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Mary was a remarkable young woman

Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a remarkable young woman. She grew up in the family home in Nazareth, a small village in Galilee. While she was in her early teens Mary fell in love with Joseph, the village carpenter, who was a few years older than her. Mary and Joseph made a solemn promise to each other that they would marry. Then God sent the angel Gabriel to communicate an amazing message to Mary. The angel said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, Mary. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.”

Mary asked, “How will this be since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” Mary replied, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.

Mary’s whole life changed! The fact that she had conceived a child before she was married was misunderstood. People thought she must have been unfaithful to Joseph and had brought shame on her family. When she told Joseph what the angel had said, at first, he did not believe her. He decided to quietly end their relationship until God spoke to him in a dream. Then Joseph took his beloved Mary home as his wife.

Mary is an example of a spiritual woman who loved and honoured God. She rejoiced in God who had been mindful of her humble state and was her Saviour. Like all of us she sinned and needed to know God’s forgiveness. She knew that the precious child she was carrying was the long-promised Messiah and that he would be called Jesus because he would save his people, including her, from their sins.

The birth of Jesus is a great encouragement to all people on earth. He is the eternal Son of God yet when he entered our world his parents were an ordinary young couple. He was born in a stable not a palace. No one is too unimportant to be valued by God. One carol says, “He came down to earth from heaven,
who is God and Lord of all. And his shelter was a stable, and his cradle was a stall. With the poor, and mean, and lowly, lived on earth our Saviour holy.”

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Joseph was a good man

Christmas will be more normal this year with some carol services and school nativity plays being held. One character in the Christmas story who tends to be in the background is Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus. The Gospels show him to be an upright, loving, and spiritual man. In our society there is a great need for true manhood to be rediscovered and for good fathers to be recognised and encouraged. The absence of a good father is detrimental to the development of any child and to the wellbeing of society.

Joseph was a skilled carpenter. He worked with his hands and was a respected person in the village life of Nazareth. While he was in his late teens he fell in love with Mary, who was a few years younger than him. Joseph made a solemn promise to marry Mary. Their families and the community in Nazareth rejoiced with them and eagerly looked forward to their wedding. Although they loved each other deeply, Joseph and Mary resolved not to have sexual relations until they were married.

Mary went to visit one of her relatives, Elizabeth, who lived in the Judean hills. When she returned to Nazareth, she told Joseph that before going to see Elizabeth she had conceived and was carrying a child in her womb. She assured him that she had not been unfaithful to him but that the baby had been conceived by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit and was a very special child. Joseph was shocked and decided to end their relationship. He didn’t want to expose Mary to public disgrace but to divorce her quietly so that she would be free to marry someone else.

While he was thinking about this an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. He did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son, and he gave him the name Jesus. By marrying Mary Joseph assumed responsibility for her pregnancy and embraced her shame. He honoured her and the child she bore whom he knew was the Saviour he and Mary and all of us need.

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A Great Rescue

Early on Saturday afternoon Matt, a good friend of mine, who is a member of his local cave rescue team, received an emergency call. A caver was seriously injured in the Ogof Ffynnon Ddu cave system in South Wales and needed urgently to be rescued. Matt responded immediately and joined the 300 volunteers from across the country who also responded to the call. Ogof Ffynnon Ddu is one of the deepest cave systems in the UK, with its lowest passageways 901ft below the surface. It is suitable only for experienced cavers who see everything from huge chambers, beautiful formations, to yawning chasms and thundering river passages. The rescue operation was very complex and Matt and the other team members would not get home until Monday evening.

The injured caver, George, and his partner were a mile into the 43-mile cave network when George fell suffering injuries to his tibia, fibula, jaw, and chest. He couldn’t move. When the rescuers found George, they immobilised him on a stretcher and began the long journey to the surface. There were many natural obstacles to negotiate including narrow passages, boulders, potholes, and waterfalls. It was exhausting work, so the rescuers worked in shifts.
It was necessary to undertake a long journey underground to get George to an exit big enough to get the stretcher through, but the rescuers were determined to rescue him however long it took. On Monday evening George and the rescue team emerged from the caves and he was taken to hospital. One person said, “Volunteers from everywhere were ready to put their own lives on the line to rescue a fellow caver.”

The greatest ever rescue operation was undertaken by Jesus Christ. We were all in great danger, so Jesus came from heaven to rescue us. The apostle John tells us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Jesus laid down his life on the cross to rescue us by suffering the punishment our sins deserve. One hymn says, “He held the highest place above, adored by all the sons of flame. Yet such his self-denying love, he laid aside his crown and came to seek the lost, and at the cost of heavenly rank and earthly fame, he sought me – blessed be his name! Then dawned at last that day of dread, when desolate, yet undismayed, with wearied frame and thorn-crowned head, he, now forsaken and betrayed, went up for me to Calvary, and dying there in grief and shame, he saved me – blessed be his name!”

