by John Ellis
2016 is almost over. Based on the memes, social media comments, and blog posts, many, if not most, are cheering the arrival of this year’s final gasps. The cheering, of course, isn’t a celebration of 2016; it’s a lament. For some, 2016 has taken on a villainous anthropomorphism. To that end, 2016’s “death” is being celebrated. As the clock strikes midnight, signaling the birth of 2017, people will hoist their champagne glasses and dance on the grave of 2016.
There are many reasons to look back on 2016 and heave a despairing sigh in our souls. Tragedies have seemingly dominated our lives this past year. In 2016, the world watched as our collective leaders turned a mostly blind eye to the slaughter of civilians in places like Aleppo, Yemen, and the Sudan. The sinful politicizing of the notion of loving fellow humans has seemed to come to full and rotten fruition this past year. Terrorist attacks continue to alter the way many of us go about our daily lives. Earthquakes killed hundreds in Italy and Taiwan; massive flooding and forest fires swept through various parts of the United States, killing many and leaving many more homeless and in despair. Political upheaval throughout the West has exposed deep fissures in our social fabric. Proving that it’s not a dormant evil among us, racism threatens to divide communities and neighbors. And, yet, though surrounded by great turmoil and evil, I don’t believe that a surrender to grief over 2016 is an appropriate response for Christians.
To be sure, sin and its effects should always be met with mourning by followers of King Jesus, even, if not especially, the sin that still chokes and constricts our own heart. The word “tragic” does succinctly describe the death of those, celebrities or not, who refused to bow the knee in faith before Jesus. At the least, 2016 has confirmed the reality that we are still living on the *wrong side of the second Advent. And the confirmation of that reality informs us that hate, avarice, and death are not in the rearview mirror as we cross time’s border into 2017. As Christians, however, we have far more to rejoice about as we look back over 2016 than we have to mourn. To that end, a more accurate title of this post is “In Praise to Our Creator God Who Ordained 2016.”
As a profound reflection on suffering and God’s sovereignty, the book of Job provides a template as we struggle to come to terms with the evil in our world. After much vain and faithless discourse, God interrupts Job and his friends’ attempts to one-up each other’s “godly” reflections about God and the meaning of the tragic events that have befallen Job. Making His presence known in a story that was already dominated by His presence, albeit a presence mostly misunderstood by the humans in the very true story, God confronts Job with an impressive array of questions that throw in sharp relief the ontological divide between Creator and creature.
Concluding His first series of questions, God asks “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?” He then issues the command, “He who argues with God, let him answer it (Job 40:2).”
In obedience before God, Job confesses, “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further (Job 40:4-5).”
God, of course, wasn’t finished with Job.
Continuing His impressive, yet not exhaustive, display of His total sovereignty over all of creation, God humbles Job. In his God given humility, Job praises God by declaring that “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted (Job 42:2).”
Since the Bible is God’s self-revelation to His people, it’s no surprise that the book of Job doesn’t corner the market on bearing out and praising God’s total sovereignty. For many, the first passages that pop into their mind when contemplating God’s sovereignty over creation are found in The Psalms.
One ode to God’s sovereignty over humans is beautifully rendered in Psalm 90. In verse two, the poet exclaims, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” From before time began until past time’s appointed end, God is sovereign. Psalm 115:3 tells us, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” Echoing God’s mighty lecture to Job, Psalm 104 lists many of the ways in which God is sovereign over all: “He set the earth on its foundations (verse 5);” “The mountains rose, the valleys sank down to the place that you appointed them (verse 8);” “You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth fruit from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man (verse 14).” Poignantly, though, verses 27-29 summarize the complete dependence of all things on God. “These all look to you, to give them their food in due season. When you give to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath they die and return to the dust.” This praise to the sovereignty of God over earth and beast and man ends with the imprecatory prayer to “let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more (verse 35).”
Echoing the revelation in Psalm 104 of how God’s sovereignty over all the earth will be ultimately worked out, Psalm 29 is one of King David’s many glorious reflections on the total sovereignty of God. I won’t quote the whole Psalm (I encourage you to read it here), but it ends with the praise that “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace (Psalm 29:10-11)!”
The closing verse of Psalm 29 is a prayerful acknowledgment that a right understanding of God’s sovereign place over all should lift the hearts of God’s people, even during times of duress. However, the final sentence “May the Lord bless his people with peace!” is a reminder that only God’s people will fully and finally enjoy God in His kingdom; God’s sovereignty is only a blessing to those who are in Christ.
Living a life that fully reflects faith in the fact that the total sovereignty of God is a blessing isn’t always easy. There’s no doubt about that. But our lack of faith reveals aspects about us, not about our God. Many times, I’m afraid that the handwringing of Christians on public forums like Facebook and Twitter communicates more to unbelievers than is intended.
