Who Rings in the New Year Sitting?
You may be seated at a table most of the night, but who doesn't stand when the clock strikes midnight New Year's Eve? The First Sunday in Advent, for churches following the historic church calendar, is the beginning of the year. It's fitting to stand. Liturgical churches stand for prayer because praying is an act of spiritual warfare and who fights sitting? We stand for the reading of the Gospel. What soldier doesn't bolt to his feet when a superior officer enters the room? Some liturgical churches stand spontaneously when the offering is brought forward. Who doesn't think that what's in the plate is but a token of their soul, their life, their all? Like Willie sings: take all of me. Who doesn't stand to ring in a New Year?
Today the New Year is celebrated all over the world on January 1. This was begun by the Romans in 153 B.C.. By early Medieval times, most Christian countries, however, started the New Year March 25, the date Gabriel told Mary she carried the Christ. Pope Gregory XII in 1582 moved New Year's back to January 1. It took time for Protestant countries to follow suit. Germany went in 1700, Britain in 1752, Sweden 1753. Ironically, Asian countries consider January 1 to be the Christian calendar but Japan adopted it in 1873 and China in 1912. However, Hindus, Taoists, Buddhists, and Muslims all have different New Years. Luther did too. He began his on Christmas (LW, 58, 192). My favorite custom is Judaism's. They confess divine creation counting their year from that event. Just add 3,761 to the year AD and you have their current year, 5,779 (Edersheim, Temple, 204).
The abbreviation AD for the Latin anno Domini, year of the Lord, was first used by the Venerable Bede circa 700 AD. (Asimov's, Book of Facts, 34). It's fashionable in this anti-Christian time to date things without reference to Christ. It's not BC, before Christ, but BCE, before Common Era, and Common Era, CE, instead of AD. This usage dates back to the 17th century. The designation Vulgar Era, VE was used to distinguish secular dates connected to the year of a king's reign from dates in the church's calendar. Jewish academics used CE and BCE in the 19th century. "[I]n the 200 years between 1808 and 2008 the ratio of usage of BCE to BC has increased by about 20% and CE to AD by about 50%, primarily since 1980" (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_Era).
My United States Army commission is dated "in the year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred and seventy-eight". That's not how they read today. They don't say CE either. Just a date from nowhere. Romans dated things originally AUC in the year of the city, i.e. from the founding of the city of Rome. This changed in the 6th century to AD, the year of our Lord. Now we're going back to dates without reference to Christ. And when with the rest of the world we hit reset on January 1st, we get back in step with the world. When a soldier is out of step with the rest, he change steps' to get back in step. By starting our year with Advent, we are purposely getting out of step with the world that has, by a year's worth of marching, gotten us back in step with it.
The Christian New Year is the opportunity to get out of step with the lost world, and it's a wakeup call for us. It's a yearly call to, like Neo in The Matrix, wake up and see that the present is not eternal. What you see is temporary, passing away. What is unseen that is eternal, so says Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:18. You're plugged by sight, by sound, by touch, taste, smell, and by fallen nature into a decaying, dying world. Wake up; don't go down with this ship; unplug before it's too late. And, "Be careful", says Jesus, or your hearts will be weighed down, weighted down to this sinking ship "in dissipation and drunkenness and anxieties of life." Do those words of warning mean anything to you? Hear less literal translations; maybe one will speak your language: "Don't let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping" (MSG). "Make sure that you don't become drunk, hung over, and worried about life" (GW). "Be on guard, so that your hearts are not weighed down and depressed with the giddiness of debauchery and the nausea of self-indulgence and the worldly worries of life" (AMP).
But do you see that carousing, drinking, and worrying are not what Jesus warns against? You can outwardly stop all of those things and your heart could still be weighed down. What Jesus is calling you to wake up to is the Last Day, either yours or everyone's, coming upon you as a trap. The man plunging from 35,000 feet to the ground is trapped in his airline seat for 157 seconds. The man whose car leaves the road headed for a tree is trapped for maybe 3. A terminal diagnosis can trap you for months or years. What you don't see is that every single one of us has just that diagnosis, and whether your falling for 2 1/2 minutes, careening for 2 1/2 seconds, or dying for 2 1/2 decades, that in itself doesn't determine if you're trapped. You're trapped if you're sitting on the ground. You don't see this because of the 38 translations I checked all but one has live', dwell', or reside' not the literal Greek here which is "sitting upon the face of the earth."
