A New Beginning

A New Year is beginning. Starting something new gives us an opportunity to do better. Some people make New Year resolutions. It is good to resolve to change for the better and do things differently from the way we have in the past. When we were in primary school and had made lots of mistakes and crossings out on a page in our exercises book the teacher would tell us to turn to new page. It was good to be able to start again.

We all fail in life and regret many things we have done. We cannot change the past. There are broken relationships, moral failures, dishonest actions and words, bitterness and resentment, and things we intended to do but didn’t. Often we find it difficult to move on and we carry with us the memories of our past failures.

The Bible tells us of a God who is the God of second chances. Many of the great men and women in the Bible made big mistakes and committed serious sins, but God didn’t cast them off and reject them. Peter, who was a leader in the early churches, told Jesus that whatever happened he would never let him down. He said he was ready, if necessary, to die for Jesus. But on the night Jesus was arrested and condemned Peter denied 3 times that he even knew him. Peter wept bitterly and was overcome with the realisation that he had totally failed his Lord in his hour of need.

Early one morning after Jesus had risen from the dead he appeared to his disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Three times Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” and three times Peter replied, “Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” In this way Peter was restored to ministry and leadership in the early churches. He always remembered the wonderful way in which the Lord had restored him. It made him more able to help others who, like him, had also failed.

We live in a very unforgiving world. The media highlight the failings of well-known people and sometimes destroy them. God is not like that. In Jesus he offers us the opportunity to put all our past failures behind us and to start again. He gives us hope that the future will, with his help, be better than the past. Let’s pray that 2019 will truly be a new beginning and a Happy New Year!

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”

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.”

Words matter

Words matter. At the marriage of Jack Brooksbank and Princess Eugenie last week their deep love for each other was obvious. The Dean of Windsor declared them to be husband and wife because they made solemn, lifelong promises to each other. Eugenie was asked, “Eugenie, wilt thou have this Man to be thy wedded husband, to live together according to God’s law in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou love him, comfort him, honour and keep him, in sickness and in health and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?” She replied, “I will.” Jack made a similar promise.

One media organisation hired professional lip-readers to tell them what the Royal guests were saying to each other. It seems even small talk matters! Jesus taught that our words reveal the condition of our inner self and that God will judge us for everything we say. He said, “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the housetops for all to hear!”

Those who heard Jesus speaking recognised the authority of his words. During a difficult time in his ministry, when some people turned away from him, Jesus asked his close disciples, “Are you also going to leave?” Simon Peter replied, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life.” Jesus made wonderful promises in which we can have total confidence. One of his promises is, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Some Christian friends of ours invited a neighbour, who is not a Christian, to a meal. After the meal the wife asked the neighbour if she could read a passage from the Bible. The neighbour agreed and the wife read one of the Psalms. As she was reading the neighbour began to cry. When the reading was finished the neighbour explained why she had cried, “In my religion we speak to God but he never speaks to us. As you were reading I felt God was speaking to me!”

Call on me in the day of trouble

When Guatemala’s Volcan de Fuego (Volcano of Fire) erupted on Sunday 3 June it shot a plume of ash and gas nearly 6 miles into the sky and spread ash and debris across towns and farms more than 10 miles away. The pyroclastic flow of lava, rocks and ash poured down the mountain burying homes and people. The deadly black flow moved at speeds in excess of 50mph and reached a temperature of between 400 and 1300 degrees Fahrenheit. Its power demolished, shattered, buried and carried away nearly everything in its path. It was inescapable. More than 100 people are known to have died and at least 200 others are missing.

The reports from Guatemala have been deeply moving. Our hearts go out to those who have survived but have lost everything – family, homes and possessions. One man spoke of how all his family perished in a few moments and he himself feared he would die. He said, “I cried out to Almighty God to save me!” Sensing the imminent danger he was in, and feeling utterly helpless to do anything about it, this man cried out to God. Many others probably did the same.

The Bible offers great encouragement to those who call on God for help. In Psalm 50 God says, “Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honour me.” In Psalm 145 we read, “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” In Psalm 34 David writes about a time when his life was in danger. He testifies to the way God heard him and helped him, “I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles.”

Jesus was crucified on the same day as two other men. Both had been convicted of serious crimes and had been condemned to die. One man was full of anger and bitterness and cursed those who were supervising his execution. But the second man became very aware of Jesus and said to the other man, “Don’t you fear God 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.”