Regardless of whatever storms God sends our way, Christians can rest assured that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he [Jesus] might be the firstborn among many brothers (Romans 8:28-29).” That well-known verse (28) and its lesser known companion verse (29) tells about God’s plan to glorify Jesus through the sanctification of those whom the Father gives to the Son.
In his high priestly prayer before his betrayal, Jesus earnestly prays to the Father for “those whom you gave me out of the world.” Specifically, Jesus prays to the Father that even though the world hates his people, “that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves (John 17:13).” That joy comes from being “conformed to the image” of Jesus. The slings and arrows of the world are one of the main ways that God preserves His people in order that Jesus might be glorified and that Christians may be brought safely home.
When we lament the circumstances around us, we reveal to the world that our eyes are not on Jesus; that we doubt the efficacy of his prayer for the Father to “Sanctify them [Christians] in the truth (John 17:17).” Bemoaning 2016 without also praising God, at the least, reveals our lack of faith and may very well tell our unbelieving friends and family that we don’t really mean it when we say that “to live is Christ, to die is gain (Philippians 1:21).”
The thing is, even with the waves of turmoil roiling at our feet, God is on the move! There is much to be thankful for as we look back over 2016.
When God promised to make a new nation out of every tribe and tongue, He meant it. Even though it may feel as if Christendom is being forced to retreat before the forces of secularism, the truth is that the Holy Spirit is making disciples of Jesus around the globe. It’s easy to have a myopic view of the Church and forget that America isn’t the center of the Kingdom of God. For example, Christianity is on the rise in China. In fact, it’s predicted that China will be the largest Christian nation in a little over a decade.
Not content to sit at home, however, obeying Jesus, Chinese Christians have committed to taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. Specifically, the “back to Jerusalem” movement is seeing Chinese missionaries preaching the good news of Jesus Christ throughout the Muslim world.
In this country, our Hispanic neighbors are placing their faith in Jesus at a pace that makes sociologists uncomfortable. And in the face of a turbulent election season, many followers of King Jesus have been emboldened to preach nothing but Christ crucified. 2016 has seen the advancement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the glory of God.
In my own church in Arlington, VA, God has proven Himself great throughout 2016. Arlington Baptist Church has been blessed to join in the praising of God through the baptism of several new believers, and, with great eagerness, we’re already looking forward to another baptism during the first month of 2017. God has demonstrated His kindness by continuing to bless us with the expository preaching of the Bible each and every Sunday. My good friend and pastor has proven himself to be a joyful and faithful servant of God. Mike pours himself not only into the ministry of the Word, but he also pours himself into the lives of those whom God has placed in Arlington Baptist Church. Regardless of what evils rock the world around us, the union of the saints at Arlington Baptist Church lifts our hearts to bring joyful praise and obedience to our great Savior and King.
And, if you’re like me, a glance back over 2016 reveals God’s merciful and gracious work in your own heart. Our sanctification is most often in small increments; so small, in fact, that many Believers struggle with doubt about their salvation. Looking back in prayerful reflection will reveal how God, and only God, has wrought change in our hearts. Through trials, tribulations, and failures, God proves Himself faithful in the hearts of His people. If that’s not your experience, though, two questions are in order. First, are you truly repenting of your sins and placing your faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus? If looking back over your life doesn’t reveal the flowering fruit of faith, you may not be a child of God.
Second, have you submitted yourself to God’s ordained means of grace? Specifically, are you actively pursuing God through the reading of the Bible and faithful prayer? Are you actively involved in the fellowship of other believers through the preaching of God’s word and the right administration of the sacraments/ordinances? If your answers to this last series of questions is dominated by the negative, then you are willfully cutting yourself off from the sanctifying power wrought by the Holy Spirit through the ordinary means of grace. Repent, and humbly submit yourself before God in and through the ordinary means of grace. Don’t enter 2017 with the same lament on your lips as you have as you approach 2016’s exit. In 2017, actively seek God for His glory, your sanctification, and the salvation of your loved ones.
It’s undeniable that 2016 has brought weeping, provoked intense anger, and stoked the growing embers of fear in the hearts and minds of our neighbors, whether living across the street from us or halfway around the world. 2016 has been a vivid and often painful reminder that sin is still ripping at all our lives. It’s also undeniable that God has continued to prove Himself faithful throughout 2016. Part of our job as followers of King Jesus is to help unbelievers see that only the Gospel of Jesus Christ provides the full and final solution to the tumult that threatens to sink them; only God’s faithful love found in and through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus provides salvation.
As 2016 draws to a close, take the opportunity to praise God and give thanks for His faithfulness this past year. Take advantage of the annual reflection and soul-searching prompted by the passing of time, and be bold in your gospel witness. Make sure that your unsaved family and friends know that dancing on the grave of 2016 will not lead to rejoicing during 2017, only new life through Christ can provide true and abiding joy.
Soli Deo Gloria