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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

January 6, 2013

What Will Be New in 2013?

Ecclesiastes 1:1-11; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

             Last week I saw a church sign that asked this question: “Will it be just another year or a New Year?”  It seems a worthwhile question to ask on the first Sunday of the new year.  What will it be?  More of the same, or will 2013 be a breakthrough year for you, a year to lay aside tired old sins and to take up a new-found freedom?  It can well end up being just another year, another lap on the great treadmill (or should I say elliptical trainer?) of life.  For many, sadly, it will be just that.  Or it can truly be for any of us a new year, a break with our sorry past and a chance to live a new and better life.

             Ecclesiastes offers what some would call the realist’s view on this question: “What has been will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.”  This isn’t what you want to hear at the start of anything new, is it?  I heard from a dear old friend from a former church over the holidays.  In her long letter she recounted how wrenching the last year has been for her family, and especially for her adult son.  She concluded, “We hope and pray that 2013 will hold better things.”  I did not tell her to go read the first chapter of Ecclesiastes!  She didn’t need to hear the Bible say, “Forget it!  Nothing ever changes.”

             But this is what the author of Ecclesiastes, who tried everything this world had to offer, concluded: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity….  There is nothing new under the sun.”  He says things don’t ever really change.  So buck up and hang in there – because life isn’t apt to get better.  That is one view of life.

             Thank God, it is not the only one the Bible offers!  Listen to what another voice says: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”  Ecclesiastes says nothing is ever new.  Paul says everything can become new.  Who is right?

             Well, I suspect both are!  Solomon was wise in the ways of the world.  And having tried all that this world has to offer, he learned an important lesson: human nature does not change, and the pleasures of this world, if that is all you are nourished by, soon wear thin.  They grow old.  Yesterday’s gifts soon become today’s givens.  And how easily more and more satisfies us less and less!

             Paul knew this, too.  He had experienced the vanity of this life.  But then something happened to Paul that was beyond this world.  It was such an important event that Luke tells of it three separate times in Acts.  I am speaking, of course, of Paul’s encounter with Jesus Christ on the Damascus Road.  It was an encounter with the transcendent that forever changed his world.  The old Saul of Tarsus became a “new creation,” he even took a new name.  Paul saw everything with new eyes, felt everything with a new heart, and took on life with a new missional zeal.  His old life passed away, and everything became new.  And Paul did not have to make all this happen.  He did not make a long list of resolutions.  Christ in him changed everything.  It was invasive, and it was pervasive.

             It is not that the world around Paul changed, or that his circumstances suddenly got easier.  The world did not change, but Paul did.  And now he saw everything through new eyes.  Everything that had grown so old and weary suddenly became new.

             And the reason I mention Paul today is because he is saying that what happened to him can happen to anyone.  Did you hear Paul’s words?  “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation….”  This is the promise of the Gospel!  It does not have to be just another year.  It can be a new year.  It does not have to be the same old life you live.  Things can be made new.  You don’t have to settle for the same old relationships.  Life can be new.  Marriage … your work … parenting … school.  Everything can be new.

             In 1953, James S. Stewart wrote a book that offered his best thinking about Paul.  Billy Graham called the Scottish preacher and New Testament scholar, James S. Stewart, the greatest preacher he had ever heard.  Stewart entitled his work on Paul, A Man in Christ.  He argued that the key to understanding Paul’s thought was not justification or election or predestination or eschatology.  To understand Paul you must see him as a man “in Christ.”  His relationship to Jesus Christ was the defining reality of his life.  His connection to Christ was everything.  Jimmy Carter taught Sunday school for much of his adult life.  He published a book based on his years of teaching called, Living Faith.  Carter writes about what he most deeply believes.  He says, “The personal relationship with Christ is the only core around which life can exist….  Keep clearly before your eyes the simple, pure, comprehensible reassurance that we can draw from the life and teachings of Jesus.”

             This is the key to whether 2013 will be just another year or truly a new year in your life.  To nurture your relationship with Jesus Christ is your only salvation from cynicism, sourness and self-pity.  So how can we be people “in Christ”?  Let me offer three quick words that mark those who are “in Christ.” 

