One well known Christmas Carol ‘God rest ye merry Gentlemen’ contains the phrase ‘Tidings of Comfort and Joy’ , words that are a more traditional rendering of the Angel’s words to the shepherds on the Judean hills of ‘Good news that will cause great Joy’ in Luke 2:10. It occurs to me that the original meaning of the word ‘Comfort’ namely ‘strength’ (n) or to ‘strengthen’ (v), is in some need at Christmas time 2019.
This is because as one looks around at the Australian scene in this ‘season of Joy’ there is much that might promote the opposite, even despair. One reason for this is the continuing spiritual and moral Degradation of society, as witnessed by the dismantling of the biblical base as God’s intended guidelines for the operation of human society. Further, there is the banning of Christmas carols, the substitution of ‘Happy Holidays’ for ‘Happy Christmas’, and one I heard of lately, the Primary School that has substituted ‘baby Jesus’ for ‘Lord Jesus’ in the carol ‘Away in a manger’, in a bid to ‘not offend other faiths’.
A second reason for potential despondency is the worsening, dire and ongoing failure of churches generally in their mission to local society. This failure is a reality, despite the headlines that will no doubt, as every year, once more proclaim ‘packed’ Christmas services. However, those that ‘pack’ them are largely either ignorant of, or indifferent to, the true state of the church.
So where to for encouragement? Well, where else but the Bible? There is a particular story about the prophet Elijah running from 1 Kings 18:17 to 19:18 which is good to read when we feel despondent at the spiritual desiccation of society, or our lack of missional fruit despite all our best efforts. In this story, Elijah firstly appears to have won a great victory for God on Mt Carmel where God intervened to show the complete impotence of the ‘prophets of Baal’ in what might be called the ‘Battle of the Sacrifices’. Subsequent to that God answered Elijah’s prayer for an end to the severe drought that had afflicted the land.
One would have thought that this would have brought great praise and honour to Elijah with the people of Israel, supposedly God’s people. Not so however. The Queen, Jezebel, the great proponent of the Baal cult was furious at the destruction of ‘her’ prophets, and so she put out a ‘Contract’ on Elijah’s life, forcing him to flee.
He ends up fleeing to a cave in the desert, where, in utter despair, he complains bitterly to God about how he had served God faithfully and been jealous for His name, yet the people of Israel had abandoned God’s covenant with Moses, trashed the official places of worship and killed God’s prophets. Only he, Elijah was left, and now his life too was under threat, and so he asked God to just let him die. To put it another way, he’d just had enough!
God however does not agree to Elijah’s plea, rather He recommissions him to another task. As He does so God reminds Elijah, and us, that things are not always as they seem. In fact, Elijah is not the ‘only one left’ for God has reserved another 7000 faithful people that have not bowed the knee to Baal or worshipped (kissed) him. Even when things look blackest, the Big Picture is that God always keeps what is sometimes called a ‘Remnant’, those whom He will use to keep His plan going, whether it be a small group (e.g. Noah’s family) or large (e.g. the exiles in Babylon).
Whether it is the march of modern Baals (e.g. Materialism, Consumerism, Hedonism etc) across 21st century Australian (Western) society or the missional failure of the institutional church, both can give reason for despondency and despair. However, when we are tempted to feel that way, it is time to ‘Remember the Seven Thousand’: that God is sovereign, that He sees the Big Picture and that He will bring His plan to ultimate fruition. But actually, He of course already has, in that Child in the manger, who is the ultimate ‘Remnant’ come to complete the task. So no matter what the landscape looks like this Christmas it is a time for great celebration.
As the Angels cried out-‘Glory to God in the Highest!’