|If you were to give 2020 a name, what would it be?|
For the first time in years, I finally had New Year’s Eve off work in 2019. I excitedly joined my friends in the city centre of Inverness for a night of live music, hot chocolate and food. Crowding around the laptop, we all watched the Time’s Square ball drop, loudly chanting 5, 4,3, 2, 1,HAPPY NEW YEAR! Clinking our glasses and banging pots and pans. I am sure many of you engaged in similar festivities.
New Year’s Eve has always ranked as one of the top three nights of my year along with Christmas and my birthday. There’s just something so exhilarating about the start of something new. A blank 365 pages, knowing despite all the troubles and turmoils of the previous year, we are given a fresh start. It is always a day of reflection and anticipation, yet 2020 held my intrigue even more. Back in 2000 (when I was still in elementary school), my cousin and I excitedly crafted a time capsule with the solemn instructions “don’t open until 2020 or else!” We had no way of knowing then the box would still remain unopened due to laws preventing us from meeting up.
A few other plans I had for 2020 included: hiking the French Alps, touring several Scottish Islands, and getting married. Here are a few words I didn’t expect to associate with this year: disappointment, disillusionment, break-up,death, quarantine,virus, and lockdown. Yet, now approaching the 9th month of the pandemic, knowing that 75% of the year has already been spent under various restrictions, we have all had to come to terms with the fact that COVID is here to stay.
The first weeks of Jesus’s life were shockingly similar. True, there was no global illness floating around and the World Health Organization wasn’t telling people to stay home, but all was not calm and bright that first Christmas. Today’s Christmas cards are filled with beautiful scenery and picturesque landscapes. The bright Christmas lights attract our attention, and the engagement of our five senses makes Christmas a whole body experience. Yet, in Bible times, there were hurdles and political tumult. Jesus was born into an environment of genocide and political instability. King Herod demanded all baby boys under age 2 to be murdered, and the Jewish temple had been destroyed. The first temple (built by King Solomon in the Old Testament) had been razed to the ground and the exiles scattered abroad. It wasn’t a time of Christmas carols, it was a time when life stopped being safe.
Many of us have experienced similar sentiments this year. Many of the freedoms we once enjoyed, the opportunities we once had to travel freely, to socialize, and even to go to church have been depleted by the virus. Public health and safety being paramount, yet, at the same time, realizing that home is not a safe place for so many. Domestic abuse, marital tension, and division running rampant in our society and world. It seems that many of the old cornerstones of our lives like church and school have become the unsafest places of all (according to the global health authorities), and for many of us, this might have been our first Christmas not being able to meet inside a church building. Something many of us probably thought we would never experience in our lifetimes.
To the world, this might look like the destruction of the church. And it is, if we consider church only a building and nothing more. Yet, the truth is that the church has never been stronger and its mission more vital. It may not look the same or even function the same, but the all-encompassing role of the church as providing for the poor, comforting the brokenhearted, and proclaiming liberation has magnified. In the midst not only of a global pandemic, but racial injustice, indigenous oppression and political uncertainty, the church is reaching out and being a bright light to all those walking in the shadow of 2020.
In today’s Bible passage, we are introduced to four main characters who display the ways we can greet 2021. Firstly, we have Jesus. In Jewish law, baby boys were circumcised at 8 days old. Being devout Jews, Jesus’s parents brought him to the temple to carry this out. As a baby, Jesus’s only role was showing up and passively receiving God’s blessings. Similar to our baptism today when we experience the love of God and the church, knowing that we are called and claimed, not through any merit of our own, but only through the divine inclusion of Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.
Secondly, we meet Jesus’s parents, Mary and Joseph. Despite the Christmas Narrative where Mary and Joseph are main characters, they actually play a rather small role in this scene. Yet, although small their role is profound. In this passage, Jesus’s parents actively offer their son to God in confidence. The Greek word used for the presentation is “obligation.” Today, it is not so popular to tell Christians they are obligated to do anything. After all, none of us are obligated to read the Bible, pray, or even go to church, yet many of us choose to do these things out of our love and devotion for Christ. Yet, just like Mary and Joseph, we are obligated to offer ourselves in service to God. Sharing God’s message of love, hope, and joy through our acts of social justice are not activities we can simply take or leave, but are meaningful encounters all God’s people are invited to partake and delight in for the benefit of our world and God’s reign.
Thirdly, we meet the Prophet Simeon. The Bible describes Simeon as an elderly gentleman who patiently waited to see the Baby Jesus. Scripture says he longed for Israel to be comforted after all the tragedies the country had faced, and he was given the incredible promise that he would not die until he had seen Christ. It is often said that while none of us choose when we will die, some are able to hang on until a loved one arrives, or even to wait another day or week for an important event like a birthday or anniversary to pass. It was the same with Simeon. He was determined and stubborn, not willing to depart until God’s promise had been granted. Taking the infant Jesus into his arms he proclaimed, “this is it! Your servant can now depart in peace.” Some of us might have uttered similar sentiments. After a lovely day out or a wonderful accomplishment we might say ‘now I can die a happy man” or “a happy woman.” But in Simeon’s case, this was not a flippant phrase, but an honest confession. Simeon was well into the sunset years of his life, a miracle had just happened, and Simeon knew what was coming next and was totally at peace with it.
