The 2017 Invictus Games are being held in Toronto. Invictus means unconquered. The Games were created by Prince Harry for former military personnel who have been wounded or injured in action as they have served their countries. Invictus is about the dedication of men and women who have confronted hardship and refused to be defined by their injuries. They and their families and friends have faced the shock of life-changing injuries and have together faced the long road to recovery.
In his opening speech, Prince Harry spoke of seeing three severely injured British soldiers while waiting to deploy to Afghanistan. He said, “The way I viewed service and sacrifice changed forever, and the direction of my life changed with it. I knew it was my responsibility to use a great platform that I have to help the world understand and be inspired by the spirit of those who wear the uniform. In the world where so many have reasons to feel cynical, and apathetic, I wanted to find a way for veterans to be a beacon of light and show us all that we have a role to play.”
He went on the speak of the impact the Games would have on those who came to watch, “I hope you are ready for some fierce competition. I hope you are ready to see the meaning of teamwork, the proof that anything is possible when we work together. I hope you are ready to see courage and determination that will inspire you to power through the challenges in your own life. I hope you are ready to see the role models in action that any parent would want their children to look up to. And I hope you’re ready to see lives changing in front of your eyes.”
The Gospel story is about love and sacrifice. Jesus is God’s Son and the King of kings. He came from heaven to earth not to be served but to serve others and give his life as a ransom for many. He was ready to pay the ultimate sacrifice in order to redeem people like you and me. On the cross he paid the price of our sins and experienced a depth of suffering we can never fully comprehend. On the third day he rose from the dead. He is the supreme conqueror. Understanding what he did and experiencing his love is life transforming. He lifts us from our own struggles and sorrows and fills our hearts with hope.
The interview with nurse Pauline Cafferkey, now recovered from the Ebola which nearly took her life, was cause for great joy. This courageous lady went to Sierra Leone to help save lives amidst the deadly Ebola outbreak that continues to ravage that country and others nearby. Out of love for other people she put her own life at risk. There are, no doubt, people in Kerry Town, Sierra Leone, alive today because of the dedication of Pauline and her colleagues working with Save the Children.
On her return, soon after Christmas, she was unwell and was, eventually, diagnosed with Ebola. She was taken to a specialist isolation unit in the Royal Free Hospital in Barnet. There a highly skilled medical team used their skills and the available resources to save Pauline’s life. Having seen patients dying in Sierra Leone she said she was “definitely frightened.” She remembers one point, when she was critically ill and it seemed she might die, when she said, “That’s it, I’ve had enough.” But she came through that crisis and is now clear of Ebola. She is looking forward to going back to her family and her normal life and normal job.
Today good news stories are like oases in the desert. We are bombarded by accounts of the wicked deeds of evil people and the dreary preoccupations of our political leaders. It is no wonder that many suffer from some degree of depression. So the story of a Scottish lady who loves and cares for others at great personal cost is refreshing and heartwarming. We rejoice that her life has been spared and wish her well for the future.
The Christian message is good news. It tells us of Jesus who, motivated by a deep love, came into this world so that through him we might find abundant life. When he was unjustly sentenced to death and crucified his disciples were devastated. They felt as if there was no hope for the future. On the third day, however, everything changed when they saw their risen Lord and their hearts were filled with joy. Jesus had triumphed over sin and death and had given them a sure and certain hope. His promise to them was, “Because I live, you will also live.” He can also give us hope in the darkest experiences of life. One hymn says, “When all things seem against us, to drive us to despair, we know one gate is open, one ear will hear our prayer.”
Last week I was in the beautiful mountain village of Soba in Papua for the dedication of the Hupla Bible. For the first time the 6000 Hupla people have the whole Bible in their own heart language. It was a time of great joy and celebration. It has taken more than 25 years work to translate the Bible and the main translators Mathias, who is a Hupla, and Sue, who is from Ireland, rejoiced in the completion of what, for them, has been a labour of love.
Sue first arrived in Papua in 1978 as a young nurse and for 19 years lived amongst the Hupla people in Soba. It took her 2 days to walk through the mountains from the highland city of Wamena to Soba. At other times the journey took 15 minutes by light aircraft to the small airstrip that had been cleared in the village. In 1994 Sue joined the Bible translation team.
Before they heard the good news of Jesus the Hupla people, like the other 250 tribes in Papua, lived in constant fear and oppression from evil spirits and the spirits of dead relatives. Fear of these spirits controlled every part of their lives and they offered many sacrifices to appease the anger of the spirits.
