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Amazing love

More than 2000 years ago a young man died on a Roman cross outside the city of Jerusalem. It seemed even to his disciples, who loved him deeply, that his death was the end of all their hopes. For 3 years he had travelled throughout Israel preaching and teaching the people and healing many sick people. Just 5 days before he was executed large crowds had acclaimed him as their king, but then had turned against him and demanded that he be killed.

As he was nailed to the cross he didn’t look like a king. The Romans knew how to humiliate and eliminate those who offended against their laws and their Emperor. A mock crown, made of thorns, had been pressed on his head and blood ran down his face and neck. His back was a mass of bleeding flesh from the scourging he had endured. As the nails were driven through his hands and his feet the Romans were making sure that this would be the end of him. Jesus of Nazareth would not be causing them any more trouble. But how wrong they were!

This Easter millions of Christians around the world are remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus. They see his cross, which was a place of curse and shame, as a glorious demonstration of God’s love. Through Jesus’ death in their place, and for their sins, they have found forgiveness for all their sins and have been reconciled to God. Like the Roman centurion who stood at the foot of the cross, and saw him die, they say, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” Like the criminal who hung on a cross next to Jesus they have heard his promise, “I tell you the truth, you will be with me in Paradise.”

The Roman Empire disappeared long ago, but the kingdom of King Jesus has spread around the world. This Easter many Christians will be singing with solemn joy the words of Isaac Watts, “When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died, my richest gain I count but loss and pour contempt on all my pride. See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down! Did e’er such love and sorrow meet; or thorns compose so rich a crown? Were the whole realm of nature mine that were an offering far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

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King of kings

At the beginning of the last week of his life Jesus rode in triumph into Jerusalem. Great crowds of people, who had come to Jerusalem for the annual Passover Festival, acclaimed him as their king. Jesus was riding on a donkey as the crowds spread their garments on the road ahead of him while others cut branches from trees to spread on the road. Jesus was in the centre of the procession as the people cried out, “Praise God for the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the LORD! Praise God in highest heaven!”

The triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah, written more than 500 years before, “Tell the people of Jerusalem, ‘Look, your King is coming to you. He is humble, riding on a donkey – riding on a donkey’s colt.’” God had told the people how they would recognise their true Messiah. He would not come as a conquering king riding on a horse at the head of a mighty army but in humility because his kingdom was not a worldly kingdom.

As he came closer to Jerusalem and saw the city ahead, Jesus began to weep. “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes. Before long your enemies will build ramparts against your walls and encircle you and close in on you from every side. They will crush you into the ground, and your children with you. Your enemies will not leave a single stone in place, because you did not recognize it when God visited you.”

Human acclamation is fickle. A few days later the Roman Governor, Pilate, before whom Jesus was on trial, said to the same people, “Look, here is your king!” “Away with him,” they yelled. “Away with him! Crucify him!” “What? Crucify your king?” Pilate asked. “We have no king but Caesar,” the leading priests shouted back. So, Pilate turned Jesus over to them to be crucified.

Over the past 2000 years people from many nations have joyfully recognised Jesus as their King and gladly submitted to him. The words of a modern song express it well, “King of kings, majesty, God of Heaven living in me, gentle Saviour, closest friend, strong deliverer, beginning and end, all within me falls at your throne. Your majesty, I can but bow, I lay my all before you now. In royal robes I don’t deserve I live to serve your majesty.”

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The Grave of the Unknown Warrior

Services and acts of Remembrance have been severely restricted this year, but last week Queen Elizabeth went to Westminster Abbey for a deeply personal service at the grave of the Unknown Warrior. The Queen laid a floral tribute based on her wedding bouquet on the grave. After their weddings both she and her mother had laid their wedding bouquets on the grave.

The Grave of the Unknown Warrior was inspired by the Rev. David Railton, who, while serving as a chaplain on the Western Front during the First World War, saw a grave marked by a rough cross and a pencil-written note saying: ‘An Unknown British Soldier.’ After the war he wrote to the Dean of Westminster, Herbert Ryle, proposing that a memorial to the fallen with no known grave should lie among the kings and national heroes in the Abbey. King George V and the Prime Minister David Lloyd George supported the proposal. The body was chosen from unknown British servicemen who had been exhumed from four battle areas, the Somme, the Aisne, Arras and Ypres. On 11 November 1920 the coffin, draped with a Union Flag, was taken to Westminster Abbey where, as it was buried, King George V dropped a handful of earth from France on it.

The grave was topped with a tombstone in black Belgian marble. The inscription on the tombstone reads, “Beneath this stone rests the body of a British Warrior unknown by name or rank brought from France to lie among the most illustrious of the land and buried here on Armistice Day 1920. Thus, are commemorated the many multitudes who during the Great War of 1914-1918 gave the most that man can give, life itself, for God, for King and country, for loved ones, home and empire, for the sacred cause of justice and the freedom of the world. They buried him among the kings because he had done good toward God and toward his house.”

