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.”

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.

Immanuel – God with us

The birth of Jesus Christ really is a cause for great celebration! His coming into the world has changed the lives of millions of people for the better. His birth was foretold in detail by prophets who lived more than 600 years earlier and their prophecies were fulfilled. The prophet Micah foretold where he would be born and spoke of his greatness. “But you, Bethlehem, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Jesus came from heaven to earth with kingly power to do us good.

The prophet Isaiah foretold that he would be born to a young virgin mother. “The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” The name Immanuel means “God with us.” As the eternal Son of God, Jesus reveals God to us. When he came into the world God himself drew near to a troubled world. Throughout history Christians have experienced the presence of God with them, often in very difficult circumstances. One of our greatest needs this Christmas is to know that God is with us.

The prophet Isaiah also spoke of the greatness of the child who would be born, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.” Jesus came into this world from the presence of his heavenly Father with divine power to execute God’s great plan of salvation for the peoples of this world and to do it as the “Prince of Peace.”

Charles Wesley wrote a hymn that is often sung at Christmas and expresses the deepest longings of our hearts. “Come, O long-expected Jesus, born to set your people free! from our fears and sins release us, Christ in whom our rest shall be. Israel’s strength and consolation, born salvation to impart; dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart. Born your people to deliver, born a child, and yet a king; born to reign in us for ever, now your gracious kingdom bring: By your own eternal Spirit rule in all our hearts alone; by your all-sufficient merit raise us to your glorious throne.”

Bear Gryll’s Greatest Adventure

Bear Grylls is well-known as a man who embodies the spirit of adventure and outdoor survival. His love of adventure began when he was growing up on the Isle of Wight. His late father, Sir Michael Grylls, taught him to climb. Bear says, “It brought us close and I loved it. It was never about the climbs but about that closeness.” In his book “To My Sons” he writes, “Aim to live a wild, generous, full, exciting life – blessing those around you and seeing the good in all. Follow your dreams – they are God-given.”

Bear trained in martial arts and perfected many of his skills when he served for 3 years in the British Special Forces as a member of 21 SAS. He has climbed Everest; crossed the North Atlantic on an inflatable boat; navigated the Northwest Passage; survived crocodile-infested swamps in Indonesia; and para-motored over the Himalayas. He says, “It is through faith that we find peace, but that same faith can also give us great boldness to reach out that little bit further than maybe we are comfortable. Everything worthwhile in life comes from reaching beyond that point of comfort; daring to risk it all; following our dreams despite the cost; loving despite the pain; hoping despite the doubts; and living boldly despite the fear. Life is an adventure that it best lived boldly.”

Bear is the youngest-ever Chief Scout and is a role-model to 40 million scouts worldwide. He says, “Scouting is about faith, it’s about friendship, it’s about fun – it’s all part of what we wanted when we grew up.” When it comes to adventure, he says, “The first step is always the hardest. That’s the one that takes the most courage. I’ve learned not to run from that fear and just do it.”

Bear says that finding simple faith to empower his life has been his greatest adventure. “Life is a journey and at times we all need a guide. For me that guide has become my backbone, my helper, my companion and my friend. I always thought that Christianity was about being very sensible and acting all smart and religious. But the more I discovered about Jesus Christ himself, the more I found a man who was as unreligious as you can imagine. It seemed that the very heart of the Christian faith was not about church, pulpits, sermons or Latin verse! It was about a relationship with someone who promises us life in abundance, joy within, peace without and freedom in our soul. Now I was interested!”

I can’t thank them enough, they are all heroes

One Sunday morning Matthew Bryce set out for a morning’s surfing off the Argyll coast of Scotland. When he failed to return home, his family reported him missing and a major search and rescue operation was launched, involving RNLI lifeboats, coastguard rescue teams and a rescue helicopter based in Prestwick. Matthew, who is 22, was finally spotted in the Irish Sea by a rescue helicopter from Belfast on Monday at 7.30pm, 13 miles off the north Antrim coast. He had spent 32 hours in the Irish Sea. The Coastguard believe Matthew’s surfing knowledge and thick neoprene wetsuit saved his life.

