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  • Dr. Bruce Havens

A Requiem for 2020

a message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens

based on the theme: Something More for Christmas

Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.

December 27, 2020

Luke 2:22-33 NRSV

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.


Well, anybody here NOT ready to pronounce 2020 dead and bury it? Anyone here want to extend 2020? Didn’t think so. That’s the funny thing about New Years, isn’t it? We are almost always ready to move to a new year, hoping for a better year, but after all that 2020 included, man, oh, man!

Shall we do an obituary on 2020? Ok! Well, 2020 started out with a nation fractured politically. It was an election year and tempers on both sides were already at a fever pitch. Does it seem to anyone else that it has gotten worse with each passing election? Does it seem like the political professionals feed off of making us all as angry as possible because they believe only angry people vote. The rest are too apathetic to turn out. Well, the turnout was certainly not apathetic this year, was it? Whatever side you were on, or however hard you tried not to get hooked in at all, 2020 was an election year I suspect any sane person on either side of the political aisle hopes will never be topped.

Then February and March and April rolled around. And COVID rolled in. And the confusion, the denials, the anger, the fear and anxiety just exploded. Again, whatever you believe, I can’t believe anyone isn’t praying that by the end of 2021 the Coronavirus is completely in the rearview mirror. I don’t know if it will be but if I have any prayer answered in 2021 it is just that. I know I am not alone.

I would be remiss if I didn’t note that the political unrest was matched only by the racial and economic unrest. I actually take hope that these movements won’t end. I believe major change is needed in our society. I hope it can be achieved more peacefully, but we must address and change the injustices caused by racism and the inequality of economic opportunity in a nation that claims and prides itself on equal opportunity. I could describe all the suffering that this year has caused on top of the usual suffering at the personal and at the wider levels of our lives, but I don’t think 2020 deserves any more of an obituary than that.

Well, obituaries or eulogies aside let’s be honest. Just turning a page on a calendar doesn’t change anything but a page on a calendar. We may want 2021 to be different but here’s the thing. There will still be problems. They may not be as overwhelming as a world-wide pandemic, or a national financial recession, or more hurricanes than there are letters in the alphabet to name them… or whatever disaster you want to imagine or hope not to imagine. Let’s just be honest. 2021 will have its problems and many of them will be left over from 2020, even when we turn the page and that ball drops in Times Square at midnight January 1.

As people of faith we may have trouble trusting that God is still in business or that if God is in business that God is in the blessing business after 2020. There are times when times are so hard it is hard to believe that God is still trying to save us. Barbara Brown Taylor is a great theologian, writer, and preacher. In a story about a walk on the beach she brings this reality to life.

Several summers ago, I spent three days on a barrier island where loggerhead turtles were laying their eggs. One night while the tide was out, I watched a huge female heave herself up the beach to dig her nest and empty herself into it while slow, salt tears ran from her eyes. Afraid of disturbing her, I left before she had finished her work but returned next morning to see if I could find the spot where her eggs lay hidden in the sand. What I found were her tracks, only they led in the wrong direction. Instead of heading back out to sea, she had wandered into the dunes, which were already hot as asphalt in the morning sun.
“A little ways inland I found her, exhausted and all but baked, her head and flippers caked with dried sand. After pouring water on her and covering her with sea oats, I fetched a park ranger, who returned with a jeep to rescue her. As I watched in horror, he flipped her over on her back, wrapped tire chains around her front legs, and hooked the chains to the trailer hitch on his jeep. Then he took off, yanking her body forward so fast that her open mouth filled with sand and then disappeared underneath her as her neck bent so far I feared it would break.
“The ranger hauled her over the dunes and down onto the beach; I followed the path that the prow of her shell cut in the sand. At ocean's edge, he unhooked her and turned her right side up again. She lay motionless in the surf as the water lapped at her body, washing the sand from her eyes and making her skin shine again.
“Then a particularly large wave broke over her, and she lifted her head slightly, moving her back legs as she did. As I watched, she revived. Every fresh wave brought her life back to her until one of them made her light enough to find a foothold and push off, back into the water that was her home.
“Watching her swim slowly away and remembering her nightmare ride through the dunes, I noted that it is sometimes hard to tell whether you are being killed or being saved by the hands that turn your life upside down.

