January 3, 2021 New Year
Happy New Year to you! Another new year! And I don’t know anyone who feels that we need more of 2020. There was not a lot of dancing and joy in 2020. We pray and hope that 2021 will be better than its predecessor. But no-one knows of course how this year will unfold.
Today we are also celebrating Epiphany even though the actual day of Epiphany is Wednesday, January 6. As you know, Epiphany is the day that celebrates the revelation or theophany of God incarnate as Jesus Christ.
On this day the tradition is to remember the visit of the wise men, or magi to the Christ child. The Gospel of Matthew informs us that they followed the star ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child Jesus was. When they saw that the star had stopped they were overwhelmed with joy.
It is easy to think that they were comfortable and content about their journey into the unknown, not knowing where the star would lead them or how their journey would end. The reality is perhaps that they, at the time were not sure where or whether their journey would end in joy or disappointment.
The year 2021 will be an unknown journey for us too. We don’t know where it will take us. We don’t know whether it will end in joy or disappointment. What we can learn from the people of old, the wise men, the prophets, our ancestors in faith, is that wherever our journey takes us it will bring us to the One in whom we place our trust- Jesus.
There is another ancient voice that gives us guidance and comfort for our own journey. It is the voice of Jeremiah. His was not always the most upbeat and optimistic voice. But this time he has an important and eternal message for people of faith.
Jeremiah was an old curmudgeon, who preached for almost 40 years during the most turbulent times of Israel’s history. He preached about the destruction of the city Jerusalem. The destruction of the city was God’s judgment on their sin. He pointed out the people’s many sins: they loved and served other gods, they did not care about justice or the poor, or truth. He called them wicked, he accused the prophets and priests as being devious and false! Not that he loved preaching doom and gloom! It caused him a lot of pain and agony. He suffered a lot because he loved his people! But he had to be honest and faithful.
And then, in Chapter 31 old Jeremiah has a new message to his people. God, he says, is about to do something marvelous! God will bring back the people from Exile: those who are blind and lame, those with child, those in labor- all of them, the helpless, the weak, the vulnerable – they shall be brought back to their Land. Those who weep, those who need consolation, those who were scattered, in short, the pathetic, lowly, helpless bunch of doubting and vulnerable people, God would bring them back to their land and God would take care of them.
And as Jeremiah continues, it becomes clear that even though their journey started with much uncertainty, pain and guilt, it will end in joy and dancing. These people who suffered so much, these folks who are so vulnerable, so uncertain and scared about the unknown, they will end up dancing with joy! Their young women will rejoice in dance, their young men and the old shall be merry. Their mourning will turn into joy! Their life shall become like a watered garden! You will notice that God is the One who will do this: “I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, I will give them gladness”.
You see, Jeremiah has a vision of what God wants for them. A vision of how the world could be. It could be a place where people, even the blind and the lame could dance with joy! It could be place where people find peace, where they find a place of belonging, a place where they feel safe, a home! I am sure that he had skeptical people telling him: “Won’t work! You are a dreamer! Get real Jeremiah!”
On this first Sunday of 2021, old Jeremiah has an incredible and uplifting message for us too. He gives us a vision! He is saying to us: “This is what this New Year could look like! This is what God wants to do! What do you think? Do you want to be part of it?”
A huge challenge for people of faith today is to believe in and embrace God’s vision for the world. I have come across people of deep faith who are a bit skeptical about whether God’s vision is really achievable. And truth be told, we are all sometimes a bit doubtful for our hopes have so often been dashed. But isn’t this exactly what faith is? The Heidelberg Catechism Question and Answer 21 asks: “What is true faith?” Answer: “True faith is not only a sure knowledge by which I hold as true all that God has revealed to us in Scripture; it is also a wholehearted trust, which the Holy Spirit creates in me…” Knowledge and trust.
The questions are therefore: Do we trust that God is able to turn mourning and sadness into joy? What will we do this year to kindle God’s vision for our world? Will we embrace God’s vision where people, even the blind and the lame, will dance with joy? Will we trust God to do that God promised? What will we do to work for God’s vision for our world?
I think we all can learn from old Jeremiah. You see on the one hand he is absolutely convinced that it is God who will bring together the lame and the blind; those with child and those in labor. It is God who will see to it that young people and old people will rejoice in dance and to be merry! There is a deep-rooted trust that God would do what is promised! And for us in the midst of a deadly pandemic, these words are uplifting: God will be with us and will again restore God’s world. We can and should hold onto this comfort as we start our journey into this new year. Just like the wise men following that star with no guarantees but only their trust and faith, and the old prophet Jeremiah, who trusted the word of God, we have nothing more or nothing less than God’s Word, our trust in God, and our faith in Christ to guide us into the unknown future.
On the other hand, Jeremiah also says in verse 16: “Keep your voice from weeping and your eye from tears … for there is reward for your work!” Our work matters! We have a role in God’s plan for this world. We have work to do!
Most of us have New Year’s resolutions. The church has one too. It is to share God’s vision with our world. It is to bring hope and to help make things new. It is to give place at the table to those who are not welcome at any other table. It is to embrace and share with those who are cast out. It is to welcome those who are blind, lame, those who are vulnerable in the community, like those who were in labor and children in ancient times. It is to comfort, to support, to meet people where they are, to love those who are difficult to love, and to walk the extra mile. Our task is to hold onto the promises of God to humankind and to share these promises with others.
Unlike people who have great New Year’s resolutions and then after a few days or weeks they forget about them, ours is a calling that continues!
As is the custom at CCRC, we will celebrate communion today. In the sacrament of communion, in the bread and juice, we not only hear about God’s vision for the world, but we are actually able to see it, touch it, taste it, and even smell it. In the elements of bread and juice of communion we are reminded of God’s commitment to love sinful humans.
The sacrament of Communion serves to encourage, enthuse and urge us to keep at it! It reminds us of God’s vision, it calls us to be part of it. We are invited on the journey that will bring is to a place where we can dance with joy, a place where the young and the old can be comforted and be merry. I have no doubt that there are many others who are in dire need of this divine comfort. They too are to be invited! Who will invite them? Amen.