For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. – Psalm 90:4
This is the homily Bishop Gohl preached for Faith (North Avenue) for Watch Night Service on New Year’s Eve 2018.
On this seventh day of Christmas, as we gather for the turning of the year, the words of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” resonate deeply: “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” And, this year, we have many hopes and more than a few fears. Many of us wrestle with feelings of despair as we observe the ongoing national political gridlock and the sharp lines of partisanship and posturing in a time of national and planetary crises. We have a deep sense of hopelessness fueled by government policies that reward wealth and punish vulnerability, and wonder when the church, all of us – the very body of Christ alive in the world – will rise to our all-pervasive and unmistakable biblical call to care for the least of these and the stranger in our midst.
And so we gather on this “Watch Night,” not unlike our ancestors did so long ago anticipating the Emancipation Proclamation. Expectancy tempered by reality; longing for a new day still to come, but knowing that tomorrow, not much is likely to have changed. This is the essence of New Year’s – new behaviors and a new vision that mirrors the changing of one year to the next. New Year’s resolutions, even when they last only a few days, hold out the hope of personal transformation; that we can be reinvented and see our lives in a new way. The past and even this present moment need not imprison us; we have freedom in Christ to shape a new future. Behold, God is doing a new thing and so can we! We can love more fully in the year ahead; we can open our hearts to speak words of hope more boldly and frequently.
Following the counsel of a seminary professor many years ago, I would challenge us to think of standing on this New Year’s threshold as a “God moment,” that while celebration is the order of the day, the turning of the year is also an opportunity for reflection, gratitude, and transformation.
Reflecting, we stand on the cusp of a new year listening for a quiet voice of possibility amid the collateral burden of experience; a still small voice, whispering in sighs too deep for words, calling us to new ventures and faith-filled transformation. Where have we been? What have we learned? How are we not the same? What can we build on? What might we leave behind? Big, open-ended questions that have no “right” answer, but shape our commitments for the new year. How do we walk the walk of the talk we talk? The changing of the year gives us new resolve to confess our complicity with injustice, xenophobia, privilege, climate change, racism, sexism, homophobia and consumerism, and so many other macro and microaggressions as contrary to the gospel. Our lives are in Christ, how will we more deeply reflect his justice, mercy, and love?
Gratitude grounds us in faith. It is a confession that God’s life moves through all things. New Year’s is the renewed commitment to choose life, moment by moment, in the tension of a world where death holds too much power in our own and communal lives together. Returning gratitude to God reminds us again that God’s perfect love given us in Jesus Christ casts out all fear, gratitude helps us embrace Christ’s promise of life, abundant life, for us and for the whole creation. Gratitude and appreciation of others open our hearts to a renewed and life-transforming love. Tonight we take stock of what’s been, and with an attitude of gratitude, we approach what it still to come. As Lutheran theologian Dag Hammarksjold counseled: “For all that has been – thanks. For all that shall be – yes!”
And, friends, we are transformed when, as the year changes, we are open to the Spirit, open to growing in wisdom and hope, to becoming large in spirit and renewed in faith, rather than taking sides and giving into the “us and them” dichotomy that drowns our world in this moment in time. That same seminary professor who suggested the turning of the year is also an opportunity for reflection, gratitude, and transformation, was the same teacher who reminded our community that in the turning year, we know that in the midst of change – good, bad and indifferent – we are sustained by the faithfulness of God, a faithfulness captured in the words of a hymn that sustains many of us in trying times: “All I have needed Thy hand has provided, Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!”
And so we gather, on this “Watch Night,” longing for a new day still to come, but knowing that tomorrow not much is likely to have had changed; believing that in Christ, we will be changed to change the world, blessed to bless others, sustained by faith and knowing that in Christ and one another, we are not alone.
Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.” For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance. For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh. The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you. So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart. Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands—O prosper the work of our hands! – Psalm 90, NRSV