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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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Abraham’s Table

In June 2020, 13-year-old Adeola “Abraham” Olagbegi, who lives in Jackson, Mississippi, was diagnosed with aplastic anaemia, a rare and life-threatening blood disorder. His body was not producing enough blood cells to support itself and Abraham’s life was in danger because of possible bone marrow damage. When he was asked how he felt about this serious diagnosis Abraham said, “I am a person of hope, so when you come against a big mountain, you have to remember you have a big God.” Thankfully, in November 2020 Abraham had a successful bone marrow transplant.

When he was recovering Abraham was told he could make a wish through the Make-A-Wish charity that grants wishes to children with serious illnesses. Most children choose a special treat like a PlayStation, or a special trip out, or to meet a celebrity. Abraham was different; he wanted a long-lasting wish. On his way home from a doctor’s appointment Abraham shared his idea with his mom, Miriam, “Mom, I’ve thought about it, and I really want to feed the homeless.” Abraham’s mom replied, “Are you sure Abraham? Are you sure you don’t want a PlayStation?” In an interview Miriam said, “As parents, we could only hope to raise good, God-fearing, productive members of society. We’ve always tied to instil giving into our children. Sometimes we get things wrong and sometimes we get things right; so, it’s nice when things go right.”

In September 2021, Make-A-Wish helped Abraham organise a day to hand out free food in Jackson, with food and donated by local businesses. They fed about 80 people that day. Abraham said, “When the homeless people get the plate, some of them would come back and sing to us and thank us. And it just really feels good, it warms our hearts. My parents always taught us that it’s a blessing to be a blessing.”

Abraham’s wish is still not fulfilled. Make-A-Wish will help Abraham feed the homeless every month for a year. Every third Saturday of the month, with the help of local churches and businesses, food will be provided to feed up to 80 homeless people. Abraham has called his new ministry “Abraham’s Table” and hopes it will continue after August 2022. Miriam says, “If I was out there on the streets, homeless, I would want somebody to think of me and to do something special for me.” Abraham also wants the people whom Abraham’s Table helps to know God’s love. Psalm 34, verse 8 expresses his heart for homeless people in Jackson, “O taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.”

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Facing our fears

Fear is in the air. During the pandemic many people have been afraid of catching the virus, of being seriously ill and even dying. Every day we are told on national television how many people are infected and how many have died. Some scientists are forecasting a very difficult winter ahead with more people dying from the virus and from seasonal flu. At the COP26 Climate Change Conference some scientists have projected the devastating consequences of global warming. Unless world leaders act now it will be too late.

Young people are being especially impacted by fear. They look to people like Greta Thunberg who has become a global voice on climate change. She is disdainful of the broken promises of world leaders to effect change while saying, “We owe it to young people to give them hope.” Greta says, “But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day, and then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

Fear can be a good response. Good parents teach their children to be careful crossing roads because they may be knocked down by a car. They teach their children that fire burns and that electricity can give them a nasty shock. Such fear protects us from danger. It only does us good. But fear can also paralyse us, especially when there is little we can do to avoid the danger, and our safety depends totally on the actions of others. This fear is increased when people constantly tell us there is no God. We are on our own in this vast universe and there’s no one there to help.

The Bible tells us that knowing the living God enables us to face our fears. David, who was a courageous man, said, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” In a time of national crisis, God spoke to the people through the prophet Isaiah, “You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you! Trust in the Lord always, for the Lord God is the eternal Rock.” In Psalm 23 David says that when the Lord is our shepherd, we can even face death without fear: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

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The only way out is through

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Christina Stanton and her husband, Brian, stood on their balcony in lower Manhattan watching with horror as the second plane flew right over them and exploded into the World Trade Centre just blocks away. The plane’s impact into the South Tower blew them back into their living room with such force that Christina momentarily lost consciousness. Brian shook her awake and, still wearing her pyjamas, Christina followed him down the 24 flights of stairs of the emergency exit to the street. Covered by dust and debris from the falling towers and struggling to breathe in a massive dust cloud, they boarded a boat that evacuated them off the island of Manhattan into the unknown. It would be months before they could return to their life in New York City.

