Immanuel – God with us

The birth of Jesus Christ really is a cause for great celebration! His coming into the world has changed the lives of millions of people for the better. His birth was foretold in detail by prophets who lived more than 600 years earlier and their prophecies were fulfilled. The prophet Micah foretold where he would be born and spoke of his greatness. “But you, Bethlehem, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Jesus came from heaven to earth with kingly power to do us good.

The prophet Isaiah foretold that he would be born to a young virgin mother. “The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” The name Immanuel means “God with us.” As the eternal Son of God, Jesus reveals God to us. When he came into the world God himself drew near to a troubled world. Throughout history Christians have experienced the presence of God with them, often in very difficult circumstances. One of our greatest needs this Christmas is to know that God is with us.

The prophet Isaiah also spoke of the greatness of the child who would be born, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.” Jesus came into this world from the presence of his heavenly Father with divine power to execute God’s great plan of salvation for the peoples of this world and to do it as the “Prince of Peace.”

Charles Wesley wrote a hymn that is often sung at Christmas and expresses the deepest longings of our hearts. “Come, O long-expected Jesus, born to set your people free! from our fears and sins release us, Christ in whom our rest shall be. Israel’s strength and consolation, born salvation to impart; dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart. Born your people to deliver, born a child, and yet a king; born to reign in us for ever, now your gracious kingdom bring: By your own eternal Spirit rule in all our hearts alone; by your all-sufficient merit raise us to your glorious throne.”

The Lord omnipotent is King!

There is a power vacuum in Britain today because the general election gave no political party an overall majority. There is a spirit of anarchy in the air. Anarchy is a state of disorder due to the absence or non-recognition of authority. When there is no effective government individuals claim absolute freedom to do what they want. The consequences for society are potentially very serious. In the Bible there was a time when Israel had no king and “all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.”

This raises important questions for the future of our society and the wellbeing of every individual in it. How do we know what is right? Are we free to do anything we want? To whom are we accountable? The Ten Commandments provide a clear and coherent basis for a stable society in which every individual can flourish. The commandments begin with God. He must be recognized as God and be given a unique place. So, the first commandment is, “You must not have any other god but me.” God is supreme. He is the One who created us and to whom we are accountable for the way in which we live. We must love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our strength.

The commandments also teach how we must relate to each other. Our neighbour’s life, wife, possessions and reputation are to be safeguarded and respected. We must not to be covetous about our neighbour’s possessions; a very relevant commandment in our materialistic society. In summary, we must love our neighbour as we love ourselves. These commandments are not advice, but are given by God’s authority and are to be obeyed.

When we recognize the absolute authority of God and seek to live according to his commands we are faced with the fact that we all fail to obey his commands. We are all lawbreakers and sinners. We need to find forgiveness and experience God’s grace. The wonderful message of the Christian Gospel is that God, the Lawgiver, is also the One who sent his Son to save those who have broken his laws. Isaiah wrote, “He was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the sins of us all.”

The secret of being content

We are living in unsettled times. Reports in the media portray a spirit of unease and unhappiness in the hearts of some. It seems that when things go wrong, as they inevitably do in this fallen world, we must find someone to blame and to complain about. We see it as their responsibility to make us happy and ensure we have everything we want. Yet we live in country that, compared to most countries in the world, is wealthy and remarkably secure and stable. We enjoy a considerable degree of freedom to live our daily lives without interference from the authorities. In fact, millions of people from other countries would love to live in Britain and some make great efforts, at risk to their lives, to get here.

Some years ago, I met some friends from West Africa at Heathrow. As we were driving along the M4 they asked, “Where are the soldiers and the roadblocks?” I explained that things that were part of daily life in their country didn’t happen in Britain and that the overwhelming majority of our police were unarmed. They were amazed and, also, could not get over the fact that there were no potholes in our main roads! So, if our lives are so blessed and privileged compared to billions of people in the world, why are we unhappy?

We need to learn the secret of being content. When we are content we are happy, satisfied and fulfilled. It has very little to do with how much “stuff” we have. I was talking to a friend who works in a high-class resort to which many wealthy people come. He told me about a recent holiday in which he and his wife saw people who are much poorer than they are yet, he said, they were content. One man wrote, “Contentment doesn’t come from adding more fuel, but in taking away some fire; not in multiplying wealth, but in subtracting desires.” Socrates said, “The wealthiest person is the one who is contented with least.”

