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PUTTING ON YOUR JANUS FACE (Between Christmas and New Year, 2020)

To be Janus-faced means possessing two different natures or characters. Often associated with being deceitful, two-faced, or insincere, it is important to note that the first definition of the term simply implies two characters which is not a negative attribute but simply a dichotomy – the ability to look in two directions at one and the same time.

Janus was a Roman god. He was the patron of doorways, transitions, beginnings, and endings. He was depicted as having two faces, symbolizing his ability to simultaneously look to the past and to the future. The name Janus came from the Latin word ianua, which means an entrance gate. The month of January is named for Janus.  This period between Christmas and the New Year is a strange time. In normal circumstances the majority of us are not at work during this period – most firms give their staff an extended break between Christmas and the New Year because it is simply not economical for people to be at work during this period. My son, who works in quality assurance, sometimes has to work during this period but, according to him, it is a complete waste of time because virtually all of the businesses he tries to contact during this period are not working. So, the majority of us find ourselves in a kind of vacuum for a few days – the Christmas celebrations are over and the New Year celebrations have not yet begun. Time, I would suggest, to pause, reflect, think … and put on our Janus face!

Looking back, 2020 has, in many ways, been an awful year – a missing year in many ways – with the outbreak of Covid-19, an enforced lockdown for most of the year, an unexpected pandemic that has left chaos in its trail. Sickness, death, redundancy, unemployment, economic hardship, etc., etc. It seemed to come right ‘out of the blue’ and we are none the wiser where it came from (unless you are one of these weird conspiracy theory nutcases). So what are we to make of 2020? What can we learn from it?

Well, way back in March – when we were forced into lockdown – I welcomed the opportunity of having ‘time on my hands’. Fortunately, Julia and I are in a reasonably secure position. Julia has a steady job (whoever would have thought that being a Baptist Minister would guarantee financial security?), I have a regular pension, we have a nice house to live in, we have all we need. Instead of rushing around like a headless chicken (the wont of Baptist Ministers trying to keep up with all the demands placed upon us from one source or another – forget the misnomer that we only work on Sundays), I suddenly found that I had more time to prayerfully wait on God and search the Scriptures.

Needless to say, my initial prayers were along the lines of, ‘So, what’s going on here, Lord? What’s this all about?’. And I got answer straight away! I don’t go along with all this nonsense about God never answering our prayers. God will always give us an answer … the problem is that oftentimes we don’t like the answer God gives us so we pretend he hasn’t answered us! Anyway, God showed me straightaway what all this was about … basically two things!

Firstly, God wants his world back. The Bible tells us that ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16). Systematically, down through recent generations, governments, political and economic institutions of one kind and another, our world has been ripped away from being the kind of world God wants it to be. Materialism, selfishness, greed, corruption, environmental destruction, social and racial injustice, and so on and so forth, has corrupted our world and our society. Scriptures such as ‘the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6:8), and ‘I hate all your show and pretence – the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies. I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings. I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings. Away with your noisy hymns of praise! I will not listen to the music of your harps. Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living’ (Amos 5:21-24) take on a new relevance for us today. Sadly, it is virtually impossible to find leaders of Godly character anywhere in our world today – men and women in the political sphere, the City, the financial institutions, the media, the world of business and commerce, economists, or captains of industry, etc. who put God and the good of the people before personal achievement of personal financial gain. And … as in the day of Noah … God has had enough!

Secondly, God wants his Church back! The Bible tells us that ‘Christ loves the Church and gave himself up for her’ (Ephesian 5:25). During the last umpteen years we have seen the Church of Christ riven asunder with split after split – usually over personalities rather than doctrine – and the rise of personality cults, sectarian divisions, legalism, moralism, heavy shepherding, and control issues, bullying dominance, misogyny, and discrimination, and so on – so that in many cases today’s Church seems to be a million miles away from the Christ of the Gospels. Even today – after nine months of lockdown and severe restriction on corporate gatherings for worship – so many Pastors and Church Leaders remain desperate for a return to the ‘old normal’ because they are seeing their ‘control’ of their people (and their source of finance) ebbing away.  And God is sick of it all. He wants his Church back!

2020 is ending on a bad note. Despite the heroic efforts of the scientists, the NHS workers, the hospitals, and surgeries, and so many others, the pandemic is getting worse not better. Covid-19 is changing shape, and effecting more people than ever. Our hospitals are full. Businesses are going to the wall. Redundancies and unemployment is growing. And who knows what the negative effects of Brexit are going to be (despite all the noise from the pro-Brexit media).

So, looking into 2021, with our other Janus face … what do we see? Do we see something more positive? A sudden ‘cure-all’ as a result of mass vaccinations, and us finally leaving the EU? Well, ultimately God will have his way of course. In the words of the old hymn, by Mary Peters, ‘Though we pass through tribulation, all will be well. Ours is such a full salvation, all, all is well. Happy, still in God confiding, fruitful, if in Christ abiding, holy through the Spirit’s guiding, all must be well!’ … but not any time soon, I’m afraid. There is little sign of any of the ‘movers and shakers’ in our society (or prominent leaders in today’s Church for that matter) showing any sign of repenting, turning back to God, acknowledging that they have got things horribly wrong, and that they haven’t got any answers … and that they desperately need God’s help! So 2021 is going to be much like 2020, I’m afraid … probably worse, in fact, as we lurch from one unanticipated crisis to another.

During 2020, I have found myself drawn back time and again to the Exodus narrative and the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh (Exodus 11:1-12:26). Israel were enslaved by Egypt and, despite God pleading with Pharaoh to release the people, Pharaoh refused and instead hardened his heart. The consequence was that Egypt experienced 10 plagues, one after the other, as a sign, a warning, to Pharaoh to repent and let God’s people go. Pharaoh systematically refused and each time hardened his heart more and more until eventually he reluctantly gave in … and the people were allowed to go free … but not without great cost to Pharaoh and Egypt.

Now, we must be careful not to draw too much from this illustration. Although there are parallels here that we need to take to heart. I often hear Christians today ‘praying against Covid-19’. Can I suggest that this is actually a nonsense. Did God’s ancient people in Egypt pray against the 10 plagues? I would suggest that they too (as well as the Egyptians) suffered under the various plagues inflicted on Egypt (the only one they avoided – because of their obedience to God’s command was the last) but we have no record of them ‘praying against’ the various plagues. Instead of praying against Covid-19 we need to be praying for the ‘Pharaohs’ that dominate and control our politics, the media, the economy, the city, the financial and businesses world, and so on. The Pharaohs (whether large or small) that dominate the Church or churches. As well as praying God’s blessing on all those people of goodwill who are (whether consciously or not) endeavouring to do what is right, we need to be praying that God will break in on the ‘Pharaohs’, intervene, bring them to genuine repentance, enable them to turn once again back to God and implement his solutions, his ways, his plans, his purposes … that God will ‘turn their hearts of stone into hearts of flesh’ (Ezekiel 26:26)!

Jim Binney

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