To us a Son is given

Christmas is a special time as people around the world remember the birth of Jesus Christ. His birth was prophesied hundreds of years before he was born. The prophet Micah said where he would be born: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel.” The prophet Isaiah spoke about his special conception: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.” Isaiah also said this child would be a gift from God: “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.”

Now more than 2000 years after the birth of Jesus, he is still remembered with joy and thanksgiving by countless people from many nations. Christmas carols will be heard in shopping centres, schools will have nativity plays and many people who don’t normally go to church will attend carol services. The focus will be on this special child who was born so long ago. Well-known carols explain why his coming was so important.

Jesus brought light into this dark world: “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.”

Angels, and the very creation itself, rejoiced at his birth: “For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above, while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love. O morning stars together proclaim the holy birth and praises sing to God the King and peace to men on earth.”

Jesus has transformed the lives of countless people and is still changing lives today. This Christmas many will come to know him for the first time: “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. O holy child of Bethlehem descend to us, we pray, cast out our sin and enter in be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell. O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel”

Mary’s Son

Preparations for Christmas are well under way. It’s a very expensive time. Last month an estimated £7billion was spent on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. In the run up to Christmas 2017 people in Britain spent £50billion and then spent another £12billion between Christmas and New Year. Why, in the middle of winter, do many of us spend money we can’t afford on food and drink and expensive presents our family and friends may not really need? Why do poorer families feel left out because they don’t have either money or access to credit?

We don’t need to spend money and incur crippling debt to focus on the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem more than 2000 years ago. Familiar carols recount the wonder of it all. “Once in royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed, where a mother laid her baby in a manger for his bed: Mary was that mother mild, Jesus Christ her little child. He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all, and his shelter was a stable, and his cradle was a stall; with the poor, and mean, and lowly, lived on earth our Saviour holy.”

Mary and Joseph were a newly married young couple. They weren’t rich or famous. Joseph was a carpenter in Nazareth and Mary was expecting their first child. When it was nearly time for the baby to be born, they had to travel on foot to Bethlehem because the Roman Emperor was taking a census. Everyone had to go to their family town for the census. Because Joseph was descended from King David, he and Mary had to go to Bethlehem which was David’s town. When they arrived in Bethlehem there were no guest rooms available in which they could stay so Mary gave birth to her firstborn son in a stable.

Mary’s son was God’s Son. He came into the world to give hope to all who receive him, rich and poor, both in this life and the next. The carol lifts our eyes and thoughts above this often sad world to the glory of heaven. “And our eyes at last shall see him, through his own redeeming love; for that child so dear and gentle is our Lord in heaven above, and he leads his children on to the place where he is gone. Not in that poor lowly stable, with the oxen standing by, we shall see him, but in heaven, set at God’s right hand on high; where like stars his children crowned all in white shall wait around.”

I am with you always

The Remembrance Services this year have been deeply moving as we have remembered the millions of people who died in the World Wars of the 20th century, and especially in the Great War of 1914-1918. The casualty statistics are hard to take in. In the Great War 65 million men were mobilised across Europe: more than 8 million soldiers and 7 million civilians died and 21 million were wounded. Many soldiers from countries in the Commonwealth, including India, Australia and New Zealand, Canada, Africa and the West Indies also died. In the Battle of the Somme, 1 July to 18 November 2016, 1 million people on all sides were killed. British forces suffered 57,000 casualties on the first day, of whom more than 19000 were killed.

Theo Chadburn, a miner from Sheffield, was a member of the Salvation Army and played in the band. He served at Ypres and, 3 days before he died, wrote a letter to his wife Lily in which he said, “I believe that every day I learn more of his goodness.” He told her that on Easter Day 1918 he saw 150 soldiers go forward to receive Jesus Christ as their Saviour and said, “It was the best Easter Sunday night meeting I have ever spent. I was greatly blessed.”

Albert Penn came from Hasland, near Chesterfield. He was married to Florence who was expecting their first child. They met at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in the village where Albert led the boys’ Bible class and Florence led the girls’ class. They were enjoying their first home and looking forward to the sharing the rest of their lives together. But the war changed all that. In 1916 Albert volunteered and was told to come back when their baby, Mary Estelle, was 3 months old. He did and was killed on 30 October 1917 at Passchendaele when Mary was just 11 months old. He was 28 years old and his body was never found.

