Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah

This month rugby fans around Britain have gathered for the Autumn International matches. One of the features of matches played in Cardiff is that the Welsh supporters sing hymns, especially “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah.” In the past male voice choirs would stand together on the terraces to ensure the singing was high quality. Most of those who sing the hymns don’t attend church services yet the power of the words seems to move them.

Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah was written by William Williams Pantycelyn, who was born in 1717. He is Wales most famous hymn writer and was called “the sweet singer of Wales.” Williams was one of the leaders of the Calvinistic Methodists during the 18th century revival and wrote more than 900 hymns in either Welsh or English. A memorial plaque at Pantycelyn farm, where he lived, records that during his life he travelled 111,800 miles on foot or by horse visiting societies of Christians in every part of Wales. The tune Cwm Rhondda was written soon after the 1904-05 revival. The words and tune brought great strength and encouragement to the mining communities of the South Wales Valleys where life was hard.

Life is a journey and Williams hymn is a prayer based on the journey of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. They spent 40 years in the desert and felt a deep need to know the presence of their God, Jehovah, being with them on their difficult journey. They were small and weak, but he was great and powerful. The words of the hymn resonate with us today because, although outwardly our lives are very different, inwardly we have the same need to know that this all-powerful God is with us. “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land; I am weak, but thou are mighty; hold me with thy powerful hand: bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more.”

The last verse speaks of dying. As the Israelites had to cross the River Jordan to enter the Promised Land so all of us will one day face death, the last enemy. Then, more than ever, we will need God to be with us and the victory Jesus won by his death and resurrection to be ours. “When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside; death of death, and hell’s destruction, land me safe on Canaan’s side: songs of praises I will ever give to thee.”

Christ is risen!

The days leading up to Easter this year have seen tragic and horrific events around the world. Terrorist attacks in Westminster and Stockholm; a chemical weapons attack in Syria; a bomb on the St Petersburg Metro; the bombing of Coptic churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday; a suicide bomb attack on evacuees near Aleppo. People of many nations and of all ages have been bereaved or have experienced life-changing injuries. Where can we find strength and solace in such sad and uncertain times?

The message of Easter is one of glorious and transforming hope because, “Christ is risen!” It seemed to the disciples, and all those who loved Jesus, that his death on the Cross was the end. On the third day after Jesus died, one of his grieving disciples said, “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” The death of Jesus had crushed them and their hopes had died. Early in the morning of that same day, however, the women who went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body discovered the stone had been rolled back from the mouth of the tomb. As they stood there puzzled, two men suddenly appeared to them, clothed in dazzling robes and asked them, “Why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive? He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead!”

The resurrection of Jesus transformed the disciples and filled them with courage as they took the good news of Jesus to the ancient world. They were eye-witnesses of his resurrection; they had seen him alive after he died and knew for certain that he had conquered death. They were ready to face fierce persecution, imprisonment and even death because they knew that Jesus was with them and believed his promise, “Because I live, you also will live.” Today the risen Jesus is sustaining Christians who are experiencing violent and hateful persecution in some parts of the world.

I recently met John, who has regularly attended a church for 50 years but has never known Jesus as his Saviour and Lord. He was scientifically trained and this raised many questions in his mind. His brother, who is a Christian, wrote to him and encouraged him to put aside his questions and to simply believe the Bible’s message about Jesus. He did this and his life has been transformed; he is a changed man. He is at peace with God and has a sure hope for the future, because Jesus really is alive.

A unique King

On Palm Sunday Christians remember the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, just 5 days before he was crucified. Tens of thousands of people were converging on Jerusalem for the annual Passover Feast that remembered the Exodus out of Egypt. There was great expectation and excitement because for 3 years the ministry of Jesus had made a deep impact on the people as he taught with authority and healed many diseases. The people were waiting for their new king whom they thought would set them free by driving out the Roman occupiers.

Jesus was indeed a king, but not of the kind the people were expecting. As news swept through Jerusalem that Jesus was on his way into the city a large crowd carrying palm branches went out to meet him. The palm branches were a sign of victory and national pride and the people shouted, “Praise God! Hail to the King of Israel!” Seeing and hearing the crowd Jesus found a donkey and rode on it to show that his kingship was different. He was fulfilling a prophecy made 500 years earlier about the promised Messiah that said, “Don’t be afraid, people of Jerusalem. Look, your King is coming to you. He is humble, riding on a donkey.” The kingdom of Jesus is not about earthly power and authority.

