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He came down to earth from heaven

The birth of Jesus was both ordinary and extraordinary. His mother, Mary, was a teenage girl who lived in the small Galilean village of Nazareth. She had fallen in love with Joseph, the village carpenter, and they were planning their wedding. They loved each other deeply and were looking forward to making their vows before God and sharing their life together. Joseph respected Mary’s purity and was willing to wait until they were married before they slept together. Neither of them anticipated what lay ahead of them.

One day God sent the angel Gabriel to tell Mary an amazing message. He said, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.” When Mary asked how this could happened since she was a virgin the angel said, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” Mary replied, “I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled.”

That day Mary’s life changed. What would the people of Nazareth say when they heard she was expecting a baby before she had been married? How would Joseph respond when she told him? He assumed that Mary must have been unfaithful to him and decided to call off the wedding until, one night, he had a dream in which an angel told him, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” So Joseph took Mary as his wife but did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son.

The birth of Jesus speaks to ordinary people everywhere about extraordinary things. One carol says, “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.” Another carol speaks of receiving Jesus as Saviour, “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.”

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The love that transforms

Last week a man suddenly threatened to blow up the Fishmongers’ Hall, near London Bridge, where a prisoner rehabilitation conference, organised by Cambridge University, was being held. He then began attacking people with two knives. The man, who had been convicted of a terror offence, was invited to attend the conference. He had served half his 16-year sentence and had been released on licence in 2018 with an electronic tag. The man moved on to London Bridge where he was restrained by members of the public and then shot by the police. Two people were killed and 3 were injured.

As one hate-filled man was trying to kill people, others showed great courage in seeking to save lives. Lukasz from Poland, who works as a chef at Fishmongers’ Hall, bought time for others to escape by fighting the terrorist with a narwhal tusk he pulled off the wall. Despite being stabbed 5 times, he continued to confront the man. His actions, and those of others who confronted the terrorist, undoubtedly saved lives.

Tragically two young people who were attending the conference died. Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt were involved with Cambridge University’s Learning Together programme for prisoner rehabilitation. Jack’s father said, “Jack: you were a beautiful spirit. You lived your principles; believing in redemption and rehabilitation, not revenge, and always took the side of the underdog. Cambridge lost a proud son and champion for underdogs everywhere, but especially those dealt a losing hand by life, who ended up in the prison system.” He went on to say that Jack “would not wish his death to be used as a pretext for more draconian sentences or to detain people unnecessarily.”

Jesus was a man who was committed to helping and changing people. He is still doing that today by the power of the Holy Spirit. During his ministry many people who had failed in life, and wanted to change, were drawn to him. He loved them and gave them new hope. Knowing him and experiencing his love changed them. Jesus died not for his own sins, but for ours. He laid down his life that we might know God and receive the gift of eternal life. He loves people who are his enemies and changes their hearts so that they truly love him. The apostle Paul was an enemy of Jesus, but he was changed. Seeing the transformation in him Christians were amazed and said, “The one who used to persecute us is now preaching the very faith he tried to destroy!”

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The uncertainties of riches

Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, has just become the richest person in the world again with a net worth of $110 billion ($110,000,000,000). He has overtaken the Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos who, because of a fall in Amazon’s profits, now has a net worth of $108 billion. The number of billionaires in the world is increasing and has reached a total of more than 2500. There are 700 billionaires in North America with a total wealth of more than $3 trillion. The combined total wealth of the billionaires in the next 8 countries on the billionaire list is $2.9 trillion. In total, the world’s richest 1% owns about half of the world’s wealth.

Many people think that being rich will make them happy and that the more money they have the happier they will be. Every week people buy lottery tickets in the hope of winning large sums of money. The EuroMillions jackpot last week was £98 million. When people win the lottery there are pictures of them celebrating and looking very happy but, sadly, their new-found wealth often leads to great sadness in broken marriages, addictions and loneliness through losing their friends.

