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New Year’s Sermon
January 3, 2021

I had thought about making a list of the ten weirdest things of 2020, but there were so many weird things that I didn’t know where to begin.

There were the Australian waterfalls that reversed direction.

There was the monkeys’ actual takeover of a city in Thailand.

But by far the weirdest thing that happened was this:
X Æ A-12, that’s the actual first name of Elon Musk’s baby.

Does it get any weirder than someone being so isolated in their little bubble of privileged life that they think it is okay to name your child – however you pronounce it?

How do you top that?

I was talking to a friend the other day who was saying that he couldn’t wait for 2020 to be over so that his life can get back to normal.

I think we’re all looking back on 2020 with a bit of a groan as such a troubling year has finally ended.

At our Wednesday morning fellowship hour someone joked that their favorite part of 2020 would be December 31 at 11:59 PM.

But when talking with my friend I added that I’m concerned that we could become discouraged if we enter 2021 with false expectations.

We understand that the vaccines will take months to get distributed, that we’re likely to be wearing masks throughout the year, and that our economy won’t rebound overnight.

But we so want to wake up from 2020 as if it’s been an absurd dream that we could set ourselves up for disappointment and resentment.

12-Step communities say that “expectations are resentments waiting to happen” – so if we cling to the expectation that a new president will quickly heal our nation’s divisions, or that, like throwing a light switch, the vaccine will instantly return us to a 2019-lifestyle, then we’re going to end up disappointed and resentful.

A mark of spiritual maturity is knowing that there are a lot of things beyond our control, and yet we always have a choice of how we will respond to them.

For instance, you didn’t choose where you were born or when you were born.

You didn’t choose your talents, your abilities, or your personality.

God chose that.

And then there are your family’s dynamics and circumstances.

Some of you grew up in pretty healthy families, but some of you may have had a father who was an alcoholic – maybe even violent.

Some of you may have had a mother who was chronically depressed or even suicidal.

Or maybe you grew up in poverty.

Those things may not have been God’s choice, but they were part of the world you were born into.

You didn’t choose those things, but ultimately you decided what you’d do with them … how you’d play the hand you were dealt.

Another mark of spiritual maturity is understanding that God is your partner in that.

You and God are co-creators of your life; you don’t have to go it alone.

The Creator of the Universe, the Source of all love and wisdom is with you to the extent you are open and receptive to Him.

Let me share a passage I hung onto last year:

Romans 8:35, 37 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?…no, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.

Even as we got a hint of how long and how tragic this pandemic would be, I kept affirming this truth and reminding myself that Paul discovered through his own hardships that, in the end, (Romans 8:28) … we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.

The Bible does not say that faith will protect us from all problems or that everything will always turn out our way.

What it does promise is that even in situations and circumstances that we cannot control, God will be at work bringing some good out of it.

If 2020 taught us anything, it is that none of us knows what’s going to happen in 2021.

The fact is that we cannot count on the vaccine eradicating the virus forever, that Republicans and Democrats will come together for legislation to reverse climate change, or that the economy will grow.

But no matter what circumstances, situations or conditions may come this year, we can count on God being in the midst of it all bringing something good out of it … and our experience of that good will largely be our choice.

As I’ve shared before, Vivienne gets frustrated with me when we walk onto the church grounds and she is delighted to see how the flowers are blooming, the lawn is green, and the trees are elegantly trimmed … but what I point out are the weeds left unpicked, the broken sprinkler head, and the trash from In and Out someone left on the sidewalk.

Both observations are true – but which leads to a more peaceful and joyful life experience?

And which sees God’s creative hand at work?

Because of my family background, when I was starting out in life, I didn’t think I had much choice in how my life would turn out … and I believed every prospect was bleak.

Because of their own backgrounds, my family reinforced this belief.

So, I was programmed to think, “I’m never going to amount to anything. I’ll never find someone who loves me.”

That kind of thinking is a self-fulfilling prophesy because I always sorted for the negative and found the worst.

But because some very patient people really loved me, I eventually saw that I could make something of myself.

So, then I became driven by my TimeDesign planner.

My motto became, “If it’s to be it’s up to me” leading me to make goals and plans for everything … and I worked hard to achieve them.

I became pretty successful on the outside, but on the inside, I lived with constant anxiety that this was too good to be true and at any moment it would all come crashing down.

When I got involved in church, I was taught that I could let go of that kind of fear because God is totally in charge – everything is under His control.

It was comforting to think that everything is God’s plan – but after a debate about the Afghan war when a friend argued that families in a refugee camp were killed by US bombs that missed their intended target because that was God’s plan for them, I realized that there was something more at play.

We saw it in 2020.

Human sin led to much needless suffering – think of children torn from mothers’ arms and thrown in cages, white supremacists driving into a crowd of protesters, gangs victimizing entire neighborhoods.

That’s not God’s hand.

And we saw how randomness is part of creation.

God most likely didn’t plan for the gene mutation that unleashed the coronavirus, nor did God spark the mammoth forest fires  – but we all suffered because of them.

And then evil is always at work latching onto our fears, amplifying human sin, and exploiting natural chaos – always working against the healing, peace and love God offers.

That’s why we pray, “may Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven”.

That’s because God’s will is not yet fully done on earth.

But we don’t wait passively for God to fix everything because we are called to be co-creators with God in the midst of the world’s problems.

Eventually, we come to a stage in our faith journey where we understand that at any given moment,
we stand amidst all those competing forces of life – sin, chaos, evil, and God’s constant presence of love.

And that’s where our choice is – which of those will we give our attention and energy to?

By the way, that’s what faith means.

Faith isn’t head stuff – it’s what we actually give our time, energy and allegiance to.

Once we see that God is with us, then we can stop acting like victims of circumstances and we can release the anxiety-driven belief that we’re going it alone.

God has a plan to bless, but our busyness, fears and pressures from the world often blind us or distract us from what God is up to in any situation.

The correct response to the problems you’ll go through this new year is to look past the pain to the purpose.

2 Corinthians 4:17 This is the reason we never lose heart.  These troubles which are temporary are winning for us a permanent, glorious, and solid reward all out of proportion to our pain. 

Look past the pain and see God’s purpose – how you’ll mature by overcoming your fear, how you’ll grow by experiencing how God will see you through a plan He has for you – may be something you think is beyond your ability – and how you can bring hope and support for someone being overlooked by the world.

Because God says my problems have a purpose, I can relax because no matter what happens God’s going to create a plan of blessing out of it.

So, this year, let’s shift our prayer from “God, bless what I’m doing”, to “God, help me to do what You are wanting to bless”.

We don’t even have to know the endgame: we just know God has a plan of blessing and so just pray, “What’s next God?”

What’s the next step you have for me in my family?

What’s the next step you have for me in my job?

What’s the next step you have for me in any part of my life?

In a recent UCC daily devotion the author used the phrase, “If we see you are here, O God, we can get through this.”

I wonder how many lives would have been healthier, less anxious, and more peaceful in 2020 if they could have seen God was with them and so they could get through it.

For me, this is the point to keep in mind this coming year: “If we see You are here, O God, we can get through this.