Sunday, January 3, 2021


There are not many people in America who will tell you that the year 2020 was a fantastic year for them. This same thing could probably be said of most people in the entire world. We are all looking forward to hanging a new calendar on our walls—one that is headed by the numbers 2-0-2-1.

We know the new calendar does not actually alter the situation. A calendar is simply twelve pieces of paper stapled together that mark the days and the months. Right now, at the beginning of 2021, covid is still here and the government still is inefficient, self-serving and hyper-partisan. Added to those distressing truths is the fact that most jobs have not yet recovered, and many personal difficulties and crises still remain.

Nevertheless, it is true that there is something about casting the old year out that is oddly cathartic. We did this in our home on New Year’s Eve—we cast off the old year. Actually, it is more accurate to say, we “blew it up.” This year my family and I observed a New Year’s Eve custom that we have not done since the days we lived in Venezuela.

Blowing Up the Old Man

On the first New Year’s Eve that my family and I lived in that country of South America, we were introduced to a New Year’s custom called “blowing up the old man.”

 In this tradition, a scarecrow-like person is made with old clothes and stuffing like the scarecrow you would put in your corn field. However, it is more than straw that is in the stuffing.

Hidden among the sticks and straw, within the body of the straw man, firecrackers and even larger explosives were placed in various locations. Some of these explosives were even “morteros.” The word means ‘mortars,’ and they are dangerously powerful.

After warnings about moving the cars parked on the street, the “old man” was placed seated in an old chair in the middle of the street on our block. Then, at the stroke of midnight of the New Year, the “old man” was set on fire by a brave (or perhaps foolish) young neighbor kid who thought that he could run pretty fast.

Soon after the old man was lit, his straw and paper body was ripped apart by the explosives inside. Straw body parts and pieces of the morteros were sent flying in every direction. Windows of the nearby houses rattled, car alarms in the vicinity began to go off, and those onlookers who had not retreated far enough away from the old man began to worry about bodily harm. All ability to hear was lost for the next half an hour or more.

This is blowing up the old man. It is far more sensational and eventful than watching a crystal ball slowly and agonizingly descend a pole in Time Square. Blowing up the old man ushers in the New Year with true enthusiasm.

The tradition of blowing up the old man has a meaning that goes beyond simply marking the hour and minute of the change of the year. It also represents blowing up the old year into obliteration. The idea is that the old year is gone forever, and now the new one may start fresh. It is usually just done in fun (if you consider temporary deafness and the danger of true bodily harm “fun”), but the tradition is not completely devoid of meaning.

 Moving On to the New

 In that first year after arriving in Venezuela, one of our neighbor’s daughters went around to the homes on our street to gather old articles of clothing from each family in order to make a “community” old man that was to be blown up in our street on the New Year.

The girl then prepared a speech; using as a basis for her talk the articles of old clothing that she had collected from the various families on our street. For each of these, she related a problem that the family had experienced during the year to the piece of clothing that they had contributed.

These were the problems, she said, that the families wanted to blow up.

I do not remember all examples, but one of our neighbors who had contributed a pair old of shoes, also had had many difficulties with his car in that previous year. The girl who gave the speech applied the troublesome car and the old shoes to their “transportation problems” that would be done away with in the New Year.

Another one of our neighbors who had suffered a broken arm had contributed an old shirt. That connection between the shirt and putting the broken arm in the past was almost too easy to make.

I had given an old pair of pants. Since we had only been a short time in that town, the neighbor girl said that we wished to be rid of our instability of moving here and there, and to settle down comfortably in our chairs in our new home. I nodded in hearty agreement.

The old man was then put on fire, and almost magically, every problem of every family on our street was obliterated in a great display of fire and explosion. The event was fun and well received, and best of all, no one was injured.

It is not all Light-Hearted

It may be a fun event, but if someone has passed through a particularly difficult year, the blowing up of the old man takes on some additional significance. It is not always so easy to make light of problems with a fun-filled community event, and despite the lightheartedness of the tradition, we know that problems are not so easily solved.

This year nearly every person in America has suffered from the pandemic in some way. Surely some have suffered more than others, but all may truly wish that they could simply blow up this past year and not again be bothered with it.

