What is it about the New Year that gets us all riled up? Based on what I have seen of the commentary on 2019, and the expectations of 2020, so many of my acquaintances and colleagues, plus many of the cultural commentators on the world stage, have been quoted as saying – “2019 sucked!” It was a bad year. Everything went wrong. Every illness came. Deaths we did not want to see happened, and very little life grew. People lost their jobs, accidents injured our bodies and souls, words were spoken that can never be returned. All in all, 2019 was horrible, so we think.
Somehow we look back on as wretched and we approach this New Year like Cinderella in reverse, where come midnight, January 1st, all that was wrong will be made right. That this year, 2020, will be so much better because last year was so not good. Placing upon the shoulders of a number the expectation that this year will be perfect. That all will be well. That nothing will go wrong. You won’t get sick, have a fight with your spouse, have a child come home drunk, or have your boss harass you at work. Grandma won’t get sick and die, our best friend will not get murdered by an abusive husband, our bills will pay themselves, and that house we have always wanted will magically appear.
How naïve we are. If we went back over the decades I wonder if we might see the same conversations. The same wishes. That because of a particular designation, of a particular month, falling on a particular day, somehow all sin and evil ends, and a bubble of immortality will surround the world and nothing, no matter how grim, will penetrate.
We are a naïve people because every year includes death and life, loss and gain, hardship, pain and suffering, plus blessing, hope, and grace. This is not blind optimism or tragic pessimism. It is realism in a nutshell. Someone you know this year will probably die. Death is an enemy we face each and every day and it is no respecter of persons or positions. In fact, living in the First World, we should be better equipped to handle it because it doesn’t happen to us as soon as it does to our brothers and sisters in the Third World. There it is a constant passenger, while we in the West tend to spend our lives avoiding it. So, it is no wonder that for us we see this change in the new year as magic. As a talisman we carry with us in order to pretend everything will be fine until it isn’t.
As a pastor, I spend many an hour with parishioners who are surprised that life is hard, death is real, sin exists, and that being a Christian does not make you immune from this list. For the Christian, we are ones captured by the One who told us our life is one of the cross. Our life in Christ being pinpointed in a death that brought life. Life out of suffering, and life IN suffering.
In John 16, Jesus makes sure that his closest followers know that they will be banned from community, killed, and pursued to the end of the world because of him. These were his inner circle. If anyone should have the “good” life it should be those he hand picked to be his boys. But know, they are set up for worldly failure. He does encourage them that hope was coming in the midst of heartache, and then Jesus says this - I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world. (John 16:33) That no matter how hard we try to make peace for ourselves and to avoid the hardships and dangers, they will come in this world. We do not have right to not be happy, healthy, wealthy and wise. What we do have a right to is what Christ says he gives as ours, peace. Peace in the midst of the storms of life. Peace in the midst of a year both good and bad. Peace when everyone else tells us there is none.
When the Jewish people were in Egypt, right before the Exodus, God gives to them the gift of the Passover. This was a meal to commemorate in their life what it was God was going to do for them. That amid their suffering and the oppression of their enemies, God was going to do a work of redemption, but not without cost. The meal takes place at the exact time when the Angel of Death is making his rounds and killing every first born male. A sign of retribution on the part of God for the attempts of the Egyptians to wipe out the people of the promise, but also a symbol for us of the price to be paid for peace. A firstborn son died in Pharaoh’s house so that the sons and daughters of Abraham might be free from their oppressors. Foreshadowing that the only-begotten Son of God died so that humanity might be freed from their oppressors – sin, death and the devil. A lamb gives of its life to have its blood paint the doorway of the Israelite houses so the Angel of Death might Passover that house and go to the next. The blood of the Lamb of God paints the doorway of heaven with his blood that sin, death and the devil might lose and you might be passed over for the sake of Christ. In fact, the Passover marks the first of months for the Jewish people according to Exodus 12. A New Year being inaugurated by death so that it might be remembered who is mortal and who is not; what was the price and what was not.
As you make your way into 2020, don’t think that because of a change in digits, somehow life is perfect. Instead, see that once again God has given you another year. Another date. God being God has worked for you, being with you through the tragedies of this world, and nurturing your faith through them that you might trust him. That when he tells you he will crush all your enemies under his feet, and the last being death, that he is telling the truth and means it. Imagine this new year as a year of uncertainty around your friends and family. That you never know the length of your days or theirs. That we have a message to get out of this life in Christ that is given to us because life in this world is not complete. That we have a need for the blood of the Lamb to cover the doorposts of our houses so that we might receive, even in our own deaths, the gift of God as eternal life in Christ Jesus. For the certainty we have in this world is that you will pay taxes, and one day you will die. May this year be a year for you of seeing God working in death for your sake, to bring life in his name.