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Recounting Our Days

Isaiah 63:1-10

January 1, 2023

Sermon preached by Rev. Donald Ng at the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco, CA

Why are you here? If you went to a New Year’s Eve party, you wouldn’t be here. Maybe because you went to a New Year’s Eve party that has given you a reason to be here! Even our regular pastors are not here and so they brought me out of retirement to be the pulpit pitch hitter.

When the end of one year and the beginning of a new year come around, we are bombarded with countless lists of what were the bests or most popular of everything under the sun. What were the major headlines on CNN? What are the most popular tacos places in the Mission? On my Spotify, the algorithm lists “My Top Songs in 2022.”

Besides these rather everyday summaries of the best or most frequented or most popular, we also recounted what in 2022 were the worst. We have finished perhaps another one of our worst years in 2022 with the hope of a better year in 2023.

We can recount the Covid pandemic now entering its 4th year, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that has now become a war between NATO and Russia, inflationary trends that have diminished our investments and my retirement fund even though our gasoline prices have gone down, mass shootings, political polarization, job layoffs, labor strikes, homelessness, Union Square is like a ghost town. Like in any year, we experienced illnesses and deaths. What else?

Isaiah 63

On this first Sunday after Christmas, the first day of the New Year, the lectionary readings of Isaiah 63:7-9; Psalm 148; Hebrews 2:10-18; and Matthew 2:13-23 all can speak to us.

The official verses from Isaiah 63 assigned for today only included 7-9 because it is just a week after Christmas Day. We are still glowing during the Christmas holiday. You may be wearing a new garment received on Christmas. I am still playing James Taylor’s Christmas album! Leaving out of the assigned texts are the verses in Isaiah 63 preceding and following verses 7-9. And the reason is because these are harsh and angry words of grief that God has for the people, perhaps for us.

In Isaiah 63:1-6, God is the speaker who laments whose clothing is red with the blood of those who deserted him and provoked his deadly anger. When God looked around for someone to help with the work of redemption, no one was there. No one was on God’s side. God crushed the people in anger, pouring their bloodline on the ground. You can see why these verses were left out on the first Sunday after Christmas.

After verses 63:7-9, we get the rest of chapter 63 that begins with verse 10. It reads, “But they (the people) rebelled and grieved his holy spirit (God); therefore he (God) became their enemy; he himself fought against them.” God’s anger toward the people was clear and it’s no wonder that we would only wish to read the nice verses, 7-9!

But when we recount the countless worst things that have happened to us this past year, could you imagine that God can be angry with us as well? Have we worked with God toward redemption? Are we on God’s side?

When Isaiah spoke in 63:7-9, he reminded the people of God’s gracious deeds and acts that are worthy to be praised. God has looked favorably on the people and was merciful. The powerful image of God here is that God is a parent. A parent offers an abundance of steadfast love. God calls them “my people, children.” In his love and pity for the people, God will redeem them.

Just like a mother or a father carries a baby on their hips, God will “lift them up and carry them all the days of old.” God is always our parent from birth to death, from infancy to old age, in all the years of our lives.

Now you see why on the first Sunday after Christmas, we would only want to read and be reminded of this loving and merciful God who is our parent and creator. But as we face 2023 and all the years to come, we would also need to include the rest of Isaiah 63. As mature Christians, we know that we can’t stay on Christmas Day because the world needs people to be on God’s side to work toward redemption.

Our 3 Fears

The 19th century American poet, Stephen Crane wrote,

A man said to the universe:

“Sir I exist!”

However,” replied the universe.

“The fact has not created in me

A sense of obligation.”

The world that we know is cruel. When we see the untold suffering on the TV screens or on our phones, we can feel abandoned by God. We ask, “Does God know that I exist?” For whatever reason, suffering does exist in this cold, impersonal, fallen world.

In order to face this cruel world, I propose that we look at 3 fears and how our Scriptures today remind us that these fears are baseless and these fears should not worry us.

The first is death and dying. The pandemic has taken many lives including people we may know. Wars always lead to casualties. When one is living in the harsh elements outside, there is dying on our sidewalks. Sometimes for no obvious reasons, the angel of death comes knocking.

