The King of kings and Lord of lords

We are living in a time of change and political leaders are in the news. In the USA, President Trump is making the headlines every day. In Britain, Teresa May is preparing for Brexit negotiations. In Russia, President Putin has become active in Ukraine and Syria and is raising new challenges for NATO. France is preparing to elect a new leader to succeed the unpopular President Hollande. In Germany, Chancellor Merkel faces significant opposition when she stands for re-election in September. In Turkey, President Erdogan is seeking to make his position inviolable. In The Gambia, President Jammeh has eventually given way to newly-elected President Barrow. In South Korea, President Park Geun-hye is facing impeachment. In North Korea, President Kim Jong-un reigns supreme as he develops his nuclear capability.

There has also been a rise in populism in some democratic countries. Populism mobilizes large alienated sections of the population against governments that are perceived to be controlled by an out-of-touch elite that acts in its own interests. Sometimes populism creates a situation that encourages extremism of both left and right elements in the population. Populism does not always lead to good things. There were great hopes in some countries for the “Arab Spring”, but the outcome has by no means been a happy one.

The example of the early Christians to their rulers has much to teach us in our uncertain world. They lived in the Roman Empire and suffered under Roman rule. Jesus was crucified at the order of Pilate, the Roman governor. The apostle Paul was arrested and beaten at the command of Roman magistrates, even though he was a Roman citizen. Later he was executed at the command of the Roman emperor. After the Great Fire of Rome in 64AD, Nero instigated a violent persecution of Christians and many died in unspeakably cruel ways.

Despite the persecution they experienced, the early Christians firmly believed that God is supreme. Because they believed the authorities that existed had been established by God they did not rebel against them but, as a matter of conscience, submitted to their rule. They prayed for kings and those in authority so that they might live a peaceful and quiet life in all godliness and holiness. They honoured their rulers and paid their taxes. They knew that one day all earthly rulers will be called to account for the way they have exercised their power and will stand before the judgement throne of the One who is King of kings and Lord of lords.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!

This week many people around the world will remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. One in three of the people in the world professes to be a Christian and many others will join them in singing carols and hearing Bible readings about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem more than 2000 years ago. The message about Jesus is a message for our world today.

The message of Jesus is for all people. The infant Jesus was visited by Wise Men who came from the east. They had travelled hundreds of miles from Mesopotamia, which included modern Iraq, Syria, Kuwait and Iran. They had seen a special star which indicated the birth of a great King and were guided to the place where Jesus had been born. When they saw the child they bowed down and worshipped him and presented gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The message of Jesus speaks to the peoples of those troubled lands today and to people all over the world.

The message of Jesus is a message of of peace. Jesus is the “Prince of Peace.” The shepherds heard the angels singing, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.” Jesus came to bring peace between God and the people of this world. His death for our sins reconciles us to God so that we have peace with God and know his favour resting on us. When we are reconciled to God, we are also at peace with ourselves and with all other people. The message of Jesus speaks peace to our conflict-torn modern world. Jesus changes hearts and reconciles people from all nations to one another.

The message of Jesus is a message of joy. When the Wise Men arrived at Bethlehem they were overjoyed to have found the new born King. The message of the angels to the shepherds was, “Don’t be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy.” Recently some Christians in eastern Ukraine were giving out food at a bus station to people who had fled their homes because of the conflict. There were also a few Bibles on the table. A lady came up to them and asked, “Is that your book of hope?” The Christians said it was and the lady said, “Please could I have one, because there isn’t much hope in Ukraine today!” The coming of King Jesus brings joy and hope to our sad and needy world. His birth really is something to celebrate!

I was a stranger and you invited me in

The conflict in Eastern Ukraine shows little sign of ending despite the recent high-level meetings. Ukraine has two official languages: those in the west speak Ukrainian and those in the east speak Russian. Russia, and the rebels they are backing, are exploiting this by appearing to support the grievances some Russian speaking Ukrainians in the east have against the government in Kiev.

Over the past year Russia has illegally annexed Crimea, which conveniently gives them control of the warm water seaport of Sebastopol. A Malaysian civilian airliner was shot down killing 298 people. Major cities in eastern Ukraine are now war zones with massive destruction of property. The brand new international airport in Donetsk, built for the European Football Championships in 2012, is now rubble. Donetsk is the same size as Birmingham. In the conflict 5300 people have died and 1.5 million have been made homeless. Thousands of men, women and children have fled for safety to cities outside the war zone including Kharkov, the second city of Ukraine.

