A New Year’s sermon on Philippians 3:12b-14
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
January 3, 2021
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Hear these words from the Apostle Paul:
I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12b-14) Emphasis mine.

One of the favorite gifts that I received at Christmas this year was a shirt from my wife Miriam. Let me describe it to you. It is a solid black tee-shirt. Across the chest in big white numbers, it reads “2020.” Underneath the 2020 are five stars, similar to what you would see on Amazon.com or TripAdvisor when rating a particular product or place. Only the first star is filled in. Then right below it, in what would be the “Comments” section, it reads, “Very bad. Would not recommend”…
Doesn’t that about sum up how we all have felt about 2020? Jim Beckerman, a columnist for the newspaper USA Today, expressed similar feelings when he wrote these words a few days ago, “Some years pass like a beloved grandmother, leaving cherished memories behind. Others are more like a hated houseguest—one that constantly raids the icebox, smokes in the bedroom, wrecks the family car, and tells inappropriate jokes to the children. We just don’t want them out of the house. We want to fumigate it afterwards. That’s 2020.”1 Would anyone disagree with his assessment of the past year?
Out-of-control wildfires out west consuming millions of acres of land…One of the most active hurricane seasons on record down on the Gulf coast and on the Atlantic coast…Politics gone haywire to an extent not seen in generations—if ever…A pandemic responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in our country—and the death toll is still climbing…All of our lives being disrupted by the quarantines and lockdowns in response to the virus…High unemployment numbers and an economy struggling to right itself…Racial violence and protests about racial injustice on a scale not seen since the 1960’s…I think that these are days that we will all be only too willing to put behind us. Nothing seemed normal last year. No aspect of our lives was left untouched…
And so we stand on the cusp of a new year. We can look to the future with hope because, in the midst of all of these troubles—and others that affect us on a more personal level—we can look ahead to
1 www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/columnists/jim-beckerman/2020/12/30/goodbye-2020-worst -year-ever-cleanse-rituals/3910052001/ (Accessed January 2, 2021)
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what the future will bring. Because in the midst of all this uncertainty, there are still some things to which we can cling as followers of Jesus.
What are some of those things? Well, in spite of everything going on around us, God is still on the throne. And in spite of everything that has happened in the world, Jesus is still the Savior. And the Holy Spirit is still alive and at work in the hearts of God’s people and in the world at large regardless of whatever may have come to pass last year. That is why we can look ahead with hope. That is why we can face the future unafraid, regardless of what the New Year may bring…regardless of the predicament in which we find ourselves…
The tile of the sermon today comes from a hymn that was popular generations ago, “Ring Out the Old, Ring In the New.” I find it interesting that this hymn is to be found in fewer and fewer hymn books being published nowadays. It appeared in the previous hymn book that First Baptist Church used, the one titled Baptist Hymnal, which was published in 1956. But our current hymn book, The Hymnal for Worship and Celebration, omits it entirely.
I am not really sure why. “Ring Out the Old, Ring In the New” is made up of selected stanzas from a much larger poem by the 19th Century British poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Perhaps hymn book editors have come to believe that the gorgeous use of language used in the hymn is now too flowery for modern ears. Admittedly, those Victorians knew how to turn a phrase and maybe they felt that language does not connect as readily in the hearts of people as it once did…
[Side bar here: It is interesting to note that such an acclaimed poet as Tennyson once wrote, “A good hymn is the hardest thing in the world to write.”2 As far as is known, Tennyson only published one poem to be used specifically as a hymn, and he did not write that until he was eighty one years old. That hymn is titled “Sunset and Evening Star,” otherwise known as “Crossing the Bar.” And Tennyson thought so much of that hymn that he requested that it be placed at the very end of every edition of his works.]
Perhaps another reason why “Ring Out the Old, Ring In the New” is not as popular as it once was is that it is now no longer considered to be as useful. This hymn was long a favorite to be sung at annual “Watch Night” services. Does anyone remember those? They were an annual event in the church that I grew up in. And I remember that many other churches had them as well…
A “Watch Night” service would be a church gathering on New Year’s Eve. It would normally begin around 8 or 9 pm. Activities might include the screening of a Christian movie…or a concert by some Christian musicians…or there would be a Christian humorist or someone who would do a “Chalk Talk.”3
2 Quoted in H. Augustine Smith, Lyric Religion—The Romance of Immortal Hymns (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1931), 346.