We would like that it could be so easy, but it does not help to give simplistic answers. Of course, the pandemic is only one of the troubles that many have had to endure this year. There have been health concerns, loss of employment, finances…the list continues. Problems sometimes seem to come at every turn.

Our Problem with Problems

In viewing our problems, perspective becomes all important. At times, a problem is given a larger than deserved significance because it is keeping us from our immediate goal. If our goal is simply to pay the monthly bills, then a breakdown with our car can be more than problematic. We are faced with a situation that is more significant than simply causing us to puzzle over how to get to work the next day. If we cannot work, how then to pay the rent? The circumstances can be devastating.

This car problem tolls like a bell, mourning the death of the goal to make all of our payments. Our very day-to-day existence comes into jeopardy.

It is true that from the immediate perspective we must do something, but it sometimes helps to remember that despite how large the problem seems at the moment, it also remains true that we are looking at only the immediate. These are the smaller battles. We must wage them and look for victory over them, but these are our smaller goals.

Our true objective should be much larger. None of us would desire to have our lives reduced to living month to month with our victories rising or falling by how well we have done financially in that month, or whether or not we had additional and unexpected expenses.

Our larger goal should be for a more fulfilling life.

Looking at the Big Picture

How are we to view our problems from this larger perspective? This is sometimes quite easily done and other times very difficult, but the best advice I have ever encountered was spoken by Jesus Christ:

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?

Jesus then talks about how the heavenly Father provides for the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field.

Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was adorned like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you?

Then Jesus says something that has affected me as much as anything that has ever been said or written. “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.” (Matthew 6:25, 29-30, 33 BSB).

Perspective and Power

The difference is in perspective. We must grow beyond the perspective of those of the world who only seek things of the earth and their well-being merely in the years that they have here. We must learn to seek the perspective of the kingdom and the righteousness of God. It is this kingdom of God’s and his righteousness that is to be the object of our quest—not the luxuries or security in this life.

When we change our perspective on what is important, we will then find that there is also a change of power. Our difficulties become overwhelming when we do not have the power to overcome them. However, with our new perspective, we come to realize that our difficulties are not really even ours to solve. We do not have the power to solve the problems that come to us, but we instead look to Him who takes us under His care.

Many years ago one of our boys, still very small, was sitting one day down in the valley that lies in front of our house. He had gone down the hill on his wagon and was trying to pull it back up. But the hill was steep and the grass rather long, and his little legs and arms were tired.

As I was walking along on top of the hill, I faintly heard some sobbing coming up from the valley. As I peered over the crest of the hill, I saw him just sitting there, only a short way up from the bottom, with his little head resting on his knees.

Seeing the problem, I walked down into the valley, picked him up and gave him a hug, and placed him in the wagon. Then, with him riding in the wagon, I pulled him up to the top of the hill. His sobs turned into laughter as he rode up the same hill against which he earlier had struggled.

It is the job of a father to take the burdens of his son, and it is not a bothersome responsibility. On the contrary, it gives a father great joy when he is able to use his strength to bring delight where there was once grief. I know I was very much pleased when my small son marveled at the great strength that I possessed.

As Job, of old, said of his Redeemer, “If it is a matter of power, behold, He is the strong one!” (Job 9:19, NAS).

And the great king David… “For who is God, besides the Lord? And who is a rock, besides our God? God is my strong fortress.”

Like a father who pulls his son up the worrisome hill, David says this of his God: “He makes my feet like hinds' feet, and sets me on my high places” (2 Samuel 22:32-34, NAS).

Not Blowing Up our Problems, but Giving Them to our Father

In a similar way, it does no good to put our problems into a package and blow them up or to wish them away. There is no real benefit in blowing up the old man to begin a New Year fresh. But we do have a way that we can find relief from our problems.

Our Redeemer is strong. The Lord of hosts is His name. 

Not God’s Final Vision for Us

As we begin the year 2021, it is the sad reality that the covid-19 is with us. As of yet, we have no immunity to it. Many are even fearful of this fact and many more have lost income and health. Many have even died. In a multitude of ways, the pandemic has caused all of us to alter our lifestyle drastically.

But we are holding on. We know that the covid pandemic will pass. Nevertheless, we can also be sure that in the future there will be other problems. One thing that we should have learned from the present pandemic is that a tiny, and even microscopic thing can change the course of our entire lives. At the beginning of last year, the year 2020, no one would have guessed the great impact this virus was to have on every aspect of our living and even on world events.

