Sermon: All Things New
Texts: Ecclesiastes 3:1-13; Revelation 21:1-6
Date: January 1, 2017
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
Happy…Eighth Day of Christmas!
Oh, sure, the Western world thinks I should have said “Happy New Year!” But you know that in terms of the Christian calendar, the Christian way of marking time, we had our New Year already. Back on November 27 which was the first Sunday of Advent. Spiritually speaking, we turn the page on the new year the day we begin to anticipate again the Incarnation of the Christ. We have our new year when we tune into “Awaiting the Already,” to borrow the title of the study book the Wednesday evening Bible study has been using.
I don’t intend to go all “Bah! Humbug!” on the secular New Year. There’s something wonderful about the human desire for renewal and new beginnings that is observed when we mark the change from one year to another. It is often an optimistic time, a time of resolution for self-improvements. It is a time to bid farewell to the disappointments and sadness of the past year. One of our cousins re-posted a meme before Christmas saying that one should be sure to ask Santa Claus for a lighter in your stocking so you could set fire to 2016 and send it back to Hell where it belongs! Some are eager to move beyond the difficulties of the past year, and even that eagerness—though tinged with bitterness—speaks of our collective hope for better days.
It seems like what we would like to do as people of faith is bring together the genius of the anticipation of Incarnation that is in the Christian new year calendar with the genius of secular New Year optimism for a fresh beginning, for self-improvement. These New Years are not in conflict, after all. But the two new years have a slightly different grounding in hope.
The secular New Year tradition of making New Year’s resolutions points to the raising-us-up-by-our-bootstraps hope that we can change by sheer force of will. That’s a good hope. But we experience pretty frequent disappointment in this regard, both individually and collectively. Am I right? How many people have ever failed to keep a new year’s resolution—no matter how sincerely made? How many of us know addicts who really want to change who have fallen off the wagon? How many of us have harbored hopes about social change that have been dashed by harsh realities? For instance, one of our guests at Christmas expressed deep disappointment about the state of race relations in this country, saying they thought we haven’t made a bit of progress since the 1950’s. The resurgence of the white supremacist movement in recent months dashed hopes about a new era of unity and understanding.
It’s enough to make a person cynical, having hopes for human improvement raised and watching them crash. Some people would call Qohelet, the wise teacher behind the book of Ecclesiastes, the ultimate cynic. Thirty-eight times throughout the book, the wisdom writer repeats his favorite phrase, “All is vanity.” Another translation of that word “vanity” is “chasing after the wind.” Qohelet didn’t want people wearing rose-colored glasses as they looked at the world or looked at themselves. Maybe Sarah Palin was channeling Qohelet several years ago when she famously asked, “How’s that hopey-changey thing working out for you?”
Qohelet is not merely cynical, however. Ecclesiastes wisely reminds people that there are a great many things beyond our control. The universe “unfolds according to its own inner logic and set of seasons.” It’s most definitely chasing after the wind–a colossal waste of energy–to rail against life, to get our panties in a knot over things out of our control. Instead, Qohelet advises (in a nutshell), “The best thing to do is to be happy and enjoy yourself as long as you can…Enjoy the gifts God gives…stand in awe before God.” Qohelet thinks people should do their best to dwell in the present and enjoy what the present has to offer, neither fixated on the past nor living in despair about the future.
In terms of that pulling-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps resolve to change yourself and change the world, there may be occasions of failure when we would observe with Qohelet: maybe the time was not quite right for that yet. God’s timing is not always in synch with our desires. There are some changes that need a certain ripeness within and between ourselves before they come to fruition.
God’s timing and purpose is a great mystery, even a source of frustration, to the author of Ecclesiastes. He is wise to keep second-guessing about what God is up to behind the scenes to a minimum, I think. Also wise to recall that God is still at work, even in moments when resolution fails and optimism is shattered. This is where the genius of the Christian New Year comes in. The promise of Christ is that God doesn’t leave us alone with our unreliable bootstrap resolve and cycles of failure and frustration. God comes into the world to dwell with us, open up unforeseen possibilities, and make all things new.
Pastor Clint Schnekloth says that the key insight from our Revelation passage is this: “We do not go to heaven. Heaven comes to us.” That’s true of the promise in Revelation 21:1-2; in this vision, a new heaven and new earth, a new Jerusalem come down out of the heavens from God. Jesus already got this newness started, coming to earth to bring a new way of life and a new expansiveness of love which is intended to make the Kingdom of Heaven a reality on Earth. John’s vision is of how what Jesus worked to accomplish will be completed. But the point of Jesus’ incarnation, the end fulfillment and all the time in between is that God is continually coming to us to make all things new.
It’s not all new things; it’s all things new. That’s an important distinction. There is continuity with what is old in the vision of Jesus and in John of Patmos’ vision. The change is not a wiping clean and starting over; it is a renewing of what has been up until now. As another commentator points out, contrary to popular apocalyptic thinking, there’s no “rapture,” a future snatching up of Christians up from the earth in Revelation. Instead, it is God who is “raptured” down to earth to take up residence among us. God has a commitment to earth as the location of salvation.
Good news, yes? That we are not alone, that God wants to dwell with and in us until all that is wrong with earth is converted, made over, into the rightness of the realm of Heaven? Good news! We don’t have to rely on those infernal bootstraps, on our own defective will and efforts. God is making all things new in us and with us. God resolved eons ago not to make all new people (think Noah); yet God still wants to make people new. We have a mighty ally in our healthy desire for change and newness.
Perhaps our desire for change and newness, so palpable on a day like New Year’s Day, is the kernel of the image of God within us. One of the ideas in Process Theology I most appreciate is that God is the source of novelty in the universe. God’s the one who brings newness into life itself; without God as the source of infinite possibility we could be stuck in a world of endless repetition, like going around a go-cart track eternally. God’s gift of novel possibility is what allows living beings to transcend what is past and open ourselves to creative transformation. Maybe when we itch for something new we are echoing the image of God at the center of ourselves.
We have the power to resist that itch for something new being mis-channeled into an itch for new things. Remember, God is not about all new things; God is about all things new. The present challenge is to be present for the novelty that is trying to show up in ourselves and in the world at large. Attuned to God’s efforts to dwell with us and in us. Here’s an ancient story, as it is rendered by Sister Joan Chittister:
Where shall I look for enlightenment?” the disciple asked.
“Here,” the wise one said.
“When will it happen?” the disciple asked.
“It is happening right now,” the wise one answered.
“Then why don’t I experience it?”
“Because you don’t look.”
“What should I look for?”
“Nothing. Just look.”
“Look at what?”
“At anything your eyes light on.”
“But must I look in a special way?”
“No, the ordinary way will do.”
“But don’t I always look the ordinary way?”
“No, you don’t.”
“But why ever not?”
“Because to look, you must be here. And you are mostly somewhere else.”
Be here now. This day, like every day, is jam-packed with possibility. This time, like every time, is abounding with hope. This season, like every season, is the time of Incarnation, of God with us and in us.
Be here now. Look for the way God is making ordinary, everyday things new. Ordinary, everyday people—like you—new. Happy New…You. Happy New Earth. Happy New Year, the Year of Our Lord 2017.