This morning we inaugurate the beginning of a whole new year and it probably couldn't have come any quicker for many people. As we take down the old calendar from off the wall and replace it with a newly updated one, we tell ourselves that things are going to be different this year, that everything will be better than last- or at least that's what we HOPE for, isn’t it? In 2018, we face some daunting realities. In spite of all the rosy rhetoric coming out of Washington these days, the economic divide between rich and poor has never been greater, threatening a major social crisis in the years ahead; racial divisions are intensifying at an alarming rate; the cost of health care has ballooned to where it is growing out of reach for a majority of Americans; a nuclear showdown with North Korea lies just off the horizon; terrorist attacks within our borders seem almost commonplace nowadays; and environmental protections are being dangerously rolled back putting our air and water resources at great risk. I could go on EVEN FURTHER how life expectancy has declined in our country for the second year in a row and students are graduating from our colleges and universities under a mountain of debt that they don’t think they’ll ever escape from; how we are drinking more alcohol than ever before and a deepening opioid crisis is claiming close to a hundred lives every day in our nation. Millennials are now the first generation to believe that their futures offer far less promise and opportunity than their parents’ generation did.
In light of such actualities, do any of us expect that despite it being “New Year's Day” the world over, there is really going to be anything “new” about it. Moreover, how many of us truly believe we’ve enough CONTROL over ourselves and the events in our lives that we can significantly change the future any? There’s an old Yiddish proverb that goes, “If you want to make God laugh, then tell him about your plans.” Another says, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”- a line from a poem written by the 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns. It’s a reminder how when preparing for the future, even the most CAREFULLY WROUGHT plans frequently fail to materialize as expected. Life has a way of taking an unanticipated detour when you least expect it, and instead of better, it can often be for the WORSE.
Case in point: Rev. Frank Vardeman was the General Presbyter or “pastor to pastors” in my last presbytery—the Presbytery of Wabash Valley in Indiana--who two years ago at this time woke up to discover that he no longer had the use of either of his legs. One day, he had perfect use of his lower extremities and the next, he couldn’t even walk to the bathroom by himself. Frank was immediately taken to the local hospital where doctors discovered a tiny growth in the mid-section of his spine. This had forced his spinal cord to compress thereby causing irreparable nerve damage to it. Subsequently, he had to endure six major surgeries followed by stays in three acute rehabilitation units and five months in transitional care. During that time, he came close to dying several times. The most difficult part of the whole ordeal was when the doctors had to inform him and Heidi, his wife, that he would never walk again. Frank was getting ready for a long and happy retirement that included lots of travel and fishing with the grandkids when all this happened. NOW he finds himself having to spend his final years confined to a wheelchair- a situation he knows will never change.
Throughout Frank’s ordeal, I’ve been receiving regular updates about his progress from Heidi. This past week, I was told that Frank had qualified for and received a mobility assist dog. It will be trained to open doors, retrieve dropped things, and even answer the phone (or at least bring a portable phone to Frank)- simple activities a child can perform but which Frank has difficulty doing for himself. Still, he’s worked hard over the past couple of years to become more independent and if you ever met him and talked to him, you’d never detect the slightest ounce of anger towards God or pity towards himself. But to be honest, this really hit ME hard for not only is Frank my friend and colleague but he and I are the same age and I realize how it could just as easily have been MY fate as it was HIS.
Well what does this have to do with this morning’s Old Testament lesson? It has MUCH as we will see. Psalm 96 is known as an “enthronement” psalm- a hymn of thanksgiving that celebrates God’s kingship over the earth, a song that the Jews sung daily in their evening worship services. It begins with what is a familiar refrain throughout the scriptures, that the people of God are exhorted to “sing to the Lord a NEW song.” The singing of a “new song” is mentioned at least six times in the Psalms: In Psalms 33, 40, here in 96, 98, 144, and again in Psalm 149- all in connection with praise to God. Verses 1-3 is a call for Israel to praise the Lord, and with verses 4-6, we are told the reason for doing so: because the Lord is a powerful creator and all other gods are only powerless images. In the rest of the psalm, the faithful everywhere are encouraged to join in praise for the Lord God reigns and, in contrast to the rulers of this world, he promises to judge everyone with righteousness, fairness, and truth. With the coming of a new king, we need a “new” song to sing for a fresh, “new” era; we need a “new” perspective, a “new” orientation unlike any we’ve had in the past for our lives. The old is being completely dismantled and done away with and all things are now becoming “NEW.”
