Tuesday, January 01, 2019

The Dreaded New Year’s Day Post

Oh no. Not New Year’s Day again. Did I mention I hate writing “event” posts?

Yeah, I did. Well, here we are again anyway. It’s January 1 in a new calendar year, and many among our fellow Christians are doing the same sort of reassessment almost everybody tends to do this time of year. Those who aren’t are probably feeling better about themselves than you and me, but we’ll salvage a bit of delusional cred, at least in our own heads, by marking them down a notch or two for egregious lack of self-awareness.

Hey, this “taking stock” stuff needs to be done sometime, right? If there’s a better time to do it, I can’t think when it might be.

An Appeal to the Past

Hosea has an interesting thought for the wayward people of Israel and Judah: he appeals to their past.

Israel and Judah were genetic descendants of a man who displayed unrivaled tenacity in clinging to the God of his fathers, and an unusual intensity of focus on the prize set in front of him. If I’m reading it right, Hosea is telling God’s people, “Get back to that frame of mind.”

Speaking of this man Jacob, Hosea says:
“In the womb he took his brother by the heel, and in his manhood he strove with God. He strove with the angel and prevailed; he wept and sought his favor. He met God at Bethel, and there God spoke with us — the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord is his memorial name.”
Jacob was persistent. He was not content to be an also-ran in the “blessed by God” sweepstakes. He wanted to be blessed so badly he would not be denied. He actually got emotional about it.

Persisting Persistently

His desire for a place of prominence in God’s purposes was so intense that he swindled his own twin brother on two occasions to get there.

What kind of person does that? Not a nice guy, necessarily, but something more important than nice: where the things of God were concerned, a man who would not quit.

Here is Hosea’s timely lesson for Israel from the life of their forefather:
“So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God.”
Hosea tells the nation to hold fast to love and justice in just the same way their forefather once held on to the promises of God and the remote possibility of blessing. Like it meant life itself. Like nothing else mattered. Like if you didn’t get what you were asking for, you would keel over and expire.

The Gate of Heaven

The prophet continues, “[Jacob] met God at Bethel, and there God spoke with us.”

Jacob not only met God at Bethel, he gave the place its name. Before Jacob it was called Luz. At Luz, he dreamed of a ladder set up on earth, the top of which reached all the way to heaven. The angels of God ascended and descended on that ladder. Suitably impressed, Jacob awoke and declared his place of rest to be the “house of God” and the “gate of heaven”. So after Jacob, Luz was always Bethel.

Bethel became a sort of touchstone for Jacob. He returned there repeatedly. When the angel of God later appeared to Jacob in a dream, he identified himself beyond any possible doubt by using the name “the God of Bethel”. Later, when two of Jacob’s sons had inflamed the Canaanites against his family and put them all in peril, God told Jacob to return to Bethel. It was at Bethel that God renamed Jacob and called him “Israel”, the name his children still bear. There God renewed with Jacob the promises he had made to his grandfather Abraham. He promised him possession of Canaan, and to make him the father of nations and kings.

A Geographic Touchstone

Bethel later becomes a geographic point of reference for the people of Israel, allotted to the tribe of Benjamin, and mentioned repeatedly in the book of Judges. Many things happened around Bethel. Samuel judged Israel in a circuit, and Bethel was one of the places he regularly stopped. In the time of Saul, men and women went up to God at Bethel. Jeroboam stained Bethel by marking it with the presence of a golden calf, an idol designed to lead the people’s hearts away from Jerusalem and the true worship of Jehovah. So Bethel was greatly significant to Israel.

There was even a brief period in Israel’s history when the tabernacle was pitched there. Perhaps this is the moment when “God spoke with us.” The other eleven tribes of Israel had gone to war with the errant tribe of Benjamin. After losing a total of 40,000 soldiers in the space of only two days battling Benjamin, Phinehas, grandson of Aaron, finally called upon the Lord to inquire of his will in the matter. When asked whether to fight or to walk away, the Lord replied, “Go up, for tomorrow I will give them into your hand.”

Thus, there is no doubt God spoke with Israel at Bethel, both in their ancestor and directly, in time of desperation and division.

Do The First Works

So what is Hosea’s message to Israel? Well, it’s “Look to your past. Look back at who you were. Recapture the zeal you once had for the things of God. Look back at what God once did through you. You can be that again.”

If this sounds like a familiar message, it may be because it brings to mind the book of Revelation, and the words of the risen Christ to one of his churches: “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.”

The first works. The first love. Jacob’s zeal.

For those of our readers who are new to the faith, who are currently full of energy and eagerness in the service of God, and who cannot imagine being anything other than what you are now or feeling any other way, perhaps these final paragraphs are unnecessary. You can stop right here. Frankly, you’re the tiniest bit irritating to us crusty old vets. We love you, and we hope you keep on doing what you’re doing, but you’re putting us to shame. Go away for a bit while we take stock. Thanks.

For the rest of us? Well …

Back in the Day

There was a time I couldn’t imagine not being full of intensity for God. It took a long time for me to come around, but when he finally got hold of me, I thought of little else. My energy went into everything from reading the Bible, to witnessing, to jumping up to pray or offer a thought in the Lord’s supper, to leading a youth group, to serving at summer camp, to preaching, and to framing walls and roofing the new church building in my spare time. I even sat in on the men’s business meeting, if you can believe it, though to this day I can think of little more tedious. I stayed up late talking over the scriptures with anyone who was game. I thought about missionary work. I thought about seminary. I was so involved in the things of God that almost forgot I was at a time in my life when people usually pursue the formation of families and the development of careers; even making a living seemed less important than doing the next thing God would have me do.

Then ... you know the drill. Eventually reality set in. I got busy working and raising a family. Nothing wrong with that. Certainly nothing sinful. But before long the things of God were fitted around the “necessaries” of life, rather than defining them. Before long, service, study and fellowship were strangled out. The word of God, while never completely out of my life, was relegated to a distant second. I fit it in when I could find the time, sometimes, to my shame, going weeks without any serious spiritual food.

Incrementalism in Action

How does that happen? I can’t say for sure, but it’s not the least bit uncommon. My guess is that Israel got to the state it was in during the lifetime of Hosea in exactly that same way I got to the state I was in: incrementally, day by day, bad decision by bad decision.

To be sure, they went a whole lot further down the drain, but here’s the thing: it was the same drain.

Hosea’s message is this: “By the help of your God, return.” Go back to what you once knew, what you once did, what you once believed. Stop making excuses. Stop putting other priorities in front of the things of God. Stop resting on your laurels, stop looking down the road and figuring you’re pretty much there …

Stop acting like the race is over before the race is actually over. Seriously. Put it back into high gear before the entire pack passes you by.

That’s my New Year’s message to myself. Maybe you can get one or two things out of it too.


  1. Have not read yet why it's dreadful. But regardless, a dreadless Happy New Year to all.

  2. Hmm, read it and couldn't find anything dreadful (unless it's a flaw that it is dreadfully informative ;-).

    1. See, now I'm actually going to have to put the word "dreadful" in the title next year ...