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I shall behold his face

On 11 July Richard Branson travelled as a passenger on Virgin Galactic SS Unity 22, a supersonic rocket-propelled spacecraft, to the edge of space. This test flight lasted one hour and reached an altitude of 53.4 miles above the earth. It was the first flight with a full crew and was the culmination of 17 years of work. The aim is to fly fare-paying passengers on joyrides to space and back at a cost of at least £200,000 each. Richard said, “Welcome to the dawn of a new space age. It’s been the experience of a lifetime. I’ve dreamed of this moment since I was a kid but honestly, nothing can prepare you for the view of Earth from space. It’s just magical.”

There is already a waiting list of wealthy people wanting a seat on future flights to the edge of space. No doubt it will be for them, too, the experience of a lifetime. But it will be an exclusive privilege only a few can enjoy and will last just one hour. Yet there is an experience anyone, whether rich or poor, can enjoy which is infinitely more wonderful and lasts for ever. Recently a good Christian friend of mine died from renal failure. His wife and family feel his loss very keenly, but are comforted by knowing that their loved one is now in heaven, in the very presence of God, the One who created the heavens and the earth.

The night before he died on the Cross Jesus told his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

People from every nation, whether rich or poor, educated or uneducated, young or old, who have received Jesus Christ as their Saviour have this wonderful hope. They know that when they die, they will go to heaven and be with their Saviour for ever. It is God’s free gift to them. A well-known hymn says, “God by himself has sworn, I on this oath depend: I shall, on eagle wings upborne, to heaven ascend. I shall behold his face, I shall his power adore, and sing the wonders of his grace for evermore.”

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Resurrection joy

Easter is a time of great joy. The resurrection of Jesus lifted his first disciples from a spirit of defeat and despair to an experience of great joy and hope. They saw their risen Lord who sent them out into the world to proclaim the wonderful message of the resurrection. This message has transformed many lives and the very course of history. The Apostles faced great opposition from their own people, and from the Roman authorities, but were unafraid. Most of them died for their faith – some were beheaded, others were crucified – but through their message countless people from many nations have found new life in Jesus.

Christian faith centres on the person of Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again to give us hope. Christians put their faith in Jesus, not in their religious observances. They don’t think they are better than other people, or sit in judgement on them, but are deeply conscious of their personal failures and need. They rejoice that Jesus has done everything needed to secure their salvation and gratefully trust in him as their Saviour. They have been delivered from the need to achieve their own salvation and, in response to his love, are free to live for Jesus and to tell others about him.

Many in the Western world have turned away from a living faith in God and Jesus and the consequences are clear to see. Evolutionary theory dominates. It offers no hope to our deepest needs, but declares its doleful message, “When you’re dead, you’re dead!” Yet God’s wonderful creation, which is plain for all to see, constantly proclaims that he is. He created this amazing universe and our little planet, which teems with life. He created each of us and put eternity in our hearts. We were created to live with him for ever and God’s freely offers us eternal life through his Son, Jesus Christ, who died and rose again.

Every day during the Covid-19 pandemic we have been reminded of death. Nearly 3 million people around the world have died and their families feel the loss deeply. Most who have died were elderly, but that in no way diminishes the value of their lives. Every single life is precious in God’s sight. The great evangelist Billy Graham, who died at the age of 99 said, “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”

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Amazing love

More than 2000 years ago a young man died on a Roman cross outside the city of Jerusalem. It seemed even to his disciples, who loved him deeply, that his death was the end of all their hopes. For 3 years he had travelled throughout Israel preaching and teaching the people and healing many sick people. Just 5 days before he was executed large crowds had acclaimed him as their king, but then had turned against him and demanded that he be killed.

As he was nailed to the cross he didn’t look like a king. The Romans knew how to humiliate and eliminate those who offended against their laws and their Emperor. A mock crown, made of thorns, had been pressed on his head and blood ran down his face and neck. His back was a mass of bleeding flesh from the scourging he had endured. As the nails were driven through his hands and his feet the Romans were making sure that this would be the end of him. Jesus of Nazareth would not be causing them any more trouble. But how wrong they were!

