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.”
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught his disciples important principles about daily living. He was preparing them for their future life’s work when they would be sent out into the Roman world to proclaim the good news about the forgiveness of sins through his death and resurrection. Daily life for them was going to be very difficult as they experienced persecution and great hardship. So, it was important for them to know how to cope with these challenges. The life principles Jesus taught his disciples are also important for us.
Jesus told them, “Do not worry saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well.” He reminded them how God provides for the birds every day, “They do not sow or reap or store away into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable that they?” He also spoke of how God clothes the ordinary flowers of the field whose beauty exceeds even the splendour of King Solomon’s fabulous wardrobe. The same God who clothes the flowers would also provide for the disciples as they learned to trust in him.
Worry and anxiety are common experiences for us all. Many of our worries centre around the daily necessities of life – having enough to eat and drink and clothes to wear. Parents bringing up their children worry about having food to feed them and money for their dinner in school. They worry about having enough money to buy the “designer” clothes their children feel they need if they are not to be made fun of by their friends, as well as the latest mobile phone.
Worry wears us out and wears us down. It takes the joy out of life. It’s made worse by the many authoritative voices that repeatedly tell us there is no God but that one day, maybe, we will discover life on some distant planet. How much better to listen to Jesus and to look at God’s beautiful creation that unmistakably tells us that He is and that He cares for us. Then we can tell Him all our worries and ask Him to help us as we pray, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. Give us today our daily bread.”
Christmas has passed, the decorations have been taken down and life is returning to normal. Yet for many people living in Britain January is a worrying month because the bills for Christmas will soon arrive. Millions of people are entering 2018 with a debt hanging over them because they overspent during the festive period. One advice line estimates that 7.9 million people are likely to fall behind with their finances in January because of credit card debt incurred over Christmas.
Being in debt is oppressive. I remember visiting a man who was in debt. He had been injured in a car accident and had lost his job. The debts had begun to accumulate and he was unable to pay them. The bank had refused to increase his overdraft and the red letters, with their demands and threats, were arriving regularly. He no longer opened letters from the companies to which he owed money. Debt had paralysed him and filled him with fear for the future. He felt very alone and had seriously considered ending his life.
When we are in debt we need to seek help. I was able to come alongside the man and to work out with him ways to begin to address his debts. In time, all his debts were cleared and he was able to move to a new flat. A great burden had been lifted from him and he was able to enjoy life again. Organisations like Christians Against Poverty offer practical help to people overwhelmed by debt enabling them to manage their repayments and, in time, to be debt-free.
When I visited the man I was also able to pray with him and to ask God to help him. God is just and is particularly concerned for the poor and for widows and orphans. He sees the oppression of the poor and vulnerable through immorally high interest rates and he will call such lenders to account. God also provides for us in our need. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” This petition is not only for our food but for all our daily needs. God is the One who gives us all good gifts. If you are overwhelmed by debt, ask God to help you. In Psalm 34 the Psalmist says, “I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me. He freed me from all my fears. In my desperation I prayed, and the Lord listened; he saved me from all my troubles.”
The nights are dark and we have had the first frosts of winter. We may envy the birds that have begun to migrate to sunnier and warmer places. Bird migration is an amazing phenomenon. Scientists have recently studied the Alpine swift, a swallow-like bird found in Europe, Africa and Asia. Some of the swifts breed in Switzerland and then fly across the Sahara to West Africa. A team of scientists caught six Alpine swifts in Switzerland and tagged them with data loggers which enabled them to track the birds’ migration.
When the swifts returned to Switzerland three were caught and the data was analysed. It revealed that the swifts can fly for 200 days consecutively, eating and sleeping on the wing. They eat insects in mid-air and seem to be able to control their flying even when sleeping. The scientists concluded that it is possible that some swifts stay on the wing for their whole lifetime, except for breeding.
Jesus taught that we can learn an important lesson from the birds. He said, “I tell you not to worry about everyday life – whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are?”
We all worry about everyday things and how we will find the money we need to buy the necessities of life. Poor people worry about finding the food they need for each day. Unemployed people worry about how they will be able to live on the lower allowances they are receiving. Students and young people worry about how they will repay their loans and save up a deposit to buy their own home. People nearing retirement worry about whether they will be able to live on their pension. Pensioners worry about how they will pay big bills and have enough money to pay for the care they may need in later years.
When we worry it’s so important to remember God, our heavenly Father, and to tell him about our anxieties. He feeds the Alpine swifts on the wing. He feeds the birds in our gardens through the food we put out for them. We are much more valuable to him than the birds. So valuable that, out of love for us, he gave his only Son, Jesus, to die on the cross for our sins, that we might receive eternal life through him.
The Bible is a best selling book. More than 100 million copies of the Bible are sold or given away every year. Gideons International gives away a Bible every second. The Bible is available as a whole or in part in more than 2400 languages, covering 95% of the people of the world. Yet, for many people, the Bible is an unread book. The Bible is very big and it isn’t easy to know where to start reading. Yet in the Bible God speaks to us. Christians believe that the Bible is God’s Word. What the Bible says, God says. The Bible speaks into every situation that you and I face.
