God’s predictions for the New Year

Paul the octopus became an international star in 2010 after predicting the winner of the FIFA World Cup of Soccer – and the winners in all six of Germany’s games, including Germany’s losses, which didn’t make him very popular in Germany. He wasn’t very popular with the President of Iran, either, because in his mind Paul the octopus symbolized all that’s wrong with the western world. He even accused the octopus of spreading western propaganda and superstition.

Perhaps he’s not so loopy after all, though, because all he did was observe as thousands of westerners placed their bets on the choices of an octopus, as though the octopus had special powers. Who’s the loopy one now?! No wonder Islam thinks the western world is doomed.

And what made an octopus so popular in the first place? It was the chance for people to make money. Place your bets on a winner and you could make lots of money, and isn’t that what counts in the western world? It was also superstition that made Paul the octopus famous, because he seemed to have the powers of a god in his ability to predict the outcome of a game, and people in the western world like that. We readily create gods out of anything that can predict the future – horoscopes, visions of the end-time, and all the usual tea leaves and New Year’s predictions that have always plagued humanity in an attempt to make the earth feel firmer underfoot.

Truth is, though, we have trouble predicting the weather with absolute certainty beyond the next five days. That’s our limit – which makes one wonder if that’s what God intended to help us realize how limited we are, because it’s obvious by now that neither we, nor the gods of our creation, have the ability to accurately predict what’s going to happen to us. And when we’re ready to admit that, perhaps we’ll look to God who knows exactly what’s going to happen to us, and what the outcome of every human life will be. And it’s very encouraging, because in Ephesians 1:9-10 and Colossians 1:19-20 he tells us that everything is going to work out just fine. He’s got it all sorted out for everybody and everything through his Son, and it’s all to our eternal benefit.

So here are God’s predictions for the New Year: He guarantees through his Son that no matter how bad things appear or become next year, everything is working out exactly as he intended and the end remains the same, that one day we will all experience peace, assurance, trust and joy. And none of it requires an octopus, either.

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What Jesus got for Christmas

“So, what did you get for Christmas?” kids want to know. But wasn’t Christmas supposed to be Jesus’ birthday? So really the question ought to be, “What did Jesus get for Christmas?”

Well, we know what gifts Jesus got, because the Bible tells us. They arrived on his doorstep from hundreds of miles away, tucked away in the saddle bags of some very important people. And those gifts were all meant for him. There wasn’t an obligated gift-exchange between the shepherds and the wise men, nor was there a scramble in Jesus’ family to buy gifts for each other in celebration of his birth. The focus of the gift-giving on that first Christmas was all on the gifts the wise men from the East brought for Jesus.

Their choice of gifts was perfect, too. They brought gold for a King, frankincense for a Priest and myrrh for a Saviour, all of which fit Jesus perfectly. How these wise men knew what to bring – and to this foreign baby so far away too – is truly amazing. But they knew who Jesus was. They knew, for instance, that Jesus was born to be a King. That’s why one of them crept up to Jesus and presented him with gold. Gold was what you gave to Kings when you appeared in their presence with a gift, so what better gift could there be than gold for the King of all Kings?

And then frankincense, that lovely sweet perfume that filled the Temple where God dwelt. It was the perfect gift for a Priest, and the perfect gift for Jesus too, because in his office of High Priest he would bring God and humanity together as one. And the wise men knew that too, which is why they brought frankincense, the perfect gift for the one who would enable all of us to enter God’s presence freely and without fear, no matter who we are or what we’ve done.

The third gift was myrrh, a very strange gift because myrrh was used for embalming dead bodies. But what a gift it was for Jesus. You could say it was the best gift of all, because it recognized how willingly Jesus had accepted his Father’s will to come as a human being just like us and take our alienated, pathetically selfish lives to the cross with him, to free us from our mess and create a new life for us instead. And somehow, the wise men knew that too.

And thanks to them, so do we. We know exactly what Jesus was born for – in what he got for Christmas.

