THE END OF THE YEAR
Here we are at the last Sunday of 2017. Not only is it the last Sunday of the year, it is also the last day of the year. Today is New Years Eve and at midnight we ring in 2018, a new year. And, of course, the end of the year is always an opportunity to spend some time reflecting on the year that is coming to an end. What did 2017 mean for you? For some people it was a good year. For others it was a challenging year. For others still, it was just another year, nothing special, just another fifty-two weeks in the books.
In light of that, I want all of us to spend a few minutes this morning thinking about the last twelve months and I want to ask you to think about one simple question: Were you obedient in 2017? That’s it. That’s the only question I want you to consider. Were you obedient in 2017?
To help us to answer that question, I want to use the story of the baby Jesus being presented at the temple because this story contains lots of examples of people being obedient. And once we see their obedience, we can think about how we stack up.
OBEYING THE BIBLE
The story of Jesus’ dedication is found in Luke 2, beginning at verse 22. Luke 2:22-24 (NIV) says this:
When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Mary and Joseph took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”
What’s this talking about? It’s all rather strange to us, so let me explain. The main reason why Mary and Joseph are presenting Jesus at the temple is because they are commanded to by the Law of Moses. Jesus is their first born son and Exodus 13:2 is quite clear in saying that every firstborn male has to be consecrated to the Lord. That means that every firstborn has to be set aside for God’s purposes. Seems fitting for the Messiah.
Luke 2:22 also tells us that the time of purification is over. The time of purification refers to the time during which a woman and her baby were unclean after childbirth. What we find in the Old Testament is that there is general taboo against touch bodily fluids. That includes blood, spit, boogers, puss and almost any other fluid that can come out of the body. When people touched these fluids they were deemed to be unclean. And if they were unclean, they could not enter the temple or take part of various Jewish religious observances. We see this, for example, in the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10. The good religious people passed by the man who was beaten and bloodied on the side of the road precisely because he was beaten and bloody which meant that he was unclean. Note that it wasn’t because the religious people lacked compassion. It was because they were on their way to Jerusalem to take part in religious observances and to touch the bloodied man would have rendered them unclean. And if they were unclean, they would not have been able to take part in the religious observances which was the very reason they were going to Jerusalem in the first place.
Back to our story of Jesus’ dedication at the temple; childbirth involves a lot of bodily fluids. If you’re not sure of that, just go and watch a baby being born. And so before Mary and Joseph can enter the temple to dedicate Jesus, they first have to go through the correct purification rituals. In this situation, it simply involves the passage of time. In the Old Testament, Leviticus 12:2 says that after bearing a male child a woman is unclean for seven days. But then, in Leviticus 12:4 it also says that a woman must wait an additional thirty-three days before she can participate in any religious observances. This is the time of purification that we’re talking about. That’s a total of forty days that a woman is considered to be unclean after the birth of a son. Just so that you know, those times were doubled if the woman gave birth to a daughter. And please understand that I didn’t make the rules. I’m just telling you what they were so you can understand this passage. So the bottom line is that Jesus is at least forty days old when Mary and Joseph present him at the temple for dedication.
What else do we learn about this dedication? In Luke 2:23 it says that they are also there to offer the correct sacrifice which is a pair of doves or two small pigeons. That comes directly from Leviticus 12:8.
So Mary and Joseph have done everything they were supposed to do. They have waited the appropriate time for Mary and Jesus to be purified just as the Scripture says. They have travelled to the temple to have their first born son consecrated to the Lord, just as the Scripture says and they have offered the appropriate sacrifice, just as the Scripture says. Did you note the common phrase there? It was, “just as the Scripture says”. This tells us the source of their obedience. They did all of these things because that is what the Law of Moses – their Scripture, their Bible if you will – told them to do.
Mary and Joseph understood the Old Testament to be the written word of God. They understood that it was God’s blueprint on how they were to live their lives and they also believed it to be important to follow it to the letter of the Law. And to the very best of their ability, they did just that. They were obedient to Scripture.
The same holds true for us. We are called to be obedient to Scripture, to the word of God as it is revealed to us in the Old and the New Testaments. So, you might ask, if those purification rituals were so important to Mary and Joseph, why don’t we still follow them. But I don’t recall my Mom going through a forty day purification ritual and either do you. And the reason why we don’t follow that precise commandment any more is because many of those Old Testament laws had to do with the cleansing from sin. As Christians we no longer need to worry about being cleansed from sin because we have already been purified from our sin by our faith in Jesus Christ. So those specific laws no longer apply to us.
