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THE PYJAMA GAME (Easter Day 2020)

PJs

My friend John is the Minister of a large Baptist Church in south London. He is also a bit of a ‘card’, a character, with a wicked sense of humour. The other year he turned up at his Church on Easter Sunday, and conducted the whole Morning Service, wearing his pyjamas, dressing gown, and slippers!? Typically Baptist, his very respectable congregation made no comment at all during the Service, apart from the odd raised eyebrow and questioning look here and there.

John’s Easter Sunday sermon was based on the words of the angel to the women who came to Jesus’ tomb that very first Easter Morning to anoint his body: ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay!’ (Matthew 28:5,6). It was a rousing declaration of the fact that Jesus is not dead but very much alive – someone whom we can all come to know for ourselves today in a personal way through the agency of God’s Spirit.

At the conclusion of the Service John addressed his congregation: ‘No one has questioned my attire this morning but after this Service I’m sure you will all be talking about it! You will go home and tell your family and friends, “You’ll never believe it but our Minister took the whole Service on Easter Sunday dressed in his pyjamas, dressing gown and slippers!” And your family and friends will respond, “Go on with you! He never did. You are joshing us.” But it’s true … I did take the whole Service dressed in my pyjamas, dressing gown and slippers. And if you tell people what I preached about today – the fact that Jesus is not dead but risen and very much alive; someone who we can all come to know for ourselves – their response will probably be, “Go on with you! He never did. You are joshing us.” But it’s true nonetheless!’

So, all together now …

I serve a risen Saviour
He’s in the world today.
I know that He is living,
Whatever men may say.
I see His hand of mercy;
I hear His voice of cheer;
And just the time I need Him
He’s always near.

He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way.
He lives, He lives, salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know He lives?
He lives within my heart.

In all the world around me
I see His loving care,
And though my heart grows weary,
I never will despair;
I know that He is leading,
Through all the stormy blast;
The day of His appearing
Will come at last.

Rejoice, rejoice, O Christian,
Lift up your voice and sing
Eternal hallelujahs
To Jesus Christ the King!
The Hope of all who seek Him,
The Help of all who find,
None other is so loving,
So good and kind.

~ Alfred Henry Ackley (1887-1960)

Jim Binney

 

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SHOPPING WITH DEBBIE McGEE (Views from the Abbey 11)

Debbie McGee-t

Last Sunday I went shopping with Debbie McGee, the real live English television, radio and stage performer who is best known as the assistant and widow of magician Paul Daniels and was a finalist in BBC’s 2017 Strictly Come Dancing. We met in the town centre after I had been to church and Debbie had finished her Sunday morning show for BBC Radio Berkshire. Well, actually this is a slight exaggeration on my part. True, I was in Reading town centre after church – I had to collect some medication from Boots the Chemist – and I found myself standing next to Debbie in the queue. I actually didn’t speak to her – I think that it is difficult enough for well-known TV personalities to be out and about trying to get on with trying to live an ordinary life without the hoi polloi looking at them, talking to them, or pestering them for autographs or selfies. But … technically I was shopping with Debbie McGee.  

Thinking about this later, and reflecting on my time in church earlier that day, I found myself wondering how many people’s relationship with Jesus is like mine with Debbie McGee? I’m not just thinking of Abbey folk, or people in Reading per se, but everyone anywhere. I once wrote an article entitled: ‘Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!’ in which I implied that our tendency to ‘busyness’ (particularly the Protestant work ethic ethos) could actually be a barrier to having an intimate personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I wasn’t suggesting that ‘good works’ were not important for us to do, simply that they were meant to be the fruit of a living relationship with God in Jesus and not a means to finding such a relationship (as the Apostle Paul makes clear in Ephesians 2:8-10). On lady was so incensed at what I had written she really laid into me: ‘I want you to know’ she said, ‘that my whole Christian life is based on doing good works!’  And, of course it was true of this particular lady! She was an activist. She was on the go all the time doing this and that to help others (whether they needed help or not). There was little I could say to defend myself or my opinion. Interestingly enough, however, a short time later her circumstances changed which meant that she had to give up virtually all of her many activities. A few months later she came to see me and apologised for her initial reaction to what I had written. ‘You were right and I was wrong!’ she confessed. ‘When I actually stopped doing all the things I was doing’ she told me, ‘I suddenly realised that I actually didn’t have an intimate relationship with Jesus … in fact I didn’t really know him at all!’ That marked a turning point in her life. Later still her circumstances changed  and she was able to pick up various activities once again. This time, however, they didn’t get in the way of her newfound intimate relationship with Jesus. She made sure that they were ‘those good works God had prepared beforehand for her to do’ (Ephesians 2:10) and not just any kind of good works born of activism.

