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.”

The Joy of Spring

When does Spring begin? The Met Office regards 1 March as the first day of Spring but the heavy snowfalls on that day this year made it feel much more like winter! Amazingly, when the snow cleared from our garden we found the crocuses in flower despite the cold blanket that had covered them. However, the days are getting warmer and longer, and the daffodils are beginning to bloom, which means that winter really is passing and springtime has arrived! Spring is an encouraging time for us all as we see nature coming to life again and anticipate the brighter, warmer days of summer.

The passing seasons remind us of the faithfulness of God. Following the devastating flood, which happened in the time of Noah, God gave a wonderful promise for all subsequent generations. He said, “As long as the earth remains, there will be springtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night.” He also gave the rainbow as a sign of his everlasting covenant with Noah and his descendants and all living creatures. God told Noah, “I have placed my rainbow in the clouds. It is a sign of my permanent promise to you and to all the earth.”

The great reality of our life on earth is that God exists. He is eternal and created each one of us. The heavens and the earth declare his glory and the changing seasons reveal his loving care. There is something deep in every one of us that is instinctively drawn to him. In every way we are dependent on him. “Frail as summer’s flower we flourish, blows the wind and it is gone; but while mortals rise and perish God endures unchanging on. Praise him, praise him, praise the high Eternal One!”

Thomas Chisholm’s well-known hymn affirms, “Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father, there is no shadow of turning with thee; thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not, as thou hast been thou for ever will be. 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.”

As we move forward into the Spring it is good to know that we can do so trusting in the living God. We can rejoice in his presence with us each day to cheer us and guide us. He gives us strength for each day, bright hope for the future, and every blessing we need along the way.

Spiritual heart surgery

Recent major news stories have all been about really bad things that are happening in our world today. In Syria the indiscriminate bombing of eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, has killed than 500 people in a week with thousands more injured. Women and children are hiding in basements while the White Helmets bravely try to rescue casualties. A Serious Case Review into grooming gangs in Newcastle has revealed the systematic sexual abuse of 700 vulnerable girls. A 19-year-old man gunned down 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and wounded others. Major relief agencies have disclosed cases of senior employees abusing women in countries struck by natural disaster.

The responses to these situations have proposed a number of helpful things such as a UN resolution for a cease fire, more gun control, seeking a better understanding of different cultures, better safeguarding procedures, transparency, and more training of relief personnel. But it seems clear that the problems of our human condition go much deeper and affect us all. As human beings we have both the capacity for great goodness and kindness and also the ability to commit acts of unspeakable cruelty and wickedness. Why do we all struggle with the darker side of our nature and personality?

The Bible teaches that human beings were created by God in his image but that our first parents rebelled against God by breaking his command. As a result of their disobedience sin and death became universal features of life in this world affecting all people. Our relationship with God has been fractured and we have a constant bias towards what is wrong. The fundamental problem is internal and has to do with our hearts, that is our inner desires and motivation. The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?”

The Bible also tells us that God has provided a solution to our deepest need. The prophet Ezekiel gave the people a wonderful promise from God, “I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart.” The Apostle Paul experienced this great change as he was approaching Damascus on a mission to arrest and imprison Christians. He saw a vision of the risen Jesus and became a new man. Later he wrote, “Anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”

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.”

I am with you always

Many people in the UK today live on their own. In 2016, there were 7.7 million one person households; 54% of whom were women and 46 % were men. Between 1996 and 2016 the number of one person households increased by 15% for those aged over 65 and by 51% for those aged 45-64. In contrast, during that period the number of one person households fell by 12% amongst those aged 25-44. Some younger people are living with their parents longer than in previous generations and others are sharing accommodation with friends. In wealthy societies increasing numbers of people are choosing to live alone. In Scandinavia, for example, nearly 50% of the adult population live alone.

Not everyone who lives on their own is lonely, but many are. Those who have experienced the pain of marriage breakdown and those who have been bereaved feel it acutely. For them, living alone, eating alone and returning to an empty house at the end of each day is something they never really get used to. Communicating with “friends” through social media may help, but is not the same as human companionship and sharing the ups and downs of daily life with someone we love. It is good to have to consider someone else’s needs as well as our own. An elderly widow who lived next door to us told us that living on her own meant she could be tempted to be very selfish.

