How not to mess up the New Year
Channel 9 in Sydney, Australia, started off by talking about the mess in the aftermath of New Year’s Eve celebrations all over Australia. Every single city, especially Sydney, which is one of the places that rings in the New Year first, was overwhelmed by the amount of trash that was left. So, we started the New Year with one of the first broadcasts talking about cleaning up a mess. Then, The New York Times, I suppose wanting to follow the lead of the Australians, talked about the mess that was left at Times Square. Did you know that there were fifty tons of garbage picked up in New York on that day, and 178 people who were given the responsibility of cleaning up the mess? It just struck me that they are rather negative stories to begin the New Year. How are we going to clear up the mess that was left at the end of the old one? But, it is a powerful image. There is the sense that we are on the brink of something new, that we are here hoping and praying that the year ahead is better than the year past, and that what we expect from ourselves, let alone from everyone else, is better and nobler. We need to clean up the mess of the old and to embrace the challenge of the new.
With that in mind, we look at our text today from the Book of Revelation. This text is about newness, new beginnings, and it coincides brilliantly with Epiphany, and the notion that God has arrived revealing Himself to the world in the coming of his Son. This Epiphany, this revelation is what makes everything new. Now, it may sound like a very strange text on the surface. It is not the sort of text that you read easily and think, “Ah, there is an obvious message.” Many of the passages from the Book of Revelation, as apocalyptic literature seem very strange. I was leaning over the rail at the Eaton Centre looking down on the beautiful silver deer and watching everyone walking to the Apple Store, at the beginning of the New Year, and thinking to myself, “Hmm, Revelation 21!” What does this say to all the people who were lining up in the Apple Store? Then, I was driving along the DVP and still thinking about Revelation 21, and my mind is clearly distracted by that, (what an explanation to a police officer that would be if I was pulled over for distracted driving!). When you think about it, a new Heaven and a new Earth, a new Holy City, a New Jerusalem, the new beginning, the Alpha, the Omega – what is all of this? And how does it pertain to our lives as Christians?
I think we really need to understand the context in which it was written to appreciate its full impact. John was writing on the island of Patmos, having been exiled as a Christian. As someone who had been part of the Roman world, he had been a witness to Jesus Christ. He had been so rejected by the powers of the day that he was boiled in oil, which is a horrible thought, and then exiled to an island where he couldn’t impact others. More than that, it was all under the power of a Roman Emperor called Domitian, who was known for his persecution of Christians, following on from Nero. In fact, the persecution of a lot of people: he had his own siblings killed. He would take land from the senators in Rome and appropriate it for himself. He started a process of genocide of Jews: those who were from the lineage of David were to be expunged. This was not a nice man! Furthermore, he made this decree and put it into law: “No Christians once brought before the Tribunal should be exempted from punishment without renouncing his religion.” In other words, Domitian was not only persecuting Christians, they had to renounce their faith in order to be spared any extra punishment. Remember a few weeks ago I talked about Tiglath Pilesar and Sennacherib and the Assyrians and how awful they were. Well, Domitian is in their camp! This is what the early Christians were facing.
So John, exiled and hurt, writing to Christians who were elsewhere in the Empire sends them a coded message. It is a powerful, metaphorical message. What he says to those Christians facing persecution is that God is still very much at work on their behalf, that they are not alone regardless of what may happen to them. The Lord is the faithful one, he is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. It is a call to maintain their faith. In the midst of all of this, we have this incredible passage about newness, and about new beginnings, and about God doing something special. It starts out by basically saying that we need to be out with the old.
I went through an exercise with Marial over the last few days of clearing out our filing cabinet and my drawers. This was a painful exercise! I did a complete and thorough cleanout of junk that I had stored over many years, the actual doors of the filing cabinet would hardly even open they were so stuffed with garbage! When I was finally done, there were bags of garbage, and only nine items left to put in the top drawer – what a clean out! But, you know, it felt good! After it was done and you got through all the decisions about what to keep and what to throw away, there was something therapeutic about it something liberating! It is good to start the New Year like a deer, as Marial said, unencumbered by all the heavy things that you cart around.
