Mary’s Son

Preparations for Christmas are well under way. It’s a very expensive time. Last month an estimated £7billion was spent on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. In the run up to Christmas 2017 people in Britain spent £50billion and then spent another £12billion between Christmas and New Year. Why, in the middle of winter, do many of us spend money we can’t afford on food and drink and expensive presents our family and friends may not really need? Why do poorer families feel left out because they don’t have either money or access to credit?

We don’t need to spend money and incur crippling debt to focus on the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem more than 2000 years ago. Familiar carols recount the wonder of it all. “Once in royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed, where a mother laid her baby in a manger for his bed: Mary was that mother mild, Jesus Christ her little child. 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.”

Mary and Joseph were a newly married young couple. They weren’t rich or famous. Joseph was a carpenter in Nazareth and Mary was expecting their first child. When it was nearly time for the baby to be born, they had to travel on foot to Bethlehem because the Roman Emperor was taking a census. Everyone had to go to their family town for the census. Because Joseph was descended from King David, he and Mary had to go to Bethlehem which was David’s town. When they arrived in Bethlehem there were no guest rooms available in which they could stay so Mary gave birth to her firstborn son in a stable.

Mary’s son was God’s Son. He came into the world to give hope to all who receive him, rich and poor, both in this life and the next. The carol lifts our eyes and thoughts above this often sad world to the glory of heaven. “And our eyes at last shall see him, through his own redeeming love; for that child so dear and gentle is our Lord in heaven above, and he leads his children on to the place where he is gone. Not in that poor lowly stable, with the oxen standing by, we shall see him, but in heaven, set at God’s right hand on high; where like stars his children crowned all in white shall wait around.”

I am with you always

The Remembrance Services this year have been deeply moving as we have remembered the millions of people who died in the World Wars of the 20th century, and especially in the Great War of 1914-1918. The casualty statistics are hard to take in. In the Great War 65 million men were mobilised across Europe: more than 8 million soldiers and 7 million civilians died and 21 million were wounded. Many soldiers from countries in the Commonwealth, including India, Australia and New Zealand, Canada, Africa and the West Indies also died. In the Battle of the Somme, 1 July to 18 November 2016, 1 million people on all sides were killed. British forces suffered 57,000 casualties on the first day, of whom more than 19000 were killed.

Theo Chadburn, a miner from Sheffield, was a member of the Salvation Army and played in the band. He served at Ypres and, 3 days before he died, wrote a letter to his wife Lily in which he said, “I believe that every day I learn more of his goodness.” He told her that on Easter Day 1918 he saw 150 soldiers go forward to receive Jesus Christ as their Saviour and said, “It was the best Easter Sunday night meeting I have ever spent. I was greatly blessed.”

Albert Penn came from Hasland, near Chesterfield. He was married to Florence who was expecting their first child. They met at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in the village where Albert led the boys’ Bible class and Florence led the girls’ class. They were enjoying their first home and looking forward to the sharing the rest of their lives together. But the war changed all that. In 1916 Albert volunteered and was told to come back when their baby, Mary Estelle, was 3 months old. He did and was killed on 30 October 1917 at Passchendaele when Mary was just 11 months old. He was 28 years old and his body was never found.

A wounded solider, who had been a member of Albert’s Bible class at home, told the family that he had seen Albert standing in an open field with a Bible in his hand talking to the young soldiers and then leading them in singing the hymn “Rejoice the Lord is King!” Five days later Albert and his regiment went over the top and he died. His granddaughter said, “I know that, in that terrible time, it wasn’t so much that he kept his faith in God, but that the God in whom he trusted kept him.”

Unbroken – the story of Louis Zamperini

The story of the remarkable life of Louis Zamperini has been told in the film “Unbroken” which came out in 2014, the same year in which he died at the age of 97. After a troubled adolescence Louis took up athletics and competed in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. When World War II broke out he became a bombardier on a B-24 bomber. In 1943 his plane was shot down over the South Pacific and he was reported missing, presumed dead. He and another airman spent 47 days clinging to a raft only to be captured by the Japanese and to become prisoners of war.

