To us a Son is given

Christmas is a special time as people around the world remember the birth of Jesus Christ. His birth was prophesied hundreds of years before he was born. The prophet Micah said where he would be born: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel.” The prophet Isaiah spoke about his special conception: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.” Isaiah also said this child would be a gift from God: “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.”

Now more than 2000 years after the birth of Jesus, he is still remembered with joy and thanksgiving by countless people from many nations. Christmas carols will be heard in shopping centres, schools will have nativity plays and many people who don’t normally go to church will attend carol services. The focus will be on this special child who was born so long ago. Well-known carols explain why his coming was so important.

Jesus brought light into this dark world: “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.”

Angels, and the very creation itself, rejoiced at his birth: “For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above, while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love. O morning stars together proclaim the holy birth and praises sing to God the King and peace to men on earth.”

Jesus has transformed the lives of countless people and is still changing lives today. This Christmas many will come to know him for the first time: “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. O holy child of Bethlehem descend to us, we pray, cast out our sin and enter in be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell. O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel”

The beauty of autumn

The recent sunny days have shown the autumn colours in all their beauty. The summer has past, and winter is coming, and the world around us is beautifully clothed in orange, yellow, red and brown colours. The autumn colours are not a sign of death but of the cycles of life. As the days grow shorter and the temperatures cool many trees shed their leaves so that they can survive the winter. The leaves don’t simply fall but are actively pushed off their branches by the trees. The changes in weather and daylight trigger a hormone that releases a chemical message to each leaf that it is time to prepare for winter and slowly, but surely, the leaf is pushed from the tree branch. This process is essential if the tree is to survive the winter.

The world and the universe around us are constantly revealing the glory of God to all people everywhere. This revelation transcends differences in language and culture. In Psalm 19 we read, “The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world.”

God’s creation reveals his beauty and splendour. Through the year he beautifully clothes his world from the bright colours of the spring flowers to the russet colours of autumn. As each day dawns he floods the world with light and at the end of the day creates spectacular sunsets. The sun, moon and stars speak of his wisdom and greatness. He leaves nothing to chance. Through his creation he speaks to us and tells us that he is and that he cares.

How should we respond to God’s revelation through his creation? The trees are wise enough to prepare for winter, but we may not be so wise. God is the living God. He gives life and breath to everything and satisfies every need. He watched over us in our mother’s womb from the moment of conception until the day we were born. He created us to live and to enjoy him forever. He sent his Son into the world so that we might have life and have it to the full. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die.”

Sacrificial love in DR Congo

Last week the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo declared an outbreak of Ebola. Two cases have been confirmed in the northwest of the country. Ebola was first identified in DR Congo in 1976. The virus can be transmitted from wild animals to people and spreads through human-to-human transmission. The average fatality rate is 50%. The World Health organisation has made $1 million available to contain the outbreak.

DR Congo is two-thirds the size of Western Europe and is potentially one of the richest countries in the world. It has an abundant water supply from the world’s second-largest river, a benign climate, fertile soil and abundant deposits of copper, gold, diamonds, cobalt, uranium and oil. Yet its 79 million people have experienced great suffering through corrupt government and a long running civil war in which more than 5 million people have died. Millions of people now live in extreme poverty.

Yet there are also bright lights of love and hope that shine in DR Congo. A friend of mine, who lives and works in Shalom University in Bunia, recently wrote to me. In February and March violence flared in the area near Bunia and over a two-week period 50,000 people fled into the city. They arrived on foot with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. My friend described the response of Christians to the needs of these displaced people.

“On the first Sunday after the displaced began arriving, it was blazing hot. The pastor of the main church in Bunia preached on Abraham’s hospitality of three strangers, one of whom turned out to be God himself. The pastor invited a refugee family up to the front to tell their story. At the end of their story the pastor started singing and the people began to stream forward to give a love offering for the displaced. Soon a large pink laundry basket was overflowing with bundles of money. This came from the people of a city where £70 a month is a good salary.”

The pastor then asked the Christians to prepare for a bigger offering the next Sunday. He told them they should bring their best food and clothes. The following Sunday, the offering was even larger and large bags of clothes were donated. For a month, the Christians throughout Bunia provided the main support for the displaced people. The loving actions of these Christians was inspired by their own experience of God’s love in Jesus who, “though he was rich, yet for their sake became poor, so that you through his poverty they might become rich.”

