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.”
David was born nearly 60 years ago. Soon after his birth his mother and father were told that he had Down’s syndrome. They didn’t know anything about the condition but began to find out about it. They knew that David, just like any baby, needed a secure and loving family in which to thrive. They, and David’s two older sisters, watched him grow and develop. David’s father took him out to enjoy a wide range of experiences and, every year, the family went on holidays together. David has always known that he belongs to a family who love him.
When David was a teenager, he and the family became involved in a local church. David was warmly welcomed into the fellowship of the church family. One of the highlights of his week was going to church on Sundays. He loved greeting his friends in the church and was often one of the first people to welcome newcomers to the church. He would say, “I’m David, what’s your name?” David loved reading the Bible and learning about Jesus. He received a certificate from a church in Scotland he used to visit, “In recognition of extensive study of the Holy Bible and by giving encouragement to others, by his example.”
When you talked to David he would often hold up a finger and say, “One thing…” Over the years the one thing that came to mean most to David was knowing Jesus as his Lord and Saviour. When he was 30 years old he was baptised and became a member of the church. It was a special day for David and his family and for the church. As he came out of the baptistry David gave a joyful double thumbs up!
Just by being the person he is, David has enriched the lives of many people. For nearly 40 years one of his sisters has led a special ministry of the church to people in the community with learning disabilities. Christians in the church have come alongside families and a weekly meeting is held for people with learning disabilities and their carers. They enjoy being together and praying for one another. Several young people from the church are working with people with special needs.
David now has dementia and is living in a nursing home. His family and friends from the church often visit him. One day David will go to be with his Saviour who loved him and gave himself for him; he will see Jesus face to face and will be with him for ever.
The story of Jesus is the greatest story ever told. Joseph and Mary were a young couple living in the small Galilean town of Nazareth. Joseph was about 18 years old and was the village carpenter. He was very much in love with Mary, who was about 14 years old, and their families had agreed that they should marry. One day, before they had married, God sent the angel Gabriel to tell Mary that she had found favour in God’s sight and was going to conceive a very special son. She would conceive through the power of the Holy Spirit and the child would be the Son of God. Mary humbly responded, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.”
When Mary told Joseph she had conceived a child he was shocked and thought she must have been unfaithful to him. He decided to divorce her quietly to try to protect her from public disgrace. But an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and 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 did what the angel had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.
When the time drew near for the baby to be born Joseph and Mary had to travel 80 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census. So it was in Bethlehem that their first-born son was born. An angel of the Lord announced the birth to some shepherds, ordinary working men, living in the nearby fields, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people, a Saviour has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord.” The shepherds went to see the baby and returned to their fields glorifying and praising God.
Later, Wise Men from the east, probably Persia, came in search of the child. They had followed a special star which signified the birth of a King. When they arrived at the house where Joseph and Mary and the child were staying they were overjoyed. They bowed down and worshipped him and presented gifts of gold, incense and myrrh. The shepherds and Wise Men show us that the birth of Jesus is reason for us all to wonder and worship him.
Emersyn Faith Baker is a 15-month old little girl living in Sanford, Florida. She is her mother and father’s third child and has Down’s syndrome. One in every 1000 babies has Down’s syndrome. There are about 40,000 people living in Britain who have Down’s syndrome. Usually it is not an inherited condition. People with Down’s syndrome have an extra chromosome. The reason for this is not known, but it happens at the time of conception. Older mothers are more at risk of having a baby with Down’s syndrome, but most Down’s babies are born to mothers under the age of 35. Down’s babies are born to all kinds of people all over the world.
When Emersyn’s mother, Courtney, was told the baby she was carrying had Down’s syndrome the doctor advised her to terminate the pregnancy because having the baby would “lower her quality of life.” Courtney decided to continue with the pregnancy. Emersyn has brought great joy and delight to all the family and to those around her.
Courtney has recently written to the doctor. She wrote, “Emersyn has not only added to our quality of life, she’s touched the hearts of thousands. She’s given us a purpose and a joy that is impossible to express. She’s given us bigger smiles, more laughter and sweeter kisses than we’ve ever known. She’s opened our eyes to true beauty and pure love.”
Every human being is created by God and is of equal value in his sight. In Psalm 139 David wrote, “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; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”
In 1989 I had the privilege of baptising David, a young Down’s man. David came to our church with his mother and two sisters. He loved coming to church and reading the Bible. He came to understand that God loved him and that Jesus had died on the cross for his sins. David loves Jesus as his Saviour and professed his faith in baptism. As he came up out of the baptistry David gave a double thumbs up sign to show his joy at knowing God’s love in Jesus.
