Sunday Sermon 2nd January - Another New Year
Another New Year
Hymn 317: Before the world began (tune Nearer my God to thee)
Hymn 316: Love came down at Christmas
Reading John 1: 1-18 Anne
Hymn 308: Behold the great Creator makes
Hymn 198: Let us build a house
Welcome to our time of reflection for Sunday 2nd January; the first service in a new year.
And as well as wondering what will happen in the next year, we have a chance to reflect on what happened last year.
Reading: John 1: 1-18
The passage tells us that in the beginning you were there, and nothing else.
Well nothing that made sense.
There was chaos, and a thick fog of confusion,
much like the confusion we feel as we look back over the last few years and try to make any sense of that.
It can be frustrating to see how any of it could help us in our faith.
The uncertainty, the false hopes that things were going to get better, then new variants appeared.
The fog of creating a new normal, only to find it is a pale imitation of what we wanted, and then even that didn’t last.
And we are assured that things will get a wee bit worse, then get better, but we have heard that before and our patience and trust and hope are all low.
We know now why our ancestors were afraid of the dark and unknown, because their world was scary and sometimes violent and often unpredictable. And as we reflect on our last few years it sometimes feels that nothing much has changed.
Places of violence like Afghanistan, places of darkness like Russia and China, pestilence round the world.
we need no reminders of the darkness, that is all around us:
but we give thanks that that is not the only narrative in the world, that you remind us that there are glimpses of the light which dispel the shadow. Actions of kindness and love which shine a light for all to find hope.
We do not need to be convinced that life is chaotic, the chaos is all around us:
but we give thanks that you allow us to hear your word, that there is order out there, order and construction. That there are those who live lives of propose and meaning, following a higher order, creating beauty in the lives they heal.
We give thanks that we have met your Word in human form, that he has given us an example to follow, a direction to move towards, and in that moving we see old truths that give new meaning and hope.
That you made us and you love us;
that you are not vengeful or uncaring, but infinitely compassionate and kind;
that you are not far away in the outer reaches of space, but here with us and among us, full of grace and truth.
May we be drawn once again to the Light that gives life in all its fullness.
May we be still enough to hear your Word of life, and brave enough to respond by stepping out in faith, and hope and love.
This we ask in Jesus name.
And in his name we say the words he taught us to say’
Which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil;
For thine is the Kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever.
It is hard to know what to say about 2022.
March 2020 saw the start of lockdown. We were coming together to defeat COVID.
By May the disease would have passed its worst and then we would be starting our economic recovery.
Only it didn’t work out that way and we ended up with second lockdowns.
So this time last year we knew we were going to be over the worst and a vaccine was going to come in and that would sort everything out.
Only it didn’t.
In many ways 2021 was worse than 2020.
So I don’t know what to say about 2022.
Except that God will be with us. Which can sound either flippant, or fill us with hope.
2021 was a strange year for me.
Most of my personal devotions were spent throughout the year with two prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah.
Jeremiah especially was pretty depressing.
Here was a prophet that was going through one of the most troubled times in Jewish history.
And you know how you think things are bad; once I read in depth about that time I realised that they weren’t bad, they were worse.
I knew about the exile of the people of Jerusalem. That the Babylonians had invaded Judah and captured the city and taken the leaders into exile; and that is bad enough. But what I hadn’t realised is that it had happened twice.
Jeremiah had warned the people that they had to go down a path led by God. This was actually a path where they accepted that Babylon was part of God’s plan for them and they accept the power of Babylon over them; that they became a federal state in the Babylonian empire.
But the kings didn’t listen and the Babylonians came and exiled a lot of people and put a puppet king in charge of Jerusalem. But that wasn’t the end of it.
Jeremiah warned the people to accept their new status as a vassal state; that they shouldn’t worry about the politics of the day, worry about the spirit of the day, about their trust in God.
But the politics of the time was very divisive. There were basically two huge political camps.
There was the pro-Babylonian camp that felt they should make the best of the situation.
Sure they had to pay tribute to Babylon, but with that tribute they were given freedom to worship and run themselves.
Then there was the pro-Egyptian camp which was influenced by Egyptian politics.
Egypt was the other local supper power and they were uncomfortable with Babylon being so close to them, they wanted a buffer state between them and Babylon. To the Egyptians if Israel was run by the Babylonian Empire then the Babylonian army could safely travel to the very edges of Israel and from there invade Egypt.
If however Israel and the other trans-Jordan states were independent then any Babylonian army would have to fight their way through Israel first, using up valuable time and resources before trying to invade Egypt. That fighting not only would weaken the Babylonian army but also give the Egyptians time to prepare themselves for the invasion of the Babylonian army.
These two political camps fought for power in Israel.
All through that time Jeremiah was saying, ‘Spiritual freedom is more important than political freedom. Concentrate on what God wants from you, a land of justice, a land that cares for its people, a land where neighbour looks after neighbour with the strength of God. We can do that no matter who is ruling us.’