Simeon also said something very strange to Mary. Instead of congratulating her on the birth of the one who would bring peace and salvation to Israel, he emphatically stated, “this child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken again, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed, and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”
What a strange thing to say to a new mother!! Many of us here have held newborn babies. When we meet a newborn we might say something like “he has his mother’s eyes’ or “she has her dad’s nose” or even “look how much hair he has” or “look how big she is!” Those of you who have children may be able to share some stories of when your kids have wounded you or pierced your own soul with worry, regret, or concern, but we can all imagine how it would feel if we showed a friend our brand new baby and the first thing they said was “your son or daughter is going to bring heartache and pain into your life.” Yet, Simeon’s comment was not a criticism of Mary’s parenting or even a warning of teenage rebellion, but rather a foreshadowing of Christ’s death and the purpose of His life to be the Saviour of Humankind.
Lastly, we meet the prophetess Anna. The Bible says she had only been married for 7 years, before being windowed for 77 years. She would have been a widow in her early twenties, lacking the financial stability and economic security her husband would have provided. Back then, women had the opportunity of marrying one of her husband’s other relatives, but the text seems to indicate this was either not an option for her or that she did not want this. Instead, she chose to faithfully give herself to God in the midst of hardship, dedicating her life to service in the temple. When Anna was given lemons, she made lemonade, and her heart was full of gratitude towards the child as she fixed her eyes on the redemption and restoration of Israel.
Like Simeon and Anna, we are all waiting for something. The reconciliation of nations and cultures, the renewal of human kindness, the restoration of justice, the rebuilding of our world in the wake of natural disasters and human catastrophes, and the reframing of society’s views and expectations towards gender violence, mental illness, addiction, and incarceration. Waiting doesn’t have to be passive. We can practice an active waiting, filled with anticipation, longing, trust, and faith in a brighter future. A waiting that rests in God’s love and kindness, believing that a better day is coming, and while we wait, showing up in places where we willingly stand in the gap.
For many of us, 2020 might have truly been one of the most difficult years of our lives, but it was also a year of clarity, vision and radical transparency which opened the windows of our souls. By placing our faith and trust in God, we can believe that 2021 will bring refreshing, liberty and freedom. The present might look bleak right now, but by staying in touch with the Holy Spirit, we know that God will bring the restoration and rebuilding about while we actively participate in God’s divine plan. Amen.
People often say that we fear the unknown, but I think that sometimes what we fear the most is knowing what we are meant to do, yet not feeling adequate enough to do it.
Imagine this scene with me. I am in Downtown Toronto after a lovely dinner out with friends when I board the subway home. At the subway platform, I notice a group of teenage boys harassing an elderly gentleman. “Go back to China!” They hurl along with a barrage of other racist slander. The elderly gentleman apologizes, cowering in a corner. The teens do not physically harm him, but their words are seared with hatred for someone different than themselves. I stand there paralyzed by fear. My own safety and comfort called into question. Afraid and unable to stand against violence, oppression, and division, I leave the vulnerable man in the midst of these youth. Insecurity welling in my soul as the subway speedily takes off.
I would love to say this only happened once, but it didn’t. I have witnessed similar things at other bus stops and walked away. Despite my base level knowledge of indigenous rights, race riots, or institutional violence, I have often chosen not to become involved when the presenting issues haven’t directly affected me.
Mary must have felt a similar inadequacy when the angel first brought her the news that she would have a child despite her virginity. Today, it is rather common to have a child out of wedlock and in the western world, civil partnerships or common-law relationships have become the norm and just as acceptable as marriage. In our current climate, the institution of marriage is often regarded not as an act of ultimate love and sacrifice, but rather as simply a piece of paper or a legality.
However, Bible times presented a much different worldview. Getting pregnant outside of marriage was the ultimate sin. It was an insult to her parents and her fiance. It was a sign of disobedience, unchastity, impurity,and belligerence that often resulted in social ostracism, loss of security, stoning and even death. So, although the angel’s greeting is good news for us today, it likely was not such good news to Mary.
Here was a young teenage girl, about to start her life and get married to Joseph the Carpenter. Unlike today, women back then did not have careers, so marriage meant a stable livelihood, security and social status, and although these marriages were arranged rather than of love, the Bible speaks highly of Joseph’s character. He was a God-fearing and righteous man who would take care of Mary and be gentle and tender to her youth and naivety.
