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Good morning, church, and happy New Year! I should say, everywhere but here it’s the new year. Here, among our church, as Meg has already reminded us, it’s still Christmas, and I have the immense pleasure of preaching one, single Christmas sermon before epiphany on Friday. So please go with me to the book of Revelation.
I didn’t grow up with the church calendar. The calendar which ruled my family’s home growing up was the school calendar, since both of my parents are educators. We didn’t have years, we had semesters. Exams stood in the place of lent, both exams and lent encouraging fasting, prayer, and mourning. Our holidays were mostly in observance of days off from school, rather than some historical event. The highest of all holy days were snow days, because those were given directly by God, and not mediated through the school board.
I’ve tried to institute a bit more of the church calendar in my home for my children, but with mixed results. My wife is stalwart that she’s only interested in my observance of advent so long as it looks mostly like celebrating Christmas. Celebrating Christmas for the traditional 12 days, though, was a big hit with AJ, my seven-year-old, who loves things and stuff. It took a single conversation to convince him. He asked, do I get more presents, and I said yes, and he was sold.
For me, discovering the church calendar was experiencing a reality where before I had only ever experienced an approximation. Like when I bought andouille from a butcher in Boston when we lived there. I did that once—it had fennel in it, which is insanity—and for the rest of our time in Boston, I would check a bag after a trip home filled with andouille, crawfish, Crystal, and Tony’s Sacheries.
Or again, the church calendar in my life is like a friend from Kentucky who stayed with us two weeks ago, and I made him orange juice by going to our tree in the backyard as he was waking up, picking ripe oranges and hand-squeezing them. He told me, angrily, I had ruined orange juice for him, because how could he ever drink it from a bottle again now that he knows what the bottle is trying to be, and how short it falls?
And I remember the first time I ever saw real snow, after a lifetime of seeing it in magazines at Christmastime, we were in North Carolina in the mountains, and as we drove further in and further up, it began to appear on the side of the road. I was eight. My mom, a native New Orleanian, thought is was litter at first. Then, in Boston, our first winter it snowed 26 feet, and I remember sledding, knowing I was experiencing the real something of which up until then I had only known in theory. I remember being so confused why, in October, the city went around and attached ten foot orange poles to all the fire hydrants, until the snow actually fell and I realized that was the only way the plows could know where the hydrants are, and not plow into them.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not trying to rain on the new years parade; I’m all for celebrating the new year, parties, kissing at midnight, the whole nine. But, waking up this morning and reading poetry with my wife by the light of candles and our tree is my way of holding onto something real in a world which would like to approximate it, but can’t, really. And if you ask me what is this real thing which I’ve found in the church, I would probably tell you it’s joy, and if you tell me I didn’t need to look so hard to find joy, it’s everywhere, I would smile, like I smiled at my friends who ate the Bostonian andouille and loved it, and try to find ways of introducing you to the real thing, for your sake.
If you will allow me, I found myself fascinated by the histories of different calendars this week while I was writing; I’ll share just a little: The calendar we follow in our society, with the new year on January 1, originated in the Roman Empire. They chose the name, January, and chose the first of January as the new year in celebration of the god Janus, who is said to have two faces, one looking back toward the past, the other forward, and he is their god of beginnings. The Roman calendar has become nearly universal, though many people still celebrate the new years day of their traditional calendar. Probably the best-known is the lunar new-year, or Chinese new year. You eat dumplings and give out money in red envelopes. It’s a fantastic holiday. You also may have heard of the Aztec calendar which, with remarkable accuracy, plotted the seasons centuries into the future and ended in 2020.
The church calendar, on the other hand, originated in Israel’s Exodus from Egypt, and the people of God seeking to remember all that God has done for us. They celebrated, and still do celebrate the new year, what in Hebrew, you’ve probably heard, is called Rosh HaShannah, nearer to what we would know as Easter. The celebration is tied in with the Jubilee, meaning God’s promise to set every captive free, restore the earth, dwell with his people and make all things new. So—the reason I’m still talking about calendars in my Christmas sermon, which is on New Years, but actually on Christmas—I see in these overlapping calendars, a familiar struggle between the empire and the conquered peoples with whom Christ identified himself. May we live lives which cling to what is real in a world which would have us remember only what is successful and expedient.
