A special place in heaven

Recently the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, told journalists there was “a special place in hell” for those who promoted Brexit in the UK without having even a sketch plan for how to carry it out safely. It is very unusual to hear politicians talking about eternal issues, but Mr Tusk, who was the Prime Minister of Poland, grew up in the Roman Catholic Church where he would have been taught to fear God. However, the strange idea that people who disagree with our personal political vision will be punished by God for ever is entirely without basis.

The Bible does teach that our actions have consequences. We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due to us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. People who escape being called to account in this life do not “get away with it” because God will judge them. Death does not pay all debts. Men like Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot and Jimmy Saville have been judged justly by God. He is the judge of all the earth, and he does what is right.

It is not only notoriously wicked people who are judged; we will all stand before God. The solemn truth is that we all sin every day of our lives. We do and say things we know are wrong. The Bible teaches that throughout all human history, there is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, we have together become worthless; there is no one who does good. Even our best actions are stained by pride and self-righteousness.

However, God has graciously intervened through his Son, Jesus Christ, to offer hope to all people. One of the best-known verses in the Bible says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” When he died on the Cross Jesus took the punishment we deserve and paid the price of our sins. All who put their trust in him receive the gift of eternal life. The night before he died Jesus told his disciples he was going to his Father’s house in heaven to prepare a place for them. How wonderful to know that Jesus has prepared a special place in heaven for unworthy people like us!

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.”

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.”

Change is possible

We live in a violent world. Terrorists use bombs and vehicles to kill and injure innocent people. Drug gangs employ and intimidate young people to carry out their evil trade. Those who “fail” are killed or seriously wounded to teach them a lesson. The streets of our great cities are not safe places because of the increase in violent crimes. Prison staff struggle to control violent inmates. There are an increasing number of violent assaults on prison staff and on hospital staff in A&E departments. Is it possible for violent people to change?

Michael Franzese grew up as the son of the notorious Underboss of New York’s violent and feared Colombo crime family. Michael became a mafia boss and, in 1986, was named by Vanity Fair as one of the biggest money earners the mob had seen since Al Capone. At his most affluent he generated between $5 and $8 million per week from legal and illegal businesses. Rudy Guiliani, the Manhattan federal prosecutor, tried several times to put Michael in prison for his crimes, but failed. Life in the mob was dangerous and several of Michael’s fellow leaders died violent deaths on the orders of mob leaders. At times he himself was in danger.

However, Michael is now a changed man. It happened when he met Camille Garcia, who is a Christian. Michael fell in love with Camille and married her. Michael saw in Camille’s life what it means to be a real Christian. She was different from anyone he had ever met before. She told him that Jesus, God’s Son, came into the world to save people by dying on the cross to pay the price of their sins. Michael repented of his many sins and asked God to forgive him for the sake of Jesus and began a new life.

He went to the authorities and pleaded guilty to racketeering crimes. He received a 10-year prison sentence and vowed to walk away from the mob. Michael is the only high-ranking official of a major crime family to ever walk away, without protective custodies, and survive. As a Christian, Michael now seeks to help business people, student athletes and at-risk young people to overcome the odds and make positive changes in their lives. From his personal experience, he knows that with God’s help anyone, however bad they may be, can change and start a new life. Like the Apostle Paul, who had also been a violent man, Michael knows that “anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”

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.

The God of new beginnings

Alice Marie Johnson was enjoying a full and happy life. She was married to her childhood sweetheart and was the mother of 5 beautiful children. She was a manager at FedEx involved in training other managers. Then in 1989, after nearly 20 years together, Alice and her husband divorced, and her life began to spiral out of control. She developed a gambling addiction and lost her job. Then her youngest son was tragically killed in a motor cycle accident. In 1991 she filed for bankruptcy and lost her house. In 1996 she was convicted of being involved in cocaine trafficking and money laundering and was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

Alice knows that what she did was wrong. She says, “No mother should have to bury her child. This weight was unbelievable and was a burden I couldn’t sustain. I made some very poor decisions out of desperation. I want this part to be clear: I acknowledge that I have done wrong. I made the biggest mistake of my life to make ends meet and got involved with people selling drugs. This was a road I never dreamed of venturing down. I participated in a drug conspiracy, and I was wrong.”

Being in prison for life, and knowing you will never be released, is very hard. Alice wrote, “Some refer to prison as a place where hope dies. Some days I’ve found that to be almost right. But at the beginning of my time here I made a pact that I wouldn’t give up hope. Each time that I’ve come close, God has restored my faith.” While in prison Alice became an ordained minister and a mentor to young women who are in prison.

A few weeks ago, Kim Kardashian, an American reality television star, met President Trump in the Oval Office and asked him to grant clemency to Alice and to give her a second chance. On 6 June the President issued an order that Alice should be released. The White House statement said, “Ms Johnson has accepted responsibility for her past behaviour and has been a model prisoner over the past two decades.”

Like Alice each of us also needs to be granted clemency and to be given a new beginning. We are serial offenders in breaking God’s moral laws. Yet, amazingly God sent his Son, Jesus, to redeem us by dying for the sins we have committed. Jesus personally intervened on our behalf and pleaded our case. When we confess we have done wrong God forgives us and sets us free forever.

