Living In The Light

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | January 1, 2023

Isaiah 63:7-9

There was a time when we wished people, “Happy New Year!” and thought of it as a general holiday greeting. Of late, the greeting is more like a prayer of hope. We hope the year to come is better than the last one.

I read a variety of newspapers and magazines to get my sense of the news of the day. These have a knack for conveying a sense of doom. It’s as if the writers sit around listening to music from the old Hee Haw television show for inspiration:

Gloom, despair, and agony on me
Deep, dark depression, excessive misery
If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all
Gloom, despair, and agony on me.”

What if in addition to wishing people a happy new year, we wished for – A peaceful new year; a hopeful new year; a healthy new year; a loving new year; a healthy new year; an uplifting new year.

Our readings today remind us that any season of our lives is a time to praise God. Praising God doesn’t mean that we are happy all the time. It means that we see how God is a part of life in good times and bad times, in all times. One writer said of Jesus, “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

My wish for you is that you have a new year filled with and empowered by the life that God makes possible through Jesus Christ.

Probably the greatest challenge of my life and work over the years has been to point people to the light of Christ. The light that shines in the darkness. The light that no darkness can overcome. I say, “point to,” because the light needs no explanation. The light requires no user’s manual. The light is simply life as God makes possible.

Sometimes the light is like a flickering candle; offering a reminder of God’s presence. Sometimes the light is like a warm fire; a reminder of God’s care.

It could be like a search light; finding what you are looking for.

Maybe like the light at the end of the tunnel, the life God offers is a source of hope and courage.

One time I was in a study group with other ministers. We were learning about what’s known as “systems theory.” Systems theory is about how families, groups and organizations function. During one part of a class discussion, I made a point by saying something about Jesus, how he related to people and how I tried to learn from his example.

One person in the group chimed in, rather dismissively I must say, by saying, “I tend not to see things in such a ‘Christo-centric’ way.”

Christo-centric  was a term with which I was not familiar. In understood the concept, “Christ at the center,” obviously. I tend to understand it as trying to figure out what it means to be a follower of Jesus and how that relates to understanding the meaning of life. I never thought of Jesus as a philosophy, but as a person who is very much present in spirit. The love and goodness he brought into the world is alive and well through his followers, or it should be.

Sometimes we think of the new year in terms of resolutions we make for the days to come. I am reminded at this turning of the calendar of the importance of remembering the past, as in how the prophet Isaiah said, “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord.”

We could all think back on the year just past and realize where God has been at work. God at work is not like getting smacked over the head with a bible. God at work in our lives is more often how we have known love; the joy that we haven’t planned for; kindness, friendship, those times when we had the chance to be generous.

God is at work also in the challenges we face, the burdens we bear and the struggles we endure. When patience is tested; when despair and fear crowd our lives; when hope is called upon and courage empowers our journey.

When I consider the past, what might seem like chance or happenstance, was to me a way of God presenting choices that had life altering consequences.

The summer I was eleven years old was eventful. My brothers and sister left to spend the summer with our grandparents in Nevada. I got to stay home and have my appendix removed. But I got to spend a week at church camp. Church camp was definitely better than the hospital. A whole week without my parents telling me what to do or what to think.

I learned some things that week at church camp. How to make a lanyard; how to make a napkin holder out of popsicle sticks. At church camp I was not fond of organized group activities. Team sports and cabin competitions were not my favorite things. Whenever I had the chance, I would wander down to the water’s edge at the lake and look for tadpoles.

It being church camp, there was much talk of God and Jesus. Morning devotions had to be endured, as well as evening chapel. Songs around the fireside was fun. And just having the time and space to think about things. One time when I was by the lake, thinking about God, I wondered if there is a God and I said, “God, are you out there?”

What I didn’t know at the time, but would soon discover, is that God answers prayer. The week was drawing to a close. The camp pastor, a local minister taking his turn at camp, might have thought the clock was ticking on his chance to save some of those young souls. We would be going home Saturday. Thursday night he talked in evening chapel about the importance of accepting Christ into your heart. He said that if anyone wanted to do that, then after we were dismissed, to stay behind. I thought, what have I got to lose? When the last amen was said, all the other children ran out to the canteen and lined up to buy candy. I was the only one who stayed.

We talked and he told me about praying a prayer to ask Jesus into my heart. He prayed and I repeated his words. Maybe he thought, “Well, one kid is better than none.” Maybe he thought, “That’s the last time I spend a week of my hard-earned vacation at church camp.” There are many ways to come to Christ. That was one way and it suited me. Little did that pastor know how praying with one eleven-year-old boy would change someone’s life.

Once at home, the lanyard went into a drawer and the napkin holder was dutifully put to use, where it stayed in service for many years. My parents wanted to know what I did at camp; did I have fun and that sort of thing. I said, “Yes I had fun. I accepted Christ as my Savior.”

My parents at that time in their lives were “agnostic.” To them, God was a concept, a maybe, a could be, a whatever. If I wanted to go to church, that was fine with them. The accepting Christ thing was a mystery, but again, whatever, just don’t get pushy about it. They were not religious, they tried some churches in the neighborhood, but in those days,  they just weren’t church going people.

For me, life from then on took on a new sense, best described as, “Now that I’m a Christian.” The journey had its hills and valleys. I wasn’t always a good Christian, but there was the very real sense that because I had invited Jesus into my life, he was a permanent presence. He would not leave me.

There was also the sense that even though I had invited Jesus into my life, it was he who had invited me into his. One poet said as much – “I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew, he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me.”

So, thinking back on life and how it has played out, I am grateful. Thinking back on the year just past, I am grateful. A couple of times I had to have a heart to heart with Jesus. Like when I ran into that deer on the road or slipped on the ice on the back deck took a tumble down the stairs, grateful that those words were not my last words on this earth.

“Lord, what I really meant to say was, ‘I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us.’” Amen.

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