Later, when Jesus was being interrogated, Pilate, the Roman governor, asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my kingdom is not of this world.” Pilate said, “So you are a king?” Jesus responded, “You say I am a king. Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.” Pilate retorted, “What is truth?” Then Pilate offered the people a choice of one prisoner to be released; either Jesus or Barabbas, who had committed murder in an uprising against the Roman occupation. The people chose Barabbas!

The Roman Empire is long gone, as every other earthly empire will also pass away. The kingdom of Jesus, however, has extended to every nation on earth and continues to grow. In order to enter his kingdom we must become humble and trusting, like little children. It is a wonderful blessing and privilege to live under the gracious rule and protection of this unique King.

Inspiration from the Summer Paralympics

The 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro has been a great event as disabled people from all over the world have displayed remarkable abilities. Some of the athletes have been born with disabilities and others have become disabled through an accident or illness. Some are former soldiers who have been injured in battle. The stories of many of the athletes are an inspiration to us all.

Sinna Kaastrup, from Denmark, was born without legs. At Rio Sinna, riding her horse Smarties, won a bronze medal in the International Championship test grade 1b. Sinna uses a soft, treeless saddle with two handles, and carries a dressage whip on each side, but has nothing else to help keep her in the saddle. She generates so much power using just her seat that 15-year-old Smarties responds amazingly to her commands.

Ibrahim Hamadtou, from Egypt, competed in the Men’s Singles Table Tennis competition. Ibrahim, who is now 41, lost both his arms in a train accident when he was 10 years old. He serves by flicking the ball up with his foot and hitting it with a bat held in his mouth. He didn’t win either of his matches at Rio but won a silver medal in the 2013 Egyptian Championships. For Ibrahim playing in the Paralympics was a dream come true.

When tragic events happen to us it may seem as if a fulfilling life is impossible. When Sinna was born her parents were probably devastated that she had no legs, but she has developed riding skills that are equal to, if not greater than, many able-bodied riders. Ibrahim’s parents may have felt as if their world had come to an end when he lost his arms in the train accident but, today, he is a wonderful example to us all of someone who has overcome adversity. Sinna and Ibrahim have become the people they are today through their tragic experiences.

In this life our bodies are fragile and will, one day, wear out. The Bible promises us that, because of the death and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus, everyone in heaven will have a new body free from all weakness and disability. In his letter to the Christians at Philippi the apostle Paul wrote, “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”

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.

Come to me all you who are weary

Jesus is the heart of Christianity. He is the focus for the faith of his people. His life is the inspiration for their lives and his teaching is the light that guides them through the all the perplexing experiences of life. Christian are not adherents of a religion but followers of a divine person, Jesus, who is both God and man. Jesus can identify with us in every part of our lives because he has been where we are. He has been “touched with the feelings of our infirmities.” For this reason people from every nation are drawn to Jesus and find in him the strength and hope they need.

Jesus knew what it was to be an asylum seeker. Soon after he was born his parents had to flee from their own land to Egypt because of the threat from King Herod to kill him. This was no idle threat because Herod did kill all the little boys in Bethlehem under the age of 2. This wicked act caused great grief and weeping in the little town where Jesus was born.

Jesus grew up in a working class home in the small village of Nazareth in Galilee at a time when his home country was under enemy occupation. Throughout his ministry he had no home of his own. He said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” At the end of his life he was hated by the religious leaders, betrayed by one of his own disciples, falsely accused and unjustly condemned to die on a cross as if he was a criminal.

So whatever struggles we may face in life we can find in Jesus the help we need. He understands our needs and is able to give us his grace and strength and to supply our needs. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” A well-known hymn says, “I know not how this saving faith to me he did impart, nor how believing in his Word wrought peace within my heart. But I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto him against that day.”

