We are entering a new year. There is nothing really new about that, is there? Most of us have done it over and over again until it isn't as exciting or fun as it once was. We've gotten too old for the long nights and the crazy parties - and perhaps too wise for them too.
Still, the new year always puts us in mind of something new. Many people mark that by making new year's resolutions. Most of those resolutions fade faster than the sense of newness of the year, but there is nothing particularly new about that either. The new thing that I have in mind is not the number on the year - although we will probably take a couple of months to get out of the habit of writing '04 on our checks and such. The 'something new' I have in mind is the 'something' that Jesus was talking about when He said, "Behold, I am making all things new," in Revelation 21.
Now, those words appear in the scene in Revelation after the final judgment and as God is creating the new heavens and the new earth of His people. At that time, He will be making things really new - but the truths of what is to come are already at work among us. Christ makes things new even today; "Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come." Notice, if you will, that the Apostle did not write that He will make things new, or that it might happen - but the old things have passed away and new things have come. We are in the middle of this 'something new' right now.
The newness of the world at the end, when Jesus returns, will be outward and transformed in every sense. The newness we have to deal with in our lives as God's people is internal for us - we see things and people differently because of the Gospel, and we deal with things, and people, in a way that reflects our new understanding and the truth of the transforming work of Jesus. In that regard it is something like the newness of the year.
A new year is not something unique. It is just a culturally arbitrary way of marking time. The Jews have their new years and the Chinese have theirs. I did a study once and found that there were at least twenty-three different 'new year's, culture by culture. Depending on your culture, the new year can mean different things, too. The Chinese have a cycle of years signified by the different animals; the rat, the dog, the horse, the monkey, and so forth, each of which impart certain characteristics to the year and personality traits to those born in those years. In reality, one year is just like another, a series of days grouped together to form weeks and months. What happens in them differs from time to time, but essentially they are alike. We invest the new year with possibilities and definite starting days and ending days that depend more on our attitudes and our perspectives than upon the days themselves.
The 'something new' this article points to is the difference between how we face things and people as the redeemed and forgiven children of God, and how the world around us might approach them. Christ makes all things new for those who He makes new in His grace. "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature." Jesus refers to what He is working in and with His disciples as new. He establishes a new covenant, and gives us a new command. He refers to the Christian life as new, the way to heaven as new, and gives to each of us a new name. Our lives among the holy people of God are to be lived in all of this newness.
Our time is new time - holy time. We are given the time of our lives for holy purposes. It is not given us to waste but to use and spend in the freedom of our salvation and to the glory of God. That is why we don't want anyone to do anything that they cannot do from a free and cheerful heart. "The Lord loves a cheerful giver." Our work is done for him, and our recreation is done in His presence and to His glory. If it is worth the time which God blesses you with to do it, it is worth doing it with all of your might and enthusiasm and for the sheer joy of it. Not every activity in life lends itself to joy and enthusiasm, but in everything, we live in the 'new' by remembering that God gives us the time and conditions of our lives so that we can spend them with deliberation and energy, and the awareness that this moment, whether good or unpleasant, and whether work or play, is to be lived as the gift of God it is, so that it will redound (to have the result or effect) to His glory. That is why the Scriptures speak of "redeeming the time for the days are evil." (Eph. 5:16, in the King James Version).
Everyone else is 'new', too. "Therefore from now on we recognize no man according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer." We have a new relationship to every other person on this planet (or off of it) because of what Christ has done for us, and then in us. No man, for example, is any longer our enemy. They may well be our adversaries for the moment, or an obstacle to our progress in one way or another, bu they are not our enemy. "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places." Our enemy is never the person who stands before us and opposes us. It is always the devil and his crew.
So we must look on those who stand against us as those in need of the Gospel and salvation. I acknowledge that there are places and times when we cannot afford to deal with our adversaries in this compassionate way - as when they are shooting at us in war, or committed to acts of terrorism, such as suicide bombings (and other terrorist acts). In such cases, we are showing compassion and love for our fellows if we stand firm and unyielding against the foe, and thereby protect their lives and loved ones. Yet, generally we can look even at our bitter adversaries as those who desperately need the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the knowledge of salvation and the kind and effectual work of the Holy Spirit in them, and consider how we may manage our adversarial relations in such a ways that we can hold open the door of peace and life in Jesus Christ to them - if not now, eventually.
If this is true of our adversaries, and it is, then how much more is it true of our acquaintances, neighbors, and friends?
