Death, The New Year And The Hope of Christ
January 2, 2017
2016 was a sobering year for our celebrity-driven culture. A recent CNN article reminded us of the many well known individuals that we lost over the course of the last year. More names have been added just in this past week. More than usual, it seems that many of these celebrities and artists lost in 2016 were icons of culture--a part of people's personal identities and memories. Social media has provided an unprecedented forum for shared grief and lament. (On a humorous note, one man even started a Go Fund Me page to "protect Betty White from 2016".) From a biblical perspective, these social laments don't go far enough; and, sadly they seem to miss the point altogether. 2016 has not been all that unusual of a year--although it may have been more providentially jarring for some. People are shocked by tragedy and tragedies are supposed to be shocking. But tragedies are not surprises. They are reminders. Tragedies help to awaken us out of an illusion of what is not to what is actually the norm in this world. There is nothing more normal to history than evil and death. It is not strange. It is tragically normal. I heard someone once say that people in this world are like people in prison who pretend most of their lives that they are not in prison. And every once in a while when tragedy strikes, they are forced to come out and stare at the bars and be reminded of what is real. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a Christmas letter from prison during WWII in which he said, "A prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent. One waits, hopes, does this or that--ultimately negligible things--the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside." So what is the biblical lesson and answer in the face of a tragic reality? Can Christianity offer any hope in the New Year in the face of death? To the surprise of many, the Christian answer does not sugar-coat reality. The Christian Gospel has always been set in the midst of tragedy--from the cradle to the cross.Matthew's Gospel shockingly records how Jesus' birth led to the slaughter of innocent children in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16-18). Why would the Lord want such a story associated with Christ's coming? How could God warn Joseph while allowing those little boys to be killed? Why would He allow any things like that in the first place? It's not an easy question. And the Bible doesn't candy-coat the response. This is the reality of a fallen world. This was the reality of Jesus' birth, the kind of world He came to--a world where tragedies are not surprises, where 152,000 people die every day around the world, where 21,000 children die every day, where the U.S. alone averages 5 child murders a day. And this is actually what the Gospel story is about--not a shallow joy and peace, but a deep joy and peace in the face of a tragic world because of a Savior has come to redeem us. The fact that an angel had to warn Joseph tells us that the incarnation was real. God really became man, which means his life was truly threatened. God really and truly came into the reality of a fallen world, into the valley of the shadow of death, and became exposed and vulnerable. The fact that Jesus got away and survived the slaughter of Bethlehem was actually for the comfort of Bethlehem; it gives us the only answer and comfort possible in the face of tragedy. One got away. And because of the one who got away, there is hope. Like Moses before him, Jesus got away at his birth to provide a greater salvation. Jesus survived as an infant so that he could later do something no one else could do for His people. When the dragon of death sought to devour Him and his brethren (Rev.12:1-17), He was rescued for the proper time in order to go under the waters of death, and to destroy death once for all, and to crush the serpent's head (Gen.3:15, Heb.2:14). He became the firstborn from the dead (Col.1:18), the one who truly got away, and the one who goes before us to lead us all the way to the promised land. So what is the real answer to death and the New Year? As we face the reality of a fallen world and the fact that "a few more years shall roll, a few more seasons come and we shall be with those that rest asleep within the tomb" (Horatius Bonar), we must recognize that what Bonhoeffer said is true: "The door is locked and can only be opened from the outside." There is one real hope in all this world. And it's not a sentimental movie answer, that we all become "one with the Force and live on in all things". It's a very real, gritty, tragic, hope-filled answer - that God gave his only Son, that he came into this fallen world, that he came to be with us, to touch all of our uncleanness, even death itself - to break our chains and to lead us out.
Today the gate is open, and all who enter in,
Will find a Father's welcome, and pardon for their sin.
The past shall be forgotten, a present joy be given,
A future grace be promised, a glorious crown in heaven. (Oswald Allen, 1861)
Matt Foreman is the pastor of Faith Reformed Baptist Church. Matt is a graduate of Furman University and Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He currently serves as the Chairman of the General Assembly for the Reformed Baptist Network, as secretary for the RBN Missions Committee, and as lecturer in Practical Theology at Reformed Baptist Seminary. Matt also writes music for worship; some of which be found here. Matt and his wife, MaryScott, have four children: Katy (2002), Darsie (2004), Liam (2007), and Molly (2010).