Sermon, January 8, 2016

New Things I Now Declare
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
January 8, 2017
First Sunday after Epiphany, Baptism of Christ
Psalm 29; Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17

We are in new territory as a civilization, living in a world that would have been considered wildly imaginative science fiction just a few decades ago—with revolutionary new technologies and global interconnections through the internet and global threats to the environment and a global refugee crisis, to name only some of the changes.

At the same time an increasing percentage of our society has given up on the church as an institution that could help us find our way through the new landscape of our lives. The church has not been so dismissed as irrelevant or reviled for over a thousand years.

Yet we have as much reason to hope as any generation ever had. I am not fretting about the condition of the world or the church today, because what Isaiah said is still true,

“Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness…. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare.”

I am not fretting about the world or the church because what the Psalm believed and prayed with confidence I still believe and pray: “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!”

I do not picture God as a king sitting on a throne above the clouds as the Psalm does, but I do think of God as the highest power in the universe, a creative force of love and life and light that flows through all things, a Holy Spirit that comforts, guides and empowers us when we are one with the flow of its sacred way, as Jesus was at his baptism.

I am not fretting, because Isaiah was speaking about us when he said, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” The Apostle Paul put it this way: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (I Corinthians 12:27)

We, you and I and this church, are the servant whom God has chosen to do the new thing the world needs.

I am not fretting, because the highest power in the universe, the power that created and creates all things, the power that has made past saints, mystics and churches shine as a light to the nations, the God who is more powerful than the thunderstorms that take our breath away, the same Holy Spirit that guided and empowered Jesus to transform broken lives and bring the dead back to life—that higher power of love and life and light is here within and around us, and it wants to flow through us and use us to transform this world to be ever more like the realm of God’s mercy, justice and peace.

I am not fretting because I know that with that power we can do a new thing. We can be transformed, and we can transform the world. We just have to know how to work with that power in our lives.

The other day I was driving behind an ambulance when suddenly I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I thought of all the amazing life-saving technology that was in it, the culmination of thousands of years of human knowledge and skill. I thought how also inside it was a team of people who had dedicated years to become skilled at saving lives using that equipment. I thought of all the ambulances racing all over the world saving life after life.

Then with a jolt I realized that if an untrained person like me were in that ambulance its equipment would do no good at all. I could not save someone even from a heavy nosebleed—all I could offer would be the comfort of a hand to hold, the reassurance of a heartfelt prayer, the consolation of knowing that someone was grieving the person’s passing. Those are all of great value, of course, but what a person having a heart attack wants most in that moment is not a hand to hold but someone who can operate the automated external defibrillator to save her life.

The church of Jesus Christ is like an ambulance going through this world. It is loaded with thousands of years of wisdom and experience that can transform and save lives, tools developed by the prophets and psalmists and Jesus and saints and mystics and scholars and everyday people, all inspired by the Holy Spirit. We have the very equipment and techniques needed to save the world and save lost and hurting people in our community and save ourselves, but those tools can do nothing unless we dedicate ourselves as studiously as EMTs and train ourselves to use them. It is not enough just to sit in an ambulance for an hour a week—you can do that your whole life and still not know how to use the tools and techniques.

The world and the church have changed dramatically in our lifetime. Their needs are therefore different, and are far greater, than we have ever seen. To that God says, “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare.”

As different as our era of history is, this is not the first time that God has done a new thing. It happened in the days of Isaiah, when the entire nation of Israel had been destroyed and most of its population carried off as captives to Babylon, and the people were in danger of losing their faith in God. It happened in the days of John the Baptist when kings and emperors and high priests, the rich and the powerful, were oppressing the nation and people were lost and searching for saving grace. It happened in the time of St. Francis, and the Protestant Reformation, and the revivals of the Great Awakenings, and the abolition of slavery of Lincoln’s day and the Civil Rights Movement of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Day. “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare,” God has said, and those new things have come to pass because people like us have risen to serve.

We can be transformed, and we can transform the world. We just have to know how, and although times change and God does new things and wisdom and tools evolve through the ages, the basic approach remains the same. We see it in the story of God doing a new thing in the life of Jesus.

First, we need people among us who are willing to be transformed, because God works through transformed people to transform other people. John the Baptist was transformed, and through him many others went home with a message of hope and helped others change their ways and their lives. Jesus submitted himself to transformation in the River Jordan, and the world has never been the same.

St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “Have peace in yourself and thousands will find salvation around you.” Be transformed and the world will find transformation around you.

Second, we need humility, because only those who admit that they need transformation will open to it. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in today’s Silent Meditation, “Only where God is can there be a new beginning. We cannot command God to grant it; we can only pray to God for it. And we can pray only when we realize that we cannot do anything, that we have reached our limit, that someone else must make that new beginning.” (from God Is in the Manger, the January First entry)

The greatest transformational movement of our time begins its 12 Steps with these three:

“We admitted we were powerless over our addiction—that our lives had become unmanageable. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

Jesus had the humility to turn to his cousin John the Baptist seeking the transformation John had undergone, turning his will and life over to the care of God’s higher power. We need to do the same if we want to change the world as powerfully as Jesus did.

Third, we need to practice using some of the sophisticated equipment on this ambulance. We have our rituals, but are we using them in a way that can bring transformation, as Jesus’ baptism did? You do not attach an automated external defibrillator to a heart attack victim’s head, you attach it to their chest. We have to connect our heart and our will to a ritual like communion, we have to immerse our whole life in it to have it transform and save us.

Similarly, we pray, but do we pray in such a way that we can hear God saying to us, “You are my beloved child with whom I am well pleased!” Do we pray in such a way that we are wide open to the guidance and the power of the Holy Spirit flowing through us? There are many kinds of prayer, and all are good—prayer can be life-changing when it makes us available to these experiences that Jesus had.

Fourth, we need each other. We need beloved community. We tend to zoom in so that we see only John and Jesus in the River Jordan that day, but the scriptures say that great crowds were there. Jesus went alone into the wilderness, and he often tried to get away on a mountainside to pray, but most of his life was spent with his disciples or among crowds. He was a fisher of people and he made those around him fishers of people. He was a participant and leader in a movement, the same movement that Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. were part of and we are part of today, the movement to make our world more like God’s realm of mercy, justice and peace. The anthropologist Margaret Mead studied many cultures throughout world history and said, “Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has!” We need each other. We need to work together. We can change the world if we do.

The reason we are here today is because Jesus was transformed and transformed other people and those other people formed churches that went out every time God declared a new thing and served as the Holy Spirit’s instruments to transform the world.

That is our calling today, to be that kind of person, to be that kind of church.

Are you open to it? Are you ready?

Let us pray or reflect on that in silence, open to hearing God’s love for us and feeling the Spirit’s movement in and around us…