This is my 58th New Year’s eve. I don’t remember a whole lot of the early ones. In fact, I was probably nine or ten before my parents would let me stay up until midnight. When I was in high school, our church started having “Watchnight” services followed by a fellowship breakfast, and those are really the first New Year’s eve celebrations that I can actually remember. You might not think that it was much fun, spending New Year’s eve in a Baptist church fellowship hall where there was a lot of adult supervision, but I wasn’t really the type to find a party with a lot of contraband booze, and if the church hadn’t had something going on, I’d probably have stayed home, or gone on a date to a movie, or something like that. While I was a student, my world operated on an academic calendar, so the last day of school generated more excitement, and, well, that hasn’t changed much, since I’m still in education, and I still operate on an academic calendar.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen as much doom and gloom around a new year as I have about the approach of this one. That’s probably a perception that has come about from the increased presence of social media in our lives. We have contact with more people, so we hear more griping. There are a few people who pull out some of the standard cliches in response. Jeremiah 29:11 shows up a lot, since most of the people I’m in contact with on social media are Christians. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not belittling the message of Jeremiah 29:11. Jeremiah, of all of the Jewish prophets, takes us to the very depths of despair, allowing us to feel, through his words, the grief and broken heart of God over his people, and then, in places like this specific verse, can bring us back to the heights of joy. And in its context, these particular words have been particularly promising and comforting to me. They are far more than just a cliche, to be pulled out when others around you are negative and critical. Likewise, the New Testament verse about all things “working to the good for those who love the Lord” gets used as well. There’s a lot more meaning there, too, than just as a cliche to counter a negative attitude. But I won’t get into that here.
For many Christians, each succeeding new year is a sign of the times, a calendar date to check off on their Armageddon calendar as the rapture approaches, with a list of Biblical prophecy matched up with current events as proof of their perspective that we are living in the last days. There was a time when my eschatology was pretty settled, mostly the result of a collection of futurist books I’d read. If I learned anything from seminary, it was caution about drawing a conclusion, or having a completely settled eschatological perspective. And while we are moving forward in time, inevitably toward the return of Christ, I don’t see the New Year, or the litany of problems that developed in the previous one, as specific signs of the times. When has the world ever been able to resolve its own problems? When will it?
Even in the relatively short history of our own country, there have been plenty of times, facing the arrival of a New Year, when the Armageddon calendar planning got a helping hand. There have been many times when the future looked bleak, when current event seemed to line up with what the scripture describes, and when people were convinced that the rapture of the church was right around the corner, and they would see it in their lifetime. Futurist eschatology is a relatively recent development in church history, from the nineteenth century, related to an era when a whole lot of world-shaking events were taking place. It prompted some very strange movements and activities, including a group that became known as the “Millerites,” after the leader who actually predicted dates for the rapture and the second coming of Christ. William Miller, a Baptist preacher, made not one, but two mistaken predictions of the date of the second advent, and in spite of the first mistake, which he explained away by citing Jewish and Roman calendar differences, continued to draw followers right up to his ill-fated second false prediction. Even after the second failure, he still had plenty of followers who eventually codified their beliefs and doctrines, and formed a major denomination.
You can imagine the impact of events of such major historical significance as the Great Depression, and the outbreak of the Second World War must have had on the attitude toward the future as each new year approached. American theology has developed the idea that God’s blessings are directly connected to both personal and collective prosperity, so the Depression certainly had an impact on how people felt about the future, and about God’s blessings. With the idea that developed regarding a specific, and literal personage known as the “Antichrist,” there were plenty of people who thought, initially, as things developed, that Lenin, and then Stalin, personalized those kinds of characteristics. And if you read most of the eschatology of the time, the name Adolf Hitler is frequently mentioned as a reasonable candidate. The Apostle John tells us that the spirit of Antichrist is anyone who denies that Jesus is the son of God, doesn’t apply the term to a specific individual, and doesn’t use it in Revelation, but rather in I John, his epistle to the church. That’s a broader definition than that which is generally accepted in futurist eschatology, I think. But it certainly makes it a whole lot easier if you have such a clear definition, to apply it where it is appropriate and accurate. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for speculating about who, or what, Antichrist is. Clearly, the term is not intended to be applied to a specific politician or world leader, especially one that we don’t particularly like.
So as I look ahead to 2016, I won’t make a prediction as to whether or not this will be the year that Jesus returns. I’ll allow that it’s a possibility, not because of any specific events that are happening, or because declaring that the times are bad is a backhanded way of slamming the politicians who are currently in office, but because the scripture does say that this is a matter of decision for a sovereign God, who isn’t going to clue us in as to what’s on his mind, at least in this regard. I’ll look forward to a full year, and I’ll plan for it, after praying and asking God for his guidance in what he intends for me to do in it. It’s also OK to have a pretty good idea, based on past experience, of exactly what that might be. Predictability doesn’t mean you don’t trust God. I happen to think it’s a pretty good sign that you do.