I wonder how many people profess faith in God, or ‘go to church’, or use all the right religious language, etc., etc. but whose actually relationship with Jesus Christ is rather like mine with Debbie McGee? I knew who she was, I actually stood right next to her, but I didn’t speak to her, I didn’t communicate with her in any way, I couldn’t call her my friend, I don’t have any kind of close relationship with her? Over the years I have noticed that there a lot of people (including professing Christians) who talk about ‘religion’ or ‘church’ but who never talk about Jesus? When I have asked them to tell me something about their own ‘faith journey’ they will talk about ‘church’ but rarely about ‘Jesus’ as someone they know personally or intimately. Eadie was a lady in my first church. She had been a church member for 40 years but had never ever come to know Jesus in a personal way. She came to see me after church one Sunday and confessed as much. We prayed together and she made a personal commitment of her life to Jesus Christ, asking him to become her Saviour and Lord and take over her life. A few months later she was baptised by full immersion and told her story to the whole church. Over the years I have seen a number of ‘Eadie’s’ swap belief in ‘church’ for faith in ‘Christ’!

This Sunday is my 29th wedding anniversary. I know Julia intimately and love her more with each passing day. NB. Readers worried about me meeting Debbie McGee in Boots will be pleased to know that Julia was also with me at the time (along with several hundred other people). God doesn’t want us to be ‘religious’, or just ‘churchy’ (although active membership of a lively, active, God-honouring church is to be commended), he wants us to have a daily, close, intimate relationship with his Son.  This, of course, is one of the essential points that Jesus himself makes in his ‘Parable of the Vine and the Branches’. This is what he said: ‘Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me. I am the Vine; you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown on the bonfire. But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon. This is how my Father shows who he is—when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples. I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love. That’s what I’ve done—kept my Father’s commands and made myself at home in his love’ (John 15:4-10 The Message).

Jim Binney

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20-20 VISION (New Year, 2020)

20-20 Vision

My late mother had a favourite pair of spectacles. She had had them for years. They were so scratched that they were like opaque glass and I’m quite sure that she couldn’t see much out of them at all. But she loved them. They were her very favourites. Worried about her inability to see anything at all through them we finally persuaded her to have an eye test and purchase some new spectacles. Some weeks later I went to see her only to discover that the new spectacles remained in their case and she was back wearing her old spectacles. ‘Why aren’t you wearing your new specs?’ I asked her. ‘Well the new ones are very nice’ she replied, ‘but I still prefer my old ones!’

This story sadly illustrates the struggle that many churches are going through as they face the challenge to transition from an old fashioned, outdated way of being church to something more relevant that not only continues to honour God but impacts society around us. Something that is edgy, something that is ‘where the rubber hits the road’, something that ‘scratches where people itch’. By this I don’t mean change for the sake of change or compromising on Biblical truth or watering down the essential Gospel message. I simply mean recovering the cutting-edge lifestyle and missional impact that characterised the New Testament Church. The secret of success, it has been said, is to discern what God is doing in our day and get into it. We know all this as Church – we know that we need to change, to grasp the nettle, to experience a fresh anointing of God’s Spirit – but many of us struggle with all this because we remain attached to the past in the wrong way. We need to recognise that there is a big difference between possessing a godly heritage and being stuck in a dead tradition. Ray Hughes aptly sums up this struggle to transition (for both individuals and churches) when he speaks of the inner battle ‘when old knowings are still alive and are whispering their dying breath while the new day is already born but unable to speak clearly enough to be understood’.

