Sunday, January 3, 2016

Revive Us Again: A Sermon for the New Year

Merry Christmas! And a Happy New Year, everyone! Isn't it refreshing to be able to say that? The great thing about a new year is that, while we're making our resolutions, while we're joking about not having seen each other since last year, while we try to train ourselves to write a different digit on our checks, when we toss the old calendar and hang up a fresh one – through all that, we get to marvel at the prospect of a new beginning. A new year is about being able to breathe free and having a fresh start.

The gospel is a lot like that. The gospel is about new beginnings. Admittedly, you wouldn't think so, to hear the way some people present the gospel. I think I've told the story before – or maybe I haven't; I can't remember – of when I first was saved. My mom and I had gone to an evangelistic drama called Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames. It started with a little scene presenting the crucifixion and the resurrection, with special focus on the harrowing of hell. But most of the presentation, they kept acting out pairs of absurd vignettes showing perfectly saintly people who believed in Jesus being welcomed into heaven with much fanfare, while flagrant sinners and other non-believers were shown being dragged into hell to an ominous soundtrack by a cackling Satan. Subtlety may not have been their strong suit, is what I'm saying!

The way they presented the gospel, it was barely anything more than taking out a fire insurance policy. There's really all there was to it, the way they were teaching it. But they did at least hint at the subject of having our sins forgiven. And that's important. Too often, we reduce Christianity to being entirely about the forgiveness of our individual and personal sins. Don't get me wrong: that is a vital aspect of the gospel message. When the Apostle Peter announced the good news to the kindly Roman centurion Cornelius, Peter concluded by saying that “everyone who believes in him” – Jesus Christ – “receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). And forgiveness goes beyond just the merely personal. That's why the psalmist sings to God, “You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin; you withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger” (Psalm 85:2-3).

At the same time, the same psalmist reminds us that there's more to salvation than being forgiven. There's value in forgiveness, because forgiveness cleans our slate. But why do people like clean slates? Why do artists buy blank canvas? To write, to draw, to paint something fresh! Now, when I was young – I know, I know, many of you think I still am – but when I was younger still, my favorite comic strip in the Sunday paper was Calvin and Hobbes. Did any of you ever read that one? I think it's still good – its quality hasn't gone down with age at all. It's the only comic strip I ever read that used the word 'Weltanschauung'. I remember the very last strip ever drawn, Bill Watterson's farewell to his beloved characters. It came out on New Year's Eve in 1995 – a Sunday morning just like today, a little over two decades ago. Calvin and his tiger Hobbes waded out into a thick blanket of freshly fallen snow; Hobbes marveled at how the world looked brand-new, Calvin proclaimed the new year a “fresh, clean start,” Hobbes compared it to “a big white sheet of paper to draw on,” and Calvin proclaimed it “a day full of possibilities” – and then they sledded off into the woods to make something of the blank canvas they'd been given. Calvin's last words were: “It's a magical world, Hobbes, ol' buddy. Let's go exploring!”

Salvation is about an end to the old sinful life, but salvation is about more than an end; it's about a beginning, the start of something new. “Show us your steadfast love, O LORD, and grant us your salvation” (Psalm 85:7). Salvation is looking on with gleaming eyes as God joyfully pronounces, “I am about to do a new thing!” (Isaiah 43:19). And nothing is more important: like Paul says, “a new creation is everything” (Galatians 6:15). New creation is what happens in Christ: “Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Everything has become new.... Jesus brings new life into fruition; and the word we might use for that new life is a word that comes from the Latin for 'new life,' and that word is “revival.” Salvation brings revival, and revival brings joy! “Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?” (Psalm 85:6). “I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:18).

On a personal level, revival is first and foremost about the new life of Jesus being born within us. That's why Paul compared himself to a mother or a midwife: “I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4:19). Just like we sang this morning: “O holy Child of Bethlehem, / descend to us, we pray! / Cast out our sin” – does the verse stop there? No, it doesn't. You remember how it finishes; there's more than that: “Cast out our sin and enter in; / be born in us today.” New life isn't just our rebirth; new life is the birth of Jesus' life in our souls. That's why it's so fitting that the Christian year really runs, in a way, from Advent until Christ-the-King Sunday. We always begin with the story of Christmas, because all our hope of new life hinges on the birth of Jesus – in Bethlehem first, but because that happened, in our own lives as well when we receive him. Our new life comes from Jesus being present in our flesh and our blood. The “something new” that starts when we get a new beginning in Christ is none other than a life that belongs to Jesus instead of to us, a life subject to his command and not our control. It may not be safe, but isn't it holy and good?

Just the same, the psalmist isn't speaking as an individual. When he says “revive us again,” he doesn't mean just an individual work in each individual life. He means a revival as the people of God – new life for the whole community of faith together. What would it mean to have revival in a church as a whole, or a community as a whole, and not just as a collection of little individual revivals? If revival at a personal level is the new life of Jesus being born within us, revival at a communal level is the new life of Jesus being born among us. Jesus is born into our midst, his life takes up residence in our midst: we actually live as one body owned and operated by one Spirit, filled with the power of Jesus, shaped by the character of Jesus, heaven-bent on the mission of Jesus with the fiery determination of Jesus to band together and be the living presence of Jesus in the community – spreading his new life wherever we go, like glitter from a Christmas card that just will not go away! (I'm sure you got some; you know what I mean.)