She adds, “Our hope, through all our own terrors, is that we are being saved. Whatever we believe about why things happen the way they do, we … hope that God is present in them, working [for] redemption in light and darkness,” blessing and suffering. That is the hope we hold for 2021 isn’t it, whatever degree it feels like 2020 was like being dragged by a chain through the sand and dumped in the sea.

If we turn and look at the story we read this morning we hear words that speak of salvation. This part of Mary and Joseph’s encounter with Simeon is the good part, the part where their hearts probably leaped with joy. Simeon’s words seemed to confirm all that the angels had promised. The angels had promised that their son would be called great, that he would be the Son of God, that he would be seen as Immanuel, the very presence of God with us in human flesh. At that moment he was just a helpless infant. He apparently had no special powers. He had dirty diapers, a need to be fed, burped, held when he cried, and was dependent on his parents – mostly his mother – for everything.

They go to the Temple to dedicate baby Jesus. Old Simeon, shows up and proceeds to take the baby from his mother’s arms and confirm all that they had been promised. Jesus was the sign of God’s salvation, the assurance of God’s grace not only for God’s chosen people of Israel but for all nations, for the Gentiles as well as the Jews. But that is really only half the story of that day. After the year we have had I didn’t have the heart to read you the other part of the story. It sounded a little too much like that turtle being dragged through hell to be saved.

But I have to be honest. I have to remind you if you have read this before, or tell you if you haven’t. Old Simeon had another word for Mary and Joseph besides the good news that Jesus was the sign of God’s salvation. As he hands the baby back to his mother he looks in her eyes and says, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too” [Luke 2:34-35 NRSV]. So there you go. The salvation of the world would not happen without pain. The victory over sin and death would not come without struggle. The triumph of the Savior of the world didn’t happen without a crucifixion.

Oh, I know, we haven’t even packed away the decorations, finished the leftovers, or had the torn up wrapping paper carried away and I am already talking about Easter. Yikes, preacher, can’t we have just a moment to hope that 2021 will be different? Can’t we give 2020 a satisfying kick to the curb before we have to prepare for the problems of a New Year? Well, no. I think this brief time we have before we turn the calendar to 2021is time to prepare to make 2021 better than 2020. Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of the Christ. Can we take this little gap between the coming of Christ and the coming of the New Year to decide how we want to face the challenges of the New Year? We all hope 2021 will be better than 2020. But I would bet there is a 100% chance 2021 will provide its share of challenges and trials.

The Ranger had to drag the turtle to the edge of the sea to give it a chance of salvation. It was headed in the wrong direction. Maybe you feel like God dragged you through 2020 like that sea turtle was dragged through the sand. If so, think about this: maybe you were headed in the wrong direction in some way. Maybe being here at the brink of 2021 is like being dropped off at the edge of the sea after being dragged through the sand, and now we have to choose. Will it be our salvation or our sinking? Will we swim for our lives or simply give up and let the waves wash over us and drown us?

Much is up to us. Perhaps the best we can do is assess what we did well in 2020 in the face of its challenges and then ask yourself, “Where do I need to change direction?” We certainly have much work to do as a nation in terms of the racism, the economic inequalities and injustices, and in terms of rebuilding trust in our government. For now, turn the page on that calendar. Look for the signs in the sands of life. Are you headed in the right way, the best way or is it time to change directions? Whatever happens in 2021, how we respond will be based on what we truly have faith in. At the center of the Christmas we just celebrated is a Savior who is Christ the Lord. He came to give life, to show us the way of God’s love, and to offer us a new reality of salvation. Will we choose his way, or try going our own way yet again? AMEN.

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