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The next life is better than this life

A good friend of mine has just died from cancer. A few weeks ago, he saw his consultant who told him he could give him no more treatment. My friend realised it was not easy for any doctor to give someone that kind of news. He thanked the consultant for all he and his staff had done in treating him and said, “I’ve been a Christian for many years, and I believe that the next life is better than this life.”

During the pandemic we have been very thankful for the doctors and nurses who have shown great dedication and skill in caring for the sick and dying. In care homes, staff have provided excellent care to their elderly residents. However, there has been a serious absence of spiritual ministry in hospitals and care homes. Such ministry is very important for both patients and staff. Ministers and other religious leaders have been unable to visit their people at a time when they were experiencing fear and deep anxiety as they faced the prospect of dying. Many have experienced profound isolation and loneliness.

In my ministry one of the great privileges has been to visit people who are seriously ill and to comfort them through reading the Bible and praying for them. I have sat with families at the bedside of a dying relative. We have read the Bible and prayed and quietly sung hymns as the loved one has passed into eternity. As they fell asleep in Jesus, we were comforted in knowing that they had woken up in the very presence of God and were more alive than ever.

When he was in lonely exile for his faithfulness to Jesus the elderly Apostle John was given a beautiful vision of heaven. He wrote, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ They are before the throne of God and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

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Holidays and holy days

The holiday season this year is different. For some months many people have not been going to their place work either because they were on furlough or were working at home. Schools and universities have been closed. Until recently, travel restrictions have made it difficult to book a holiday. As restrictions have been eased there has been a rush to book self-catering in the UK. Some have travelled to Europe on holiday, but now face an unexpected period of quarantine when they return.

The word holiday comes from an Old English word meaning “holy day”. Many holidays were linked to special religious days. This is still true of Christmas and Easter. In the Old Testament the great annual feasts were times to remember great events in the spiritual history of the nation. The Feast of Passover remembered the Exodus from Egypt when God delivered his people from slavery. The Feast of Tabernacles remembered God’s provision for and protection of his people during the 40 years in the wilderness.

In our increasingly secular society, our essentially spiritual nature as human beings has been marginalised. During the Covid-19 pandemic church buildings have been closed and spiritual leaders have been all but invisible. A notice on the locked door of a rural church in England informed people that the church building was closed and that they could pray to God anywhere “but not here.” People dying in hospital have often had no visits from a chaplain and funeral services have been attended by only a handful of family members and the funeral director and his staff.

We all need times for rest and reflection that holidays provide. From the beginning of time God provided a weekly day of rest for all people and commanded us “to keep the sabbath day holy.” Sadly, in the Western world Sunday is now “just another day.” When our children were growing up Sunday was their favourite day because we all went to church together and enjoyed a different kind of day with time to be together and to rest.

At a time when every day we are told about our fellow human beings who have died it’s also important to take time to reflect on eternity. The Bible describes heaven as a place of rest in the presence of God. In the book of Revelation John writes, “Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labour, for their deeds will follow them.’”

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Overcoming fear

The coronavirus pandemic has created widespread fear. The daily UK government briefing reports the number of new cases and deaths. The pandemic is the main news in newspapers and the media generally. Lockdown continues with no sign of being significantly eased soon. Many have financial fears about their jobs and increasing debt. People are taking greater care to keep well away from each other, and more people are wearing face masks or scarves. Medical staff and carers are afraid they may catch the virus. Fewer people are going to A&E departments for fear of contracting the virus so many hospital beds are unoccupied. We are told to have confidence in the scientists who are advising the government, but still many are afraid.

What does the Bible say? God promises his protection. In times of plague people have turned to the God for safety and reassurance. In Psalm 91 the psalmist says, “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’ Surely, he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly plague.”

God promises his presence. People who have contracted the virus have been put in isolation. Their families and friends are not able to visit them in hospitals and care homes even when they are dying. They have experienced acute aloneness. In Psalm 23 David says, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside the still waters. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
for you are with me.”

God promises a future hope. When we face the finality of death ourselves, or see loved ones dying, we need to find hope. In Psalm 23 David says, “Surely your goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” On the last night before he died Jesus comforted his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

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Murder on Christmas Eve

Late on Christmas Eve 2012 Alan Greaves kissed his wife, Maureen, as he left the house to go to his local church in High Green, Sheffield, to play the organ at the midnight service. It was a special Christmas for Alan and Maureen because their youngest daughter, a missionary working in Mozambique, was home for the first time in several years. It was a bitterly cold night.

Alan never got to the church because he was attacked by two young men with pickaxe handles who savagely beat him around the head leaving him unconscious. Maureen, who had gone to bed to wait for Alan’s return, heard an ambulance go past their house and quietly prayed that God would help whoever needed medical help

Two Police officers rang Maureen’s doorbell just after midnight to tell her Alan had had an accident. Not knowing how serious Alan’s injuries were, Maureen drove to the hospital expecting to be able to bring him home to share Christmas Day with the family. As soon as the consultant walked into the room Maureen knew it was bad news. She asked, “Is he dying?” and the consultant said, “I’m afraid so.”

On the way to the room where Alan was Maureen prayed, “Please Heavenly Father, be with me on this very unexpected journey and may this great heartache I am going through be for your glory.” When she got to the room, she couldn’t recognise her beloved husband because his injuries were so horrific. She knew he was dying. She sat with him for two and a half days until he went to heaven to be with Jesus. Maureen and their 4 children were truly heartbroken and felt the loss of Alan deeply.

When, a few days later, Maureen spoke to reporters they asked her why she still believed in God if he had allowed this to happen? She replied, “I can sincerely say that I have never felt angry with God. Ever since becoming a Christian I have believed, read and loved the Bible. It is God’s message to humanity and explains so much of what is going on in this world. Terrible things happen because people have turned their backs on God. Instead of asking ‘Why?’ I ask, ‘How am I going to get through this?’ As a Christian, I have Someone who is walking the journey with me. God is there, and he makes all the difference. Whoever I meet knows that I have suffered, but I can share with them that God’s peace and presence with me has been real throughout the years.”

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No change my heart shall fear

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.”

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They followed the star

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.”

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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.”

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The Greatest Story ever told

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.

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Abide with me

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.”

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Footprints in the Sand

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.”