We live in a world of change. In the sphere of technology once state-of the art gadgets are suddenly out of date. Great changes have also taken place in the moral sphere. In Britain the absolute standards of the Ten Commandments have been set aside in favour of “British values” – democracy; the rule of law; individual liberty; and mutual respect for and tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith. People do things because they believe it is “the right thing to do” rather than because it is the morally right thing to do. Relativism rules.
Change also impacts our personal lives. People who have worked for decades for the same company suddenly find themselves being made redundant because a decision has been taken “for economic reasons” to relocate production to another country. We lived in Deeside when, in 1980, the Shotton Steelworks closed putting 6500 people out of work in a single day. People’s financial future became uncertain because finding another job was very difficult. Life for many would never be the same.
Change can also suddenly come through illness or death. People experience life-changing events when they receive a diagnosis of cancer or have a heart attack or stroke. There are people now lying on hospital beds who have lost the use of an arm and leg and cannot speak. Or someone we have loved and shared our lives with dies, and we have to face the finality of death. Friends and family gather round to provide loving support, but it is not long before we must face the pain of loneliness and loss.
When life-changing events happen, we can find peace and hope as we trust in God and his Son Jesus. A well-known hymn expresses it well, “In heavenly love abiding, no change my heart shall fear; and safe is such confiding, for nothing changes here. The storm may roar without me, my heart may low be laid, but God is round about me, and can I be dismayed? Wherever He may guide me, no want shall turn me back; my Shepherd is beside me, and nothing can I lack. His wisdom ever waketh, his sight is never dim; He knows the way He taketh, and I will walk with Him. Green pastures are before me, which yet I have not seen; bright skies will soon be o’er me, where the dark clouds have been. My hope I cannot measure, my path to life is free; my Saviour has my treasure, and He will walk with me.”
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem wise men from the east came to visit him. They probably came from Persia, modern Iran, and travelled hundreds of miles to get to Bethlehem. These men were Magi and were experts in astronomy and astrology. They had seen a new star appear and knew it was a sign that something very important had happened. The star was God’s sign to the people of the world that his Son, Jesus, had been born. The Magi understood that the child who had been born was a great king, so they followed the star in order to visit him.
God revealed himself to the Magi, who studied the stars, in a way they could understand. He still does that today as he makes us aware of his presence and his power through everyday events. I once met a man who worked on a North Sea oil rig. He told me that he knew God existed and cared about him because of something that happened to him. After a period of shore leave, he had travelled to Aberdeen to catch a helicopter back to his rig. His train was delayed and he missed the flight he was meant to be on. That helicopter crashed into the sea killing everyone on board. The man felt God had protected him, but it didn’t make any difference to his life. The Magi weren’t like that because when they saw the star they followed it until they found the Christ-child.
The star guided the wise men until it stopped over the place where Jesus was. They were overjoyed and went into the house where Jesus, and his mother Mary, were. They bowed down and worshipped him. It was an amazing scene as these learned, dignified and important men bowed in humble and joyful worship before this child who was born to be king. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, for a king, frankincense, for worship, and myrrh, in preparation for the pain and suffering this child would later experience.
The wise men are a great example to us. They wanted to know God and were determined to follow the star wherever it went until they found the new king who had been born. When they saw the Christ-child their lives were transformed. They experienced the truth of one of God’s great promises, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
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.”
The story of Jesus has been called “The Greatest Story ever told.” It is more than a story it is history; it really happened. For many centuries, the Jewish people had been waiting for God’s promised Messiah to come. Jesus was that Messiah, or Christ. His mother Mary lived in Nazareth, a small village in Galilee. She was in her teens and was engaged to Joseph, the village carpenter. They were looking forward to the day when they would be married and had no idea of God’s amazing plan for them.
One day an angel appeared to Mary and told her, “Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So, the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God.” Mary’s response was, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.”
When Mary told Joseph she had conceived a child he, understandably, assumed she had been unfaithful to him. Because he loved Mary deeply, and didn’t want to disgrace her publicly, he decided to break the engagement quietly. As he was considering this he had a dream in which an angel told him that Mary had conceived the child by the power of the Holy Spirit. What had happened to her had been foretold 600 years earlier by the prophet Isaiah, who had said that a virgin would conceive and give birth to a son. So Joseph obeyed the angel and joyfully took Mary as his wife.
Joseph was told the name he was to give to the child, “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus, God’s eternal Son, came into the world to save us from our sins. As we look at our own lives, and the tragic state of the world around us, there is no doubt we all need a Saviour. Jesus died bearing the punishment our sins deserve. When we put our trust in him our sins are forgiven. Jesus was also called “Immanuel” which means “God is with us.” When we know him as our Saviour, we know his gracious presence and help always and can face every situation in life.
For nearly 90 years a hymn has been sung before the FA Cup Final begins. Since 1927 the crowd has sung the well-known hymn “Abide with me.” This year a choir representing each team that played in the 3rd round of the Cup led the singing. The hymn has also been sung at every Rugby League Challenge Cup Final since 1929 and was sung at the 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony.
