LET’S PUT CHRISTMAS BACK INTO NEW YEAR’S

Carl Wilton

Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church

January 1, 2017; New Year’s Day, Year A

Ecclesiastes 3:1-13; Revelation 21:1-6a

 

“And the one who was seated on the throne said,

‘See, I am making all things new.’”

Revelation 21:5a

 

Today, in Manhattan, they’re celebrating something new: something New Yorkers have been waiting for, for nearly than a century.

It’s a new subway line. It’s called the Second Avenue line, and it goes to the Upper East Side. Sometime around midnight, as the ball was dropping at Times Square, the first paying customers rode the new line.

The Second Avenue Subway Line was a long time coming. A New York Times editorial, dripping with irony, observed that New Yorkers have long considered it “a wistful, theoretical thing: like an empty cab on a rainy Friday, a parking space in the West Village, a train to Brigadoon.”

The Second Avenue Line was first promised to New Yorkers in the 1920s. It wasn’t until 1972 that Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor John Lindsay — wielding the ceremonial shovels — officially broke ground. That was the year I was a sophomore in high school..

As it turned out, that was just the first of several groundbreaking ceremonies over the next several decades. Construction didn’t shift into high gear until 2007 — and today, four and a half billion dollars later, the first section of the Second Avenue Line, boasting three shiny new stations, is finally open for business.

That’s good news for residents of the Big Apple: who live and die by their subway lines. A great number of Manhattanites who were around for the groundbreaking in ‘72 did die before they could ride one of those trains.

*****

Our New Testament lesson, today, from Revelation 21, talks of an even bigger construction project: one that puts the Second Avenue Subway — and even the reconstruction of the World Trade Center — to shame:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…

If you think three new subway stops are a big deal, just imagine a new heaven and a new earth!

A few verses later — incredibly — the scope of this divine public-works project gets even bigger: “And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’”

The “one seated on the throne” is God. To God, four and a half billion dollars for a subway line is chump change. An entire holy city — a new Jerusalem — descending slowly from the skies to be implanted on the earth, is impressive enough. But this is even bigger.

An entirely new earth — and a new heaven to go with it! No longer will there be a division between the two — the gap between them being that fearful passage known as death. God will no longer dwell in a distant heaven, but right here on earth. No one will need a temple anymore — nor, we can assume, any churches either — because why would you need such holy places, when God dwells right here amongst us?

“I am making all things new.” A vast — and utterly complete — clean sweep of newness!

The verb tense is progressive: “I am making.” It’s not here yet, folks, and may not be here for some time, but God’s golden shovel has already broken ground. It’s happening: can you sense it?

Don’t worry if you can’t. For now, the “new heaven and a new earth” is an article of faith. By the very definition of the word “faith,” that means we can’t be 100% sure about it. If we could be sure, we wouldn’t call it “faith,” then, would we? We’d call it knowledge.

*****

One thing you and I can be sure of: a new year has arrived. It’s there winking at us on the bottom corner of our computer screens. It appears on our smartphones as soon as we power them up: “2017.” And, for those among us who are still low-tech, it’s a clean new calendar to hang on the wall.

But we still don’t know what the year will bring, do we? A lot of us are fervently hoping it won’t be so much like 2016 — with its endless political strife, its horrifying refugee crisis, even the deaths of so many beloved entertainers. We can only hope, as they say.

Yes! We can only hope. What else can we do, as Christians? Hope needs to be our stance as we look ahead into the new year. Of all the people who spend their lives hanging onto this spinning planet, we — the followers of Jesus Christ — are meant to be people of hope!

New Year’s isn’t a Christian holiday. Today is the Second Sunday of Christmas, according to the church’s traditional reckoning. To much of secular society, Christmas is already over and done with. The presents are long since bought and opened — and some even returned to the store. The brittle, brown tree is already out by the curb, waiting for the garbage truck — or, it soon will be. Christmas comes but once a year, as they say: and it goes away pretty quickly.

The holiday we just observed last night, New Year’s Eve, is like a bizarro version of Christmas Eve: no star of Bethlehem, just a neon ball dropping over Times Square. No babe in the manger, just “Hey babe!” on the lips of some intoxicated partygoer, hoping he’ll get lucky.

What if New Year’s were different? What if, instead of being Christmas’ evil twin, it were something the world would see as a natural extension of the birth of Jesus Christ? If the Bible says God is making all things new, that’s not such a strange thing to believe, is it?

“For to you is born this day in the City of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord.”          That announcement was new — and world-changing — the first time the angels spoke it. Nobody, up until then, believed it possible that there could be such a marvel as the Incarnation: God born among us, the divine and the human mingling so mysteriously in one individual.

*****

So many observant Christians, tired of “Frosty the Snowman” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” like to say, a little snippily, “Let’s put Christ back into Christmas.” That’s pretty much a non-issue as far as I’m concerned — because, in truth, Christ never left — but I think what we really ought to be doing is putting Christmas back into New Year’s. If, in that little town of Bethlehem, “the hopes and fears of all the years [were] met in thee” last Saturday night, then can’t we import just a little bit of that same hope into “Auld Lang Syne?” Can’t we stand at the threshold of a new year and declare to one another that hope and fear are surely meeting, but — by the triumphant power of God — hope is bound to be the victor, in the end?

In her book Becoming Wise, Krista Tippett — who hosts public radio’s religious-affairs show, On Being — says something very useful about hope. She draws a distinction between hoping and wishing. Much of what trades under the name of hope, in the secular culture, is little more than wishing. Yet, hope, Tippett writes, “has nothing to do with wishing. It references reality at every turn and reveres truth…. Hope, like every virtue, is a choice that becomes a practice that becomes spiritual muscle memory. It’s a renewable resource for moving through life as it is, not as we wish it to be.”

In that respect, hope is a lot like love. Love, too, is a choice. Love is something we practice, even when we find it difficult. Maybe especially when we find it difficult.

Hope is, likewise, something we need to work at. As followers of Jesus, you and are meant to be practitioners of hope. In order to do that effectively, we need to exercise. We need to look on hope not as a fleeting feeling of well-being that comes to us unbidden. We need to see it, instead, as a spiritual practice, something we work at, something that — after some considerable period of time — begins to come more easily to us, because we’ve achieved that spiritual “muscle memory.”

One essential part of that spiritual training regimen is prayer. Praying is something you and I can surely resolve to do more often, in 2017. Another essential spiritual practice is worship. We can resolve to do that more often, as well. The most fruitful soil for cultivating hope is not that gray matter inside our individual skulls, but rather that common ground we call Christian community. When we join our hearts together in prayer, when we raise our voices in songs of praise or lament, when we simply greet one another coming and going, you and I are practicing hope. We are giving it shape and form.

Wouldn’t you like to have more hope in your life? Well, here, my friends, is where you find it. Here in this Sanctuary!

More specifically, we find it here, around this Table. For more than two millennia — even longer, if you count the Shabbat meals that preceded it, within Judaism — God’s people have gathered around a table. They have shared bread and a cup. There’s nothing within the atoms that make up that humble food — no configuration of protons and neutrons — that forms this hope we so desperately need. Yet, somehow — in ways too dark and mysterious to understand — the Holy Spirit is present in the entire act of breaking the bread and filling the cup, then sharing them out to all who come here, hungering and thirsting for righteousness. Afterwards, when we leave this place, we find we have been nourished in ways we can’t begin to explain.

Friends in Christ, there is no better place from which to embark on a new year than right here, at this Table: for this is, by the grace of God, a Table of hope!

 

Copyright © 2017, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.170101_001