On the third day he rose from the dead

The findings of the recent British Social Attitudes Survey on religion reveal a marked decline in religious affiliation in Britain today. For the first time, more people identify themselves as being of ‘no religion’ (53%) than those who profess an affiliation to a particular religion. Only 15% of adults in Britain now regard themselves as Anglicans, whereas in 2000 half the population identified themselves with the Church of England. The decline in living faith in Britain is in marked contrast to the situation in the majority world, where Christianity is growing strongly.

Some of those who identify themselves as being of ’no religion’ do, however, have some faith. For example, one in five of them a say they believe in life after death. This shows that, even if we opt out of formal religion, which can be less than inspiring, we cannot avoid the fundamental questions posed by our life in this world. Very few are committed atheists. Someone I know attended the funeral service of man who was an atheist. Nothing was said. The family sat at the front of the crematorium for a short time then stood by the coffin briefly before leaving. For an atheist death is the end, there is nothing to say.

Christians are followers of Jesus who died on a cross and rose from the dead on the third day. The apostles were eye-witnesses of the resurrection. Seeing the resurrected Jesus transformed them and they fearlessly proclaimed the good news about him everywhere they went. The early Christians were so committed to Jesus that they were prepared to suffer persecution for their faith in him and even to die for him. It is like that for some Christians today. For them, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

The apostle Paul wrote about the hope the resurrection of Jesus inspires, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died. So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. But there is an order to this resurrection: Christ was raised as the first of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back. For Christ must reign until he humbles all his enemies beneath his feet. And the last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

The secret of being content

We are living in unsettled times. Reports in the media portray a spirit of unease and unhappiness in the hearts of some. It seems that when things go wrong, as they inevitably do in this fallen world, we must find someone to blame and to complain about. We see it as their responsibility to make us happy and ensure we have everything we want. Yet we live in country that, compared to most countries in the world, is wealthy and remarkably secure and stable. We enjoy a considerable degree of freedom to live our daily lives without interference from the authorities. In fact, millions of people from other countries would love to live in Britain and some make great efforts, at risk to their lives, to get here.

Some years ago, I met some friends from West Africa at Heathrow. As we were driving along the M4 they asked, “Where are the soldiers and the roadblocks?” I explained that things that were part of daily life in their country didn’t happen in Britain and that the overwhelming majority of our police were unarmed. They were amazed and, also, could not get over the fact that there were no potholes in our main roads! So, if our lives are so blessed and privileged compared to billions of people in the world, why are we unhappy?

We need to learn the secret of being content. When we are content we are happy, satisfied and fulfilled. It has very little to do with how much “stuff” we have. I was talking to a friend who works in a high-class resort to which many wealthy people come. He told me about a recent holiday in which he and his wife saw people who are much poorer than they are yet, he said, they were content. One man wrote, “Contentment doesn’t come from adding more fuel, but in taking away some fire; not in multiplying wealth, but in subtracting desires.” Socrates said, “The wealthiest person is the one who is contented with least.”

Towards the end of his life the apostle Paul was under house arrest in Rome. In a letter to the Christians in Philippi he wrote, “I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.”

Pray for those in authority

This week the people of Britain will elect a new government. They will face some very big challenges, not least in how to deal with the increase in terrorist atrocities. The tragic recent events at Westminster, the Manchester Arena and London Bridge have raised grave concerns. The security services, who are doing an excellent job, are facing an unparalleled challenge. The number of people who have been radicalised, and the variety of ways in which the acts of atrocity are carried out, make it impossible to guarantee total security in our daily lives. How should we respond to this situation?

We should pray for those who govern us. The apostle Paul urged the early Christians to pray “for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” Many have assured those affected by the recent atrocities that they are “in our thoughts and prayers.” Thinking about those who have suffered bereavement and life-changing injuries affirms our common humanity; we care about each other. Praying for them acknowledges that they, and we, need more than human help.

We need to have big views of God. He is the Lord of heaven and earth. He created all things and sustains all things. He is the Lord of history. In the past, in times of national crisis, the British people were urged to pray. When Britain was close to defeat in World War II, and the entire British Army was trapped at Dunkirk, King George VI called for a National Day of Prayer to be held on 26 May 1940. He called on the people to plead for God’s help. Millions of people responded and God heard their prayers and wonderfully intervened so that 335,000 soldiers were brought safely across the English Channel on hundreds of tiny boats.

