The day Jesus died

This week Christians will remember the death and resurrection of their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. On Good Friday they will especially remember his death. During his 3-year ministry Jesus had brought great blessing to many people through his teaching and his miracles. He made blind people to see, deaf people to hear, dumb people to speak. He healed lepers, cast out evil spirits and raised back to life people who had died. Wherever he went great crowds flocked to hear him and to be healed. Just 5 days before he died, Jesus was acclaimed by thousands of people as he entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey. But he was also hated by the religious leaders and even the people turned against him and demanded that he be crucified.

The death of Jesus was a great injustice. He was a good man, the best man who has ever lived. Pilate, the Roman Governor who condemned him, said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.” One of the criminals who died alongside him said, “We are being punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” A Roman centurion who supervised the crucifixion said, “Surely this was a righteous man.”

The death of Jesus was also a great demonstration of God’s love. The Apostle Paul said, “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.” Religions teach us what we must do if we are to find acceptance with God. Our salvation depends on what we do. But Christianity tells us what God has done for us. We cannot stop sinning. Every day of our lives we break God’s moral law and are, therefore, guilty before him. Yet, amazingly, Jesus, God’s Son, died to take away our sins.

So Good Friday really is good because on that day we remember the best of all men who loved us so much that he died for us so that we might experience God’s forgiveness. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. 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.”

Remembering the Great Escape

Last weekend a service of remembrance was held in Poland to mark the 75th anniversary of The Great Escape. Stalag Luft III opened in Spring 1942 and was used to hold captured air forces personnel. At its height it held 10,000 prisoners of war, covered 59 acres and had 5 miles of perimeter fencing. About 600 prisoners helped dig the three tunnels which were given the names Tom, Dick and Harry.

On the night of 24-25 March 1944 two hundred men were waiting in line to escape but the alarm was raised before most could enter tunnel Harry. Seventy-six men escaped through the tunnel which was 336 feet long and 28 feet deep. Within three days seventy-three of them were recaptured by the Germans and fifty were executed on Hitler’s orders. The camp was liberated in January 1945 by Russian forces.

Flying Officer Marcel Zillessen was last in the queue. His father was German, and Marcus had studied at the University of Berlin, so he spoke German fluently. He played a key role in planning the escape as he gained the confidence of some guards and so obtained valuable items such as paper, pens and ink to help forge travel documents for the escapees. Later he survived the Long March in 1945 and died in 1999 aged 81.

His son, Tim, visited the former site of Stalag Luft III for the first time ahead of the 75th anniversary of The Great Escape. Speaking of his father Tim said, “Much changed after the war in the sense that it freed his mind. He was no longer materialistic and didn’t worry about the things that we would today. It must have been overwhelming for him at the end to be able to walk away a free man and alive.”

Freedom is very precious. The prisoners at Stalag Luft III made great efforts to win their freedom and some died in the attempt. Those who survived really valued freedom and life itself. Although we live in what has sometimes been called “The Free World” many people are anything but free. Ours is a materialistic society and we do worry about many things. Some are prisoners to debt. Others are addicted to drink and drugs, to gambling and pornography. Jesus came to set us free from the sins that bind us and to give us true life. He said, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

A special place in heaven

Recently the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, told journalists there was “a special place in hell” for those who promoted Brexit in the UK without having even a sketch plan for how to carry it out safely. It is very unusual to hear politicians talking about eternal issues, but Mr Tusk, who was the Prime Minister of Poland, grew up in the Roman Catholic Church where he would have been taught to fear God. However, the strange idea that people who disagree with our personal political vision will be punished by God for ever is entirely without basis.

The Bible does teach that our actions have consequences. We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due to us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. People who escape being called to account in this life do not “get away with it” because God will judge them. Death does not pay all debts. Men like Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot and Jimmy Saville have been judged justly by God. He is the judge of all the earth, and he does what is right.

It is not only notoriously wicked people who are judged; we will all stand before God. The solemn truth is that we all sin every day of our lives. We do and say things we know are wrong. The Bible teaches that throughout all human history, there is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, we have together become worthless; there is no one who does good. Even our best actions are stained by pride and self-righteousness.

However, God has graciously intervened through his Son, Jesus Christ, to offer hope to all people. One of the best-known verses in the Bible says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” When he died on the Cross Jesus took the punishment we deserve and paid the price of our sins. All who put their trust in him receive the gift of eternal life. The night before he died Jesus told his disciples he was going to his Father’s house in heaven to prepare a place for them. How wonderful to know that Jesus has prepared a special place in heaven for unworthy people like us!