Now, at the dawn of 2021, we hope that all will be better, although we have no way of knowing this for certain. The popular thinking at the beginning of a new year is always to put on an optimistic face and look to the future with fresh determination. This is good, but the attitude must also be seasoned heavily with reality.

We all wish for a better year, but it does not help us to deny the existence of problems when they do come. We have seen this with the pandemic. At first, many denied that the coronavirus was even a danger, saying that it was a “hoax.” Some perhaps still say that, but I think that the number of hospitalizations and deaths have shown most that this type of living in denial was wrong.

It is the same with other problems that have come and that will come our way. Living in denial will not help. Nor does thinking that we can blow our problems up like the old straw man at the end of the year.

How to Find Peace

Again speaking of the beginning of last year, the year 2020, in some sort of a peculiar way our situation then was similar to how Jesus was preparing his disciples shortly before he was to be crucified. Like us in January of last year, the disciples had no idea of the tribulations that they were soon to face.

Jesus told them, “Look, an hour is coming and has already come when you will be scattered, each to his own home.”

He could have said that to us in January of last year, and we would have had no idea what he was referring to. But like the disciples soon after they heard these words from Jesus, for most of the year of 2020 we were huddled in our own homes, afraid to venture out. The disciples were afraid of persecution, we were afraid of a virus.

But whatever the case, Jesus also said something to his disciples that applies to all generations in every age: “In the world you will have tribulation.”

A pessimistic statement?

You might be saying to yourself, “I don’t need this type of negative energy at the beginning of the New Year! I want optimism! I want a pep talk! I want to hear inspirational words!”

But in an unconventional way, this statement about the certainty of tribulation in the world is one of the most inspirational things that Jesus has said. It is meant to give us optimism, and will do so if we take it in full context the sentence. Jesus said it not so that we would have a gloomy outlook of pessimism. He said it so that we would know how to have peace in our lives.

This phrase of tribulation in the world is sandwiched in between two other phrases. The full sentence reads like this:

“I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take courage; I have overcome the world.”(John 16:33 BSB)

What We Can Expect from the World

Living in peace and living in optimism depends upon where we are looking for certainty in life. If we look to the world, you can be sure that we will have tribulations. Despite all of the vaccines and other temporary solutions to problems, despite all of the empty promises, in the end, tribulations and problems are all that the world can offer us. It will never and can never offer us a lasting peace.

The new “savior” of the world seems to have become “science.” The world is now looking to “science” to bring us out of the present pandemic. Vaccines are fine, but even the best vaccine is simply a bandage on the larger problem. Did we forget that it was “science” that brought us this pandemic in the first place, and then through rapid international commerce quickly spread it across the globe? “Science” is not our savior. “Science” will never bring us peace.

Why would we think that permanent solutions to problems could come from the very world that gives us the problems in the first place? Our only hope of attaining true peace is to look beyond any solution that the world had to offer.

What We Can Expect from Jesus

Jesus says to us “Take courage; I have overcome the world!”

The words that Jesus spoke to the church at Laodicea seem especially relevant to today’s church:

You say, ‘I am rich; I have grown wealthy and need nothing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, white garments so that you may be clothed and your shameful nakedness not exposed, and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. Those I love, I rebuke and discipline. Therefore be earnest and repent.

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in and dine with him, and he with Me. To the one who overcomes, I will grant the right to sit with Me on My throne, just as I overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 4:17-22 BSB)

The Apostle Paul knew what it was to experience trouble in this world, as he enumerates them in one of his letters to the Corinthians…“In troubles, hardships, and calamities; in beatings, imprisonments, and riots; in labor, sleepless nights, and hunger.”

How did he respond to these problems? As he writes, “In purity, knowledge, patience, and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God.” (2 Corinthians 6:4-10)

It is because he realized that his strength did not come from external solutions that he could write, “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this surpassingly great power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on all sides, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” (2 Corinthians 4:7-9 BSB)

It is not a vaccine that will bring us peace in these turmoiled times—no national policy of behavior. It is not science that can offer us solutions.

Paul further writes, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39 BSB)

The security that we seek will only be found in the love of Christ, and once we find His love, there is no power on earth or in heaven that can separate us from Him.

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