Lectionary Texts for January 1, 2006, the First Sunday after Christmas:
The Isaiah passage is set against the background of Israel's return from exile only to find Jerusalem destroyed. These seem like strange words for Isaiah to write at this time:
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.
But Israel's situation parallels the situation many of us find ourselves in at the end of each year. After various forms of pain and uncertainty and suffering and struggle, we look forward to a new year in which to make a fresh start. But, when January 1 arrives, we are living the same lives with the same problems as the previous year. Singing "Auld Lang Syne" and clinking glasses of champagne at midnight didn't magically fill our bank accounts or mend our family relationships or cure our bodies or clarify our purpose or alleviate world hunger or even replace our cracked windshield. What in the world do we have to celebrate, except for the final release from this difficult life that will be our entrance into the eternal bliss of heaven?
According to these passages, we have plenty to celebrate in the fulfillment of God's promises that is occurring right here and now. God has given God's people a "new name" and God has revealed salvation in the birth of Jesus. We see a pattern here that God keeps promises and roots the fulfillment in historical ways that we time-bound beings can comprehend.
In particular, the fulfillment of God's promise to Simeon is very compelling for our own practice of faith in such periods of transition as the new year. Simeon does not rejoice at being in the presence of Jesus because he made some stubborn New Year's resolution 50 years earlier to keep on keepin' on until he could see the Messiah. Rather, "It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah" (v.26). Simeon was not bullying his future into a box of his own making, but was guided by the Spirit, living into promises designed and revealed by the Spirit. If we are to follow his example, we'll need to discern the differences between setting our own arbitrary goals (resolutions) and being in constant relationship with the Spirit, who is not bound by the changing of the year.
Simeon's example is not an easy one. Most of us will not be able to make a resolution to be guided by the Holy Spirit and have it be done instantly with the sounding of the midnight chimes, but we can pray for the energy to engage regularly in the disciplines that will make our hearts and minds receptive. For some, this discipline will take the form of regular prayer time. For others, corporate worship or a new kind of worship experience. For still others, it will require a dramatic lifestyle change that will simplify time and finances to minimize society-driven stress. In opening ourselves to cultivating a Spirit-filled life, we will be better able to know and celebrate the joy of the present and the promise of the future, knowing God above all and in all.