“Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:1-5)
It is quite fitting that we celebrate New Year’s Day. In its nature these celebrations rejoice in the faithfulness of God who has preserved us another year, so we can exclaim “Thus far the Lord has brought us!” (I Samuel 7:12). But more so it is a celebration of a fresh start, a clean slate, an unwritten book yet to be penned. There is the anticipation of the unknown, the mystery of the unpredictable – what does this year hold for us? How will things be at the end of this year? How will it change me?
A Fresh Start
It is necessary that we start this year with the reminder that our God is the God of a fresh start. He is the God of the second chance who never grows tired of his children but is always “rich in mercy” (Ephesians 2:4). Jeremiah wrote “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23). New mercies every day. He is the One who lures the distant sinner closer by saying “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18). Indeed, our God is the God who wishes to put the past behind with the promise of a clean slate for a fresh start! His invitation is clear: “forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead… press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14).
A New Beginning
Our God is the God of New Beginnings. He is all-wise, all-mighty, and all-sufficient. Therefore over every situation we can confidently declare “nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37; cf Jeremiah 32:27). He is the One who promised “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:18-19). Our God springs life-giving water in a lifeless wilderness and creates a mighty army from dried bones (Ezekiel 37:1ff). Nothing is ever too far gone or too hard for him. He has the power and the wisdom to redeem the hopeless or to make something out of nothing. Even death does not mark the end since He himself rose from the dead and poured his resurrection spirit into our hearts (Romans 8:11). He is the reason we hope and don’t despair, the reason we confidently wait and smile in the face of impossible odds. Where there seems to be a dead end our God opens “a door of hope” (Hosea 2:15). Our God reconciles the divided, rejuvenates the fatigued, restores the broken, and revives the dead. He is the God of new beginnings! With him life goes on, forever.
Our God is the God of New Things. He is called Creator, the Beginning, and the Bright Morning Star announcing the coming new day. He is the God of new inventions, new solutions, new answers, a new way of life. As with the birth of a baby, new beginnings always starts with cries of pain and tears of desperation. These cries are not from a place of despair but in hopeful anticipation – joyful change is on the way. As the birth a baby represents the promise of new life, a clean slate and new potential, so every oppressive or painful situation holds the promise of this newness of life. And when God is at work in these painful circumstances he promises that it is certainly not in vain (Isaiah 66:8-9). This pattern we see repeated in the Scriptures.
The slaves cried out in Egypt – God’s answer for deliverance and a new way of life was in the birth of baby Moses; he embodied their answered prayer. Years later, in their promised land, time and again the oppressed Israelites cried out to God for deliverance, his answer was the judges Gideon, Sampson, Jephthah, Deborah. In a similar way the Bible talks of Samuel, David, Jeremiah, John the Baptist and, yes, Jesus our Redeemer. God’s plan for new things, new life, enters our world during painful times through a person whom he empowers. In a similar way, you are God’s answer for new things this year.
Your New Year
This is a New Year. The old is gone – it cannot be redone and it cannot be undone. But it is a good time to turn the page and start with a clean slate. Our God is the God of the Fresh Start. He is the God of the Fresh Start in whom we can find peace for a plagued conscience and forgiveness for a life wasted. Don’t despair – life is not over until he calls us home. Come reason with him; unburden yourself and find new mercies for this New Year. His steadfast love never ceases! What do you want to close the book on this year?
He is the God of the New Beginning, who creates a garden in the wasteland, an army out of dead bones and makes a way where there seems to be no way. Nothing is ever too hopeless for him to redeem. As long as your heart pumps he has good plans for you – plans of a glorious future. He heals bleeding hearts, mends shattered dreams and restores broken relationships. He truly makes all things new! What can he do for you and in you this year?
He is the God of New Things, the all-wise, all-mighty creator of all things who knows the end from the beginning. The Bible records how in the past he gave inspiration and plans for deliverance and warfare, for health, healing and sanitation, for designs and building of the ark, the tabernacle and temple, for arts, poetry and music, economic planning, supernatural providential sustenance and wise governance. What can he do though you this year?