At the National Day of Thanksgiving on 9 June 1940, people gave thanks to God for answering their prayers. Psalm 124 was read; “If the Lord had not been on our side when people attacked us, they would have swallowed us alive when their anger flared against us; the flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us, the raging waters would have swept us away. Praise be to the Lord, who has not let us be torn by their teeth. We have escaped like a bird from the fowler’s snare; the snare has been broken, and we have escaped. Our help is in the name of the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”

The King of kings and Lord of lords

We are living in a time of change and political leaders are in the news. In the USA, President Trump is making the headlines every day. In Britain, Teresa May is preparing for Brexit negotiations. In Russia, President Putin has become active in Ukraine and Syria and is raising new challenges for NATO. France is preparing to elect a new leader to succeed the unpopular President Hollande. In Germany, Chancellor Merkel faces significant opposition when she stands for re-election in September. In Turkey, President Erdogan is seeking to make his position inviolable. In The Gambia, President Jammeh has eventually given way to newly-elected President Barrow. In South Korea, President Park Geun-hye is facing impeachment. In North Korea, President Kim Jong-un reigns supreme as he develops his nuclear capability.

There has also been a rise in populism in some democratic countries. Populism mobilizes large alienated sections of the population against governments that are perceived to be controlled by an out-of-touch elite that acts in its own interests. Sometimes populism creates a situation that encourages extremism of both left and right elements in the population. Populism does not always lead to good things. There were great hopes in some countries for the “Arab Spring”, but the outcome has by no means been a happy one.

The example of the early Christians to their rulers has much to teach us in our uncertain world. They lived in the Roman Empire and suffered under Roman rule. Jesus was crucified at the order of Pilate, the Roman governor. The apostle Paul was arrested and beaten at the command of Roman magistrates, even though he was a Roman citizen. Later he was executed at the command of the Roman emperor. After the Great Fire of Rome in 64AD, Nero instigated a violent persecution of Christians and many died in unspeakably cruel ways.

Despite the persecution they experienced, the early Christians firmly believed that God is supreme. Because they believed the authorities that existed had been established by God they did not rebel against them but, as a matter of conscience, submitted to their rule. They prayed for kings and those in authority so that they might live a peaceful and quiet life in all godliness and holiness. They honoured their rulers and paid their taxes. They knew that one day all earthly rulers will be called to account for the way they have exercised their power and will stand before the judgement throne of the One who is King of kings and Lord of lords.

The God of hope

A New Year has dawned. The holiday is over and life is returning to its normal daily routine. The days are dark and wet, and the credit card bills will soon arrive. The new year is a time to look forward, but the future looks very uncertain. Following the floods, climate change is on many people’s minds. Stock exchanges are fragile and the economic future is not good. The moral foundations which undergirded our society are being eroded. It’s clear that our leaders are facing problems that are too big for them.

In the middle of the first century the apostle Paul wrote a letter to Christians in Rome. The moral corruption, that would eventually lead to the the fall of the Roman Empire, was already taking hold and these Christians were facing persecution. Paul himself would soon be imprisoned for his faith in Jesus and would be martyred, along with many other Christians, at the command of Nero. The personal future of Paul and the Christians was very uncertain.

Near the end of the letter Paul wrote, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him.” These words speak to us today. Hope for the future comes not from ourselves, or from those who have power and influence, but from God. He is the God of hope! As we entrust ourselves and our future to him he fills us with joy and peace. Ultimately the world and our lives are not at the mercy of evil people, but are in the hands of a gracious God who gives us a hope that is real.

A few weeks before Christmas, in the little village of Capriana in Moldova, something happened which is a sign of the hope God gives to ordinary people. God has given some Moldovan Christian ladies a deep love and concern for the forgotten people living in the terrible closed institutions in Moldova in which people are locked away, often for very trivial reasons. Life in the institutions is very harsh and, normally, there is no hope of release. A new house, Casa Ana, has been built in Capriana, which is now the home of 6 ladies from one of these closed institutions, and it was officially opened before Christmas. One of the Christian ladies involved in establishing the home said, “We wanted to give these people a future and a hope!” That’s exactly what “the God of hope” does for us as we entrust ourselves, and our future, to him.

