Sermon for Sunday, January 3rd, 2016 || Second Sunday after Christmas, Year C || Jeremiah 31: 7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1: 3-6, 15-19a; Luke 2: 41-52 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions, mostly because I don’t know anyone—myself included—who’s ever been successful in keeping them. In fact, there seems to be little one can do that’s more likely to insure total failure than to make a resolution about it.
To make a decision about something, on the other hand, can be revolutionary. Until I make a decision to eat less and exercise more, or go to bed and wake up earlier, all the resolving in the world won’t make it so. But once I make a decision, fewer snacks find their way into my stomach, the steps on my Fitbit add up, and I find myself well rested and with more time in the morning for God. Making a decision leads to action.
And I made a decision to honor this first Sunday of the New Year not with a resolution but with a prayer. It’s the same prayer we heard just a few minutes ago in this morning’s lesson– -the one that Paul wrote around 62 AD for the Christian community in Ephesus. It’s a wonderful prayer for our community to pray more than 2000 years later as we greet the New Year. Listen as I paraphrase Paul’s words so they’re in the first person plural:
“God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, grant us a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know you, so that with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which you have called us, what are the riches of your glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of your power for us who believe.”
I love that prayer! So I’d like to spend a little time this morning unpacking this prayer with you, because I know that like a lot of what Paul writes, it may sound quite lovely as we read it, but it may also leave us sort of scratching our heads afterwards wondering what it all means. And the deep, heartfelt meaning of this prayer is even more beautiful than the language Paul uses to construct it. So let’s take a closer look.
We begin this prayer by asking God to grant us a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know him, so that the eyes of our hearts may be enlightened….
“The eyes of our hearts…” That’s quite a phrase. Notice that we’re praying not for brilliant intellects but for enlightened hearts. What might it mean to have the eyes of your heart enlightened?
In the Biblical tradition, the human heart was considered the ultimate source of not just our physical well-being and passions, but also of our intellect and our will. The heart was where one thought and meditated, where one sought knowledge and understanding. In fact, the heart was believed to be the seat of wisdom itself, the point of contact where one met God. And despite all of our best efforts over the centuries to understand God intellectually, our hearts are still where we come to know God most personally and profoundly.
The late Marcus Borg described the biblical concept of the heart as “deeper than our ‘head’, deeper than our conscious self and the ideas we have in our heads.” This deeper, heart-level way of knowing is precisely where we know God, where the eyes of our heart are enlightened, where decisions are made and change takes place.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is all about change—about changing from the old death-dealing life that was centered on self, into the new life in Christ, centered on God’s will and God’s people. When Paul prays that the eyes of the hearts of the Ephesians be enlightened as they come to know God, he’s praying that the changes already at work in them since they became Christians continue to flourish as they grow deeper in their devotion to, and love of, God.
And that’s a prayer I certainly have for myself, and for all of you, as I prepare for my sabbatical next month. I pray that you and I—that all of us— will continue to grow in ever deeper relationship with God and with God’s people…that we will have the eyes of our hearts enlightened, and that our identities will be shaped more and more by God, and less and less by outside influences like people, possessions, or popular opinion.
Borg also wrote about what he called the “three A’s” so sacrosanct in our society: attractiveness, achievement, and affluence. Ours is a world in dire need of enlightened hearts, a world that often seems overcrowded with hearts that have eyes but cannot see, that are void of gratitude, and that are numb to the wonder and awe of God’s grace. Hearts that put self-will before God’s will, that are judgmental, lack compassion, and are hardened against the injustices around us. And truth is, all of us fit that description at least some of the time.
So we all need to have the eyes of our hearts enlightened, to have our hearts broken open, to be changed into being more like the loving creatures God created us to be. But we can’t just make a New Year’s resolution to be better Christians—it’s only by the grace of God that our hearts are opened to the work of His spirit and to the power of His Divine Love. Still, that doesn’t get us off the hook. Because there is something very concrete we can do to open ourselves to that grace: We can make a decision.
We make a decision to be attentive to our relationship with God. We can nurture it just as we do with any relationship that is important to us. Relationships take work, as we all know. Well, we can decide to work on the one we have with God. And that means spending time with God, both in community with others, and in our time alone.
Corporately, we can get to know God better by making a decision to be more involved with this community. We have our Sunday worship together, where we come to have the eyes our hearts enlightened each week; we have the Wednesday morning service that is quieter, more meditative; we have opportunities for Bible study and book groups to keep growing theologically and spiritually.
But we can also make time to cook here for Father Bill’s, visit Jessica in prison, help Carrie with Soup and Sandwich, answer phones in the office, serve communion, call on the sick, set-up the altar, greet newcomers, read to children… We have literally dozens of parish ministries here in which to connect with others, be of service, and meet God. And with me going on sabbatical we’re going to need everyone to really step up and pitch in!
In our personal lives we can deepen our relationship with God by making a decision to consider everything we do as ministry, from the moment we wake up in the morning until we go to sleep—every encounter, every action, every breath is an opportunity to give glory to God and to serve God’s interests.
We can spend alone time with God —getting up earlier, reading scripture, taking walks, trying new ways of praying, going on retreat, observing Sabbath time, getting spiritual direction. These are all ways of inviting God in, of spending time with God, of saying, “Come Lord, enlighten the eyes of my heart…”
Paul tells us that with the eyes of our hearts enlightened we will know “the hope to which God has called us, the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and the immeasurable greatness of his power.”
“The hope to which God has called us.” Hope that offers new life to those who see only death, that shines light in dark places, that looks at a world tainted by meanness and indifference and makes a decision to do something about it.
“The riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.” The riches of the abundant life God has given us in this world and promises us in the next, so we might live with the kind of joyful gratitude that recognizes God’s grace in our lives, appreciates His love for us, and passes that love on most especially to the unlovable.
“That we might know the immeasurable greatness of God’s power.” The immeasurable greatness of God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s peace, and God’s joy….filling our hearts and giving meaning to our own otherwise humble, powerless, little lives.
Paul’s prayer to the church at Ephesus is a beautiful, powerful prayer for each of us to pray on our Christian journey. Because we won’t become the kind of people we want to be by making New Year’s resolutions. But decisions can be revolutionary.
So may you begin this New Year by making a decision to be attentive to your relationship with God—both in your alone time and as a member of this community. And may God enlighten the eyes of your heart when you do. Amen.