Everyone around us must be new. Now, I don't mean that to be understood as a command or a law, but as a logical and spiritual necessity of our faith. Our friends are now seen as those who share with us the wonderful secret of salvation, or those with whom we want to share that secret. Our family is, properly speaking, the Church. Those who are related to us by blood, on the other hand, are either fellow-partakers in the grace of God in Jesus Christ, or the closest mission field. Surely we love our kin in this world with the sort of love that earnestly desires to see them in eternal life with us!
But family is a word and a concept reserved in the Church for those who have been chosen by God and called through His Word into the adoption as sons by baptism and faith. We are each adopted by God into His family: "So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God's household, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone." The real family we have been given are those who are part of God's family - into which we have been adopted - not merely those who are related by the flesh.
So, when we go to church, or meet fellow-believers in other places, we cannot deal with them as just "people". They are family, because they have been made new in Christ. We are to think of them, and speak to them or about them, and act toward them as important people in our lives, gifts from God, and those whom we are given to love and cherish and nurture and encourage. What they think and how they feel are important to us - and what they believe, theologically speaking, is of critical importance. The church is not a "you go ahead and believe whatever you wish" kind of place. Such an attitude says, "I don't care if you make it to heaven or not!" But we are called on for more than that by our Lord.
"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another." We are to love one another in the way that Christ loved us. He loved us by service. He loved us by giving of Himself - not just on the cross, either - although that is the most important and striking giving of Himself. But we are not supposed to wait for the final, grand moment, and then throw ourselves on the grenade for our fellow-Christian. We are supposed to swallow our pride and turn away from our own preferences, and look to the welfare of our brother or sister in Christ. We are to do for them, and listen to them, and care personally about them because they are precious. God made them so by choosing them, just as He chose us, and He declared them to be so both in His Word, and by calling them by name in Baptism, and sharing that most holy gift - His true body and blood - with them for their blessing, forgiveness, and strengthening in the Lord's Supper.
Most importantly, however, we are to remind one another and encourage one another in the truth. When we hear the influence of the world and the compromising attitudes of unbelief creeping into the speech of our beloved family members, we are to say something. It is likely to be happening without their conscious awareness. If we remind them and encourage them with the Word and humbly and affectionately deal with them to help them remain on the narrow path of truth, we can help them back. Once they have transitioned to the new attitudes and adopted the perspective that truth is relative, and we cannot know for sure about some things (like God-things), and everyone is pretty much okay - as long as they believe something - once they are there, mentally, bringing them back to the simple truths of the faith becomes nearly impossible. Once they have decided that they only need the Word, and the Sacraments, and the fellowship of God's people occasionally, such spiritual pride and fleshly security is very intransigent (meaning that it refuses to compromise or be reconciled).
The world itself is renewed by our renewal in Christ. It isn't renewed in substance, but in our eyes, and the way we want to deal with it. It becomes a tool, a place of service, and a temporary situation for us. We use the world in whatever way serves God, but we also want to keep straight in our minds that the world is not the main act, the big show, the final kahuna, so to speak. I'm but a stranger here, Heaven is my home. This world is our place of service and of faithfulness - that is, of 'walking by faith". We have passed out of the Law, and so the world is not a place of "do not handle, do not taste, do not touch". It is a place of "Whether you eat, or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." We use the world to serve God, and to live in, but we do not confuse ourselves by thinking that the world, the environment, the pressing issues of the culture are our primary concern. Sharing the Gospel with those who are perishing, and encouraging our brothers and sisters in Christ, are.
Even we ourselves are new. We are new by virtue of the forgiveness of sins and the grace and love of God which is poured out on us. We are not to even judge ourselves by the old standards. Sure, we sin. While we struggle against temptation and try not to do what is sin, we also have a Savior. It is not okay to sin, but we are not measured for eternity by our conduct, rather by Christ's life of perfect holiness and substitutionary death in our place. Our faith and our faithfulness is a gift and a work of God, so we look to Him, and trust in Him, and measure all things, even ourselves, by the grace and love of God poured out on us in Jesus Christ through Word and Sacrament. "We walk by faith, not by sight (sense experience)."
In short, everything is new for those who have been made new, "born again, not of seed which is perishable, but imperishable; that is the living and abiding Word of God". The rolling around of the new year, with the customs of resolutions and the new number for the year, can serve to remind us of the truth of our faith and of the new, I mean really new that we are created to be, and that we are given in Christ. Something new that cannot grow old - as the world surely does.
Yours in the Lord,
These sermons are for the Church. If you find it useful, go ahead and use it -- but give credit where credit is due.
Shaped by the Cross Lutheran Church's Website can be found by clicking here.
Send Pastor Robin Fish an email.