Happy New Year!
Sermon by Rev. Gary W. Charles, November 29th, 2020
Name one person that you know who is not ready to say a speedy goodbye to the year 2020. So, I say thank God it is finally New Year’s! Uncork the bottle! Toss the confetti! Make your resolutions! Kiss your beloved! Happy New Year! Goodbye 2020!
Well, obviously, those instructions are a bit premature. We still have more than a month of 2020 left to navigate. But, at least for the church, today is New Year’s Day. And, the first New Year’s word spoken to the church is a “long ago” word that feels remarkably current. It was first spoken by the prophet Isaiah long before Jesus was born.
“One day,” says Isaiah, there will be a mad rush not for the best Black Friday deals, but a mad rush to live out the vision of God for the world. “One day,” says Isaiah, “all of our instruments of wars will be repurposed as tools to grow crops for those who are hungry, all our political conflicts that tear us apart will resolve into new energy for creating a welcoming community, all our consuming will shift into caring for creation.”
The people of Judah then and the people of America today listen to Isaiah and the first instinct is to tell him: “Old man, get serious.” In Isaiah’s time, the superpower Assyria was squeezing Judah to become its vassal. Meanwhile, Israel and Syria were trying to get Judah to join them in an impossible fight. In our time, the superpower is an invisible virus that is leaving too many dead, too many hospitalized, too many standing in long lines for food, too many unemployed, too many trying to learn virtually. “Come on, Isaiah, get serious.”
If Isaiah were standing here, I am confident that his response would be:
“Oh, but I am.” With a vision from God, Isaiah battles for the soul, for the imagination of the people of God. Isaiah knew that until God’s people could imagine a world without political payoffs, a world where everyone had access to health care, a world where truth-telling was the highest virtue, a world where people are judged not by their gender or who they love or the color of their skin, then the world would never change. Only when God’s people tap into the nonviolent, community-building, creation caring imagination of God can they ever dream of and work toward a different kind of world.
With the Pelton family lighting the first Advent candle, a New Year begins. And, all I can say is: “Thank God.” Yes, I am one of many who is ready for 2020 to be over, but I am even more anxious for this season of Advent to begin. I am ready to stop dwelling on all that is wrong around me and to start looking forward to what God is making possible in me, in us, in the world, even now, even amid a raging pandemic. I am so ready for someone like Isaiah to take me by the hand and to lead me out of the deep darkness into God’s glorious light.
In J.R.R. Tolkein’s, The Lord of the Rings, the queen of the elves gives the hobbit Frodo a precious gift. It is a “Star-glass” in which is contained “the light of Earendil.” About this light, the queen tells Frodo, “It will shine brighter when night is about you. May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.”
The first Advent candle is greater than even the fictional “light of Earendil.” It is a shining reminder that the Light of the World came into the world in the person of Jesus and lives among us full of grace and truth; it reminds us that no matter how dark the darkness, darkness does not win – ever. And so, Advent’s New Year’s song is not Auld Lang Syne, but “Maranatha,” “Soon and very soon. Come, Lord Jesus.”
Living and doing ministry in a New York City war zone, the Reverend Heidi Neumark writes: “’Soon and very soon!’ we sing each Sunday. ‘Soon and very soon’. No more crying, no more dying, no more hunger, no more fighting!’ We sing at the top of our lungs. We clap. We throw our bodies into the beat as we prepare to throw ourselves into the work ahead. Outside, a siren’s high-pitched wail goes racing toward the next crisis. ‘Soon’ can’t come soon enough” (Breathing Space, p. 214). To Heidi’s words, I say a hearty “Amen!” “Soon” cannot come soon enough.
As I sat down to our Thanksgiving meal, I gave thanks for the amazing honor of being paid to preach and teach, to comfort and console and challenge, to do what I love to do and to do it with people with whom I love to share the faith. I am painfully aware, though, that on this New Year’s Day for the church many people are feeling anything but thankful.
Many are tired of the relentless beat of more of the same, more sirens, more gunshot wounds, more executions, more layoffs, more political lines sharply drawn, more Covid, more unemployment, more hunger, more mental illness with no place to go, more longing for a vaccine and more fearing that it may not work. “Soon,” O God, cannot come soon enough.
On this first morning of Advent, I am also sadly aware that for too many people, neither faith nor the church is a source of thanksgiving. I am heartbroken by the many people I meet who are victims of “God abuse.” They have been taught or have read or somehow have learned that God is a divine bully who has a very exclusive guest list and who loves to keep people stumbling around in the dark, submissive, frightened, confused, praying that they might be on that guest list. As victims of “God abuse,” they have been taught that there is only one way to read Scripture, only one way to believe in God, only one way to be the church, only one way to be a Christian.
Those who practice “God abuse” have nothing but disdain for those who fail to believe the “right” way. Their God is unabashedly anti-gay, has a markedly white complexion, is unquestionably a male, is an uncritical capitalist, and wants us to be prosperous and is clearly working against us when we are not.
I want all who are victims of “God abuse” as well as those who practice “God abuse” to meet the God who is introduced by Isaiah. This God cares deeply about justice, does not give up on us even when there is good reason to do so, has no patience with violence, and promises to be Emmauel, God with us, God with all of us, whenever we stumble about in the dark.
I want those who are victims of “God abuse” as well as those who practice “God abuse” to meet the God who is incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. Soon in our Christian New Year, we will do what Christians have done since the first Easter. We will not uncork a bottle of champagne, but we will drink of a cup of love poured out for us, poured out for absolutely everyone! We will not toss confetti into the air, but we will lift high the bread of life that has been broken for us all. We will not write down resolutions that we will soon forget, but we will hear of God’s resolve that all may feast at the Welcome table. We will not kiss our beloved, but we will imagine with Isaiah and Jesus a beloved peace, of which no human weapon or political ideology can destroy.
I can hardly blame those who have given up on the faith or who are hesitant to give the church priority in their lives. I pray, though, that in the New Year that begins today, those of us who know a far more loving God and try to be a far more gracious church and are guided by a far more generous light will open our mouths to speak words of welcome to people who have heard nothing but rejection from the church, will open our hearts to embrace those people living on the street who many wish would just go away, will open our eyes to follow the Host of this table out into the world, to join the old prophet as we “walk in the light of the LORD.”
Advent is upon us. The first Advent candle is lit. To borrow words from Tolkien, “May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out!”
Happy New Year, my friends. Happy New Year!