Are you glad that we have turned the page of our calendars into a new year?
Here in Florida, we have experienced one of the coldest months on record. Just the other day a friend of mine in Minnesota sent me a picture of the snow outside his dining room window. It was so deep that even the snowman he had built before the latest snowfall was buried up to its neck in the new-fallen snow. Don’t laugh. I guess I expect you in Ohio to do so, but our temperatures here actually dipped into the 30s the other day. I responded to my Minnesota friend by sending him a picture of a snowman made of sand on a beach here in Florida and declared that temperatures were cooler here as well. He did not think that was funny.
But no matter what the temperature, this time of the year is a time for reflecting on where we have come from in 2022, and even more on where we are going in 2023. In these early days of the new year, people all around us are asking questions like, “What will the future bring?” Or perhaps the question is better stated, “Whatever the future brings, how will I survive it?” There is an old hymn that often becomes my prayer during these times. It says, simply, “Come, Thou fount of many blessings.” I cannot tell you how many times I have prayed that prayer. Lord, you are the fountain of so many blessings, so why not come now and send some of them our way? In one of the older versions of that hymn, one of the verses says, “Here I raise my Ebenezer.” Many have sung it without understanding what that means.
In the opening chapters of 1 Samuel, Israel was under attack by the Philistines. The enemy seemed to be winning the war, and the people thought they had figured out why. God was not there with them. So they sent and had the priests bring the Ark of the Covenant to the front lines of the battle. When they saw the ark come into the camp, the people gave out a loud shout of joy over their anticipated victory. Even the enemy was somewhat discouraged. But when the battle time finally came, the enemy won again. What’s more, they captured the Ark of the Covenant and took it as the spoils of victory.
Two problems here: (1) The people of Israel were wondering what went wrong and were even more discouraged now that the Philistines had “God”. (2) The Philistines now had the “box”. What do you do when you have the major spiritual resource of your enemy? You would think that would mean a lot of rejoicing and celebrating, but the partying only lasted for a short while, because everyone associated with the victory broke out in hemorrhoids! After several attempts to appease the “box”, they finally gave up and sent the box back to Israel.
Apparently, the children of Israel had somewhat learned their lesson. This time they begged the prophet Samuel to pray for them. God answered his prayer and gave the Israelites a great victory over their enemies. “Then Samuel took a stone and set it up… and called its name Ebenezer, saying ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us.’” The next phrase in the hymn says, “hither by Thy help I’ve come.” With that one word Ebenezer we are reminded of the truth that we are a God-helped people.
That Old Testament story comes to mind at this time each year as we face the changing of the calendar. As a nation, more than ever before, we seem to be turning our back on God. It seems that as a result of that, more and more we are experiencing tragedies that bring tremendous emotional turmoil. They may be natural disasters like hurricanes, massive flooding and gargantuan forest fires, or they may seem to be self-inflicted wounds like the various shootings at schools, malls and other public places.
No matter what the event or issue, one does not have to go far to realize that we have come this far by God’s help. God is in the very middle of working all things together for our good and for His glory (See Romans 8:28), all for the purpose of conforming us to the image of His Son, of making us like Jesus Christ (v. 29). The occurrence of tragic events in our lives, for many a rationale for blaming God for the sad occurrences, is evidence of God’s hand of mercy upon each and every one of us, protecting us from even worse dispositions. He wants us to recognize Him even in the traumatic events of our lives.
The turning of the calendar page is not quite the same as setting up a rock of remembrance but the significance is still there. So the challenge for each of us in the new year is a powerful one. The hymn-writer said it well: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart, Lord, take and seal it. Seal it for Thy courts above.”
God is calling us to call on Him for help. It is by His help that we have come this far and that truth gives us confidence as we enter this new year. We can be confident that He will protect us and provide us with all we need. That is why we can say, with confidence, happy new rear.” Won’t you rely upon Him this year?
Chuck Tabor is a religion columnist for The Times-Gazette and a former Hillsboro area pastor who now resides in Florida. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.