January 1st, New Year’s Day

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you this day, our Rock and our Redeemer.
When I started to prepare this week’s sermon, I first of all considered the fact that, unusually, this Sunday would be January 1st. Now, I did some checking, and found out that this will not happen again for five years; after that, it will be six years before January 1st is on a Sunday, and then it will be 11 years. So it isn’t that common for us to be really able to celebrate the New Year together. Next, I thought about the name off this month, which is, of course, January. Latin scholars can tell you that this comes from the name of the Roman god Janus, who was considered to be the god of beginnings and transitions. Because of this, he was also thought of as the god of gates, doors, endings, and time itself. He was usually depicted as a two-faced god, because he was thought to look to the past AND to the future. On this day – or maybe yesterday – many of us do look to the future, as I said in the children’s story. We have hung our new calendars – when I was growing up in Newfoundland, it was considered bad luck to hang a calendar before midnight, so there was often a bit of a competition to see just who could get a calendar hung first, without doing it at the wrong time. We have made our resolutions, and, in some cases, already broken them.
For many of us, making resolutions reveals something about our personalities. For instance, the one I mentioned to the children, that I intend to practice the piano and the violin every day this year, probably reveals that I like a structure to my life. I like to know what I am doing, and when I am doing it. This shows most when I am planning a vacation. I don’t know that I have ever just hopped into the car and driven until I was ready to stop. I make reservations; I print out maps from Google and programme various destinations into the GPS. In the old days, of course, I would get road maps, and trace my route so that I would know where I was going. I talk to friends who have visited the places on my itinerary, to find out what things I MUST see, and what things I could just as easily skip.
However, and I know that some people may find this difficult to believe, I would really like to be more spontaneous. I would like, one of these days, to get up and NOT know what I will be doing for the rest of the day. I would like to take a week’s vacation, and not have every minute planned either by me or for me. And every year, I tell myself that – maybe – this is the year. And I resolve anew that I will try. After three years of studying theology, and another three living it, I have realized that this is really a theological question – whether or not I can just let go and let God. Because, when I try to control everything myself, it often doesn’t work out. Like most humans, I suffer from the hubris of thinking that I know best, and that I can operate just fine, keeping God in the background. Of course, he is always there, but there have been times when I have tried to ignore him, and made my own decisions, without consulting him. I need not tell you that these decisions have not always been the best ones. As Christians, as followers of Jesus Christ, and as Presbyterians, we need to acknowledge – I need to acknowledge – that we have a destiny which was laid out for us long before we were born, and which certainly doesn’t need us messing about with it. God wants us to trust his love, and to set out on journeys we may not have planned, going places we have never dreamt of going, secure in the knowledge that he is with us, and that our future is safe in his hands.
So what does any of this have to do with our Scripture for today? Well, I am going to focus on the reading from Luke’s Gospel, which is definitely connected with destiny. It begins some 41 days after Jesus’ birth, when, according to the law, his mother was to be purified, and the baby himself was to be named. Imagine, if you will, what must have been going through their minds when they brought the baby to the Temple. This was the day when their son was to become officially part of God’s covenant people, and to receive the name which would indicate his role in adulthood. Now, it is important to realize that, although the first-born son of devout Jews of that time were to be dedicated to the service of God, by making an offering, Mary and Joseph were actually buying back the contract. Jesus, you see, was of the house of David, and it was the house of Levi with traditionally served as priests. However, in order to fulfill the law, parents made an offering to serve as a substitute for their son. When the offering was made, the child was given his name, which had, of course, already been chosen by the parents. In those days, names really meant something, and were chosen after a great deal of thought. Unless, of course, you were John the Baptist or Jesus, in which case an angel of the Lord revealed it to your parents.
In Canada – and, I would venture to guess, in most parts of the world – this practice of choosing a name like this has pretty much passed out of vogue. Babies are named after some relative, or maybe they are given the “name of the week”. I remember, when I was teaching, in one of my classes I had no less than five girls all named Lori. Even worse was the year when I had four Ashleys – two girls and two boys. But a couple of years ago I met a girl from Mexico whose parents had named her Genesis, after the first book of the Bible. She explained to me that they meant the bible to be the thing which was to guide her life, and that she was to look on every day as a new beginning. I believe that she did this. When I met her, she was studying at McGill, planning to become a doctor, and after that, she intended to enter the seminary so that she could be a medical missionary. There are still some cultures where the naming of a child has the Biblical sense of symbolizing the destiny which God hopes to fulfill in a person. And, not that very long ago, in Roman Catholicism, a child chose a confirmation name, one which was somehow connected to the personality and traits of the child. Monks and nuns changed their names when they entered religious life, thus symbolizing that they were giving up any connection they had to their human family, and devoting themselves completely to God.
