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A precious gift from God

We have had an addition to our family. Our youngest daughter gave birth three weeks ago to her first child, a little boy. My wife and I are thankful to God that they are both safe and well. This baby is a precious gift from God. We have seen him but have not yet held him because of the present restrictions. We are thankful for the excellent care our daughter received from the consultant and midwife during her pregnancy and, especially, their skills during a difficult delivery.

During our daughter’s pregnancy it was lovely to see the scan photos of the baby in the womb and to see him growing and developing. Those photos reminded us of King David’s words in Psalm 139, “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.”

Every human life is precious and little babies are vulnerable and dependent. We are praying for our daughter and son-in-law to have wisdom as they bring up their son. We do not know what the future holds for them or for this world. But whatever the future holds we know that God is faithful and that he is the One who guides both the history of the world and our personal histories. A Christian song says, “I know who holds the future and he’ll guide me with his hand. With God things don’t just happen everything by him is planned. So as I face tomorrow, with its problems large and small, I’ll trust the God of miracles, give to him my all.”

The birth of a little boy in Bethlehem, more than 2000 years ago, brought light to this dark world. His birth was the dawn of hope and a revelation of God’s love for the peoples of the world. One of the best-known verses in the Bible says, “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.” We pray that our new grandson will one day realise God’s love for him in Jesus and receive the gift of eternal life.

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When I consider your heavens

The SpaceX rocket, Endeavour, has taken two NASA astronauts, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, into orbit. It’s the first time since the space shuttles were retired in 2011 that an American crew has made the journey from American soil. The SpaceX crew capsule docked at the International Space Station 19 hours after launch. The hope is that this will be the first step in a programme which will take people to the Moon and then to Mars.

Since November 2000 the International Space Station has been occupied continuously by 240 people from 19 countries. An international crew of 6 people live and work there while travelling at a speed of 5 miles per second, orbiting the earth every 90 minutes. In 24 hours, the space station makes 16 orbits of Earth, the equivalent of going to the Moon and back, travelling through 16 sunrises and sunsets.

The first man to journey into outer space was Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who completed one orbit of the earth in April 1961. Later Nikita Khrushchev, the President of the Soviet Union, said “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any god there.” However, many people who have travelled into space have found it to be an awesome experience.

On Christmas Eve 1968 the crew of Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the Moon, made a live television broadcast from lunar orbit, showing pictures of the Earth and the Moon. Jim Lovell said, “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring, and it makes you realise just what you have back there on Earth.” William Anders said, “For all the people on Earth the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send you.” Then the crew took turns reading from the first chapter of book of Genesis, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

King David, like most of us, never travelled into space but was moved to worship as he gazed in wonder at the heavens. In Psalm 8 he wrote, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honour. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet. O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

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Good news of great joy

Jesus was born in Bethlehem. His parents, Mary and Joseph, lived in Nazareth, a small village in Galilee. The Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, had decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. Everyone had to return to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. Because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. It was a long and gruelling journey of 90 miles. On foot it took from 4 to 7 days to complete and the time for Mary’s baby to be born was very near.

When they arrived in Bethlehem the town was crowded and there were no relatives who could offer them hospitality. So, when Mary’s baby was born the only place she could lay him was in a manger, an animal feeding trough. It must have been a traumatic time for Mary and Joseph, amongst strangers, far from home, and learning for the first time how to care for a new-born baby. They gave him the name Jesus, as the angel of the Lord had told Joseph. The name Jesus means Saviour.

The same night that Jesus was born an angel of the Lord announced his birth to some shepherds guarding their flocks just outside Bethlehem. When the angel appeared the radiance of God’s glory surrounded them, and the shepherds were terrified. The angel reassured them saying, “Don’t be afraid! I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

When the angels had left them the shepherds said, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So, they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When the shepherds returned to their fields, they glorified and praised God for all the things they had heard and seen. In one sense their lives went on just as they had before, they still worked as shepherds, but in a deeper sense everything was new because they had seen the Saviour. Christmas can be a busy time of special things after which life returns to normal. Nothing changes. But the good news that still brings great joy to all people is that knowing Jesus, the Saviour, transforms our lives.