To us a Son is given

Christmas is a special time as people around the world remember the birth of Jesus Christ. His birth was prophesied hundreds of years before he was born. The prophet Micah said where he would be born: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel.” The prophet Isaiah spoke about his special conception: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.” Isaiah also said this child would be a gift from God: “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.”

Now more than 2000 years after the birth of Jesus, he is still remembered with joy and thanksgiving by countless people from many nations. Christmas carols will be heard in shopping centres, schools will have nativity plays and many people who don’t normally go to church will attend carol services. The focus will be on this special child who was born so long ago. Well-known carols explain why his coming was so important.

Jesus brought light into this dark world: “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.”

Angels, and the very creation itself, rejoiced at his birth: “For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above, while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love. O morning stars together proclaim the holy birth and praises sing to God the King and peace to men on earth.”

Jesus has transformed the lives of countless people and is still changing lives today. This Christmas many will come to know him for the first time: “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. O holy child of Bethlehem descend to us, we pray, cast out our sin and enter in be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell. O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel”

Saving lives in Yemen

For more than 3 years Yemen, one of the Arab world’s poorest countries, has been devastated by a civil war between Houthi rebels and the supporters of Yemen’s internationally recognised government. Children are paying the heaviest price as they face the threat of bombs, hunger and disease. Save the Children estimates that at least 50,000 children died in 2017 and that more than 11 million children now need humanitarian assistance. A recent airstrike hit a school bus carrying children under the age of 10 on a summer school trip: 40 children died, and dozens were injured.

Cholera is a major threat because the sewage and sanitation systems have been destroyed during the civil war. In 2017 there were more than 1 million cholera cases in Yemen. More than 2000 people died, many of them children. However, a new international initiative has reduced the number of new cases by 95%.

Using NASA satellite technology, the Met Office in the UK produces a rainfall forecast for Yemen 4 weeks ahead of time which pinpoints areas likely to be hit by heavy rain. This is important because downpours overwhelm the sewage system leading to a spread of cholera. The forecasts are analysed by a team of scientists in the USA to predict the areas where outbreaks of cholera are likely to occur. They use information such as population density, access to clean water and seasonal temperatures. The information is passed to the UN’s children’s charity, UNICEF, which then deploys resources to prevent the spread of the disease. Simple sanitation advice, such as washing hands and drawing water from safe sources saves thousands of lives.

The situation in Yemen illustrates our human predicament. On the one hand human beings are capable of great evil, leading to the death of many people, and on the other hand our God-given intelligence and skill can save many lives. In Yemen both facets are seen side by side. In our personal lives we also struggle with our natural inclination to selfishness and our ability to express love and kindness.

The apostle Paul vividly described his own struggle; “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” Paul and many other people have found the answer to this struggle in Jesus Christ through whom they have experienced forgiveness for their sins and have been given strength to live a new life.

Let the children come to me

Hospitals in Britain are treating almost twice as many girls for self-harm as they did 20 years ago. Hospital admissions have increased from 7,327 in 1997 to 13,463 in 2017. The number treated for attempting an overdose has increased tenfold from 249 to 2,736. The number of boys admitted to hospital for self-harm has stayed the same but the number of boys attempting an overdose increased from 152 in 1997 to 839 in 2017. A spokeswoman for the NSPCC said: “Sadly, these heart-breaking figures are unsurprising. Many children are being driven to self-harm as a way of dealing with the pressures and demands of modern-day life. Young people are crying out for help.”

Jon Goldin, of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “I think there are a range of factors putting pressure on young children – academic pressures, social media, the fear of missing out and comparing yourself unfavourably to images you see online.” He added that girls may be more ‘sensitive’ to the pressures than boys. One girl aged 14 said: “Recently I’ve lost some people who were really close to me. When I started to self-harm, it seemed to mask the emotional pain I was feeling. When I get the urge to cut, I can’t seem to stop it until it’s done, otherwise I get really upset and angry.”

Children and young people are more vulnerable today than they were 20 years ago. Social media and smartphones mean that they can never hide or escape. The Photoshopped images of celebrities present a false body-image of perfection. Teenagers, and others, are pressurised into thinking that your image, clothes and possessions are what really matter. However, what matters most is not our outward appearance or possessions but the people we really are. Peer pressure can also be very cruel. If others don’t like me then I don’t like myself and so I punish myself through self-harming.

Jesus taught that children are precious in God’s sight. When parents brought their children to Jesus he said: “Let the children come to me. For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” He also gave a very solemn warning to those who mistreat or exploit children: “If you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone hung around your neck.”

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.”