A new year message


  • It is freelance theology’s ninth anniversary this month. By way of celebration, here is a transcript of a Sunday talk Jon the freelance theologian gave at Glenwood Church on 6 January 2013.

    I’m always struck by how much fuss is made about New Year. We have the fireworks and the programmes on telly and it’s made out to be this big thing.

    But then I went back to work on Wednesday after having Christmas and New Year off and it didn’t take long for me to realise not much had changed. Yes, it’s a New Year, but when I got to my desk, all the stuff I didn’t quite get round to doing before Christmas was still there, waiting to be done.

    I’m sure whether it’s work, or college, or anything really, everyone here can relate to that feeling. It doesn’t take long for that New Year shine to wear off, does it?

    But however you are feeling right now as you look ahead to the coming year, take heart.

    We have a promise from Jesus, who told his disciples: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John chapter 16, verse 33)

    You may be feeling gloriously optimistic about 2013. This will be the year when everything will work out wonderfully for you. You’ll get that job, or that promotion, or that place in college, you’ll travel to far and exotic lands, you’ll experience new sights and sounds and wonders.

    Well, maybe nobody is that optimistic…

    Or maybe you feel pessimistic about 2013. Maybe you’re worried about whether you’ll have a job later this year. Maybe college or school isn’t going too well. Maybe it just already feels like the unremitting grind of 2013 is still the same old unremitting grind that 2012 was, even though we’re less than a week into the New Year.

    Hopefully nobody is that pessimistic. (If you are, then we need to pray for you)

    But wherever you’re coming from right now, I think we need to be careful how we think about the year, and I’d like to offer three suggestions from Scripture about how we should approach 2013 humbly and faithfully.

    We need to:

    1)    Avoid nostalgia

    2)    Know God will be with us, whatever happens, and as a result we will be able to

    3)    Face the future without fear

    Avoiding nostalgia

    Generation X Book cover

    It usually takes me a while to get round to reading books that have become famous for one reason or another.  In 2012 I read Generation X by Douglas Coupland.

    It’s a couple of decades old now, but I found it fascinating. There isn’t a story as such – it’s more of a pen picture of what it’s like to be on the cusp of a generation, to realise that you are growing older and you have a choice – to be true to yourself or to chase after all the bright and shiny things of the world. The problem is once you start down the route of wanting stuff, then that will end up consuming you.

    I wouldn’t recommend it to everybody, but I found it thought-provoking. Throughout the book there are also little additional slogans and one struck me really hard.

    “Nostalgia is a weapon.” – Slogan in Generation X by Douglas Coupland

    ‘Nostalgia’ actually means homesickness. It’s formed from two Greek, nostos, meaning ‘to return home’ and algios, meaning ‘pain’. It’s generally described as a longing or yearning for specific times in the past.

    Douglas Coupland thinks nostalgia is used by marketing people to try and sell you stuff. They try to remind you of the things you had when you were younger, and use your feelings of loss and sadness at the passing of time to persuade you to buy things.

    If you think this is a bit cynical, have a look at the adverts that appear before Christmas. They usually show ‘perfect Christmases’; they try and make you think of Christmas as you remember it when you were a kid. And you want to recapture that – perhaps you have a family of your own now and you want to make Christmas special for them.

    Some companies have basically run the same advert for years, to tap into that idea that Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without them.

    In Ecclesiastes chapter 7, verse 10, there is a warning to us about nostalgia. “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.”

    The problem with nostalgia is that in making us long for something that has gone and probably can’t be recaptured it leaves us dissatisfied with the present. Nostalgia distorts our view of the past – we forget about the disappointing Christmases, or how our parents got stressed out, or the arguments over what to watch on telly, back when most people only had one telly in the house.

    And so we are always trying to compare what is happening now with an unrealistic, idealised version of what went before. And we will always be let down.

    But if it makes us pessimistic about the present, nostalgia can really damage us when we are thinking about the future. This is where nostalgia can be a real weapon. I want to be careful how I phrase this, but the witness of the Bible is that when we declare our intentions to follow God, we are opposed by anything that opposes God.

    We have an enemy. And that enemy can use nostalgia as a weapon. Nostalgia makes us think that how things were in the past was so much better than how things are now. We begin to think that everything is getting worse than it was before.

    If we believe the world is progressively getting worse, then the future can seem a very dark place indeed.

    Knowing God will be with us

    The Shack book coverA couple of years ago I read a book called The Shack. It was one of those books that was suddenly very popular in Christian circles and then just as suddenly nobody was talking about it anymore.

    I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t read it, but the basic idea of the book is that the main character, Mack, goes through a personal tragedy, and afterwards meets three people, who might be God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

    I wouldn’t recommend reading The Shack for the story, but it does contain a lot of interesting ideas, and there was one bit that really challenged me. Mack is having a conversation with Jesus, and Jesus starts talking about Mack’s fears for the future. This is what he says:

    “Do you realize that your imagination of the future, which is almost always dictated by fear of some kind, rarely, if ever, pictures me there with you? … It is impossible for you to take power over the future because it isn’t even real, nor will it ever be real. You try and play God, imagining the evil that you fear becoming reality, and then you try and make plans and contingencies to avoid what you fear.

