Farewell 2016

For many, Christmas is a bitter sweet experience. For some it is more bitter than sweet. Somehow the Christmas season brings a heightened expectation of life. The real Christmas story has well and truly been mugged by Western materialism and sentimentalism. Eternal hope has all but been displaced by seasonal hype. And it’s created an environment that is not an easy one for people who come to the end of the year carrying all sorts of losses and disappointments.

So as we approach the end of the year, how do we say “Goodbye” to 2016?

If you have had a “good” year you might not want to say “Goodbye” to 2016! But you still have to! The best thing you can do is to thank God for the way He has blessed you.

But what about those for whom 2016 has been a year of difficulty or a year of loss?

Realistically, changing the date from 2016 to 2017 doesn’t necessarily change anything. But the season of Christmas and new year is a good time to look to God for His help to leave behind those things that are causing us hurt and pain.

How do we do that?

In Psalm 37, David was clearly struggling with something that was painful to him. Stated briefly, his issue seemed to be that God was blessing bad people while he was struggling. As the Psalm unfolds we see how David began to walk out of his difficulty into the clear light of God’s revelation.

First of all he faced his pain.

Verse one says : Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong. That was the issue for David: people who are doing wrong seem to be doing well. And perhaps he wasn’t doing so well.

That might not be your issue, but whatever your issue, you can’t begin to move beyond it until you acknowledge it.

Secondly, he developed a godly perspective.

If you read through all forty verses of the Psalm you will be able to trace a whole line of counsel that shifts David’s focus on to God.

Let me give you six ways in which he began to develop a godly perspective:

Develop an eternal view (vv.1-2)

Trust –and do good (v.3)

Enjoy God for who He is (v.4)

Commit your way to Him (v.5)

Be still and wait for Him (v.7)

Manage your negative emotions (vv.7-8)

If over the next few months you gave yourself to developing the kind of perspective that David developed, your outlook would be changed and your heart would begin to find healing.

Finally, he embraced God’s promises.

We often say that we don’t know what the future holds. That is true. We don’t know details about future events.

Yet in another sense we do know what the future holds. How? Because God has given us promises about the future.

Here are five that are set out in Psalm 37:

Protection and plenty (vv.18-19)

Ability to bless others (v.21)

Solid ground (vv.23-24)

Provision (v.25)

Security (vv.27-28)

The call to let go of the past is also a call to lay hold of the future.

I hope 2016 has been a good year for you. If not, I hope that by God’s grace you will leave the year with a fresh perspective and a strong grip on the promises of God.

The Reluctant World Changer

In the development of Israel as a nation, two key figures are Rachel and Leah.

Rachel and Leah were sisters who shared one husband, Jacob. Apart from that common factor, their lives could not have been more different.

Leah was unnattractiveLeah was the elder daughter, Rachel the younger. Rachel, the bible says, was beautiful. Leah, the bible says , unflatteringly, had “weak eyes” or “delicate” eyes (Genesis 29.17).

Her circumstances were undesirable. Leah was forced into marriage by her father.

Leah was unloved. Jacob was forced into marriage with Leah, and clearly he did not want to be married to Leah. She had no say in the matter. Culture and parental authority overrode her own feelings and wishes.

And throughout the narrative of Genesis 30, it appears that she really did love Jacob, but her love was unrequited. Rachel was his obvious favourite.

Even a quick reading of Genesis 29 and 30 leaves you with a sharp impression of the pain Leah must have endured in a loveless marriage.

But Leah’s story doesn’t end there. Because Leah knew God’s favour: “When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, He opened her womb” (Genesis 29.31).

The children that she bears to Jacob bring her some comfort and create the hope – forlorn hope – that Jacob will one day love her. What she doesn’t realise is that in her pain she is quietly changing the world. The children born to her will become the foundation of the nation of Israel. And among those children is one called Judah. From the line of Judah will come king David and eventually Jesus. In her pain, Leah was, unknown to her, changing the world. Leah, it’s fair to say was a reluctant world changer. But she was a world changer.

No-one would choose Leah’s life. No-one would choose her pain. The reality is, however, that some of us have lives that we would never choose for ourselves. And we can feel that what we have to live with – whether it be our appearance, family background, marriage, career etc. – is second rate and therefore counts for little. However, that is not the whole story. Not at all. If we are to learn anything from Leah, it is that God’s favour and God’s powerful work is not blocked by any of those features of our lives that we consider undesirable.

Many generations later, when Boaz wed Ruth, the women of Israel pronounced this blessing: “The Lord make the woman who is coming to your house like Rachel and Leah, the two who built the house of Israel” (Ruth 4.11)

Without God all our lives are second rate. But with His favour we all become world changers. Even if some of are reluctant world changers.

Don’t reach for the black bags too soon!

A cleaner was doing her rounds at an art gallery the morning after a party launching an exhibition. She came across an assembly of empty bottles, full ash trays, paint tins and cigarette boxes. Being a diligent cleaner, she immediately reached for her black bin bags and cleared the whole lot away. What she didn’t realise was that the “mess” was actually a piece of art put together on the spur of the moment the night before by Damien Hirst.

For those of us who don’t appreciate the work of the man who famously pickled a sheep in formaldehyde, the cleaner’s reaction to this latest piece by Hirst was entirely reasonable, “As soon as I clapped eyes on it I sighed because there was so much mess.”

So much mess. That is how many people would sum up their lives. If you get involved at any level in Christian ministry, especially outreach ministry, you will at times feel confronted by so much mess. So much complication. So many damaged relationships. And that’s before we try to unravel some of the spiritual knots that tie up our own souls! If the thief came to steal, kill and destroy, it seems he is doing a very effective job.

The instinct most of us have with “the mess” is to reach for whatever the spiritual equivalent of a black bin bag is. We simply want to discard it. That’s understandable. Why would we want to hold on to our pain? Mercifully, Jesus is the great physician. He deals with our pain. Sometimes, however, He redeems – or wants to redeem – our pain rather than simply relieving it.

Before Peter had his spiritual car crash of denying the Lord three times, Jesus assured him that He had prayed that his faith would not fail. He also directed him once he had worked through his failure to strengthen his brothers (Luke 22.31-32). His pain was not to be wasted. It might have looked like a mess, but the prayers of Jesus were turning it into a work of art.

Psalm 84.5-7 says:

Blessed are those whose strength is in you
who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.
6 As they pass through the Valley of Baca,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.[b]
7 They go from strength to strength,
till each appears before God in Zion.

The Psalmist talks about passing through the Valley of Baca. The Valley of Baca is the Valley of lamentation or weeping. Somehow those who find or have found strength in God and have set their hearts on pilgrimage, are enabled to turn their tears into something that refreshes both them and others – “they make it a place of springs”.

What turns weeping into refreshing is finding strength in the Lord and having our hearts set on pilgrimage. If we see Baca – or the place of weeping – as our destination, that’s all it will ever be. And there is every chance we’ll end up stuck in Baca.

However, if our hearts are set on pilgrimage, if we are on a journey, if we’re pressing on in our pilgrimage with Jesus, Baca becomes nothing more than a place we pass through on the way.

It might look like a mess to us, but if we let the Great Physician, who’s also a Great Artist, get to work, we’ll think twice before we write off the Baca times as rubbish that threatens to clutter up our lives.