Num 6.22-end Aaronic blessing
Ps 8 What is man…? Little lower than the angels
Gal 4.4-7 God sent his Son, born of a woman ...toredeem those under the Law...Abba, Father
Lkk 2.15-21 After 8 days he was circumcised + he was called Jesus, the name given him by the angel
What are we and what are we supposed to be?
The Christmas season is so short – 12 days only – and is filled with riches. There are the Christmas saints – Stephen, John the Evangelist and our own Holy Innocents; and Epiphany just round the corner. Usually Christmas 1 is focused on the Holy Family but this year the 8th day falls on Sunday so we can keep the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus (in other denominations the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus).
And all around it for the rest of the population it’s New Year. We saw in 2023 with friends, as we’ve done for a couple of decades, so that’s our starter for today: New Year, new start. We’ll circle back to Jesus have no fear.
If you look at the rhetoric around New Year it’s obvious even the purely cultural rooting of our society in Christianity has eroded to a massive degree. We don’t need analysis of the latest Census figures to tell us that. In the world out there New Year’s resolutions seem to be the only aspect worth commentating on even if it’s to counsel us against making any.
You can trace the secular morality at work through the focus and emphasis. Mostly it seems to be about laying off the booze, or dieting, with a side order of more exercise or simplifying your lifestyle in the interests of the planet. In this era of mindfulness we might be encouraged to cultivate serenity, to carve out a bit of me-time. All relentlessly focussed on the self, personal fulfilment, the primacy of the individual. It comes as a real surprise these days to find people still join unions and fight for better conditions and pay, or is that too basically a selfish action?
In some outlets there is an acknowledgement that the pandemic saw a rise in pro-social (as opposed to anti-social) thinking and activity with people helping their neighbours and recognising the role of under appreciated public services. Sadly this doesn’t seem to have translated into a permanently changed mind set. The procession of trivia that passes for ‘top stories’ has reverted to an obsession with Harry and Megan (anti), Wills and Kate (pro), various so called celebrities and tv shows. Wearying.
I suppose the world would be a better place if all the New Year resolutions, however trivial, were kept. But surely faith has more to offer than that.
Year end in all faiths is an opportunity for review and appraisal. Rosh Hashanah for Jews is deeply serious, the start of 10 days of penitence culminating in the Day of Atonement. There’s a powerful focus on divine justice. The desired outcome is God’s people, repentant and purified, setting out on a new year at one with God.
That’s a different order of commitment altogether and a different level of understanding of what needs to change and why. Within our own faith there has always been a narrative around good and evil, the human propensity to sin and wickedness. We have the story of the Fall and key concepts of salvation and redemption. We took on 10 Commandments, which even without the 613 additional obligations of the Torah has shaped a whole attitude to what we are and what we are supposed to be. A check list of do’s and don’ts, multiple ways of offending.
There’s always been a tension in Christian history between reverencing the loving God who created all things, including us, and ‘saw that it was good’; the loving God ‘who desireth not the death of a sinner’ and the manifest fallibility of human beings. Christian theology veers in two directions: either human beings are tainted from birth (or if you’re Augustine of Hippo, from conception) with sin, and cannot earn God’s forgiveness by any amount of good works; or human nature as part of the created order witnesses to that inalienable goodness of God, with a divine spark kindled at birth forever seeking to return to God. The British monk Pelagius was excommunicated for disagreeing with Augustine in exactly this way. Fundamentally sinful and in desperate need of saving or fundamentally part of the divine project and on a pilgrimage towards God?
Whichever way your theology leans the role of Jesus Christ is the hinge on which everything turns. For Augustine, he is the means by which the overflowing grace of God, free and unmerited, unearned and undeserved, is made available to us
Pelagius didn’t deny the reality of sin and wickedness but for him Christ had defeated them and his victory was the protection for humanity. The purpose of our life according to Pelagius is to answer God’s call to return to him, moving towards that perfection that is our destiny.
So what are we and what are we supposed to be? The context for our New Year resolutions is not really how to make the most of ourselves. Or to compete in the hair shirt or silliness stakes. It is to find our way to move closer to God. What do we need to do to continue on that journey?
The answer may be very similar to those offered by the magazines and online influencers. Perhaps we could all do with being nicer, more patient, more caring, thinking of others especially those who seem far from us. As we face 2023, praying that it won’t be quite as bewildering and chaotic as 2022, we certainly need a lot more of that sort of thing.
The most important resolution we can make is that we will give time and space and prayer to discovering what our destiny as God’s people is, individually and collectively. Putting ourselves at God’s disposal, as it were, through his word, through sacrament, through those on the same journey, and allowing God to speak.
In another place the first Sunday on the new year has been kept as a time to renew the covenant between God and each one of us. Not renewal of baptism vows but a reworking of the Methodist Covenant service inaugurated by John Wesley. I’ll end with the preamble to the declaration made at the heart of that service.Christ has many services to be done:
some are easy, others are difficult;
some bring honour, others bring reproach;
some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests,
others are contrary to both;
in some we may please Christ and please ourselves;
in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves.
Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.
And the prayer of dedication made together:
I am no longer my own but yours.
Your will, not mine, be done in all things,
wherever you may place me,
in all that I do and in all that I may endure;
when there is work for me and when there is none;
when I am troubled and when I am at peace.
Your will be done when I am valued and when I am disregarded;
when I find fulfilment and when it is lacking;
when I have all things, and when I have nothing.
I willingly offer all I have and am to serve you,
as and where you choose.
Glorious and blessèd God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
May it be so for ever.
Let this covenant now made on earth be fulfilled in heaven.
Richard Young (Rector)