While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
Heaven and Earth
The readings we heard from the lectionary are for New Year’s Day because that is what is on everyone’s mind, especially this year.
So many commentators have been keen to bid good-riddance to 2020 and all its challenges, and to welcome 2021 with its hope of an end to the pandemic and the success of the new vaccines we’re starting to use.
The challenges we have faced have inspired people, including Queen Elizabeth in her Christmas address, to reflect on past challenges. In her case, the second world war and the hardships our society managed to survive then; for some others, the history of the Spanish Flu 100 years ago which has paralleled our own experience remarkably.
I became aware of the Spanish Flu in my final year of seminary. Lori had a charge north of Toronto and after attending a funeral she conducted in Beeton, I wandered around the cemetery there, looking at gravestones. I was startled that this small graveyard had a couple of long rows of people of all ages who had died in the same year. It turned out that it was because of the Spanish Flu epidemic.
I was stunned, partly because I had never imagined the flu to be so deadly, but mostly because it was obvious that this disease had devastated a small town. It must have been an awful time.
The message many people are adopting now reflects our Ecclesiastes reading with that reminder that there is a season for everything. The comfort it offers us that we will get through this because we’ve gone through it before and God has provided a cycle of life to go back to.
It’s a message of resilience. It’s a message that there is a pattern to life which is longer and greater than we can encompass in a single lifetime which, nevertheless, is real and which will carry us beyond our present crisis.
That’s a hopeful message and as we enter the new season of a new year it is good to hear it.
But Ecclesiastes is not the only reading we have and we can’t stop there.
Is it enough to hope that we can ride out this cycle? To hope and pray for a return to “normal” later this year? Is it enough to wait for this bad season to end and a better season to return?
Our second lesson is from the Book of Revelations, sometimes called the Apocalypse, and it feels rather apocalyptic. Some interpret this lesson as part of John’s vision of the end of the world, where the New Heaven joins with the New Earth and God lives with us in a new and righteous creation.
This is a very hopeful vision although it does come after a lot of pain and suffering: plagues and curses; the four horsemen of the Apocalypse have done their worst as have the angels with their trumpets and bowls that turn the sun red and the seas to blood; cast down the stars and afflict the world with terrible curses and evil leaders. Like I said: apocalyptic.
But the end result is good: divinely good. Finally there is no gap between God and us. We get to live in a righteous and wonderful creation where Heaven and Earth are no longer divided.
This book was written during a time of horrible crisis. The Christian Church was being subjected to genocide; there was an open and active policy of persecution that was bloody: state-sponsored terrorism raised to an art-form.
And this is the vision that resulted from that: a clear picture of the horrors people were facing and expected to face before things got better, ending with a wonderful image with God and God’s people united forever – not in some distant heaven but right here, on earth – joined forever to God’s holy space.
This is an image of a crisis that has spun out of control and God is able to take it and re-make it into something wonderful! What can we do with that image?
Even before COVID many young people of our world were feeling pretty apocalyptic about life. Climate change and future prospects scared them. Many have chosen to have no children because they can’t justify bringing children into a world with so many challenges. Economists are lamenting the declining birth-rate this year because it will negatively impact economic growth.
So what do we, the church, have to offer the young people? Is it enough to be praying for a return to “normal”? Is it enough to ask God to lead us back to what’s familiar?
This pandemic is a shock to our system and that’s exactly what we need. What we have been doing isn’t enough, either as a church or as a society. Normal isn’t good enough and it hasn’t been for a long time.
The Ecclesiastes promise that we can get through this challenge because we have before is only the first step. We can’t rest there.
God is calling us to look for a better way to do things, a new approach to living. God is calling us to rebuild better, but without the political baggage or even cynicism that so often comes with that phrase.
This disruption in our lives should cause us to look differently at life; to remind us of what we really value; to challenge the things we do so easily to amuse ourselves and remind us of the deep worth of meaningful human contact with our loved ones, above and beyond superficial things like New Year’s parties or other distractions of the past.
This time of challenge gives us the chance to consider:
- what it means to help others;
- what it means to have borders;
- what it means to have our air become cleaner because we are travelling less;
- what it means to be healthy, not only in body, but in mind and spirit;
- what it means to be a community;
- what it means to be a family;
- what it means to love others;
- what it means to connect to God and to other people on a spiritual level.
We have done well in Canada compared to so many places. Our COVID death rate is low and even so, we mourn the death of all those who have died.
The risk of our medical success is that we may think we can simply ride out the cycle; that a new season will allow us to go back to our old life and resume doing what we have always done.
God is calling us to do more than that. God is calling us to move into something better; to look at what we have faced and to imagine what can grow out of this challenge.
This is not the Apocalypse; it is not the end of the world but it’s not just another turn of the cycle, either. This is an opportunity for growth and change. This is a chance to re-make our society; to embrace God’s vision for us and our world.
Let’s rise to this challenge in 2021. Let’s be open to God’s inspiration and let’s embrace the opportunity that lies before us.