I love getting up on New Year’s Day, switching on my smart phone, going to the calendar section and seeing it virtually blank! My wife likes me to use the Letts Diary, because they are classy, and I love how all the pages stick together on the first day of the New Year because nothing has been written on them: You have the whole year in front of you, with no idea what the rest of the year is going to bring. Very few things are demanded of you ahead of time, yet you know you are going to be filling it up quickly. In many ways, I think the questions that occupy most of us on this very first day of the New Year are: “What will we fill those days with? What will life be like this year? What priorities are we going to set? What demands are going to come our way?” I think it is fair to say that some things are simply going to be obligations: obligations at work or family obligations that are going to be in there no matter what. They are things that we have to do.
There are other things. The great wise one, Oprah Winfrey, likes to say that we create a list of dos and don’ts in the New Year, and that list should be revisited on a regular basis as the year progresses. What depresses me about that it is only 11 o’clock and I have already done a don’t! You find yourself with these dos and these don’ts, these wonderful gestures and resolutions, thinking “I am going to fill my life with good, beautiful and holy things this year.” But you know that very soon you find yourself filling it with things you want to avoid. I have always liked the wisdom of Alfred, Lord: “Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come whispering it will be happier.”
Tennyson had an optimism that was based very much on his own faith. As I look at the state of the world going into 2017, I realize that this sense of optimism is desperately needed. One of the prevailing statement from friends on Facebook is that they are glad to see 2016 gone. It was a year that they would like to see in the rear-view mirror and not in the road ahead.
It is sad when you come to the end of a year and you see the things that have made it seem like a waste or as a pain or a difficulty. But in many ways, things that we cannot control ourselves have determined the mood, the solemnity, almost the maudlin approach to life that has been characteristic of the last twelve months. Part of this has been due to the fact that we’ve been inundated with negative stimuli and news. Look at, for example, all the celebrities who have died this year and have been eulogized at great length, whether it is David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Florence Henderson, Leonard Cohen, or more recently Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. These have a cumulative effect on our psyche, because we attach ourselves with them in the past – some era, moments, song, movie – that brings back to our own consciousness stories and images of the past. And when we see that they are no more, we mourn almost obsessively so, for people we do not know. We have connected with them in our minds, culturally, and regardless of whether they are worthy of our adulation, they have received it. It has a collective impact. Even here, on Sunday after church, after Leonard Cohen had died, we felt the need, to sing Hallelujah! There is a sense in which it is a passing of something, and as Canadians we identified with him and with his life and his music. You could feel that! It has an effect.
We sometimes forget too those who are perhaps even greater who have made a contribution, the unknown millions who have passed away in the last year, some of whom have had actually a big impact on our lives, but we don’t know it because they are not stars or celebrities. A classic example of this has been brought to my attention recently. Dr. Donald Henderson, who had Canadian roots and a Canadian and Scottish family. He is not a name that rolls off the tongue of most people when you think of a celebrity death in 2016, but it was he, along with his team at the World Health Organization that brought an end to smallpox. It was he and his work from 1966 to 1977 that in ten years eradicated this terrible disease. It was because of his commitment to make sure that the families of every person who was diagnosed were immunized immediately that the disease was eradicated from the earth. It is not a name that we all know, but it is a name that made a huge impact on human history.
We don’t often talk about the positives; we focus very much on the negatives, maybe because we’ve been bombarded with images like the horrendous destruction in Aleppo, and that child sitting on a bench bleeding, which will forever be engraved in our minds. Maybe it is the problems and the uncertainties that we have as a result of Brexit in the UK or the election in the United States. Maybe it is the terrible bombings that we have had and the shootings as far away as Berlin and Istanbul. These things have a cumulative effect on us, and society at large. Maybe the pervasive nature of media makes this so much more profound, but I think people are uneasy as they enter a new year.
