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Sermon for Sunday 1 January 2017

FIRST READING Isaiah 63:7-14

7I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord, the praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel that he has granted them according to his compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. 8For he said, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely.” And he became their Savior. 9In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. 10But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them. 11Then he remembered the days of old, of Moses and his people. Where is he who brought them up out of the sea with the shepherds of his flock? Where is he who put in the midst of them his Holy Spirit, 12who caused his glorious arm to go at the right hand of Moses, who divided the waters before them to make for himself an everlasting name, 13who led them through the depths? Like a horse in the desert, they did not stumble. 14Like livestock that go down into the valley, the Spirit of the Lord gave them rest. So you led your people, to make for yourself a glorious name.


PSALM Psalm 111

1Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation. 2Great are the deeds of the Lord! they are studied by all who delight in them. 3His work is full of majesty and splendor, and his righteousness endures forever. 4He makes his marvelous works to be remembered; the Lord is gracious and full of compassion. 5He gives food to those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant. 6He has shown his people the power of his works in giving them the lands of the nations. 7The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice; all his commandments are sure. 8They stand fast forever and ever, because they are done in truth and equity. 9He sent redemption to his people; he commanded his covenant forever; holy and awesome is his Name. 10The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; those who act accordingly have a good understanding; his praise endures forever.


SECOND READING Galatians 4:4-7

4But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.


GOSPEL Matthew 2:13-23

13Now when {the wise men} had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 16Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: 18“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” 19But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: “He shall be called a Nazarene.”



