NEW YEAR’S DAY, JANUARY 1, 2007
On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived. (NIV)
FREED TO PLAN TOMORROW
In you, as in me, varying personality quirks give vent at differing moments. One which often surfaces in me is relatively driven and determined. I operate with plans, procedures and policies. Because I am so used to employing this particular persuasion in my work life, I all too often turn to it in my leisure time. When it comes to planning a vacation, I do it in detail. Online motel reservation services assure where I will stay at night. Mapquest helps me to plan the routes beforehand. Well-read travel guides tell me which sites, attractions or restaurants I should visit. Do you know what I’m talking about?
In my fantasy world, however, I am a vagabond, a sojourner, like Abraham, a wanderer on the face of the earth. A couple years ago I moved from the sedate life of sedan driving to the more venturesome prospect of charting the unknown in a Honda CRV. I thought that, just perhaps, my wife and I might set out one day, driving southwest from Texas, no particular destiny in mind, no reservations made, all travel guides unread. We might just arrive somewhere, confident that an inn might have room, and that an innkeeper would feed us.
This has yet to happen, but deep within me, the prospect that it might, keeps me sane in the midst of my rather organized life. The thought that one day, we might simply head for tomorrow, without trying to predetermine whether tomorrow will come or what it might look like, is an attractive potential for all of us who try to resist the strait-jacket pressures of high-intensity modern living. Whether or not we will one day take that trip is a good question to ask on the first day of 2007.
It is, of course, in principle, a theological question, and we know this very well. We cannot live without some planning or structure, or we will find ourselves begging on the streets. However, trying to control all the details of our lives, confident that we know, from our human perspective, what life should look like in all its details, is a kind of hubris which has “Dead End” written all over it. Inevitably, when we take control, there are elements of our nature, such as jealously, anger, lust, and narcissism, which turn us onto side roads and two-tracks in the sand. The main highway leads elsewhere and we are finally lost in places where we ought not to be. This is the story of sin, and we know it well. We were, however, cut out for the open road, for the journey of God’s own making. As Christians, we have a certain destiny which does not require our all-too-human tampering. God waits for us to trust his love for us and to venture out knowing that he secured our future.
I. A New Beginning for Jesus and for Us.
The text for New Year’s Day can help us think through these matters in very personal ways. We can imagine the thoughts of Joseph and Mary as their child was brought to be circumcised and named. This was a moment in Jewish life when a male child came to be part of God’s covenant people and received a name which would indicate his role in future years. The parents were typically filled with hope and excitement as God opened the door of the future to their child. It was a great moment of trust as parents waited on God to experience the ways in which the name would have its impact in God’s certain destiny.
In the United States, we have all but forgotten the concept of naming children symbolically, expressing hope and faith for their future through their names. Recently, however, I had an opportunity to visit with a young Ghanaian girl named Peace, in her mid-twenties, a member of the Ewe tribe. She told me that her people choose Biblical names to be given at Baptism, typically names like Love, Hope, Patience, etc. Sometimes, she said, if parents can’t agree, or if grandparents want some role, the child may have several names. In her own experience, she remembered times when her father would say to a sibling who was acting out, “your mother and I chose that name for you, and you need to be giving thought to how you will fulfill its meaning.” Names in the Ewe culture still have this Biblical sense of symbolizing a destiny which God seeks to fulfill in you.
In Jesus’ case, his name and destiny had significant portent. Jesus is a form of the Hebrew Joshua, meaning “Savior.” It was his privilege to carry the name which led to his becoming the spiritual liberator of his people. Little did Joseph and Mary know how this name and role would ultimately play itself out. In the humiliating rejection from his own people, leading to his crucifixion and death, God would cancel the failure and guilt resulting from human self-centeredness. And in the resurrection of Jesus, he would open those dead-end streets and desert two tracks, creating a highway leading to life eternal. On the day when Jesus was named, God already had this destiny in mind.
This has very personal application in our own lives. Our counterpart to this day of Jesus’ circumcision and naming is the day when our own parents bring us to baptism in great anticipation and hope. In baptism, God affirms us as his own and opens the future to us as members of his eternal family. To raise one’s children as God’s own children is one of the great nurturing roles of parents and sponsors—and whole Christian communities. On our baptismal days, God opens a door to us he will never shut. Even more profoundly, in the waters of baptism, we are drowned to a way of life that should have no control over us, even as we daily claim Jesus’ resurrecting power in our lives.
