Shake yourself from the dust, arise, O captive Jerusalem; loose the bonds from your neck, O captive daughter of Zion. For thus says the LORD: ‘You were sold for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money.’ Is 52:2-3
The Message translation of today’s Bible reading from the Prophet Isaiah is titled “God Is Leading You Out of Here,” and goes on to exhort God’s people to wake up, throw off their chains and remember who they are. “God Is Leading You Out of Here.” What a great sermon title for our December 31st worship, as we stand together on the threshold of a new year. God wants to lead you and I out of 2017 and into 2018. Most of us, at most times, probably don’t think we need help from God to lead us out of this year and into the next. After all, the New Year can be a very optimistic time. A whole new 365 days opens up before us, with many opportunities. We make resolutions; mine are to exercise, to find time to do some writing, to share more quality time with family. Unfortunately though, I am old enough to know that my New Year resolutions don’t last very long. With all the best intentions, experience tells me that it is extremely unlikely that the opportunity of a new year will in itself bring a new and improved me.
Today’s Bible reading, and much of our scriptures, however, suggest that a new beginning might not be where we should first look for substantial change. If you want transformation, says our Scriptures and Jesus in 100 different ways, this more often happens not when something new begins but when something old falls apart. That’s because the pain of something old falling apart—the disruption and chaos—often invites us to listen at a deeper level. It invites and sometimes forces the soul to go to a new place because the old place is not working anymore. The Scriptures use many words to describe this chaos: fire, darkness, death, emptiness, abandonment, trial, the Evil One. Whatever it is, it does not feel good and it does not feel like God. I am being general here, you can fill in the blanks of what the old place is that you tend to get stuck in. Relationships in your family that are dysfunctional but yet you can’t get unstuck, your position at work that should be bold and creative, but instead is compromised and dull. New restrictions on what your body will allow you to do as an older person, that you ignore at your own peril. We will do just about anything to keep our old thing from falling apart, even though they no longer work.
Wherever you are stuck, captive and sleep walking, like God’s people in today’s reading form Isaiah, this is where you need extra patience, guidance, and the freedom to let go instead of tightening controls and certitudes. This is when we must face the pain of 2017, be vulnerable and humbly trust that God Is Leading You and I Out of Here. Because the crucial first step in looking forward to a blessed new year is confessing to God and each other all the anxiety, boredom, frustration and shortcomings of the last one. No one likes to do this, it’s easier to grin and bear behind perfect looking social media profiles and well wishes for 2018.
But in church, I pray, as we look forward to a new year we can risk admitting the fact that we don’t have it all together, at least privately with God, and then out loud with those dear to us. We can admit that many things in our lives are not well or not what we would like them to be. We can remember that no real change happens without something old falling apart, and with trust in God, we don’t have to be scared of things falling apart. We can be less afraid that our teenager is beyond our control, that our job is out of control, that our health is beyond our control-because if you are living, you are changing, and something is always falling apart-but we know that God is always leading us out of here, from isolation to intimacy, from despair to hope, from death to resurrection.
I want to conclude with a powerful illustration of this truth from Thomas Moore’s book, Meditations. He tells a story of a traveler walking along a road. The traveler sees some men working on a stone building:
“You look like a monk,” the traveler said. “I am that,” said the monk. “Who is that working on the monastery?” “My monks. I’m the superior.” “It’s good to see a monastery going up,” said the traveler. “They’re actually tearing it down,” said the superior. “Whatever for?” asked the traveler. “So we can see the sun rise at dawn,” said the superior.
So often we build lives and institutions that get in the way of our higher purpose, our own best selves. In order to find the new me and the new you in the new year, maybe we should start by asking God’s help in taking down the old me and you; the part of our ego that always gets us in trouble, the wall we put up between those we love, the harsh ways we judge others. So often our institutions, our church included, get in the way of our own higher calling. In order for God to continue to bless and renew St. Hagop in 2018, let’s make sure we dismantle what is in the way of God, what blocks the sunrise, to see how God wants to build us back up right in 2018. And let us always remember that whatever you are silently suffering through, whatever holds you captive and keeps you down, God Is Leading You Out of Here, now and always, amen.
–Parts of this sermon adapted from Richard Rohr‘s Daily Meditation for Dec, 29 2017, When Things Fall Apart