Sermons

Summary: We cannot repair our mistakes alone, because we keep on starting at old premises. What we need, and receive in the Incarnation, is a new beginning, modeled and taught.

Takoma Park Baptist Church, Washington, DC, Nov. 30, 1986, Advent I

One comic strip character aspires to be a writer. His crowning ambition is to write the definitive novel, the bestseller to end all best sellers. And so time and again he sits down at his typewriter, poises his paws (must be awfully hard to type with paws) and begins his inspired writing, “It was a dark and stormy night …” And after so brave a beginning it seems it is not long until he bogs down in a morass of garbled language never able to finish, never able to get anywhere with his story.

But never fear, he will be back; tune in this time next week, for once again the inspiration will strike, the motivation to write will hit, and he will stick a clean sheet of paper in his typewriter, poise his paws, and out it will come again, “It was a dark and stormy night …” But of course the outcome is once again predictable; with the same old beginning, you will get the same old trite, schmaltzy stuff. He needs, more than anything else, a new beginning. There has got to be another way to begin the great American novel, the novel to end all novels, than the hackneyed line, “lt was a dark and stormy night --”

There are times, many times, in our lives, when nothing less than a new beginning will do. There are all sorts of situations in which you and I find ourselves where the only real answer is to start over, to make a new beginning, because once you start with the premises you've been starting with, your course of action is already set, it's already determined. And even though you think that you can start from the same old point one and take a different tack on some problem, it just won't work. What you did at the very beginning determines what will happen thereafter, and so if you don't make a new beginning, you will just keep on ending up in the same mistakes, in the same dead-end roads.

Since we began by thinking about writing, let me illustrate my point by telling you what it's like to sweat great drops of blood over sermons sometimes. Sometimes I look at that text and that basic idea that I outlined weeks or even months ago, and I say, Well, whatever did I have in mind? What could I possibly have expected to do with this idea, with this concept? But I will bravely sit down with pencil and paper and Bible and commentary, and dig in. Well, a couple of hours later you could walk into my study and think there had been a snowstorm; wads of paper scattered to the four walls, reams of discarded beginnings pitched off to the side. When you're being creative you don't worry about mundane things like garbage cans. Fistfuls of my thinning hair scattered among the ruins like autumn leaves, and finally the only thing that will redeem the mess I'm in is to make a new beginning. Sometimes the only thing I can do is to say, in effect, Lord, when you gave me that idea, if it was you who gave it, then you needed to give me the three points and a poem too, because this is just not working. I need a new beginning, because I'll never make anything worthwhile out of the bits and pieces of the old beginning.

I have an idea that many of you have come to junctures in your lives in which it became clear to you that you needed to make a change, a radical change, not just a cosmetic one; a deep-rooted change, not just a superficial one. And essentially it was that you knew that without a new beginning, without starting over, you would end up in the same old pointless rut as before, you would end up in the same old unproductive track. A new beginning was called for.

And so, for example, some decide on a career change. Some see that the job in which they have invested themselves is going nowhere. There is no excitement in it, no vim and vinegar, and so a fresh start is needed. Maybe that means more education, maybe that means retraining. For one friend of mine, that meant leaving his work and living in Thailand for a year, doing something for someone who really needed him, getting his mind and heart ready for a new beginning.

Others see that they need to renegotiate a relationship. Others recognize that the way things have been going with that husband, that wife, that son or that daughter, well, as our cartoon character’s novel would put it, "It was a dark and stormy night!" And so it becomes clear that just trying to build on the way that relationship has worked in the past is so pointless, fruitless that the time has come to say, You and I are going to get honest with one another, you and I are going to re-examine and restart our relationship. Dismiss as much as you can from your memory and your assumptions the way we have been; let's start over, let's begin again. And of course, as many of you know, that’s risky business. When you start over, when you attempt a new beginning in a relationship, it's risky; you may get a divorce out of that. Or you may get somebody running away from home. All kinds of risks are possible. But you may also get exactly what you wanted, exactly what you needed: a new beginning.

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