|Happy New Year — So What?
January 3, 1999
Happy New Year! I sincerely hope the year we have just started will be the best ever in your life. And my particular wish for each of you is that this will be the year in which you are more open to God’s presence, power, and holy purposes for your life than ever before. Ah, but what year is this?
The calender that tells us today is January 3, 1999, was apparently introduced by Dionysius Exiguus — or, we would translate, "Dennis the Small" — in A.D. 532. His intention was to date year 1 from the time when — by his best calculation — Jesus was born. Today scholars of all the relevant disciplines agree that this sixth-century monk was off by at least four years and possibly by as many as six. Modern-day persons have a penchant for precise dates that people in antiquity did not share. It was enough for them to say that an event happened during the reign of a certain king or x years before or after a certain war, flood, or earthquake.
On our present Western calendar, Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. Since Jesus was born near the end of his reign, his birth could not have been earlier than that year. Since Herod ordered the slaughter of infants in Bethlehem "who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi" (Matt. 2:16), the birth of the child may have been as early as 6 B.C. The Gospels are silent — given any calendar scheme — on the year, let alone the exact month or day, of his birth.
Dennis’ calendar has endured and served us well in many respects. What was initially created as a means to try to settle a bitter and complicated dispute over when the church should celebrate Easter has been adopted as a secular measurement tool of great usefulness. Even so, many nations privately use calendars other than this one that spread from Europe to become the international standard for dating the documents of government and trade. Thus the new year in China is 4698, 1421 on the Islamic calendar, 5761 in Israel, and 2390 to the Zoroastrians in India.
Why the Approach of Year 2000 Concerns Me
Christians of recent times have become obsessed with date-setting scenarios in some quarters. As the ominous-looking year 2000 approaches, we are hearing doomsday warnings. During 1999, be careful not to be deceived by those who see in the next turn of the annual calendar or in the Y2K problem a sign from God that the parousia is near!
For one thing, Jesus said there would be no special sign of his coming (Matt. 24:36-42). For another, with the calendar mistake Dennis made, the year 2000 actually came and passed in 1994, 1995, or 1996 without the end of the world. Finally, as one wiseacre has put it, stockpiling food and buying a generator will be about as effective against a genuine Y2K doomsday as public schools’ duck-and-cover drills would have been against a nuclear attack during the ’50s or ’60s!
Historical precedent indicates that we will be in for predictions by the score not only for what most people will be hyped to believe is a "monumental hinge date in history" but for the coming millennium. Much of it will be purely hype — for the sake of selling survival gear or a particular religious point of view that thrives on fear. And much of it will be altogether sincere.
As far back as 1994, a national news magazine published a survey saying that 59% of American adults believed some form of doomsday to be very near.1 Of those people, 16% saw the end coming within several hundred years, 21% put the terminus of Planet Earth decades away, and 12% put it within a few years. And some of you will remember that the Persian Gulf War was touted by certain individuals as the event that would surely lead to Armageddon.
The entertainment industry has not been reluctant to capitalize on the doomsday predictions of groups religious and secular. CBS ran a special program titled Mysteries of the Millennium in 1996 that opened with these words: "Are you going to witness the end of the world? The Bible, Nostradamus, the Mayan Calendar, and ancient Hopi Indians all predicted that doomsday will be sometime in the next few years. . . . [N]ow modern science seems to support them." Then Hollywood checked in with two 1998 movies exploiting the same forecasts in Deep Impact and — wouldn’t you know it — Armageddon.
