New Year’s Day.* Epiphany Sunday (Epiphany itself is on Friday). The eighth day of Christmas. The morning after New Year’s Eve. A lot of stuff is coming together today.
Maybe that makes sense. Each new year has an unbelievably complex set of joys and fears, anticipation and dread. That might be especially true as we enter 2017. Many people are glad that 2016 is over! Although, in speaking with Banu, we recognize that 2016 had a whole lot of blessing to it, and we thank God for it.
Of course, many of us make new year’s resolutions. (Such as resolving to exercise—I mean, to exercise more!) How long folks keep at it is another question. Still, that speaks to the human need to look to the future and the felt need to change. We remember the past, with both the good and the bad, but maybe we want a do-over as well.
What I’m about to say should be no surprise to anyone. When we’re young, our storehouse of memories is very limited. Everything is directed to the future, and most of us can’t wait to get there! As time goes on and we get a little more of life under our belt, a little more experience, things begin to even out. As the years go by, most of us have a wealth of memories, and if you’re regarding life as simply a measure of numbers, the future seems quite foreshortened. (Still, as I often say, no one is promised tomorrow. Any of us could be gone tonight.)
Perhaps not regarding life as simply a measure of numbers is a big part of keeping one’s heart young. We welcome times to come (however that works out), while remembering “auld lang syne,” times gone by.
I begin with this little meditation on memory because we can see that in the Old Testament lesson. Today’s passage from Isaiah 63 speaks about memory. Verse 7 begins, “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord.” This person who is doing the recounting has seen times that are both awful and awesome.
Here’s a quick note about our author. The first two-thirds of the book of Isaiah date to the time of the prophet himself, in the eighth century B.C. Starting with chapter 40, we’re at a point in the Babylonian exile, in the sixth century. This latter part of the book, sometimes called Second Isaiah, is considered to be the work of an anonymous prophet in the “school” or the “spirit” of Isaiah.
When we get to chapter 56, we’re a couple more decades into the future. This final section is sometimes called Third Isaiah. This is after the return from exile has happened. For a while, there is a great deal of enthusiasm among those returning to their homeland. Over time, however, hopes began to fade as cold reality sinks in. Among other things, there is constant opposition from many who have settled the land while so much of the house of Israel has been held captive in Babylon.
This is probably about the time of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. One of the things they emphasize is the need to rebuild the temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians. The people need a kick in their complacency.
Last week, part of my Christmas sermon dealt with one of the seven deadly sins, sloth. The sin of sloth isn’t a matter of being physically lazy, although it might include that. Rather, it is a sickness of the soul, in which a person simply ceases to care. It is a resistance to the Spirit of God which results in a hardening of heart, not in an angry way, but in a way that loses the desire to grow. It’s a settling down into a dull routine in which the prompting of the Spirit is ignored.
The prophet’s audience in today’s text is largely afflicted by sloth. They need a fire lit under them.
But you might not get that, based on the snippet of the chapter that is today’s passage. The compilers of the lectionary tended to chisel out some of the “troublesome parts,” the scriptures that say things we find embarrassing, or stuff we just don’t want to hear. Whenever I see scriptures that are deleted, I have a hard time letting that go—even if it’s something I don’t want to hear.
As I said earlier, our reading begins, “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,” because of all the wonderful stuff the Lord has done for us. Verse 8 has affirming words about Israel being “my people, children who will not deal falsely.” Things get wrapped up nicely with God’s “presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old” (v. 9).
Those are good memories. It is vital; it is life-giving, to remind each other of what God has done for us. It’s especially important when we’re in times of distress.
Still, this has been plucked out of its context.
The first part of the chapter talks about vengeance being unleashed. Verse 3 is especially lovely. “I have trodden the wine press alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their juice spattered on my garments, and stained all my robes.” The juice from trampling grapes is compared to blood!
However, this isn’t the action of a bloodthirsty god. Our Lord isn’t roaming around, looking for heads to smash. This crazy language is actually about grace. George Knight talks about the way “the nations have made life for each other on this planet hell on earth.” So what does God do in response? “God alone knows how to use [humanity’s] hellish activities for good; he does so by taking upon himself the absurdity of human violence.” That’s how we get the language about juice staining the garments of God.
We see here a preview of the sacrificial love perfectly demonstrated by Jesus. Still, I guess that stuff about blood made our lectionary friends squeamish!
Now, what’s going on after today’s reading?
In verse 10, right after the language of blessing that was read to us, we get a splash of cold water in the face. “But they rebelled and grieved his holy spirit; therefore he became their enemy; he himself fought against them.” But they rebelled. Memories become a bit more painful.
Mike Stavlund has sarcastically noted, “With an editorial snip, we miss Isaiah’s inflammatory commentary on the unfaithfulness of God’s followers.” Then changing the focus to us, “who spend far more time proclaiming ourselves ‘God’s servants’ than we do acting like it. Who pray for shalom while we make war. Who ask for forgiveness while we stockpile bitterness. Who preach repentance while we quietly judge.”
That’s an exceptionally biting comment: asking for forgiveness while we stockpile bitterness. Can that be true?
As I said, we are on the cusp of a new calendar year. 2017 won’t automatically be better than 2016. One of the narratives that was promoted this past year was that people are angry. We were told that we’re angry. Take our word for it. And if you’re not angry, you should be!
But beneath all of that, we should remember that anger has its roots in fear. We’ve been told to fear each other. And that’s not anything new. Fear is the opposite of love. As 1 John tells us, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (4:18). It’s impossible to carry out the gospel imperative to love one another if we’re afraid of each other. We are armed against each other, both literally and metaphorically.
Fear can also result in loneliness.
Chris Hall, president of Renovaré, the spiritual formation ministry started by Richard Foster, talks about this in his review of 2016. He speaks of “an epidemic of loneliness in our culture.” We can see this in America as a whole, but he especially focuses on feeling lonesome in the community of faith.
“This loneliness epidemic,” Hall says, “came into sharp focus for me several months ago, when I joined a group of Renovaré Institute alumni at a reunion in London, England. One after another, often amid tears, people spoke of how desperately they missed the rich sense of belonging and connection they’d had while they were in the program.
“And it’s not just Renovaré Institute students. We receive calls from folks nearly every day whose lives were altered at a Renovaré conference, or in the pages of a Renovaré book, and who now crave community with others who are on the same journey.”
He’s speaking in particular of those their ministry has reached, but clearly the reality that people are lonely reaches far and wide. Going back to earlier comments, could the epidemic of loneliness also be the result of rebellion and bitterness on our part? Does our fear prevent our loving each other? And going back to the original audience of our scripture reading, do we suffer from the spiritual sickness known as sloth? Does it keep us from caring, from really being with the other?
Like the new year we’re entering, we ourselves are a crazy, mixed up set of joys and fears. We are beautiful, marvelous, wise, and courageous. We are also afraid of our own shadows. We are creatures desperately in need of a loving Savior.
We are in the season of Christmas, and God comes to us in the flesh. God dwells with us in the flesh.
This is also Epiphany Sunday. Like the magi from the East, we are drawn to the glory of Christ’s majesty. But guess what? That glory is also in us.
Remember verse 9: “It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” The very presence of God saves us and is with us.
So are we ready for what this new year holds? Are we ready to be led by the Spirit into the new thing God has for us?
I want to finish with a quote that was attributed to Nelson Mandela, but actually comes from Marianne Williamson in her book Return to Love.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Are we ready?
* This was for New Year’s Day, not New Year’s Eve!
 George A. F. Knight, The New Israel (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 73.
 Knight, 74.