Towards the end of his life the apostle Paul was under house arrest in Rome. In a letter to the Christians in Philippi he wrote, “I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.”

Bear Gryll’s Greatest Adventure

Bear Grylls is well-known as a man who embodies the spirit of adventure and outdoor survival. His love of adventure began when he was growing up on the Isle of Wight. His late father, Sir Michael Grylls, taught him to climb. Bear says, “It brought us close and I loved it. It was never about the climbs but about that closeness.” In his book “To My Sons” he writes, “Aim to live a wild, generous, full, exciting life – blessing those around you and seeing the good in all. Follow your dreams – they are God-given.”

Bear trained in martial arts and perfected many of his skills when he served for 3 years in the British Special Forces as a member of 21 SAS. He has climbed Everest; crossed the North Atlantic on an inflatable boat; navigated the Northwest Passage; survived crocodile-infested swamps in Indonesia; and para-motored over the Himalayas. He says, “It is through faith that we find peace, but that same faith can also give us great boldness to reach out that little bit further than maybe we are comfortable. Everything worthwhile in life comes from reaching beyond that point of comfort; daring to risk it all; following our dreams despite the cost; loving despite the pain; hoping despite the doubts; and living boldly despite the fear. Life is an adventure that it best lived boldly.”

Bear is the youngest-ever Chief Scout and is a role-model to 40 million scouts worldwide. He says, “Scouting is about faith, it’s about friendship, it’s about fun – it’s all part of what we wanted when we grew up.” When it comes to adventure, he says, “The first step is always the hardest. That’s the one that takes the most courage. I’ve learned not to run from that fear and just do it.”

Bear says that finding simple faith to empower his life has been his greatest adventure. “Life is a journey and at times we all need a guide. For me that guide has become my backbone, my helper, my companion and my friend. I always thought that Christianity was about being very sensible and acting all smart and religious. But the more I discovered about Jesus Christ himself, the more I found a man who was as unreligious as you can imagine. It seemed that the very heart of the Christian faith was not about church, pulpits, sermons or Latin verse! It was about a relationship with someone who promises us life in abundance, joy within, peace without and freedom in our soul. Now I was interested!”

She has saved me

Sergeant Alexander Blackman has been released from prison and has been reunited with his wife, Claire, who tirelessly campaigned for him to be freed. On being reunited with his wife, Sgt Blackman said, “She has saved me. Her determination to keep on fighting for me has been incredible. You just can’t imagine anyone cares for you that much.” Sgt Blackman was a Royal Marine and served in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. He and his troops manned an outpost deep in hostile territory that has been described as “the most dangerous square mile on earth.” They served in stifling temperatures of 50C, under intense psychological pressure, knowing every step might trigger a land mine.

One day Sgt Blackman shot a severely wounded Taliban fighter whom they had captured. What he said and did was recorded on video. In December 2013, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. It was the first time a British soldier had been convicted of murder on the battlefield. Last month, after a sustained campaign spearheaded by his wife, Sgt Blackman’s conviction was reduced from murder to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. The appeal judges recognised he had combat stress and reduced his sentence to 7 years, paving the way for his release.

It will take some time to adjust to his new life. He has been dismissed from his beloved Royal Marines and has been offered a civilian job. He said, “Being out of prison is an immense feeling, but I am very conscious that my sentence is not complete. I have been released on licence, and there are certain conditions which I must – and I will – respect.”

All of us have done things that we deeply regret, but cannot change. We feel guilty and long to find forgiveness. The Christian Gospel tells how Jesus, God’s Son, came from heaven to earth to save us from our sins. He lived the perfect life we have failed to live and died on the cross bearing the punishment we deserve. How amazing that anyone could love us so much as to die in our place! When we know Jesus as our Saviour, we are set free from guilt and experience the joy of being forgiven. God’s forgiveness is complete and final; there are no conditions. When we experience God’s love in Jesus we, for the first time, truly love God from our hearts and cannot stop thanking him for what he has done for us; in Jesus, he has saved us!

