This was the message I presented for the 2nd Sunday after Christmas, 5 January 2003, at Tompkins Corners UMC. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 31: 7 – 14, Ephesians 1: 3 – 14, and John 1: (1 – 9), 10 – 18.
It is interesting that we start off each year in January. Now, that may seem like a confusing statement but consider that we start off each new school year in September; that the United States government starts its fiscal year in November and there are many companies whose fiscal year starts in July. In fact, prior to the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in the late 18th century, many western countries celebrated the New Year on April 1st. The change in the celebration from April 1st to January 1st led to the beginning of “April Fool’s Day” but that is a story more suited for that time of the year rather than today.
January is a good time to celebrate the beginning of the New Year as it gets its name from the Roman god Janus. Janus had the ability to look forwards and backwards at the same time and so was in an excellent position to see where he had been and where he was going. It is perhaps because of this that we spend much of the first days of January predicting what the New Year will bring.
But predictions can be fickle and dangerous things. We often do not want to know what the future brings because it may not be what we want to hear. If you will allow me the moment to make a personal observation, our political process is based on that very fear. There are things that must be done but no one is willing to say what must be said for the fear of being defeated in the coming election. You need only recall Walter Mondale’s statement during his acceptance speech in 1980 that taxes would have to be raised and George H. Bush’s bold statement to “read my lips” in 1992 to understand why politicians are leery of making bold statements. The firestorm that arose from each of those statements were contributing factors in both men being defeated, Mondale by Ronald Reagan and Bush by Clinton. When it comes to politicians telling the truth, the American public, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson yelling at Tom Cruise in the movie “A Few Good Men”, “We don’t want the truth!”
But lest you think that being afraid of hearing the truth is a trait limited to only our country or the 21st century, consider what happened to Jeremiah, the author of the Old Testament book from which our first reading for today was taken. Jeremiah was first summoned by God to be a prophet at a very young age but it was a task that he quickly grew to dislike, and it is easy to see why.
One of his first sermons scoffed at the bogus, superficial religiosity of the people who deluded themselves by believing that merely ambling about the Temple insured God’s blessing. (Jeremiah 7: 2 – 15) He then denounced the king’s lavish spending when the people had nothing. (Jeremiah 22: 13 – 19) And when the powers that be tried to silence him, he dictated a thundering indictment, a reading that was interrupted when the king seized the scroll, shredded it with his knife and threw it in the fire. (Jeremiah 36: 4 – 32) Then when the Babylonian army surrounded the city of Jerusalem, Jeremiah had the gall to announce, in a speech wholly lacking in patriotism, that the Babylonian army was a pawn of God, instruments of God’s judgement on the unrepentant city. (Jeremiah 38: 1 – 6) For this, in what amounted to the proverbial final straw, Jeremiah barely escaped with his life and was thrown into a cistern. For telling the truth, Jeremiah was rewarded with a prison sentence.
If we are not afraid to look into the future, we are still limited by what we know. Any vision that we have of the future is based on what we know about things today. Consider if you will the following predictions:
- Drillers who Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil in 1859 — “Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You’re crazy.”
- Western Union internal memo, 1876 — “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”
- David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920’s — “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?”
- 1921 New York Times editorial about Robert Goddard’s revolutionary rocket work — “Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action and reaction and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react. He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”
- H.M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927 — “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”
- Gary Cooper on his decision not to take the leading role in “Gone With The Wind” — “I’m just glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling on his face and not Gary Cooper.”
- Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943 — “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
- Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949 –“Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.”
- Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962 — “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”
- A Yale Univ. management professor in response to Fred Smith’s paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service, “The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible.” Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.
- “So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we’ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we’ll come work for you.’ And they said, ‘No.’ So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, ‘Hey, we don’t need you. You haven’t got through college yet.'” — Apple Computer Inc. founder Steve Jobs on attempts to get Atari and H-P interested in his and Steve Wozniak’s personal computer
Each of those statements was made and based on what the individual knew at that time and how they saw that information being utilized. But there have been visions of the future that have proven to be successful. Jules Verne’s visions of men walking on the moon or traveling under the oceans came about because he chose to think beyond the capabilities of his time. We can only wonder and perhaps hope that the world that Gene Roddenberry outlined in Star Trek is an accurate description of the future. But we know for those visions to be the ones that come true we must think in a different way. Consider if you will the following statements:
“If I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said you can’t do this.” — Spencer Silver on work that led to the unique adhesives for 3-M “Post-It” Notepads
So it is that we look to the future. We dare not speak what we feel is the truth because it is something that people will not accept, especially if the truth is negative in nature. We cannot begin to think about the future because we don’t know what resources might be available or what technologies might be there that aren’t here today.
But we have the words of John written some two thousand years ago. John makes it very clear in today’s Gospel reading that Jesus was a part of this world long before we ever were and he will be a part of this world long after we have departed. We have been given through Christ, as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, a gift, and a chance to understand beyond what the world can give us.
Paul also speaks of what the future holds for us. But we must also know that the future as Paul describes will be of no value unless we act upon it here on earth. Being a Christian is about being different, setting out on an adventure of discipleship, holiness, service and love. Jesus did not come to a town with a simple three-step message that invited people to be saved; his preaching focused on whom you invited to dinner, being a family, turning the other cheek. His preaching looked at what you did for others.
Jeremiah was not simply a prophet of gloom and doom. The things that he spoke about were the things that cause God to question the validity of the people’s beliefs. He challenged people to hear the words of God and put them into practice.
The words we read in this morning’s first reading were words of hope and promise for the future. Jeremiah was the only prophet who spoke and wrote of the promise of Jesus as the hope and promise for the future. But for the future to come true we must not only hear the words of God, we must act upon them.
As we begin this New Year, we must look to the future. We cannot spend time looking back at past and wondering what if had we done this or not done that. That wastes our time and results in nothing.
I hope that you received the questionnaire that was given out last week at church or through the mail this week. We would like to have them back next week so that the results can be looked at and examined. What is your vision of the church for the coming years? How will we make that vision come true? When Robert Kennedy ran for President in 1968, he was fond of quoting George Bernard Shaw, “You see things; and say `why? ` But I dream of things that never were and say `why not? `”
Our congregational hymn for this morning tells us that not only has God been our help in ages past but that he is also our hope for years to come. We have the chance to put into actions the words and hopes that have been expressed in the Gospels and through the prophets of the past. Knowing that God will be with us as we begin this New Year, it becomes easy to decide and develop the new plan that will help us to make the hope and promise more than just words.