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.”

Our God is the end of the journey

Last Saturday I stood at the graveside of a good friend I had known for more than 45 years. Standing with his wife, children and grandchildren and other family members I shared the deep sense of loss they were experiencing. My friend had died from cancer after a short illness. It had all happened so quickly. After the burial, we went to a local chapel where more than 200 friends had gathered for a service of thanksgiving. We sang hymns my friend had chosen for the service which all expressed his personal faith in his Saviour, Jesus Christ. The hymns were full of the Christ-centred hope in which my friend had faced death; the last enemy. The hymns reminded us that, though my friend is no longer with us, he is now safe in the presence of Jesus.

The first hymn celebrates the greatness of God. “And when I think that God his Son not sparing, sent him to die, I scarce can take it in; that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died to take away my sin. When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation to take me home, what joy shall fill my heart! Than shall I bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim; My God how great thou art! Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to thee; How great thou art! How great thou art!”

The second hymn reflects on our frailty and need of the eternal strength and grace of Jesus; who is the Rock of Ages. “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me Saviour or I die. While I draw this fleeting breath, when my eyelids close in death, when I soar to realms unknown, see thee on thy judgement throne; Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.”

The third hymn focusses on heaven. “My Saviour will never forsake me, unveiling his merciful face, his presence and promise almighty, redeeming his loved ones by grace. In shades of the valley’s dark terror, where hell and its horror hold sway, my Jesus will reach out in power, and save me by his only way. For yonder a light shines eternal, which spreads through the valley of gloom; Lord Jesus, resplendent and regal, drives fear far away from the tomb. Our God is the end of the journey, his pleasant and glorious domain; for there are the children of mercy, who praise Him for Calvary’s pain.”

The wonderful offer of forgiveness

Today well-known public figures are subject to scrutiny as never before. Those who stand for major offices of State, for example to be President of the USA, can expect details of their private life to be made public and to be critically assessed. The reason for this is to see if their public persona and private life match. What they have said or done in the past is seen as a reliable indicator of the kind of people they really are.

It is not only public personalities who experience inconsistencies in their private lives. All of us are familiar with the struggle to live a private life that is consistent with our public image. When we are away from the public gaze it is only too easy to drop our guard and to do and say things we would not do if people were watching us. The fact that we don’t want people to know the wrong things we have done in private is a sign that we are ashamed of them.

In God’s sight there is no distinction between our public and private lives. Our whole life is seen and known by him. “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes, and he is the one to whom we are accountable.” Jesus said, “For everything that is hidden will eventually be brought into the open, and every secret will be brought to light.”

Religion can sometimes be a cloak for hypocrisy. Some people who take a strong public stand for righteousness do not live according to the standards they lay down for others. Cult leaders, with many followers, have sometimes been exposed as men who have used their power to satisfy their sexual desires and greed for money. Jesus spoke against the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day who performed good deeds “to be admired by others.”

None of us can stand in the face of God’s scrutiny but, in Jesus, there is the promise of his grace and forgiveness. In Psalm 130 the psalmist says to God, “Lord, if you kept a record of our sins, who, O Lord, could ever survive? But you offer forgiveness, that we might learn to fear you.” It is a wonderful thing when we experience God’s undeserved love and grace and know that there is no longer any need to pretend because we have confessed everything to him and he will never count our sins against us.

First take the plank out of your own eye

Political leaders in the Western World, and those who aspire to office, face a relentless scrutiny of their personal lives. The press and media investigate their past and present conduct and often reveal potentially damaging facts about their behaviour. Usually the things revealed are viewed in the most negative way possible in order to damage the person’s credibility. Did they behave well when they were students? Have they paid all the tax they owe? Have they had illicit sexual relationships? Do they tick all the boxes of the present “political correctness”?

It is legitimate for those who will hold high office, and the power that goes with it, to be scrutinised. It is appropriate for the actions of our leaders in major events of national and international significance to be examined, as has been done by Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry into the Iraq War. The key issue, however, is not whether someone has ever done something wrong but their personal integrity and honesty.

The Bible honestly reveals the flaws in some of the greatest leaders. Abraham, the Father of faith, lied about his wife Sarah. David, Israel’s greatest King, committed adultery with the wife of one of his bravest soldiers and arranged the death of the man to hide his own sin. Peter, one of the leading apostles, denied that he knew Jesus despite having promised that, if necessary, he would be willing to die for him. The truth is that all of us are flawed. All of us have done things that we deeply regret and of which we are ashamed.

