Finding God when we fail

In 2011 the Coalition Government in Britain defined what they saw as fundamental British values. Schools are now at the forefront of promoting “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.” The values are all important, but are they succeeding in making us more tolerant of other people?

Whilst we all know that others must make allowances for our failings, the standards we demand of others are very high. We don’t tolerate failure. Politicians who fall short must resign. Heads of large organisations, both private and public, must be held to account for the failings of everyone under them. Managers of football teams who do not deliver the success the owners and supporters demand are sacked. Yet all who resign, or are sacked, are replaced by equally fallible people!

Jesus gave special encouragement to those who had failed. He was severely criticised, and ultimately condemned to die, by self-righteous, hypocritical religious leaders. They were extremely intolerant of those who failed to keep the man-made rules they had imposed. But people who knew they had failed by breaking God’s commands were drawn to Jesus. He gave them hope of forgiveness and a new beginning.

Jesus told them a story to show what God, his heavenly Father, is really like. He is wonderfully gracious and offers us a second chance when we seriously fail and mess up. In the story a son rebelled against his father, took his share of the family inheritance and went to a distant country where he threw himself into wild living. He denied himself no pleasure but soon spent all his money and was struggling to survive. Then he came to his senses and realised he had to go back to his father and admit that he had sinned against him and against God.

While he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. His son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and am no longer worthy of being called your son.” But his father said to the servants, “Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet and kill the fattened calf. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.”

A costly sacrifice and a living hope

The courage and self-sacrifice of the French gendarme Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Beltrame was remarkable. When an armed man took hostages at a supermarket in Trébes, near Carcassonne, Arnaud offered to take the place of a woman hostage whom the gunman was using as a human shield. Within minutes of taking the woman’s place Arnaud had been fatally wounded by the gunman and later died in hospital. The woman whose place he took survived the ordeal. A short time before he died, Arnaud was married in the hospital in a religious ceremony to his beloved Marielle. They had already been married in a civil ceremony but were planning to be married in church in June.

Arnaud grew up in a non-religious family but experienced a genuine conversion in 2008, when he was 33 years old. From that time on he was keen to learn more about God and his Son, Jesus Christ. What he learned about Jesus prepared him for the moment when he offered to take the place of the woman in the supermarket. Arnaud knew that since he had been converted his life belonged to Jesus who said, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

This weekend Christians around the world will be celebrating Easter and remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus. When he died on the Cross Jesus paid the price of our sins. He took our place and suffered the punishment our sins deserve so that we may be forgiven. The joy of knowing Jesus as our Saviour is expressed in a well-known hymn, “My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O may soul.”

On the third day after he died Jesus was raised from the dead. The women, who went early in the morning to the tomb where Jesus had been buried, were met by two angels who asked them, “Why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive? He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead!” The resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of Christian hope. Arnaud’s death was tragic, but he knew Jesus as his Saviour and Lord. Jesus made a wonderful promise, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die.”

Spiritual heart surgery

Recent major news stories have all been about really bad things that are happening in our world today. In Syria the indiscriminate bombing of eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, has killed than 500 people in a week with thousands more injured. Women and children are hiding in basements while the White Helmets bravely try to rescue casualties. A Serious Case Review into grooming gangs in Newcastle has revealed the systematic sexual abuse of 700 vulnerable girls. A 19-year-old man gunned down 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and wounded others. Major relief agencies have disclosed cases of senior employees abusing women in countries struck by natural disaster.

The responses to these situations have proposed a number of helpful things such as a UN resolution for a cease fire, more gun control, seeking a better understanding of different cultures, better safeguarding procedures, transparency, and more training of relief personnel. But it seems clear that the problems of our human condition go much deeper and affect us all. As human beings we have both the capacity for great goodness and kindness and also the ability to commit acts of unspeakable cruelty and wickedness. Why do we all struggle with the darker side of our nature and personality?

The Bible teaches that human beings were created by God in his image but that our first parents rebelled against God by breaking his command. As a result of their disobedience sin and death became universal features of life in this world affecting all people. Our relationship with God has been fractured and we have a constant bias towards what is wrong. The fundamental problem is internal and has to do with our hearts, that is our inner desires and motivation. The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?”

