The findings of the recent British Social Attitudes Survey on religion reveal a marked decline in religious affiliation in Britain today. For the first time, more people identify themselves as being of ‘no religion’ (53%) than those who profess an affiliation to a particular religion. Only 15% of adults in Britain now regard themselves as Anglicans, whereas in 2000 half the population identified themselves with the Church of England. The decline in living faith in Britain is in marked contrast to the situation in the majority world, where Christianity is growing strongly.
Some of those who identify themselves as being of ’no religion’ do, however, have some faith. For example, one in five of them a say they believe in life after death. This shows that, even if we opt out of formal religion, which can be less than inspiring, we cannot avoid the fundamental questions posed by our life in this world. Very few are committed atheists. Someone I know attended the funeral service of man who was an atheist. Nothing was said. The family sat at the front of the crematorium for a short time then stood by the coffin briefly before leaving. For an atheist death is the end, there is nothing to say.
Christians are followers of Jesus who died on a cross and rose from the dead on the third day. The apostles were eye-witnesses of the resurrection. Seeing the resurrected Jesus transformed them and they fearlessly proclaimed the good news about him everywhere they went. The early Christians were so committed to Jesus that they were prepared to suffer persecution for their faith in him and even to die for him. It is like that for some Christians today. For them, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
The apostle Paul wrote about the hope the resurrection of Jesus inspires, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died. So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. But there is an order to this resurrection: Christ was raised as the first of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back. For Christ must reign until he humbles all his enemies beneath his feet. And the last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
Many people in the UK today live on their own. In 2016, there were 7.7 million one person households; 54% of whom were women and 46 % were men. Between 1996 and 2016 the number of one person households increased by 15% for those aged over 65 and by 51% for those aged 45-64. In contrast, during that period the number of one person households fell by 12% amongst those aged 25-44. Some younger people are living with their parents longer than in previous generations and others are sharing accommodation with friends. In wealthy societies increasing numbers of people are choosing to live alone. In Scandinavia, for example, nearly 50% of the adult population live alone.
Not everyone who lives on their own is lonely, but many are. Those who have experienced the pain of marriage breakdown and those who have been bereaved feel it acutely. For them, living alone, eating alone and returning to an empty house at the end of each day is something they never really get used to. Communicating with “friends” through social media may help, but is not the same as human companionship and sharing the ups and downs of daily life with someone we love. It is good to have to consider someone else’s needs as well as our own. An elderly widow who lived next door to us told us that living on her own meant she could be tempted to be very selfish.
Jesus experienced profound loneliness when he died on the cross. On the night before he died he told his disciples, who had been his close companions over the past 3 years, “The time is coming – indeed it’s here now – when you will be scattered, each one going his own way, leaving me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me.” Yet, the next day, as he suffered on the cross, he experienced total aloneness as he paid the price of our sins. Out of the darkness he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Later, as he prepared to die, he knew the Father’s presence again. His last words were, “Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands.”
One of the great promises Jesus made to his disciples, as he sent them out into a hostile world to proclaim the good news of the Gospel, was “I am with you always.” Knowing Jesus as Saviour and Lord means we are never alone because, through the Holy Spirit, he really is with us.
The days leading up to Easter this year have seen tragic and horrific events around the world. Terrorist attacks in Westminster and Stockholm; a chemical weapons attack in Syria; a bomb on the St Petersburg Metro; the bombing of Coptic churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday; a suicide bomb attack on evacuees near Aleppo. People of many nations and of all ages have been bereaved or have experienced life-changing injuries. Where can we find strength and solace in such sad and uncertain times?
The message of Easter is one of glorious and transforming hope because, “Christ is risen!” It seemed to the disciples, and all those who loved Jesus, that his death on the Cross was the end. On the third day after Jesus died, one of his grieving disciples said, “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” The death of Jesus had crushed them and their hopes had died. Early in the morning of that same day, however, the women who went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body discovered the stone had been rolled back from the mouth of the tomb. As they stood there puzzled, two men suddenly appeared to them, clothed in dazzling robes and asked them, “Why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive? He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead!”
