The dawn is breaking, slowly, over the snow-blanketed city. You have assembled yourself for the morning, with your coat and hat and mittens. You stand like a medieval knight with his standard, you with your broom or shovel in hand, and dawn is breaking, slowly a week after the great snowfall. You are ready to start.
Shakespeare knew the beauty and terror of the dawn:
Chequering the eastern clouds with streaks of light
And flecked darkness like a drunkard reels
Form forth days path and Titan’s fiery wheels
Now ere the sun advance his burning eye
The day to cheer and night’s dank dew to dry
The great poet and playwright knew, as was said of our Lord in his earthly ministry, knew the heart of man. He knew the complexity of moral judgment. He knew the ambiguity of corporate and governmental life. He knew the strange subterranean interplay of spirituality and sexuality. He knew the elusive mobility of truth, which, to be spoken, requires a lifetime of rapt attention, and sometimes years of isolated pain and imprisonment. What this country may need to start a new year is neither a chicken in every pot nor a good 5 cent cigar nor a plain, new, fair, or square deal, but, a rivetingly taught course or two in Shakespeare!
As you start, at whatever dawn you face, ponder this Good News: Christ gives strength to start. A new year? Strength to start. A new path? Strength to start. A new relationship? Strength to start. A new diagnosis? Strength to start. A new commitment? Strength to start. A new situation? Strength to start. Christ offers strength to start.
In the first place, we may plainly affirm that together we find strength in Christ.
We listen to the words of St Matthew, the story of the Magi, and we hear them as God’s Word. The words of Scripture are “holy” in that they stand over against us, they take the measure of our self-deception, they outlast our passions and defeats and very lives. These verses will live longer than we, and rightly so. They will still be heard when we will not be. So they have the power to help us to begin the service, the day, the week, the year.
The words of Scripture start with the whole of life in view and with the end of life in view.
We too must make our various beginnings, and so we are not displeased to find here an inspired manner of entry. By example the Kings assert strength to start.
The passage opens the year with joy, and leads us into a new vocabulary of love and delight. Words of wisdom, that the Kings celebrate, and which will adorn the Gospel as the gospel unfolds. These words are meant to become our living vocabulary, dictionary, glossary. We are to learn them again as the New Year unfolds:
God is faithful
Oh that we would bathe ourselves at the outset of each day in such a shower of strength!
For you, all of you, have been found in a new situation. You are “in Christ”.
Start the day strong—much will befall to challenge by dusk.
Start life strong in childhood—much comes later to unsettle.
Start with laughter and play in summer—much in autumn proves more difficult.
Start this New Year with strength, and like a skier carried along by gravity, you will pass by and over and around the bumps.
Start this week and each week with the hearing of the Holy Word—much that is less than holy will greet you later.
In the second place, we may plainly affirm that the gifts of Christ are reliable in time of need, are firm in the face of danger. They make us confident when we need to be and inwardly secure when we have to be.
Whether we young or mature or old, whether we are babes in Christ or approved in Christ or wise in Christ—we make our starts with strength, recognizing that, as one author began one famous book, ‘life is hard and life is a struggle’.
For the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the people of skill, but time and chance happen to them all.
Life is not fair, not by a country mile.
Not fair to those who suffer untimely loss
Not fair to those stricken with unexpected illness
Not fair to those whose limbs are taken and torn
Not fair to those who should have been chosen
Not fair to you
Time and chance happen to all.
Is this not fairly the heart of the simple gifts we shall share in a moment at the Lord’s Table, and at the Lord’s behest? It was a borrowed upper room, not a paid for condo, in which the meal was shared. It was a circle tinged with betrayal, not a safe protected team, within which he washed feet and lifted cup. It was an evening before defeat, not a twilight of victory past, during which wine and bread were given. It was lack that gave way at last to hope, treachery that was the doorway to a later hope, suffering, the suffering of the cross, that made way for the hope in which we now stand.
Whatever harsh word you now have reason to hear and overhear, hold on. It is not the last word.
Start with that trust and strength.
Paul suffered shipwreck and lash and hunger and despond. Yet he could still sing with confidence:
If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation…
He who has begun a good work in you will complete it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ…
Have you begun with the Spirit to end with the flesh?…
It is the God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ…
He is the beginning, the first born from the dead that in everything he might be pre eminent…
For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him…
Resolve to choose and memorize one of these verses of hope wrought in struggle.
Whatever silence and despair now accompany you, hold on. Your lasting friendship is in Christ.
Martin Luther recounted his many attempts to find peace with God through self-discipline, through religious duty, through acts of contrition, through his own works, until at last he collapsed.
At last he found his way out from the harsh word of command from authority to obedience, and out into the meadow of hope in a calling word from wisdom to happiness, from the Kings to the Christ.
“But this availed me nothing; nor did it free me from a fearful and dreadful conscience…This is God’s Word… this one thing God asks of you, that you honor him by accepting comfort; believe and know that he forgives your transgressions and has no wrath against you.”
We learn late or early that without explanati
on rain falls on the just and unjust alike. In time of trial, though, you may start again with strength. You have the love of God, the Gospel of Christ, the Grace of the Lord, the baptism of the church, the prayers of the church, the Lord’s prayer, the ten commandments, the sacrament of communion, the word of absolution, and the decision of faith. Use them, rely on them, let them buoy you up, in time of trial.
In the third place, we may plainly affirm the strength that comes from beginning with the end in view. Though they found him an infant, one who does not speak, they saw him a King, One whose voice rings out to all the world.
This Epiphany Sunday reminds us that the Lord Christ is both Alpha and Omega. When at last we set down our various tools and trades, when at last we have lost our eyes and ears, when at last the various dawns have given way to dusk and dusk and dusk—here too we are in Christ and nowhere else, of Christ and no one else. Somehow all the little subplots and sufferings of this present time are going to find their full place and point in a greater story, the day of God, the life-span of Jesus Christ. Today is God’s, and tomorrow is God’s, too.
Only such a hope can sustain travelers such as we, who seek wisdom and who seek love, even as that hope has sustained the church for sixty some generations. Such a hope strengthens the Magi: unsung saints and heroines, and those whose names recall a sure strength to start. Some are enshrined in Scripture: Matthew, Paul, Mary, John. Some are known in Tradition: Ghandi, Heschel, Sadat, Teresa. Some are from closer experience: Harriett Tubman, William Seward, Comfort Tyler, Robert Laubach. One greets us on this plaza every morning, with birds in flight, emblematic of a strength to start. Only such a hope could have strengthened Martin Luther King on August 28 1963 in Washington and all the long bitter way to April 3 1968, his last earthly night: “I just want to do God’s will. And he has allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land…So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.”
You start with confidence about the end. You are strengthened to start in the hope of Jesus Christ.
Strength to start.
Strength to start in Christ
Strength to start in times of trial
Strength to start with hope for the end
Put on the whole clothing of Christ!
As you stand at the dawn of the rest of life…
We will put it in terms familiar…
Put on the whole wardrobe of Christ
Put on the sweater of grace
Put on the boots of peace
Put on the mittens of thanksgiving
Put on the tuke of fellowship
Put on the scarf of faithfulness
Put on the snowsuit of sanctification
Pick up the shovel of salvation
And the ice-pick of hope
And the salt of happiness
For in Christ, at New Year’s, you are given a strength to start.
Dean of Marsh Chapel