But from Hebrews 2:14, we read, “Since, therefore, the children of Israel share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.”

Read Related Sermon  Prodding, Pushing, and Pulling Holy Spirit

In Christ, we have been liberated from the fear of death. Christ endured suffering to death on the cross. His resurrection and ascension make plain that death was not the final victor. Through our oneness with Christ, death no longer holds the power over us that it did before.

Because Jesus has allowed himself to suffer and to die a painful death, all of suffering and death are now transformed for us. While we still are tempted to live in fear of death, we need to fear no longer.

When the one who suffers ahead of us is human, we are inspired. When the one who suffers ahead of us, and dies, is fully God and fully human, that suffering and that death are transformed, and we are free from whatever bonds of fear we had before. Jesus was not ashamed to be one of us even when he was God.

From Matthew 2:16, “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he learned from the wise men.”

The slaughter of the innocents is a difficult episode surrounding the glow of Christmas. While we grieve and become angry at this nightmarish horror as we are so too often seeing today the mass shootings at schools, the death of hungry and homeless children, the death of children as collateral losses of war, we wonder how to make sense of it.

I know that if we are parents of these dead children, we would need an awfully long time to look beyond these awful times if we are really able to do it at all.

In Matthew, we can see God’s protection of Baby Jesus, Joseph and Mary. God spoke to Joseph in dreams to protect the Messiah Child from the dangers of life in this world by going to Egypt and then when returning to Jerusalem, another dream was to go to Nazareth so that the Messiah could escape.

In the escape of the Messiah Child, everyone, even the mothers who lost their sons, we hope, would be comforted. The Messiah would reign one day, and there would be no such murder and violence.

The second fear is lost. Being lost is one of my fears. When I travel to a new place, I research my destination, look at maps, calculate the ETA; thank God for Apple Maps and WAZE! I like how I can track my Uber driver to my destination rather than to be taken on a “joy ride!”

When Joseph and Mary needed to return home to Bethlehem to be counted in a census, they knew how to go home. They were not lost. But when they were threatened by Herod’s need to be in power and in control and that no other king would displace him, Joseph, Mary and Jesus had to go to Egypt. After they thought it was safe to return home after Herod’s death, they were again unsafe from Herod’s son, Archelaus who was known to be even more cruel than his father. So, Joseph, Mary and Jesus went to Nazareth. In a way, the Holy Family was lost, the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. (Matt. 8:20)

Sadly, escaping from terror around the world is still happening. When our group this last March visited Budapest, Hungary and we saw and spoke with Ukrainian refugees who were finding shelter in the hotel, they were lost. When the Palestinians in their West Bank homeland are displaced and relocated so that Jewish settlements can be built, the Palestinians are lost. When Central and South Americans are risking their lives to cross the border to seek asylum, they are lost in the masses hoping and praying that the US would be more welcoming. When the Burmese who are mostly Baptists are arrested and killed in Myanmar by the military, they seek a safe home like the US, but how they wish they can go home for they are lost here.

If you are lost literally or figuratively, God is with us and protects us wherever we are and goes out to meet us when we return home like the prodigal. Since Jesus was a refugee, we are reassured that whenever we may be lost, God identifies with us and welcomes us home.

The third fear is uncertainty. No one knows what tomorrow brings. While we can do the best job entering dates and events into our calendars, hoping that our scheduled events will happen, we can’t guarantee that they will happen.

Uncertainty is a cause of stress and worries. Oh, how we wish we can finish unfinished business so that we can be more certain about everything. In 2023, you may have made resolutions to exercise every day, or lose all of the Christmas calories gained, or watch less TV and read more, or even try to pray more or live life better. But most people who join a fitness membership never stays with it beyond Easter.

The only thing we are certain about is that the future is uncertain. We don’t know when the war will end or when gas prices will go sky high again or when my retirement funds will regain its losses. When we examine the structure of Isaiah 63 with verses 1-6 being bad news, verses 7-9 being good news and verses 10-19 being bad news again, we can feel how uncertain life really is.

