Yesterday morning in Yakima it looked like Narnia – when it was always winter but never Christmas, in C. S. Lewis’ children’s story, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Frost hung in all the trees, gathered there overnight from the frosty breath of the sky, as the cold ground fog crystallized into wintry shapes along all the twigs and branches. Among them were some frost-gilt leaves left from last summer, hanging like Christmas ornaments among the snowy branches.
As I walked along under mighty oaks I found a handful of acorns. Squirrel munchies – or a future forest? And on the branches of some of the trees you could see the buds already in place, sheltering within them the start of fresh new leaves awaiting next Spring’s word: Arise! Shine! For your light has come.
Winter looks like the end - and it is the end of the old year – but it is also, underneath, the beginning of new life. The buds of next year’s green growth, already forming, are a promise of something new growing even as the old passes away.
This is what John proclaims – as the harvest came into abundance so he reaped a ‘crop’ of souls as he baptized them in the Jordan, proclaiming repentance for forgiveness of sin.
He was the greatest and the last of the prophets of the Old Covenant, the old way of God and humankind in relation to each other. He was the culmination and fulfillment of a long line. At the Jordan – in camels’ hair – he called to mind all the old prophets of Israel. And yet he did not hold himself highly: he humbly pointed beyond himself and ahead.
You have been asking the wrong question, he said, for the question to ask me is not “Who are you?” Ask rather “Who is coming?”
There is one standing among you whose sandal-string I am not worthy to untie.
Something new and wonderful is coming into being – borne into life by Mary, nurtured by Joseph, anointed by the Holy Spirit – the fulfillment of hope of ages is upon us.
The day of the Lord is coming – the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
What is old is passing away; something new is come.
And so it is with the church year. We are in the top of a season, the end of a cycle. One year is passing away. Our season of Advent looks back, and it looks forward too. Advent began with psalms of abject penitence then awakening hope and gradually moving toward the realization that a new source of joy is just about to spring into being.
And so it is with the life of the church. Every year, every season of the life of a church, includes an ending and a beginning. And in between we often find a muddle! This is how our own lives can be as well. As we progress through phases of life and growth in Christ we confront new issues and leave old ones behind, leaving them to God to integrate into a new season’s paradigm of meaning and purpose.
A church begins and grows, reaches maturity, and takes a characteristic shape of its own, and then, begins – quite often, not inevitably – a gradual decline or slump. There may be reforms or redevelopment efforts that take the church back to a state of new growth.
Unarrested decline can continue and the congregation may find its old form disappearing altogether. At that stage what happens is – the nurturing of new growth, the beginning of hope in a new form. The old way of being, the old way of doing things, no longer lives; but the word of God abides forever. It finds fresh expression. What was once the main growth may begin to function like a nurse log in the rain forest; providing the foundation, the host, and the nutrition for the beginning of new life. Or the old can become a ‘nesting congregation’ – home to some new entity getting ready to strike out on its own. Or what was is transformed in the mysterious work of the Spirit into a new way of being itself.
And so we find ourselves in a state of transition. Gradually what we have known is transformed – and we find ourselves in a renewed and hopeful new phase of life.
For God is steadfast; his loyalty is a rock; his faithfulness is forever. He knows the plans he has for us, plans for our welfare and not for harm, to provide for us a future with hope.
This is his Church. It is the house of God. We live in it; we care for it; we celebrate in it. We welcome others into it – and bring them with us deeper in and further on in the life of faith. From it we go forth to love and serve the Lord. And at the last we pass along what we have received, that others may take up the tasks and receive the joys of his Kingdom.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, 28)
For the Episcopal Church of Saint Alban, Edmonds, Washington.