The summer holiday season is in full swing. The number of people in Britain taking holidays is increasing. In 2017 87% of British people took a holiday at home or abroad. On average British people take 3.8 holidays each year of which nearly 50% are overseas holidays. People living in London and Northern Ireland take least holidays; less than 2 per year. 18% of people don’t take a holiday. In 2017 the average British family spent £1284 per person on their summer holiday.
In the Old Testament God commanded the people of Israel to celebrate annual feasts and festivals. They were communal holy days which focussed on remembrance, thanksgiving, joy and celebration. The people remembered the great things God had done for them in delivering them from slavery in Egypt and in providing food and water for them through their 40 years in the wilderness. Other festivals were related to the annual harvest when the people thanked God for his faithful provision for their needs and offered their gifts to him. Each year the people also remembered their need for God’s forgiveness and offered sacrifices to him.
The weekly Sabbath day was God’s gracious provision for his people to rest from their daily work. “Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work.” In our secular society we have lost sight of the importance of a weekly day of rest. All of us need to rest. A weekly day of rest enables us to do our work more efficiently, to spend time with our families and those in need and to thank God for his love and faithfulness.
Holy days are also an opportunity to think about eternity. In the midst of our busy lives it is good to reflect on the fact that we are mortal. When someone we love dies we may put on their gravestone the words “Rest in peace” because we want them to find eternal rest and peace. Christians in the first century patiently endured persecution as they lived in obedience to God’s commands and maintained their faith in Jesus. In the book of Revelation John hears a voice from heaven saying, “Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, they are blessed indeed, for they will rest from their hard work; for their good deeds follow them!”
The days leading up to Easter this year have seen tragic and horrific events around the world. Terrorist attacks in Westminster and Stockholm; a chemical weapons attack in Syria; a bomb on the St Petersburg Metro; the bombing of Coptic churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday; a suicide bomb attack on evacuees near Aleppo. People of many nations and of all ages have been bereaved or have experienced life-changing injuries. Where can we find strength and solace in such sad and uncertain times?
The message of Easter is one of glorious and transforming hope because, “Christ is risen!” It seemed to the disciples, and all those who loved Jesus, that his death on the Cross was the end. On the third day after Jesus died, one of his grieving disciples said, “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” The death of Jesus had crushed them and their hopes had died. Early in the morning of that same day, however, the women who went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body discovered the stone had been rolled back from the mouth of the tomb. As they stood there puzzled, two men suddenly appeared to them, clothed in dazzling robes and asked them, “Why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive? He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead!”
The resurrection of Jesus transformed the disciples and filled them with courage as they took the good news of Jesus to the ancient world. They were eye-witnesses of his resurrection; they had seen him alive after he died and knew for certain that he had conquered death. They were ready to face fierce persecution, imprisonment and even death because they knew that Jesus was with them and believed his promise, “Because I live, you also will live.” Today the risen Jesus is sustaining Christians who are experiencing violent and hateful persecution in some parts of the world.
I recently met John, who has regularly attended a church for 50 years but has never known Jesus as his Saviour and Lord. He was scientifically trained and this raised many questions in his mind. His brother, who is a Christian, wrote to him and encouraged him to put aside his questions and to simply believe the Bible’s message about Jesus. He did this and his life has been transformed; he is a changed man. He is at peace with God and has a sure hope for the future, because Jesus really is alive.
The glorious message of Easter is “The Lord has risen!” The resurrection of Jesus transformed the men and women who had followed him. His death on the cross had devastated them. Their hopes had crashed. None of them was expecting Jesus to rise from the dead, even though he had often told them that he would be killed and on the third day would rise again. Early in the morning of the third day, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to mourn and weep. To her amazement she found the stone had been rolled away and the tomb was empty. She assumed someone had stolen the body until Jesus appeared to her and spoke to her by name.
All the Gospels describe the struggle Jesus’ disciples had to accept the fact that he had been raised from the dead. When the women told the apostles they had seen the Lord they did not believe them. Peter and John saw the empty tomb, but were not convinced the Lord had risen.
When the other disciples told Thomas they had seen the Lord, he 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.” Later Jesus appeared to Thomas and said, “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.”
What a difference it makes when we stop doubting and believe the testimony of the eye witnesses who saw the resurrected Jesus! His resurrection gives hope to all who live in a world where death is a daily reality. We must all die, and many live in the fear of death. Recently some of our good friends have died. At their funeral services there has been both sadness and joy because, although we miss them very much, we know they are in heaven with Jesus. We have sung, “No more we doubt thee, glorious Prince of life; life is naught without thee; aid us in our strife; make us more than conquerors, through thy deathless love: bring us safe through Jordan to thy home above. Thine be the glory, risen conquering Son, endless is the vict’ry, thou o’er death hast won.”
Eritrea is a small and little known country in the Horn of Africa. It emerged in 1993 after a long war for independence from Ethiopia. Since then military conflict with Ethiopia and Yemen has continued, although today there is a fragile peace. Eritrea is one of the world’s most secretive countries, similar to North Korea. It’s 5.6 million people have suffered from droughts and famines, along with other countries in that region, but the government has never given any details or sought outside help.
In the past year the number of refugees fleeing Eritrea has significantly increased. In October last year 5000 Eritreans crossed into Ethiopia and 90% of them were between the ages of 18-24. Seventy-eight children arrived on their own without an adult family member. In a recent Panorama programme Paul Kenyon visited the Shagarab refugee camp in Sudan and talked to some of these children. They had risked their lives in leaving Eritrea and face a very uncertain future on their own. They want to reach Europe and, in order to do this, will have to cross hundreds of miles of desert and undertake a dangerous boat journey across the Mediterranean Sea. They all said their reason for fleeing Eritrea was the fear of conscription into the army.
As I listened to a 15 year old boy talking I thought of our own grandchildren. Humanly speaking this boy is alone in the world. He is at the mercy of the elements and the people traffickers who force children of his age to take small boats with hundreds of people on board across the Mediterranean. Some boats make it, but many don’t. The sheer numbers of refugees seeking asylum in Europe is a massive problem, especially for Italy, but we do have a responsibility for these children, some of whom come from Muslim homes and others from Christian homes.
Two things put us under an obligation to help people who are in need – seeing them and having the means to help them. In his first letter the apostle John wrote, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”
As the New Year has begun we have greeted each other with the words “Happy New Year!” As we look forward to the coming year what grounds are there for hope and happiness? The world is full of problems and the early campaigning for the General Election in May is not very reassuring. We may also be facing problems in our personal lives or in the lives of those we love. We all need to find a real hope for the future.
The last book in the Bible is called Revelation. It was written at the end of the first century by the apostle John. He was an old man, the last surviving disciple of Jesus, and was living in lonely exile on the rocky island of Patmos. He and his fellow Christians were experiencing terrible persecution because of their faith in Jesus. His fellow apostles had already been martyred. Then John was given a wonderful revelation of Jesus Christ that gave him hope personally and that has also encouraged and sustained Christians throughout history.
The book is a series of visions that vividly portray that throughout history there will be times of great wickedness and suffering. The visions also show that God’s gracious purposes in Jesus Christ will ultimately triumph and his people will be kept safe. John himself received comfort and hope through the words of Jesus to him, “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”
The book of Revelation closes with a wonderful vision of the new heaven and the new earth. John writes, “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” Then a loud voice from the throne said, “Look! God’s dwelling is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. I am making everything new!” Whatever we may be facing as this New Year begins, and whatever may happen during the year, we can find a sure hope in God’s promises and in his ultimate purpose for his world in Jesus.