“This Year”, December 31, 2017

CHRISTMAS COMES ~ First Sunday after Christmas
This year let the day arrive when Christmas comes for everyone alive.

“This Year”         Click here for audio




Pastor Donna Buell
Luke 2:21-40

We were always great fans of Calvin and Hobbes.  It was a sad, sad day in our house when Bill Watterson stopped creating his cartoon strip about a precocious six year old boy name Calvin and his faithful companion, a stuffed tiger named Hobbes.   I can still recall one classic New Year’s Day strip. Calvin was trudging through the snow, taking one of those long walks he often took with Hobbes.

In the first panel he said:

“I asked Dad if he wanted to see some New Year’s resolutions I wrote.  He said he’d be glad to, and he was pleased to see I was taking an interest in self-improvement.  I told him the resolutions weren’t for ME, they were for HIM.”

In the next panel, Calvin continues:

“That’s why we’re outside now.”

To which Hobbes responds: 

“I wondered what the rush was.”

The next four panels show Hobbes listening patiently as Calvin gets increasingly worked up, as Calvin so often did:

“I’m getting disillusioned with these new years.  They don’t seem very new at all!  Each year is just like the old year!  Here another year has gone by and everything’s still the same!  There’s still pollution and war and stupidity and greed!  Things haven’t changed!  I say what kind of future is this?!  I thought things were supposed to improve!  I thought the future was supposed to be better!”

In the final panel it appears as though they have walked together quietly for some time, when Hobbes remarks in his usual understated manner:

“The problem with the future is that it keeps turning into the present.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been one who cared all that much for New Year’s Eve. The few New Year’s Eve parties I have attended haven’t been all that enjoyable. And watching a million people stand out in the cold at Time’s Square is not enough to keep me glued to the television, so most years I’m in bed long before the stroke of midnight. New Year’s Day has never been much better. Since childhood, I have always associated it with the end of Christmas vacation. And what’s more, since I’m not an aging jock, the prospect of spending the whole day watching bowl games has never been all that appealing.

The only thing I have ever found even remotely interesting about the coming of a New Year is the making of resolutions. But even that tradition has been problematic for me.  Like Calvin, rather than turn the gaze of reflection inward, I find it far easier to identify the things that someone else needs to change, as well as things that need to change in our world as a whole. And not being a terribly disciplined person, I find the personal resolutions I do make awfully hard to keep.  I guess I’m in good company. I once heard a statistic that 75% of all resolutions are broken within the first week.  It kind of makes you wonder why we even bother.

I think my lack of interest in the celebration of a New Year reflects the attitude Hobbes pointed out, that when the future becomes the present it tends to look an awful lot like the past.  We find, when we wake up on January 1st, that despite any resolutions we may have made, we are still the same person, with the same family, the same job, the same body, the same stresses, the same habits, the same strengths, and the same weaknesses. Our circumstances don’t change overnight just because we have turned the pages of our calendars to a new year. In fact, we hardly change at all, at least not without some concerted effort on our part.

Perhaps that is why we make resolutions, because we know things won’t change unless we make a conscious decision to change and then begin to put into place the things that will help us move in the direction of that change. But any resolution that is worth making is going to be difficult to live up to.  That is why it is so important that we have the support of  family and friends, the encouragement of colleagues, and for those of us who are people of faith, a palpable sense of God’s presence in our lives.

Many of you know that Marty and I attended seminary in New York City.  I’m not sure if Marty ever did this, but several times while I was living there, I went across the street from the seminary to Riverside Church for their annual New Year’s Eve Night Watch Service. It began with a half hour recital on the church’s magnificent pipe organ, and then there was a thoughtful and reflective service of worship that ended with the tolling of the church bells at midnight.  I found it to be a good way to begin the year in God – to clearly acknowledge the presence of God in my life as I stood at the threshold of a New Year.

Perhaps the fact that New Year’s Eve falls on a Sunday this year will help those of us who have chosen to spend time this morning in worship to begin our year in God – to ground ourselves in God as we cross the threshold into 2018. And hopefully this grounding in God will help us to more consciously make our New Year’s resolutions in the context of our faith in God: God who desires the best for us and who calls forth the best from us; God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness; God who cared enough about us to come among us as Emmanuel – God with us.

New Year’s Day fell on a Sunday in 1989.  I remember because that was the day Marty and I presented our son Nate for baptism at the church where I had been serving as associate pastor for 3 years. That morning the congregation continued its celebration of Christ’s birth with a meaningful service of lessons and carols. And on that first day of a New Year, Marty and I claimed the covenant promises of God for our son, and committed ourselves to share the Good News of the Gospel with him, so that by our teaching and example he might experience the grace and love and presence of God in his life and come to know that he is a beloved child of God.  And the congregation, on behalf of all Christian people, promised to help us and support us in this.  And all of us made these resolutions, knowing that it is God who helps us to live out those important covenant promises.

I was reminded of that day as I read this morning’s scripture.  Like Christian parents who bring their children for baptism, Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple to be circumcised and dedicated to God.  By so doing, they claimed for him the covenant promises which God made to all the people of Israel, and identified him as a child of God. But Luke acknowledges the uniqueness of this particular child of God by telling us that Mary and Joseph gave their child the God-chosen name of Jesus which means God saves.

In the temple that day Mary and Joseph also encountered Simeon and Anna, the saints we sang about in the 4th verse of our opening hymn this morning.  Simeon and Anna were two faithful elders in the Jewish community. They spent much time in the temple, worshiping and praying, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, waiting and watching for God’s Messiah, and praying faithfully for God to act in fulfillment of God’s promises.  And because of this intentional focus in their lives, they were attentive to what God was doing, and they were able to recognize, in Jesus, the Messiah for whom their people had longed.  Each of them was moved by the spirit to speak powerfully of the future of this child and of the impact he would have, not only upon his own family, but upon the Jewish people and indeed upon the world.  Through their words and actions, through their prayers and praise, they helped to impart God’s blessing upon Jesus and his parents.