Almost 20 years later, on March 27, 2021, another calamity forced them to leave the city again. COVID-19 had arrived, and New York City had become its epicentre. With cases soaring and the death count rising, Christina and Brian packed their bags and left New York attempting to flee this invisible enemy that was closing in on the city. Shortly after their plane to the Southeast landed, Christina began to develop symptoms of COVID-19. They had escaped the city, but not the virus. Christina was seriously ill and, as she left hospital, her doctor told her she had a 50/50 chance of survival. She spent over a month recovering, wondering if she would ever return home.

Christina said, “In 2001, I didn’t have Jesus. At the time, I identified as a Christian, but my faith was untested and shallow. I grew up in a Christian home, and as I got older church/Christianity was a box I checked off. I was in control of my life, and all I had to do was work hard to get the things I wanted and believed were crucial for me to be happy and satisfied.”

“After 9/11 I explored the Bible to know who this Jesus is. Fighting a deadly virus alone in a hospital far from home, wondering if I would live or die, I began to pray. I never wanted to stare death in the face again having no relationship with my Creator. This time I knew God was with me. I heard his voice and felt his love. Through these experiences, I discovered that while we can’t escape suffering, there is comfort and hope as we trust in our sovereign God. I’m not sure if we will return to New York City and rebuild our lives, but I know the only way out is through, with Jesus Christ as our guide, our hope, and our light.”

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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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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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Hope in the face of death

More than 3 million people from more than 200 countries have died from Covid-19. These people come from every strata of society and every age group. Most deaths have been of elderly people but that doesn’t diminish the significance their deaths. None of us can escape the reality of death for ourselves and also for our loved ones. In 1750 Thomas Gray wrote his poem “Elegy written in a Country Churchyard” reflecting on those buried in the churchyard, “The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r, and all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, awaits alike th’ inevitable hour. The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

The Bible teaches that death is the consequence of Adam’s disobedience at the beginning of history, which affected the whole human race. In his letter to Christians in Rome the Apostle Paul wrote, “When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many.” Underlying the diversity seen in the different peoples of the world two things are common to us all – we all sin and we all die.

But the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, brought hope to people of all nations. The Apostle John wrote, “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.” The Apostle Paul explained the significance of God’s gracious intervention in Jesus, “The result of God’s gracious gift is very different from the result of one man’s sin. For Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins. For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ.”

Because of Jesus, Christians are able to face death with confidence. They believe his promise, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.” Writing to Timothy, a fellow Christian leader, the Apostle Paul wrote, “This grace has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”

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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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They are mothers just like us

We live in a world of seemingly irreconcilable divisions and conflicts that take lives and spoil lives. So, it is very encouraging to hear of a Palestinian Christian mother, living in Bethlehem, who has taking steps to bridge one of the great divides in today’s world. She is building relationships with Israeli mothers through Musalaha, a faith-based organisation that facilitates reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.

When she was a young mother with three children, she went on a desert trip to Jordan. She said, “It was wonderful. It was really amazing, enjoying the desert and the nature. But before I went, I thought: ‘How can I meet with my enemy, how can I speak to the Israelis?’ I was suffering a lot at this time because of the war, the second intifada. It was a terrible time in our lives with shooting, tanks, and curfews. It was really hard to wake up in the morning and find bullets outside your house and worry that the next night you might be hit.” One night her mother prayed for her and she said, “I saw God and he comforted me, and this pain went. It was the only thing that helped.”

On the desert trip she heard Israeli mothers sharing how they had only just moved to Israel from Europe or America. She said, “It was hard. For the first day I couldn’t look at them or speak to them or enjoy being with them. I just thought: ‘You have come here and taken our land and now you are having fun. We cannot go out of Bethlehem. We are suffering, and you moved here and are living a peaceful life.’” But on the second day she started to look at them as human beings and thought: “It’s not them; it’s their government. It’s not them; it’s what they believe and have been taught. So, I started to see them as people and things changed in my heart.”

Now she goes to monthly meetings with young mothers where they learn about each other. She hears Israeli mothers talking about their fears. Their lives are not perfect either. She says, “Now I see that the Israelis are good people. They are mothers just like us and they have Jesus in their heart. Meeting together gives us the opportunity to be together and get to know each other rather than building a wall between us. I hope that in the future we can all live peacefully together and eat with each other, that we won’t look at each other as either Palestinian or Israeli, just as followers of Jesus and as human beings.”

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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.”