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Now What?

December 29, 2014

“Now What?” Luke 2:22-40; Galatians 4:4-7 © 12.28.14 Christmas 1B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

This Sunday finds us in a kind of limbo. Christmas Day has come and gone, and our focus now is on the new year. These next few days are the final scenes of the comedy/drama that was 2014.

Of course, if the rhythms of our lives matched the church calendar, our celebration of Christmas would be just beginning. And it would continue until January 6, Epiphany. I’m talking about the “12 days of Christmas” of the song. But get real. Once we sang a couple of carols and opened our presents and ate a big dinner, Christmas was over. A few trappings remain—the wreath on the door, the candles in the windows, the tree in the den, likely up only until New Year’s. But it won’t be long before they’re gone, too, and things get back to what we consider normal.

So what do we do now? In the midst of putting away the new clothes or taking down the decorations, is there a word from God that can help us prepare for a new year? Is there some possibility that even when there is no big festival on the calendar, we will still experience the warmth, joy, and love of Christmas? Will we heed the reminder of Santa in the original Miracle on 34th Street that Christmas isn’t just a day, it’s a frame of mind?

The texts for the morning seem odd places to look for answers to such questions. But on closer examination, they prove helpful. Luke gives us two people getting back to the routine of life after an extraordinary experience. Mary and Joseph go to the Temple in Jerusalem for Mary’s ritual purification, for the naming of Jesus, and for his dedication to God. These were Jewish legal requirements and customs. We might say the two were much like we are, just doing what needs to be done.

And routine stuff it is. At the Temple, they buy pigeons, make arrangements, and pay fees. Back home, the baby is just like any other. He wakes up at night, wanting to be fed or changed or rocked. He must learn as the days go by to walk and talk and read and write. He has to become familiar with social customs, like sharing and getting along with the neighbor’s kids. This all seems such a letdown after the wonder and glory of the Christmas story. Where could we possibly find newness and clues for living in the description of a first-century family’s daily routine?

Just when we’re about to give up and go home, a new face comes on the scene. Guided by God’s Spirit, a man named Simeon has entered the part of the Temple called “the Court of Women” at just the right time to see Jesus and his parents. From Simeon’s lips come surprising words. He predicts an incredible destiny for the child. Mary and Joseph marvel. This baby is salvation in the flesh! Not a concrete clue around, but Simeon and later Anna say it’s true. The key to all reality, for Gentile and Jew alike, is here in a baby presented by a couple performing routine religious chores. Little Jesus has no apparent influence or power, but he will cause the rise and fall of many in Israel. He will be so threatening to some that they will want to kill him, and will succeed in doing so. This child will not grow up in a palace or even a big city, but he will inherit the throne of King David. He will never be a general or even a private in any army, but he has more power than all the world’s armies and weapons. The hope of the world is not in corporations, governments or armed forces, but in one baby brought by parents doing what had to be done.

But there’s more here for us than what the words reveal. Consider the scene. An old man, near the end of his days and ready to die, is paired with an infant, with his whole life ahead of him. We can’t help but think of the traditional symbols for the old year and the new. The promise of God is fulfilled. Hope like Simeon’s and Anna’s does become a reality.

As we look toward a new year, maybe you and I are haunted by the ghosts of the past. I mean the missed opportunities, the promises we failed to keep to ourselves and others, the unfulfilled dreams of our lives so far. But I invite you to believe that God will provide his right times for us, just as he did for Simeon, sights and sounds and experiences which give us peace. He will stand with us as we nurture and pursue our dreams, and if they don’t come true, he’ll be there with us all the same. When hurts come—and come they will—God will suffer with us and help us find wholeness in and through the pain. When our very souls feel pierced from some old or some very new sorrow, our Lord will give us new strength and comfort. And even if we don’t keep our promises to ourselves, God stands by his.

I’ll admit that none of this is readily apparent. The words seem just so much rhetoric, the kinds of things preachers are supposed to say. Remember, though, that Simeon and Anna needed special insight from God to predict the destiny of a small child, to see in him the presence of God. They saw through the lens of faith.

We too will need new eyes, fresh vision, a different lens, to see what God is doing in and among us in the year and years to come. The world is changing at a dizzying pace; is God in the changes? We need the lens of faith to see. We may once again know grief or pain or despair or doubt in the coming days and months. Is God with us? Look through the lens of faith. We may go for a long time without a clue as to where God is leading us. In fact, it may seem as if he dwells in the farthest galaxy, not here among us as we hear in the Christmas stories. Is God among us or not? We can see the signs if we focus our fuzzy vision through the lens of faith.

