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Good news of great joy

The birth of Jesus was announced to shepherds keeping watch over their flocks in the fields near Bethlehem. The darkness of the night was suddenly banished as an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them. The angel said, “Do not 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. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Then the angel was joined by a vast host of others – the armies of heaven – praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

God has broken into his world to give us hope. The angel messengers, who came from heaven, were accompanied by heavenly glory but the all-important sign was “a baby lying in a manager.” This baby was the long-promised Messiah, God’s eternal Son, yet the circumstances of his birth were so simple and unadorned – he was lying in a manager, an animal feeder. The baby was called Jesus because he had come to save his people from their sins. He was also called Immanuel because in his coming God has drawn near to us.

Whatever our circumstances this Christmas, it is important for us to follow the sign that points us to the Christ-child who gives hope and joy. He was born to an oppressed people living in a troubled world. Today our world is very troubled, and many people are suffering greatly. Many are afraid and hope is in short supply. A well-known Christmas carol says, “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.”

Jesus came to give us peace on earth now. We will never be at peace with each other until we know peace with God through his Son, who died on the cross to secure forgiveness of sins and peace with God. He offers the wonderful prospect of a joyful new beginning. The last verse of the same carol is a prayer, “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!”

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The Wonder of Reconciliation

In May 2019, 15-year-old Leah met up with a group of friends in a car park in her hometown of Northallerton. Connor, who was 17 years old, gave Leah MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy, a Class A drug. Connor was involved with county lines gangs which target vulnerable teenagers and use them to supply drugs. After taking the drug Leah collapsed and died. Connor was charged with supplying drugs and was sent to prison.

After the trial Leah’s mother, Kerry, and Connor’s mother, Tammy, were introduced to each other through restorative justice which brings those harmed by crime and those responsible for the harm into contact with each other with a view to repairing the harm and finding a positive way forward. Kerry didn’t want to meet Connor but agreed to meet Tammy.

As Kerry and Tammy talked, they were able to understand each other’s situation. Kerry realised that they had both lost something. Tammy knew her son was involved with the gangs and had tried, without success, to get help for him, including reporting him to the police. She felt a deep guilt and shame over Leah’s death. Kerry told Tammy that Leah was her “best friend”, and that she felt “a lot of hatred” about how she had died.

Following their meeting Kerry and Tammy decided to launch a campaign “Do You Know MDMA?” to get the message out that drugs kill. Kerry says, “People will look at us and think it’s an unlikely friendship. They will see us as two separate people, but we are both grieving. They are both our children. I feel if we can tell our story we can try to educate people. Leah died and I can’t let that be for no reason.” Many people have been deeply moved by Kerry and Tammy’s story and pray that because of their campaign other young people will not die from taking drugs.

Reconciliation is a powerful thing and is at the heart of the Bible’s message. All of us have sinned and rebelled against God but through his Son, Jesus Christ, God has at great cost provided the way of reconciliation. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. He gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, ‘Come back to God!’ For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.”

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Perfect love drives out fear

The desperate and tragic scenes at the Hamad Karzai International Airport in Kabul have vividly portrayed what terrorism is all about: producing terror in men, women, and children. The ordinary people in Afghanistan are in profound fear of the Taliban and thousands want to flee from their home country to avoid savage punishments or death for alleged offences against Sharia law. Taliban means “students”, who have been schooled in conservative Islamic teaching and are committed to militant Islam. The development of the Taliban in Afghanistan has been encouraged and financed from outside the country.

One of the accusations Jesus faced was from conservative Jewish leaders who alleged that he and his disciples didn’t keep the “traditions of the elders.” Over the centuries various Jewish religious leaders had added to God’s Law hundreds of their interpretations of that law so that keeping their “traditions” had become more important than the Law itself. Jesus said their “traditions’ contradicted God’s Law and made it null and void. The conservative religious leaders hated him for this. All religions are liable to such gross distortions and become especially dangerous when imposed on people by religious zealots.

