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.”
The summer holiday season is in full swing. The number of people in Britain taking holidays is increasing. In 2017 87% of British people took a holiday at home or abroad. On average British people take 3.8 holidays each year of which nearly 50% are overseas holidays. People living in London and Northern Ireland take least holidays; less than 2 per year. 18% of people don’t take a holiday. In 2017 the average British family spent £1284 per person on their summer holiday.
In the Old Testament God commanded the people of Israel to celebrate annual feasts and festivals. They were communal holy days which focussed on remembrance, thanksgiving, joy and celebration. The people remembered the great things God had done for them in delivering them from slavery in Egypt and in providing food and water for them through their 40 years in the wilderness. Other festivals were related to the annual harvest when the people thanked God for his faithful provision for their needs and offered their gifts to him. Each year the people also remembered their need for God’s forgiveness and offered sacrifices to him.
The weekly Sabbath day was God’s gracious provision for his people to rest from their daily work. “Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work.” In our secular society we have lost sight of the importance of a weekly day of rest. All of us need to rest. A weekly day of rest enables us to do our work more efficiently, to spend time with our families and those in need and to thank God for his love and faithfulness.
Holy days are also an opportunity to think about eternity. In the midst of our busy lives it is good to reflect on the fact that we are mortal. When someone we love dies we may put on their gravestone the words “Rest in peace” because we want them to find eternal rest and peace. Christians in the first century patiently endured persecution as they lived in obedience to God’s commands and maintained their faith in Jesus. In the book of Revelation John hears a voice from heaven saying, “Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, they are blessed indeed, for they will rest from their hard work; for their good deeds follow them!”
On 4 April 1968 Dr Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated. He was just 39 years old. He was a great civil rights leader who spoke for black people in America. At the age of 35 he received the Nobel Peace Prize and in 1963 was named Man of the Year by Time magazine. He travelled extensively and spoke passionately highlighting the injustices black people in America were suffering. He was a Baptist minister who found inspiration for his powerful speeches in the great themes of the Bible, and especially the teaching of Jesus Christ. Because of this Dr King still speaks to the injustices of our divided world.
His best-known speech, “I Have a Dream”, was delivered on 28 August 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. In his speech Dr King said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream that one day ‘every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.’ When this happens we will speed up that day when all of God’s children will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”
Dr King knew there were serious threats to kill him. The same hope in God he inspired in others was also the foundation for his own personal hope. On the night before he died he gave a speech in Memphis, Tennessee, in which he said, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will and he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain and I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything! I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
The birth of Jesus brought great joy to Mary and Joseph, but it also involved significant trauma. The news that Mary was pregnant seriously threatened her reputation for purity and integrity in her home village of Nazareth. The circumstances of the birth were extremely difficult as Mary gave birth to her first child in a stable, in a strange town, without the support of family and friends. Then, soon after the birth, Joseph had a dream in which an angel of the Lord told him, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” So they left Bethlehem at night and went to Egypt to live in exile while Herod sent soldiers to kill all boys in Bethlehem under the age of 2. It was several years before Mary and Joseph and Jesus returned to their home village of Nazareth.
In our world today there are many people who have left their home countries in fear of their lives. Some have been threatened by those with political power, others fear religious persecution. They have experienced significant trauma in leaving their home country, family and friends and settling in a strange place. They still face a very uncertain future.
In both the Old and New Testaments God commands his people to welcome strangers and to be kind to them. The reason for this is that the Jews had suffered as slaves in Egypt until God delivered them, setting them free and giving them a home of their own. Many of the early Christians also experienced persecution and had to flee to places of safety. The kindness we show to people from other countries living amongst us is a response to the kindness we have experienced from God.
A few years ago, a young couple from the Middle East arrived in Britain as refugees. They were facing persecution in their own country. When they arrived in Britain they were detained in separate holding centres. It was their first experience of Britain and they were afraid, especially as the wife was expecting her first child. In the holding centre she was given a Bible and read these words from Psalm 42, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” God spoke to her through these words and gave her hope and his peace.
The deeply moving story of Solomon Northup is told in the prize-winning film “12 Years a Slave”. Solomon was a Negro free man who lived in Saratoga, New York. He was a skilled carpenter and violinist and was happily married with 2 children. When he was 32 years old he was cruelly deceived by two men who offered him a highly paid job as a musician with their travelling circus. Without telling his wife, who was working away in a nearby town, he travelled with them to Washington, D.C.
