do not be afraid

We have reached that point in the year where people grow reflective about “the year that was.” There is no shortage of people lining up to tell you how to feel about the past year which strikes me as more than a little presumptuous for at least a couple of reasons. First of all, everyone had objectively different years. Some people really struggled this year – with health, with finances, with relationships. But other people might have had a really good year according to those various measurements. It’s kind of outrageous for anyone to stand up and say “2017 was a rotten year.” Usually that means, “2017 was a rotten year for me and a lot of people I know so it definitely should be rotten for you as well.” See, for instance the incredibly stupid faux-outrage spewed at Taylor Swift for daring to enjoy this past year.  Secondly, recency bias causes us to regard our most recent history with more weight than it likely deserves. Very few people would say, “You know, 2017 was my 11th best year out of the last 20.” Most people will instead say that things have never been better or never been worse.

But there is one thing that I think can safely be said about 2017. A LOT of stuff happened. I know that every year has the same number of minutes, but goodness, it seemed like we sure did cram a lot more into those minutes. The speed of change that is happening globally, nationally, locally, and personally is pretty breathtaking. Some of this change might be good. Much of it might be bad. But the change has been constant. And with all that change comes an unhealthy dose of anxiety – at least for many people.

Ok, at least for me.

Some people – let’s just call them sociopaths – actually like change I’m told. I am not one of these people. A lot of us get anxious about change – especially when it’s change that is outside of our immediate control, change that is imposed on us or change that is bigger than us. That’s how I feel here at the end of 2017. So much is changing. It’s impossible to even keep up to date and in step. In the midst of all this change (and also having a significant birthday this year) I’ve found myself getting more and more nostalgic. I said in a recent Every Thought Captive Podcast that I love the trend (seen in shows like Stranger Things and The Goldbergs) turning the 80’s and 90’s into the new vintage (replacing the 50’s and 60’s). I could never identify with 1950s vintage, but 1980s? That’s my people! I like being reminded of how simple everything seemed to be. No cell phones. No social media. No algorithms running our lives. Riding bikes without helmets or parental supervision. I know how old I sound right now, and frankly, one of the benefits of growing older is not caring about sounding old. But I have had to remind myself that nostalgia can often be its own source of anxiety. Constantly ruminating on how things used to be so much better not only interprets the past in a more positive light than it deserves, it also creates a nagging discomfort (call it curmudgeonliness) that keeps a person from really engaging the present.

If change brings about anxiety and anxiety brings about fear, you could say that (at least for me) 2017 has left me feeling a little fearful. Which is why I needed two reminders from God’s word here at the end of 2017.

The first reminder was from rereading Luke 1 as I was sitting in church last Sunday. The first words spoken to Mary by the angel were “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” This message caused Mary to be “deeply troubled.” In the Greek, the literal meaning of this word is related to the stirring up of an otherwise placid body of water. I can’t identify with the specifics of Mary’s situation in Luke 1, but I can certainly identify with the emotion of being “deeply troubled.” Which is why the angel’s second words to Mary struck me in such a new and personal way. “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.” Do not be afraid. A savior is coming. The coming of Christ dispels fear.

The second reminder was from Hebrews 13. I’ve taught Hebrews to college students over a dozen times now. I’ve reached a level of familiarity with the book that is dangerous. I run the risk of becoming numb to the living and active nature of the Word. But in the last week of the semester, I was freshly wounded (or healed) by the sharpness of the words “Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Hebrews was written to a group of Christians who were struggling to maintain their faith in the face of enormous social and physical pressure. These Christians were living through immense change. And the author of Hebrews (Apollos tbh) insists that we must remember in the midst of change that Jesus is the same. Jesus won’t change even though everything else undoubtedly will. In the midst of good years and bad years, Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Yes, everything is changing – politics, economics, relationships, health, culture, environment, technology, “kids these days.” And so it is a profound grace that Christmas comes at the end of every year as, in the midst of the cold and darkness, we are reflecting on the changes that have happened and the changes that might be yet to come. We (I) need to be reminded afresh: Do not be afraid. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

P.S. I’ve also attached a sermon that I delivered in Ozark’s chapel a few years ago on the idea of celebrating Christmas at Job’s house which has a similar theme. You might appreciate it.

P.P.S. After watching a little of this sermon, I have to give a shout-out to some very dear friends who in the winter of that year convinced me it was time to just go ahead and buzz all of my hair off.

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