Jesus experienced profound loneliness when he died on the cross. On the night before he died he told his disciples, who had been his close companions over the past 3 years, “The time is coming – indeed it’s here now – when you will be scattered, each one going his own way, leaving me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me.” Yet, the next day, as he suffered on the cross, he experienced total aloneness as he paid the price of our sins. Out of the darkness he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Later, as he prepared to die, he knew the Father’s presence again. His last words were, “Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands.”

One of the great promises Jesus made to his disciples, as he sent them out into a hostile world to proclaim the good news of the Gospel, was “I am with you always.” Knowing Jesus as Saviour and Lord means we are never alone because, through the Holy Spirit, he really is with us.

Because I live, you also will live

A poll carried out on Palm Sunday revealed that 23% of people in the UK who regard themselves as Christians do not believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Amongst regular churchgoers 5% said they did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus. It is, perhaps, not surprising that churchgoers are uncertain when a significant percentage of clergy say they don’t believe in the resurrection. Interestingly, the survey also found that 46% of the population in general believe in some form of life after death, including a fifth of those who describe themselves as non-religious. These issues are vitally important to every one of us, because, one day, we will all die.

The Taliabo people live on a small island in Indonesia. They live a very simple life with very little contact with the outside world, but were deeply troubled by the fact that everyone in their tribe died. The stories handed down from generation to generation said that long ago their ancestors knew the secret of eternal life, but they left the island and, since then, the people have become poor and everyone dies. The stories also told of a river of life. Whoever drank water from the river would live for ever. But no one could find the river.

Death was the Taliabo people’s biggest fear. They cried out to the spirits, and used charms, but everyone still died. They would put the bones of relatives who died in a box in the hope someone would come and bring them back to life. But they never did. They prayed to those who had died, but no answer came. The shamans couldn’t help them because they, too, all died. The people even made a raft and loaded it with gifts and put the bones of 2 dead people, a man and a woman, on it. They sent the raft out into the ocean in the hope that the ones who knew the secret of eternal life would see it, take pity on them, and return to the island.

When two Christian couples came to the Taliabo’s island they told the people about Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again on the third day. The Taliabo were overjoyed because now they knew that someone really had overcome death. As they believed the Bible’s teaching about Jesus, their lives were wonderfully transformed. They were no longer afraid of death. In our outwardly sophisticated society we, too, need to believe the wonderful promise of the risen Jesus, “Because I live, you also will live.”

Our God is the end of the journey

Last Saturday I stood at the graveside of a good friend I had known for more than 45 years. Standing with his wife, children and grandchildren and other family members I shared the deep sense of loss they were experiencing. My friend had died from cancer after a short illness. It had all happened so quickly. After the burial, we went to a local chapel where more than 200 friends had gathered for a service of thanksgiving. We sang hymns my friend had chosen for the service which all expressed his personal faith in his Saviour, Jesus Christ. The hymns were full of the Christ-centred hope in which my friend had faced death; the last enemy. The hymns reminded us that, though my friend is no longer with us, he is now safe in the presence of Jesus.

The first hymn celebrates the greatness of God. “And when I think that God his Son not sparing, sent him to die, I scarce can take it in; that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died to take away my sin. When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation to take me home, what joy shall fill my heart! Than shall I bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim; My God how great thou art! Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to thee; How great thou art! How great thou art!”

The second hymn reflects on our frailty and need of the eternal strength and grace of Jesus; who is the Rock of Ages. “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me Saviour or I die. While I draw this fleeting breath, when my eyelids close in death, when I soar to realms unknown, see thee on thy judgement throne; Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.”

The third hymn focusses on heaven. “My Saviour will never forsake me, unveiling his merciful face, his presence and promise almighty, redeeming his loved ones by grace. In shades of the valley’s dark terror, where hell and its horror hold sway, my Jesus will reach out in power, and save me by his only way. For yonder a light shines eternal, which spreads through the valley of gloom; Lord Jesus, resplendent and regal, drives fear far away from the tomb. Our God is the end of the journey, his pleasant and glorious domain; for there are the children of mercy, who praise Him for Calvary’s pain.”

