New beginnings

A new year has begun and offers the possibility of a new beginning. Looking back on life we have regrets because things haven’t turned out as we hoped they would. We may have experienced problems in our marriages and families which are deeply painful. Broken relationships with friends leave their scars. Disappointments in our work and career are not easily overcome. Our own behaviour can cause guilt and sadness; the things we wish we’d never done or said, but cannot change. So the opportunity to make a new start is attractive.

A woman was once brought before Jesus when he was teaching the people in the Temple. It was the time of one of the great pilgrimage festivals in Jerusalem and thousands of people were in the city. The religious leaders were self-righteous and hated Jesus. They wanted to have a reason to accuse him so they had gone out before dawn and found this woman committing adultery. They brought her to Jesus as a test case. The Old Testament law said that people guilty of adultery should be stoned to death, although this had not been done for centuries. The religious leaders were proud and despised Jesus because he dealt gently and kindly with people who had fallen into sin. Would he say that someone like this woman, who had been caught in the very act of adultery, should not be punished?

Jesus challenged them saying, “Let him who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” At this, the men who had accused the woman began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. Then he declared, “Then neither do I condemn you go now and leave your life of sin.”

Like this woman we, too, can experience God’s forgiveness and a new beginning. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn us, but that through him we might find forgiveness and new life. Oswald Allen’s hymn reminds us of God’s gracious promises: “Today your mercy calls us to wash away our sin. However great our trespass, whatever we have been. Today your gate is open, and all who enter in shall find a Father’s welcome and pardon for their sin. The past shall be forgotten, a present joy be given, a future grace be promised, a glorious crown in heaven.”

A unique King

On Palm Sunday Christians remember the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, just 5 days before he was crucified. Tens of thousands of people were converging on Jerusalem for the annual Passover Feast that remembered the Exodus out of Egypt. There was great expectation and excitement because for 3 years the ministry of Jesus had made a deep impact on the people as he taught with authority and healed many diseases. The people were waiting for their new king whom they thought would set them free by driving out the Roman occupiers.

Jesus was indeed a king, but not of the kind the people were expecting. As news swept through Jerusalem that Jesus was on his way into the city a large crowd carrying palm branches went out to meet him. The palm branches were a sign of victory and national pride and the people shouted, “Praise God! Hail to the King of Israel!” Seeing and hearing the crowd Jesus found a donkey and rode on it to show that his kingship was different. He was fulfilling a prophecy made 500 years earlier about the promised Messiah that said, “Don’t be afraid, people of Jerusalem. Look, your King is coming to you. He is humble, riding on a donkey.” The kingdom of Jesus is not about earthly power and authority.

Later, when Jesus was being interrogated, Pilate, the Roman governor, asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my kingdom is not of this world.” Pilate said, “So you are a king?” Jesus responded, “You say I am a king. Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.” Pilate retorted, “What is truth?” Then Pilate offered the people a choice of one prisoner to be released; either Jesus or Barabbas, who had committed murder in an uprising against the Roman occupation. The people chose Barabbas!

The Roman Empire is long gone, as every other earthly empire will also pass away. The kingdom of Jesus, however, has extended to every nation on earth and continues to grow. In order to enter his kingdom we must become humble and trusting, like little children. It is a wonderful blessing and privilege to live under the gracious rule and protection of this unique King.

God will wipe every tear from their eyes

Many people in our world experience deep sadness and weep. A mother from an Italian mountain village weeps as she carries the body of her 8-year-old daughter who died in the earthquake. In the same village, a woman weeps as she looks at the ruins of her house; in a moment she has lost everything she possessed. A father weeps beside the body of his 10-year-old son in a hospital in war-torn Aleppo. A young mother, who has always loved and cared for her 3-year-old-daughter and 2-year-old-son, weeps as she sees them for the last time before they are adopted by order of a Family Court. A mother weeps as she and her family live in a refugee camp in Greece. A wife weeps as she cares for her husband who has dementia and realizes he no longer recognizes her or knows her name.

The Bible speaks comfort to people everywhere who are experiencing deep and devastating sadness. The God who speaks to us in the Bible is not the “unmoved Mover” of the Deists, who is untouched by the pain and sadness of those he has created. The Psalmist tells us, “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.” When the prophet Isaiah foretold the coming of Jesus he said, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with grief.”

