Well, Christmas is over and we’re moving into the New Year. I’m hopeful that most of you had a great Christmas and are looking forward to 2015 and all that it holds.
Did you see the top ten news stories listed in the Blade religion page yesterday? When I lived in Dayton back in the 80s, there was a religion editor for the Dayton Daily News who did a reflection back on the top news for whatever year it was. I think he listed maybe ten things that had happened in Dayton and in the world and, like in the Blade, it wasn’t just religious things he looked at. It was things that had happened all over the world. Things like the high crime rate, specific murders, wars in other countries, refugee crises as folks streamed in from Central America because of civil wars there. The list went on and on.
I was pretty upset with the list. What upset me was that there was no good news in his top news list. So I wrote to him. Now usually when I write a letter to a newspaper it seems to be ignored. But Dave, the religion editor, actually paid attention. He wrote in the next week’s paper that he had received a letter complaining that he was too negative. So he took another look at the year and he came up with a list of things that were good. I was impressed and in talking to him later, I found out that he was genuinely pleased that I had brought his negativity to his attention.
It’s easy to get cynical in the world we live in today. We’ve just come through Christmas, which now is so commercialized it’s hard to find the reason for the season in anything except maybe church. I went shopping for one last gift and some food on Tuesday and I swore I would never shop again. It was crazy! We have a build up to Christmas that now starts at Halloween and continues until December 24th and then we have the after Christmas sales. After our family gatherings and Christmas parties, we’re all pretty tired. This Sunday and the Sunday after Easter are called low Sundays because so many people stay away from church. I realize that some people are on vacations and with family, but some people are just worn out from all the hustle and bustle of the holidays. There is a kind of Christmas letdown that we sometimes and maybe often experience these days in between Christmas and New Years.
And in Isaiah’s time it seems a similar thing was happening. Chapter 63 of Isaiah is written right after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 567 BCE by the Babylonian general Nebuchadnezzar. Most of the elite were taken into captivity in Babylon. The city was razed to the ground. Only a small number of people were permitted to remain to tend to the land. Without the temple the people were lost. It was like they had not only lost the building itself but their belief in God too. The temple was where God dwelled, and now he was gone. Their whole city was gone – razed to the ground, burned, destroyed. They didn’t just have Christmas let down – they had a spiritual let down: they felt abandoned and conquered.
This part of the chapter is actually the first part of a lament, looking at all the good things God has done in relationship with God’s people. It’s like a Dave Letterman top ten list of all the great things God has done for God’s people: great goodness, compassion lavished, love extravagant, claiming the people as God’s own, becoming their Savior, redeeming them, coming to them, rescuing them, carrying them, redeeming them.
But before this section and after this section, the reading makes it sound like the people believe that God has left, is no longer there, and no longer cares for the people that were chosen. These are some of the things that are said about God in the next verses: God became their enemy and fought them. Isaiah asks: Whatever happened to your passion, your famous mighty acts, your heartfelt pity, your compassion? Why are you holding back? For a long time now, you’ve paid no attention to us. It’s like you never knew us.
I have had moments in the last year when I think I have asked the same questions. Have any of you had those moments? Times when things in our families, our homes, our work, our world just seem so overwhelming. And it felt like we were all alone in whatever it was, that no one was there to love or comfort or support us, that even God had abandoned us. I did say moments, but for some those moments turn into hours and days, and months. It’s been a tough year. We’ve had almost 30 homicides in Toledo in the last year, and that number rises as we look at Lucas County. We’ve had wars in the Mideast, massacres in Africa, Ebola outbreaks that have killed over 7,000 people and orphaned who knows how many. We’ve had racial injustice, police being ambushed and killed; we’ve had tornadoes and hurricanes that have taken lives and devastated whole countries. And closer to home, we’ve had family issues: divorces, fights, separations, abandonment. We’ve had illnesses, surgeries, torn ligaments, misunderstandings and accusations. I’m getting depressed just reading this list.
