Worship Resources for December 31st, 2023—First Sunday after Christmas Day, Holy Name of Jesus, New Year’s Eve

Revised Common Lectionary:

First Sunday after Christmas Day: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 148; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

Holy Name of Jesus: Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7 or Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21

New Year’s Day: Ecclesiastes 3:1-13; Psalm 8; Revelation 21:1-6a; Matthew 25:31-46

Narrative Lectionary: Beginning of Good News, Mark 1:1-20 (Psalm 91:9-12)

There are three possible choices for most Protestant churches this Sunday following the Revised Common Lectionary:

For the First Sunday after Christmas Day, the lessons begin with Isaiah 61:10-62:3. The good news of God’s salvation for the people has come in the return from exile. Like a bridegroom, God has dressed the people in the clothing of a bride, very festive and celebratory, a public declaration of God’s love for the people. As the chapter turns, the voice of the narrator turns back to the prophet, who will not keep quiet about what God has done for the people. Other nations shall see the glory of God through the city of Jerusalem, as her walls are restored like a crown, a symbol that the nation once taken into exile in defeat has returned in glory.

Psalm 148 is a song of praise from all of creation to God. The psalmist calls all the heavenly beings, the celestial objects, everything God created above the earth to praise God. Then the psalmist turns to the earth: sea monsters and creatures from the birth of creation, all the meteorological elements, the earth itself, all animals and plants and birds of the air. Next, the psalmist calls upon the people: all rulers, kings and princes, young and old, women and men and all people, to praise God. God is above all, creator of all, and is the advocate for the people. The psalmist concludes by praising the faithful, the people of Israel closest to God.

Paul wrote to the church in Galatia after a great controversy arose where Gentile believers were treated as not fully part of the fellowship with Jewish followers of Jesus. Paul reminds them in 4:4-7 that Jesus came as “under the law” and through Jesus they are children of God in Christ, not through their background. So they are heirs of God as children of God because of the adoption of Christ, as are all who believe in Jesus.

Luke 2:22-40 contains the story of Jesus’ presentation in the temple. Mary and Joseph follow through on their commitment as Jewish parents in the purification rites after birth, presenting their firstborn to the Lord, and offering a sacrifice on his behalf. But while they are there, they encounter Simeon, a man who was faithful to God’s ways and had a revelation from the Holy Spirit that he would see the Messiah before he died. He took Jesus in his arms and praised God, including a word of blessing for the Gentiles as well as the people of Israel. Simeon blessed both Joseph and Mary but warned that the child would face opposition and be a sign of the rising and falling of many, and specifically warned Mary that she would experience great pain in her soul. Along with Simeon, Anna also met Joseph and Mary at the temple. She was eighty-four, a prophet and a widow, and praised God and spoke about the child. After the visit to the temple, Mary and Joseph and Jesus returned to Galilee and raised Jesus there.

For Holy Name of Jesus, the readings begin with Numbers 6:22-27, the blessing of God through Moses to Aaron and the priests, and then to the people of Israel. This blessing was given before Moses entered the tent of dwelling, calling upon God to give the people peace.

Psalm 8 is a prayer praising God in awe and wonder of all God made. What are human beings in the vast universe, the expanse that God has created? Yet God made human beings a little lower than divine, and put the earth in our sacred trust, to care for every creature on earth. How amazing and wonderful is our God, the psalmist proclaims!

Galatians 4:4-7 is part of Paul’s argument to the leaders of the church in Galatia, who made the Greek Christians second-class citizens. Paul reminds them that Christ was born “under the law” as the other Jewish followers of Jesus were. Paul’s view is that all are made children of God, regardless of if they were born a Jew or a Greek because of Christ, not because they follow the law, and therefore the Greek believers should not be subjected to anything other than faith in Christ.

An alternative Epistle reading is Philippians 2:5-11, the ancient confession of the church that Paul shares to the Philippians: though Christ was in the form of God, he was born a human being. He did not abuse his power, but instead emptied himself, serving God through his humbleness in the fullness of humanity, dying on the cross. God raised him and exalted him, and gave him the name above every name, so that all may know and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

The Gospel lesson of Luke 2:15-21 contains the witness of the shepherds, proclaiming what they had heard and seen of the angels, and glorifying God in witness of the birth of the Savior. Mary treasured all their words, pondering them in her heart. After eight days, she and Joseph had Jesus circumcised, and he was given the name Jesus, as the angel Gabriel had told Mary to name him.

For New Year’s Eve/Day, the first reading is the ancient poem of seasons in Ecclesiastes 3:1-13, in which the Teacher (the narrator of Ecclesiastes) reminds us that there is a season for everything and a purpose under heaven. Verses 2-8 display an antithetical structure, in which each verse has two lines, and each line has a statement with its antithesis. Seven pairs show a perfectly balanced poem (seven being the number of days of the week, a holy number in scripture). We cannot control what happens in life, but verses 9-13 help us live into the balance of 2-8. There is nothing better than to find enjoyment in what we do and how we live now, because we cannot control anything else. Love God and love your neighbor and do your best. Better to make an intention for a good life than resolutions that will not last. (An expanded version of these thoughts are in Judson Bible Lessons Journeys for Winter 2022-2023 from Judson Press).