A wounded solider, who had been a member of Albert’s Bible class at home, told the family that he had seen Albert standing in an open field with a Bible in his hand talking to the young soldiers and then leading them in singing the hymn “Rejoice the Lord is King!” Five days later Albert and his regiment went over the top and he died. His granddaughter said, “I know that, in that terrible time, it wasn’t so much that he kept his faith in God, but that the God in whom he trusted kept him.”

Being inspired by the Invictus Games

The fourth Invictus Games has just been held in Sydney, Australia. The Games is an international event created by Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, in which wounded, injured or sick armed personnel and veterans compete in a wide range of sports. Invictus is a Latin word meaning “unconquered” or “undefeated.” The Sydney Games drew 500 competitors and 1000 family and friends from 17 countries and featured 11 sports.

The stories of the competitors are inspiring. Some have suffered terrible life-changing physical injuries in armed combat, others have struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and chronic illness. Invictus has inspired them not to be overcome by their injuries and suffering but to become overcomers and to do it together. There is a wonderful spirit of friendship and mutual encouragement amongst competitors in addition to the loving and persevering support of family and friends. People who thought their lives were over have found new hope and joy.

Davin ‘Bear’ Bretherton was one of the Australian competitors at the Sydney Games. He was seriously injured while serving in the military and had an amputation. He suffered from PTSD and found it difficult to face each day. He hit rock bottom when he attempted suicide. He said, “I was left lying on my shed floor crying and thinking to myself, ‘I need help and I need to do something about it. I need to try to find a way to regain my life.’ The biggest thing that I found on my road to recovery was how tough it was to ask for help. You know, I think that probably the manliest thing I’ve ever done in my life, was to reach out and physically ask someone for help. This is my life, I’ve only got one and I nearly lost it. So, I wish I’d asked for help a lot earlier.”

When bad things happen to us, as they have to ‘Bear’ and other competitors at the Invictus Games, we, too, need to ask for help. Many people have asked God to help them when they have been going through dark times in their lives and he has given them new strength and hope. The Bible says that Jesus “understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same trials we do”, and so we can “come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy and will find grace to help us when we need it most.”

The burden of debt

Debt is a growing problem for many families in Britain. In 2017 the average annual overspend for families in Britain was £900. It is estimated that £19bn is owed for utility bills, missed council tax payments and repayment of overpaid benefits. There has also been a rapid increase in borrowing on credit cards and poorer families are increasingly looking to payday loan companies for loans to cover daily living costs. The interest charged by these companies is astronomical.

It is only too easy to be enticed into taking credit when companies offer interest-free or low interest credit for new cars, furniture, the latest technological gadgets, new bathrooms and kitchens. The cost of getting everything needed for their children to go to school at the beginning of a new academic year has recently put real pressure on many families. Children experience peer pressure to wear high-cost clothes with designer labels and to have the latest smartphone and tablet.

Debt can be crushing. I remember visiting a man who was seriously in debt. He had been injured in a car crash and could no longer work. His marriage had broken down and he had run out of money. He was afraid of the post arriving because there would be more red letters demanding payments he couldn’t make. His bank refused to lend him any more money and he was afraid that one day the bailiffs would arrive. He was imprisoned in his house and deeply depressed. He needed someone to come alongside him. Together we were able to work through his situation and find a way to address his debts. Today Christians Against Poverty is one organisation which helps people to manage their debts and to face the future with hope.

The Bible also speaks about another debt we owe because we break God’s laws. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus encouraged his disciples to pray “Forgive us our debts.” All of us have this debt problem, whether we are rich or poor. Every day we do and say things we know are wrong and so our debt to God increases. As many people try to ignore financial debts so we may push this debt to the back of our minds. But Jesus encourages us to face up to our moral and spiritual debt and to ask God to forgive us. Jesus died on the Cross to pay the price of our sins and so through him we can experience the joy of forgiveness and the cancelling of the debt we owe to God.

Help, I need somebody!

In 1965 John Lennon wrote the song “Help!” It went to number one in the charts in both the UK and USA. In an interview some years later, John spoke of the stress he experienced because of his sudden rise to success, “The whole Beatles thing was just beyond comprehension. I was fat and depressed and was subconsciously crying out for help.”