II. Finishing our Lives with Determined Faith
Today’s Old Testament Lesson, the well-known Aaronic Benediction, reminds us that God wishes to place his name on his people. It is a blessing to know as we leave the church with this benediction that we are to expect God’s grace and peace upon us as we go about our daily work and play rituals. Of course, our lives are not finished and we look forward to what tomorrow brings. We look forward to the ways in which God’s blessings upon us will make us different in our relationships with those whose lives we daily touch.
In a recent film directed by Robert Redford, in which he also has the leading role, An Unfinished Life, we are confronted by a person, like many of us, who is focused on the wrong things and, as a result, lacks a future orientation. Redford lives out his life on a ranch, overwhelmed by the death of his only child, a son. Buried on a spot at the ranch, Redford goes to “visit” with his son ever day, talking about things going on in his world. He is not just lonely, but he lives in the past. Life has only a backward look for him. One day his son’s wife, who is down on her luck, appears with the granddaughter Redford has never met, and asks if she can stay for a short while. Redford hates this daughter-in-law because she was driving the car when his only son was killed. Reluctantly, he allows them to stay, curious about the fact that he has a granddaughter. As the rapport builds between Redford and this granddaughter and, she, in effect, comes to replace his dead son, the grandfather acquires a new hope, a new confidence, a new future. Gradually, he not only allows his deceased son to “finish” his own life, but he moves on to complete his as well. He acquires a future orientation which brings him out of the dead-end situation of his past.
There is a powerful lesson for us in this movie, because it speaks of the very death and rising, the very liberation from our wayward and backward orientations, which we can know on New Year’s Day. Today we celebrate that Jesus was named Savior and that we who have been redeemed from the potential for useless and unproductive living can now be about the business of finishing our lives with determined faith. What might such lives look like for you and for me?
The Ewe girl of whom I spoke, Peace, told me about a name in her culture that is somewhat like the name Jesus, but not the same. In her culture, as is typically true in English-speaking traditions, the name Jesus itself is too sacred to be applied to humans. However, there is the name Holali which means “there is a Savior.” It means that when all seems lost, and a person is in despair, he can shout “Holali,” meaning, “there is a Savior.” The name is given to people so that in their lives they can always have confidence and a future orientation.
It is not unlike Martin Luther’s famous story about baptism. He claimed that when he was despairing, and seemed to be overwhelmed with the challenges of the emperor, pope, peasants rebellion, etc., he would write with his finger in Latin in the dust on Kathy’s uncleaned table, “Baptizatus sum,” or “I have been baptized.” It was his reminder that no matter what a day might bring, tomorrow was always God’s gift to him whether here or in eternity.
In each of our lives, there are surprises which have both negative and positive impact. When we are confronted with disappointing or tragic circumstances, we may come to believe that our best years are behind us and we become backward-looking people. Often this happens to parents who lose a child, to widows and widowers, to those who lose a job and can’t find a comparable one, or to those who can’t rediscover the popularity that we once enjoyed as a sports figure or physically attractive teenager. For some, such backward looks can lead to serious problems with depression. Some even try to resolve such problems with all kinds of dead-end solutions which can forever leave our lives unfulfilled.
However, this is New Year’s Day. We are here to remember that by virtue of our baptisms, we Christians eternally live in the land of beginning again. Jesus is alive. “Holali!” There is a savior! Your destiny is certain. There is nothing in life or death that can separate us from the love of God. These are the words of celebration that belong to a day in which God affirms both Jesus as his Son—and through him, us as his family. There can be other reasons for celebrating on a day like this. Our football team may win. And friends may come to visit and we can share good times. However, we know that the only celebration worth holding, again and again, on New Year’s Day, is that the past has passed, and, in Jesus, the future is ours.
Does that mean that tomorrow will bring no problems? Of course not. One particular tomorrow brought the cross for Jesus. The question for us as baptized Christians is whether, not knowing the details of tomorrow, we will still insist on artificially securing them for ourselves. The unanswered question is whether my wife and I will take our CRV and, with no plans in mind, head into the Southwest, knowing that tomorrow is God’s gift to us. The question is whether you will set aside your worries and your burdens, reciting with Luther, “I am baptized.” The question is whether you will know that you are freed to plan your tomorrows because the past no longer has its hold upon you.
Prof. Dr. Dr. David Zersen, President Emeritus