The start of a New Year is usually a time of hope. There’s something about a clean slate, a fresh start, that gives us reason to dream again. We recalibrate our lives, set new goals, and plan new adventures. It is a gift.
Holly and I just finished a few days of praying and planning for the new year. We try to take time every December to seek the Lord for a word or phrase that captures what He may want to do in us in the upcoming year. And then we start plotting out on a calendar how we are going to ‘schedule first what matters most’– or at least minimize the risk of being surprised by trips, birthdays, recitals, and breaks!
A new year can be a wonderfully inspiring thing.
And yet, it can be a terrifying thing.
Who’s to say that just because we get a fresh start we will make the most it? How can we know that another chance is not just another chance to mess things up?
This is where Christmas comes in. You see, today isn’t just New Year’s Eve; it’s also– by tradition in the Western Church– the 7th Day of Christmas. Never mind the lords-a-leaping, the Feast of Christmas continues.
Which means, it’s a time to remember again just how stunning grace is.
Christmas, the carols tell us, is about the newborn king. But let’s look a bit more closely. The king Israel was awaiting was the Messiah, the chosen one, a king through whom YHWH would establish His rule on earth. Christmas is the long-awaited arrival of YHWH coming to His people as king.
The astonishing thing about Jesus– as his followers slowly began to realize– was that Jesus was God incarnate, later understood as the second Person of the Trinity. But what kind of a king would God be?
Think for a moment about the kings– the ‘anointed ones’ who had ruled in YHWH’s name– that Israel had known. David had led them into battles. Solomon had recruited them into building projects. When the people of Israel plead with Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, not to be like his father, they recall a ‘heavy yoke’:
” ‘Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke on us, and we will serve you.’ ” (1 Kings 12:4)
Rehoboam refuses, and vows instead to add to their heavy yoke. All the kings Israel had known had brought upon the people a heavy yoke. This is why the prophet Isaiah prophesies the hope of an anointed one of YHWH who would break the ‘yoke of his burden’ (Isaiah 9:4).
Would Jesus be that kind of king? Jesus may well have had Isaiah’s promise in mind when He said:
” ‘Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ ” (Matt. 11:28-30)
The apostles certainly must have recalled this when they decided not to demand of Gentile converts an obedience that they could never achieve, deciding not to place ‘a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither [their] fathers nor [they had] been able to bear’ (Acts 15:10).
Paul would underscore this later in his letter to the Galatians:
“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)
Jesus is a different kind of king, a king who brings freedom from the yoke of performance and perfection, the burden which we could not bear.
What would Christmas say to New Year’s?
Don’t let a new year be an occasion to take on a new yoke, another heavy burden you could not possibly bear. Don’t believe the myth of the self-made person. What we need is not simply a fresh start, but a fresh power. Our hope is not a new year, but a new life— a life that Jesus came to bring.
So, set your goals, and make your plans. But do it from a place of rest, from the confidence of knowing that a new king has come. He is the king who carried our burden on himself and placed his yoke on us– a light and easy yoke– and gave us rest. He is nothing like the ruler we are. We demand more achievement and accomplishment and improvement of ourselves. He has done for us what we could not do for ourselves. And He will do through us what we cannot do ourselves.
Rejoice! It is not just New Year’s; it is Christmas.
[painting by Ju-Chul Kim]