The Bible also tells us that God has provided a solution to our deepest need. The prophet Ezekiel gave the people a wonderful promise from God, “I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart.” The Apostle Paul experienced this great change as he was approaching Damascus on a mission to arrest and imprison Christians. He saw a vision of the risen Jesus and became a new man. Later he wrote, “Anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”

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.”

Love lifted me

It is interesting to read the obituaries of people who have recently died. Many, who are not well-known, have lived very interesting lives. The obituaries usually do not give details of the cause of death and often make no reference to the person’s faith in God. However, the Daily Telegraph recently published an obituary of Joan Winmill Brown, who died at the end of June at the age of 89. I had never heard of the lady, but her story was unusual.

Joan was a successful actress. In the years following World War II, when she was a rising star of the British stage and screen, she was introduced to Bobby Kennedy. He was attracted to the beautiful young actress and she became his secret girlfriend. When Bobby’s father, Joe Kennedy, found out about their relationship he ordered his son to end it. Their break-up, in early 1950, hit Joan hard; she sank into a depression during which she drank too much. She even considered suicide. She said, “At that time my world fell apart, but in hindsight I don’t believe I truly loved him. I think I was infatuated with his aura of wealth as much as the man himself.”

In 1954, a friend persuaded Joan to go to a Billy Graham Crusade in Harringay Arena. She recalled, “As I walked in the crowds were singing Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine. I didn’t get it at all.” That night she was introduced to Ruth Bell, Billy Graham’s wife, and a lifelong friendship began that helped turn Joan’s life around. Later Joan received Jesus as her personal saviour and said, “God in Jesus showed me the way to happiness.” In 1952, she met Billy Brown whom she married. They both worked with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and, after they retired, lived in Hawaii. Billy died just a few months before Joan.

A hymn often sung at Billy Graham Crusades well expresses Joan’s testimony; “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore, very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more. But the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry, from the waters lifted me, now safe am I. All my heart to him I give, ever to him I’ll cling, in his blessed presence live, ever his praises sing. Love so mighty and so true, merits my soul’s best songs. Faithful, loving service, too, to him belongs. Love lifted me! Love lifted me! When nothing else could help, Love lifted me!

The power of reconciliation

We live in a world in which retaliation and retribution are normal. If someone injures us, or damages our property, we feel entitled to retaliate. If we see someone wronging another person we feel that retribution is appropriate. Sometimes retaliation and retribution take place at a personal level, but they also happen through terrorist atrocities or the use of cruise missiles. People feel that retaliation and retribution are just; people are getting what they deserve.

At Easter Christians remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. He was very different from us. For 3 years, he exercised a wonderful ministry of teaching and compassion. He healed people who had all kinds of diseases; the paralysed, the deaf and the blind. He set people free from the bondage of evil spirits and raised the dead. His ministry seriously angered the religious leaders, who were envious of him, and they plotted to have him put to death.

They paid one of his close disciples to betray him so that they could arrest him at night. They tried him on false charges and treated him shamefully. He was handed over to the Romans, who condemned him to die. The mob called for him to be crucified. The soldiers mocked and beat him and then nailed him to a cross. As he hung on the cross, in great pain, people came to mock him. His disciples had fled in fear; he was humanly alone.

Yet, his response to all he suffered was amazingly different. It was powerful. The first words he spoke as he hung on the cross were, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He died, not for his own sins, but for the sins of the world, including the very people who caused his pain. One Easter 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.”

Where would any of us be if God treated us as we deserve? The message of Easter is about reconciliation; about how we can experience forgiveness and find peace with God. Reconciliation, not retaliation and retribution, changes our hearts and our world.

The best news ever!

Like many people around the world I like to follow the news. Every morning I listen to the radio to hear what’s been happening. Most news stories are bad news. Reports cover economic uncertainty, corruption, child abuse, refugees, unaccompanied children, violence, conflict, crime, terrorism, pollution, climate change, disease, earthquakes, drought and famine. For many of us the stories are about what is happening to other people in other parts of the world, but for millions of people the stories are about them and the troubles and sorrows they face in their daily lives.