Read Related Sermon  Packets of Seeds

From the Matthew 2 text, in very uncertain times like that of the Holy Family, we know that God is with us in uncertain times. As God protected the Messiah from the threat of death, so will God provide protection in our times of job loss, bad news, falling stock prices, and unprecedented social and economic uncertainty.

Faithfulness and trust in God will yield protective care. God will protect us in uncertain times and hide us in secret places. Inasmuch as the Messiah was looked after, provided for, and placed in an environment where he could be nurtured and grow up, even in the midst of dangerous and violent circumstances, God will do the same for us.

Recounting Days of Hope

We have read from Isaiah, Hebrews and Matthew. Now, we’ll read from Psalm 148, one of a cluster of five hymns at the end of the book, which repeatedly use the phrase, “Praise the Lord!” In Psalm 148, “Praise the Lord!” occurs twelve times creating the feeling that the whole world is indeed praising God.

From Psalm 148, in verses 1-5 with the highest region, the heavenly places and their occupants, we have angels, sun, moon, stars, and rain praising the Lord. In verses 7-12, from earth, we see sea monsters, ocean deeps, fire, hail, snow, frost, storm, wind, mountains and hills, fruit and cedar trees, wild animals, domestic animals, creeping animals, birds, and human beings, both royal and common, male and female, young and old, all praising the Lord.

This elaborate recounting of everything praising the Lord means that at Christmas we along with all of creation are agents of God’s ongoing presence in the world. We have joined the heavenly hosts, stars, mountains, wild animals, and kings in reflecting God’s radiance.

Psalm 148 mirrors the picture of angels, shepherds, and wise men attending the child in the manger. The heartbeat of God was born not only into the baby in Bethlehem but into us too. When we are horrified by the slaughter of the innocent children and the pain that we feel when today’s massacres happen, we are comforted by Psalm 148 that despite the pain, we have hope and praise God.

This is the Good News for us on this first Sunday after Christmas, the first day of the New Year. From the Gospel of Matthew juxtaposed with Psalm 148, we learn the lesson that the pain and suffering of life that we witnessed in 2022 are not to be discounted, and neither do we discount joy. We praise God despite the pain. While we see God is angry with us because of our fickleness in Isaiah, God is also like a parent with an abundance of steadfast love and carries us like children. While we are so afraid of death, in Hebrews, Jesus, fully human and fully divine, destroyed the power of death in his resurrection and ascension.

Praise the Lord! We too can praise the Lord twelve times!

It is a custom in most homes and churches that set up manger scenes to take them down after Christmas and store them away until the season returns the next year. If we follow the story of Christmas, perhaps we should put away the shepherds because they have returned to their fields. We can put away the wise men because they have returned to their distant homes. Maybe we can put away the cuddly sheep and the friendly oxen because Baby Jesus doesn’t need a warm stable anymore. We can take away the sheltering barn because the innkeeper said it was time to move on.

Who we have left are only Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus. We should move the Holy Family to another location in our homes. Perhaps we should move them to a window looking out onto the larger world, the world where there is still violence and repression and terror, and where there are refugees fleeing, needing protection, human beings in whom Christ is crying to us for protection. Let us not just recount the days of last year, not to discount the existence of joy in our pain and suffering, and to look outside to count the many ways we bring hope in the world.

We may still fear death, lost, and uncertainty. But on this first Sunday after Christmas, on this first day of the New Year, we are reminded that Christ conquered death, we are found in Christ and God protects us in times of uncertainties. Praise the Lord!

Let us pray.

O God, we have been so busy with the holidays in the hope that such things like giving and receiving gifts or partying or making resolutions would give us meaning in life. Lord, help us to refocus our lives on you who came on Christmas, is with us in the Holy Spirit and is still coming to summon us to new life and in becoming the beloved community. As we face the New Year, reassure us that when we are afraid of death, experiencing being lost, and uncertain about what tomorrow might bring, that you are by our sides and will always be there for us. In all your love and mercy for us, we proclaim, “Praise the Lord!’ In the name of Christ Jesus, Savior of the world we pray. Amen.

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