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Greenwood Forest Baptist Church

A New Hope

When I was a kid, I was the only one in the house who had any interest in staying up for New Year’s Eve. For many years, of course, I was too young to stay up that late and my (admittedly, much wiser) parents denied me the privilege of watching the clock strike midnight. What was so funny about this fascination I had, though, was that I had no idea about all the traditions around New Year’s Eve. I didn’t want to stay up and watch the ball drop in New York City. I didn’t want to be at a party or anything like that, introvert that I am. Apparently, all I really wanted was to watch the clock change from 11:59 to 12:00 and realize that it was a whole new year.

I had big dreams.

Finally, the time came when I was a bit older that I was allowed to stay up late for those final minutes of the year. Of course, no one else was really interested in that, so I was all alone watching the clock tick by one minute at a time. It was quite the party. I remember the first time I did this, I was passing the time reading a Harry Potter book and had a digital clock sitting on the table so I could see what time it was. The glowing red digits starred back at me as my eyes grew heavy and the night seemed to drag on forever. But I was determined to make it – to see the new year begin! I had snacks, I read more Harry Potter, I did whatever I needed to do to stay awake and finally we reached 11:50.

That’s when time really slowed down.

I stared out the window onto the darkened street as time stretched itself, seconds into minutes, minutes into hours, until finally it was 11:59. I’d made it! It was finally here! Unceremoniously, the little red numbers on the clock blipped from 11:59 to 12:00 – and absolutely nothing happened. I hadn’t really expected much, but I got nothing. I looked at the clock for a minute and suddenly it was 12:01. Time wasn’t passing slowly anymore. I sighed, closed my book, and went up to bed.

Happy New Year!

A transition into a new year is kind of like that for a lot of us, I think. Mingled with all the hope and promise a new year can bring is all the disappointment the last one brought or all the weariness we feel starting a new one. There’s all this pressure to start a new year off well. They say whatever you’re doing January 1 is representative of your whole year! We sing that song nobody can pronounce – auld lang syne, or what have you – but it’s really sentimental and hopeful. We shoot off fireworks in celebration. We’re supposed to make resolutions about how we can change our lives for the better in the coming year.

Those resolutions are the peskiest tradition of them all, aren’t they? Apparently, only like 8% of people achieve these rites of self-improvement every year.[1] Tons of people make these promises to themselves, but so few of us manage to keep them. We promise we’ll eat healthier. We promise we’ll make it to the gym more often. We promise to spend less money on frivolous things. We promise we’ll spend more time with family or friends.

These promises don’t just represent goals. If they do, we’re all in trouble. New Year’s resolutions represent our hopes. They represent how we hope our lives will be a year from now. They represent the ways we hope our little worlds will be different. They represent the things we long for most in life – sometimes love, sometimes health, sometimes wealth. It’s never about the promise itself. It’s about what’s behind the promise – the longings of our hearts and souls. Resolutions are about what we want most in life.

That’s why it’s fitting in a way that this Sunday of Christmas and its accompanying story come to us on New Year’s Eve this year because the Scripture we read this morning is all about hope. The two new characters in the Christmas story we just met have been waiting for a long time. Simeon and Anna had been hoping for something, waiting for something for a long time. For Anna’s part, she had apparently been widowed early in her marriage and for decades since she had committed to life in the Jerusalem Temple. She was 84 years old when she finally saw Jesus and she recognized that her hopes were met in him. Simeon, too, had lived in Jerusalem, we presume, for a long time. Simeon we think was also very old and he was overjoyed when he saw Jesus. Like Anna, he saw his hopes met in the Christ child.

Simeon is beside himself and Luke tells us that he bursts into song. His words, called the Nunc Dimittis, have been set to music for centuries and hold a special place in Christian music.

“Master,
Now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
According to your word.
For my eyes have seen your salvation!
Which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
A light for revelation to the Gentiles,
And for the glory to your people Israel.”

