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Awaiting the First Light of Dawn by Nigel Ong

As of this writing: our nation has been logging five-digit daily COVID-19 reported cases for close to two weeks now, posting multiple record-highs in a single week’s span; hospitals remain full, with our healthcare workers weary, exhausted, and dejected; what used to be mere figures of deaths and reports of hospitalization have now taken on names and faces, with our own friends and relatives falling victim to this dreaded disease; our economy is in shambles, with many unemployed and many more underemployed; and not to mention the extremely abnormal circumstances our children are growing under. We all feel a spirit of gloom, fear, and uncertainty lurking in the atmosphere. We all wish the normal days would come back, but the hard reality is that we really do not know. And, if or when life does, the price paid has been undeniably steep. The plethora of grim news headlines, coupled with the unprecedented uncertainty of our future in this life begs the groaning thought, “Will life, as we’d known it, return? And until it does, if at all, how can we brace ourselves against the raging roar of this tumultuous tempest?”

At a low point in my own life emotionally some years back, when the vigor for life was running close to empty, I vividly remember my spiritual dad succinctly telling me that, what gives a person the will to go on, to fight amidst the dreariness of the day and the long stretches of the dark nights of our souls is: HOPE – hope that one day things will be better, that one day the pain that crushes us under its weight shall be lifted, that one day we will be able to rise and laugh again. And the more I thought of it, the more I saw this truth painted across our lives. Back in my elementary days, as a conscientious student, the nagging alarm on an early Monday morning signified a long week of unwelcome academic obligations to fulfill, and whether I wanted to or not, I had to get out of bed and face the week. But what consoled me in those moments was that: while a potentially stressful week lay ahead of me, the sweet sound of the dismissal bell on Friday afternoon was also inching closer with every passing second. The same could be said of my sentiment towards the flip of the calendar to the first week of June, marking the end of summer and the onset of classes. I would count down the months to March, the signal that summer vacation was right around the corner. Isn’t this the case, as well, in our periods of physical illness? Doesn’t the prospect of being well and healthy again, however long it should take, sustain us in the helplessness of our weak state? Such is the power of hope. Not only do we want to have hope in this life, we need hope if we are to make it to the end of our journey. And the good news is that the hope we have, to face everything in this life is infinitely more stable and certain than the prospect of a two-month summer vacation, or a physical restoration, only to remain susceptible to the next potential infection.

My readings recently brought me to the long (and frankly, depressing) Book of Jeremiah. Vivid warnings of the LORD’s impending judgment against unfaithful Israel, and her eventual fall pervade the chapters of the Book. And despite the prophet’s determined call for reform and repentance, the nation dug in its adulterous heels, mocking, ignoring Jeremiah’s cries, even persecuting and threatening the prophet’s life. Having filled her iniquities to the brim, Israel now stood under the ominous darkness of GOD’s holy judgment: Nebuchadnezzar’s siege finally broke through what once seemed to be Jerusalem’s impenetrable walls; the incumbent King Zedekiah abdicated his throne, running for dear life, only to be outrun by Babylon’s chasing forces, captured, and eyes put out, but not before witnessing as his last visual memory the execution of his royal court and sons, then chained for the rest of his days in Babylon’s prison; the Jews who opposed Babylon were put to the sword, and those who surrendered exiled to a distant land foreign to them, leaving behind only a minority of indigents to care for what little remained in a ransacked city; and most horrifying of all, the Temple that marked the enduring Presence and favor of the LORD, was stripped bare, then burned to the ground: the GLORY of Israel had departed. (Jeremiah 39:1-10; 52:1-30)

If there was a period of unparalleled despair in Israel hitherto, it was this: the fall of Jerusalem, under Babylon’s tyranny. YET (what a sweet word, in the midst of the onslaught), Israel would not be done away with completely. For in the same Book, replete with warnings of judgment, lay interspersed promises of restoration. Yes, the judgment proved inevitable, but so did the promise of redemption. The Word of the LORD spoken through Jeremiah gave hope for: a future return for the exiles (29:10; 33:6-13); a day of reckoning for all of Israel’s enemies, with Babylon receiving the lengthiest verdict (46-51); and Israel’s root problem of recurring unfaithfulness being fully addressed, as the LORD promised to establish a new covenant with HIS people – to give them a new heart, betrothing them to HIMSELF forever (31:31-34). The remnant of Israel would have to endure the fire, but not without the consolation of GOD’s Word. HE would personally usher HIS people into a glorious future. But what about their present season of suffering?