My friend David

David was born nearly 60 years ago. Soon after his birth his mother and father were told that he had Down’s syndrome. They didn’t know anything about the condition but began to find out about it. They knew that David, just like any baby, needed a secure and loving family in which to thrive. They, and David’s two older sisters, watched him grow and develop. David’s father took him out to enjoy a wide range of experiences and, every year, the family went on holidays together. David has always known that he belongs to a family who love him.

When David was a teenager, he and the family became involved in a local church. David was warmly welcomed into the fellowship of the church family. One of the highlights of his week was going to church on Sundays. He loved greeting his friends in the church and was often one of the first people to welcome newcomers to the church. He would say, “I’m David, what’s your name?” David loved reading the Bible and learning about Jesus. He received a certificate from a church in Scotland he used to visit, “In recognition of extensive study of the Holy Bible and by giving encouragement to others, by his example.”

When you talked to David he would often hold up a finger and say, “One thing…” Over the years the one thing that came to mean most to David was knowing Jesus as his Lord and Saviour. When he was 30 years old he was baptised and became a member of the church. It was a special day for David and his family and for the church. As he came out of the baptistry David gave a joyful double thumbs up!

Just by being the person he is, David has enriched the lives of many people. For nearly 40 years one of his sisters has led a special ministry of the church to people in the community with learning disabilities. Christians in the church have come alongside families and a weekly meeting is held for people with learning disabilities and their carers. They enjoy being together and praying for one another. Several young people from the church are working with people with special needs.

David now has dementia and is living in a nursing home. His family and friends from the church often visit him. One day David will go to be with his Saviour who loved him and gave himself for him; he will see Jesus face to face and will be with him for ever.

A costly sacrifice and a living hope

The courage and self-sacrifice of the French gendarme Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Beltrame was remarkable. When an armed man took hostages at a supermarket in Trébes, near Carcassonne, Arnaud offered to take the place of a woman hostage whom the gunman was using as a human shield. Within minutes of taking the woman’s place Arnaud had been fatally wounded by the gunman and later died in hospital. The woman whose place he took survived the ordeal. A short time before he died, Arnaud was married in the hospital in a religious ceremony to his beloved Marielle. They had already been married in a civil ceremony but were planning to be married in church in June.

Arnaud grew up in a non-religious family but experienced a genuine conversion in 2008, when he was 33 years old. From that time on he was keen to learn more about God and his Son, Jesus Christ. What he learned about Jesus prepared him for the moment when he offered to take the place of the woman in the supermarket. Arnaud knew that since he had been converted his life belonged to Jesus who said, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

This weekend Christians around the world will be celebrating Easter and remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus. When he died on the Cross Jesus paid the price of our sins. He took our place and suffered the punishment our sins deserve so that we may be forgiven. The joy of knowing Jesus as our Saviour is expressed in a well-known hymn, “My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O may soul.”

On the third day after he died Jesus was raised from the dead. The women, who went early in the morning to the tomb where Jesus had been buried, were met by two angels who 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 is the foundation of Christian hope. Arnaud’s death was tragic, but he knew Jesus as his Saviour and Lord. Jesus made a wonderful promise, “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.”

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.

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.”

Blessed are the peacemakers

Last weekend was the 30th anniversary of the Enniskillen bomb. At 10.43am on 8 November 1987, as people were gathered at the town’s cenotaph for the Remembrance Day service, the Provisional IRA detonated a bomb. The explosion killed 11 people and injured 64. One of those who died was a 20-year-old nurse, Marie Wilson, who was with her father Gordon. As they lay buried under rubble Gordon held Marie’s hand as she told him, “Daddy, I love you very much.”

In an interview soon after the bombing Gordon Wilson said, “I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet. She’s dead. She’s in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.” One historian said, “No words in more than twenty-five years of violence in Northern Ireland had such a powerful, emotional impact.”

Gordon also pleaded that no Loyalists take revenge for Marie’s death and, until he died in 1995 at the age of 67, Gordon campaigned for peace and an end to the violence. When he was voted Man of the Year by the BBC’s Today programme, ahead of world-famous figures, Gordon said, “I’m not worthy of it. The others are very important people. I’m not in their class. I’m just an ordinary guy.”

We still live in a violent world and, at times, it may seem as if the terrorists have the power, but in reality it is extraordinary “ordinary” people like Gordon Wilson whose example and influence will ultimately triumph. Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Gordon’s personal faith in Jesus as his Saviour and Lord was the source of his strength and his hope. Jesus is the Prince of Peace. When he died on the Cross he made a way of peace for sinful people like us all. In that apparently weak act God reconciled the world to himself and provided the way in which we can all experience forgiveness and know peace with him. Gordon was right. He and Marie have indeed been reunited in heaven in the presence of Jesus who has wiped every tear from their eyes.