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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Christmas 01/01/2012

The elephant in the room or in the church today is the fact that it’s New Year’s Day; it’s a fact that’s hard to ignore.  It’s an elephant because it’s a secular rather than a liturgical holiday but regardless of that, even in church, in the minds of most people New Year’s Day takes precedence over the First Sunday of Christmas or the commemoration of the Name of Jesus which are the two liturgical options for today.  New Year’s Day though is part of our cultural landscape; you can’t ignore it.  Actually though, what we find out today is that something else trumps all of the above including New Year’s Day and that something is the National Football League as the traditional New Year’s Day Bowl Games and the Rose Parade and all get bumped to tomorrow; the NFL must play today even if most of the games today don’t mean much apart from trying to keep your players from getting hurt.

Be that as it may, Happy New Year is the accepted greeting today even in church, even though we marked the beginning of a new liturgical year a little more than a month ago with the First Sunday of Advent.   So we are a little bit out step with the wider culture today which isn’t that unusual, but we’re not completely out of step because the New Year’s themes of a fresh start and resolutions and hope for things to get better are quite appropriate on most any liturgical day and the First Sunday of Christmas is no exception.

The text from Isaiah today is an example of this as it’s about a fresh start for the people of Israel returned from exile.  As is the case with many prophetic texts it helps to know a little bit about the context; it helps to know that these final chapters of Isaiah are from the time when the people who had been in exile in Babylon had returned to Jerusalem but found out that things weren’t so great back home.  Rebuilding the destroyed city was difficult and the people were discouraged.  Previous chapters in this section had reflected this discouragement along with disagreement among the people about what to do about it.  As frequently happens with the prophets though, in subsequent chapters the tone of discouragement shifts to one of encouragement, encouragement to keep going, encouragement that things will get better. 

That’s the message of the first verses of today’s reading; “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”  It’s imagery that’s similar to some we’ve heard before, poetic words that say just as you can count on the seasonal cycle of growth, you can also count on the Lord to act; so these are dramatic words of confidence from Isaiah. 

The final verses from today’s text are even more striking though, in that they are presented in the voice of the Lord.  The prophet announced hope but now the Lord himself is speaking, seemingly at the end of a period of silence, periods of silence being something the people of Israel were quite familiar with.  In large part that’s what the exile was all about; the Lord seemed to be absent and this sense of absence is reflected in many of the Psalms as the people ask the Lord to hear their cries and their laments and to respond. 

In verses like today’s, the Lord breaks the silence, he does respond.  Out of devotion to his people, the Lord will act until Israel’s “vindication shines out like the dawn and her salvation like a burning torch.”  The Lord will act in ways that everyone will be able to see.  In the context of this writing that means security and prosperity for Israel.  It means security and prosperity based on righteousness and the rule of the Lord.  The reign of the Lord will be established over all others and everyone will be able to see it.

As you can perhaps imagine, this might have set up something of a crisis of faith for those people.  They had heard words announcing a glorious and triumphant return from exile and while the return happened it wasn’t as wonderful as they had anticipated; pretty darn difficult actually.  Now they hear about vindication shining like the dawn, salvation like a burning torch but you can understand why they might be skeptical.  There was reason to be skeptical and we’ve been there; we know what that’s about with prayers that haven’t been answered the way we want, with the perception that powers opposed to God are winning the battle and God is seemingly unable to do anything about it.  We know about disappointment and discouragement.  We know about God’s apparent absence.    

The witness of today’s text though is that in those moments, in response to our cries of discouragement and doubt,  the Lord keeps coming back with new visions and new words of hope and possibility.  The silence ends.  We can give up on God, but God won’t give up on us.  With this God despair is not an option, surrender to other powers and realities is not an option.  The steady refrain of the Bible is new beginnings, new opportunities. 

You shall be called by a new name; you shall be a crown of beauty; you shall no more be termed Forsaken; you shall be called my delight.  Happy New Year, the Lord is saying.  Turn the page, see yourself and the world differently.  It’s not easy to do; it is easy to get stuck in ruts that see only unchangeable reality; but the Lord keeps coming back. 

In the Bible new beginnings were never a blank check to do whatever you wanted; in the Bible that’s what got the people in trouble in the first place so you could say that some things never change.  The Bible is about new beginnings but those new beginnings always implied a return to the Lord.  That was the message of the prophets; that was the message of John the Baptist when he announced the new beginning of Jesus that we celebrate during these Christmas days. 

John the Baptist called for repentance and his repentance wasn’t just a feeling, it was doing something, turning from one behavior and taking on another.  So repentance is kind of what New Year’s resolutions are; with New Year’s resolutions you don’t just think about doing something, you act, you do it, or at least you try to.  (If you fail, which often is the case, I’m afraid, you look for another chance at a new beginning)

Biblically, repentance and new beginnings were about turning to the ways of the Lord and that’s a good theme for New Year’s Day or for the First Sunday of Christmas.  The gospel text for today continues Luke’s birth narrative and the emphasis today is on the obedience of Mary and Joseph to the rituals of Judaism relative to the birth of their son, the way of the Lord as they understood it.  As Christians, we’re not so concerned with Jesus’ fulfillment of the ritual aspect of the Old Testament law but we are concerned with the ways that Jesus interpreted and personified and fulfilled the moral commands of the way of the Lord.

We don’t necessarily make that “way of the Lord” connection when we make New Year’s resolutions though.  I think I heard that the three most common New Year’s resolutions are to quit smoking, to lose weight and to exercise more.  All of those are worthwhile endeavors and one could argue that there is something of a faith component to each of them as they all have to do with self care which could be understood as being good stewards of the body we’ve been given, something we should pay attention to.

Jesus’ emphasis in his teachings and parables had more to do with care for each other rather than self care though.  That doesn’t diminish the need for self care as again you could argue that you can’t take care of others very well unless you also take care of yourself, so those self care resolutions are still worthwhile.  But it is also worth thinking about resolutions we might make that look outward in the manner of Jesus.  How can we live better with each other, especially those we may not like very much?  How can we better reflect the hospitality and acceptance and welcome of Jesus?   How can we better take care of the least of these?  Jesus was much more than a moral philosopher and teacher, but it’s always useful to pay attention to his teachings as they do represent the way of the Lord, they do draw us closer to being who God would have us be.

As we move through the year we’ll get much more on the teachings of Jesus and those will be opportunities for further reflection, perhaps opportunities for new resolutions or renewal of resolutions with which we haven’t done very well.  New Year’s Day is a time to think about these things but the reality is that for all of us repentance or resolutions are not a one day a year thing.  It’s an ongoing process; it’s part of an ongoing relationship with the God who keeps coming back to us with new opportunities.

Happy New Year!

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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