There was also frequent fighting amongst the clans within the tribe and with other neighbouring tribes. The practice of revenge and ‘pay back’ killings meant that there was no end to the fighting. Many died and others suffered terrible injuries. The people also practised cannibalism. Although the people lived in very beautiful mountains and valleys their lives were very dark. Now that many of the people know Jesus, things are very different.
In each village there were special places where only the men were allowed to go. If a woman or child entered that place the spirits would be angry and they had to be put to death. One day a little girl, who was looking for her father, unknowingly entered the forbidden place. She was taken to her father who knew what he must do to appease the spirits. He took his little girl to a nearby waterfall and threw her into it. Later when missionaries came to that village and told the people the good news of Jesus the father said, “If you had only come sooner my little girl would not have died!” All of us experience fear, but the perfect love of God in Jesus overcomes all our fears.
Fifty years ago the Democratic Republic of Congo was embroiled in a violent civil war. In 1964, just 4 years after independence, many Congolese people died as Simba rebels tried to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Moise Tshombe. One of the tactics of the Simbas was to take white people hostage. In November 1964 19 members of the Unevangelised Fields Mission were killed in the area around Stanleyville. The missionaries came from the USA, Canada, Australia and Great Britain and had been teaching in schools and running hospitals and dispensaries. Some of the Simbas who killed them were still in their teens.
Yet even in those dark days the light of God’s presence and grace shone through. The courage and kindness of the Congolese Christians was clearly seen. Although food was scarce they quietly left rice and plantains at the door of the house where their missionary friends were being held. When the Simbas threatened the missionaries the Church leaders, at great risk to their lives, stood up to the rebels. One pastor accompanied and protected a young English nurse for 4 weeks as she fled to the jungle to escape the rebels.
Some people, who are still alive today, were remarkably delivered from danger. Olive was a prisoner at Banalia with 8 other missionaries and children and 7 priests and 11 nuns. She describes what happened on 27 November 1964, “Simbas fleeing from Stanleyville brought the order that we were all to be killed. We were marched towards the river along a road lined with Simbas baying for our death. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of peace, knowing that, whatever we faced, God’s grace would be sufficient. Inexplicably half way to the river I and two of the ladies were turned back. We heard gunfire in the distance and were told that all the others had been killed. We could only silently commit them to the Lord.”
Congo has experienced other terrible wars. The civil war between 1998 and 2003 claimed up to 6 million lives. Yet through it all the churches have grown so much that today there are literally thousands of churches and hundreds of thousands of Christians. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
This year we are remembering the beginning of The Great War in 1914. It was a global war centred in Europe and lasted more than 4 years. It was one of the deadliest conflicts in world history. During the war 9 million soldiers and 28 million civilians were killed. It was called “the war to end all wars”, but sadly this did not prove to be true.
The war touched many families as ordinary men answered the call to arms to serve their King and country. Some had never travelled far from their homes and had no idea of the human slaughter that was to unfold before their eyes. They were fit and enthusiastic, but were inexperienced as soldiers. Many never returned. In the Battle of the Somme in 1916 more than 1,000,000 died in 5 months of fighting. British casualties on the first day of the battle were the worst in the history of the British army, with 38,000 injured and 19000 killed.
We owe a great debt of gratitude to those who fought in the two World Wars of the twentieth century. Their courage and sacrifice provided a stable and secure society for future generations. The words inscribed on war memorials around the world express the spirit in which they served and, in many cases, died. “When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today.” Those who fought in The Great War knew they were caught up in something very big over which they had no control. They saw their friends and comrades killed and knew that at any time they, too, might die. To whom could they turn in such terrible circumstances?
In 1977 a Bible was discovered which had belonged to Private George Ford. He was killed in 1918 at the age of 20. British soldiers on active service were given “The Daily Portion Testament”. There was an inscription inside from Lord Roberts. “I ask you to put your trust in God. He will watch over you and strengthen you. You will find in this little book guidance when you are in health, comfort when you are in sickness and strength when you are in adversity.” In the trenches many men found strength in the words of David in Psalm 23. As a young man David learned to trust God in times of danger and wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
For the first time this year the Remembrance Day Service took place without a veteran of World War I. In May, the world’s last known combat veteran of that war, Claude Choules, died in Australia aged 110. It is right that we remember the World Wars of the 20th century which wrought a terrible toll on our nation and on the world. More than 5 million men from Britain served in World War 1 and 44% were either killed or wounded. During World War II more than 60 million people died, 2.5% of the world’s population, including 450,000 British soldiers and civilians.