In his sermon to the masses in Jerusalem on that first Day of Pentecost in the Christian era, the Apostle Peter quotes the Prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days and they will prophesy’ (Acts 2:17,18). Essentially ‘seeing visions’ and ‘dreaming dreams’ are the same thing here. It is all about having prophetic insight into the way forward for God’s people. The Apostle Paul is clear that God has a plan, a purpose for each one of us. To the Ephesians he speaks of the fact that ‘[God] has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago’ (Ephesians 2:10 NLT) and to the Romans of the fact that we ‘are called according to [God’s] purpose for [us]’ (Romans 8:28 NLT). So, at the beginning of yet another year we all need to resolve (both as individuals and churches) to prayerfully discern God’s plans and purposes for us and engage with them in a meaningful and progressive way. And … just one final note … let’s not procrastinate over the doing of this. Habakkuk encourages us that ‘If [the vision] seems slow in coming, wait patiently, for it will surely take place (Habakkuk 2:3) and by this he means wait patiently and prayerfully on God not procrastinate once God has showed us the way we should go and has given us the green light to get on with things. Too many of us, individuals and churches, are guilty of the wrong kind of delay here. I have to confess that I am never at a loss to know what God is saying to me, or knowing what he requires of me … my problem is doing it! I am sure that I am not alone in this.

Some time ago I was in conversation with a church and the fact that they had received a vision from God came up in the conversation. The church in question was set at the top of the town and seemingly God had spoken to them about rivers of living water (see John 7:38) welling up within the church and flowing out from the church building down into the town, along the High Street, and blessing the whole community. The people telling me the story were very excited about this vision and were praying fervently for understanding as to what it meant and for it to be fulfilled. I confess that I got excited for them thinking that this was something very recent for them. I asked them when they had received this vision. ‘Oh! About 20-25 years ago’ they replied? It was clear that God had put all kinds of ideas into their hearts at that time but instead of ‘putting feet to their prayers’ they had sat on this prophetic vision and missed out on so much.

Contrast this with the approach and attitude of the famous missionary to China, Gladys Aylward.  Born in London c. 1904 Gladys worked for several years as a parlour maid. One evening she attended a revival meeting at which the preacher spoke of dedicating one’s life to the service of God. Gladys responded to the message, and soon became convinced that she was called to preach the Gospel in China. At the age of 26, she became a probationer at the China Inland Mission Centre in London but was deemed unsuitable for missionary work. She worked at other jobs and saved her money. Then she heard of a 73-year-old missionary, Mrs Jeannie Lawson, who was looking for a younger woman to carry on her work. Gladys wrote to Mrs Lawson and was accepted if she could get to China. She did not have enough money for the ship fare, but did have enough for the train fare, and so in October 1930 she set out from London with her passport, her Bible, her tickets, and two pounds ninepence, to travel to China by the Trans-Siberian Railway, despite the fact that China and the Soviet Union were engaged in an undeclared war. She arrived in Vladivostok and sailed from there to Japan and from Japan to Tientsin, and then by train, bus, and mule, to the inland city of Yangchen, in the mountainous province of Shansi, a little south of Peking (Beijing). Most of the residents had seen no Europeans other than Mrs Lawson and now Miss Aylward. They distrusted foreigners and were not disposed to listen to them. Yangchen was an overnight stop for mule caravans that carried coal, raw cotton, pots, and iron goods on six-week or three-month journeys. It occurred to the two women that their most effective way of communicating the Good News of Jesus would be to set up an inn. The building in which they lived had once been an inn, and with a bit of repair work could be used as one again. They laid in a supply of food for mules and men, and when next a caravan came past, Gladys dashed out, grabbed the reins of the lead mule, and turned it into their courtyard. It went willingly, knowing by experience that turning into a courtyard meant food and water and rest for the night. The other mules followed, and the muleteers had no choice. They were given good food and warm beds at the standard price, and their mules were well cared for, and there was free entertainment in the evening – the innkeepers told stories about a man named Jesus. After the first few weeks, Gladys did not need to kidnap customers – they turned in at the inn by preference. Some became Christians, and many of them (both Christians and non-Christians) remembered the stories and retold them more or less accurately to other muleteers at other stops along the caravan trails. Shortly after this Jeannie had a fall and sadly died a few days later but Gladys, in obedience to her God-given vision, carried on with the plan and purpose that God had called her to … and the rest (of Gladys’ story), as they say, is history! Gladys could say, along with the Apostle Paul, ‘I obeyed that vision from heaven’ (Acts 26:19 NLT)!

