Immanuel – God with us

The birth of Jesus Christ really is a cause for great celebration! His coming into the world has changed the lives of millions of people for the better. His birth was foretold in detail by prophets who lived more than 600 years earlier and their prophecies were fulfilled. The prophet Micah foretold where he would be born and spoke of his greatness. “But you, Bethlehem, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Jesus came from heaven to earth with kingly power to do us good.

The prophet Isaiah foretold that he would be born to a young virgin mother. “The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” The name Immanuel means “God with us.” As the eternal Son of God, Jesus reveals God to us. When he came into the world God himself drew near to a troubled world. Throughout history Christians have experienced the presence of God with them, often in very difficult circumstances. One of our greatest needs this Christmas is to know that God is with us.

The prophet Isaiah also spoke of the greatness of the child who would be born, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.” Jesus came into this world from the presence of his heavenly Father with divine power to execute God’s great plan of salvation for the peoples of this world and to do it as the “Prince of Peace.”

Charles Wesley wrote a hymn that is often sung at Christmas and expresses the deepest longings of our hearts. “Come, O long-expected Jesus, born to set your people free! from our fears and sins release us, Christ in whom our rest shall be. Israel’s strength and consolation, born salvation to impart; dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart. Born your people to deliver, born a child, and yet a king; born to reign in us for ever, now your gracious kingdom bring: By your own eternal Spirit rule in all our hearts alone; by your all-sufficient merit raise us to your glorious throne.”

She has saved me

Sergeant Alexander Blackman has been released from prison and has been reunited with his wife, Claire, who tirelessly campaigned for him to be freed. On being reunited with his wife, Sgt Blackman said, “She has saved me. Her determination to keep on fighting for me has been incredible. You just can’t imagine anyone cares for you that much.” Sgt Blackman was a Royal Marine and served in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. He and his troops manned an outpost deep in hostile territory that has been described as “the most dangerous square mile on earth.” They served in stifling temperatures of 50C, under intense psychological pressure, knowing every step might trigger a land mine.

One day Sgt Blackman shot a severely wounded Taliban fighter whom they had captured. What he said and did was recorded on video. In December 2013, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. It was the first time a British soldier had been convicted of murder on the battlefield. Last month, after a sustained campaign spearheaded by his wife, Sgt Blackman’s conviction was reduced from murder to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. The appeal judges recognised he had combat stress and reduced his sentence to 7 years, paving the way for his release.

It will take some time to adjust to his new life. He has been dismissed from his beloved Royal Marines and has been offered a civilian job. He said, “Being out of prison is an immense feeling, but I am very conscious that my sentence is not complete. I have been released on licence, and there are certain conditions which I must – and I will – respect.”

All of us have done things that we deeply regret, but cannot change. We feel guilty and long to find forgiveness. The Christian Gospel tells how Jesus, God’s Son, came from heaven to earth to save us from our sins. He lived the perfect life we have failed to live and died on the cross bearing the punishment we deserve. How amazing that anyone could love us so much as to die in our place! When we know Jesus as our Saviour, we are set free from guilt and experience the joy of being forgiven. God’s forgiveness is complete and final; there are no conditions. When we experience God’s love in Jesus we, for the first time, truly love God from our hearts and cannot stop thanking him for what he has done for us; in Jesus, he has saved us!

In the right place at the right time

One day in 1981 paramedic Denny Welsh was flying in an air rescue helicopter near Tucson in Arizona. As he looked down at the State Route 86 highway he saw a car sliding on its roof. Suddenly something flew out of the windscreen and Denny realised it was a car seat. The pilot landed the helicopter and Denny ran to the car seat and found an 18-month-old baby in it. The little girl, Misty, wasn’t breathing, so Denny resuscitated her. Denny put the mother and her baby girl into the helicopter and took them to the hospital. In the helicopter Denny resuscitated the baby girl again. Misty was treated at the hospital and recovered.

A few weeks ago Denny, who is now retired, met Misty for the first time since the day of the accident. She had been told by doctors that because of injuries to her pelvis, caused by the accident, she would never be able to have children, but she has a son. It was an emotional meeting because, until she met Denny, Misty hadn’t realised how close to death she had come that day. If Denny and the rescue helicopter hadn’t been on the scene so quickly she would certainly have died. Denny said, “It was just a miracle that we happened to be there at the right place at the right time. Misty made it by the grace God.”

Jesus told his disciples about the amazing way in which God cared for them. He said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” He also spoke of God’s special concern for little children, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”

Every Christian knows that they have received eternal life only because Jesus saved them by dying on the cross for their sins. They can never thank him enough for his amazing love. One hymn says, “It was a lonely path he trod, from every human soul apart; known only to himself and God was all the grief that filled his heart. Yet from the track he turned not back, till where I lay in want and shame, he found me – Blessed be his name!”

