A Fresh Start: New Year’s Eve Sermon

Luke 2:22-40

Those carefully placed mountains of colorful cookies have been reduced to plates of crumbs, and those glorious, glistening turkeys are now sliced sandwich meat stowed away in Tupperware containers in our fridges.
Those beautiful, shiny packages that once surrounded the tree are now brand new jackets or sweaters keeping us warm, jewelry adorning our necks and wrists, or in my case VERY LOUD toys occupying the bandwidth of our already cacophonous house. The excitement of Christmas has given way to a return to our routines. Friends and family have traveled home and many of us are back at work.
But this morning I want to bring you back to the joy of Jesus’ birth and return to the story of our Savior.
In the gospel text this morning, Luke tells us of the Holy Family’s journey to the temple for the ritual purification, which according to the Law was required of Jewish women before returning to everyday life after childbirth. In addition, all firstborn sons are required to be presented at the temple and dedicated to God.
We also meet two prophets, Simeon and Anna, described as old in age, who meet Jesus and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit experience the fulfillment of their hopes and prayers and offer blessings and praises. They’ve been waiting and waiting for this fulfillment, the one who would usher in this new future. He would be the light to the Gentiles and the glory for the people of Israel. He would bring forth a new future of peace. And as a result of this, Simeon exclaims “you now dismiss your servant in peace for my eyes have seen your salvation”
It’s almost like a passing of the torch.
God in Christ has relieved these two faithful saints of their faithful vigil and offered them the promise of restoration they had hoped for.
One story ends as one begins.
With the arrival of Jesus in the world, a fresh start is underway.
This seems to be the perfect text as we bring 2017 to a close and look toward a brand new year. For some it was a tough year, with the loss of loved ones or the experience of life transitions. For some it was a year of great joy, with the arrival of new babies, or the start of new jobs or careers. And maybe for some it was a mix both- the joy of retirement from a long career followed by maybe the nervousness of what’s next.
The end of one thing followed by the beginning of another.
I for one love fresh starts. The start of the week or the 1st day of the month and especially the start of a new year gives me such joy. To have that clean slate is exciting to me and is pregnant with such possibility. You can put away whatever mistakes you made or regrets you had and start fresh. You can imagine a new reality and step into it, molding and shaping your decisions and choices to fit whatever goal you have. The past no longer holds you captive. A new journey has begun.
It reminds me of our baptism, when what is old is put to death to give birth to what is new in Christ. God comes to us offering us these fresh starts. Grace has set us free from the past and offers us a new future. We are washed clean and are offered a clean slate. Talking about good news.
My family went to see a movie on Christmas. It’s become sort of a tradition. This year we watched the new musical, “The Greatest Showman” a fictionalized treatment of the life of P.T. Barnum starring Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michele Williams, and Disney star Zendaya.
It was an incredible movie. Beautiful and visually stunning. Incredible music and dance sequences featuring fascinating characters and interesting storylines. Very much like a classic, big-screen Hollywood movie. I’m not sure which parts were historically true, and which parts weren’t, but I know truth most certainly rang true in the film in terms of equality, love, loyalty, and beauty. And that was enough for me. Sounds a little like the bible, doesn’t it?
But at the core of the film is Barnum’s rags to riches story. He’s the poor son of a suit maker but imagines a bigger life, one that would allow him to realize his dreams of adventure, beauty, opportunity, and riches. It would also allow him to win the heart of his childhood sweetheart, the wealthy daughter of one of his father’s clients, who disapproves of his social position.
Barnum is relentless in his pursuit; a true optimist who will stop at nothing to fulfill his destiny. He experiences setback after setback along his quest to fulfill his dreams. He takes big risks and they flop. He tries new things and they don’t get traction with audiences. And with these failures comes financial hardships and public humiliation. He worries about how he will provide for his wife, who was used to a life of privilege and his two young daughters.
But each day, like many of us, he starts fresh and tries again. He starts the day with hope, puts on his clothes, straps on his boots and goes out into the world to try again. Until that day arrives where things finally fall into place, his opportunity arrives, things click and he is thrust into fame and fortune with the start of a show highlighting a host of who many at the time referred to as “freaks” including the bearded lady, the tallest man on earth, and dog boy among many. This show would evolve into the Barnum & Bailey Circus, which would eventually become known as “The Greatest Show on Earth”.
Each day offers us a new start. And we can capture that hope. And never is there a better time than New Year’s Eve. So ignore those haters who try to shame you for making resolutions. Go for it. Whatever you imagine your future to be, take hold of it and start now.
And folks this hope is rooted in our baptism. Our baptism liberates from all those forces holding us back.
Baptism silences the voices that tells us we aren’t good enough, that our hopes and dreams are impossible.
Baptism urges us forward to try those new things, to nurture those gifts, to take those risks.
Baptism washes away those memories of failure that haunt us.
Baptism puts to death that person that was never who you wanted to be.
Christ has arrived in our lives and we have been reborn. We are created new in Christ. So fear, doubt, insecurity- they hold no power over us.
So grab hold of that new reality.
Start that new chapter. God has placed faithful people like Simeon and Anna, who will see you for who you really are and will support you and encourage you. They will see the Holy Spirit at work in your lives and will help you. The torch has been passed and the Holy Spirit is alive and well in you and is waiting for you to act.
So what’s it going to be? What is God calling you to do in 2018?
My guess is many of you already know. Many of you have had that deep desire marinating in your hearts for some time now. But you’ve never acted on them. Maybe you’ve allowed those negative forces to hold you back. If so, hear this message today: Go for it. Do it. Be who you were born to be. And make it a wonderful, incredible, exciting, and joyous 2018.
Amen.

