I don’t like goodbyes. Well I’m not sorry to see some things go, but you know what I mean. Looking back on 2018, we said goodbye to some notable people. Sometimes when people pass it feels like a season coming to a close.

Let’s remember some who died in 2018. Barbara Bush died in April, followed by her husband George H.W. Bush in November. They were married 73 years, the longest married couple in presidential history. He was the last WWII hero to serve as President.

Roy Clark, the country music star, died at age 85. One of his hits was a lament about wasted youth. “So many songs in me that won’t be sung. The time has come for me to pay for yesterday, when I was young.” If you don’t like modern country music or if you share his lament, you felt it when Clark left the stage.

Billy Graham lived to be 99. He emerged as an evangelist in 1949, and in his lifetime would share the good news of Jesus Christ to more people than anyone in history. He began with trains and tents and ended with electronic media and satellite communications. May God in his Providence raise up another, but we know there will be only one Billy Graham.

There are others whose passing marks the end of an era: Aretha Franklin (singer), Stephen Hawking (scientist), Willie McCovey (athlete), Tom Wolfe (author). But none of these affect you as much as your own personal losses this year. It marks the passing of time when you lose someone who lived a long life. It’s a tragedy when someone dies too young.

The Bible says that believers do not grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thes. 4:13). By faith in Jesus Christ, and because of his Resurrection from the dead, we have the hope of eternity. The passing of a legend or loss of a loved one, the end of an era or the changing of a season only remind us of that hope.

Hope to the Christian carries no uncertainty. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). The Spanish verb “esperar” helps us here. It means to hope, wait, or expect. We have considered the evidence, and are simply waiting, expecting for our hope to be realized.

Christ Jesus is your hope that there’s more to life that what you see. He is your hope for this life, not just the next. A great mystery is revealed, “which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). This hope is for today. It is for the New Year. It is the grace to face whatever uncertainties, challenges, or goodbyes 2019 may bring. This hope you have is the anchor of your soul. You cannot live without hope.

Christmas Mystery

Something happened in Bethlehem that solved an ancient mystery. The grand reveal began with an inglorious manger. The mystery matters because it was for you.

Adam and Eve first heard of a mysterious person to come. From a 15th C. BC document, we learn that the seed of the woman would bruise the serpent’s head, but the serpent would only bruise his heel. So, this person has power to crush evil, but not without pain. (Gen. 3:15)

In the 8th C. BC, Assyria tormented the people. During that time a prophet wrote that despite the gloom and anguish, they would be delivered. “A virgin will be with child and bear a son.” How could such a child come to be, and how would he effect their deliverance? The answer: “His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa. 7:14, 9:6). It sounded encouraging, even if they didn’t know how a virgin-born child, the woman’s seed, could be eternal God.

Just as they sensed that their deliverance would be a display of God’s power, the clues take a turn. The same prophet said this exalted servant would suffer at the hand of men and God. “He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows. The Lord was pleased to crush Him” (Isa. 53). So, is this Deliverer a child, a man, or God himself? Does He conquer, or does He die? The mystery deepens.

Other prophets of that era proclaim his origins. Bethlehem is His birthplace, but “His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.” Another prophet said He would be from Egypt. (Mic. 5:2, Hos. 11:1). So is the ruler-son from nowhere (eternity), Bethlehem, or Egypt?

Daniel saw the mysterious person’s identity in a dream 200 years later. “One like a Son of Man was coming, and He came up to the Ancient of Days. To Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom.” Two godlike Persons together. One appears human. Daniel also explained the timeline: Jerusalem is rebuilt; Messiah comes. But “the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing,” then the temple is destroyed (Dan. 7:14, 9:26). Historians say this happened in 70 AD, so the Messiah must have come by then.

God provided these clues to various people over the span of centuries. Then, “when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4). Jesus, eternal Son of Man, stepped into history via Bethlehem and Egypt as the revelation of the mystery. He is God’s gift to you. As the angel explained, “I bring you good news of great joy which be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). Mystery solved.

A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens created Ebenezer Scrooge in his “ghostly little book” published in 1843. It was the first of his five holiday tales.

Because of his childhood, Dickens carried a burden for the less fortunate. This theme emerges in much of his work, including A Christmas Carol. He only lightly alludes to the Nativity story when Nephew Fred says, “I have always thought of Christmas time – apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time; a kind, forgiving charitable, pleasant time.” Even though he doesn’t recite the gospel, the story certainly follows Christian themes.

For all his “Bah! Humbug!” Scrooge knew love. His little sister Fan’s hugs and kisses when she fetched him from boarding school, and Nephew Fred’s resolute “Merry Christmas!” wish to his uncle are evidence enough. His first boss Fezziwig had a love of life Scrooge found contagious. It was love that rescued him from the icy cold that gripped his heart. The Christian counterpart is that “God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:4-5).