This morning, we stand at the threshold of a New Year. And I find myself wondering how we might consciously choose to not only begin this year in God, but to live throughout this year in God?  How might we carry with us, each and every day, an awareness of God’s presence in our daily lives?  How might we draw upon the love and grace of God, not only during the first few days of the New Year, but throughout the year?  How might we hold our own needs, and the needs of those around us, as well as the needs of the church and community, the nation and the world in God’s love and God’s compassion and God’s healing and God’s justice, so that this year the deepest sense of Christmas comes to everyone alive?

I’ve found myself thinking of the Van Morrison song where he sings “When will I ever learn to live in God, when will I ever learn?  He gives me everything I need, and more.  When will I ever learn?”  How do we learn to live in God?  How do we intentionally cultivate a way of life that is lived deeply in God?

One way we might be more intentional about doing that is by Cultivating an Intentional Practice of Intercessory Prayer.

We’ve shared this with you before, but I think it bears lifting up again at this turning of the year.  For each day of the week there is a prompt, which we are encouraged to use as a focus for that day’s prayers.

On Sundays, the Lord’s Day, we are invited to pray for the church, for its people, for its life and ministry:  to pray for this congregation and for our witness here at the corner of Greeley and Myrtle, to pray for our worldwide United Methodist Church as we seek a way forward in this changing world, to pray for the witness of all who call themselves Christians, that we may truly reflect the image and likeness of the one we call Lord and Savior.

On Mondays we are invited to pray for the places where we spend our week days:  to pray for our workplace, our school, or wherever we spend our time during the week, to pray for the people who gather there, for the relationships they share, for the work they do together, and for its impact upon the community and the world.

On Tuesdays we are invited to turn our attention to the needs of our community, of our nation, and of our world, bearing in mind Jesus’ words that whatever we do for the least of our brothers and sisters it is as if we do it for him.

On Wednesdays we are invited to pray for the individual people who come to our minds and hearts, being attentive to those instincts and nudges and promptings from the Spirit; to pray for people we know personally or through others who are in particular need of God’s gracious, loving, and healing presence.

And in a similar way, on Thursdays we are invited to pray for the broader issues and concerns that come to our minds and hearts; to pray for peoples and places and circumstances that are in need of God’s compassion, God’s love, God’s justice, and the peace of Christ which passes all understanding.

On Fridays we are invited to pray for our own families and for others who are most dear to us; to pray for our spouse, our children, our parents, our siblings, our extended family and for others who are as family to us; to pray for the deepest needs we all have for connection and love and healing and faith.

And on Saturdays, the traditional Sabbath Day, we are invited to pray for those things which bring us a sense of Sabbath, a sense of rest and balance, a sense of gratitude and appreciation, a sense of connection to God our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, and a connection to our deepest selves as children of God.

This template isn’t meant to limit or confine our prayers.  Rather, it is meant to open them up and to broaden and expand them beyond things we might ordinarily have thought to pray for. Within this structure, each of us has infinite freedom to pray in any way for anyone and anything that matters to us, to lift it up to God, and to invite God’s creative power and presence to be at work.

What would it be like to hold all of these things in our thoughts and prayers in an intentional way? I know there are those who regard that phrase as somewhat meaningless.  And of course I understand the sentiment…that promises of our thoughts and prayers are too often a substitute for action. But I also know that truly intentional prayer is far from meaningless. John Wesley would remind us that we must intentionally practice the means of grace through both inward acts of piety (like prayer) and outward acts of mercy; through a life of both intentional prayer and intentional living. And intercessory prayer like this provides a good bridge between the two. I believe that if each of us were to spend time cultivating this comprehensive practice of intercessory prayer, there is no end to what might happen. I believe it would make us more attentive not only to what is happening in our own lives, but in the lives of those around us, and in this world in which we live.  I believe it would help us be attentive to where God is at work in the midst of it all.  I believe it would draw our focus beyond ourselves, and call us to seek out and to take an active part in those things that God is doing in the world.  As Jane Edwards reminds us, “Prayer is not a substitute for action, it is an action for which there is no substitute.” For it is in the midst of prayer that you and I are led to discover how we might be part of the answer to those very prayers we are praying.

And I think that if we pay attention to our prayers over time, paying attention to the things that persist – to the things that arise again and again in our prayers – perhaps then we will discover a call of God upon our heart to put our faith into action in some new way. Perhaps we will move from praying “someone really ought to do something about that” or “God, please do something about that” to “what can I do to make a difference?” And if that is the case, then there’s no telling where it could lead. I believe that if we take this invitation seriously, we will not be sitting here one year from now saying, like Calvin, that nothing has changed.

So how about that for a New Year’s resolution – not just for today, or for the next few days until it is left behind with 75% of all resolutions? How about making a commitment to spend the whole month of January cultivating this practice of prayer? And having cultivated this practice, how about continuing it throughout the year? Will this help us learn to live in God? This may be a resolution I might actually be able to keep.

How about you? Will you join me in cultivating this practice of intentional prayer? If so, you’ll have to take that insert home with you rather than drop it in the recycling box. You’ll have to place on the fridge or the bathroom mirror, on the kitchen table or some other designated place. Perhaps you could program it into the daily calendar on your smart phone. Whatever way you choose, find a place where you will see it each and every day, and let it be a daily invitation to intentional prayer and intentional living. May it be so.

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