Picture this: you have just spent six grueling weeks ascending the slopes of Mount Everest to reach the top. You have a head-ache and feel nauseous because of the thin air at an altitude of 8.5km. You and your two friends eventually reach the summit and fall down on in the snow – satisfied and thankful, yet feeling miserable. You only have a few minutes to drink in this moment in the light of the rising sun with the spectacular view of the Himalayan peaks, and you think: “this is the view God must have of the our world”. You know you will probably never have this experience again, but thankfully you brought your camera. Handing your camera to the Nepalese Sherpa (trekking guide) you and your friends strike a pose to capture this memory. After an awkward silence your smiles change into unbelief and frustration when the Sherpa announces in his flat, broken English “batteries dead!” You take the camera from the guide, fiddle with it for a few minutes but after a while you realize that the exercise is pointless – the batteries expired in the extreme weather conditions and now you will have nothing to capture the moment, no proof that you have climbed the highest peak in the world. You will have no transferable memory that you can show to your friends and family, nothing you can post on Facebook and no story you can leave for your children in your family album.
Throughout our lives time keeps on ticking away; nothing distinguishes once second from another. But in the course of our lives there are moments which are precious, others that are crucial, others moments are hilarious or awful. These events become the stories we cherish and retell; so that these moments become the memories that are transferred to coming generations – they become “the story of my life” and eventually “my life lesson”. These unique moments are the matter that folk tales or legends are made of. And there these the stories that make up the pages of the Bible – memories that “were written for our learning, that through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4)
One way in which memories are made and transferred in the Bible is by setting up memorial stones or monuments. In one such instance (around 1150BC) the prophet Samuel called the whole nation together at Mizpah to sacrifice to God and worship because the Ark of God was brought back to Israel. The Philistines heard about it and wanted to take opportunity of the vulnerable worshipers, but the nation cried out to God. God intervened with thunder so loud that it confused the enemies and the Israelites had a great victory that day. Samuel set up a memorial stone there and then calling it Ebenezer saying “Thus far the Lord has brought us” (I Samuel 7:12). This monument was meant as a reminder to the nation and coming generations that the Lord had heard their cries and delivered them from annihilation that day. The life lesson transferred to those who see the stone and hear the story is “God hears and saves from impossible situations!” The story stirs hope and faith in God to whoever hears it.
Other such stone memorial is at Bethel where the Lord visited Jacob and made covenant with him (Genesis 28:18-19), as well as the heap of stones next to the Jordan river, where all of Israel had crossed over on dry foot (Joshua 4:1-7). As in Joshua’s account, the purpose of such memorial stones are both to provoke inquiry and to remind that “This is what the Lord has done – right here in this place!”
Another way in which memories are cherished in Israel’s history is by feasts. Most of Israel’s annual feasts were to serve as a reminder of an event where God intervened. For instance, every week the Sabbath is honored by not working, a day to celebrate and remember that the Israelites were slaves but the Lord delivered them from slavery (Deuteronomy 5:15). Likewise the Passover is celebrated annually to commemorate Israel’s deliverance from Egypt (Exodus 13: 3), and more specifically that the Lord spared their first-born children from the tenth plague – the night in which the angel of death “passed over”. Much later Queen Esther instituted the feast of Purim as a reminder that the Lord had saved the Jews from annihilation by Haman’s schemes (Esther 9:19-22).
Communion is celebrated in the same way – “in remembrance” (Luke 22:19). All of these feasts are meant to be merry-making – celebrated in memory of something the Lord has done. A time to retell the event and celebrate the goodness and might of God in joy-filled thanks.
One several occasions the Bible records songs being written to celebrate (and propagate) some intervention or deliverance of the Lord. Moses and the Israelites composed and sang a song in celebration of their escape from the Egyptian army and their dry-footed passage through the Red Sea (Exodus 15:1-18), followed by another song by Miriam (Exodus 15:19-26).
The judge Deborah composed and sang a similar song after God granted them victory over Sisera, commander of the Canaanite army (Judges 5:1-31). The beloved King David composed several songs retelling the faithful deliverance of God from his enemies, of which Psalm 18 is a good example.
The Psalmists of Israel understood that songs were a good instruction and reminder of the faithfulness of God to successive generations, and composed psalms such as Psalm 78 and 136 as reminders of God’s faithfulness in the history of Israel, as they sang then at their feasts and in their local synagogues.
Paintings of memorable events work the same way to remind coming generations of God’s faithfulness. The church through the ages have decorated the insides of cathedrals, monasteries and churches with images of Biblical accounts and heroes of the faith as visual sermons to stir faith and inspire believers to emulate their examples.