A man once asked Jesus to settle a dispute between him and his brother over an inheritance. His brother was refusing to give him his share. Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” He then told a parable about a rich farmer who had a bumper harvest and wondered how he could store all his crops. The farmer said, “This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’”

On the face of it the farmer was being prudent, but he had not considered the uncertainties of life and the ultimate importance of eternity. Jesus went on to say, “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” Jesus is the supreme example of selflessness because although he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, so that we through his poverty might become rich.

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All things bright and beautiful

Amidst the many dark and wet days, we have also enjoyed some beautiful autumn days. The beauty of autumn is striking as the leaves change to reds, yellows and browns and the low sun brings out the depth of their colours. The early morning mists clothe the world in a gentle mantle of beauty. Autumn is one stage in the annual cycle of this beautiful planet on which we live. Earth is a tiny speck in a massive universe, but it is uniquely beautiful.

Many of us live in urban areas in which the beauty of creation is not so easy to see. We are surrounded by buildings and roads, traffic and noise. Life is busy and frantic. One of the blessings of some big cities, like London, is the parks to which office workers can escape for a few minutes at lunch time and mothers can take their children to play. The parks are oases of peace and beauty in the concrete jungles men have created. Parks and fields and hills and streams remind us of God. Wherever we live it is important to find time to be still and to look up and around and to marvel at the handiwork of the Creator.

The hymns many of us learned as children in school or Sunday School have a profound simplicity and speak into our adult world. “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.” God’s creative power embraces all things. He is the source of all that is bright and beautiful in a world in which, sadly, many things are dark and ugly. He made the great things and the small things. None of us is so small that we are insignificant to him. This amazingly complex world reveals the perfect wisdom of God’s heart and mind.

When we catch glimpses of God’s glory revealed in his creation we spontaneously respond with awe and worship. We are responding to the One who gave us life. “He gave us eyes to see them and lips that we might tell, how great is God Almighty, who has made all things well!” He is the same God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, his Son. During his ministry Jesus showed his love for people as he healed and restored all who came to him. We, too, can come to him in the sadness and struggles of our lives and experience his wonderful love for us.

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I want the best for you

On 26 September 2018 Amber Guyger, a Dallas policewoman, returned to her apartment building after a 14-hour shift. Still in her uniform and in a state she later described as “autopilot”, she entered the wrong flat. She lived at flat 1378 but went into flat 1478, one floor above hers, where Botham Jean, a black accountant, lived. The door was unlocked, and Botham was sitting on the sofa eating ice cream. Thinking he was an intruder, Amber drew her gun, and shot him twice, intending to kill him.

When giving evidence, she wept and said, “I ask God for forgiveness. I hate myself every single day. I never wanted to take an innocent person’s life. I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” The mostly black jury of eight women and four men convicted her of murder. She could have been sentenced to life in prison but received 10 years. Protesters outside the court building were outraged by the lenient sentence.

After sentence had been passed Brandt Jean, Botham’s 18-year-old brother, told Amber, “If you truly are sorry, I forgive you. And I know, if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you. I’m speaking for myself, but I love you just like anyone else. I don’t wish anything bad on you. I want the best for you, I don’t even want you to go to jail, because I know that that’s exactly what Botham would want, and the best is to give your life to Christ.” Then he asked the judge if he could hug his brother’s killer and embraced Amber for about a minute. It was an act of Christian forgiveness that brought tears to many eyes.

Botham’s mother Allison said she had no idea that Brandt was going to hug the killer. She, too, spoke of forgiving Amber but said, “I don’t want forgiveness to be mistaken for a total relinquishing of responsibility.”

The response of the Jean family to the tragic death of Botham illustrates the importance of both justice and forgiveness. How can our sins, that deserve to be punished, be forgiven by God? When Jesus died on the cross he both satisfied the just demands of God’s law and also opened the way for us to be forgiven. One hymn says, “Here is love, vast as the ocean, loving kindness as the flood, when the Prince of Life, our ransom, shed for us his precious blood. Grace and love, like mighty rivers, poured incessant from above, and heaven’s peace and perfect justice kissed a guilty world in love.”

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Always giving thanks

Being thankful is a great blessing. At this time of year many churches hold Harvest Thanksgiving services. We have enjoyed sunny weather this summer and the harvest has been really good. The farmers have done well, and we have enough food to eat for another year. There is good reason for us all to rejoice and give thanks.