This Easter millions of Christians around the world are remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus. They see his cross, which was a place of curse and shame, as a glorious demonstration of God’s love. Through Jesus’ death in their place, and for their sins, they have found forgiveness for all their sins and have been reconciled to God. Like the Roman centurion who stood at the foot of the cross, and saw him die, they say, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” Like the criminal who hung on a cross next to Jesus they have heard his promise, “I tell you the truth, you will be with me in Paradise.”

The Roman Empire disappeared long ago, but the kingdom of King Jesus has spread around the world. This Easter many Christians will be singing with solemn joy the words of Isaac Watts, “When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died, my richest gain I count but loss and pour contempt on all my pride. See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down! Did e’er such love and sorrow meet; or thorns compose so rich a crown? Were the whole realm of nature mine that were an offering far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

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Great is your faithfulness

The last autumn leaves will soon have fallen. Once again, we have witnessed the spectacular autumn colours – yellows, browns and red. On bright sunny mornings the kaleidoscope of colour has been glorious. This is one of the ways in which the great God of creation tells us that he is there, and that this is his world. Even in the process of dying there is beauty in his world and as the trees stand stark and bare through winter there is the promise that they will spring to life again.

The passing seasons are a testimony to the order God has established in his world. His creation is never random and accidental, but always purposeful. As the years pass God is accomplishing his purposes for his creation and all of us who live in it. One well known hymn says, “Summer and winter and springtime and harvest, sun, moon and stars in their courses above, join with all nature in manifold witness to thy great faithfulness, mercy and love. Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see; all I have needed thy hand has provided; great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!”

We all need to know and rest in the faithfulness of God. He is both the great God of creation and the One who knows and cares for us in a very personal way. Every human being is precious in his sight. Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. Even the hairs of your head are all numbered. So, don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” So, as we continue to live under the long shadow of Covid-19, and share the sadness of those who have lost loved ones in the pandemic, we and they can find comfort, strength and hope in the living God who cares for us.

We are more precious to God than the amazing creation in which we live. King Solomon wrote, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.” This is why the things we have in this world can never satisfy our deepest longings. God created us to live for his glory and to enjoy him forever. Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand.”

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My son belongs to Jesus forever

The news media agenda moves on rapidly. Significant events are reported and then quickly forgotten as the next story breaks. On Easter Sunday suicide bombers killed at least 253 people and injured 500 at churches and high-class hotels across Sri Lanka. Most victims were Sri Lankan citizens, including many children. How have those who were affected by the bombing coped?

One of the churches that was bombed was Zion Church in Batticaloa which lost 29 of its members, including 14 children. The Sunday School children and their teachers were on their way back to the main service for breakfast when the bomb was detonated. Among those who lost their lives were 13-year-old Jackson and his Sunday School teacher and aunt, Verlini. Jackson’s father, Verl, lost his son and sister, who died on the spot, and his brother-in-law who died a week later in hospital.

Verl said, “Losing someone hurts. They are special people. They were not killed, they were sown, like seeds. Jesus died on Good Friday and on Easter Sunday he was resurrected. My son, sister and brother-in-law died, but were resurrected with Jesus on that day. My foundation is Jesus Christ. I’m zero. Jesus is everything. My son was mine for 13 years, but he belongs to Jesus forever.”

When we experience deep pain and loss it is important not to turn away from God but to turn to him. He is the only one who can heal our deepest wounds. In the Bible Job was a man who suffered greatly. He was a righteous man, but he lost his seven sons and three daughters and all his flocks and herds in a series of tragic events. When he heard news of what had happened Job fell to the ground in worship and said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”

We can only make sense of the things that happen to us in this life in the light of eternity. The Sri Lankan bombers passed immediately into the presence of God and were judged in righteousness. The Christians they killed in Zion church passed immediately into the arms of their Saviour and will be with him forever. The book of Revelation has beautiful descriptions of heaven where Jesus is the shepherd of his people who “leads them to springs of living water,” and God “wipes away every tear from their eyes.”

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No change my heart shall fear

We live in a world of change. In the sphere of technology once state-of the art gadgets are suddenly out of date. Great changes have also taken place in the moral sphere. In Britain the absolute standards of the Ten Commandments have been set aside in favour of “British values” – democracy; the rule of law; individual liberty; and mutual respect for and tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith. People do things because they believe it is “the right thing to do” rather than because it is the morally right thing to do. Relativism rules.

