Friday, December 31, 2010

A great New Year?

Hear the word of the LORD, O nations; proclaim it in distant coastlands: `He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.' For the LORD will ransom Jacob and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they. They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion; they will rejoice in the bounty of the LORD--the grain, the new wine and the oil, the young of the flocks and herds. They will be like a well-watered garden, and they will sorrow no more. Then maidens will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow (Jeremiah 31:10-13).

A year ago this evening, you faced the New Year with mixed feelings. 2009 was ending; there were some wonderful memories made that year, but there were also some things you were glad to put behind you. As you took out your new calendars and flipped them open to January, you hoped that 2010 would be a better year for you and your loved ones.

How did 2010 turn out? Was it as good a year as you were hoping for? Did you meet the goals you set for yourself? Are you more secure financially than you were a year ago? Has the love in your family grown deeper and more committed? Have you strengthened old friendships and cultivated new ones? Has 2010 made you a happier person?

If 2010 has been a good year, I’m happy for you. But I have a hunch that most of you reading this have mixed feelings about the year ending tonight. If you are like me, 2010 had both wonderful highs and terrible lows. There were times of great joy and times of black despair. There were days when everything just fell into place and days when nothing seemed to go right. 2010 was a roller coaster of emotions, some exhilarating, others terrifying. For most of us, it would be hard to say that 2010 was really much better than 2009.

So what can we look forward to in 2011? More of the same. Pleasure mixed with pain. Triumph shadowed by tragedy. Times of health and periods of sickness. The delightful gurgle of a new born baby and the labored gasps coming from a deathbed. Will 2011 be a better year than 2010? I wouldn’t count on it.

And yet, we can look forward to tomorrow with relief and joyful expectation. There are good times coming—we have God’s promise on that. We just need to trust the Almighty and wait on Him. We must realize that many of the things we think make life good are actually unnecessary luxuries; some of them are out-and-out sinful. God will give us a pleasant future, but not one that caters to our sinful desires.

Consider the words spoken by Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived in a time of terrible tragedy. During his life, he witnessed the moral collapse of a nation. Jerusalem had once been the most wonderful city on earth, capital of a nation devoted to serving God. Jerusalem contained the Temple, built by Solomon at a time when money was no object; in this Temple, God actually came to earth and filled the innermost chamber with His brilliant glory. No nation on earth was ever so blessed as Israel, and no city was nearer to God than it’s capital.

But as years came and went, the people lost interest in religion. Commerce became more important than worship; other religions were first tolerated, then embraced by the citizens and their leaders. Soon the country tore itself apart because of political infighting. Foreign invaders began attacking, and without God’s support, the nation dwindled in size and prosperity. By Jeremiah’s time, God had turned His back on Jerusalem and the nation—turned his back because His people had abandoned Him. And so an army from the east destroyed Jerusalem, tore down God’s Temple, and stole everything worth taking—including the best and brightest citizens, who were relocated and made to work for a new government hundreds of miles away.

What a terrible tragedy—God’s people turned away from their Master and experienced how awful life can be when the Almighty is angry. Yet at this darkest of times, God sent Jeremiah words of hope—hope that the future would be better. ‘He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.' For the LORD will ransom Jacob and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they. They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion; they will rejoice in the bounty of the LORD…they will sorrow no more.

On one level, God was speaking of a time 70 years in the future. Eventually, the people of God would be set free and allowed to return to their native land. They would rebuild Jerusalem, the Temple, and the nation. God would give them homes of their own to live in, fields to cultivate and herds to raise, and a place where they could go to receive forgiveness for their sins. God would bless them and make them happy.

But God did not restore these things to their former glory. The Israelites did not regain political independence, but remained a small province in someone else’s larger empire. Jerusalem was reoccupied, but it would not experience the thriving economy of King Solomon’s time. And although the Temple was rebuilt, the people wept bitter tears because the new building never matched the grandeur of the first. God gave His people what they needed to be content, but the great power and wealth of earlier times was never restored; those who thirsted for money or prestige would not find much to be happy about. Such desires have no place in a kingdom belonging to God.

The words given to Jeremiah offered hope that after a 70 year wait, things were going to get better. But this message from God had another meaning as well. This prophecy also spoke of a time 500 years further ahead, a time when would God send His Son into the world as a baby. He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd. Who is the flock God promised to watch over? St. Mark writes (chapter six), When Jesus…saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. The prophet Isaiah says (chapter 53), we all, like sheep, have gone astray. Confused by sin and manipulated by the devil, we are all like helpless sheep, needing someone to feed us, guide us and protect us. And who has God sent to watch over us? Jesus says, I am the good shepherd (John 10:11). When Jeremiah writes about a future time of happiness when God will watch over his flock like a shepherd, he is speaking of Christ’s coming.

Jesus has come to shepherd us, and because of this we can view the future positively. I cannot say that 2011 will necessarily be a great year for you, but I can say that the future is encouraging. The Israelites had to wait 70 years to return home and rebuild; they had to wait 500 years for the Savior of the nations to come. You may have to wait for better times as well. But as the months go by, you don’t have to face them on your own. Jesus is with you. Shortly before He left this world, our Lord gave this reassurance to His disciples: I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me (John 14:18-19). We don’t see Jesus with our eyes—but by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can see that Christ is still with us—we see by faith. When we believe in Jesus, we know He spoke the truth when He said, you can be sure that I am with you always, to the very end of time (Matthew 28:20).

What good is it to have Jesus with you? You are never alone, because He is always by your side listening to you. You have no reason to be afraid, because you are in His arms and He is protecting you. You don’t need to worry, because He is with you to give strength when you are weak. You can wipe away your tears, because He promises to forgive your mistakes and never think on them again. You need not despair, because even in the toughest situation you have the Son of God at your side, and nothing is impossible with God. No matter how difficult or stressful the new year might be, Jesus will bring you through it, showing you joy along the way.

Of course, you can’t expect the Son of God to fill your life with sinful pleasures or good times that draw your attention away from Him. The Israelites were given happiness, but God took steps to keep them humble and focused on their relationship with Him. In the same way, don’t feel that God loves you less if He is selective in how He blesses you. Jesus wants you to feel as Paul did when he wrote these words: I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through Him who gives me strength (Philippians 4:11-13).

It is likely that 2011 will contain times of sadness, pain and grief, like every year does. But we have Jesus’ promise that all such suffering will come to an end. Death brings an end to sin and the pain which accompanies it. When you die, you will be freed from the corruption that has cast a shadow on your every thought, word and deed—Paul writes anyone who has died has been freed from sin (Romans 6:7). Death releases us from that terrible curse so that we can live in eternal happiness. All this is God’s gift to us through His Son, who died that we might truly live—speaking of the human sheep under His care, Jesus said: I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10). Death will certainly touch your life this coming year; it may even claim you personally. But with Jesus as your Savior, you know that death only leads to everlasting joy in paradise.

Jesus is with you, today and always. There is no reason to be pessimistic about 2011. Sure, there will be struggles and disappointments—but remember these words of Jesus as you face each new day: In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (John 16:33).

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