The day the Christmas magic died

For Aunt Harriet, Christmas Day was magic. The happy squeals of the children as they ripped open their presents, the contented sighs of the adults after the Christmas dinner, and the happy family banter through the rest of the day. She looked forward to it for months.

This year, however, had been different. One of her favourite grandsons had married a Muslim who thought Christmas was typical of Western decadence and wanted no part in it. Albert, Harriet’s brother, had discovered how eggnog handily concealed large helpings of rum, and his loud snoring in the corner for most of the day had been embarrassing. The growing young men in the family, meanwhile, had vacuumed up everything edible by 2:00 pm on Christmas Day and disappeared off downstairs for the rest of the day to play video games.

It hadn’t been Christmas like those memorable Christmases of old with the whole family together opening presents, singing carols round the piano, eagerly anticipating the Christmas meal and playing board games together into the evening hours. This year no one had been interested in doing anything together. Some of the family were so tired they slept in ’til Noon. The kids in the family had opened all their presents before breakfast and were bored and irritable by 11:00 am. The much anticipated Christmas meal had been a quiet affair with everybody wolfing down the pile of food in record time, no one coming up with anything interesting to talk about, and the men escaping the clean-up afterwards by “putting on a movie for the kids,” they said. The cat, meanwhile, had swallowed a turkey bone and spent the day under the sofa making dreadful noises trying to cough it up.

All that planning, the anticipation, and the time and money Harriet had spent trying to make Christmas special, and for what, pray tell? Christmas was supposed to be about being together as family, but Harriet overheard two of her children talking about going on vacation over the Christmas break next year to escape the “Chris-mess” as one of them had called it. And was Christmas really “about the kids” anymore when the delight of opening presents had only lasted half an hour, and the toys lay in a heap for the rest of the day, untouched?

The whole day had been a terrible disappointment. The old traditions had grown stale, the younger generations in the family were so different, and the adults needed TV and video games more than each other.

For Harriet it was the day the Christmas magic died.

When Santa came for tea

Dear Uncle George thought it would be a jolly nice idea to invite Santa Claus over for tea. The excitement he imagined in his nephews’ and nieces’ faces when he announced his jolly idea brought tears to his dear old eyes.

It didn’t take much to coax a neighbour to dress up in a rented Santa suit – a dusty bottle of whisky long forgotten in the broom cupboard did the trick – and soon the great day came. The crowd that gathered in Uncle George’s living room was a sight to make the heart soar. It was crammed with sparkly-eyed children, tanked up for years by their parents and other assorted relatives on the God-like aura of Santa. And dear old Uncle George was ready with a song too, cranked up to ear-piercing volume on his neighbour’s new stereo system, borrowed in exchange for another bottle of whisky he’d discovered in the toilet tank.

With perfect timing, Uncle George pressed the Play button, and in strode Santa Claus with a hearty “Ho, ho, ho” and a scattering of dust from his fake beard, which made him cough. The song was “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and as Santa circled the room, beaming at each child in turn, it was like Santa himself singing the words of the song: “He’s making a list; he’s checking it twice; he’s going to find out who’s naughty and nice; Santa Claus is coming to town.”

Some of the children stopped smiling, and one little girl’s bottom lip began to tremble. Her mother elbowed Santa aside, punched the Stop button and rushed to her daughter’s side. “It’s all right dear, it’s just a song, Santa’s not really like that.”

The little girl sniffed a snorty sniff and said, “But Mommy, you said yourself that Santa wouldn’t bring me any presents if I was naughty. You said it yesterday when I was screaming and throwing things in the toy store.”

“Well, yes, that’s right, dear,” her Mother replied, “but all Mommies do that at Christmas-time to get their children to behave. It’s tradition.”

Santa in the rented suit laid a gentle hand on the girl’s shoulder and spluttered through the dust, “Yes, my dear, Mommy and me (cough) are only doing what religion’s been doing for centuries (hack). Threats have been jolly useful in getting lots of naughty adults to behave too. You’ll be using threats on your own kids too one day, so cheer up kiddo (cough and splutter), you’ve cottoned on to the secret of fear religion and stressed-out parenting all in one go.” Santa tried another “Ho, ho, ho” but turned purple with coughing instead.

