Watch Night Sermon “Lift up your eyes.”
Greetings in the name of Jesus
(CENTER) I have to admit, before coming to St. John’s I was not familiar with the tradition of a Watch Night service. But after some research I found out it was a Moravian tradition started in Czecklesavakia that became a Methodist tradition when it made it’s away to America. Then, on December 31st 1862—the night before the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect—African Americans, both Methodist and not—gathered together in churches and in homes that Freedom Eve—to wait for the realization of Lincoln’s words, “thenceforward, and forever free,” and Watch Night has been an African American tradition every since.
My choice of Genesis 22 as the scripture to preach from this Watch Night is no accident. Genesis chapter 22 is a piece of scripture that rattles around in my soul. It is in these 19 verses that I spent a year of my life studying before going to Seminary.
And I could tell you a lot of things about this story. I could tell you how the Existentialist movement is based off the philosopher Soren Keirkegard’s reading of these 19 verses while love sick for a woman he never married. I could tell you all the theories about how old Isaac was when he went up with his father to be sacrificed. I could tell you how the Ancients re-wrote this story to fit their understanding of the world.
But I wish to highlight one particular phrase found in verse 13 of the 22nd chapter of Genesis.
“Abraham looked up.”
In Hebrew this is Vayisa Avraham et-A-naiv
Now I remember reading this Hebrew phrase with an Israeli friend of mine--he started laughing. That is because in Modern Hebrew this phrase “Abraham looked up” sounds extremely physical. It is as if Abraham has taken out his eyes from the front of his face and raised them up above his head. “Abraham lifted up his eyes.”
Lets try that once together. Take out your eyes, lift them above your head and say with me, “Lift up your eyes.”
I am not doing this to be silly, instead I want to instill in your muscle memory “Lift up your eyes.” So that when you are celebrating New Years in some club in Fells Point tonight and the MC tells you to “put your hands in the air and wave them like you just don’t care” your very body will remind you to “lift up your eyes… lift up your eyes.”
Lord God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight. Amen.
Abraham is not alone in attempting to practice human sacrifice. He is not even alone in attempting to practice child sacrifice.
I would maintain that humans have a propensity toward sacrifice. We want to sacrifice.
We sacrifice too much of ourselves to nicotine or alcohol, crab cakes or laziness, narcissism or self-preservation.
I suppose this tendency to sacrifice is why we practice New Years Resolutions. We look at the past year and try to combat our greatest excesses of sacrifice, our most extreme habits of destruction.
For that matter we often sacrifice ourselves to our past. We sacrifice a lamb—our present and our future—for the sake of a ram, our past.
For example, in the movie Gran Torino Clint Eastwood’s character, Walt, is a deeply disturbed man, alienated from his children and emotionally scarred from what he did in the Korean War. Throughout the whole movie he struts along full of menace and obvious pain—holding in the burdens of his past.
Yet when he goes to Confession the deep sins he has carried with him are rather mundane. In 1968 he kissed a woman who was not his wife. Not a good thing by any means, but not something to sacrifice your life over either.
Thinking beyond the individual effects of sacrifice I would maintain Freedom Eve was a response to just such a sacrifice, a national sacrifice of millions of God’s children to slavery. For the sake of an economic system reliant upon unpaid labor millions of people were treated like tools, separated from their family, and forced to suffer countless indignities.
And again the poet Wilfred Owen observed another such sacrifice in his poem “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.” He wrote that World War One could have been averted if old men—the Abrahams of his time—would simply sacrifice their pride. The poem ends, “but the old man would not so, but slew his son, and half the seed of Europe, one by one.”
And again on the streets of Baghdad and Kabul today
we again see young men—Isaacs—being sacrificed for decisions of Abrahams.
And again on the streets of Baltimore we see Isaac bound up in insane systems that lead to his being stabbed or shot, or stabbing and shooting.
We see sacrifice for Rep, sacrifice for gang affiliation, sacrifice for corners, sacrifice for drugs, and sacrifice for money.
And again I think of children born in this closing decade—these Isaacs—they have never known what it is like for America to be at peace. Yes, I understand just war theory—yes I hear the words of Ecclesiastes “there is a time for war and a time for peace.” But I still believe we are sacrificing Isaac’s innocence.
I still believe being born into a world in which it is the norm to meet violence with greater violence does violence to our children.
(RIGHT) Because we, like Abraham, will sacrifice Isaac, I will say again, “Lift up your eyes.”
Lift up your eyes and you will see the ram caught in the thicket.
Lift up your eyes and you will hear God saying, “I’m not that kind of God.”
Lift up your eyes and read the words of the prophets, “God demands mercy, not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, not burnt offering.”
Lift up your eyes and find yourself at the foot of the cross.
Lift up your eyes and view the new creation in Christ, the reconciliation to God through Christ Jesus, the reconciliation of the world to God’s self.
Lift up your eyes because these sacrifices we try to make cannot compare to the freely given gift already before us.
The sacrifice is already made for us. Freedom has already come for us. Lift up your eyes and see that there is nothing we have to do!
(CENTER) And yet I must hasten to add that the words “lift up your eyes” are not a calling to be “so heavenly minded we’re no earthly good.”
Lift up your eyes is a calling to sacrifice rams not children! As it says in our lesson from 2nd Peter we will still suffer. There will still be weary years and silent tears. Just because Emancipation was proclaimed didn’t mean the Civil War was done, and didn’t mean the Civil Rights Era had come, and doesn’t mean we are where we need to be.
Lift up your eyes means within the struggles of life we have the hope of God wiping every tear and a future in which mourning, crying, and pain are no more. We have a hope and a trust in the faithfulness of God.
So, lift up your eyes in this New Year unbound by sacrifices, for God has sacrificed for you.
Lift up your eyes and see the immense challenges of the world we live in.
Lift up your eyes and still hope that this new year could be a year where we remember that God is so faithful that mistrust is sacrificed, not love,
inexperience is put away not passion,
fear is burn on the altar not hope.
Lift up your eyes and see that ours a God that is faithful.
Lift up your eyes and see that ours is a God of great faithfulness.
Lift up your eyes and sing,
“Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see! All I have needed thy hand hath provided; great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.” (A+A)
Great is thy faithfulness hymn 158—hymn 158.