New Year's Day
 — Rev. Tom Jones

December 31, 2011

Grace and Peace, Love, Joy & Hope, and Happy New Year to you this morning!

Today is indeed a day of new beginnings, a fresh start. Isaiah 61 begins with that wonderful passage, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;” and continues through the paragraph to today’s passage about the Lord clothing me in a new wardrobe, garments of salvation & a robe of righteousness. Isaiah is often seen as the classic doom & gloom prophet, calling the nation to repent, but here at the end of the book, he is showing God’s love & commitment to work with the people and give us all a fresh start. So, how are you feeling as we reflect upon 2011 and look with apprehension into what 2012 may bring? Looking forward to more political ads & robo-calls? How about more news reports of the world economy or the real estate market in Michigan? Or, do we all need a fresh start?

That is what all of the texts from the lectionary today are describing; God is able to make all things new. When we study the Holy Scriptures, we begin by asking what the story is about, but then we may wonder what this has to say to us as people in the 21st century. We may come to understand that there are several levels of meaning to any text. In the Epistle to the Galatians, Paul writes about Christ coming in the fullness of time to redeem us, so that we are no longer condemned by the law, but rather become God’s children. Instead of struggling to comply with all of the specific laws in the Holiness Code, we are now called to understand why God created the laws to guide our lives, to free us from sin and the cycle of violence that results from the human tendency to always try to take care of ourselves at others’ expense. Today we are still confronted with questions about what Jesus taught about war, about interpersonal relationships, about forgiveness, and about some of the same the same things that cause the social problems in our culture. Next Sunday morning we will be starting a new adult Bible study class that will look into how we read the Bible and how we can understand what it says about controversial topics. We will explore how we can interpret what it meant in the context when it was written and what it means for us today. If you think you can handle a change in your routine, you may want to make a New Year’s resolution to attend a Sunday School class at 8:15 am! We all know this congregation does embrace change, because look at all the people who got here this morning! A worship service on New Year’s Day? And a big community luncheon!!! Pretty soon we are going to forget that popular phrase of dying churches everywhere, “We’ve never done that before.”

We have heard the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke. Even kids in elementary school can describe the events that surround the birth of baby Jesus. But can these birth narratives also be understood as metaphors for the deeper meaning of each of the gospels? It can be difficult to understand the details of today’s gospel story in Luke, and how it is also showing us that God is offering us an opportunity to make our future better. After the shepherds left, Mary & Joseph waited a week, and it was the time for purification according to the Law of Moses, so they bought the proper offering for a poor family to use in the sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem. There in the Temple, Jesus is recognized by two people, Simeon and Anna, each of whom is a devout and righteous person, to whom God has revealed the truth about this infant. OK, if you were there, what would You say to a poor couple who is bringing an 8 day old son to be circumcised? Simeon begins his blessing like we might expect, thanking God for showing him the salvation of all people, “a light to the Gentiles and glory to Israel.” But then he turns to young Mary and adds, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” I don’t know how that sounds to you, but maybe just limiting his comments to “Cute kid you got there, lady” would have been a bit more polite! Luke’s Christmas narrative, however, is more than just a list of historical facts; each event also carries symbolic significance. Think of the ritual of circumcision as we would see an infant baptism; partly a religious dedication, but also a promise of commitment into the future. Mary & Joseph were not simply making their sacrifice of a pair of small birds as ritual for that day, but rather were bringing Jesus to the Temple to designate their child’s entire life as holy. Luke drives this point home by Simeon’s profound foretelling of Christ’s ministry, and then including Mary in what this will mean. Then the prophet Anna, who lived in the Temple, began praising God and identifying Jesus to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

So, what can this teach us, today? We are also looking for big changes in our society, ways to heal our social problems and stop poisoning the environment. We are outraged by the most extremely wealthy people doubling their annual incomes while 98% of the population is struggling to maintain their standard of living. We recognize that substance abuse and addictions cost our people far too much in terms of wasted lives and broken families. We can see how our young people need to learn healthy values to keep our culture from sinking into the shallow, narcissistic parodies we see portrayed on so-called reality TV shows. We may feel overwhelmed by the scope of our problems. Clearly, we can not make the significant & drastic changes that are needed simply by everyone just making the same New Year’s resolutions every year. I love the example of typical doomed-to-failure resolutions I read in the daily Still-Speaking Devotional,

  1. lose 40 pounds
  2. take ballroom dancing lessons, and
  3. get that tattoo removed!

However, perhaps a piece of more realistic advice for resolutions is that by taking the focus off yourself, you will automatically be an improved you. Make a resolution to help others; start fewer sentences with yourself as the subject. But even that is neither easy, nor will it cure all the big problems we face as individuals, as a church, a community, state, or nation.

Change can happen, and change will happen, and change will be hard, whether or not it is the kind of change we hope to see. I think this is what Simeon meant when he told Mary that Jesus would be opposed and would reveal the inner thoughts of many, and that a sword would also pierce Mary’s soul. For Jesus to bring us into tune with God’s values, there will have to be a tremendous shift in how we understand Life and how we must treat each other. This drastic change in our attitudes and behavior is not easy. Our culture will push back against any attempt we make to love our neighbors & our enemies, to care for the poor & oppressed, to resist the powers of evil. Any time we resolve to live more faithfully to the gospel, we can see how difficult change feels. While all parents feel some pain when their children grow up and become their own persons, for Mary it may indeed have felt like a sword piercing her soul to see in Christ’s ministry how far Jesus was pushing everyone to change. His own disciples had a hard time really understanding the scope of the change Jesus taught; it would have been hard enough if he just stuck to telling people to follow all the rules that they had been taught. How much harder it must have been for Mary & for the disciples to understand that Jesus really was serious about us loving our enemies! As we hear the gospel and realize the many facets of wisdom contained within these familiar stories, we become aware of the implications for our own lives and our society. We come to deeply appreciate the joy of fresh beginnings, the freedom that comes with the transformation of being a child of God.

And who knows, by actually caring for our neighbors, and reaching out to strangers, and studying what God is saying to us, we just might continue to grow healthier and stronger and more mature in our faith.

I’m not saying it will be easy; I am saying it will be worth it. Happy New Year!