The inspiration of the Invictus Games

The 2017 Invictus Games are being held in Toronto. Invictus means unconquered. The Games were created by Prince Harry for former military personnel who have been wounded or injured in action as they have served their countries. Invictus is about the dedication of men and women who have confronted hardship and refused to be defined by their injuries. They and their families and friends have faced the shock of life-changing injuries and have together faced the long road to recovery.

In his opening speech, Prince Harry spoke of seeing three severely injured British soldiers while waiting to deploy to Afghanistan. He said, “The way I viewed service and sacrifice changed forever, and the direction of my life changed with it. I knew it was my responsibility to use a great platform that I have to help the world understand and be inspired by the spirit of those who wear the uniform. In the world where so many have reasons to feel cynical, and apathetic, I wanted to find a way for veterans to be a beacon of light and show us all that we have a role to play.”

He went on the speak of the impact the Games would have on those who came to watch, “I hope you are ready for some fierce competition. I hope you are ready to see the meaning of teamwork, the proof that anything is possible when we work together. I hope you are ready to see courage and determination that will inspire you to power through the challenges in your own life. I hope you are ready to see the role models in action that any parent would want their children to look up to. And I hope you’re ready to see lives changing in front of your eyes.”

The Gospel story is about love and sacrifice. Jesus is God’s Son and the King of kings. He came from heaven to earth not to be served but to serve others and give his life as a ransom for many. He was ready to pay the ultimate sacrifice in order to redeem people like you and me. On the cross he paid the price of our sins and experienced a depth of suffering we can never fully comprehend. On the third day he rose from the dead. He is the supreme conqueror. Understanding what he did and experiencing his love is life transforming. He lifts us from our own struggles and sorrows and fills our hearts with hope.

She has saved me

Sergeant Alexander Blackman has been released from prison and has been reunited with his wife, Claire, who tirelessly campaigned for him to be freed. On being reunited with his wife, Sgt Blackman said, “She has saved me. Her determination to keep on fighting for me has been incredible. You just can’t imagine anyone cares for you that much.” Sgt Blackman was a Royal Marine and served in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. He and his troops manned an outpost deep in hostile territory that has been described as “the most dangerous square mile on earth.” They served in stifling temperatures of 50C, under intense psychological pressure, knowing every step might trigger a land mine.

One day Sgt Blackman shot a severely wounded Taliban fighter whom they had captured. What he said and did was recorded on video. In December 2013, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. It was the first time a British soldier had been convicted of murder on the battlefield. Last month, after a sustained campaign spearheaded by his wife, Sgt Blackman’s conviction was reduced from murder to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. The appeal judges recognised he had combat stress and reduced his sentence to 7 years, paving the way for his release.

It will take some time to adjust to his new life. He has been dismissed from his beloved Royal Marines and has been offered a civilian job. He said, “Being out of prison is an immense feeling, but I am very conscious that my sentence is not complete. I have been released on licence, and there are certain conditions which I must – and I will – respect.”

All of us have done things that we deeply regret, but cannot change. We feel guilty and long to find forgiveness. The Christian Gospel tells how Jesus, God’s Son, came from heaven to earth to save us from our sins. He lived the perfect life we have failed to live and died on the cross bearing the punishment we deserve. How amazing that anyone could love us so much as to die in our place! When we know Jesus as our Saviour, we are set free from guilt and experience the joy of being forgiven. God’s forgiveness is complete and final; there are no conditions. When we experience God’s love in Jesus we, for the first time, truly love God from our hearts and cannot stop thanking him for what he has done for us; in Jesus, he has saved us!

It is a thing most wonderful!

The death of Jesus Christ on a Roman cross was both a tragedy and a triumph. It was tragic that after the remarkable events of his 3 year ministry, Jesus was rejected by the religious leaders and people. Jesus had taught great crowds who came gladly to hear him. He had healed many people from all kinds of diseases and afflictions; the blind, the deaf, the dumb, cripples, lepers, and those possessed by evil spirits. He had even raised to life some who had died. But his teaching challenged those who had power and they determined to destroy him and silence him.

Yet the death of Jesus was not a defeat but a triumph. The cross was not the end of Jesus, but the glorious climax to God’s great plan of salvation for all nations. From his betrayal in the garden of Gethsemane to the moment of his death at Golgotha it is clear that Jesus was not overcome by events, but was in control. As he was arrested, falsely accused, mocked, viciously beaten and nailed to the cross there was an amazing calmness in how he behaved and spoke.

Seven hundred years before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah had spoken in detail of his sufferings. “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering.” Isaiah also explained the significance of Jesus’ sufferings and death. “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

We all struggle to come to terms with our sinfulness. We “go astray” and “turn to our own way.” Human sinfulness is the cause of all the personal and communal misery in this world. Through Jesus’ death on the cross forgiveness and new life is offered to all because “the punishment that brings us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” As William Walsham How reflected on the cross of Jesus he wrote, “It is a thing most wonderful, almost to wonderful to be, that God’s own Son should come from heaven, and die to save a child like me.”