I’ve been told that in Rome, on New Year’s Eve, there’s a tradition of literally throwing old things right out the window, to start the New Year free from the past. It’s seems a rather odd tradition, but it’s an interesting way of decluttering. If this is true, then I guess if you happen to be in Rome on New Year’s Eve, you best keep an eye skyward. Somebody might be throwing out a heavy piece of furniture just as you happen to be passing by.
Pastor Patricia Farris tells about being in Mexico one year with her husband on New Year’s Eve. They found themselves in the middle of something they didn’t understand at the time, but they discovered it’s similar to the tradition in Rome. It was late in the evening, not yet midnight, and the central square was full of people, young and old, lights, music, families . . . Stands were set up and people were selling, in addition to all the usual souvenirs and food and so forth, an array of very inexpensive pottery, mostly simple clay plates. What was interesting was that people were buying these simple clay plates and then standing back and throwing them with full force against one wall of the great cathedral in the community square, smashing the plates into smithereens.
It was loud and raucous and exciting, according to Pastor Farris. Only later did she learn that this tradition grew out of a deep human need to throw out the old, to start the New Year free of old resentments, old fears, old prejudices, old sins. “Throw them out!” says Patricia Farris, “Let them smash against the strong fortress of faith and be done with it. God is ready to offer healing and new life.”
One of the traditions we have here in the US is to make resolutions. It’s our way of changing mostly behaviors or of getting rid of the old. Some of these resolutions are harmless, but many are rooted in a lack of faith. A fear that can leave many in bondage to anxieties that lead to worries. Too often we lack not only faith in God to assist us in life but also in the abilities God has given us. And with that in mind I’d like to add a theme for our service today; “Today can be the first day of the rest of your life!” You may have heard the expression before. It’s a positive way of approaching life and I’d like to reinforce it today. Today really can be the first day in your new life.
Velma Seawell Daniels in her book Celebrate Joy! tells of interviewing a man who took a trip to Alaska to visit some people who lived above the Arctic Circle. “Never ask an Eskimo how old he is,” the man said. “If you do, [the Eskimo] will say, `I don’t know and I don’t care.’ And,” the man added, “he doesn’t.” He said an Eskimo told him that one time and he pressed the native Alaskan a bit further. He asked him a second time how old he was, and the Eskimo said, “Almost that’s all.” So he asked, “Almost what?” And the Eskimo said, “Almost one day.”
The man didn’t have a clue what the Eskimo meant until he talked to another man who had lived in the Arctic Circle for about twenty years. “He was a newspaperman who had written a book about the Eskimos people, about their customs and beliefs. He said the Eskimos believe that when they go to sleep at night they die that they are literally dead to the world. Then, when they wake up in the morning, they have been resurrected and are living a new life. Therefore, no Eskimo is more than one day old. So, that’s what the Eskimo meant when he said he was `almost’ a day old. The day wasn’t over yet.”
“Life above the Arctic Circle is harsh and cruel, and mere survival becomes a major accomplishment,” he explained further. “But, you never see an Eskimo who seems worried or anxious. They’ve learned to face life one day at a time.” Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (6:34) Therefore, I think that’s something we all need to learn. To learn how to put worry and anxiety aside and live one day at a time. And with Jesus’ words in mind, it gives new meaning to that familiar admonition that “today is the first day of the rest of your life,” doesn’t it?
Our Scripture Lesson for the day deals with people who also lived in a harsh and cruel world. It’s the concluding portion of the Christmas story. After the shepherds and the wise men have gone, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and says to him, “Herod will be looking for the child in order to kill him. So get up, take the child and escape to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you to leave.” (2:13)
It’s a scene of darkness and dread, of fear and flight. The humble couple gathers their few belongings and their precious young child, and in the darkness of night they silently make their way toward Egypt. Life is often like that. Even in the most beautiful story in all of literature the story of the gift of God’s Son being delivered to humankind in the manger of Bethlehem—there’s the specter of fear and death. And this is an acknowledgement on this first Sunday of the New Year, that there’s much in life to dread.
I think it’s good that the Bible doesn’t gloss over the very real problems of living in this imperfect world. From the very first family, with its envy and strife; through the daily battles of God’s own people, the people of Israel, with neighboring tribes, with feast, famine, slavery and wandering through the wilderness . . . through tears and tribulations . . .the Bible acknowledges that in their struggles, as well as in ours, that life isn’t always easy. The Bible portrays no Pollyanna view of life. Life is demanding, harsh and sometimes cruel. There’s much to dread.
So Joseph and Mary and their infant son must flee for their lives into Egypt. It’s a very human drama that’s been repeated often throughout the ages. Even today, around the world and within our own borders, families are packing up their belongings, setting off in the hopes of finding jobs, food, or freedom. Some in places like Syria and even Central America, people are actually fleeing for their lives. They’re forced to leave family and friends behind. With a sense of dread and uncertainty they move to new homes in search of a better, more secure life. And even though Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt to escape the murder of Jesus, the story doesn’t end there.
Even when Herod dies and they feel free to return to Israel, they dare not return to their former home in the province of Judea. Herod’s son Archeleus has succeeded him, and there’s still much to fear. Thus, they settle in the province of Galilee, in a little town called Nazareth. The biblical testimony is realistic that there’s much in life to that causes concern. The problem begins however, when we allow our fears to overwhelm us. Fear can do amazing things with our minds.
