The Second Sunday after Christmas, January 2, 2011
|Reading 1:||Reading 2:||Reading 3:||Reading 4:|
|Jeremiah 31:7-14||Psalm 147:12-20||Ephesians 1:3-14||John 1:1-18|
By Bruce G. Epperly
The New Year’s revels of parties, parades, and football games have almost concluded. There will be a few more bowl games ahead as well as the onward march to the Super Bowl. In the spirit of New Year’s, some folks will be making resolutions and setting goals, typically about their diet and weight. With the celebration of New Year’s, there is a sense that we can start over, letting go of the past and becoming new persons. Well, as most of us know, the heaviness of the past remains, shaping our lives, even when we try to change them. But, the biblical tradition promises that transformation is possible and that in Christ we can become new creations, liberated from habit, guilt, and self-centeredness.
The prophet Jeremiah speaks of the restoration of persons and social structures. The Babylonia exiles are returning home; life will be good again, singing and dancing will be the order of the day. God will turn their mourning into joy.
Many persons in our congregations are still waiting for restoration. Christmas and New Years have been burdensome, rather than joyful. They are grieving and they wait for the divine promise of joy. Yet, even in returning home, life will never be the same. We may never fully recover financially from the 2008 stock market collapse. We may never ever return to business as usual in our employment and sense of personal security. No one’s going to wave a magic wand to restore rust belt industries or America’s place as the world’s primary producer of goods. So, how can we speak of restoration when we’re still in recovery – personally, spiritually, relationally, economically, and congregationally? Authentic hope walks through rather than avoids the “valley of the shadow.” Resurrection comes by way of the cross and not comfort or avoidance of pain. God gives us possibilities and the energy to achieve them, but always amid the concrete limitations and situations of life.
The Psalmist also speaks words of celebration. God’s glory is found in the orderly movements of life. God is sovereign and divine energy moves through all things, assuring a positive outcome. Yet, is the work of God always visible? Where is sovereignty or order in the automobile crash or the intensive care unit? In conversation about my book, Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, a seasoned pastor noted that he was much more aware of God’s absence than God’s presence in his life and ministry. We can’t too easily claim God’s presence, because the light of God both reveals and conceals, and divine subtlety can’t fully be captured by human perception.
As a process theologian, who affirms the omnipresence of a God who seeks abundant life for all creation, I am often challenged by questions such as: “Where is God in the cancer cell? Where is God in the tornado that destroyed a town or the hurricane that flooded a city? Where is God in the intentions of a terrorist preparing to set off a bomb?” These are hard questions for anyone who believes that God is seeking the good in every situation. Sometimes, it’s necessary to admit that some things can’t be explained or that God’s aim at abundant life involves death as well as life and that even God’s quest for healing, wholeness, and justice is not always successful. That’s a hard theological pill to swallow especially if you want everything to turn out right in the end.
The Psalmist and Jeremiah are both giving us a “polestar” – a dream to live by that will motivate our quest for Shalom. The children of the exiles were later to be oppressed by the Greeks and then the Romans. Restoration was brief, yet the dream of Shalom still remains. Whitehead proclaims – and I affirm – that the teleology or goal of the universe is toward beauty; but the philosopher whose son died during World War I was also aware of the ugliness and carnage of life. Sometimes, God’s vision is “the best the impasse” and that is not always particularly good from the ideal standpoint.
Ephesians also presents some serious theological questions: What does it mean to say that “God chose us before the foundation of the world?” Is this some sort of predestination? Are some chosen and others rejected? Or, does the passage imply that God’s vision embraces everyone and that God blesses or seeks to provide everyone with spiritual blessings? Ephesians affirms that God’s “good pleasure” is to “gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.” To use Calvinist language, does this mean that all are elect, that is, the object of God’s loving care and quest for abundant life? If this passage is universal, it truly is good news: it asserts that God is working in every life and that deep down we possess “every spiritual blessing,” that is, everything we need to flourish spiritually in this lifetime.
Still, our daily lives are ambiguous, to say the least. While we affirm the universality of grace, touching everyone and luring everyone toward restoration, healing, and wholeness, the path is difficult for most of us, even those of us who are healthy of mind, body, and spirit and who were born into healthy families with enough largesse to insure our physical well-being and safety. But, this is hardly universal. Perhaps, the words of Ephesians are the joyful exclamation of those who have experienced God transforming their lives and have discovered abundant life in the midst of scarcity. Still, the only appropriate response besides gratitude is to work individually, corporately, and politically to insure that everyone has the necessities to experience spiritual and physical blessings. Those who have received blessing are challenged to be blessings to others in every aspect of our personal and corporate lives. Perhaps, a helpful ethical standard for the “blessed” is to ask themselves regularly: Do my personal, community, and political viewpoints and actions bless or curse my neighbors and strangers?
John’s Prologue proclaims that God’s Creative Wisdom is at the heart of all things. Divine Wisdom (Sophia/Logos) brought forth the big bang – or big birth – of the universe and God’s energy enlightens all things in the ongoing adventure of personal and cosmic evolution. Divine creativity touches everything, influences everything, and guides everything. God’s light enlightens everyone on every continent.
Yet, John the realist notes that persons often turn away from the light. The world fails to see the God’s light in the present moment, in each event, and in the long stretch of history. Still, the God’s Creative Word/Wisdom goes forth into the world – in the very flesh of life, in the quotidian events of each day, and even to the cross. God’s Holy Wisdom/Holy Word cannot be vanquished by human ignorance, alienation, willfulness, or pride. Moreover, those who awaken to God’s word experience new power and abundance in their lives. Our opening to God enables God to do new and creative things in our lives. God is non-competitive; God wants us to do “greater things” for our evolution and to enable God to be more creative in our world. This is not “prosperity gospel” or “new age abundance” but power to transform the world and our lives in tandem with God’s Creative Wisdom.
Perhaps, an inspiring resolution for the New Year involves taking the time to open to God through spiritual practices. Along with our New Year’s resolutions regarding diet and exercise, we may also choose to spend more time opening to God’s light and choosing to bless others. The light is here – within us and all around us – but we need to wake up to its beauty and power. That’s a New Year’s resolution worth affirming!
Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.