The message of “newness” as promised by God is a central theme within the Bible and one that is fundamental to the life of any believer. The prophet Isaiah spoke of God doing a “new” thing, giving us a “new” name, and creating a “new” heaven and “new” earth. Jeremiah told of a “new” covenant that God would be making with his people that would be nothing like the one he had had with their forefathers. With THIS covenant, instead of on tablets of stone, God would write his law upon their HEARTS and forgive them all their iniquity. Ezekiel prophesied how God would put a “new” heart and a “new” spirit within them and it would result with them bringing forth “new” fruit.
You see, the essential message of the prophets was not one of judgment but of HOPE. They were asserting a promise of NEWNESS that the people of Israel had once believed in but had long since forgotten. While Israel had been conquered by the Assyrians and then later by the Babylonians who took them into exile where she would languish for the next seventy years, it was this promise from their God of a new day dawning that galvanized their hopes and kept their faith alive. They could have abandoned their commitment to Jehovah and resigned themselves to the fact that they no longer had any future as a covenant people. Instead, God raised up a series of spokespersons to remind them that indeed a new day WAS forthcoming and it would be THIS PROMISE that would keep their hopes alive, DESPITE being strangers in a strange land!
This theme of “newness” continues into the “New” Testament where it reaches its CLIMAX and FULFILLMENT. In the Gospels, Jesus gives his disciples a “new” commandment based on love. He tells them during their last supper together that the cup they are about to drink from represents a “new” covenant in his blood. St. Paul tells the Corinthians that if anyone is in Christ, he or she is a “new” creation; the old has passed away and the “new” has finally come. He says to the Galatians that the only thing that matters is not circumcision or uncircumcision but whether or not one is a “new” creation. He exhorts both the Ephesians and Colossians to put on the “new” person that is created in the likeness of God. The book of Hebrews speaks over and over again of how Jesus Christ is the mediator of a “new” covenant. The book of Revelation promises the church that whosoever remains faithful to the end shall receive a “new” name, and a “new” song” shall fill his or her mouth. In the Last Day, the people of God shall inhabit a “new” Jerusalem” that is in a “new” heaven and a “new” earth. Thus, this theme of “newness” is not merely PERIPHERAL to the message of the Bible but one that goes to the very HEART of God’s promise and purpose for his creation.
What made this message of “newness” so important to the Israelites, to the Early Church, and EVEN TO US, TODAY, was NOT that a sense of optimism about their situation might be kindled nor was it to help them think more positively about themselves or their future. NO! It WAS meant to instill within them and US AS WELL a NEW and RELIABLE HOPE, a CONFIDENT ASSURANCE upon which to base their and OUR lives upon- one that could be as certain as the sun rising the very next morning. What I mean is this:
If we know, and I mean TRULY know that we are NOW, AT THIS VERY INSTANT, beloved children of God and that Jesus Christ is our brother;
and if we believe, and I mean TRULY BELIEVE that we are INDEED NEW persons who, at THIS VERY MOMENT, have had our checkered pasts wiped completely clean and are now reconciled to a gracious God with a love that can never be broken;
and if we believe, ACTUALLY BELIEVE that we have the Holy Spirit—God’s OWN Spirit--present within us to accompany us wherever we go and to support us in whatever circumstance may befall us;
and if we believe, and I mean REALLY BELIEVE that we are part of a new and dynamic community of faith—THE CHURCH—that is unlike any OTHER body or organization in the history of humankind for it represents GOD’S PERSONAL PRESENCE in the world, that Christ himself has been incarnated ANEW through US who have become his hands and his feet and his voice in our present world;
and if we trust, and I mean TRULY TRUST that we have been given a WHOLE NEW FUTURE, one in which we are assured that in the Last Day, there will be no more wars or tears or pain and that justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream;
and WHAT’S MORE, that even after we have died, WE KNOW THAT WE KNOW THAT WE KNOW that death shall NOT have the last word for it has been vanquished once and for all by him who rose again from the dead on our account, and as a result we shall live in the presence of God and the rest of the saints forever and for all time, then this message of “newness” can never just be PERIPHERAL to us but assume FRONT AND CENTER in our lives.