Change also impacts our personal lives. People who have worked for decades for the same company suddenly find themselves being made redundant because a decision has been taken “for economic reasons” to relocate production to another country. We lived in Deeside when, in 1980, the Shotton Steelworks closed putting 6500 people out of work in a single day. People’s financial future became uncertain because finding another job was very difficult. Life for many would never be the same.

Change can also suddenly come through illness or death. People experience life-changing events when they receive a diagnosis of cancer or have a heart attack or stroke. There are people now lying on hospital beds who have lost the use of an arm and leg and cannot speak. Or someone we have loved and shared our lives with dies, and we have to face the finality of death. Friends and family gather round to provide loving support, but it is not long before we must face the pain of loneliness and loss.

When life-changing events happen, we can find peace and hope as we trust in God and his Son Jesus. A well-known hymn expresses it well, “In heavenly love abiding, no change my heart shall fear; and safe is such confiding, for nothing changes here. The storm may roar without me, my heart may low be laid, but God is round about me, and can I be dismayed? Wherever He may guide me, no want shall turn me back; my Shepherd is beside me, and nothing can I lack. His wisdom ever waketh, his sight is never dim; He knows the way He taketh, and I will walk with Him. Green pastures are before me, which yet I have not seen; bright skies will soon be o’er me, where the dark clouds have been. My hope I cannot measure, my path to life is free; my Saviour has my treasure, and He will walk with me.”

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When we lose everything

What do you do when you lose everything? Pictures of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma on islands in the Caribbean, such as Barbuda and the British Virgin Islands, are heart-breaking. People have lost their homes and all their possessions. They were helpless in the face of the power of the hurricane. When reporters talked to them you could see the shock and bewilderment on their faces as they looked at the ruins of what was once their home. Re-establishing normal life again is a daunting task. Some, however, said that, although they have lost everything, they are thankful to God that they and their loved ones are alive.

In America people have been remembering the events of the 9th September 2001, when the attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York killed 2,997 people and injured more than 6000 others. The total collapse of the towers stunned all who witnessed it and those around the world who saw the pictures. Hearing the stories of those who lost loved ones in the attacks brings home their sense of absolute helplessness as, in the minutes after the attacks, they spoke on the telephone to relatives who were trapped in the towers with no possibility of escape. All they could do was tell each other “I love you” and pray.

The Bible tells the story of a man called Job. He was a blameless and upright man who feared God. He had seven sons and three daughters, and owned thousands of sheep, camels, oxen and donkeys. He also had many servants. On the same day, all his animals were stolen or killed by lightning and all his sons and daughters died as the house in which they were enjoying a meal together was struck by a tornado and collapsed. He lost everything. When the news of these devastating events came to Job, he tore his robe and shaved his head and fell to the ground in worship saying, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”

Devastating loss is not a sign of God’s displeasure or an indication that those who experience it are worse people than others. We can pray for those who are seeking to rebuild their lives that God will give them the strength they need and also that he will make us truly thankful for all the blessings he has graciously given us.

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When tragedy strikes

The Manchester bombing atrocity has touched the hearts of millions of people around the world. Thousands attended the Ariana Grande concert, including many children and young people. They had been looking forward to the event for months. As the crowds were leaving the Manchester Arena, the suicide bomber detonated his device killing 22, maiming 64, and traumatizing many more. One of the most poignant images was of a 12-year-old girl being looked after and comforted by police officers. She had gone to the concert with her mother and a friend. Now her mother was dead and she, and those helping her, were struggling to take it in.

Reporting of the bombing has been extensive over the past week, but already things are moving on and life for most people is returning to normal. But what about those who have been most tragically affected because they have lost mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers and friends? Or those who have suffered life-changing injuries? Emergency and medical staff have also been traumatized by the things they have seen as they have heroically used their skills to help those devastated by the atrocity. Those of us not directly involved can only try to understand a little of what they are experiencing.

When tragedy strikes the help of other people is a great source of comfort and strength. As we struggle with our questions and numbing sadness we can also find help in God. Psalm 46 affirms, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. The Lord Almighty is with us. Be still, and know that I am God.” Those who come alongside us in the dark days immediately after a tragedy must inevitably return to their own lives and we may be left to struggle with our loss, or cope with our new limitations, alone. But God is always with us. In him we can find solace and strength.