But that does not let us off the hook for all of the other commandments that have nothing to do with purification rituals. We are still called to follow the Ten Commandments. We are still called to love God, love our neighbour and love ourselves. We are still called to do unto others as we would have them to unto us. We are still called to gather in worship with other believers on a regular basis. We are still called to support the ministry of the Church. We are still called to avoid sin and live in righteousness and, when we do sin, we are called to confess, repent and accept God’s forgiveness. The Bible is full of things that we are called to do and things that we are called not to do. As it so aptly says in the Basis of Union of the United Church of Canada, “We receive the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, given by inspiration of God, as containing the only infallible rule of faith and life, a faithful record of God’s gracious revelations, and as the sure witness of Christ.”
That is what the Bible is for us. It is inspired by God. It is infallible. It tells us who God is and our relationship with God. And it tells us what God expects of us in terms of how we are to live our lives. That’s why we need to obey it. Living in obedience means understanding what it tells us and taking the Bible seriously.
And so, going back to the key question for today, how well did you do that in 2017? Did you do your best to follow the teachings of the Bible? Did you do what the Bible says you are to do and not do what the Bible says you aren’t supposed to do? Do you know something; the answer to that question is the same for all of us. Question: Did you obey the teachings of the Bible? The right answer for all of us is: Sort of?
To which you say, “Sort of? What do you mean, sort of? Aren’t we supposed to follow everything the Bible says? Aren’t we supposed to always use it as our guide and reference point?” Yes, we are and that’s why all of us tend to follow it, sort of. What I mean by that is that none of us follows it completely. There are times, despite our best efforts when we don’t follow the Bible’s teachings. All of us blow it. All of us make mistakes. None of us is perfect. Otherwise we wouldn’t need Jesus. That’s why we sort of follow the Bible. Sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t.
But again don’t get the idea that I’m letting you off the hook because each of us is obligated to do our best to follow the Bible’s teachings all of the time. And every year we should get just a little bit better at doing that. We shouldn’t expect new Christians, for example, to know everything about the Bible. But as we grow and mature in faith, they should get better at it. But even the most mature Christian will not be perfect. The challenge is to simply get better at it over time.
Nonetheless, the story of Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus at the temple tells us that part of obedience is obeying the Scripture, our Bible.
OBEYING THE SPIRIT
The second type of obedience is found in the story of Simeon who is in the temple when Mary and Joseph arrive. Luke 2:25-26 (NIV) says this:
Now there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Moved by the Spirit he went into the temple courts.
This is a completely different experience than Mary and Joseph. They were obedient because they were following Scripture. But that’s not the same for Simeon. He was obedient not because he was following Scripture – although no doubt he did – but the emphasis here is really quite different. Notice in this passage how many times the Holy Spirit is mentioned. It says that the Holy Spirit was upon him. Then it says that the Holy Spirit revealed to him that he would not die before seeing the consolation of Israel – that’s ancient Jewish code for seeing the Messiah. And then it says that he went into the temple courts because he was moved by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is all over this story which tells us that if we want to be obedient to God, we must also be willing to follow the Holy Spirit.
But what does it mean to follow the Holy Spirit? Do you remember that during Advent we talked about preparing our hearts for Christmas but also for the second coming of Christ at the end of time? We also said that the first step of doing that is to give your life to Christ. Do you remember what the Holy Spirit does when we give our lives to Christ? The Spirit begins to dwell in us. 1 Corinthians 3:16 (NIV) says, “Don’t you know that you yourself are God’s temple and the God’s Spirit lives in you?” The Holy Spirit lives in you. That’s why it is important to treat your bodies as a temple, as a holy place. Of course, that begs the question, why do so many people treat their bodies like amusement parks? Maybe it’s because they aren’t listening to the Holy Spirit.
When we give our lives to the Christ and become filled with the Holy Spirit, something amazing happens. We find it in Romans 8:9 (NIV) which says: “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you.” When you give your life to Christ and are filled with the Holy Spirit, you are no longer controlled by the sinful nature but by the Spirit.
What this means is that you are no longer the slave to sin. The power of God is within you, by the Holy Spirit, and that Spirit strengthens you and enables you to walk in the way of the Lord. The Holy Spirit becomes your guide. Some people call it your conscience. You are more aware of what you should be doing and what you should not be doing. I’m pretty sure you’ve had that experience. You think that you might want to do something but something inside of you tells you not to do it.
I’ll tell you that the Holy Spirit has been working in my life lately in an interesting way. I confess that I’ve been eating way too many Christmas goodies lately. Part of the problem, of course, is that the stuff is just all over the house and it’s just too easy to grab a shortbread on my way through the kitchen. I was having all kinds of trouble resisting and about a week ago I prayed and asked God to help me. And while I still nab a goodie every now and then, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked up a chocolate and then put it back or reached for a piece of marzipan only to have a voice inside my head say, “No, no, no.” That’s the Holy Spirit. I know it’s a small example but maybe it’s one that more of you need to try over the next few weeks. I also want to say that the same principle works with bigger more important things and sometimes when we trust God for little things we can learn to trust God for bigger things.
