Preliminary Thoughts on January and Jesus
I’m a huge fan of Christmas. It’s one of my favorite times of the year. For me it’s as if each person looks in the mirror and decides that they are going to be the joy they want to see in the world. Others look at the month of December as the end to a race. The finish line of the year is in sight, and our bodies fill with new energy. Maybe we really can do this thing we call life? Even more people spend eleven months running, surviving, and putting their head down, hoping that with the new year, the covered bridge will be crossed and the horseman of our past will at last leave us alone. Yet there is another group of people that enter the final moments of the year expecting something: namely, a Savior.
Since the birth of the man and God incarnate, Jesus, followers of Christ celebrate the month of December as the anniversary of His birth, rejoicing at God’s decision to send Jesus to establish the Kingdom of God on Earth, take the cost of sin from our shoulders, and invite us into an intimate relationship with Him, should we choose it. Yet, there seems to be a growing disconnect between our Western culture’s timeline and the actual circumstances of the people Jesus walked beside.
Previous to Jesus’ arrival in a manger, God’s people were hurting. They had been enslaved for generations, starved through the wilderness, taxed under oppressive rulers, fought endless wars, were forced from their home, and had been living under imperial power for years. Part of these circumstances were due to their own disobedience; other circumstances were the result of other’s disobedience. Some circumstances had no justifiable origin. Year after year prophets would rise up, promising that one day things would get better. A Savior would come. God’s reign would provide safety and flourishing. Joy’s completion couldn’t be far off now. Many people clung to this hope as a lifeline to deliver them through their circumstances. Other people got tired of hoping and moved on. These ideas of realism, pessimism, idealism, frustration, and disappointment are colors that often paint the life of our years, especially when they are all a touch away regardless of our own circumstances’ ability to introduce them.
Some church traditions seem to pose this connection as an invitation. For many years the church has structured their calendar around the life of God’s people. Easter and Christmas come to mind first, while other churches highlight the lives of the Saints or the event of Pentecost, and others (along with Jewish traditions) celebrate events such as the Passover or the many festivals given to the Israelites in the ancient world. Therefore, around Christmas time, many church leaders will stand before the people and invite them to “eagerly await the coming of the Savior.” After all, Jesus says to a group of Sadducees in the book of Mark that our God is “not the God of the dead, but of the living.” Why should we not join in with all those before us in expectation? And if December is to signify the joyful coming of the Christ in celebration, why are the following months of January and February often looked to as the most miserable months of the year? Living in New York City now, people speak of the winter as a yearly war that is to be dreaded and feared, if not run from. This is supposed to be the months of God’s answered promise! Why am I barely making it through?
Once again, I’m finding it helpful to look to the people that lived in the original context, because they had a similar disconnect. Jesus had arrived, and was coming in hot with miracles, disruption, and signs. The new era (or year), was looking bright. However, soon, people began to get the impression that Jesus was not here to accomplish what they wanted Him to. The religious leaders hoped for elevation and reward, but Jesus called them a “brood of vipers” and condemned their actions. Those in oppression wanted Jesus to assume physical kingship, but Jesus offered a different Lordship, resulting in many leaving Him by the Sea of Galilee. Even Jesus’ disciples had pictures of them sitting at the right hand of God or being a part of a fame squad, only to be rebuked and told that their leader was going to die soon. God had answered and given the world a present, but it didn’t look like what people thought it should.
The Jewish teacher Harold Kushner speaks of disappointment as the disconnect between our currently reality and what we think our reality ought to be. So, what does this mean? Am I going to face immense disappointment and frustration every January and February? Maybe. I turn my back for two seconds and have accidently set ten expectations and made five more plans based off of my vision for my life. Or maybe, as I enter the period of God’s promise, there is a reorienting of posture that needs to take place. When Sarah is told she will have a child in her old age, it does not match what she believes a mother ought to be, and this causes damage to the life of Hagar and Ishmael and Sarah’s marriage with Abraham. However, when she releases this and finally acknowledges the reality of God’s promise, she is used to establish a nation. Moses murders, flees, argues, and hides, based off of what he thinks a leader and revolution ought to look like. When he releases this and accepts what God’s reality of the promise is, God delivers Moses’ people from slavery, establishes a covenant, and gives them a nation of their own. The Scripture is filled with reorientations of people needing to surrender what their version of God’s promise is in order to see and accept what God is really doing. Sometimes this looks like our desires and other times it doesn’t. However, we are guaranteed that it is what is needed for God to be glorified and the Kingdom of God to be furthered.
Then, as the year goes on, we often notice something that the apostles do an excellent job at pointing out: we are constantly a part of God’s promises. Each time that an apostle is being persecuted, they illustrate their history------- highlighting a constant and evolving partnership with God that requires constant reorienting to keep our eyes on Him and see Him move clearly. The God that sat with Elijah under the tree as he wanted to kill himself is the same God that stood with the adulterous woman as she was to be killed and is the same God that filled Stephen as he was to be stoned. They sure look different on paper, but the more that humankind steps into God’s calendar and let’s go of our vision, the more we are aware of His company and presence. This awareness does two things. The first is that it removes many burdens. As someone that can butt heads with authority, I struggle to do simple things such as pay high income taxes or pay my fare on the New York Subway. I often ignored the call Jesus gives to “pay to Caesar what is Caesar’s” with a self-justified war that included turnstile hopping and cutting corners. However, when I started to see Jesus work in my jobs and paychecks, I began to realize that none of my money was mine and that---- like the rest of the previously quoted verse says------I am giving money to the government, but I am giving the real value, myself, to God. The second thing that a clear awareness of God’s promise brings is the completeness of joy that comes in the form of hope when it does not appear in our circumstance. David, while his enemies overtook him and his son tried to overthrow him claimed, “as for me I will continue to have hope in the Lord.” It is the same hope that Job clung to at rock bottom, and the same hope that Paul pressed onto the church of the Romans. It does not take away our current suffering, but Jesus compares it to a tree bearing fruit and a baby being born. Eventually it will come. Likely it will need another reorientation (there’s a common theme here). John the Baptist in the wilderness heard the same promises the religious leaders heard, but reoriented himself in the wilderness. When Jesus came as a young man to the river, he announced, “for now my joy is complete,” as he saw God’s promise fulfilled in front of Him, trusting that regardless of what he though it ought to look like, God was providing in the best way he could imagine.
Even after writing this I’ll probably forget it. I forget God’s faithfulness often. But I think I’m coming to a place where I’m remembering to send a frequent invitation to God that says,
“Hey God. I’ve got a lot of plans and ideas. Don’t let me take the reins though. I’m going to try to take the reins. Don’t let me take the reins. Wrestle me like Jacob if you must. Knock me over the head. Do what you need to do for me to see your promise in this time and remove any arrogance stopping me from following it. Thanks for letting me be a part of all this. Also sorry for yelling at you when my zipper broke on my boot and sorry for thinking violent thoughts towards the man in LaGuardia airport that told me to watch where I was going even though I clearly saw him. Amen.”