Jim Binney

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ADVENT LOVE (Advent 4, 2019)

Advent 4 Love

One of the greatest theologians that ever lived, Karl Barth, was asked to be a guest lecturer at the University of Chicago Divinity School. At the end of a captivating closing lecture, the President of the seminary announced that Dr Barth was not well and was quite tired, and though he thought that Dr Barth would like to be open for questions, he shouldn’t be expected to handle the strain. Then he said, ‘Therefore, I will ask just one question on behalf of all of us.’ He turned to the renowned theologian and asked, ‘Of all the theological insights you have ever had, which do you consider to be the greatest of them all?’ It was the perfect question for a man who had written literally tens of thousands of pages of some of the most sophisticated theology ever put into print. The students held pencils right up against their writing pads, ready to take down verbatim the premier insight of the greatest theologian of their time. Karl Barth closed his tired eyes, and he thought for a minute, and then he half smiled, opened his eyes, and said to those young seminarians, ‘The greatest theological insight that I have ever had is this: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”’

Love is at the very heart of the Advent/Christmas Season. The Apostle John, writing many, many years after the birth of Jesus Christ (and after many, many years of reflecting on the coming of Christ in human form) summed it up like this, ‘This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him’ (1 John 4:9). John here in this passage (vs. 7-12) does not separate the Incarnation from the Passion but clearly sees both these events as the head and tail of the same coin. He sees God’s gift of his Son as being to both the Manger and the Cross. As John tells us here, ‘This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (v.10).

In the Greek language (the language of the New Testament) there are various different words for ‘love’ (in contrast to the English language), and the word John uses for ‘love’ here is indicative of the highest form of love – a love that gives and gives unconditionally and is not dependent upon the response it receives. It reminds us of John’s reflective comment in his Gospel on Jesus’ sacrificial love at Calvary: ‘God loved the whole world so much that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him will not perish but receive eternal life, For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the whole world but that the whole world might find abundant and eternal life in and through him’ (John 3:16,17).

John goes on to remind us here that not only are we to be the recipients of this Godly love but sharers of it also: ‘Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another’ (v.11). In our daily devotions during Advent Julia and I have been using the excellent Journey to Christmas material produced by a team from 24-7 Prayer. This last week we have thought a lot about Joseph – one of the unsung heroes in the Nativity narrative – and his selfless love for Mary. As such, he is an example to us all, of the importance not only of receiving God’s love but sharing it with others.

‘If I speak in the tongues of Christmas materialism and greed but have not love, I am only a tinny Christmas song or an out of tune choir. If I have the gift of knowing what Aunt Agatha will give me this year and can even understand last year’s present, and if I have the faith that I won’t get yet more socks and ties this year but have not love, I am nothing. If I clear out the house and give everything to charity and my credit cards are snapped in half but have not love, what can I possibly gain? Love is patient when the fourth store you’ve tried doesn’t have a bottle garden. Love is kind and lets the couple with only a few items go in front of you and your bulging shopping cart. Love does not envy your friend who gets mega-presents from everybody. Love does not boast about the £400 bike, the Xbox 360, the TV, VCR, and computer your dad gave you. Love does not attempt to out buy, out wrap, and out give the rest of the family just to impress. Love doesn’t cut Aunt Flo off your Christmas card list because she forgot you last year. Love is not self-seeking and leaves a copy of your Christmas list in every room of the house. Love is not easily angered when the young girl at the checkout takes forever because she is just temporary staff. Love doesn’t keep remembering how many times your mum forgets you don’t like Brussels sprouts. Love does not delight in the commercial bandwagon but rejoices with the truth of a baby born in the stable. Love always protects the family from Christmas hype. Love always trusts that the hiding places for presents will remain secret for another year. Love always hopes that this year more neighbours will drop into your open house coffee morning. Love always perseveres until the cards are written, the presents all bought, the shopping done, and the Christmas cake iced. Toys may break, socks wear thin but love never fails. Where there is the feeling of the presents to guess their contents, and mum going on about being good so Father Christmas will come and searching through the cupboards to find your hidden presents, they will all stop. For we think we know what we are getting, and we hope we know what we are getting but when Christmas Day arrives all will be revealed. When I was a child I talked with big wide-open eyes about Christmas, thought that Christmas was all about me, I reasoned that Jesus should have been born more often. When I became an adult, I forgot the joy, wonder, and excitement of this special time. Now we just hear about the angels, shepherds, and wise men, then we shall see them all the time. Now I know as much as the Bible says about the first Christmas, then I shall know just how many wise men there were and where they came from. Now three things remain to be done: To have faith that the baby born in a stable is the Son of God. To hope that the true message of Christmas will not get discarded with the wrapping paper and unwanted gifts. And the most important to have a love for others like the one that God has for us.’ ~  Claire Jordan

