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.

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.”

Who is my neighbour?

Through the news media and internet we receive amazing insights into events around the world. On-the-spot reports and photographs enable us to see the people and their situations closeup. Sometimes the newsreader gives a warning that some of the images may be distressing. This weekend I saw a photograph of Rohingya Muslims crossing the Naf river to escape from Myanmar into Bangladesh. About fifty desperate men, women and children were crowded on a raft made of plastic containers that looked as if it was almost sinking.

Other photographs showed Rohingya women and children with wounds and burns received when they were attacked by soldiers and their houses were set on fire. They had escaped, but husbands and brothers had been killed. It is estimated that there are 1 million Rohingya Muslims refugees in Bangladesh in need of food, shelter and medical care.

Recent media reports from Yemen also show a terrible humanitarian crisis. The conflict between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis rebels has caused massive shortages of food and water. It is estimated that 3.2 million people are at risk of famine and 150,000 malnourished children could die in the next month. In both Myanmar and Yemen the conflict is caused by people who hate their fellow human beings.

An expert in the law once asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus answered the man by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. There was a long standing bitter rift between Jews and Samaritans. They had nothing to do with each other. In the parable a Jewish man was attacked and robbed on a lonely road and was left half dead. Two Jewish religious leaders passed the man and did nothing to help him. Then a Samaritan saw the man and took pity on him. He bandaged his wounds, put him on his donkey and took him to an inn where he took care of him. The next day he left the man in the care of the innkeeper and promised to pay whatever it cost.

Then Jesus asked the expert in the law, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He answered, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” God commands us all to “love our neighbour as we love ourselves.” God expects us to love all people, even those who may be our natural enemies, and to show that love in a practical way.

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.

The power of forgiveness

When the Allied forces surrendered Singapore to the Japanese in 1942, Tony Lucas, who died recently, was one of 80,000 troops who became prisoners of war. For the next three and a half years he, along with many others, were slave labourers on the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway. Tony was one of 17,000 PoWs packed into Selarang barracks, which was designed to take 800, with all water supplies, barring one tap, disconnected to compel them to sign a pledge not to escape.

Tony was transported by rail to Thailand. Thirty prisoners were locked into each airless steel-roofed truck, in toxic heat. The journey lasted five days. Lucas thought he would die; several did. In Thailand, hacking out the 258-mile railway line, reveille was at 4.30am, followed by a three-mile march through the jungle to the area the Australians named “Hellfire Pass”. Men worked in pairs, alternately swinging a 7lb hammer and holding a 3ft iron bar. They never returned before 10.30pm.

He and the other prisoners survived on a daily ration of a cupful of degraded rice. Tony suffered dysentery, malaria and jungle ulcers; his weight dropped from 11-stone to 6. On his twenty-first bout of malaria, an Allied doctor gave him a massive dose of paludrine. After that he remained free from malaria, but contracted cholera whilst helping carry corpses out for burning. On one occasion a guard, who was nicknamed “The Undertaker” because he had killed prisoners with an iron bar, attacked Tony and knocked out 3 of his teeth.

After the war, Tony suffered nightmares and terrible bouts of depression. Understandably, he at first despised the Japanese. However, as he understood more he realised that it was the military in Japan and not the wider civilian population who were responsible for the atrocities. Later, in his work with an associate company of ICI, he visited Japan on business and showed a remarkable capacity to forgive the extreme suffering he experienced. A forgiving spirit is much more powerful than a spirit of hate and vengeance.

Tony was a private person who had a very deep Christian faith. His father was an Anglican clergyman and, from childhood, Tony had been taught about Jesus and his great love for a sinful world. Tony often prayed the Lord’s Prayer including the words “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” He also knew that when he was dying on the Cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Growing old

Longevity is one of the greatest achievements of our modern era. The United Nations calls it one of the most significant social transformations of the 21st century. Advances in health care are a major factor in lengthening our lives. Over the past 20 years the number of people in Britain aged 100, or over, has quadrupled. There are now 2.7 million people in Britain aged over 80 and life expectancy continues to increase. But increasing length of life does not guarantee quality of life or make us more ready to face death and eternity.

The increase in life expectancy is bringing major challenges to our society, especially in caring for older people. A recent report highlighted a shortage of care home beds. In 5 years there will be 42,000 fewer care home beds than are needed. This raises big questions for those who are elderly, for their families and for our society. Our modern “progressive” society is changing. The influence of churches has significantly decreased and secular thinking is more common. An increasing number of families are reluctant to take on the care of their elderly parents.

