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.”

New beginnings

A new year has begun and offers the possibility of a new beginning. Looking back on life we have regrets because things haven’t turned out as we hoped they would. We may have experienced problems in our marriages and families which are deeply painful. Broken relationships with friends leave their scars. Disappointments in our work and career are not easily overcome. Our own behaviour can cause guilt and sadness; the things we wish we’d never done or said, but cannot change. So the opportunity to make a new start is attractive.

A woman was once brought before Jesus when he was teaching the people in the Temple. It was the time of one of the great pilgrimage festivals in Jerusalem and thousands of people were in the city. The religious leaders were self-righteous and hated Jesus. They wanted to have a reason to accuse him so they had gone out before dawn and found this woman committing adultery. They brought her to Jesus as a test case. The Old Testament law said that people guilty of adultery should be stoned to death, although this had not been done for centuries. The religious leaders were proud and despised Jesus because he dealt gently and kindly with people who had fallen into sin. Would he say that someone like this woman, who had been caught in the very act of adultery, should not be punished?

Jesus challenged them saying, “Let him who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” At this, the men who had accused the woman began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. Then he declared, “Then neither do I condemn you go now and leave your life of sin.”

Like this woman we, too, can experience God’s forgiveness and a new beginning. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn us, but that through him we might find forgiveness and new life. Oswald Allen’s hymn reminds us of God’s gracious promises: “Today your mercy calls us to wash away our sin. However great our trespass, whatever we have been. Today your gate is open, and all who enter in shall find a Father’s welcome and pardon for their sin. The past shall be forgotten, a present joy be given, a future grace be promised, a glorious crown in heaven.”

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.

Everybody’s got a past

The Internet has changed our lives both positively and negatively. One negative factor is the ease with which pornography can be accessed by both adults and children. Many men and women regularly view pornography online and some are addicted. Pornography corrupts our minds and can wreck marriages and relationships. There is a growing concern about its influence on children and young people and the long-term effects on their lives.

The story of Crystal Bassette shows how God can change our lives and set us free from the things of which we are ashamed. Crystal is married to David and is a mother of 3 children. She lives in upstate New York where she and David lead New Beginnings Christian Life Church. Until 2014 Crystal’s life was very different. She suffered abuse as a child and had her first child when she was 16. In order to earn money, she started working in the sex industry and starred in many pornographic films. She earned a lot of money, owned a luxury house in Malibu in California and drove a Ferrari; but she wasn’t happy.

From the very beginning she had been uneasy with what she was doing. “The first shoot was horrible,” she said. “I was scared and afterwards, I sat in a shower, and I was bawling my eyes out crying for, like, two hours. I just felt so gross and just dirty, but I went back for money.” Then in 2014, Crystal was driving home drunk and had a serious car accident. Her car was a write-off and she had a broken nose and cuts to her face. This was a wake-up call for her.

Crystal began going to church with her sister and decided to leave the porn industry for good. As she read the Bible she realized that through Jesus Christ she could find forgiveness and a new life. As she put her trust in Jesus as her Saviour, she knew that God had forgiven all her sins. She and David are now committed to reaching out to people who are broken and lost, and telling them the good news about Jesus. Crystal says, “There’s a big heroin addiction in our city, we want to get people out of porn or dancing, I believe money is the root of all evil. With us there is no judgment on people; people feel free. It doesn’t matter if you came through the doors with full body piercings and tattoos and stuff. We don’t judge you. Everybody’s got a past.”

Growing together in God and in love

On 22 May this year Jaquie Farmer married Andy Goncher in a church service in Marietta, Georgia. It was a very special day for Jaquie and her family and friends as she walked down the aisle. In July 2008, when Jaquie was 17 years old, she dived into her friend’s swimming pool and broke her neck. She said, “I remember floating face down, unable to move and thinking I was going to drown. I could hear the girls laughing, thinking I was just joking or something. When I was finally pulled out of the pool and knew my mom was being called to come and get me, my body blacked out.”

