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.

Queen Elizabeth II is 90

Queen Elizabeth II has celebrated her 90th birthday and there have been many television programmes, articles and photographs of her long life and reign. The Queen is much loved, not only in Britain, but also in the 53 countries that belong to the Commonwealth. She is the Queen of 16 of those nations. When Australia held a referendum in 1999 about becoming a Republic, with an appointed President as the head of state instead of the Queen, 55% of the people voted to continue as a Constitutional Monarchy.

One of the outstanding features of Queen Elizabeth’s reign has been her total commitment to fulfilling the oaths she made at her Coronation in 1952. Throughout her long reign she has maintained a busy schedule of commitments and travelled extensively. One of her oaths was, “Will you to your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgements?” Her clear moral convictions, gracious character and evident love for her people have characterised her reign.

The Queen has also spoken of her personal faith in Jesus Christ. In her Christmas Day message in 2000 she said, “To many of us, our beliefs are of fundamental importance. For me, the teachings of Christ, and my own personal accountability before God, provide a framework in which I try to lead my life. I, like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ’s words and example.” It is very unusual today to hear great leaders acknowledging that they, like us all, are personally accountable to God.

We all need consciously to live under the gracious rule of a divine monarch. In the Bible Jesus is called “the King of kings and the Lord of lords.” A children’s catechism asks, “How is Christ a king?” The answer is, “He rules over us and defends us.” The next question is, “Why do you need Christ as a king?” The answer is, “Because I am weak and helpless.”

Living under the kingship of Jesus is a great blessing. Obeying his teaching brings true happiness. His divine power also defends and protects us. We are weak and helpless and there are many dangers, both physical and spiritual. A translation of a Welsh hymn says, “Lead, Lord Jesus, my frail spirit to that Rock so strong and high, standing sure midst surging tempest, safe when pounding waves are nigh. In the Rock of Ages hiding, come there flood or fiery blaze, when the whole creation crumbles, Rock of Ages, Thee I’ll praise.”

Blessed are the merciful

Early one morning in October 2014 Brian Herrick dropped his partner and three sisters at East Midlands Airport for an early-morning flight to Malaga. On his way home he was waiting at a red light, just a few miles from the airport, when a lorry crashed into his car. Brian died as a result of the accident. His partner and sisters heard the news of Brian’s death as soon as they arrived at Malaga and flew straight back to East Midlands.

At a recent hearing at Nottingham Crown Court the driver of the lorry, Luke Bates, pleaded guilty to causing death by careless driving. He said his attention had been distracted and he had not seen the red light until it was too late. At the court Brian’s family asked the judge not to send Luke to prison because they did not want his 2 young children to be left without a father. They also realised that Luke would have to live for the rest of his life with the memory of the devastation he had caused. The judge said he wished to respect the humbling request from the family and sentenced Luke to a two-year driving ban and a 12-month prison sentence, suspended for two years. He was also ordered to complete 200 hours of unpaid work.

Brian’s sister, Kathleen, told the judge, “We were brought up as Christians and were taught to be compassionate and humble. We felt so sorry for Luke’s wife when we saw her bring their young baby to the court. We weren’t going to benefit from sending him to prison. I’m sure my brother, who was a kind and gentle man, would have done the same in our position.” Outside the court, Brian’s relatives hugged a distraught Luke.

Mercy is a rare, but beautiful, quality. Our society loves to blame people and condemn them. Some people try to justify their wicked acts because they are retaliating against what other people have done to them. Jesus taught that true strength and dignity is seen not in revenge and “getting our own back”, but in mercy. He said, “Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.” When we show mercy to someone who has wronged us, and forgive them, we release the potential for healing and restoration both for them and for us. It is also good to remember that one day each of us must appear before the Judge of all the earth whom we hope will show us mercy.

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 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 that 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 when a young child in a remote rural village in Sierra Leone is dying of Ebola the heart broken parents can find comfort, strength and hope in the living God because he cares for them.

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.”

