January 1, 2017

1st Sunday after Christmas
‘GOD’S PRESENCE IN THE NEW YEAR’

BIBLE READINGS
Isaiah 63:7-9
Hebrews 2:10-18

Matthew 2:13-23

REFLECTION

Christmas is over; New Year is over. The magic of Christmas and New Year season is over and we have to wait another year before we can experience it again.

Some may feel relieved, especially when you have to host twenty people or more for a meal during the festive season. Others may feel sad, especially when you were one of those twenty people invited.

But, the party is over. We now have to arrive in the land of reality, whether we like it or not.

Likewise, the reading from the Gospel of Matthew today takes us back to reality. Angels still appeared, but not to proclaim peace on earth anymore. They appeared this time to warn Joseph about the danger coming towards his young family. There were no longer wise men coming from a far away land to pay homage to Jesus. They had been replaced by a violent king who wanted the young Jesus to die. The peaceful Christmas is over; what we have now is the reality of a violent and often cruel world.

Now, we may think that since Jesus was God incarnated, nothing and no one could really harm him. But, Herod was not playing a game. He was not pretending to be a cruel king. His violence was well known. In his reign, he killed several members of his family, including his wife.[1] The danger that Jesus and his family faced was real.

Friends, for many people, 2017 can also represent danger, real danger. Now, for some people, the new year may be quite exciting. It can be the beginning of something new like a new house or a new experience or a new challenge or, like in my case, a new baby. But, it can also be frightening like, in my case, a new baby. Or, it can be more significant than losing your freedom as a single man for the rest of your life.

Some may have serious concerns about their health. “What if my cancer returns?” “How am I going to pay for all the medical bills?” “Who will look after my family when I sick or die?” Others may have concerns about their employment or financial situation. “How much longer can I keep my job?” “How am I going to pay the mortgage to keep my house if I lose my job?”

These concerns may sound rather trivial, especially when we compare them to what Jesus’ family or millions of other people living in war zones had to face. But, these concerns are real. The Christmas season is over, and we are now in the familiar land of fear and worry.

Indeed, we don’t know what 2017 has in store for us. For many, 2016 had been a terrible year (and what they mean with terrible is the fact that many well known celebrities passed away this year - people like David Bowie, Prince, Alan Rickman, Mohammad Ali, and, recently, George Michael and Princes Leia, Carrie Fisher - to name a few). In my own life, 2016 had given me life-altering experiences: I lost my mother and then got married twice, with the same woman of course (two weddings and a funeral - sounds like a good title for a movie).

So, we don’t know what 2017 will bring. But, God will be with us all the way. God will be present in every junction of our life, just like the angels in Jesus family’ life.

Now, to understand more about the role of angels in the Bible, we need to know that, in the Hebrew mindset, the world was divided into four different levels. On the top level was God the Almighty, the Creator of all that is. On the second level, was the world of the spirits. The good ones were the angels; the bad ones were the evil sprits or demons. Humans lived below the spirits’ world, on the third level, while animals and plants were on the fourth level.[2]

So, according to this worldview, God did not communicate to us humans directly, but through the angels. That’s why in the Gospels, it was the angels, not God, who were in contact with Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds.

But, we hear from our reading from the book of Isaiah that salvation comes not from the angels, but from God. Israel was rescued not by God’s messengers or angels; it was the very presence of God who rescued Israel.

No, the God of Israel was not an aloof god, like what other nations had often accused. The God of Israel was not indifferent to the suffering of His people. But, Christian faith adds something even more radical. Not only that salvation comes directly from God, God ‘skipped’ the world of the spirit to reach out to us humans and became one of us. No, God did not come to become angels. God came down from heaven to be one of us. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ.

John Rozen was a doctor who worked as a psychiatrist in New York City. His work with people who suffered from schizophrenia was well known.

Even though, it was a normal practice for doctors to remain aloof and be separated from the patients they treated, Dr. Rosen chose to stay in the ward with his patients. He placed his bed amongst their beds. He shared his life with them. When they didn’t talk, he didn’t talk either. He lived the kind of life that they had to live on a daily basis. He was never averse to putting his arms around his patients and hugging them if it’s necessary or appropriate to do so. He loved these unattractive, sometimes incontinent persons, and brought them back into life. His actions communicated one clear message to the patients under his care: that someone understands.[3]

Jesus was the manifestation of God’s salvation and he came to us to live in our midst (like Dr. Rosen lived in his patients’ midst). In Jesus, God knows our suffering, our pain, our worries because he had experienced them. In Jesus, God, our Savior, is not indifferent to us because He too had walked in our shoes. In Jesus, God is a God who can empathize with us.

Friends, again, we never know what life has in store for us in the new year. There are opportunities, but there are also dangers.

But, God will be with us. God is amongst us. God knows our pain and suffering. We are not alone because the abundance of God’s presence will travel with us throughout the journey in this new year and beyond.

Rev. Toby Keva

[1] Richard R. Losch, All the People in the Bible, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing (2008), p. 155 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herod_the_Great#cite_note-Losch-16)

[2] Larry Broding, Higher than the Angels, on http://www.word-sunday.com/Files/Seasonal/ Presentation/SR-Presentation.html

[3] Mark Berg in Donald L. Deffner, Seasonal Illustrations, Resource, 1992, p. 21 (www.sermons.com - Christmas 1)