Jim Binney

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ADVENT JOY (Advent 3: 2019)

Joy

The first Salvationists literally jumped with joy. General William Booth told them that if they felt the Holy Spirit move them they could leap in a hymn or a prayer. They leapt! Dr John Farmer, the organist at Harrow School, used to tell how he adjudicated once at a great music festival and heard a Salvation Army band in action. His musical soul was offended by the drummer and the man with the French horn. He is said to have appealed to the drummer not to hit the drum so hard, to which beaming bandsman replied, ‘Oh sir, I’m so happy I could burst the blessed drum!’ When Dr Farmer turned with a word of similar appeal to the man with the French horn the enthusiast held up the much-twisted instrument and said, ‘But Sir, I’m so full of joy I want to blow this thing quite straight!’

There are several words for ‘joy’ in the New Testament but the most common word (that has the same root as the word ‘grace’ perhaps giving us a clue as to the source of such joy) signifies an overwhelming sense of ‘gladness’ (in contrast to weeping and sorrow). Rick Warren helpfully defines Christian joy as ‘the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be alright, and the determined choice to praise God in every situation’. This kind of joy is at the very heart of the Advent/Christmas Season. When the angel announced the birth of the Christ-Child to the shepherds in the fields outside of Bethlehem he did so by announcing, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that is for all people’ (Luke 2:10) – the same kind of joy illustrated above. The Apostle Paul tells us in his Letter to the Galatians that this kind of joy is not something worked up from within, not something dependent on favourable circumstances, but something welling up from within born of God’s Spirit (Galatians 5:22,23). Difficult to describe such joy is a ‘felt experience’ that stems from the presence of the Holy Spirit at work within us in our hearts and lives. It is ‘better felt than tellt’ as a Scottish divine once put it.

The lot of these shepherds in the Nativity narrative was not a happy one. Their job was to look after the Temple flocks of sheep (used in ritual sacrifices) and they were held in low esteem even amongst their own people, considered unclean they were ostracised and excluded, and yet it was to such people that the ‘Good News’ was first announced (which should encourage us all, especially those of us who feel rejected by others or who suffer from low self-esteem). The supernatural origin of this joy we are speaking of here is evidenced by the fact that (having immediately gone to see this Child for themselves) they ‘returned glorifying and praising God for all the things they had seen and heard’ (Luke 2:20). What is more we too can experience such joy for ourselves because, as the angel announced, it is ‘for all people’ (Luke 2:10) and not just for the chosen few. As William Barclay suggests, ‘In a worried world the Christian should be the only person who remains serene. In a depressed world the Christian should be the only person who remains full of the joy of life. There should be a sheer sparkle about the Christian life!’ It is not only members of the Salvation Army that can ‘leap for joy’ … it is for all who will receive the good news of the Gospel for themselves.

