Ten years ago this week, Ipswich became the focus of the world’s media, as a serial killer murdered five women, their bodies being found in woodlands along at A14 south of Ipswich over a period of ten days leading up to 12 Dec 2006. Kesgrave, the community in which we lived on the east side of Ipswich, and where I was pastor, was caught in the media bubble that descended on us. The BBC News broadcast every news bulletin live from Suffolk police headquarters a mile from our house, and even Fox News joined in the live media scrum. The murders lifted the lid on the dark underside of our town, as all five women were addicted to hard drugs and worked as prostitutes. One of them I recognised – she had grown up in the neighbourhood of the church in a lovely family, and as a child had come to our Church’s Holiday Bible Club. All too easily she had become addicted to hard drugs and all the rest followed.
The following Sunday I ditched my sermon series and preached, through tears, the following sermon. Below this sermon I’ve posted an update on what is happening in Ipswich today to help rescue women from drugs and prostitution, through the remarkable project, Talitha Koum.
A sermon preached by Jim Sayers at Kesgrave Baptist Church on Sunday morning, Dec 17th 2006
God’s Compassion for Ipswich – Jonah 4:11
Ipswich is a beautiful town. Situated astride the beautiful river Orwell, between Constable country and the beautiful forests and beaches of the Suffolk coast. Under our vast Suffolk sky, this is a wonderful place to live. We are so privileged. Ipswich has become an exciting place to live. With the regeneration of the waterfront, and the coming of the University, there is so much promise. Here in Kesgrave we have a great quality of life: lovely homes to live in, a beautiful environment, low crime – occasionally I have left my car unlocked on the driveway overnight without it being stolen. On Friday morning I stood in the playground at Cedarwood School, and saw the beauty of the sun rising in a softly dappled sky, and then I realised that it was rising over the villages of Nacton and Levington. [The villages of Nacton and Levington, just a couple of miles south of Kesgrave, were where the final victim’s bodies were found.] I thought: ‘How can such a despicable evil come to a place as beautiful as this?’
Suddenly we find ourselves inside the media bubble, with satellite vans and familiar faces broadcasting live from the places we know so well. We are experiencing what Soham and Dunblane have been through before. A criminal has lifted a lid on our town, and shown us what it can be like. In one sense we are not altogether surprised. We know that the culture of drugs and alcohol in this town, in a pattern repeated across the country, has gone downhill in the last ten years. Ipswich is a different place at night, and we fear for our young people in a town that is drinking itself into the gutter. With the alcohol that comes with nightclubbing come recreational drugs. With them come hard drugs, and with heroin and crack cocaine comes a terrible addiction. For some women addicts with addiction comes prostitution. For too long we have tried to pretend that it isn’t happening, that it doesn’t matter, that it isn’t our problem, that the police will sort it out. Now a terrible series of crimes have asked some searching questions.
On Thursday night the shops of Ipswich were open late for Christmas shopping, but they said the shoppers were finding it hard to be festive. Is there a sense that Christmas seems inappropriate in this mood, with the media camped out on our doorsteps hungry for bad news? But I want to say: No, we will celebrate Christmas here, and we will do it for the best reason. For the coming of Jesus is the coming of a Saviour, a rescuer for the lost, the coming of light into a dark world. If ever there was a time to be proclaiming the message of Jesus, it is now. So this morning there are four things I want to proclaim.
- The coming of Jesus reminds us of evil.
That seems a strange thing to say, having been to a nativity play this week! Surely we want to think about nice things this Christmas. But the problem of evil is at the heart of the name of Jesus. The angel said to Joseph ‘you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ (Matt 1:21) The following chapter describes a terrible evil: King Herod wanting to kill the baby Jesus, and slaughtering the so-called ‘holy innocents’, the children of Bethlehem. Simmering below the surface of the pretty Christmas story is the reality of evil. Why did Jesus have to come into the world? Because we need rescuing from the slavery and evil of sin. People have said this week that the man who is committing these murders is an animal. I choose to disagree. Certainly he may be mentally unbalanced, but we need to remember that there is a terrible potential for evil in the human heart. Look at what is happening in Baghdad, in the West Bank and Gaza. When people are brutalised by war they commit the most terrible acts of hatred. Civilised nations can engineer a holocaust. Why? Because there is in all of us what the Bible calls ‘the flesh’, a sinful nature. What tempts men to drive into Ipswich and keep these girls in business? It is sinful desires. (Why is it that we hear so little about the men who fuel this trade?) The same sinful desires are in all of us. The girls who were murdered were not worse than other women. There are not two classes of people: good women and bad women, or good men and murderers. We are all men and women, sinners before a holy God. The Bible says we are all born ‘dead in trespasses and sins.’ That is why, in our nice family lives, in our nice clothes on a suburban Sunday morning we need Jesus, as much as the girls who work at night in the town, and as much as the murderer.
The coming of Jesus reveals God’s compassion.