The Bible as book is delivered to us as a record of God’s relations and dealing with his covenant people. It is the compiled memories of what the Lord has done and said in the past, and it is skillfully recorded and graciously preserved so that we may learn of what God has done for others, so that we may trust in his faithfulness and love . The aim of such memoirs is that we may build on their lives and walk in their legacy, as Asaph recorded “Tell the coming generations the glorious deeds of the LORD, his might, the wonders that he has done… to set their hope in God… not forget his works; but keep his commandments; and that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation…” (Psalm 78:3-8)
Likewise, the memories we transfer to others shape their understanding and affection of God. Moreover, these memoirs will bring comfort and hope in hardship as the readers recall that the Lord has brought others through similar challenges (Romans 15:4).
In this season for merry-making, gather friends and family around the fire or table and relive the great memories that brought you here. Celebrate it properly! Record it in pictures or in writing, in poetry or a song . Set these up somewhere as a “memorial stone” that it may provoke coming generations to ask “What is this?”. Then you can tell them “This is what the Lord has done – He can do the same for you!”
Another year is over. Another year in which we have experienced the goodness and faithfulness of God. We have been preserved, blessed and even enriched in so many ways. This is indeed reason to stop, to gather everyone and celebrate. It’s a time to set up a memorial stone and exclaim with Samuel “Thus far the Lord has helped us!” (1 Samuel 7:12).
Celebration is a time of rejoicing – a time to look at the good and cherish it.It isa time where we celebrate and exult. A time of laughter, music and dancing, a time forrelaxingas we deliberately free ourselves of cares and work. It is a time for joyful recreation and playful interaction. It is a time away from the ordinary and mundane routine of working and earning so that we can have a time of resting with the intent of restoring and recharging. It is a time to “wait on the Lord [to] renew your strength” (Isaiah 40:31).
Celebration is a time of reflection – a time to look in the mirror and with honesty consider the person you have become. It’s a time to take stock of your life as you consider how you have grown or how you have waned. In moments like these we review the stewardship of what have been entrusted to us (opportunities, relationships, time and resources) in the light of eternal perspective. This gives opportunity to reprioritize your time and resources in respect to God the Judge of all (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).
Celebration is a time to remember where you have come from, where you have been and where you are heading. It’s a time to look back cherish your legacy, and look ahead to embrace your destiny anew. It’s a time where you look back on the road of life with thankfulness and a time to remember the lessons you have learned. It’s a time to relive the faithfulness of God in being Emanuel, God with us. This leads to a time of and realigning the path of your life as you follow the Lord your the Shepherd (Psalm 23:1-4).
Celebration is a time for relating – a time to look around you and enjoy the fact that you are not alone in this journey of life. It’s a time where your identity is not found in your work, your failure or your success, but in your belonging. You are accepted for being you, celebrated as a gift from God. This leads to a time of reconnecting hearts around the table of God our Father (Ephesians 3:14-17).
Celebration is a time for recognition –where we look at the people around us with gratitude and humble regard for their contributions and efforts. A time we “give honor to whom it is due” (Romans 12:7). It is a time where we reaffirm the value and relationships of those among which the Lord has placed us.
Celebration is a time for reverence – a time to look up and render yourself in worship to God as the source of all goodness and necessary grace. It’s also a time of yielding yourself in serving the God who created you for his pleasure. A time where you resign yourself to the purpose, position and path that God has assigned for you; “this is your reasonable service to God” (Romans 12:1-2).
So do as our Biblical example encourage us – regardless of our circumstances or emotions – lets’s celebrate! Invite your family, friends and neighbors, saying “Rejoice with me!” (Luke 15:6,9) Gather, feast with music and food and dancing and the exchanging of gifts as we celebrate and display the goodness and faithfulness of God our Savior. So let us rejoice and be glad – this is the season of celebration! (Refer Psalm 118:24; Revelations 19:7; 1 Chronicles 16:1-3; Esther 9:16-19; Nehemiah 8:9-12).
It appears as though the use of anti-depressants have doubled in most countries since the turn of the century according to a report in November 2013. Commenting on the report in a Harvard Health article Peter Wehrein states that most medical practitioners agree depression has been under-diagnosed for long, and the rise in anti-depressant use could be ascribed to more accurate diagnoses of those suffering from depression. To give perspective to the commonality of clinical depression, anti-depressants are the third-most prescribed, and most used drug in the USA. The number of Americans using anti-depressant have increased by 400% between 1994 and 2008. One in ten people in Iceland use anti-depressants. In South Africa, almost 1 in 5 people suffer from mental illness such as depression, anxiety, etc. It is fair to say that our world is generally depressed and anxious, and people are living in a state of hopelessness – as Paul put it “having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12).