Amy Carmichael (1867-1951) was a Protestant Christian missionary in India, who opened an orphanage and founded a mission in Dohnavur in India where she served in India for 55 years without furlough caring for hundreds of girls originally dedicated to temple service as prostitutes. For the last twenty years of her life she was bedridden. Rather than believing that her significant years were now over, and giving in to her circumstances, Carmichael actually was to discover that the best years of her life were ahead of her, such was her genuine joy in the Lord. During these twenty years she wrote many books that have blessed millions and entertained many visitors in her room. It is said that joy so filled her sick room that everyone who visited her came away praising God. In her book Gold by Moonlight, Carmichael testifies that ‘Where the things of God are concerned, acceptance always means the happy choice of mind and heart of that which He appoints, because (for the present) it is His good and acceptable and perfect will!’

O happy day that fixed my choice
On Thee, my Saviour and my God!

Well may this glowing heart rejoice,
And tell its raptures all abroad.

Happy day, happy day,
When Jesus washed my sins away!
He taught me how to watch and pray,
And live rejoicing every day;
Happy day, happy day,
When Jesus washed my sins away!

’Tis done—the great transaction’s done;
I am my Lord’s, and He is mine;
He drew me and I followed on,
Rejoiced to own the call divine.

Now rest, my long divided heart,
Fixed on this blissful centre, rest;
Here have I found a nobler part,
Here heav’nly pleasures fill my breast.

High heav’n that hears the solemn vow,
That vow renewed shall daily hear!
Till in life’s latest hour I bow,
And bless, in death, a bond so dear.

~ Philip Doddridge (1702-51)

Jim Binney

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ADVENT PEACE (Advent 2: 2019)

 

Christmas Peace

Telemachus was a monk who lived in the 4th century. He felt God saying to him, ‘Go to Rome’. He was in a cloistered monastery. He put his possessions in a sack and set out for Rome. When he arrived in the city, people were thronging in the streets. He asked why all the excitement and was told that this was the day that the gladiators would be fighting and killing each other in the coliseum, the day of the games, the circus. He thought to himself, ‘Four centuries after Christ and they are still killing each other, for enjoyment?’ He ran to the coliseum and heard the gladiators shouting, ‘Hail to Caesar! We die for Caesar!’ and he thought, ‘This isn’t right.’ He jumped over the railing and went out into the middle of the field, got between two gladiators, held up his hands and said, ‘In the name of Christ, forbear!’ The crowd protested and began to shout, ‘Run him through! Run him through!’ A gladiator came over and hit him in the stomach with the back of his sword. It sent him sprawling in the sand. He got up and ran back and again said, ‘In the name of Christ, forbear!’ The crowd continued to chant, ‘Run him through!’ One gladiator came over and plunged his sword through the little monk’s stomach and he fell into the sand, which began to turn crimson with his blood. One last time he gasped out, ‘In the name of Christ forbear!’ A hush came over the 80,000 people in the coliseum. Soon a man stood and left, then another and more, and within minutes all 80,000 had emptied out of the arena. It was the last known gladiatorial contest in the history of Rome.

Jesus taught us that ‘God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God’ (Matthew 5:9). Statistical evidence suggests that since 3,600 BC the world has known only 292 years of peace. During this period there have been 14,351 wars, large and small, in which 3.64 billion people have been killed. The value of property destroyed is equal to a gold belt around the world 97.2 miles wide and 33 feet thick. Since 650 BC there have also been 1,656 arms races, only 16 of which have not ended in war. The remainder ended in economic collapse of the countries involved. Having the wisdom to face the truth, however unpleasant it is, will bring us closer to peace, and we all need to recognise, as Eliezer Wiesel (1928-2016), the Jewish writer, academic, activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, suggests, ‘peace is not [just] God’s gift to his creatures, peace is our gift to each other!’ When it comes down to being peacemakers we are not spectators watching the game but players on the pitch. As Mother Teresa reminds us, ‘If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other!’

Peace is very much at the heart of the Advent/Christmas Season. When the angels announced the birth of the Christ-child to the shepherds guarding the Temple flocks in the fields outside Bethlehem they did so praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests’ (Luke 2:14). The Greek word for ‘peace’ used here signifies a very special kind of peace, ‘the peace that comes from knowing that our lives are held securely in the palm of God’s hand’. In order to genuinely be distributers of this special kind of peace – to be the blessed peacemakers’ Jesus exhorts us to be in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:9) – we have to first know ‘peace with God’ (Romans 5:1), the peace Jesus himself gives (John 14:27), that comes though personal faith in Jesus Christ. Only in this way can we know true peace ourselves and change our world into a place where peace is a priority.

