All good gifts around us

Farmers have safely gathered in the harvest for another year. The early season was very dry and during the harvesting period there has been a lot of rain. One farmer said that out of a harvest period of 70 days only 10 were good days for using the combine harvester because the ground was so wet. Some crops have been harvested when they were damp and will need to be dried out. A new strain of blight has also caused problems so that crops in the barns will need to be carefully monitored over winter.

Most of us are almost totally unaware of the challenges farmers are facing. Supermarkets source produce from many parts of the world so we are less aware of the seasonal nature of our food. In the Western World we are protected from the vagaries of uncertain harvests. We expect to be able to buy many things all the year round.

But it’s not like that for millions of people in the world. In East Africa this year there has been a severe and prolonged drought, made worse by ongoing conflicts, that has caused a major food crisis. As crops have failed and animals have died people, including many children, are seriously malnourished and some have died. The shortage of safe water has also led to deaths from cholera-like diseases. It is estimated that in South Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, 20 million people are in urgent need of food supplies.

In many places around the country, in churches and in schools, Harvest Thanksgiving services are being held. Many will remember our dependence on God for our daily bread and give thanks to him as they sing, “We plough the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand. All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above, then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all his love.”

We must also remember those who are in great need and are starving. The Apostle John wrote, “We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion – how can God’s love be in that person? Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions.”

A unique King

On Palm Sunday Christians remember the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, just 5 days before he was crucified. Tens of thousands of people were converging on Jerusalem for the annual Passover Feast that remembered the Exodus out of Egypt. There was great expectation and excitement because for 3 years the ministry of Jesus had made a deep impact on the people as he taught with authority and healed many diseases. The people were waiting for their new king whom they thought would set them free by driving out the Roman occupiers.

Jesus was indeed a king, but not of the kind the people were expecting. As news swept through Jerusalem that Jesus was on his way into the city a large crowd carrying palm branches went out to meet him. The palm branches were a sign of victory and national pride and the people shouted, “Praise God! Hail to the King of Israel!” Seeing and hearing the crowd Jesus found a donkey and rode on it to show that his kingship was different. He was fulfilling a prophecy made 500 years earlier about the promised Messiah that said, “Don’t be afraid, people of Jerusalem. Look, your King is coming to you. He is humble, riding on a donkey.” The kingdom of Jesus is not about earthly power and authority.

Later, when Jesus was being interrogated, Pilate, the Roman governor, asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my kingdom is not of this world.” Pilate said, “So you are a king?” Jesus responded, “You say I am a king. Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.” Pilate retorted, “What is truth?” Then Pilate offered the people a choice of one prisoner to be released; either Jesus or Barabbas, who had committed murder in an uprising against the Roman occupation. The people chose Barabbas!

The Roman Empire is long gone, as every other earthly empire will also pass away. The kingdom of Jesus, however, has extended to every nation on earth and continues to grow. In order to enter his kingdom we must become humble and trusting, like little children. It is a wonderful blessing and privilege to live under the gracious rule and protection of this unique King.

God is Light

The days are getting longer. It’s good to go to work and school in the light and to return before dark. Light is essential for life and lifts our spirits. The Bible tells us, “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” God’s first creative command was “Let there be light!”

Throughout history people have tried to discover what God is like. The gods of ancient Greece were very much like human beings. They were capricious; for no apparent reason their mood and behaviour would change. They were envious and spiteful and people tried to keep on the right side of them. Animists in many parts of the world today believe in spirits which live in trees, rocks and rivers and govern their lives. The spirits need constantly to be appeased if your crops are to flourish and you are to enjoy good health. Animistic people live in constant fear of the spirits.

The God of the Bible is so very different from the gods of people’s imagination. He isn’t like us. He is light. He is holy, righteous, pure and good. He is unchanging; in him there is no darkness at all. Human history reveals the very dark side of our human nature. Powerful people have imprisoned, tortured and killed those they hate. Today there are people hidden away in dark prisons of oppressive regimes who are treated terribly. Even apparently benign regimes have had very dark chapters in their history. But God isn’t like that; in him there is no darkness at all.

Jesus came into the world to reveal God to us and to bring the light of God’s presence into our lives. He said “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” When we know Jesus we discover the light of the truth and experience the amazing kindness of God. In his well-known hymn Thomas Binney reflects on the fact that God is light and our need to know him. “Eternal Light! Eternal Light! How pure the soul must be, when, placed within thy searching sight, it shrinks not, but with calm delight can live, and look on Thee. There is a way for man to rise to that sublime abode; an offering and a sacrifice, a Holy Spirit’s energies, an advocate with God. These, these prepare us for the sight of holiness above; the sons of ignorance and night may dwell in the eternal light, through the eternal love.”

What do you think about?

What do you think about? Our minds are an important part of who we are. Many are keen to make sure their bodies are fit, so they eat the right things and exercise regularly, but do we have the same concern to maintain a healthy mind? Near the end of his letter to the Christians at Philippi the apostle Paul wrote, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

These words seem especially helpful for our world at this time. It is easy for our minds to be filled with bad and depressing things. We hear news reports of desperately evil things being done. We see pictures of towns and communities destroyed by bombs and children being killed or maimed. Much of the internet and many television programmes are characterised by cynicism, bad language, and unwholesome content. Our newspapers expose the failures and corruption of prominent people, whose decisions may affect our lives. At a personal level many of us struggle with unhappy family situations, with unemployment, or just the daily grind of making ends meet.

Paul is not encouraging us to be escapists, who can’t cope with the real world. He and the Christians in Philippi lived under the domination of Rome. Daily life was hard. Paul was in a Roman prison and would soon be executed because he was a Christian. It would have been easy to simply dwell on the bad and evil things that were happening, but he knew it was important not to lose sight of the best things because they are the things that will ultimately endure. All the evil things which now dominate our world and our lives will one day pass away.

