The Beginning and The End
I had a hard time with my sermon this week. We’ve heard two scripture texts this morning – a reading from Matthew’s gospel, the parable of the sheep and the goats, and a text from the book of Revelation, near the conclusion of the work, where we read that Jesus is the Alpha and Omega, that God has made a home among us. Both of these texts are from the lectionary, the schedule of scripture readings, texts intended for New Year’s Eve or Day specifically. And I’ve wanted to use both of them. Only, I had sort of two separate sermons, one for each, running through my head this week. I wanted one sermon that could draw on both texts. But instead, I had two good sermons – just two separate sermons, and I’ve struggled to decide on which direction to go. See, the parable of the sheep and the goats offered a nice way to follow up from my Christmas Eve sermon, and most of the week, that’s the way I meant to go in worship. But from our Revelation text, one phrase has stuck with me: “See, I am making all things new.” It’s the same sentence construction that we find in our text from Luke’s gospel on Christmas Eve, when the angel is delivering a message to the shepherds, “See, I am bringing you good news.” Revelation uses this device frequently, twice just in the short passage we focus on today. Like on Christmas Eve, the words here in Revelation, spoken by Jesus, are meant to especially grab our attention. “See, I am making all things new.” And so, at the last, I switched directions, which is why we read our scriptures in a different order today than you see them in the bulletin.
“See,” Jesus says, “I am making all things new.” These are good words for a New Year’s Eve sermon, aren’t they? Even if we aren’t the New Year’s Resolution-making-type, we often are quietly thinking in terms of “fresh starts” anyway. It is hard not to. Come December, it’s hard not to shove off any changes we need to make until after the New Year, when we’re sure we’ll have more time and energy and willingness to tackle new projects, new endeavors. It’s hard not to feel like we’re able to shake the dust – or perhaps in our case, the snow – off our feet from the “old” year and that we get to come to the New Year with a clean slate. Everything seems possible. We’re hopeful. And of course, being hopeful is a good thing. But I worry, sometimes, about the pressure we’re putting on ourselves to “fix” everything we perceive to be wrong with our lives at the start of a New Year. I worry that we’re setting ourselves up to feel like we’re failures when the new year turns out to hold as many challenges and struggles as did the year before.
Pastor Emily Scott shared a reflection on New Year’s Day that really moves me. She writes: “It’s New Year’s Day. January 1 … This morning I took down last year’s calendar and hung a new one in its place. Last week, I made a new file in my drawer for my … financial documents [for this year]. And St. Lydia’s has a new budget, a fresh sheet on the accounting page. Most of the changes that take place as we shift from the old year to the new seem to take place in document form -- a new, clean sheet of crisp paper, fresh and ready for a new year.
“Accompanying all of this grand shuffling of papers and calendars is the lie: the intimation that, just like hanging a fresh calendar on the wall, we too can start over. Make a resolution. Decide that this year will be different. Somehow reset our lives and start fresh. A different us: [this year’s] version. Us version 2.0. This new us is fundamentally different from the us we were [last year]. This new us springs energetically out of bed and goes to the gym three times a week, or suddenly has no desire for cigarettes, or alcohol, or other vices, or magically keeps the house tidy and organized.
“This new us is shiny and new, and feels recently purchased, like a new car, with a fresh, new us smell and sheen, a smile that is whiter and skin with a healthy glow. This new us is even more photogenic than the old, as evidenced by the new … 2.0 us that appears on facebook, always smiling riotously and having just a little bit more fun than everyone else.
“This is the lie: That you can start fresh. That you can drop off the old, unwanted, weatherworn bits of yourself at the Salvation Army and pick up something fresher and more appealing. Something less complicated and easier to live with.”
She continues, “There are two big problems that I see with this lie. The first is that it has us thinking that deciding to change and changing are the same thing. It has us thinking that jumping out of bed to head to the gym three times a week is simply a matter of deciding to do it, and with a little good old American stick-to-it-tiveness, we can revamp our lives entirely.
