New Year’s Eve • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG 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.
There are many ways in which I could greet you this evening. I could, for example, begin with the obvious, “Happy new year,” even though the actual beginning of the new year, the start of New Year’s day at midnight, is still just about a half an hour or so away. Perhaps it would be better if I used the term familiar in the West Indies, and said, “Happy old year’s night.” For we are still in the old year — as I said, still half-an-hour to go.
However, this being a church and all, I could also observe the official feast day and wish you a happy Eve of the Feast of the Holy Name — or to use the term from the old calendar, the Eve of the Feast of the Circumcision; since on the eighth day after his birth every male child of the Jewish people was circumcised and given his name, including Jesus. And even though I’m not very good at math, I can tell it’s been eight days since the 25th of December.
I could also, of course, continue by saying simply, “Merry Christmas,” since Christmas is not just a day but a season 12 days long — why, there is even a song about it; though given the fact that as I said I’m not very good at arithmetic I tend to get lost amongst all those maids a-milking, and Lords a-leaping, even if I can keep track of those five golden rings and the other things you can count on one hand.
But what I’d like to think about in this meditation on this evening, this end of the year, harks back to those first terms I mentioned, Old Year’s Night and New Year’s Day. For this is a night of the old and the new. It is a time for looking back as well as a time for looking forward. Although you don’t see them as often as you used to, there was a long tradition — and I’m sure many of you remember it — of portraying the old year as a wizened old man with a long white beard carrying a scythe — kind of an Old Father Time figure — and portraying the new year as a baby with a banner strategically wrapped around him proclaiming his number — in this case 2013.
So let’s contemplate that old guy for a minute or two — certainly a year such as we have lived through is worth a minute or two of contemplation. What a year this has been! The old man with a scythe has been through a lot — and he’s just about as described by the morose author of Ecclesiastes, who described old age in household terms: the guards of the house trembling, the strong men bent, and the women who grind have ceased working because they are few — and in case you’re haven’t got the imagery, that’s the arms, and the legs and the teeth — and it won’t be long before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken, and the wheel is broken, and the dust returns to the earth as it was.
Bad enough, I suppose, as a portrayal of old age, but I think if we were to portray this past year as an old man, he wouldn’t just be old and bent over and leaning on his scythe; he would likely have broken a couple of limbs, have a concussion — and even more tragically several gunshot wounds.
It almost seems like these last two months have been trying to make up for lost time in terms of disaster and tragedy. That horrific storm, one of the worst ever to hit this region, was followed by a human storm, a rain of bullets striking down over two dozen innocent people, most of them children — a horror as senseless and seemingly as arbitrary as the unleashed forces of nature that brought about that horrible combination of a hurricane and a nor’easter.
However you look at it, this has been one hell of a year. I’m sure I’m not the only one who will be happy to turn over the page on the calendar and say, “Enough.” I want to be encouraged — and I want to encourage you — as I look forward to a new year. And there is cause for encouragement — even after such tragedies, hope is still a reality; even the ironic hope of saying, “Well, it couldn’t get any worse!” But there is hope indeed, real hope, such hope is only really makes sense when things are going bad. For there is that baby.
And I don’t mean the baby dressed with a banner marked 2013. I mean the baby born eight days ago — in the church’s eternal reckoning by its cycling calendar. That baby is new — and he makes all things new. He is the beginning and the end, he is the Alpha and the Omega, or as we would say, he is A to Z. Even though a child, he compasses it all, for he was before it all, and came to us in these latter days as a light shining into our darkness, coming into our darkness from the realm of light in which there is no shadow or darkness at all, for the glory of God is its light and its lamp is the Lamb. That Lamb, the Lamb of God — is Christ — he has come to us to bring us his own light, by which we all have the opportunity to walk.
Some no doubt will refuse to walk by that light in the coming year just as some refused to walk by that light in the year that is drawing to a close. People cannot be made to see when they refuse to see; and as the old saying goes, “There is none so blind as them that won’t see.” Many people will care for and nurture their unbelieving hearts as they turn away from the living God, hardened by the deceitfulness of sin that they think makes their life easier but in the end makes it harder in every sense of the word.
But they have an opportunity, just as we have the opportunity — as they do if they would only choose it — to open our eyes to his light and our ears to his voice, not to harden our hearts as in the day of rebellion, but to soften them — with our tears if need be, but soften them nonetheless and by any means necessary — and so become partners with Christ, cooperating with him in the gracious work of salvation, beginning with ourselves. This is work with which we are charged as God’s agents here on earth — his colleagues, his coworkers. We are called and commissioned to help spread the word, to spread the light, to shed the light, to let people know that however hard the past year has been, there is hope for those who believe.
We are, in short, ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us. And we entreat all who hear on behalf of Christ to be reconciled with God. He came to us at our darkest hour — and surely this past year has been dark enough to qualify — as he always comes in the darkness before the dawn. He came into this sinful world so that we might become his righteousness. It is in his strength that we work, together with him, urging ourselves as well as others — for surely we all need encouragement when the going gets tough — but urging ourselves and others to accept the gracious gift of God that is presented to us each and every time we ask. The grace of God is the gift that keeps on giving — an inexhaustible fountain where the golden bowl is never broken, the pitcher is never cracked and the dust itself is breathed upon and given new life.
And when does this happen? Not just at the turning of the year, my friends. Not just at some zero hour fixed by the earthly calendar, whether of the sacred or secular. No, my friends, grace comes in every instant from God for whom it is always Now. When is the day of salvation? Not just on Christmas — even all 12 days of it — but every day is the day of salvation; every time is the acceptable time. Brothers and sisters, holy partners in a heavenly calling, this is the acceptable time —
— the time to accept the grace of God that is given anew in every single instant.
We need these reminders — as God comes to us in these moments of prayer at the end of a terrible year; when God comes to be with us, to wipe the tears from our eyes and to whisper his promise that death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more; for these past things are over and done with.
Will there be more sorrows to come in the new year? Yes, I’m sorry to say there will. As long as we are in this mortal life we face the reality of mortal pain. We will grow older, fall ill, and come to an end of this mortal life one day or another.
But we will not be alone. In all these sorrows, as well as in all our joys, one will be with us holding us by the hand so long as our hands are open to receive his touch. Even out of the depths of sorrow the Psalmist cried out, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope — my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.”
Beloved, morning is coming. And what is more, the Lord is already here — he has never left us. For though we celebrate in our human way these annual cycles as if God came and went — God the constant, the ever-present Savior, does not come or go — God has never abandoned us and never will. There is no place in time or space, in height or depth, in old or new, where God is not. His light is there if we open our eyes, his voice is speaking if we shush and still our souls, making them as quiet as a child upon its mother’s breast, and listen. And then all we need do is reach out and take his hand.+