All good gifts around us

Farmers have safely gathered in the harvest for another year. The early season was very dry and during the harvesting period there has been a lot of rain. One farmer said that out of a harvest period of 70 days only 10 were good days for using the combine harvester because the ground was so wet. Some crops have been harvested when they were damp and will need to be dried out. A new strain of blight has also caused problems so that crops in the barns will need to be carefully monitored over winter.

Most of us are almost totally unaware of the challenges farmers are facing. Supermarkets source produce from many parts of the world so we are less aware of the seasonal nature of our food. In the Western World we are protected from the vagaries of uncertain harvests. We expect to be able to buy many things all the year round.

But it’s not like that for millions of people in the world. In East Africa this year there has been a severe and prolonged drought, made worse by ongoing conflicts, that has caused a major food crisis. As crops have failed and animals have died people, including many children, are seriously malnourished and some have died. The shortage of safe water has also led to deaths from cholera-like diseases. It is estimated that in South Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, 20 million people are in urgent need of food supplies.

In many places around the country, in churches and in schools, Harvest Thanksgiving services are being held. Many will remember our dependence on God for our daily bread and give thanks to him as they sing, “We plough the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand. All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above, then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all his love.”

We must also remember those who are in great need and are starving. The Apostle John wrote, “We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion – how can God’s love be in that person? Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions.”

I am making everything new!

We are living in very uncertain times. Climate change is causing great concern. Economic instability threatens our future prosperity with unsustainable levels of national and personal debt. Unemployment is increasing, especially amongst the young. Progressive social policies are establishing a new morality with, as yet, unknown consequences. Political extremism of both left and right is becoming more active. Nuclear proliferation raises the real possibility of international conflict. Terrorist movements have proved impossible to defeat even by the massive military strength of the “super powers”. Mass migration is causing social tension and instability. Political leaders are either weak and ineffective or strong and erratic. Hope is in desperately short supply.

The Bible teaches that world history is in God’s hands. From beginning to end it is “his story.” He is the One who created the amazing universe around us and this beautiful, tiny, planet on which we live. The whole creation points to him from the simplest life forms to the complex laws of physics. Is it possible that all these things could have come about by pure chance? God created this world, and gave life to each one of us, for a purpose.

Jesus spoke about future world history. He said, “Watch out that no one deceives you. You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.”

The last book of the Bible, Revelation, also promises a new creation. The apostle John wrote, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!'”

The best news ever!

Like many people around the world I like to follow the news. Every morning I listen to the radio to hear what’s been happening. Most news stories are bad news. Reports cover economic uncertainty, corruption, child abuse, refugees, unaccompanied children, violence, conflict, crime, terrorism, pollution, climate change, disease, earthquakes, drought and famine. For many of us the stories are about what is happening to other people in other parts of the world, but for millions of people the stories are about them and the troubles and sorrows they face in their daily lives.

The message of the New Testament is called the “Gospel”, which means “Good News.” It is a message about what God has done through his Son, Jesus Christ. This message speaks into the real experiences of our broken world and of our daily lives. It is a message about reconciliation, peace and hope for the future. It lifts us out of despair. It is a true message. When people want to emphasise that they are telling the truth they sometimes say that they are speaking the gospel truth. Today we hear about fake news, but this message about Jesus is absolutely genuine.

Strangely, perhaps, one of the great themes of the Good News is sin. This is an unpopular word to many, yet the daily news stories are full of the sinful actions of people. It is the greatest problem the world faces. We all sin every day in our thoughts, words and actions. However hard we try, we cannot stop sinning. We sin when we break God’s moral commands. We misuse God’s name, dishonour our parents, hate and kill, commit sexual immorality, steal, lie, and covet what other people have. Our sinful behaviour brings great sadness to us and to others. It spoils everything.

The solution to the problems we face is not religion, but reconciliation. We need to be reconciled to God. In a letter to Christians living in Corinth the apostle Paul explained the heart of the Good News in this way, “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.” This is the best news ever!

O thank the Lord for all his love

This weekend I led a Harvest Thanksgiving service in a nearby church. These services have changed over the years. Today harvest displays are mainly comprised of tins and packets rather than fresh fruit and vegetables. This is more practical when the harvest gifts are distributed because the food lasts longer. The food at the service I led was given to the local Foodbank. Such gifts give a boost to the Foodbanks around the country and provide much needed food for poorer families.

In the Western world today we are less conscious of the importance of the harvest than we were. Throughout the year our supermarket shelves are filled with a massive variety of different kinds of food from all parts of the world. Most of us don’t know, or even think to ask, whether the farmers have had a good harvest. The people in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, however, are experiencing severe food shortages because of a sustained drought. People are dying because the harvest has failed.