This is in stark contrast from the “life more abundantly” which Christ came to offer us (John 10:10). For the Christian, life is a gift which is celebrated now, not dreaded or endured until we are delivered from this earth. The Psalmist sings “this is the day that the Lord has made – let us rejoice and be glad in it!” (Psalm 118:24). Life – here and now – ought to be celebrated and enjoyed as a gift from God.
Celebration does not come naturally to us. Sadly, depression, anxiety and hopelessness comes naturally in this fallen world – the stats mentioned above serves as evidence that humanity’s natural drive is towards passivity and cynicism. So how do we learn the art of celebration? What does the Bible say about it?
My favorite CD this year is The Art of Celebration from Rend Collective; I can’t get enough of the message in the music; it stirs such thankfulness and joy in my heart towards God the giver of life and giver of hope. Take a look at the story behind the album for a motive and message behind the recording. This album has done a work of God in me to deliberately celebrate life with God.
Celebration is a major theme in the Bible. Frequently we are called by the Psalmists and prophets to celebrate the works of God (including God’s creation, salvation and wonders). Celebration is prominent from the Mosaic Law and through the history books. Jesus’ first miracle was to prolong the celebration of a local wedding, and many of his prominent teachings were during the annual feasts of Israel, including the promise of the Great Celebration of his wedding when he returns. It is evident that God created life to be celebrated – he is a God who loves joyful festivity!
The Annual Feasts of Israel
The Jewish calendar is marked by 8 major festivals every year. Each of these feasts are special Sabbaths and therefore regarded as “holy days” (from there our word ‘holidays’) with the command to rest. The weekly Sabbaths were celebrating as perpetual reminder Israel’s covenant with God (Deuteronomy 5:15); they were redeemed from insignificant slaves to “a holy people to the Lord… chosen for himself… a special treasure” (Deuteronomy 7:6; 14:2). And subsequently each annual “holy day” reinforces an aspect of this truth of the Jew’s legacy – their identity as covenant people of God with a destiny in God’s eternal plan.
The original seven feasts took place in two seasons of the year – four in spring and three in autumn (Leviticus 23 and Deuteronomy 16). The first feast was Passover (Leviticus 23:5) commemorating the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery when the Angel of Death “passed over” homes where the blood of a lamb was applied to door posts (Exodus 12:5). This is the only festival that ought to be celebrated with the family wherever Jews find themselves, with their families. The celebration remembers God’s great deliverance of their nation, reinforcing their identity as God’s covenant people, no longer slaves, as well as within their families.
The second feast begins the next day, lasting a week: the feast of Unleavened Bread (Leviticus 23:6) where for one whole week no bread with leaven (yeast) may be eaten. As in most instances in the Bible “leaven” is a symbol for sin, so eating unleavened bread for a week is a reminder that our lives should be holy, blameless. Typically Jewish homes get “spring cleaned” the week before Passover so that no trace of yeast could be found in the home (it becomes a game for the children to find some). This cleaning is a powerful symbolic act that serves as a time of introspection and sanctification for the adults and a time of instruction for the young ones – while remaining a joyful celebration as families come together and the nation stop to consider God.
The third feast, the feast of First Fruits (Leviticus 23:11) takes place the “morning after the Sabbath” of Unleavened bread – commemorating the fruitfulness of the land the Lord gave Israel by bringing an offering of the first-fruits of the Barley (or Spring) harvest to the Lord. The festival celebrates God’s provision faithfulness to Israel as a nation. The Modern church calls this feast Easter after Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of fertility). Still today the feast is associated with symbols of fertility such as rabbits and eggs.
Fifty days later the Jews celebrate Pentecost (Leviticus 23:16) to consecrate the wheat harvest (or summer crops) to Lord as a time of thanksgiving and devotion to God.
These four Spring Feasts begin with Passover and end with Pentecost, but it is seen as one time of celebration.
The autumn season of celebration begins with the Feast of the Trumpets (Leviticus 23:24) ushering in the Sabbatical month in the Jewish calendar. The blowing of the trumpets “proclaim liberty throughout the land” (Leviticus 25:8-10). It is a time of joyful singing and dancing.