If we TRULY believe this—a promise made from God’s lips to our ears--then it must surely mean EVERYTHING IN THE WORLD to us! For if we come to discover that we ARE INDEED new persons through Jesus Christ, then this means we will also LIVE as new persons. Like the psalmist, we learn there is now a new king over our lives and this requires a new song to be sung, an entirely new orientation to live by so that none of us can ever again be the same persons we once were. We will have a fresh new foundation upon which to build our lives with a whole new character and set of values to be guided by. We’ll be a part of whole new community which understands the nature and importance of having love and forgiveness and grace at the heart of every human relationship. We will have an entirely new future which does not merely begin when we die and go to heaven but begins NOW--EVERY DAY--as we walk in humble submission to God and strive to perform his will. REAL faith is the ability to BELIEVE the word of God when in Revelation 21:5 it says, “And he who sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold, I am now making all things NEW.’”
My friends, we celebrate the coming of each new year with kisses and champagne because we’re REALLY hoping that what awaits us in the future won’t be a repeat of the old, that over the ensuing twelve months, we will recover a RENEWED sense of confidence- in ourselves and in our nation’s destiny. Well, we in the church have a unique opportunity to address the despair and demoralization that so many people are currently experiencing. Here is our chance to make a powerful witness to the hope God has given us and to the PEOPLE of hope we have become. When God promises us that we and our futures are completely “new,” God is NOT saying that he’s made a few new adjustments to our personalities, NOR is God implying that he’s put a nice new set of clothing on us and that we’re now virtually “as good as new.” When God says we are made new, God IS saying WE ARE NEW IN EVERY WAY- in ways that have no relation to the past and in ways that we can’t EVEN IMAGINE.
As children of God, we have every reason in the world to “sing a new song” for we know what it is to experience the grace of God, the peace of God, and the presence of God in our lives. We know from first-hand experience how the failures of our past have been wiped away and everything about us is now NEW- our hearts are NEW, our relationships are all NEW, and our futures are completely NEW as well. God has put a new song in our mouths and it is not some sorrowful dirge filled with anxiety and loneliness and despair but a GLORIOUS HYMN filled with love and joy and peace and hope! Frank Vardeman understands this--this promise of newness--and that’s why he remains a person abounding in faith and in hope, a person who in spite of his newly-wrought challenges CONTINUES to thank God every day for just waking up and still having breath in his body, who CONTINUES to thank God for all the love and support of Heidi and their family, and who CONTINUES to thank God for all the encouragement and assistance he never stops receiving from his brothers and sisters in the church, the Body of Christ. You see, life as he knew and experienced it has not ENDED for him. Instead, it has become a NEW BEGINNING, a GLORIOUS NEXT CHAPTER brimming with the same hope and adventure with which he once faced the OLD! With one hand in the hand of people who love him and the other in the hand of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, he’s prepared to march into the future confident that he is MORE than ready for whatever life OR ANYTHING ELSE IN THIS WORLD can hand him in the years ahead.
May 2018 be more than just ANOTHER year in our lives and the life of our church. Instead, may it be a whole NEW year for us, a year in which we continue to mature in our faith by growing in our UNDERSTANDING OF and RELATIONSHIP TO Jesus Christ, a year in which we continue to demonstrate real love and patience towards one another as members of God’s heavenly family, and a year in which we continue to anticipate the arrival of your NEW minister whom God has raised up and will soon be sending this way. May 2018 be a year in which we truly BELIEVE and take SERIOUSLY this “new creation” God has made us to be and in this way, OUR lives TOO will continue to be one magnificent adventure. Amen and amen!