God understands our sadness. His Son, Jesus, was just 33 years old when he was killed by wicked men. During his ministry, Jesus had brought great blessing to many people: he healed people from all kinds of diseases, set people free from the power of evil spirits, and even raised people from the dead. Yet, irrationally, he was hated by the religious leaders who were determined to kill him. He didn’t deserve to die. When we experience overwhelming tragedy and deep sadness we can pray to God. He understands what we are experiencing and will gives us his strength in our time of greatest need.

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Our God is the end of the journey

Last Saturday I stood at the graveside of a good friend I had known for more than 45 years. Standing with his wife, children and grandchildren and other family members I shared the deep sense of loss they were experiencing. My friend had died from cancer after a short illness. It had all happened so quickly. After the burial, we went to a local chapel where more than 200 friends had gathered for a service of thanksgiving. We sang hymns my friend had chosen for the service which all expressed his personal faith in his Saviour, Jesus Christ. The hymns were full of the Christ-centred hope in which my friend had faced death; the last enemy. The hymns reminded us that, though my friend is no longer with us, he is now safe in the presence of Jesus.

The first hymn celebrates the greatness of God. “And when I think that God his Son not sparing, sent him to die, I scarce can take it in; that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died to take away my sin. When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation to take me home, what joy shall fill my heart! Than shall I bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim; My God how great thou art! Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to thee; How great thou art! How great thou art!”

The second hymn reflects on our frailty and need of the eternal strength and grace of Jesus; who is the Rock of Ages. “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me Saviour or I die. While I draw this fleeting breath, when my eyelids close in death, when I soar to realms unknown, see thee on thy judgement throne; Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.”

The third hymn focusses on heaven. “My Saviour will never forsake me, unveiling his merciful face, his presence and promise almighty, redeeming his loved ones by grace. In shades of the valley’s dark terror, where hell and its horror hold sway, my Jesus will reach out in power, and save me by his only way. For yonder a light shines eternal, which spreads through the valley of gloom; Lord Jesus, resplendent and regal, drives fear far away from the tomb. Our God is the end of the journey, his pleasant and glorious domain; for there are the children of mercy, who praise Him for Calvary’s pain.”

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How could I not embrace him?

Tragedy often strikes suddenly and without warning. Late on a Saturday evening in June 2013 Stephen Donnelly, who was 26, and his girlfriend Mandy Gold, who was 21, were driving home to South Yorkshire on the A14 after a family wedding in Kettering when they were involved in a head on collision. They both died instantly. The driver of the other car, William Wilson, was driving the wrong way down a dual carriageway. William, who was 33, was twice over the legal limit for alcohol. He pleaded guilty to causing death by dangerous driving and was sentenced to 8 years in prison.

Both Stephen and Mandy’s parents were devastated at the tragic loss of their children, who were very much in love and planned to marry. Stephen and Mandy were Christians and had met at a church in Sheffield which they both attended. Stephen was a talented musician and had worked for the church for 5 years. Since the loss of Stephen, his parents, Mark and Sue, have said and done some remarkable things.

At the court case, William’s barrister said that William was genuinely remorseful and was struggling with the consequences of his actions. He said, “It’s the first thing he thinks of in the morning and the last thing he thinks of at night. He unequivocally accepts responsibility.” William wrote to both bereaved families. After the court case Mark and Sue said, “We hold no ill-will towards Mr Wilson for killing our son, indeed we are able to forgive him because of the forgiveness we receive through Jesus Christ.”

Recently Mark and Sue met William in Doncaster Prison, for two hours, as part of a restorative justice programme. In a radio interview, Mark said, “There is a son who needs embracing and who sits in jail thinking all day about what he’s done. There is more to life than earning money and bearing ill-will to somebody. How could I not embrace him?” Sue said, “Two young people, Stephen and Mandy, have been lost, but there is someone who doesn’t have to end his life in prison. It’s quite right and proper that there’s a punishment and the punishment must match the crime, but then the punishment’s done and that’s a closed book.” The meeting was a very emotional time as they talked with William about what Stephen meant to them and the impact losing him had had on them and their family. Mark said, “It seemed the right thing to do and I would do it again.”