‘Yesterday is history, tomorrow is mystery, today is a gift – that’s why it’s called the present’. So why don’t we receive each new day as a gift? Fridge-magnet philosophy aside, there’s a deep and powerful truth waiting to be revealed here, in this season of gifts. But we need a greedy monkey to help us unwrap it. And we find him in Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig’s novel that turns 40 this year, in which he describes “the old South Indian Monkey Trap”. The trap “consists of a hollowed-out coconut, chained to a stake. The coconut has some rice inside which can be grabbed through a small hole”. The monkey’s hand fits through the hole, but his clenched fist can’t fit back out. “The monkey is suddenly trapped.” But not by anything physical. He’s trapped by an idea, unable to see that a principle that served him well – “when you see rice, hold on tight!” – has become lethal. “The difficulty,” as Keynes put it, “lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones.”

That’s why the past and past ways of thinking have the capacity to trap us from experiencing today as a present, a gift:
Old beliefs that personal value is based on individual success trap us into trying to prove ourselves rather than love ourselves and to judge others by achievements too;
A history that tells us we are unloved and broken traps us into relationships that will only demonstrate this point further;
A past that has taught us to protect our emotions and numb pain traps us behind emotional walls that become prisons;
A pattern of thinking that says consuming more things will satisfy us leads us to fighting each other for cheap TVs on the thoroughly appropriately named ‘Black Friday’.
We need to let go of these old patterns of thinking to have any hope of experiencing the present as a gift. At this time of the year one of my favourite readings comes from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, who says something quite profound about new dawns.

 

Isaiah 9 1-2 ( https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Isaiah+9&version=NLT ) ‘Nevertheless, that time of darkness and despair will not go on forever. The land of Zebulun and Naphtali will be humbled, but there will be a time in the future when Galilee of the Gentiles, which lies along the road that runs between the Jordan and the sea, will be filled with glory. The people who walk in darkness
will see a great light.
For those who live in a land of deep darkness,
a light will shine.

The second half of the passage is the famous Advent prophecy – a time is coming, Isaiah says, when light will shine for people trapped in darkness. I love to hear verse 2 read at Advent in gloomy December evenings; a great light is coming to break through the darkness. But the first verse is often skipped – and there’s treasure there too. Where will this light come from? The lands of Zebulun and Naphtali. Forgotten, northern tribal areas of Israel with a history of being overlooked, underplayed and insignificant. A history that says, ‘nothing good will come from there’ (John 1:46) That’s the kind of monkey-trap past that holds people in darkness; the darkness of feeling unseen, directionless and obscure. But it’s from precisely here that the Old Testament prophet predicts God’s promise of a Messianic new day will dawn.

800 years after Isaiah spoke these words a Jewish rabbi begins his ministry in Galilee, living and working in the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali. A man who says of himself : “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12
Isaiah’s prophecy said the light would dawn in the birth of a baby (Ch 9:6)
For a child is born to us,
a son is given to us.
The government will rest on his shoulders.
And he will be called:
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
This is the coming light, this child, coming from obscure, forgotten lands to break the power of the past with a new reign – one ruled by a wonderful, mighty, eternal, peaceful Son. It’s God’s promise to send light into darkness and break us free from our past, to change our patterns of thinking, or as the Bible puts it, to ‘repent’. It’s the Christmas promise that can be our present. It’s the promise we celebrate was born at Christmas. I pray that if you’re reading this, you find it too.