For Isaiah, it was important to insist that God show up in new ways for the people, maybe so that they would realize that the old God was still around, just looking and acting differently. He calls up images that the people would recognize: God can cause fire that would make a pot boil; mountains shudder. He has to remind them because their temple and their god have been destroyed. They have to learn to search for God in new places and with new metaphors. Shortly after the destruction of the city and the temple took place, the Israelites who had left Judah returned to Jerusalem and then the remnant that was there and the returnees all fled to Egypt. There they were really required to look for God in new places.
With the troubling things we have experienced this last year, we need to look for God in new places and with new metaphors too. So I want us to think about that as we come together today. We have just come through Advent and Christmas, a time of preparing our hearts and minds for a new thing: this baby Jesus who came into the world so cute and cuddly as all babies are. We’ve heard the Christmas story and seen it in our minds, as the shepherds came to the manger scene to see what God told them would be there. And now we’re past Christmas, the baby will soon be put away with the rest of the manger scene and the other decorations. Where will we find God? What will we remember that God has done for us to help us praise him in the meantime?
Through all of the horrible events in our world and our nation, God was still there. Through the events in our lives that have been difficult: the illnesses, the deaths, the tragedies, the arguments and separations, God was still there. And God is still here. I’m praising God for all the ways I have been blessed this year. I’ve been blessed with good old friends and new friends, with this church that has helped me to grow and stretch, with time away and with times of silence and solitude. I’ve been blessed by good health and the ability to care for those in my family whose health hasn’t been so good. I praise God for all of that and more.
On this “low” Sunday, when we’re feeling the letdown of Christmas being over, of all the hype that goes along with the parties and the family gatherings, what are all the things God has done that need praising? Let me get a little personal now. On Christmas day my family has always gotten together for fun and fellowship, for presents and food and a good old-fashioned good time. This year, a decision was made that we wouldn’t have Christmas on Christmas day. We’ve had a lot of illness in our family: my brother-in-law just got out of the hospital and rehab, my sister has been sick off and on for the last year, we’re all exhausted from taking care of them. I mean, there was good reason not to have a big blast. Christmas morning I got up and found myself pouting. I was going to be alone on Christmas. My aunt and I were going to get together for lunch but basically the way my Christmases have always been went out the window. And then I started getting texts and phone calls from friends and relatives wishing me a Merry Christmas. I thought back to all the things that have happened in this last few months in my family and I realized I was being a jerk. I began to praise God for all the good times we had in the past, for all the friends that I have who have stuck by me through thick and thin and I began to have Christmas. One of the traditions we had in my family each Christmas was to see who could give my mother the gift that would make her cry. One year she received a padded toilet seat! I mean, the love that I should have been feeling all along came back to me and I was made new.
I want to ask you to spend a few minutes in silence now, thinking about, first of all, your last year and all the reasons that you might not have felt grateful. Think about the hard times you’ve had this past year and the times you felt that God and others had abandoned you. Think about the loneliness you may have felt, or the anger or sadness. And then reflect on all the things you have to praise God for. What has God done for you this past year that you need to give praise for? On your table is a large sheet of chart paper and there are markers there too. After you’ve reflected silently for a few minutes, write your praises on that paper in big bold print. I’m convinced that each one here can write down at least two or three praises with no problem. If you’re not sitting at a table, come up and join one so that you can write down your praises too. Spend some time in silent reflection and then feel free to write and share at your tables. When you’re finished, post your papers on the wall so that all can see before we leave today.
We’ll celebrate the New Year this week, looking back over 2014 and saying, “Wow, what a year!” We’ll hear wrap ups of what’s happened in our world over the last year and maybe even the top ten news items. But today, we’re celebrating the good things that God has done for us, the way we have been lifted up and carried, loved, and embraced by a loving God who never abandons us, just as the people of Israel were never abandoned. We’re moving forward into the New Year as people of hope, people who know the rest of the story. I praise God for that and I hope you do too! Amen.