The resurrection of Jesus transformed the disciples and filled them with courage as they took the good news of Jesus to the ancient world. They were eye-witnesses of his resurrection; they had seen him alive after he died and knew for certain that he had conquered death. They were ready to face fierce persecution, imprisonment and even death because they knew that Jesus was with them and believed his promise, “Because I live, you also will live.” Today the risen Jesus is sustaining Christians who are experiencing violent and hateful persecution in some parts of the world.
I recently met John, who has regularly attended a church for 50 years but has never known Jesus as his Saviour and Lord. He was scientifically trained and this raised many questions in his mind. His brother, who is a Christian, wrote to him and encouraged him to put aside his questions and to simply believe the Bible’s message about Jesus. He did this and his life has been transformed; he is a changed man. He is at peace with God and has a sure hope for the future, because Jesus really is alive.
Christmas is a special time of the year. The preparations begin weeks before. There is a long list of things to be done; cards and presents to be bought, decorations and Christmas trees to be put up, school concerts and carol services, food to be bought and cooked, time with the family and, for parents with young children, an early start on Christmas Day! It’s no wonder we can feel very tired. But after its over what remains? When the food has been eaten, the family have gone home and the decorations have been taken down, what stays with us as life returns to normal?
Christmas is about Jesus. The person who is at the very centre of Christmas is the One who remains with us through all the experiences of life. He’s the One who can make a real difference to our lives. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem an angel announced his birth to shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy 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.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.
Like the shepherds why not “go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened.” The birth of Jesus is indeed good news and brings great joy to all who receive him as Saviour. He is the Prince of Peace. Through him we are reconciled to God, and to each other, and know a deep and lasting peace in our hearts.
Alfie, Connor and Dylan Bateman, who are just 2 years old, are in the Guinness Book of Records. They were born on 31 August and 1 September 2014 and are the smallest and most premature surviving triplets ever. They were born at 23 weeks and their combined weight was less that 3lbs. Early in 2014 their mother, Emma, was told she was carrying triplets. The likelihood of conceiving triplets naturally is one in a million. Thanks to the skills and dedication of the medical team, the boys survived and all arrived home 6 months after they were born, but less than 2 months after their due date. Today they are typical lively toddlers who keep their Mum and Dad very busy. Emma says, “I’m very thankful that, although the boys have some minor issues still to overcome, they don’t have any major health problems – they’re happy, content and cheeky.”
At Christmas, we remember the birth of a very special child. He was conceived in the womb of his young mother, Mary, by the power of the Holy Spirit. When the time for him to be born was near, Mary and her husband Joseph had to leave their home in Nazareth and travel to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census. While they were in Bethlehem the time came for the baby to be born, and Mary gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. This child, born in such humble and ordinary circumstances, has changed the history of the world and the lives of millions of people.
The birth of Jesus was accompanied by some remarkable events. An angel of the Lord announced his birth to shepherds living out in the fields near Bethlehem. As the glory of the Lord shone around them the shepherds were terrified, but the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”
When the angel had left them, the shepherds said, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So, too, why not take time this Christmas to consider the wonderful things God has done in Jesus? He can transform our lives today just as he transformed the lives of those shepherds in Bethlehem.
Christmas is a distant memory, but the arrival of credit card bills this month reminds us of how much we spent and how much we owe. At the end of November 2015, people in Britain owed £1.458 trillion. This is £708 more for each adult than in November 2014. By the end of 2016 the average household will owe almost £10,000 in personal loans, credit cards and overdrafts.
Debt can become overwhelming and destructive. I remember visiting Bob. He had gone through the pain of divorce and had also lost his job. He was in serious debt. He hated the sound of the postman putting letters through his door because many of them were final warnings. If he didn’t pay what he owed his electricity, gas, and telephone would be cut off. He had no money to pay and had reached his overdraft limit at the bank.
