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Click here for this evening’s bulletin: New Year’s Eve 2011

New Year’s Eve does not really have traditional Scripture readings that are assigned to it, as many other holy days and festivals do. That’s because it’s not really a Christian holiday in its origin. The observance of few Christian holidays originally was only Christian (depending on who you ask), but the New Year doesn’t really figure into the church’s calendar. It was originally a Roman holiday, Saturnalia, and Saturnalia’s nature was decidedly non-Christian. It was similar to today’s view of Mardi Gras. Christians have a different concept of time anyway. The Church has traditionally marked seasons and days, not necessarily years — which actually makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. We tend to think in terms of times of the year and special days for the events or periods of our lives — “oh yeah, that was before our second baby was born,” or “oh yeah, that was when we lived in Boston,” that sort of thing.

The upshot of this is that the preacher is left more at a loose end for a text for this day. Luke 13:6-9 seems to be a popular modern choice, and it’s a good fit. It’s the closest thing to a consensus on choice of text for New Year’s Eve that I could find, so that’s what we heard. Maybe someday I’ll preach on Psalm 90. (That will be when I preach an entire year out of the Old Testament…stay tuned!)

We ended up abbreviating this service due to weather. Out here in the country, when it starts to snow like it did last night and the wind is blowing and it’s dark, I’d rather not that we keep people out any later than possible. The Word was preached and the Sacrament was administered according to Christ’s command, and with that we are satisfied. I hope your New Year’s Eve was safe, enjoyable, and spent with someone you love. May God bless us all and grant us a glad New Year, and may His Son return in glory before too long. Amen.

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. 7So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ 8 “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”

— Luke 13:6-9 (niv84)

So it’s another new year. If you’re like me, you look back into the old year and scratch your head and think, “What did I do all last year? I know I was busy, but what all happened?” For me, I need to pull out my red planner and flip through it, and then I remember. “Oh yeah, that’s what that was like…thus and such happened in this month…” What’s written down jogs my memory, and then I know what happened in the old year.

But you don’t see what’s not there. If you flipped through your own calendar or thought back over your year, what’s missing? The kind words you never spoke to someone else? The time you bit your tongue when your spouse or a family member provoked you – instead, you shot back at them in anger. The hug, the smile, the loving gesture you gave to someone that you knew was having a hard time – that’s missing because you were too busy with your own things to notice when someone else was struggling. The patience, the joy, the kindness you never showed to those around you who deserved it the most. The act of love that you just never did, even though you knew it’s what the other person wanted more than anything from you. The sin you should have struggled against, but didn’t. The times you chose to put others first – they’re all not there. You can’t remember them because you never did them.

There’s an awful lot of fruit that we haven’t produced this past year. The Lord has come to us and examined our lives to find the good fruit that is His right, that He expects to see and that He deserves as our Maker and Creator, and it’s not there.

For God, it’s all about the fruit. God wants His Christians to be fruitful, to be busy with good works and plentiful in them, to grieve for sin and strive for good – but you and I can both admit we’ve fallen far short. Even our best works were done mainly for us. We wanted to look good. We wanted to think of ourselves as superior. We are the barren trees that fill God’s orchard, with nothing to give Him when He comes.

You heard God say what happens to bare trees: “Cut ‘em down! Why should they use up the soil?” God looks at our embarrassingly empty records of the whole year – and this isn’t just an off year, this is a longstanding pattern with us – and He looks at you and says, “Why shouldn’t I cut you down and throw you into the fire? Look at all the grace I lavish on you! I shower you in physical blessings. I surround you with Christian brothers and sisters. Most of all, the blessing beyond all other blessings, I give you My holy Word and Sacrament – and what have you done with it all?” And we’re forced to admit, we’ve neglected His Word shamefully many times.

Then the Gardener steps forward. This is the One Mary Magdalene mistook for a gardener because He was supposed to be dead, but He wasn’t – not anymore. He wears deadly wounds but He is alive because He has conquered sin and death, all on His own, and He lives forever to do exactly what He’s doing right now: “Wait, Father, not just yet. Permit them one more year. Give them more time, Father, because You have told them that all who believe and are baptized will be saved – that anyone who looks to Me will never be put to shame. I know they’ve failed, Father, but forgive them. I am the Shoot from the stump of Jesse and the holy Branch that bears perfect fruit. Accept My fruit in place of theirs, Father. You’ve said You would – now keep Your promise to them.

Look, Father, they still have My Word. I can still lay bare the roots of their sin and rebuke it, so that they may turn to Me and be saved. I can still use bad things to good purposes, so that they cling to Me and love nothing more than Me. I can still make good fruit appear in their lives by the power of My Word, which never fails. I know they can produce the good fruit You deserve – just give them another chance.”

And the Father listens to the Son, and He says, “Okay. They have more time.” Christ is continually interceding for us at the right hand of the Father, and because of Him, the New Year will be a year full of grace for us – not another year of regret and wasted opportunities, but a year of the Lord’s favor, of forgiveness and second chances every day.

So, dear friends, do not squander the great grace of God. Use every day that you’re given. Do not neglect the Word of God as you may have in the past, but make it your daily bread – because that is the way to fruitfulness and joy, so that one day God may graciously honor you for your steadfastness to His Word and for the good fruit He has enabled you to produce to His glory in your lifetime. His Word will make you flourish like a palm tree, like a cedar of Lebanon. Planted in the house of the Lord, we will flourish in the courts of the Lord. We will still bear fruit in old age, we will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The Lord is upright; He is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in Him.” That will happen when time comes to an end. Until then, as far as we know, He has permitted us another year. Use it to bear fruit for your Lord. Amen.