By Bruce G. Epperly
In many parts of the world, folks will be dragging themselves out of bed to go to church this Sunday. More likely, many will sleep in, recovering from their New Year’s Eve revels. It will be difficult for any pastor to avoid bringing New Year’s into her or his sermon. There is something archetypal about New Year’s that lures us to consider the relationship between the old and the new, past and future, and despair and hope. While it’s only a day, it reminds us that we need to let go of the past to embrace the future. In the perpetually perishing stream of time, nothing lasts, all things flow, and all achievements are temporary. This is both painful and hopeful as many of us hope for a better year ahead – we have seen enough hardship and failure and we need new possibilities and the courage, imagination, and energy to achieve them.
Isaiah calls us to rejoice in the novelty of God’s movements in history and our lives. “I will greatly rejoice in God, my whole being shall rejoice in God.” We have been transformed with the coming of God’s new era – we are clothed in garments of salvation and covered in righteousness. This is not a private affair but will be revealed to all humankind – righteousness and praise will spring up before all the nations. Jerusalem will be restored and the nation will receive a new lease on life. The impact of this revelation will lead to global transformation.
Clearly Isaiah imagines salvation as social and national as well as individual. The healing of persons is interconnected with the healing of nations. In the wake of the last few years’ economic, budget, and debt crises, this ought to be patently obvious. There is no rugged individualism here – no privilege for the “job creators” or the “1%” – but the emergence, albeit still a dream, of justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Isaiah’s marching orders are clear. We must claim the clothing of salvation and righteousness, and get to work restoring justice to the nation. While there is no one pathway to justice today, it must begin with a change of heart and a new vision – a sense of interdependence and recognition that we are connected with the pain and joy of others. Isaiah calls us to consider the impact of our decisions and place self-interest and profit behind care for the community, especially the most vulnerable.
Psalm 148 is a hymn of praise that extends far beyond human voices. Deep down, all things praise God, all things bear the imprint of Creative Wisdom, and declare God’s glory. The Psalmist, like Isaiah, calls us to a new vision – the earth is alive, beauty is everywhere; open your eyes and live by gratitude. Appreciation, wonder, and praise invite us to enter a world of blessing in which we gratefully give and receive out of the bounties of the earth. In loving God, we love creation. In recognizing the value of creation, we love God.
There is no world-denying escapism here, nor is there any expectation of a divine rescue operation that liberates us while the earth is destroyed. The new heaven and new earth are already here. If God is present in all things, that is, omnipresent, then this world is alive with divinity. The whole earth is filled with God’s glory, as Isaiah noted in his own mystical vision. (Isaiah 6:1-8) The practical implication is that we can live heavenly lives, with heavenly values, bringing beauty and healing to this good earth.
Galatians describes us as God’s children in whom God’s Spirit cries out, “Abba, Father.” There is a deep movement of grace and inspiration in our lives. There is always a point of contact – a place of revelation – in every life. The Spirit intercedes, as Romans 8 proclaims, in sighs too deep for words, beginning with the unconscious and welling up in hymns of praise and words of insight. But, this Spirit is not anomalous; it is the same Spirit that moves through the non-human world in its quest for wholeness. Though we are often oblivious to it, we are part of a universe of revelation and praise.
Galatians counsels us to wake up. “Cleanse the doors of perception.” Experience everything as it truly is – spirit-filled and interdependent.
The Gospel describes just such an opening of the doors of perception. No doubt, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were perceived by passersby as an ordinary couple. There was nothing special about this working class family, bringing a modest gift to their child’s dedication in the Temple.
Imagine the scene as a major airport. Families rush by on their way to their flights or to make a connection. Unless you look closely, they will blur into one another. But, if you look closely, there is something unique about each – you can glimpse their hopes, fears, and histories. You can sense their anticipation or apprehension about the journey ahead. Your world has opened up because you took the time to pause, notice, and open. (For more on this process of pausing, noticing, opening, yielding and stretching, and then responding, see Gerald May, The Awakened Heart and Bruce and Katherine Epperly, Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry.)
Two elders have been waiting for their spiritual fulfillment. They have prepared for an epiphany, for a sense of God’s revealing, by prayer and presence. They alone recognize this nondescript family as holy; they alone see the hopes of humanity in this little child. They have prepared a lifetime for this vision of holiness, and see it when it appears. Yet, their vision is not private or restricted to this child – God’s salvation is prepared for all peoples, friends and strangers alike, all nations shall experience divine revelation and glory.
Simeon and Anna see the Messiah, hidden in a growing child, because they have trained their eyes through prayer and meditation. They expect to see God’s revelation and this expectation awakens their ability to see.
New Year’s Day calls for a new vision. Our resolutions need not fade away on January 2. We can prepare for moments of holiness by dedicating ourselves to practices of visionary living. We can see more deeply and act more lovingly, acts of kindness and quests for justice, can become our norm rather than something occasional.
The perceptive pastor may invite the congregation to consider taking up certain spiritual practices or disciplines in the New Year. The worship service might be joined with a short workshop on easy to learn spiritual practices – breath prayer, centering prayer, devotional reading – as a way of nurturing new visions and new commitments. There may only be a “faithful remnant” at church, but the commitment of even a handful can transform a congregation and a community.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. He is available for lectures, workshops, and retreats.