When I was growing up, my family spent most every New Year’s Eve in Columbia, South Carolina. My dad’s two best friends from college and seminary, Tom and Randy, both lived there and had children around our age, so our families would gather to catch up, exchange Christmas gifts, and stay up as late as we possibly could.
Once we were able to make it to midnight, the grownups would allow each of us kids a tiny taste of the cheapest champagne very little money could buy. As a side note, I’m now convinced that my parents’ primary means of deterring us from drinking was to allow us to taste only really terrible alcohol so we wouldn’t want it. It worked—for years, I truly could not understand why anyone would voluntarily consume any amount of any alcoholic beverage.
Anyway, thanks to the cheap champagne, we usually marked the stroke of midnight by exclaiming “EEEUUUWWWW” and the most disgusted faces we could make, followed by a rousing chorus of “Auld Lang Syne.” All of this after taking advantage of South Carolina’s otherwise terrifying lax regulatory atmosphere by shooting off fireworks you definitely cannot get in North Carolina.
The story goes that one Sunday around the New Year, the time came for the children’s sermon in worship at one of these other families’ church. The church member leading the children’s time asked the kids what their families did on New Year’s Eve. Tom’s youngest daughter, Mackin, was just a little kid at the time, and she quickly piped up: “At midnight, we all drink alcohol and spit it in the sink!”
That is and always will be my favorite answer to the question we’re all asking one another this week: “What are you doing New Year’s Eve?” Although Frank Loesser’s song asks it in a sweet, playful, inviting way, some of us dread having to answer that question. We might be a little insecure admitting that our plans for New Year’s Eve include going to bed before midnight or staying home or, worst of all, being alone.
Actress Jennifer Lawrence was recently interviewed and asked that question—“What are you doing New Year’s Eve?” As an A-list actress whose currently running movie, Joy, I highly recommend, you might expect she’d have some glamorous plans involving parties and champagne and sequins. But JLaw got a little “Bah, humbug” on New Year’s Eve. She said she wasn’t planning to do anything, because she felt like we always put way too much pressure on the night, expecting it to be the Best Night Ever, ensuring that the next year would be the Best Year Ever. In her experience, though, those high expectations usually left her “drunk and disappointed.”
I read an article affirming Jennifer Lawrence’s attitude toward New Year’s Eve, and it pointed out the obvious but overlooked fact about the division between December 31 and January 1: it’s totally arbitrary. Just like when you have a birthday and don’t wake up feeling any different or older or wiser, the clock striking twelve doesn’t actually give you a clean slate. The change we need is not forced into place by the marking of a new calendar year, but by the days and weeks and months that follow.
The other question many of us start to dread around this time of year is, “What is your New Year’s resolution?” We’re doing a sermon series on that topic the last 3 Sundays in January, partly because we know most people’s resolutions will be broken by then. The gym is crowded until about mid-January, then it goes back to normal; this is how New Year’s resolutions work.
A recent survey named the top 10 New Year’s resolutions, a few of them being: lose weight, get organized, quit smoking, and spend more time with family. There’s nothing wrong with these resolutions—some of us really need to do those things or any number of other commitments we might make—but part of the problem with New Year’s resolutions is that many of them are superficial or unrealistic or just not important enough to us to merit real dedication.
But let’s acknowledge that there are things about ourselves and our world that really do need to change. There are holes in our hearts and our souls and our relationships and our society that are in desperate need of mending. There is much that needs to be made new in our lives and our communities and our world, and it takes more than the tick of a clock for that change to take place, and much more for it to last.
The stroke of midnight will not cement our diet and exercise routines, or magically make more time in our schedule for family or hobbies, or give us the resolve to stop smoking or drinking. It will not heal your cancer or depression, or save your struggling marriage, or bring home your prodigal child.
The stroke of midnight certainly will not bring justice for Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old gunned down by a police officer in Cleveland last year; or for Sandra Bland, who died of a suspected suicide in a Texas jail while being held unnecessarily after a traffic stop.