One of the problems, however, of living in a secular society is, “To whom do we give thanks when things go well?” The politicians would like us to thank them, but few of us find that an attractive option! In an atheistic society like North Korea the people are commanded to give thanks for everything to their tyrannical President, Kim Jong-un. If they are not enthusiastic enough in giving thanks they are in serious trouble. Thankfully, we are under no such pressure.

The Bible gives us many exhortations to be thankful. The Psalmist says, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” The Apostle Paul says, “Sing and make melody from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.”

A modern hymn by Bishop Michael Baughen expresses thanks for simple daily blessings and for God’s amazing love in Jesus. “Thank you for every new good morning, thank you for every fresh new day, thank you that I may cast my burdens, wholly on to you. Thank you for every friend I have Lord, thank you for everyone I know, thank you when I can feel forgiveness, to my greatest foe. Thank you for leisure and employment, thank you for every heartfelt joy, thank you for all that makes me happy, and for melody. Thank you for free and full salvation, thank you for grace to hold it fast, thank you, O Lord I want to thank you, that I’m free to thank.”

It makes a great difference to our lives when we realise that there really is a God who is good and who is the Giver of every good and perfect gift. When things go well, we can gladly thank him and when hard times come, we can trust him to be with us and to help us. In one of his hymns Joseph Hart expressed his delight in his God and Father, “How good is the God we adore, our faithful unchangeable friend, we’ll praise him for all that is past and trust him for all that’s to come.”

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My talent is a gift from him

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce won the women’s 100 metres gold medal at the 2019 World Athletic Championships in Doha. Her time was one of the fastest she has ever recorded. This is the fourth time she has won the 100 metres gold medal at the World Championships and the first she has won since becoming a mother. She won gold medals in 2009, 2013, 2015 but missed the 2017 Championships because of the birth of her son Zyon. Shelly-Ann has also won two Olympic 100 metres gold medals. Her nickname is the “Pocket Rocket” because she is just 5 feet tall and explodes out of the blocks. Some experts say she is possibly the greatest female sprinter in history.

Shelly-Ann was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and grew up in a deprived community. Her mother, Maxine, was a single parent who worked as a street vendor to feed and care for her family. Recently Shelly-Ann spoke about her childhood, “I suffered from self-esteem issues because I didn’t have nice clothes and a nice house and had to take the bus. I wanted to fit in and would make up stories just to be accepted, so I can relate to issues of poverty.”

Shelly-Ann grew up in church. When she was 12 years old, she made a decision at a church camp that changed her life. “That week was so refreshing because we were separated from the world and I was able to make the decision that Christ is what I wanted. When I came home, I got baptized.” But as a young Christian Shelly-Ann had serious struggles. “I had just started high school. In the second or third form I went off track because I wanted to be with my friends and be a part of the crowd – it didn’t fit in with being a Christian.”

In 2008 Shelly-Ann went to the Olympics and won but was still struggling. “Everything I had asked God for and prayed about I got. I had the money, I had everything I really wanted, but I wasn’t happy. Then in 2009 I won again and still wasn’t happy. I knew something was missing and I decided it was time to go back to church and start living for Christ. Now Christ is in everything I do, and I talk to him every day. People ask why I’m always smiling at the line – it’s because it’s a privilege and an honour to run and God is with me no matter what. Whether I win or lose, it doesn’t matter to me because my talent is a gift from him.”

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Remembering Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch post-impressionist painter and is among the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. In the last 10 years of his life he created 2,100 works of art including 860 oil paintings. His most famous works include The Starry Night and Sunflowers. Vincent was a complex person who struggled with poor mental health and depression for much of his life. He was always poor and died tragically at the age of 37.

Vincent was a serious, quiet and thoughtful child. His father was a Dutch Reformed minister and Vincent developed a fervent faith and a passion for ministry. He wanted to study theology but failed the seminary entrance exam, so he became a missionary to coal miners in Belgium. In these impoverished communities Vincent lived a life of radical self-sacrifice and servanthood. He sold everything he had so he could care for the needs of the people.