Loving the strangers among us

When he boarded a Wizz Air flight from Romania to Luton Victor Spiersau had no idea that he would be front page news in Britain. Victor comes from Transylvania, a very poor region in Romania which itself is not a wealthy country. He left his 19 year old fiancée Catalina Curcean in the dilapidated home they have bought in the remote village of Pelisor. Victor, who is a construction worker, has come to Britain to work and earn money to enable him to return to Pelisor to renovate his home and marry Catalina. Within 24 hours of arriving in Britain Victor started work in a car wash.

Migration has always been part of our human experience. It is often a response to problems in our home country and a desire to find a better life. My mother’s grandmother came from Tramore in Ireland to Wales during the Irish famine in the mid 19th century. It is estimated that as many as a million people in Ireland, nearly an eighth of the population, died of starvation and epidemic diseases between 1846 and 1851 and 2 million people emigrated. The Pilgrim Fathers left Britain in 1620 for America seeking freedom to worship God. They played a significant part in the development of that great country. Today the American national anthem rejoices that it is “the land of the free and the home of the brave!”

The Bible teaches us to exercise special care for strangers and foreigners. During a time of famine the Israelites went to Egypt where they later became slaves. When God brought them out of Egypt he commanded them, “Do not oppress the foreigners living among you. You know what it is like to be a foreigner. They should be treated like everyone else, and you must love them as you love yourself. Remember your experience in the land of Egypt.”

Jesus spoke about the final judgement when all people will stand before God. The King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home.” Then the King will explain how they had cared for him, “When you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!”

A Vision of Heaven

Large crowds of people are demonstrating around the world. Tens of thousands of people are taking to the streets in protest about the policies of their governments. In Turkey the protest began because a large park in Istanbul is going to be turned into a shopping centre. In Egypt the protest is against the policies of the newly elected President. Sometimes the protesters have been dispersed with water cannon and tear gas.

In Brazil the people are protesting at the large sums of money being spent on hosting the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016. They want the government to address the needs of the millions of poor people, including those living in the favelas found in all the large cities of Brazil. These people live in shacks with no sewage systems or supplies of clean water. Brazil has one of the most successful economies in the world, but the people see the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer. The President of Brazil seems ready to respond to the protesters.

All of us long to find true happiness and fulfilment, and it can be found. True fulfilment is found in God, who created us. The Bible calls this eternal life, which begins here on earth and continues in heaven. In Revelation 7 there is a vision of a joyful crowd of people that no-one can count, from every nation, tribe, people and language. They are standing before God’s throne and in front of Jesus, the Lamb of God. They are wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They cry out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

These people are rejoicing because God has delivered them from all the sufferings and troubles of this life. They had not cried out to earthly rulers, but to Jesus, who is the King of kings. He heard their cry and brought them safely to heaven. “Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

The God of the nations

The civil unrest in Tunisia and Egypt has brought tens of thousands of people on to the streets. The demonstrators have been ready to confront the police and army and to put their lives at risk.  Some have died and many more have been injured. Most of the demonstrators are ordinary people protesting against the injustices of life imposed on them by oppressive regimes. The Presidents and government officials are very rich and corruption is rife. In a desperate attempt to bring change people have been ready to put their lives on the line.

But regime change is complex, whether through intervention by other countries or through popular uprising.  There is no guarantee that the new regime will be better than the old. The hopes of many people in the former Soviet states have not been fulfilled. The material prosperity they were seeking has not reached the ordinary people and, in some ways, life for many has become even harder. The people of Iran, who demonstrated for the overthrow of the Shah, have not found it easy living under the Ayatollahs and an authoritarian President.

The early Christians lived under the authority of the Roman emperor. They were persecuted because they would not worship the emperor and affirm “Caesar is Lord!” Some were put in prison, others were executed. The apostles Peter and Paul were executed by the Roman emperor.

How did the Christians respond to this? They were encouraged to be content and to pray. Although many of them were poor, and some were slaves, they were encouraged to be content with their situation. Paul wrote, “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.”  In the 21st century discontentment is common. The media and internet make us very aware of what other people have. But it is still so important for us to thank God for what we have and to seek to be truly contentment.

Paul also urged the Christians to pray “for kings and all those in authority, that we may lead peaceful and quiet lives, in all godliness and holiness.” Those in authority over us need our prayers. One day God will call them to account for all they have done, whether good or evil.