Remembering Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch post-impressionist painter and is among the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. In the last 10 years of his life he created 2,100 works of art including 860 oil paintings. His most famous works include The Starry Night and Sunflowers. Vincent was a complex person who struggled with poor mental health and depression for much of his life. He was always poor and died tragically at the age of 37.

Vincent was a serious, quiet and thoughtful child. His father was a Dutch Reformed minister and Vincent developed a fervent faith and a passion for ministry. He wanted to study theology but failed the seminary entrance exam, so he became a missionary to coal miners in Belgium. In these impoverished communities Vincent lived a life of radical self-sacrifice and servanthood. He sold everything he had so he could care for the needs of the people.

Vincent was a very generous man. He understood the unconditional love of God and showed unconditional love for others. He would never recognise love that was not seen in actions. Despite his commitment to Christ-like sacrifice, Vincent was rejected by the church for being overzealous, and for his ineloquent speech and scruffy appearance. He suffered a nervous breakdown and struggled with depression for the rest of his life.

Vincent died in unusual circumstances in what was thought to be suicide, but he may have been accidentally shot by two boys who later made a statement admitting they were target shooting near where Vincent was found. As he lay dying Vincent told the police, “I’m hurt, but don’t blame anybody else.”

The Christian message is not about what God demands that we do, but about what he has done for us in Jesus. It offers hope to us all, however troubled our lives may be. One song sums it up well, “Upon a life I have not lived, upon a death I did not die; another’s life, another’s death, I stake my whole eternity. Not on the tears which I have shed, not on the sorrows I have known; another’s tears, another’s griefs, on these I rest, on these alone. O Jesus, Son of God, I build on what your cross has done for me; there both my death and life I read, my guilt, and pardon there I see. Lord, I believe; O deal with me, as one who has your Word believed! I take the gift, Lord, look on me, as one who has your gift received.”

For God so loved the world

The tragic air crash in the French Alps claimed the lives of 150 people, including 16 school children. More people died in the crash than the total population of the nearby village of Seyne-les-Alpes. The cockpit voice recorder has revealed that the co-pilot was flying the Airbus 320 and deliberately crashed the plane into the mountainside killing himself and all the passengers entrusted to his care. Investigators are trying to discover the reasons why he decided to kill himself and also to murder so many strangers. Murder is an evil and callous act that displays total indifference to the rights of others and the preciousness of every human life.

How different are the events we remember this Easter weekend! On Good Friday we remember the day that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died. His death was the greatest act of love and self-sacrifice. He said, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”

Jesus laid down his life in the face of great hostility. He was surrounded by hatred from both the religious leaders and the people. Pilate, the Roman governor, offered to release him, because he knew Jesus had done nothing wrong, but the people cried out, “Crucify him!” The apostle Paul, who had been a totally opposed to Jesus, wrote, “You see, at just the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Jesus laid down his life so that we might be forgiven. He died to pay the price of our sins and to reconcile us to God. A well-known hymn says, “We may not know, we cannot tell, what pains he had to bear, but we believe it was for us he hung and suffered there. He died that we might be forgiven; he died to make us good, that we might go at last to heaven, saved by his precious blood. There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin, he only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in. O dearly, dearly has he loved, and we must love him too, and trust in his redeeming blood, and try his works to do.”

I was a stranger and you invited me in

The conflict in Eastern Ukraine shows little sign of ending despite the recent high-level meetings. Ukraine has two official languages: those in the west speak Ukrainian and those in the east speak Russian. Russia, and the rebels they are backing, are exploiting this by appearing to support the grievances some Russian speaking Ukrainians in the east have against the government in Kiev.

Over the past year Russia has illegally annexed Crimea, which conveniently gives them control of the warm water seaport of Sebastopol. A Malaysian civilian airliner was shot down killing 298 people. Major cities in eastern Ukraine are now war zones with massive destruction of property. The brand new international airport in Donetsk, built for the European Football Championships in 2012, is now rubble. Donetsk is the same size as Birmingham. In the conflict 5300 people have died and 1.5 million have been made homeless. Thousands of men, women and children have fled for safety to cities outside the war zone including Kharkov, the second city of Ukraine.