As for Jesus himself, of course his name had huge significance. Jesus is a form of the Hebrew name “Joshua”, which means Saviour. No doubt we all remember the story of Joshua, the one who fought the battle of Jericho, when the walls came tumbling down. That Joshua was the physical hero and liberator of his people; Jesus was sent to be the spiritual liberator. His parents, of course, really didn’t know what was in store for the baby. They could not foresee that he would be rejected by his own people, nor that he would ultimately be crucified for the salvation of all humankind, thus opening the door to eternal life for us all. But on this day, the day when Jesus was officially given his name, God already knew what was going to happen.
And for us, as Christians, even though we are usually called by name long before our baptism, it is this sacrament which identifies us as children of God. It is this sacrament – one of the two our denomination recognizes – which officially names us. In baptism, we are affirmed as God’s beloved children, and members of his eternal family. I believe that one of our roles as parents is to raise our children to know that they are part of this family, that they are part of the Christian community. We baptise with water, symbolically cleansing the child – or adult, in some cases – and drowning them to a way of life which cannot control us, as long as we continue to acknowledge the resurrection in our own lives.
There is a story told about Martin Luther and baptism which I found interesting. As you know, at the time, the church was in turmoil. Luther himself was trying desperately to reform Roman Catholicism, which he believed had become totally corrupt. He fought against the pope and the emperor, and found himself involved in the peasants’ rebellion. Much of the time, he wrestled with the twin demons of doubt and despair, wondering if he were really doing God’s will. spending a decent part of your life knowing that there are powerful people out there who want to kill you will do that to a person. When things got really bad for Martin Luther, he would remind himself, “Baptizatus sum.” What a wonderful reminder for you and me, as well! When all seems right with you and your life and the world is your oyster, you are baptized. When it seems like everything has gone wrong and everything is messed up, you are baptized. And when it seems that all you have going for you is your Baptism, then you have everything!
And today is New Year’s Day, a day when it is as well to remind ourselves of our baptism. Years ago, when I was studying music at the University of Calgary, we were responsible for a full choral concert each year. One year, we were privileged to work with France David as our conductor, and she chose as one of our pieces a selection called A New Year Carol. The music was composed by Benjamin Britten, but the words were so old as to be anonymous. Part of the first verse went like this: Here we bring new water, from the well so clear, for to worship God with, this Happy New Year. The whole concept of
“newness” is one which matters to us. As baptised people, we are new people. And on this day, as I said to the children, we start the first page of a new calendar, one which has at yet no black marks, no disappointments.
We could choose to spend our time looking back over the past, brooding over past mistakes. In fact, when tragic or disappointing things happen, it is easy to become a backward-looking person, believing that our best years are behind us. But, because of our baptism, we Christians live eternally in the land of beginning again. Jesus is alive. He was born, and he rose from the dead. Because of this, because we were given a saviour who is Christ the Lord; because of this, our destiny is sure.
As humans, we are always looking for new beginnings, for a fresh start, for renewal. St. Benedict, who is looked on at the expert on monastic life, wrote as part of his Rule: Always we begin again. It is because of this innate longing in us for renewal that we so often look to the new year. Queen Elizabeth II gives an address to the nation each year, in which she discusses the low and high points of the previous year, and looks forward to the one that is about to begin. With the queen, we look for improvements next year; we look for a better life; and we make resolutions to help bring this about.
For many New Year’s Eve is a time to party, to send out the old year with a bang, and to welcome the new one with the singing of Auld Lang Syne and a special toast. However, it seems to me that, for more and more people, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are becoming a time of reflection, a time of introspection, a time to think about what has gone before and to listen to their longing for what lies ahead. Retreat centres around the world , as well as churches, choose this time of year to offer opportunities for meaningful ritual and practice. Of course, celebrating with friends can be a truly joyful thing, but the traditional New Year’s Eve celebration with ever-flowing alcohol has become less satisfying for many of us. There is an emptiness, a hollowness about it. St. Augustine said: Our hearts are restless until they rest in you. And on this day, as we cross the threshold into a new year, we see the potential each one of us has to deepen our spiritual lives. This can lead to a richer life overall, as we start to see the connections between the physical and the spiritual.
So, even though you may have already made your resolutions, I would ask you to take some time – at least an hour – to really listen for your deeper longings. Too often, we begin the year full of resolutions and promises to ourselves to perhaps eat better, exercise more, work less, find more time for friends or for ourselves. But these resolutions often rise up out of our sense of scarcity and the busyness and immediate desires we feel at the surface of our lives. It would be better, instead, to reflect, and, instead of making resolutions based on perceived shortcomings and faults, we will find ourselves looking for new doors within us which are just waiting to open.
I would close today with a blessing for you, one which I hope will bring you into a new year – one in which the Christmas Spirit is with you every day.
God grant you the light of Christmas, which is faith; the warmth of Christmas, which is love; the radiance of Christmas, which is purity; the righteousness of Christmas, which is justice; the belief in Christmas, which is truth; the all of Christmas, which is Christ. Thanks be to God.


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January 2012
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