Horatio Spafford (1828-1888) was a prominent American lawyer and Presbyterian church elder. He is best known for penning the Christian hymn It Is Well With My Soul the theme of which is knowing the kind of peace we have been talking about here. This hymn was written after a series of traumatic events in Spafford’s life. The first two were the death of his two-year-old son and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which ruined him financially (he had been a successful lawyer and had invested significantly in property in the area of Chicago that was extensively damaged by the great fire). His business interests were further hit by the economic downturn of 1873, at which time he had planned to travel to Europe with his family on the SS Ville du Havre. In a late change of plan, he sent the family ahead while he was delayed on business concerning zoning problems following the Great Chicago Fire. While crossing the Atlantic Ocean, the ship sank rapidly after a collision with another sea vessel and all four of Spafford’s daughters died. His wife Anna survived and sent him the now famous telegram, ‘Saved alone …’. Shortly afterwards, as Spafford travelled to meet his grieving wife, he was inspired to write these words as his ship passed near where his daughters had died. 

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Refrain
It is well, (it is well),
With my soul, (with my soul)
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life,
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.

But Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul.

And Lord, haste the day when faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
A song in the night, oh my soul!

~ Horatio Gates Spafford (1828-1888)

Jim Binney

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ADVENT HOPE (Advent 1: 2019)

Advent hope

Luke Veronis tells a deeply moving story of the Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union Solzhenitsyn spent many years in the prison camps of Siberia. Along with other prisoners he worked in the fields day after day, in rain and sun, during summer and winter. His life appeared to be nothing more than backbreaking labour and slow starvation. This intense suffering reduced him to a state of despair. On one particular day, the hopelessness of his situation became too much for him. He saw no reason to continue his struggle, no reason to keep on living. His life made no difference in the world. So he gave up. Laying his shovel on the ground, he slowly walked to a crude bench and sat down. He knew that at any moment a guard would order him to stand up, and when he failed to respond, the guard would beat him to death, probably with his own shovel. He had seen it happen to other prisoners. As he waited, head down, he felt a presence. Slowly he looked up and saw a skinny old prisoner squat down beside him. The man said nothing. Instead he used a stick to trace in the dirt the sign of the Cross. The man then got back up and returned to his work. As Solzhenitsyn stared at that Cross traced in the dirt, his entire perspective changed. He knew he was only one man against the all-powerful Soviet empire. Yet he knew there was something greater than the evil he saw in the prison camp, something greater than the Soviet Union. He knew that the hope for all people was represented by that simple Cross. Through the power of the Cross, anything was possible. Solzhenitsyn slowly rose to his feet, picked up his shovel, and went back to work. Outwardly, nothing had changed. Inside, he had received hope.

Seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ, Isaiah prophesied that when the Messiah, God’s chosen one, was born he would come as a servant not as dictator, as one anointed by God, one who would restore a sense of justice in an unjust world, one who would treat others with compassion and kindness, one who would inspire hope in human hearts and lives (Isaiah 42:1-4). It was this prophecy that Jesus applied to himself in the course of his public ministry (Matthew 12:15-21) in declaring himself to be that promised Messiah. And it was this wonderful truth that Mary recognised following the angelic revelation that she was to be mother of this unique child (Luke 1:26-38) which (despite all the challenges and difficulties she would have to face in embracing God’s plan and purpose for her life) led to her gloriously positive response known as the ‘Magnificat’ (Luke 1:46-55) which epitomises the wonderful God-given hope already referred to.