The Prince of Peace

The lust for power has dominated the history of the world. The ancient empires of Egypt, Syria, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome were all supreme for a time. The two World Wars of the 20th century were caused by a desire to rule the world. Today the United States of America is the superpower. President Putin is actively seeking to extend the power of Russia. Some Muslim groups are seeking to extend their power. In a few weeks time we will be voting for those who aspire to rule us for the next 5 years.

How different it was 2000 years ago when a young man rode into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey. The crowds acclaimed him as their King. In his triumphal entry Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey.” The kingdom Jesus established was very different from earthly kingdoms. He is the Prince of peace. He never commanded an army and told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest.”

Over the years the kingdom of Jesus has spread to all parts of the world while the great empires of the world have come and gone. The alliance of the church with political power in places like Europe has been a distortion of his kingdom. The gracious rule of King Jesus has been spread through the proclamation of the good news of the salvation that he promises to all who follow him. When we know him as Saviour and Lord he gives us fulness of life. His rule blesses his people with “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.”

Yet, many of us want to retain our “freedom”. The strange thing is that it is only in acknowledging that Jesus is our King that we find true freedom. George Matheson’s hymn explains this very well. “Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free; Force me to render up my sword, and I shall conqueror be. I sink in life’s alarms when by myself I stand, imprison me within Thine arms, and strong shall be my hand. My will is not my own till Thou hast made it Thine. If it would reach the monarch’s throne it must its crown resign. It only stands unbent amid the clashing strife, when on Thy bosom it has leant, and found in Thee its life.”

It is a thing most wonderful!

The death of Jesus Christ on a Roman cross was both a tragedy and a triumph. It was tragic that after the remarkable events of his 3 year ministry, Jesus was rejected by the religious leaders and people. Jesus had taught great crowds who came gladly to hear him. He had healed many people from all kinds of diseases and afflictions; the blind, the deaf, the dumb, cripples, lepers, and those possessed by evil spirits. He had even raised to life some who had died. But his teaching challenged those who had power and they determined to destroy him and silence him.

Yet the death of Jesus was not a defeat but a triumph. The cross was not the end of Jesus, but the glorious climax to God’s great plan of salvation for all nations. From his betrayal in the garden of Gethsemane to the moment of his death at Golgotha it is clear that Jesus was not overcome by events, but was in control. As he was arrested, falsely accused, mocked, viciously beaten and nailed to the cross there was an amazing calmness in how he behaved and spoke.

Seven hundred years before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah had spoken in detail of his sufferings. “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering.” Isaiah also explained the significance of Jesus’ sufferings and death. “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

We all struggle to come to terms with our sinfulness. We “go astray” and “turn to our own way.” Human sinfulness is the cause of all the personal and communal misery in this world. Through Jesus’ death on the cross forgiveness and new life is offered to all because “the punishment that brings us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” As William Walsham How reflected on the cross of Jesus he wrote, “It is a thing most wonderful, almost to wonderful to be, that God’s own Son should come from heaven, and die to save a child like me.”

Remembering Titanic

One hundred years ago, on 15 Aril 2005, RMS Titanic hit an iceberg and sank. The ship had been built at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast and was thought to be unsinkable. She was the largest ship in the world at that time. She had set sail from Southampton on her maiden voyage just 5 days earlier with 2,200 passengers and crew. When the Titanic sank 1500 people died and 700 survived. I used to visit an elderly lady who was one of the survivors. She was a small child when Titanic sank and was put into one of the lifeboats. She lived to be 100 years old.

Of the 1528 people who fell into the icy water that terrible night only 6 survived. One of the survivors had a remarkable story to tell. One of his fellow passengers was a Scottish Baptist minister, John Harper. He was travelling with his 6 year old daughter to visit Moody Church, Chicago where he had been invited to preach for 3 months. When the ship began to sink John Harper made sure his daughter was in one of the lifeboats. As the freezing waters began to fill the ship Harper shouted, “Let the women and children get into the lifeboats.” He also took off his own life jacket and gave it to another man.

It was not long before John fell into the icy waters. As many were drowning and freezing to death he swam to as many as he could telling them the good news that Jesus Christ gives us eternal life. One young man, who survived, had climbed on to a piece of debris. As John was struggling in the water he shouted to the man, “Are you saved?” The man replied, “No.” John then shouted, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” The man didn’t answer and began to drift away from John on the waves but a few minutes later came near John again. Once again John urged him to receive Jesus as his Saviour before disappearing below the waves for the last time. Clinging to the debris the man prayed to God and received Jesus Christ as his Saviour. Four years later, at a Titanic survivors’ meeting in Canada, he tearfully gave his testimony of how John Harper had led him to commit his life to Jesus. Now he knew that even though he died he would live, just as John did.