A costly sacrifice and a living hope

The courage and self-sacrifice of the French gendarme Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Beltrame was remarkable. When an armed man took hostages at a supermarket in Trébes, near Carcassonne, Arnaud offered to take the place of a woman hostage whom the gunman was using as a human shield. Within minutes of taking the woman’s place Arnaud had been fatally wounded by the gunman and later died in hospital. The woman whose place he took survived the ordeal. A short time before he died, Arnaud was married in the hospital in a religious ceremony to his beloved Marielle. They had already been married in a civil ceremony but were planning to be married in church in June.

Arnaud grew up in a non-religious family but experienced a genuine conversion in 2008, when he was 33 years old. From that time on he was keen to learn more about God and his Son, Jesus Christ. What he learned about Jesus prepared him for the moment when he offered to take the place of the woman in the supermarket. Arnaud knew that since he had been converted his life belonged to Jesus who said, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

This weekend Christians around the world will be celebrating Easter and remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus. When he died on the Cross Jesus paid the price of our sins. He took our place and suffered the punishment our sins deserve so that we may be forgiven. The joy of knowing Jesus as our Saviour is expressed in a well-known hymn, “My sin, O 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 may soul.”

On the third day after he died Jesus was raised from the dead. The women, who went early in the morning to the tomb where Jesus had been buried, were met by two angels who 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 is the foundation of Christian hope. Arnaud’s death was tragic, but he knew Jesus as his Saviour and Lord. Jesus made a wonderful promise, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die.”

Teach us to pray

Tearfund, a major Christian relief and development charity, recently commissioned a survey on prayer. Over 2000 adults took part in the survey which revealed that more than 50% of people in Britain pray. One in three people pray regularly at a place of worship. Many people also pray as they go about their daily activities in the home, as they travel and exercise, and before they go to sleep.

People pray to thank God and to ask him to bless their family and friends, especially in times of illness. More women (56%) pray than men (46%) and even some who would describe themselves as “non-religious” pray in times of crisis and desperation. Previous surveys revealed that more teenagers and people in their early 20s are likely to pray than their parents’ generation. Younger people tend to be more conscious of the needs of others and often pray for peace in the world and for an end to poverty.

Jesus’ disciples once asked him to teach them to pray and he taught them what we call The Lord’s Prayer; “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil: for yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.”

This is a wonderful example of how to pray. Our prayers don’t need to be long or complex as if we need to impress God with fine words. The Lord’s Prayer is so simple a young child can say it. When we pray we focus our thoughts on the one true, living God, the creator of all things. We are small and vulnerable but he is almighty and gracious. His name is holy, and he is worthy to be praised. Wherever his kingdom comes on earth there is a foretaste of heavenly joy and peace.

We can ask him for our daily food and to forgive us for the wrong things we say, think and do every day. All of us need his protection in the face of the temptations to sin and many evil influences that are all around us. And, amazingly, Jesus taught us that we can know God, in an intimate way, not as some remote, impersonal power, but as our heavenly Father who knows us and loves us!

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.