December 31, 2017

New Year's Eve

Isaiah 61:10-11

Galatians 4:4-7


Once a month, I conduct a Communion service for the residents in an aged care facility in Shoalwater. During the service, before the Prayer of the People, I usually ask the residents to share one good news to one another. I ask this always before I ask them for a person/situation the they want to be prayed for. I do that because often our mind gravitates more to the bad things than to the good things that happen in our life. Perhaps, it’s part of our evolutionary development as a species. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, our ancestors had to always be aware of any sign of danger, otherwise they would have ended up as the menu for the day.

But, in modern time, I think the media has also played its role to make things worse. I dare to say that almost 90% of the time, the only news that makes the headlines is bad news. There is a saying in the world of journalism that “a dog bites a person is not news; but if a man bites a dog, that is news.” There is another saying that “you never read in newspaper about a plane that did not crash.”

Our media is indeed trained to look for event that is sensational, out of the ordinary, which is usually the time when tragedy occurs. As the result, we have often failed to pay attention to the good things that are happening around us and focus only on the bad things.

Our reading today from the book of Psalms acknowledges that the world where we live in can indeed be a dangerous place. It acknowledges that the entire world is in need of redemption. It is not only human beings who are in the grip of the power of sin and death; the entire creation is also in rebellion against God’s will. God created the world as a place where life would flourish and all would exist in harmony, but the world today is a broken image of that original design.

Yes, we human beings are responsible for much of the damages done to one another and to the earth, but nature itself can also unleash its destructive power. Like in the years before it, in 2017, natural disasters had killed and injured people, and destroyed sources of livelihoods in many parts of the world. But the Bible testimonies dare to proclaim that this has never been God’s will. The destruction that either humans or nature bring is the result of the entire creation’s rebellion against God’s reign.

But Psalm 148 dares to proclaim that this is not the end of the story. Both human beings and nature maybe in the grip of sin and death, but they all are parts of God’s creation thus all are called to praise the Lord. Everything in the world: the life nurturing and the life destructing, sun and moon, mountain and trees, fire and hail, frost and stormy winds, are to praise God. Even the primal water of chaos that the Hebrews believed to be residing above the sky; the water that killed almost all living beings in Noah’s time, is also to praise God. All are parts of God’s creation thus all bear the imprint of the Creator and have the capacity to be restored.

This means that even in the midst of human-made or natural disasters, death and destruction do not have the final say. Death and destruction during any disaster are not God’s will; they are against God’s original design for the entire creation.

So our hope for the new year rests not in our human knowledge or technology or science, but in the assurance that God has not abandoned God’s creation. Even in the midst of tragedy, there is always hope because our Creator wills the best for all.

God’s faithfulness for the world is reflected once again in our reading today from Isaiah. There are two images used here in this short passage: one is the image of a wedding and the other is the image of a garden. The author of the passage praises God because God has promised to bring salvation and righteousness not only to him, but to all nations as well. But this is not an empty promise made with no binding commitment. God is bounded by God’s promise because God’s commitment is like a commitment that a man makes to his bride or a woman to his bridegroom. God promises to take care of us because God is an ‘committed relationship’ with us.

The second image in the passage, the image of a garden, reemphasizes this assurance of God’s promise. Just like the seeds that are planted on soil, given the right time and environment, will soon come out as shoots, so will God’s promise to all nations will one day flourish.

This image is particularly relevant to people living in the Northern hemisphere. It’s Winter in places like Europe and Northern America and this particular passage speaks clearly to them about the assurance of God’s promise. Just like the seeds that are now dormant in Winter will come out as shoots in Summer, so will God’s promise for the salvation of the world will flourish in its time. It may seem to be lifeless, but beneath the surface of reality, the seed of God’s salvation is still alive and it’ll grow into a tree that gives home to all creatures.

