Once again we begin a new year. But what has changed? The sun rose and set one more time and, suddenly, it is all new? The new year is just a mark in time, something akin to drawing a line in a flowing river with your finger. Now your checks will read 2011 instead of 2010 - or, if you are like me, the first three months will have 2010 crossed out and 2011 crammed into that little space that is left, because I forget to make the change for a while.
We have a new year, a new opportunity to "pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again", as the song says. But we have that same opportunity every morning as we daily put that old man to death in the waters of our Baptism and a new man daily come forth and arise who will live before God in righteousness and purity forever. We can make a big deal out of the "new" year or ignore its newness. What we cannot do is avoid the necessity of living in it, and the challenge and opportunity it gives us to repent, and then to live before God and man as the child of God.
All of our life as a Christian is just like the new year — new and yet not so very different from the past — a living contradiction in terms. I am going to try to describe it in the following paragraphs, so if it seems confusing, well . . ., it is, at times. To start with, nothing has really changed by the rolling around of another January 1. If you accumulate enough January 1st's, you have something - usually called old age, but just because the calendar turned from 2010 to 2011, it did not change the color of your house, or the make of your car, or how your knees feel. The continuity of conditions in your life mark a challenge to all that talk about the "new". You have to make it something new or it is just more of the same.
We Christians have the challenge of living out an ancient faith and holding fast to the unchanging truth in the midst of a changing world. The challenges of the modern Christian life are different from what they were in the past - and yet very similar in some ways. Back in the days when life was so settled that the only thing that changed was your age, the challenge of the life of the Christian was often to live the unchanging faith in the midst of unchanging circumstances. That presented its own challenges. Today, change is one of the more reliable features of our lives. For example, the technology we once considered too new to be relevant is now technology most of us cannot live without; cellphones, smartphones, computers, email, social media on the internet, and the like. We didn't want it when it came (at least some of us didn't) but now that we have it, it seems hard to imagine living without it. It is like this: some of us can remember life before electric service reached our homes, now we cannot imagine living without all that electricity provides for us. We can remember living without electricity, but we would return to those conditions only reluctantly.
Society has changed too. Gone are the barn dances of old, the way people used to "neighbor" one another, the peaceful security of the world of our youth. You remember when no one had to lock their homes, and children could go out and play all day, and you didn't have to worry about them being kidnapped or molested. Those were the days when almost everyone we knew went to church almost every Sunday. It used to be that everyone we knew went to the same church we did, then things began to change and suddenly everyone had their own church, but at least they went to church. Today people debate whether we should say "Merry Christmas", or "Happy Holidays". Most of our friends and neighbors do not go to church any more, and they often have no real idea what the Christian faith is - and they generally don't want to hear it from you unless they ask. This is the world in which we are to let our lights shine and confess the unchanging truths of the faith.
Even the church has changed. The familiar hymnals are being replaced with mimeographed (or photocopied) pages, with the entire service, including the words to the hymns, printed in the bulletins, or with the "praise wall" where they project the words you are to sing or say. That hasn't happened here yet, but when you travel, watch out! The service is different in many places. Now they say things we used to chant, and there are new hymns and new bits of liturgy - and some places have abandoned the familiar liturgies for something new every week, perhaps a familiar shape but filled with new substance every week. And we are supposed to pretend that this is the same old faith and the same old worship.
But we are filled with the gnawing certainty that more than just the style of worship is being changed, and it seems that the challenges before us have begun to include holding fast to sound doctrine and being unbending in our confession in a world and in a church that requires flexibility. And we want to be flexible in the right way. We want to meet the needs of this changing environment and be a winsome presence for the sake of the Gospel and for the welfare of others as much as for our own.
Living in this new world - this new year - demands the best of us. We must use all of our wits to manage being faithful without being unduly rigid or bound by mere traditions. We must reason our way through things but we also need to be wary of reason, for it is not always faithful either. We have to think and evaluate changes we see, and not respond foolishly but faithfully - and yet we must not simply follow what seems best to us. The challenge of the Christian life is very much like the difference between the old year and the new year - nothing has changed, really, and yet everything is new and different somehow as well.
This challenging situation is all God's doing. God has not invited us to live the easy life. Jesus compared that kind of living to the wide and easy road with a wide gate which leads to destruction - and many are those who enter by that gate! God has deliberately set before us a life filled with contradictions. It is our fault, too, of course. Sin is the culprit. We have sinned and so the world is not simple, and life is not easy and its course is not as plain to us as it may well have been without sin. But when God called us to faith, and claimed us as His own, and made us ambassadors of the grace of God, and gave us our part in His great plan, He called us to live in the contradictions of life as it exists in this world of sin and grace.