“The truth is that our less positive habits are a bit like lily pads on a pond: from above, they seem to float on the surface of the water, but they’re rooted deep down, in the muck way at the bottom. Each afternoon you get fidgety and make a trip to the snack machine, not because you’re hungry, but because a growing sense of emptiness is blossoming within you, and somehow food seems to fill it. You keep meaning to go to sleep earlier, but find yourself browsing endlessly online, hours each night, paging around, as if looking for something you’ve lost. You're trying to fill that growing sense of lack, of emptiness. The truth is that changing our habits means addressing their roots, and addressing the roots is tricky, because there’s a lot that might get dredged up down there.
“The second big problem that I see with this lie, is that it assumes that there is no light in us. Out with the old and in with the new! The desire to “start fresh” with a shiny new version of ourselves implies that we are in fact, disposable. And things that are disposable are worthless. Out with the old and in with the new assumes that there’s something in us that needs to be gotten rid of: eradicated.
“Perhaps you feel that there are portions of yourself that you wish would simply disappear. Perhaps you’re wary of the long neglected pieces of yourself that lie fallow in the muck at the bottom of the pond. Perhaps you come before God, hoping that she sees only the pieces you’d like to present -- the pieces that are shiny and polished and ready for public consumption. As for the rest of you -- out with the old and in with the new.
“Here is the truth. Here is the Good News. God came to dwell among us. God came to pitch a tent, and she pitches it deep down in the muck. In the deepest, most forgotten corners of our hearts, the bits that we would rather set out with the trash. It is those parts of us where God loves us the most: wants most to dwell with us. God lives in the unwanted, weatherworn places, a light that shines even in the places we experience as dark or despairing.
“We can change, and do. Not by deciding to discard the unwanted or undesirable pieces of ourselves, but learning to acknowledge and recognize them. By allowing ourselves to gently explore the murkier depths of the pool, and finding with surprise that there is a hidden light that pulses even there, waiting to be uncovered.”
The scripture tell us that new is possible again and again. These words we read in Revelation we hear first in Isaiah and in other variations throughout the scriptures. God is always up to something new, always making us new, always the author of new life. That’s a promise. Where I think we get confused is when we think about how and why we’re made new. First, we’re not the source of newness. God is. It is God who makes things new. We’re invited to be part of the process, but God is the source. So often, we’re trying to redeem ourselves, save ourselves. But though we are strong, the source of our strength is God. We have a redeemer, a savior already. God is the one who makes us new. Sometimes, we don’t like how God wants to make us new. Sometimes, even though we say we want to be made new, we really want to keep doing the same old things. Sometimes, when God makes us new, it feels like we’re a lump of clay that was made into a halfway decent bowl, but God decides to draw out from us something even more awesome…but it means that first we have to go back to being a lump of clay. Sometimes, we say we want to be made new, but we didn’t realize that that means God is about to stir up all the muck in our life and shine a light on stuff in our hearts that we never let see the light of day.
Second: Sometime we’ve turned away from God and we need to repent. In that way, seeking newness, new life, is a good thing. Whenever we’ve wandered away from God, of course seeking new life by heading back in God’s direction is good. But we often get mixed up, believing that we’re worthless, failures, beyond redeeming. We believe that our only options are to start all over, start from scratch, or give up altogether. We look at ourselves and our lives and we don’t see anything worth saving. But our text from Revelation along with the witness of the whole Bible reminds us that that is not how God sees us. We are God’s beloved! God choose to make a home with us! We are God’s people! God loves us. So God wants the very best for us. As Pastor Scott said, there is light within us, even if it sometimes get buried under a lot of muck. God loves us enough to want to make sure the light of Christ within us has a clear path to shine forth. Again, we get to be a part of the process. In the days ahead, what can you do to help God clear the muck? What can you do to be open to God’s work in your life? What can you do to immerse yourself in the certainty of God’s love for you? Our answers to these question are some goals worth our time and energy, tomorrow, and every day after that.
Finally, remember this: The text tells us not I’ve made all things new but rather, I am making all things new. The work of God in our lives is ongoing, not a one-time thing. In our Methodist tradition, we call this sanctifying grace, or “whole life grace.” God is never done with us. Rather, God, who loves to create, who is always making all things new, God is moving in, living with us, so that we can be even closer. Seeing that promised fulfilled is a blessing I’m looking forward to this year, and over all of our days. Thanks be to God. Amen.