Many people can identify with the words of the song; “Help, I need somebody. Help, not just anybody. Help, you know, I need someone. Help! When I was younger, so much younger than today, I never needed anybody’s help in any way. But now these days are gone, I’m not so self- assured and now I find I’ve changed my mind, I’ve opened up the doors. And now my life has changed in, oh, so many ways. My independence seems to vanish in the haze, but every now and then I feel so insecure, I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before. Help me if you can, I’m feeling down, and I do appreciate you being ’round. Help me get my feet back on the ground. Won’t you, please, please help me?”

Many of us go through experiences which shake our self-confidence and make us feel insecure. Even when we are surrounded by people we become conscious that we need help from someone, and not just anybody. At such times a cry of “Help!” comes from our hearts. We need to know, as we have never needed before, that there is someone there.

The Bible declares that there is someone there and he is willing to help us. The opening words of the Bible are, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The universe and our lives have meaning and purpose because God is there. We are not alone. Augustine, an early Christian leader, wrote, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”

One day Jesus saw a widow following the coffin of her only son. A large crowd of people was with her. The heart of Jesus went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.” Then he went up and touched the coffin and said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. The people were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.”

When enemies become friends

Captain Bill Smyly, who died recently at the age of 95, was one of the last veterans of the Chindit expeditions in the Burma Campaign in World War II. In 1943, when serving with the 3rd Battalion, 2nd King Edward’s Own Gurkha Rifles, he was appointed Animal Transport Officer and was put in charge of the mules. He marched with 3000 Chindits from India into Burma on a mission to cut the main railway line between Mandalay and Myitkyina and to harass the Japanese forces. Heavy weapons, equipment and rations were carried by the mules.

Marching through the jungle in intense heat and torrential rain, they endured repeated bouts of malaria and dysentery. If they were badly injured, they were left at a village. This usually meant capture or death. After achieving their objectives, the troops returned to India in small groups. Bill contracted beriberi, which affected his eyesight and made his feet swell up making it difficult to walk. He became separated from his unit and had to struggle on alone. For many weeks he trekked hundreds of miles through the jungle, receiving food and shelter from local tribesmen. His family were told that he had died but, eventually, he reached Fort Hertz, a remote British military outpost in north-east Burma.

Bill was born in China, the son of Irish missionary doctors. After the war he gained a degree at Cambridge University and became a journalist. Later, he taught at a Chinese University before retiring to Bedford. Bill was a Christian and was an active member of his local church. He also belonged to the Burma Campaign Society which was established in 1983 by Masao Hirakubo. The aim of the society is to encourage reconciliation and mutual understanding between British and Japanese soldiers who had previously been enemies, and especially those who had been involved in the Burma Campaign.

Reconciliation is a great priority in our divided world and is at the heart of what Jesus Christ came into the world to accomplish. The apostle Paul wrote, “God brought us back to himself through Christ and has given us this task of reconciling people to him. 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. We speak for Christ when we plead, ‘Come back to God!’” Because Bill Smyly had himself been reconciled to God through Jesus he was committed to seeking reconciliation with people who, previously, had been his enemies.

To whom shall we go?

The visit of Pope Francis to Ireland has revealed the depth of disillusionment many Catholic people in the country feel with their church. The Catholic Church has been rocked by revelations of paedophile priests, sexual abuse in Catholic-run orphanages, and the exploitation of women in mother-and-baby homes. When Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979 more than a million people attended the mass at Phoenix Park in Dublin. Attendance at the mass celebrated by Pope Francis was estimated at 200,000.

According to the Irish Statistics Office, Ireland remains a predominantly Catholic country but the percentage of the population who identify as Catholics has fallen. In 1981, just 2 years after the papal visit, Catholics made up 93% of the population. By 2016 that number had fallen to 78%, of whom only 44% attended church weekly. The fall in church attendance is most marked amongst younger people. There has also been a sharp decline in the number of candidates for the priesthood. The average age of Catholic priests in Ireland is now 70.

What has happened to those who have turned away from the Catholic Church? Many of those under the age of 50 now describe themselves as having no religious faith. The increasing secularisation of Irish society has also been seen in recent referendums on same-sex marriage and abortion in which two-thirds of people rejected the teaching of the Catholic Church and voted for change.