Around the main inscription are four verses from the New Testament. “The Lord knoweth them that are his.” “Greater love hath no man than this.” “Unknown and yet well known, dying and behold we live.” “In Christ shall all be made alive.” These verses remind us that no-one is unknown to God. Tragically, some great and celebrated people seem to give little thought to God. But apparently insignificant of people, from all nations, who call on him will one day hear the King of kings say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”

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The day Jesus died

This Friday is Good Friday when Christians remember the day on which their Saviour Jesus Christ died. For three years Jesus had exercised a remarkable ministry. He had taught the people and great crowds had gathered to hear him. His teaching was not dry and harsh like the religious teachers of his day. He spoke with divine authority and made people think about God and eternity. One of his disciples said, “Lord, you have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Jesus travelled around doing good and performing many remarkable miracles. He made blind people to see, lame people to walk, deaf and dumb people to hear and speak. He cleansed lepers and cast out evil spirits. He fed 5000 people with five loaves and two fish and calmed the storm. He raised three people who had died back to life. Just five days before he died, he was acclaimed by thousands of people as he entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey. They proclaimed him as their Messiah and King! So why was he condemned to die on a cross as if he was a criminal?

The death of Jesus was a sacrifice for sins, but not his own. As he began his ministry John the Baptist declared, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Our sins are serious. Every day we break God’s commands. In the Old Testament God commanded the people to offer sacrifices for the forgiveness of their sins. They would go to the Temple and offer an animal or a bird which would be sacrificed so that the worshipper might be forgiven. The death of Jesus was the final, complete sacrifice which took away the sins of the world.

But people respond to Jesus in very different ways. Two criminals died alongside Jesus. One of them hurled insults at him saying, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” Like many people, he felt no remorse for his own sins but blamed God for what was happening to him. The other man rebuked him, “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

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When God graciously intervened

The ceremonies marking the 75th Anniversary of D-Day and the Normandy landings were very significant occasions. It was moving to see the humility of the veterans as they spoke, with tears, of their experiences and of their friends and colleagues who died who were, they said, the true heroes. It was right that tribute was paid by world leaders to the courage of those who took part in the landings.

Theresa May said, “Many were terribly wounded, and many made the ultimate sacrifice that day, and in the fierce battle that followed, as together our Allied nations sought to release Europe from the grip of fascism. These young men belonged to a very special generation, the greatest generation, a generation whose incomparable spirit shaped our post-war world. They didn’t boast. They didn’t fuss. They served.”

However, there was something missing that highlighted the difference between our present leaders and those who led our nation during World War II. No reference was made by the political leaders to the gracious intervention of God in delivering Britain and Europe from a cruel tyranny. The generation who fought in World War II were very conscious of their dependence on God.

Soldiers who fought in World War II were given a copy of John’s Gospel, inscribed with these words: “We commend the Gospel of Christ our Saviour for it alone can effectively mould character, control conduct and solve the problems of men and nations, and thus make life what it should be.” The statement was signed by the Commanders in Chief of the Royal Navy, the Army and the Air Force.

Seven times during World War II the King and Parliament called the whole nation to prayer. On each occasion God answered by a remarkable act of deliverance. The first National Day of Prayer was on 26 May 1940 when the entire British Army, of 350,000 soldiers, was about to be wiped out in Dunkirk. God answered prayer, the Channel became a millpond and more than 330,000 soldiers got home safely.

Another National Day of Prayer was called for 8 September 1940 when Britain’s air force was vastly outnumbered by the Nazi bombers and fighter planes. Against all the odds the British air force won the air battle. Air Chief Marshall Dowding said: “I will say with absolute conviction that I can trace the intervention of God … humanly speaking victory was impossible!” Today we face different kinds of threat and our leaders are obviously struggling. It’s a time for us all to humbly acknowledge our desperate need for God to graciously intervene.

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They followed the star

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem wise men from the east came to visit him. They probably came from Persia, modern Iran, and travelled hundreds of miles to get to Bethlehem. These men were Magi and were experts in astronomy and astrology. They had seen a new star appear and knew it was a sign that something very important had happened. The star was God’s sign to the people of the world that his Son, Jesus, had been born. The Magi understood that the child who had been born was a great king, so they followed the star in order to visit him.

God revealed himself to the Magi, who studied the stars, in a way they could understand. He still does that today as he makes us aware of his presence and his power through everyday events. I once met a man who worked on a North Sea oil rig. He told me that he knew God existed and cared about him because of something that happened to him. After a period of shore leave, he had travelled to Aberdeen to catch a helicopter back to his rig. His train was delayed and he missed the flight he was meant to be on. That helicopter crashed into the sea killing everyone on board. The man felt God had protected him, but it didn’t make any difference to his life. The Magi weren’t like that because when they saw the star they followed it until they found the Christ-child.

The star guided the wise men until it stopped over the place where Jesus was. They were overjoyed and went into the house where Jesus, and his mother Mary, were. They bowed down and worshipped him. It was an amazing scene as these learned, dignified and important men bowed in humble and joyful worship before this child who was born to be king. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, for a king, frankincense, for worship, and myrrh, in preparation for the pain and suffering this child would later experience.