The Holy Spirit was upon Simeon and revealed to him that he would live to see the Messiah. And the Spirit moved in Simeon and told him to go into the temple at exactly the time when Mary and Joseph entered with Jesus. It goes on because Simeon, by the power of the Spirit, also recognized Jesus for who he was. We read about this in Luke 2:26-32 (NIV) which says:
When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God saying:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servants in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light of revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
Simeon listened to the Spirit and obeyed and because of that he was blessed. God promises that we too will be blessed when we are obedient to the Spirit. But let’s go back to my original question. How obedient were you in 2017? How closely did you follow the Holy Spirit as it prodded you and urged you on? The answer is the same as it was with obedience to the Bible. All of us sort of did it. Some were more obedient and some were less but the challenge is to become more obedient as we grow and mature in faith.
We now know that obedience comes
from two sources. It comes from the Bible and comes from the Holy Spirit. The
final thing that I want to say is this and this is very important. Those two
things will never be in conflict. The Holy Spirit will never urge you to do
anything that is inconsistent with the teachings of the Bible. Always remember
that because the Bible is always our ultimate source of obedience. If you feel
called to do something and it doesn’t seem quite right, always check it out in
the Bible because it is our ultimate authority. So when in doubt, bring
together the Holy Spirit and the Bible and you will never lose your way. And
the more you do that the more obedient you will be.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Holy God, your Creation rejoices at the dawning of your name. Your Spirit moves and calls us to renew our relationship with you on daily basis. And so, on this day, we come to you with our prayers: prayers for our world, for our community and for ourselves. Hear the deepest yearnings of our hearts, the prayers that we utter aloud and the ones that are kept hidden in the silence of our hearts.
We offer our thanks for your blessings and praise you for the wonders of Creation. Snow has fallen on the colder days to be replaced by the rain and melting on warmer day. Such are the cycles of your earth. Through it all the birds sing and the squirrels wander in search of food
We come to the end of another year. 2017 will soon be at an end and 2018 will be with us for the next twelve months. We look forward to a new page being turned on the calendar with all of the new hopes and dreams that it represents. We give you thanks for the year that has been and say, “Yes,” to all that it will be knowing that you are in every moment of every day.
We remember those needing your healing touch, especially Sharon, Helen and Lyle. Touch them and all of us with your Healing Spirit that we may feel the power of your Inner Blessing.
Heavenly Father, keep us focused on
what you would have us do. Enable us to resist the distractions that would keep
us from your great goals. Give us the strength and courage that we need as we
look ahead with determination to the tasks that you have set before us. Keep
our spirits clear and our dreams vivid that we may be your people and share
your Good News. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
December 31, 2017 / Christmas 1
Psalm 61:10-62:3; Psalm 148; Luke 2:22-40; Galatians 4:4-7
CALL TO WORSHIP
ONE: Praise God from the heights of heaven!
ALL: Praise God from the deepest oceans!
ONE: Praise God, sun, moon and shining stars!
ALL: Let all things praise the Holy One, our Creator!
ONE: God deserves our praise!
ALL: God delights in our worship!
PRAYER OF APPROACH
Loving God, all Creation sings its praises to you, for you are worthy to receive all glory. When we look to the brightness of the stars you are there. When we look to the darkness of the earth you are there. When we look into the deepest recesses of our hearts you are even there. How honoured we are that you love us. How blessed we are that you care for us. Your greatness never ends. Come to us in our worship and fill us anew with your Spirit. Amen.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
God of Mercy, you make things happen in their proper order. Time is of no consequence to you for you are eternal. Your patience in infinite. Forgive us for our impatience. Unlike Anna and Simeon, we desire instant gratification. They waited a lifetime to spend a few moments with the baby Jesus and when they caught a glimpse of him, they received a lifetime of satisfaction. Enable us to be more like them. Forgive our shortsightedness and enable us to wait upon you in all things. Amen.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
There is nothing more pervasive than the love of God. There is nothing more sure than God’s mercy. Despite our failures, God desires to be one with us. Be assured that, when we confess our sins, we are forgiven.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
The gifts that we offer are insignificant compared to your greatness, O God. But still you receive them, as you receive us. Give us the courage to use all of our resources wisely and for your glory. Amen.
As we leave this place, may we join our
voices with the angels to sing out the Good News of salvation. Let us rise in
faith, in Jesus, name, to proclaim the Gospel and what it means for all people.