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The God of hope

As a new year and a new decade begin our world is a troubled place. Perhaps you have thought carefully before wishing family and friends a happy new year because you sense the coming year may be not be altogether happy. Increased tensions in the Middle East suggest there are turbulent times ahead. The bush fires in Australia continue to rage and make us all aware of the consequences of climate change. The increasing global influence of China and Russia brings new challenges. In many places in Africa there is conflict, drought, disease and poverty. Personally, family life may not be easy. We, or other family members and friends, may be facing serious illness or the challenges of living longer.

So where is hope to be found? When the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Christians in Rome he said, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Paul himself, and the Christians in Rome, knew what it was to suffer. The Roman Empire was cruel and severely punished those it disapproved of, especially Christians. Soon after Paul wrote this letter, he became a prisoner and was later beheaded by the Roman authorities. In 64 AD Emperor Nero blamed Christians for a great fire in Rome. Innocent Christians were nailed to crosses, torn apart by dogs the arena, and set on fire to provide evening lights.

However, Paul and the Christians knew that whatever happened to them in this life they had a sure future hope because they trusted in the living God who is “the God of hope.” They and their loved ones were powerless to stand against the unjust persecution they faced, but they were safe in the hands of God. Knowing God gave them a true peace and joy even in the face of the most terrible adversities and their hope even overflowed. They knew that whatever happened to them in this world they were safe in the care of Jesus and would one day go to be with him in heaven for ever.

One Sunday evening a Christian minister went to visit one of his members who was very seriously ill in hospital. Another Christian in the same ward overheard their conversation. The sick man said to his minister, “They’ve told me there’s no hope.” The minister replied, “Dear brother, from now on it’s all hope!” That’s what it means when we trust “the God of hope.”

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Light and life to all he brings

More than 2 billion Christians around the world will soon celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. One in three people in the world are followers of Jesus. This is an amazing statistic. Jesus came from a small village in Galilee. His parents were ordinary people. He learned his father’s trade and was a carpenter. He never travelled more than 100 miles from his home. His remarkable ministry lasted just 3 years. When he was 33 years old he was executed by the Romans. Yet today millions of people from every nation on earth know him as their Saviour and follow him as his disciples. How can this be explained?

Jesus was the Son of God. One of our carols says, “He came down to earth from heaven who is God and Lord of all.” When the wise men from Persia, who followed the star, found the baby they “bowed down and worshipped him.” They recognised him as a divine King and offered him their gifts. Because Jesus was the Son of God he rose again from the dead. It was not possible for death to keep its hold on him. One of his disciples, Thomas, who at first doubted that Jesus had risen from the dead, saw him personally and said, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus came in fulfilment of God’s promise. From the beginning of time God had promised that a child would be born who would bring blessing to the peoples of the world. Through this child God’s great purpose for his world was going to be fulfilled. God is still carrying forward his gracious purpose for the nations. Today the good news of Jesus is being proclaimed around the world and many are receiving him as Saviour and Lord. One day “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.”

Jesus came to give us hope. The world into which he was born knew great sadness and pain. Our world today is very much the same. Jesus is the One who gives us a sure and certain hope both in this life and when we die. Many carol services close with these words, “Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Son of Righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings. Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give us second birth. Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the new-born King!”

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The “lullaby mothers” of the DR Congo

The outbreak of Ebola in the DR Congo is very serious. Over the past year more than 2,000 people have died out of more than 3,000 cases. Nearly 600 of those who have died are children. New treatments are available, but many people are afraid to seek treatment because this involves being isolated away from their family and being cared for by strangers.

Yet in the midst of the suffering and sadness there are beautiful examples of love. More than 3,500 children have been orphaned or separated from their parents by the outbreak. A group of grieving women who are at the epicentre of the outbreak, known as the “lullaby mothers”, are caring for babies who are orphans or who are at risk. They are providing these little ones with a priceless tonic: the human touch.

In April Joniste Kahambu lost her three-year-old son to Ebola, but she herself survived. As a result, she has antibodies in her system that protect her against re-infection. She has returned to the clinic where she was treated and is helping to care for babies who are being kept in isolation. As a stand-in mother she feeds the infants, holds and soothes them; a labour of love that she says eases her own pain. “If I had to stay at home, I’d think too much about my son. Many babies have lost their mothers and need our love. Caring for them is my way of helping the people who looked after me.”

In March, another of the lullaby singers, Gentile Kahunia, watched two of her four children die in a week, even as she herself was responding positively to treatment at the clinic. The love she once showed them is now given to the children of other women. She says, “I feel relieved and can forget a little about the death of my children when I take care of the ones here. I treat them like they are my own.” One aid worker said, “The touch of these women provides the orphans with essential human interaction and a glimmer of hope, their selflessness, kindness and bravery are immeasurable.”