Speaking from The Ulster Hospital, where he was recovering from his ordeal, Matthew said he had been helpless as changing currents and strong winds swept him out to sea. He said, “It got to the point where my paddling was ineffective, but I did it to keep myself warm.” Fear really set in as night fell, “It was incredibly lonely and quiet because there was nothing – just waves. I hadn’t seen any helicopters. I thought I was going to die – I was almost convinced. I didn’t think I would see sunrise.” Fighting back tears he continued, “I knew I had, maybe, three hours and was watching the sunset when a helicopter flew right over. So, I jumped off the surfboard, lifted it up and waved it; I thought they’d missed me. Then they turned around … and saved my life. I can’t thank them enough, they are all heroes.”

One day when Jesus was teaching a group of people who knew they had made a mess of their lives, he told a parable about a shepherd who realised he had lost one of his 100 sheep. Jesus said, “Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

Jesus came into the world to seek and to save those who are lost. Just as Matthew’s rescuers and family were overjoyed when they found him alive, so there is great rejoicing in heaven when any of us realises our need to know God and turns to him.

Because I live, you also will live

A poll carried out on Palm Sunday revealed that 23% of people in the UK who regard themselves as Christians do not believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Amongst regular churchgoers 5% said they did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus. It is, perhaps, not surprising that churchgoers are uncertain when a significant percentage of clergy say they don’t believe in the resurrection. Interestingly, the survey also found that 46% of the population in general believe in some form of life after death, including a fifth of those who describe themselves as non-religious. These issues are vitally important to every one of us, because, one day, we will all die.

The Taliabo people live on a small island in Indonesia. They live a very simple life with very little contact with the outside world, but were deeply troubled by the fact that everyone in their tribe died. The stories handed down from generation to generation said that long ago their ancestors knew the secret of eternal life, but they left the island and, since then, the people have become poor and everyone dies. The stories also told of a river of life. Whoever drank water from the river would live for ever. But no one could find the river.

Death was the Taliabo people’s biggest fear. They cried out to the spirits, and used charms, but everyone still died. They would put the bones of relatives who died in a box in the hope someone would come and bring them back to life. But they never did. They prayed to those who had died, but no answer came. The shamans couldn’t help them because they, too, all died. The people even made a raft and loaded it with gifts and put the bones of 2 dead people, a man and a woman, on it. They sent the raft out into the ocean in the hope that the ones who knew the secret of eternal life would see it, take pity on them, and return to the island.

When two Christian couples came to the Taliabo’s island they told the people about Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again on the third day. The Taliabo were overjoyed because now they knew that someone really had overcome death. As they believed the Bible’s teaching about Jesus, their lives were wonderfully transformed. They were no longer afraid of death. In our outwardly sophisticated society we, too, need to believe the wonderful promise of the risen Jesus, “Because I live, you also will live.”

Our God is the end of the journey

Last Saturday I stood at the graveside of a good friend I had known for more than 45 years. Standing with his wife, children and grandchildren and other family members I shared the deep sense of loss they were experiencing. My friend had died from cancer after a short illness. It had all happened so quickly. After the burial, we went to a local chapel where more than 200 friends had gathered for a service of thanksgiving. We sang hymns my friend had chosen for the service which all expressed his personal faith in his Saviour, Jesus Christ. The hymns were full of the Christ-centred hope in which my friend had faced death; the last enemy. The hymns reminded us that, though my friend is no longer with us, he is now safe in the presence of Jesus.

The first hymn celebrates the greatness of God. “And when I think that God his Son not sparing, sent him to die, I scarce can take it in; that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died to take away my sin. When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation to take me home, what joy shall fill my heart! Than shall I bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim; My God how great thou art! Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to thee; How great thou art! How great thou art!”

The second hymn reflects on our frailty and need of the eternal strength and grace of Jesus; who is the Rock of Ages. “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me Saviour or I die. While I draw this fleeting breath, when my eyelids close in death, when I soar to realms unknown, see thee on thy judgement throne; Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.”

The third hymn focusses on heaven. “My Saviour will never forsake me, unveiling his merciful face, his presence and promise almighty, redeeming his loved ones by grace. In shades of the valley’s dark terror, where hell and its horror hold sway, my Jesus will reach out in power, and save me by his only way. For yonder a light shines eternal, which spreads through the valley of gloom; Lord Jesus, resplendent and regal, drives fear far away from the tomb. Our God is the end of the journey, his pleasant and glorious domain; for there are the children of mercy, who praise Him for Calvary’s pain.”

