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The Crown of Life

The widespread persecution of Christians has recently been highlighted in a report commissioned by Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary. Millions of Christians in the Middle East have been uprooted from their homes, and many have been killed, kidnapped, imprisoned and discriminated against. The Christians who are being persecuted are some of the poorest people in the world. In the Middle East the population of Christians used to be about 20%; now it’s 5%.

The report also highlights discrimination across southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and in east Asia – often driven by state authoritarianism. It concludes that the overwhelming majority (80%) of persecuted religious believers are Christians. In countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia the situation of Christians and other minorities has reached an alarming stage. In Saudi Arabia there are strict limitations on all forms of expression of Christianity including public acts of worship. The Arab-Israeli conflict has caused the majority of Palestinian Christians to leave their homeland. The population of Palestinian Christians has dropped from 15% to 2%.

It is good that the persecution of Christians is being recognised, but persecution is not something new for Christians. Jesus explicitly told his disciples they would face persecution. The night before he was crucified, he said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” When he sent his apostles out into the world to proclaim the good news about him, he promised, “I will be with you always even to the end of the age.”

On a visit to a country in southeast Asia I met a leader in the underground churches. He had been arrested, imprisoned and fined because he didn’t belong to an official, state-controlled, church. The Christians in the underground churches are always being harassed by the authorities who want to close the churches down. My friend said that he had once been asked by a security official why the underground churches were growing, despite the persecution they experienced, when the official churches were not growing. One reason is that even in the fires of persecution Jesus is with his people, as he promised, and the reality of their faith shines through. Heaven is very real for Christians who experience persecution. Jesus told persecuted first-century Christians, “If you remain faithful even when facing death, I will give you the crown of life.”

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Joy to the world, the Lord is come!

This week many people around the world will remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. One in three of the people in the world professes to be a Christian and many others will join them in singing carols and hearing Bible readings about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem more than 2000 years ago. The message about Jesus is a message for our world today.

The message of Jesus is for all people. The infant Jesus was visited by Wise Men who came from the east. They had travelled hundreds of miles from Mesopotamia, which included modern Iraq, Syria, Kuwait and Iran. They had seen a special star which indicated the birth of a great King and were guided to the place where Jesus had been born. When they saw the child they bowed down and worshipped him and presented gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The message of Jesus speaks to the peoples of those troubled lands today and to people all over the world.

The message of Jesus is a message of of peace. Jesus is the “Prince of Peace.” The shepherds heard the angels singing, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.” Jesus came to bring peace between God and the people of this world. His death for our sins reconciles us to God so that we have peace with God and know his favour resting on us. When we are reconciled to God, we are also at peace with ourselves and with all other people. The message of Jesus speaks peace to our conflict-torn modern world. Jesus changes hearts and reconciles people from all nations to one another.

The message of Jesus is a message of joy. When the Wise Men arrived at Bethlehem they were overjoyed to have found the new born King. The message of the angels to the shepherds was, “Don’t be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy.” Recently some Christians in eastern Ukraine were giving out food at a bus station to people who had fled their homes because of the conflict. There were also a few Bibles on the table. A lady came up to them and asked, “Is that your book of hope?” The Christians said it was and the lady said, “Please could I have one, because there isn’t much hope in Ukraine today!” The coming of King Jesus brings joy and hope to our sad and needy world. His birth really is something to celebrate!

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The God who reconciles us to himself

At 2.54am on 12 October 1984 an IRA bomb exploded in The Grand Hotel, Brighton. It was the week of the Conservative Party Conference and the intended target was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She was not injured, but 5 people were killed and 34 were taken to hospital. Margaret Tebbit, the wife of Norman, was left paralysed. She spent nearly a year being treated at Stoke Mandeville Hospital and another year at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital at Stanmore before returning to her home. For the past 30 years she and her husband have lived daily with the devastating personal consequences of that bomb.

The Brighton bombing and more recent events in Iraq and Syria remind us of the potential for great evil in human beings. The bombers carefully planned the atrocity in cold blood; just as Alan Henning was executed by IS militants in cold blood. The IRA statement claiming responsibility for the Brighton bombing said, “Mrs Thatcher will now realise that Britain cannot occupy our country and torture our prisoners and shoot our people in their own streets and get away with it. Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always. Give Ireland peace and there will be no more war.”

