Sunday, January 01, 2012

Renew! (Luke 2:22-40)

On January 1, the sun came up and things happened mostly like they normally do. In fact, the earth's rotation means that the sun has been coming up pretty much ever since there was an earth to rotate, although it used to happen more often because the earth rotated faster.

People who use Gregorian-influenced calendars -- most of the world has to at least take notice of them even if they have their own calendar -- mark the beginning of a new year on that day. It's not different from any other day in any way but that one, and as I mentioned there are several other calendars in wide use that don't note it at all. Rosh Hashanah, the "Jewish New Year," happens in September. In 2012, New Year's Day on the traditional Chinese calendar will be January 23. Muslims observe years according to the "Hijiri calendar," and date each year from Mohammed's pilgrimage or hijira from Mecca to Medina in November of 622. Users of these and other non-Gregorian calendars often use the Gregorian dates in most things that don't involve either culturally or religiously important observances.

Because we tend to look at the day in terms of starting a new year and a new set of dates, we often see January 1 as a chance to do something different. We look to adopt new habits or new practices that will benefit us -- ask anyone who works at a gym what it's like the first few weeks of the new year and you'll see what I mean. We also look to stop old habits or unhealthy activities.

Some of this may be a mental thing. We knew last year that we needed to exercise more and eat less (we knew it after Thanksgiving dinner if no other time) but because the new year represents new chances and a new start, we may feel more motivated or encouraged about starting that pattern. Other people are probably starting similar new patterns at the same time and we can encourage each other. All around us are signs of new starts and new beginnings: Posters with babies wearing sashes that have the new year on them, checks with the old year scribbled out and the new year written in, and so on. All of this pushes us in our new resolution for renewal as well. Everything around me has been renewed, so I can be renewed also!

The opposite, it would seem, would mean that trying to feel a sense of renewal in the midst of the same old thing would be harder. If all the new year's posters were cut in half and I only had pictures of the tired old guy with last year's number on his sagging sash, how motivated would I feel?

There's nothing wrong with taking our cues from our surroundings and using our environments to help motivate us. We may like to pray with an open Bible in front of us or in a place where we can see something that inspires thoughts of God, like a cross or a peaceful natural scene. We may like to exercise with a picture of a very healthy person on the wall in front of the treadmill as a sign of our goal. Or maybe a picture of our own significant posterior as a sign of what we're trying to get away from. Or maybe even a picture of the donut with which we can reward ourselves for our hard work and as a reminder we'd better work harder if we're going to eat donuts.

Our problem can come when we believe that the cues do more than just encourage and motivate. If we believe that the cues themselves make things happen then we've crossed the line from motivation to magic, and we're doing more to get in the way of change than help it. Look at this scene from Luke. Joseph and Mary have brought Jesus to the Temple to offer the sacrifice all Jewish parents made for their firstborn children. They have done so since the time of the Passover, more than fifteen hundred years before this! At the temple their baby boy is remarked upon by two old people. But it is in the midst of this setting of centuries-old ceremonies and decades-old believers that the sign of God's new work is seen.

Nothing around them changed. Anna and Simeon were still old and probably passed away not long after this. A Roman governor still ruled the province of Judea and Roman soldiers still strode through the streets of Jerusalem in the sight of the temple. Mary and Joseph still had to figure out how to be parents, something that apparently comes with no manual.

And yet, in the middle of all of this tired old ordinary, God had done an amazing new thing. In Jesus, God had entered his own creation in order to heal that creation's broken relationship with him and with each other.

Every day starts a new year, really. It's been a year since the last time it was that date, so it's a whole new year even if it doesn't get its own special themed calendar. And every day God also begins anew, offering you and me the chance to do that as well. Isn't that some very good news?

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