A sermon for Watch Night, New Year’s Eve
December 31, 2015
Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx New York
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
Tonight we end the year of 2015 and we observe the Feast of the Holy Name, which falls on January first of 2016. The Gospel lesson is about Jesus receiving his name—on the eighth day, according to Jewish law Mary and Joseph had their baby circumcised and at that point he received his name: Jesus. But for us, that’s not just any baby, and it’s not just any name. We continue our celebration of the incarnation and Jesus is the name of God among us—alive and real, no abstraction.
The Old Testament lesson is not about circumcision or naming children. It is the blessing which the priests of Israel were instructed to give to the people. The last line of the lesson is, “So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.” When we read this blessing in most translations, there is something that is easy to miss. The blessing says, “The LORD bless you and keep you” in most translations. But in Hebrew, there is a different word there that was not pronounced, even from before the time of Jesus. Out of reverence, respect and fear of the One, the Holy, the Eternal God that no one has ever seen, orthodox Jews do not pronounce the name of God. But in this blessing, when you read the text, that name—written as four consonants—Y-H-W-H without the vowels needed to pronounce it—that name occurs three times. Some scholars believe that it was pronounced Yahweh. So the blessing would be: Yahweh bless you and keep you; Yahweh make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; Yahweh lift up his countenance upon you, and be gracious to you.
This blessing puts the Holy Name of God on the people. The name is not some generic abstraction. It is the name of the God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt, who before that appeared to Moses in the Burning Bush, and long before that who had called Abraham, to make him a people. The Holy Name signifies God among us. And the angel told Mary to name him Jesus.
We are blessed by the presence of God with us at the end of this year. 2015 has been a difficult year. If you look in the news, there is violence all over. All over the world, and violence and fear in every sector of public life. There are wars and terrorist attacks around the globe. Over a hundred people were killed in one attack in Paris. Millions of Syrians have had to flee the killing and destruction in their own country—many have died in the process. In our own country gun violence continues to increase. We particularly notice when people go into public places and kill people they don’t know: a college campus in Oregon, a women’s health center in Colorado, a holiday party at an agency that served clients with developmental disabilities in California, a prayer meeting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The violence makes people fearful and angry and looking for over-simple solutions. They bring more violence and fear into this world. Fearful people see danger in broad categories of people: all immigrants, all Muslims; perhaps all Republicans or all Democrats. Fear has grown to the point that some have taken to fearing, even hating, pretty much everybody who doesn’t look or think like them.
Recently, a grand jury in Cleveland declined to indict the police officer who shot Tamir Rice, a twelve-year old, who had been playing with a toy gun in a park. Police have a difficult and dangerous job, but the numbers of African Americans killed at their hands is totally out of proportion. Professional law enforcement officers should respond to situations by evaluating the circumstances and increasing the safety of all people, not by giving vent to anger; and not by building anger on fear of entire categories of people.
As politics rev up for a presidential election, some seek to exploit people’s fear and to increase their fear and anger. This is not moral. Winning an election or a nomination by harnessing hate is a mockery of democracy and it is the opposite of Christian faith.
At the end of this difficult year, we watch and pray. We are not alone, we pray with others, Christians and non-Christians—we wait and look for peace. Peace is not something we can make, especially not by exercising power. Peace is something that we become. We become people of peace through God’s grace and God’s blessing.
When Pope Francis visited our country this fall, he spoke to Congress. Here is a brief excerpt of what he had to say:
But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within.
God can free us from that enemy within—the enemy of hate, built on fear. It takes courage, however, for Christians to follow Jesus, and take his name into their hearts—fear does not magically disappear in this world, it is only the love of God that overcomes fear.
We wait, and we pray for God to bless us, to banish our fear and to give us his blessing. And in blessing us, God puts the Name of our Lord Jesus in our hearts.
The Lord bless you and keep you;
The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you,
And give you peace.