Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3 – I will rejoice in the Lord. My whole being shall exult in my God… The nations shall see your vindication and the kings your glory.
Psalm 148 – Praise the Lord, heavens, heights, angels, moon, earth, sea monsters, deep, fruit trees, cedars…
Galatians 4:4-7 – When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, under the law, so we might receive adoption.
Luke 2:22-40 – Jesus’ presentation in the Temple. Simeon’s Song. A light to reveal you to the Gentiles. And the child grew in stature and wisdom.
This Sunday is January 1. I often like to preach a New Year’s sermon with Christmas overtones. People are in New Year’s mode, and thinking about resolutions. It’s a nearly irresistible opportunity to tap into people’s focus on new beginnings, rebirth, renewal.
However, we are in a temporal shift. The ancient Christmas season began on December 25 and extended twelve days to Epiphany, January 6. For centuries, Advent was a completely different season, in some cases a penitential season, that had nothing to do with Christmas. The Church Fathers’ Advent sermons dwell on the Second Coming and don’t even mention the birth of Jesus, even when Advent IV falls on December 24.
However, in our culture, we begin celebrating Christmas as soon as Thanksgiving ends (and in some places after Halloween). The lights go up, music is played, Santas appear. I know some who ardently resist this, and balk at the consumerism that often comes along with it, but resistance is futile. Unless you hibernate, you will be exposed. We in the church are no longer in charge of the cultural aspects of Christmas.
So on this first Sunday after Christmas, we find ourselves in a temporal shift. We in the church are just on the eighth day of Christmas. We’ve just arrived at the maids a milking, but for most of the culture Christmas is over. Waaaaaay over. Most people will have their house lights down. The tree will be burning in a ditch or rotting by the curb, waiting for trash pickup. The Christmas decorations, candles, stockings, towels, tinsel, elves and reindeer have been packed away in boxes, along with the crèche and the baby Jesus. The faithful show up for church on Sunday, ready for school tomorrow, and the church is still singing Christmas carols!
This is not a bad thing. A little catechesis, and a reminder that the song that everyone knows tell us that there are 12 Days of Christmas, will clear it up. Tell them that Orthodox Christmas is January i. Tell themthat in Spain gift are given (not by Santa, but by The Three Kings) on January 6. The rest of the world is not quite done with Christmas. In some places, Christmas is a 40-day season extending to Candlemas (February 2).
I’m leaning towards a New Year’s sermon, with some thoughts about Simeon woven in.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Good morning! Happy New Year! Wow, you made it to worship this morning! Congratulations for starting the new year on the right foot.
Are you ready for 2012? How are you going to spend the year? Will you grow spiritually this year? Will you become more loving, kind and joyful? Will you become more peaceful? More generous? How about other aspects of your life? Will you make new friends? Will your friendships grow deeper? Your marriage? Will you get better at your job? Will you make more money or less? How about this: Will you be in more debt at the end of 2012 than you are right now? Or less? Will you give more to charity or less? Will you volunteer more time or less? Will you gain weight or lose it? Looking around the room, I can see that I have your complete attention. J
Are you going to plan 2012, or just let it happen? Are you going to be intentional about what you eat, or just eat whatever you feel like eating? Are you going to be intentional about your spending, or just spend as you desire? Are you going to be intentional about your giving or are you going to plan how much you’re going to give this year? Are you praying about these things? What’s important?
You know this is really what it’s about : priorities. It’s about what’s important in life. What has ultimate value. How you spend your time and money shows what you really believe in, what you worship. We say we stand at the manger and worship the Christ child, but our appointment books and check books show what we really worship. Jesus said it this way:
Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
This year over 100 million people will make New Year’s Resolutions. Guess what the top ten New Year’s Resolutions are:
1. Stop smoking
2. Stop drinking
3. Stop overeating.
4. Spend more time with family.
5. Stop over-spending.
6. Get out of debt. Get fit.
7. Get organized.
8. Enjoy life more.
9. Help others.
10. Learn something new.
This is what people sense they really need. When they do a year-end assessment, this is what sticks out. Do you make New Year’s resolutions? Over one third of all Americans will make New Year’s Resolutions this year. Guess how many of them will achieve them.
9/10 ten people will forget their New Year’s Resolutions by the end of the week.
What is happening here? We know what we want. When we sit back and reflect on what is important, it becomes clear. We decide that we are going to do it. But then we drop the ball and even forget what it was. This is human nature. It’s as old as Adam. Here’s what James says in the Bible:
Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.
You’ve got to love that. Sound familiar?
We say “These things over here are really important.” But then we spend all our time on these things over here, which may not be bad things, but they’re not helping us to accomplish the things that we believe are truly of value in our lives.
In his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey says this is our dilemma. We have our values on one side, and our behaviors on the other. They are not congruent with one another. We lack integrity of self.
In today’s gospel reading Simeon goes to the temple, sees the baby Jesus, and says, “Lord, now you can let your servant depart in peace, according to your word…” What Simeon is saying is this: “I can die now, because my destiny has been fulfilled. Everything in my life has led up to this moment. I have lived to see the coming of the Messiah. I have seen your salvation, the one who will redeem Israel, the one who will be a light to the Gentiles.”