The hymn was written by Henry Frances Lyte. He was a curate in the fishing village of Lower Brixham in Devon. The hymn is a prayer to God asking that we might know his presence with us in all the experiences of life and in death. It expresses the aloneness we often feel and our longing to know God’s presence and peace in times of trial and especially when the time comes for us to die. “Abide with me” was sung by soldiers in the trenches in World War I and is always sung at the Royal British Legion’s Festival of Remembrance. Nurse Edith Cavell sang it the night before the Germans shot her for helping British soldiers to escape from occupied Belgium.
The hymn reminds us of our human frailty and the brevity of life. “Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; the darkness deepens; Lord with me abide. When other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless, O abide with me. Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day; earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away; change and decay in all around I see; O Thou who changest not, abide with me.” All the experiences of this life are fleeting as we move inexorably to our last hour, which we must each face alone.
How wonderful it is to know that we can turn to the eternal God who will hear our prayer so that we will never be alone! “I need Thy presence every passing hour. What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power? Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be? Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me. I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless; ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness. Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory? I triumph still, if Thou abide with me. Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; shine through the gloom and point me to the skies. Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”
Mary Stevenson was born on 8 November 1922 in Chester, Pennsylvania. Her life was far from easy. She was one of 8 children and lost her mother when she was just 6 years old. As a child she lived through the Great Depression that was a very difficult time for the whole family. While still in her teens, Mary married a man who became very abusive to her. She ran away with her infant son to an Indian reservation in Oklahoma. After World War II she was divorced and her son was taken away from her. She moved to Los Angeles where she met and married Basil Zangare. Soon after Mary contracted polio. In 1980 Basil died following a heart attack and Mary herself died in January 1999.
When she was in her early teens Mary wrote a poem, “Footprints in the Sand”, that has become very well known and has been a help and comfort to many people. This is what Mary wrote:
“One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky. In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, other times there was only one. This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see only one set of footprints. So I said to the Lord,‘You promised me Lord, that if I followed you, you would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has only been one set of footprints in the sand. Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?’ The Lord replied, ‘The times when you have seen only one set of footprints, my child, is when I carried you.’”
Like Mary, we all experience low periods in our lives. It is so important at those times, even though we cannot understand what is happening to us, that we draw near to God and trust him. He is able to carry us, and our problems, and to give us a sense of his presence and peace. The early Christians faced great persecution; some were put in prison and many were executed. Through it all they found great comfort and strength in the promise of their Risen Lord, “Surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Hurricane Sandy is the largest recorded Atlantic hurricane in diameter. Winds spanning 1000 miles have wreaked destruction on a massive scale. After causing widespread damage in the Caribbean, Sandy moved north and struck the Eastern Seaboard of the USA, including New Jersey and New York. Many people have died. More than 30,000 people in New York need to be rehoused as the winter weather begins and another storm approaches. The cost of repairs and rebuilding will be more than $20 billion.
Hurricanes make people feel helpless. They know the hurricane is coming and that they and their homes are in danger, but there is very little they can do except to wait and try to minimise the damage. The people who live in the Caribbean and the east coast states of America are used to tropical storms and hurricanes, they happen every year. When reports come of an approaching hurricane some residents of states like Florida leave their homes and drive north in order to avoid it. After it has passed they return to assess the damage to their property.
Throughout history people around the world have faced natural disasters. Nearly 3000 years ago the author of Psalm 46 reflected on the relationship he and his nation had with God as they faced the powerful upheavals of nature. “God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. So we will not fear, even if earthquakes come and the mountains crumble into the sea. Let the oceans roar and foam. Let the mountains tremble as the waters surge!” He rejoiced in the eternal power and personal presence of God; “The Lord Almighty is here among us.”
In one community in New Jersey people gathered in a church building. No outside help had yet reached them, but they were helping each other and receiving encouragement from the church staff and members. They were able to pray together and ask God for his help. Many of them had lost everything they had, but they were finding help and comfort in the realisation that God was with them. They were not alone. One lady expressed the confidence of many of them when she told a reporter, “God is good!” Sandy has done real damage, but the goodness and mercy of God are even more real. He really is a refuge and strength for us all and is always ready to help us in times of trouble.
David, the King of Israel, wrote many psalms in which he reflected on his relationship with God. He rejoiced that the Lord was his shepherd, cared deeply for him and met all his needs. The words of David have brought comfort and strength to generations of people around the world. In Psalm 139 David speaks of God’s intimate, personal knowledge of him. “O Lord you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.”
David was conscious that he, and everyone else in this world, lives in the presence of the living God. He knew that God had given him life. “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because am fearfully and wonderfully made. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”
When we lose touch with God it is difficult to face the big issues that life brings to us. Today some people are advocating the legalisation of assisted suicide. They want the National Health Service to provide medical help for people to end their lives. They say that, because assisted suicide is illegal, some terminally people are being denied “freedom of choice” and “autonomy.” These proposals are presented in the name of compassion but really are very serious.
Our laws are based on a high view of the value of every human life. Our society is committed to providing loving care for those suffering from debilitating, terminal illnesses. As doctors and nurses surround terminally ill patients with loving care and expert medical treatment, they affirm the value of every human life.
It is very hard indeed to watch someone we love suffering from a terminal illness, but we do not have the right to take their life or to encourage them to take their own life. If our laws are changed, many people will have to live with the fact that they took an active role in the death of a loved one. It is so much better to find the strength we, and they, need in the promises of God. David wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”