The final section of the Book’s summary and conclusion brings the setting to Babylon, the distant land of exile, and home of Israel’s nightmare. But the scene is not of woe; on the contrary, we find King Jehoiachin, the son of Jehoiakim, of King David’s line, and predecessor of Zedekiah (the last king), though exiled in Babylon with his fellow Jews, finding favor before the new Babylonian king, who graciously released him from prison and seated him at the king’s table, with a regular allowance for the rest of his days (52:31-34). The LORD had not forgotten HIS promise to King David (33:14-26), though for an extended season it appeared otherwise. When everything seemed lost, the LORD saw to it that the light of Israel would remain aglow; hope lived on. The LORD, while gloriously and powerfully present in Israel’s post-exilic, future restoration, was just as actively present in Israel’s current exile. In fact, the LORD gave a most counterintuitive of instructions to the Jews in exile, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (29:5-7). While awaiting her glorious future restoration (29:10), Israel was called not to despise her present lot, but to live in it. Life would have to go on. And Israel needed to find her place and calling in it: still to be a blessing to the nations, albeit in a most peculiar situation, to her very captors. And to eliminate every shadow of doubt, the LORD spoke in this very situation what has come to be one of Scripture’s most oft-quoted Passages, “‘For I know the plans I have for you’, declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.’” (29:11)

The parallels to our day are only too evident. We, Christians, are a people of the future; our best life is yet to come. I recall a tweet I came across awhile back (paraphrased): “This life, with its share of pleasure and pain, is the worst that life can possibly be for the Christian, in the spectrum of eternity.” A Scriptural basis and equivalent would be the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to the Romans, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). And he went on to say, “…we wait eagerly for adoptions as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we are saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (vv.23-25). The full measure of our future hope’s glory awaits us in eternity, but its power is uncontainable, it breaks through eternity, gushing over into our present lives – to grant the believer strength to keep the faith. Like my favorite renowned pastor put it, “…hope beyond the grave is present hope. The object of hope is future. The experience of hope is present. And that present experience is powerful. Hope is power. Present power.”

Give thanks to the LORD of hosts, for the LORD is good, for HIS steadfast love endures forever.” (Jeremiah 33:11)

Jeremiah prophesied the redeemed singing this song, on their way to the house of the LORD with their thank offerings, after returning from exile. Time poses no hindrance to the ANCIENT OF DAYS; the cumulative forces of world powers across the ages stand no match against the SOVEREIGN GOD of all nations; our GOD OF PROVIDENCE utilizes every atom surrounding our every moment to achieve HIS every good pleasure in us, for us, and through us; the ROCK OF AGES beckons every needy soul to stand upon this solid ground, to anchor our lives upon the infallibility of HIS strength; the GOOD SHEPHERD of HIS sheep does not merely wait for us at the end of the line, rather, HE walks with us, writhes with us, and hides us under the everlasting Arms. One of my favorite hymns writes, “When years of time shall pass away, and earthly thrones and kingdoms fall…GOD’s love so sure shall still endure, all measureless and strong…it shall forevermore endure the saints’ and angels’ song.” So we dare to believe in the enduring goodness of our LORD in our present lot, however HE pleases to express HIS unfathomable ways. For though the darkness be pitch black, the steadfast love of our GOD, in CHRIST JESUS our LORD, will hold us together until the first rays of morning dawn over the horizon.

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