The Last Hurrah!

Luke 2:22-40

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed— and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

 In our Gospel story today we find that the shepherds, the angels and the heavenly hosts are all gone now, and Joseph and Mary have a baby to raise. As devout Jews, they took him first for circumcision and naming and now, after the appropriate time has passed, they've come to the temple in Jerusalem for Mary's purification and Jesus' presentation as a firstborn male to be consecrated to God. There they meet Simeon, who has been assured by the Holy Spirit that he won't die until he sees the Messiah, and when the big moment arrives, Simeon has the insight, the gift of recognizing what he has been waiting for all along. What he holds may be "just" a baby, but he sees the salvation of God, glory for the people of Israel and light for the gentiles, not just long ago but today, not just for himself and his people, but for all the children of God.

Luke often uses "sight" in his Gospel as a metaphor for perceiving the Word of God, for "getting it" when it comes to faith. So Simeon and Anna are good examples for us of people who see with their hearts, souls and minds; it's as if he stood there and felt the presence of God's promise about to be fulfilled. He was open, as we should be, to what is yet to come. Holding the baby Jesus that day in the temple, Simeon surely did not comprehend the mystery in his arms, but he allowed for the possibilities of God's power to unfold in ways he could not imagine but only hope for.

These stories are a celebration of Jesus and of these saints of God who have faithfully prayed and waited throughout their long lives for God’s coming. They embody the spirit of Advent and the celebration of God’s action in the world. This last hurrah for God of Simeon and Anna is also Luke’s hurrah for them.  

And on this New Year’s Eve we connect to these celebrations as a Last Hurrah for the year. And there are many different ways to celebrate with traditions that go back centuries. From dressing up in black tie attire, throwing tinsel around, making lots of noise and kissing your loved one at the stroke of midnight, these traditions help us celebrate the ending of the year, and look forward to what’s coming in the new one. I’ve heard down here that on New Year’s day the traditional Southern spread consists of black-eyed peas and collard greens, ham or pork, and cornbread. In Ohio my mother always cooks Sauerkraut, mashed potatoes and pork roast, probably due to the large influence of German settlers and Pennsylvania Dutch in the area.

Yet across Europe, some traditions don’t seem to make much sense to us. In Spain, one New Year’s tradition is to eat 12 grapes, one for each month of the coming year, to secure prosperity. Here in the US we typically ferment these grapes and drink a glass of bubbly. In Latin American countries like Mexico, Bolivia, and Brazil, the color of your underwear determines what kind of year you’ll have, so choose carefully! Tradition holds that red will bring love and romance, and yellow leads to wealth and success. White stands for peace and harmony, while green signifies well-being and nature. In Turkey, red underpants are handed out as gifts for good luck and the promise of a fruitful new year.

In Germany, people melt small pieces of lead in a spoon over a candle, then pour the liquid into cold water. The bizarre shapes from the Bleigießen (lead pouring) are supposed to reveal what the year ahead will bring. If the lead forms a ball, luck will roll one’s way, while the shape of a crown means wealth; a cross signifies death and a star will bring happiness.

A Danish New Year’s Eve tradition is to throw plates and dishes against friend’s and neighbor’s front doors. The bigger the pile of broken china is the next morning, the more friends and good luck you’ll have in the coming year.

In the Philippines, the start of the New Year is all about the money. The locals believe that surrounding themselves with round things (to represent coins) will bring money or fortune. As a result, clothes with polka dots are worn and round food is eaten. To really push Fortuna, coins are kept in pockets and constantly jangled, believed to keep the money flowing.

In rural areas of Romania New Year’s Eve highlights include mask dances and ceremonies about death and rebirth. Dancers dress up in furs and wooden masks depicting goats, horses, or bears, then dance from house to house to ward off evil spirits.

“Out with the old” is the motto in Naples, where people toss everything from toasters to fridges off their balconies. Getting rid of old possessions symbolizes a fresh start in the New Year. To prevent serious injuries, most locals stick to small and soft objects for their throwing tradition.

In Scottish folklore, the “first-foot,” is the first person crossing the threshold after midnight. A tall, dark-haired male with gifts like coins, coal, bread, salt, and a “wee dram” of whiskey, is thought to bring the best luck for the house.

And speaking of Scottish influence, the singing of the song "Auld Lang Syne" is also a New Year’s tradition started by our European ancestors. Auld Lang Syne is a Scots poem written set to the tune of a traditional folk song. It is well known in many countries, especially in the English-speaking world, and is traditionally sung to bid farewell to the old year at the stroke of midnight. The song's Scottish title may be translated into standard English as "old long since", or more idiomatically, "long long ago","days gone by" or "old times".

Should Old Acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?
Should Old Acquaintance be forgot, and days of old lang syne.
For old lang syne my dear, for old lang syne,
We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for old lang syne.

This song begins by posing a rhetorical question: Is it right that old times be forgotten? The answer is generally interpreted as a call to remember long-standing friendships. And this is where I believe our Good News helps us to establish the importance of standing on long remembered promises and commitments to relationships.