There’s an ancient legend that says the specter of Death was walking toward a certain city when a man stopped the specter and asked it what it was going to do in the city. Death replied, “I am going to kill 10,000 people.” The man responded with horror, but Death insisted, “That’s the way it is. And that’s what I will do.” The day passed, and the man again met Death on his return journey. The man said, “You told me you were going to kill 10,000 people, but I heard that 70,000 in that city were killed.” Death shrugged its shoulders, “I did only kill 10,000; the others were killed by fear.” The most basic of all human emotions is fear. And fear in proper doses is healthy.
Many people, however, are almost totally dominated by their fears. It may be fear of failure, or fear of ridicule. It may be fear of places, or fear of people. There are as many fears as there are demands upon the human creature. And anything we’re asked to be or do can create fear. Of course, everyone is afraid of something.
Actor Spencer Tracy had a fear of flying as did Judy Garland. Modern actresses Jennifer Aniston and Whoopi Goldberg are also said to be afraid of flying. Pop star Britney Spears is said to panic on encountering large lizards. Madonna is terrified of thunder. Actress Scarlett Johansson is terrified of birds. I doubt the Alfred Hitchcock classic of that name is on her regular play list. We’re also told that French philosopher Albert Camus was phobic about driving a car. Ironically, he died in a car accident while a friend was driving. Sigmund Freud had a fear of traveling anywhere outside of Vienna. I wonder what kind of repressed desire explains that? There’s an intriguing story told about the late J. Edgar Hoover, former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The story may be apocryphal, but one source tells it as true.
It seems that Hoover once made a trip to California. While making a left turn, his chauffeur driven car was struck by another car from behind. The FBI director, who’d been sitting on the left seat behind the driver, was badly shaken by the incident. From then on Hoover refused to sit on the left rear seat of a car (he called it “the death seat”). But even more amazing, from that day forward, Hoover forbade all left turns on auto trips. Thereafter his aides had to go through the most complicated arrangements to get Hoover from place to place without making any left turns. Think about that for a moment. If that was true, then the director of one of America’s most important law enforcement agencies was reduced to a bundle of nerves by the thought of making a left turn. What’s important for us to acknowledge is that all of us have the capacity to make our lives miserable if we give in to our fears. However, there is an antidote to fear, and we can find it in the Scripture.
It’s an antidote that allowed the heroes of the Bible to dissolve their fears and fight great battles. This antidote is more than simply being courageous. Courage is an admirable quality. It allows us to face our fears for a time and do battle. But courage is somewhat of a limited ally. It all too easily falls prey to its greatest enemy, an emotion with an interesting name: discouragement. Think about it. Courage and discourage. For courage to be lasting and effective, it must be able to see hope. If it sees no hope, it quickly transforms into discouragement. The opposite of fear isn’t courage, the opposite of fear is faith.
Faith tells us that although the odds are against us, we’re not alone. That’s the Bible’s answer to fear. We may see no hope, but we know the One who is the source of hope. That’s faith not in ourselves but in God. And that kind of faith can always defeat fear. It’s interesting. Joseph and Mary, as they fled to Egypt, probably knew that they were fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy, “I called my son out of Egypt.” And as they headed from Egypt to Nazareth, separating themselves from their families and friends in Judea, they probably knew, that according to a prophecy written centuries before, the Messiah would be called a Nazarene.
Even as the drama of the first Christmas begins with them making their way to Joseph’s home town of Bethlehem, because of a ruling by Augustus Caesar that all the world should be taxed, they probably realized that, according to prophecy, their son must be born in Bethlehem. Think of it. God moved a Roman emperor in order to fulfill an isolated piece of Scripture. God even used the jealous rage of Herod and Archeleus to fulfill His purposes. Do you see the majesty and glory of it all?
Even in the darkest times, God was there, just as God is with us in our difficult times. Life wasn’t always easy for Mary and Joseph, but they were never alone. God was with them. And that’s the meaning of faith not that the way will be made easy for us, but that God will be with us. This is what was foretold in Isaiah, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (7:14) Which means God is with us. So what then are we afraid of?
Why do we give into those fears and get discouraged and downcast? Is it because we forget that God is at work in our lives? Is it that we forget the message of Christmas that “God is with us?” All we need to remember in those times of fear and discouragement is that because of Him, all things are working toward the good for those who love Him. (Rom. 8:28) So why not turn our fears and frustrations over to God? As Patricia Farris says, “Throw them out . . . smash [them] against the strong fortress of faith and be done with [them]. God is ready to offer hope and new life.” The same loving Father who gently guided Mary and Joseph toward Bethlehem, then toward Egypt, and finally toward a little town called Nazareth, watches over our lives as well. He can free us from our fears if only we’ll trust Him.
A familiar parable reminds us of a deep truth: In the jungles of Thailand, once a wild elephant is made captive, hunters tie the end of a long chain around the elephant’s foot, and the other end is tied to a huge banyan tree. The great elephant will pull with all its strength, but it won’t budge the banyan tree. After struggling against the tree and the chain for days and weeks the elephant finally surrenders. When that happens, the hunters can take the elephant and chain it to a little iron stake in the ground. The elephant will never attempt to pull away because it still associates the chain with the banyan tree. It never realizes how easily it could achieve its freedom.
Without faith, we’re in bondage to our worries and anxieties. But with trust in God, we can be set free. For the Eskimo, each new day is new life. Christ can give us new life as well. And today truly can be, the first day of that life.

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