The message of the New Testament is called the “Gospel”, which means “Good News.” It is a message about what God has done through his Son, Jesus Christ. This message speaks into the real experiences of our broken world and of our daily lives. It is a message about reconciliation, peace and hope for the future. It lifts us out of despair. It is a true message. When people want to emphasise that they are telling the truth they sometimes say that they are speaking the gospel truth. Today we hear about fake news, but this message about Jesus is absolutely genuine.

Strangely, perhaps, one of the great themes of the Good News is sin. This is an unpopular word to many, yet the daily news stories are full of the sinful actions of people. It is the greatest problem the world faces. We all sin every day in our thoughts, words and actions. However hard we try, we cannot stop sinning. We sin when we break God’s moral commands. We misuse God’s name, dishonour our parents, hate and kill, commit sexual immorality, steal, lie, and covet what other people have. Our sinful behaviour brings great sadness to us and to others. It spoils everything.

The solution to the problems we face is not religion, but reconciliation. We need to be reconciled to God. In a letter to Christians living in Corinth the apostle Paul explained the heart of the Good News in this way, “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.” This is the best news ever!

The God of second chances

In our world today the price of failure is high. A political leader whose party loses an election or referendum is expected to resign. A Premiership football manager whose team has a bad run of results is sacked. The chief executive officer of a major company or bank that performs badly will lose their job. People demand and expect success at all costs and, if it isn’t achieved, there must be a scapegoat; someone who takes the blame.

But the fact is that we all fail and do so repeatedly. We need to know how to cope with our failures and to understand that we may learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. The Bible tells us about the experiences of people who failed and who were restored by God. Many of the great people in the Bible had times when they seriously failed. God is revealed as the God of second-chances.

King David is described as a man “after God’s own heart.” He wanted to honour God in everything he did and to please God always. He was a genuine man with many strengths. The psalms David wrote, like Psalm 23, have brought comfort and help to people from many nations. Yet there was one very dark episode in David’s life when he succumbed to temptation and committed adultery with the beautiful wife of one of his bravest soldiers. Afterwards he behaved disgracefully as he tried to cover his sin and this led to the death, in battle, of the husband. Then David married the woman, who was carrying his child. The Bible’s verdict on David’s actions is clear, “The Lord was displeased with what David had done.”

Yet, when David faced up to his sin and guilt, God graciously restored him. David wrote about that experience in Psalm 32, “Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight! Yes, what joy for those whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt, whose lives are lived in complete honesty! When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat. Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.” And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.”

The crushing burden of debt

After all the talks and proposals there is still no resolution of the Greek Debt Crisis. Banks in Greece are running out of money because there are no more loans available from the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund and ordinary people have withdrawn billions of euros from their accounts. The crisis is hitting all sections of Greek society. Unemployment is at 25%, pensions will be capped and an increase in VAT is unavoidable. This week the banks are closed and people are only allowed to draw a maximum of €60 per day from cash machines.

Massive national debts are a feature of our world today. The UK government debt is £1.56 trillion, which is 81% of our annual Gross Domestic Product. The annual interest payments alone are £43 billion. The reason we are not in the same situation as Greece is that our government is able to raise the money it needs to finance its debt because institutions and people believe we are able to make the repayments and so we also pay lower interest rates. It’s when you can’t pay your debts that the problem gets out of hand, as it has in Greece.

Personal debt is also an overwhelming burden for many ordinary people. One of the early credit cards encouraged people to take their credit because it “takes the waiting out of wanting.” People are encouraged to take the money now and pay later, often at high interest rates. Payday loan companies charge extortionate interest rates. It’s easy to get a small loan, but it’s very costly indeed to repay it.

The Bible reminds us of another kind of debt, which is even more serious, but to which we may give little thought. Each day of our lives our debt to God accumulates as we commit sins by breaking his commands. The debt we owe to him is overwhelming. The amazing message of the Gospel is that Jesus came from heaven in order to pay our debt by his death on the Cross. Each of us can come to God and ask him to forgive the debt we owe him.

The Welsh preacher, John Elias, wrote a hymn expressing his amazement at the wonderful kindness and love of God in Jesus. “And was it for my sin that Jesus suffered so, when moved by His all-powerful love he came to earth below? Thy holy law fulfilled, atonement now is made, and our great debt, too great for us, He now has fully paid.”

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.”