This past year, we've been looking plenty to the past. We've talked about what God has done for each of us in our various-numbered years on this earth. We've contemplated our history: what God has done for Pequea EC through nearly a century and a half here. It is good to remember. It's good to reorient ourselves. But God is not a prisoner in the past. God beckons us forward into the future he's weaving. God calls us to look ahead to what's new, not just what's old. Our God is the God of New Creation. Our God is the God who makes all things new, who does a new thing and insists that we look at it, perceive it, get in on it. And our God sent his Son into the world to tell us, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). We have to decide now, while the year is still newborn, if we want 2016 to be called “The Year of God's New Thing” here at Pequea. Put it another way: Do we want revival? Do we want revival? “Choose this day...” (Joshua 24:15).

Now, revival isn't something we can just snap our fingers and bring about. Revival can't be ordered off a menu; we can't ring up a restaurant and ask the delivery boy to drive on over and hand us revival in a box – thirty minutes or your money back, guaranteed. Revival can't be built by the sweat of our brow and the callouses on our hands. Revival doesn't come by self-driven resolutions. Revival doesn't come by works. But we desperately need revival! We always need revival! As we look around at our pews; when we look at our streets; when we glance through our neighbors' windows; when we sit down to people-watch at Walmart or Yoder's – what's missing? What don't we see – something we could so easily forget because we don't know it enough to miss it when it's missing? What our community is missing is to see the kingdom of God unfolding powerfully in our midst, bursting through the seams.

An honest Pharisee named Nicodemus wanted to know how he could feast his eyes on the new life of the kingdom. Creeping through the darkened streets while the sun was distracted across our earthen globe, he went to Jesus and wanted to know what all these signs meant. Jesus had brought something new. Jesus had disrupted all his old traditions, everything his father and his father's father had taught him. Jesus was doing kingdom things, the sort of wonders to which all the prophets testified. The other Pharisees were wrong to rationalize him away. This teacher came from God – and didn't that mean the kingdom was here? What was Nicodemus missing? New life (John 3:1-3).

That's what Jesus told him. But Nicodemus was perplexed. He heard the words coming off Jesus' lips, but he didn't get it (John 3:4). How can that happen? How do you repeat birth? How can an old life be made a new life? How does the kingdom of God show up? How could there possibly be such a thing as revival? Too often, I'm afraid, the church in America is in Nicodemus' shoes. The church – especially smaller churches – doesn't really believe there can be such a thing as revival. Through lack of faithful vision, a church can easily resign itself to insularity and insignificance, can look on itself as a hopeless case, can scale the goal down into something small. A man picks up a bow and arrow, aims at a target, fumbles; the arrow drops to the floor at his feet; he sighs, takes a paintbrush, paints a target there where the arrow landed, just inches away; tells himself day in and day out that that's all he was ever meant to do, until one day he wakes up believing that he was never meant to reach anything past arm's length from where his feet touch the ground. That's Nicodemus before that fateful night. Sometimes, that's us.

How can there be something like revival when I haven't been to archery practice in so long? How can there be revival if my eyes have faded and I can't see the original target anymore? How does revival come? The key is that new birth, new creation, new life, revival – this happens when the Spirit of God fans our lukewarm embers back into flame – because the Spirit blows where'er he wills (John 3:5-8). Revival comes not by works, but by prayerful and obedient faith that's eager to work in love (cf. Galatians 5:6). That's what new creation looks like. That's what the life of Jesus born in and among us looks like.

But to get there, we have to want it – not just think it would be a nice idea, but we have to want it, like a hungry man wants a meal, like a man in the desert wants a drink of water. We have to have hearts to receive it. We have to reject the target we've painted at our feet. We have to clear the scales from our eyes and gaze ahead to the real goal. We have to trust that Jesus will lend strength to our arm as we pull back that string. We have to trust that the Spirit will carry our arrows where they need to go. We have to want it badly enough to have faith in the God who wants us to want it.

If we do want to see revival, then we need to pray. We need to be like Habakkuk: “I stand in awe, O LORD, of your work. In our own time revive it! In our own time make it known!” (Habakkuk 3:1-2). Or like the psalmist: “Restore us again, O God of our salvation” (Psalm 85:4). This isn't a prayer to be put on a list, recited alongside other items on a letter to Santa, muttered and forgotten. Do you think the psalmist prayed this just once? Did Habakkuk pray, stand up, shrug his shoulders, and say, “I did what I could”? No! They cried out day after day! In prayer they latched onto God like Jacob and refused to let go until he blessed them! They hammered unrelentingly on heaven's door, banging and causing a holy racket! Jesus told the story of a widow and a judge, and at the end, Jesus asked, “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?” (Luke 18:7). The answer was no. Just the same, won't God grant revival to his children who cry to him day and night? If God won't withhold justice, will he withhold new life? Will he keep revival in the warehouse? No! But we have to pray like Habakkuk, like the psalmist, like the widow.

So “choose this day.” Do we want the target at our feet, or the target on the horizon? Do we want to watch familiar old reruns, or do we want the premiere of God's blockbuster? Do we want to be a self-contained social club, or do we want to be as evangelical as it says on the sign outside? Do we want tame, calm, and family-friendly, or do we dare to sink to our knees and beg the explosive Spirit of God to rage in our midst like a tempest? Choose this day: Will we settle for the status quo, or will we implore God for revival? Will we go home satisfied with a routine, or will we “pray always and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1)?

This morning, we're invited to meet God over a table – to encounter him in the bread and in the cup; to eat and drink with the Lord of New Life. With this holy meal, he refreshes us, he feeds us, he sustains us, he infuses the life of Jesus into us. But so often, we settle for a symbol in lieu of the substance; we clamor for a morsel and shun God's bounteous feast. If you want revival in your own heart, in your church, in the community where you live and work and play, then search your soul this morning, step forward, grab onto Jesus the Spirit-Sender, and pray like new life depends on it – because it does. Hallelujah – his is all the glory – O God, revive us again – so we can go exploring, seeking, and find.

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