The inspiration of the Invictus Games

The 2017 Invictus Games are being held in Toronto. Invictus means unconquered. The Games were created by Prince Harry for former military personnel who have been wounded or injured in action as they have served their countries. Invictus is about the dedication of men and women who have confronted hardship and refused to be defined by their injuries. They and their families and friends have faced the shock of life-changing injuries and have together faced the long road to recovery.

In his opening speech, Prince Harry spoke of seeing three severely injured British soldiers while waiting to deploy to Afghanistan. He said, “The way I viewed service and sacrifice changed forever, and the direction of my life changed with it. I knew it was my responsibility to use a great platform that I have to help the world understand and be inspired by the spirit of those who wear the uniform. In the world where so many have reasons to feel cynical, and apathetic, I wanted to find a way for veterans to be a beacon of light and show us all that we have a role to play.”

He went on the speak of the impact the Games would have on those who came to watch, “I hope you are ready for some fierce competition. I hope you are ready to see the meaning of teamwork, the proof that anything is possible when we work together. I hope you are ready to see courage and determination that will inspire you to power through the challenges in your own life. I hope you are ready to see the role models in action that any parent would want their children to look up to. And I hope you’re ready to see lives changing in front of your eyes.”

The Gospel story is about love and sacrifice. Jesus is God’s Son and the King of kings. He came from heaven to earth not to be served but to serve others and give his life as a ransom for many. He was ready to pay the ultimate sacrifice in order to redeem people like you and me. On the cross he paid the price of our sins and experienced a depth of suffering we can never fully comprehend. On the third day he rose from the dead. He is the supreme conqueror. Understanding what he did and experiencing his love is life transforming. He lifts us from our own struggles and sorrows and fills our hearts with hope.

God is Light

The days are getting longer. It’s good to go to work and school in the light and to return before dark. Light is essential for life and lifts our spirits. The Bible tells us, “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” God’s first creative command was “Let there be light!”

Throughout history people have tried to discover what God is like. The gods of ancient Greece were very much like human beings. They were capricious; for no apparent reason their mood and behaviour would change. They were envious and spiteful and people tried to keep on the right side of them. Animists in many parts of the world today believe in spirits which live in trees, rocks and rivers and govern their lives. The spirits need constantly to be appeased if your crops are to flourish and you are to enjoy good health. Animistic people live in constant fear of the spirits.

The God of the Bible is so very different from the gods of people’s imagination. He isn’t like us. He is light. He is holy, righteous, pure and good. He is unchanging; in him there is no darkness at all. Human history reveals the very dark side of our human nature. Powerful people have imprisoned, tortured and killed those they hate. Today there are people hidden away in dark prisons of oppressive regimes who are treated terribly. Even apparently benign regimes have had very dark chapters in their history. But God isn’t like that; in him there is no darkness at all.

Jesus came into the world to reveal God to us and to bring the light of God’s presence into our lives. He said “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” When we know Jesus we discover the light of the truth and experience the amazing kindness of God. In his well-known hymn Thomas Binney reflects on the fact that God is light and our need to know him. “Eternal Light! Eternal Light! How pure the soul must be, when, placed within thy searching sight, it shrinks not, but with calm delight can live, and look on Thee. There is a way for man to rise to that sublime abode; an offering and a sacrifice, a Holy Spirit’s energies, an advocate with God. These, these prepare us for the sight of holiness above; the sons of ignorance and night may dwell in the eternal light, through the eternal love.”

The Light shines in the darkness

In her Christmas Message the Queen quoted John, Chapter 1, verse 5, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” She described it as a verse of great hope. John was speaking of Jesus, God’s Son, who came into the world. John also says of Jesus, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” In a world where there are an increasing number of what the Queen called “moments of darkness” we need One who brings light into our lives, and who is invincible. Jesus is that Person.

Jesus was born into a violent world. Soon after he was born King Herod tried to kill him. Herod had been appointed king of Judea by the Roman Senate more than 30 years before Jesus was born. He was a ruthless tyrant; he murdered his wife, three of his sons, his mother-in-law, his brother-in-law, his uncle and many others he suspected of treachery. When the Wise Men told him they were seeking the one who had been born King of the Jews, Herod was determined to kill him and ordered his soldiers to kill all the male children under 2 years old in the town and region of Bethlehem.

