Thursday, January 2, 2014

Hope for the New Year

Are you optimistic or pessimistic going into 2014? Is the glass half-full or half-empty? Earlier today I posed this question to the lady that cuts my hair. She didn't give a clear answer, but she did offer that "this country is going down the drain" (she's no fan of Obama) and that "all you can do is take care of your family." Her attitude tracks with a new poll that indicates most American are pessimistic about the ability of our leaders to solve the big problems facing America, but at the same time feel pretty good about how their own lives are going.

That's about where I am too. I see lots of reasons for gloom in Washington and the world at large, but I'm optimistic that the year ahead will be mostly positive for me and my family. I'm also optimistic that 2014 will see further growth and flourishing in my church family. Which brings me to my main question. How should followers of Jesus approach the New Year?

I once heard someone say (it might have been Tim Keller) that Christians are short-term pessimists and long-term optimists. From Abraham to the Apostle Paul the witness of Scripture shows us that the life of faith usually means things get worse before they get better, and the Bible is clear that following God as he's revealed to us in Christ means we will suffer. It's part of the deal. In fact -- as Pastor Dan reminded us last Sunday in a sermon on 2 Timothy 1 -- if we're not willing to suffer for the gospel we're in danger of abandoning the gospel.

While the "suffering piece" might be hard for the American church to accept, it's not hard for the persecuted church in Egypt or Syria or Iraq. Indeed, as the atheist-turned-believer A.N. Wilson wrote on Christmas Day: "the Arab Spring was the Christian winter." For our brothers and sisters whose churches are being bombed it's impossible to be anything but pessimistic about the near future, but if the gospel is true then their persecution "is preparing for us [believers in the gospel] an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal." (2 Corinthians 4:17-18)

Is the Christmas story true, or is it just a lot of sentimental claptrap? Is Christianity the stuff of a bygone age or does it still have the power to transform lives and bring genuine reason for hope and optimism? How one answers those questions changes everything (though one must admit that here in the West it's possible to conceive of a low-cost low-risk faith that goes about as far as the Jesus fish on the back of my SUV).

Here are the final paragraphs of Wilson's brilliant piece "It's the Gospel truth - so take it or leave it".

Huge numbers of people clapping in a square – even if they are clapping the Pope – do not tell you anything about whether Christianity is actually true. Nor does the dwindling congregation at the 8 o’clock Communion at Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh undermine the truth of the Word Made Flesh – if it is true.

The Gospel is hard, and it contains within it, not the fear but the absolute certainty, that persecution and misunderstanding will always follow in its wake. It is based on the idea of dying in order to live; of losing life in order to find it; of taking up the cross, that instrument of torture, and finding therein not merely life but glory.

Yes, the hype and sentimentality surrounding the funeral of Nelson Mandela’s funeral were embarrassing, but at the core of it all was the central idea, embodied by a figure such as Archbishop Tutu, that it is possible to ignore the poison of hatred bubbling in your heart and forgive your enemies. The ANC, for long – yes – a terrorist organisation, changed its mind, and behaved, not like Jihadists, but like Christians. South Africa, riven as it is with every kind of human problem, got that thing right largely because Mandela in his prison years decided to risk all on what was a fundamentally Christian idea.

Yes, the Arab Spring is the Christian Winter because there is no truth or reconciliation apparently at work in Israel-Palestine, nor in Iraq, nor in Syria… But the Christian writings, beginning as they do with a refugee mother and baby surrounded by invading armies, and ending with world conflict, the utter destruction of Jerusalem, and the coming of apocalyptic death and plague, are not comfortable.

The paradox is that growing or shrinking numbers do not tell you anything. The Gospel would still be true even if no one believed it. The hopeful thing is that, where it is tried – where it is imperfectly and hesitantly followed – as it was in Northern Ireland during the peace process, as it is in many a Salvation Army hostel this Christmas, as it flickers in countless unseen Christian lives, it works. And its palpable and remarkable power to transform human life takes us to the position of believing that something very wonderful indeed began with the birth of Christ into the world.

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