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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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Amazing love

More than 2000 years ago a young man died on a Roman cross outside the city of Jerusalem. It seemed even to his disciples, who loved him deeply, that his death was the end of all their hopes. For 3 years he had travelled throughout Israel preaching and teaching the people and healing many sick people. Just 5 days before he was executed large crowds had acclaimed him as their king, but then had turned against him and demanded that he be killed.

As he was nailed to the cross he didn’t look like a king. The Romans knew how to humiliate and eliminate those who offended against their laws and their Emperor. A mock crown, made of thorns, had been pressed on his head and blood ran down his face and neck. His back was a mass of bleeding flesh from the scourging he had endured. As the nails were driven through his hands and his feet the Romans were making sure that this would be the end of him. Jesus of Nazareth would not be causing them any more trouble. But how wrong they were!

This Easter millions of Christians around the world are remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus. They see his cross, which was a place of curse and shame, as a glorious demonstration of God’s love. Through Jesus’ death in their place, and for their sins, they have found forgiveness for all their sins and have been reconciled to God. Like the Roman centurion who stood at the foot of the cross, and saw him die, they say, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” Like the criminal who hung on a cross next to Jesus they have heard his promise, “I tell you the truth, you will be with me in Paradise.”

The Roman Empire disappeared long ago, but the kingdom of King Jesus has spread around the world. This Easter many Christians will be singing with solemn joy the words of Isaac Watts, “When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died, my richest gain I count but loss and pour contempt on all my pride. See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down! Did e’er such love and sorrow meet; or thorns compose so rich a crown? Were the whole realm of nature mine that were an offering far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

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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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Overcoming fear

The coronavirus pandemic has created widespread fear. The daily UK government briefing reports the number of new cases and deaths. The pandemic is the main news in newspapers and the media generally. Lockdown continues with no sign of being significantly eased soon. Many have financial fears about their jobs and increasing debt. People are taking greater care to keep well away from each other, and more people are wearing face masks or scarves. Medical staff and carers are afraid they may catch the virus. Fewer people are going to A&E departments for fear of contracting the virus so many hospital beds are unoccupied. We are told to have confidence in the scientists who are advising the government, but still many are afraid.

What does the Bible say? God promises his protection. In times of plague people have turned to the God for safety and reassurance. In Psalm 91 the psalmist says, “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’ Surely, he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly plague.”

God promises his presence. People who have contracted the virus have been put in isolation. Their families and friends are not able to visit them in hospitals and care homes even when they are dying. They have experienced acute aloneness. In Psalm 23 David says, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside the still waters. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
for you are with me.”

God promises a future hope. When we face the finality of death ourselves, or see loved ones dying, we need to find hope. In Psalm 23 David says, “Surely your goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” On the last night before he died Jesus comforted his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

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The day Jesus died

This Friday is Good Friday when Christians remember the day on which their Saviour Jesus Christ died. For three years Jesus had exercised a remarkable ministry. He had taught the people and great crowds had gathered to hear him. His teaching was not dry and harsh like the religious teachers of his day. He spoke with divine authority and made people think about God and eternity. One of his disciples said, “Lord, you have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Jesus travelled around doing good and performing many remarkable miracles. He made blind people to see, lame people to walk, deaf and dumb people to hear and speak. He cleansed lepers and cast out evil spirits. He fed 5000 people with five loaves and two fish and calmed the storm. He raised three people who had died back to life. Just five days before he died, he was acclaimed by thousands of people as he entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey. They proclaimed him as their Messiah and King! So why was he condemned to die on a cross as if he was a criminal?

The death of Jesus was a sacrifice for sins, but not his own. As he began his ministry John the Baptist declared, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Our sins are serious. Every day we break God’s commands. In the Old Testament God commanded the people to offer sacrifices for the forgiveness of their sins. They would go to the Temple and offer an animal or a bird which would be sacrificed so that the worshipper might be forgiven. The death of Jesus was the final, complete sacrifice which took away the sins of the world.

But people respond to Jesus in very different ways. Two criminals died alongside Jesus. One of them hurled insults at him saying, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” Like many people, he felt no remorse for his own sins but blamed God for what was happening to him. The other man rebuked him, “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “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 selfless example of Dr Adil El Tayar

We are deeply grateful for the doctors and nurses who are working with great dedication and courage to treat and care for patients who are seriously ill with COVID-19. Last week Dr Adil El Tayar became the first working NHS surgeon to die from the virus. Adil, 64, was from Sudan and was an organ transplant specialist who had worked around the world. His skills had saved many lives. Before he contracted the virus, he had volunteered on the frontlines of the outbreak in the accident and emergency department at his hospital in the Midlands.

Adil’s cousin, BBC News journalist Zeinab Badawi, said, “He wanted to be deployed where he would be most useful during the crisis. That was typical of my cousin Adil; always willing to help, always with a willing smile.” A surgeon colleague described Adil as a “noble human being” who was a “hard-working, dedicated surgeon”.

One of the two great commandments God has given us is, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” At a time when we may be tempted to think only of ourselves Adil thought of others. He knew that if he was ill with the virus, he would want doctors and nurses to do everything they could to help him. He didn’t stand at a safe distance but was ready to use his skills to treat others, people he didn’t know, and to put his life at risk. He died from the very disease his patients had. There are people alive today because of the loving and self-sacrificing care they received from Adil.

