2020: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

December 21, 2020

Although we have faced challenges in the past year, we don’t need to look on those times as times of defeat. We can look at them as times the Lord has helped us.

FROM A SERMON BY Darrel Lee

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s we look forward at the beginning of a new year, it is also good to look back over the past year of 2020 and remember how God has helped us.

In 1 Samuel 7, verses 11 and 12, we read of a time when the Prophet Samuel established a marker for the Children of Israel to help them remember. These verses tell us, “And the men of Israel went out of Mizpeh, and pursued the Philistines, and smote them, until they came under Bethcar. Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpeh and Shen, and called the name of it Ebenezer, saying, Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.”

The Children of Israel had been at Mizpeh twenty years earlier. In fact, twice before they had pitched their tents for battle at that location and had gone out against the Philistines. The first time, their forces were defeated and humiliated; four thousand of the Children of Israel were slain. The second time, the sons of Eli the High Priest determined to take the Ark of the Covenant with the army, perhaps superstitiously assuming that the sacred emblem would bring them victory. However, when they went out to battle, they were defeated once again.

In the second encounter, thirty thousand Israelites were slain, and among that number were the sons of Eli. Eli himself, upon hearing that the Ark of God had been captured by the Philistines, fell backward off the place where he was seated and broke his neck and died. Furthermore, his daughter-in-law went into labor and died after delivering a child she named Ichabod, which means “the glory is departed.” However, the glory of God had already departed from Israel, and at that point in time, the Ark had been taken as well.

The Philistines kept the Ark of the Covenant for seven months, but they were troubled by disease and the desecration of their gods during that time, so eventually they sent the sacred object back to Israel. The Ark ended up in Kirjath-jearim, just inside Israel’s border, and remained there for twenty years. Think of it: for twenty years, the Israelites were content to have the Ark of the Covenant, representative of the glory of God, abiding at a distance! Why so long? The children who had been ten years old when the Ark was brought to Kirjath-jearim were now thirty; those who had been thirty were now fifty. Why did the people continue in a state of helplessness for all those years?

The people “lamented” during those twenty years—they cried aloud to the Lord. They had good reason to lament. Their cities were in ruins, their armies were defeated, and they were under Philistine domination.

We are told in 1 Samuel 7:2 that the people “lamented” during those twenty years—they cried aloud to the Lord. They had good reason to lament. Their cities were in ruins, their armies were defeated, and they were under Philistine domination, all because they were not right with God. Then Samuel called upon them to return to the Lord with all of their hearts, giving them three steps to take that would prove their determination. In simplified terms, they were to put away their strange gods, prepare their hearts, and serve God only.

A similar formula is necessary today: when a person purposes to come to God, the Bible says he must repent and turn his back on sin, turn toward God, and purpose to serve Him alone. In response to Samuel’s challenge, the Israelites fasted, confessed their sins, and prayed—all indicators that they were preparing their hearts.

The Philistines heard of the gathering of the Israelites. Twenty years after that first attack at Mizpeh, they came to battle again at the same spot, perhaps intending to crush what they assumed was a revolt. The Israelites saw that and cried out to God to save them from the hand of their enemies. Samuel also prayed for the people, and the Lord intervened. We are told in verse 10 that God sent a great thunder and “discomfited” the Philistines. Israel pursued and defeated their foe, winning a great victory.

Samuel wanted the people of Israel to remember, and he purposed to set up a stone that would be a reminder. We can visualize him looking around and wondering, Where shall we set this marker? Where can we represent how God has helped us? He decided that it should be right there at Mizpeh.

Perhaps some of those around him objected, saying, “You cannot put it here! We suffered two horrible defeats at this place. Why, we lost 34,000 men here twenty years ago, and the Ark of the Covenant was taken from us.” However, Samuel was determined. He set a stone up between Mizpeh and Shen, and called the name of it Ebenezer, saying, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.”

This stone was not in remembrance of a defeat. It was in recognition of how God had helped them obtain a victory. It did not mark how they had failed, but how God had helped them succeed. It did not call attention to what man did, but what God did for man!