The Greatest Story ever told

The story of Jesus has been called “The Greatest Story ever told.” It is more than a story it is history; it really happened. For many centuries, the Jewish people had been waiting for God’s promised Messiah to come. Jesus was that Messiah, or Christ. His mother Mary lived in Nazareth, a small village in Galilee. She was in her teens and was engaged to Joseph, the village carpenter. They were looking forward to the day when they would be married and had no idea of God’s amazing plan for them.

One day an angel appeared to Mary and told her, “Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So, the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God.” Mary’s response was, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.”

When Mary told Joseph she had conceived a child he, understandably, assumed she had been unfaithful to him. Because he loved Mary deeply, and didn’t want to disgrace her publicly, he decided to break the engagement quietly. As he was considering this he had a dream in which an angel told him that Mary had conceived the child by the power of the Holy Spirit. What had happened to her had been foretold 600 years earlier by the prophet Isaiah, who had said that a virgin would conceive and give birth to a son. So Joseph obeyed the angel and joyfully took Mary as his wife.

Joseph was told the name he was to give to the child, “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus, God’s eternal Son, came into the world to save us from our sins. As we look at our own lives, and the tragic state of the world around us, there is no doubt we all need a Saviour. Jesus died bearing the punishment our sins deserve. When we put our trust in him our sins are forgiven. Jesus was also called “Immanuel” which means “God is with us.” When we know him as our Saviour, we know his gracious presence and help always and can face every situation in life.

The God of second chances

In our world today the price of failure is high. A political leader whose party loses an election or referendum is expected to resign. A Premiership football manager whose team has a bad run of results is sacked. The chief executive officer of a major company or bank that performs badly will lose their job. People demand and expect success at all costs and, if it isn’t achieved, there must be a scapegoat; someone who takes the blame.

But the fact is that we all fail and do so repeatedly. We need to know how to cope with our failures and to understand that we may learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. The Bible tells us about the experiences of people who failed and who were restored by God. Many of the great people in the Bible had times when they seriously failed. God is revealed as the God of second-chances.

King David is described as a man “after God’s own heart.” He wanted to honour God in everything he did and to please God always. He was a genuine man with many strengths. The psalms David wrote, like Psalm 23, have brought comfort and help to people from many nations. Yet there was one very dark episode in David’s life when he succumbed to temptation and committed adultery with the beautiful wife of one of his bravest soldiers. Afterwards he behaved disgracefully as he tried to cover his sin and this led to the death, in battle, of the husband. Then David married the woman, who was carrying his child. The Bible’s verdict on David’s actions is clear, “The Lord was displeased with what David had done.”

Yet, when David faced up to his sin and guilt, God graciously restored him. David wrote about that experience in Psalm 32, “Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight! Yes, what joy for those whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt, whose lives are lived in complete honesty! When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat. Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.” And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.”

Emersyn Faith has touched the hearts of thousands

Emersyn Faith Baker is a 15-month old little girl living in Sanford, Florida. She is her mother and father’s third child and has Down’s syndrome. One in every 1000 babies has Down’s syndrome. There are about 40,000 people living in Britain who have Down’s syndrome. Usually it is not an inherited condition. People with Down’s syndrome have an extra chromosome. The reason for this is not known, but it happens at the time of conception. Older mothers are more at risk of having a baby with Down’s syndrome, but most Down’s babies are born to mothers under the age of 35. Down’s babies are born to all kinds of people all over the world.

When Emersyn’s mother, Courtney, was told the baby she was carrying had Down’s syndrome the doctor advised her to terminate the pregnancy because having the baby would “lower her quality of life.” Courtney decided to continue with the pregnancy. Emersyn has brought great joy and delight to all the family and to those around her.

Courtney has recently written to the doctor. She wrote, “Emersyn has not only added to our quality of life, she’s touched the hearts of thousands. She’s given us a purpose and a joy that is impossible to express. She’s given us bigger smiles, more laughter and sweeter kisses than we’ve ever known. She’s opened our eyes to true beauty and pure love.”

Every human being is created by God and is of equal value in his sight. In Psalm 139 David wrote, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

In 1989 I had the privilege of baptising David, a young Down’s man. David came to our church with his mother and two sisters. He loved coming to church and reading the Bible. He came to understand that God loved him and that Jesus had died on the cross for his sins. David loves Jesus as his Saviour and professed his faith in baptism. As he came up out of the baptistry David gave a double thumbs up sign to show his joy at knowing God’s love in Jesus.