For the Christians who were being persecuted in Rome this was more than a good idea; it was a statement of faith, declaring that there is a new Heaven and a new Earth. According to John, this has been accomplished through the presence of Jesus Christ. This is a new world. I love a phrase the theologian Phil Ziegler uses. He says that what we live with are two sorts of invasions of human history. We have the invasion of Adam, who represents the sin and the darkness and the disbelief and the unruliness of sin, and then we have the arrival of Christ, who the Apostle Paul calls the New Adam, who has come to set us free from the bondage of the Old Adam: to forgive sin, to provide a power to overcome sin, to restore what was broken, and to build a bridge between God and ourselves. The arrival of Christ changes Heaven and Earth for us. Heaven that had been separated from us, but also Earth because Christ came in person and dwelt amongst us. So, the New Heaven and the New Earth is found in the person of Christ himself, and that is where Epiphany comes in. This is where the arrival of Christ in earthly form transforms everything. The Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. At times, when we feel we are still under the pull of the Old Adam and Eve, when we feel the lure of sin, and the guilt associated with that, we have the assurance of the new humanity in Christ, we have the forgiveness in God, and a new beginning in Christ. So, how do we not mess up the New Year? Well, by holding on to the Old Adam and the Old Eve; we embrace again, the greatness and the forgiveness of the love of Christ.
“There will be no more sea” sounds like a strange comment. Well, in the time of John, sea represented fear and the unknown. For those who were mariners in biblical times, the notion of crossing a sea was a dangerous thing, and so most of sea routes in the first century and before followed the coast. You notice even the Apostle Paul in his travels often would go to an island first before he would go to the mainland, not just cross the full sea. This all goes back to the myths of the Babylonians and others that suggested there were dragons in the water and demons and Leviathans in the sea. The sea represented danger, uncertainty, and was feared. What John is saying to those who fully understand the dangers of the sea, and certainly understand that he is writing from an island in the middle of the sea, is “there will be no more sea” not in a literal sense but in a metaphorical sense. “There will be no more fear with God’s sustaining presence.” For those facing difficulties, and uncertainty about the future, this was an incredible word of hope – that in Christ coming there was no more fear.
I don’t know if you have noticed in the media, but at the end of the old year we remember those who we lost. We look at highlights and lowlights from the year, and the stories that have remained in peoples’ minds. Then, at the beginning of the New Year we start talking about resolutions: weight loss programs, gym programs, etc. They are embraced enthusiastically, and then not followed from March onwards. (I’m talking about myself here!) But most of us do this, I think. We all have this kind of optimism, but the switch is quickly turned, and then the doomsayers come on, and talk about the markets and the decline and the possibilities of war, and I don’t know if you have heard all this in the media these last few days, but there is all kinds of negative stuff that just pours out at us as if this new year, with all its possibilities, only lasted twenty-four hours. The problem with humanity is that we will always think like this if we lose sight of the fact that there is God’s presence, and that we live in fear and the exile of fear when this happens. For those who found themselves in the Roman world in the first century and even for us today, who often are seized by fear and uncertainty, there is something powerful in the phrase “there will be no more sea.” There will be no more fear.