A number of years from now, if Jesus tarries, 2020 will be remembered as the year God stood with us in a time of great difficulty and brought us through victorious. The fact is, every spiritual victory emerges as the result of a battle.

That is how I feel about the year 2020. We have heard much about how people are ready to “cancel” 2020, along with many other aspects of our history. We are not going to look back on 2020 as a year of defeat. Instead, we will regard it as a year of victory because we can say, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us!” A number of years from now, if Jesus tarries, 2020 will be remembered as the year God stood with us in a time of great difficulty and brought us through victorious. The fact is, every spiritual victory emerges as the result of a battle.

During July of 2020, we celebrated the one-hundred-year anniversary of our campground on Duke Street in Portland. God has helped many over the years on that piece of property. To individuals around the world, it serves as a reminder of victories God has won. Countless individuals have reached a low point in their lives where they realized their desperate need of God, and on that campground, they turned toward Him. They do not look back to the low spot—the remorse and regret that weighed them down before they prayed. They remember the place where God helped them, saved them, and they found relief from the heavy load they carried! They left the campground feeling joyful, forgiven, and with a new life in Christ—and that is what they commemorate.

My dad had a spiritual memorial on the campground. In February of 1975, the film “A Thief in the Night” was shown in the tabernacle, and Dad prayed and was saved that evening. Some years later, in 1983, our daughter was saved after a children’s church service in the building next to the tabernacle, though she was just five years old at the time. She skipped down the pathway to our cabin after the service, eager to tell her mother (who had stayed in the cabin so our son could nap) that she had gotten saved. Today, many years later, our children and grandchildren, along with thousands of others from around the world, have spiritual “markers” of victories won on the campground.

The testimony services that are part of most of our church services are about history—when we testify, we remember and declare what God has done for us to this point. During our campground commemorative service, we heard Jane Ewers testify and provide historical context for the early years of this Apostolic Faith work. Her grandparents were among the first to join with our founder, Florence Crawford, when Portland was established as the headquarters for this work. Jane’s parents were saved in this Gospel, and Jane herself was saved after a camp meeting service for children. As we reflect back on the faithfulness of Jane’s parents and grandparents, we also look at the present and see Jane and her son and grandchildren who participate in our work today. And as we look forward into the future, we pray that they will remain as faithful as those before Jane were.

History provides context for the present and the future—it reminds us how God has helped in the past and that His help remains available today.

History provides context for the present and the future—it reminds us how God has helped in the past and that His help remains available today. When that first camp meeting on Duke Street was held, World War I had just ended. Then came the Roaring Twenties, and the Great Depression of the thirties. World War II was in the forties, the Korean War in the fifties, and Vietnam in the sixties. There has been upheaval in every decade as we have gone from one crisis to another in the human race. However, as we look back over the past one hundred years, we also see periods of revival. Even at times when revival appeared to be lacking, many have been saved and have remained true to the Lord.

What do we see when we look forward? In Ecclesiastes 1:9 Solomon said, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” So, when we look forward, we see much the same thing as we see when we look back. We know there will be more upheaval in this world, more unrest. There may be some periods of revival and other periods where revival seems to be lacking. The Gospel will be preached, and some will embrace it and stick with it to the benefit of themselves and their descendants, while others will fall by the wayside. However, we cannot allow ourselves to become distracted by the fluctuation of circumstances and events that occur as the days come and go. Rather, we want to remember how God has helped us in times past, and be assured that He remains faithful today.

Florence Crawford and the saints of God in 1920 proclaimed, “Praise ye the Lord!” One hundred years later, we can repeat those words, “Praise ye the Lord!” We see victory when we look back over 2020. We see victories as we look forward if Jesus tarries. “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us,” and may He help us to carry on with an optimistic view into the year ahead, and to offer thanks to the great God who gives us victory over every challenge we face.

About the author

Darrel Lee is Superintendent General of the Apostolic Faith Church.