The Bible encourages us all to consider how we live and how we prepare for our old age. We all need to lay down the essential foundations for our later years. In Psalm 71 the psalmist says to God, “My life is an example to many, because you have been my strength and protection. That is why I can never stop praising you; I declare your glory all day long. And now, in my old age, don’t set me aside. Don’t abandon me when my strength is failing.” Older people can be a great example to the younger generation. In Psalm 92 we read, “The godly will flourish like palm trees and grow strong like the cedars of Lebanon. Even in old age they will still produce fruit; they will remain vital and green.”

The early Christians lovingly cared for widows but also encouraged their families to care for them. “Take care of any widow who has no one else to care for her. But if she has children or grandchildren, their first responsibility is to show godliness at home and repay their parents by taking care of them. This is something that pleases God.” When we reach the end of our lives, as all of us must, it is a great blessing to be surrounded by our loved ones as we leave this world and pass into the presence of God.

All good gifts around us

Farmers have safely gathered in the harvest for another year. The early season was very dry and during the harvesting period there has been a lot of rain. One farmer said that out of a harvest period of 70 days only 10 were good days for using the combine harvester because the ground was so wet. Some crops have been harvested when they were damp and will need to be dried out. A new strain of blight has also caused problems so that crops in the barns will need to be carefully monitored over winter.

Most of us are almost totally unaware of the challenges farmers are facing. Supermarkets source produce from many parts of the world so we are less aware of the seasonal nature of our food. In the Western World we are protected from the vagaries of uncertain harvests. We expect to be able to buy many things all the year round.

But it’s not like that for millions of people in the world. In East Africa this year there has been a severe and prolonged drought, made worse by ongoing conflicts, that has caused a major food crisis. As crops have failed and animals have died people, including many children, are seriously malnourished and some have died. The shortage of safe water has also led to deaths from cholera-like diseases. It is estimated that in South Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, 20 million people are in urgent need of food supplies.

In many places around the country, in churches and in schools, Harvest Thanksgiving services are being held. Many will remember our dependence on God for our daily bread and give thanks to him as they sing, “We plough the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand. All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above, then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all his love.”

We must also remember those who are in great need and are starving. The Apostle John wrote, “We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion – how can God’s love be in that person? Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions.”

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.

A love that changes us

When you read the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus you are struck by the number of individuals he met and helped. He responded to people of all kinds and always had time for them. No-one was unimportant to Jesus. An encounter with Jesus was a life-changing experience. Jesus visited the house of Zacchaeus, a covetous tax collector, and that day Zacchaeus became a changed man. A woman, who had lived a very sad life, talked to Jesus at a well and, for the first time, met someone who truly loved her.

The transforming love of Jesus is still being experienced by people today. We know a young lady who has had a very sad life. She grew up in a very unhappy home and in her teens moved into a hostel where she was, humanly speaking, alone. There was no-one to love and support her. Later, she had to leave the town in which she lived to find a place of safety for herself and her children. She has been a wonderful mother but, during a time of very great stress, all her children were taken into care. She, and they, were heartbroken.

On Christmas Day last year, she went to an evening service at the church she had been attending. She was feeling very low, but that night God showed her that the story of Jesus is true and she experienced God’s love in a way she had never known before. She knew a real peace in her heart and was transformed. She was a new person. She still had to face all the problems she had before, but the love of Jesus had transformed her and given her new life. Everyone who knows her can see the change knowing Jesus has brought to her life.

When she was baptised she told her story. She said, “Since I have known Jesus as my Saviour I have found peace in my life. I still experience hard times but have learned how to deal with them. I listen to hymns and sing along with them. I read my Bible and pray to God and he gives me the strength to cope and to come through the hard times. I find strength and great encouragement in God’s promises. I know that in the future there will be other hard times but I know that because my saviour Jesus Christ is with me I will be able to face them and deal with them. I can do everything through Jesus who gives me strength.”

I am making everything new!

We are living in very uncertain times. Climate change is causing great concern. Economic instability threatens our future prosperity with unsustainable levels of national and personal debt. Unemployment is increasing, especially amongst the young. Progressive social policies are establishing a new morality with, as yet, unknown consequences. Political extremism of both left and right is becoming more active. Nuclear proliferation raises the real possibility of international conflict. Terrorist movements have proved impossible to defeat even by the massive military strength of the “super powers”. Mass migration is causing social tension and instability. Political leaders are either weak and ineffective or strong and erratic. Hope is in desperately short supply.

The Bible teaches that world history is in God’s hands. From beginning to end it is “his story.” He is the One who created the amazing universe around us and this beautiful, tiny, planet on which we live. The whole creation points to him from the simplest life forms to the complex laws of physics. Is it possible that all these things could have come about by pure chance? God created this world, and gave life to each one of us, for a purpose.

Jesus spoke about future world history. He said, “Watch out that no one deceives you. You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.”

The last book of the Bible, Revelation, also promises a new creation. The apostle John wrote, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!'”