Old Hope in the New Year

The ball has dropped, the fireworks have burst, the toasts were raised, and it is now Day One of a New Year.

I don’t know about you, but 2016 has been a year I am happy to move on from.  Almost from the beginning, it seemed to be shaping into a year of pain.  Sometimes we saw that in the loss of beloved individuals in the entertainment industry.  Sometimes we saw it around the world in the sufferings caused by terrorism or the panic of families fleeing their homes.  In our own country we saw it in one shooting after another that broke or embittered the hearts of everyone.  My home congregation recently experienced it in the loss of two precious members.  So the heaviness of last year was a load I was happy to leave behind at last night’s last hour.

But even with the sense and desire of a fresh start, there is no guarantee that the New Year will be a great year.  More than optimism and resolutions are required.  So as Christians looking to put our best foot forward in the New Year, our faith must look backwards to a very old hope.

There’s a phrase in the Bible I want to familiarize you with; that phrase is “Ancient of Days”.  It’s a phrase that references the LORD God’s eternal existence and sovereign lordship.  It occurs only three times in the Bible and all three of those occurrences are in Daniel 7.  This is significant because at this moment, the prophet Daniel, along with his people, had been exiled to a foreign empire in the faraway land of Babylon, which itself would soon fall to the rising Persian Empire.  As both an exile and a favored court advisor, Daniel had a front-row seat to the crossroads of history and changing civilizations.  It was in this period that God gave Daniel a vision of the future where a Son of Man would appear before the Ancient of Days to receive a Kingdom that would never pass away and that would come to hold good dominion over all peoples and rulers of the Earth.

We believe the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the cornerstone upon which God’s Kingdom is being built; but I also want to draw your attention to the One from whom the Son receives the Kingdom—the Ancient of Days.  The LORD God, who has existed from before Day One, has lordship over all things throughout all time unto Day None.  God possesses lordship over history.  Every good and redemptive thing Christ affects through his Kingdom rule has its origin in the Father who holds all history in His good and holy hands.

Our hope for the New Year is a very old one.  Because God is Lord over history, the hope that holds our hearts transcends history.  In knowing that and entrusting ourselves to God, we are able to put our best foot forward in such a way that gives witness to the One who is not only shaping a New Year, but a future of newness that revolves around the King who sits upon his throne saying “Behold, I am making all things new”.

What theme will steer your year?

Yesterday our family engaged in a yearly tradition that is not exactly timeless—we purchased our 2016 calendars.

As I browsed the mall kiosk I wondered what I wanted to spend the next year looking at. Obviously a calendar is great for keeping one organized, but the pictures have a way of thematically inspiring that organization. I wanted a series of pictures or themes that would correlate with what I want to do or be about this year. But what theme would help me bide my time and steer my year?calendar

I ignored the calendars of swimsuit models; fantasies, especially corrupting ones, are not a good way to start a year fresh. Since cars are depreciating transportation boxes, I ignored the car calendars also. If I want to look at a dog, I would purchase a bulldog and name him Winston; so no dog calendars. And having a movie calendar is a great way to eventually hate the movie, so I wasted no time there, either.

I did, however, spend some time considering the location calendars. Perhaps one of Ireland to wet my thirst for the Emerald Isle; or possibly one of Germany to appreciate my ancestral heritage. Maybe the Wisconsin calendar to keep connected to home; or the Milwaukee calendar for a mixture of home and heritage. Maybe the Great Lakes calendar to remember my Michigan roots. Or perhaps just a calendar of America’s most scenic landscapes.

Though I most leaned toward the Ireland calendar, ultimately these location themes weren’t doing it for me. Like Gandalf said, “The world is not in your books and maps [or calendars]; it’s out there.” If I want to see places, I’ll try to visit them. If I want 2016 to be a year of substance, it will depend on what I do.

The calendar I eventually chose featured a fine selection of Vincent Van Gogh paintings; he’s my favorite painter. I chose it because I want 2016 to be a year of creativity. Every time I see it this year, I want to be reminded that life and beauty is significantly seen in what we make. Van Gogh took everyday scenes and depicted them in a way that, um, made an impression. He showed how the average is astounding.

Whether creativity lets us bring something to life or awaken others to life, it certainly enables us to encounter life. I want to fill my 2016 with that kind of creativity.