In the hospital, Jaquie could feel all her limbs, but couldn’t move them. She asked her mother, “Am I going to be in a wheelchair forever?” Holding back tears, her mother said, “If God wants you to walk, you’ll walk.” Jaquie says that at that moment her faith kicked in and she was determined to be “normal” again. Her first glimmer of progress came when, to her doctor’s surprise, she was able to move her big toe. Jaquie spent hundreds of hours in physiotherapy, and on her own in the gym, working to regain the ability to stand. Her dream was to walk down the aisle on her wedding day.

Looking at the photos of her wedding day brings tears to Jaquie’s eyes. She said, “It’s so easy to forget how miraculous it is that I can walk now, since it’s a journey I’ve been going through for 8 years. When people react with such emotion and awe, it reminds me just how blessed I am. Andy and I have now been married for 3 months. I’m so thankful for his servant’s heart and willingness to put in the work that a good marriage takes. I’ve learned so much from him in the past 3 years and I can’t wait to continue to grow together in God and in love.”

We are all liable to life-changing accidents and illnesses. When tragic events happen to us, or to those we love, it is so important to turn to God. God has sustained Jaquie through dark and difficult days. She has experienced his love in Jesus in a new way. She knows that Jesus is always with her and that there is nothing that can ever separate her from his love. As they share the joys and sorrows of married life, Jaquie and Andy are looking forward to knowing God’s love for them more and more.

When God breaks into our daily lives

Are the news headlines always the most important events in the world? Are the “top” stories really the top stories? Are the things that Presidents, Prime Ministers say and do the things that matter most? Some of the most important things that have happened in history have taken place away from the glare of publicity and have involved ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

More than 2000 years ago a young man named Joseph was living in the small village of Nazareth in Galilee. He had trained as a carpenter and worked in the village making furniture and helping people with practical jobs on their homes. He had fallen in love with a young girl in the village named Mary and his family had arranged with her family that they should become engaged. Joseph couldn’t wait until Mary became his wife.

One day Mary told him some very disturbing news; she was expecting a baby. She told Joseph that an angel had appeared to her and told her that, even though she was a virgin, she would conceive a child through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph’s immediate reaction was that Mary had been unfaithful to him. He was heartbroken and decided the only thing he could do was to quietly end the relationship. He loved Mary deeply and didn’t want to bring disgrace on her.

Then one night Joseph had a dream in which the Lord appeared to him 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 married Mary, but did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son, whom he named Jesus.

Joseph is an example of a young man who lived a gracious, godly life in a small community. He worked hard and loved his wife and son. He was open to God and responsive to him. He did something that was hard to do, and was probably misunderstood by many people in the village. Joseph knew that the son Mary bore was very special. Mary’s son, Jesus of Nazareth, would change the history of the world. God still draws near to us today in the ordinary events of our daily lives with his transforming love and grace.

To have and to hold

My wife and I have just celebrated our Golden Wedding Anniversary. 50 years is a long time and yet the years have passed so quickly. It has been good to look back and to remember the many things that have happened and the many people who have been important to us in our marriage. We invited family and friends to join us for a celebration and many people came. Some had known us from childhood, others were friends and neighbours.

Marriage is the most significant life commitment we ever make and we were young when we made our vows. We promised “to live together according to God’s ordinance in the holy estate of marriage, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, honour and cherish until God separates us by death.” On the day of our wedding we had little idea of what lay ahead of us and how much we would need the help and encouragement of family and friends, and the love and grace of God, if we were to keep our vows.

The traditional marriage vows are very realistic and true to life. There are good times and bad times. Sometimes we have had very little and at others more than we need. There have been some times of sickness and, as we get older, we know there will be more such times. The challenge to continue loving, honouring and cherishing each other, as we struggle with our own self-centredness, is very real. And we know that one day our marriage will end when “God separates us by death.” We cannot know which of us will be the first to go to heaven and which of us will be left, for a time, here on earth.

As I look back on the years we have shared together I am conscious most of all of the importance of forgiving and being forgiven. The marriage relationship is very close. The Bible says that we become “one flesh.” In part this is a reference to the physical intimacy of marriage, but it is more than that. Our lives and our joy and sorrows are intertwined. This is why marital breakdown is so painful. There are many times when I have said things and done things which have caused sadness and pain. At such times I have needed to be forgiven just as we have both experienced God’s forgiveness through Jesus.

