The greatest story ever told

The story of Jesus is the greatest story ever told. Joseph and Mary were a young couple living in the small Galilean town of Nazareth. Joseph was about 18 years old and was the village carpenter. He was very much in love with Mary, who was about 14 years old, and their families had agreed that they should marry. One day, before they had married, God sent the angel Gabriel to tell Mary that she had found favour in God’s sight and was going to conceive a very special son. She would conceive through the power of the Holy Spirit and the child would be the Son of God. Mary humbly responded, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.”

When Mary told Joseph she had conceived a child he was shocked and thought she must have been unfaithful to him. He decided to divorce her quietly to try to protect her from public disgrace. But an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” So, Joseph did what the angel had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.

When the time drew near for the baby to be born Joseph and Mary had to travel 80 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census. So it was in Bethlehem that their first-born son was born. An angel of the Lord announced the birth to some shepherds, ordinary working men, living in the nearby fields, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people, a Saviour has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord.” The shepherds went to see the baby and returned to their fields glorifying and praising God.

Later, Wise Men from the east, probably Persia, came in search of the child. They had followed a special star which signified the birth of a King. When they arrived at the house where Joseph and Mary and the child were staying they were overjoyed. They bowed down and worshipped him and presented gifts of gold, incense and myrrh. The shepherds and Wise Men show us that the birth of Jesus is reason for us all to wonder and worship him.

Blessed are the merciful

Early one morning in October 2014 Brian Herrick dropped his partner and three sisters at East Midlands Airport for an early-morning flight to Malaga. On his way home he was waiting at a red light, just a few miles from the airport, when a lorry crashed into his car. Brian died as a result of the accident. His partner and sisters heard the news of Brian’s death as soon as they arrived at Malaga and flew straight back to East Midlands.

At a recent hearing at Nottingham Crown Court the driver of the lorry, Luke Bates, pleaded guilty to causing death by careless driving. He said his attention had been distracted and he had not seen the red light until it was too late. At the court Brian’s family asked the judge not to send Luke to prison because they did not want his 2 young children to be left without a father. They also realised that Luke would have to live for the rest of his life with the memory of the devastation he had caused. The judge said he wished to respect the humbling request from the family and sentenced Luke to a two-year driving ban and a 12-month prison sentence, suspended for two years. He was also ordered to complete 200 hours of unpaid work.

Brian’s sister, Kathleen, told the judge, “We were brought up as Christians and were taught to be compassionate and humble. We felt so sorry for Luke’s wife when we saw her bring their young baby to the court. We weren’t going to benefit from sending him to prison. I’m sure my brother, who was a kind and gentle man, would have done the same in our position.” Outside the court, Brian’s relatives hugged a distraught Luke.

Mercy is a rare, but beautiful, quality. Our society loves to blame people and condemn them. Some people try to justify their wicked acts because they are retaliating against what other people have done to them. Jesus taught that true strength and dignity is seen not in revenge and “getting our own back”, but in mercy. He said, “Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.” When we show mercy to someone who has wronged us, and forgive them, we release the potential for healing and restoration both for them and for us. It is also good to remember that one day each of us must appear before the Judge of all the earth whom we hope will show us mercy.

The God Who is There

On 12 April 1961, 50 years ago this week, Yuri Gagarin, the Russian cosmonaut became the first man in space. He made a 108 minute orbital flight around the earth in his Vostok 1 spacecraft. Russia won the space race to be first to put a man into space. It was a great achievement. In the following years many people have travelled in space and some have landed on the moon. Gagarin became an international celebrity, and was made Hero of the Soviet Union. Vostok 1 was his only space flight. He died in 1968 when a training jet he was piloting crashed.

After his space flight, some people claimed that Gagarin had made the comment, “I don’t see any God up here.” It seems, however, that it was the Russian President, Nikita Krushchev, who said, in promoting anti-religious propaganda, “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any god there.” Just 10 years later, in September 1981, Mr Krushchev died and stood before the living God.

The wonderful message of the Bible is that God has revealed himself to all people in his Son, Jesus Christ. In John’s Gospel we read, “No-one has ever seen God, but the One and only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known. “ When Jesus was here on earth, and ever since, human pride has been the greatest barrier to recognising who he really is. That was the problem for Mr Krushchev and the Russian state, they were so proud of their achievements that they claimed they had disproved God’s existence. In the 1st century it was the Roman and Jewish leaders who rejected Jesus precisely because of his claim to be God’s Son. In the 21st century some prominent academics proudly proclaim their atheism.

While they were at Caesarea Philippi Peter, who was one of his disciples, confessed to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you Simon, son of John, this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.” On another occasion Jesus prayed, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned and have revealed them to little children.” Only a few people have had the opportunity to go into space, but here on earth we can all humbly recognise and know the living God who revealed himself in Jesus Christ.

Do not judge

The teaching of Jesus is very challenging. The Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew chapters 5-7, can make uncomfortable reading. In that sermon Jesus said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 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.”

Jesus had observed something in the people amongst whom he lived which is true of us today. They had no televisions, newspapers or internet, but they loved to talk about the sins and failures of other people. They highlighted even minor blemishes and talked in a self-righteous and negative way about others. In doing this they conveniently overlooked their own sins and failures, which were often much more serious.

Much of the news we read and hear today focuses on the alleged failures and sins of politicians, sports men and women, famous, and not so famous, people. The intimate details of their lives are exposed to public scrutiny, all in the cause of the “public interest.” It is strange paradox that on the one hand we have, as a society, cast aside God’s moral law and on the other we rigorously impose our own version of morality on others.

We need to take the teaching of Jesus to heart and begin with our own lives. This is true for us all whether we are religious or not. Are there big issues in my life which I am conveniently overlooking? Am I quick to point out the faults in others to draw attention away from my own faults? How would I cope if the same standards I use where applied to my life? Can my life stand the scrutiny of God’s all seeing and all-knowing judgement?

Personal integrity begins with self-examination and a humble recognition of our own faults. This makes us aware of our need for God’s forgiveness through Jesus and makes it possible to get alongside others who have the same frailties we have.