Yet in the midst of this appalling situation good things are happening. I have friends who live in Kharkov. They are Christians and attend a small Baptist church. Christians in the Baptist churches have been helping the refugees who are fleeing the fighting. When buses carrying refugees arrive in Kharkov they are met by Christians who provide food and clothing for the people and help them to find somewhere to stay. The Baptist church buildings have become temporary homes for refugee families and the Christians have also welcomed refugees into their own homes. Ukraine is a poor country and the war has increased the price of everything, yet the Christians are willing to share their own limited resources with strangers who are in great need. Christians in Britain are also sending gifts to help them.

One of the greatest commandments God has given us is, “You shall love your neighbour as you love yourself.” Jesus said that his people feed the hungry, give drinks to the thirsty, clothe the naked and provide homes for the homeless. Then he added, “Whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you do for me.” Jesus himself is the supreme example of self-sacrificing love. The apostle Paul wrote, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

The name of the Lord is a strong tower

This week I am staying in Aberystwyth. In January and February the promenade was very seriously damaged by heavy storms. Massive tidal surges dumped rocks and debris on the seafront and streets. Hotels were flooded and student halls of residence were evacuated. The people and authorities were helpless to stop the devastation as each high tide brought more damage. Now, 6 months later, the promenade has been rebuilt and you can watch the beauty of the sunset over a calm sea. The storms have passed and tranquillity has returned.

We live in a turbulent and troubled world. There seems to be no end to the conflicts and crises in Gaza, Syria, South Sudan, Ukraine and Iraq. Many people, including women and children, are caught up in events over which they have no control. Every day people die or are seriously injured. People are fleeing their homes and communities, or are watching as they are destroyed by missiles and bombs. The ability of the most powerful nations in the world to help is very limited. There seems to be no end to the trouble.

Where can the people who are suffering so much find help? To whom can we turn when the storms of life come to us? Is there anyone who is great enough and good enough to bring us safely through every storm and trial? The background of the Bible is a turbulent one. The cruelty and barbarity of successive world empires – Egypt, Syria, Assyria, Babylon, Greece and Rome – are the background to the Old Testament. The unjust suffering and condemnation of Jesus and the relentless persecution of Christians is the background to the New Testament. Yet through all these real and terrible storms of life there is a calm confidence and trust in the living God.

In Psalm 46 we read, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth gives way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.” The book of Proverbs says, “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.” A well known hymn written by Charles Wesley, and often sung to the tune Abersytwyth, says, “Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly, while the nearer waters roll, while the tempest still is high. Hide me, o my Saviour, hide, till the storm of life is past; safe into the haven guide; O receive my soul at last.”

In the midst of life

The destruction of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 over Ukraine has caused outrage around the world. The plane was flying at 33000 feet over Eastern Ukraine when, it seems, it was struck by a surface to air missile. The 298 passengers and crew were all killed. The flight had taken off from Schiphol Amsterdam airport en route to Kuala Lumpur carrying families who were looking forward to a very special holiday. A meal had been served and the passengers were settling into the long flight. Some were watching a film, others were reading or resting. Suddenly, without warning, the plane exploded and everyone on board passed into eternity. When they received the news their families were deeply shocked and devastated.

Our lives in this world are very uncertain. None of us knows what a day may bring. There was no connection between the people on the plane and those involved in the conflict in Ukraine. The plane was flying more than 6 miles above the ground and, in a matter of minutes, would have left Ukrainian airspace. Then someone launched a missile which destroyed the plane and all on board. Death is always an unwelcome intrusion into life, an enemy, and especially so in tragedies like this. The burial service in The Book of Common Prayer reminds us that, “In the midst of life we are in death.”

In the face of death we always feel helpless. Whether we are sitting at the bedside of a loved one who is dying or are told the totally unexpected news that precious family members and friends have died because of the evil act of total strangers, there is nothing we can do to change things. So what can we do and to whom can we turn? The burial service also says, “of whom may we seek succour, but of you, O Lord?”

The Lord God is eternal. In times of grief and tragedy we can turn to him for help. He understands our vulnerability and meets us in the depth of our grief. He gives us comfort and strength. One hymn says, “Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail, in Thee do we trust, nor find Thee fail; Thy mercies how tender, how firm to the end, Our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend.” Jesus once came to the home of close friends whose brother, Lazarus, had died. He wept with them and then gave them hope when he declared, “I am the resurrection and the life.”