The stroke of midnight will not fix the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe or stop the heroin epidemic in America. It will not mend the damage done by severe weather in the Midwest or stop ISIS fighters from continuing their campaign of terror. Declaring that this is the new year will not bring sanity to our political system or compassion to our medical-industrial complex.
We need a change. We need it desperately. But chances are it’s not coming at the stroke of midnight.
And yet, we have this beautiful image in Revelation 21 of “a new heaven and a new earth,” of “the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” We are reminded of what we just declared at Christmas, that “the home of God is among mortals,” and “He will dwell with them.” We hear the promise that God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”
There’s this theological concept that we talked about a lot in seminary that we call the “already but not yet.” It’s a paradox—usually, if something has already happened, it hasn’t also not yet happened. But we believe that this is actually how the kingdom of God works—it’s breaking through but hasn’t been realized to the fullest. It is already but not yet.
We just celebrated the birth of Jesus for something like the 2,016th time in history. Part of why the church follows a cyclical model of time, where we circle back annually to remembrances of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection, is because we are so rooted in the “already but not yet.” We remember the “already” and look forward to the “not yet”—over and over again, until God’s kingdom comes in full and its realization is complete.
The image of the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven is a powerful one for me, because it tells me that God’s redemption, restoration, and salvation will happen right here, not in some magical netherworld. Jesus was born into our midst as the “already” of God making God’s home among mortals—the “not yet” is the establishment of the new Jerusalem, the new heaven and the new earth, is the part we’re waiting for. We aren’t waiting to be whisked off into the clouds or transported somewhere better or more holy. God sanctified time and space, this whole creation, by inhabiting it and promising to restore it in full.
We know the “not yet” by the tears and the death and the mourning and crying and pain. We know the “not yet” by sickness and hunger and injustice and oppression and broken relationships. We know the “not yet” every time we turn on the news or look into our own hearts.
But we know the “already,” too. We know the “already” by the moments when our tears are wiped away, when our hunger is fed and our wounds are bound and our despair glimpses the flickering light of hope. We know the “already” by those who fight for justice, by those working alongside God to offer living water to those who thirst in body and soul. We know the “already” by a baby boy born to be Emmanuel, God with us, smack dab in the middle of our “not yet.”
And God asks us to do just one thing: to see. “See, I am making all things new.” See, look up, pay attention—in the middle of your “not yet,” my “already” is breaking through and doing something incredible. While you wish for newness to come with the snap of a finger or the tick of a clock, I am already making all things new.
The stroke of midnight will not do it. But God is doing it. The stroke of midnight will not heal or mend or fix or repair, but God is healing and mending and fixing and repairing. The stroke of midnight will not make all things new, but God is making all things new.
So yes, “join the celebration, bring the new year in with a shout;” wear sequins, go to parties, blow noisemakers and pop champagne and sing “Auld Lang Syne;” drink alcohol and spit it in the sink! Or stay home, eat ice cream, go to bed early, and take the pressure off. Celebrate the New Year, but don’t expect it to fill the hole in your heart and your soul. Don’t look for a quick fix or an easy solution, because they will leave you “drunk and disappointed.”
Look, instead, for what God is doing—what God has been doing and will continue to do long before and after that stroke of midnight. Trust that God is making all things new, that there is a new heaven and a new earth, not far off in space and time from us and our earthly suffering, but right here, right now, in and among our experiences of mortality and pain.
Because where there is a hole, there is space for God. Where there is a wound, there is space for healing. Where there is hurt or fear or violence or suffering, there is opportunity for comfort and assurance and peace and reconciliation. Into a hole in the heart and soul of this universe a child is born; the making of all things new is well underway.
Whatever your New Year’s resolution might be, or even if you’re not planning to make one, let us all commit to see, to look, to pay attention to God’s ongoing action of making all things new, and to get in on that action. As we do so, we trust that God is always with us, for God’s home is among mortals—already and not yet. God is with us—at midnight tomorrow, and at all times. “See, I am making all things new.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell