Sermon for New Year Covenant Service, Sunday, 2nd January 2011
“As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance.”1 Peter 1:14
Thirty years ago, on 31st December 1980 I stood in Trafalgar Square in London with tens of thousands of others as the midnight chimes of Big Ben sounded along Whitehall. As midnight struck there was a great eruption of cheers and much embracing of people around.
I stood in the crowd and wondered what it was all about. Why would anyone cheer getting a new diary or turning over the page of a calendar? It seemed entirely hollow and pointless and as the years have passed I have given up entirely celebrating the New Year.
New Year seems an occasion entirely devoid of any spiritual content. There was a custom in the North of Ireland of holding Watchnight Services to mark the arrival of 1st January; they always seemed a rather anaemic version of the Christmas services held a week earlier to mark the arrival of the Saviour of the World.
New Year seems a celebration of people looking for meaning. I found a piece written by David McWilliams in the Irish Independent four years ago in which he regarded contemporary Irish life as a search for meaning.
“With precious little spiritual activity out there and no national binding project like, for example, the resurrection of the nation and independence, we are experiencing a form of stunted growth. Yes we are happy, but only momentarily until the next yearning comes on us, until the next “lack” of something manifests itself.
This is not just happening in Ireland, but is occurring all over the English-speaking world.
We have simply forgotten to grow-up and are caught somewhere between permanent infantilism and adolescence – one second overwhelmingly egocentric, the next desperately wanting to belong. This is this psychological challenge for Ireland over the coming decade – and economics is not up to the job.”
The immaturity he described was the immaturity of people who believed that there was fulfilment to be found in material things. Whether it was going to Trafalgar Square to cheer at Big Ben; flying your family to Lapland to see Santa Claus; or driving out on 1st January in a new Mercedes Benz; most people in Ireland believed they could buy their way to happiness.
David looked for people to grow up, but the problem was that they believed they were grown up. The problem lay in their perception of the world in purely materialist terms, and in the failure of the churches to offer a spiritual alternative that offered them meaning and purpose.
McWilliams’ warnings of four years ago came true and we approach a new year with the country bankrupt and with the prospects bleak. How do we respond?
As Christians, the covenant service sets out our commitment to Jesus and the way we should live in our world.
McWilliams talked of there being ‘precious little spiritual activity’ four years ago; a situation that has worsened in the intervening period. It is spiritual activity to which we are called in Scripture and in the words of the covenant service.
“Do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance”, Saint Peter writes in 1 Peter 1, “just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do”. There is a difference between being holy and being religious; the Ireland that existed in times past was a place with a great deal of religion, but, as we know from the scandals, and the inquiries and the reports, it was not a place of great holiness. Holiness is about seeking and about serving God in all of our lives, not just in the church things.
“Live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear”, says Saint Peter. His aspiration for how we might lead our lives is the exact opposite of what we saw unfold in our country; an irreverent arrogance was much more common than a reverent fear of God.
Yet responsibility for the constant discontent, the constant desire to have more, to have what is new, to have what is different, must also lay with the churches. When we look at the parable of the talents in Matthew 25, where do we put ourselves? Isn’t the truth that the church has been given great spiritual riches and that we have failed to make anything of them? Isn’t the truth that we are like the man who was given one talent and buried it? If God called us to account for the way in which we have worked for the spread of the Gospel, how would we answer him? If a secular commentator like McWilliams could complain about a lack of spiritual activity, then haven’t we hidden away the spiritual riches we were given?
“I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts”, is the promise God makes in Jeremiah 31. It is a promise of a very different life; a life without the need to search for meaning and purpose; a life without emptiness; a life without the immaturity that requires that we be constantly spending money in search of some indefinable happiness.
Had someone gone around that crowd in Trafalgar square on that mild winter night thirty years ago and asked them what things they wanted from life, would their answers have been things like love and happiness and security and peace of mind? Wouldn’t they have been things that money cannot buy?
“For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more,” says God in Jeremiah 31. It is a promise of national renewal, national revival. At the outset of a new year, we need renewal and revival in our own country—without money, without direction, and without any real hope, we need to be grown up and face our situation and learn from what has happened.
“Christ will be all in all, or he will be nothing”, says the Covenant Service. We have come from times when, for most people, Christ has been nothing; may 2011 be a year when we move towards times when Christ is all in all.
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