We can be tempted to say ‘This situation is too horrible for us to do anything.’ We can sit back and do nothing. God could have done that with us. But God is a God of compassion, who has a huge heart for the lost. He shows that to us again and again in the Bible. Turn to the Book of Jonah, a story people know so well, except that so often we miss the point of the final chapter. Jonah has been saved by the whale from drowning and vomited onto dry land. He sets off on his original mission from God, to go to the Assyrian city of Ninevah and preach a message of judgement. The problem for Jonah is that he can’t cope with what comes next: the King and the people humble themselves in sackcloth and ashes, and God in his compassion spares them. Jonah goes outside the city, sits under the shade of a vine and wants to die. Why did God spare this city? Does he have a heart for places like this? As Jonah wrestles with these questions, during the night a vine weevil eats through the stem of the vine and it dies. In the morning Jonah is more concerned about his vine that has died than he is about the people of Ninevah. This is God’s reply. ‘Should I not be concerned about that great city?’ (Jonah 4:11) Of course he should. That is the heart of our God. As I have thought about these words, they say to me that this is what God feels about Ipswich. We shouldn’t say ‘Why didn’t God stop this?’ Why do we always blame evil on God? Why don’t we blame it on Satan, and remember that the Bible reveals God as a God of compassion. The coming of Jesus to earth is the measure of God’s love for us. ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…’ Jesus had time for prostitutes and tax collectors who turned to him for mercy. He said ‘I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.’ ‘The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.’ Paul says ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.’ The message of the coming of Jesus is that when God looks at the tragedy we are living through, he is filled with compassion.
- The coming of Jesus is about incarnation.
Incarnation means someone from outside coming to us, to identify with us and be one of us. Jesus left behind the glory of heaven to identify with the lowly and despised. In much the same way God had said to Jonah ‘Go to the great city…’ Go to the city that revolts you with its idolatry and wickedness. When I think of the young people of Kesgrave and Ipswich, I can’t help feeling that we have failed them. Young people hang out on the streets because they have nothing to do; no one takes an interest in them, and along comes someone who gets them hooked on drugs. One of the victims was a young woman who grew up here in Kesgrave. Which young person will it be who gets hooked on drugs next year? Our friend Peter Parkinson was a pastor in Leeds, in a church that ran an active children’s and youth work. One day he had to go to court as a witness, and when he got there he saw a police van emptying its contents of young offenders into the Magistrates court. They were the young people who had been through their youth work, now doing drugs, and thieving. Peter realised that it was one thing to preach the gospel to young people, it was another to live beside them and share the love of Jesus with them, which is how they came to found Caring For Life, a charity that runs homes for vulnerable adults, and supports large numbers of people in the community who come from a background of crime, drugs and abuse. That is incarnation, and that is what Ipswich needs if we are to make an impact on the social problems that are hidden in our town. What such people need is one more wonderful thing:
- The coming of Jesus is about redemption.
Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus uses the word ‘redeem’ again and again. We hear that word surprisingly often, perhaps without understanding its meaning. Mostly people speak about redeeming themselves, as though by our own efforts we can make ourselves right with the world and with God. No wonder then, that women who have fallen into addiction and prostitution consider themselves beyond redemption. But Jesus came to be a redeemer of the helpless and hopeless. In the Bible, to redeem means to buy someone else out of their slavery. The slave can’t do anything to change their situation. That is exactly where the young drug addicts of Ipswich are. We need to get alongside such people and tell them that there is one person who can redeem them from their empty way of life. Jesus by his death can take away their guilt, and by his life he can transform them and give them a life they never dreamed would be possible. Have you been watching Monty Don’s programme about his farm for drug addicts, where he is using farming to wean young people off drugs and give them a new beginning? He is doing a great job. I am 100% behind what he is doing, but there is one thing he doesn’t have so far as I can see: the good news of redemption. God has given us this vast and powerful gospel that changes lives, that sets the captives free, and now we know they are all around us.
This week has been the worst week of our lives here in Ipswich. I have wept for Ipswich this week. And yet, this Christmas could be a new beginning. This extraordinary week could be the watershed of something big. We must not pass up this opportunity and make lots of excuses for doing nothing. I believe that God is calling us to act, to follow the example of Caring For Life in Leeds, to come to the most ruined lives here in Ipswich and share with them the love of Jesus, and say to them, you too can find redemption. This Christmas that is the good news of the coming of Jesus.
Ipswich in 2016
We moved away to Oxfordshire as a family a couple of years later, but by that stage plans were already afoot among local churches to open a Christian Centre to reach women caught in addiction. It has taken a long time to raise the funds, but on 1 Dec 2016 the mayor of Ipswich cut the ribbon on the new Talitha Koum Hope Centre in a village near Ipswich. TK is an Ipswich-based Christian charity whose mission is to reach out with compassion and practical support to women struggling with addictions. If you are thinking of supporting one good cause this Christmas, can I encourage you to back the vital work they are doing, and to pray that they are able to recruit a team of staff to run the new centre so that Talitha Koum can become a Centre of hope that embodies Romans 12:21 ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’