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Precious in God’s sight

In the summer of 2019 a young family set out from their home country of El Salvador to find safety and a new life in America. After a journey of 1500 miles Óscar Ramírez, his wife Ávalos and their 23-month-old daughter Valeria were in sight of Texas. They just had to cross a relatively narrow section of the Rio Grande River. The crossing ended in tragedy. Ávalos watched as Óscar and Valeria were swept away by the river.

Óscar took his daughter across the river and was returning to get his wife when he realised the little girl had not stayed on the bank – she was in the water. Valeria had apparently panicked when she saw her father go back across the river without her. Óscar was able to reach Valeria but couldn’t make it back to the riverbank. A photographer took a heart-breaking photo of Óscar and Valeria lying near the riverbank with their feet in the water and their heads on the reeds. Valeria is tucked into her dad’s T-shirt, as he tried to keep her safe, and her arm is around his neck.

Martín Espada has won the National Book Award for poetry for a collection of poems including the deeply moving poem “Floaters” influenced by the tragic deaths of Óscar and Valeria and many others. The first stanza sets the scene on the border between Mexico and the USA: “Like a beer bottle thrown into the river by a boy too drunk to cry, like the shard of a Styrofoam cup drained of coffee brown as the river, like the plank of a fishing boat broken in half by the river, the dead float. And the dead have a name: floaters, say the men of the Border Patrol, keeping watch all night by the river, hearts pumping coffee as they say the word floaters, soft as a bubble, hard as a shoe as it nudges the body, to see if it breathes, to see if it moans, to see if it sits up and speaks.”

No-one is insignificant in God’s sight. Every human being is precious in his sight. When a child was brought to Jesus he said, “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.” He also told his disciples, “What is the price of two sparrows – one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.”

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O come let us adore him!

Soon after he was born the infant Jesus faced a serious threat to his life. The Wise Men from the east who followed the star had asked King Herod for help in finding the new-born king. After consulting the religious teachers Herod told them to go to Bethlehem and said, “As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” After they found the infant Jesus, the Wise Men were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod and returned to their own country by another route. When Herod realized this, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under. Probably about 20 babies and little boys in Bethlehem were murdered and many families wept.

Herod the Great was a cruel tyrant. As he grew older, he became mentally unstable and was very jealous. Near the end of his life his sister poisoned his mind against his wife, Mariamne, whom he murdered, as well as her two sons, her brother, and her mother. After an unsuccessful attempt at suicide Herod died less than 2 years after Jesus was born. Like many other tyrannical rulers Herod didn’t face the fact that one day he would stand before his Maker and be called to account for everything he had done. There are no atheists in eternity.

After the Wise Men left Bethlehem an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream telling him to take Jesus and Mary to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous plans and to stay there until Herod was dead. God protected his Son who, as a young child, was so vulnerable. Herod’s kingdom came to an inevitable end but the gracious rule of Jesus, who is King of kings, was established and grew as people from every nation under heaven received him as Saviour and Lord.

The Wise Men travelled hundreds of miles to find the new-born king and worship him. Herod lived just a few miles from Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, but was never a true worshipper. This Christmas many people around the world have bowed for the first time in worship of Jesus, God’s eternal Son. The well-known Christmas carol is now true for them, “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem; come and behold him, born the King of Angels: O come, let us adore him Christ the Lord!”

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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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Mary was a remarkable young woman

Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a remarkable young woman. She grew up in the family home in Nazareth, a small village in Galilee. While she was in her early teens Mary fell in love with Joseph, the village carpenter, who was a few years older than her. Mary and Joseph made a solemn promise to each other that they would marry. Then God sent the angel Gabriel to communicate an amazing message to Mary. The angel said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, Mary. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.”

Mary asked, “How will this be since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” Mary replied, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.

Mary’s whole life changed! The fact that she had conceived a child before she was married was misunderstood. People thought she must have been unfaithful to Joseph and had brought shame on her family. When she told Joseph what the angel had said, at first, he did not believe her. He decided to quietly end their relationship until God spoke to him in a dream. Then Joseph took his beloved Mary home as his wife.

Mary is an example of a spiritual woman who loved and honoured God. She rejoiced in God who had been mindful of her humble state and was her Saviour. Like all of us she sinned and needed to know God’s forgiveness. She knew that the precious child she was carrying was the long-promised Messiah and that he would be called Jesus because he would save his people, including her, from their sins.

The birth of Jesus is a great encouragement to all people on earth. He is the eternal Son of God yet when he entered our world his parents were an ordinary young couple. He was born in a stable not a palace. No one is too unimportant to be valued by God. One carol says, “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.”

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A Great Rescue

Early on Saturday afternoon Matt, a good friend of mine, who is a member of his local cave rescue team, received an emergency call. A caver was seriously injured in the Ogof Ffynnon Ddu cave system in South Wales and needed urgently to be rescued. Matt responded immediately and joined the 300 volunteers from across the country who also responded to the call. Ogof Ffynnon Ddu is one of the deepest cave systems in the UK, with its lowest passageways 901ft below the surface. It is suitable only for experienced cavers who see everything from huge chambers, beautiful formations, to yawning chasms and thundering river passages. The rescue operation was very complex and Matt and the other team members would not get home until Monday evening.