We will soon be celebrating Easter when we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. He is the supreme example of love and self-sacrifice. He died, at the age of 33, not for his own sins but for the sins of others. John the Baptist described him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” In an amazing act of love Jesus, the Son of God, died in our place, paying the penalty of our sins, so that we might be forgiven and receive the gift of eternal life. “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.” On the third day after he died Jesus rose from the dead and was seen by his disciples and many others. His promise to all who believe in him is “because I live you also will live.”

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Don’t be afraid, just trust me

In 1992 I was invited to speak at a conference in Zambia. It was my first visit to Africa, and it was good to meet people who have become lifelong friends. As I prepared to go, I read a number of books about how to stay healthy while I was travelling. I took prophylaxis medication to protect me from malaria and tried to drink bottled water. Thankfully I kept very well.

During my time in Zambia I stayed with a lovely Christian couple, David and Christine, on their farm in Mkushi River. Some of David’s farmworkers had contracted the HIV/AIDS virus but were able to continue working. As David was driving me from the Copper Belt to his farm, I asked him what people did when they became ill, because the farm was a long way from a hospital. His answer was, “We pray!”

During his ministry Jesus healed many sick people. Today, Christians all over the world who are sick, or who are anxious about becoming sick, pray to God knowing that he can heal them. One day when Jesus was in Capernaum and was teaching the people by the Sea of Galilee a synagogue leader called Jairus came seeking his urgent help. Jairus fell at Jesus’ feet, pleading earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying, please come and lay your hands on her and heal her so she can live.”

Jesus immediately went with him. But progress was slow because the crowd of people followed them. Then a woman who had suffered from constant bleeding for 12 years came up in the crowd and touched Jesus’ robe and was immediately healed. Jesus stopped until the woman came forward and then said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace. Your suffering is over.”

While Jesus was still speaking to her, messengers arrived from Jairus’ home and told him, “Your daughter is dead. There’s no use troubling the Teacher now.” Jairus’ heart sank, but Jesus said to him, “Don’t be afraid. Just trust me.” Jesus then sent the crowd away and went with Jairus, and three of his disciples, to Jairus’ house where they were greeted by mourners weeping and wailing loudly. Jesus made them all leave and then took the girl’s father and mother and his three disciples into the room where the girl was lying. Holding her hand, he said to her, “Little girl, get up!” And the girl, who was twelve years old, immediately stood up and walked around! They were overwhelmed and totally amazed. In this time of fear and anxiety Jesus’ words to Jairus speak powerfully to us, “Don’t be afraid. Just trust me.”

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Light and life to all he brings

More than 2 billion Christians around the world will soon celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. One in three people in the world are followers of Jesus. This is an amazing statistic. Jesus came from a small village in Galilee. His parents were ordinary people. He learned his father’s trade and was a carpenter. He never travelled more than 100 miles from his home. His remarkable ministry lasted just 3 years. When he was 33 years old he was executed by the Romans. Yet today millions of people from every nation on earth know him as their Saviour and follow him as his disciples. How can this be explained?

Jesus was the Son of God. One of our carols says, “He came down to earth from heaven who is God and Lord of all.” When the wise men from Persia, who followed the star, found the baby they “bowed down and worshipped him.” They recognised him as a divine King and offered him their gifts. Because Jesus was the Son of God he rose again from the dead. It was not possible for death to keep its hold on him. One of his disciples, Thomas, who at first doubted that Jesus had risen from the dead, saw him personally and said, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus came in fulfilment of God’s promise. From the beginning of time God had promised that a child would be born who would bring blessing to the peoples of the world. Through this child God’s great purpose for his world was going to be fulfilled. God is still carrying forward his gracious purpose for the nations. Today the good news of Jesus is being proclaimed around the world and many are receiving him as Saviour and Lord. One day “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.”

Jesus came to give us hope. The world into which he was born knew great sadness and pain. Our world today is very much the same. Jesus is the One who gives us a sure and certain hope both in this life and when we die. Many carol services close with these words, “Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Son of Righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings. Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give us second birth. Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the new-born King!”

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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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Stop doubting and believe

The resurrection of Jesus is central to the Christian faith and to the message Christians proclaim to the peoples of the world. It is a message that speaks to the deepest needs of the human heart. Every day we hear news of people who have died, sometimes in tragic circumstances; a serious illness, a road accident, a plane crash, a terrorist atrocity or simply of old age. There are many things in life that are uncertain, but all of us know that one day we must face death. The resurrection of Jesus gives us reason for real hope.

The Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus have an unmistakable ring of authenticity. All his disciples, both men and women, struggled to believe that their beloved Lord really was alive. Early on the resurrection morning Mary Magdalene went to the tomb taking spices to anoint Jesus’ body. When she arrived at the tomb, she saw that the stone had been removed. She assumed that Jesus’ enemies had stolen his body and immediately ran to tell Peter and John saying, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” Peter and John ran to the tomb but didn’t understand what they saw.

Mary stayed at the tomb and it was there, in the garden, that Jesus appeared to her. She ran to the disciples with the amazing news, “I have seen the Lord!” That evening, in a house in which the disciples were hiding because they were afraid of the authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

One of the disciples, Thomas, wasn’t there that night. When the other disciples told him they had seen Jesus, Thomas said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” A week later when the disciples, including Thomas, were together in the house again, Jesus came and stood among them. He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” It truly is a blessed thing to believe in the risen Lord and his promise, “Because I live, you also will live.”