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.

I am with you always

Many people in the UK today live on their own. In 2016, there were 7.7 million one person households; 54% of whom were women and 46 % were men. Between 1996 and 2016 the number of one person households increased by 15% for those aged over 65 and by 51% for those aged 45-64. In contrast, during that period the number of one person households fell by 12% amongst those aged 25-44. Some younger people are living with their parents longer than in previous generations and others are sharing accommodation with friends. In wealthy societies increasing numbers of people are choosing to live alone. In Scandinavia, for example, nearly 50% of the adult population live alone.

Not everyone who lives on their own is lonely, but many are. Those who have experienced the pain of marriage breakdown and those who have been bereaved feel it acutely. For them, living alone, eating alone and returning to an empty house at the end of each day is something they never really get used to. Communicating with “friends” through social media may help, but is not the same as human companionship and sharing the ups and downs of daily life with someone we love. It is good to have to consider someone else’s needs as well as our own. An elderly widow who lived next door to us told us that living on her own meant she could be tempted to be very selfish.

Jesus experienced profound loneliness when he died on the cross. On the night before he died he told his disciples, who had been his close companions over the past 3 years, “The time is coming – indeed it’s here now – when you will be scattered, each one going his own way, leaving me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me.” Yet, the next day, as he suffered on the cross, he experienced total aloneness as he paid the price of our sins. Out of the darkness he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Later, as he prepared to die, he knew the Father’s presence again. His last words were, “Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands.”

One of the great promises Jesus made to his disciples, as he sent them out into a hostile world to proclaim the good news of the Gospel, was “I am with you always.” Knowing Jesus as Saviour and Lord means we are never alone because, through the Holy Spirit, he really is with us.

Christ is risen!

The days leading up to Easter this year have seen tragic and horrific events around the world. Terrorist attacks in Westminster and Stockholm; a chemical weapons attack in Syria; a bomb on the St Petersburg Metro; the bombing of Coptic churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday; a suicide bomb attack on evacuees near Aleppo. People of many nations and of all ages have been bereaved or have experienced life-changing injuries. Where can we find strength and solace in such sad and uncertain times?

The message of Easter is one of glorious and transforming hope because, “Christ is risen!” It seemed to the disciples, and all those who loved Jesus, that his death on the Cross was the end. On the third day after Jesus died, one of his grieving disciples said, “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” The death of Jesus had crushed them and their hopes had died. Early in the morning of that same day, however, the women who went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body discovered the stone had been rolled back from the mouth of the tomb. As they stood there puzzled, two men suddenly appeared to them, clothed in dazzling robes and 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 transformed the disciples and filled them with courage as they took the good news of Jesus to the ancient world. They were eye-witnesses of his resurrection; they had seen him alive after he died and knew for certain that he had conquered death. They were ready to face fierce persecution, imprisonment and even death because they knew that Jesus was with them and believed his promise, “Because I live, you also will live.” Today the risen Jesus is sustaining Christians who are experiencing violent and hateful persecution in some parts of the world.

I recently met John, who has regularly attended a church for 50 years but has never known Jesus as his Saviour and Lord. He was scientifically trained and this raised many questions in his mind. His brother, who is a Christian, wrote to him and encouraged him to put aside his questions and to simply believe the Bible’s message about Jesus. He did this and his life has been transformed; he is a changed man. He is at peace with God and has a sure hope for the future, because Jesus really is alive.

When bad things happen

What do we do when bad things happen? A dear friend of ours recently had surgery for cancer. This is not the first time she has had to undergo surgery and now the disease has returned. Since she was first diagnosed and treated she has had regular check-ups and the latest tests revealed the need for further surgery. She and her husband and young daughter know it is a serious situation. How have they responded to this difficult situation? The words of a simple Christian chorus help us to understand how they have responded to this “bad thing” that is happening to them and how we, too, can face similar situations.

“Be still and know that I am God.” Most of us are caught up in the busyness of life. There’s no time to stop and think. When we know we have a serious illness, it is a time to be still. The world rushes on, but we withdraw to quietly reflect on our situation. From her childhood, growing up in Eastern Europe, our friend has known God. She knows that it was God who knit her together in her mother’s womb and that he ordained all the days of her life before one of them came to be. She is in the gracious and loving hands of her heavenly Father just as much now as she was before the disease returned.

“I am the Lord who healeth thee.” Our friend is very thankful for the skill and dedication of the medical teams and for all they have done and are doing. Like them, she knows that there are mysteries in the treatment of serious diseases. Even though patients are given the same treatment, the outcomes may be different. She knows that it is the Lord who heals all our diseases. She has experienced his gracious healing in the past and knows he can do it again.

“In thee, O Lord, I put my trust.” Most of us like to be in control of our lives and feel disorientated when things happen that are too big for us to handle. Our friend has quietly and confidently put her trust in Jesus, her Lord and Saviour. She does not know what the future holds, but she knows that there is nothing in all creation that is able to separate her from God’s love for her in Jesus. So, she is consciously trusting in her Lord to give her sufficient courage so that now, as always, he will be exalted in her life.