But the people who will systematically exploit the turn of the millennium foreboding are religious teachers. Hal Lindsey — author of The Late Great Planet Earth who has had to update his book several times as end-time players in his fanciful interpretation of Scripture entered and left the world stage — says this on a videotape:
All of this [i.e., earthquakes, famines, wars, AIDS, etc.] leads up to one thing. . . . Jesus said, ‘This generation will not pass away until all these things are fulfilled.’ What generation? The generation that would see all these signs. We are that generation! I believe you cannot miss it. We’re that generation, and I believe we’re rapidly moving toward the coming of Christ.2
What many people do not know is that this sort of millennial hysteria has been constant across the centuries. In connection with "hinge dates" or world-shattering events, doomsday prophets have offered their projections of an end-time scenario. Here are just a few of the failed dates:3
500 Hippolytus (d. 236) predicted that this year would see the end of the world.
800 A Spanish monk Beatus (d. 798) predicted he would live to see the Antichrist and the end of the world by the year 800.
1000 Widespread belief across Europe during the 900s held that the end of the world would occur in 1000.
1033 Targeted by several as "the end" after the year 1000 passed uneventfully.
1843/4 William Miller and followers predict Jesus’ return. (Seventh-Day Adventists emerge from the Millerite movement.)
1910 Many expect Halley’s comet to destroy the world
1914 Proclaimed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses as the time when the Battle of Armageddon would be fought.
1972-77 February 1967 issue of Plain Truth carried Herbert W. Armstrong’s pronouncement that the "Day of the Eternal" would come between five and ten years from his prediction.
1981 Based on the first edition of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, tens of thousands believed "the rapture" would occur by year’s end.
1982 Based on a planetary alignment and the resulting "Jupiter Effect," persons from a variety of points of view predict doomsday.
1988 Edgar Whisenant says "the rapture" will occur between September 11 and 13, and Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) altered nightly programming to run prerecorded shows on "the rapture" that informed people what to do in case Christian family members and friends disappeared.
1991 Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan announced the Gulf War would "be that [war] which the scriptures refer to as the War of Armageddon which is the final war."
2000 Warnings and predictions are accumulating quickly.
2001 Edgar Cayce (1877-1945) prophesied a devastating "pole shift" of the planet.
2003-2012 Jack Van Impe predicted in 1997 that a "world dictator" would appear no later than 2003 and that Jesus would return no later than 2012.
The Y2K Factor
I am hard pressed to account for the date-setting penchant of people about the return of Jesus in the face of his own words: "No one knows about that day or hour . . . Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come" (Mark 13:32-33). If I am a bit hard on the people I call "prophecy mongers," it’s because I am convinced their time could be used in activities with much more spiritual value to their followers.
Do I believe Jesus is going to return personally, visibly, and bodily? Yes. Do I believe that return will bring time as we know it to an end? Yes. Do I believe his return will result in a separation of saved and lost? Yes. Then why am I not interested in trying to figure out when that return will be? For the same reason that I don’t need you to tell me when my wife is driving up or coming into the room. I am her husband when we are together and when we are apart, and I will be faithful to her in either setting. So I am Christ’s, and I am to be ready for his coming at any moment. The person who needs to post a lookout for either his wife or his Savior makes me a bit suspicious!
All the customary and to-be-expected guessing about the return of Jesus in the year most people mistakenly believe is the year 2000 since Jesus’ birth will only be intensified by Y2K misgivings. In case you are the only person in North America who doesn’t yet know what the "Y2K Bug" is, let me explain.
Millions of electronic devices — whether mainframe computers that send out Social Security checks, control regional electric power grids, manage Wall Street stock transactions, and handle America’s crowded air traffic lanes or silicon chips in thermostats — are programmed to process only the last two digits of a year. Human shortsightedness assumed that the first two digits of a calendar year would always be 1 and 9! If they’re not fixed before the year 2000 arrives, the machines may read the year "00" not as 2000 but as 1900. And that could produce malfunctions in traffic lights, ATMs, aircraft-control radar, and many other systems necessary to our technological infrastructure.
The most extreme of the fear-mongers are predicting what they call TEOTWAWKI — The End of the World as We Know It. Some people have bought land in remote places to build a survival hut, pitch a tent, or park an RV. They predict that the programmers working so frantically to fix the Y2K computer problem won’t succeed in making them Y2K-compliant.