Jesus taught that, before we begin pointing out the faults of others, we should honestly examine ourselves. “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

The Bible also teaches the wonder of God’s grace. When we fall into sin, as we all do, we can confess it to God and experience forgiveness and restoration. God’s promise is, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.“

In the right place at the right time

One day in 1981 paramedic Denny Welsh was flying in an air rescue helicopter near Tucson in Arizona. As he looked down at the State Route 86 highway he saw a car sliding on its roof. Suddenly something flew out of the windscreen and Denny realised it was a car seat. The pilot landed the helicopter and Denny ran to the car seat and found an 18-month-old baby in it. The little girl, Misty, wasn’t breathing, so Denny resuscitated her. Denny put the mother and her baby girl into the helicopter and took them to the hospital. In the helicopter Denny resuscitated the baby girl again. Misty was treated at the hospital and recovered.

A few weeks ago Denny, who is now retired, met Misty for the first time since the day of the accident. She had been told by doctors that because of injuries to her pelvis, caused by the accident, she would never be able to have children, but she has a son. It was an emotional meeting because, until she met Denny, Misty hadn’t realised how close to death she had come that day. If Denny and the rescue helicopter hadn’t been on the scene so quickly she would certainly have died. Denny said, “It was just a miracle that we happened to be there at the right place at the right time. Misty made it by the grace God.”

Jesus told his disciples about the amazing way in which God cared for them. He said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” He also spoke of God’s special concern for little children, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”

Every Christian knows that they have received eternal life only because Jesus saved them by dying on the cross for their sins. They can never thank him enough for his amazing love. One hymn says, “It was a lonely path he trod, from every human soul apart; known only to himself and God was all the grief that filled his heart. Yet from the track he turned not back, till where I lay in want and shame, he found me – Blessed be his name!”

The God of second chances

On 11 June Vincent Uzomah, a supply science teacher at a school in Bradford, was stabbed with a kitchen knife by a 14 year old pupil. Vincent was very seriously injured and was afraid he was going to die. The boy had racially abused Vincent and had told his school friends he was going to kill him. After the attack the boy put a post on Facebook saying what he had done and 69 people said they “liked” his post. The boy has been given an 11-year sentence and Vincent may never return to a classroom.

After the trial Vincent said, “As a Christian I have forgiven this boy who has inflicted this trauma and pain on me and my family. Our prayer for him is that he will make use of the opportunities and support that will be provided to him to become a changed person who will make a positive contribution to society.” People like Vincent shine light into our dark world.

Why could Vincent speak of forgiving a young man who so obviously hates him? Hatred and revenge are the normal human responses to those who mistreat us; forgiveness is rare. Vincent is able to forgive the boy because he himself has experienced God’s forgiveness. He became a Christian when he realised his own sinfulness before a holy God and acknowledged that God could justly condemn him for all the sins he has committed. He confessed his sin to God and asked for forgiveness. He also put his trust in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who died on the cross to pay the price of his sins. Vincent experienced the amazing love of God and found forgiveness and new life in Jesus. Every day Vincent continues to need forgiveness and prays, “Forgive us our trespasses and we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Vincent’s experience of God’s love and grace in Jesus has also taught him that God is a God of second chances and new beginnings. No matter what we have done, God is able to change us from the inside and give us a new heart. That is why Vincent and his wife are praying for the boy during his time in custody. He, too, can experience God’s forgiveness and find new life in Jesus. This offers real hope to us all in our daily struggle with our sinful hearts and ways. God’s promise in Jesus is, “I will forgive their wickedness and I will never again remember their sins.”

The Cost of Discipleship – Dietrich Bonhoeffer remembered

This year we have been marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. We thank God for the many service men and women who courageously served in the Allied Forces against the Third Reich and the other Axis Powers. Many of them lost their lives in the conflict. There were also people in Germany who, both before and during the war, courageously stood against the power of Adolph Hitler.

One of them was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a Lutheran pastor and theologian. As Hitler rose to power and his anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions intensified, Bonhoeffer, and others, united in opposition to him. They organised the Confessing Church that publicly announced its first allegiance to be to Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer was banned from teaching theology and taught in an underground seminary at Finkenwalde until it was discovered and closed in 1937. Bonhoeffer went into hiding for two years and was banned from Berlin. Yet when synagogues and Jewish businesses were burned and demolished in November 1938 he went to Berlin.

In June 1939 Bonhoeffer left Germany to take a teaching post at Union Seminary, New York. Within a month, however, he returned to Germany and became a leader in the German underground movement. He raised money to enable Jewish refugees to be evacuated and was actively involved in seeking to undermine Hitler and his evil regime. The Gestapo arrested him in April 1943, soon after he had been engaged. In February 1945 he was transferred to the Buchenwald concentration camp and was hanged at the Flossenbürg extermination camp on 9 April 1945, just days before the camp was liberated. He was 39 years old.

A camp doctor who witnessed Bonhoeffer’s hanging described the scene: “I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he prayed and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued in a few seconds. In the almost 50 years that I have worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

In 1937 Bonhoeffer wrote a book entitled “The Cost of Discipleship” that was a call to faithful and costly obedience to Jesus Christ. In it he wrote, “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” His life and death are a great example of what it means to choose to follow Jesus Christ whatever the cost.

