Nationalism is on the rise. Refugee crises are escalating beyond anything previously seen. People are retreating into tribal identities and those tribes can’t seem to make peace. Inequality is stirring anger, which is being misdirected at the easiest targets. Revolutionaries pit their wits against what they perceive to be ‘the establishment’. Instability reigns. To make matters worse, an imperious ruler has ascended to power who regards his word as law, and ridicules anyone who seeks to challenge those words.
The year is 1BC.
Humanity is just one year away from its pivotal moment. But it certainly doesn’t feel like it. It’s been years since the prophets had anything to say to encourage the people. Their land and their imaginations have been colonised by an empire that has convinced them that resistance is futile. Optimism is in short supply. Sound familiar?
At this point I should confess that I’m an optimist. I’m hard-wired to see the silver lining in the darkest cloud. At times in my life, this has been an incredibly useful trait, but there are also times when it’s not. I’m fairly sure that as humanity tiptoes to the edge of 2016, optimism is not what we need.
From my experience, optimism will only get you as far as the 6 January, just like my new year’s resolutions. “Things can only get better,” is a hollow relativistic sentiment that only provides momentary succour. And of course, it may also be patently untrue. Just because things are bad doesn’t mean they can’t get worse. In fact, de facto positive thinking that simply isn’t based on hard evidence is part of why we have arrived where we have. Angry electorates – even if only in their guts – have rejected a progressivism that believes things inevitably get better.
So, this article isn’t about blind optimism. This is about looking far enough ahead to see the end of the story. This isn’t about progress. This is about redemption and restoration. This isn’t about turning over a new leaf. This is about new creation.
But you don’t get to new creation without dealing with the stuff that can’t be part of that perfect future. The poet can’t write a classic without first editing out the words that pollute or dilute the masterpiece. You simply can’t get to resurrection without crucifixion.
In case the events of 2016 haven’t convinced you, evil is real. And it needs to be confronted and dealt with. Not ignored.
That’s why at Christmas, and especially this Christmas, Christians will point to Jesus as our only hope. It’s not some other-worldly, pie-in-the-sky escapism – even though some fall prey to that. It’s the fact that he is the only one who deals with the root cause of all our problems – evil. It’s not the sum total of what he does – as some may have you believe – but it’s a significant part of it. He calls a spade a spade and not only talks the talk but walks the walk and defeats it. Impressive. That’s actual problem-solving, rather than the management of decline that humanity often ends up doing. But before we start throwing stones in various directions, let’s remember that as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, the axis of evil runs through every human heart. We are all fallen. Chesterton puts it eloquently in his response to The Times’ request for answers to the question: “What is wrong with the world?” He simply said: “I am.”
In a year like 2016 we would do well to remember that our sinful apathy must bear some of the blame for creating the vacuum of leadership that has been exploited by some.
So, let’s be honest and sober. Sin – that’s what was wrong with the world and us in 2016. And 2015. And 2014. And for many years before that. Declaring that to be true doesn’t mean that we abandon political engagement for a non-stop series of altar calls, hiding away from public life like monks. It simply means that we must honestly grapple with the complexities of how sin works its way through individuals, structures and cultures to allow fear, racism, greed and genocide.
As Christians have sought to find meaning and comfort in the midst of 2016, some have retreated to blanket statements of truth that sail high above the earth, rather than engage on the ground. So, I agree that yes God is still on the throne. Was someone suggesting He wasn’t? But to repeat that statement as a response to the events of 2016 is to be perhaps answering the wrong question. I’m convinced He is on the throne, so I care more about what He thinks than where He is. He can be on the throne and still be angry. He can be on the throne and still be disappointed. He can be on the throne and still be incredulous. I want to be doing what my Father is doing, reacting as He is reacting, not just stating what I believe to be true about Him.
So the journey – that stopped in at Bethlehem – to resurrection via the crucifixion that dealt with evil is where I find hope. Every moment I see one of my sinful attitudes being absorbed into that cross and doing no more damage here, I believe this place can be transformed. I’m not blithely saying that change might be just around the corner, and that it might happen as unexpectedly as it did in first century Palestine, but that’s not the point. We find hope not in temporary circumstances, but in the eternal character of the one whose revolution is unstoppable.
So, could we welcome Him into the midst of our fallen now, in the confidence that He has already proved willing to step into our fallen past?
Our world is dirty. But so was the manger. Our world is unjust. So was the stable. Our world is inhospitable. So was a genocide. But He came. His response to lies, pain and injustice is not retreat, but neither is it shock and awe style force. It’s identification. He cried in that manger. And He cries with us in 2016.