While another common tradition for New Year’s Eve is making resolutions…or identifying behaviors that you want to change within yourself in the next year, the United Church of Christ has a long history of encouraging covenants between the church and its members. In the UCC we believe that the God who was revealed in the life and servant ministry of Jesus of Nazareth has chosen to relate to humankind covenantally. It is a covenanting and faithful God whom we worship and seek to serve. The question we have to resolve in response is “How do we show ourselves to be the people of this kind of God?” We do so by being a covenantal people. There is much diversity in the way we live that out, but we are ultimately responsible to God and to each other for our faithfulness within these sacred bonds.

 WHAT IS A COVENANT? An agreement between two or more persons to do or refrain from doing some act.

There are evidences of covenants throughout the Bible. God had covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and the children of Israel. And there were covenants between men as well. Our covenants should be representative of the desire to move beyond human failure and onto Christ-like attributes.

One of the best ways to strengthen ourselves, establish relationships with others and place our faith in God’s will is through learning ways to communicate, because communication fuels intimacy. We must move from superficial dialogue to active listening in our relationships with God and with others. God recommends that best way for this to happen is through prayer. 

 Covenant relationships must involve healthy communication, within the church and within your own lives. Do you love those with which you desire relationships like you love yourself? Do you acknowledge your mistakes when you make them and not wait for a conflict to separate you from the relationship? To you tell the people that you are in relationship how thankful you are for their friendship? Do you humbly ask for their forgiveness when you have wronged them? 

Covenant relationships cannot happen unless we engage in communion with each other. Gathering for corporate worship is the practice of your faith. Participating in the body of Christ through small groups builds significant relationships through the fellowship of the spirit. Working out our salvation on a daily basis means rejecting the old nature and habits that cause division among us. Our relationships are constantly growing as we continually discover the evidence of a changing life in the pursuit of Christ-likeness. From this revelation comes an acknowledgement of grace, as we recognize an ongoing awareness of God’s love and activity in the world and in us.

As the New Year approaches, I challenge you to make covenant relationships; Covenants between you and God, between you and your family, and between you and your church community. Instead of making resolutions for yourself, make covenants with those with which you desire relationship. These covenants may include financial, emotional or time commitments. Write them on the chart in your bulletin, if you desire...but don’t keep them to yourself. Tell them to God in your prayers. Communicate them to your family. And share them especially with your church community. Don’t let another year pass by trying to keep resolutions that you keep for yourself.  Let 2018 be the year of relationship for you.  I’m sure you will find that all your personal needs will be met through covenants with God and your significant relationships.

I wrote a poem on the day after Christmas to help me realign my own spiritual journey from making resolutions to creating covenants with others. I hope it will motivate you to. Amen!

THE DAY AFTER CHRISTMAS

Twas the day after Christmas when all through my home
My gifts lay unwrapped, puppies chewing on bones.
Nice stuff I admit, I was pleased with my winnings....
But I felt deep inside, weird feelings beginning.

Oh the month had been hectic...all the shopping and sharing.
I was pleased with my attitude...I’d stopped fighting and swearing.
And tho’ the gifts that I asked for were now open and obtained,
The holiday ham had been cut, few leftovers remained.

I had to take time for the year to review,
What had I done ov’r the months since the last New Year’s blew?
Oh yes I remember, quite a few resolutions....
I thought in silence and deep contemplation.

Lose 5 or10 pounds, start that exercise plan,
Pay off some bills, save for a new car or van.
Start writing that book, even a page or a few,
Visit my mama every weekend or two.

Get involved in my church; give more in the offering,
Find a charity to support, volunteer, just do something.
Increase time with my family, phone calls to my friends,
Remember birthdays, anniversaries...so many cards I must send.

And the more that I thought about things needing to change,
More of my schedule I’d need to arrange.
I couldn’t help wonder, didn’t I do this last year?
Made a list of the things that bring hope and good cheer?

Who do I do this? Why write cards and letters?
What do I expect to accomplish? Why should I do any better?
After all I’m a good person, thoughtful and nice.
I challenge any human to more giving than Brice.

And with that pious thought I stopped cold in my tracks,
As the spirit of God revealed some interesting facts.
While New Year’s resolutions are for changing behaviors,
Or quitting bad habits disliked by our Savior.

Isn’t true that Christ Jesus died for all men?
That he paid this price as atonement for sin?
When his blood was shed on Calvary’s hill,
While men crucified his body until....

Our Lord gave up the ghost, and his body went limp.
From the blameless Lamb of God His spirit was sent,
To the world as a reminder, that he would still abide,
In our hearts...but our actions? That we must decide.

Do we worship a king, or the baby who lay....
When the wisemen delivered their gifts on that day.
For as the story goes, Baby Jesus went hiding.
King Herod should kill him, his subjects were chiding.

Unlike Herod, if we give up the throne of our hearts,
Surrender control of our life, all its parts.
We’re not making resolutions or simple adjustments,
But a promise to others, called relationship covenants.

It’s this kind of promise for the New Year and beyond,
That will keep us together. A new kind of bond,
For giving and gathering, for groups and for gifts,
For grace and for growth, the message is this.

Remember the reasons we rejoice and we sing,
When it’s time for the tolling of 2018.
Don’t make resolutions that usually come from your lips.
But make a new commitment to covenant relationships.