The heart of Christianity is focussed not on any particular church but on the person of Jesus. All of us fall short of God’s standards and need to experience his forgiveness. Jesus didn’t come into the world for self-righteous people who feel no sense of need but for those who know their guilt and who want to change. Many people all over the world have listened to the words of Jesus and have found new life and hope in experiencing his love.

At one point in the ministry of Jesus people who had been following him turned away from him. Jesus asked his closest disciples, “Are you also going to leave?” Simon Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” At times of crisis, when people have seriously let us down and it’s hard to find answers to our questions, the best thing to do is not to turn away from God but to draw near to his Son and to listen to what he says.

Let the children come to me

Hospitals in Britain are treating almost twice as many girls for self-harm as they did 20 years ago. Hospital admissions have increased from 7,327 in 1997 to 13,463 in 2017. The number treated for attempting an overdose has increased tenfold from 249 to 2,736. The number of boys admitted to hospital for self-harm has stayed the same but the number of boys attempting an overdose increased from 152 in 1997 to 839 in 2017. A spokeswoman for the NSPCC said: “Sadly, these heart-breaking figures are unsurprising. Many children are being driven to self-harm as a way of dealing with the pressures and demands of modern-day life. Young people are crying out for help.”

Jon Goldin, of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “I think there are a range of factors putting pressure on young children – academic pressures, social media, the fear of missing out and comparing yourself unfavourably to images you see online.” He added that girls may be more ‘sensitive’ to the pressures than boys. One girl aged 14 said: “Recently I’ve lost some people who were really close to me. When I started to self-harm, it seemed to mask the emotional pain I was feeling. When I get the urge to cut, I can’t seem to stop it until it’s done, otherwise I get really upset and angry.”

Children and young people are more vulnerable today than they were 20 years ago. Social media and smartphones mean that they can never hide or escape. The Photoshopped images of celebrities present a false body-image of perfection. Teenagers, and others, are pressurised into thinking that your image, clothes and possessions are what really matter. However, what matters most is not our outward appearance or possessions but the people we really are. Peer pressure can also be very cruel. If others don’t like me then I don’t like myself and so I punish myself through self-harming.

Jesus taught that children are precious in God’s sight. When parents brought their children to Jesus he said: “Let the children come to me. For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” He also gave a very solemn warning to those who mistreat or exploit children: “If you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone hung around your neck.”

Saved to serve

The obituaries that are printed in national newspapers provide a brief summary of a person’s life. How did the person spend their life? What were their main priorities and achievements? It is a good for each of us to ask ourselves what we are doing with the precious life God has given us? I recently read a short account of the life of Michael Lapage, who died in July at the age of 94. His father was the vicar of Shaftesbury and Michael went to Monkton Coombe School, near Bath, where he became an accomplished rower.

In 1942 Michael left school and, deferring his place at Selwyn College, Cambridge, volunteered for the Fleet Air Arm. After training he joined 807 Naval Air Squadron and flew Seafire planes from the escort carrier Hunter. Later he flew reconnaissance and air-to-ground strafing missions during the Allied landings in southern France. Towards the end of the war he was deployed to the Far East where he was nearly shot down while on patrol off the coast of Malaya. The tailpiece of his plane was seriously damaged, but he managed to get back safely to his carrier. Michael knew that he could easily have lost his life that day.

After the war was over, Michael went to Cambridge University and was a member of the crew that won the 1948 Boat Race. That same year he rowed for Britain in the 1948 Olympic Games in London and won a silver medal. In 1950 he won a bronze medal in the, then, Empire Games. In 2012, at the age of 88, he carried the Olympic torch in the relay for the 2012 London Olympic Games!

After leaving university Michael taught at Winchester College until, in the late 1950s, he went to Kenya to serve as a missionary. He was a schools’ inspector during the Mau Mau uprising and was later ordained in Kenya as a minister of the Gospel. Michael’s Christian faith, and the experience of nearly being shot down in 1945, convinced him that he had been “saved to serve”.

Michael’s life was shaped partly by the challenges of the days through which he lived but mainly by his love for his saviour Jesus Christ. He knew that Jesus came from heaven to this earth not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many. So Michael gladly dedicated his life to serving others and to telling them the good news about Jesus, who loved us and gave himself for us.