New Years 2017
Passage: Isaiah 63:7–63:9
Merry Christmas! This is your annual reminder that in the church Christmas is not a day, but a season that lasts twelve days. So we can still say Merry Christmas because its still Christmas. Yes that’s where that song comes from about patridges in pear trees and maids a milking and why that guy keeps getting her presents for twelve days. So if you’ve ever had a problem with that song because its about a guy who is 1) a terrible gift giver and 2) giving gifts way past Christmas being over, I can help you out with the second thing. But he’s still an awful gift giver.
I digress. Normally I just try to make some overly pedantic point in saying Merry Christmas when its still January. But this morning its important. This morning its important to remember its Christmas because by now the world has moved on. We’ve had New Year’s Eve. We’ve had the College Football Playoff. A ball has dropped. A week’s worth of stuff has happened. [Insert other stuff that’s happened here]. And while the world is done celebrating Christmas, we Christians still are. And it is that difference, it is that dichotomy, it is that cognitive dissonance that is the exact point of the sermon this morning.
Now a little break to let you behind the curtain for something that is totally irrelevant to your life. We had an advent sermon series, we had a Christmas Eve sermon and we are going to start a new sermon series next week. So today is an outlier. A standalone sermon. And the question becomes what do you do with it? How do you pick a piece of Scripture to preach on when you have the whole Bible?! I often do this with couples I marry and they hate it and now I know why. Luckily they give us preachers some help. There’s a resource called the Lectionary that organizes most all of the Bible into a three year cycle of readings to be read in church on Sundays. So every week there’s a suggested Old Testament reading, Psalm, Gospel reading, and a reading from another part of the New Testament. So when you get in a situation like this where you have to pick a piece of Scripture to preach off of and have the whole Bible to choose from you have a starting point. So that’s what I did. And here is the Old Testament lesson for this Sunday which spoke to my heart as being perfect to read on New Year’s Day in the midst of the Christmas season.
Isaiah 63:7-9 I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord, the deeds for which he is to be praised, according to all the Lord has done for us— yes, the many good things he has done for Israel, according to his compassion and many kindnesses. He said, “Surely they are my people, children who will be true to me”; and so he became their Savior. In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
To me, this is a beautiful praise song delivered to God by the people Israel for saving them. This too is our praise song as we gather for worship today. Isaiah is a book that covers an incredible period of time. The first part of the book features warnings that if Israel does not shape up a God will execute judgment on Israel and a foreign power will come in and destroy them. Two hundred years later this happens and the middle part of the book is attempting to understand the theological meaning of why this took place. The last part of the book happens a couple generations after the exile began and is about the group of Israelites that are allowed to return to Jerusalem. So there’s about 200-300 years of stuff that happens making scholars believe more than one person took part in writing this book.
We are in the third part of the book. And I talk about the composition and authorship of the book to say that for a good chunk of Isaiah the people have been waiting, hoping for, wondering what it would be like when they could return to Jerusalem. They have been waiting for God to turn His favor towards them. They have been waiting for God to act, to bring about restoration and redemption. And then it happens.
I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord, the deeds for which he is to be praised, according to all the Lord has done for us— yes, the many good things he has done for Israel, according to his compassion and many kindnesses. He said, “Surely they are my people, children who will be true to me”; and so he became their Savior. In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
I don’t know about you but I can see the Israelites returning from exile singing that song. Dancing as they walked into the city. I can see the joy on their face as they return to their homes. The moment they have dreamed of is finally here. The moment they have prayed for has arrived.
In 2004 the Red Sox won the world series, their first in over a century. In 2013 Andy Murray, a British tennis player, won Wimbledon, the first man to win the singles title in 77 years. This year the Cubs won the world series, their first in over a century. And after each event I remember interviews of older men who said through tears, “It happened in my lifetime. I’ve dreamed of this day for years.” You saw adults talking about how their parents, some still alive others having passed, had waited for this their whole lives and had taught their children to wait for it. It happened in my lifetime. I got to see it. Pure joy.
This is the joy that the Israelites had upon returning from exile. And that is the joy we are to have at Christmas. And it is the joy that we have at Christmas.
Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king. Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.
Joy to the earth, the savior reigns. Let men, their songs, employ while fields and floods rocks hills and plains repeat the sounding joy.
Angels announce with shouts of mirth him who brings new life to earth. Set every field and valley humming with the news the Lord is coming! People look east and sing today, love the Lord is on the way.
Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere, go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born.
Our carols, our songs are songs of great joy. On Christmas day we rejoice. For we who were no people are now God’s people. We who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Our God reigns, our God lives, our God is at work, our God is here. Here is our king, here is our love, here is our God who has come to bring us back to him!
It has happened. Its here. And we are alive to experience it.
But that’s not the whole sermon. Because that’s not the only thing that’s happening in Isaiah 63. One of the downsides to the lectionary is that, while it does a good job of getting most of the Bible into readings for church, it sometimes ignores context. If you knew nothing else about Isaiah 63 except what I read, you’d think that it was one big joyous poem. But in fact, the verses I read are about the only joy to be found in that chapter.
Isaiah 63 begins with God speaking divine judgment against foreign nations. He speaks as a divine warrior fighting for his people. Then we have the joy part. And then, the rest of chapter 63 and into chapter 64 we have a long lament from the people Israel. What are they lamenting? God has acted on their behalf! God has judged and worked against the nations to bring Israel home. The very thing they had dreamed of had finally come to pass. And they are lamenting? Why?