    “The person who lives by their fears will not find freedom in my love. I am not talking about rational fears regarding legitimate dangers, but imagined fears, and especially the projection of those into the future. To the degree that those fears have a place in your life, you neither believe I am good nor know deep in your heart that I love you. You sing about it; you talk about it, but you don’t know it.”

    ― ‘Jesus’ talking to Mack in The Shack by Wm. Paul Young

    I found that a very powerful piece of writing. If I’m not careful I can get caught up worrying about the future. And when I do, I picture the future exactly as Mack does in The Shack. I don’t picture it with God there too.

    I think that’s why I’ve always struggled with Jesus’ instruction in Matthew’s gospel not to worry.

    “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew chapter 6, verses 31-34)

    I used to find that very troubling. If I got worried, I felt bad because Jesus says we shouldn’t worry about the future. Then I’d get worried that I wasn’t a very good follower of Jesus. You know you have problems when you’re worried about being worried!

    But I think what Jesus is saying is not we shouldn’t think about the future. But that we shouldn’t think that we face it alone. Jesus says that our Father knows what we need today, and we need to trust that he’ll know what we need tomorrow.

    So, what can we do when we begin to get worried about the future? In Ephesians chapter 6, Paul encourages his fellow Christians to put on the armour of God, and then he says: “In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” (Ephesians 6.16)

    When we are assailed by doubts, when we feel weighed down by fears, when the future seems dark and uncertain, when our enemy is using nostalgia as a weapon against us, then it’s faith that protects us from those flaming arrows.

    And we have the evidence of those times that God has been with us to back up Jesus’ promise. My wife, Cathy, and I like the hymn Amazing Grace. There are a few different versions of Amazing Grace, but in one of the traditional versions there’s a verse that Cathy and I particularly like:

    Through many dangers, toils and snares

    I have already come;

    ‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far

    and Grace will lead me home.

    –         John Newton, Amazing Grace

     

    This is a statement of faith – that whatever befalls us – the dangers, toils, snares, if we recognise that God has brought us safe to this point, then God isn’t going to give up on us now.

    There’s a promise that God will lead us home. This isn’t nostalgia where we mourn the loss of something that probably never really existed, It’s a hope for a homecoming to the place we truly belong.

    It’s this faith that God has our future in his hands that enables us to approach the future without fear.

    Facing the future without fear

    The Screwtape letters book coverI was recently flicking through a copy of The Screwtape Letters by C.S.Lewis. He wrote it as if he was a senior devil called Screwtape writing to his nephew Wormwood, who is an apprentice devil who has been sent out into the world to tempt human beings. It’s a very clever book because it shows how very ordinary things can be used to corrupt people.

    Screwtape is giving Wormwood hints and tips about how to destroy the faith of a Christian, and one of the things he says really caught my eye. In talking about how people regard the future he says this:

    “We have trained them to think of the future as a promised land which favoured heroes attain – not as something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.”

    ― Screwtape to Wormwood, in The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis (Chapter XXV)

    This gives me pause, because it’s a bit like the conversation between Mack and Jesus in The Shack. It makes me ask the question – who do I believe the future really belongs to?

    Do I listen to the rather depressing predictions on the breakfast news? I listen to the radio in the mornings and it seems like the presenters delight in sharing bad news with you just before you leave the house.

    Dare we look forward to 2013 with confidence? We don’t know what the year will bring. The economic outlook is bleak. Already there have been predictions of civil unrest. We’ve been told that 2013 will be a long hard slog for those of us who have jobs, and that austerity will really begin to bite those who don’t.

    We don’t know what the year will bring. But, here’s the question. Who do I believe the future belongs to? Is it the politicians, the economists, thecorporations who make billions of pounds but seem to pay less tax than I do?

    Or it is God?

    And if it belongs to God, then doesn’t it also belong to us? 2013 will come and go at the same rate for you as for me, as for anyone. We need to believe that the God who is with us now will be with us in the future – the future that belongs to him.

    In Philippians chapter 4, the apostle Paul writes this to the church:

    “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

    The key reason that Paul gives in that passage for rejoicing is that the Lord is near.

    There’s no room for nostalgia if you’re rejoicing. You can’t rejoice today if you feel yesterday was better. How could yesterday be better than today, if today the Lord is near to us?

    We can lay aside our anxiety about the future because the Lord is near.

    We can feel at peace because whatever our circumstances, the Lord is near.

    God promises us his peace, and that is why we can face the future without fear. We can take heart, because yes, in this world, we may have trouble. This year we may have trouble. But we can take heart, for he has overcome the world.

    As you look ahead to a New Year, with all its promises and all its potentials, may you understand the Lord is near.

    May you avoid the pitfalls of nostalgia that can rob you of your joy and make you fearful of the future.

    May you learn to trust the God who is with you now and believe that he will not desert you in times to come.

    May you know the freedom that comes from facing the future without fear, and know that the future only belongs to one person. And he is on our side.

    May you know that God will be with you; that God has a future set aside for you, that whatever befalls you, me, any of us, in 2013, that the grace of our God that has brought us safe this far, will not fail us now or forever; and that his grace will lead us home.

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