Yet in the midst of this appalling situation good things are happening. I have friends who live in Kharkov. They are Christians and attend a small Baptist church. Christians in the Baptist churches have been helping the refugees who are fleeing the fighting. When buses carrying refugees arrive in Kharkov they are met by Christians who provide food and clothing for the people and help them to find somewhere to stay. The Baptist church buildings have become temporary homes for refugee families and the Christians have also welcomed refugees into their own homes. Ukraine is a poor country and the war has increased the price of everything, yet the Christians are willing to share their own limited resources with strangers who are in great need. Christians in Britain are also sending gifts to help them.

One of the greatest commandments God has given us is, “You shall love your neighbour as you love yourself.” Jesus said that his people feed the hungry, give drinks to the thirsty, clothe the naked and provide homes for the homeless. Then he added, “Whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you do for me.” Jesus himself is the supreme example of self-sacrificing love. The apostle Paul wrote, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

Riches that last forever

The Sunday Times Rich List 2014 has been published. It profiles the 1,000 richest individuals and families in Britain. A fortune of at least £85 million is needed to be included on the list. In the past year the total wealth of those on the list has increased by 15%, with a combined fortune of almost £520 billion. Britain has more billionaires per head of population than any other country in the world. The business tycoon brothers who top the list are worth £11.9 billion. The Queen is ranked 285th in the list with £330 million, just £30 million more than Simon Cowell.

The Bible doesn’t condemn rich people, but it does warn against the dangers of being rich. It’s easy to trust in our riches and not to acknowledge God’s goodness to us. When Israel entered the Promised Land, God warned his people against pride and complacency. When they enjoyed the abundance of the Promised Land and became very rich, they might say to themselves, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ Instead he encouraged them to be thankful and to remember his kindness in giving them the ability to produce wealth.

It is also important to think of the future and the uncertainty of life. Jesus told a parable about a rich farmer who had a bumper harvest. He built new barns to store all his crops. Then he said to himself, “You have plenty of things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” Jesus said, “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself, but is not rich towards God.”

The riches that really matter are eternal and within the reach of us all. Paul wrote, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that through his poverty you might become rich.” Jesus did not seek to enrich himself but to enrich people like us. He laid aside the amazing riches of heaven, which he had every right to enjoy, and came to this earth to die on the Cross for our sins. He did this so that, through his self-sacrifice we, who are poor and needy, might receive riches that last forever.

Titus Oates – a Brave Man

On 16 March 1912 Antarctic explorer Lawrence “Titus” Oates made a very big decision. He was one of the party led by Captain Scott who wanted to be the first men to reach the South Pole. They had succeeded in reaching the Pole only to discover that a team led by Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, had beaten them by 35 days.

On the return journey Scott’s party faced extremely difficult conditions. One man had already died, and Oates’ feet were severely frostbitten, which meant the whole part was making slow progress. This, and the shortage of food, was endangering all their lives, but the rest of the party refused to leave Oates behind. When he woke on the morning of 16 March Oates knew he had to sacrifice himself in order to give the others a chance of survival. Scott wrote that Oates said to them; “I am just going outside and may be some time.” He walked out of the tent into a blizzard. His body has never been found. Sadly the rest of the party also died just 9 days later, 11 miles from safety.

Captain Scott wrote in his diary, “We knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman.” Titus Oates’ biographer said “Titus Oates was an ordinary man who was made extraordinary by the circumstances he faced at the end of his life”. The words and example of Titus Oates have been an inspiration to many.

One of the two great commandments God has given us is, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” None of us needs to be taught to love ourselves, it comes naturally, but to love someone else with that same intensity of love is not so easy. Titus Oates’ actions are an example of what it means to obey God’s command. Oates desperately wanted to live, but his weakness was endangering the lives of his companions, so he did for them what he would have wanted them to do for him.

The supreme example of self-sacrifice is seen in the death of Jesus Christ. He said, “Greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” The apostle Paul wrote, “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”