Ten days later was the holiest of days, the Feast of Atonement (Leviticus 23:27) – a day where the high priest enters into the temple to confess and atone for the sins of the nation over past year. It is a solemn day of fasting followed by joyful celebration of reconciliation and peace with God.
The last of the seven feasts in the Law of Moses is the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:34) where the whole nation lives in booths (or tents), reliving the nomadic journey of Israel through the Wilderness for forty years, celebrating God’s faithful provision and protection during their ancestors’ journey. Again, this feast serves as time of reflection on God’s faithfulness to them as God’s elect people, a time of worship and instruction for the young ones as they participate.
Another annual feast was added later to the Jewish calendar: the Feast of Purim instituted by Queen Eshter during the Persian exile under King Ahasarus. It is celebrated annually on the 14th and 15th of Adar “as the days on which the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and gifts to the poor” (Ester 9:22).
How do we celebrate?
Typically, the Jews celebrated as most cultures feast throughout the world: with music and dancing and ceremony, with reenactment and story-telling and worship to God, as well as gifts to one-another and to the poor. The main elements of Biblical celebration is remembrance and retelling, leading to worship and witness.
In celebration the Jews remembered and even reenacted the great works of God for reflection and retelling (education of the younger generation). This was done to reinforce and pass on faith in God and their identity as God’s covenant people. The remembrance and retelling lead to worship of God for the great things he has done to them, and also as witness to onlookers, telling them of the works of Yahweh, the Great God of Israel.
Our celebration should be the same: remember and retell, leading to worship and witness. Take the Lord’s Communion as an example:
“For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)
We remember the Lord’s death and resurrection, we retell it to one another and the young believers. Then we worship the Lord for his selfless love and we witness of his death, resurrection and return to those around us.
What does celebration do for us?
1. Celebration creates memorials for us and coming generations. These are powerful reminders for us and our children of the works of God, teaching them to fear God and to trust God.
“I will [tell of the] things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD… that the next generation might know [God’s laws], the children yet unborn, so that they may arise and tell them to their children …so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments; and that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God.” (Psalm 78:2-8)
These acts of God must be retold so that we and our children may have faith in the Living, Mighty God who lives and works in and among us. That is the reason why so many of the Psalms are a retelling of some portion of the history of Israel (see Psalms 104-107, 136, etc).
These memorials also serve as vivid life lessons on which the individual and nation can build and add in their relationship with God. For instance, celebrating the Sabbath reminded Jews that they were slaves which cried out to God and now they are his covenant people. Likewise celebrating the first day of the week reminds Christians that Jesus rose from the grave on this day, and so will we. Celebration reinforces key Biblical truths.
2. Celebration reinforces legacy – both the identity and destiny of the descendants. These festive celebrations reinforce the belonging of the individuals into the family and nation that they are part of. It give pride in a shared history in which God has grafted this life, and also shares the purpose and destiny of this family and nation. More than the family name, the feasts are in themselves meetings with God which serve as opportunities where we meet with God, securing our identities as “a people of God”. Furthermore, our celebrations highlight the core values that make us a unique family and nations, reinforcing our identity in practical ways to be remembered and emulated.
3. Celebration brings joy in a practical sense. Celebration make life pleasant as we stop and abstain from everyday work. Instead we laugh, play, dance, eat, make music and simply enjoy and share the fullness of life and gifts of relationships. Jesus’ first miracle was at a wedding celebration (John 2:1-11). The wine ran out, and Jesus did a miracle to make sure the party does not end prematurely (he made about 680 additional liters of excellent wine!). Apart from the practical miracle to ensure a full-term wedding celebration, wine is a Jewish symbol of joy; Jesus’s first miracle was done to endure that he gives full, lasting joy. He intents for celebration to be joyful, and does the miracle to make ensure it!
4. Celebration trains us to see and appreciate the good. By stopping to remembering and thank God for his intervention in our lives and the lives of his people, celebration reinforces the truth that God is at work and among and through us. God is here and God is at work. In this way celebration stirs our faith and hope, and helps us anticipate and recognize the works of God. Jesus taught that the eye is either “light” (hopeful) or “dark” (skeptical) (Matthew 6:22-23) – celebration makes our eyes “light” – it trains us to look for the hand of God in our lives.
