Happy New Year!
Text: Isaiah 2:1-5
Happy New Year! Fill the glasses! Toss the confetti! Kiss your beloved! Make your resolutions! Happy New Year, my dear friends at Cove! I am so glad we can spend this New Year’s Day together.
Now, you look a bit perplexed. Why all the curious stares? Did I get the date wrong? Or did you? As the church creates its calendar, this is New Year’s Day. And, the first New Year’s word is not new at all. It was spoken first by the Hebrew prophet Isaiah long ago, but it is not a “long ago” word. “One day,” says Isaiah, there will be a mad rush not to shop for the best Black Friday deals, but a mad rush to keep step with God. “One day,” says Isaiah, “all our wars will morph into growing organic crops to feed those who are hungry, all our conflicts will evolve into creating community for those who are alone and abandoned, all our violence will be nothing more than a bad dream from which we awake in peace in the morning.”
Whenever Isaiah or the church speaks that kind of New Year word, you have good reason to look perplexed. The people of Judah then and the people of America today listen to Isaiah and the first instinct is to tell the old prophet: “Get serious; we are not living in Disney World. We are living the real world where people are shot and killed because they are frequenting a gay bar or are sitting on a school bus or are napping at their desks.”
In Isaiah’s time, the superpower in the world was Assyria and Isaiah’s small country of Judah was being squeezed to be a vassal of Assyria. To the charge: “Get serious,” I am confident that Isaiah’s response would be: “Oh, but I am.” Isaiah is battling for the soul, for the imagination of the people of God. He knew that until God’s people could imagine a world without political payoffs, without pompous military threats, without outrageous international, economic stand-offs, then the world would never change. He knew that only when people can tap into the nonviolent, community-building, imagination of God will they ever be able to imagine and build a different kind of world.
On the Christian calendar, we mark the beginning of each new year by lighting the first Advent candle. All I can say is: “Thank God.” I am so ready for Advent, so ready for a new year. I am so ready to stop dwelling on the past year or two and to start look forward to what God is making possible even now. I am so ready for someone like Isaiah to take me by the hand and to lead me out of the darkness of fear and despair into God’s glorious light of hope.
In J.R.R. Tolkein’s, The Lord of the Rings, Galadriel, the queen of the elves gives the hobbit, Frodo, a precious gift, a “Star-glass” in which is contained “the light of Earendil.” About this light, she 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 far more than “the star-glass, the light of Earendil.” But, like the light of Earendil, it is a light to us when all other lights go out – at work, at home, in our most intimate relationships, in church – and it points us toward the one Light of the World who lives among us, full of grace and truth.
We light the first Advent candle as a reminder that no matter how dark the darkness around us and often within us, the darkness does not win no matter how dark the night. And so, the New Year’s song we sing for the first day of Advent is not Auld Lang Syne, but “Maranatha,” “Soon and very soon. Come, Lord Jesus.”
Living in a New York City war zone, 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. Earlier in this past week, when we sat down to our Thanksgiving feast, 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 many folks are feeling anything but thanksgiving. They are worn and weary of the relentless beat of more of the same, more sirens, more gunshot wounds, more executions, more chemo, more political posturing, more unemployment, more hunger, more threats of war, more mental illness with no place to go for healing. “Soon,” O God, cannot come soon enough.
On this first morning of Advent, I am also painfully aware that for too many people, neither faith nor the church are a source of thanksgiving. In my conversations in and beyond the church, I find more and more wounded people, wounded by the church, undeniable victims of “God abuse.” They describe themselves as “recovering” from a destructive religious experience. Somehow, they have been taught or have read or have learned that God is a divine bully who loves to keep people stumbling around in the dark, submissive, frightened, and confused. And, if God is a bully, surely God expects no less of us.
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. Those who practice “God abuse” have nothing but disdain for those who fail to believe the “right” way. All too often, their God is unabashedly anti-gay, has a markedly white complexion, wants women to keep quiet in church and is a proud capitalist.
I so want those 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 our violence, and promises to be Emmanuel, God-with-us, no matter the time or the circumstance, even when, maybe, especially when we stumble about in the dark. I so want those who are victims of “God abuse” as well as those who practice “God abuse” to meet the God who became one of us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who was, who is, the Light of the World.
In a few minutes, you and I will celebrate New Year’s Day as Christians have done so from the first Easter morning. We will not uncork a bottle, but we will drink of a cup poured out for us all. 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, but we will hear of God’s resolve that all are welcome at this table. We will not kiss our beloved, but we will be invited to live into the hope shared by Isaiah and Jesus of a beloved peace that no human weapon or political ideology can destroy.
I can hardly blame those who have given up on the faith or who fear what it might mean to give the church priority in their lives. I pray, though, that in this New Year, those of us who have come to know a far different God and who try to be a far different church will open our mouths to speak words of welcome to people who have heard nothing but rejection from the church, open our hearts to embrace those people living on the street who many in power wish would just go away, open our eyes to follow the Host of this table out into the world, and to join the old prophet as we “walk in the light of the LORD.”
Advent is upon us. The first Advent candle is lit. May the real New Year’s celebration begin!