There are many Christians in the DR Congo and the love of these mothers reminds us of the transforming love of Jesus. One day a man with leprosy came to Jesus and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched him. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.

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The peace that passes all understanding

On a recent Songs of Praise programme Simon Thomas spoke about the way in which God has given him strength since his wife Gemma died in November 2017. Simon became well-known to millions of people as a Blue Peter presenter before moving to Sky Sports news, becoming a lead presenter of Football League and Premier League programmes. In November 2017 his wife Gemma, who was also a Christian, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia and died just 3 days later. Simon and his 8-year-old son, Ethan, were devasted. At that time Simon said, “Today I am crushed with indescribable pain. If you pray – please pray for my boy Ethan, precious and in bits.”

On Songs of Praise Simon said he had never truly understood the “peace that passes all understanding.” He said, “I just thought it was a nice place to be, but actually it’s because you feel that sense of peace in almost impossible situations in which to find peace.” In the three days after Gemma was diagnosed, he said, “Everything’s coming at you – we’re wondering what on earth acute myeloid leukaemia is, and is she going to survive? Yet I experienced peace, amidst the noise and fear, that gives me the hope that one day I’m going to see her again.”

Simon continued, “The story of what Jesus did on the cross is what my faith is based on, and yet at times that’s impossible to get your head around and to draw comfort from. At times I’ve literally been holding on by one finger to my faith because it gives direction to everything else. It was the glue in our marriage, and it helps in terms of how we, and now I, bring up Ethan. You know, it’s the reference point for my life.

A hymn was sung at the Thanksgiving Service for Gemma which was also sung at Simon and Gemma’s wedding. The words of the hymn meant a lot to both Simon and Gemma and have given Simon strength since Gemma died. “In Christ alone my hope is found, he is my light, my strength, my song. This Cornerstone, this solid Ground firm through the fiercest drought and storm. No guilt in life, no fear in death, this is the power of Christ in me. From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny. No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from his hand, till he returns or calls me home here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.”

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Stop doubting and believe

The resurrection of Jesus is central to the Christian faith and to the message Christians proclaim to the peoples of the world. It is a message that speaks to the deepest needs of the human heart. Every day we hear news of people who have died, sometimes in tragic circumstances; a serious illness, a road accident, a plane crash, a terrorist atrocity or simply of old age. There are many things in life that are uncertain, but all of us know that one day we must face death. The resurrection of Jesus gives us reason for real hope.

The Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus have an unmistakable ring of authenticity. All his disciples, both men and women, struggled to believe that their beloved Lord really was alive. Early on the resurrection morning Mary Magdalene went to the tomb taking spices to anoint Jesus’ body. When she arrived at the tomb, she saw that the stone had been removed. She assumed that Jesus’ enemies had stolen his body and immediately ran to tell Peter and John saying, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” Peter and John ran to the tomb but didn’t understand what they saw.

Mary stayed at the tomb and it was there, in the garden, that Jesus appeared to her. She ran to the disciples with the amazing news, “I have seen the Lord!” That evening, in a house in which the disciples were hiding because they were afraid of the authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

One of the disciples, Thomas, wasn’t there that night. When the other disciples told him they had seen Jesus, Thomas said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” A week later when the disciples, including Thomas, were together in the house again, Jesus came and stood among them. He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” It truly is a blessed thing to believe in the risen Lord and his promise, “Because I live, you also will live.”

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Love and life in Jesus

On Easter Sunday terror came to Sri Lanka. Coordinated bomb attacks on churches in the capital Colombo, and other towns, killed and seriously injured many people. Hotels were also attacked. The bombs were timed to go off when the churches were packed with worshippers rejoicing in the resurrection of Jesus. At least 290 people have died, and more than 500 have been injured. Those who died include people from at least 8 other nations. These bombings are the deadliest violence since the end of the civil war in 2009 and the whole country is in shock. In many churches around the world people prayed for those caught up in these atrocities.

The Easter message speaks very powerfully into the tragic events in Sri Lanka. When Jesus was dying on the cross, he prayed for those who were responsible for his death, “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” He had taught his disciples to love their enemies and demonstrated this in the midst of his own profound sufferings. He told his disciples that they would be hated for his name’s sake but 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.”

On Easter Day Christians rejoice that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day after he died. His resurrection was witnessed by many of his disciples, both men and women, and transformed them. When he died their hopes had died but when they saw their risen Lord they were filled with joy. Jesus sent them out into the world to proclaim to all people the good news of his resurrection and the forgiveness of sins through his death on the cross.

The hope that Christians have of being raised to eternal life is based on the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus. His promise is “because I live you also will live.” He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” So, the Easter message of love and life in Jesus declares that evil and hatred will not ultimately triumph. As one Easter hymn proclaims, “death is dead, love has won, Christ has conquered!”