That is precisely the reason I chose today’s text. You might have wondered why on earth I would choose a reading from 1 Corinthians 7 about circumcisions, slavery and marriage. This is a profound moment in Scripture, believe it or not! The Apostle Paul, like many of those in the early Church was convinced that Jesus Christ was going to come again. They believed in what is known as the Parousia – the second coming, the return, but they did not know when it was going to happen. In many ways, there were those who at that time believed that it was imminent, and that people should get ready for it to transpire. Over time, the Apostle Paul revised this, seeing it as a distant future thing, which Jesus himself had said: “No one knows the time or the season when the Son of Man will come again.” Jesus had already made that abundantly clear. Nevertheless, the Apostle Paul started to realize the negative ramifications of people believing that the world was going to end very soon and that Christ was going to come again.
One of the ways that they did this was in a kind of passivity, a sitting still. Another way was an Epicurean way. In other words, if you think you are going to die anyway and the world is going to come to an end, why not just live it up, have a life of revelry and excess. If Christ is going to come again and the world is going to come to an end, we might as well enjoy as much pleasure as we can before the lights go out, the switch is clicked, and everything is over. There was also the Stoic response. This was, “Well, we better not do anything. We better live an ascetic life where nothing really matters, avoid any stimuli or changing anything. We will continue to live the way we are now and calmly and passively wait till the end of time. Paul saw great dangers in this because he knew that if this was going to be the dominant attitude, then people are going to forget about the reason why Christ would come again or the reason why Christ came in the first place, namely that we should live our lives for God’s calling. That is why this passage is important. It is about living our life with God’s calling.
The great preacher, Jonathan Edwards said this at the beginning of a New Year centuries ago: “Resolution One, I will live for God. Resolution Two, if no one else does, I still will.” Jonathan Edwards was convinced that there was a need to live for God, and that living for God is what life, true life, is all about. Paul uses the words “living for God” in a different way. He uses the phrase in Greek, klesis, which means “your calling”. For the Apostle Paul it was important that each of us understand our calling in life. The reason for this is that if we don’t think about our calling in life, then the Christian life becomes a mundane or an ordinary thing. He uses two examples: slavery and marriage. Slavery is one that has been so misinterpreted over the years that it is appalling really how it has been used. The Apostle Paul here is not advocating slavery; he understands though there are Christian slaves, slaves who have become Christians. They are now debating themselves that if they are new creatures in Christ, if they have a calling in Christ, should they then leave their status as being a slave. Paul says, “If you are a slave, then be a good slave.” In other words, “Do your work well, but you should always seek freedom, for you are indeed free in Christ. Whether you are a slave in service or a free person, it matters not if you serve God, for your calling is first and foremost not as a slave, but as a child or God, and wherever you are and whoever you are, you are a child of God.”
Unfortunately, throughout the years, this has been terribly abused. The whole class system that was built after the Reformation was predicated around people understanding their calling, demanding that they stay in the position that they are in. You can see this in the television program Downton Abbey. For those of you who watched Downton Abbey, you know the story of Tom Branson, who was originally the chauffeur from Ireland who then married one of the ladies of the household, and he himself became sort of a manager of the estate and a part of the family. This was a radical departure, because it showed that the classification of society that had been based on this Pauline text that everyone should just stay in the position that they are in, and not try and move, change, or grow, had become so predominant and powerful. In other words, if you are a slave, that is your calling to be a slave, and don’t even contemplate not being a slave. That is not what Paul is saying here! He is saying, “If you are a slave, be a good one. If you seek to be free, be free. But, none of that matters really, because what matters is that you are a child of God.”
It was the same thing with marriage. People were thinking, “If the world is going to come to an end, if there is no future, everything is dark and dreary, should I bother staying married? Should I get married if I am single? Should I jettison any relationships that I now have?” Paul has some strong words for people in this situation. Paul understood how important marriage was, but it doesn’t mean because the world is going to come to an end if you end your marriage or that you go out and get married. You can serve God anyway. You might think that is kind of a distant reality, but it is not. I actually had someone come to me with a pastoral concern a couple of years ago. This person had been single all his life and had got to a point where he wondered if he had anything to offer, if his singleness was an impediment to him being a true Christian. He was really down about this, so concerned in fact, that he came to me for some kind of assurance. I think what he expected from me was for me to say, “Get off your couch and go and find somebody!” But I didn’t. I asked him, “Tell me what these people have in common: Joan of Arc, Thomas a Kempis, Francis Asbury, Francis of Assisi, Dietrich Bonheoffer, John Stott, and Mother Theresa?”
