Sermon preached First Sunday after Christmas (New Year’s Eve), 31 December 2023, Immanuel Lutheran Church, Buderim, Qld, Australia.
Watch the sermon here: https://www.youtube.com/@immanuelchurchau
It’s fading in our culture, but we like to sing at important events. When our football team wins, we sing the club song. At the start of a school assembly, we sing the national anthem. At a birthday party, we sing “Happy birthday.” At the close a year and the start of a new one, we sing “Auld lang syne” (“Times long past” or “For old times sake”).
This last one, “Auld lang syne,” is a reflective song about two old buddies catching up for a drink. Reflecting about old times. Reflect back on this year gone. What has 2023 been like for you? What stands out? If you had to choose a few adjectives to describe the year, what would you choose? E.g. Eventful. Challenging. Transformative. Memorable. Unpredictable. Productive. Boring. Dynamic? Perhaps this is something to continue talking about over morning tea or lunch.
God’s people have always sung. The psalms record song lyrics, for which we no longer have the music. The psalms are like a hymn book: a collection of songs sung at different occasions e.g. on the way to the temple, entering the temple, at a coronation, times of joy, times of sadness, etc.
Psalm 33 is a song of praise for God’s people. It opens with a call to praise. ‘Sing joyfully to the LORD, you righteous.’ (Psalm 33:1). This opening uses nearly every known Hebrew word for “praise:” rejoice, praise, make melody, sing, play.
But can we sing ‘joyfully’ as we enter 2024? Some of us may not feel like singing a joyful song right now. Maybe this year has been full of heartache. Next year is uncertain. You didn’t get the school teacher or university course desired. Perhaps you have no job in 2024, or new uncertain work. Maybe there are health concerns: yours, a family member, or friend. Floods, storms, and other natural disasters seem to be a constant on the news feeds. Wars and armed conflicts continued or began with horrible outcomes. How can we rejoice given what is happening in the world or my life?! How can we sing joyfully?! Is a hymn of praise right for New Year’s Eve 2023?
We can sing a hymn of praise because this song is a new song. See, our sin-filled world is “old.” Paul and Luther write about sin and call it “the old Adam.” Revelation calls the devil the “old serpent” (Revelation 12:9). Everything wrong in this world is “old.” Yet Christ is called “a new thing which the LORD created on the earth” (Jeremiah 31:22). Through Jesus Christ, something new has and is happening in the world. By his birth, life, suffering, death, and resurrection we have the promise that all creation, including you and I, will be made new. And this new creation has already begun. In Christ, you are a new creation. You are like this year: the old has gone, the new has come. Only a new person can sing a new song.
We can sing a hymn of praise because God is faithful. ‘For the word of the LORD is right and true; he is faithful in all he does. The LORD loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.’ (Psalm 33:4–5). Regardless of our circumstances, we have the promise that God is faithful in all he does. Even though it may not seem like it, the earth is full of God’s unfailing love. In our Gospel reading (Luke 2:22–35), Simeon declares that he has seen God’s salvation. Where? I want to see it too! Simeon looks down at the baby in his arms saying, “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations.” (Luke 2:30–31). Salvation is not a concept to be thought, a prayer to be prayed, an action that we can accomplish. Salvation is a person we can look upon, in the manger, on the cross: Jesus Christ. So in the one breath we can say, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matthew 5:4) and “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). At the same time we have both affliction in the world, and peace and salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ.
This hymn then develops praise for God using four topics or realms. God is above each realm. God is sovereign over every sphere of reality: creation, history, humans, and church.
(1) Creation. Australia is a nation of extreme seasons: fire, drought, flood. ‘I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains, of ragged mountain ranges, of drought and flooding rains.’ The psalm uses imagery from the creation accounts in Genesis and Job. God spoke, “Let there be… and there was.” Like a king or overseer of a treasury, God puts the chaotic waters and depths into jars in his storehouse. As wild and terrifying as creation can be at times, the psalm reminds us that God is above all this. He is a giving God, who freely gives us all creation and life and breath. So we can sing praise to our Creator God, who freely gives and sustains creation. Challenge: Why not go out into creation this week, and read this psalm?