The passage I chose from the lectionary for today is one that gives us a picture of the fulfillment of what we celebrate in that real new year, and it has more to do with Christmas and joy than it does with anything else. Let’s read it, Revelation 21:1-6.  Pray with me, briefly.
I’ve said this, I know, but more than ever in my life, the past few years, I have been longing, groaning, waiting, not for a new year and whatever change it will bring, but for a new world, which is what our passage so beautifully depicts. Revelation is a book of apocalypse, which is a word basically meaning “unveiling,” so calling it Revelation in English is very appropriate. The book is meant to reveal the world as it actually is, stripped of any kind of falsehood, lie, or misrepresentation. A lifting of the veil of everything we try to make of the world to show us the real, what is actually happening around us. To quote a good movie: “welcome to the world of the real.” It can be hard to take in at first. The Old Testament books of Daniel and Ezekiel are in the same genera, which are all books written at times when Israel was being ruled by a foreign power.
One of the central themes of the book of Revelation is that Rome, which at the time ruled most of the known world—this enormous, seemingly everlasting, all-powerful enemy of the people of Israel—Rome will one day fall. The truth of the matter, the revelation, the apocalypse is, only God and his kingdom will remain in the end. That’s what’s real, despite the way things seem.
In our passage, we find another of the central themes of the book of Revelation. V.5, Jesus says “Behold,” or look! He’s excited and wants to share what he’s doing, overjoyed like a child trying to get the attention of her parents on the playground because she’s figured out some new trick, “look!” He says. “Look, I’m making all things new,” and he repeats a line which shows up all through the book of Revelation, he says, “I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.” Central to Revelation is the idea that God is making all things, his entire creation new again, like a beautifully renovated home, and in our passage he is shouting like a child for us to look as he brings us, creation itself, into child-likeness.
Look, I’m making everything new, I wrote the first word, and I will write the last. The truth is, despite the way things seem, the apocalypse, the revelation is, the point of this sermon is: look, I’m making everything new, I wrote the first word, and I will write the last.
That first word, “look,” is repeated throughout Revelation, and throughout the Bible as a whole. It’s a common word, yes, but in the passage, and in the Bible in general it takes on a special meaning. The simple truth is, a lot of what you see in the world is determined by where you look. Bill Welter, over the break, sent me a good definition of what it means to be a writer. I was mostly just flattered that he considers my sermons to be writing rather than blathering, but it put me in mind of an encouragement Henry James once gave to those who would want to write or produce any kind of art. It’s been repeating in my head for years. He said, “Be one on whom nothing is lost.” Or, in a word, his encouragement for anyone wanting to see the truth of the world is, “look.” Behold.
So that’s part of what I have to tell you this morning, and why I’m talking about the two calendars overlapping, and which one is true. A lot of your experience of the world depends upon whether you’re experiencing truth or seeming, and one of the things we, as Christians, are called to do is simply to bear witness to the truth behind the seeming. We are meant to be agents of apocalypse, going around giving people glimpses, like in this passage, of the real kingdom come. Because if you’re looking at everything the world is doing, the last thing you’ll conclude is that God is making all things new. You have to look at God, himself, to see it.
I tend to listen to music on repeat. It drives my wife crazy. I’ll get into an album and play it over and over again until I find something else I love and want to play over and over again. One of the albums I’ve been repeating through this advent and Christmastide is by Sarah Sparks. I imagine her looking at her analytics on Spotify and wondering why she has thousands of plays in New Orleans. It’s me, Sarah, if somehow you hear this sermon, I’m listening to one album a thousand times.
She has one song on her advent album where the refrain is, “Behold our king,” where she takes up this word, behold, where she finds it at different moments in Jesus’ life. The angels say it to the shepherds at his birth. “Behold,” Look! “I bring you good news, of great joy.” In the midst of all of the pain and hardship at the time, “behold, good news, great joy.” And Sarah places the phrase, in her song, in the mouths of the shepherds, they say, having longed their whole lives for a just king, they say, “Behold our king!” And she says “The people rejoiced to see.”
Then, in the next verse of the song, she points out that Pilate says almost exactly the same thing when he presents Jesus to the mob after he is scourged, thorns shoved onto his head. He shouts, look! “Behold your king.” And Sarah points out in her song, it’s the same words but a striking contrast, the people wept to see, to behold. And here again in our passage in Revelation, we hear Christ, himself, say the word, “behold,” look.
