The sermon from Sunday, December 31, 2017 on Isaiah 61:10-62:3 –
So what is a Watch Night Service? It has its roots in a couple of important, but different traditions –
Beginning in the mid-1700s, the Moravians, who were a sect of the Czech European Protestant Church, began a tradition of Watch Night Services as a time to examine one’s covenant relationship with God.
It was intended as a moment of renewal, of cleansing of the soul, of renewed commitment.
Then English theologian John Wesley picked up on that tradition and incorporated it into the liturgy of the Methodist movement as an opportunity to reflect on the state of one’s soul in covenant with God – although relatively few Methodist churches carry on that tradition today.
From Wesley’s service we hear these words –
the Christian life is redeemed from sin and consecrated to God.
Through baptism, we have entered this life
and have been admitted into the new covenant
of which Jesus Christ is the Mediator.
He sealed it with his own blood, that it might last for ever.
On the one side, God promises to give us new life in Christ,
the Source and Perfecter of our faith.
On the other side, we are pledged
to live no more for ourselves but only for Jesus Christ,
who loved us and gave himself for us.
From time to time we renew our covenant with God,
especially when we reaffirm the Baptismal Covenant
and gather at the Lord’s table.
Today, however, we meet, as the generations before us have met,
to renew the covenant that binds us to God.
Let us make this covenant of God our own.
Let us make this covenant of God our own.
Then in September of 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued a warning – that if the Confederate states did not end their rebellion – on January 1, 1863, he would sign the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all of the enslaved people in the 10 southern states of the Confederacy, some 3 MILLION people all told.
The faithful – enslaved people and their abolitionist supporters – are said to have gathered on the night of December 31, 1862 – waiting, praying, hoping, and believing in freedom, in the dream of a better life and a better world.
It ain’t like everything miraculously got fixed overnight. But that date and that act represent the solid hope of our transformation, the concrete enactment of the promise that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, even if that arc is mighty, mighty long.
Today many churches, particularly black and multicultural congregations like this one, celebrate that promise, that hope, that strength, and that unquenchable faith. The witness and the resilience of a people who refused to be broken even in the most horrific circumstances imaginable – that witness and that resilience gives life to our world today.
Rev. Kimberleigh Jordan, an African American UCC pastor, writes that for her, Watch Night is a place for my hopes and anxieties about the future, as well as my regrets, gratitude and forgiveness about the past. For me, Watchnight is also a sign of relationship with God who is beyond ~ time and circumstances. . . . in which past and future mingle in the hearts of the people gathered before God “who was, and is, and is to come.”
It is a celebration of the very act of survival in a world of brutal dehumanization.
Let’s add to these stories – that of the the early Moravian commitment to renewal of one’s covenant with God and the fierce hope, joy, faith, and courage of slaves about to be free – let’s mix in the witness of Simeon and of Anna.
Here the author of the Gospel of Luke tells us of these two faithful elders who maintained a vigil in the Temple, convinced and convicted that they would yet see the Messiah in their time on Earth.
Sure enough, they encounter the child who was born in a manger and who was destined to change the world through his truth-telling and love.
Can you imagine the patience with which they must have waited?
We all have many gifts, right? Humor, courage, wisdom, dependability, honesty, kindness, discernment, discipline – and more. Some mix of all of those things.
But patience. Patience has not historically been one of my greater gifts. Anybody there with me?
For all the gifts that many of us have, patience is often a struggle. I have been deliberately trying to cultivate it in myself, but I’ve got a ways to go.
Yet we have here the urgent patience of Simeon and of Anna, these elders, and their blessing and praise – signals of the promise embodied in this child, the humble, vulnerable baby Jesus – models for us of how we might continue to live in hope, how we might be resolute in the face of uncertainty, how we might be a steady presence until the end of our age.
We do not know what is to come.
We cannot know what is to come.
But we can take these stories and the examples of our elders and our ancestors and all of the gifts that God has given us and we can use them to do holy work in our world.
Whatever else is going on around us, we can bear witness to the light of Christ in our everyday lives.
We can acknowledge the sacred as it surrounds us and lives within us – we can nurture that and be nourished by it as we do the work of following Jesus in today’s world.
We are watching and we are waiting.
While we are doing so. we are leaving behind those obstacles that prevent us from living full and authentic and compassionate lives.
We are jettisoning the fear, the jealousy, the wounded egos, the disappointment, the hurt and damage and pain and sorrow.
We are leaving that behind in the year gone by.
That doesn’t mean we are unrealistic – we see the world and its inequities and its greed and maldistribution of power.
We acknowledge the meanness and the despair and all the ways that we as human beings get it wrong – on an individual level and a collective level.
We also examine our own covenant with God.
How is it with your soul? That was John Wesley’s question.
Whatever is going on in the world around us and in your life, you can face that question – how is it with your soul?
And in your soul’s relationship with the God who pours love constantly upon us all?
There is work to be done there if you choose it.
What are our lessons of this night – reflection, commitment, courage, resilience, faith, faith, faith.