Heaven is real

The recent warm, sunny days have lifted our spirits after the cold days of early Spring. The cloudless blue skies, awakening nature, and the quiet, warmth of longer evenings have brought joy to our hearts. The beauty of the natural world around us, with the magnolia and cherry blossoms, the daffodils and primroses, and the green of the new leaves now beginning to adorn the trees, reveals the unique splendour of planet Earth, on which we are privileged to live. At such times we might wish to be able to stop and stay in the pleasure and happiness of the moment, but it isn’t possible. The daffodils fade, the blossoms fall and the most glorious of sunsets leads only to the darkness of the night.

The deep longing to find lasting peace, joy and fulfilment is something we all experience. The joys and pleasures of this world are real, but all transient. Because we have been created by God with an eternal soul we, inevitably, long for more, for that which endures. King Solomon, who was famous for his wisdom, wrote, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.” A prayer, based on words of Augustine, expresses the desires of many, “Almighty God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you; so lead us by your Spirit that in this life we may live to your glory and in the life to come enjoy you for ever.”

Today we seldom talk about heaven and the life to come, but it is fundamental to our very being. We can only make sense of the sadnesses and mysteries of this life in the light of eternity. God is passionately concerned about justice and has set a day when he will righteously judge all people. Heaven is real and is the realm where God dwells in glory, love and unending blessing. Jesus said he was the Way to heaven.

The book of Revelation beautifully describes heaven, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever. The one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new! To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. I will be their God, and they will be my children.”

The Joy of Spring

When does Spring begin? The Met Office regards 1 March as the first day of Spring but the heavy snowfalls on that day this year made it feel much more like winter! Amazingly, when the snow cleared from our garden we found the crocuses in flower despite the cold blanket that had covered them. However, the days are getting warmer and longer, and the daffodils are beginning to bloom, which means that winter really is passing and springtime has arrived! Spring is an encouraging time for us all as we see nature coming to life again and anticipate the brighter, warmer days of summer.

The passing seasons remind us of the faithfulness of God. Following the devastating flood, which happened in the time of Noah, God gave a wonderful promise for all subsequent generations. He said, “As long as the earth remains, there will be springtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night.” He also gave the rainbow as a sign of his everlasting covenant with Noah and his descendants and all living creatures. God told Noah, “I have placed my rainbow in the clouds. It is a sign of my permanent promise to you and to all the earth.”

The great reality of our life on earth is that God exists. He is eternal and created each one of us. The heavens and the earth declare his glory and the changing seasons reveal his loving care. There is something deep in every one of us that is instinctively drawn to him. In every way we are dependent on him. “Frail as summer’s flower we flourish, blows the wind and it is gone; but while mortals rise and perish God endures unchanging on. Praise him, praise him, praise the high Eternal One!”

Thomas Chisholm’s well-known hymn affirms, “Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father, there is no shadow of turning with thee; thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not, as thou hast been thou for ever will be. Great is thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see; all I have needed thy hand has provided – Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.”

As we move forward into the Spring it is good to know that we can do so trusting in the living God. We can rejoice in his presence with us each day to cheer us and guide us. He gives us strength for each day, bright hope for the future, and every blessing we need along the way.

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.”

Asking the big questions

In December 2015, Major Tim Peake became the first British European Space Agency astronaut to visit the International Space Station. In a recent interview, he said that one of the things he misses most is seeing his home planet from space. He said, “I might see a picture of a spacecraft and suddenly it takes me right back to being on board the space station and looking out at the universe. You do have to kind of pinch yourself and say, ‘Yes, I was up there, looking back at Earth’. It’s mesmerizing; it’s constantly changing, every time you look out of the window you see a different part of the world. You might be at a night part of the orbit looking at thunderstorms or the aurora; you might be in a day time looking at volcanoes erupting and glaciers and lakes, so it’s just stunning both by day and by night.”

Tim has started a new role as an official UK Scout Association ambassador. He said, “As a cub scout I remember going out on those early night hikes and first sleepovers in the outdoors. Sleeping under the stars and looking up is when the big questions come out: What’s out there? How did life begin? Where is it all going?” These are the big questions for us all.

Johannes Kepler was an eminent scientist and a Christian. He developed a love for astronomy at an early age. In 1577, when he was six, he observed the Great Comet and in 1580 the Lunar Eclipse. Kepler is best known for discovering the three mathematical laws of planetary motion. He also discovered the elliptical patterns in which the planets travel around the sun. As he studied the universe Kepler said, “O God, I am thinking your thoughts after you.”

The heavens bear eloquent testimony to God. He created all things, guides history, and knows every one of us intimately. In Psalm 8 the psalmist says, “O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth! Your glory is higher than the heavens. When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers – the moon and the stars you set in place – what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? Yet you made them only a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honour. You gave them charge of everything you made, putting all things under their authority.”

Let’s go to Bethlehem

Christmas is a special time of the year. The preparations begin weeks before. There is a long list of things to be done; cards and presents to be bought, decorations and Christmas trees to be put up, school concerts and carol services, food to be bought and cooked, time with the family and, for parents with young children, an early start on Christmas Day! It’s no wonder we can feel very tired. But after its over what remains? When the food has been eaten, the family have gone home and the decorations have been taken down, what stays with us as life returns to normal?

Christmas is about Jesus. The person who is at the very centre of Christmas is the One who remains with us through all the experiences of life. He’s the One who can make a real difference to our lives. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem an angel announced his birth to shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.

Like the shepherds why not “go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened.” The birth of Jesus is indeed good news and brings great joy to all who receive him as Saviour. He is the Prince of Peace. Through him we are reconciled to God, and to each other, and know a deep and lasting peace in our hearts.

