Sermon: John Rogers, December 31

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.

Here we are at the end of 2017 getting ready to welcome in 2018!  I am not sure about you, but I am filled to the brim with all the best of 2017 lists and the speculation of what will be happening in 2018 in politics, sports, the environment, etc., etc.  This is the time of the year that we reflect on many things both good and not so good and I will only say that in my mind I think of the start of “A Tale of Two Cities” where Charles Dickens says “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. . . .”

As I looked at the readings for today I thought perhaps this is the best way to start the new year, where there is great hope and expectation being expressed and fulfilled.

The reading from Isaiah has been described as an overture to Simeon’s song and the witness of Anna in the gospel reading for today.  It is a beautiful description of the joy of anticipation.  The anticipation of marriage by a bridegroom and bride looking forward to years of being together, loving and caring for each other.  The anticipation and commitment of living together and understanding each other more deeply as the years go by. The passage also speaks of the anticipation of the growth in gardens since what is sown springs up. God has clothed the bride and bridegroom with salvation and has caused righteousness and praise to spring up before all nations.  The passage goes on to foretell the coming of Jesus by stating that the Lord shall be called by a new name and although it is not stated we know that the new name is indeed Jesus.

Psalm 148 is, I think, one of the great praise Psalms and it is certainly well matched with the reading from Isaiah.  It is not just calling on humans to praise the Lord, it is calling on all parts of nature to do so and not just what we think of as the good parts of nature – it is calling on sea monsters, fire and hail, snow and fog, tempestuous wind, wild beasts and on and on.  We are encouraged to praise Him because the Lord’s splendor is over earth and heaven and he has raised up strength for his people.

As Rolf Jacobson states:

Psalm 148 has a message that is especially fitting in the Christmas season, when we remember that when the Savior was born, he was laid to rest in a manger, amidst the animals — sheep and goats, cattle and oxen. And notice that many Advent and Christmas carols bear witness that the reconciliation that Christ was born to achieve includes not only humans, but all of creation.”  As an example:

In “Joy to the world” we sing that “fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy” of praise.

You will, I hope, be pleased to know that our recessional hymn today is Joy To The World and we will be sure to remember that it is all of creation that should be joyful!

The reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians is short but it has an important link to the gospel reading.  Paul is speaking of the birth of Christ and he reminds the Galatians that Jesus was born of a woman and that Jesus was born under the law.  This is a reminder that Jesus was born into the Jewish faith and that he and his family were observers of the Jewish traditions while Jesus was growing up. Paul tells us that Jesus was born under the law so that he could “redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” Paul goes onto say that if we are children of God in our hearts then we are no longer slaves (to the law) but an heir, through God.  As Hans Wiersma states:

“Paul is simply underscoring his main point. Christ has come in the flesh (born of a woman!) to free us from that old master (the law), making possible our adoption as members of God’s household–with all the benefits that go with it. It is no longer our relationship to the taskmaster (the law) that determines our situation in the divine household. Instead, it is our relationship to Christ (the rightful Son and heir) that determines our new status in the family. Consequently, as adopted sons and daughters, we do what children do (call their father Abba–“Daddy” for instance) and receive what children receive: blessing and inheritance.”

Now we come to the Gospel.  I find this to be a good reading for the new year.  On the one hand we have just had the exciting story of Jesus’ birth with beautiful images and now we are looking forward to the future that is full of wonderous stories and at the same time the sad but hopeful story of Good Friday and Easter.  The story today tells of some of the early life of Jesus and his family and at the same time the realization of the hopes and dreams of two people who have been waiting for years for the coming of Christ. As I mentioned before, the Gospel reminds us that Jesus and his family were observant Jews and when the time came for their purification, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to Jerusalem in accordance with the Jewish law.  The law required that at this time the family was to offer a sacrifice and Mary and Joseph brought a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.  I did not realize until I was reading commentaries about the Gospel that this sacrifice was required by those who were poor.  Once again, we are reminded that the baby born in a manger was not born into a wealthy family and that indeed he was to grow up in a family of little means.  We know that Jesus worked as a carpenter and that he must have learned from his parents about the value and importance of hard work to make a reasonable living.  In the Gospel it is not stated the age of Jesus when he is brought to the temple although he is called a child and most interpreters suggest he was under 2 years old.

When Jesus arrives at the temple Simeon, a man of many years, has been guided by the Spirit to come to the temple at the same time. Simeon is given the child “to do for him what is customary under the law.”  Simeon is a prime example of a person living in anticipation and when he finally sees the child Jesus he has great hope and satisfaction.  He says that he can now depart in peace and the words he uses are the basis of the Nunc Dimittis, one of my favourite parts of Evening Prayer.  Simeon tells Mary and Joseph that Jesus is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” I find it interesting that Mary and Joseph were amazed at this since they have been experiencing some very special events around the birth of Christ and I would have thought they might have picked up on the fact that Jesus was very special.  Simeon does go on to warn them that Jesus is “destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel ….so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed and a sword will pierce your own soul too”.  As Holly Hearon says: “This ‘rising and falling’ will not be the result of war, economic overturn, or natural disaster. Instead, it will come about through radical transparency, as people’s inner thoughts are revealed …. The windows into the soul will be thrown wide open.”

The other person at the temple is Anna who is described as a prophet.  She is an elderly widow who has been waiting in anticipation for the child who would be able to bring the redemption of Jerusalem.  She has spent her widowhood in the temple praying and fasting as a way to worship the Lord.  When she sees Jesus, she begins to praise God as she knows “God has come to bring about the return of God’s people from exile.”

As Shively Smith states: “This account is a wonderful invitation for our churches to consider the diversity of messages, voices, and locations among us as we celebrate the birth of Jesus as the Christ. The story of Jesus’ birth and early life in Luke makes room for a variety of bodies and proximities to the gospel message. It makes room for women and men. It makes room for youth and elder. It makes room for the poor, disappointed, and unsuspecting. The good news of Jesus’ birth is that insiders and outsiders of our immediate communities and families can carry the good news of God’s salvation, liberation, acceptance not just to others in the world, but to us as well.”

So, as we celebrate the end of 2017 and wait with anticipation for 2018, we should prepare ourselves to be the bearers of the joyful news of God’s goodness and mercy.  Let us go from this Church today revitalized to proclaim the good news of our faith and to be ready to do God’s will in our daily lives.