But the people didn’t listen and eventually they rebelled against their Babylonian overlords thinking that Egypt would come to their aid.
And this time the onslaught was horrific.
The temple and city were razed to the ground, thousands of more people were killed and the country was left in ruins.
And as I am watching this happen slowly in my scriptures, day after day, things getting ever dire; it seemed to me that it was being reflected in the politics and the COVID responses. Things were bad, then things got worse.
This year I don’t know what to expect.
I know that I will be reading a lot of Ezekiel and the Minor Prophets and some of them are really weird. So I don’t know if that means we will be just going through a weird year.
But how do you prepare for a weird year?
And how would that be any different from the weirdness that we have gone through in the last couple of years?
For what it is worth I have two small thoughts.
The first is based round all of Jeremiah and the thoughts of John in his first chapter.
It is just a simple reminder that God is always there.
God is there in all of time for John.
‘In the beginning...’
Before it all began, there was God.
We may not fully understand it, or comprehend it. But the basics are there...God was there, God is there, God will be there.
We may not see him, we may not listen to him, we may ignore him, but he is always there.
It’s that capacity that we have to just ignore God that drove Jeremiah nuts.
Jeremiah would have loved to have kept his mouth shut and said nothing.
Jeremiah longed for an easy life; but the people were hurting and God could help,
so Jeremiah had to speak out and warn and consol and shout.
Because God cared for the people who ignored him, Jeremiah had to care as well.
God’s love was his love, so God’s frustration was his frustration.
That is our frustration as well.
We live in such a secular society and that influences us and the way we think.
We have to acknowledge that and accept that. If we don’t then it will still influence us but it will influence us unopposed.
We live in a society that says, ‘Think first of yourself. The aim of your life is to have no purpose; to just live and be entertained. To enjoy life. You have no responsibilities for anyone else. Their life is their life. Yours is yours.’
These influences are insidious, they are everywhere.
Every advert is saying to us. ‘Do this and your life will be easier. Do this and your life will be better.’
Even the charity adverts effectively say, ‘Donate to this and we can take your guilt away. Make the problems disappear so that you don’t have to worry about any of these people. You don’t need to be involved with any of these people. Give this donation and you don’t need to care about them. We will do that for you.’
What is really sad is that in spending our lives thinking of ourselves we isolate ourselves from the very people that give our life meaning and purpose and significance.
Jeremiah could have just walked away.
He was right with his first prophecies.
He could have said, ‘I have done my bit. I talked but they didn’t listen. Everything is on them. Nothing to do with me.’
But he had a heart.
God cared and because God cared, Jeremiah couldn’t just close his eyes and let them walk down a fatal path.
God is with us, but that has a price, God’s heart will become our heart. So we can’t look away, we can’t pretend that the world is not our problem. But that leads me to my second thought...
We always have a choice. We can act out of hope or act out of fear.
I think that was what John and Jeremiah were trying to tell us.
People acted out of fear, to protect what they had, to isolate themselves from others.
And if there was any parable for what we have done over COVID it is that, how we have let fear so dominate our lives.
There has not been a place in human history, never been a time in human history when we have not been tempted to act out of fear.
What makes faith so radical is that it gives us an alternative.
What if we are not alone? What if God is with us? What is we can do things differently? What if God frees us to act out of hope?
When we act out of fear then eventually we give up, because the effort is pointless.
When we act out of hope, act out of love, then we never give up.
I was listening to the radio near the New Year and heard of this guy who had prostate cancer. And he was told he had a short time to live, so he ran a marathon. He already had it booked and the doctors were telling him that people with cancer didn’t run marathons. But he didn’t know whether that was because someone had done research on it, or whether no one had tried to run a marathon when they were told they had cancer.
But as I said, he had already booked his place in the marathon before he was told he was dying, so what damage could it do? So he ran it, and kept on running, because he had hope. And he still has hope, and he still runs.
As he said in the interview, one day he will die, but just now he can do things that bring him joy, so why not do that?
If he had lived in fear he would have never ran. But he had hope. And he ran, and he continues to run.
God was there in the beginning, is there now, will be there in the future.
We may not know what it looks like, we may not be able to prepare for it because it is so unpredictable, but we do know that God is there, and if God is there we have hope...if we trust in him and follow his ways for us.
If we decide to ignore him or not trust him then that is our choice, God doesn’t force himself on us, but it does mean we are out on our own, it does mean that we are more likely to act out of fear of loosing what we have or who we are, rather than act out of hope or love.
It is a new year, but it is the same old question, do we follow God’s path for us, taking one step at a time; acting in love and hope and trust, or do we walk alone?
God of actions, not good intentions,
we want our commitment here to be different from our New Year’s resolutions.
We know with our New Year resolutions that we have every good intention to do the right thing, then we get tired and fed up and then give up.
So help us with these gifts of money, and our gift of life,
to dedicate ourselves to the long haul of discipleship,
with its ups and downs, its failures and successes,
and, above all, give us a determination to go on growing and learning, probing and questioning, listening and obeying, as long as the journey lasts. Amen.