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January 1, 2012 | 11:00 a.m. | New Year’s Day

What This New Year Holds in Store

John W. Vest
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 8
Luke 2:22–40
Revelation 21:1–6a

At this moment in history, we need something more radical and transformative than a new state [of being]: we need a new quest. We need more than a new static location from which we proclaim, “Here I stand!” Instead, we need a new dynamic direction into which we move together, proclaiming, “Here we go!” We need a deep shift not merely from our current state to a new state, but from a steady state to a dynamic story. We need not a new set of beliefs, but a new way of believing, not simply new answers to the same old questions, but a new set of questions.

Brian D. McLaren
A New Kind of Christianity

Happy New Year and welcome to 2012! Eleven-and-a-half hours in, we should all still be doing pretty well on our New Year’s resolutions. If you are still working on making some resolutions, let me offer two suggestions.

Exhibit A: The January edition of our read-through-the-Bible devotions. This reading program and the pastor-led Bible study that goes along with it will be great opportunities to experience the fullness of scripture, using the fantastic new Common English Bible, and spend some quality time with your pastoral staff during this exciting year of transition and change.

Exhibit B: A 2012 pledge card. Leave it to a pastor to begin the year with a stewardship pitch. But in terms of resources, this will be one of the most challenging years in Fourth Church’s history. More on that later.

If you are here for another installment of the John Buchanan “Last of . . .” series, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Instead of John Buchanan’s “Last New Year’s Day sermon,” you get John Vest’s “First New Year’s Day sermon.” Of course, had John been here this morning, it might have been his first New Year’s Day sermon, as well. It’s rare for January 1 to fall on a Sunday. And my hunch is that more often than not, when this does happen, the sermon is preached by an associate pastor rather than a senior pastor.

As it turns out, what to preach on New Year’s Day is something of a homiletic challenge. Especially in a church this size, how can I possibly anticipate who will be here on a day like this and what they need to hear? I suspect we run the gamut this morning, from the faithful and pious who never miss a Sunday to folks with pounding heads seeking penance for last night. Of course, that’s probably true of any given Sunday, so maybe today shouldn’t be different from any other morning.

In that case, perhaps I should do what happens a lot during this time of transition between years: I could offer you a “Best of 2011” compilation from sermons preached at Fourth Church throughout last year. But Adam Fronczek—who conveniently called in sick this morning—is actually much better at impersonating the rest of the staff, so he would have been a better choice for that.

It’s much more tempting, given the global turbulence of our times and the remarkable and historic year we have in store for us as a congregation, to indulge in that other popular new year pastime: making predictions. In a sense, this would actually fit the story from today’s first scripture lesson. The songs and praises of Simeon and Anna, as they are recorded in that memorable scene from the Gospel of Luke, are well known and deeply rooted in the church’s liturgical traditions. This is especially true for the Song of Simeon, known in Latin as Nunc Dimittis, the words of which are preserved in Luke's Gospel.

From ancient settings to contemporary offerings like the one we just heard, composed by the grandson of Morgan and Mary Simmons, the Canticle of Simeon has shaped our liturgy and our understanding of who Jesus is and what God sent him to do among us. In essence, this is a prophetic song in the most obvious sense: it was a prediction of what God intended to accomplish through this tiny baby brought to the temple for dedication and blessing.

Anyone who has held a newborn baby in their arms knows what it is like to contemplate the limitless potential contained in that new creation. When my son, Noah, was born and I held him close in those first days of his young life, I was filled with a sense of hope that I had never experienced before. Regardless of my history, regardless of my failings, regardless of the broken world into which he was born, that little baby was a fresh start, a brand new chapter in the history of humanity. This feeling, of course, is stronger for our own children, but I experience something similar every time I visit a newborn in the hospital or hold a baby in my arms for baptism.

Imagine, then, what Simeon and Anna—both endowed with prophetic vision by the Holy Spirit—imagine what they saw in the newborn Jesus. Imagine the hope they felt. Imagine the joy they experienced. This thing they had longed to see, this birth of a new day—not only for their own people but for all the peoples of the world—all of this appeared to them in the form of a little baby. Ancient Simeon and Anna, elders of their generation who eagerly awaited the dawning of a new era, peered into the future and saw what great things this baby would one day accomplish.

Now for most of us, peering into the future can be a dangerous and hubristic endeavor. How can we presume to know what will transpire? Who are we to make claims for the future? If we were truly wise enough to see what is coming, would we not have a better track record of preparing for the twists and turns of history?