At the beginning of chapter 64 it says, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.” The author of the lament is trying to deal with the fact about what happened after the people returned home. They sang this great praise song to the Lord as they returned to their holy city, as the thing that they had dreamed of came to pass. And then the people went back to living the way they always have. They went back to transgressing the law, they went back to breaking the covenant. They went back to being unfaithful to God, though God had been faithful to them. They discovered that returning to Zion had not changed the basic, everyday problems of their life.
It can be the same for us at Christmas. At Christmas we make huge claims about God, about Jesus, about God’s love for us, about salvation, about the restoration of the Earth. In Hark the Herald we claim that Jesus was born that we no more may die. And yet we still face to harsh reality of death. In Joy to the World we proclaim that Christmas brings peace on earth. Yet we still see violence on our nightly news. In God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen we sing that Christ came to “free us all from Satan’s power when we had gone astray.” Yet often we still walk astray and it feels like Satan still has power over us.
The Israelites thought that their returning to Zion had changed everything. They lamented that not everything had changed. As Christians our hymns proclaim and we believe that Christmas changes everything. Yet it can be disconcerting for us in the days after Christmas as we come to grips with the fact that not everything has changed.
But this is a message and a feeling that is relevant to the rest of our culture on this day of all days. Today and in the days to come people will be making resolutions. People will be viewing the New Year as a fresh start. People will view the New Year as something that changes everything. This year I will get in shape. This year I will start saving money. This year I will make more time for my kids and family. This year I won’t be as stressed. This year I will kick that nasty habit. This year I will be more loving, more generous, more charitable.
People view the New Year as something that changes everything. And then they struggle to come to grips with the fact that not everything has changed. Those same character traits and habits that made you neglect exercise are still there. Those same stresses at work or at home are still there. Those same spender tendencies are still there. The same broken relationships, the same negative influences, the same hurts are still there. We aren’t completely and qualitatively different people on January 1st then we were on December 31st. Changing who we are as people, our habits, our responses, our behaviors, takes time. Finding fulfillment and happiness take time. Healing relationships takes time. But in a few weeks, as resolutions and promises and hopes for the New Year are abandoned, people will be lamenting the basic fact that nothing has changed.
But this is something we Christians have known for a long time. This is a story we Christians are familiar with. Because every year we celebrate Christmas as this big, huge, life changing, world shattering event. And then we wake up as broken people on December 26th. At first this can be jarring. But it teaches us that restoration of creation, redemption of the world, working out our salvation, making us holy and righteous in the here and now take time.
Christmas changes everything but everything doesn’t change. The message of Christmas, part of the Christmas gospel is that God hasn’t given up on us. That God has instead chosen to join us in this, join us in our mess. That God comes here. And because God comes here we know that God has patience with us. God is giving us time to work it out, God is giving us time to change, God is allowing for the time necessary to restore creation, redeem the world, and for us to become holy and righteous in the here and now.
Which is cause for celebration. Which is cause for shouts of mirth. Which is cause for carol and singing and joy.
But what does this mean for us? And better still what does it mean for people who aren’t here today, for people who aren't people of faith?
When Israel sang their song of praise and returned to Zion, God was giving them a second chance. God had sent them into exile as punishment for their transgression of the covenant. In letting them go back, God was giving them another chance. God was letting them work it out again. This is good news. The lament comes only if you think it is the end rather than a new beginning.
Christmas we celebrate the incarnation, we celebrate that God is with us, here on earth and here in our hearts. The lament comes only if you think it is the end rather than a new beginning. New Year’s our culture celebrates a new year a clean slate. We think of possibilities for what could come this year, we dream of the people we want to be, people we could be, as a people with a fresh start. The lament comes only if you think it’s the end rather than a new beginning.
We have to realize that new beginnings require things of us. New beginnings require work from us. New beginnings assume a starting point that’s not perfected. No teacher has ever told a class, “You were so good today we’re going to being tomorrow with a clean slate.” No one has ever aced a test and then said, “Let’s drop that grade like that never happened.” No one has ever won a game and then called do-over. So if we need a new beginning, if we need a fresh start, its because we aren’t there yet.
So what we take from this today is grace for ourselves. Grace that part of the Christmas gospel is the fact that God is giving us all the time we need to work it out. God isn’t giving up on us, but God is being patient with us. And if God is patient with us, we should be patient with ourselves.
If there are family members or friends of yours who have their hopes for 2017 dashed over the next few weeks; if you yourself find yourself discouraged as your resolutions for the year or as commitments you want to make in light of this Christmas fade; if you are struggling with the darkness that still exists even as the light has come into the world, take heart. Be patient. Have hope. God is giving us all the time we need to get it worked out. Help those in your life take hope that the time we have is a gift, not our enemy.
But the second part of it is this: we do have to work. Things won’t magically be better. Whether it's a spiritual discipline, something for your health or for your life, you will have to work at it. Change will come slow, but God will be with you through it all. There’s a great Relient K song about Christmas called “Celebrate the Day” where they open with these lyrics: “And with this Christmas wish is missed, The point I could convey, If only I could find the words to say to let You know, How much You've touched my life because, Here is where You're finding me,In the exact same place as New Year's Eve, And from the lack of my persistency, We're less than half as close as I wanna be.” It’s on us to work along with God to bring us closer to him, to work with God to become the people we were created to be. It’s on us to work this year.
So what will you do? How will you respond to the new beginning that Christmas and New Years offer you? What will you pick up? What will you try to stop? What will you resolve to do in the New Year to let the light of the Christ child shine more brightly in and through you this year?
Let us pray.