5. Celebration helps us include others into our lives. As we celebrate, we acknowledge a shared legacy – thus a shared history and a shared future with others following God. Celebration helps us move from the isolation of contemporary individualism towards the interdependence of Biblical community. As we celebrate we recognize that we are the people of God among and through whom he works. We see that God not only has a saving plan for me, but for us. We learn that God is not only my Father, but rather he is our Father. In our celebration together we learn that our struggles and pain is also shared in a real way. Our celebration is the stepping stone into true unity. It is as we celebrate together that we grow to become the community of which Jesus said “by your love will they know you are my disciples” (John 13:34).
Celebration is a choice
Celebration is not a matter of feeling but of choice. God made sure of that when he made the Jewish feasts annual calendar entries dates. Regardless of the current political situation or economic state the Jews stopped all work (and warfare) and gathered to remember and retell, to worship and witness of the works of the Lord. During Nehemiah’s rebuilding and spiritual reformation (around 530 BC) the returned exiles celebrated for the first time the Feats of Tabernacles and wept as they heard the words of the Law explained by Ezra. But they were rebuked by Nehemiah and Ezra, and told to celebrate the memory of the God’s faithful protection and provision during the wilderness wandering of the ancestors:
“And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.” (Nehemiah 8:9-11)
Their identity as Gods’ elect, holy and treasured people were reinforced through corporate celebration. Their feasts informed their circumstances that there is “a God who acts for the one who waits on Him” (Isaiah 64:3-4).
Israel’s annual celebrations declared their faith in a God who saves from slavery and brings into a land of plenty in every season. He is also a God who demands holiness. This God brings liberty and makes atonement on your behalf, and protects you when you are vulnerable.
What does your lifestyle of celebration say to you and others? Have you learned the art of celebration?
“Men wanted: for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success. Sir Ernest Shackleton.” 5000 men responded to this blunt advertisement posted in London newspapers January 13 1914, applying for the Imperial Trans- Antarctic Expedition. Shackleton selected a crew of 28 who proved to be optimistic, patient and courageous – the minimum requirements he sought for in a man who boarded a ship with him. They set sail from London in the ship aptly named “Endurance” on the first day of August 1914 and stopped over at the whaling station on South Georgia for fresh supplies. After a month they departed for the Antarctic on December the 5th for one of the most grueling adventures undertaken by man, unaware that they would not touch land again for another 497 days. On return to England three years later Shackleton published the account in his book South in 1919, documenting the journey, events and experiences of their expedition, including the following five legendary survival accounts.
Due to an unusually cold winter the ship entered pack ice much sooner than expected. Just one day’s journey from the Antarctic the Endurance got stuck in pack-ice on 18 January 1915, drifting gradually away from the South Pole for ten months with the ice until the ship tipped and was crushed to pieces on October 27, 1915.
The men saved what they could and drifted for another five months on the ice until the ice started melting and the food became scarce. On 31 March 2016 Shackleton woke up from a soft crackling sound to find that the ice beneath him split in two; he instinctively reached his hand to grab the sleeping bag of the man sharing his tent just as he was slipping into that icy, black water. During the ice-splitting they were also separated from their life rafts for some time but they managed to retrieve it again. The next day he gave the command to board the three life boats.
The life-saving achievement was the harrowing journey through the Weddell sea to a rock called Elephant Island, 100 miles in the three small life boats, navigating one of the roughest seas with 60 foot waves blown by gale-force winds. The three boats had to be dragged on top ice floes at night to rest. They managed to reach Elephant Island, and eventually found a suitable camping terrain.
Their third legendary survival story started on 24 August when Shackleton and five others boarded the small 22ft life boat called the James Caird and made way for South George, from where they departed about 500 days earlier 800 miles away. (That is the distance between Cape Town and Johannesburg!) After a grueling 17 day journey in the stormiest sea, navigating by dead reckoning with a compass and sextant only with merely four sightings of the sun, the six men reached the island exhausted. This is still considered one of the greatest boating achievements ever.
The next survival feat was equally impressive, born from necessity as the men landed on the wrong side of the island. To get to the whaling station for help and rescue of their friends Shackleton, captain Frank Worsley and second officer Tom Crean began to cross the ice-bound mountain tops of South Georgia – never before attempted, including the 9000ft Mount Paget. During their 36 hour ordeal without any rest they travelled across two snowfields, four glaciers and three mountain ranges: all of these unmapped and life threatening. The last bit of their journey, being severely fatigued, dehydrated and shivering, Shackleton lowered his two friends down a partially frozen waterfall before abseiling down himself and waking the harbor master at Stormness whaling station, asking for help.