3 A “Chalk Talk” was a kind of sermon where the one delivering the message would use a chalk board mounted on an easel to draw a picture that illustrated whatever the sermon topic was as the sermon was being delivered. They were really quite popular in the ‘70’s where I grew up in northwest Georgia and central Alabama. I have not heard of anyone still doing that kind of thing in quite a while.
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Or there would be a hymn sing or a visiting preacher would hold forth. Oftentimes the evening would include a combination of these activities. And then around 11:45 or so, we would gather together in the sanctuary to pray in the New Year. And after the clock struck 12 midnight, the congregation would likely sing this hymn “Ring Out the Old, Ring In the New” to close out the evening.
It would not surprise me to learn that there were still some churches that hold “Watch Night” services every year. But I think that, by and large, they have fallen out of fashion. It was one of those things that was once popular but is no longer a going concern in most churches. Just like Sunday evening evangelistic services and two week long revival meetings, they have run their course…
For the next few minutes, I would like to look through the text “Ring Out the Old, Ring In the New” for what it may have to say to us as we begin 2021. You can read the text or, if you are slightly more daring, feel free to softly sing it using the tune WALTHAM. (That is the tune we usually use for “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”) The first stanza goes like this:
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Notice how the “old” of the first line becomes the “false” of the last line. And the “new” becomes the “true.” The stanza is a call for us to leave behind our old grief and doubt of the previous year in order that we may fully embrace what is good and worthy—the products of faith in Christ. Philippians 4:8 tells us, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think on these things.” Philippians and this hymn call us to leave behind what is not worthy of Christ that we be more of who we are called to be in Christ.
Stanza two:
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
I think that this stanza is particularly relevant to our situation in 2021. It seems to me that the time has come for political parties to stop fighting one another in the hope of gaining or maintaining their power. Instead it is time for our leaders (both political leaders and church leaders) to meaningfully fight the social wrongs that our nation faces instead of one another. What would happen if we were to tone down the rhetoric—to actually talk TO one another instead of talking AT one another? To come to the realization that demonizing the other side does nothing to help and actually hinders whatever progress that we would like to see in our nation…and in our churches? To strive for “sweeter manners” and “purer laws” that would benefit everyone? We should be able to raise our sights and aim at changes that benefit everyone—that gives life dignity that touches everyone.
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Stanza three:
Ring out old shapes of foul disease
Ring out the narr’wing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Here is this stanza are three of the evils that so easily beset the world: disease, greed and war. Of course, over the last year, the dominant narrative has been the COVID-19 pandemic. But as we enter 2021, there is hope on the horizon with the development and distribution of vaccines that the virus will soon be more under control. But we must take the vaccine and encourage others to do the same before the virus will be eradicated. Refusing to do even the basic measures recommended by our healthcare authorities is not going to help in eliminating the disease and getting us somewhere back to normal.
Greed is a problem that has cursed the human race since the dawn of time. I am reminded of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Or again, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?”4
The scourge of war is still the greatest devourer of wealth, lives, and spiritual values. Again, we should keep in the front of our minds the words of our Lord Jesus in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”5 Or maybe the order should be reversed, “Blessed are the children of God, for they shall be called peacemakers.” The people of God are to be about making peace—peace between neighbors, peace between nations, peace between God and humanity. This is what we are to be about. This is what we are called to do and to be…
The final stanza:
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
These comments on the final stanza are from hymnologist Alfred Edward Bailey: “All these details are now summed up in the kindling phrases of the last stanza: the goal is the banishment of darkness, the creation of a nobler type of [humanity]. And the final phrase, ‘the Christ that is to be,’
4 Matthew 6:19-21 and Matthew 16:26.
5 Matthew 5:9.
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gathers all these ideals, personal and social, into one glowing personality…Christ as the first fruits of redeemed humanity living, working and conquering…”6
So as we “ring out the old and ring in the new,” It is my prayer that 2021 will see us being more of the people of God that Christ has called us to be. That we will be able to leave behind the sorrow and disappointments of 2020. That we will rededicate ourselves once more to being profitable followers of Jesus, answering his call and following in his steps.
Let us pray:
Our God of the Ages, we have brought in a new year. It is time for a new beginning, a time to welcome second chances and to start again. We stand on new ground, full of new tomorrows, embracing your gift of hope, knowing that in your grace, life goes on in all its mystery and wonder and splendor. As we plan and live out this coming New Year, remind us that it is glory enough to be your servants and that it is grace enough for us, your church, that you should be our Lord. Help us to live into what it means to be yours.
And to God alone be the glory! Amen.
6 Alfred Edward Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns (New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1950), 414. I am indebte