Here I Am

Luke 1:26-38

The angel came to Mary in what must have been a frightening scene for the young girl. “Greetings!” announces Gabriel. And I can’t imagine it being subtle. Can you? To be fair, I don’t know what angels sound like, but I can’t imagine this one being a whisper. In my imagination at least, it’s a loud, thunderous sound that echoes and reverberates.
And please, sound system, don’t take this as a cue!
But I think it would be just a little bit scary. And sure, Gabriel says to her, “Don’t be afraid!” But come on, can you imagine poor Mary?
I’m sure she was scared to death. The text says she was “perplexed” but that hardly seems realistic for the circumstances. After all, she was a 13 year old girl who was just told by a celestial being that she would be pregnant with God’s son. And although engaged, she wasn’t married yet which could cost her her life. That’s enough to scare most people I know.
But regardless of her feelings, her response is really the ideal response to God. A combination of humble trust and obedient service. From a position of faith, she ultimately answers, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word.”
Don’t you wish we were all like this?
God breaks into your life, calls you to a new direction; maybe even a new life, no details, really and lots to fear, and your response is an unequivocal “here am I” or in other words, “send me.”
I think many of us push back on these urgings from God and instead convince ourselves that our paths are the correct paths. We allow fear to dictate our decisions and push forward with our own agenda rather than discerning and honoring God’s will. It’s human nature.
This is what makes Mary’s response so awe-inspiring.
Because in doing so Mary becomes the model for the ages for Christian discipleship—the person who all Christians should emulate. She embodies faith and faithfulness.
There are lots of examples of this type of faithful response in Scripture, which makes you wonder if maybe it’s a theme that God wants us to pay attention to.
Consider the responses of others in the Bible:
Mary? She answers, “Here I am”
Abraham? “Here I am”
Moses? “Here I am”
God calls and people answer. And these are folks just like you and me.
All of these examples- and there are others- are regular, ordinary people being called by God and their responses- ultimately, not always at first, are along the lines of “Send me”. The Bible gives us models of faithful responses in all sorts of situations for which to emulate.
The Hebrew word for this is Heneni. It’s a courageous response and means you are ready, willing, and able for whatever God has in store for you. Fittingly, it was the focus of the sermon given at my graduation from seminary.
In addition to “Here I Am”, another translation of heneni,” is “Here I Stand” which is interesting considering our Lutheran heritage. For those new to the Lutheran tradition, “Here I Stand” were the famous words believed to have been uttered by Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms as he is asked by officials of the Roman Catholic Church to renounce his claims and calls for reforms of the church; reforms he felt were mandated by Scripture. His steadfast resolve, guided by the Holy Spirit, moved him to stand his ground, despite the risk to not just his career, but his life. His famous words are, “Here I stand. I can do no other, so help me God.”
When faith is our lens, we can trust that whatever we feel God calling us to will be the right path. That doesn’t mean it will be easy, but our fears will have no license over us because we can trust in God’s loving protection and provision.
Mary is told not to be afraid. That God is with her and will not abandon her. God will walk with her and be with her the entire way.
The message is the same for us today.
With our faith in God’s loving presence and provision as our lens, we can respond to our circumstances with confidence and resolve.
With faith as our lens, we can respond to whatever God calls us to with trust.
