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The Greatest Gift

The last days leading up to Christmas are normally very busy. A few cards to write and post and presents to find and buy. Making sure we have everything for Christmas dinner and the days following as we look forward to getting together with our extended family and friends. But this year it’s very different. Christmas plans have had to be changed; only small family gatherings are permitted and only on Christmas Day. Most shops are closed; pubs and restaurants are closed; travel is restricted; and we must stay at home.

Christmas is a time for giving and receiving. At Christmas we give special gifts to those we love. Perhaps you won’t be able to buy the presents you had planned to give, but the person who gives us the gift, and the love it expresses, are far more precious than the gift itself.

At the first Christmas God gave a very special gift to the people of his world. It is the greatest gift ever given. Then, as now, the world was a sad place with many troubles. The Roman Empire dominated many nations, and most people were poor. Jesus came, not to solve the problems of the day, but to solve the biggest problem we all face – our sinful hearts and lives. The message of the angels to the shepherds was, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a saviour has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord!” Our sins spoil our relationship with God and separate us from him. Jesus came to reconcile us to God through his perfect life and his death on the cross to pay the price of our sins. The name Jesus means “Saviour!” In love God, against whom we have all rebelled, took the initiative by giving his one and only Son to be our Saviour.

Opening a present from someone we love brings great joy. Parents enjoy watching their children opening their present and seeing their delight when they see what it is. The child’s instinctive response is to give their parents a hug and to tell them they love them. Have you ever responded to God’s gift of Jesus like that? Do you love him for giving you such an amazing gift? It brings great joy to God when anyone receives Jesus as their Saviour. This Christmas, like the shepherds, why not take time to receive Jesus, God’s gift to you, and to thank him for his love for you.

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Because he lives

This year we’ve lived in a very different world from the one we have known in the past and the one we hoped to one day see. The future remains uncertain, despite the vaccines that thankfully are now becoming available. Many hopes and dreams have faded. We need to find a foundation on which to build our lives even when things are really tough, and from that foundation to find a true and substantial hope for the future, both for ourselves and our children.

In 1971, when the horrors of the Vietnam war were impacting many people, John Lennon wrote a song which became very popular. It was called “Imagine”. These are the words, “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine all the people, living for today. Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion, too. Imagine all the people, living life in peace. Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can. No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man. Imagine all the people, sharing all the world. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.”

John Lennon was not the first to promote utopian optimism. In the early 20th century, there was a great optimism that mankind was coming of age. It was believed that people are essentially good and through education would progress morally and in love for one another. Tragically two world wars, the Holocaust and the invention of atomic weapons put an end to that optimism. A shallow optimism was no longer convincing.

At Christmas we remember the birth of Jesus who brought hope to the world. One Christian song sums it up; “God sent his Son, they called him Jesus, he came to love, heal and forgive. He lived and died to buy my pardon, an empty grave is there to prove my Saviour lives. How sweet to hold a new-born baby and feel the pride and joy he gives, but greater still the calm assurance this child can face uncertain days, because he lives. And then one day, I’ll cross the river, I’ll fight life’s final war with pain, and then, as death gives way to victory, I’ll see the lights of glory and I’ll know he reigns. Because he lives, I can face tomorrow, because he lives, all fear is gone, because I know he holds the future and life is worth the living, just because he lives.”

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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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Great is your faithfulness

The last autumn leaves will soon have fallen. Once again, we have witnessed the spectacular autumn colours – yellows, browns and red. On bright sunny mornings the kaleidoscope of colour has been glorious. This is one of the ways in which the great God of creation tells us that he is there, and that this is his world. Even in the process of dying there is beauty in his world and as the trees stand stark and bare through winter there is the promise that they will spring to life again.

The passing seasons are a testimony to the order God has established in his world. His creation is never random and accidental, but always purposeful. As the years pass God is accomplishing his purposes for his creation and all of us who live in it. One well known hymn says, “Summer and winter and springtime and harvest, sun, moon and stars in their courses above, join with all nature in manifold witness to thy great faithfulness, mercy and love. Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see; all I have needed thy hand has provided; great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!”

We all need to know and rest in the faithfulness of God. He is both the great God of creation and the One who knows and cares for us in a very personal way. Every human being is precious in his sight. Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. Even the hairs of your head are all numbered. So, don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” So, as we continue to live under the long shadow of Covid-19, and share the sadness of those who have lost loved ones in the pandemic, we and they can find comfort, strength and hope in the living God who cares for us.

We are more precious to God than the amazing creation in which we live. King Solomon wrote, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.” This is why the things we have in this world can never satisfy our deepest longings. God created us to live for his glory and to enjoy him forever. Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand.”

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Remembering the Penlee Lifeboat Crew

Lifeboats are a familiar sight when we are on holiday in Britain. In 2019 lifeboats were launched 8941 times and 372 lives were saved. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824, more than 143,000 lives have been saved. More than 600 lifeboat crew lives have also been lost. Most of the people who crew the lifeboats are volunteers who are willing to put their own lives in danger in order to save the lives of others. Many have reason to thank lifeboat crews for their dedication, courage and skill.

