Summary: The New Year brings with it a sense that here we are again, doing the same old things, even in worship. But the prophet warns us that weariness in worship comes from offering God less than our best.
Takoma Park Baptist Church, Washington, DC January 3, 1988
Prominent in Greek mythology there is the story of Sisyphus. Sisyphus, you may remember, was the poor lost soul who had been condemned to spend eternity heaving and shoving a huge rock up to the top of a hill, only to have it roll all the way down to the bottom, at which point he was expected to start pushing again. Throughout eternity, poor muscle-bound Sisyphus was to get that boulder to the top of the hill and feel the rush of excitement: the job is almost done, it's almost finished and then suddenly, whoosh, all the way back down and tote that barge, lift that bail. Over and over and over again.
I suspect that many of us feel about that way about the start of a new year. Never mind the stuff about resolutions and turning over new leaves; we already know it's going to be another same old kind of year, don't we? Never mind singing brave hymns about ringing out the old, ringing in the new, ring in the peace that is to be; you and I have been around the block a few times, and we've figured it out, haven't we? We've figured out that nothing really changes and nothing ever really gets better, and that whatever we had to do last year, we'll have to do again. Isn't that right? Isn't that where most of us are?
Got the taxes paid last year, but guess what? The government wants them again this year. Why those grinches even timed their mailings to arrive the day after Christmas. Paid the rent, paid the mortgage payments faithfully all through 1987, and wouldn't you know it, Saturday's mails brought a new payment coupon book. Looks like the coming year will just be an instant replay of ‘87. Sisyphus we understand. What a weariness!
Got the house cleaned up for Christmas, at the eleventh hour, just before guests and family arrived, the last speck of dust was whisked away and the last pile of clutter was hidden in some out-of the way spot. Where, now maybe it will stay that way. But here we are, a few days after Christmas, and the house looks like the staging zone for the landing on Normandy beach. Scraps of wrapping paper that escaped our attention; gifts we haven't figured out what to do with. Do I really have to take this pink and purple plaid raincoat back to Aunt Edna or can't I just let the dog use it as a blanket? You know what I'm talking about. Houses just do not stay clean. Sisyphus, we understand. What a weariness!
And besides all that, here we are in church again. Sunday again. We have consulted the calendar, and guess what, in 1988 there will be a Sunday every seven days, without fail. 52 times we will be expected to be right here, doing our thing, without fail. 52 Sundays to get past, and no one knows better than the preacher that something has to be produced every seven days, rain or shine, winter or summer, feeling good or feeling bad. Just phone the church and ask for Rev. Sisyphus; he’ll be right with you. Is it fair to say that for some of us, even this, even worship, brings the response, “What a weariness!”
When I was a seminary student I served frequently as a substitute organist in various churches around Louisville. There was one Episcopal church to which I went frequently, and the organ was located behind a carved wooden screen, so that the congregation could barely see me, but because I was right next to the screen's back side I had a very good close-up view of everything that went on at the altar and in the pulpit. My most vivid memory of that view is of the pastor, the rector, going through the liturgy, reading over there at the lectern, receiving the offering out there at the chancel steps, preaching over here at the pulpit, and then turning around, with his back to the congregation, to kneel at the altar steps. And as he would sink to his knees, getting ready to lead the morning prayers, only the Lord and I knew that he would roll his eyes up toward the ceiling, put on a very weary face, and then let his lips splutter –pppppppp -- as if to say, "What a weariness!" Even worship, you see, what a weariness!
The prophet Malachi, more than 2400 years ago, saw that religion gets wearisome. When things get routine and repetitive, they get wearisome. When priests and pastors burn out, there is no longer any energy for leading in worship. When God's people lose track of what they are going, as Malachi puts it so graphically, they sniff at the Lord and they say, "What a weariness this is!" One translation has it, “You turn up your nose at me and say, 'How tired we are of all this,’”