Mary doesn’t have all the answers- she doesn’t know what all of these things will mean for her. She doesn’t know how it will all work out. But she trusts in God and God’s capacity. And she is able to step out in faith.
The same is true for us. We rarely have all the answers, but we are still called to respond.
Perhaps the most important words in this passage, ones that should calm our fears, are “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Mary knows this and responds accordingly.
Nothing will be impossible for God.
Friends, these words are true. And I want you to hear that today. Nothing is impossible for God. So there is no need to be afraid.
God’s got this!
So when you feel God calling you to whatever task or challenge it might be, you can rest assure that even if it seems impossible, even if it seems outrageous, with God all things are possible. My buddy used to have a saying, “If it’s God’s will, He’ll foot the bill!”
My friend Carol was enjoying a successful career in Corporate America when God began luring her in a new direction. She was pulled toward helping those in her community living in poverty, in particular those who were in the midst of crisis. For a multitude of reasons, they had lost their homes, or had their electricity or water shut off. Or they had no money to feed themselves or their families. After 18 years at Duke Energy, she followed God’s call and took the leap, abandoning the comforts of a big, corporate job and went to work for Crisis Assistance Ministry, a local non-profit helping those in poverty. 17 years later, she is now its Chief Executive Officer, only the 2nd in its history, and has made a tremendous impact on our community.
When God called, Carol said, “Here I am”
My buddy Clint and his wife Angela were living a comfortable life in Chapel Hill- already a busy one with their 4 young, beautiful children going in a million different directions with sports and activities when God called them to add to their family through adoption. What in the world were they thinking?, all of us asked. And they were most certainly afraid of what it all might look like- and they weren’t necessarily sure how they would manage. But God was pulling that thread, as Pastor Ginn mentioned last week, leading them to Ethiopia where they met 2 year-old brothers, who are now part of their family.
God called, Clint and Angela both said,”Here I am.”
There are countless stories of people in comfortable circumstances being called by God into new terrain. Sometimes it’s a new career.
Sometimes it’s a new relationship.
Sometimes it’s a move to a different part of the country or even world.
But God never leads us astray. We don’t always have the full picture, that’s to be sure, but we can trust that if God is calling us somewhere, we can be confident it is for our good.
Although we tend to think of the dramatic examples of God calling and brave souls fearlessly responding in the affirmative, these are not the only examples.
God is breaking into our lives and calling us each and every day.
Sure, sometimes it’s in big, dramatic ways but also it’s in more subtle, gentle ways.
But the message is the same. Do not be afraid. God is with you. And with this knowledge you can respond, “here I am”
So where is God calling you?
Where do you feel that gentle tug toward an area that might seem a little scary?
Maybe it’s taking on a new responsibility at work or even starting a new business.
Maybe it’s picking up that instrument you abandoned years ago.
Maybe it’s trying a new committee here at church in a completely unfamiliar area.
Whatever it might be, trust in God’s guidance. Trust that our God will not lead you on a path you aren’t intended for.
Mary was called by God to an unimaginable task. And we all know it was far from easy. But in faith and courage,she heeded the angel Gabriel’s advice and was not afraid, choosing trust over fear.
May you, too, have the same faith and courage to respond to God’s call however it might surface in your own life. And maybe you be richly blessed as a result.
Amen.