Soon after arriving there Solomon awoke to find himself drugged, bound, and in the cell of a slave pen. When he asserted his rights as a free man, he was savagely beaten and warned never again to mention his past life. He was taken by ship to New Orleans where he was sold as a slave. He managed to send a letter to his family with a sympathetic sailor, but because his family did not know where he was they were unable to rescue him.
Solomon’s first owner was a cotton planter who treated him fairly well. After two years, however, he was sold to a notoriously cruel planter whom he served for 10 years. During that time Solomon suffered great cruelty and was also required to oversee the work of fellow slaves and punish them when they misbehaved. Eventually Solomon met Samuel Bass, a white abolitionist from Canada. Bass, at great risk to himself, sent letters to Solomon’s wife and friends in Saratoga. As a result Solomon was found and liberated from slavery and was able to return to his family.
The love and grace of God can change people who have been guilty of great evil and give hope to all who are oppressed. John Newton, the hymn writer, was the captain of a slave ship. When he was in a terrible Atlantic storm, which threatened the ship and his life, he cried out to God for mercy and put his trust in Jesus. In his best-known hymn he speaks of the “Amazing Grace” that “saved a wretch like me.” In later years when he was a minister in London he encouraged the young William Wilberforce in his successful campaign to abolish slavery in the British Empire. Newton never forgot God’s amazing kindness to him. He put a text over the mantelpiece in his study which read, “Remember you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you.”
Oxfam International published a report as 2500 of the world’s political and business elites met in Davos in Switzerland for the annual World Economic Forum. The most striking statistic in the report is that the 85 richest people in the world have as much money as the 3.5billion poorest people put together, half the total world population. The top 1% of earners in the world own 46% of the world’s total wealth. The Executive Director of Oxfam International, Ms Winnie Byanyima, said, “Extreme inequality is undermining social stability and threatening global security.”
God cares deeply about poor people. In the Old Testament he gave laws to safeguard the poor from being exploited by the rich and powerful. He commanded a weekly day of rest for all people, including servants. It was to be a Sabbath to the Lord their God. Every 7 years there was a Sabbath Year of rest for the land when “the poor among your people may get food from it.” In the Sabbath Year slaves were set free and debts were cancelled.
Every 50 years there was also a Jubilee Year when those who had bought land returned it to its original owners, all debts were cancelled and all slaves set free. For 2 years the people lived in dependence on God to provide for all their needs. The Jubilee Year was a time of joyful celebration of God’s goodness and faithfulness. The Jubilee Year restored equality. No Israelite could forever remain a slave. The Jubilee Year ensured social justice as the poor were lifted up. The good things God provides are not for a favoured few, but for us all.
Jesus spoke very clearly about the danger of riches. A rich religious leader once asked him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus knew this man’s wealth meant everything to him and had taken God’s place in his life. So he said to him, “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” When he heard this the young man went away very sad. Looking at him Jesus said, “How hard it is for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!” True wealth is spiritual. What counts, ultimately, for us all is not our “net worth” but that we have a rich relationship with God.
When he boarded a Wizz Air flight from Romania to Luton Victor Spiersau had no idea that he would be front page news in Britain. Victor comes from Transylvania, a very poor region in Romania which itself is not a wealthy country. He left his 19 year old fiancée Catalina Curcean in the dilapidated home they have bought in the remote village of Pelisor. Victor, who is a construction worker, has come to Britain to work and earn money to enable him to return to Pelisor to renovate his home and marry Catalina. Within 24 hours of arriving in Britain Victor started work in a car wash.
Migration has always been part of our human experience. It is often a response to problems in our home country and a desire to find a better life. My mother’s grandmother came from Tramore in Ireland to Wales during the Irish famine in the mid 19th century. It is estimated that as many as a million people in Ireland, nearly an eighth of the population, died of starvation and epidemic diseases between 1846 and 1851 and 2 million people emigrated. The Pilgrim Fathers left Britain in 1620 for America seeking freedom to worship God. They played a significant part in the development of that great country. Today the American national anthem rejoices that it is “the land of the free and the home of the brave!”
The Bible teaches us to exercise special care for strangers and foreigners. During a time of famine the Israelites went to Egypt where they later became slaves. When God brought them out of Egypt he commanded them, “Do not oppress the foreigners living among you. You know what it is like to be a foreigner. They should be treated like everyone else, and you must love them as you love yourself. Remember your experience in the land of Egypt.”
Jesus spoke about the final judgement when all people will stand before God. The King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home.” Then the King will explain how they had cared for him, “When you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!”