There will also be (and this is the one that always gets me) “A new Jerusalem”. A New Jerusalem! What is he talking about? Well, for John, he stood in the great tradition of many of the great Greek and Jewish thinkers who had preceded him, that Jerusalem is not just a city on a hill, but a reference to Heaven itself. The Holy City is the glorious thing, is not moved by time, and is immutable. And, this Holy City, this Heavenly City, “the Jerusalem from above” that the Apostle Paul refers to, the Jerusalem that will be “new” according to Isaiah and Haggai and Ezekiel, this is a heavenly city. Many of those who were schooled in the thinking of Plato, for example, would understand that there is a correlation between his incredible work on “The Allegory of the Cave,” which is in his famous book The Republic, where the simple story is that for all their lives there were prisoners who were in a cave who only looked at the shadows on the wall. They weren’t allowed to look out of the cave. Their whole reality was looking at the wall and the shadows came from the sun behind and characters who were moving behind, but they thought the reality looked like the shadows. The problem is that they lived in bondage to that. When they were eventually turned around and saw reality, they had a hard time understanding it. Life is like that. What we see is very often simply the shadows on the wall. We don’t see the full impact of what God is doing, or the real Jerusalem, and the heavenly city. We see only through the constraints of our own eyes, not the power of heaven at work. For those who were being persecuted under the Romans in the time of John, that was an assurance that what they saw was not everything and what they understood was incomplete, that there was a heavenly city, and a New Jerusalem.
Not long before Christmas I was visiting the hospital. I had been asked to visit somebody who was not a member of the Church, but a relative of someone I know. The person was in a double room, and we had a good visit. I offered Communion, had a very short prayer at the end, as I didn’t know how strong the faith might be. The person seemed pleased that I had been there and that was the main thing. But when I was on my way out, the woman, who was the spouse of the man in the other bed, stopped me, and said, “Would you mind saying the ‘Our Father” for us?” I realized as soon as she said that she was from the Roman Catholic tradition – that tends to be the language used to describe the Lord’s Prayer. She wanted me, with her husband who was very ill, to say the “Our Father”. As I started to parse this, to tear it apart in my mind, I said it in a new way. Same language, but I was thinking about it more, I don’t know why. Sometimes you say the Lord’s Prayer, let’s be honest, out of rote. It kind of just flows off the tongue. But what hit me was “Our Father, which art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” “As it is in Heaven!” It reminded me of the importance of “Heaven on Earth.” We don’t think as Christians along these routes, that in fact what we are about, what we confess, what we hope, what we celebrate is the power of Heaven on Earth. What we seek to emulate is the power of Heaven on Earth, and that the New Jerusalem is the New Jerusalem of Heaven on Earth. Why? Because Heaven has its powerful influence on Earth. We see that in a manger and we see it in Bethlehem. We see the power of it, and the reality, not by the shadows on the cave, but the power of Heaven that lasts and is everlasting.
Finally, we have to take on the new, and to take on the new we have to start with “No” not with “Yes”. There will be no more tears; there will be no more sorrow; there will be no more death. There will come a time when these very things that Christ has conquered will no longer have a hold on us – no more tears, no more death, no more fears, no more sorrow. “Behold, I have made all things beautiful. I have changed everything. My coming has transformed the world.” Now, if we believe that and as we enter the New Year this should be our mantra, this should be our commitment: that in Christ all things are made new. The mess, the sins, the fear, the sorrow, the doubt, the death; these things taken care of and we live to bring and to exult in and to celebrate Heaven on Earth.
Many years ago, the great John Knox had to make an appearance before Queen Mary. Scotland’s Queen Mary was not the easiest going person. John appeared before her and she said, “I would like you to make sure that I never do anything wrong and that when I mess up, you let me know.”
John said “How on Earth am I going to do this? I can’t follow you around. If I follow you around, I can’t do my pastoral work. It would dominate my life.”
She wanted it, but he said, “Here’s the thing, if you really, really want to straighten out your life, you can hear what I preach at St. Giles Church. That is what will help you.”
So, people came to John Knox afterwards and said, “My, you are a very brave man to say ‘no’ to Queen Mary! Don’t you fear what might happen to you if you don’t do what she says?”
This was John Knox’s reply: “I have looked in the faces of many angry men, and yet have not been afraid above measure” and then he quotes from the Book of Proverbs 29: “The fear of man brings a snare, but whoever trusts the Lord shall be safe.”
Don’t you think his namesake on Patmos would have said, “Amen”? And is this not the way forward for us so we don’t mess up this year too? “Behold, I make all things new.” Amen.