“Be It Resolved”
Isaiah 9:2-7 Luke 2:1-20
Rev. Zachary L. Bay
Have you decided on your New Year’s resolution yet?
Maybe you’ll try to eat better this year. Or exercise more. Perhaps your goal is personal, or maybe it’s professional. Maybe you’ve grown cynical with the tradition, having noted that whatever pledge you make will sputter out in practice somewhere around MLK weekend. I’ll confess that I am, most years, in that latter group.
I did some research this week into the history of New Year’s resolutions. That I did that may not surprise you. Recently, I was sitting at lunch with a group of church folks, and as the words, “Well, I was reading a history of electricity once, and according to that…” came out of my mouth, Trish Edinger began to chuckle. It was one of those chuckles that is one-half admiration and one-half “What a thorough nerd you are!” I told Trish that my mother would say that while some people have “A need—a need for speed,” I have a need to know. Anything, about anything. As much as I can, about everything. So of course, this week, I did some research into the history of New Year’s resolutions for this sermon.
The ancient Babylonians are said to have been the first people to make New Year’s resolutions, some 4,000 years ago. You know, in all my years of falling asleep in the recliner at 8 PM and then being shaken awake by Kristy just in time to see the ball drop on television, I never thought much about this celebration being that old. Four-thousand years ago, the ancient Babylonians—a group who left a sizeable footprint on the Hebrew Bible—made New Year’s resolutions. They were also the first to hold recorded celebrations in honor of the New Year. They did it in mid-March, at crop-planting time. They held a 12-day religious festival during which all things were made new—even the monarch. Apparently, at this time, they either crowned a new king, or reaffirmed their loyalty to the reigning one. They also made promises to the gods to pay their debts and return any borrowed goods. If the Babylonians kept their promises, the gods would bestow favor on them in the coming year. If not, they would fall out of favor with the gods—and well, that’s bad news.
Any of that sound familiar to you?
How about paying off debts and returning borrowed goods to their rightful owner? Sound a little bit like a Sabbatical year or a year of jubilee?
How about a 12-day religious festival during which all things are made new? During which new life is celebrated? Sound a little bit like this season we’re currently celebrating?
How about reaffirming a ruler or crowning a new one? Sound a little bit like inauguration? States of the Union?
And how about making well-intentioned promises at the head of a New Year? Sound a little bit like repentance—like “turning around and going the other way”—to you?
On New Year’s Day, the Lectionary often prescribes a reading from Ecclesiastes. “For everything there is a season…” it says. Ecclesiastes is the same book that says confidently: “There is nothing new under the sun.” Seems to be the case here, on the eve of the eve of the eve of New Year’s Day.
This week, I also did some reading I came across in Appalachian Magazine. It was an essay wearing the title “Mountain Church Traditions: The Watchnight Service,” and decorated with a 1941 black-and-white photo of four Baptist elders wearing wool three-piece suits and singing hymns among bare pews and bare shiplap walls. The article reads:
On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus commanded his disciples to “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation.”
It has been roughly twenty centuries since the Savior first uttered this statement, but some six thousands miles away and two millennia later the believers living in Appalachia and throughout the Southland of the United States are doing their best to heed this ancient command; especially in the closing and opening minutes of each year.
While many will be drinking alcohol, partying wildly, and watching network television broadcasts of the New York ball dropping, many of the faithful throughout Appalachia will be on their knees praying for their families, churches and communities when the clock strikes midnight early Wednesday morning — an annual event that dates back centuries, known simply as a watchnight service.
Though the precise details often vary greatly between congregations and denominations, watchnight services in the United States are observed regularly by many evangelical denominations, especially among Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals.
The article goes on to say that it was John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, that started the tradition, and that Baptists, and then later, Pentecostals, began holding similar services in Appalachia—some still today.
I grew up knowing of such a thing. My hunch is that many of you did, too. That perhaps you grew up doing such a thing. The Revised Common Lectionary that we use in worship here prescribes texts for a Watchnight Service on January the 1st.
All of that—all of that history and tradition from ancient Babylon all the way to 20th century Appalachia—all of that is what visited me as I pondered the second birth narrative of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel this week. Last week, we read Matthew’s version. This week, we get the one with which we are all more familiar. This time we get angels and shepherds “keeping watch over their flocks by night.” And this time again, just like last week, the preacher is faced with a choice: drill down into the multitude of details about everything from lowly shepherds to heavenly hosts, or reach out and grab hold of the essence of this story.
Last week with Matthew’s version of the story, I chose the latter, and this week with Luke’s version I’m doing the same thing. This story is about watching. This story is about staying awake. This story is about great expectations. This story is about a God who makes a New Year’s resolution.
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. … Joseph … went from the town of Nazareth … to the City of David called Bethlehem. … While they were there, the time came for Mary to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the guestroom. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shown around them, and they were sore afraid. … “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place. … The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.”
Sisters and brothers, the Good News of the Gospel on this First Sunday of Christmastide is that we aren’t the only one fiddling around making New Year’s resolutions. God makes a New Year’s resolution, too.
Put simply: God is resolving—today—to enter into your life…your world…your hardship and grief…your joy and rejoicing…and dwell there. God’s New Year’s resolution is to come to you and connect with you. Most of us gave to one another presents—with a T—this past week. God is giving presence—with a C—this week.
As the Gospel of John says it, when God sat down at the end of the year and pondered what God would resolve to do in a new year and a new decade, the result was a resolution that read: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
Arguably, my favorite thing about Christianity is that God doesn’t ask anything of us that God hasn’t already done. My favorite thing about the church calendar is that over the course of the year—each year—it doesn’t just cause us to talk about ancient history—it invites us to live again, today, the story of Jesus Christ.
Luke 2 says to me that God is making a New Year’s resolution today. [Arms open wide] God wants to get closer to you this year.
The only real question is: will you decide that you are embraceable, and find a means or a discipline or a practice, and resolve to do the same?
It takes two to share an embrace.
God is standing before you, arms open wide.
Happy New Year.