God doesn’t guarantee us an easy life anywhere in scripture; in fact, the Bible promises us quite the opposite in many places, so how should we respond to that?
While the date celebrated may vary, New Year’s around the world is always a time of celebration and, often, superstitions as well. Almanac listed out a few traditions that take place this time of year all over the globe. “In Thailand, it was once tradition to fire guns to frighten off demons. In China, firecrackers routed the forces of darkness.
“In Spain, people attempt to eat 12 grapes during these 12 strokes of midnight! Tradition says that if they succeed before the chimes stop, they will have good luck for all 12 months of the coming year.
“Eating any ring-shaped treat (such as a doughnut) symbolizes ‘coming full circle’ and leads to good fortune. In Dutch homes, fritters called olie bollen are served. In Swiss homes, dollops of whipped cream, symbolizing the richness of the year to come, are dropped on the floors—and allowed to remain there!
“In Scotland, December 31 is known as Hogmanay. Along with fireworks and fireworks, ‘First footing’ (or the ‘first foot’ in the house after midnight) is still common across Scotland. The first person to cross the threshold into one’s home, called the first footer, is an indication of the year to come. Although the tradition varies, if the first footer is tall and dark, the year will be a good one.”
In nearly every country and culture, people are obsessed with how we can make the next year a better one than the last.
The Hard Reality of Life
In his sermon “A Song Out of Bitterness”, Gary Wilkerson noted, “The beginning of the year, usually in January, your pastors get up, and they say, ‘This is the year of jubilee! Or this is the year of your freedom! This is the year of blessing!’ We all clap and go, ‘Yeah, it’s going to be my year-of-this-or-that’, and it’s a very positive note.
“Then come January 5th or 6th or 10th or 15th or 20th or 25th, that year of jubilee often turns into a year of suffering, difficulties in our marriage, troubles with our children, financial situations…. As a pastor, I found that almost every tragedy, pain, addiction, crisis, chaos and suffering that happens in the 1,500 plus people who are a part of this congregation, end up on my desk….
“I hear about 12-year-old children who commit suicide. I hear about children who have been molested. I hear about car accidents that kill teenagers. I hear about what happened to our congregation last year, a two-year-old boy fell into the pool and almost drowned, and he was suffering and yet recovering. I hear of 30-year marriages that were once glorious testimonies of God’s power now coming to the verge of being a defeated marriage, an ended marriage. There’s something about being a pastor that all these stories get to you. They all get to you, and if you have any kind of compassion at all, they begin to weigh upon you.”
Even if our own lives are going well, chances are good that we know and love someone who is struggling, and our own hearts are troubled on their behalf. We may sit with them and listen to them pour out their pain, and that can become a burden that we lovingly pick up, but it’s a weight nonetheless.
We celebrate new beginnings and new years, but often those occasions are also reminders of old habits we’d like gone or ongoing issues in others’ lives that we wish could be healed and gone with the old year.
How do we balance being aware of hard realities in our lives or the lives of our loved ones and yet also not being crushed by hopelessness?
The All Sufficient Branch
The prophet Jeremiah was given a really rotten message at one point in his career. He was commanded by God to tell the king of Judah that their nation was going to fall to King Nebuchadnezzar and that Babylon’s invasion would bring famine to the capital. It was a grim future to ‘look forward’ to for everyone, Jeremiah included. After this forbidding glimpse into the future, however, God told the prophet this: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jeremiah 23:5, ESV).
Musing on this verse, Gary Wilkerson pointed out, “The prophet Jeremiah is telling us God’s grand idea, God’s glorious scheme, God’s initial intention from the foundation of the world, that he would send to us a new pastor, Pastor Jesus Christ, the righteous branch…. The only one who can get you into the places you need to go, that is Jesus Christ, and his power alone is sufficient for all that we need in our life…. You’re looking to the righteous branch.
“God said, ‘No other branch is sufficient, so now I will raise up my righteous branch.’ That branch is connected to the root and that root is strong and that branch is strong. That branch will not fail you. That branch will provide shade in the most scorched places. That branch will be able to hold all the weight of the world upon its shoulders. That branch is our savior, Jesus Christ. Hallelujah!”
Gary points out that Hebrews chapter 11 captures this seeming dichotomy of hardship and suffering alongside God’s provision and power given to us through the work of Christ. Famously called the ‘hall of faith,’ this passage of scripture points to how many biblical figures “through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight” (Hebrews 11:33-34).
The chapter doesn’t end there, however. It takes a shocking turn. “Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated — of whom the world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:36-38).
The idea that people of great faith should suffer so terribly seems very at odds with our culture’s view of God and religion.
Finding a Song of Faith
Not only can we not guarantee that our futures will be bright, but we’re actually promised in scripture that life will be hard. Trials and suffering will rise up, so how will we face these seasons? God promises us Christ, the “root of Jesse” (see Isaiah 11:10) and the “righteous branch” (see Jeremiah 24:7 and 31:33). Jesus tells his disciples that they would find life and strength through a connection to him. “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
While God can and does sometimes change our circumstances, far more often he offers us the strength to endure and promises to walk alongside us through the valley of the shadow of death. This promise should give us great hope for the future as we approach eternity and learn more and more about the heavenly Father with whom we will one day stand face-to-face.
The following chapter after Hebrews’ hall of faith echoes this sentiment. “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29).
If we take this concept to heart, the hardships of life will not rock our faith. In fact, they will bring a song of gratitude for our Savior out of the darkest nights of our lives.