“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” (Isaiah 43:1-2)
As I reflect on what may be coming in the days of the new year, I keep coming back to the famous Chinese poet, Li Bai (701-762) and his vision toward hope and life in face of the difficult challenges. Here is a passage from his poem, The Troubled Road:
“The road is difficult, the life is difficult
There are many crossroads, so where am I standing now?
When the big wind comes when it meets the waves
(I will) cross the blue sea with my sail on the clouds right away”
I am inspired by the simple truth that we sail across the troubled waters; that difficult roads are the normal part of life; that big winds do not necessarily knock us down, but fill our sails to take us to new places. And with the assurance of the prophet Isaiah, as we pass through these uncharted waters into new realities, we know that God is with us.
This is the message of Christmas and the powerful attraction of Epiphany. Emmanuel, God with us, draws wise travelers across difficult roads, perhaps even stormy seas, to seek out new opportunities and possibilities – life-changing and transforming. The roads that Joseph, Mary, the baby Jesus, and the magi traveled were dangerous and difficult roads, but they were essential roads. Without passage through the troubles, the glorious will of God could not be fulfilled.
Following the end of this 2020 pandemic year – a year fraught with dangers of racial injustice, brutality, wildfires and hurricanes, contentious political debate and division – we may well be looking for calmer waters, and a return to a greater sense of security, safety, and comfort. Perhaps this will be the gift of 2021, but perhaps not. Perhaps our difficult road, our wind-tossed sea, is not at an end. Only God can tell.
But there are some significant realities that we have as we move forward, and they are simple but powerful.
First, God is with us. Never lose sight of this. When the road is difficult, when the storms of life rage, when all feels unsafe and unfamiliar, know this: God is with us. No matter who leads the country from the White House, what viruses and plagues spread through our world, what new natural disaster fostered through climate change, what the volatile stock market is doing: God is with us. The recurrent message of Advent carries forward through the new year: fear not. God is with us.
Second, God’s gifts to us did not end with Jesus, but continued through the call to Christian fellowship and community: we have each other. The glorious vision of Jesus, the disciples and apostles, and all the leaders of the early Christian movement is unity in Christ. By our faith, by our baptism, by our commitment to Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.” Some weaker voices may cry out for division and exclusion, but the true result of the gospel is this: in Christ, we have each other.
Third, we have a purpose and a call: “to discern what is the will of God; “what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2b). What does the Lord require from us? “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8b). Or, keeping it as simple as Jesus, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). And as the incarnate body of Christ, we serve Christ best when we feed the hungry, give the thirsty something to drink, welcome the immigrant, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit those in prison. Then we hear Jesus affirmation, “Truly I say, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:31-46). When we stay focused on seeking, understanding, and carrying out the will of God, we pass through troubled waters in power and strength.
As I prepare my heart and mind for 2021, Li Bai’s question haunts and compels me: “There are many crossroads, so where am I standing now?” I am standing on the rock of my salvation (2 Samuel 22:47). I am standing on the promises of God (Galatians 3:21). I am standing with Peter and the apostles as they proclaim the good news: God is with us (Acts 2:14-21).
The journey of faith is not always an easy one, but like the magi we follow the blessed light of God to our Savior and Prince of Peace. We may struggle. We may suffer. We may grieve and worry and sacrifice. But it will all be well, because at the end of our journey is the blessing of the Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, God is with us, every step of the way. Let us rejoice in the gift of the new year – come what may – and let us lift our voices in praise: thanks be to God!
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung has served as resident bishop of the Wisconsin Annual Conference since September of 2012. Prior to leading the Wisconsin Conference UMC, Bishop Jung served eight years as bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference (Chicago area).