New Years December 31, 2023
120, 121, 119, 123
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Sermon Audio: https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/ministrybymail
Prayer of the Day: Eternal God, we commit to Your mercy and forgiveness the year now ending and commend to Your blessing and love the times yet to come. In the new year, abide among us with Your Holy Spirit that we may always trust in the saving name of our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
“I hear the train a’ comin, it’s coming round the bend…” Some of you might be familiar with the song called the “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash. “The Man In Black” wrote the lyrics after watching a film about inmates in Folsom Prison, located outside of Sacramento, CA. In his song, Johnny Cash imagines himself in Folsom prison, listening to an approaching train, wishing it would take him far away from his prison cell to San Antonio, TX.
As we close out the year 2023 and hear the approaching train of 2024, what thoughts do you have about the past year and how do you feel about that train coming around the bend? Are you part of the 1/3 of Americans who felt they had a “Great” year in 2023 or the 2/3 that felt it was a disappointment? Did the past year feel like a prison cell that you long to be freed from? Are you afraid of what might be on board the new year’s train?
As the New Year’s rolls around the bend like a fast moving train blowing its whistle to announce its arrival, we turn to the Word of God for our direction, our comfort, and our hope as we embark on a new year. Today we hear from the Prophet Isaiah as we make use of the phrase that we were taught in driver’s education when approaching a railroad crossing: “LOOK! LISTEN! And LIVE!” Hear now the God-breathed words of Isaiah, chapter 51, verses 1 through 6:
Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness,
you who seek the LORD:
look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.
Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you;
for he was but one when I called him,
that I might bless him and multiply him.
For the LORD comforts Zion;
he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden,
her desert like the garden of the LORD;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the voice of song.
Give attention to me, my people,
and give ear to me, my nation;
for a law will go out from me,
and I will set my justice for a light to the peoples.
My righteousness draws near,
my salvation has gone out,
and my arms will judge the peoples;
the coastlands hope for me, and for my arm they wait.
Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath;
for the heavens vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment,
and they who dwell in it will die in like manner;
but my salvation will be forever,
and my righteousness will never be dismayed.(ESV)
So far God’s Word.
As we hear the train whistle of the new year approaching, maybe you are afraid of what this train will bring you. Will 2024 bring you, your family, your nation, and your church? Will it bring blessing or disaster? Will it be a joyous year or a year of suffering? Will this be the last year of our life or the last year of world history?
As we look ahead to a new year filled with uncertainty, don’t forget to LOOK BACK and remember what God HAS done for you. As chapter 51 begins, the LORD is addressing His believers—He is addressing you. “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the LORD, look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.” Rocks are lifeless. They do not grow, think, or feel. Quarries are holes in the ground from which lifeless stones are dug.
The LORD explains what He means in verse 2: “Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him.” When God called Abraham, he had no children and his wife was barren. They were like lifeless rocks and stone quarries. Yet, from this lifeless, barren couple a son was born in their old age. God called them “that I might bless him and multiply him.”
This is how God works, isn’t it. In the beginning God CREATED the heavens and the earth. GOD is the one who made something out of nothing, and He gets all the glory for it. He also made something out of nothing when He made the descendants of Abraham as numerous as the sand on the seashore and the stars in the sky. It is GOD who multiplied him.
God has also done the same with each of you. Each one of you came into this world dead in trespasses and sins. You were spiritually lifeless rocks. Yet God called you. Ezekiel says He removed the heart of stone and gave us a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 11:19)
As we hear the freight train of 2024 coming around the bend and fear what may lie ahead, don’t forget to look back down the tracks and see what God has already done for you. He has called you out of the darkness of unbelief and made you His child. In the waters of baptism, He has washed way your sins and adopted you as His child.
Looking back at what God has done for us, we are comforted and rejoice as we enter the new year. Verse 3: “For the LORD comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.”
When approaching a railroad crossing, we were taught in Driver’s Education to first LOOK both ways to see if a train was coming. The next thing we were told to do was to LISTEN. Under the “Train Horn Rule,” locomotive engineers must begin to sound train horns between 15 and 20 seconds in advance before all public crossings.
As the new year train comes around the bend, we don’t know what it brings. As exciting as a new year can be, sometimes it seems dark and scary. But God gives light. Let us listen to His promises for hope. Verse 4: “Give attention to me, my people, and give ear to me, my nation; a law will go out from me, and I will set my justice for a light to the peoples.” When God speaks of His “law” here, don’t think just of His “do’s and don’t’s”—think of all His divine declarations. When God’s says something, it is law—it cannot be changed. His justice is something we see on the cross. There God carries out the punishment for sin as Jesus bears the sin of the world in His body on the tree. On the cross, God’s wrath is poured out for all the sins you committed in 2023 as the LORD lays on Jesus the iniquity of us all.
God’s justice also takes us to the empty tomb of Easter. Because sinless, holy Jesus took on Himself the punishment for the sins of the world, the wrath of God was appeased. Justice was served. God then raised Jesus from the dead and in doing so declared us “not guilty.” Christ was “delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” (Romans 4:25) Repenting of your sins, let His gospel be your light.
Notice who this light is for—“the peoples.” In verse 5, the LORD says, “The coastlands hope for me and for my arm they wait.” You are not the only one looking for light amid the dark future of this world. Christ has called us to share the message of God’s justice with the whole world.
Whether 2024 brings bane or blessing, let us set His justice before us as a light to give us hope and let us share that light with those around us.
Finally, as we close out another year, it should remind us all of another ending—one that may arrive in 2024. Verse 6, “Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and they who dwell in it will die in like manner.” Here the LORD wants us to look around—do so when you leave church today. Look at the sky above you, the pavement beneath your feet, the house you live in, and the buildings you pass on your way home. On the day when Christ returns, it all will be gone—along with those who live for the pleasures of this world.
When that final horn blast announces the arrival of the Last Day, only one thing will remain. Verse 6, “But My salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will never be dismayed.”On the Last Day, the only thing that will last will be God’s salvation and His righteousness which is your by faith in Jesus. Jesus promises the same thing in the Gospels, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (Matthew 24:35)
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the new year’s train is not something you have to fear. No matter what that train brings, it will not change the promise of salvation that God has made you. His promise of forgiveness will be true in 2024. His promise of salvation will remain into 202f. His promise that He will never leave you nor forsake you, His promise to make all things work together for the good of those who love Him, His promise that no one can snatch you out of His hand, nothing that happens in 2024 can change those promises. God’s salvation remains forever. Let us LIVE by and in His eternal promises.
As we hear the new year train a comin’ may we all continue to LOOK, LISTEN, and LIVE. LOOK to what God has already done for us in making us His children by grace, LISTEN to His promises for hope, and LIVE in the knowledge that through Jesus Christ we are eternally saved. Praise be to the eternal God who is our refuge and strength today, tomorrow, and into eternity. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.