While he was a prisoner of war, Louis endured constant brutality at the hands of a man the prisoners called “The Bird.” His real name was Mutsuhiro Watanabe who was a sadistically cruel and abusive man who terrorised the prisoners. He singled Louis out for particularly harsh treatment. After the war ended Watanabe was on the list of the most wanted war criminals in Japan but was never brought to justice.

When the war ended Louis returned to the United States and went on speaking tours. He was treated as a hero but, despite outward appearances, his life was falling apart. He was struggling to cope with his horrific experiences as a prisoner of war and had frequent nightmares about Watanabe. Louis was filled with anger, anxiety and hatred. He sought solace in alcohol and planned to return to Japan to murder Watanabe. He realised he needed help.

In 1949 Louis reluctantly attended a Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles. He didn’t like what he heard and told his wife he would not go to another meeting, but he did. One night he responded to the invitation to experience forgiveness and salvation and received Jesus Christ as his saviour. That same night his nightmares stopped, and he poured all his alcohol down the drain.

Louis was a new man and started a camp for young people from troubled backgrounds. Amazingly, after his conversion his desire for vengeance left him completely. He forgave his former captors and met many of his fellow prisoners. He also met with 850 Japanese war criminals and warmly greeted them. When one former Japanese soldier said he couldn’t understand how he could forgive them Louis replied, “Well, Mr Sasaki, when Christ was crucified he said, ‘Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.’ It is only through the Cross that I can come back here and say this, but I do forgive you.”

Love and sacrifice

The plight of the 12 boys from a Thai football team and their coach trapped in a cave in northern Thailand has moved the hearts of people around the world. The Wild Boars team and their coach had cycled to the caves after a training session. They were reported missing by one of their mothers on 23 June and were not found until 2 July. The cave complex is 6 miles long and heavy rain has flooded the caves making it extremely difficult to reach them. The rescue operation has begun, and 4 boys have, with the help of expert divers, reached safety, but it is a race against time because further monsoon rains are forecast.

The rescue operation, involving many people from many countries, is very complex and dangerous for both the rescuers and the boys and their coach. One diver, Saman Kunan, a former Thai navy seal, has already died from lack of air. All the divers who enter the caves know they are putting their lives at risk, but they are committed to doing everything they can in order to save the boys and their coach.

In a world of strife and conflict this rescue is an outstanding example of human courage, love and sacrifice. The rescuers don’t know the boys and their coach, they are strangers, but they are fellow human beings and their lives are precious. The rescue team are willing to use their skills, and risk their lives, in order to bring those trapped in the cave to safety. Many people around the world are praying they will be successful.

The message of the Bible is about the greatest rescue in history. Out of his great love, God sent his only Son, Jesus, into the world to be the Saviour by dying on the cross for our sins. Knowing Jesus as our Saviour brings great joy to our hearts. One hymn wonderfully expresses how every Christian feels about Jesus, their Saviour. “He held the highest place above, adored by all the sons of flame, yet such his self-denying love, he laid aside his crown and came to seek the lost, and, at the cost of heavenly rank and earthly fame, he sought me – Blessed be his Name! Then dawned at last that day of dread when, desolate but undismayed, with wearied frame and thorn-crowned head he, now forsaken and betrayed, went up for me to Calvary, and dying there in grief and shame he saved me – Blessed be his Name!”

My friend David

David was born nearly 60 years ago. Soon after his birth his mother and father were told that he had Down’s syndrome. They didn’t know anything about the condition but began to find out about it. They knew that David, just like any baby, needed a secure and loving family in which to thrive. They, and David’s two older sisters, watched him grow and develop. David’s father took him out to enjoy a wide range of experiences and, every year, the family went on holidays together. David has always known that he belongs to a family who love him.

When David was a teenager, he and the family became involved in a local church. David was warmly welcomed into the fellowship of the church family. One of the highlights of his week was going to church on Sundays. He loved greeting his friends in the church and was often one of the first people to welcome newcomers to the church. He would say, “I’m David, what’s your name?” David loved reading the Bible and learning about Jesus. He received a certificate from a church in Scotland he used to visit, “In recognition of extensive study of the Holy Bible and by giving encouragement to others, by his example.”

When you talked to David he would often hold up a finger and say, “One thing…” Over the years the one thing that came to mean most to David was knowing Jesus as his Lord and Saviour. When he was 30 years old he was baptised and became a member of the church. It was a special day for David and his family and for the church. As he came out of the baptistry David gave a joyful double thumbs up!

