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He came down to earth from heaven

The birth of Jesus was both ordinary and extraordinary. His mother, Mary, was a teenage girl who lived in the small Galilean village of Nazareth. She had fallen in love with Joseph, the village carpenter, and they were planning their wedding. They loved each other deeply and were looking forward to making their vows before God and sharing their life together. Joseph respected Mary’s purity and was willing to wait until they were married before they slept together. Neither of them anticipated what lay ahead of them.

One day God sent the angel Gabriel to tell Mary an amazing message. He said, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.” When Mary asked how this could happened since she was a virgin the angel said, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” Mary replied, “I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled.”

That day Mary’s life changed. What would the people of Nazareth say when they heard she was expecting a baby before she had been married? How would Joseph respond when she told him? He assumed that Mary must have been unfaithful to him and decided to call off the wedding until, one night, he had a dream in which an angel told him, “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 took Mary as his wife but did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son.

The birth of Jesus speaks to ordinary people everywhere about extraordinary things. One carol says, “He came down to earth from heaven who is God and Lord of all; and his shelter was a stable and his cradle was a stall: with the poor and mean and lowly lived on earth our Saviour holy.” Another carol speaks of receiving Jesus as Saviour, “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.”

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The love that transforms

Last week a man suddenly threatened to blow up the Fishmongers’ Hall, near London Bridge, where a prisoner rehabilitation conference, organised by Cambridge University, was being held. He then began attacking people with two knives. The man, who had been convicted of a terror offence, was invited to attend the conference. He had served half his 16-year sentence and had been released on licence in 2018 with an electronic tag. The man moved on to London Bridge where he was restrained by members of the public and then shot by the police. Two people were killed and 3 were injured.

As one hate-filled man was trying to kill people, others showed great courage in seeking to save lives. Lukasz from Poland, who works as a chef at Fishmongers’ Hall, bought time for others to escape by fighting the terrorist with a narwhal tusk he pulled off the wall. Despite being stabbed 5 times, he continued to confront the man. His actions, and those of others who confronted the terrorist, undoubtedly saved lives.

Tragically two young people who were attending the conference died. Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt were involved with Cambridge University’s Learning Together programme for prisoner rehabilitation. Jack’s father said, “Jack: you were a beautiful spirit. You lived your principles; believing in redemption and rehabilitation, not revenge, and always took the side of the underdog. Cambridge lost a proud son and champion for underdogs everywhere, but especially those dealt a losing hand by life, who ended up in the prison system.” He went on to say that Jack “would not wish his death to be used as a pretext for more draconian sentences or to detain people unnecessarily.”

Jesus was a man who was committed to helping and changing people. He is still doing that today by the power of the Holy Spirit. During his ministry many people who had failed in life, and wanted to change, were drawn to him. He loved them and gave them new hope. Knowing him and experiencing his love changed them. Jesus died not for his own sins, but for ours. He laid down his life that we might know God and receive the gift of eternal life. He loves people who are his enemies and changes their hearts so that they truly love him. The apostle Paul was an enemy of Jesus, but he was changed. Seeing the transformation in him Christians were amazed and said, “The one who used to persecute us is now preaching the very faith he tried to destroy!”

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God cares about you

Mental health is in the news. More people in Britain than ever before are experiencing depression and anxiety. In 2018 a total of 71 million prescriptions for anti-depressants were dispensed in England. This is almost double the number dispensed in 2008. The trend in other parts of Britain is similar. GPs fully investigate a patient’s circumstances and other alternatives, such as talking therapy, before prescribing anti-depressants and many people find their mental health improves when they take them.

This time of year creates additional anxiety for many people. The days are shorter and darker and financial pressures increase with Black Friday sales and the cost of paying for Christmas. Many people are already in debt and this is likely to increase in the coming weeks. The general election has added to the stress and the uncertainty about Brexit. The parties are displaying a greater level of hostility to one another and the genuine interests of different groups within our society are being set against each other. People are divided and there are fears for the future.

Jesus spoke about anxiety and how we can cope with it. He lived at a time when his country was under Roman rule and harsh taxes were imposed on the people. So Jesus reminded the people about God’s care for them, “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For your heavenly Father knows that you need them.”

The best talking therapy is talking to God in prayer. He knows us, cares about us and is willing and able to help us. The apostle Peter said, “Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you.”

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The uncertainties of riches

Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, has just become the richest person in the world again with a net worth of $110 billion ($110,000,000,000). He has overtaken the Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos who, because of a fall in Amazon’s profits, now has a net worth of $108 billion. The number of billionaires in the world is increasing and has reached a total of more than 2500. There are 700 billionaires in North America with a total wealth of more than $3 trillion. The combined total wealth of the billionaires in the next 8 countries on the billionaire list is $2.9 trillion. In total, the world’s richest 1% owns about half of the world’s wealth.

Many people think that being rich will make them happy and that the more money they have the happier they will be. Every week people buy lottery tickets in the hope of winning large sums of money. The EuroMillions jackpot last week was £98 million. When people win the lottery there are pictures of them celebrating and looking very happy but, sadly, their new-found wealth often leads to great sadness in broken marriages, addictions and loneliness through losing their friends.

