It is New Year’s Resolution time. As the new year approaches, we have the tradition of resolving to put our bad habits, repellant deeds and vile behaviors in the past and do something new, better and more commendable. We seek to have a new beginning.
In the past when I tried to put my resolutions into practice, I found that it was not easy. Those declarations I had proclaimed with great determination soon started slipping towards the sidelines and eventually they faded away unfulfilled. I fell back into my old routines until I passionately proclaimed another set of eventually-unachieved resolutions as the next New Year drew near. Perhaps others are like me.
I had the wrong focus. I was directing my attention to a haphazard calendar date. I learned that when we try to do things our way through our own efforts we are bound to fail. The only way we can truly have a new beginning is through Jesus Christ. He provides us with the only regeneration that really matters.
Jesus has given us a new covenant through his death on the cross in atonement for our sins and resurrection on the third day. Through Jesus we enter a new creation as is mentioned in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”.
By accepting Jesus as our Lord and Savior with our mouths and with our heart, we receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. We are reborn. That is a new beginning indeed! In John 3: 5-6 (NIV): Jesus says “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit”.
Romans 8: 1-2 describes the immense importance of this rebirth: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus, the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death”. We leave the realm of the flesh and enter into the realm of the Spirit. We are set free from being slaves to sin. What a glorious new beginning that is.
Fortunately, we do not have to wait until the New Year to make the resolution to accept Jesus. He is waiting for us patiently and lovingly for us to do that at any moment. Once we accept him the reward is eternal.
Being humans, our minds wander and lose their focus on God. Personally, I tend to get distracted. It is easy to become enticed by the temptations that surround me. My human resolve is weak. So, it is useful for me to try to strengthen my relationship with Jesus, to build my trust in him and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit not only each New Year but starting each new day. Each morning, in a sense, is a new beginning. When I do this faithfully, and let the Spirit take charge, it is my need to make New Year’s resolutions that tends to fade away.
Secular Christmas songs and greetings often urge us to be happy or merry: We Wish You a Merry Christmas, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Happy Holidays. We look forward to the pretty lights and upbeat music every year, but tire of it after a month or two. It delights us for a while, but it can't sustain the level of contentment that we seek. When we understand the true meaning of Christmas, however, our focus changes from happiness to joy- true, lasting joy.
Jesus talked about full or complete joy, the kind that endures. To those who belong to him he says, “Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete (John 16:24),” and prays, “that they may have the full measure of my joy within them (John 17:13).” Apparently, he was talking about a kind of joy that is so deep and permanent and all-encompassing that, come what may, we will never be without it. In John 16:22 he said, “…and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.”
Joy is a characteristic that makes Christians different from those who have no hope. What about adverse circumstances? Paul sang in jail. If we have the Spirit of Christ, and we do if we belong to him, then joy is one of the fruits that comes with the presence of that Spirit. Perhaps it falls to us then to choose to rejoice. Paul said we should always rejoice in the Lord, because the Lord is near (Phil. 4:4,5). The nearness of the Lord is the reason we can rejoice. Not that we don’t get sad, and weep and grieve. A sickness, a disappointment, a frustration, an injustice, or a loss descends on us and we are affected, sometimes crushed, but the Lord taught that we need not succumb to it. He speaks of an underlying joy that will see us through it, and this comes from being near Him.
In praying for believers, Jesus talked about our unity, with each other, with him, and with the Father that we should all be one in complete unity. Wouldn’t that, then, make available to us the kind of joy in question? The ultimate complete joy is truly knowing the Father and the love that he and the Son share. In the last recorded prayer of Jesus, before he went to the cross, the last thing he said was, “ I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them (John 17:26).” Real joy, then, must depend on getting to know the Father and on being one with the Lord.
We rejoice because the Lord is near. For the prophets, it was on the way. They were looking and waiting for it. For us, it is here. He is here, his Spirit living in us. We commune with him. We still look for, wait for the day when we will see him as he is, but in the meantime, we have his presence within us, a deposit, guaranteeing what will be ours when he comes the next time. So, whatever our circumstances, because of his presence, we can still choose joy.
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. (Isaiah 61:1 NIV)
Most of us await Christmas with high expectations. We love getting together with family, remembering great times, and for those of us who live in Guatemala, waiting for the fireworks at midnight. We love the Christmas carols, the church service, and many other things. All of that is fun and beautiful. No wonder the expectation of this time of the year is so high.
Simultaneously, the holidays are also a time of mourning and remembering. In many cases, we remember loved ones who have passed and have left an empty place in our lives. Those who come from dysfunctional families may not look forward to being with relatives. Even more so, Christmas can be a time of the year when many people feel extremely lonely.
When we look at Scripture, the coming of Christmas occurs during one of the worst times in the history of the people of Israel. Christmas starts to approach after four hundred years of silence, after God has kept apparent distance from Israel. Christmas approaches slowly as people grow desperate. Israel is under oppression. They have fallen in the hands of the almighty Roman Empire. Right before the birth of Jesus there are rebellions, social unrest, and violence. Does that sound familiar?
This year has been quite strange. In many cases, we have been quite isolated. Some of us have not seen our families. Some of us have lost people we loved either to the pandemic or other causes. Funds that were to help the poor amid the pandemic are often delayed, misused, or not seen as sufficient. It is amidst strange and turbulent times that Christmas approaches.
The second week of Advent, which we started on Sunday, is a week of preparation. We hear the voice of John the Baptist preparing the way for the arrival of the Son of Man. This preparation, however, is not the triumphant arrival of a king, but of one who would fulfill Isaiah 61:1. As we await the celebration of the birth of Jesus, we are reminded that when Jesus came, he shared in our pain, mourning, and suffering. God became Immanuel, God with us, with the purpose of bringing good news to the oppressed, healing our brokenness, freeing the captives, and releasing the prisoners.
Yes, 2020 has been a hard year for many. However, our hope lies in the coming of Jesus to be God with us.