The injured caver, George, and his partner were a mile into the 43-mile cave network when George fell suffering injuries to his tibia, fibula, jaw, and chest. He couldn’t move. When the rescuers found George, they immobilised him on a stretcher and began the long journey to the surface. There were many natural obstacles to negotiate including narrow passages, boulders, potholes, and waterfalls. It was exhausting work, so the rescuers worked in shifts.
It was necessary to undertake a long journey underground to get George to an exit big enough to get the stretcher through, but the rescuers were determined to rescue him however long it took. On Monday evening George and the rescue team emerged from the caves and he was taken to hospital. One person said, “Volunteers from everywhere were ready to put their own lives on the line to rescue a fellow caver.”

The greatest ever rescue operation was undertaken by Jesus Christ. We were all in great danger, so Jesus came from heaven to rescue us. The apostle John tells us, “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.”

Jesus laid down his life on the cross to rescue us by suffering the punishment our sins deserve. One hymn says, “He held the highest place above, adored by all the sons of flame. Yet such his self-denying love, he laid aside his crown and came to seek the lost, and at the cost of heavenly rank and earthly fame, he sought me – blessed be his name! Then dawned at last that day of dread, when desolate, yet undismayed, with wearied frame and thorn-crowned head, he, now forsaken and betrayed, went up for me to Calvary, and dying there in grief and shame, he saved me – blessed be his name!”

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Give us this day our daily bread

The fine weather in September helped farmers to clear the fields of the final crops and finish harvest. The warm, late summer sunshine meant that the crops were in good condition for storage. We all benefit from the hard work of farmers throughout the year that ensures we have the food we need. There have been complaints that some supermarket shelves have been empty, but the reality is that they have been less full than usual. We enjoy an abundance of good food at reasonable prices.

Some countries have serious problems because of a shortage of water. In Ethiopia, rising temperatures are making it harder and harder to grow food. If the rains don’t come, farmers have no option but to watch their crops wither and die. In Uganda, the poorest families face a daily struggle without clean water and decent sanitation and food supplies are uncertain. In Afghanistan, it is estimated that 14 million people, including 2 million children, about one in three of the population, are food insecure and food prices are rising.

Many churches and schools hold Harvest Thanksgiving services at this time of year. The familiar harvest hymns remind us of the goodness of God: “We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand. He sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain, the breezes, and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain. The winds and waves obey him, by him the birds are fed; much more to us, his children, he gives our daily bread. We thank Thee, then, O Father, for all things bright and good, the seedtime, and the harvest, our life, our health, our food. No gifts have we to offer for all Thy love imparts, but that which Thou desirest, our humble, thankful hearts. All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above. Then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all his love.”

As we give thanks for God’s bountiful provision for us for another year, let’s remember those in our own country and in other countries who are in need. Planet earth is unique. It produces an abundance of food, enough to feed everyone on the planet and up to 10 billion people. As we pray “Give us this day our daily bread” let’s remember the millions of people in our world, men, women, and children, who, because of poverty and human greed, don’t know where their next meal is coming from and let’s do what we can to help them.

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Who is my neighbour?

Recently I was driving on a fast dual carriageway when I saw a man in the central reservation waving his hands. As I got nearer, I saw an elderly man who looked very confused standing near the other man. It seems the elderly man had dementia, had left his care home, and had wandered onto the dual carriageway. He didn’t realise the danger he was in, but someone, seeing he was in danger, had stopped to help him and take him to safety. Some years ago, an elderly friend of mine who suffered from dementia left his home without his wife, who was his main carer, knowing and was knocked over by a car and died.

I was so encouraged to see someone who was willing to take time to care for a vulnerable stranger who was in need. This is not common in our society today. When we set aside the first Great Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”, the second Great Commandment: “Love our neighbour as you love yourself” also becomes a casualty.

A man once asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus told a story about a Jewish man who was attacked when he was travelling on a lonely desert road. The thieves robbed him of all his possessions, beat him severely and left him half dead. Two religious leaders passed by but, when they saw the man, didn’t stop to help him. Then another man, a Samaritan, came by. He stopped, cleansed the man’s wounds, put him on his own donkey and took him to an inn where he cared for him. The next day he gave the inn keeper money to continue taking care of the man. Jesus said this man showed what it means to love your neighbour as you love yourself.

The story Jesus told was especially powerful because at that time most Jewish people had nothing to do with Samaritans because they were of mixed-race heritage. Jesus taught that true neighbour love goes beyond the love of family and friends and reaches out to strangers. Jesus himself exemplified such love in coming from heaven to this world to seek and save people who are lost. His death on the Cross paid the price of our sins so that through him we might experience God’s forgiveness and receive the gift of eternal life. Christians joyfully sing, “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God. He to rescue me from danger interposed his precious blood.”

