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.”

God is faithful

When does Spring begin? The Met Office regards 1 March as the first day of Spring, although others insist that the correct date is 20-21 March, which is the Vernal Equinox. For most of us the fact that the days are getting longer and the daffodils are beginning to bloom means that winter is passing and springtime has arrived! It is an encouraging time for us all as we look forward to the longer, 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 to all subsequent generations. God 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 eternal 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. When I send clouds over the earth, the rainbow will be seen in the clouds, and I will remember my covenant with you and with everything that lives.”

The great reality of our life on earth is that God exists. He is eternal and he created each one of us. The heavens and the earth declare his glory and the changing seasons reveal his care. There is something deep in every one of us which responds to him. Some react against him and determine to live their lives as if he does not exist, but many are instinctively drawn to him.

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 wilt 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, and then the Summer, 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 will also give us strength for each day, bright hope for the future, and every blessing we need along the way.

They shall be as white as snow

In the past week snow has covered Britain like a blanket. There is a stillness as the dark days of winter are illuminated by the reflected brightness of the snow. As we struggle to get about in the ice and snow the countryside around us is beautifully adorned. The trees bow under the weight of the snow. Schools are closed and children delight in making snowballs and snowmen and in sledging. Snow is an amazing natural phenomenon. It is a testimony to the creative power of God. Each snowflake is exquisitely beautiful and no two snowflakes are the same.

In the Bible snow is used as an image of forgiveness. King David once sinned very seriously by committing adultery with Bathsheba, the beautiful wife of one of his bravest soldiers. When David realised that Bathsheba had conceived his child he tried to hide his sin by arranging for her husband, Uriah, to be killed in battle. Then David took Bathsheba as his wife and acted as if nothing wrong had happened. It was a very dark and shameful episode in David’s life. When, eventually, he faced up to his sin, he prayed to God for forgiveness, “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.”

The prophet Isaiah was called to speak to a nation which had turned its back on God. Despite all God’s kindness to them, his people had rejected him. Their religion was a sham and God’s laws were being flagrantly broken. Isaiah called on the people to repent and turn back to God, “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

The snow, therefore, speaks to us and to our nation. Each of us has turned away from God and committed serious sins, of which we are ashamed. Our nation worships the cult of celebrity and the gods of materialism. As a result we are experiencing a moral and economic decline which seems irreversible. Where is hope to be found? God’s call to each of us, and to our nation, is to return to him that we might experience his forgiveness. The God whom we have rejected offers us hope. Whatever we have done his promise is that, in his Son Jesus, we can find forgiveness and become as white as snow in his sight.

He came down to earth from heaven

NASA has just launched its most ambitious ever mission to Mars. An Atlas V rocket took “Curiosity”, the one ton Mars Science Laboratory, on the first stage of its 8 month, 354 million mile journey to Mars, travelling at 3200 mph. This complex project, which has cost £1.6 billion, is intended to discover whether there has ever been life on the Red Planet. Curiosity, which is the most powerful, capable and complex planetary rover ever built, will spend 2 years travelling over a small part of the surface of Mars seeking evidence of life, past or present. The project is an amazing example of the skills of scientists.

The principle of life is wonderful and mysterious. It is supremely precious and fragile. It seems to require more than simply water and the right environment or to be a mere chance event. Rather it is something that has been given to us by an awesome Creator who is powerful and wise. He is not far from each one of us, for in him we live and move and have our being. We can speak to him where we are, and he hears us and cares. He is concerned for us all from the smallest child to the frailest elderly person. He cares for people of all races and languages. His promise is, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

We will soon be remembering the birth of Jesus Christ. In the words of the carol, “He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all, and his shelter was a stable, and his cradle was a stall: with the poor and mean, and lowly, lived on earth our Saviour holy.” Jesus was more than a good man or a wonderful religious teacher. He was the Son of God, who took human nature and lived for a time among us. He came to show us what God is like and to reconcile us to God.

God created us with amazing abilities, as the Curiosity project demonstrates. We share in a little of his amazing creative skill. The meaning, significance and relationship we all seek, and so much need, will not be found through an exploration to a remote, rocky planet. Millions of ordinary people, in all parts of the world, have found the key to life in receiving the Jesus Christ as Saviour, Lord and God.

Heaven is Real!

In the past 10 days two good friends have died. One had been ill with cancer for more than a year, the other died suddenly at home after returning from an evening out with his family. One death was expected, the other was not. Both were over 70 years old and had enjoyed long and happy lives, but the news that they had died brought real sadness. Yet, at the same time, there was also real hope because both my friends were Christians who had put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. Their family and friends are comforted by the knowledge that both are now with Jesus in heaven and one day they will see them again.

Sadly, some people who are convinced atheists have no hope. They live their lives without any thought of God or experience of his love. Christopher Hitchins, the journalist, is battling with the final stage of cancer of the oesophagus. He says he is more certain than ever of his atheism and does not believe in an afterlife. This, he concedes, makes the thought of death even more frightening. He compares dying with being at a party and being told you have to leave. The party will continue, but without you. “Even people who swear to remember you are not really going to do so.”

For Christopher, however, heaven sounds like an even worse prospect. He says, “anything eternal is probably intolerable.” He says the atheist’s position is bleak, but courageous. “We don’t want to be annihilated. We just think the overall likelihood is that we will rejoin the molecular cycle when we die. We don’t wish it to be true, but we face it.” I pray that Christopher will discover the wonderful reality of God’s love in Jesus before he dies.

By his death and resurrection Jesus gave us a living hope. He triumphed over death and his promise to all who believe in him is “because I live you will live also.” There is nothing intolerable about heaven. It is a wonderful place where there is no more sickness, or suffering or death. Jesus spoke of it as his Father’s house. The apostle Paul said that no one has ever seen or heard of the glorious things God has prepared for those who love him. God created us to glorify him and enjoy him forever. In his presence there is unending joy and Jesus is the way to this glorious realm.