Last Sunday afternoon I was driving along the Gower coast. It was a beautiful, tranquil, autumn evening. The sun was setting, the sea was calm and the landscape was tinged with beautiful autumn colours. The whole scene spoke to my heart about God, our wonderful Creator. He is eternal and is the source of all that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable. He has revealed his amazing love for the world in his Son Jesus, who came that we might have life and have it to the full. Because Jesus came into this world we can look forward to the time when there will be “a new heaven and a new earth filled with God’s righteousness.”

What is truth?

Easter reminds us of the climactic events of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. When the Gospel writers wrote their biographies of Jesus all of them focused most on the last week of his life. That week began with his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem when the crowds proclaimed him as their Messiah King. As he entered the city, he fulfilled a prophecy, written more than 500 years earlier, “Say to the Daughter of Zion, ‘See your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’” Jesus is a king like no other; he is the Prince of Peace.

When he was on trial, Pilate, the Roman Governor, asked him “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest. You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” Pilate asked, “What it truth?”

Pilate decided that Jesus should be executed, even though he knew he was innocent, but that did not bring an end to Jesus’ kingdom. Following his death and resurrection the message of Jesus has spread throughout the world. In the early years of the Christian church the number of Christians grew despite the fierce persecution they faced. The power of Imperial Rome came to an end, but the kingdom of Jesus continues still. It has outlasted every earthly kingdom because it is different. It is a spiritual kingdom; it is “not of this world.” Those who belong to Jesus’ kingdom are “on the side of truth” and listen to him.

People still ask the same question as Pilate asked, “What is truth?” The pundits of our modern world tell us that there is no such thing as absolute truth, but they are wrong. The outworking of their philosophy is plain to see in the moral chaos and tragic personal emptiness of our western world. How different it is when, like little children, we listen to Jesus and receive the truth we see in him and hear in his words. As we listen to Jesus and trust in him, we understand how we, too, can enter into his kingdom, which is so different from every worldly kingdom, but which will outlast the years.

Marie Colvin – a Witness for Truth

Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times war correspondent, died last week in the besieged Syrian city of Homs as she was trying to retrieve her shoes so she could escape a Syrian army bombardment. Marie was with 5 other journalists who went into a building housing a rebel press centre in the district of Babr Amr. Other journalists were injured and a French photojournalist, Remi Ochlik, was also killed.

Marie was a courageous war correspondent. During her 30 year career she reported from Iraq, Sierra Leone, Chechnya, Afghanistan and the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka, where she lost one of her eyes. Her mission was to report the horrors of war, especially as it affects civilians, with accuracy and without prejudice. She said, “Covering a war means going to places torn by chaos, destruction and death, and trying to bear witness.”

Her work involved great personal cost. She spoke about the terror she experienced personally as she went on patrol with soldiers through the fields and villages of Afghanistan, “putting one step in front of the other, steeling yourself each step for the blast.” She saw some of her colleagues being severely injured and killed as they reported from war zones. Her last report was, “In Baba Amr. Sickening, cannot understand how the world can stand by. Watched a baby die today. Shrapnel, doctors could do nothing. His little tummy just heaved and heaved until he stopped. Feeling helpless …. Will keep trying to get out the information.” It was not long before her voice, the voice of truth, was silenced by a Syrian army rocket, probably targeted at her and other journalists reporting on the war. “In war, truth is the first casualty!”

2000 years ago men also tried to silence the voice of truth. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came into this world to bear witness to the truth which sets us free. He spoke the truth without fear for his own safety. He faced constant hostility from religious and political leaders who tried to silence him by putting him to death on a cross. Their hatred and opposition to him was irrational and ultimately futile. On the third day he rose from the dead and today he is loved and followed by millions of people around the world. He comes alongside us in our sadness and need in order to help, strengthen and, ultimately, deliver us. One day he will bring the truth to light and judge the world in righteousness.

Righteousness Makes a Nation Great

Leaders carry heavy responsibilities. The decisions they make affect the lives of many people and have consequences for the present and for the future. A man called Caiaphas was high priest at the time Jesus was condemned to death. He and his fellow leaders were opposed to Jesus because he challenged their teaching and way of life. The growing popularity of Jesus was undermining their position and power base. They were afraid that the Romans, who occupied Israel at that time, might intervene and take control of the nation. So they decided that Jesus must die. Caiaphas summed it up when he said, “You do not realise that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” He was wrong. The consequences for the nation of their decision were catastrophic. Within 40 years the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem.

Leaders are not always in touch with reality. The big issues in their world are not always the big issues for ordinary people. Like Caiaphas, they can be very concerned about their own position and power. The temptation to act on the basis of what is expedient, rather than what is right, can be very strong. It is also easy to make an example of someone else rather than examine ourselves and our own actions. Caiaphas’s preoccupation with his own position, and desire to justify his own actions, made him deaf to the challenge of Jesus’ teaching.

Our nation is being rocked by a series of moral scandals. Our leaders are keen to show decisive leadership and to call to account those who have done wrong. They are also aware of the need to maintain their own position and interests. The key issue is not expediency, which identifies and deals with a few scapegoats and then assumes that all will be well.

These events raise more fundamental issues for us and our leaders. What is the moral basis of our society? Successive governments have deliberately rejected the Judaeo-Christian legal and moral foundation of our nation for the shaky relative standards of secularism. There is no place for God and his absolute truth in Britain today. We are seeing the early consequences of this being worked out at all levels in our society. Psalm 14 is a challenge to us all, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no-one who does good.”