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I believe in God

Many people in Western Europe today have embraced secular humanism. They have rejected religion and believe in the freedom of each individual to set the terms of his or her own life. Nature is all there is, and science is the key to understanding our world, our universe and ourselves. They do not appeal to a supernatural being, such as a Creator, because they tell us, the universe came into being through a chance event, an accident. Our individual and collective future and happiness depends on the principle of the “survival of the fittest”. The consequences of this world view are being painfully worked out in our society today.

Bertrand Russell, who died in 1970 at the age of 97, was a very intelligent mathematician and philosopher who embraced a secular humanist world view and understood its melancholic implications. He wrote, “The life of man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach and where none can tarry long. One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent death. Brief and powerless is man’s life, on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls, pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way. For man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gates of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that enable his little day.”

The Christian faith stands in stark contrast to secular humanism. The Apostles’ Creed is a well-known summary of what Christians believe. It says, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.”

Those who believe these truths can face everything life may bring to them knowing that, because their Lord and Saviour Jesus lives, they will live with him forever. We all need such a hope.

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I shall behold his face

On 11 July Richard Branson travelled as a passenger on Virgin Galactic SS Unity 22, a supersonic rocket-propelled spacecraft, to the edge of space. This test flight lasted one hour and reached an altitude of 53.4 miles above the earth. It was the first flight with a full crew and was the culmination of 17 years of work. The aim is to fly fare-paying passengers on joyrides to space and back at a cost of at least £200,000 each. Richard said, “Welcome to the dawn of a new space age. It’s been the experience of a lifetime. I’ve dreamed of this moment since I was a kid but honestly, nothing can prepare you for the view of Earth from space. It’s just magical.”

There is already a waiting list of wealthy people wanting a seat on future flights to the edge of space. No doubt it will be for them, too, the experience of a lifetime. But it will be an exclusive privilege only a few can enjoy and will last just one hour. Yet there is an experience anyone, whether rich or poor, can enjoy which is infinitely more wonderful and lasts for ever. Recently a good Christian friend of mine died from renal failure. His wife and family feel his loss very keenly, but are comforted by knowing that their loved one is now in heaven, in the very presence of God, the One who created the heavens and the earth.

The night before he died on the Cross Jesus told 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.”

People from every nation, whether rich or poor, educated or uneducated, young or old, who have received Jesus Christ as their Saviour have this wonderful hope. They know that when they die, they will go to heaven and be with their Saviour for ever. It is God’s free gift to them. A well-known hymn says, “God by himself has sworn, I on this oath depend: I shall, on eagle wings upborne, to heaven ascend. I shall behold his face, I shall his power adore, and sing the wonders of his grace for evermore.”

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From Pitch to Pulpit

Gavin Peacock has just published his autobiography, “A Greater Glory: from Pitch to Pulpit.” Gavin’s father, Keith, played for Charlton and Gavin’s ambition was to be a professional footballer. When he was 16, he left school to play for Queens Park Rangers. Later he played for Newcastle United and Chelsea. During his career he made 540 league appearances and scored more than 100 goals. One of the highlights of his career was playing for Chelsea against Manchester United at Wembley in the 1994 FA Cup Final. After he retired Gavin worked for the BBC as a football pundit on Match of the Day.

Looking back Gavin says, “I’d achieved the schoolboy dream, if you like, I’d achieved everything that the world says will make you happy – the fame, the potential fortune, and the great career. And yet I wasn’t satisfied as I thought I would be, because football was my god. If I played well, I was up and if I played badly, I was down.”

One Sunday evening, when Gavin was 18, his mother said she was going to church, and he went with her. After the service the minister invited Gavin to the small youth group at the minister’s house. Gavin immediately noticed a difference between the other youngsters and himself: “I pulled up in a nice car, I had that bit of money in my pocket, the career, I was in the ‘in-crowd’, they weren’t. And yet when they spoke about Jesus Christ, when they prayed, there was a joy that they had, and a reality that they had that I didn’t.” Over the next few weeks, Gavin heard the good news about Jesus, recognised his sinfulness and received Jesus Christ as his Saviour. With his new-found faith, he continued with his career, no longer idolising football, but putting God at the centre.

In 2006 Gavin felt a call to preach, which he calls a “joyful compulsion”, and trained for Christian ministry. He and his family moved to Calgary in Canada where he is known more for his faith than his footballing past. He serves as a pastor at Calvary Grace Church. Drawing comparisons between football and faith, Gavin says: “I’ve played in front of 100,000 people at Wembley, and in front of millions on TV, in the biggest of stadiums, and against some of the great players. But nothing quite compares to going up there on a Sunday, whether it’s 25 people or 2,500 people, and preaching God’s Word. Because eternity and heaven and hell hang in the balance and you’re dealing with people’s souls; there’s no greater privilege.”