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True happiness

All people long to find true and lasting happiness. The American Declaration of Independence says all people have been endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights including the “pursuit of happiness.” However, many people around the world are unhappy. The UN World Happiness Report 2018 asked people in every country in the world how happy they were. People living in Finland, Norway and Denmark were the happiest. People in these countries live in stable society with a high standard of living. People living in Yemen, South Sudan and Burundi were the unhappiest. People living in these countries are experiencing terrible conflicts and are very poor with no immediate prospect of improvement.

However, people living in affluent countries also experience profound and tragic unhappiness. In South Korea many elderly people commit suicide. The tradition of children caring for their aging parents has declined in the 21st century. Elderly parents are ending their lives because they don’t want to be a financial burden on their families. There is also a higher-than-average suicide rate amongst students. One reason is the pressure put on them by their parents to succeed academically. When students fail to achieve the goals set for them by their parents, they feel they have dishonoured their families and commit suicide.

True happiness is not found in economic prosperity or academic success but in knowing God and in experiencing his grace when we fail, as we all do. King David sinned very greatly when he committed adultery with another man’s wife and then arranged for her husband to be killed in battle. After he had committed these sins David tried to hide them and to carry on as normal. But God sent a prophet to confront him and then David confessed his sin to God and experienced God’s gracious forgiveness.

David wrote about his experience of forgiveness in Psalm 32, “O, 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.”

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When I am afraid

Britain is due to leave the European Union on 29 March. It will be a time of great change for the country and many things about the future are uncertain. During the debate about leaving the European Union the phrase “Project Fear” has been used by those who want to leave the EU. They have accused those who wish to remain of trying to frighten people into voting to stay because leaving will lead to catastrophic consequences. The fears include our currency being devalued, prices going up, jobs being lost and travel becoming more difficult.

Fear is a powerful emotion which is not easy to handle. It is a natural response to anything that might be dangerous, painful or harmful. We may respond to fear by fighting, fleeing or freezing. Fear can be a positive emotion that protects us from danger. Parents teach their children to be careful when crossing the road in case they are knocked over by a car. People walking near the edge of a high cliff take care in case they fall.

The Bible speaks of fear and shows us how to handle our fears. King David wrote Psalm 56 when he had been captured by his enemies and was in great danger. He said, “When I am afraid, I will trust in you. In God, whose word I praise – in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can mortal man do to me?” The great antidote to fear is faith – trusting in God. It is not easy to know who to trust. People trust nurses, doctors and teachers to tell them the truth but levels of trust in politicians, journalists and bankers are low.

Jesus often told people not to be afraid. A religious leader once came to Jesus begging for help because his only daughter, who was just 12 years old, was dying. Jesus agreed to help him but as they were on their way to the leader’s house some men came with news that the little girl had died. The leader was devastated. Jesus said to him, “Don’t be afraid, just trust me.” When they came to the house Jesus raised the little girl to life.

Edward Bickersteth’s hymn encourages us to put our trust in Jesus. “Peace, perfect peace, our future all unknown? Jesus we know, and he is on the throne. Peace, perfect peace, death shadowing us and ours? Jesus has vanquished death and all its powers. It is enough: earth’s struggles soon shall cease, and Jesus calls us to heaven’s perfect peace.”

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Mary’s Son

Preparations for Christmas are well under way. It’s a very expensive time. Last month an estimated £7billion was spent on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. In the run up to Christmas 2017 people in Britain spent £50billion and then spent another £12billion between Christmas and New Year. Why, in the middle of winter, do many of us spend money we can’t afford on food and drink and expensive presents our family and friends may not really need? Why do poorer families feel left out because they don’t have either money or access to credit?

We don’t need to spend money and incur crippling debt to focus on the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem more than 2000 years ago. Familiar carols recount the wonder of it all. “Once in royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed, where a mother laid her baby in a manger for his bed: Mary was that mother mild, Jesus Christ her little child. 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.”

