The God of new beginnings

Alice Marie Johnson was enjoying a full and happy life. She was married to her childhood sweetheart and was the mother of 5 beautiful children. She was a manager at FedEx involved in training other managers. Then in 1989, after nearly 20 years together, Alice and her husband divorced, and her life began to spiral out of control. She developed a gambling addiction and lost her job. Then her youngest son was tragically killed in a motor cycle accident. In 1991 she filed for bankruptcy and lost her house. In 1996 she was convicted of being involved in cocaine trafficking and money laundering and was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

Alice knows that what she did was wrong. She says, “No mother should have to bury her child. This weight was unbelievable and was a burden I couldn’t sustain. I made some very poor decisions out of desperation. I want this part to be clear: I acknowledge that I have done wrong. I made the biggest mistake of my life to make ends meet and got involved with people selling drugs. This was a road I never dreamed of venturing down. I participated in a drug conspiracy, and I was wrong.”

Being in prison for life, and knowing you will never be released, is very hard. Alice wrote, “Some refer to prison as a place where hope dies. Some days I’ve found that to be almost right. But at the beginning of my time here I made a pact that I wouldn’t give up hope. Each time that I’ve come close, God has restored my faith.” While in prison Alice became an ordained minister and a mentor to young women who are in prison.

A few weeks ago, Kim Kardashian, an American reality television star, met President Trump in the Oval Office and asked him to grant clemency to Alice and to give her a second chance. On 6 June the President issued an order that Alice should be released. The White House statement said, “Ms Johnson has accepted responsibility for her past behaviour and has been a model prisoner over the past two decades.”

Like Alice each of us also needs to be granted clemency and to be given a new beginning. We are serial offenders in breaking God’s moral laws. Yet, amazingly God sent his Son, Jesus, to redeem us by dying for the sins we have committed. Jesus personally intervened on our behalf and pleaded our case. When we confess we have done wrong God forgives us and sets us free forever.

The greatest story ever told

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.

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.

Forgive us our debts

Christmas is a distant memory, but the arrival of credit card bills this month reminds us of how much we spent and how much we owe. At the end of November 2015, people in Britain owed £1.458 trillion. This is £708 more for each adult than in November 2014. By the end of 2016 the average household will owe almost £10,000 in personal loans, credit cards and overdrafts.

Debt can become overwhelming and destructive. I remember visiting Bob. He had gone through the pain of divorce and had also lost his job. He was in serious debt. He hated the sound of the postman putting letters through his door because many of them were final warnings. If he didn’t pay what he owed his electricity, gas, and telephone would be cut off. He had no money to pay and had reached his overdraft limit at the bank.

One Friday he had gone to his bank hoping to draw our £20 to get some food. The cashier told him he couldn’t give him the money. Bob’s desperation must have been obvious to the cashier because, later that day, after the bank had closed, the bank manager brought some money to his house! I talked with Bob and discovered the full extent of his debts. Then I went with him to talk to the bank manager and, together, we agreed a way for his debts to be paid and for him to move to a smaller property which he could afford. The crushing burden of debt had been lifted from Bob and, now, he had hope for the future.

The Bible speaks about another debt we all owe. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask God “to forgive us our debts.” Every day we all break God’s commands and our debt to him accumulates. Sometimes our sense of guilt becomes overwhelming as we realise how our sinful patterns of behaviour are destroying our lives, and the lives of those we love. At such times we feel utterly helpless, as Bob did when faced with his debts. The good news is that Jesus came into the world to provide a way of escape and to give us hope. By his death on the cross he paid the debt of our sins and we can experience forgiveness through him. One hymn says, “My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part, but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”

God is with us in our loneliness

In 1963 the Post Office ran an advertising campaign using the slogan, “Someone, somewhere, wants a letter from you – just a few lines make all the difference!” The television advert showed a person who lived on their own hearing the postman passing and going to their hallway to see if a letter had arrived for them, but no letter had come. They returned to their chair looking sad.

Loneliness is a significant problem for many people today even though social media is widely used. Loneliness is sadness because we have no friends and company. Many older people are lonely. 51% of people aged 75 or over live alone. 5 million older people say television is their main company. 11% of older people have contact with their family less than once a month.

God understands our loneliness and is concerned about it. At the beginning of history he realised that it was not good for man to be alone. He created the first woman who was in every way the equal of man. God established marriage for human companionship and mutual help. Jesus experienced profound loneliness when he was dying on the cross. He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” One of the great promises he made to his disciples as he sent them out into the world was “I will be with you always.”

In 1858 John Paton and his young wife set out from Scotland to be missionaries in the remote New Hebrides in the South Seas. The people of the small island they settled on were fierce cannibals. Early in 1859 John’s wife and their 5 week old son died of a fever. Suffering from the same fever John buried them.

He wrote, “I built the grave round and round with coral blocks, and covered the top with beautiful white coral, broken small as gravel; and that spot became my sacred and much-frequented shrine, during all the following months and years when I laboured on for the salvation of those savage Islanders amidst difficulties, dangers and deaths. When Tanna turns to the Lord and is won for Christ, men in after days will find the memory of that spot still green, where with ceaseless prayers and tears I claimed that land for God in which I had ‘buried my dead’ with faith and hope. But for Jesus, and the fellowship he gave me there, I must have gone mad and died beside that lonely grave.”