Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Blessed End

First Sunday after Christmas
Circumcision and Name of Jesus
New Year’s Day
January 1, 2012
We begin at the end. This is the first day of the year and it would make sense to begin at the beginning. But we’re going to begin at the end. In this way we’ll be able to begin correctly. If you don’t know where you’re going how will you know where to start? If you don’t know how you’ll end up how will you know how to begin?

The Catechism says of the last petition of the Lord’s Prayer that we are praying for a blessed end. In the Seventh Petition we pray “deliver us from evil.” What this means is that we ask that “our Father in heaven would rescue us from every evil of body and soul… and “when our last hour comes, give us a blessed end, and graciously take us from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven.”

This is Simeon’s prayer, a prayer for a blessed end. “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace.” Simeon is at the end of his life. He knows he doesn’t have long to live. Now that He has seen the Savior God had promised he may depart in peace. He knows he can die in peace and quietness, that he will be granted a blessed end. Now Simeon is unique in that he was promised something specific by God that was not promised to anyone else. He was specifically promised that he would not die until he saw the Savior in the flesh. Now that he had he could depart in peace. As he said to God, “according to Your word.”

The first day of the year normally doesn’t fall on a Sunday but since it has this year it only makes sense to have at least partial focus on beginnings and looking ahead to a new year. In the Christian Church it has been a common way of referring to a calendar year as a year of grace. As Christians we understand that it is only by God’s grace that we have been given life and time to live that life. So it’s sensible to use this time here in God’s House today to consider the blessing of a new year ahead and how we will live in this coming year. The blessing we have in the Church Year and the liturgy is that it guides us in how to see the life God has given us and to live that life in His grace. The Gospel reading for today isn’t for January 1, it’s for the First Sunday after Christmas. But I can’t think of a better passage to guide us in the beginning of a new year. And that is with the focus on a blessed end. I suppose we could go to the very end of the Bible where it wraps things up very nicely in the assurance of our Lord that He is coming again quickly and the confidence of our response “Amen, come Lord Jesus.”

But if you look at Simeon’s prayer, it’s really the same prayer. Rather, the essence of it is the same. Lord, grant us a blessed end. Because a blessed end in this life is nothing other than the beginning of eternal life in glory and without any need for prayers of a blessed end. So in beginning our year today with the end we actually come to see that it is beginning with the beginning. It is beginning with the beginning of life in heaven, of being freed from this vale of tears and as the Catechism also says, that our Father would “rescue us from every evil of body and soul, possessions and reputation.”

We need times like this to step back and look at our lives in perspective. But it’s not even just the beginning of a new year that gives us the opportunity to do this. It’s every Sunday. It’s every time we gather in God’s House around His Word and Sacraments. It’s every time we move through the liturgy and we see how God guides us through our lives by His grace. As we are taught by Simeon and shown in Anna, the liturgy guides us in a manner in which we live out our days entrusted to God, living them out knowing the end at the beginning and throughout.

You could spend many weeks and even months going through each portion of the liturgy to see how it does this but for today we’ll look at just a few. The first one is the Invocation. At first glance this seems like we’re beginning with the beginning, and we are indeed. But Baptism is actually our beginning because it is also the end. It is the end of our bondage to the sinful flesh. In Baptism we come to an end, our Old Adam being drowned in the waters of Baptism. And then comes the beginning. The beginning of new life. We gather in God’s House and begin in that way, with the Invocation. We begin in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It was God’s name that was placed on us at our beginning and it’s in His name we begin in the worship service.

Baptism is a one-time Sacrament with everlasting effects. We daily live out our Baptism in repentance and in being forgiven. This and the other Sacrament is the lifeblood of the Christian. We gather here not just to give praise to God. We come here not just to get re-charged. We are here because we need to celebrate the Feast of our Lord. We don’t just gather here together, we gather here around the Lord’s Table, partaking of the Lord’s Body and Blood. Everything in the liturgy moves us to that celebration. The Lord’s Supper is the culmination of all that the liturgy delivers to us. It is the Gospel in visible form. It is the Gospel in physical and temporal means given to us so that we may actually commune with God in the same way that Simeon did when he held the baby Jesus in his arms. Simeon prophesied of what Jesus would do, that He would suffer on behalf of the world, giving His life for the sin of the world. We look on the other side of that prophecy, looking back to Jesus’ suffering and death and resurrection. But we don’t just look, we partake. Jesus having given His body and blood on the cross gives Himself to us just as He did with Simeon.

The Benediction is the same thing as the Invocation. It is our Lord placing His name on us again. It’s not a coincidence that our Lord said to give a three-fold blessing, the Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you, the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace. This is the Triune God, as we hear it in the Invocation, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, again placing His name on us. This time as we go. As we depart. We can say with Simeon, as we depart in peace. Our Lord’s word has been fulfilled. The one hour or so here is not just one hour devoted to this religious stuff. This is your Lord at work, blessing you, forgiving you, strengthening you, equipping you to serve and live out your days entrusted to Him.

And that brings us to one more thing in the liturgy, the Nunc Dimittis. The Latin of these words mean “now depart.” We sing this at the point in the liturgy we do, after having received the Lord’s Supper, because we are just like Simeon. Our eyes have seen the salvation of God, which He has prepared before the face of all people. We may now depart as Simeon was now able to depart. You and I may have many many years ahead of us in our lives. Or we may be nearing the end of our lives, whether through old age or a debilitating illness or some accident that may come upon us. Whatever stage in life we are at we may depart in peace. We may depart in peace according to the word of God. His word has been fulfilled. Our own eyes have seen His salvation which He has prepared before the face of all people. It, that is, He—that is, Jesus Christ—is a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people Israel.

Simeon actually saw God in the flesh. He actually held Him in the flesh, the Messiah, the promised Savior that he had been promised that he would see before he died. Jesus isn’t carried into this House of God today in the arms of Mary in order to be circumcised. We aren’t able to ask her if we can hold Him. He doesn’t walk into this place this morning so that we can do as Thomas did and touch His hands and His side. But Jesus does indeed come here today so that we may behold Him; so that we may depart in peace. Though we don’t take Him into our arms we take Him into our mouths, Him giving us His body and blood for us to eat and drink in bread and wine. That’s why we sing as Simeon did, praying for a blessed end, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.” Amen.


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