One Friday he had gone to his bank hoping to draw our £20 to get some food. The cashier told him he couldn’t give him the money. Bob’s desperation must have been obvious to the cashier because, later that day, after the bank had closed, the bank manager brought some money to his house! I talked with Bob and discovered the full extent of his debts. Then I went with him to talk to the bank manager and, together, we agreed a way for his debts to be paid and for him to move to a smaller property which he could afford. The crushing burden of debt had been lifted from Bob and, now, he had hope for the future.
The Bible speaks about another debt we all owe. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask God “to forgive us our debts.” Every day we all break God’s commands and our debt to him accumulates. Sometimes our sense of guilt becomes overwhelming as we realise how our sinful patterns of behaviour are destroying our lives, and the lives of those we love. At such times we feel utterly helpless, as Bob did when faced with his debts. The good news is that Jesus came into the world to provide a way of escape and to give us hope. By his death on the cross he paid the debt of our sins and we can experience forgiveness through him. One hymn says, “My sin, oh, 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!”
On 6 August 1945 the United States Air Force dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in Japan. It was the first atomic bomb ever to be used. It killed 70,000 people immediately and destroyed 63% of all buildings in the city. In the months that followed another 70,000 people died from their injuries and the effects of radiation. On 9 August an even more powerful bomb was dropped on Nagasaki killing at least 70,000 people. The overwhelming majority of those who died were ordinary Japanese people. This is the only time nuclear weapons have ever been used in warfare. On 15 August Japan surrendered to the Allies. President Truman and Winston Churchill justified the use of atomic weapons because it shortened the war and saved far more lives than were lost.
Group Captain Leonard Cheshire was one of the most distinguished airman of World War II. In 1944 he was awarded the Victoria Cross. He was a British observer on board an American plane when the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. He was deeply affected by what he witnessed in the destruction of Nagasaki and resigned from the RAF. In 1948 he established The Leonard Cheshire Homes which provided care for disabled ex-servicemen to encourage and enable them towards independent living and the freedom to live life as they wished.
Today there are far more nuclear weapons in the world. 9 countries are known to possess nuclear weapons and several others are in the process of developing them. For the first time in history it is possible for all human life on earth to be destroyed. This is a terrifying prospect, especially because some nations and terrorist groups have hostile intentions towards their enemies and the Western world in general. Some people feel it is only a matter of time before nuclear weapons are used again with even more devastating consequences.
Jesus spoke about the course of world history. He said there would be continuing wars and conflicts, “Nation will go to war against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and there will be famines and plagues in many lands, and there will be terrifying things and great miraculous signs from heaven.” He also taught that God is in control of world history and that, whatever happens, hope is held out to all people in him, “The Good News about the Kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, so that all nations will hear it; and then the end will come.”
The lust for power has dominated the history of the world. The ancient empires of Egypt, Syria, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome were all supreme for a time. The two World Wars of the 20th century were caused by a desire to rule the world. Today the United States of America is the superpower. President Putin is actively seeking to extend the power of Russia. Some Muslim groups are seeking to extend their power. In a few weeks time we will be voting for those who aspire to rule us for the next 5 years.
How different it was 2000 years ago when a young man rode into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey. The crowds acclaimed him as their King. In his triumphal entry Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey.” The kingdom Jesus established was very different from earthly kingdoms. He is the Prince of peace. He never commanded an army and told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest.”
Over the years the kingdom of Jesus has spread to all parts of the world while the great empires of the world have come and gone. The alliance of the church with political power in places like Europe has been a distortion of his kingdom. The gracious rule of King Jesus has been spread through the proclamation of the good news of the salvation that he promises to all who follow him. When we know him as Saviour and Lord he gives us fulness of life. His rule blesses his people with “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.”