On Saturday 19 December 1981, the Penlee lifeboat “Solomon Browne” was launched in hurricane conditions to go to the aid of 8 people on board the coaster MV Union Star that had engine failure and being swept towards the southern coast of Cornwall. Wind gusts reached 100mph and the waves were 60 feet high. A Royal Navy Sea King helicopter was unable to get a line to the crew, so the Penlee lifeboat, with 8 crew members, was launched in the darkness at 8.21pm. The lifeboat’s coxswain, Trevelyan Richards, repeatedly took the lifeboat alongside the coaster and managed to get 4 people off. As he made a further attempt to come alongside the stricken coaster the lifeboat was completely wrecked with the loss of all lives on board. The coaster was also lost. There were no survivors.

The selfless courage of the crew of the “Solomon Browne” is deeply moving. The Sea King pilot, Lt Cdr Smith, who witnessed the rescue attempt, said, “The greatest act of courage that I have ever seen, and am ever likely to see, was the penultimate courage and dedication shown by the Penlee crew when it manoeuvred back alongside the casualty in over 60 ft breakers and rescued four people shortly after the Penlee had been bashed on top of the casualty’s hatch covers. They were truly the bravest eight men I’ve ever seen.”

The faith of Christians looks to Jesus who gave his life that we might live. The focus is not on what we do but on what Jesus did when he sacrificed his life for our sins. Jesus said, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The Apostle Paul, who once fiercely opposed everything to do with Jesus, came to rejoice in him as the one who “loved me and gave himself for me.” One hymn says, “Jesus sought me when a stranger wandering from the fold of God. He, to rescue me from danger interposed His precious blood.”

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Hope in a world of injustice

Many people in the world today are experiencing injustice. In Hong Kong tens of thousands protested against the postponement of the planned election and Beijing’s imposition of a new national security law in Hong Kong. They face long prison sentences. In Minsk, Belarus, thousands demonstrated against the alleged vote-rigging in the recent re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko. They face heavy fines and imprisonment. In Russia the opposition politician Alexi Navalny has been poisoned. In Xinjiang, China, more than 1 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are being held in ‘re-education’ camps in an attempt to force them into being more obedient to the Communist party.

Throughout history power has been used to oppress people and to deny them justice. Three thousand years ago, as King Solomon surveyed the world of his time, he wrote about the injustices he saw, “Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed – and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors – and they have no comforter. And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.”

God is just. The Bible makes it very clear that there will be a Final Judgment at which all people who have ever been born will appear. The oppressors and tyrants will not escape divine justice because we are all “destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” When the Apostle Paul was speaking in the sophisticated ancient city of Athens, which prided itself on its wisdom and its broad-minded worship of many gods, he told them that God “has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed and has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

God is also gracious and compassionate. He sent his Son, Jesus, to be the Saviour of sinful people. By his death he paid the price of our sins and satisfied the demands of divine justice. The hymnwriter, William Rees, wrote, “On the Mount of Crucifixion fountains opened deep and wide. Through the floodgates of God’s mercy flowed a vast and gracious tide. Grace and love, like mighty rivers, poured incessant from above, and heaven’s peace and perfect justice kissed a guilty world in love.”

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The faith of Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte was a great French military general and statesman. He played a key role in the French Revolution and became the first emperor of France. His armies conquered much of Europe in the early 19th century. After a disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, Napoleon abdicated and was exiled to the small Mediterranean island of Elba. In 1815 he briefly returned to power but suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Waterloo and was exiled to the remote South Atlantic island of Saint Helena, where he died at the age of 51.

Near the end of his life, the exiled Napoleon expressed his convictions about Jesus. He wrote, “I know men, and I tell you Jesus Christ was not a mere man. Superficial minds see a resemblance between Christ and the founders of empires and the gods of other religions. That resemblance does not exist. There is between Christianity and other religions the distance of infinity.”

Napoleon knew the difference between the empire he had established, and all other human empires, and the Kingdom of God which Jesus inaugurated. He wrote, “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne and myself founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon sheer force. Jesus Christ alone founded his empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men will die for him. In every other existence but that of Christ how many imperfections! From the first day to the last he is the same; majestic and simple; infinitely firm and infinitely gentle. He proposes to our faith a series of mysteries and commands with authority that we should believe them, giving no other reason than those tremendous words, ‘I am God.’”

As he read the Bible, Napoleon, who had himself exercised great authority over men, recognised its divine authority and entrusted his own eternal destiny to Jesus Christ. He wrote, “The Bible contains a complete series of acts and of historical men to explain time and eternity, such as no other religion has to offer. If it is not the true religion, one is very excusable in being deceived; for everything in it is grand and worthy of God. The more I consider the Gospel, the more I am assured that there is nothing there which is not beyond the march of events and above the human mind. Even the impious themselves have never dared to deny the sublimity of the Gospel, which inspires them with a sort of compulsory veneration. What happiness that Book procures for those who believe it!”