The Dallas Morning News recently carried the story of a little hardware store in Ohio that serves an Amish community (i.e., specializes in products that operate without electricity) whose phone lines are staying jammed.4 And reports that the problems are on their way to substantial resolution in advance of January 1, 2000, will almost surely be dismissed as propaganda by those who are beating the Y2Kaos drum loudest.5 Our own Tennessean didn’t do much that was helpful on this point with its January 1 front page article, "Millennium countdown heats up."6
Not all the sensationalists are Christian writers/lecturers, but a great many are. They are painting a picture of apocalyptic peril and frightening people. Some are interpreting the Y2K problem in terms of the Book of Revelation — a first-century document about the life-and-death struggle between a young church and the persecuting Roman Empire. Others aren’t hanging their hat on Revelation but are simply pointing to it in terms of the impending judgment and wrath of God.
Why do Christians tend to jump on every bandwagon being pulled by fear? Yes, it makes for more sensational sermons. It is a likelier thesis for selling more books to the Christian market. And it may generate larger crowds and bigger offerings as we move toward December 31, 1999.
But do you remember the guffaws created by Edgar Whisenant’s 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Could Be in 1988? Do you recall the frequent predictions of the end of the world during the Cold War? Do you have copies of the books identifying Stalin or Kruschev or Ronald Reagan as the character in Revelation whose "number is 666"?7 All these silly speculations served to discredit the faithful witness many others continued to make to the gospel.
Yes, I suspect there will be some "glitches" when the move from December 31, 1999 to January 1, 2000 is made — some older systems, some small-town machinery, or even some government computers. But the principal way I anticipate any Y2Kaos being generated will be through the creation of enough fear in a segment of the population (e.g., evangelical Christians) that they withdraw their money from banks, pull their investments out of the stock market, etc. In that case, the problem will not be Y2K but exploited fears.
I’m not planning to take any money out of the bank at the end of the year. I certainly don’t intend to stockpile food and water. And I’ll be happy to travel on a commercial flight on Saturday, January 1, 2000 — if anyone wants to test my personal conviction on this matter by buying my family a skiing vacation that will require me to come home that day to preach here the next morning!
What Will We Do Together?
More to the point for us, what will be our concerns as a church for this year?
We will continue to allow God to build us into a healthy church. When anyone asks me about this church, my standard response is to say, "It’s a healthy place." Then I typically explain that I use the word "healthy" to signify an unusual trait in a biblically conservative church: people are allowed to think for themselves, grow at the pace God chooses for them, and know how to show the grace to one another that the Lord has shown to all of us.
I want us to continue being a "hospital church" that demonstrates God’s power to transform sinners.
We will continue to celebrate the Lord in true worship. Old hymns and new hymns, Bible preaching and personal testimonies, weekly communion and tearful penitence — all that moves us away from self-absorption for the sake of Christ-intoxication will be deemed holy to him in this place. As a priesthood of believers, we will bring our sacrifice of praise to him and exalt his name.
I want our worship to tell the visitor or seeker who comes into our midst that we find such joy in Christ that he or she will want to know more about him as well.
We will continue to preach the gospel. Do you know what some churches preach and call "gospel"? Read the Bible every day. Keep a long prayer list. Go to church three times a week. Volunteer for every ministry the church has. Don’t drink, smoke, curse, or dance — and don’t associate with people who do. Teach home Bible studies two nights a week. Memorize a lot of Scripture. Teach a Sunday School Class. Visit the hospitals. Then, in your spare time, smile a lot — so people will know you are enjoying trying to work your way to heaven! And never be human, weak, or hurt. Don’t get depressed about anything in your life. Hide your problems. Whew! That is so hopelessly wrong!
I want our message to be the true gospel (i.e., Good News) of God’s love for and pursuit of people through Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.