In his Son, Jesus, God came alongside a suffering world and showed love and compassion to people experiencing grief and sorrow. When Jesus came to the tomb of his friend Lazarus, he wept. When he saw the city of Jerusalem, and understood the devastation that would come upon it at the hands of the Romans, he “burst into tears.” He personally experienced betrayal and false accusations when he was condemned to be crucified. The depth of pain he endured as he died, in our place and for our sins, is impossible for us fully to understand. Because he has personally experienced profound suffering, he is able to empathise with us when we suffer.

So today, in Jesus, God comes alongside us as we weep. He understands what it feels like when our hearts are breaking. He also gives us “strength for today and bright hope for the future.” In the book of Revelation there is a beautiful picture of heaven. Those who are there have suffered in this world, but in heaven God himself will lead them to springs of living water and “will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

The day the Sun stopped shining

Last week millions of people in Britain and northern Europe witnessed the best solar eclipse for many years. A great swathe of the Earth’s surface was plunged into darkness as the Moon came between the Sun and us. In many parts of Britain, as the eclipse reached 83%, an eerie darkness came over the land and the temperature fell by 3 degrees.

In the Faroe Islands, hundreds of miles to the north of Britain, there was a total eclipse that lasted 2 minutes. One person who was in the Faroe Islands described the scene, “There was just silence and the sound of the wind. No one spoke; to utter words would have felt like sacrilege. You feel a deep sense of place. A thick shadow inched across us, then raced away, leaving silver light that leaked into blue, brightening quickly. It was over.”

Two thousand years ago, as Jesus hung dying on a cross outside the city of Jerusalem, eyewitnesses describe a great darkness that came over the whole land for 3 hours from midday to 3 o’clock. In his Gospel Luke says, “The sun stopped shining.” That darkness was deeply significant as the eternal Son of God became the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Near the end of those 3 hours of darkness Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” His words give an insight into what was happening. Jesus, who had never sinned, was dying in our place, suffering the punishment we deserve. In his Son, Jesus, God was reconciling the world to himself. As the darkness lifted and the light returned Jesus said, “It is finished.” His knew his reconciling work was complete.

In one of his hymns Isaac Watts, the great English hymn writer, wrote, “Alas! and did my Saviour bleed, and did my Sovereign die! Would he devote that sacred head for sinners such as I? Was it for crimes that I have done, he groaned upon the tree? Amazing pity! Grace unknown! And love beyond degree! Well might the sun in darkness hide, and shut its glories in, when God, the mighty Maker, died for man the creature’s sin. Thus might I hide my blushing face while his dear cross appears; dissolve my heart in thankfulness, and melt mine eyes to tears. But drops of tears can ne’er repay the debt of love I owe. Here, Lord, I give myself away; ’tis all that I can do.”

The Prince of Peace

The lust for power has dominated the history of the world. The ancient empires of Egypt, Syria, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome were all supreme for a time. The two World Wars of the 20th century were caused by a desire to rule the world. Today the United States of America is the superpower. President Putin is actively seeking to extend the power of Russia. Some Muslim groups are seeking to extend their power. In a few weeks time we will be voting for those who aspire to rule us for the next 5 years.

How different it was 2000 years ago when a young man rode into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey. The crowds acclaimed him as their King. In his triumphal entry Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey.” The kingdom Jesus established was very different from earthly kingdoms. He is the Prince of peace. He never commanded an army and told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest.”

Over the years the kingdom of Jesus has spread to all parts of the world while the great empires of the world have come and gone. The alliance of the church with political power in places like Europe has been a distortion of his kingdom. The gracious rule of King Jesus has been spread through the proclamation of the good news of the salvation that he promises to all who follow him. When we know him as Saviour and Lord he gives us fulness of life. His rule blesses his people with “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.”

Yet, many of us want to retain our “freedom”. The strange thing is that it is only in acknowledging that Jesus is our King that we find true freedom. George Matheson’s hymn explains this very well. “Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free; Force me to render up my sword, and I shall conqueror be. I sink in life’s alarms when by myself I stand, imprison me within Thine arms, and strong shall be my hand. My will is not my own till Thou hast made it Thine. If it would reach the monarch’s throne it must its crown resign. It only stands unbent amid the clashing strife, when on Thy bosom it has leant, and found in Thee its life.”

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?”