Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Happy New Year! New Years is one of those few occasions in life when just about everybody is thinking about the same thing – and that is time. It’s a time for joyous revel making- saying farewell to the old and welcoming the new. As the American poet Phyllis McGinley once chimed, “Stir the eggnog, lift the toddy, Happy New Year, everybody.” It’s a time for good wishes, for your neighbors and friends, as Charles Dickens penned in A Christmas Carol, “Here’s to us all, God bless us every one!” It’s a time for reflection and hope, as the old Irish saying exclaims, “In the New Year, may your right hand always be stretched out in friendship, but never in want.”
Aside from New Years, we seldom think much about time except for when we’re running late. And yet, New Years is not simply about time flowing like a river and carrying us all along. New Years is about something more. As the English essayist, Charles Lamb once wrote, “New Year’s Day is every man’s birthday.” That is what I would like you to experience on this New Year’s Day in the Church, the First Sunday of Advent. Today is a day for new beginnings- it is about new possibilities- and new relationships. My friends, Jesus Christ is waiting at the gates to enter your life anew- if you will have him.
Granted, you may already be thinking about time. Yes, you’re thinking only 23 more days of Christmas shopping. Or perhaps, you’re thinking, just 30 more days of 2013. And if you’re in confirmation, just 13 more minutes until Pastor Haug is done with his sermon. But this morning, I would like to invite you to consider the new possibility offered on this First Sunday of Advent.
Luther Seminary Professor Emeritus Wendell Frerichs was a gifted writer. In a few short sentences, he was often able to capture this basic human tendency to lose sight of time and what is essential and most important. In a small devotional book entitled “Jesus Saves,” Frerichs described a whimsical moment on a cross country journey along a road with steep cliffs. “We came around the corner in our camper bus and there it was. Quite a distance up the sheer rock cliff were the crudely painted words, ‘Jesus Saves.’ Though it was long ago that we saw the sign, I’ve thought about it often since that time. What was the fellow like who painted it? I guess I don’t know many people like him- someone who would risk his or her neck to tell motorists that Jesus saves. How many of us would do it?”
But then Professor Frerichs added. “I looked up at it a second time, scarcely able to believe my eyes. Apparently a second amateur painter had also scaled the cliff. Next to the words the first Christian brother had painted up there, were two more put up by some kind of joker. It read, it really did, ‘Jesus saves green stamps.’” Unfortunately, for many Christians today – the true message of this season is just as jumbled in the midst December’s hustle and bustle. They do not have time to let Christ enter in. In principle, they may know the message that Jesus Saves, but they trivialize it by adding- Green Stamps, Black Friday Savings, and calendars filled with countless commitments.
My friends, on this First Sunday of Advent, Jesus is waiting again at the door to enter in- if you will have him. And more importantly, he has come to save so that you need not fear your past, your present, not your future.
First of all, you need not be afraid of your past. We would all like happy endings to our Christmas stories. We would all like to forget the life’s hardships of the past year. I am reminded of the young first-grader who thought he could change the Christmas story by changing one little line in the gospel. The Sunday School had been preparing for the Christmas pageant for months. The songs had been memorized. And when Joseph came to the inn and asked if there was room, the little first-grade boy playing the innkeeper replied, “You’re lucky. We just had a cancellation.” Yes, we would love to change the past, but most of the time it is not possible. Many, simply fret about the past.
There is a saying that “A harnessed horse contributes more than a wild donkey. I like that. When you expend all of your energy recreating conversations and decisions made in the past you lose all potential for change. Human energy under control, however, is powerful. God in all his wisdom knows that an uncontrolled life, fretting over the past is an unhappy life. That is why God seeks to offer you his counsel. Jesus saves. He comes to you with his word, “You need not be afraid.” Instead of worrying endlessly about the past, he invites you to forgive and forget, and to move on. That is the new beginning he offers at this new year.
Secondly, you need not be afraid of your present, of what you can and cannot see. Of course, that is the most difficult challenge before us. It’s rather like on the first day of school, when the kindergarten teacher said to her class, “If anyone has to go to the bathroom, hold up two fingers,” to which a little voice from the back of the room asked, “How will that help?” Yes, how does casting aside fear, being of good courage and trusting in God, diminish your present anxieties and troubles?
This is the most profound teaching of the Christian faith. As men and women of faith, we are invited personally to trust that the one who entered the gates of Jerusalem riding on a donkey long ago is the same Jesus who knew that his journey would lead him to a tree on a skull shaped hill called Calvary. He died upon that cross and three days later rose again. And we thank God for that! For then, when life’s trials over take us, when a sword pierces through our own soul- no matter what the reason- we have the confidence that there is a God who understands. And not only understands but who promises to sustain and walk with us through these valleys of the shadow- for he has walked there before.
I have experienced the church year anew many times, but let me assure you, there is no other message sufficient for a world of despair and hate. There is no greater word of comfort to a family whose loved one lingers on their deathbed. It is a word of promise for the student that has failed and has been given a second chance. It is a word of strength for the child who is alone and afraid. It is the word of solidarity for a woman who is clinging to her convictions. It is the word that you and I long to hear on Sunday morning, time and again, and if we don’t hear it, we know we’ve been cheated. It is the word of hope for all who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Perhaps, it is the word that you are waiting for as well. Yes, Jesus has come to save and his grace, his presence, his love will be sufficient for you every need.
And finally, you need not fear the future. In a previous parish, I was called by a woman who was dying of pancreatic cancer. The first day, I visited her she was bitter, troubled and angry. At an earlier point, she had abandoned her children and taken a second husband. She had no place for the church in her life. Her life story was not a living testimony to the Christian faith, but her dying was. She offered a legacy of peace, serenity and forgiveness to her husband and family which would outlast the hostility she had caused. In those last months, she allowed the words, “Do not be afraid” to become paramount in her life. She lived fully trusting in God’s gift of salvation. When she died a week before Christmas, the following poem was read at her funeral. The poem itself was written by a 13 year-old who died of brain cancer a year earlier just before Christmas.
“I see the countless Christmas trees around the world below
With tiny lights, like heaven’s stars reflecting on the snow.
The sight is so spectacular please wipe away the tear
For I am spending Christmas with Jesus Christ this year.
I hear the many Christmas songs that people hold so dear
But the sound of music can’t compare with the Christmas choir up here.
I have no words to tell you the joy their voices bring.
For it’s beyond description to hear the angels sing.
Please love and keep each other as my Father said to do.
For I can’t count the blessings of love he has for each of you.
So have a Merry Christmas and wipe away that tear.
Remember, I am spending Christmas with Jesus Christ this year.
You need not be afraid of the future, but be of good courage, Jesus saves.
My friends, do not let December’s hustle and bustle jumble the message of the season for you. You need not fear your past, your present, nor your future, Jesus is waiting at the gate to enter in your life anew- and he has come to save. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.