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The Wonder of Reconciliation

In May 2019, 15-year-old Leah met up with a group of friends in a car park in her hometown of Northallerton. Connor, who was 17 years old, gave Leah MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy, a Class A drug. Connor was involved with county lines gangs which target vulnerable teenagers and use them to supply drugs. After taking the drug Leah collapsed and died. Connor was charged with supplying drugs and was sent to prison.

After the trial Leah’s mother, Kerry, and Connor’s mother, Tammy, were introduced to each other through restorative justice which brings those harmed by crime and those responsible for the harm into contact with each other with a view to repairing the harm and finding a positive way forward. Kerry didn’t want to meet Connor but agreed to meet Tammy.

As Kerry and Tammy talked, they were able to understand each other’s situation. Kerry realised that they had both lost something. Tammy knew her son was involved with the gangs and had tried, without success, to get help for him, including reporting him to the police. She felt a deep guilt and shame over Leah’s death. Kerry told Tammy that Leah was her “best friend”, and that she felt “a lot of hatred” about how she had died.

Following their meeting Kerry and Tammy decided to launch a campaign “Do You Know MDMA?” to get the message out that drugs kill. Kerry says, “People will look at us and think it’s an unlikely friendship. They will see us as two separate people, but we are both grieving. They are both our children. I feel if we can tell our story we can try to educate people. Leah died and I can’t let that be for no reason.” Many people have been deeply moved by Kerry and Tammy’s story and pray that because of their campaign other young people will not die from taking drugs.

Reconciliation is a powerful thing and is at the heart of the Bible’s message. All of us have sinned and rebelled against God but through his Son, Jesus Christ, God has at great cost provided the way of reconciliation. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. He gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, ‘Come back to God!’ For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.”

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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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God is merciful

The case of Omar Farouq, a 13-year-old boy, in northern Kano state in Nigeria has attracted international attention. In August Omar was convicted in a Sharia court of making uncomplimentary remarks about Allah during an argument with a friend and was sentenced to 10 years in prison with menial labour for blasphemy. Peter Hawkins, UNICEF’s representative in Nigeria, said the sentence “negates all core underlying principles of child rights and child justice.”

In a remarkable intervention, Piotr Cywinski, the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum in Poland, has asked President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria to pardon the teenager. In an open letter Piotr wrote, “He should not be subjected to the loss of the entirety of his youth, be deprived of opportunities and stigmatised physically, emotionally and educationally for the rest of his life.” Omar’s case has struck a painful chord for Piotr because countless children were imprisoned and murdered in Auschwitz by the German Nazi regime.

In his letter Piotr also said that if Omar cannot be pardoned then he would be willing to serve part of his sentence along with other volunteers from around the world. He wrote, “However, if the words of this child absolutely require 120 months of imprisonment, and even you are not able to change that, I suggest that in place of the child, 120 adult volunteers from all over the world, gathered by us – myself personally among them – should serve a month in a Nigerian prison.” More than 120 people from around the world have already offered to serve part of Omar’s sentence. If Omar is pardoned, Piotr also offered to personally fund his education resulting in “an aware and educated young citizen” rather than a “destroyed young man.”

Piotr’s intervention reminds us of the words of the prophet Micah, “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” In the Bible the principle of substitution was the foundation of the sacrificial system. When anyone sinned, they were commanded to offer an animal in their place and were told that because the animal died their sins would be forgiven. The supreme substitute is the Lord Jesus. Philip Bliss’ hymn says, “’Man of Sorrows’, what a name for the Son of God who came ruined sinners to reclaim! Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood; sealed my pardon with his blood; Guilty, vile, and helpless, we, spotless Lamb of God was he; full redemption—can it be? Hallelujah! what a Saviour!”

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We will remember them

In 1919 King George V inaugurated Remembrance Day when Commonwealth member states remember those of their armed forces who have died in the line of duty. It is held each year at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, which was the time when hostilities ceased in World War I. Many other non-Commonwealth countries also observe the day. There are now very few former soldiers alive who experienced the terrible conflicts of World War II, but what they say reminds us of the horrific nature of battles like those on the beaches of Normandy following the D-Day landings.

