The First Sunday after Christmas Day, 31 December 2017

December 31, 2017

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Isaiah 61:10—62:3Psalm 148Galatians 4:4-7Luke 2:22-40

by David Grant Smith

The Festival of Christmas isn’t contained in one day, but rather it is spread across 12 Days, 25 December through 5 January. So any Sundays which fall during that time are included in the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus. Today’s readings as part of the celebration of Christmas include stories of growth and renewal, as well as elements of holy surprise. A process-relational preacher has much to choose from this week!

In Isaiah’s proclamation, the ongoing theme of return from exile is the context for this week’s selected verses. The traditional understanding is that the voice heard in 61:10-11 is that of the prophet, while the voice in 62:1-3 is that of God. In addition to the imagery God redressing the prophet and Israel as if the were fore a wedding, the prophet also suggesting that Israel is a garden in whom God as gardener will bring forth the fruits of righteousness and praise. Then God responds by saying that Israel will be a dazzling new light among the nations, known by a new name – indicating that there is a new beginning in the peoples’ return home to Jerusalem. This might raise the question in Christmastide as to what new beginnings are we being invited to celebrate in our own lives? In what ways are we a garden, and what might God be trying to grow out of our relationship with God? …our relationship with Self? …our relationship with our neighbors? …our relationship with creation? As we will see in this week’s Gospel, growing and evolving are part of the package with being human – we must first grow physically, and then when that venture is done we must continue to grow intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

This week’s response to the first reading is Psalm 148, which is a hymn of praise. In it the psalmist is inviting sundry beings and heavenly bodies to join in offering praise to God. Very little is given for any reason as to why these various parts of creation are being instructed to offer their praise, except to note that because God “commanded and they were created” (v.5) – they should praise simply because they are! Christmastide can be a great time to be reminded that we are, too. We have been born; we were created in God’s image. We self-identify as human beings, rather than as human doings. And it would be good for us, from time to time, to simply stop and be, and then offer praise to the God who brought us into being. Part of our imago Dei is that, like God, we are relational. We are in relationship with all that is, including (but certainly not limited to) the diverse array of creatures listed in this psalm text. And within humanity we embody another broad spectrum of diversity. Joining nature to offer praise is good for our spiritual growth. Let “heav’n and nature sing…” while “fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy” (to borrow a few lines from Isaac Watts), and let our inner exuberance bust out!

In this week’s reading from Galatians, Paul is using an analogy of inheritance to make his point – the point being that we are heirs to God’s promises made first to Abraham through Jesus. In the first three verses of Galatians 4, Paul is using the analogy of inheritance by minors, who are in a position of subservience to the guardians of an estate until they reach the age of majority as stipulated by whoever left them the inheritance. In this case, the spiritual inheritance of which he speaks is now ours – whether Gentile or Jew – because the age of majority was achieved for us through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who was himself born into the same family of inheritance which we were (that is, into the human family). We know from many of Paul’s other writings that simply because we have reached a certain kind of maturity that we need to stop growing – au contraire! We need to continue to grow in any way that we can. Perhaps this Christmastide in general, or specifically this Christmas Sunday which falls on New Year’s Eve, we might want to consider in which ways God is inviting us to continue to grow. Are there spiritual disciplines which we have yet to explore and try for ourselves? Are there new opportunities for spiritual formation in our faith communities which might be something new to us, or to which we might return?

Turning now to the reading from Luke for this week, we find the completion of the birth narrative in this Gospel. Both Simeon and Anna are elderly, and to some degree represent “former things.” In fact, Simeon’s words about the restoration of Israel echo much of the language of the prophet Isaiah. Part of Isaiah’s vision of the restoration of Israel was cosmic in its scope, due to it including “the nations” or “the Gentiles,” depending on the translation. Both Simeon and Anna also represent the cycle of life – in their elderly years they praise God for the newborn life which they believe will help to shape a new reality which neither of them will live to see. Even in their old age (or, perhaps due to the wisdom of their maturity), they perceive that creation in general, and humanity’s relationship with God in particular, is an evolutionary process. They affirm the new things which is being raised up in their midst, even as their own lives are near the end. Each of us embodies both old and new manifestations of life and creativity. What is it that we might be clinging to from “days gone by” that we could release into God’s care? What new things might God be calling us to do, think, believe, or experience? Simeon and Anna were living examples of how the past is always with us, but that the past need not be a deterrent from seeing both the present moment and the future in a new light. How can the new light celebrated in Christmas be calling us to see things differently in this moment, and in whatever amount of time we have left to live?

The Rev. David Grant Smith is a priest in the Episcopal Church, and is presently pursuing the D.Min. degree at Claremont School of Theology, focusing his studies on process theology as a resource for parish ministry and spiritual care. While at CST, David is thrilled to be currently working as the student assistant for Process & Faith. He has served in both parish ministry (Episcopal Diocese of Rochester) and as a hospital chaplain (Christiana Hospital in Newark, DE; and the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD). Prior to ordination, David worked for many years as a lay professional, serving as pastoral associate, choir director, organist, and minister of music. In addition to his interests in weaving Process Theology in and through preaching, liturgy, teaching, and pastoral care, David enjoys travel, writing, tea, wine, and spending time with family & friends.

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