Early one morning Jesus was teaching a crowd in the Temple at Jerusalem when a group of strict religious leaders appeared. It was one of the great annual pilgrimage feasts and they brought with them a woman they said they had caught in the act of adultery. They told Jesus that the law of Moses said that such women should be stoned and asked him, “What do you say?” They were trying to trap him into either contradicting the law of Moses or offending the Roman authorities who didn’t allow the Jews to carry out capital punishment.

Jesus knew these men were hypocrites. They had brought the woman, but had let the man go free, and were pointing their fingers at the woman to conceal their own sinfulness. So, he said, “Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she said. Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.” God’s love in sending his Son to pay the price of our sins creates in the hearts of all who experience it a profound gratitude and a deep love for God.

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Love your enemies

Sadly, there are many examples of hatred in our world today. Hatred between peoples leads to conflict, such as the present hostilities between Israel and Hamas. In Africa inter-tribal conflicts blight the lives of many people. The systematic persecution of the Uighur Muslims in China seeks to rob them of their human dignity. Many Rohingya people in Myanmar have fled to Bangladesh because of the brutal military regime in Myanmar. Some people use social media as a vehicle for hateful messages and threats of violence.

In Britain legislation has been enacted against “hate crimes”. The Metropolitan Police define a hate crime as, “Any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a person’s race or perceived race; religion or perceived religion; sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation; disability or perceived disability and any crime motivated by hostility or prejudice against a person who is transgender or perceived to be transgender.” This can include verbal abuse, intimidation, threats, harassment, assault and bullying, as well as damage to property.

In the hostile worlds of both the 1st and 21st centuries the teaching of Jesus is radical and challenging. In the Sermon on the Mount he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Jesus not only commanded us to love our enemies, but he also exemplified it. He came to bring reconciliation in the face of the deep-seated hostility between human beings and God. Even in the hearts of apparently respectable people there can be a deep hostility against God. Yet God, who could justly condemn us, sent his Son to be our Saviour. On the Cross God made Jesus, who had no sin, to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. The Cross was a place of deep hatred as Jesus’ enemies tried to destroy him. Yet as he hung on the cross Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” The life and teaching of Jesus shines a bright light of hope into the darkness of our world.

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Resurrection joy

Easter is a time of great joy. The resurrection of Jesus lifted his first disciples from a spirit of defeat and despair to an experience of great joy and hope. They saw their risen Lord who sent them out into the world to proclaim the wonderful message of the resurrection. This message has transformed many lives and the very course of history. The Apostles faced great opposition from their own people, and from the Roman authorities, but were unafraid. Most of them died for their faith – some were beheaded, others were crucified – but through their message countless people from many nations have found new life in Jesus.

Christian faith centres on the person of Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again to give us hope. Christians put their faith in Jesus, not in their religious observances. They don’t think they are better than other people, or sit in judgement on them, but are deeply conscious of their personal failures and need. They rejoice that Jesus has done everything needed to secure their salvation and gratefully trust in him as their Saviour. They have been delivered from the need to achieve their own salvation and, in response to his love, are free to live for Jesus and to tell others about him.

Many in the Western world have turned away from a living faith in God and Jesus and the consequences are clear to see. Evolutionary theory dominates. It offers no hope to our deepest needs, but declares its doleful message, “When you’re dead, you’re dead!” Yet God’s wonderful creation, which is plain for all to see, constantly proclaims that he is. He created this amazing universe and our little planet, which teems with life. He created each of us and put eternity in our hearts. We were created to live with him for ever and God’s freely offers us eternal life through his Son, Jesus Christ, who died and rose again.

Every day during the Covid-19 pandemic we have been reminded of death. Nearly 3 million people around the world have died and their families feel the loss deeply. Most who have died were elderly, but that in no way diminishes the value of their lives. Every single life is precious in God’s sight. The great evangelist Billy Graham, who died at the age of 99 said, “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”

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Loved with everlasting love

The bright sunny days and glorious blue skies have lifted our spirits. People are out walking, jogging and cycling and there is a feeling of springtime in the air. The natural world is coming to life again with the beautiful snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils bringing colour to our gardens and hedgerows. The winter is passing and longer, warmer days are in prospect.