You can watch a short video of the opening of Casa Ana at https://vimeo.com/148361564

Don’t worry about anything

The Bible is a best selling book. More than 100 million copies of the Bible are sold or given away every year. Gideons International gives away a Bible every second. The Bible is available as a whole or in part in more than 2400 languages, covering 95% of the people of the world. Yet, for many people, the Bible is an unread book. The Bible is very big and it isn’t easy to know where to start reading. Yet in the Bible God speaks to us. Christians believe that the Bible is God’s Word. What the Bible says, God says. The Bible speaks into every situation that you and I face.

In the letter he wrote to the Christians living in Philippi the apostle Paul says, “Don’t worry about anything, instead pray about everything. Tell God what you need and thank him for all he has done. If you do this, you will experience God’s peace, which is far more wonderful that the human mind can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.”

Worry is a universal human experience. We lie awake at night worrying. We go the doctor to ask for medication to help us cope with our worries. We worry about our families, about our work or study, about money, about our health and about the future. We usually worry about things we can’t do anything about and people may say to us, “Don’t worry, it may never happen!” But this doesn’t help us and we continue to worry because what will we do if it does happen? So how do Paul’s words help us?

Paul didn’t simply say, “Don’t worry.” He said, “Instead pray about everything.” Because God is there we can talk to him. We don’t need special words to speak to him, we can simply tell him what’s on our hearts. We can speak to him every day about everything, big things and small things, and ask him to help us. We can tell him the things we are worrying about and ask him to be with us and to give us strength to face whatever may come. It’s important to remember how he has helped us in the past and to thank him for being with us in difficult times. As we speak to God, he gives us his peace. One hymn says, “O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry, everything to God in prayer.”

The God of Hope

The signs of new life are beginning to appear in the gardens. How encouraging it is to see the delicate snowdrops, the crocuses and the first of the daffodils. They create in us the anticipation of the coming of Spring, and the end of another winter. Winter can be a difficult time with the long dark days, the frost and the snow, and the violent storms. But now the days are getting longer, the mornings are lighter and each day sunset is a little later. These things give us hope; something to which we can look forward.

Hope is in short supply today. Our world leaders are struggling to cope with many crises. There is little hope for the future. Economic prospects are not good, even for the prosperous countries of Europe. Austerity must continue for some time yet. In parts of Africa, South America and Asia poverty blights the lives of millions of people. They live in simple homes, eat one meal a day and find it hard to find the fees for their children, the next generation, to go to school. Life is very fragile and uncertain in the face of diseases like Ebola and HIV/AIDS. The threat of extremism and terrorism is growing and will, we are told, be with us for at least a generation.

Hope comes from God even when we are passing through the darkest of situations. The apostle Paul wrote a letter to Christians living in Rome. They were already experiencing persecution and within a few years would face terrible persecution under Emperor Nero. Near the end of the letter Paul writes, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” What a wonderful view of the living God; he is “the God of hope!” He can “fill us with all joy and peace”, so that we “overflow with hope.” He gives us power and strength by his Holy Spirit to face the future with hope.

This hope becomes real in our lives as we look to God and “trust in him.” In Psalm 146 the psalmist writes, “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing. Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God.”

I was a stranger and you invited me in

The conflict in Eastern Ukraine shows little sign of ending despite the recent high-level meetings. Ukraine has two official languages: those in the west speak Ukrainian and those in the east speak Russian. Russia, and the rebels they are backing, are exploiting this by appearing to support the grievances some Russian speaking Ukrainians in the east have against the government in Kiev.

Over the past year Russia has illegally annexed Crimea, which conveniently gives them control of the warm water seaport of Sebastopol. A Malaysian civilian airliner was shot down killing 298 people. Major cities in eastern Ukraine are now war zones with massive destruction of property. The brand new international airport in Donetsk, built for the European Football Championships in 2012, is now rubble. Donetsk is the same size as Birmingham. In the conflict 5300 people have died and 1.5 million have been made homeless. Thousands of men, women and children have fled for safety to cities outside the war zone including Kharkov, the second city of Ukraine.