Simeon’s words echo Mary’s own in her song, also prominent in Christian music in the Magnificat. Mary says:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior!
For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
For the Mighty One has done great things for me,
Holy is his name!
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.”

Mary and Simeon both go on to tell us how this salvation and blessing they both have seen will affect the world as we know it. Mary continued,

“[God] has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
And lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.”

Likewise, Simeon says,

“This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel,
And to be a sign that will be opposed
So that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed
-- and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”

Simeon and Mary’s songs demonstrate a different kind of hope than we normally have on New Year’s Eve. We’ve been conditioned for small hopes. We’ve been encouraged to limit our vision. We’ve had our hopes trimmed back, pruned to such little things. We’ve had enough disappointments in our lives to prevent us from getting our hopes too high, so we settle for smaller things. On New Year’s Eve, sometimes the very best we can sincerely-with-all-our-hearts hope for is the small stuff. There’s often nothing wrong with the small stuff – the typical focus of a New Year’s Resolution – but Simeon, Anna, and Mary call us to so much more.

What is that more? What is that greater hope Simeon and Anna and Mary all call us to? I believe it’s revealed well in the other holiday celebrated on December 31st. Because most of us are white and our church has been full of other white folks for many, many years, many of us may have never heard of Watch Night or Freedom’s Eve before, but it’s celebrated around this country every New Year’s Eve.

On December 31, 1862, black folks in the North and South waited with eager anticipation for the New Year. In September of that year, Union soldiers had won a critical battle against the Confederacy at the Battle of Antietam. In the aftermath of this campaign, Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation announcing that he intended to order the emancipation of all slaves in any state that failed to end its rebellion against the United States government. Of course, none of the slave-holding Confederate states had surrendered before December 31st, so slave and free folks around the country awaited what could quite possibly be a new world on January 1st, 1863.

At Rochester Spring Street African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in New York, Frederick Douglass addressed the gathered congregation with echoes of the hope expressed in Simeon and Mary’s songs: “My friends,” he said, “This is scarcely a day for prose. It is a day for poetry and song, a new song. These cloudless skies, this balmy air, this brilliant sunshine … are in harmony with the glorious morning of liberty about to dawn upon us.”[2], [3]  Douglass spoke about a world that would be fundamentally different when the sun came up again, a world where the powerful would be brought down and the lowly lifted up, where the falling and rising of many would leave the world more righteous and just than it had been before. The next day, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all slaves free in the South, went into effect.

This is the kind of hope that Simeon and Mary call us to have – a bigger hope than the hopes of New Year’s Eve, a hope for a new world or a world made right. This kind of hope doesn’t settle for a better life for a few, but a new world for all. Simeon’s song doesn’t express a desire merely for himself, but for the world. The Nunc Dimittis is one of the first places in Luke’s Gospel where we are told Jesus means something to Jews and Gentiles – the whole world. Simeon is content to be dismissed in peace having seen God’s liberation and salvation in Jesus – he needs nothing else for himself! Mary confesses that her soul magnifies God for the liberation and salvation that come in Jesus – she  needs nothing else for herself! That’s not to say that Simeon and Mary don’t need anything – they need everything. They need nothing less than God saving the whole world.

Simeon and Mary both recognize that the revolution inaugurated by Jesus isn’t small and individualized. Simeon says that Jesus will cause the rising and falling of many in Israel and Mary claims that God will be toppling royalty and the rich. God’s hopes for the world are that everything would be turned upside down and reordered. God’s hopes for the world include those in power losing their power, those with money losing their wealth, and that those who are powerless and hungry being raised up and fed. This is no narrow vision for a better new year, but a broad vision for a new world.

Simeon and Mary also both recognize that the revolution inaugurated by Jesus isn’t instantaneous and it isn’t without work and sacrifice on their part. Simeon tells Mary something she undoubtedly already knew – that the revolutionary work of Jesus will lead to significant opposition, opposition that will pierce her own soul, too. The realized hope of God in the world doesn’t come without pain. It doesn’t come without some losses on the way. It’s also not instantaneous or without cost.