Scientists at the University of California have developed a remarkable new treatment for infants who have been born with congenital cataracts. The scientists removed the damaged lens and used the patient’s own stem cells to regrow a “living lens” in their eye. In just 3 months the regenerative stem cells have grown into a new, fully functioning and transparent lens. The procedure was successful in all 12 infants under the age of 2, and was without complication compared to the traditional use of plastic lens. The treatment has real potential to be used for other eye conditions.
I remember seeing a programme about North Korea. Eye surgeons from America had gone to the country to perform cataract operations on many patients. When the bandages were taken off the people were full of joy that they could see again. The first thing they saw was a large photograph of their President and they immediately began enthusiastically to give thanks to him for restoring their sight. They knew that, if they were not enthusiastic in their praise, their lives would be in danger. It was very sad.
Our bodies are a masterpiece of God’s creative wisdom and power. In Psalm 139 David reflects on the way God had created him and given him life. “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; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious are your thoughts about me, O God! How vast is the sum of them!”
Thankfully we are free to recognise the goodness and kindness of God who blesses us in countless ways. So we must be careful not to close our eyes to the glory of God revealed in the creation around us and especially in his Son, Jesus Christ. One hymn encourages us to ask God to open our eyes to see his truth. “Open my eyes, that I may see, glimpses of truth thou hast for me; place in my hands the wonderful key that shall unclasp and set me free. Silently now I wait for thee, ready, my God, thy will to see. Open my eyes, illumine me, Spirit divine!”
The European Space Agency has made history by successfully landing a robot on a comet in deep space. After 10 years, and a journey of more than 4 billion miles, the Rosetta spacecraft sent its fridge-sized Philae lander down to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which was travelling at 40,000mph. Philae landed safely and, despite some technical problems, sent back data for 60 hours. Rosetta is also maintaining its orbit around the comet and sending back data. Scientists had hoped that this mission could help unlock answers about the formation of the Solar System, the origins of water on Earth and perhaps even life itself.
This amazing achievement is testimony to the intelligence and skills God has given us as human beings. Each of us is a little speck in a vast universe. We are fragile and vulnerable, yet the Bible tells us we have been created “in the image of God.” In the 17th century Johannes Kepler, a German mathematician and astronomer, discovered his laws of planetary motion. He said he was aware of “thinking God’s thoughts after him.”
In every generation scientists and philosophers have tried to understand the meaning of life through studying and observing the wonderful universe in which we live. The more they have learned the more they have been amazed and humbled. In the 18th century the philosopher Immanuel Kant said, “Two things fill my mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often I reflect on them, the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me.” In the 20th century Albert Einstein, the theoretical physicist and philosopher of science, said, “Everyone who is seriously interested in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe – a spirit vastly superior to man, and one in the face of which our modest powers must feel humble.”
Through his creation God speaks to people in all nations on earth. In Psalm 19 David says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the earth.” Reflecting on the coming of Jesus, God’s eternal Son, into the world, the apostle John wrote, “He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”
At a time when the news is dominated by bad news stories the International Paralympics Committee Athletics European Championships in Swansea have been a wonderful example of people achieving great things. The story of Maria Lyle, from Dunbar in Scotland, is so encouraging. Maria has Cerebral Palsy which causes muscle weakness and stiffness, and balance and coordination problems. Maria, who is just 14 years old, won the T35 100 metres gold medal, a category for those with Cerebral Palsy. She also broke the world record. Two days later she won the T35 200 metres gold medal.
When she was a child Maria needed splints to help her to walk. She found sport hard because of her tight muscles caused by Cerebral Palsy. When she was 10 years old she went to the local running club and found she could keep up with and beat many of her friends. She began competing in able-bodied competitions and later in disability athletics. Just 4 years later she has won two European gold medals! She enjoys setting goals and challenges for herself to see if she can achieve them. She said, “It’s a good feeling to know you have a purpose and feel rewarded for the hard work and effort you put in.” Her sporting hero is Usain Bolt, not only because of his speed, but because he so obviously enjoys what he does.
In Psalm 139 David reflects on the fact that God knows him personally and intimately. It was God who had made him the person he was. “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; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”
God has created each of us with the potential to overcome adversity and to accomplish really good things. What matters most is the kind of people we are in our hearts, our inner self. We all need a goal and a sense of purpose in our lives. Our ultimate goal is heaven, where God dwells. Jesus is the way to that wonderful place where there will be no disabilities, but unending joy and fulfilment in the presence of God.