In the letter he wrote to the Christians living in Philippi the apostle Paul says, “Don’t worry about anything, instead pray about everything. Tell God what you need and thank him for all he has done. If you do this, you will experience God’s peace, which is far more wonderful that the human mind can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.”
Worry is a universal human experience. We lie awake at night worrying. We go the doctor to ask for medication to help us cope with our worries. We worry about our families, about our work or study, about money, about our health and about the future. We usually worry about things we can’t do anything about and people may say to us, “Don’t worry, it may never happen!” But this doesn’t help us and we continue to worry because what will we do if it does happen? So how do Paul’s words help us?
Paul didn’t simply say, “Don’t worry.” He said, “Instead pray about everything.” Because God is there we can talk to him. We don’t need special words to speak to him, we can simply tell him what’s on our hearts. We can speak to him every day about everything, big things and small things, and ask him to help us. We can tell him the things we are worrying about and ask him to be with us and to give us strength to face whatever may come. It’s important to remember how he has helped us in the past and to thank him for being with us in difficult times. As we speak to God, he gives us his peace. One hymn says, “O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry, everything to God in prayer.”
Someone has calculated that the third Monday in January each year is the most depressing day of the year. The date is calculated through combining various factors including the weather, the level of our debt and our ability to take positive action. I’m not convinced that one day is more depressing than any other but there is no doubt that many of us feel low in spirits in January. How can we find the strength to cope with such times whenever they come?
It makes all the difference when we trust in God and his care for us. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Our Father in heaven, give us each day our daily bread.” They lived in a subsistence society in which people were dependent on the crops which they grew on their land. They needed to find their food each day. Every day the men would go out hunting or fishing and return with something for the family to eat. The women would bake bread and cook the meal. As the family ate their food they gave thanks to God for supplying their needs for another day.
It is good to bring all our worries and anxieties to God. Jesus told the people they could learn valuable lessons from the birds and the flowers. He said, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour and spin. Yet I tell you not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.”
So when we feel low in spirits it is good to pray to God and to ask him to help us by providing all our needs. We can ask him to help us not to worry about tomorrow but to do what we have to do today. As each day comes to an end we can thank him for bringing us safely through the day. I still pray a prayer I learned in infant school, “Lord keep us safe this night, secure from all our fears, may angels guard us while we sleep till morning light appears.”
One of our great needs as we enter a new year is hope. The problems of our world are great and there are no easy solutions. In our personal lives or our families we may be experiencing sadness and pain. Even the dark and damp days tend to depress us. So we don’t find it easy to be optimistic.
Real hope is found in God. Secular humanism, which is energetically promoted by some, offers no hope. The apostle Paul prayed a remarkable prayer for some early Christians, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him.” This is a prayer we can make our own for the coming year as we put our trust in the God of hope. How does God give us hope whatever our circumstances may be?
God helps us to deal with the past. Our memories of the past can cast a long shadow over the future. All of us have reason to be troubled by our past sins. Other people may also have done bad things to us. We need to find forgiveness and to be able to forgive. In Jesus God provided a way for us to be forgiven. When he died he suffered the punishment our sins deserve. The moment we receive Jesus as our Saviour we are forgiven and have nothing to fear. Through experiencing God’s forgiveness we also find the grace to forgive others.
God promises to provide our daily needs. As we enter a new year we may be anxious about how we will be able cope financially and pay the bills. We may have lost, or be in danger of losing, our job. What a difference it makes to be able to pray to God and trust him to provide all our needs. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Our Father in heaven, give us this day our daily bread.” God knows our needs. We can bring all our anxieties to him and trust him to help us.
God gives us hope for the future. None of us knows what will happen in the coming year. All may go well or we may face serious illness or even death. Jesus is a living Lord who gives us a certain hope whatever happens. When we trust in him he promises, “Because I live you will live also.” Nothing that happens can rob us of the hope Jesus gives us when we trust in him.
24-Hour news coverage is a feature of modern life. Millions watch the various television news channels for as much as 8 hours a day. There is a fascination with the latest “breaking news” and with the reports through the day which concentrate on the “big” stories. People are afraid of missing something important. When big events happen the news coverage is saturated with the various angles of the story.
News reports give the impression that they are helping us to stay in touch with the real world but many of the stories they cover are not relevant to our daily lives. At best news reports give us a small, selective, sample of what is happening in the world. I watched a programme recently on D R Congo which described the genocide in that country over the past 15-20 years in which more than 6 million people have died. The reporter said it was the largest number of deaths in any country since the Second World War, yet there have been hardly any reports about it.
Our daily lives are not newsworthy. Most of our time is taken up with the ordinary routine of life. It is encouraging, therefore, to know that God cares about us and our ordinary lives even though we will never make the news headlines! He knows about the stresses and anxieties we experience and he cares about us. We are living in difficult economic times. For many families, unemployed people and pensioners it is hard to find the money for their daily needs. Billions of people in the world live on less than a dollar a day.
Jesus said, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they are?”
As the winter comes to an end there are more birds around. They wake early to find their food for the day. Perhaps you put food out for them because you care about them. Jesus said that his heavenly Father cares about us very much and knows what we need. So he taught us to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven…Give us this day our daily bread.”