Yet in the midst of this appalling situation good things are happening. I have friends who live in Kharkov. They are Christians and attend a small Baptist church. Christians in the Baptist churches have been helping the refugees who are fleeing the fighting. When buses carrying refugees arrive in Kharkov they are met by Christians who provide food and clothing for the people and help them to find somewhere to stay. The Baptist church buildings have become temporary homes for refugee families and the Christians have also welcomed refugees into their own homes. Ukraine is a poor country and the war has increased the price of everything, yet the Christians are willing to share their own limited resources with strangers who are in great need. Christians in Britain are also sending gifts to help them.

One of the greatest commandments God has given us is, “You shall love your neighbour as you love yourself.” Jesus said that his people feed the hungry, give drinks to the thirsty, clothe the naked and provide homes for the homeless. Then he added, “Whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you do for me.” Jesus himself is the supreme example of self-sacrificing love. The apostle Paul wrote, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

In all their suffering he also suffered

The television programmes commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp brought home afresh the terrifying capacity of human beings to commit acts of great evil and wickedness. The systematic slaughter of millions of helpless Jewish people ranks amongst the darkest chapters in human history. They were first incarcerated in ghettos and then transported like animals to camps like Auschwitz where men, women and children were mercilessly gassed and then buried or incinerated. The emaciated bodies of those living in the camps clearly portray the diabolical treatment they suffered.

In contrast the programmes remembering the funeral of Winston Churchill, who died 50 years ago, reminded us that human beings are also capable of acts of great courage in confronting evil men and bringing liberty to many. Churchill was our greatest wartime Prime Minister who inspired a nation to stand against and, together with our allies, to defeat the megalomaniac ambitions of Adolph Hitler and the Nazis. In the dark days following the Dunkirk evacuation, Churchill inspired a nation to rise from a massive defeat and to courageously confront, and ultimately defeat, a very powerful enemy.

Human beings are an enigma. Reflecting on the life of his grandfather, who was the commandant of Auschwitz, one grandson struggled to understand how his grandfather could be a kind and loving husband and father to his own family while at the same time he was supervising the merciless extermination of Jewish families. At a personal level we all struggle with the daily contradictions of our lives. The apostle Paul was conscious of this and wrote, “I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I don’t do it.”

God has decisively intervened in our world to give us hope in the face of both the continuing acts of great evil and our daily personal struggles. He cares deeply for those experiencing great suffering. The prophet Isaiah spoke God’s word to his suffering people, “In all their suffering he also suffered, and he personally rescued them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them. He lifted them up and carried them.” These words of comfort were ultimately fulfilled In Jesus Christ who died in our place. On the cross he suffered the punishment our sins deserve in order to redeem us and give us hope. As one hymn says, “There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin, he only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.”

Always giving thanks

Being thankful is a great blessing. At this time of year many churches hold Harvest Thanksgiving services. We have enjoyed a wonderful summer and so the harvest has been really good. The farmers have done well and we have enough food to eat for another year. There is good reason for us all to rejoice and give thanks?

One of the problems, however, of living in a secular society is, “To whom do we give thanks when things go well?” The politicians would like us to thank them, but few of us find that an attractive option! In an atheistic society like North Korea the people are commanded to give thanks for everything to their tyrannical President, Kim Jong-un. If they are not enthusiastic enough in giving thanks they are in serious trouble. Thankfully, we are under no such pressure.

The Bible gives us many exhortations to be thankful. The Psalmist says, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” The Apostle Paul says, “Sing and make melody from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.”

A modern hymn by Bishop Michael Baughen expresses thanks for simple daily blessings and for God’s amazing love in Jesus. “Thank you for every new good morning, Thank you for every fresh new day, Thank you that I may cast my burdens, wholly on to you. Thank you for every friend I have Lord, Thank you for everyone I know, Thank you when I can feel forgiveness, to my greatest foe. Thank you for leisure and employment, Thank you for every heartfelt joy, Thank you for all that makes me happy, and for melody. Thank you for free and full salvation, Thank you for grace to hold it fast, Thank you, O Lord I want to thank you, that I’m free to thank.”

It makes a great difference to our lives when we realise that there really is a God who is good and the Giver of every good and perfect gift. When things go well we can gladly thank him and when hard times come we can trust him to be with us and to help us. In one of his hymns Joseph Hart expressed his delight in his God and Father, “How good is the God we adore, our faithful unchangeable friend, we’ll praise him for all that is past and trust him for all that’s to come.”