Compare "Sitting upon the face of the earth" in verse 35 to "stand in the presence of the Son" in verse 36. Just as Ecclesiastes shows a great difference between life viewed from under the sun and from God's wisdom, so there is an eternity of distance between sitting upon the face of the earth and standing in the presence of Jesus. And who rings in the New Year sitting? Someone too drunk, too hungover, too paralyzed with worry. Celebrating New Year's today, out of step with the world, is a call to wake up little Susie; you ain't asleep at no drive-in movie but asleep at the wheel.
Our Christian New Year is rung in standing and fittingly it is our stand-to. Stand-to' is a military term describing the state of readiness for action or attack. In the field you stand-to right before daylight. Everyone is dressed and ready for the enemy's most likely time of attack. Scripture abounds with soldiering images: Paul tells Pastor Timothy, "Join me in suffering like a good soldier of Christ" (2 Tim. 2:3). Archippus is referred to as "our fellow soldier" (Philemon 1:2). We don't solider according to the flesh but divinely (2 Cor. 10:3-4). But note carefully how the text says we are to soldier on, how we're to stand-to. First you will be attracted to all the imperatives. Jesus says, "You must be careful!" "You must always be on watch; you must wake up!" Hear the imperatives but don't live from or in them because there is no way for fallen beings made from dirt to be careful never to be tied to the ground. There is no way you can be constantly awake as the present imperative orders you to. You who fight to stay awake in a sermon that is less than 15 minutes ought to know that by now.
Jesus goes from imperatives that rightly smack us upside the head to a present middle participle telling us we are to beg, not just pray, beg for our own sake for strength we don't have in order to be made to stand. To stand is passive; something must stand us; we can't do it ourselves. Jesus says we are to be begging in prayer for the strength to be standing not sitting, to be waking not sleeping, to be ready not trapped. So for centuries the church has implored, that is begged, her Lord in the Collect for today. For about 800 years the Church has begged that by the Lord's "protection we may be rescued from the threatening perils of our sins and be saved by Your mighty deliverance."
We may be strapped in an airline seat plummeting to earth, but we're not trapped. We may be belted in a car careening off the road, but we're not trapped. We may be enfleshed in a fallen body that is certainly dying of life, but we're not trapped. We've been rescued from the threatening perils of our sins. How? By the Lamb of God that carried away the sins of the world. By the fact that God was in Christ reconciling to the world to Himself not counting men's sins against them but against Jesus and covering the world with Jesus' righteousness. Paul says it this way, "God made Jesus who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Cor. 5:21).
It's by the Lord's protection not by our carefulness or watchfulness
that we are rescued from the deathtrap that is fallen flesh and blood. We are saved from the fate of all those who sit on the earth as fat, sassy, and content as Jabba the Hutt. We are saved by the Lord's mighty deliverance which comes in the form of "A Great and Mighty Wonder" who is a "full and holy cure" for the terminal illness of fallen life. This "full and holy cure" is none other than the Virgin-born Infant who is God in flesh and blood. His heart was never weighed down by drunkenness, hangovers, or worries. His last day didn't trap Him. He knew it was coming, and even though He would suffer, be damned, and die like the sinner you are, He embraced that horrible death because it was for you, in your place, to rescue you by His mighty deliverance from sin's peril and from sleeping the sleep of death where a person is not dead to the world but to the coming Christ.
Christ Jesus enables you to stand in the presence of His throne of judgment not by your own power, determination, or belief, but by His act of rescuing you and saving you. That took place on Good Friday and was publicly accepted by God the Father on Easter when He raised Jesus from the dead. Now by means of the 3 holies, Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion God's rescuing and saving come to you today. Stand before God in your Baptism which clothes you with Christ. Stand before God in your Absolution which is as valid and certain as from God Himself. Stand before God in your Communion where God the Son bodies and bloods you to Himself for good.
In the words of Tennyson: "Ring out old shapes of foul disease; Ring out the narrowing lust of gold; Ring out the thousand wars of old, Ring in the thousand years of peaceRing out the darkness of the land, Ring in the Christ that is to be." Who would do this sitting down? Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
First Sunday in Advent (20181202); Luke 21: 25-36