“How jolly this all is, isn’t it?!” cried Uncle George as he pressed the Play button to finish the song.

When a loved one is dying at Christmas

In 2009 my sister was dying as Christmas approached. It was deeply saddening for her family, especially at Christmas-time with all its wonderful memories of shopping for gifts, decorating the tree together, preparing the Christmas dinner and relaxing in that special warmth that only Christmas, it seems, can create.

I’m so glad, therefore, that Christmas celebrates another wonderful memory, the birth of Jesus, because his birth makes dying the best thing that could happen, not the worst. To die in this life is to wake up to the new life Christ created for us by being born as a human.

And what kind of new life is it? It’s the life Jesus lived for us that we could never manage to live ourselves. He became human to live the perfect human life on our behalf, and when he ascended back to his Father, he took all humanity with him, hid us all away with him and made his life our life so that one day, when he returns, we’ll show up with him as these brand new humans who are just like him (Colossians 3:3-4).

And what made our new life possible? Jesus’ death, because when he died on the Cross all humanity died with him, putting an end to our old life of grief and failure once and for all. It is death, therefore, both his death and ours, that is the key. That’s what frees us from the confines of this life. It’s like letting children loose at last to grab their presents under the tree. How patiently they’ve waited, knowing what’s waiting for them but unable to get at it! And such is life for us now: Our new life awaits, stored away in the vaults of heaven, won for us by the death of Christ, but it’s not time yet. We must die first, but dying will let us loose at last.

When a loved one’s dying at Christmas, it’s probably the worst tragedy a family could imagine happening to them, because how can Christmas ever be a happy occasion again? But in the light of Jesus’ birth, Christmas can be a wonderful time to die – because what greater gift could a loved one receive than the key to the new and perfect life that Christ lived and died for on our behalf?

Is the “spirit of giving” dying?

A whole hour of talk radio was taken up with the rules of Christmas gift-giving. One lady complained bitterly that she puts a lot of thought into finding the right gifts for people but all she gets in return is the usual stuff like perfume that takes only a few minutes to find and purchase. Someone else then asked what to do if Mother-in-law gives you an awful gift. And there were other questions like “Are you expected to give a gift to a person who gives a gift to you?” or “What if the gift you give is pathetic compared to the gift you receive?” And, believe it or not, “What rules govern ‘re-gifting’ a present you don’t like and giving it to someone else?”

It was mind-boggling. You can’t give a gift nowadays without worrying about what type of gift you must (or must not) give, how a gift ought to be wrapped, what message the gift is giving, what guilt-trips or disappointment it might create, or if it’s cheating if you buy it on sale!

But that’s Christmas. It’s ripping the heart out of giving, making it an obligation, an expectation, a society dictate that all must comply with, instead. Thanks to Christmas we’re losing the meaning of the word “gift.” Gifts are normally something you give with pleasure to someone you love or deeply care for, not because of seasonal expectation, or fear of society etiquette, or to get a gift in return. A gift that has to be given isn’t a gift anymore, it’s a requirement. And a gift that’s given expecting a gift in return is a trade-off, not a gift.

I can’t help comparing all this to God’s gifts, because with his gifts there are no strings attached. They are gifts in the original sense of the word, given from the heart, expecting nothing in return. They’re GIFTS, for Pete’s sake! When Paul writes, “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the GIFT of God,” Ephesians 2:8, he means exactly that, our salvation is a gift. It comes with no rules and regulations to be obeyed, no having to earn it by being good, and no guilt-trips if we don’t do something in return.

That’s the real Spirit of Giving, not the sham our culture calls the “spirit of giving” at Christmas. No wonder people can’t grasp that God’s salvation is entirely a gift, when the very day that pictures God’s greatest gift to us – his Son, Jesus Christ – is made into a nightmare of rules and obligations instead.