I don’t know what theme will steer your year, but get one, because life is not about nothing. I hope your theme moves you to dig deep into yourself, mining for golden treasures just waiting to be discovered and shared.

Happy New Year!

Advent VI: When Hope Comes Home

IMG_4683When Luke started his Advent story, he began in the temple, which for the Jewish faithful was home. It had been rebuilt centuries earlier by returning exiles to signal God’s hope was alive in the homeland. Hope was in short supply, however, “in the days of Herod”. Amidst expanding empires, Israel’s role in civilization had diminished; and when Rome subjugated the Jews by way of occupying the land and violating the temple’s sanctity, labeling the Jews as atheists and offering a pig on the altar, this place of God’s presence now seemed all but a fading relic of God’s past glory. But hope always defies the way things seem, bubbling beneath the surface, going against the grain.

Luke writes “And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him.”

While the ways of the world trailed off in various diverging directions, Simeon kept himself to the way of the LORD as established in His words. It is a way that transforms how we perceive life and God at work within it. It was a way that brought Simeon into God’s presence and permeated his spirit with hope. “And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.”

The hope God gives is not abstract, like some floating wisp of ideas detached from reality, but always connected to the world in which we live. God had promised Simeon he would one day see his Messiah; not a conceptual figure or representation of idealism, but a person whose life would be all about God’s salvation. The hope that held Simeon’s heart all his days would be a human who was so much more than that.

One day God’s presence moved Simeon to enter the temple, this place he and so many others longed for God to glorify. He was about to discover God’s presence had just returned. Jesus had been born about forty days earlier; now on this day his parents had brought him to the temple in Jerusalem “to present him to the LORD”. Sometime during their visit, their path crossed with Simeon’s. A lifetime lived upon the way of the LORD had led Simeon right to Jesus; “…then he took Him into his arms…” The hope that held his heart for so many years Simeon now held in his arms. A life of waiting, hoping, and anticipating now culminated in this baby as God’s past glory visited Simeon’s present with a glimpse of a glorious future.

Captivated by wonder, Simeon “blessed God, and said, ‘Now Lord, You are releasing Your bondservant to depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.’”

In this tiny infant Simeon saw his entire life story reach a climax that made his every moment worth the wait. Everyone sees death; not everyone sees Life. Having hopefully seen it from a distance all his days, he now beheld it before him, savored it, and was satisfied in the heavenly peace that saturated him. The hope that was somewhere out there had come home. But not just for Simeon.

This salvation he saw had been prepared amidst “all peoples” for “all peoples”. Drawing on Isaiah’s messianic imagery, Simeon likens this little one to light that will both reveal God to the Gentiles and return glory to Israel’s story. Like Simeon, Israel’s story was reaching its climax in this advent of its Messiah. Israel had always thought of the days of Solomon as their golden years, when God’s great glory filled the temple; bygone days that were mournfully missed. But now here in the infant Jesus, the infinite incarnate, the perfect image of the Father, God’s great glory has returned to the temple. This place of God’s past glory has become the place of God’s present glory; a glory that will shine out salvation throughout the world’s future.

Jesus has arrived; our Advent story has concluded. But Simeon offers one final comment to an amazed Mary and Joseph: “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed…to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

As Jesus would eventually affect all life in Israel, he would inevitably do the same throughout the world. Being either a step to raise others up or a snag over which others would fall, who Jesus is reveals who we really are. The person of Jesus forces us all to show our true colors. How we respond to him reveals where we stand with him.

Historically, globally, and communally, that puts all Jesus-followers in the place of Simeon—waiting, hoping, anticipating. Waiting for God to work His salvation out upon this world, hoping in God’s Spirit to remain faithful witnesses to His salvation, and anticipating the Second Advent of Jesus our Messiah.

Jesus was brought home to the temple to be presented to the LORD that the LORD may present Jesus to the world. Hope had returned to the home that had been lacking its hearth. But the home is a haven just for momentary respite, a harbor to ready the ship to sail again. Hope went home so that hope would again set out to visit homes, hearts, and lives.

I pray that as your Advent season concludes and you begin a New Year, Christ-centered hope will attend, keep, and cultivate you all your days. Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”