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WHERE NEXT? (New Year 2021)

Julia and I are fortunate to live just across the road from the extensive grounds of the University of Reading (which is open to the public) with its wonderful lake, amazing trees, the Harris Gardens, the university library, bars, and eateries (which as students at the University of Winchester, we can also use), and even a great little Co-op Store … all within walking distance. On Boxing Day we enjoyed a lovely walk around the lake and I was inspired and encouraged by a university notice board (they are scattered all over the complex) with a nice map and the inscription ‘Where Next?’. Designed to help students and visitors alike to find their way round the university grounds, the map/sign set me prayerfully pondering ‘Where Next?’ as far as 2021 is concerned. 

2020 is just about gone (‘Good Riddance’ I hear you say) and 2021 is almost upon us … but what does this New Year hold in store for us? Much the same as 2020, I fear, although we hope and pray (in the words of Mary Peter’s lovely hymn) for ‘a bright tomorrow’. Initially I suspect we will see a further rise in Coronavirus cases (despite a major rollout of the various vaccinations on offer), the appearance of various mutant strains of the virus, and the NHS under even greater pressure. Sadly, I anticipate that (despite the implementation of the Brexit agreement) there will be growing economic hardships, more businesses going broke, more redundancies and greater unemployment. I also suspect that there will also be more ‘crises’ around the corner that none of us are anticipating at the moment.

Now by nature I am not normally a negative person. I have been described as ‘Not just a glass half full man, but a glass overflowing man!’ so it really goes against the grain for me to appear seemingly to be ‘a prophet of doom’. On the other hand I don’t want to be a false prophet like those in Jeremiah’s day who ‘filled [people] with false hopes … speaking out of their own minds, not from the Lord … promising peace and that nothing will harm you’ (Jeremiah 23:16-18). Sadly, there is a lot of false prophecy going around today – even in Christian circles – as witnessed to by the various false prophesies that Donald Trump would win the 2020 American Presidential Election. Having said all this … we are not without hope for the future!

Despite all the negatives of 2020 I have been inspired and encouraged by a lot of things over this last year. The selflessness of so many extra-ordinary, ordinary people, who have given themselves selflessly in the service of their fellow human beings through the NHS, the Food Banks, the Service Industries, and so on. The numerous charitable organisations here in Reading, and elsewhere, who have continued to care for the broken, the hurting, the needy in our society, despite all the difficulties and inconveniences. For me these are the true heroes that should be recognised in the New Year Honours list! I am sure we will see lots more examples of such selfless service in 2021.

So, is there any word of hope to bring to you as we stand on the cusp of another year? Well, yes there is! Julia and I have been pondering that lovely verse at the end of Isaiah 40 which tells us that ‘those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint (Isaiah 40:31 NKJV). Here, we find a wonderful guarantee from God promising us renewed strength, the ability to rise above our problems, energy to keep going, and (what we might call) ‘stickability’ … if we will but ‘wait upon the Lord’!

The Hebrew word qavah translated as ‘wait’ here in the NKJV actually has a number of meanings – as the various different translations of the Bible suggest – each of them giving us another inspirational facet of what it means to truly trust in God, whilst at the same time suggesting various helpful directions in which we might positively apply ourselves in this time of national and (for some of us) personal crisis in which we find ourselves.

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Firstly, we can pray! Qavah can mean ‘to wait upon’ hence the exhortation to ‘wait upon the Lord’ (NKJV) i.e. to wait prayerfully on the Lord. The concept encouraged here is intercessory prayer where we spend significant time waiting on God for him to reveal his will, his plan, his purpose to us. Something akin to Hezekiah who, when under threat from Sennacherib, simply laid the threatening letter he had received out before the Lord and invited God to read the letter and let Hezekiah know how to pray into the situation and how to act in response to the situation (2 Kings 18:13-19:37). Something akin to John’s exhortation to wait upon God over every matter in order to get the mind of God on the situation and then … and only then … ask God to do what he has revealed he wants to do in the first place (1 John 5:14,15). We need to be using this time of enforced lockdown to really pray … to pray for the Church and for the World as we have never prayed before!

Secondly, we need to be patient! Qavah can mean ‘to wait for’ hence the exhortation to ‘wait for the Lord’ (NRSV) i.e. to wait patiently for God’s plan and purpose to be fulfilled. We live in an ‘instant age’ – everything from instant coffee to instant answers – we are so impatient; we don’t want to wait for anything! The simple fact of the matter, however, is that God never does anything in a hurry. His timing is always perfect. Paul tells us, concerning the birth of Christ, that it was ‘when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son,’ (Galatians 4:4 NRSV). God is doing something right now through all this Covid-19 stuff and the fall out from that. We have to be purposeful, yes, in playing our part in making a positive difference wherever we can – doing the ‘salt’ and ‘light’ and ‘leaven’ stuff (Matthew 5:13-16; 13:33) – but we also have to ‘keep in step with the Spirit’ (Galatians 5:25), waiting patiently for God to do his stuff in his own time.

Thirdly, we need to rest trustfully in God! Qavah can mean ‘to rest trustfully in’ hence the exhortation to ‘trust in the Lord’ (GNB). We think of that story in the Gospels when Jesus and his disciples were caught in the midst of one of those violent storms that can suddenly spring up on the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35-41). The disciples were in a panic, fearing the worst, but Jesus was peacefully asleep in the stern of the boat, resting on a cushion secure in Father God! Whatever 2021 may bring us we too can rest content in Father God, secure in the knowledge that ‘our times are in God’s hands’ (Psalm 31:15) and that ‘in everything God is working for the good of those who love him, those intent on living out his plans and purposes’ (Romans 8:28).

Fourthly, we can face the future confidently! Qavah can mean ‘to hope with absolute certainty in’ hence the exhortation to ‘hope in the Lord’ (TNIV). Our English word ‘hope’ is all too often used very negatively – ‘I hope I pass my exams (even though I didn’t do any work for them)?’ or ‘I hope I lost weight over the Christmas (even though I’ve stuffed myself every single day over the holidays)?’ I recall a man in my home church, in response to a call from our Pastor to engage in a particular evangelistic endeavour, saying ‘We’ll have a go Pastor, with fingers crossed and looking to Heaven!’ Presumably just in case one or the other didn’t work. Qavah is much more positive, however, endowed as it is with a much greater sense of certainty. It is the equivalent of the New Testament word for ‘hope’, elpis, which led Martin Luther to translate the phrase ‘the God of hope’ (Romans 15:13) as ‘the God of the guarantee’! Which brings me back to almost where we began this blog … with the words of Mary Peter’s wonderful hymn (my very favourite at this moment) and inspiring words to end with:

Through the love of God our Saviour,
All will be well;
Free and changeless is His favour;
All, all is well.
Precious is the blood that healed us;
Perfect is the grace that sealed us;
Strong the hand stretched out to shield us;
All must be well.

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.

We expect a bright tomorrow;
All will be well;
Faith can sing through days of sorrow,
All, all is well.
On our Father’s love relying,
Jesus every need supplying,
Or in living, or in dying,
All must be well.

~ Mary Peters (1813-56)

Jim Binney

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