Denison Forum – The ironic reason we begin the new year with the iconic “ball drop”

Lebanon, Pennsylvania, dropped a giant package of bologna to mark the new year. Tallapoosa, Georgia, dropped a possum. Boise, Idaho, unsurprisingly dropped a giant potato. And, as everyone knows, New York City staged its iconic “ball drop” once again as around a million people packed the Times Square area and millions more watched on television.

When you think about it, watching a giant ball descend to bring in the new year is a rather strange custom. Who thought of this? Why do we still do it?

From “hangxiety” to “God’s merciful dealings”

Before the twentieth century, timekeeping was much less precise. Sailors and ship captains needed to know the exact time so they could chart their navigational courses.

So Robert Wauchope, a captain in the British Navy, created the time ball in 1829. Raised balls visible to ships along the British coastline were manually dropped at the same time each day, allowing ships to set their chronometers to the accurate time.

The devices fell out of fashion by the 1880s due to the availability of self-winding clocks. But the New York Times, looking for a way to celebrate the New Year in 1907 after fireworks had been banned, decided a lighted midnight ball drop was a good way to honor the occasion.

Now comes the ironic part. So many drunken revelers woke up yesterday with hangovers that a term has been coined for them: “hangxiety.” By contrast, Capt. Wauchope, the inventor of the event they were celebrating, titled his autobiography A Short Narrative of God’s Merciful Dealings.

“Hangxiety” or “God’s merciful dealings”—how can we make the latter our story this year? How can we find a larger purpose that will give the new year empowering and joyful significance?

“Permacrisis” chosen as “word of the year”

Collins Dictionary has chosen its word of the year: “permacrisis.” The dictionary defines the word as “an extended period of instability and insecurity” and says it chose the word as it “sums up quite succinctly how truly awful 2022 has been for so many people.”

Now we are beginning the new year with news of the deaths of Barbara Walters and Pope Benedict XVI. From the horrors of war to massive storms and floods to holiday loneliness and financial struggles, we are reminded daily that we are broken people living in a broken world.

However, your Creator has a paradoxically hopeful perspective for your life.

I was reading Hebrews 2 recently and came across a statement I had never considered. Speaking of Jesus’ crucifixion, the author noted that “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (vv. 14–15, my emphasis).

Consider the thought for a moment: the “fear of death” subjects us to “lifelong slavery.” Why is this?

“The quest never ends till life itself does”

When we fear what will happen to us when we die, we try to make the most of life while we can. We therefore invest this world with more meaning than it possesses: “Behold, joy and gladness, killing oxen and slaughtering sheep, eating flesh and drinking wine. ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (Isaiah 22:13).

However, as commentator Ray Stedman noted, this fear of death “creates the frantic restlessness found in so many. That unsatisfied restlessness, that yearning for what cannot seem to be found, is at least partly what the writer [of Hebrews] means by slavery.

“Like a slave bound to a cruel master, human beings find themselves forced to keep searching for what they never attain. They try everything, but nothing satisfies. There is pleasure and fun—but seldom peace and contentment. Soon everything palls and the search must begin again. It is a lifelong bondage, for the quest never ends till life itself does” (his emphases).

But when we remember that the worst that can happen to us leads to the best that can happen to us, we are set free from the fear of death and its enslavement to this fallen world. When we remember that our Lord owns “the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:18), we are free to serve him fully and joyfully—whatever he asks, whatever it takes, wherever he leads.

“Right in those, he led me well”

Spurgeon’s observation is worthy of reflection: “Let us rest assured that we have already experienced more ills than death at its worst can cause us.”

Pope Benedict XVI would have agreed. In his final spiritual testament, released by the Vatican on Saturday evening, he urged the faithful to “stay steady in the faith” and voiced his confidence that, even in our secularized world, “the rationality of faith has and will emerge again.”

And he wrote: “Retrospectively, I see and understand that even the dark and tiresome traits of this journey were for my salvation and, right in those, he led me well.”

As 2023 begins, if you will “stay steady in the faith,” unconditionally committed to your King and Lord, when the year ends (if the Lord tarries) you will be able to look back and say, “He led me well.” And “God’s merciful dealings” will be the theme of your life.

This is the promise, and the invitation, of God.

Denison Forum

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