On 6 June 1944 infantry and armoured divisions from America, Britain and Canada began landing on the French coast. As soon as they landed, they came under heavy enemy gunfire. Many of the 24,000 Allied soldiers who landed on the beaches died or were seriously injured on the first day. Alan King, who survived D-Day, said, “We weren’t heroes, we were just boys. We were terrified. Since our life expectancy after landing was just one hour, we kept each other going. After I got back, for the first 40 years, I didn’t think about it. Didn’t want to.”

Harry Billinge, a 94-year-old veteran of D-Day, decided to raise £22,442, a pound for every British soldier who died in the Normandy campaign, to help with the construction of the British Normandy Memorial at Ver-sur-Mer. He has exceeded his target. When he was interviewed on the BBC’s Breakfast programme and was shown the Memorial under construction, he choked back tears as he saw the names of those who had died. He said, “Don’t thank me and don’t say I’m a hero. All the heroes are dead, and I’ll never forget them as long as I live. My generation saved the world and I’ll never forget any of them.”

Harry said that when he was 4 years old, he went to Sunday School where his teacher, Miss Thompson, taught the children a chorus that he said was as source of strength to him amidst the horrors on the Normandy beaches on D-Day. “In loving-kindness Jesus came my soul in mercy to reclaim, and from the depths of sin and shame through grace he lifted me. Now on a higher plain I dwell, and with my soul I know ‘tis well; yet how or why, I cannot tell, he should have lifted me. From sinking sand he lifted me, with tender hand he lifted me, from shades of night to plains of light, O praise his name, he lifted me!”

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The power of forgiveness

We have just celebrated Holocaust Memorial Day. The Holocaust was one of the most evil events in human history in which 6 million Jewish people were murdered by the Nazi regime. Yet out of those dark days amazing light sometimes shone. During the German occupation of The Netherlands, Corrie ten Boom and her family hid Jews from arrest and deportation in their home in Haarlem. In February 1944 the Gestapo came to the house and arrested Corrie and her family, but did not discover the 6 Jewish people in the hiding place. In September 1944, Corrie and her sister Betsie were deported to Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany. They managed to stay together until Betsie died in December. Later that month Corrie was released, but really struggled to come to terms with Betsie’s death.

After the war, Corrie spoke in many places about the need to forgive in order to overcome the psychological scars of the Nazi occupation. In 1947 she was speaking in Germany when she saw a man in the audience whom she recognised as a guard from Ravensbruck. Immediately she remembered him in his blue uniform and cap with its skull and crossbones. She saw the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes on the floor and remembered the shame of walking naked past this man. She saw Betsie’s frail form ahead of her.

The man came up to her, thrust out his hand and said, “A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea! You mentioned Ravensbruck, I was a guard there, but since that time, I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein, will you forgive me?”

Corrie described the massive inner turmoil she faced at that moment. “Woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me, and as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes, ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried, ‘with all my heart!’ For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then.”

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Love and sacrifice

The plight of the 12 boys from a Thai football team and their coach trapped in a cave in northern Thailand has moved the hearts of people around the world. The Wild Boars team and their coach had cycled to the caves after a training session. They were reported missing by one of their mothers on 23 June and were not found until 2 July. The cave complex is 6 miles long and heavy rain has flooded the caves making it extremely difficult to reach them. The rescue operation has begun, and 4 boys have, with the help of expert divers, reached safety, but it is a race against time because further monsoon rains are forecast.

The rescue operation, involving many people from many countries, is very complex and dangerous for both the rescuers and the boys and their coach. One diver, Saman Kunan, a former Thai navy seal, has already died from lack of air. All the divers who enter the caves know they are putting their lives at risk, but they are committed to doing everything they can in order to save the boys and their coach.

In a world of strife and conflict this rescue is an outstanding example of human courage, love and sacrifice. The rescuers don’t know the boys and their coach, they are strangers, but they are fellow human beings and their lives are precious. The rescue team are willing to use their skills, and risk their lives, in order to bring those trapped in the cave to safety. Many people around the world are praying they will be successful.

The message of the Bible is about the greatest rescue in history. Out of his great love, God sent his only Son, Jesus, into the world to be the Saviour by dying on the cross for our sins. Knowing Jesus as our Saviour brings great joy to our hearts. One hymn wonderfully expresses how every Christian feels about Jesus, their Saviour. “He held the highest place above, adored by all the sons of flame, yet such his self-denying love, he laid aside his crown and came to seek the lost, and, at the cost of heavenly rank and earthly fame, he sought me – Blessed be his Name! Then dawned at last that day of dread when, desolate but undismayed, with wearied frame and thorn-crowned head he, now forsaken and betrayed, went up for me to Calvary, and dying there in grief and shame he saved me – Blessed be his Name!”