A man once asked Jesus to settle a dispute between him and his brother over an inheritance. His brother was refusing to give him his share. Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” He then told a parable about a rich farmer who had a bumper harvest and wondered how he could store all his crops. The farmer said, “This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’”

On the face of it the farmer was being prudent, but he had not considered the uncertainties of life and the ultimate importance of eternity. Jesus went on to say, “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” Jesus is the supreme example of selflessness because although he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, so that we through his poverty might become rich.

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We will remember them

In 1919 King George V inaugurated Remembrance Day when Commonwealth member states remember those of their armed forces who have died in the line of duty. It is held each year at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, which was the time when hostilities ceased in World War I. Many other non-Commonwealth countries also observe the day. There are now very few former soldiers alive who experienced the terrible conflicts of World War II, but what they say reminds us of the horrific nature of battles like those on the beaches of Normandy following the D-Day landings.

On 6 June 1944 infantry and armoured divisions from America, Britain and Canada began landing on the French coast. As soon as they landed, they came under heavy enemy gunfire. Many of the 24,000 Allied soldiers who landed on the beaches died or were seriously injured on the first day. Alan King, who survived D-Day, said, “We weren’t heroes, we were just boys. We were terrified. Since our life expectancy after landing was just one hour, we kept each other going. After I got back, for the first 40 years, I didn’t think about it. Didn’t want to.”

Harry Billinge, a 94-year-old veteran of D-Day, decided to raise £22,442, a pound for every British soldier who died in the Normandy campaign, to help with the construction of the British Normandy Memorial at Ver-sur-Mer. He has exceeded his target. When he was interviewed on the BBC’s Breakfast programme and was shown the Memorial under construction, he choked back tears as he saw the names of those who had died. He said, “Don’t thank me and don’t say I’m a hero. All the heroes are dead, and I’ll never forget them as long as I live. My generation saved the world and I’ll never forget any of them.”

Harry said that when he was 4 years old, he went to Sunday School where his teacher, Miss Thompson, taught the children a chorus that he said was as source of strength to him amidst the horrors on the Normandy beaches on D-Day. “In loving-kindness Jesus came my soul in mercy to reclaim, and from the depths of sin and shame through grace he lifted me. Now on a higher plain I dwell, and with my soul I know ‘tis well; yet how or why, I cannot tell, he should have lifted me. From sinking sand he lifted me, with tender hand he lifted me, from shades of night to plains of light, O praise his name, he lifted me!”

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The promise of the rainbow

In Britain the autumn has been very wet. Most days there has been some rain and often it has been very heavy. Some places have experienced flooding and the water table is higher than usual. One of the blessings of sunshine and showers is the beautiful rainbows we have seen. Recently I was driving through Mid Wales and saw some stunning rainbows over the mountains on which the trees are already displaying their autumn colours. God’s creation reminds us so eloquently of his greatness and glory. He truly has made everything beautiful in its time.

The rainbow is a particularly encouraging sign, especially at this time when we are seriously concerned about climate change. The book of Genesis describes a great Flood in the time of Noah which affected the whole world. The historic traditions of many peoples and nations around the world also bear witness to this event. The Flood was God’s righteous judgement on great human wickedness. Violence and depravity could be seen everywhere, and the thoughts of people’s hearts were consistently and totally evil. The Flood was devastating and destroyed all people and animals except those who were in the ark that Noah built.

Today there is great wickedness in our world. People in our world are doing things that deserve God’s righteous judgement. Yet the stability of the natural world is being maintained by God who, after the Flood, made a wonderful promise to Noah. God said, “I solemnly promise never to send another flood to kill all living creatures and destroy the earth. I have placed my rainbow in the clouds. It is the sign of my permanent promise to you and all the earth. When I send clouds over the earth, the rainbow will be seen in the clouds, and I will remember my covenant with you and everything that lives. Never again will there be a flood that will destroy all life.”

An even greater sign of God’s love is that he sent his only Son, Jesus, into the world to save us. One of the Bible’s great promises is, “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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Just as Noah and his family entered the ark and were safe so everyone who puts their trust in Jesus receives the gift of eternal life.

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I want the best for you

On 26 September 2018 Amber Guyger, a Dallas policewoman, returned to her apartment building after a 14-hour shift. Still in her uniform and in a state she later described as “autopilot”, she entered the wrong flat. She lived at flat 1378 but went into flat 1478, one floor above hers, where Botham Jean, a black accountant, lived. The door was unlocked, and Botham was sitting on the sofa eating ice cream. Thinking he was an intruder, Amber drew her gun, and shot him twice, intending to kill him.

When giving evidence, she wept and said, “I ask God for forgiveness. I hate myself every single day. I never wanted to take an innocent person’s life. I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” The mostly black jury of eight women and four men convicted her of murder. She could have been sentenced to life in prison but received 10 years. Protesters outside the court building were outraged by the lenient sentence.

