Here are my thoughts for the 1st Sunday after Christmas, December 28, 2008. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 61: 10 – 62: 3, Galatians 4: 4 – 7, and Luke 2: 22 – 40.
The Sunday after Christmas is either the hardest Sunday or the second hardest to prepare for with, no doubt, the Sunday after Easter being the other Sunday. Attendance is lower than the previous four weeks because the reasons for attending church in December are now past tense. Unless there are dramatic changes in an individual’s life, the odds are that we won’t see many of the people until perhaps Easter and most definitely not until the next Advent season. And this year, between the downturn of the economy and the bad weather, there wasn’t much of a Christmas “presence” anyway.
And with the New Year now fast approaching, our thoughts are as much on the celebrations and parties that we will attend on New Year’s Eve as they are on attendance at church on Sunday. At least, the message of hope and the promise of a better tomorrow that comes with Christmas will stay with us through the first few months of 2009 as we wait to see if the new political administration can turn this country around and bring this country back to the glory that it has lost.
I, for one, would like to see this country turned around, though I am not certain about the glory part. Because the glory that everyone wants for the United States is a glory found in “old school” thinking, a style of thinking that preceded and precipitated the problems that we are faced with right now. And I am not altogether certain that this incoming administration is going to have much in the way of new thinking, not because they have a lack of it but, rather, because the current culture of political thought and machination will not allow it.
Over the past few days, I have had opportunities to think about this change in thinking and what it means. So many of the churches that I work with are locked into a mindset as to what they have to do in order to get people into their church on a weekly basis and to keep them coming back. The creation of new forms of worship, that is, the inclusion of praise music and “free-form” services, has done a lot to bring people in. But, by the same token, it may have done much to exacerbate differences within congregations.
There are those who would like to see more modern music, be it rock and roll, jazz, or whatever (though let’s limit the amount of whatever we use). But for every person who wants to “upgrade” the music, there is someone who feels the hymnal that we have in the United Methodist Church is just fine and we should stay with that. There are some, I am sure, who are still complaining about the revision in the hymnal that moved “O for a Thousand Tongues” from #1 to #57.
As I have suggested before in “Rock and Roll Revival” and the follow up pieces, “The Rock and Roll Revival Continued” and “Rock and Roll Revival Revisited”, there are plenty of songs with Biblical themes that we can use in church today. And as I noted in “Rock and Roll Revival Revisited”, there is an interesting piece of liturgy involving U2.
The key point about changing the music of a worship service isn’t the music itself but rather the quality of the music that is played and the “attitude” with which it is performed and sung. Bad music, no matter the type, is always bad music and to sing without meaning it (to paraphrase John Wesley’s “sing lustily and with good courage) just won’t work.
Change for change’s sake is never a good idea nor is not changing something because “that’s they way we have always done it.” If we are not open to change and if the change we seek is not real change then we are going to have problems in the future.
The Gospel reading tells of Joseph and Mary taking the new-born Jesus to the temple for the first time. At the temple, they encountered Simeon and Anna, individuals who would see in the baby Jesus the fulfillment of the prophets long before anyone else. Simeon announced that there would be some who would see in Jesus the hopes and promises of the future while others would be blind to what He would do. He also announced the Jesus would be misunderstood and contradicted, resulting, of course, in His rejection and death on the cross some thirty years later.
And what I find interesting is the last line of Simeon’s thoughts, (as translated in The Message), “But the rejection will force honesty as God reveals who they really are.” (Luke 2: 40). If there are those today who hold tightly onto the power that they have acquired over the ages and are reluctant to let go, it will be obvious. If there are those who have gained power but in doing so have split apart a community, that too will be obvious.
With Jesus’ birth, there is a new way of thinking, a manner which cannot be accomplished by old means. It will be a challenge for many because they have literally fought to get what they have and they are not willing to give it up; yet, when Jesus had the opportunity to grab the power, He gave it up. Simeon and Anna saw a new world in Jesus, a world in which He was the Christ. They welcomed the change.
In Clarence Jordan’s translation of Paul’s letter to the Galatians for today, we read that we were ruled by the deeply entrenched patterns of the culture in which we lived. But Jesus’ birth and resurrection rescues us from being caught in that system. Yet, Paul continues in verse 8 to point out how the Galatians, even knowing what being a Christian was all about, continued to follow the same old rules and regulations that existed before Christ. If we are to begin a new year with a vision of change and a promise of hope for tomorrow, then we cannot continue following the same methods, procedures, and policies that have lead us to this point.
The prophet Isaiah announced to the world that there was a new beginning, much like a wedding. A wedding is an opportunity for a new beginning as the bride and groom leave their old families behind and begin a new family. The word righteousness is very prominent in the reading from Isaiah for today and well it should be, for righteousness denotes conformity to an ethical or moral standard. It has meaning when applied to honorable business dealings (something that has been sorely lacking in the past few years) and in proper speech (which should come as a surprise to many religious and quasi-religious individuals).
As I was completing this piece, I thought about a piece of music from my high school days which I thought involved the word change in its title. In looking for the piece I came across another piece which I think is highly appropriate for this time and moment (see “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke, performed by Mollie O’Brien and Rich Moore”).
Unfortunately, I was either thinking of “Shape of Things to Come” by Max Frost and the Troopers
or “Shape of Things” by the Yardbirds.
If we want to keep what we have, then we do not need to make any change. But if we are to bring about true change in this world, we will first to need to change how we think. If we understand that Jesus was born so that we might live and that if we change our lives (in other words, repent of our past lives and begin a new life in Jesus) then we will see the hope and promise that we so much want to find. What change shall we each make as we begin the New Year?