Scrooge was “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner” per his creator. And we are per ours. “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way” (Isa. 53:6). Yet Scrooge was not without hope. His deceased partner Marley came back to warn him, “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business!” Upon seeing his name on the tombstone, Scrooge exclaims, “Hear me! I am not the man I was. Why show me this, if I am past all hope!” As it was with Scrooge, our hope was realized on Christmas morning. “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

Scrooge repents of what he had done and of who he was. His joie de vivre was that of Zacchaeus, immediate and tangible. Scrooge generously tipped for the prized goose he sent to poor Bob Cratchit. He made a generous contribution to the men he had insulted as they collected for the poor. He went to church. He restored his relationship with nephew Fred and wife. He gave Cratchit a raise. “And to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father.” Indeed the Bible says, “Faith, if it has no works, is dead” (Jas. 2:17).

Keeping Christmas means love, hope, repentance, restoration, new life, all wonderful themes made possible by the coming of Christ in the little town of Bethlehem. May it be truly said of all of us that we keep Christmas well, “and so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”

God With Us

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” would be an ironic, painful reminder to the families of servicemen Ross, Emond, and Elchin.  On November 27, a roadside bomb in Afghanistan ended their lives.  On behalf of a grateful nation, Vice President Mike Pence offered a ministry of presence to the relatives as the remains returned to Dover Air Force Base.

Pain and suffering are ever present, even during holidays.  Depression and suicide are on the rise as are drug overdoses, per a CDC report this year.  Loneliness is a major cause.  If ever there was a time for ministry of presence…

“The virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel” (Mat. 1:24).  Jesus entered our suffering world as “God with us.”  Dorothy Sayers wrote, “For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is – limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death – He had the honesty and the courage to take His own medicine.  He has kept His own rules and played fair.  He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself.”

Alister McGrath adds, “The God who created the world knows and shares in its suffering.  God has already entered into the value of suffering that we call ‘history,’ and borne its costly and baleful weight.  God stepped into a fallen world and suffered its pain.”  God is not detached from your suffering.  He has been there, and He loves you.

“God causes all things to work together for good” (Rom. 8:28) even when you don’t understand it.  Tim Keller wrote, “With time and perspective most of us can see good reasons for at least some of the tragedy and pain that occurs in life.  Why couldn’t it be possible that, from God’s vantage point, there are good reasons for all of them?”  It is possible, since God is with you.

The poet Longfellow suffered the tragic loss of his wife.  Two years later his son was severely wounded in the Civil War.  The bells on Christmas day triggered his emotions.  “In despair I bowed my head; there is no peace on earth, I said.   For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men!  Then pealed the bells more loud and deep.  God is not dead nor doth He sleep.”

Jesus promises that His Spirit “abides with you and will be in you.  I will not leave you as orphans” (John 14:17-18).  He remains with you until that day when “there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (Rev. 21:4).  So Christmas is the right time to celebrate God’s promises even in the midst of your pain.  His is the ministry of presence, then, now, and forever.  He is God with us.

Jim Downing

One of our oldest Pearl Harbor veterans passed away this year. Jim Downing died in February at age 104. After surviving “a date which will live in infamy,” he completed his Navy career, met multiple Presidents, and became the oldest male author on record with his 2016 biography, “The Other Side of Infamy.”

His story begins in a small town in Missouri. He came of age during the Great Depression, and left to join the Navy. While living in southern California, he met Dawson Trotman, founder of the Navigators ministry. Trotman had led five of Downing’s shipmates to Christ, and through their influence he became a believer also.

In 1941, Downing was stationed at Pearl Harbor. He was the ministry leader aboard the USS West Virginia, and hundreds of his shipmates had become followers of Jesus. In December, he had been married to Morena for five months when their world changed. The attack on Pearl Harbor forced her to evacuate for the mainland on Christmas Day. They were apart for 18 months.

During the attack, Downing rushed to his ship which rested on the bottom of the shallow harbor. He slid down one of the USS Tennessee’s guns to reach his ship’s deck. He directed a fire hose toward ammunition lockers. “I slowly moved toward the stern to water down more areas. Several bodies lay on the deck around me. No one else would be able to tell the parents of these men what had happened to their sons. I decided it was my responsibility to learn their names so I could report what I knew to their mothers and fathers.”

The USS Neosho, a fuel tanker, was nearby. During the second wave of the Japanese attack, the planes swarmed the Neosho. “One of those bullets is going to hit pretty soon, I thought. God, I’ll be with you in a minute. Another minute passed. Suddenly my fear melted away, replaced by the most overwhelming sense of peace I’d ever felt. For the next half hour I expected to die in the next minute. I was sure I would be ushered into God’s presence – and that was fine with me. Peace.”

But he had more to do. In1956, after 24 years in the Navy, the Navigators asked Downing to take a leadership role after the tragic death of Trotman. He and Morena served the Navigators until and beyond his retirement in 1983. The last few years of his life, he emphasized relationships with God, family, and friends. “I’m satisfied as long as I can have those three things,” he said.

Retired Navy Lt. Downing lived life well, faithful to this truth: “I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).