Sermon delivered at Grace Presbyterian Church, December 30, 2001
Markers In Time
In almost every culture with a calendar, special days are celebrated every year. Families and friends remember one another's birthdays, even though after a while we'd rather stop counting them. People sometimes remember the birthdays of great historical figures, celebrities or heroes.
Today, December 30th, is the 1,962nd birthday of Emperor Titus who led the Roman armies in their destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD -- probably not many are celebrating that today. Its also the birthday of Nobel winning author Rudyard Kipling who wrote The Jungle Book and Gunga Din. And its the birthday of entertainers: Bert Parks, Bo Diddley, Paul Stookey, Del Shannon, and Davey Jones. The golf great Tiger Woods was born on this date in 1975.
Married couples celebrate each year's wedding anniversary. We celebrate national holidays and some with seasonal or religious themes. Schools and businesses often close, and the greeting card industry keeps us buying their product. Sometimes personal turning points or losses are remembered yearly, even past events that bring sad memories.
We seem to celebrate milemarkers in time instinctively. There's wisdom in looking back and remembering things that shaped our present. The New Year reminds us about the lessons and experiences that are now history. That past helps us chart a better course for the future.
Last year our text for the end of 2000 was Proverbs 27:1.
The original word used for boasting means talking confidently about something. Its not just bragging as we use the word boasting today. The warning is that we shouldn't be so confident about what we expect about tomorrow, since we have no way of knowing what God has ordained to happen.
In James 4:14-15 we read this advice;
Its naive to talk about tomorrow's plans, without keeping in mind that God's great plan may steer us along a very different road than the one we had expected.
The year that followed that worship study was certainly filled with the unexpected. It was a year of many important events. There was the installation of a new president, the collisions of a US submarine with a Japanese fishing boat and of one of our surveillance plans with a Chinese jet. There were school shootings, a large earthquake in the North West, scandals, some tragic deaths, congressional debates, and new baseball records ...
But without debate one set of events changed our world forever. Children not yet born will be amazed that we who are here today actually watched as those planes flew into the Trade Center towers, buildings they will only know from pictures in their history books.
We can hope that when they hear the stories about September of 2001, that the danger from militant terrorists will be as much a thing of past history as those fallen buildings in New York.
Just as it was last January, we have no idea what this year will bring. But whatever comes, its important to remember what God has promised and done already.
Marking moments in time is not just a human idea ...
About 5 years ago we reviewed this biblical feast day of Rosh haShanah. God told Israel to review it every year. So its about time we studied it again too.
That whole month of Tishrei was a season of special days, sabbaths, feasts and celebrations. The first of the month was Rosh haShanah, also called the Feast of Trumpets. Just 9 days later was the Yom Kipppur, The Day of Atonement. 5 days after that they celebrated Sukkot, The Feast of Tabernacles.
Each of those special days involved a holy calling together of the people. They were to cease from their regular labor to remember God's care and promises. Sacrifices were made showing their faith in the coming Messiah, who would one day come to remove the offenses that alienated them from God.
We all work hard in the weeks before Christmas and the New Year to prepare for the holidays. We get into the holiday spirit by shopping, decorating and contacting friends and family. The Levitical New Year of Rosh HaShanah was the beginning of the holiday season too. It involved the anticipation, preparation and planning for the coming feast days.
In Scripture, Rosh haShanah is called the Feast of Trumpets. God set up as that new year celebration in Leviticus 23:24-25
The ceremonial trumpet, called the shoPHAR, was blown throughout the whole day. The shophar was a ram's horn that produced a dull tone that could be heard far away. It was used often in the Old Testament to represent the voice of God calling out to his people.
On these occasions the trumpet blew once or twice. But on Rosh haShanah it blew all day. Psalm 89 is a good New Year reading. :15 says,
The "joyful sound" is usually understood to refer to the trumpets of this feast.
The Day of Atonement (yom kippur) came next. It was just 9 days later, on the 10th, and was to remind them about God's mercy in providing forgiveness of sin and guilt. There were many sacrifices to show their faith in the coming Messiah. It was a solemn time for repentance and thankful praise.