But Herod’s evil plan failed because God had already warned Joseph and told him to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt. Within a short time Herod was dead and it was safe for Joseph and his family to return to their own town of Nazareth. It was the first example of Jesus, the Light, triumphing over the darkness. Throughout his ministry Jesus faced increasing hostility which culminated in his death on the Cross, yet on the third day he rose from the dead. Once again darkness had been defeated and Jesus had triumphed.

Today Christians and other minority groups in Syria and Iraq are experiencing fierce persecution. Men, women and children are being killed. Many have fled their homes in search of safety. We remember them and pray for them. We are also confident that Jesus is still the Light which shines in the darkness and that he will triumph. Like the mighty Roman Empire, the evil movements of today, which seem so powerful, will all fall and pass away and the evil tyrants who lead them will stand before their Judge. None of them ultimately triumphs because Jesus, the Light of this dark world, will execute perfect justice for those who are poor and powerless.

My God, how wonderful you are!

The Spring has come. After the dark, and very wet, days of winter we are enjoying bright, sunny, blue sky days. The snowdrops, daffodils and crocuses are blooming. People are out walking and cycling. Our spirits are lifted as we look forward to the long, warm days of summer. Seeing nature coming to life reminds us of the God of creation. Long ago David wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”

God is light. His first creative command was, “Let there be light!” God’s character is pure and good and true. In him there is no darkness at all. He is transparent. He has wonderfully revealed his character and gracious purposes for the people of this world in Jesus Christ, his eternal Son. He calls us out of the moral and spiritual darkness of this world “to walk in the light, as he is in the light.”

God is the Giver of life. Through the winter months his creation has lain dormant, but now it is stirring to life again. God is the source of all life and has made this little planet on which we live abound with life. Earth stands out in stark contrast to all we know of the vast universe around us. It seems that Earth is one of God’s special creations. Jesus came into this world that we “may have life and have it to the full.”

God is beautiful and the source of all beauty. He has wonderfully adorned his creation with beauty. The hills and the valleys, the flowers and the trees, the animals, the fish and the birds, the great variety of people from all nations, reveal the mind of God, who “makes everything beautiful in its time.” Atheistic societies build ugly concrete blocks and force people into their “one size fits all” mould. Our secular society seems to promote things which degrade and demean people who have been created in the image of God.

God created us to love and worship him. One hymn writer reminds us how wonderful God is. “How beautiful, how beautiful, the sight of Thee must be, thine endless wisdom, boundless power, and aweful purity. Yet I may love Thee too, O Lord, almighty as Thou art, for Thou has stooped to ask of me the love of my poor heart. Father of Jesus, love’s reward, what rapture will it be, prostrate before they throne to lie and ever gaze on Thee.”

Living in the Light

The News of the World has been published for the last time. After 168 years, the most widely read newspaper in Britain has closed because of a scandal over alleged phone hacking and bribery. The decision to close the newspaper may not to be an act of contrition on the part of the owners, expressing sorrow over what has happened, but rather a hard-headed business decision which seeks to limit the damage done to the parent company.

Many people are very interested in knowing what happens behind closed doors. We are told that people have “a right to know” and that exposing the weaknesses of prominent people is “in the public interest.” This scandal has revealed the lengths to which some people are willing to go in order to pry into, and then expose, the private affairs of celebrities, politicians and even victims of crime. The hacking and bribery was done in secret, but has now been brought into the open. The hunters have become the hunted.

Jesus warned people against the danger of hypocrisy by which we pretend to be something we are not. He said, “The time is coming when everything that is covered up will be revealed, and all that is secret will be made known to all. Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what has been whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the housetops for all to hear.” He was referring to the day when God will judge everyone’s secret lives. Ultimately we are all accountable to God.

Jesus also warned against hypocrisy in religion when people do things in order to win the praise of other people. He said that people who give money to help the poor should not “blow trumpets in the synagogues and streets” to call attention to their acts of charity. He said that although such people may receive praise from other people, they will not receive praise from God. Then he said, “But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.”

The words of Jesus challenge us all. Instead of finding pleasure in the weaknesses and failures of others, our lives need to be open before God. We need to live in the light as God is in the Light.