(2) History. The plans and purpose of nations and people means history and current events. And, like creation, all history and events are under the control of God. Nations come and go. Civilisations topple. Historic events continue to unfold. Our times can feel like shifting sand. Things we thought stable are coming tumbling down. Think about some of the events of 2023: interest rates at record highs, deep division brought to light through the Voice referendum, the continuing meteoric rise of artificial intelligence, war in Ukraine continuing and intensifying, armed violence in Israel and Gaza causing devastation. Yet, God foils all these plans. God thwarts these purposes. The Christmas events (celebrated last week) remind us that God uses history for his purposes: it was the Roman census and taxation that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. The Crucifixion events also remind us that God uses history for his purposes: it was through the plans of the religious leaders of the day that Jesus was handed over to the Romans to be crucified for our sake. This hymn confesses that the plans of the LORD are firm, his plans alone stand forever. Everything else in history turns to sand in the hourglass, but the purposes of God’s heart endures for all generations. So we can rejoicing, singing a new song of hope, because all of history follows God’s plans and fulfills his purposes.
(3) Human beings. Which humans have you spent time with this 2023? Was there a new friend you made? A friend lost? Someone grieved? This hymn uses a picture of God high above humanity. From his vantage point, God understands and comprehends every human. ‘From heaven the LORD looks down and sees all humankind. From his dwelling place he watches all who live on earth.’ (Psalm 33:14–15). This all knowing surveillance is both a warning and comfort: God sees all and knows all, there are no secrets for him; yet the comfort is that every moment of your life is intimately known to God. He is attentive to you. He knows you better than you know yourself. He knows what paths you walk, what burdens you carry, what illusions you chase after. God knows everything you do! And his gaze fills the earth with his living kindness. So we can sing a new song rejoicing because God sees and knows each human being, who are precious to him.
(4) Church. This last stanza concerns ‘those who fear [or trust] the LORD,’ ‘those whose hope in his unfailing love.’ That’s you — the church, God’s people! We are those who fear and trust God first, who hope in his promises. This stanza tells us of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. It contrasts the vanity of relying on human strength. The strongest human resources end up coming to naught. No king is saved is by the size of their army. No warrior wins by their great strength. Even horses, the strongest beast of burden in Israel, can not save. When we face sin, death, and the power of the devil, no human resource is strong enough. Not your good deeds. Not your love for each other. Not your prayers. Not your alms giving. Not your reputation. Not your family. Not your success (or lack thereof) in the eyes of the world. No human endeavour, no human quality, no human strength can bring salvation. Salvation comes by Jesus freely giving his body, Jesus shedding his blood on the cross, for you, for me. So the church, those who trust in this free gift of God’s love, can rejoice and sing joyfully!
Challenge: Reflect back over 2023. What were some of the themes or topics that sum up your year. Family Life? Work? Sport? Church? Can you turn each of these into a hymn of praise?
This hymn concludes with a confession of trust and prayer. These realities are now, but also not yet. Creation at times is terrifying and destructive. The forces of history and current events appear overwhelming. The heartache of humanity is stifling. The church seems in tatters. Yet: ‘we wait in hope for the LORD.’
In our Gospel reading, Simeon was waiting for the consolation of Israel. He’d no doubt seen his fair share of natural disasters, nations at war, humankind in all it’s beauty and pain, the failures of God’s people. Yet he looks down at this baby in his arms, and his heart rejoices. I pray that as this year closes, you too can look down at this baby, and see God’s salvation.
May you start next year with burdens lifted from you, with joy in your heart, feet on a new path, rest in your souls. For the word of the LORD is right and true, he is faithful in all he does. By the word of the LORD the heavens and earth were made — all creation stands firm. The LORD foils the plans of the nations, he thwarts the purposes of the people — nothing in all history, current or future events can rock you, for the plans of the LORD stand forever. From heaven the LORD looks down and sees all humankind — he sees you, and loves you with unfailing love. Despite great strength, no one can save themself — but those who trust in Jesus Christ are delivered from sin, death, and the devil. So wait in hope for the LORD, he is your help and shield. May your hearts rejoice, even in the midst of any pain and affliction you encounter in 2024. We pray: “LORD, may your unfailing love be with us, even as we put our hope in you. Amen.”