There’s something special about the minute of 12:01AM on the 1st of January. Not because of the noise. Not because it’s the only time in the year where it’s socially acceptable to hug and kiss everyone in the room. Not because of the parties, or even the wee dram those of us so inclined like to enjoy at that moment.
When the clock strikes 12:01am on the 1st of January, when everyone has wished everyone in view “Happy New Year!”, when the kisses have stopped and the cheering has died down, a surge of confidence seems to flood through most people.
“This is going to be my year!”
“This year is going to be better than the last!”
“I’m going to change this year!”
“This is the year I will finally keep my resolutions!”
“This is going to be the best year for our church/business/family ever!”
I dare say that the boldness and assertions made in that little minute as the euphoria of the moment washes over everyone is greater than any other time in the year.
I mean, within minutes of the clock striking 12 on New Year a cursory glance at my social media feeds showed heart-warming posts filled with optimism, positivity, hope for the future and dreams of a year better than the last.
Lovely sentiments, all of which I will say a hearty “amen” to.
Sadly though, many of those declarations don’t come to fruition. Those new running shoes, or that lovely new bike, will see a flurry of activity from January through February, only to sit gathering dust the next 10 months of the year. Gym memberships, bought with such enthusiasm and energy, sit unused, happy to eat away at our bank accounts each month.
As they find themselves in the same boat they were in 12 months ago, many people slowly come to the realisation that there’s actually nothing magic about the final digit in our yearly calendars changing.
“Wow, Jordan, you must be fun at parties.” I can already hear you think. Actually, my wife thinks I am, but that’s another conversation. Humour me for a minute.
There’s a wee passage from the Book of James that I like to reflect on at the start of every New Year. It helps keep me grounded and focused as we begin to think about what the future may hold. And if you’ll let me, I’d like to share some of my short New Year reflections with you. Here’s what the passage says:
“Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say “If the Lord wills, we will love and do this or that.”James 4:13 (ESV)
In the above passage, James (the brother of Jesus) warns Christians against boldly making our own plans, as if we somehow have everything worked out. He warns us against boasting about tomorrow. In fact, most of that book features warnings for Christians in trusting or boasting in anything that isn’t God. If you take time to read the surrounding verses, you’ll find them filled with warnings against trusting in things like money, comfort or worldliness.
Now, in my experience, those verses aren’t often quoted or preached on in many church circles. You’re unlikely to find those verses on a coffee mug (something I say about almost every verse I talk about here!). In fact, a quick look at the social media pages of some well-known Christian “influencers” (🙄) or popular churches will show that James’s advice often goes unheeded in the modern world!
A Lesson Learned
If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic should have made all of the above abundantly clear. I mean…how many businesses who declared that 2020 would be their best year yet went under when the pandemic came seemingly out of the blue?
How many families wished and hoped for a peaceful year when illness, tragedy, death, unemployment and division ripped that apart?
How many churches who boldly declared and even prophecied “2020 is going to be the best year ever for our church!” struggled and collapsed after 9 months of pandemic gutted all of their planned programmes, worship services and members?
How many people at the end of 2020 declared “Thank God that’s over – here’s to next year, which can only be better than the last!” only to find that 2021 was almost as bad, or maybe even worse, than 2020?
Suffice to say, within a couple of months of this decade starting, many of us began to realise how little control we actually have over anything, how fragile our lives are, and how easily our best intentions can be cut short and cast aside. And even how (whisper it) sometimes…sometimes what we think are prophecies from God…well, aren’t actually prophecies from God (😬).
Now, I don’t want to be a party pooper. Wishful thinking is good and well, and should be encouraged in many cases. After all, Christians believe in a God who can do far more than we can ever hope or imagine. When I pray for members of our church, I do it in faith that God will hear and act. I wouldn’t pray for my family each night if I didn’t believe God was listening. But for those of us who do call ourselves Christians, as is often the case, there is a tension and a balance we must be aware of, and a prudence we need to carry.
For the same Bible that tells us of how powerful and big God is; the same Bible that encourages us to pray to God with faith and without ceasing; this Bible also tells us again and again that our lives are fragile; we are like mist, or grass; here one day, gone the next. All it takes is a single moment; one phone call, one momentary lapse in concentration or judgement, one diagnosis, one tragedy, or one seemingly random act of nature to throw all that we know and love into disarray.
The Bible often discourages Christians from holding tightly onto the good things of this world. Even Jesus himself warns his disciples time and time again of the dangers of holding onto earthly things (including their very lives), simply because of how easily such things can be taken from us!
That’s not to say we must always assume the worst. It’s not that we shouldn’t pray for protection, or provision – the Bible instructs us to do such things! It’s not that we shouldn’t seek to enjoy the good things God brings in our path, either.
It does mean, however, that for those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus, the start of every New Year should come with a reminder that we are not God. God is God. Or to quote the author of Proverbs: The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.
Something to Look Forward To
For me, 2023 looks exciting. My wee boy will be starting school, leaving me with two school age kids.
God willing, 2023 will bring exciting, positive changes in the life of our church. My wife and I are already thinking about what we could do for our looming anniversary. As a musician, my 2023 calendar is filled with a whole host of exciting gigs planned all over the country, and the prospect of travelling and playing to a bunch of new cities and people with my pals from the band (and all the fun and laughs that brings with it) fills me with no shortage of giddiness. There are birthdays, rugby tournaments (including the World Cup!), holidays and countless other things to look forward to and celebrate as I go into 2023. There are books to read, songs to learn, things to do and new people to meet.
But here’s the thing: I’m not going into the New Year with my hope set on these things, which can be taken away so quickly – I’m going into the New Year with my hope in One who cannot and will not be taken away. The One who endured and suffered the pains of this life, including death itself, so that those who would follow in his footsteps need not fear them.
For many of us, this year may hold untold blessings; joy, happiness, laughter, with fond memories made. For everyone reading this, I sincerely hope and pray it does. But the reality is that for many of us, 2023 may also bring with it tragedies, pain, suffering, and unwanted surprises. In fact, the Bible warns us not to act surprised when such things come upon us. Jesus himself goes as far as to tell us to expect them.
As Christians, we are to hold everything in our lives – even our earthly lives themselves – with an open hand, not a closed fist. We are to guard ourselves from clinging to things of this world that, much like us, could be here one day and gone the next. Human life is a wonderful, beautiful thing; but it’s also unfathomably fragile.
So dear reader, whether you call yourself a follower of Jesus today or not, my encouragement and reminder to you is this: enjoy whatever this year brings, and look forward to it with hope. If you’re inclined to do so, thank God for the good that he brings. But at the same time remember; our lives are like a mist, here today, gone tomorrow. Temporal things, as good as they are, are just that; temporary.
We know not what the future brings, but as Christians we serve and love the one who does. And that can bring us comfort.
For the Bible shows us a God who holds the future in one hand, while holding the hands of those who belong to him in the other. The same God who alone knows beginning from end promises to walk those who would call on him through it all – whatever happens.
To finish with an illustration from the book of Hebrews: Our lives may be like a mist on a stormy sea, but in Christ we have an anchor for our souls; sure, steadfast and utterly immovable.
If you’re going to be positive about anything this New Year, be positive about that.