Isaiah 49.1-6

Luke 2.25-35

Endings & Beginnings

Songs of the Season – V

First Sunday after Christmas

“Master, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”  With two days remaining in the year, it is time for everyone’s Top Ten list:  the top ten movies of 2019, the top ten television shows, the top ten fiction and non-fiction books, the top ten songs, headlines, personalities - you name it, and someone, somewhere, has compiled a list for it.  Add to this that we are arguably at the end of a decade:  I say arguably, because some will argue that since there was no year 0, the new decade doesn’t begin until 2021, but I’m not going to get into that debate this morning.  But it means we’re also reading top ten lists for the entire decade of the 2010s, which to me is much more interesting since it covers ten times the territory.  And I think it is a natural thing to want to assess where we have been with a look to the past, and try to read what’s next for us as we look ahead, and what better time to do it than at the cusp of the new year and new decade?  It brings to mind Janus, the Roman god of time and transitions, of endings and beginnings.  Janus is the deity with two faces, one face looking backward, one looking ahead, the god who both sees and interprets past and future.  And what better time to think of Janus than at the dawn of the month that bears his name, as we stand on the threshold of January.

I forgot to list it in the bulletin this morning, but this is the fifth and final sermon in our series of biblical songs of the season, those hymns of praise that point to the nativity, and the song for this morning is probably my favorite:  it is the Song of Simeon that we heard from Luke’s gospel.  Some days after his birth, Jesus’ parents brought him to the temple to be dedicated.  Simeon, a devout Jew, some would call him a prophet, was also at temple that day.  The spirit of God rested on Simeon, and he was given to understand that before he died, he would see with his own two eyes the long-promised messiah of Israel.  When Jesus was dedicated, Simeon took him in his arms and understood that the promise was fulfilled:  “Master, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”  It was a Janus kind of moment for Simeon, a time for looking back over his own life and remembering the Spirit’s promise, and looking ahead to what that promise might reveal:  a revelation to the Gentiles and glory for Israel.  And for Simeon personally, it was an ending and a beginning:  at roughly eighty years old his life was nearing its end while for the child in his arms life was just beginning.  And of course the same is true for biblical history; with the birth of the messiah, one age closed and another was just beginning.  Simeon’s song bears witness to both.

One of the things that the annual top ten lists does for me is to remind me of how much I’ve missed over the past year.  I haven’t seen any of the television shows, most of the music is beyond me, and I’m happy when one of the three or four movies I’ve seen in the preceding year actually makes a list – I was kind of surprised to learn I’ve actually see three of them in the past year.  But Simeon’s song points us in a slightly different direction; the best films and movies and television shows, and in some cases the best books, only give us a very narrow slice of the most immediately recent past and say very little about what might lie ahead.  Simeon’s vision brings a much broader brush and encourages us to widen our view, which is what led me to, although I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, the top ten list as determined by USA Today.  Published the day after Christmas this week, USA Today did two things that captured my attention:  one, it surveyed not just the past year, but the past ten years; and second, it looks at the past ten years in ten different ways; in other words, they published ten top ten lists for the past ten years, some of which, by surveying the past, make suggestions about the future.  In other words, like Simeon, the way these lists read the past suggests a way of thinking about the future.

Unlike most other lists, USA Today’s pretty much eschews popular culture and takes a deeper dive that actually manages us to tell us something more about ourselves than just what we might happen to like at the moment.  It is less a snapshot, and more a panorama.  For example, it lists the Pulitzer Prize awards for Breaking News Reporting for each of the past ten years, those news stories that were so meticulously researched and thoughtfully written that they rose to the top of the field.  However, taken together they do not paint a very hopeful picture:  in 2010, 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2019 the award was given for reporting on a recurring subject – does anyone want to take a guess what it is?  Domestic terrorism, mostly mass shootings:  Tree of Life Synagogue last year, San Bernardino CA terror attack in 2016, Boston Marathon bombings in 2014, Aurora, CO movie theater shootings in 2013 and the shooting of 4 Seattle police officers in 2010.  It is both a look back at something that has become a heart-breaking reality over the past ten years, and a look ahead at the challenges we will continue to face in the years ahead, I think.  Last night’s knife attack on a rabbi’s home during a Hanukkah celebration in Monsey, NY, an attack which wounded five Hasidic Jews, is a testament to that grim reality.

Another list is a NASA survey of global temperatures over the past 10 years, which showed a steady increase in every year but one, with 2016 the warmest year ever.  Looking a bit further back, eighteen of the past nineteen warmest years ever recorded have occurred since 2001.  Again, this provides us with more than just a glimpse at the past, and it doesn’t take a prophet to tell us what to expect in the future.  And a corollary to this list can be found in the top Google searches over the past ten years; USA today looked at the top searches for each of the past ten years, and the list is dominated by something directly related to climate change:  hurricanes.  People searched most for Hurricane Irene in 2011, Sandy in 2012, Matthew in 2016, Irma in 2017, Florence in 2018 and Dorian in 2019.  Perhaps climate change is beginning to get people’s attention?  Perhaps human stewardship of God’s creation is coming to be understood more as an obligation that a mere option?

Another list makes a similar point about creation:  I’ll tell you what’s on it and you can tell me what the list is about.  The South Florida Rainbow Snake, the Tacoma Pocket Gopher, the Hawai’ian Tree Snail, the Eastern Puma, the Pinta Island Tortoise, the Formosan Clouded Leopard and the Bramble Cay melomys.  That’s right, they are all species that have become extinct in the past ten years.  The most troubling to scientists is the Bramble Cay melomys – the melomys is a small rodent that lived exclusively on an island in the Great Barrier Reef; it is believed to be the first mammal driven to extinction by climate change, as the rising sea destroyed its habitat.  Again, it is a look back that gives us a vision of what the future might hold.

Finally as somebody who does a lot of work with words, I think my favorite USA Today top ten list is the one of the Merriam-Webster online dictionary’s top word for each of the past ten years, determined by the number of lookups each year, and I’m going to be bold enough – prophetic enough? - to suggest that not only can we divine a pattern in them, but also that they bring a bit more hope than the other lists, although not without one bump in the middle of the road.  Here are the most looked up words for each year of the past ten years:  2010, austerity; 2011, pragmatic; 2012, socialism; 2013, science; 2014, culture; 2015, the suffix -ism; 2016 surreal; 2017, feminism; 2018, justice; and 2019, they as a singular personal pronoun.  Call me a Pollyanna with rose-colored glasses, but I perceive a hopeful arc in this particular list’s progression.

Still, even ten years is a narrow slice of life when all is said and done.  For Simeon it was eighty years of waiting that made his satisfaction even sweeter when he held the infant Jesus in his arms.  Simeon knew the past very well, and in that moment recognized that what he knew about the past revealed what the future might hold in the person of that small child.  In a collection of poems called “Ariel,” TS Eliot wrote about Simeon’s experience, only instead of The Song of Simeon, he called it, “A Song for Simeon,” and he incorporates much of the biblical language we heard this morning.  I’d like to close with the fourth and final stanza, as it combines the pain and difficulty of looking back, with the suggestion of mortality it bears, with the dawning of a new hope for the future.

            According to thy word,

            They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation

            With glory and derision,

            Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.

            Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,

            Not for me the ultimate vision.

            Grant me thy peace.

            (And a sword shall pierce thy heart,

            Thine also).

            I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,

            I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.

            Let thy servant depart,

            Having seen thy salvation.

Amen.

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