Remembrance Day is a deeply emotional experience for the veterans as they remember the terrible events of the wars in which they fought. Many of the young men involved in the D-Day landings have never spoken about what they experienced as they saw their friends killed and maimed. It is moving to see these, now elderly men, marching with great dignity as they remember their fallen comrades. Sadly, they are now joined by a younger generation of soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and who remember their colleagues who have died.
The men and women who died in the great wars of the last century offered the ultimate sacrifice. They gave their lives in the hope that future generations might live in peace and security. The epitaph carved on the memorial of the 2nd British Division in the cemetery in Kohima, Nagaland, is a moving challenge, “When you go home, tell them of us and say, for their tomorrow we gave our today.” It is right that we remember them.
Christians remember a young man who died, not in war, but on a Cross. On the night before he went to the Cross Jesus shared a meal with his disciples. He took bread and broke it and said, “This is my body, which is broken for you, do this in remembrance of me.” Then he took a cup of wine and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” Jesus is the hope of the world. His death and resurrection tower over the sorrows and tragedies of history. Because of him a day will surely come when “they shall neither harm nor destroy, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
Last week Shahbaz Bhatti was murdered by Taliban gunmen in Islamabad as he was being driven to work. He was Pakistan’s Minority Affairs Minister and the only Christian at the head of the federal government. Mr Bhatti was a Catholic and came from a family of poor farm workers. Born in a small village, he was elected in 2008 to a seat reserved for Christians, the largest group in Pakistan’s non-Muslim population.
For some time he had been the subject of death threats because of his opposition to the blasphemy laws in Pakistan. He spoke up when a 45 year old mother of 4, Aasia Bibi, was sentenced to death because she had been accused of criticising Islam. Those who murdered Mr Bhatti said they killed him because he, too, was guilty of blasphemy.
A few weeks ago Mr Bhatti, who was 42, made a video which was found after his death. He spoke of the desire of al-Qa’ida and Taliban militants to kill him because of his stand against the country’s blasphemy laws. He spoke of his campaign against sharia law and for the abolishment of the blasphemy law and his commitment to speak for the rights of the oppressed and marginalised, persecuted Christians and other minorities. He said. “I will die to defend their rights.”
The example of Mr Bhatti is a challenge to us all in a violent and intolerant world. He was a man who graciously held to his clear convictions. He was not afraid to stand up for what he knew to be right. He was not cowed into silence by the threats of violence against him and spoke out fearlessly for those who are being oppressed. He demonstrated love and kindness not only for his fellow Christians but also for all who were in need of help. He continued fulfilling his responsibilities as government minister despite the fact that no protection was provided for him. Mr Bhatti was a man of true strength and courage, whilst the gunmen who killed him were weak and cowardly.
Mr Bhatti said he was inspired by the example of Jesus, who was also killed because he spoke the truth. Jesus did not retaliate when he was insulted. When he suffered, he did not threaten to get even. He left his case in the hands of God, who always judges fairly. Mr Bhatti knew Jesus as his Saviour and was ready to live and, if need be, to die for him.
The name of Robert Jermain Thomas is known to very few people in his native country of Wales, but amongst Christians in Korea he is a hero. He grew up in rural Wales and graduated from London University. He was an excellent linguist learning Russian and taking just 4 months to master Mandarin. He left the independent chapel in Llanover, near Abergavenny, to go as a missionary with the London Mission Society to China. He and his young wife, Caroline, arrived in Shanghai after a 5 month sea voyage. Within a short time he was devastated when his wife suddenly died.
While in China Robert heard of Korea, which was then known as the Hermit Kingdom with no contact with outsiders. He made a secret visit in 1865 taking with him Chinese Bibles. Those who received the Bibles risked death if they were discovered. In 1866 Robert returned to Korea aboard the General Sherman, an American trading ship, taking more Bibles with him. Near Pyongyang, now the capital of North Korea, the ship ran aground and was set on fire by Korean fire rafts. Standing on the burning deck Robert flung the Bibles into the water hoping they would float ashore and be read by the people. He died at the hands of a Korean solider. He was just 27 years old.
Many would see his death as the waste of a young life in a futile cause, but the reality was very different. Robert’s death made a great impression on many who witnessed it. Some took the Bibles and used them as wallpaper in their houses. Some read the strange words on the walls of their houses and became Christians. Today there are millions of Christians in Korea. Most of the largest evangelical churches in the world today are in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. Korean churches have sent thousands of missionaries to many countries around the world to preach the same message Robert Thomas brought to them.
The value of our lives is not to be judged by how long we live, but by what we have lived for. In 1956 a young American missionary, Jim Elliot, and 4 other young missionaries, died at the hands of the Auca Indians in Ecuador. As he set off for Ecuador, knowing the dangers which lay ahead, Jim had said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”