Yet on this New Year's Day, with sincere humility and a desire to keep our sense of self-importance in check, I do wonder if this might be such a time of hope and vision for Fourth Presbyterian Church. A week after Christmas, on this first day of a new year, what can we see of the year to come? What will this new year hold in store for us?

One hundred years ago, in 1912, this congregation embarked on a bold new journey together. Four decades after two congregations combined to form the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago and four years after this congregation called a charismatic new pastor named John Timothy Stone, Fourth Church began construction of this magnificent building in which we are gathered today. One hundred years later, this congregation is once again embarking on a bold new journey together. At the end of this month, we will say good-bye to our beloved pastor of twenty-six years. God willing, by the end of the year or early in 2013, we will call a new pastor to begin yet another new chapter in the history of this congregation. At the same time, by the end of this year, we will move into the stunning new building rising up behind me, the fruits of an amazing undertaking appropriately called Project Second Century.

That these events will take place is no especially insightful prediction. Though we remember the wisdom of the great Scottish poet Robert Burns that "the best laid schemes of mice and men go often askew," barring some unforeseen catastrophe—like the end of the Mayan calendar—a new building and a new pastor are in our future. The bigger question is, How will these catalytic developments affect our faith community? What gifts and visions will our new pastor bring? How will the gifts of more and better space in the Gratz Center enhance our ministry and mission and enable us to make our dreams of new ministry and new mission come into being? That Fourth Church will be changed this year is certain. How we will be changed is the great unknown.

Of course, we have some work to do along the way. First and foremost, we have the bittersweet task of saying good-bye to our longtime pastor and friend. It is a unique fact of history that this church has not had many senior pastors, because each of them has served long tenures. Saying good-bye after a twenty-six year relationship—of any kind—is difficult to do. But this is the Presbyterian way. My hope and prayer is that we may embrace this unique time and use it to express our deep gratitude to John and Sue, to rejoice in all that God has done here through John's ministry, to cherish the gifts John has given us, and build on them as we move forward into the continuing mission God calls us to live out together.

Yet with all of the celebrations and with the excitement of a new building, we must also keep in mind that this will be an incredibly challenging year for us. Unless we were successful in our end-of-the-year drive to close an $800,000 gap in our 2011 budget, we will begin 2012 with a deficit. We will be forced to continue to tighten budgets that have either been flat or gradually reduced over the past several years, all while trying to figure out how to fund the operation costs of this new building we so desperately need. 2012 will be a year in which Fourth Church needs to be creative and visionary when it comes to stewardship. It will be a year in which we need to think through our mission priorities, because if the trajectory we are on does not change, we will simply not be able to support everything we want to do.

That may sound like a bleak outlook, but I think it’s very exciting. Whether we find ways to increase congregational giving like never before or do the hard work of discerning our priorities, Fourth Church will be stretched in new ways that will make us a stronger community. And when we expand our focus beyond ourselves, we realize that this is what we need in order to answer God’s call to mission and service in the world. And ultimately, friends, that is the most important thing. That must be the focus of our vision, our resolve, and our commitment during this new year.

The world is changing at a remarkable rate. Last month, Time magazine named the ubiquitous “Protester” as the person of the year. In places around the world like Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, India, Libya, China, Japan, the UK, Spain, and right here in the United States, people are demanding change, and they are making it happen. There is a spirit of restlessness in the air, a feeling that things are not as they should be, not as they could be. Friends, that is what Walter Brueggemann (who will speak here at Fourth Church on January 19 and preach here on March 4) calls the prophetic imagination. It is the same sense of anticipation and hope that stirred within Simeon and Anna when they beheld the infant Jesus. It is the same vision of radical change—a new heaven and a new earth—that inspired the Revelation of John. Christ is coming to make all things new.

It that Time magazine article, Indian social activist Anna Hazare, who protested corruption in India, is quoted as saying, “When God wants to bring in change, he needs a vehicle of change, and I became that vehicle.” What a perfect articulation of the gospel.

I do encourage you to read through the Common English Bible this year. The language is stunning and fresh. It catches you off guard and demands that you break free from familiar phrases that have become impotent, rote, and clichéd. Of all the passages I have read so far, I have been most captivated by Jesus’ opening words at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel: “Now is the time!” says Jesus. “Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”

Now is the time! Right here, right now. God is calling us to something new.

Here comes God’s kingdom! It’s emerging all around us.

Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news! Change starts within each of us. It grows into our communities. It has the potential to sweep across the globe, as it did in 2011.

What kind of revolution is God calling us to join? What kind of change is God longing to bring about through us? How can our lives be changed? How can our community of faith be changed? How can Chicago be changed? How can the world be changed?

Christ is coming to make all things new.

“Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”