We will continue to demonstrate the compassion of Jesus. God didn’t call us onto this hill to isolate ourselves from the world he loves. The church is supposed to continue the personal life and ministry of Jesus in its corporate life. He was no isolated, antisocial hermit. He did not segregate himself from lepers, prostitutes, poor people, or criminals. If we are his body in the world today, we must have a burden for the same people he loved. We will not be condescending to the poor, smug with the homeless, or judgmental toward people with AIDS.
I want us to see the face of Jesus in the people we serve, affirm their dignity as men and women in God’s own image, and give them the opportunity to know him.
We will continue to pursue the unity of the Body of Christ. Racial and denominational distinctives have divided people in this city, nation, and world from one another. This church is committed to honoring the unity God’s Holy Spirit has given those who are in Christ above the differences of color and interpretation that sinful, egotistical humans have chosen to emphasize. God has graciously permitted us to partner with the Schrader Lane church to form and operate Christian Community Services, Inc. And on the first Lord’s Day of 2000, we will meet for worship in the Nashville Arena with believers from other churches to make a unified witness to the Lord Jesus Christ as the new millennium begins.
I refuse to measure faithfulness by the number of people whose fellowship we reject and want to stand with all who confess Jesus Christ is Lord.
Here is a prayer I wrote eleven years ago that seems to fit my personal determination for the year that is just under way. Perhaps it can be meaningful for you as well.
I know that a thousand years are as a day to you, but I am bound by time. As a new year is beginning for me, please teach me to
care more about people and less about money,
enjoy my work but not let it enslave me,
and laugh more easily than I did last year.
As I get ready for 1999, help me to remember things that are easy to forget . . .
that it might well be my last year,
that some people are counting on me,
and that you have things for me to do.
Lord, with the things I have accumulated over the past few years, please let me
shake off the monotony of my life,
try some new things in this new year,
and mend some broken fences.
And, Father of Mercies, please teach me in this new and unspoiled year to
lighten up and enjoy children, sunsets, reading, and long walks,
avoid quarrels and insist on being a peacemaker in this world,
and to start next year with fewer regrets than I bring to 1999.
I cannot know what this year will bring, and I am grateful for that! But I want to
eat less junk food,
exercise and take better care of my body,
and learn how to turn off my TV set.
Above all other things, Father, I want to be your instrument for
lightening somebody’s too-heavy load,
taking away some sad person’s misery,
and introducing a lost soul to Jesus.
These are the things I want in the new year, Father, and I believe that you want me to have them, too. I commit the new year to your glory.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
1Jeffery L. Sheler, "The Christmas Covenant," U.S. News & World Report, December 19, 1994, p.64.
2Hal Lindsey, Apocalypse Planet Earth videotape, quoted in Richard Abanes, End-Time Visions: The Road to Armageddon? (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998), p.350. Abanes’ book is an excellent resource that refutes many of the doomsday scenarios and prognosticators (e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses, Nostradamus, American militia groups, etc.) who are stirring up millennial frenzy. Anyone seeking a balanced, thoughtful appraisal of "millennium madness" would do well to read it.
4James Jones, "Sale of the Millennium," Dallas Morning News, December 8, 1998, p.1D.
5Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Stephen Barr, "Y2K Fixes Moving Faster Than Predicted," Washington Post, January 1, 1999, p.A1.
6Ray Waddle, "Millennium Countdown heats up," Tennessean, January 1, 1999, p.1A. For example, this was the leader to the article: "From natural and Y2K disasters to Jesus’ return, Year 2000 predictions leave people scrambling."
7I actually saw a religious tract identifying Reagan as the cryptic figure of the Apocalypse. Here was the reasoning (?) on which the identification was based. The former president’s middle name is Wilson — Ronald (6 letters!) Wilson (6 letters!) Reagan (count ‘em for yourself!). There you have it! And that is some of the better "reasoning" used in literature of this sort.
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