Lastly, the survival and rescue of the 22 men marooned on Elephant Island for more than 137 days is commendably in itself. They used the two life boats to construct a hut of sorts to stay warm. Due to the roughness of the sea it took four attempts by Shackleton and his men to rescue them, only managing to reach them with the steam boat Yelcho on 30 August 1917, two years and one month after their departure from England.
This story of endurance and courage is inspirational – in spite of the failure to cross the Antarctic – because Sir Earnest Shackleton succeed to bring all 28 the men home safely; they endured and survived the impossible together. Part of their survival had to do with what Shackleton took with them as their ship Endurance was crushed by the pack ice: in spite of the lack of space in the three life rafts he instructed that they take a rugby ball, the gramophone as well as the big Bible. He insisted that they daily laughed together, told stories and read the Bible together as encouragement in hope, daily played sports together, and daily sang together. For him, humour, story, song, playing and prayer was keys to endurance – and it proved true.
Shackleton was a God-fearing man who lived and lead though this ordeal with Godly courage and persistence. Looking at his example of endurance, and comparing it with examples and teachings from the Bible, what can we apply to navigate through our own hardships with “Endurance”?
(1) Comfort of Scripture
As mentioned above, Shackleton ordered his men to rescue the ships’ big Bible and take it with them on their journey to safety, knowing that the Scriptures are in part a compilation of God’s miraculous deliverance and preservation of people in desperate circumstances, as were they. Their faith in God’s salvation from this seemingly hopeless situation would be stirred as they read they reflect on the accounts of God’s awesome deliverance of individuals and communities as recorded in the Bible.
New Testament Authors encouraged their suffering communities to look at Old Testament characters (as well as their leader’s examples of steadfastness) to find strength to press on in faithfulness to God. Paul reminded the persecuted church in Rome that “whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4). James encouraged the poor, persecuted church in Jerusalem to “consider the blessed who remained steadfast” with special reference to Job and the Old Testament prophets (James 5:10-11). The author of Hebrews encouraged his suffering readers to “consider [Jesus] who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls” (Hebrews 12:3). Thus they all pointed to the exemplary lives recorded in Scriptures for encouragement during difficulty.
The history of God’s faithfulness in Scripture comforts us during hardships because we see that we are not alone in hardship – many have been there; and the Biblical accounts testify to us that God is present during suffering to strengthen and preserve, and that he is willing and able to save. Thus the Scriptures comfort us and stirs our hope and faith in God.
(2) Companionship in community
Shackleton knew that for the 28 men to survive this ordeal, they should not just live in community, but also practice community. That’s why he commanded that every one participate in four group activities daily: they eat together, play sports together, pray and reflect on Scripture together, as well as sing, tell stories and laugh together. These moments of togetherness brought great encouragement and camaraderie amidst the protracted stressful times. He understood and articulated that for the group to survive, each individual needed to survive. If no-one gives up, the group endures.
In relation to their survival and community, I find C.S. Lewis’ quote on friendship quite fitting: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that gives value to survival.” For the crew stranded in Antarctic, their community was a reason to endure in itself; their companionship gave both motive for and meaning to their survival.
(3) Celebration of life
Shackleton wrote in his journal during their long winter drifting on the pack-ice “As we clustered round the blubber stove, with the acrid smoke blowing in our faces, we were quite a cheerful company…Life was not so bad. We ate our evening meal while the snow drifted down from the surface of the glacier and our chilled bodies grew warm.” They were thankful for what they had; their companionship, warm food and their survival was reason to laugh.
Going through life with the optimistic perception of “glass half full” makes endurance possible, and life so much more pleasant. Jesus put it this way (referring to money in the context of a financially oppressed Judea) “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23). Shackleton lead his men on in “light-filled eyes”, celebrating what they had amidst a cold, seemingly hopeless situation.
Paul encouraged the persecuted church in Philippi to do the same, to emulate his discipline of focusing on the good and praiseworthy, so that “the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds” (Philippians 4:6-8). Instead of becoming anxious about trying circumstances he instructed them to pray about their situation, but “with thanksgiving”, helping them recognize and celebrate the goodness of God amidst difficult circumstances. This is a worthy lesson to learn for anyone, anywhere.