Remembering the Simba Rebellion

Fifty years ago the Democratic Republic of Congo was embroiled in a violent civil war. In 1964, just 4 years after independence, many Congolese people died as Simba rebels tried to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Moise Tshombe. One of the tactics of the Simbas was to take white people hostage. In November 1964 19 members of the Unevangelised Fields Mission were killed in the area around Stanleyville. The missionaries came from the USA, Canada, Australia and Great Britain and had been teaching in schools and running hospitals and dispensaries. Some of the Simbas who killed them were still in their teens.

Yet even in those dark days the light of God’s presence and grace shone through. The courage and kindness of the Congolese Christians was clearly seen. Although food was scarce they quietly left rice and plantains at the door of the house where their missionary friends were being held. When the Simbas threatened the missionaries the Church leaders, at great risk to their lives, stood up to the rebels. One pastor accompanied and protected a young English nurse for 4 weeks as she fled to the jungle to escape the rebels.

Some people, who are still alive today, were remarkably delivered from danger. Olive was a prisoner at Banalia with 8 other missionaries and children and 7 priests and 11 nuns. She describes what happened on 27 November 1964, “Simbas fleeing from Stanleyville brought the order that we were all to be killed. We were marched towards the river along a road lined with Simbas baying for our death. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of peace, knowing that, whatever we faced, God’s grace would be sufficient. Inexplicably half way to the river I and two of the ladies were turned back. We heard gunfire in the distance and were told that all the others had been killed. We could only silently commit them to the Lord.”

Congo has experienced other terrible wars. The civil war between 1998 and 2003 claimed up to 6 million lives. Yet through it all the churches have grown so much that today there are literally thousands of churches and hundreds of thousands of Christians. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

To have and to hold

My wife and I have just celebrated our Golden Wedding Anniversary. 50 years is a long time and yet the years have passed so quickly. It has been good to look back and to remember the many things that have happened and the many people who have been important to us in our marriage. We invited family and friends to join us for a celebration and many people came. Some had known us from childhood, others were friends and neighbours.

Marriage is the most significant life commitment we ever make and we were young when we made our vows. We promised “to live together according to God’s ordinance in the holy estate of marriage, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, honour and cherish until God separates us by death.” On the day of our wedding we had little idea of what lay ahead of us and how much we would need the help and encouragement of family and friends, and the love and grace of God, if we were to keep our vows.

The traditional marriage vows are very realistic and true to life. There are good times and bad times. Sometimes we have had very little and at others more than we need. There have been some times of sickness and, as we get older, we know there will be more such times. The challenge to continue loving, honouring and cherishing each other, as we struggle with our own self-centredness, is very real. And we know that one day our marriage will end when “God separates us by death.” We cannot know which of us will be the first to go to heaven and which of us will be left, for a time, here on earth.

As I look back on the years we have shared together I am conscious most of all of the importance of forgiving and being forgiven. The marriage relationship is very close. The Bible says that we become “one flesh.” In part this is a reference to the physical intimacy of marriage, but it is more than that. Our lives and our joy and sorrows are intertwined. This is why marital breakdown is so painful. There are many times when I have said things and done things which have caused sadness and pain. At such times I have needed to be forgiven just as we have both experienced God’s forgiveness through Jesus.

A very special visit

Last Thursday we had a very special visit to our local primary school. The two day NATO summit at the Celtic Manor in Newport was the largest gathering of international leaders ever to take place in Britain. On the first day of the summit President Barak Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron visited Mount Pleasant Primary School.

The US Presidential Cavalcade of more than 20 vehicles swept at speed into our community, flanked by police motor cycle outriders. Many police men and women were on duty, some of them armed. Some of the children met the most powerful man in the world, who sat on a small chair and talked with them for a few minutes, and saw the pictures they had drawn. Then after 20 minutes the President and his cavalcade swept out and life in our community returned to normal. It was a day the children and their parents and teachers will never forget.

This special visit made me think of another very special visit a long time ago. In his account of the life of Jesus John writes, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes. The one-of-a kind glory; like Father, like Son. Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.” The Bible tells us that Jesus, who had always been in heaven with his Father, came into our world and became a real man. He was the best man who ever lived. For most of his short life he lived in Nazareth with his parents and brothers and sisters and shared in the life of the community. Then, at the age of 33, he was falsely accused and condemned to die on a cross. On the third day he rose from the dead.

The visit of Jesus, the eternal Son of God, to our world decisively changed things. They will never be the same again. His death in our place, and for our sins, has brought life transforming grace to millions of people from every nation in the world. He came from heaven to give us eternal life. He came that we might experience his love now and then, when we die; go to be with him forever in heaven. In one of his hymns William Walsham How wrote, “It is a thing most wonderful, almost too wonderful to be, that God’s own Son should come from heaven, and die to save a child like me.”