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From Our Bishops

Archbishop’s New Year’s Day sermon

The following is an edited version of Archbishop Colin Johnson’s New Year’s Day sermon at St. James Cathedral. The sermon is also available as an audio file on St. James Cathedral’s website.

We come to the year of our Lord 2012 to give thanks to Almighty God for the blessings that we have received, to receive consolation in our sorrows, to ask forgiveness for our failures, and to ask God’s blessing for the year that has just begun.

New Year’s is a time of resolutions. Bishop Ann Tottenham, whenever she did something she regretted, would say, “Next year, I promise to be a better person!”

On New Year’s, we look forward and back. We make beginnings and endings. The lectionary today presents us with two quite different readings for our consideration as we do this looking forward and back.

The first reading is an apocalyptic reading (Revelation 19:11-16). It’s about endings, last times. The Book of Revelation was written in a period of great crisis in the church. The people were enduring great persecution. They were in doubt about the way forward and how to remain faithful. They were edging on despair. St. John the Divine wrote this magnificent piece of dreamlike poetry, this apocalyptic literature, to give them hope. It’s dreamlike, full of imagery that is exaggerated, grotesque, evocative, symbolic, and notoriously difficult to interpret.

There is a story of a brash, young seminarian who was working in a hospice for the homeless. He saw a man, weathered, aged and decrepit, sitting on one of the sofas reading a Bible. Going over to him, he asked, “Old man, what are you reading?”

“The Book of Revelation,” said the man.

“Really? Difficult book, that. Do you understand it?”


“You do?” he asked incredulously. “Well, tell me what it means.”

“God wins!”

You see, the man got the essence of the story without getting bogged down in the incidentals, without being diverted by all of the distracting imagery. He understood the heart of it—God wins.

On this first day of the year, keep that in mind—God wins. His victory is over all that would isolate and separate and defeat us, over sin that would take us away from God and from each other, leaving us isolated and alone. The promised kingdom of God is a community of worship and joy, of right relationships, of healing and reconciliation, a place where the table is set and all are welcome and fed. It is a place where tears are wiped away, where there’s no more sighing or sorrow. It is a place where God dwells in the midst of God’s people, and they know that he is God, and they know that they are his beloved people.

That’s the end.

That’s the destination.

That’s where we’re going.

God wins—not in some triumph of destructive power, but by bringing all things to their consummation in a re-created world made in God’s image.

God changes the situation
If the first reading talks about the end, the second reading (Matthew 1:18-25) talks about the beginning. It tells about God who comes in Jesus to dwell in our midst.

It, too, is a complicated story, puzzling and difficult. It presents a conundrum. Joseph’s betrothed, Mary, is pregnant. What is he to do? He puzzles it out. Within the boundaries of the institutions that have given him life and support, he resolves that he can divorce her. But unwilling to exposure her to public disgrace, he plans to dismiss her quietly. Having worked it out by himself, he sleeps, “perchance to dream,” as Shakespeare says.

A wise monk who talked to us on a retreat once said, “It’s okay to go to sleep. God has the capacity to work with you, and he will work with you even while you’re asleep. In fact, for strong-willed people, that is sometimes the only chance God gets!”

In his sleep, Joseph dreams, and he discovers a completely different resolution. A marriage comes, followed by a birth. God acts. It’s not Joseph who acts. It’s not even Mary who acts. It’s God who acts and changes the situation.

A child is born.

Emmanuel—“God with us.”

Jesus—“God saves.”

Joseph and Mary joined in saying “yes” to God’s purposes. Not only were they changed, but the whole world was changed and transfigured because of their “yes.” As God works in collaboration with his human partners, the world is changed because “God is with us” and “God saves.” That’s who he is.

Do we need a saviour?
But do we need a saviour? Do you and I really need a saviour?

It’s quite obvious, when you look around the world, when you witness:

  • the poverty, sickness and disease;
  • the war and violence;
  • the disasters;
  • the environment that can’t fix itself.