Lambing Live is a popular programme. This year it has focused on a family farm, with more than 1000 sheep, on the Scottish borders, set in the wild beauty of the Pentland Hills. Lambing Live shows the tender care of the farmers as they monitor every aspect of their ewes giving birth. The lambing season is a major annual event for the 77000 sheep farmers. It is anticipated that 16 million lambs will be born in just a few weeks.
The Bible teaches important truths through the theme of shepherd and sheep. In Psalm 23 David speaks of his personal relationship with God, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” For David, God is not remote and mysterious. The Lord is with him every moment, in all the experiences of his life. He leads him to green pastures and beside quiet waters and continually restores his innermost being. He guides and protects him, and even takes away the fear of death by his loving presence. David affirms, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Jesus told a parable about a shepherd who had 100 sheep. One day he realised that one was missing, so he left the 99 sheep and went to search for the one that was lost. He kept searching until he found it and then returned home rejoicing, with the sheep on his shoulders. His neighbours and friends rejoiced with him. Jesus said, “In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” Isn’t it amazing to realise that in an impersonal world of more than 7 billion people each of us is precious to God.
The love of God is seen most clearly in the coming of Jesus into the world. He came to be a Saviour, by dying on the cross. He is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Our sins are many and serious. We have all accumulated a great debt to God which we can never pay. So Jesus, like a perfect, spotless lamb, died in our place and paid the debt. One hymn says, “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God, he, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood.” When we experience this amazing love we can say with David, “The Lord is my shepherd!”
This year we are remembering the beginning of The Great War in 1914. It was a global war centred in Europe and lasted more than 4 years. It was one of the deadliest conflicts in world history. During the war 9 million soldiers and 28 million civilians were killed. It was called “the war to end all wars”, but sadly this did not prove to be true.
The war touched many families as ordinary men answered the call to arms to serve their King and country. Some had never travelled far from their homes and had no idea of the human slaughter that was to unfold before their eyes. They were fit and enthusiastic, but were inexperienced as soldiers. Many never returned. In the Battle of the Somme in 1916 more than 1,000,000 died in 5 months of fighting. British casualties on the first day of the battle were the worst in the history of the British army, with 38,000 injured and 19000 killed.
We owe a great debt of gratitude to those who fought in the two World Wars of the twentieth century. Their courage and sacrifice provided a stable and secure society for future generations. The words inscribed on war memorials around the world express the spirit in which they served and, in many cases, died. “When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today.” Those who fought in The Great War knew they were caught up in something very big over which they had no control. They saw their friends and comrades killed and knew that at any time they, too, might die. To whom could they turn in such terrible circumstances?
In 1977 a Bible was discovered which had belonged to Private George Ford. He was killed in 1918 at the age of 20. British soldiers on active service were given “The Daily Portion Testament”. There was an inscription inside from Lord Roberts. “I ask you to put your trust in God. He will watch over you and strengthen you. You will find in this little book guidance when you are in health, comfort when you are in sickness and strength when you are in adversity.” In the trenches many men found strength in the words of David in Psalm 23. As a young man David learned to trust God in times of danger and wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
The Bible is a source of comfort and strength to people all over the world. In the Bible God speaks to us. He reveals his own heart and character and speaks to our hearts. Psalm 23 was written by David and is one of the best known passages in the Bible. It has been a help to people in many of the experiences of life. As a young boy, before he became king, David was a shepherd. He looked after his father’s sheep and knew times of great personal danger. At those times he experienced God’s care and protection even from lions and bears.
In the psalm David affirms his personal relationship with the Lord – “the Lord is my shepherd.” He rejoices in God’s love for him and responds with all his heart in love for God. Every day of his life he walked in conscious trust in the Lord, his God. He knew that the Lord would supply all his needs – “I shall not want.” The Lord guided him and provided food and water and peace and tranquillity – “he makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters.” David’s deepest needs and longings were fully met – “he restores my soul.” The Lord led David in righteous and godly ways, keeping him from sin and wickedness – “he guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”
Even in the darkest experiences of life, including the approach of death, David knew that the Lord would be with him. David was a courageous soldier. His life was often in danger as he fought battles against his enemies, yet he knew that God was with him in life and in death. There was nothing to fear because the Lord was always with him – “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
The Lord gave David great victories, brought him through every trial, and abundantly blessed him – “you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.” The Lord blessed David every day of his life and also guaranteed his eternal future – “surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” What a wonderful thing it is that we, like David, can say “the Lord is my shepherd.”