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The story of Ricky Valance

Ricky Valance has died at the age of 84. In 1960, he had one big hit, the song “Tell Laura I love her.” He was the first Welshman to have a Number One hit song. The song was controversial because it told the story of Tommy, a teenager who was desperately in love with a girl called Laura. Tommy entered a stock car race so he could use the prize money to buy Laura a wedding ring. His car crashed and Tommy was fatally injured. As he lay dying, he said, “Tell Laura I love her … my love for her will never die.” The BBC banned it, which only increased the sales, reaching more than a million copies and topping the charts. Ricky never had another hit song.

Ricky was born David Spencer, the eldest of 7 children, and grew up in Ynysddu, in the Gwent Valleys, where he was the lead soprano in St Theodore’s Church. His father worked in the mines and when he was 15 Ricky, too, went to work in a mine. When he was 17, he joined the RAF serving as a leading aircraftsman in Tripoli during the Suez crisis. After his one hit song Ricky sang in clubs and on cruise ships. He also experienced a number of crises.

By the 1990s he was clinically depressed and suffered a nervous breakdown. He said, “I experienced fear, loneliness and desolation in a way that I wouldn’t wish on any other person.” During this time Ricky visited his local golf club and played with Brian, whom he’d never met before. Brian encouraged Ricky to rediscover his Christian faith. Ricky went to Brian’s church and attended an Alpha course, a programme designed to introduce people to the Christian faith. Ricky said, “It was following that course that I asked Jesus to take full control of my life.”

After becoming a Christian Ricky said, “I’ve started to understand myself more and found that I don’t need to be so hard on myself. If God forgives me for the things I do, then I need to be able to do the same. And I guess it’s made me see others in a different light too. I don’t understand why so many Christians don’t tell others the Good News about what Jesus did for us all on the Cross.” In his last years Ricky suffered from dementia. He is now at peace in heaven with his Saviour, who loved him and died that he might have eternal life.

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Precious in the sight of God

Every individual life matters. No-one is unimportant. The “Black Lives Matter” protests around the world, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of policemen in Minneapolis, are rightly demanding that black people must not be treated as second-class citizens, each one matters. The renewed investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, who was abducted 13 years ago, shows that she matters. The British government has spent £12 million on the investigation because the life of a 4-year-old little girl matters. When a seriously ill person is taken into hospital doctors and nurses do everything they can to save their life, whatever their age or social circumstances, because every life matters.

Societies that have been deeply influenced by the Bible have a high view of the preciousness of every individual person because they understand what God is like. No-one is unimportant in God’s eyes. He knows each of us as individuals and cares deeply for us. In Psalm 139 David wrote, “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. How precious are your thoughts concerning me, O God! How vast is the sum of them!”

During his ministry many people came to Jesus for help and healing. Jesus never met an unimportant person and never turned anyone away. He welcomed people who were outcasts in their society and taught that there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. His love changed people and gave them new hope.

In his early life the apostle Paul hated the name of Jesus and persecuted Christians. He arrested men and women and put them into prison because they were followers of Jesus. When the ascended Jesus confronted him on the road to Damascus he was totally changed. He realised that, despite the evil things he had done, God was concerned for him and loved him. God’s love for him was revealed in the cross where Jesus died for his sins. Later Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

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Light in the darkness

The VE Celebrations last weekend were very moving. Seeing thousands of young men boarding ships on their way to serve in faraway places reminded us of the great cost paid by a whole generation. Many never returned, others came back with life-changing physical injuries or psychological traumas, which today we recognise as PTSD. My father served in India and my wife’s father was involved in the D-Day landings. Thankfully both returned safely. The dignity of the survivors who were interviewed was impressive. Most were ordinary soldiers who faithfully served their country and put their lives on the line. Some were moved to tears as they remembered their fallen comrades.

Vera Lynn, now 103 years old, spoke of her visit to the troops in Japanese-occupied Burma. She said she decided to go to Burma in 1944 because the men who served there had not been visited. Seeing footage of the men listening to her sing you could see that her visit lifted their morale. Her courage in making that 4-month visit encouraged them and made them realise they were not forgotten. The songs she sang also gave them hope as they longed for the hellish war, from which they could not escape, to be over and to be able to return to their homes and loved ones.

Those troops so much needed hope, as we all do. As Vera sang, for a brief moment, they could look beyond the present horrors to being reunited with their loved ones far away. “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day. Keep smiling through just like you always do, ’till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away.” “There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover tomorrow, just you wait and see. There’ll be love and laughter and peace ever after, tomorrow, when the world is free.”

The generation of men and women who served in World War II were familiar with the Bible and the Christian gospel. Tens of thousands of them had attended Sunday School as children and had learned about Jesus who died for our sins and rose from the dead to give us hope. They had learned memory verses such as John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” No doubt, in the heat of battle, as they faced certain death, many asked God to help them and he heard them and took them safely to heaven.