To what moment is everything in your life leading? What is your life all about? What has to happen so that you can say, “I can die now, because this is what my life was all about.”?
Somehow Simeon knew God’s purpose in his life. He had prayed about this over and over. His heart yearned for this so much, it was his mantra. What’s your mantra?
He says in the very next verse: “This child is destined [the Bible’s word, not mine] for the rising and the falling of Israel. In other words, there is a trajectory to Jesus’ life. He is “destined.” He has a destiny. He has a calling. What’s your calling in life? Are you listening for God’s call in your life?
All throughout John’s gospel Jesus says “My time has not yet come.” His time is like that moment we were just talking about, that thing for which I was destined. I can die now, for this important work has been accomplished.
For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you,
to give you a hope and future.
Is it possible that God has plans for you? If God had plans for you, how would you know what they are? I would like to invite you into a few practices that grow out of the Ignatian tradition. They involve a kind of reflection or examination of your life, and how God is working in your life.
1. Pay attention to your life. Take a moment and look back over the year.
Listen to your life. Take some time today, not tomorrow, today, and think back over the last year. Just you and God, in a chair on a walk. What were the high points? What were the low points? If you like to journal, write them down. Make a list. Go month by month. Take your time. Pull out your 2011 appointment book if you like. As you think through each thing, take time to give thanks for the things for which you are grateful. Family. Friends Achievements. As you stumble across low points, take time to ask for God’s help. As you come across your own failings and weaknesses, as for God’s forgiveness. Take time for this. Don’t rush. Give it at least 30 minutes. Maybe an hour.
2. Look ahead to the coming year.
Now look ahead. Maybe you do this tomorrow. Again, take time. You can use a calendar if you like. What big things are coming up? What are you excited about? What gives you anxiety? Acknowledge those strong, strong feelings. Let them wash over you. Let these feelings turn into prayers. Ask God for help, strength, hope. This is not just planning. It is prayer.
3. Set some goals. Dream a little.
Once you’re done reflecting on last year, and this coming year, sit down and write out some goals. Write down everything that comes to mind. Don’t be afraid. Even if you think they’re not attainable, write them down for kicks. Then prioritize them. Once you’ve exhausted your ideas, go back and put a one by that which is most important. Then a two by the second most important and so on.
Next, spend an entire month honing the list. How do you do that? Well, I have a gift for you today. When you came in to worship this morning, you received a notebook. This is a simple gift to you to reward you for getting up early on the first day of the year and making your spiritual life a priority. If you’re here, now, you’ve already made a first step.
This is a suggestion from Brain Tracy. Say you spend time today reflecting on last year, and tomorrow, Monday, you reflect on next year, and write out your goals. Then on Tuesday, write out your goals again. Only on Tuesday, don’t look at what you wrote on Monday. Just write out your goals again, and prioritize. When you’re done, compare the two lists. You’ll probably have many of the same things, but there will be one or two new things, and a couple of things from the list yesterday will have disappeared. It’s okay. This is discernment. LET IT BE.
Then on Wednesday, make another list, not consulting Monday and Tuesday’s list. This time, pray, “Dear Lord, what are your goals for my life this year?” Write down everything that comes to mind. Brian Tracy suggests making the list for thirty days. For thirty days, write out your goals, hopes, dreams. This way, you won’t have your New Year’s resolutions until the end of January. Spend the entire month of January in discernment. This way you won’t end up with a flash in the pan list of things, but something you’ve really prayed about. You will have spent every day with God, praying about what is really important in life.
In February, take a look at your 30 lists. I’ve done this a couple of times. It’s a fascinating experiment. Your list will morph, and your commitment to the list will grow. Ask yourself, where is God in all of this? And make a final list.
Then take the top 3-5 and go after them. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Take the top 3-5 and ask yourself what you will need to get there. What assets are at your disposal? Who can help you? What will need to be done? Chart out the baby steps and actually write them into your calendar, make space for the big rocks in life. Schedule it in, so you don’t forget, or crowd it out.
Now, I’m not foolish enough to guarantee you’ll achieve every goal. Expect obstacles. Expect challenges. Stay focused. It’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey. It’s about listening for the voice of God in your life, and being willing to follow.
You see, what you spend time on is what you worship. Your life is your worship. Here’s what Paul says in Romans 12:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice,
holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
One of my favorite parts of today’s gospel reading is this passage:
Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the Temple.
It was the Holy Spirit that guided Simeon’s life, and led him to Christ. Allow the Holy Spirit to guide your life, and at times you will find yourself like Simeon, face to face with Jesus. Remember this: Today is a new day. 2012 is a new year. Whatever good or evil lays behind you, the past is past. Say it with me: The past is past. The old Adam has been crucified. If anyone is in Christ, you are a new creation! Yesterday ended last night. 2011 is over. 2012 is a new year. Today I get to begin a new chapter of my life. Anything is possible. I will sing a new song unto the Lord. My future is God’s hands. Amen.