The Earth is a tiny planet in a vast universe and is, as far as we know, unique. We have an abundance of water and much of the land is fertile and can be cultivated. Enough food is grown every year to feed all the people in the world, but there is an unequal distribution. Many have more than they need and others go hungry. The World Food Programme says that one in nine people in the world don’t have enough food to lead an active and healthy life and the number is growing. Children, women and rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia are in the frontline of hunger.

It is important to remember God and to give thanks to him. He is the One who created the earth and the abundance of good things that sustain our lives. In the Old Testament the people were told, “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God. You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth.” One of the best known harvest hymns says, “All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above, then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord for all his love.”

The God of Hope

We live in troubled times. Natural disasters devastate both poor and affluent nations. Many people are dying in wars and conflicts. Long term economic problems continue. Unemployment, especially amongst the young, and tensions between different ethnic groups are creating serious social instability. There is not much talk of hope for the future in our secular society, in which many have turned their backs on God.

The New Testament, however, provides both realistic insights into the course of world history and solid grounds for hope. Jesus spoke about the signs of the end of the age. He told his disciples, “You will hear of wars and rumours of wars. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places.” He also told them they would suffer personally, “You will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.”

The apostle Paul wrote, “There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God – having a form of godliness but denying its power.” Such things have been seen many times in history, but are also very evident today.

So if things are so bad, where is real hope to be found? Real hope is found only in God. Paul wrote a letter to Christians living in Rome. They were already being persecuted and things would soon get much worse. Some were crucified, some were set on fire, and others, including women and children, faced wild animals in the Roman arenas. Paul, who was himself soon to be martyred, wrote, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

The living God is “the God of hope.” He created the world and is also the Lord of history. Jesus is “the First and the Last.” Whatever may happen in the world, or in our personal lives, we can put our trust in him. When we do, he fills us with “all joy and peace” and makes us “overflow with hope.” Nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love in Jesus.

Am I my brother’s keeper?

As long as I can remember I have watched the excellent programmes about the natural world made by David Attenborough. Modern photographic equipment and colour television have enabled David to show us the wonders of God’s world in an amazing way. The pictures are often stunning and David’s commentary has popularised the Darwinian theory of evolution. Believers in Darwin’s theory find no place in their thinking for the living God. Everything has come about by natural causes. Impersonal “nature” rules supreme, we are on our own. When we experience problems, whether personal or global, there is no one to help us.

Sir David is now 87 years old. In a recent interview he starkly expressed the logical outcome of evolutionary thinking. He is deeply concerned about increasing world population and the problems associated with it, especially famine. He said, “If we do not control population, the natural world will.” He believes that sending flour bags to starving people is “barmy”. Famine, in places like the Horn of Africa, is the result of there being too many people and not enough land. He believes that the increase in world population means that human beings are “a plague on the earth.”

When we believe in the living God, who created and sustains the heavens and the earth, our perspective is very different. When God first created men and women he blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” As human beings we are responsible for the way we use the abundant resources God’s has provided on this unique and wonderful little planet. We are also responsible for one another. God’s two great commands are that we should love him with all our heart and also that we should “love our neighbour as we love ourselves.”

The increase in world population is a great challenge to us all. We are responsible both for God’s world and for one another. God’s amazing love for the people of his world has been revealed in Jesus Christ. The apostle John wrote, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let is not love with word and tongue but with actions and in truth.”

I was hungry and you gave me something to eat

The recent news reports of the famine in the horn of Africa have been very sad. The pictures of emaciated adults and children in the aid camps are deeply moving. They have all walked many miles in the hope of finding the food and water they need to survive the worst drought in 60 years in East Africa. Children and adults are dying each day and it is taking a massive aid operation to try to save many lives. More than 10 million people are threatened by starvation in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. Over the past 2 years 25% of Somalia’s population have been displaced.

The drought has been caused by the lack of rains and the failure to finance agriculture and irrigation schemes. Somalia is worst affected because it is a failed state. Two decades of non-stop fighting have had devastating consequences on ordinary people. A militant group, al-Shabab, controls many southern and central areas, including those where the famine is worst. In 2009 al-Shabab forced most Western aid agencies out of the areas they control, severely hampering the aid effort in much of Somalia.

We are all capable of being indifferent to the needs of others. We can be busy pursuing our own agenda, like the Somali militants, who are callously indifferent to the desperate plight of their own people. In the UK the government is cutting back on spending and some have suggested that the international aid budget should be slashed. Yet, we have food to eat and plenty of rain to ensure a good harvest. International aid is a life and death issue for many in our world, like the people in East Africa.

Caring for the needs of others matters. When we experience the love of God in Jesus we are delivered from our preoccupation with ourselves and are filled with a love for other people. Jesus said that at the end of history all nations will be gathered before him and he will separate them into two groups. To those on his right hand he will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers, you did for me.”