Swing low, sweet chariot

Antonín Dvořák composed the New World Symphony in 1893, when he was the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America. It is by far his most popular symphony. In 1969 Neil Armstrong took a recording of the New World Symphony to the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission and first Moon landing. During his time in the “New World” Dvořák came to admire the beauty of the African-American spirituals and plantation songs of the American South and these may have influenced his New World Symphony.

In the 17th century the Pilgrim Fathers left England and established the Plymouth Colony in what is now Massachusetts. They were Christians who were seeking the freedom to practice their religion independent of the state. Their desire for freedom influenced the history and culture of the United States. Before and after the Pilgrim Fathers arrived boats brought African slaves to America to work on the plantations. The land was vast and the life of many slaves was harsh. In 1865, at the end of the Civil War, slavery was abolished and the principle was reaffirmed that all men are created with equal dignity and an equal right to liberty.

The African-American spirituals express the faith and hope of a people living as slaves. They found comfort in the Bible which tells of how God brought his people out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land and how God’s Son, Jesus, came to set people free from the bondage of sin and death. The words and music of the African-American spirituals powerfully express both the present sufferings of the people and their hope of future happiness in heaven.

“Swing low, sweet chariot” speaks of the forgiveness found in Jesus and the strong hope of life beyond death, symbolised as the Jordan River. “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home. I looked over Jordan, and what did I see, coming for to carry me home? A band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home. Sometimes I’m up, and sometimes I’m down, but still my soul feels heavenly bound. The brightest day that I can say, when Jesus washed my sins away. If you get there before I do, tell all my friends I’m coming there too. Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.” In our sophisticated, yet tragically sad, modern world the joy of forgiveness and the hope of heaven speak powerfully to our deep longings to find true freedom.

The Prince of Peace

The lust for power has dominated the history of the world. The ancient empires of Egypt, Syria, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome were all supreme for a time. The two World Wars of the 20th century were caused by a desire to rule the world. Today the United States of America is the superpower. President Putin is actively seeking to extend the power of Russia. Some Muslim groups are seeking to extend their power. In a few weeks time we will be voting for those who aspire to rule us for the next 5 years.

How different it was 2000 years ago when a young man rode into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey. The crowds acclaimed him as their King. In his triumphal entry Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey.” The kingdom Jesus established was very different from earthly kingdoms. He is the Prince of peace. He never commanded an army and told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest.”

Over the years the kingdom of Jesus has spread to all parts of the world while the great empires of the world have come and gone. The alliance of the church with political power in places like Europe has been a distortion of his kingdom. The gracious rule of King Jesus has been spread through the proclamation of the good news of the salvation that he promises to all who follow him. When we know him as Saviour and Lord he gives us fulness of life. His rule blesses his people with “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.”

Yet, many of us want to retain our “freedom”. The strange thing is that it is only in acknowledging that Jesus is our King that we find true freedom. George Matheson’s hymn explains this very well. “Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free; Force me to render up my sword, and I shall conqueror be. I sink in life’s alarms when by myself I stand, imprison me within Thine arms, and strong shall be my hand. My will is not my own till Thou hast made it Thine. If it would reach the monarch’s throne it must its crown resign. It only stands unbent amid the clashing strife, when on Thy bosom it has leant, and found in Thee its life.”

In all their suffering he also suffered

The television programmes commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp brought home afresh the terrifying capacity of human beings to commit acts of great evil and wickedness. The systematic slaughter of millions of helpless Jewish people ranks amongst the darkest chapters in human history. They were first incarcerated in ghettos and then transported like animals to camps like Auschwitz where men, women and children were mercilessly gassed and then buried or incinerated. The emaciated bodies of those living in the camps clearly portray the diabolical treatment they suffered.

In contrast the programmes remembering the funeral of Winston Churchill, who died 50 years ago, reminded us that human beings are also capable of acts of great courage in confronting evil men and bringing liberty to many. Churchill was our greatest wartime Prime Minister who inspired a nation to stand against and, together with our allies, to defeat the megalomaniac ambitions of Adolph Hitler and the Nazis. In the dark days following the Dunkirk evacuation, Churchill inspired a nation to rise from a massive defeat and to courageously confront, and ultimately defeat, a very powerful enemy.