12 Years a Slave

The deeply moving story of Solomon Northup is told in the prize-winning film “12 Years a Slave”. Solomon was a Negro free man who lived in Saratoga, New York. He was a skilled carpenter and violinist and was happily married with 2 children. When he was 32 years old he was cruelly deceived by two men who offered him a highly paid job as a musician with their travelling circus. Without telling his wife, who was working away in a nearby town, he travelled with them to Washington, D.C.

Soon after arriving there Solomon awoke to find himself drugged, bound, and in the cell of a slave pen. When he asserted his rights as a free man, he was savagely beaten and warned never again to mention his past life. He was taken by ship to New Orleans where he was sold as a slave. He managed to send a letter to his family with a sympathetic sailor, but because his family did not know where he was they were unable to rescue him.

Solomon’s first owner was a cotton planter who treated him fairly well. After two years, however, he was sold to a notoriously cruel planter whom he served for 10 years. During that time Solomon suffered great cruelty and was also required to oversee the work of fellow slaves and punish them when they misbehaved. Eventually Solomon met Samuel Bass, a white abolitionist from Canada. Bass, at great risk to himself, sent letters to Solomon’s wife and friends in Saratoga. As a result Solomon was found and liberated from slavery and was able to return to his family.

The love and grace of God can change people who have been guilty of great evil and give hope to all who are oppressed. John Newton, the hymn writer, was the captain of a slave ship. When he was in a terrible Atlantic storm, which threatened the ship and his life, he cried out to God for mercy and put his trust in Jesus. In his best-known hymn he speaks of the “Amazing Grace” that “saved a wretch like me.” In later years when he was a minister in London he encouraged the young William Wilberforce in his successful campaign to abolish slavery in the British Empire. Newton never forgot God’s amazing kindness to him. He put a text over the mantelpiece in his study which read, “Remember you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you.”

Maureen Greaves prays for her husband’s killers

The murder of Alan Greaves in Sheffield on Christmas Eve 2012 was described by his parish priest as “senseless and evil.” Alan was a retired social worker and an Anglican lay reader. He was on his to play the organ at the late night Eucharist service at St Saviour’s Church when he was attacked by two young men. They used a pick-axe to inflict catastrophic head injuries on Alan. His wife, Maureen, a Christian outreach worker, spent Christmas praying by his bedside, where he was on a life support machine. He died 3 days after the attack. At a service of remembrance for Alan Maureen said, “I have not stopped crying for him and I know you have not stopped either. I have wept over the evil that has been done.” Soon after the attack his killers were seen laughing in a nearby park.

Following the trial of the men who killed Alan, at which both were found guilty, Maureen spoke outside the court. She said, “Alan was a man driven by love and compassion and he would not want any of us to hold on to feelings of hate and unforgiveness. So, in honour of Alan, and in honour of the God we both love, my prayer is that this story doesn’t end today. My prayer is that Jonathan and Ashley will come to understand and experience the love and kindness of the God, who made them in his own image, and that God’s great mercy will inspire them to true repentance.”

Maureen’s prayers for the men who killed her husband are a great testimony to the transforming power of God’s grace. She did not minimise the seriousness of what they had done or say that they did not deserve to be punished. But, she knows that justice and punishment are not the whole story because, in Jesus, it is possible for us all to find forgiveness for our sins, however great they may be. On the Cross Jesus died in order to satisfy the righteous demands of God’s justice against our sins. He did this so that through him we might experience forgiveness and find peace with God.

Many hymn writers have focused on the Cross of Jesus. Paul Gerhardt wrote, “Thy grief and bitter passion were all for sinners’ gain: Mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain. Lo! Here I fall my Saviour: ‘Tis I deserve thy place; Look on me with thy favour, vouchsafe to me thy grace.”

The Mercy of God for Law-breakers

The riots of the past week have come as a shock to many people in Britain. The pictures of criminal damage, looting and assaults, many carried out by young people, gave an insight into the serious problems facing us as a society. More than 3000 people have been arrested in London alone. Many people have already appeared in court and been sentenced. There seems to be a determination to make examples of those involved in the rioting and to impose the maximum possible sentences.