He said, “Well, they were all Christian.”
I said, “Yes. And they are all single!” I continued, “You see, there is no direct correlation between being married or being single and being a Christian.”
In fact it doesn’t matter what status you are, and this is what Paul is getting at, you can find your calling in Christ. But first you do that and then everything else falls into line. And so, on this New Year, we should ask ourselves deeply what our calling is? What is it that God wants us to do? Never mind the vicissitudes of the world and the changes that are taking place! There should be a time in our lives where we simply sit down and we say, “Lord, what is it that you want me to do?” But there is also a sense here from the Apostle Paul that the way we live life well and fill in our diary well is if we value life itself. We never know what tomorrow is going to bring, what is around the corner for any one of us. We could try to predict and we can try to plan, but the fact of the matter is, within the next few hours or the next few months or years, we have no idea how things can unfold. A great tragedy can come our way, as Toronto experienced with the recent death of the Taber family, or we might find great like one of the members of our congregation who received the Order of Canada this last week. We never know!
We never know from one day to the next what life is going to be like. So we might try to fill our diaries with the things that we want to do or to achieve. But the real question is: how do we value life? The Apostle Paul’s great concern was the anxiety from the uncertainty about Christ’s return, and that anxiety was causing stress, anger and dissension within the congregation in Corinth and beyond. What was needed was some peace, some rest, and to step back from the constant striving and demand to fill in those days with extraordinary or excellent things. Maybe what Christ wants from us is a peaceful countenance and the desire to serve him whenever we can; to treat life with respect requires some rest and some peace. We should seek to find it. It seems to me all those who have achieved great things have taken the time to be at peace.
We should also fill those days in the calendar with concern for the life of others. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you are in this life, putting the needs of others first is one of Christ’s greatest contributions to the world. Jesus talked about it over and over again. If you are a spouse, put your other spouse first. If you are in business, put your colleagues first. If you are working in an area where you can do good, put the doing good rather than your own elevation first. If you are serving within the church, put the ministry of the church first. If you are a parent, put the needs of your children first. In other words, think of the value of life itself. I have been troubled this year by cavalier approach we take to human life. I have been going back and looking and reading about some of the great debates around the notion of, and this is highly contentious I know, Black Lives Matter. I thought to myself, “In this day and age, in 2016 as it was, why are we even having this discussion at all? Why is there even a debate about whether black lives matter? Of course they do! Surely that is a given no matter how you look at it, and surely it is also true, although some don’t like to hear it, all lives matter.
The fact that we are having a social discussion about this in the first place is absolutely ludicrous! For Christians, the absurdity of this should be all the more poignant and powerful. I went back and listened to something that believe it or not, Carmelo Anthony, the New York Knicks basketball player who had a bit of a shaky life himself, said as the ESPY awards. You could feel his pain in Carmelo when he said, “The system is broken. The problems are not new. The violence is not new. The racial divide is definitely not new. But the urgency to create change is at an all-time high.” Likewise, I heard an interview with Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, who controversially did not stand during his national anthem because of his concern for the welfare of the black community, he himself being of mixed race background. I think Kaepernick was wrong not to stand. I think you honour the nation that you live in. But I do approve of the things he said and stood for.
When you looked at Colin Kaepernick, and I watched in slow motion one of his passes, I saw that on his arms there were quotes from Scripture, and the Bible and the Cross. I realized what a devout Christian he is. He made an interesting comment, and I don’t know where, I just put it in my phone when I heard it. It is just one of those things! “You know of course black lives matter, or else for whom did Christ die?” This is Paul’s point. Life itself is a beautiful thing that matters, and treating all lives that way is what is desperately needed in 2017. When we hear at any point that lives of some don’t matter, or that some are somehow more important than others, we need to look at the Cross and see whether the Lord would agree with us. Paul wrote at the end of the Book of Corinthians 1 these words: “Brothers, stand firm! Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that labour in the Lord is never in vain.”
If we do that, every day in 2017 will matter, and it will be a life well lived! Amen.