Monday, December 29, 2014

Looking back, moving forward

Isaiah 61:10-62:2
1 Peter 2:1-8
Luke 2:21-40

"The only difference between a saint and a sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”  Oscar Wilde

I always wondered how New Year’s Resolutions got started.  Of course the Gregorian calendar we know today would seem to lend itself to a new start on January 1, but this calendar is relatively new (16th century) compared to a theory of new year’s resolutions dating back some 4000 years to ancient Babylonia.

The festival of Akitu, which marked the beginning of the spring harvest, not only saw the seating of a new king if applicable or the reaffirmation of loyalty to the old king, the ancient Babylonians also went through special rituals in which they affirmed their covenants to their gods especially during a time of plentiful harvest.

In ancient Rome centuries later the practice was pretty much the same except that new magistrates would come into office on March 1, and the outgoing magistrates affirmed to the Roman Senate that they had performed their duties in accordance with the laws of the Empire while the new guys took their oaths of office to do the same.

The shift from March to January took place sometime after 300 BC maybe for the sake of military campaigns.  Military commanders needed to be sworn in long before the harvest since spring was the ideal time for combat, and they would need to travel great distances as the Empire expanded its reach.  Then came a social transition.

As Romans gradually became less warlike, the switch from celebrating the New Year during a month (March) associated with Mars, the god of war to one (January), associated with Janus, a god of home and hearth, seemed appropriate. The first half of New Year's Day in Rome would have been taken up by public ceremonies, oath-taking and temple sacrifices, while the second half of the day was for social activities. Citizens would bring each other gifts of honey, pears and other sweets as presents for a ‘sweet new year’." (

So there are records to suggest New Year’s Resolutions, made on January 1 or closer to March to coincide with the harvest, began more or less as official oaths; oaths to a god and covenant or to an empire and a social contract with one another.  These were external oaths made ostensibly for the well-being of society as a whole.  As with most modern practices, it is hard to show exactly when people began making resolutions only for themselves, but it would seem that somewhere along the line people stopped worrying about society as a whole and began worrying more about themselves.

Peter’s letters should not be confused as letters to any individual.  As with most of Paul’s letters as well as Jude’s and James’ epistles, the letters are addressed to whole congregations – just as they should be read and understood.  This is important especially as Peter previously points out that “you rejoice [in the salvation to be revealed in the last time] even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials so that the genuineness of your faith … may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:6-7).

It goes to the time-honored question, ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’  Well, Peter does not answer that question, and often we are too quick to pull that trigger whenever we cannot explain tragedies much as we might like to.  Attributing bad things to Divine Will not only gives others even more reason not to embrace The Lord who comes off as arbitrary and vindictive, doing so also encourages believers to let such things go with no thought, no introspection.  More often than not, we are as likely to say, “Better them than us” as we are to think about what we may learn from such things. 

Still, we cannot ignore another time-honored proverb; ‘That which does not kill us only makes us stronger’.  The so-called “college of hard knocks” has produced more “honor grads” than every university in the nation, maybe in the entire world.  We learn when we stumble.  We learn when we fail.  But we never learn if we never stick out our necks and take risks.  And we never love if we ignore those around us. 

We never learn from these letters, the Gospels, or the “Chronicles” of Israel if we never read them.  And we never learn if we fail to develop some kind of kinship with Israel who often brought about their own sufferings OR the early saints who suffered by the hands of others – simply for believing in something greater than themselves.  We often fail to realize or appreciate that our faith came at great cost to those who came before us.

It is reasonable to assume that even though Peter makes reference to “sufferings” endured by the congregation to whom he is writing, there are probably some who took harder knocks than others.  Yet Peter does not suggest these few got off easy.  Quite to the contrary, Peter (in speaking to an entire congregation) suggests that if one has suffered, it becomes the burden of the entire congregation.

Though there have been attempts to make something religious out of New Year’s Day (Wesley’s Renewal of Covenant in the 18th century), there is no real religious attachment.  However, it must also be said that if we enter into a New Year with no real resolve, no appreciation for what we have endured in the past, and no useful lesson learned for the future, then it can be said there is no appreciation for those among us who didn’t have such a great year and have no real reason to look forward to another year.

It is my hope that we begin a new practice to be continued in perpetuity of “remembrances”.  It is a practice done at our annual Charge Conference as well as at Annual Conference to remember those who passed away in the last year.  We not only remember the saints (and sinners) who have gone before us; we also remember their lives, their mistakes, our own mistakes, and especially remember that in Christ we all have a future.

We cannot walk into the future blindly, however.  We have been given much suffering, much loss, much grief and pain so that we may enter into the New Year stronger than the year before.  With real blessings come spiritual “scar tissue” lest we come to take too much for granted – as I think we already do.  So let us pray not only to give thanks for the past – good AND bad – but also for strength to endure the new challenges we will certainly face IF we are so willing to walk in Christ, with Christ, and for Christ without fear into the Fullness of Life – in this age and in the age to come.  Amen.

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