Clearly, there are situations in which God has to act to save. Even in this neighbourhood, there are people on the streets, people who are hungry, homeless, frightened, ill, dying and alone. We see that those people actually need a saviour. But do we?

Perhaps we can only recognize our need for a saviour when we quiet down from all the busyness, when we go on retreat, when we withdraw into silence, when we sleep (perchance to dream), when we find that we cannot fix ourselves in spite of all the self-help books. It comes when we recognize that we cannot make our lives any better and realise that the promise “next year I’ll be a better person” doesn’t work unless God is with us, unless God saves us, unless God comes in and changes the situation.

Dream of a church
Over the ages, God has acted. Dreams have happened. Joseph had a dream, and long before him, Abraham had a dream and then Jacob had a dream of wrestling with God. After him, another Joseph had a dream that led to exile and then an amazing restoration. Peter had a dream that opened the promise in unimaginable breadth. Paying attention to God’s invitation through those dreams changed the people of God, as well as the individual who dreamed them. In our own times, Martin Luther King Jr. stood before a crowd and cried, “I have a dream” and a nation changed. Those were visions of what God can do and does do and will do.

Thirty years ago, an American bishop, the late Wesley Frensdorff, a pioneer of new forms of ministry in the Diocese of Nevada, invited us to dream about the church. Let me leave you with this:

“Let us dream of a church in which all members know surely and simply God’s great love, and each is certain that in the divine heart we are all known by name.

“Let us dream of a church in which Jesus is very Word, our window into the Father’s heart, the sign of God’s hope and his design for all humankind.

“Let us dream of a church in which the Spirit is not a party symbol, but wind and fire in everyone, gracing the church with a kaleidoscope of gifts and constant renewal for all.

“Let us dream of a church in which worship is lively and fun as well as reverent and holy, that we might be moved to dance and laugh, to be solemn, to cry or beat our breast; where people know how to pray and enjoy it, frequently and regularly, privately and corporately, in silence and in word and song.

“Let us dream of a church in which the Eucharist is the centre of life, and servant-hood the centre of mission: the servant Lord truly known in the breaking of bread; with service flowing from worship, and everyone understanding why worship is called a service…

“Let us dream of a church that affirms life over death as much as life after death, unafraid of change, able to recognize God’s hand in the revolutions, affirming the beauty of diversity, abhorring the imprisonment of uniformity…

“Let us dream of a church without answers but asking the right questions; holding law and grace, freedom and authority, faith and works, together in tension, by the Holy Spirit, pointing to the glorious mystery who is God; a church so deeply rooted in Gospel and tradition that, like a living tree, it can swing in the wind and continually surprise us with new blossoms…

“Let us dream of a church so salty and yeasty that it would really be missed if it no longer was around; where there is a wild sowing of seeds, and much rejoicing when they take root, and little concern over success or even survival.

“Let us dream of a church so evangelical that its worship, its quality of caring, its eagerness to reach out to those in need cannot be contained…

“Let us dream of a church where each congregation is in mission and each Christian is gifted for ministry—a crew on a freighter, not passengers on a luxury liner; peacemakers and healers who abhor violence in all forms, as concerned with societal healing as with individual healing, with justice as with freedom, prophetically confronting the root causes of social, political and economic ills.

“Let us dream of a church that is a community under judgment, seeking to live with its own proclamation, and therefore, truly loving what the Lord commands and desiring His promise.

“And finally, let us dream of a people called to recognize all the absurdities in ourselves and in one another, including the absurdity that is love, serious about the call and the mission but not, very much, about ourselves, who, in the company of our playful, life-giving Redeemer, can dance and sing and laugh and cry in worship, in ministry and even in conflict.” (Let us Dream of a Church by Bishop Wesley Frensdorff, edited by Charles Wilson.)

Let us dream of such a church and our Lord’s summons to share with him in building it. And on this first day of the year, an ending and a beginning, let us remember two things: that God wins and that God is with us.