The world around us speaks eloquently to us about God. The beauty and splendour of his creation reveal his great wisdom and love. Amazing television programmes show us close-up the magnificent wonders of God’s creation. Can all these things really have happened by chance over millions of years or is there a Creator whom we can know and whose love we can experience?

The coronavirus lockdowns have denied us normal contact with the people we love. We have been starved of their love and affection. People seriously ill in hospital, and in some cases dying, are surrounded by machines and caring strangers in masks. The loneliness and fear they experience must be overwhelming. Elderly people in care homes can’t understand why they have not seen their loved ones for almost a year. Children and young people haven’t seen their teachers and friends.

How uplifting it is, therefore, to walk in God’s creation and to be conscious that he is there. We are not alone in the universe, desperately seeking some kind of life on neighbouring planets. In love God has come to us in his Son, Jesus Christ. Knowing his love makes all the difference and fills our hearts with hope.

George Wade Robinson, who died at the age of 39, wrote a hymn about his faith in Jesus: “Loved with everlasting love, led by grace that love to know; Spirit breathing from above, thou hast taught me it is so. O this full and perfect peace, O this rapture all divine! In a love that cannot cease, I am his and he is mine. Heaven above is deeper blue, earth around is sweeter green, something lives in every hue Christless eyes have never seen. Birds with gladder songs overflow, flowers with deeper beauties shine, since I know, as now I know, I am his and he is mine. His forever, only his; who the Lord and me shall part? Ah, with what a rest of bliss Christ can fill the loving heart. Heaven and earth may fade and flee, firstborn light in gloom decline, but while God and I shall be I am his and he is mine.”

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When sorrows like sea billows roll

Many people find great help and comfort in the words of well-known hymns. They express the experience of the hymn writers and are memorable because they are written in poetry and set to music. Hymns enable us to express our faith in God and to rest in his wonderful promises in Jesus Christ.

One much loved hymn is “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well, with my soul.” The hymn was written by Horatio Spafford who had experienced several traumatic events in his life. The first was the death of his only son in 1871 at the age of 4. Soon after that the great Chicago Fire ruined him financially. He was a successful lawyer and had made big investments in property in the Chicago area.

In 1873 Horatio made plans to visit Europe with his family on the SS Ville du Havre. At the last minute, however, he was unable to accompany them and sent them on ahead of him. While crossing the Atlantic the ship collided with another ship, the Loch Earn, and quickly sank. Horatio’s 4 daughters died but his wife, Anna, survived. She sent him a telegram which simply said, “Saved alone.” Horatio made arrangements immediately to travel to see his grieving wife. As his ship passed near the place where his daughters had died, he wrote the hymn.

Horatio knew that in times of tragedy and sadness it is important to remember God’s love revealed in the Cross of Jesus, his Son, who “shed his own blood for my soul.” Through Jesus we experience God’s amazing forgiveness, “My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”

Jesus also gives us hope in the darkest times. Passing the place where his daughters had died Horatio wrote, “For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live: if Jordan above me shall roll, no pang shall be mine, for in death as in life, Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul. But Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait, the sky, not the grave, is our goal, O trump of the angel! O voice of the Lord! Blessed hope! blessed rest of my soul.”

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If anyone is without sin

Personal attacks on individuals through social media have become a common feature of modern life. People who express what may be perfectly legitimate opinions find themselves being condemned on social media by strangers. Or they may receive hundreds of abusive emails, some making serious threats to personally attack them or their families. Those who make these attacks claim the moral high ground and seem oblivious to their own faults. In such situations the words of Jesus come to mind, “If anyone is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone.”

Jesus spoke these words when he was at the Temple in Jerusalem. While he was teaching the people, some religious leaders pushed through the crowd dragging with them a woman whom they had caught committing adultery. It was at the Feast of Tabernacles when the nation remembered how God had provided for them during the 40 years they had spent in the wilderness on their way to Canaan. During the feast some people lived in temporary shelters, called tabernacles, and the woman and the man may have been among them.

In their deep antagonism against Jesus the religious leaders were using the woman as a test case to find a reason for accusing him. They declared before all the people that the woman had been caught in the act of adultery and, according to the law of Moses deserved to die, although this penalty had not been carried for centuries. Then they asked Jesus, “Now what do you say?” If he did not condemn the woman, they would accuse him of false teaching.

Jesus looked them in the eye and said, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” To the amazement of the woman one by one all the men began to go away. Jesus asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no-one condemned you?” She replied, “No-one sir.” Jesus declared, “Then neither do I condemn you, go now and leave your life of sin.”

It is a wonderful thing to know that God doesn’t condemn us. All of us have sinned, sometimes grievously, as this woman had. We are all guilty in God’s sight and have no right to expect his mercy. But God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Jesus is the Lamb of God who, by his death on the cross, took away the sin of the world.

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As white as snow

We have had the first snowfalls of winter. There is a stillness as the dark days are illuminated by the pure brightness of the snow. Each of the trillions of snowflakes is unique, carrying the Creator’s signature. In 1885, scientist Wilson Bentley devised a way of attaching his camera to a microscope so he could take photographs of snowflakes in greater detail than ever before. Getting this close made it even clearer that no two flakes are the same. Every snowflake has its own unique pattern.

The snow reminds us of one of God’s great promises, “Come now, let’s settle this,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, I will make them as white as snow.” God made this promise to people who had rebelled against him. They worshipped other gods, lived immoral lives and were dishonest. They looked for happiness in material things. They knew God’s law, but they wilfully and deliberately went their own way. As a nation they had turned away from the living God. So, God called them to account. In his mercy, he did not immediately bring on them the judgement their sins deserved but held out the promise of forgiveness and cleansing.

There are real parallels between those people and the way we are living today. Encouraged by politicians and unchallenged by weak church leaders our nation has turned from God. His moral law has been rejected and together we are fulfilling the desires of our own hearts. Inevitably we are reaping the painful consequences both personally and nationally. Even the terrible pandemic we are experiencing has not humbled us and made us seek God.

There are times, however, when we need to face the reality of how we are living. Like a person who wakes after a night on the town and looks in the mirror, we won’t like what we see, we won’t like what we have become. In the light of who God is we will see the tawdry life we are living and the deep stains our sins have left on our God-given conscience. We may long that we could go back and change the things we have done, but we can’t.

God’s wonderful promise is deep and real forgiveness. His Son, Jesus, died on the Cross to pay the price of our sin and rebellion. When we humbly confess our sins, and receive him as our Saviour, the scarlet stains of our sins are cleansed, and we become as white and pure in God’s sight as the driven snow.

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Because he lives

This year we’ve lived in a very different world from the one we have known in the past and the one we hoped to one day see. The future remains uncertain, despite the vaccines that thankfully are now becoming available. Many hopes and dreams have faded. We need to find a foundation on which to build our lives even when things are really tough, and from that foundation to find a true and substantial hope for the future, both for ourselves and our children.

In 1971, when the horrors of the Vietnam war were impacting many people, John Lennon wrote a song which became very popular. It was called “Imagine”. These are the words, “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine all the people, living for today. Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion, too. Imagine all the people, living life in peace. Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can. No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man. Imagine all the people, sharing all the world. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.”

John Lennon was not the first to promote utopian optimism. In the early 20th century, there was a great optimism that mankind was coming of age. It was believed that people are essentially good and through education would progress morally and in love for one another. Tragically two world wars, the Holocaust and the invention of atomic weapons put an end to that optimism. A shallow optimism was no longer convincing.

At Christmas we remember the birth of Jesus who brought hope to the world. One Christian song sums it up; “God sent his Son, they called him Jesus, he came to love, heal and forgive. He lived and died to buy my pardon, an empty grave is there to prove my Saviour lives. How sweet to hold a new-born baby and feel the pride and joy he gives, but greater still the calm assurance this child can face uncertain days, because he lives. And then one day, I’ll cross the river, I’ll fight life’s final war with pain, and then, as death gives way to victory, I’ll see the lights of glory and I’ll know he reigns. Because he lives, I can face tomorrow, because he lives, all fear is gone, because I know he holds the future and life is worth the living, just because he lives.”