Sermon for New Year – Andrew Nicol

Andrew is the minister at St Margaret’s in Christchurch.  He preached this sermon on New Year’s Day 2017 at a combined service of the Knox, St Margaret’s St Mark’s, St Lukes & The Village congregations, held in the St Andrew’s College Memorial Chapel.

According to Rolling Stone magazine “Won’t Be Fooled Again” by The Who is the 134th greatest song of all time.  For the young at heart I mean the theme music from CSI Miami.

From a certain point of view, this may be a pretty apt New Year resolution.

The song gets to the point most clearly in its famous last line, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

At the turn of the year we are again faced with news of self-interest, power and control.  Somewhere between our memory and our dreams it can seem that things don’t really change. 

As one New Year ’s Eve reveller toasted, “Here’s to pretending that anything changes when the year does!”

So, is this what we do at New Year – pretend?  Exercise that brilliant human aptitude for self-deception?

Research suggests that only 8% of people are able to meet their resolutions. []  Consult any gym membership stats for anecdotal evidence here.

It’s time to get that ab-exerciser back on Trade Me, and dust off the whole-wheat flour.

Don’t get me wrong, times of reflection are important.  Ending can bring moments of clarity and stepping out of our daily routine offers the chance to consider the important things in life.  Resolutions clearly tell us something.

Even so I’m taking the safe option.  Watch more TV, drink better beer.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Of course the NT has a bit to say about bosses.

Whether we know it or not we meet one today.

Janus is the Roman god of beginnings, gates, and doorways. []

He was associated with the start of day and the first month of the year – January

He also was the doorkeeper (janitor), a god of openings and beginnings.

Like a doorway that can be entered from two directions Janus has two faces, one looking forward and one looking back.

His temple in the Roman Forum had two sets of doors facing east and west. These doors were open during war and closed in periods of peace.  They weren’t closed very much.

The last such war in the Roman Republic came out of Cleopatra’s Egypt.

Cleopatra assisted by her lover Mark Antony fought Octavian. After the decisive victory for Octavian at the Battle of Actium, Cleopatra and Antony withdrew to Alexandria, where Octavian besieged the city and both Antony and Cleopatra eventually committed suicide.

Octavian became the most powerful man in the Roman world and the Senate bestowed upon him the name of Augustus in 27 BC.

This last Republican Civil War would mark the beginning of the Pax Romana, good news, good tidings for all, peace and good will.  This remains the longest period of peace and stability that wider Europe has seen in recorded history. []

Curiously, of all the honours extended to Octavian after the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra, “the action which pleased him more than all the decrees was the closing by the senate of the gates of Janus, implying that all their wars had entirely ceased”. []

Cleopatra and Herod were well acquainted and had an intense rivalry.  Both however would eventually to bow to Octavian’s power.

Nevertheless, what Herod feared, but that neither Cleopatra the Pharaoh or Octavian the Caesar could appreciate was that this baby would be the most decisive political challenge any of them would face. [Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Brazos Press, 2007), 37.]

Christmas heralds the radical clash of empires – whether they be tyrannical Herods or the so called good news of Caesars.

Here at New Year we stand in the doorway again.  New Year – as two faced as ever.

Christianly speaking however, we might recall that our New Year began about six weeks ago with Advent.

Why does the lectionary direct us to this text in Matthew on New Year’s Day?

In the first two chapters of Matthew we learn a lot about the true identity of the infant Jesus.

Matthew carefully illustrates that Jesus embodies Israel’s story.

Jesus is the one who experiences Israel’s plight and delivers them from all their failure and its consequences.

The dreams of a Joseph took Jacob and his sons to Egypt and so too the dreams of another Joseph lead the infant Jesus to Egypt for protection.

In Moses’ infancy the threat came from a murderous Pharaoh, in the time of Jesus a Jewish King is the slaughterer.

For Jesus, the enemy is close by.  He will be hunted in the house of his ‘friends’.

Even so, the immediate danger to the infant Christ passes with the death of Herod.

Like his people he is called out of Egypt, a more potent challenge to Caesar then Augustus will ever know, the greatest contrast to Herod’s tyranny.

Forget Cleopatra: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

As Sarah Coakley summarizes, “We see afresh, in Matthew’s gospel, all the coming drama of Jesus’s life and death, of darkness and its resistance. We see afresh the flight into Egypt as a token of evil averted and salvation to come; we see afresh the menacing presence of Herod as a reminder of everything violent that resists the joy and peace of Christ; we see afresh the naming of Jesus as a Nazorean as a sign of his ultimate strength and lineage.” []

Christmas and its importance for framing our approach to the New Year can be understood in two propositions:

Firstly, Christmas is a protest. [Summarized from the wonderful article by John Webster, “The Uncontrollable Mystery on the Bestial Floor”, Evangel (Spring 1985).]
Christmas is a protest against all pictures of God which project our fears or fantasies and so obscure the loving character of God shown to us in Jesus.  As the texts display this is a gritty costly kind of love, not a sentimental quaint kind of option.

But Jesus doesn’t just show us what God is like – He also shows us what human beings were intended to be.

So Christmas is simultaneously a protest against inhuman pictures of humanity.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas, in reference to the massacre of the innocents, says, “Perhaps no event in the gospel more determinatively challenges the sentimental depiction of Christmas than the death of these children. Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed, and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants.” [Hauerwas, Matthew, 41]

New Year needs Christmas because Christmas effects a transformation of our reality.

For in Jesus, humanity is both remade and given new possibilities.

Christians confess that the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus.  And we are called to live in the crisis of time accordingly.

At New Year we can dream of escape, we can surrender to our angst, we can make any number of superb resolutions.

Yet, Jesus still points us toward deep engagement with our world.

Just so, his “kingdom is not some inner sanctuary, but rather an alternative world, an alternative people, an alternative politics.” [Hauerwas, Matthew, 38]

Secondly, Christmas is fundamentally a Prototype:

As David Guretzki puts it, “Christmas…is the true prototype of every new beginning, of every new creation in Christ Jesus.  Christmas tells us that because of that day when God became flesh, today is always a new day founded in the coming of Jesus.” [David Guretzki, Theommentary blog, “Pondering Christmas Preaching With Karl Barth”. []

This Year needs Christmas.  This day needs Christmas.

And this world needs Christians following the Jesus who remains a threat to Herod and to Rome.

‘Out of Egypt God called his Son.’  He takes our slavery and our exile too.

We need the Christmas Jesus, just like the world does.  Not a ‘Talladega Nights’ kind of golden-diaper Jesus mind, but Jesus, God stooped low into our muck and filth.

Let’s not be fooled again.  It’s a new day.

Change is possible; healing from brokenness, new sight, release from captivity.

It’s in the very DNA of the Christian faith.

In the wonderful words of John Webster: “In his birth is our birth: our wasted ways are restored, our endless capacity to undo our own lives is itself undone.” [Webster, “The Uncontrollable Mystery on the Bestial Floor”, 11.]”

Meet the new boss, not the same as the old boss.

Happy New Day.

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