Mary and Joseph were a newly married young couple. They weren’t rich or famous. Joseph was a carpenter in Nazareth and Mary was expecting their first child. When it was nearly time for the baby to be born, they had to travel on foot to Bethlehem because the Roman Emperor was taking a census. Everyone had to go to their family town for the census. Because Joseph was descended from King David, he and Mary had to go to Bethlehem which was David’s town. When they arrived in Bethlehem there were no guest rooms available in which they could stay so Mary gave birth to her firstborn son in a stable.

Mary’s son was God’s Son. He came into the world to give hope to all who receive him, rich and poor, both in this life and the next. The carol lifts our eyes and thoughts above this often sad world to the glory of heaven. “And our eyes at last shall see him, through his own redeeming love; for that child so dear and gentle is our Lord in heaven above, and he leads his children on to the place where he is gone. Not in that poor lowly stable, with the oxen standing by, we shall see him, but in heaven, set at God’s right hand on high; where like stars his children crowned all in white shall wait around.”

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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.”

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A Saviour has been born

Christmas is a busy time. The season has a momentum of its own as we are swept along with the pressure of getting everything ready for the big day. It is easy in the busyness of it all to lose sight of the things that matter most and, when it is over, to feel a sense of emptiness and anticlimax.

Joseph and Mary were under pressure when they set off from the little village of Nazareth to go to Bethlehem to be registered in the Roman census. They had to walk 80 miles when Mary was in the late stages of her first pregnancy. The journey could have taken nearly a week. When they arrived in Bethlehem the town was overflowing with people and there was nowhere for them to stay. So Jesus was born in a stable and placed in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. Hardly anyone in Bethlehem noticed Joseph and Mary and the baby boy who was born; yet this child would change the course of history and transform the lives of millions of people.

When Jesus is at the centre of our lives, not only on Christmas Day, but every day of our lives, everything changes. An angel announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks at night. They were ordinary men doing a tough job who saw the glory of the Lord. The angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” Then an angelic choir appeared praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.”

When the angels had gone, the shepherds went to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When the shepherds returned to their fields and their sheep they were “glorifying and praising God for all things they had heard and seen.” They returned to the same daily routine, but now it was different because they were different. The had seen the One who came into this world that we might have life and have it to the full. He is the One we all need to find this Christmas. He transforms us through his love and promises to be with us when life returns to its normal routine.

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I will fear no evil, for you are with me

The commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings was a very moving event. Almost 2000 veterans were there, as well as many world leaders. They gathered at Sword beach in Normandy on a beautiful sunny day, under blue skies, to remember a very dark day when many soldiers died in terrible circumstances. The dignity of the veterans was striking as they stood by the graves of their fallen friends, shed tears, and spoke of their experiences. For many this would be their last visit to Normandy.

The soldiers in the Allied forces were part of the D-Day landings because they had been called up to serve in the armed forces. They were doing their duty to their country alongside friends from their communities and those with whom they had trained. Whilst they could not really envisage what the landings would be like, they knew they were facing great danger. They, and their comrades, were facing death or serious injury. Many would never return. They had to be brave and courageous, and to overcome their understandable fears. It was clear that, 70 years later, the painful memories of that day are still deeply etched on their memories.

David, who wrote Psalm 23, was a shepherd. He was the youngest of seven brothers and looked after his father’s sheep. One of his jobs was to protect the sheep from wild animals, like lions and bears. When Israel was being dominated by a neighbouring nation, the Philistines, David was called into action to fight the giant Goliath. Because the Lord was with him, David killed Goliath and delivered his people.

In Psalm 23 David reflects on the wonderful love of the Lord. He knew that life is not always “green pastures” and “still waters”. There are also dark days. So he wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Fear is a powerful influence on us all, and our greatest fear is death. The veterans, who saw their young comrades die in Normandy, have lived another 70 years, but they, and we all, must still walk through that dark valley. As we face “the last enemy” we need someone to be with us and to take away our fears. The Lord Jesus Christ is the only One who is great enough and kind enough to accompany us on that last journey of life and to bring us safely to his Father’s house in heaven.