Vincent was a very generous man. He understood the unconditional love of God and showed unconditional love for others. He would never recognise love that was not seen in actions. Despite his commitment to Christ-like sacrifice, Vincent was rejected by the church for being overzealous, and for his ineloquent speech and scruffy appearance. He suffered a nervous breakdown and struggled with depression for the rest of his life.

Vincent died in unusual circumstances in what was thought to be suicide, but he may have been accidentally shot by two boys who later made a statement admitting they were target shooting near where Vincent was found. As he lay dying Vincent told the police, “I’m hurt, but don’t blame anybody else.”

The Christian message is not about what God demands that we do, but about what he has done for us in Jesus. It offers hope to us all, however troubled our lives may be. One song sums it up well, “Upon a life I have not lived, upon a death I did not die; another’s life, another’s death, I stake my whole eternity. Not on the tears which I have shed, not on the sorrows I have known; another’s tears, another’s griefs, on these I rest, on these alone. O Jesus, Son of God, I build on what your cross has done for me; there both my death and life I read, my guilt, and pardon there I see. Lord, I believe; O deal with me, as one who has your Word believed! I take the gift, Lord, look on me, as one who has your gift received.”

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Facing death

Every day we hear news of people who have died. The present death toll from the hurricane that devastated the Bahamas is at least 43 and the number is expected to rise dramatically. A good friend of mine, who is a doctor, has gone with a medical team from the States to the Bahamas to help. A few weeks ago, a suicide bomb in Kabul killed at least 80 Shia Muslim people who were attending a wedding. There have been 99 violent deaths in London this year, including 20 teenagers who have been fatally stabbed. Elderly and very sick people or all ages will die in hospitals or homes today. Each death brings a precious life to an end and plunges a family and circle of friends into grief.

When facing death, or grieving the loss of a loved one, many people have found comfort from the Bible. As they read the Bible God speaks to them and brings comfort and peace in times of deepest need. One of the best-known passages in the Bible is Psalm 23. One modern translation reads, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need. He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams. He renews my strength. He guides me along right paths, bringing honour to his name. Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me. You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies. You honour me by anointing my head with oil. My cup overflows with blessings. Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.”

Amidst the uncertainties of life and in the face of death, the last enemy, we all need the help of someone greater than us. David, who wrote the psalm, had been a shepherd and he knew God as the One who was his shepherd. Through his life God had provided everything he needed, and he knew would also be close beside him when he passed through the darkest valley of death. He would not be alone, at the mercy of his fears, because God had promised to be with him. David also knew that death was not the end because God, who had been his shepherd throughout his life, had promised him eternal life, “I will live in the house of the Lord forever.”

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The face of God

Facial recognition is in the news. This new technology can uniquely identify a person by analysing patterns based on their facial textures and shape. Facial recognition is now a security feature on expensive mobile phones and many people have biometric passports. Photo apps scan our photo libraries and identify people who appear in the different photos. But concern is being expressed because for some time private companies have been secretly scanning people’s faces and are refusing to say what they are using the information for. There is uncertainty about whether mass surveillance using facial recognition is legal or if it is an invasion of civil liberty.

One major premier league football club is considering using facial recognition instead of tickets at its matches. The technology would recognise the faces of fans and would be quicker than checking a ticket, although fans would still need to be searched before entering the stadium. To opt in, fans would register a selfie they have taken on their mobile phone, but the technology also makes it possible for fans to be identified from the growing databases of facial images.

Moses was a man who was given great privileges by God. On Mount Sinai he received the Ten Commandments from God who spoke to him “face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” However, when Moses asked to see God’s glory God replied, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. But you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

When Jesus, God’s eternal Son, came to this earth he revealed his Father in a wonderful way. His life, teaching and love for people revealed the heart of God through a human life. To know Jesus is to know God and to experience his grace and love. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Because of what Jesus did it is now possible for people to see the face of God and live, in fact, it is the glorious hope offered to all in Jesus. The Apostle John wrote, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! We know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”