Sermon by the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
How’s this for a New Year message:
They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden,
and they shall never languish again.
Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
I will give the priests their fill of fatness,
and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty.
Singing, prosperity, rejoicing, dancing, merriment, comfort, gladness, fullness, fatness, satisfaction – Happy New Year! The people of Israel knew how to party! Of course, you may have noticed that the list, of young women, young men and old, does leave a significant portion of the population out of the celebrations – and, if you have the misfortune to be a part of that particular demographic, you have full permission to be miffed.
Indeed, if you are not a young man, an old man, or a young woman, you may feel that many parts of the history of human society give you reason to be miffed! In many places in 2016 it is not advisable to be old, and not good for your health to be a woman.
Back at the time of Jeremiah it was no different, and the faith of the people of Israel tended to be expressed in extremely worldly terms – and the work of God tended to be seen in worldly ways as well. Prosperity showed that God was on your side – and you would know that your faith was being rewarded when your ‘fortunes’ (in every sense) were made. So ‘a prosperous new year’ was a perfectly acceptable religious wish.
For those who were not prosperous, for those who were on the outside, there was the serious possibility that the New Year was one in which God would frown on you – and Jeremiah was predicting a new world: on the inside of prosperity, on the inside of God’s regard, on the inside of the future.
When we get to the New Testament, we find Paul writing to the Ephesians; he writes of the same kind of future that Jeremiah expresses:
With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.
The same kind of wish, but you may notice that there are significant differences. Paul makes no mention of merriment or dancing or bounty; indeed Paul has been known to cast significant doubt on all of that. Instead, he speaks of mystery, and inheritance, and hope, and glory – which is, you might think, by comparison, all a bit nebulous. No more is God to be seen in parties and prosperity, but rather in the gathering together of all things. Not such an easy expression, then, and not such an easy recognition of, a ‘happy new year’.
So are we Christians just to tell the ancestors of our faith that they have been altogether too ‘this worldly’, too earthy, too materialistic? Are we left with an inheritance of being killjoys, party-poopers, stick-in-the-muds? What, in other words, is the nature of the hope that inspires us? Is it of a better life for us and those around us – a life of celebration and joy? Or is it an indefinable something totally beyond our understanding, or our present experience, or indeed our present life? What, perhaps, is the nature of the ‘glory’ to which Paul refers? And to what and to whom does it refer?
At this time of year, we speak and sing quite a lot of glory – there are angels from its realms; there is its light shining around. There’s a lot of it about. We sing of it, but I suspect we don’t spend much time or energy trying to understand it. We may, however, have more of an idea in our heads than we realise. Do we, for example, think of the glory of God in the terms that Jeremiah uses? Because it’s not really in our Presbyterian nature to think of dancing and merriment as being part of, or as reflecting, or as responding to, the glory of God.
But then neither do we react to the glory of God in the traditional, biblical way. The shepherds knew what they were supposed to do when the glory of the Lord shone all around – they were terrified. If you listen to the carol ‘O holy night’ you hear what you’re supposed to do in the presence of that glory: ‘fall on your knees’. And it’s not in our Presbyterian nature to do that either.
But it might be that it is in our thinking about, and our attitude to, the glory of God that we can find our best way in to the beginning of a new year – because that thinking offers us alternative visions not only of God and God’s glory but also of the world we live in, and the way we live in it. Is the glory we think of the glory of Jeremiah? He predicts a time of glorious celebration in this world, a celebration triggered when those who regard themselves as the people of God are restored to their rightful place, back on the inside. Or do we share Paul’s vision, a vision that can bring us to our knees in wonder and astonishment (and maybe disbelief), a vision of the end of time when God’s glory is revealed in the gathering together of absolutely everything – and everyone, with no one left out?
Earlier in his prophecy, Jeremiah has spoken, often in scathing and uncompromising terms to the nation of Israel of the sins and the shortcomings that have brought suffering and oppression upon them, have sent them spiralling to the outside, into exile, have brought them to their knees – and now he speaks to them of an end to all that, a recovery, a restoration. The people of Israel have been the ones who have been under the cosh and to them now will come the time of rejoicing, the time when their fortunes will once more be their own, when they will have their own parties – and not just be the attendants at the feasts of others.
But here’s the thing: for Jeremiah the glory of God is revealed not only in the restoration but also in the humiliation that preceded it. God is at work in what brings us down and in what brings us back up again. It is undoubtedly true that we find one part of that easier than the other, but that may not be the only difficulty with this vision of God’s glory. The larger difficulty is that it is a really quite particular vision, for a particular people – a people who feel that, having undergone the suffering, this celebration is their special due; because of all they been through, the special blessing of God is theirs.
And we, as we enter a new year, need to ask what our hopes and dreams are for the year – and for whom. Does our thinking of the glory of God represent a narrowed down, particular vision for us and ours, or is it a vision that goes wider – one that opens us up? It is sometimes tempting to reduce our thinking about God to a scale we feel we can cope with – the personal level where we can end up not setting ourselves in the context of God’s glory, but setting God’s glory in the context of us; which does, as you will gather, kind of get things the wrong way round.
It’s much more of a challenge to be drawn in to the wider context, not only of God’s glory, but also of God’s world and God’s people, but that is what Paul attempts to do for us. He puts the glory of God’s promise in the context, certainly of each of his readers, telling them of their adoption and their redemption, but also the wider context of the cosmos and of eternity (how much wider can you get?). For Paul, the glory of Christ Jesus is that in him God sets out his plan for us to see – a plan for the fullness of time, to bring all things together in him.
And, as an understanding of the glory of God, that has an advantage – in that it avoids the defining, confining, limiting, of God’s glory that ends up relating everything to ‘me’ and to ‘me alone’. But we might be forgiven for thinking that Paul’s interpretation leaves everything so far in the distance, so far out of our reach, that it loses the potential to inspire us, move us, or summon us. But, if we allow that understanding to guide our thoughts about a new year (our hopes and our fears), maybe we might notice that it guides us toward the glorious truth that everything and everyone is connected, both in the creation and in the purposes of God – and that ought surely to point us to how we too ought to live and move and have our being.
It ought to point us to the idea that God’s purposes are not promoted by any ways of thinking that cut us off from our fellow human beings, any thoughts that there are those who can be set aside, any idea that humanity can be divided up into the welcome and the woeful. And when we see the way that our world is reducing itself to ways in which we can exclude one another, perhaps there is more than a hint there of what a glorious new year needs to include – when that year is one in which our country and continent will face all sorts of choices about how to include and be included.
But there is an idea that, far from us reaching out for or searching for the glory of God, that glory is something that finds us, catches us by surprise, overwhelms us – and brings us to our knees. John, in his prologue (which we have now had at least in part for the last three Sundays!), captures it best for us: ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’
The glory of God comes upon us in this life, this human life, this short, obscure life that ended in failure – and yet overtook those who came in contact with it in such a way that the life they had led was entirely overthrown. It was overthrown not by a display of divine power but by a life of very human humility and vulnerability and openness. And yet that humble, vulnerable, open life opened up the possibilities of glory, not only in and for itself, but for all humanity: ‘from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace’.
And so, if we want to understand the glory of God, we look to the glory we find in Christ: a glory that cannot be limited by or to anything – a glory fully revealed only in the unity that Christ lived. It is a glory, exactly because of all that, that is worth, at the start of a new year, celebrating, worth having a party for (even for Presbyterians), worth hoping for, worth living for, worth working for. And that can all be enough (even for Presbyterians) to bring us to our knees – in wonder and in astonishment, in thanks and in praise.