Human beings are an enigma. Reflecting on the life of his grandfather, who was the commandant of Auschwitz, one grandson struggled to understand how his grandfather could be a kind and loving husband and father to his own family while at the same time he was supervising the merciless extermination of Jewish families. At a personal level we all struggle with the daily contradictions of our lives. The apostle Paul was conscious of this and wrote, “I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I don’t do it.”

God has decisively intervened in our world to give us hope in the face of both the continuing acts of great evil and our daily personal struggles. He cares deeply for those experiencing great suffering. The prophet Isaiah spoke God’s word to his suffering people, “In all their suffering he also suffered, and he personally rescued them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them. He lifted them up and carried them.” These words of comfort were ultimately fulfilled In Jesus Christ who died in our place. On the cross he suffered the punishment our sins deserve in order to redeem us and give us hope. As one hymn says, “There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin, he only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.”

A new morality

In the Western world we are experiencing a moral revolution. There is now a new morality. What has, for hundreds of years, been regarded as wrong is now right. What was right is wrong. Positive words are used to give the impression that this is all for the better. Promoting the new morality is “progressive”. Politicians tell us they are doing “the right thing.” This is not a claim to be acting morally but that they believe they are adopting the right policy to deal with an issue.

The new morality involves key words and ideas: “freedom”, “choice”, “equality”, “discrimination”, “phobic”, and “human rights”. Armed with theses concepts we can justify almost any action and can present anyone who disagrees as bigoted, out of touch or opposed to the onward march of “progress”. The new morality is intolerant of anyone who disagrees. Anyone who disagrees is attacked, denied the right to express their views and, sometimes, even criminalised.

But morality is fundamental to the lives of every one of us and to any society. Being honest matters. Being faithful to our marriage partners is vital to social stability. Respecting people who are different from us is really important. To disagree with people of another faith or of another sexual disorientation is not “phobic”, but arises from our moral convictions and spiritual beliefs.

A Muslim may fundamentally disagree with a Christian who believes that Jesus is the Son of God, but he isn’t Christian-phobic, which means being afraid of Christians or Christianity. He just disagrees with them. Normally such a disagreement does not lead to violence. I have Muslim friends. Love and respect for one another transcend differences of religious belief and practice.

The new morality has no place for God or for absolute moral principles that apply to us all. But God has given us two great commandments, which embrace all the important principles of true morality. We are to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. Love for God involves worshipping him, honouring his Name and enjoying the weekly day of rest he has ordained. Loving our neighbour means honouring our parents, not killing our neighbour or taking his wife, not stealing his possessions or telling lies about him, and not being jealous of what he has. Any individual or society that abandons these moral principles is like a ship adrift on the ocean without power or compass.

The Servant Queen and the Servant King

King George VI died on 6 February 1952 and his daughter Elizabeth acceded to the throne as Queen Elizabeth II. I was a young boy at the time and remember the day because normal radio programmes were cancelled, including Listen with Mother! That day I did not hear the familiar words, “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.”

Queen Elizabeth has now reigned for 60 years, the second longest reigning British monarch in history. She has won the love and respect of her own people and many people around the world. In 1999 Australians were offered a choice between Queen Elizabeth and becoming a Republic and voted for the Queen!

At the beginning of her Diamond Jubilee year the Queen thanked people for their wonderful support and encouragement and wrote a message to the nation. “In this special year, as I dedicate myself anew to your service, I hope that we will all be reminded of the power of togetherness and the convening strength of family, friendship and good neighbourliness, examples of which I have been fortunate to see throughout my reign.” She said she was looking forward to the future “with a clear head and a warm heart.”

In the New Testament we are exhorted to pray “for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” This is remarkable when you remember that many Christians, including the apostle Paul who wrote those words, died at the command of the Roman Emperor! Paul taught that “the authorities that exist have been established by God” and are “God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.” Queen Elizabeth is an excellent example of a monarch who has whole-heartedly served her people. We thank God for her and pray that he will continue to bless her.

Even the best of earthly kings and queens reign only for a time, but Jesus Christ is the King of kings and reigns forever. He came into the world “not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Living under his gracious reign brings true freedom and unmitigated blessings. His commands are always for our good. He loves us and protects us from all harm. We are glad to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen!”