Even after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil War didn’t instantly come to an end. Slaves continued to live in bondage, and not everyone was free. Word of freedom didn’t even reach every slave until June 18th, 1863, or Juneteenth, when Union soldiers took control of Galveston, Texas. Ever since, the struggle for freedom has continued through Reconstruction, the Jim Crow South, the Civil Rights Movement, and contemporary movements for civil and voting rights today. Mary’s soul has been pierced all along the way in the sacrifices and deaths of freedom fighters and prophets.

Too often, we have failed to be a part of these movements of hope and liberation. Too often, we have failed to hold the hope of Simeon and Mary for a world turned upside down. Too often, we have settled for lesser hopes. Too often, we have settled for smaller dreams. Too often, like my younger self, we’ve settled for watching the clock strike midnight and hoping for the best.

But the vision of God’s salvation for the world is anything but small.

Our passage today says that Simeon hopes for the consolation of Israel. What he means is not mere comfort, but something much more than that. Consolation in his day meant a calling to aid, a summons to fight, an appeal to justice. Simeon desired more than the small things – he hoped for a new world for his people and the whole world brought by the help of God. Anna, too, hopes for the redemption of Jerusalem. Redemption for her meant a ransoming from a hostage-taker, rescuing from a great enemy, and release from captivity. Anna hoped for more than the small things – she hoped for the liberation of her people. Mary, we already know, hoped for the same.

To be clear, the small things in life are important. They aren’t bad or unnoticed by God. But when we make the small things the objects of our hope, we can make them into idols. God calls us to hope for far greater things than the world would have us settle for.   

So, instead of making a New Year’s Resolution this year, or at least in addition to it, commit to something bigger than yourself. All our resolutions in the past speak to some bigger hope that we have, whether it be love and inclusion, health and safety, or prosperity and blessing. What would it look like for you to commit to those things not just for yourself but for the whole world? How can you resolve to help usher in these things for everyone? What does a world of love look like for everyone? What does a world of health look like for everyone? What does a world of blessing and provision look like for everyone?

The hopes of Simeon, Mary, and Anna call us to hope not just for our own selves, but for the whole world. If your New Year’s Resolution is about love, figure out how it applies to everyone. Resolve to make our country welcoming, hospitable, and loving to everyone. Resolve to make others in your life feel the same. If your New Year’s Resolution is about health, figure out how it applies to everyone. Resolve to find out how everyone can get the healthcare they need, access to the healthy food they want – even how they can get to the doctor they need to see. If your New Year’s Resolution is about money, figure out how it applies to everyone. Resolve to find out how we can distribute our resources to everyone who has a need, resolve to discover how everyone can have what they need. Don’t belittle hopes for yourself, but see them as part of a much bigger hope for everyone. Realize that you are not alone in your needs, your hopes, and your longings.

These hopes won’t be resolved in 2018. If we hope that the world will be perfect when the clock strikes midnight on January 1st, 2019, we’ll be as sorely disappointed as we may feel right now.

Hope isn’t about winning.

Hope isn’t about victory.

Hope is about commitment to something bigger than ourselves. Hope is about dedication to what God is doing in the world. Hope is about seeing what God is doing, bit by bit, in the world – the consolation and redemption like Simeon and Anna spoke of. Hope is about praying like Mary and Simeon prayed – for the world to be turned upside down. Hope is also about taking chance after chance to make the world more like heaven until it’s done or your chances are spent. If our hope is like that, we’ll be following God not just into a new year, but into a world made right.

That kind of hope endures every new year, come what may, because it’s hope in a God who is with us, a God set on changing the world. Will you pray with me?

God in whom we hope,
Set our hopes on more than small things –
Set our hopes on your kingdom, a world made right.
Shape our choices, our ambitions, our priorities,
Around hope that, as Mary and Simeon say:
The powerful will be deposed,
The weak will be enthroned,
The hungry will be filled,
The rich will be emptied,
The world will be turned upside down.
Carry us not just into a new year, but a new world.