             The first word is gratitude.  If anyone is in Christ, that person’s life is marked by gratitude.  I love Hugh T. Kerr’s children’s tale, What Bradley Owed.  Once an eight-year-old boy named Bradley became enamored with money, and thought of everything in terms of its price.  He decided if something didn’t cost much, it wasn’t worth much.  So one morning Bradley wrote a note to his mother, folding it neatly, and placing it next to her breakfast.  It said, “What Mother Owes Bradley: For running errands, $3.00; trash, $2.00; for sweeping the porch, $2.00, for extras, $1.00.  Total: $8.00.”  She read the note, smiled sweetly, and did not say a word.  At lunch, Bradley was delighted to find at his plate $8.00.  He put it in his pocket and thought of how he would spend it.  Then he noticed a neatly folded note next to his plate.  It read, “What Bradley Owes Mother: For being good to him, $0; nursing him when he had the flu, $0; for his shorts, shoes and shirts, $0; for his toys, $0; for his meals and beautiful room, $0.”  Bradley read the note, took his $8.00, and placed it in his mother’s hand.  Kerr writes, “After that, Bradley helped his Mother, this time for love.”

             I love this story!  Maturity and gratitude are almost synonymous.  Nothing ushers Christ into our lives more than a sense of thanksgiving for what God has done for us.  To ponder the incarnation, the life and teachings of Jesus, the crucifixion and resurrection, is to see all of life through new eyes.

             A number of years ago a young mother in the church I served in Columbia, South Carolina learned she had a tumor in her shin, and she was told it might be malignant.  Some kind of limited amputation was even mentioned.  She was scared to death!  And then the surgery revealed that it was a benign tumor.  I will never forget her response.  “I feel like I’ve been given a whole new life to live.  I don’t ever want to forget how I feel today!”

             We never need forget what a gift life is.  It is why at the center of Christian worship is this table of thanksgiving.  Jesus says, “Do this in remembrance of me.”  We also call it the Eucharist, which means “to give thanks.”

             A second word to make 2013 a new year is generosity.  Jimmy Carter remembers always what a friend of his, a mentor, used to say.  “Love God, and the person in front of you.”  To do that takes a generous spirit, it takes a large heart.  Carter writes, “We often underestimate the gifts we have from God: life, talent, ability, knowledge, freedom, influence, opportunities.  Our lives will be shrunken if we act only from a sense of fear.  Don’t carry life around in a closed jar.”

             We are given life to live it fully, and to do that, we must share it.  All of it!  That is why I always welcome stewardship talk in the life of the church.  It is not that money will ever save you.  It is more apt to wreck your life.  But if you never learn to share it, or to give it, chances are you will never learn to be generous in other, more important parts of your life either.  Marriage is all about giving, and so is parenting.  Friendship is about giving, and so is learning.  Most important things are!  And giving is good for the soul.  Nothing makes us feel more alive.  Forgiveness never happens without someone giving.  And Jesus gave everything.  All Jesus asks of us is 10 percent of our money, likely to remind us that all of it comes from Him.

             Generosity is really a spirit we bring to life.  And giving is one of the surest signs that we are alive. That is why Paul said, when he was talking about money, that “God loves a cheerful giver.”  And gratitude begets generosity.  People who are in Christ can never give enough, because they have learned from Jesus that “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

             Finally, to be in Christ, and to make 2013 a new year, you will need grit.  Paul had it.  To the Philippians he could write from a Roman prison, “For I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content….”  To be “in Christ” is to find strength for whatever comes.  For it is to learn that Jesus is a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief,” and that when things are at their worst, Jesus usually does His best work in our lives.  The cross reminds us that God enters into our suffering with us, and can redeem us through it.  Which is why Paul could say, “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).

             Life is not easy for any of us, and I have lived long enough to know that we all must work through “the valley of the shadow.”  Phillips Brooks wrote, “Do not pray for easy lives.  Pray to be stronger men!  Do not pray for tasks equal to your power.  Pray for powers equal to your tasks.”

             George MacDonald in 1872 wrote The Princess and the Goblin.  Curdie cannot see what is really before him.  He meets Princess Irene’s great-great-grandmother.  She sees a beautiful room warmed by a fire.  All Curdie can see is a pile of old hay because that is all he has ever been trained to see.  Princess Irene teaches Curdie to see.

             That is what we need.  We need to allow Jesus to teach us to see.  To do that we need to draw close to Christ in 2013.  We can be people whose lives are marked by gratitude, generosity and grit!  “In Christ” we will make it a New Year.

 

                                                                                    Amen.

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