The wise men are a great example to us. They wanted to know God and were determined to follow the star wherever it went until they found the new king who had been born. When they saw the Christ-child their lives were transformed. They experienced the truth of one of God’s great promises, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

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The Prince of Peace

We live in a world of conflict. Every day we see vivid pictures of violent conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, and other places. Bombs, bullets, catastrophic destruction of homes and communities, life-changing injuries and deaths, have become an integral part of our modern world. Men, women and children are helpless as they are caught up in violent conflict between some of the most powerful armies in the world using advanced weapons. What’s it all about? Often the parties to the conflict are motivated by a political or religious ideology that makes them hate their enemies and want to destroy them.

2000 years ago a young man rode into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey. The people spread their coats on the road and waved palm branches. They were acknowledging their King and looking to him for deliverance as they shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” The people hoped Jesus would deliver them from the Roman occupation of their land, but he was a very different kind of King. Within 5 days the same people had rejected him and handed him over to the Romans, who crucified him. Even his closest friends thought that that was the end, but on the third day Jesus was raised from the dead and today millions of people gladly live under his gracious rule.

Jesus is the Prince of Peace. Whenever the Christian church identifies itself with political powers, whether it be the Roman Emperor Constantine or King Henry VIII or the Russian government today, it compromises its allegiance to Jesus, it’s true King. His kingdom is not like the kingdoms of the world that use military power to advance their cause. His kingdom advances by peaceful means. Those who live under his rule find peace with God and a wonderful inner peace of mind and heart.

During a Sunday morning service on 11 December 2016 a bomb ripped through a section of Cairo’s main Coptic Cathedral reserved for women. Most of the 25 who died and the 49 who were injured were women and children. One of those who died was a young girl, Maggie Samir, and her mother was seriously injured. In an interview a year later Maggie’s grandfather, Abdo, said “I forgive the people who killed my granddaughter Maggie.” He said Jesus had taught his disciples to love their enemies, pray for them and be kind to them. The gracious strength and dignity of people like Abdo is a deeply-moving testimony to the life-changing influence of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

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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.

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O little town of Bethlehem

Some of the best-known hymns are Christmas carols. Familiar words express the wonder of the birth of Jesus Christ, God’s eternal Son, and all that his coming brings to people still today. In 1868 Phillips Brooks, the rector of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia, wrote “O little town of Bethlehem” after visiting the Holy Land and seeing Bethlehem from the hills of Palestine at night. He reflected that when Jesus was born in that little town many people were unaware of it. Yet Jesus had come to fulfil their greatest hopes and still their greatest fears. Our deepest needs are the same as theirs, and Jesus meets those needs.

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by; yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. O morning stars, together proclaim the holy birth, and praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth; for Christ is born of Mary; and, gathered all above, while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.”

In Jesus, God drew near to our needy world. He is the greatest gift that has ever been given. Just as he was born quietly in Bethlehem so, over the years, he has gently drawn near to countless people of all nations who have received him as Saviour and Lord. “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.”

Christmas is a busy time with so much to do. Some will rejoice with their families, others may be on their own and feel sad that those they loved are no longer with them. Whatever our situation we, like Phillips Brooks, can take time to reflect on the birth of Jesus so long ago in Bethlehem. The child who was born is an eternal person whom we can still encounter today when we pray that he will draw near to us and be with us. “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in; be born to us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”

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The beauty of forgiveness

Beautiful things sometimes arise out of dark and ugly events. The brutal murder of 9 black people at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston was a wicked act. The murderer hates black people and believes white people should be supreme. He attended a Bible study and prayer meeting at the church and was there for an hour before pulling out his gun and killing 9 defenceless people, including the pastor of the church. While he sat in the meeting he nearly changed his mind because the people were so nice to him.

When the man appeared in court some of the relatives of the nine people whom he killed spoke to him and told him they forgave him. Nadine Collier, daughter of Ethel Lance, said, “I just want everybody to know I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you. You hurt me, you hurt a lot of people, but God forgive you, and I forgive you.”

Anthony Thompson, the husband of Myra Thompson, said, “I forgive you, and my family forgives you, but we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent, confess, give your life to the one who matters the most, Jesus, so he can change it, and change your ways no matter what happened to you and you’ll be okay through that. And better off than how you are right now.” Alana Simmons spoke on behalf of her family, “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof, everyone’s plea for your soul is proof that they lived and loved and their legacies will live in love. So hate won’t win.”

The amazing responses of these Christian people are a clear reflection of their Saviour, Jesus. When he was nailed to the cross he prayed, “Father, forgive them because they do not know what they are doing.” Two criminals were crucified at the same time as Jesus. One of them experienced a dramatic change of heart. He said to the other criminal, “We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.” Then he said to Jesus, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your Kingdom.” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” So heaven is real and, because Jesus is King, love, not hate, does win!