First Sunday of 2016 – Jed McClauren

 Today is the 1st Sunday of 2016.

My favorite Sunday of the year – “Vision Sunday” (as I think of it)

For the past year I’ve been employed as a Realtor, something I’m really enjoying, serving people in that way. A nice change from pastoring, which has an incredibly high burnout rate.

For the 8 years before that I served as a local church pastor, and my first sermon of the year usually revolved around a variation on the following Query…

“What will this new year look like for you?” [individually]

(pause)

When leading a congregation, I’d ask that and a parallel question for the congregation, inviting them to listen together for how God might be desiring to move in their midst in the coming year.

And so we’d listen together (privately, and then sharing those individual leadings together over a period of months). Quakerly, bottom-up approach to vision-casting for a church, something the leadership team normally tackles, at a more hierarchically organized church body. Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses.

But today I’m just here as Jed, not pastor Jed addressing a congregation he’s been called to lead long-term (in servant leader fashion).

So today I’m asking this query entirely personally:

“What will this new year look like for you?”

(pause)

You can almost envision it as something that descends from above:

“Here is your 2016.” … “Thanks!”

What does it contain? Many parts of that are beyond our control. What stresses, what challenges? What gifts, what blessings. Much of this is beyond our control, others are not!

I think that’s a really important question to ask at the start of every new year.

“What will this new year look like for you?”  

 

“What do you desire this new year to look like?”

You’ve probably heard about the difference between a question and query?

A query is Quakerese for spiritual question – a special kind of question.

It’s a question we invite God into (if that makes sense?).

A query is a question we ask ourselves that creates space for God to work within us. A query invites God to bring change to us, internally.

Answers tend to be very definitive, but in subtle ways they can close us.

Once we know an answer we tend to move on, give it no further thought (“check”).

Answers don’t seem to promote growth as much as a good question does.

The teachers in the room know what I’m talking about. When you lecture, students eyes tend to glaze. Engage them in discussion, and they might actually remember something (without the threat of being tested forcing them to memorize something).

Unlike good answers, which are somewhat lifeless, good questions tend to open us to God, tend to grow us.

So a personal query isn’t a question for us to answer privately. It’s an expansive question that we bring before God, and discern in dialogue and communion with Him.

In this way, Discernment is a kind of listening-prayer that is vitally important to our spiritual life. If you’re not listening to God, what are you doing?

[pause]

This may sound strange, but I’ve come to think of lifeverses as a kind of query.

We can allow a passage of Scripture (or a fragment of a poem, etc.) to act as a question, dialoguing with our life.

So each year I listen hard for a vision for the new year (a God-inspired direction to take).

And an important part of that is listening process is listening for a lifeverse for the year.

That lifeverse helps cement that free-floating vision into reality, helps manifest that vision in practice in my actual day-to-day life.

I’ve been praying on this for several months, and for 2016 it seems to be Jeremiah 2:13. That’s the one that keeps coming to me with this sense of… rightness, it fits, belonging.  

 

This passage could feel a little heavy, because of the mention of “evil” at the beginning. But I’m finding this one life-giving and spiritually vitalizing.

“…my people have committed two evils:

they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water,

and dug out cisterns for themselves,

cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” (NRSV)

When reading this, it’s important to remember that the English word “evil” always means malevolent, diabolical; a serial killer vibe. In English, evil is a very strong word, whereas in Hebrew and Greek, the word connotes a whole spectrum from bad/harmful to malevolent/diabolical evil.

The Greek and Hebrew words usually translated as evil often mean that, but in many contexts the same word merely means bad, harmful, toxic.

For example, we get our English word cacophony from the Gk. kakos (the word for evil in the NT). A cacophony is discordant, chaotic, the notes don’t sound good together. But it’s not an evil noise, per se.

Cacophony story: my mom’s birthday gift for Brett’s 3rd birthday.

So in this case, you might replace the word “evil” with “spiritually toxic,” which is always at least a little synonymous with what Scripture refers to as evil. Evil is spiritual toxicity to a fatal degree.

“…my people have committed two evils: [They’ve spiritually poisoned themselves in 2 ways]

they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water,

and [instead] dug out cisterns for themselves,

cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” (NRSV)

“My people” = godly religious people like you and me, doing our best to live right with God and others.

“Broken cistern” religiosity = barren, habitual, mechanical.

Not life-giving, spiritually nourishing, vibrant.  

 

Fountain (Lexham English Standard: Spring)

A fountain is a stream of water; it is specifically a source of water. As such it is very similar to two other English words, well and spring. Since the fountain more precisely indicates the source or origin of water, its figurative use often means source of life.

Psalm 36:9 refers to God as the “fountain of life” (NIV).

Cistern

Modern urbanites, particularly in the West, tend to overlook the importance of water conservation for the life and well-being of a community. In an era when water pours from faucets hot and cold, the significance of a cistern is easily lost. The limited rainfall of Israel made cisterns an absolute necessity, and it is likely that in dry settled areas most homes had a cistern fed by rainwater gathered on the roof during the rainy season. Most of the cisterns that have survived were cut into the limestone in a bottle shape, plastered to help retain the water and sealed with a stone to prevent contamination and evaporation. Freestanding containers of various materials were also employed in a manner much like the “water barrel” of the more recent past.

In Jeremiah 2:13 a cistern is contrasted with a well so as to create a negative image. Yahweh is the fountain of living water who has been abandoned for broken cisterns that hold no water at all. In this colorful passage there seems to be an implicit assumption that cistern water is inferior: cisterns are difficult to maintain, and the water was subject to becoming stale and harboring parasites.1

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