So along with the angels and the tyrants of the world, and Christ, himself, I would invite you to look. “Behold your king.” Consider what he did in the world. Consider his character. Consider what became of him, and what might become of you if you follow after him and do the same kinds of things. Behold, look. Where is your attention this year? What are you looking at? I would invite you to look at Jesus and what he is doing in the world around us. Look at him next to the peasants sleeping with animals. Look at him standing next to the tyrant, and consider, what kind of king is this? What has he done, and what is he still doing?
In his own words, he is making all things new. That’s what he was doing in that manger in Bethlehem, making humanity new. He’s making all things new, and all people who will allow him. And then he tells us how he is making creation new, he says, “I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.”
Again, that phrase is repeated over and again through the book of Revelation, just like that, “I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.” But in this passage, here at the end of the book, there’s an extra word, which in my bible is translated as “It is done!” The same word, which Christ spoke on the cross, it is finished. This is the end of the story of creation which, shockingly, is already written. Alpha and omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, which is the common language of Rome, what everyone spoke at the time. This image of being the first and last letter is paired with another image earlier in the book of Revelation, where two books are brought out, one the story we’ve written with our lives here on earth, the other the story God is writing of his creation, and in our passage Christ is inviting us to look into his book to behold what he is making of us.
When I was a child, bedtime stories were an event. All three of us slept in the bunkbeds which are now in the boys’ room at our house. My dad, the lit professor, would read us classics, both child-appropriate and non. I remember everything from The Odyssey, to Through the Looking Glass, to To Kill a Mockingbird. But my favorite nights were always when we would write the bedtime stories ourselves, and that was usually around this time of the year when bedtimes got a little more flexible. We called them pass-it-on stories. This is how they would work: my dad would start the story. It was usually a dark and stormy night in a kingdom far away. And then when he had got it going, at the first real turn in the plot, he would give the story away to one of us. Like this: “At the bottom of the stairwell, he opened the door, and…take it, Graham.” Then Graham would write the next chapter.
But my dad would always begin the story, and thinking back to it this week, I realize he would always end the pass-it-on stories, too. And now as an adult I know why. A few reasons: one, bedtime. I remember several night where we passed the story back to dad and he would say, “and everyone lived happily ever after, the end. Goodnight!” But I remember, too, he would jump into the story from time to time, if we got off track as kids do—the main character is somehow mired, inevitably with three boys, in a storyline involving both farts and gratuitous violence, and he would step in at the end with resurrections and healings and somehow the story ended in peace and we went to bed dreaming of castles and dragons and far-away kingdoms.
When Jesus in our passage calls himself the alpha and omega, I think of those nights and those stories. Then, all of the sudden, the nativity and the incarnation, everything we are meant to call to mind in Christmastide, starts to feel to me like our father stepping in to right the story. We’d got off somehow, in our story—farts and violence, and worse—but thankfully our father is going to speak the last word. The final chapter is his. Because we as children don’t know the right time like he does, and we lack this imagination to tell a story ending as we all hope the story of creation will end, if we’ve managed to find hope in the promises of God in the first place.
With resurrections and healing, God, our father, is able, despite all seeming, to take these stories we’ve woven around ourselves, and undo the damage we’ve done, and the damage done to us. He writes the beginning and the end. Author Frederick Beuchner, whom the world lost this year, writes that saints are life-givers, that the mark of a person or a place on whom God rests is life is so abundant, it flows over to fill the people around them.
So this is part of what Christ has done in the incarnation, what we are meant to remember here in Christmastide when we remember our God in his infancy and, more than a new year, the new world in its infancy; the truth which unveils and speaks a true word in the midst of semblance. Christ came to fill the world with life. His birth makes our common birth holy. His life is able to overflow into ours. His story is able to encompass and redeem our own stories.
I would invite you this morning to hold to something real, which will give you life. Hold onto the story Christ is writing in and around everything you’ve done and everything done to you, because his story is glorious. And, true, in his story you don’t get to play the lead, but you do get to play, and shout for joy, and enter into life everlasting. I pray you would, this year, turn your eyes upon Jesus and allow the things of this world to grow dim. Pray with me.