Just by being the person he is, David has enriched the lives of many people. For nearly 40 years one of his sisters has led a special ministry of the church to people in the community with learning disabilities. Christians in the church have come alongside families and a weekly meeting is held for people with learning disabilities and their carers. They enjoy being together and praying for one another. Several young people from the church are working with people with special needs.

David now has dementia and is living in a nursing home. His family and friends from the church often visit him. One day David will go to be with his Saviour who loved him and gave himself for him; he will see Jesus face to face and will be with him for ever.

The Lord is risen!

Easter is a joyful time for Christians around the world. On Easter Day they greet one another with the words “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” The bodily resurrection of Jesus on the third day after he died is at the heart of Christian faith. After seeing Jesus die on the cross his disciples were devastated. Jesus had told them many times that he would be killed and then after three days would rise, but on the resurrection morning there was no expectation this would happen.

While it was still dark, some women went to the tomb where Jesus had been buried to anoint his body with spices and found the stone had been rolled away from the entrance to the tomb. They didn’t immediately think that Jesus had triumphed over death but thought his enemies had stolen his body. On the evening of that day Jesus appeared to his disciples. When they saw him they were overjoyed, but one of their number, Thomas, was not with them. When they told him they had seen Jesus, Thomas said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

A week later Jesus again appeared to his disciples and this time Thomas was with them. Jesus said to him, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

When we first met Gladys she was a very sad person. She had been brought up in a Welsh chapel but had stopped attending because of problems she had experienced. She was dying of cancer and was very bitter against God. A Christian lady began visiting her. She read the Bible to Gladys and prayed with her and, after a little while, Gladys began coming to church. One Sunday evening God spoke to Gladys through Psalm 34 and she put her trust in Jesus as her saviour. I visited Gladys on the last night of her life. She was very ill. I asked her, “How are you?” She replied, “I’m fine, you know what I mean!” She was looking forward to going to be with her risen Lord in heaven because “those who die believing, die safely through his love.”

Remembering Billy Graham

The evangelist Billy Graham died at his home in North Carolina on 21 February at the age of 99. He was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, as World War I was coming to an end. His father owned a 400-acre dairy farm and Billy grew up during the Depression, working long hours to keep the family business going. In 1934, when he was 15, he heard the evangelist Mordecai Ham preach and received Jesus Christ as his saviour. Neither he nor anyone else realised that night that he would become an international evangelist and preach to more people than any other preacher in history.

During his life Billy Graham preached in person to more than 100 million people and to billions more via television, satellite and film. More than 3 million people responded to his invitation to “accept Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour.” In 1954 he led the Greater London Crusade at Harringay that was attended by 1.75 million people. He was a spiritual adviser to every U.S. President from Harry Truman to Barack Obama and was invited to speak at times of national crisis, including the memorial service following the 9/11 attacks. In 1957 he invited Martin Luther King Jr to preach jointly at a crusade in New York.

I first heard Billy Graham preaching in 1966 at a relay in Cardiff from his Earls Court crusade. I had grown up in church and was a church member. Billy’s preaching challenged me as to whether I had ever received Jesus Christ as my personal Saviour. Like many other people who belonged to a church I had no such assurance. I “tried my best” and hoped that when I died I would be accepted by God and go to heaven. What I believed was a mixture of what I had been taught in church and my own ideas. Time and again Billy affirmed, “the Bible says” and I realised that my faith needed to be Bible-based and centred on Jesus Christ.

As I listened to Billy preaching from the Bible I realised that I could experience forgiveness and find peace with God through Jesus Christ, who died on the cross to pay the price of my sins. In the quietness of my heart I confessed my sins to God and asked Jesus Christ to be my Saviour. It was a life-changing experience. Every day since then I have struggled with my sinful heart but know that in Jesus my sins have been forgiven fully and for ever.

Remembering Cyrille Regis

Cyrille Regis, who has died at the age of 59, was a great footballer. Those who knew him have spoken warmly of Cyrille and their sense of loss at his passing. One of his former managers said, “Cyrille was not only the best centre-forward I ever worked with, he was an even better bloke.” Cyrille’s pace, strength and power thrilled the crowds. He scored some spectacular goals that are still remembered today. He was also an inspiration to subsequent generations of black British footballers as he, and other black players, faced blatant and shameful racism from opposing fans with great dignity.

