New beginnings

A new year has begun and offers the possibility of a new beginning. Looking back on life we have regrets because things haven’t turned out as we hoped they would. We may have experienced problems in our marriages and families which are deeply painful. Broken relationships with friends leave their scars. Disappointments in our work and career are not easily overcome. Our own behaviour can cause guilt and sadness; the things we wish we’d never done or said, but cannot change. So the opportunity to make a new start is attractive.

A woman was once brought before Jesus when he was teaching the people in the Temple. It was the time of one of the great pilgrimage festivals in Jerusalem and thousands of people were in the city. The religious leaders were self-righteous and hated Jesus. They wanted to have a reason to accuse him so they had gone out before dawn and found this woman committing adultery. They brought her to Jesus as a test case. The Old Testament law said that people guilty of adultery should be stoned to death, although this had not been done for centuries. The religious leaders were proud and despised Jesus because he dealt gently and kindly with people who had fallen into sin. Would he say that someone like this woman, who had been caught in the very act of adultery, should not be punished?

Jesus challenged them saying, “Let him who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” At this, the men who had accused the woman began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. Then he declared, “Then neither do I condemn you go now and leave your life of sin.”

Like this woman we, too, can experience God’s forgiveness and a new beginning. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn us, but that through him we might find forgiveness and new life. Oswald Allen’s hymn reminds us of God’s gracious promises: “Today your mercy calls us to wash away our sin. However great our trespass, whatever we have been. Today your gate is open, and all who enter in shall find a Father’s welcome and pardon for their sin. The past shall be forgotten, a present joy be given, a future grace be promised, a glorious crown in heaven.”

Joy to the world! The Lord is come!

As we sat in Bali airport waiting for our flight it was a very pleasant surprise to hear the music of a familiar Christmas carol, “Joy to the world”, being played. The carol joyfully affirms that the coming of Jesus into the world is a reason for all to rejoice. “Joy to the world! The Lord is come, let earth receive her King! Let every heart prepare him room and heaven and nature sing.” Jesus, who was born in lowly circumstances in Bethlehem, is King of kings. “He rules the world with truth and grace and makes the nations prove, the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.”

It seems as if two different celebrations are being held at this time of year. For some it is “Winterval”. In the dark days of mid winter this festival offers happiness through spending, feasting and parties. It is very expensive and leaves the headache of paying the bills in January. It is really good, in the busyness of modern life, to take time to be with family and friends and to give and receive presents, but surely there is more.

Jesus is at the heart of Christmas. His birth is a wonderful reason to celebrate because his coming brought true and lasting joy. In the words of another Christmas carol, “O little town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

There are real similarities between Bethlehem, when Jesus was born, and our 21st century world. The people in Bethlehem that night were busy because their lives had been disrupted by the demands of a Roman census. They had had to travel from their own communities to Bethlehem and many were stressed as they tried to find a place to stay. It wasn’t a good time to pause and take note that a child had been born in a nearby stable who fulfilled the promises made by God from the beginning of history.

God has given us his only Son, whose name is Jesus, because “he will save his people from their sins.” “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

To have and to hold

My wife and I have just celebrated our Golden Wedding Anniversary. 50 years is a long time and yet the years have passed so quickly. It has been good to look back and to remember the many things that have happened and the many people who have been important to us in our marriage. We invited family and friends to join us for a celebration and many people came. Some had known us from childhood, others were friends and neighbours.

Marriage is the most significant life commitment we ever make and we were young when we made our vows. We promised “to live together according to God’s ordinance in the holy estate of marriage, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, honour and cherish until God separates us by death.” On the day of our wedding we had little idea of what lay ahead of us and how much we would need the help and encouragement of family and friends, and the love and grace of God, if we were to keep our vows.

The traditional marriage vows are very realistic and true to life. There are good times and bad times. Sometimes we have had very little and at others more than we need. There have been some times of sickness and, as we get older, we know there will be more such times. The challenge to continue loving, honouring and cherishing each other, as we struggle with our own self-centredness, is very real. And we know that one day our marriage will end when “God separates us by death.” We cannot know which of us will be the first to go to heaven and which of us will be left, for a time, here on earth.

As I look back on the years we have shared together I am conscious most of all of the importance of forgiving and being forgiven. The marriage relationship is very close. The Bible says that we become “one flesh.” In part this is a reference to the physical intimacy of marriage, but it is more than that. Our lives and our joy and sorrows are intertwined. This is why marital breakdown is so painful. There are many times when I have said things and done things which have caused sadness and pain. At such times I have needed to be forgiven just as we have both experienced God’s forgiveness through Jesus.

Real relationships in an impersonal world

The amount of time spent in face to face contact with family and friends has dramatically reduced because of the increased use of mobile phones and social media. Psychologist Dr Aric Sigman has said, “As the amount of time spent looking at a screen or plugging in increases, the amount of direct eye-to-eye contact and developing real-life relationships inevitably decreases. By the age of 7 years, the average child born today will have spent one full year of 24 hour days watching screen technology. By the time they reach 80 they will have spent almost 18 years of 24 hour days watching non-work related screen technology. That’s a quarter of their lives.”

The implications of this are very serious for developing meaningful real-life relationships. Although on the face of it mobile phones and social media are means of keeping in touch with people, they are seriously distorting human relationships. People may have many “friends” on Facebook, but they seldom meet them and spend time with them. Instead they exchange information. Given the option of making a phone call or sending a text most people today choose to send a text. Famous people send brief messages to their “followers” on Twitter.

Real relationships are very important for us all. We are essentially relational beings. When God first created Adam he said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Eve was a God’s special creation as an equal to Adam, so that they could share their lives together. Human relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters can be the source of the deepest joy and happiness. The experience of mutual love is a wonderful blessing. When close relationships go wrong we inevitably experience intense pain and sadness.

The iPad and the mobile phone can be turned off. Only slaves are on call 24/7! How important it for us to make it a priority to spend quality time with our family and friends. We can also spend quality time with God. Through his Son, Jesus Christ, any of us can experience the privilege of becoming one of God’s children. Through prayer we can speak to him at any time, wherever we are. He is never too busy to hear our prayers. We can also listen to him. Through his Word, the Bible, he speaks to us and makes many wonderful promises. Through a personal relationship with God in Jesus we can experience his love and discover the purpose for which we were created.