are people hidden away in dark prisons of oppressive regimes who are treated terribly. Even apparently benign regimes have had very dark chapters in their history. But God isn’t like that; in him there is no darkness at all.

Jesus came into the world to reveal God to us and to bring the light of God’s presence into our lives. He said “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” When we know Jesus we discover the light of the truth and experience the amazing kindness of God. In his well-known hymn Thomas Binney reflects on the fact that God is light and our need to know him. “Eternal Light! Eternal Light! How pure the soul must be, when, placed within thy searching sight, it shrinks not, but with calm delight can live, and look on Thee. There is a way for man to rise to that sublime abode; an offering and a sacrifice, a Holy Spirit’s energies, an advocate with God. These, these prepare us for the sight of holiness above; the sons of ignorance and night may dwell in the eternal light, through the eternal love.”

The Light shines in the darkness

In her Christmas Message the Queen quoted John, Chapter 1, verse 5, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” She described it as a verse of great hope. John was speaking of Jesus, God’s Son, who came into the world. John also says of Jesus, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” In a world where there are an increasing number of what the Queen called “moments of darkness” we need One who brings light into our lives, and who is invincible. Jesus is that Person.

Jesus was born into a violent world. Soon after he was born King Herod tried to kill him. Herod had been appointed king of Judea by the Roman Senate more than 30 years before Jesus was born. He was a ruthless tyrant; he murdered his wife, three of his sons, his mother-in-law, his brother-in-law, his uncle and many others he suspected of treachery. When the Wise Men told him they were seeking the one who had been born King of the Jews, Herod was determined to kill him and ordered his soldiers to kill all the male children under 2 years old in the town and region of Bethlehem.

But Herod’s evil plan failed because God had already warned Joseph and told him to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt. Within a short time Herod was dead and it was safe for Joseph and his family to return to their own town of Nazareth. It was the first example of Jesus, the Light, triumphing over the darkness. Throughout his ministry Jesus faced increasing hostility which culminated in his death on the Cross, yet on the third day he rose from the dead. Once again darkness had been defeated and Jesus had triumphed.

Today Christians and other minority groups in Syria and Iraq are experiencing fierce persecution. Men, women and children are being killed. Many have fled their homes in search of safety. We remember them and pray for them. We are also confident that Jesus is still the Light which shines in the darkness and that he will triumph. Like the mighty Roman Empire, the evil movements of today, which seem so powerful, will all fall and pass away and the evil tyrants who lead them will stand before their Judge. None of them ultimately triumphs because Jesus, the Light of this dark world, will execute perfect justice for those who are poor and powerless.

The day the Sun stopped shining

Last week millions of people in Britain and northern Europe witnessed the best solar eclipse for many years. A great swathe of the Earth’s surface was plunged into darkness as the Moon came between the Sun and us. In many parts of Britain, as the eclipse reached 83%, an eerie darkness came over the land and the temperature fell by 3 degrees.

In the Faroe Islands, hundreds of miles to the north of Britain, there was a total eclipse that lasted 2 minutes. One person who was in the Faroe Islands described the scene, “There was just silence and the sound of the wind. No one spoke; to utter words would have felt like sacrilege. You feel a deep sense of place. A thick shadow inched across us, then raced away, leaving silver light that leaked into blue, brightening quickly. It was over.”

Two thousand years ago, as Jesus hung dying on a cross outside the city of Jerusalem, eyewitnesses describe a great darkness that came over the whole land for 3 hours from midday to 3 o’clock. In his Gospel Luke says, “The sun stopped shining.” That darkness was deeply significant as the eternal Son of God became the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Near the end of those 3 hours of darkness Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” His words give an insight into what was happening. Jesus, who had never sinned, was dying in our place, suffering the punishment we deserve. In his Son, Jesus, God was reconciling the world to himself. As the darkness lifted and the light returned Jesus said, “It is finished.” His knew his reconciling work was complete.

In one of his hymns Isaac Watts, the great English hymn writer, wrote, “Alas! and did my Saviour bleed, and did my Sovereign die! Would he devote that sacred head for sinners such as I? Was it for crimes that I have done, he groaned upon the tree? Amazing pity! Grace unknown! And love beyond degree! Well might the sun in darkness hide, and shut its glories in, when God, the mighty Maker, died for man the creature’s sin. Thus might I hide my blushing face while his dear cross appears; dissolve my heart in thankfulness, and melt mine eyes to tears. But drops of tears can ne’er repay the debt of love I owe. Here, Lord, I give myself away; ’tis all that I can do.”

The God of Hope

The news that someone we love has taken their own life is devastating. I have ministered to families facing such a tragic loss. Some had been aware that the one who died was depressed, but, for others, there had been no indications. Some felt a sense of guilt because they had not been able to help. Others felt angry that the one who died didn’t think of the consequences their loved ones would have to face. All feel an overwhelming sadness at the loss they have experienced and a sense of the helplessness of being unable to do anything to change the situation.

In the past 45 years suicide rates worldwide have increased by 60%. The World Health Organisation estimates that one million people die by suicide every year – one person every 40 seconds. By 2020 this rate may have doubled. In the USA suicide is the third highest cause of death for young people between 15 and 24. The Samaritans report that suicide rates in the UK are increasing amongst men born in the 1960s and 70s and suggest that the changing role of men in our society may be a contributing factor.

When the apostle Paul was in Philippi he and Silas were severely flogged and put in prison. The jailer was told to guard them carefully, so he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in stocks. If his prisoners escaped, he would be executed. At midnight, while Paul and Silas we’re singing hymns to God, there was a violent earthquake. The prison doors flew open and everybody’s chains came loose. The jailer woke up and, thinking his prisoners had escaped, drew his sword to kill himself.

Paul shouted to him, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul asking, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Paul replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household.” The jailer brought Paul and Silas into his house, bathed their wounds, and gave them food. Then he was baptised and was full of joy because he had believed in Jesus.

This story shows that when we come to the point of utter despair we are not seeing things clearly. When it seems there is no hope, there always is. God is the God of hope. He saves from death, destruction and despair. He can give us joy again even out of the deepest darkness.