Cyrille was born in French Guiana, but moved to Britain when he was 5 and grew up in West London. When he was 19 he was spotted playing non-league football and signed up by First Division Club West Bromwich Albion. There he played with other talented black players, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson. Cyrille won the PFA Young Player of the Year award in 1978 and played for England at both Under-21 and Senior levels. In 1987, he won an FA Cup winners’ medal with Coventry and was awarded an MBE by the Queen in 2008.

In 1989 Cyrille’s best friend and former team-mate, Laurie Cunningham, died in a car crash. This tragedy had a devastating impact on Cyrille as, just two years earlier, he and Laurie had been in a car accident which they had survived. As he was growing up, Cyrille had been taught Christian values, but as an adult he had turned away from them. Laurie’s death left him asking questions such as: Is there really life after death? Where is God in all of this? Why did this happen? Cyrille’s search for answers ultimately lead him to what he described as “a real encounter with Jesus”. This encounter changed his life forever when he received Jesus as his Saviour.

As a born-again Christian Cyrille was passionate about sharing his story with others who were also searching for answers. He said, “I meet people all the time, some famous, some not, who are all looking for hope and peace. I have learned that money cannot buy peace of mind so I simply tell people how I found hope and peace in God. The great thing about it is that anyone can have the peace that I have, you just need to know God.” Now Cyrille is with his Saviour in heaven, and will be with him forever, because Jesus loved him and gave himself for him.

The greatest story ever told

The story of Jesus is the greatest story ever told. Joseph and Mary were a young couple living in the small Galilean town of Nazareth. Joseph was about 18 years old and was the village carpenter. He was very much in love with Mary, who was about 14 years old, and their families had agreed that they should marry. One day, before they had married, God sent the angel Gabriel to tell Mary that she had found favour in God’s sight and was going to conceive a very special son. She would conceive through the power of the Holy Spirit and the child would be the Son of God. Mary humbly responded, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.”

When Mary told Joseph she had conceived a child he was shocked and thought she must have been unfaithful to him. He decided to divorce her quietly to try to protect her from public disgrace. But an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” So, Joseph did what the angel had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.

When the time drew near for the baby to be born Joseph and Mary had to travel 80 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census. So it was in Bethlehem that their first-born son was born. An angel of the Lord announced the birth to some shepherds, ordinary working men, living in the nearby fields, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people, a Saviour has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord.” The shepherds went to see the baby and returned to their fields glorifying and praising God.

Later, Wise Men from the east, probably Persia, came in search of the child. They had followed a special star which signified the birth of a King. When they arrived at the house where Joseph and Mary and the child were staying they were overjoyed. They bowed down and worshipped him and presented gifts of gold, incense and myrrh. The shepherds and Wise Men show us that the birth of Jesus is reason for us all to wonder and worship him.

O little town of Bethlehem

Some of the best-known hymns are Christmas carols. Familiar words express the wonder of the birth of Jesus Christ, God’s eternal Son, and all that his coming brings to people still today. In 1868 Phillips Brooks, the rector of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia, wrote “O little town of Bethlehem” after visiting the Holy Land and seeing Bethlehem from the hills of Palestine at night. He reflected that when Jesus was born in that little town many people were unaware of it. Yet Jesus had come to fulfil their greatest hopes and still their greatest fears. Our deepest needs are the same as theirs, and Jesus meets those needs.

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by; yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. O morning stars, together proclaim the holy birth, and praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth; for Christ is born of Mary; and, gathered all above, while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.”

In Jesus, God drew near to our needy world. He is the greatest gift that has ever been given. Just as he was born quietly in Bethlehem so, over the years, he has gently drawn near to countless people of all nations who have received him as Saviour and Lord. “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming; but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”

Christmas is a busy time with so much to do. Some will rejoice with their families, others may be on their own and feel sad that those they loved are no longer with them. Whatever our situation we, like Phillips Brooks, can take time to reflect on the birth of Jesus so long ago in Bethlehem. The child who was born is an eternal person whom we can still encounter today when we pray that he will draw near to us and be with us. “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in; be born to us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”