Yet, many of us want to retain our “freedom”. The strange thing is that it is only in acknowledging that Jesus is our King that we find true freedom. George Matheson’s hymn explains this very well. “Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free; Force me to render up my sword, and I shall conqueror be. I sink in life’s alarms when by myself I stand, imprison me within Thine arms, and strong shall be my hand. My will is not my own till Thou hast made it Thine. If it would reach the monarch’s throne it must its crown resign. It only stands unbent amid the clashing strife, when on Thy bosom it has leant, and found in Thee its life.”
The interview with nurse Pauline Cafferkey, now recovered from the Ebola which nearly took her life, was cause for great joy. This courageous lady went to Sierra Leone to help save lives amidst the deadly Ebola outbreak that continues to ravage that country and others nearby. Out of love for other people she put her own life at risk. There are, no doubt, people in Kerry Town, Sierra Leone, alive today because of the dedication of Pauline and her colleagues working with Save the Children.
On her return, soon after Christmas, she was unwell and was, eventually, diagnosed with Ebola. She was taken to a specialist isolation unit in the Royal Free Hospital in Barnet. There a highly skilled medical team used their skills and the available resources to save Pauline’s life. Having seen patients dying in Sierra Leone she said she was “definitely frightened.” She remembers one point, when she was critically ill and it seemed she might die, when she said, “That’s it, I’ve had enough.” But she came through that crisis and is now clear of Ebola. She is looking forward to going back to her family and her normal life and normal job.
Today good news stories are like oases in the desert. We are bombarded by accounts of the wicked deeds of evil people and the dreary preoccupations of our political leaders. It is no wonder that many suffer from some degree of depression. So the story of a Scottish lady who loves and cares for others at great personal cost is refreshing and heartwarming. We rejoice that her life has been spared and wish her well for the future.
The Christian message is good news. It tells us of Jesus who, motivated by a deep love, came into this world so that through him we might find abundant life. When he was unjustly sentenced to death and crucified his disciples were devastated. They felt as if there was no hope for the future. On the third day, however, everything changed when they saw their risen Lord and their hearts were filled with joy. Jesus had triumphed over sin and death and had given them a sure and certain hope. His promise to them was, “Because I live, you will also live.” He can also give us hope in the darkest experiences of life. One hymn says, “When all things seem against us, to drive us to despair, we know one gate is open, one ear will hear our prayer.”
The joyful message of Easter is “The Lord is risen!” On the third day after Jesus died the women went to the tomb early in the morning, just before sunrise. They had bought spices and were going to anoint Jesus’ body. As they walked they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”
When they arrived at the tomb, however, they saw that the very large stone had been rolled away from the entrance. They went into the tomb, but did not see Jesus’ body. Two men, in clothes that gleamed like lightning, appeared to them and asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, he has risen!” The women ran to tell Jesus’ disciples the news, but they did not believe them, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Later in the day Jesus appeared to the disciples personally. Then they knew that he really had been raised from the dead.
The resurrection transformed Jesus’ disciples. They were devastated when they saw him condemned and crucified. They saw the body of the One who was so full of life, and who brought blessing to so many, hanging lifeless on the cross. They were broken-hearted. The hopes Jesus had kindled in them died when he died, but when they saw their risen Lord their hopes returned with new reality and power. Jesus sent them out to proclaim to all people the good news that he had died for our sins and been raised again to give us a living hope. The lives of countless people, from all nations, have been transformed as they have believed in the risen Jesus.
Last week my wife and I went to a thanksgiving service for the life of a dear friend who has died from cancer. She was a young person in our first church and, as a teenager, trusted Jesus as her Saviour. For the past 40 years she has been a bright witness for Jesus to her family and friends. One of her friends told us she had given him a book, “Heaven is for Real!” As Christine drew near to the end of her life, the reality of heaven, and Jesus’ love for her, sustained her. She knew that, after she died, she was going to be in heaven with Jesus, her risen Saviour and Lord. His promise to all who trust in him is “Because I live, you also will live.”