Date: Jan. 2, 2022
Scripture Lessons: Ecclesiastes 3:1-13, Colossians 3:12-17, and Matthew 2:1-12
Sermon: Following Light into the New Year
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Dame Janet Baker is a well-known English mezzo soprano of the 20th century. She sang opera, concert music and lieder. Her career spanned the 1950’s to the 1980’s. Dame Baker was known for her dramatic intensity. She is still alive though she no longer performs. She was married but the couple decided not to have children because of her career. Quite a sacrifice, especially in those times. But she was to give birth to a different holy gift. “In an interview with Professor Anthony Clare, Dame Baker was asked if she ever regretted her voice: ‘Did you ever hate it? Did you ever wish it would go away?’ She replied:
“‘Oh no. Never. But then, if you have a — I won’t say a driving ambition, it wasn’t a driving ambition, it was a driving force that I felt I was born to do this particular thing, and that it was a divine purpose, that’s the thing. Oh, we always go back to this, that it wasn’t an ego trip, it’s never been that. My career, in the strict sense of the word, what has driven me, is that feeling that I’ve been given something and that that can’t be ignored or run away from or denied in any way, either by me, or by anybody else. And that if it meant agony personally for me to fulfill this destiny, then too bad, I had to go through with it.’” [Resources for Preaching and Worship Year B: Quotations, Meditations, Poetry, and Prayers, compiled by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, p. 17.]
This Advent and Christmas season we have been reflecting on the theme of gifts and the Divine gifts that we receive from God through Jesus and his ministry. And now we are heading into a new year and we can think about how we are going to take those gifts into this new year. It’s a time to look back and to look ahead. It’s a time to think about how we are being called to use the gifts we are being given.
We have been given the gift of Jesus. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas. We are here because we have been called to follow Jesus. That in itself is a gift. And each of us has been gifted in ways that will help to further the ministry of Jesus in our context and in our time. Each of us is gifted. Each of us is needed. We each have a ministry. A calling. And as we head into the new year, we want to pay attention on that calling.
In the story of the visit of the magi that we heard from the gospel of Matthew, we are told of astrologers, magi, wise ones, heading out on a journey, following a star. Biblical scholars tell us that this journey, given the likely geographical origin of the magi and the location of Jesus, may well have taken several years. So the story tells of these wise ones, who leave home, family, job, relationships, and community, to follow a star. They have a calling. Something they need to do. Regardless of the toll it will take. The costs – monetary, physical, spiritual, relational. They must go. Like Dame Baker, they know they are being driven by a Divine force to go on this journey. And they go. They cannot refuse. This story gives us confirmation that the ministry of Jesus was to be impactful not only to the Jewish community of Palestine, but to the whole world – every land and culture. That is the main message of this story. The reason for the journey. And the story succeeds. We are testimony to that.
The beginning of the new year provides us with an opportunity to reflect on our lives. To discern our gifts. To recognize and name our calling. In our journey of following Jesus, what ministries are we being called to at this moment? How are we needed? What is the light drawing us forward into this new year?
Ecclesiastes reminds us of the many seasons of life. So it is appropriate as this new year begins that we reflect on how we are being called in this season of our lives. Each one of us in a different place yet with a common call to follow Jesus. As we look back on our lives, we can see how we have responded to that call in past seasons of our lives. Now we think about the year ahead. What gifts do we have in our lives right now? And how can we share them in the spirit of Jesus?
Sometimes when we look back, we can see missed opportunities. We may notice that we did not respond to the light drawing us forward, to the star leading us on. Maybe we can see times when we did not offer ourselves to the journey of following Jesus as we could have. Maybe we can see times that we said no to using our gifts for the good of the world. That happens. That is a season of life that all of us go through. Ignoring the light. Letting ourselves be distracted. Maybe following a driving force that did not turn out to be what we had expected. That was not of God. That happens. To us all.
The truth is, something is going to be a driving force in our lives in the coming year. Something is going to be calling to us. Something is going to receive our attention, our time, our resources, our heart. Something is going to be a star that we follow. Will it be something that is of God? Will it be an unfolding of Divine Love in our lives? Will it offer the love of Jesus to the world in some way?
Now I used to be a planner. Big time. It was very much in fashion, even in church circles. It still is. Goals, steps along the way, time lines, etc. And that kind of approach can be effective, in some situations, in some seasons of our lives. But it can also lock us in and prevent us from responding to unexpected opportunities or circumstances. So there is also something to be said for having an intention, paying attention, being aware, and taking action day by day and letting the path appear and unfold. Frankly, I think during these covid days, we are seeing more need for adaptability and flexibility and staying watchful.
As we pay attention, we see that there are many needs in our lives and in our world, that are calling out for the love of Jesus. How are we being called to respond? What are we needed to do? How are we needed to incarnate Divine Love here and now in our times? These are our questions as we enter this new year. And given the state of things, we know that we may be called to a journey that is difficult, taxing, and long. We know there will be challenges and disruptions and losses. So we will need the church, each other, for support and encouragement along the way. This is another gift of the Christian life: community.
During Advent, we also talked about another gift of the Christian life: joy. So we want to be sure to take that gift with us into the new year as we discern our path. Joy is important, especially when the journey is hard.
The following story of ministry among refugees helps to shed light on our need for joy. Joyce Hollyday tells us of Yvonne, a volunteer missionary: “A church worker from Indiana in a Salvadoran refugee camp in Honduras told me the story of a refugee woman who once asked her [the church worker] why she always looked so sad and burdened. Yvonne talked about the grief she felt over all the suffering she was witnessing and her commitment to give all of herself to the struggle of the refugees. The [refugee] woman gently confronted her: ‘Only people who expect to go back to North America in a year work the way you do. You cannot be serious about our struggle unless you play and celebrate and do those things that make it possible to give a lifetime to it.’
“Every time the refugees were displaced and had to build a new camp, they immediately formed three committees: a construction committee, an education committee, and the comite de alegria — ‘the committee of joy.’ Celebration was as basic to the life of the refugees as digging latrines and teaching their children to read.” [Resources for Preaching and Worship Year B: Quotations, Meditations, Poetry, and Prayers, compiled by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, p. 20.]
The gift of joy is necessary to help sustain us for our lifetime of discipleship because some seasons will be very difficult. So we must integrate joy into every season. And those who are in a season of joy must be sure to share it to help to uplift those who are finding joy more remote. We need to cultivate and share the gift of joy with each other. In every season.
Opera singer Dame Baker reminds us, of “that feeling that I’ve been given something and that that can’t be ignored or runaway from or denied in any way, either by me, or by anybody else.” I‘ve been given something.
This season of Advent and Christmas, we have been celebrating what we have been given. As we head into this new year, let us remember that there is a star shining. For each of us. Whatever the season. There are dreams to guide us. May we follow our star into this new year and beyond trusting that Divine Love will show us the way. In the words of Benjamin Mays, an American Baptist minister and civil rights leader, “Every man and woman is born into the world to do something unique and something distinctive and if he or she does not do it, it will never be done.” Amen.
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