Let’s go to Bethlehem

Christmas is a special time of the year. The preparations begin weeks before. There is a long list of things to be done; cards and presents to be bought, decorations and Christmas trees to be put up, school concerts and carol services, food to be bought and cooked, time with the family and, for parents with young children, an early start on Christmas Day! It’s no wonder we can feel very tired. But after its over what remains? When the food has been eaten, the family have gone home and the decorations have been taken down, what stays with us as life returns to normal?

Christmas is about Jesus. The person who is at the very centre of Christmas is the One who remains with us through all the experiences of life. He’s the One who can make a real difference to our lives. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem an angel announced his birth to shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not 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.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “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 they had seen him, the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.

Like the shepherds why not “go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened.” The birth of Jesus is indeed good news and brings great joy to all who receive him as Saviour. He is the Prince of Peace. Through him we are reconciled to God, and to each other, and know a deep and lasting peace in our hearts.

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.

Special births

Alfie, Connor and Dylan Bateman, who are just 2 years old, are in the Guinness Book of Records. They were born on 31 August and 1 September 2014 and are the smallest and most premature surviving triplets ever. They were born at 23 weeks and their combined weight was less that 3lbs. Early in 2014 their mother, Emma, was told she was carrying triplets. The likelihood of conceiving triplets naturally is one in a million. Thanks to the skills and dedication of the medical team, the boys survived and all arrived home 6 months after they were born, but less than 2 months after their due date. Today they are typical lively toddlers who keep their Mum and Dad very busy. Emma says, “I’m very thankful that, although the boys have some minor issues still to overcome, they don’t have any major health problems – they’re happy, content and cheeky.”

At Christmas, we remember the birth of a very special child. He was conceived in the womb of his young mother, Mary, by the power of the Holy Spirit. When the time for him to be born was near, Mary and her husband Joseph had to leave their home in Nazareth and travel to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census. While they were in Bethlehem the time came for the baby to be born, and Mary gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. This child, born in such humble and ordinary circumstances, has changed the history of the world and the lives of millions of people.

The birth of Jesus was accompanied by some remarkable events. An angel of the Lord announced his birth to shepherds living out in the fields near Bethlehem. As the glory of the Lord shone around them the shepherds were terrified, but the angel said to them, “Do not 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.”

When the angel 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, too, why not take time this Christmas to consider the wonderful things God has done in Jesus? He can transform our lives today just as he transformed the lives of those shepherds in Bethlehem.

A mother laid her baby in a manger

On a Tuesday morning in late November the custodian at The Holy Child Jesus Church in Queens, New York, set up the Nativity scene in the church. Returning from lunch he heard a baby cry and found a newborn baby boy in the manger wrapped in blue towels with his umbilical cord still uncut. The young mother, who had given birth to the baby, had come into the church and put the baby in the manger before slipping away, hoping not to be seen. New York has a “safe haven” law which allows parents to leave their baby in a safe place, such as a church, without being charged with child abandonment.

For 9 months this mother had carried her little boy in her womb and protected his little life. She seems to have had little support and was on her own when she gave birth to him. Knowing she couldn’t care for him herself she wanted to make sure he was safe and decided to give him away and, possibly, never see him again. This was an agonising decision for her to make but her deep love for her son, whom she had only just met and held, was stronger than her natural desire to keep him. She will never forget him but wanted him to be safe and well and to have the kind of life she could never give him.

The mother chose to leave her newborn son in a church; a place where Jesus is known and loved. We can all come to Jesus in the crises of our lives. He came into the world to give us hope. A well-known Christmas carol reflects on his coming and his power to help us now.

“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. 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.”

The joy of the Lord

Someone has said that Jesus never met an unimportant person. Large crowds of ordinary people followed him and gladly listened to his teaching. His life was very busy, but he was always ready to spend time with people and to give them his undivided attention. When sick and needy people were brought to him he healed them all. He never turned anyone away.

There is a danger that we lose sight of Jesus behind the outward ceremonies of formal religion. The Christian faith is not about the institutional church, but about Jesus. Christians love and follow Jesus. He is unique. His life and teaching have made a life-changing impact on people from every nation in the world. Because he is a living Lord and Saviour he is still transforming lives.

A wealthy Muslim lady living in the Middle East had a Christian friend. One day she asked her Christian friend to tell her about Jesus. The Christian lady was interested to know why this Muslim lady, who seemed to have everything, wanted to know more about Jesus. Her friend explained that she had a Filipino maid working in her house. Every day, as the maid went about her work, she sang and was obviously very happy. The lady had asked her why she was so happy, and the maid told her that she was a Christian and was singing about Jesus, who was her Saviour and Lord.

When we experience the love of Jesus he fills our hearts with new joy. This is true whether we are an A-list celebrity or just one of the billions of ordinary people who live in this world. Christians love to sing about Jesus and his love for them. A modern hymn expresses the joy of knowing Jesus as our Saviour. “In Christ alone my hope is found, he is my light, my strength, my song. This Cornerstone, this solid ground, firm through the fiercest drought and storm. What heights of love, what depths of peace, when fears are stilled, when strivings cease, my Comforter, my All in All, here in the love of Christ I stand. No guilt in life, no fear in death, this is the power of Christ in me. From life’s first cry to final breath Jesus commands my destiny. No power of hell, no scheme of man can ever pluck me from His hand. ‘Til He returns or calls me home, here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.”