Tuesday, January 03, 2006

a door closes, another door opens

On the Sunday after Christmas we read the story of the presentation of Jesus at the temple, and the responses of Simeon and Anna. There is a great deal here, even if our appetite for all of it, after the spiritual indulgence of Christmas, may not be for too much.

And so a few comments: Mary and Joseph take the child to be circumcised, they come for the purification rites, they present the child to the Lord, they offer a sacrifice. The lessons are simple and clear: they were following in the traditions of their faith; they offered their gifts. And the implications for us are simple and clear as well: when we have been given something wonderful, we are called to be faithful.

As you enter into a new year, what has God placed in your hands, what is the wonderful gift in your own possession, how are you being called to be faithful?

Then the story shifts to Simeon. He is waiting for this moment, for the consolation of Israel, for the Messiah, he is filled with the Spirit. He understands that he will not die before the Messiah has been born. At a human level I have seen this many times: a grandparent or great-grandparent lives until the birth of a child. A door closes. A door opens. At times, here a Providence, a memorial service will be ending at just about the time that the weekday school children are coming from their classes, and to me that is great. A door closes. A door opens.

Simeon, the devoted servant of God, is departing this earth. But a child has been born. Now your servant can depart in peace, Simeon says to God, for my eyes have seen your salvation!

He is saying, in effect, “this is why I was born”. And that is worth reflecting on as well. How many of us can point to something, our children, our work, our priorities, and say, “this is what I was born”. Now you servant can depart in peace!

Simeon takes the child into his arm and praises God. And then he blesses the parents, Mary and Joseph----, they had wondered about what to do in an awkward situation, they had had dreams and visions, they had been given signs, they had pondered all of this in their hearts, they had received the gifts of the magi and welcomed the shepherds, and now it is nice to hear it all confirmed by this wise old man Simeon. He blesses them. The thoughts of many hearts will be revealed because of this child, he says to them, and a sword will pierce your own soul also.

The lessons are simple and clear here as well: again, Simeon knows enough about his faith and the traditions to know that the place something special, something God-given, will happen is the temple, and there he is; and he is open and transparent to the movement of the spirit to know his own purpose and destiny, and now that is being fulfilled. The implications for us are also simple and clear: we are called to be patient, to wait, to be hopeful, and God will fulfill the desires of our hearts.

The story shifts, next, to Anna, a prophet. She is also in the temple, praying, fasting, worshipping. She echoes what had been revealed to Simeon. They are in agreement. Something is happening here. When God begins to do something, there will be agreement, a shared faith that something amazing is happening. She has been hoping for a Messiah. Now the Messiah has come.

Jesus is born in Bethlehem. Now his parents will take him home, to the Galilee, to Nazareth. But on the way, there is this stop, at the temple, in Jerusalem.

We are on the first day of a new year. In our service today, two very important acts of worship take place. One is two thousand years old, and really its origins are 3000 years old. Another is two hundred and fifty years old. These are the traditions of our faith, these are the disciplines of our renewal, these are the means of grace for us.

The Lord's Supper, the Holy Communion, the Eucharist, was the way we remembered the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, it was the way we experienced his real presence with us now, it was the way we looked forward to a great banquet that he would host. Why a meal? Well, we have come through holiday celebrations, perhaps we have eaten too much, but a part of the meaning is that we gather around tables and break the bread and tell the stories and give thanks. When we carry on the traditions, good things happen, just as they did for Simeon and Anna. The miraculous takes place. The light breaks through. “Do this in remembrance of me”, he says to his disciples.

The Covenant prayer is the other practice. The prayer that we said earlier has been said by Methodists for at least 250 years. It had a puritan origin in England prior to that. In the tradition the renewal of the covenant came to be called a “watch night service, held just before midnight of the new year, but I have spared us that.

The covenant prayer is one of deep faith and trust in God, of surrender to God's will, of abandonment to divine providence, in the words of a spiritual classic. We say these words and they almost echo the words of a much earlier time, words spoken in a garden, "not my will, but thy will", words that fufilled the prophecy of Simeon, "this child is destined to cause the rising and falling of many in Israel, and to be a sign spoken against, and a sword will pierce your own soul also".

If we did not have these faith traditions we would invent new ones, and, of course, we do invent new traditions: champagne, fireworks, the ball dropping, black eyed peas and collard greens, football bowl games. We need rituals, traditions, because they ground us, that put us in a place to experience something meaningful and beautiful and hopeful.

And so, we gather this morning, to say the prayers of our ancestors, and to break the bread, and to head into a new year. A door closes--2005, with the Tsunami and the death of the Pope and the war and the floods and the runaway bride and Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart and UNC winning the national championship, it is over, it is done, it is history. And now a door opens, and we wonder: what will happen over the next 12 months? More natural calamity? More extended warfare? more celebrity wierdness? Another North Carolina team winning the National Championship in basketball?

And in our own lives, we wonder as well? A door closes there too. Sometimes that is grace: Sins committed; courageous words left unspoken; generosity not yet extended; a failure on the part of another not yet forgiven; a talent not left undeveloped. We can make amends, we can fulfil resolutions, we can make a covenant with God, to experience newness of life. A door opens. It is a new year.

I have mentioned my fascination with this time of year, because it reminds me that we really do live by at least three calendars. There is the sports calendar. Some of us live from the opening day of spring training in baseball to the fall NFL season to the World Series to the college bowls to March Madness. Then we start all over again. Most of us also live by the national calendar, and, of course, we are at the beginning of that one, today is January 1. A third calendar is the liturgical calendar, which begins in Advent, with the birth of Jesus, and concludes at the end of next November, when he is enthroned and seated at the right hand of God, on Christ The King Sunday. It is a way of structuring time around the life of Jesus.

Today, two of those calendars overlap. A door closes, the calendar year 2005 is over, and there is Simeon, who has lived just long enough to see the new birth. A door opens, it is 2006, and the child born in Bethlehem will grow strong, full of wisdom, and God's grace will be upon him.

May it be so for us. May the birth of Jesus Christ be our own rebirth. May a year of resolutions find us resolved to renew our faith, and to be faithful in all that we have been given. May we walk into a new year, with our eyes wide open, filled with the Holy Spirit, to see the salvation that God has prepared in the sight of all nations, a light to the Gentiles, and glory for the chosen people, Israel.

When a door closes, another door opens.

(a sermon given at Providence UMC in Charlotte on January 1, 2006; the context was also the sacrament of holy communion and the covenant prayer in the Wesleyan tradition)


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