Will you join me in the times to come in seeking to discern how God is at work among us, flawed and frightened as we are? Simeon saw potential in an apparently ordinary child. Will we see what God can do with us? Let’s be alert to what God may teach us through our conversations, our reading, our thoughts, our meetings, our friends, our families. May we not listen for his voice so much in the official pronouncements and spin-doctoring of church and government and business as in the questioning of a small child, the cry for attention from a neglected spouse or friend, the plea for help from a poor family, the complaint of someone we have wronged. May we see life as a sacrament, a way and a means to discover and experience the grace of God.

But if we are fitted with the new lenses of faith, let us also be open to God’s right times, what the New Testament in its original Greek called “kairos.” Kairos is the moment when God’s purpose breaks in to set humanity or a people or a particular person on a new road, to challenge them or him or her with new directions and thoughts. It’s a different kind of time. Not tick-tock clock time, the chronos, of minutes and hours, but the opportune time, the carpe diem moment, the “we may never pass this way again,” Black Friday door-buster on sale from 6-8 AM only kind of time.

Even to claim that there are such seasons and moments of extraordinary opportunity and providence is a statement of faith, because we’re affirming that there is a plan that Someone beyond us has in mind. But that’s one of the main tenets of our tradition—that there is a sovereign God at work to fulfill his purpose in us and in all creation, that he’s working lovingly, fairly, and freely to bring about his desire. So will we believe today that despite all evidence to the contrary, there is Someone who knows what’s going on in the world and is guiding things to a gracious end? Will we affirm that he has a vision for this congregation and a destiny for you and me? The critical task is for us to be or become sensitive to the opportunities God gives us. The times God provides are decisive points in life, when our response affects us perhaps for years to come.

So how do we recognize the kairos? Paul Tillich, in my opinion one of the greatest theologians of the 20th or any century, said: “Awareness of kairos is a matter of vision. It is not an object of analysis or calculation such as could be given in psychological or sociological terms. It is not a matter of detached observation but of involved experience” (Systematic Theology, Volume III: 370-71).

Did you catch that last line? “It is not a matter of detached observation but of involved experience.” So the discernment of God’s kairos in our lives can and does arise from our faithful action, prompted and considered in the light of what God has done in Jesus Christ. If we’re to know God’s time, we must plunge into the sometimes cold stream of human need, participate in the birthing of something brand new, and set out on the road trusting God to care for us. Quite often it happens that in serving we figure out what God is doing and when, as much as the opposite is true, that we believe, and therefore we go out in mission.

Our Directory for Worship in the Book of Order tells us that serving is enacted prayer. So are music and dance and the arts and keeping a vigil. Prayer is also contemplation and silence and going someplace beyond words, as well as addressing God and listening in the common way. Prayer opens us to mystery, brings us into the presence of reality beyond us, and new possibilities within and around us. So it should come as no surprise that it’s ultimately through a disciplined life of prayer of whatever sort that we discern the kairos, the “time to plant and time to uproot; time to tear down and time to build; time to weep and time to laugh; time to search and time to give up; time to keep and time to throw away; time to be silent and time to speak; time to weep and time to dance.”

But not only do we put on new lenses and devote ourselves to prayer for discernment. We also claim our status as God’s children, who have been welcomed as true and full members of God’s family through baptism. We are no longer strangers to God. In Christ, he knows us, claims us, names us. We can go right into the presence of God. We truly know God. And all this is a gift of the Spirit.

To live in such a way for Paul meant to be freed from slavery. In the apostle’s day, people believed that demonic forces controlled their lives. They had no freedom to decide what course they would take. Today, living free as God’s children may mean putting behind us the mistakes of the past year, forgetting the foul-ups, and believing that our sins, though serious and hurtful, are forgiven for Christ’s sake.

It’s my prayer that you’ve heard good news today that will take you into the next year with hope and joy. May you leave this place today with a sense of God’s matchless love and an assurance of his sovereign purpose. May you sing with Simeon: “Lord, let your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.”

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One Comment
  1. Janice permalink

    Sorry I missed this, but glad to read the blog. Very uplifting message.

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