We witness this see in one of the most incredible moments occurred during WWI. The war was one of the most destructive wars in the history of humankind that killed or injured around 25 million people in only four years. But on Christmas Eve 1914, in the no man’s land that separated the trenches of bitter enemies in Flanders and France, something inspiring occurred: men from both sides appeared form their trenches to greet and wish one another a happy Christmas. This was an unofficial truce, disapproved and discouraged by officials and headquarters from both sides. But these men disregarded the order and showed to the rest of the world that the bond of our common humanity could not be broken even by one the most violent wars.

Witnesses said that the Germans sang their “Silent Night” and the British responded with “the First Noel” in their separate trenches. Soldiers of both sides then began to emerge from their trenches to meet their enemies in no man’s land. The shook hands with one another, exchanged Christmas greetings and small gifts like cigars, cigarettes, and whiskies. A ball was produced and the legendary football match (the real football match, that is soccer) was held between the German and the British troops. The Germans were the better side, winning the match 3-2 (and they are still the better side now, having won four more World Cups ever since, while the British has only won one).

The war raged on for four more years and many, if not most of the soldiers involved in the informal truce, did not survive the war. But, in that moment in history, the light of Christ was born once again in one of the darkest corners of human history.[1]

It is a moment like this that we should pay more attention to; a moment that reminds us that the seed of God’s promise for the redemption of humanity and the entire creation is alive and well within each one of us; a moment that reminds us that, despite all evils in the world, there still is a seed of love and goodness that God has planted deep inside us. All is never lost, even in the desolate trenches of WWI, filled with the stench of dead bodies and ammunition. The seed of God’s goodness in all creation is still there, waiting for the right time to flourish.

This assurance of God’s promise is once again declared in our reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The fullness of time had arrived and God had sent his only Son to the world. Jesus was born of a young woman and born “under the law”, which means that he was born as a Jew. This is significant. We often ignore the fact that Jesus was born, grew up, lived, and died as a Jew. His mission was, first of all, to redeem those ‘under the law’, which means his mission was to redeem the Jews. Jesus came to fulfil God’s promise to Abraham, the ancestor of the Jews, that God would be his God and bring his descendants to safety and prosperity.

But Paul’s letter to the Galatians expands this vision of salvation further. For the Apostle Paul, Jesus’ mission didn’t stop with the Jews. The salvation of the Jewish people through Jesus has resulted with the adoption of the rest of us as God’s children.

This image was taken from the Roman world where parents from powerful families often adopted sons from other families. They did so to make sure that their families legacies continued after they died. Adopted sons in Roman families had all the rights and status that the natural children had.

Roman Emperors too adopted such method. It was a common tradition in Roman Empire that Emperors adopted sons to become their successors. By doing that, the departing Emperor could find the right person who would continue his legacy and who would not take the Empire into ruin.

Paul used this common practice in the Roman world to explain the adoption of the Gentiles, the non-Jews, into God’s family. Because of Jesus, all people, Jews and non-Jews, were adopted as God’s family. As such, we all are heirs to the promise that God made with Abraham and with the people of Israel.

Friends, we don’t know what will happen in the New Year. Some people have already made predictions: some predictions are uplifting, others are depressing. We don’t know which prediction that will become a reality.

But, today, we are reminded that, whatever happens, God’s grand design - not only to us, but to all creatures and parts of creation - remains. News of wars and destruction and calamities will always find its way into our homes, into our rooms, and, eventually, into our hearts and minds. We may struggle to see signs of God’s promise in the world. But the seeds of God’s salvation will always be there. The seeds are often hidden underneath thick layers of fear and anxiety and pain and suffering and hopelessness, but they remain unchanged. We are to nourish the seeds well so that, one day, they will grow into mighty trees, providing food and shelter to all people and all creatures in the world.

May we welcome the New Year no longer with fear or trepidation or baseless excitement. Let us welcome the New Year with a deep-seated hope and expectation that the One who creates us will be with us always no matter what. Amen.

Toby Keva

[1] From sources: Mike Dash. The Story of WWI Christmas Truce. On (December 23, 2011) & Ben Brimelow. The Incredible True Story of when WWI Stopped for Enemy Armies to Celebrate Christmas Together. On (December 25, 2017, 9:04 AM ET)