We do not know much about Mary’s backstory, but we can easily imagine how thrilled her parents must have felt at the prospect of Mary’s engagement. At this time, having children was the crux of marital life and there was no choice or debate surrounding having kids. Therefore, her parents eagerly anticipated the birth of many grandchildren, just not particularly in this way.
Let’s try to place ourselves in Mary’s shoes. Mary is going about her daily activities when an angel miraculously appears and drops an earth shattering message which detonates like a bomb. Yet despite Mary’s initial fear and apprehension, the angel assures her that God is with her.
We have all experienced bombs in our own lives. Perhaps through a health scare, a child born with a disability, the news of infertility, or a loved one’s deteriorating physical or mental health. It is difficult to believe God is with us in these times and hard to imagine or conceive of a God who is near to the broken hearted in the midst of tragedy.
Yet bombs do not always have to come in such unpleasant ways. Sometimes they come in the form of God nuding us to dream and dare to do the impossible. A call for reaching out to the darkness in our world and building bridges in the midst of brokenness. None of us anticipated 2020 bringing a global pandemic and a never-ending list of restrictions. None of us thought of adding the words”quarantine, isolation and lockdown” to our vocabulary. Yet, the New Normal has caused all of us to wrestle with our faith in various ways, ultimately leading us to a place of surrender and urging us to discover creative ways of being the church. With the government’s recent restrictions on religious settings, we have had to learn new ways of worshipping. The church’s mission of being alive and active has never been so needed. Although I didn’t know about Zoom pre-pandemic, today it is the most used app on my phone. Engaging with technology, I have joined United Church events across Canada in recent months. I have discovered that church does not simply mean watching a live Sunday recording, but also encompasses my young adults group out of McClure United in Saskatchewan, my 2 weekly coffee mornings, and the Advent race and media circle I have joined focussing on racial oppression and indigenous rights. I have learned that God is calling each of us to stand with each other becoming a united front, rather than giving into the culture of division and dissension so prevalent in our day.
Perhaps like us, Mary’s encounter was one of surprise. In June of this year, God dropped an unexpected gift into my lap which left me shaken, but later brought wonder and surprise. You see, this is when God first called me to serve the United Church. In the first lockdown during extended times of prayer and contemplation, God revealed to me that it was time to start searching for a permanent ministry. At first, the idea of working towards ordination in the United Church was the farthest thing from my mind. It was a new concept, perhaps difficult to reconcile with my past background. Yet, God took this encounter to show me my true inner longings. Being true to myself, I discovered some of the harms done to others through the institution of the church. Being authentic and vulnerable, meant acknowledging my hunger and thirst for social justice and my quest to bring the church to people rather than people to the church. God used a global pandemic to bring me to my knees in surrender and begin a beautiful and glorious partnership with a denomination I now claim as my own.
Some of us might relate to Mary’s questions. Mary may have been young and naive, but she knew simple biology. She knew what was involved in having a child, and she equally knew she had not done the prerequisite for pregnancy. Mary boldly asked the angel “how can this be, since I am a virgin?”
Many of us might have felt similarly when we first felt God’s call upon our lives. We might have asked questions such as: how can this be since I didn’t graduate from university? How can God be calling me since I struggle with mental illness? How can God use me since I am a single mother? Why would God want me since I have a past? God must have chosen the wrong person because I hate public speaking. God can’t possibly need me because (fill in the blank).
Here’s the thing: the angel didn’t argue with Mary. He didn’t debate with her or try to teach her something new about biology. He acknowledged that Mary was right, but he also gave her a brilliant promise: “The Power of the Holy Spirit will come upon you.”
In the greatest moment of our weakness, the Holy Spirit indwells within each of us. God’s spirit permeates and touches our hearts and lives regardless of our nationality, ethnicity, past difficulties or troubling present circumstances. The Holy Spirit has called each of us to various acts of service within the church, community and world,and has promised to equip us for these regardless of what life events we are brought.
Finally, once the Holy Spirit was revealed to Mary, she gratefully accepted it and joyously surrendered to God’s leading. Using wisdom well beyond her years, Mary proclaimed “I’m the Lord’s maid ready to serve!” And it was under Mary’s affirmative response that the angel left her with the time and space to do just that.
Who are the people we can serve this Christmas? With the recent lockdown and restrictions we can easily turn to glumness and disillusionment. Many of us might be lamenting this strange Christmas which feels unnatural. Yet, without diminishing the difficulties COVID has brought to our personal lives, I would like to encourage us to bring the world a gift of light and peace. We are here to spread hope to the world. Whether it’s giving extra groceries to the food bank, surprising a neighbour with an act of love, or sharing positivity online, we are here to make a change. We are here as God’s people, not living in the shadow of doom, but in the light of God’s presence. As we leave from this place, let us remember that we are church wherever we go. Let us remember that we are loved, chosen, called, and God’s holy people set apart for good things. There is only one response to this and it is the same as Mary’s: “I am God’s servant, ready to serve!”