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.”

The God of Second Chances

A New Year is beginning. Starting something new gives us an opportunity to do better. Some people make New Year resolutions. It is good to resolve to change for the better and do things differently from the way we have in the past. When we were in primary school and had made lots of mistakes and crossings out on a page in our exercises book the teacher would tell us to turn to new page. It was good to be able to start again.

We all fail in life and regret many things we have done. We cannot change the past. There are broken relationships, moral failures, dishonest actions and words, bitterness and resentment, and things we intended to do but didn’t. Often we find it difficult to move on and carry with us the memories of our past failures.

The Bible tells us of a God who is the God of second chances. Many of the great men and women in the Bible made big mistakes and committed serious sins but God didn’t cast them off and reject them. Peter, who was a leader in the early churches, told Jesus that whatever happened he would never let him down. He said he was ready, if necessary, to die for Jesus. But on the night Jesus was arrested and condemned Peter denied 3 times that he even knew him. Peter wept bitterly and was overcome with the realisation that he had totally failed his Lord in his hour of need.

Early one morning after Jesus had risen from the dead he appeared to his disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Three times Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” and three times Peter replied, “Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” In this way Peter was restored to ministry and leadership in the early churches. He always remembered the wonderful way in which the Lord had restored him. It made him more able to help others who had also failed.

We live in a very unforgiving world. The media highlight the failings of well known people and sometimes destroy them. God is not like that. In Jesus he offers us the opportunity to put all our past failures behind us and to start again. He gives us hope that the future will, with his help, be better than the past. Let’s pray that 2014 will truly be a new beginning and a Happy New Year!

Finding forgiveness

One evening in May 2003 a safety camera on the M11 recorded a speeding offence. Nearly 10 years later the man who was driving and his wife, who was not, are in prison for perverting the course of justice. The original offence would have attracted a £60 fine and possible disqualification for the driver. The attempt to get away with it has led to prison sentences for two people.

The case of Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce makes very sad reading. Vicky agreed to say that she was driving when the speeding offence took place so that Chris would avoid a driving ban and succeed in his attempt to become an MP. For seven years it seemed as if they had got away with it until, in summer 2010, Chris told Vicky that he was leaving her to live with another woman. Vicky, who was deeply hurt by Chris’s unfaithfulness, decided to get revenge by leaking the story to the press. She intended to wreck his political career but had not anticipated that she, too, would be implicated.

In the book of Genesis we are told about the first sin. God created Adam, and his wife, Eve. They lived in a beautiful garden. Adam worked in the garden and he and Eve were free to eat from all the trees except one, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. One day they disobeyed God’s command and this had devastating consequences for them and for us all. When God confronted them with their disobedience Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent who had deceived her. Their sin affected their happy relationship with God and with each other.

We are all tempted to try to get away with the wrong things we have done rather than to face them and seek forgiveness. Because we do not immediately face God’s judgement we assume that our sinful actions don’t matter, but one day we will all be called to account for what we have done. When God sent Adam and Eve from his presence he gave them a promise that one day a Saviour would come who would reverse the tragic events of Eden. Jesus Christ is that Saviour. On the Cross he took our place and suffered the punishment we deserve. God’s promise to each of us is that if we confess our sins to him and trust in his Son as our Saviour our open and our secret sins will all be forgiven.

They shall be as white as snow

In the past week snow has covered Britain like a blanket. There is a stillness as the dark days of winter are illuminated by the reflected brightness of the snow. As we struggle to get about in the ice and snow the countryside around us is beautifully adorned. The trees bow under the weight of the snow. Schools are closed and children delight in making snowballs and snowmen and in sledging. Snow is an amazing natural phenomenon. It is a testimony to the creative power of God. Each snowflake is exquisitely beautiful and no two snowflakes are the same.

In the Bible snow is used as an image of forgiveness. King David once sinned very seriously by committing adultery with Bathsheba, the beautiful wife of one of his bravest soldiers. When David realised that Bathsheba had conceived his child he tried to hide his sin by arranging for her husband, Uriah, to be killed in battle. Then David took Bathsheba as his wife and acted as if nothing wrong had happened. It was a very dark and shameful episode in David’s life. When, eventually, he faced up to his sin, he prayed to God for forgiveness, “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.”

The prophet Isaiah was called to speak to a nation which had turned its back on God. Despite all God’s kindness to them, his people had rejected him. Their religion was a sham and God’s laws were being flagrantly broken. Isaiah called on the people to repent and turn back to God, “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

The snow, therefore, speaks to us and to our nation. Each of us has turned away from God and committed serious sins, of which we are ashamed. Our nation worships the cult of celebrity and the gods of materialism. As a result we are experiencing a moral and economic decline which seems irreversible. Where is hope to be found? God’s call to each of us, and to our nation, is to return to him that we might experience his forgiveness. The God whom we have rejected offers us hope. Whatever we have done his promise is that, in his Son Jesus, we can find forgiveness and become as white as snow in his sight.