Honour your father and mother

The number of older people in our society is increasing. 10 million people in the UK are over 65 years old. In 20 years time there will be more than 15 million, growing to 19 million by 2050. Within this total, the number of very old people is growing even faster. Now there are 3 million people aged over 80. This is projected to double by 2030 and reach 8 million by 2050. Today one-in-six of the UK population is over 65; by 2050 it will be one-in-four.

The average length of life is increasing significantly. A man born in 1981 might expect to live to 84 years, but for a boy born today it is 91. Women can expect to live, on average, 4 years longer than men. However, those who live to greater ages do not necessarily enjoy good health in their later years. This presents a massive challenge of caring for the elderly, both in terms of cost and quality of care. Recent cases have revealed serious mistreatment of elderly people in care homes and these problems are likely to increase.

God’s plan for our care throughout our lives is the family. The love between marriage partners is the foundation. In his Bible commentary Matthew Henry reflects on the account of the creation of men and women, and the institution of marriage, in Genesis Chapter 2. He writes, “The woman came out of a man’s ribs. Not from his feet to be walked on, not from his head to be superior, but from his side to be equal, under his arm to be protected, and next to his heart to be loved.” The mutual love of their parents provides a secure environment in which children can grow up and be cared for.

In later life the family can also provide care. The early Christian churches cared for widows, especially those who had no-one to care for them. But they also emphasised the importance of the family caring for their older members. Paul wrote, “If a widow 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 very much.” It is a privilege to be able to care for our parents, who have given us so much. It is an even greater privilege to be cared for in our latter years by our children and grandchildren and to be surrounded by their love.

God is the strength of my heart

As a result of advances in medical knowledge people in Britain are living longer than ever before. Many are also enjoying a higher quality of life than previous generations have known. But the increasing number of people is also creating big challenges, especially in providing care for elderly people. The increasing costs of quality long term care do not seem to be sustainable.

Throughout our lives we all need care and God has provided the family as the primary place of care. A new born baby is totally dependent on the loving care of its parents, especially its mother. Without her care a baby would die. When children are growing up they need the loving care of their parents to provide a secure environment in which they can thrive and develop. Children who do not have that security and love often experience serious problems in later life. God has also ordained marriage as a relationship in which love and security can be found. The traditional marriage vows express this well as mutual promises are made, “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love honour and cherish, till God separates us by death.”

When problems arise in the family it is important for the wider family and the community to care. In his letter James writes, “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” It seems that in the ancient world, as in today’s world, it was often the husband who died first and the wife who needed to be cared for. When my mother and my wife’s mother and father needed care in their latter years it was a privilege, and a challenge, to be able to open our home to them as they came to live with us.

Whatever our age it is important to remember the living God, who sent his Son, Jesus, into this world to give us hope. In Psalm 73 the writer expresses his faith in God, “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterwards you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever.”

Two shall become One

Genesis is the first book in the Bible. It describes the majestic creation of the heavens and the earth by the power and wisdom of God. Then it describes the creation of the first man, Adam, and the first woman, Eve. They were created by God “in his image.” They had bodies and also eternal souls and enjoyed wonderful fellowship with their Creator.

Adam was created “from the dust of the earth” and worked in the beautiful Garden of Eden. His working pattern followed God’s activity in creation. Adam worked for six days and rested on the seventh day. He enjoyed the fruit which grew on the trees of the garden. This pattern of life was the model God intended us all to enjoy with a good work-life balance.

Then God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” So God caused Adam to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of his ribs. From the rib he made Eve and brought her to Adam who said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’ because she was taken out of man.” For this reason a man leaves his father and mother and is united in marriage to his wife and they become one flesh.

Matthew Henry, the Bible commentator, says, “The woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected by him, and near his heart to be loved by him.” This is a beautiful description of marriage which has been the foundation of human life and society from the beginning of time. Through the sexual union of a husband and wife children are born and grow up in the security of the family.

Marriage brings a man and a woman into the closest relationship we can ever know. In marriage a man and a woman make solemn promises to each other to live together in an exclusive relationship of lifetime faithfulness and, so, two people become one. This is why problems in marriage are so deeply painful and lifelong love in marriage is so deeply fulfilling.