Although our English word ‘hope’ has essentially positive connotations we have something of a tendency here in the UK to dwell on what has been called the ‘darker side’ of hope seeing it largely as ‘a cruel and bitter emotion’ that ‘more often than not lets you down at the last’. Perhaps this has something to do with our Britishness and the inclination to see ourselves as glass half empty (rather than glass half full) people. In contrast to this the Bible underlines and affirms the positive nature of hope. There are various Hebrew words for ‘hope’ in the Old Testament but all of them (including the word Isaiah uses in Isaiah 42:4) are indicative of a positive spirit of ‘trusting in, waiting for, looking for, expecting something beneficial in the future’. Equally, the Greek word for ‘hope’ (that Matthew uses here in Matthew 12:21) is indicative of ‘a favourable and confident expectation with regard to the unseen and the future; a happy anticipation of good’. Hence Martin Luther famously translates the phrase ‘the God of hope’ (Roman 15:13) as ‘the God of the guarantee’.

Hope (along with Peace, Joy, Love and Light) is one of the major themes that runs through Advent Season, the four weeks leading up to Christmas (an ancient tradition dating at least as far back as the 5th century) during which the Church seeks to prepare the hearts and minds of its people for the coming of God’s Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. The word ‘Advent’ means ‘to come’ and the Advent season focuses on remembering Christ’s first coming at Christmas, but also anticipating his Second Coming and soon return. In this Advent season I will be sharing a series of short reflections on these various themes represented by the five candles on the Advent Wreath, a fairly recent tradition in church history, first devised by a German Pastor back in 1839 in response to the children at the mission school who would ask every day, ‘Is it Christmas yet?’ His original Advent Wreath was made it out of an old cartwheel he had lying around and actually had twenty-eight candles – twenty-four small red candles around the rim interspersed with four larger white candles. The children lit a new candle each day to help them count the days until Christmas. The larger candles were lit on Sundays and the smaller candles on the days in between. As the tradition spread the smaller candles were discarded in favour of a wreath with just the four larger candles and a fifth candle in the centre, the four outside candles are lit on each successive Sunday of Advent while the centre candle is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. There are various interpretations of the candles but the most common scheme is where the first candle represents hope, the second candle peace, the third candle joy, the fourth candle love and the fifth and centre candle representing Christ the Light of the World (John 8:12). Even though the Advent Wreath is a fairly new tradition in church history, these themes of hope, peace, joy and love stretch all the way back to the first Christmas and beyond. They are deeply rooted in Scripture, and so it is very appropriate to take some time each Advent season to reflect on these various themes in light of Scripture and the Christmas story.

Advent begins with hope and hope, as we have seen, is an important theme relating to the coming of Christ.  Our world is in desperate need of hope. Many people today live without hope or have given up on hope. But Jesus Christ came at Christmas to bring us hope, indeed ‘the mere sound of his name will signal hope, even among far-off unbelievers’ (Matthew 12:21 The Message).

The Advent/Christmas season is a wonderful season for so many reasons, but one of the most important reasons is the hope Christ brings to hopeless, helpless people like you and me. As Paul was able to testify: ‘Here’s a word you can take to heart and depend on: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. I’m proof—Public Sinner Number One—of someone who could never have made it apart from sheer mercy. And now he shows me off—evidence of his endless patience—to those who are right on the edge of trusting him forever’ (1 Timothy 1:15,16 The Message). And the way Jesus made this possible for us was not primarily through the manger but through the Cross. The Incarnation is only one side of the coin – Christ’s Passion is the other side – and both sides are essential. This, of course, is why the old man’s tracing of the sign of the Cross in the dirt proved to be the catalyst of renewed hope for Alexander Solzhenitsyn. As one of the (many) great quotes from one of my favourite films, the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, says: ‘Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free!’

Through the love of God our Saviour,
all will be well.
Free and changeless is his favour,
all, all is well.
Precious is the blood that healed us,
perfect is the grace that sealed us,
strong the hand stretched forth to shield us,
all must be well.

Though we pass through tribulation,
all will be well.
Ours is such a full salvation,
all, all is well.
Happy, still in God confiding,
fruitful, if in Christ abiding,
holy, through the Spirit’s guiding,
all must be well.

We expect a bright tomorrow,
all will be well.
Faith can sing through days of sorrow,
‘All, all is well.’
On our Father’s love relying,
Jesus every need supplying,
in our living, in our dying,
all must be well.

~ Mary Bowley Peters (1813-56)

Jim Binney

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