Thanksgiving and celebration makes hardship tolerable and gives one strength to carry on. These disciplines gives strength in trying times by focusing attention on that which causes joy and gladness – truly, “the joy of the Lord is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10). By focusing attention of the good it trains one’s perception to see what God is doing, recognizing that God is near, and “He will never is leave you, nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).
(4) Continuing in hope
Shackleton never allowed his crew to give up. They were always moving forward, always planning and preparing for tomorrow. In his mind, and from his mouth, it was clear that they were going to get home to England. He never gave up on hope, and never allowed the crew to slide into hopelessness, because he knew that hope is necessary for endurance. If a person believes that nothing is going to change for the good, that person sinks in the mud of depression and hopelessness, and finds no reason to fight and or live on. But if one believes that pushing forward today will be rewarded in the end, it is worth it.
The author of Hebrews frequently motivate endurance with the promise of reward (hope), for example “you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise” (Hebrews 10:36) and later encouraging the readers to “run the race with endurance, looking to Jesus… who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2, compare with 1 Thessalonians 1:3). Jesus found strength to continue through tremendous suffering, his eyes fixed on the joyfilled reward at the end.
Paul imitated Jesus’ example, as he was a man who experienced great difficulty, including “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger, …slander, …being poor” (2 Corinthians 6:4-10). In another place he records “imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” (2 Corinthians 11:23-28). How did he endure these hardships? He kept his eye on the reward, a “crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:8) saying “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18; see also 1 Corinthians 3:14, Colossians 3:23-24). Paul joyfully pushed one through suffering in hope of eternal rewards in the Lord. He reckoned that suffering briefly for eternal rewards was worth it, making these moments of pain bearable.
(5) Courage from God
Finally, God gives strength to press on in difficult times – to those who “wait on the Lord” (Isaiah 40:30-31). I have over the years learnt from David, who knew the Lord as “my strength” (Psalm 18:1, 118:14, 140:7), to “seek the Lord and his strength” (Psalm 105:4) when my I feel weak or ready to give up. I have learnt to “wait on the Lord [to] strengthen [my] heart” (Psalm 27:14), and also to “strengthen [myself] in the Lord [my] God” (1 Samuel 30:6) as David did in hopeless situations. With the Shepherd-king I can witness that “the Lord gives strength to his people” (Psalm 29:11) when I set time aside to pray to God for courage, strength and hope to continue doing what he calls met to do, although everything in me wants to walk an easier road.
Paul also testified that Christ Jesus has given him strength in trying times (1 Timothy 1:12), and could therefore pray for the Ephesian church that God would strengthen their hearts (Ephesians 3:14-16) amidst the persecution, encouraging them to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Ephesians 6:10). Thus we learn from Paul that one should find strength in God, but also that through encouragement and prayer from others one is strengthened by God. From his example we learn that we should encourage one another joyfully and hopefully press on, to “strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees” (Isaiah 35:3) of those facing hardship around us. Strength is found in God’s community.
Making it personal
If you are reading this as someone going through hardships now, I want to re-tweet the thrust of John’s message to the persecuted churches in Ephesus: “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.” (Revelations 13:10, 14:12). Although your suffering might not be religious oppression, you must know that your endurance is noticed and commended by Christ himself (Revelations 2:2, 19). He will put and end to your suffering One Day (Revelations 21:3-5) and if you endure in faith to the end, he will give you your reward from him (Revelations 22:12).
And in the words of Paul: “Run the race in such a way that you may revive the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24). “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12), and may “the God of endurance and encouragement” (Romans 15:5) “strengthen you with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy” (Colossians 1:11). “Press on, that [you] may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of [you]” (Philippians 3:2).
It is appropriate to close this lesson on endurance from the exemplary life of Sir Ernest Shackleton with the words from Winston Churchill, since he was the man who sent the last telegram to the Endurance crew as they left the London harbor for their trans-Atlantic expedition on August the 1st, 1914. Later that day the war with Germany broke out, leaving the whole of Europe in turmoil for the next forty years. On October 29, 1941, Churchill then Prime Minister visited Harrow School to hear some of the traditional songs he grew up with and address the learners. Standing in the podium he stared at the youngsters long and hard, and then uttered the following short and urgent admonition: “Never give in – never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” [audio recording] During tough times let this phrase ring in your ears, as you remembering the enduring examples of Jesus, Shackleton, Paul, the prophets and the saints through the ages. Never give in!