In one sense, He did everything. Jesus redeemed us. We are rescued, forgiven, and made righteous by His divine decree. In another sense, He has made us partners in His work. He actually makes it work, but He gives us each a role. The work of His grace is like the work of providence, He makes it happen, but He works with us and through us and leaves us with the challenge of life. He works, and we work, and yet all the success is His. But He shares the glory of the accomplishments with us by grace. We actually do stuff, but it is God at work through us.
That is the contradiction of our lives in Christ. How do we hold to the good of the past and embrace the good of the future and bring into it all that God has given us? You can see the Church around you struggling with these same issues. Sometimes the answers that we see others choosing are troubling for us, and sometimes the choices we seem to have are frustrating. It seems like what we want and what we need is fading away, or becoming very difficult to find or hold onto. How do we handle this? What is our best approach?
At this point, you expect an answer, and I've got one - it is just not an easy answer. The answer is to do your best, stick to the Word of God, and trust God to make it all work out right.
There have been times when not changing how we worship (for example) would have been the best choice for most of us, but that choice doesn't really exist any more. The world is moving forward, and even if we don't want to go with it, we are stuck in the world and going along for the ride. There may remain small pockets of those who are resistant to change, but they will grow smaller and fewer as time goes on. Change is inevitable, at least in certain regards.
But we cannot allow some things to change. Doctrine - the substance of what it is that we believe and confess must remain the same. If that changes, we end up with a different religion, and, as St. Paul says in Galatians, a different Gospel is no Gospel at all! There will always be the pressure to change our doctrine, and so we need to make up our minds that we will face that pressure and stand firm in the faith no matter what it may cost us.
You see, a lot of change has happened because people were simply not willing to hold on to the way things were. It was unpopular, or it demanded their time and study, or it was going to cost them money - maybe even a lot of money, and it did not seem worth the cost to them, so they let go of what was and went with the flow and change happened. Not all change is bad, but there are some things worth fighting for, worth the effort to keep them from changing, at least for us and our circumstances. There is actually a church word of people who stand for what is true and right and are willing to pay the price for their confession. They are called martyrs. The more well-known of this group have paid even with their lives, but you don't have to die to be a martyr. You just have to stand on the truth and pay the price of taking that stand.
Because we are in a time of change, we have to stake out our position and identify what is worth paying the price for, and stand firm. What we stand for is a judgment call, and that is where doing your best comes in. You have to study and know what is true, and what is worth the price you may have to pay. You don't have to decide what to stand on. We stand on the Word of God. You simply have to decide what to stand for. Different people will often make different decisions in that regard. Just because they are different, does not mean that they are wrong. Some will take a stand on the liturgy, and not let go of it. Some will choose to fight for retaining hymns, good, old, solid hymns. In some places, they have to fight to keep the Catechism. I know it sounds strange, but some who call themselves Lutheran want to stop using the Catechism, and the Creeds, and the Lord's Prayer, and Confession of sins and Absolution.
In every case, it comes down to fighting for doctrine, really. Doctrine is all that really matters, but doctrine shapes how we do what we do, and what it is that we try to do. Our only weapon in this fight is the Word of God - and a stubborn (read: faithful) confession. And the battle can get lonely, and long, and painful, and very costly in every way it can become costly. The good thing is that we are not called by God to win the battles, we simply called to stand faithfully.
Standing faithfully also means things like remembering that our enemy is never the people around us who disagree with us, but the devil who drives them. We are still to love our enemies and pray for them - but never love them in such a way that we surrender the truth or the battle to them. Remember Matthew 10:37 and following: "He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me."
The final step in the answer I would give is to trust God. He will take your faithfulness and make everything work out just right. That doesn't mean that He will make it work out the way you want it to work out, necessarily, but the way He wants it to work out. Sometimes we fight for the wrong things, simply because we cannot see as clearly as God does, but He does not let our faithfulness go without effect. He notices it. But more importantly, when we fight the good fight of faith, we can always have the comfort of knowing that God will make all things work out according to His will.
Contradictions in terms. That is the condition of the life of the Child of God in this world. Simul justus et peccator, At the very same time, saint and sinner. Crushed and yet not defeated. Dying and yet we live. Worthy of nothing but the wrath of God, and yet chosen by Him for His love and grace and salvation. Facing a new year, and yet the same old challenges of standing firm and faithful, doing what is right where others expect us to just follow the herd. Looking at the new year and Pastor Fish is giving you the same old marching orders. "Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee the crown of life."
Happy New Year! Let's face it together, in Christ's name and standing on His Word!
Yours in the Lord,
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