Running so as to win the prize

The Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro has been a great event as more than 11,000 athletes, from 206 countries, have competed in 28 sports. Men and women from all over the world have been training for years for the opportunity to win an Olympic medal. The focus of their whole lives has been on Rio 2016. Their personal event is one tiny moment after thousands of hours in practice, dedication and sacrifice in the hope of achieving glory.

21-year-old Adam Peaty from Staffordshire won the gold medal in the 100 metres men’s breaststroke, breaking his own world record. Adam joined the City of Derby swimming club when he was 14 years old. His mother got up at 4am to drive him 40 minutes to Derby, where she would sit and wait for 2 hours while he was training. Then she would drive home before going to work as a nursery manager. In the evening she would do it again. She said, “It was really hard going, I’d have given up many a time. Adam never complained about getting up. If I wanted to stay in bed another hour, he’d say, ‘Come on Mum, champions aren’t made in bed!’” When Adam won the Olympic gold medal both he and his Mum felt that all the sacrifices had been worthwhile.

We all need a purpose in our lives; something to aim for. The first question in the Shorter Catechism asks, “What is the chief end of man?” The answer is, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” The Bible teaches us that we are all created in the image of God in order to enjoy eternal life in heaven with him. We are not an accident of history, a chance event. Death is not the end because every man and woman in this world was created with an eternal soul. So our lives are to be lived with our ultimate goal in mind.

The apostle Paul wrote, “Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better.”

Stop doubting and believe

The glorious message of Easter is “The Lord has risen!” The resurrection of Jesus transformed the men and women who had followed him. His death on the cross had devastated them. Their hopes had crashed. None of them was expecting Jesus to rise from the dead, even though he had often told them that he would be killed and on the third day would rise again. Early in the morning of the third day, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to mourn and weep. To her amazement she found the stone had been rolled away and the tomb was empty. She assumed someone had stolen the body until Jesus appeared to her and spoke to her by name.

All the Gospels describe the struggle Jesus’ disciples had to accept the fact that he had been raised from the dead. When the women told the apostles they had seen the Lord they did not believe them. Peter and John saw the empty tomb, but were not convinced the Lord had risen.

When the other disciples told Thomas they had seen the Lord, he said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Later Jesus appeared to Thomas and said, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

What a difference it makes when we stop doubting and believe the testimony of the eye witnesses who saw the resurrected Jesus! His resurrection gives hope to all who live in a world where death is a daily reality. We must all die, and many live in the fear of death. Recently some of our good friends have died. At their funeral services there has been both sadness and joy because, although we miss them very much, we know they are in heaven with Jesus. We have sung, “No more we doubt thee, glorious Prince of life; life is naught without thee; aid us in our strife; make us more than conquerors, through thy deathless love: bring us safe through Jordan to thy home above. Thine be the glory, risen conquering Son, endless is the vict’ry, thou o’er death hast won.”

Open my eyes that I may see

Scientists at the University of California have developed a remarkable new treatment for infants who have been born with congenital cataracts. The scientists removed the damaged lens and used the patient’s own stem cells to regrow a “living lens” in their eye. In just 3 months the regenerative stem cells have grown into a new, fully functioning and transparent lens. The procedure was successful in all 12 infants under the age of 2, and was without complication compared to the traditional use of plastic lens. The treatment has real potential to be used for other eye conditions.

I remember seeing a programme about North Korea. Eye surgeons from America had gone to the country to perform cataract operations on many patients. When the bandages were taken off the people were full of joy that they could see again. The first thing they saw was a large photograph of their President and they immediately began enthusiastically to give thanks to him for restoring their sight. They knew that, if they were not enthusiastic in their praise, their lives would be in danger. It was very sad.

Our bodies are a masterpiece of God’s creative wisdom and power. In Psalm 139 David reflects on the way God had created him and given him life. “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious are your thoughts about me, O God! How vast is the sum of them!”

Thankfully we are free to recognise the goodness and kindness of God who blesses us in countless ways. So we must be careful not to close our eyes to the glory of God revealed in the creation around us and especially in his Son, Jesus Christ. One hymn encourages us to ask God to open our eyes to see his truth. “Open my eyes, that I may see, glimpses of truth thou hast for me; place in my hands the wonderful key that shall unclasp and set me free. Silently now I wait for thee, ready, my God, thy will to see. Open my eyes, illumine me, Spirit divine!”

A Saviour has been born

Christmas is a busy time. The season has a momentum of its own as we are swept along with the pressure of getting everything ready for the big day. It is easy in the busyness of it all to lose sight of the things that matter most and, when it is over, to feel a sense of emptiness and anticlimax.

Joseph and Mary were under pressure when they set off from the little village of Nazareth to go to Bethlehem to be registered in the Roman census. They had to walk 80 miles when Mary was in the late stages of her first pregnancy. The journey could have taken nearly a week. When they arrived in Bethlehem the town was overflowing with people and there was nowhere for them to stay. So Jesus was born in a stable and placed in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. Hardly anyone in Bethlehem noticed Joseph and Mary and the baby boy who was born; yet this child would change the course of history and transform the lives of millions of people.

When Jesus is at the centre of our lives, not only on Christmas Day, but every day of our lives, everything changes. An angel announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks at night. They were ordinary men doing a tough job who saw the glory of the Lord. The angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” Then an angelic choir appeared praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.”

When the angels had gone, the shepherds went to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When the shepherds returned to their fields and their sheep they were “glorifying and praising God for all things they had heard and seen.” They returned to the same daily routine, but now it was different because they were different. The had seen the One who came into this world that we might have life and have it to the full. He is the One we all need to find this Christmas. He transforms us through his love and promises to be with us when life returns to its normal routine.