Today I had the honor of filling the pulpit at Community Christian Church in Jefferson City. It's a beautiful worship space, and also the place where I baptized my oldest child. It was a blessing to be there! Below is the sermon that I preached.
Sermon: New Year, New Us!
Community Christian Church, Jefferson City, MO, 1/4/15
Text: Jeremiah 31:10-14 and John 1:16-18
There is just something extra special about worship services that mark the beginning or the end of something. And here today, the air is still full of the wonder of Christmas, God born anew into our world, and the opportunity and possibilities of a blank canvass heading into this new year.
Some of you are likely happy that 2014 is gone. Perhaps you muttered the tired line “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” as the year came to a close. Some of you may be sad to see it go, clinging to some victory, joy, or celebration brought to you by 2014.
However we look at it though, 2014 is gone, and 2015 has snuck right in. There are two ways that I know for sure that we’ve moved into a new year. One is that I write the date incorrectly on a check, and the second is that I almost print the church bulletins with last year’s date. I’ve done both of those this week, so it’s official. So given the fact that it’s here and there’s nothing we can do about it, it seems like a good idea to think a bit about how we’ll handle it. Hence, today’s sermon, New Year, New Us!
By now I’m sure that you’ve already been inundated with offers to create a new you in this new year. Scrolling through my email inbox on January 2 after a couple of days of being unplugged allowed me to get the full effect of the end of year/beginning of year mash-up. January 31 brings all the last minute offers I can handle, suggesting that there are many places that I could get rid of any pesky money that might still be lying around after Christmas. And then comes the onslaught of New You emails on January 1. They suggest that I need an overhaul in every aspect of my life. My weight, my health, my career, my finances, my spiritual journey; and I wonder, have these people all been spying on me? How do they know that I’m in such bad shape, and such well-rounded bad shape at that? Do you wonder these things?
Well, yes, they have been watching our every move; our purchases, our google searches, our Facebook likes and our tweets will provide most any marketing expert all the information they need to make us their next target. More importantly though, they know we’re human, and that more often than not, we fall short of where we had hoped to be at this point, sometimes due to our own bad decisions, and sometimes due to unfortunate circumstances beyond our control.
The writers of today’s texts knew a few things about bad decisions and unfortunate circumstances…
Jeremiah prophecies to the remnants of a decimated Northern Kingdom, the 30 chapters leading up to this one relentlessly suggest that the destruction they have experienced is largely due to their unfaithfulness to the God who has sustained them up to this point. Chaos reigns, but one thing is clear: they will never again experience God’s presence in the places and the ways that they were accustomed to. Jeremiah’s words are hanging somewhere between exile and restoration, between judgment and mercy.
This is a people profoundly changed by their experiences of loss and of exile. It is a lost and vulnerable people being gathered by their God, much like a people, hopeless in so many ways, gathered at the manger of the newborn King, shepherds and kings alike, looking for new life and a fresh start. John writes to a community some 700 years after Jeremiah, who also struggle with their circumstances AND their belief! Their struggle is different, but no less real, and the need for God to intervene and correct our course had not then, and still has not gone away!
The Jeremiah passage shows us that out of death and destruction, God creates new life. The gospel passage shows us that out of nothing, God creates new life. Most of us fall somewhere on that spectrum right now, between death and destruction, and just a blank canvass. I wonder how there can be any question for us, whether God can create new life for us too? And yet, we’re just not sure.
As we ponder what a new us might look like in 2015, we have to look back at the old us of 2014. It seems clear that 2014 revealed to us a disheartening level of brokenness in our world. Some of which we may have thought was long gone, and some of it new, thanks to the barrage of polarizing and sensationalized information that is served up to us 24/7 via the media, social and otherwise.
Slate magazine dubbed 2014 “the Year of Outrage”, noting that “following the news in 2014 is a bit like flying a kite in flat country during tornado season. Every so often, a whirlwind of outrage touches down, sowing destruction and chaos before disappearing into the sky.”1
Outrage seems to have become a way of life for us. “It rises from our disappointment.”2 Out of the ashes of broken dreams, failed ventures, tainted relationships, and shattered hopes; outrage is like the smoke that wafts through the air, lingering, waiting to hitch a ride on some unsuspecting host. It is a natural, and even honorable response to the things that happen to us and to others in a broken world. The problem comes when outrage becomes our destination, rather than a stop on our journey to something better.
Perhaps that something better is something akin to incarnation, that which we celebrate when we honor the baby Jesus at Christmas. Jesus was God incarnate, putting on human flesh to be present among us and show us the way. The life and teachings of Jesus give us the opportunity to bridge the human/divine gap too. When we, who are human flesh, put on ourselves the attributes of God, wisdom, faithfulness, steadfast love, grace and mercy, we might call that embodiment. What if 360 days from now, we were able to look back and point to the ways that 2015 was the year of embodiment? Where the people of God spoke words that honored God and God’s people, where they (we actually) acted like we believe the truths that we proclaim, and where followers of Jesus emulated his selfless actions?
Jesus himself expressed outrage, most notably remembered in the episode that we call “Jesus cleansing the temple”. He is angered by the exploitation that he sees taking place by people in power at the temple, taking advantage of those who had little to spare, and turning sacred space into a marketplace. He was so angry that he made a whip out of cords and ran them all out, overturning their tables as he went. There are, for sure, some institutions today that need a good cleansing and would benefit from the removal of some money-changers, but that’s a topic for another day. The point today is that even after expressing deep outrage at what was going on, Jesus didn’t stay there. He went on to heal, and teach, and grant new life. The text says “many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name”.
Outrage makes way for incarnation. Rev. John Allen writes about our embodiment of the divine will in terms of “incarnational intention”. I think he’s onto something. He writes:
“God’s incarnational intention is that God’s story gets lived out in recognizable ways in the world. Not only over some grand cosmic saga, but also in the way we engage the specific broken places in our communities and even in the forgettable interactions we have with our neighbors.
God’s incarnational intention is that God’s presence becomes unmistakable in our midst because the faithful have put their bodies, and not just their language, into effect for what they believe to be true.
God’s incarnational intention is that the faithful enact our hope in liturgy AND life. That we embody God’s justice and love in the world, not just by speaking it, but by living it out. Not through testing philosophical edicts against the long arc of history, but by showing up in the world we have, as the people we are, to make God into flesh once again.”3
Thanks be to God for the gift of Christmas, pure love, wisdom, grace, and mercy, wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger; sent to us in hopes that we might apply the gifts to our own lives. May we who call ourselves God’s children, receive and embody the gift in 2015. New year, new us! Amen.
1&2. Slate Magazine, The Year of Outrage http://www.slate.com/articles/life/culturebox/2014/12/the_year_of_outrage_2014_everything_you_were_angry_about_on_social_media.html
3. Rev John Allen, The Politics of Incarnation. http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-incarnation-john-11-18/