First take the plank out of your own eye

Political leaders in the Western World, and those who aspire to office, face a relentless scrutiny of their personal lives. The press and media investigate their past and present conduct and often reveal potentially damaging facts about their behaviour. Usually the things revealed are viewed in the most negative way possible in order to damage the person’s credibility. Did they behave well when they were students? Have they paid all the tax they owe? Have they had illicit sexual relationships? Do they tick all the boxes of the present “political correctness”?

It is legitimate for those who will hold high office, and the power that goes with it, to be scrutinised. It is appropriate for the actions of our leaders in major events of national and international significance to be examined, as has been done by Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry into the Iraq War. The key issue, however, is not whether someone has ever done something wrong but their personal integrity and honesty.

The Bible honestly reveals the flaws in some of the greatest leaders. Abraham, the Father of faith, lied about his wife Sarah. David, Israel’s greatest King, committed adultery with the wife of one of his bravest soldiers and arranged the death of the man to hide his own sin. Peter, one of the leading apostles, denied that he knew Jesus despite having promised that, if necessary, he would be willing to die for him. The truth is that all of us are flawed. All of us have done things that we deeply regret and of which we are ashamed.

Jesus taught that, before we begin pointing out the faults of others, we should honestly examine ourselves. “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

The Bible also teaches the wonder of God’s grace. When we fall into sin, as we all do, we can confess it to God and experience forgiveness and restoration. God’s promise is, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.“

Footprints in the Sand

Mary Stevenson was born on 8 November 1922 in Chester, Pennsylvania. Her life was far from easy. She was one of 8 children and lost her mother when she was just 6 years old. As a child she lived through the Great Depression that was a very difficult time for the whole family. While still in her teens, Mary married a man who became very abusive to her. She ran away with her infant son to an Indian reservation in Oklahoma. After World War II she was divorced and her son was taken away from her. She moved to Los Angeles where she met and married Basil Zangare. Soon after Mary contracted polio. In 1980 Basil died following a heart attack and Mary herself died in January 1999.

When she was in her early teens Mary wrote a poem, “Footprints in the Sand”, that has become very well known and has been a help and comfort to many people. This is what Mary wrote:

“One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky. In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, other times there was only one. This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see only one set of footprints. So I said to the Lord,‘You promised me Lord, that if I followed you, you would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has only been one set of footprints in the sand. Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?’ The Lord replied, ‘The times when you have seen only one set of footprints, my child, is when I carried you.’”

Like Mary, we all experience low periods in our lives. It is so important at those times, even though we cannot understand what is happening to us, that we draw near to God and trust him. He is able to carry us, and our problems, and to give us a sense of his presence and peace. The early Christians faced great persecution; some were put in prison and many were executed. Through it all they found great comfort and strength in the promise of their Risen Lord, “Surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.”

D-Day Remembered

This week the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Normandy landings will be commemorated. On 6 June 1944 the Allied Forces began a major offensive which was to prove decisive to the outcome of World War II. It was the largest seaborne invasion in history. The invasion fleet was drawn from 8 different navies, comprising 6,939 vessels: 1,213 warships, 4,126 landing craft of various types, 736 ancillary craft, and 864 merchant vessels. There were 195,700 naval personnel involved. The landings were preceded by air attacks involving 1300 RAF planes and 1000 American bombers.

My father-in-law was there. He saw many of his friends die in the fierce fighting that followed the invasion. When the war was over he returned safely to his family, but he didn’t speak of what he had experienced and seen. It was only shortly before he died, when his grandson and great grandson were preparing to visit Normandy on the 60th anniversary, that he got a map out and told them where he had landed and fought. Of the 61,000 British troops who stormed the beaches of Normandy 70 years ago fewer than 500 are alive today.

We owe a great debt of gratitude to those who gave their lives in the D-Day landings and in all the battles of World War II. For our tomorrow they gave their today. Over the past 70 years we have lived in peace and security. We also owe a great debt of gratitude to God who was pleased to spare us as a country from being invaded and occupied. The night before the Normandy landings King George VI broadcast a message in which he said the Allies faced the “supreme test” and called on the nation to pray for the liberation of Europe.

I’m sure many in Britain responded to the King’s call to pray. Certainly many of the young men preparing for the landings, and the great danger they faced, also prayed. They prayed to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and read from the New Testaments they had been given. God understood their situation and the fear that gripped their hearts. When he was a young man, Jesus had faced danger and death and had willingly laid down his life out of love for them. He also made a great promise, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”