After sentence had been passed Brandt Jean, Botham’s 18-year-old brother, told Amber, “If you truly are sorry, I forgive you. And I know, if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you. I’m speaking for myself, but I love you just like anyone else. I don’t wish anything bad on you. I want the best for you, I don’t even want you to go to jail, because I know that that’s exactly what Botham would want, and the best is to give your life to Christ.” Then he asked the judge if he could hug his brother’s killer and embraced Amber for about a minute. It was an act of Christian forgiveness that brought tears to many eyes.

Botham’s mother Allison said she had no idea that Brandt was going to hug the killer. She, too, spoke of forgiving Amber but said, “I don’t want forgiveness to be mistaken for a total relinquishing of responsibility.”

The response of the Jean family to the tragic death of Botham illustrates the importance of both justice and forgiveness. How can our sins, that deserve to be punished, be forgiven by God? When Jesus died on the cross he both satisfied the just demands of God’s law and also opened the way for us to be forgiven. One hymn says, “Here is love, vast as the ocean, loving kindness as the flood, when the Prince of Life, our ransom, shed for us his precious blood. Grace and love, like mighty rivers, poured incessant from above, and heaven’s peace and perfect justice kissed a guilty world in love.”

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The story of Tani Adewumi

Tani Adewumi was born in Nigeria. His parents are Christians and were aware of the rise of Boko Haram. The school Tani attended hired security guards and every Sunday, when they went to church, everyone had to pass through an airport-style metal detector. As a family the Adewumis kept a low profile to avoid the militants. But when Mr. Adewumi refused to take on a job from Boko Haram in his printing shop, the family became targets. After a number of near misses and close calls the family fled to America.

They claimed asylum and moved into a homeless shelter in New York. Tani’s father joined other refugees doing low-paid manual work – driving Uber taxis, washing dishes and cleaning houses. Eight-year-old Tani joined a chess club. He had never played the game before. In early 2019, within a year of taking up chess, Tani competed at the New York State Championship and became the champion. The New York Times wrote an article on the homeless kid who had become State Champion. The story went viral.

In March 2019 Tani’s coach set up a crowdfunding page. He hoped to raise a few thousand dollars so the family could move out of the shelter and rent somewhere of their own. Within four hours they had raised $10,000 and in less than two weeks the total reached $260,000! Some people gave large sums, but most gave $5 or $10. Someone bought the Adewumis a car, and another person paid for a year’s rent on an apartment, their first home since fleeing Nigeria two years earlier.

Even before they moved out of the shelter into their new apartment, the Adewumis decided they would do something amazing. Mrs. Adewumi explained, “What had started as a need for a home had become something far bigger. The outpouring of generosity from people all over the world had been far greater than we could have ever imagined. We felt compelled to do something equally great with the money that had been given. We wanted to give other people the same opportunity as we had been given to see their lives transformed.” So, the Adewumis decided to form the Tanitoluwa Adewumi Foundation and to give away the money they had been given – all of it!

The Adewumis know and love Jesus and he is the inspiration for what they are doing. The Apostle Paul wrote, “You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich.”

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Remembering Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch post-impressionist painter and is among the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. In the last 10 years of his life he created 2,100 works of art including 860 oil paintings. His most famous works include The Starry Night and Sunflowers. Vincent was a complex person who struggled with poor mental health and depression for much of his life. He was always poor and died tragically at the age of 37.

Vincent was a serious, quiet and thoughtful child. His father was a Dutch Reformed minister and Vincent developed a fervent faith and a passion for ministry. He wanted to study theology but failed the seminary entrance exam, so he became a missionary to coal miners in Belgium. In these impoverished communities Vincent lived a life of radical self-sacrifice and servanthood. He sold everything he had so he could care for the needs of the people.

Vincent was a very generous man. He understood the unconditional love of God and showed unconditional love for others. He would never recognise love that was not seen in actions. Despite his commitment to Christ-like sacrifice, Vincent was rejected by the church for being overzealous, and for his ineloquent speech and scruffy appearance. He suffered a nervous breakdown and struggled with depression for the rest of his life.

Vincent died in unusual circumstances in what was thought to be suicide, but he may have been accidentally shot by two boys who later made a statement admitting they were target shooting near where Vincent was found. As he lay dying Vincent told the police, “I’m hurt, but don’t blame anybody else.”

The Christian message is not about what God demands that we do, but about what he has done for us in Jesus. It offers hope to us all, however troubled our lives may be. One song sums it up well, “Upon a life I have not lived, upon a death I did not die; another’s life, another’s death, I stake my whole eternity. Not on the tears which I have shed, not on the sorrows I have known; another’s tears, another’s griefs, on these I rest, on these alone. O Jesus, Son of God, I build on what your cross has done for me; there both my death and life I read, my guilt, and pardon there I see. Lord, I believe; O deal with me, as one who has your Word believed! I take the gift, Lord, look on me, as one who has your gift received.”

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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.