Later that same week, on the 15th of Tishri, began the Feast of Tabernacles. This 7-day celebration was called sukKOT. Each family made a shelter out of tree branches, and spent time huddled in there together. It reminded them of the time Israel wandered in the wilderness after the Exodus. It was a joyful feast to remember the goodness of God's covenant promises. He sustained them -- even in their rebellion.
So with all these celebrations in mind, the first of the New Year was a day of rejoicing. God wanted them to come apart from their daily routine to remember his special works, and the mercies he'd extended to them, and the covenant promise which were yet to come.
On that New Year day, they had been planning and decorating for the feasts to come; remembering the assurances of redemption, restoration and loving care.
The great Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides said that the ancient New Year feast day was to awaken the people to repentance in prospect of the coming Day of Atonement.
The remembrances of Scripture are sometimes called memorials. Its just a different way to translate the same Hebrew word.
There were the Memorial Offerings of Grain described in Leviticus 2:9. The priest then shall take up from the grain offering its memorial portion, and shall offer it up in smoke on the altar as an offering by fire of a soothing aroma to the LORD. It reminded them of the prayers that were to be offered up regularly to God.
In Acts 10:4 God said to Cornelius, "Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God." It assured that new Gentile convert that his faith in God and obedience of love, would memorialize him to God; that is, they would receive God's attention.
In Exodus 3:16 the name Jehovah (YAH-veh) is called the memorial-name of God. It would serve as a reminder to all the generations yet to come, of the promises God made to his covenant people.
The memorial of Rosh haShanah, looked to what God had done and promised to do, particularly as represented by the coming feasts. It was to bring those things to their minds.
So the New Year trumpets summoned the people to worship, in anticipation of first the coming Dday of Atonement, God's promise to redeem his people from their sins. They would then anticipate the Feast of Tabernacles to reminded them of how God delivers and provides, even when his people have sinned grievously against him. That was the New Year God established for his people in the time before Christ.
Today New Year's Eve has come to be kept with moral abandon.
For God's Covenant People, the New Year should be a time of celebration too. But not with a contrived and superficial joy like the world's -- a product of moral abandon. Our celebrating is the result of our joy, not the cause of it.
It's not a time to forget good moral judgment in order to create a momentary feeling. It's a time to remember above all, the good things of God; to think about how grace removes the offenses that separate us from the One who made us, and how God's covenant promises of love and comfort belong to us as his children. Though there may be some dark valleys to walk through in the year ahead, we will not have to enter them without the comforting presence of our Good Shepherd.
Displayed over one of my book shelves in my study at home is a railroad engineer's cap. Its doesn't have a particularly important past, I bought it new at a store a while ago. But it reminds me of something. On the front is a patch from the old Lackawanna Railroad. I was born in Lackawanna, New York, not far from our house in South Buffalo. But more importantly it was the railroad where my Grandfather was an engineer. There was a real romance to the railroad back then. the coal burning steam engines, and those who made them go, changed our world. Things would never again be the same as before those tracks were laid out.
That hat is somewhat a memorial, a remembrance to me. Often times I see it sitting up there above my shelf and I remember my Grandfather. I think about how much he impressed me with his honorable character and how he took me on the train to see New York City when I was about 10. And I remember the changes the old engineers and rail crews made in a very different era.
Its good to pause and be reminded of what has already been. Woodrow Wilson once said,
As Christians, we need to remember what God has promised and done for us too. When we see the Old Year pass and the New Year come, when the ball drops in New York, we have a lot to celebrate and to be thankful for.
The stroke of midnight at the end of December 31st can be our memorial moment. But we need to see more than just past events and past loved ones. We need to be reminded about what the whole purpose of the old year has been, and why God has given us the new one.
While you make noise with the rest of the world, watch the ball drop and celebrate with friends, let your minds fix for a moment upon the God behind it all. Long ago he paid an awesome price to redeem his people from their spiritual death and sin. He gave us his word so we would know what is really best for us, though as children we often fail to appreciate the loving advice of our Heavenly Father. He will be there with his children through whatever valleys lie ahead, yet unseen.
By keeping things in perspective, we can walk in the awareness of God's providence unfolding around us, and as we move through time we can look for our duty in each moment.
There is no greater way to live, and no treasure as imaginably satisfying, as living each day in remembrance of the loving Father who redeemed us.