The reference to “getting away with it” implies that people have a right to commit any kind of atrocity as “pay back” for the actions of those whom they hate and in pursuit of their cause. It fails, however, to recognise that God has created us all as morally accountable beings. None of us ultimately “gets away with it.” Death does not pay all debts. The New Testament says, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

The survivors of acts of atrocity are sometimes asked whether they can forgive the perpetrators. Norman Tebbit, in a very moving article about his and his wife’s experience over the past 30 years, has said that forgiveness is not possible because the bombers have not repented and justice has not been done. This takes us to the heart of the Christian message. In his Son, Jesus, God reconciled a sinful world to himself. His divine justice was satisfied when his Son died for our sins and so opened the way for each of us to repent and be forgiven. As one hymn says, “The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”

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Love your enemies

The life and teaching of Jesus Christ was radically different. He was not chiefly concerned about his own interests, but about the interests of others. He lived in a nation which was dominated by the Romans, who were cruel and oppressive to the nations they conquered. The people amongst whom Jesus lived hated the Romans. This was understandable because the Romans had occupied their land, robbed them of their freedom, and made them pay taxes.

Yet Jesus 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 sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?”

Today we hear many reports of violence and wicked acts done in the name of religion. Those who are not of the same religion are treated as enemies to be attacked and even killed. This is done in the name of righteousness and with the expectation that those who do it will receive an eternal reward. In the past wars were fought in the name of Christianity and empires were established by “Christian” nations. What happened was a contradiction of the teaching of Jesus.

The love Jesus taught is more than a kindly disposition, it is practical. He told a story about a Jewish man who was travelling on a lonely and dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. He was attacked by thieves, beaten, robbed and left half dead. A priest came down the road and passed by without helping him. Then a Levite priest did the same. But a Samaritan man, whom the Jewish people would have despised, took pity on the man. He bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put him on his own donkey and took him to an inn where he took care of him and paid the bill. Jesus said the Samaritan had obeyed God’s command that we should love our neighbours as we love ourselves. Then he said, “Go and do likewise.”

I remember studying this parable with some Iranian Christians. When they understood what Jesus was teaching they said, “This means we must love the Iraqis!” They were right. Jesus’ teaching is radically different. We, too, need to ask, “Who are my enemies?” and “How can I show love to them?”

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The name of the Lord is a strong tower

This week I am staying in Aberystwyth. In January and February the promenade was very seriously damaged by heavy storms. Massive tidal surges dumped rocks and debris on the seafront and streets. Hotels were flooded and student halls of residence were evacuated. The people and authorities were helpless to stop the devastation as each high tide brought more damage. Now, 6 months later, the promenade has been rebuilt and you can watch the beauty of the sunset over a calm sea. The storms have passed and tranquillity has returned.

We live in a turbulent and troubled world. There seems to be no end to the conflicts and crises in Gaza, Syria, South Sudan, Ukraine and Iraq. Many people, including women and children, are caught up in events over which they have no control. Every day people die or are seriously injured. People are fleeing their homes and communities, or are watching as they are destroyed by missiles and bombs. The ability of the most powerful nations in the world to help is very limited. There seems to be no end to the trouble.

Where can the people who are suffering so much find help? To whom can we turn when the storms of life come to us? Is there anyone who is great enough and good enough to bring us safely through every storm and trial? The background of the Bible is a turbulent one. The cruelty and barbarity of successive world empires – Egypt, Syria, Assyria, Babylon, Greece and Rome – are the background to the Old Testament. The unjust suffering and condemnation of Jesus and the relentless persecution of Christians is the background to the New Testament. Yet through all these real and terrible storms of life there is a calm confidence and trust in the living God.

In Psalm 46 we read, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth gives way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.” The book of Proverbs says, “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.” A well known hymn written by Charles Wesley, and often sung to the tune Abersytwyth, says, “Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly, while the nearer waters roll, while the tempest still is high. Hide me, o my Saviour, hide, till the storm of life is past; safe into the haven guide; O receive my soul at last.”