Sunday, December 29, 2013

First Sunday after Christmas

Isaiah 63
7 I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord,
    the deeds for which he is to be praised,
    according to all the Lord has done for us—
yes, the many good things
    he has done for Israel,
    according to his compassion and many kindnesses.

He said, “Surely they are my people,
    children who will be true to me”;
    and so he became their Savior.

In all their distress he too was distressed,
    and the angel of his presence saved them.[a]
In his love and mercy he redeemed them;
    he lifted them up and carried them
    all the days of old.

It’s really just a date on the calendar—January 1st—but if you read the paper or watch the news, you might think it’s actually news.

To be fair, there is a pause at this time of year: a time when hard news generally takes a break and we are met instead by a series of lists. Call it a ‘summary moment’ whereby we review the people and events that define the passing year and decide what truly matters. In some ways, it raises more questions than it answers:

Just how many mayors does Toronto need?
Does the new premier always talk about herself while jogging?
Is the new pope a reformer or a giant distraction?
When will politicians learn that pointing fingers at each other makes all of them look bad?
How concerned should we be about rail safety, this close to the tracks?

I didn’t set out this morning to create coffee hour discussion starters, but if you have the definitive answer to any of these questions, let me know. My guess, however, is that each of you will have your own series of year-end questions, which only underlines the nature of review.

Back in minister’s school, we were the masters of review. Most of the program was based on what we called the action-reflection model, meaning do something and then talk about it. Well, it might have been slightly more complex than that, because it also included goal setting, then doing, then reflecting on what you did, in the context of your goals.

Of course, even in such a tightly structured program, there were variables that no one could predict. I volunteered to do my first bit of practical training with the padre at CFB Kingston, wanting to learn about something completely new to me. What followed was eight hours a week of listening to the padre tell old peacekeeping stories while my classmate and I ate Timbits. Twenty pounds and two semesters later, my only action-reflection was getting to the gym.

Now, the year in review is different than the latest adult learning assumptions. We don’t set societal goals, or international goals, and no one is compelling us to do a review, since it is something that can easily be ignored. In fact, when we do set goals—such as a reduction in child poverty—the news is generally how we failed. Maybe Parliament should simply stop adopting unanimous motions, if there is no unanimous direction for achieving these goals.

If we had to find the best example of ‘year in review’ or ‘era in review’ in the Bible, we can look no further than the Book of Isaiah. God has created a series of goals for the people, the people have been found wanting: the people are punished, then the people are redeemed, and then they are finally restored. It’s a bit of an emotional roller-coaster, and the book alternates between the themes of punish-redeem-restore with some rapidity.

By the time we get to chapter 63, not only are the people worn out, but there is a sense of the overall direction of this story. And this, of course, is why we find this reading on the first Sunday after Christmas. Our short passage this morning is one of those moments when God is ‘speaking tenderly to Jerusalem’ and says, “Surely they are my people, children who will be true to me.” It is then the author who adds the summary that follows: “and so he became their Savior.”

Call it incarnation in a single thought: recognized as God’s people, and blessed with a Savior. The passage shouts “Christmas!” to Christian readers, even though we share the Book of Isaiah with Jewish readers for whom it says something else. So we tread carefully, engaging what Walter Brueggemann calls “the canon and Christian imagination” to see what we see in the text but resisting the urge to claim a definitive reading.

The irony of finding Christmas in Isaiah 63 is that the action of redemption is long past. Isaiah 40, the ‘comfort ye” passage that we read in Advent is the moment when God decides to redeem the people, when the fire God has for punishment is ended and the desire to comfort begins. Isaiah 63—again noted by Brueggemann—is about managing the restoration, learning once more how to live in Jerusalem, and more importantly, how to live with God.

Now, if our theme is celebrating the incarnation once more, then perhaps learning how to live in Jerusalem is the correct lens for us. We know we can’t completely enter the mindset of Christmas each year, because it happened for the first time on only one occasion. More then, it is a continual reminder: God entered our world long ago and each year we need to make it new again. And this is very much like living as people restored to the Holy City: it happened, and now we need to live with the implications.

Both the return to Jerusalem and the birth of our Saviour can be accurately described as second chances. God felt compelled to exile the people, to punish them for their disobedience, and gave them a second chance in the form of return. In the same way, God entered the world in Bethlehem and gave us a second chance to reconfigure our relationship with God, to see God in a new way, and to respond accordingly.

There was, of course, a bit of a false start at Calvary, but it was also part of the unfolding second chance for us. Jesus, then, in every iteration—lived, died, and lives again—is part of this unfolding second chance we have all been given: to re-imagine our life with God and the extent to which God wants to renew and redeem us. And it happens every year, the very reason we structure our Christian lives around the cycle of birth, teaching, cross and empty cave.

The key question for us, then, is do we want to be renewed? Do we even want a second chance, or a third chance, or wherever you find yourself on the new chances cycle? I expect the answer is ‘yes,’ since why else would you be hanging out here? Maybe it’s time for a little confession, just to spice things up.

When my loving partner is away visiting with her family, I watch the most boring television I can find. Boring to her, of course, but not to me—since I’m the one watching and in full control of the remote. This week I’ve been watching a six-part series called “The Railway: Keeping Britain on Track.” As I said, boring to some, but not me.

Each episode looks at a different part of the country and the unique challenge faced by railway staff in keeping Britain on track. And I can say that the greatest single challenge to keeping Britain on track is the British. Rude, belittling, mean-spirited, disrespectful, messy: and that’s before people even get on the train.

And it’s not just the British: watch the people around you at the bank, or returning something at the customer service desk, or on the telephone with a whoever provides your cell phone. It’s not that we want to be rude, it just seems to happen every time we interact with seemingly faceless institutions or businesses that in fact do have a face: the poor person tasked with taking our call or meeting us in the midst of our complaint.

I know, I promised you a confession. Every few weeks, for nearly six years now, I have received a phone call here at the church to goes something like this: “This is an important message for—Iman Amadi—you need to call regarding an overdue amount at 1-888-etc.” And so I called back. I spoke with someone who understood that the church was not Iman Amadi, and they would take us off the list. Six weeks later: “This is an important message for—Iman Amadi.” I have learned that impressing them with my fancy titles doesn’t work, nor getting angry, nor being as rude as I can possibly be. Every six weeks: “Iman Amadi.”

Part of me, of course, just wants to escalate the situation. Until I remember that the person on the other end of the line didn’t wake up with a desire to torment me, and certainly didn’t start out life with the goal of working for a collection agency. They are there because they need a job—any job—to survive in our time of low wages and limited opportunities.

So, I need to be renewed. I’m not going to love the collection agency, or Iman Amadi, but I will try to be more patient in 2014. Or change the church phone number. What will you do differently in 2014?


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