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No change my heart shall fear

We live in a world of change. In the sphere of technology once state-of the art gadgets are suddenly out of date. Great changes have also taken place in the moral sphere. In Britain the absolute standards of the Ten Commandments have been set aside in favour of “British values” – democracy; the rule of law; individual liberty; and mutual respect for and tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith. People do things because they believe it is “the right thing to do” rather than because it is the morally right thing to do. Relativism rules.

Change also impacts our personal lives. People who have worked for decades for the same company suddenly find themselves being made redundant because a decision has been taken “for economic reasons” to relocate production to another country. We lived in Deeside when, in 1980, the Shotton Steelworks closed putting 6500 people out of work in a single day. People’s financial future became uncertain because finding another job was very difficult. Life for many would never be the same.

Change can also suddenly come through illness or death. People experience life-changing events when they receive a diagnosis of cancer or have a heart attack or stroke. There are people now lying on hospital beds who have lost the use of an arm and leg and cannot speak. Or someone we have loved and shared our lives with dies, and we have to face the finality of death. Friends and family gather round to provide loving support, but it is not long before we must face the pain of loneliness and loss.

When life-changing events happen, we can find peace and hope as we trust in God and his Son Jesus. A well-known hymn expresses it well, “In heavenly love abiding, no change my heart shall fear; and safe is such confiding, for nothing changes here. The storm may roar without me, my heart may low be laid, but God is round about me, and can I be dismayed? Wherever He may guide me, no want shall turn me back; my Shepherd is beside me, and nothing can I lack. His wisdom ever waketh, his sight is never dim; He knows the way He taketh, and I will walk with Him. Green pastures are before me, which yet I have not seen; bright skies will soon be o’er me, where the dark clouds have been. My hope I cannot measure, my path to life is free; my Saviour has my treasure, and He will walk with me.”

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Finding faith and hope

In 2018 President Xi of China was reappointed with no time limit. His new personal power and the enhanced role of the Chinese Communist Party has led to the persecution of virtually every major religious group within China. ‘Unofficial’ church buildings have been demolished and entire Christian congregations have been arrested, Tibetan Buddhists have been forced to remove images, and up to one million Muslims from the Uighur ethnic group have been detained in ‘re-education’ camps. Religion is seen as a great challenge to the atheism taught and imposed by the Communist Party.

In recent years, however, hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens have gone to work in Africa where they have encountered new cultures. Far from home, in strange places, some of these Chinese workers have found comfort in religion, especially amongst the many evangelical Christians in sub-Saharan Africa. Local African churches have reached out to Chinese workers, including incorporating Mandarin into services. A number of Chinese people have welcomed the sense of community and belonging that these Christian churches offer. A small but growing number of ethnically Chinese missionaries from Taiwan and other countries have been able to share the Christian gospel with Chinese nationals in Africa in a way that is not allowed in the People’s Republic. Many Chinese workers are returning home and bringing their newfound faith with them.

Christianity has been in China since the 7th century, a lot longer than communism, and today, despite persecution, the number of Christians is increasing. China is losing its fight against Christianity. It is estimated that there are 70 million Chinese Christians. Official figures show membership of the Chinese Communist Party at 90 million. If the present increase in the number of Christians in China continues there will soon be more Christians in China than in any other country in the world.

Atheism, whether espoused and propagated by political regimes or promoted by the secularism of our Western world, can never meet our deepest needs. In Africa Chinese workers have seen the difference a real and warm faith in Jesus Christ makes to people’s lives. Daily life for millions of people in Africa is desperately hard but in their churches people worship God with joy in their hearts. They love one another and help each other. Most African Christians are poor but their relationship with God through Jesus gives them “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.” Now that’s something we all need and neither communism nor any other political ideology can ever give us.

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A special place in heaven

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

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

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

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

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To us a Son is given

Christmas is a special time as people around the world remember the birth of Jesus Christ. His birth was prophesied hundreds of years before he was born. The prophet Micah said where he would be born: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel.” The prophet Isaiah spoke about his special conception: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.” Isaiah also said this child would be a gift from God: “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.”

Now more than 2000 years after the birth of Jesus, he is still remembered with joy and thanksgiving by countless people from many nations. Christmas carols will be heard in shopping centres, schools will have nativity plays and many people who don’t normally go to church will attend carol services. The focus will be on this special child who was born so long ago. Well-known carols explain why his coming was so important.

Jesus brought light into this dark world: “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.”

Angels, and the very creation itself, rejoiced at his birth: “For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above, while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love. O morning stars together proclaim the holy birth and praises sing to God the King and peace to men on earth.”

Jesus has transformed the lives of countless people and is still changing lives today. This Christmas many will come to know him for the first time: “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still the dear Christ enters in. 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”