The Prime Minister has spoken of a “moral collapse” and has said that our society is “broken.” He says that the state system has incentivised “some of the worst aspects of human nature”. If this is true, then it is the result of us having rejected our Judaeo-Christian heritage. The new “morality” promoted by leaders in all sections of our society is the old immorality. What used to be seen as wrong is now right. It is no surprise that this revision of “private” morality has led to chaos and public disorder.

Many have been surprised that some of the people involved in the riots are well-educated and well-off. For many years we have been told that all people are essentially good and that education and material prosperity create good citizens. But now it can be seen that those who are well-educated and prosperous, including some MPs, journalists and policemen, are capable of dishonesty and criminal behaviour.

The Bible teaches that, from our birth, we all struggle with a sinful nature. We know what is right, because it is written on our God-given conscience, but we still do wrong things. It is important to teach our children what is truly right and wrong but also to recognize that they will struggle to do it, just as we do.

The law offers us no hope. It only punishes the guilty. That is why some people, who were previously of good character, have been devastated to be sent to prison. The law offers no mercy, but in Jesus Christ, God does show mercy. The worst of people can make a new start. The Holy Spirit can change our hearts. However serious our sins may be, God offers us forgiveness when we receive Jesus as our Saviour. If our nation is truly to recover from its brokenness then God’s grace in Jesus Christ, not just the harsh application of laws, needs to be central.

Mercy Triumphs Over Justice

There has been a heated debate about the controversial proposals made by the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, to offer criminals a 50% reduction in their sentence, if they make an early guilty plea. At the moment an early guilty plea brings a 33% reduction in sentence. The proposals were intended to reform sentencing, reduce court time and cut the prison population in order to save £130 million from the Ministry of Justice budget.

Objectors to the proposals said the Justice Secretary was going “soft on crime” and was failing to maintain a commitment to upholding law and order. They maintain that serious criminals and serial offenders should pay the full penalty for their crime and receive no reduction in their sentence. The government has withdrawn the proposals.

This debate raises some interesting points for us all, even if we have never committed a serious crime worthy of a prison sentence. Many people today pay little attention to God’s moral law. They “worship” money and success, they misuse God’s name, they are abusive to their parents, they to not keep Sunday as a special day, they can be hateful to other people, they are sexually immoral, may be dishonest with other people’s possessions, be “economic with the truth” and be envious of what others have and do. In God’s eyes these are serious offences and we are serial offenders. Every day of our lives we break God’s laws. We do not love him with all our heart, soul and mind or love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

Does it matter? Will we, one day, be called to account for what we have done? What penalty do we deserve? Is there any possibility of finding mercy and a reduced sentence? Is God “soft” on sin? Can he forgive us, while at the same time remaining just and righteous? Is it important to make an early guilty plea?

The good news is that in Jesus Christ God has dealt with our law-breaking. God has intervened in an act of amazing love. At great personal cost he gave his Son to die in our place. By his death on the cross, Jesus paid the full penalty of our sins and fully satisfied the demands of God’s justice. When we confess our guilt and ask for his forgiveness, God is satisfied to look on what his Son has done and pardon us. An early guilty plea is essential and always brings God’s mercy for all our sins.

The Death of Osama bin Laden

The death of Al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, has been big news around the world. He is believed to be the man who planned the attacks on the New York and Washington in 9/11, in which nearly 3000 people died. He has been top of the US “most wanted” list for 10 years. The operation, which was carried out by the elite Navy Seal Team Six, was highly sophisticated and clinical. Bin Laden was shot and killed in his home in front of his wife and family. The President and Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, with their senior advisers, watched the operation live in Washington. President Obama said, “Justice was done.”

Governments have real power. Sometimes they exercise that power well and sometimes they misuse their power. Many of the early Christians were persecuted by the Roman Empire and some were put to death because they refused to worship the Emperor. Yet the Apostle Paul urged Christians to submit to the authority of the State. He wrote, “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”

When Osama bin Laden died he passed immediately into the presence of the living God, just as all of us will when we die. We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due to him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. His judgement is perfectly just and is final, there can be no appeal. So, we all need to find God’s mercy before we die.

Two criminals were crucified alongside Jesus. One of them remained angry and defiant to the end. The other criminal asked him, “Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our sins deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”