The coming of Jesus changed everything. It always does.
The fact that in God’s providence our celebration of Jesus’ birth is followed so immediately by the start of a new year is a gentle reminder that He came as the One who will ‘make all things new’. He changes everything.
The Bible is full of this theme, from beginning to end. There may be chaos, void and darkness as the Bible starts, but that unholy trinity is not allowed to rule the roost. Change is in the air from the get-go. God is around.
So when Jesus is born and the name tag round His wrist reads ‘Immanuel’, notice is being given that history is turning a corner and that life is not going to be the same again. Everyone in the Christmas narratives discovers that. Immediately. No one’s life is the same.
The retirement anticipated by Zechariah and Elizabeth gets turned on its head: the nuptial plans of Joseph and Mary are torn up. Scholarly men out east put down their books and get on their bikes.
When God pitches up a page gets turned. A new year. A new start. A new life. A new chapter gets written. The Bible is full of it.
I got that much from the very first Bible I had. I don’t recall much from my youth of who gave me what at Christmas, and in which year: but I do recall that Christmas 1963 was the year when I was given my first Bible. It was a small, thick, black leather-bound Authorised Version of the Bible, and it certainly felt to a 10-year old boy that it was what it said on the cover – the Holy Bible.
It was a gift from my parents, and I guess they figured that I was old enough then to know how to look after a good quality Bible: and to know what to do with it. My Dad wrote the briefest of greetings in the front, and then added two Scripture references – Joshua 1.9 and John 3.16.
In that simple way he made sure that I would understand, first of all, that the Bible is all about Jesus. And from the moment I looked up that Old Testament text as a 10 year old boy, I got a first real sense that the business of following Jesus was more than just believing certain doctrines: a life involving adventure (and sometimes some scary adventures at that) was part, it seemed, of the deal.
In time I would get the connection between the two great texts my Dad wrote into my Bible: but long before I’d started to see that Joshua was Jesus’ namesake (and as such let me see what Jesus being my leader and my Lord entailed), this Joshua held a certain fascination for my not yet teenage mind.
“Be strong and of good courage. Do not be afraid, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
Here was a man of action, a man who was clearly going places. And a man who did indeed have, I soon discovered, any amount of good reasons for being afraid.
How do you follow an act like the mighty Moses?
How do you provide a lead for people who have dragged their feet consistently and shown themselves to be so constantly perverse?
How do you lead all this people right into the land that the Lord has promised to give them when there’s a massive big river in spate which has got to be crossed?
And how, even if you conjure up some clever scheme which will somehow get them all across that raging river Jordan – how on earth are you going to settle them there in the land, when the land is already chock-full of battle-hardened nations who’ll be ancient-times-equivalents of noisy, nasty neighbours from hell?
The man would have needed a barrow-load of straight-from-the-Lord re-assurance! Even way back then I got at least that much.
I guess my Dad in writing in that well-known Scripture reference was keen that I would have that same intrepid confidence in facing all the challenges which life might later bring – a confidence which stemmed from the conviction that in Jesus it is God Himself who comes to dwell among us and to be there at our side.
Do not be afraid, therefore! That ringing exhortation (which I later found runs right the way through Scripture) was set from the start in the context of a whole great smorgasbord of challenges which Joshua faced.
God was moving His people forward and onward. They weren’t allowed to make the desert home – which it was clearly tempting to do. The desert had quickly become a bit like a spiritual ‘ghetto’ for these folk.
I mean, OK, it’s the desert, but after a while you get used to that; and it’s not that bad when you get your food provided for you day by day with no real effort needed on your part; and there aren’t a lot of enemies to face or battles to be fought; and you’re having practical gospel truths expounded to you week by week from as fine a Bible teacher as the whole Old Testament affords – think of men like John Piper, Tim Keller, and Don Carson, roll the three of them into one, and you’re maybe near to getting a sense of the sort of Bible teacher Moses was. And you get that every week!
The desert had quickly become their comfort zone. And now the Lord was moving them on to a war zone. Conflict, not comfort. The desert was only ever meant to be a training ground, not some sort of never-ending, lower-budget holiday camp.
It’s a river of life into which we are swept by the Lord, not a stagnant pond. We’re rarely allowed to settle for long, for the Lord is the mighty Creator and He delights to be doing a new thing: moving forward His purpose and building on all that is past, and calling us, therefore, to rise to the challenge of change.
Not ever change for change’s sake. But change for the sake of the kingdom, change in the interests of moving God’s purposes on. Change with a view to the glory of God being made known.
Deliverance doesn’t end in desert living – even if the miracles of manna day by day, and a Bible teaching ministry to match the best, make such a life the sort of thing you’d settle for. The ghetto is not where the gospel of Jesus will take you.
There was work to be done for the people back then. The desert was only the training ground, equipping and slowly preparing God’s people for what they were called now to do.
In the face of, and surrounded by, a host of hostile, godless nations, they were to live out their communal life as God’s “church” in that tiny patch of middle-eastern land and show the watching world what life with the Lord at the centre is actually like. What life is meant to be like. How life is meant to be lived. Why fullness of life has its source in our friendship with God.
So cross the river, the Lord now said – because He was opening a door for them now in a truly remarkable way so they’d be able to do just that: head right into the land and start spreading that life, that fullness of life, that life as it’s meant to be lived, that life of the Lord being now lived out among and in His people – start spreading that life throughout the length and the breadth of the land.
For ‘the land of Canaan’ you might read ‘the garden of Eden’: for there’s a sense in which this was Eden all over again: the Lord boldly taking His people and placing them there in that latter-day ‘garden of Eden’ and telling them then “to work it and take care of it” [Gen.2.15].
And haven’t the bounds of that ‘garden of Eden’ been now stretched and expanded to take in the whole of the earth? Isn’t that the little patch of land we’ve been called to “work” and to “care for”? Isn’t that what Jesus commissions His people to do? To go out in the power of the Spirit and to ‘work’ the nations and make disciples of them all.
“And surely I am with you always,” says Jesus. Immanuel. Just in case we forgot.
That’s the business before us as we step out now into all that 2018 will hold: there’s a river to cross and land to claimed. The Lord has opened a door for us here through the course of the year that is past: and far from it being just a door through which folk can come in, it’s a door through which He now forcibly pushes us out.
Spring-time was the entry date the people of God were given back then in Joshua’s day for crossing the flooded river Jordan and stepping at last right into God’s destiny for them. And perhaps for ourselves as well there’s some sort of spring-time now coming. Time for us, too, it may be, to be stepping right out and into ‘the garden’ of God, to ‘work’ the land He’s given us with all we’ve got, confident that the Spirit of almighty God will do amazing things.
As the wheel window always reminds us – God with us. Anything is possible! Anything can happen!
May you enter this year with the prayer in your heart that there’ll be big rivers crossed, and giant steps forward being taken through the course of these coming months – in your own life, and in our life as His people here.
Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,