The Psalm reading for New Year’s Day is the same as for Holy Name of Jesus, Psalm 8, a prayer praising God in awe and wonder of all God made. What are human beings in the vast universe, the expanse that God has created? Yet God made human beings a little lower than divine, and put the earth in our sacred trust, to care for every creature on earth. How amazing and wonderful is our God, the psalmist proclaims!

The Epistle reading of Revelation 21:1-6a contains the vision John of Patmos beheld of a new heaven and a new earth, reminiscent of Isaiah 65. The new city of Jerusalem came down from heaven, arriving like a bride ready for her wedding, because God would now live with the people, and there would be no more separation between earth and heaven, between death and life—there would be only life, and all things made new. God is the Beginning and the End, encompassing everything.

The vision of the final judgment in Matthew 25:31-46 is of a king separating the sheep from the goats. Jesus tells the disciples that when the Son of Humanity arrives in glory with the angels, those who fed the hungry and thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, cared for the sick, and visited the imprisoned will inherit the reign of God. They will be unaware that when they did these things, they did them to the Son, but the Reigning One will know; for when they cared for the most vulnerable, they cared for the Son. However, those who didn’t do those things, who didn’t see Christ in the faces of the people among them, they will face eternal punishment. If we are waiting for a God to come and save us, or even if we believe we are already saved and we’re just waiting for the end time, we are missing God right in front of us, and God needs us, now—in loving our neighbor as ourselves.

The Narrative Lectionary turns to the beginning of the Good News in Mark 1:1-20. Part of this passage was included in the Advent readings this year in the Revised Common Lectionary. Mark begins the gospel account with a quote from Isaiah and that John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins. John declared that one more powerful than him was coming after him, who would baptize the people with the Holy Spirit. Then Jesus came to John to be baptized, and the Spirit descended upon him, declaring that Jesus was the Beloved Son. Jesus was immediately driven into the wilderness by the Spirit, where he was tempted by Satan, and the angels waited on him. Following his time in the wilderness, Jesus declared that the time was fulfilled, the reign of God had drawn near, and he called upon the people to repent and believe in the Good News. Four fisherman left their boats and followed Jesus when he called them, the first disciples.

The supplementary verses of Psalm 91:9-12 is the scripture the devil quotes in both Luke and Matthew while Jesus is in the wilderness (Mark’s account does not contain the three temptations). The devil tries to tempt Jesus to throw himself off the pinnacle of the tower to test God. But Jesus knows that God is already with him, and quotes back “do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

There are so many choices for this Sunday, and many may choose not to preach a sermon today. Families are traveling, New Year’s plans are made, and some pastors will be on vacation. Some churches will do a storybook Sunday, or Lessons and Carols (The Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols Sample Service on my Christmas Resources page has each Advent candle lit on the wreath throughout the service that might be easy to adapt for this Sunday).

The Gospel lesson from the First Sunday after Christmas is a story we do not often read, of Jesus’s dedication in the temple. In a time where antisemitism and Islamophobia are on the rise, it is important to remember as Christians that we are all branches with the same roots. Even with that metaphor, we must be careful not to proclaim a supersessionist Gospel, but rather an acknowledgement that Jesus was fully Jewish. His parents had him circumcised (Luke 2:21) and later brought him to the temple for the sacrifice after Mary’s purification. Simeon’s proclamation that Jesus would be a light for the Gentiles as well as a light for glory for the people of Israel is a reminder that for the early followers of Jesus who were Jewish, many thought the Gentiles would come and join with them. Paul’s letter to the Galatians (and Luke’s later writing in Acts) shows otherwise—that through Jesus all become adopted heirs of God, not through the following of the law. However, Jesus himself followed the law of Moses, as did his parents at his birth. This passage can be a reminder to us to honor our roots as well as our differences in understanding who we are as God’s peoples.

Perhaps a reading of Maya Angelou’s Amazing Peace, the poem she wrote for the 2005 White House Christmas Tree Lighting, might be appropriate (it is also available as a book to purchase). I would caution reading this to a multi-faith community because it still is a Christian-centric poem, but it does invite others into a spirit of peace. So in a church, this would be an appropriate setting to read.

As we prepare for 2024, may this Sunday bring light-heartedness and hope for the year about to turn.

Call to Worship (Psalm 148:1-5)
Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens;
Praise God in the heights!
Praise God, all the angels;
Praise God, all the heavenly host!
Praise God, sun and moon;
Praise God, all you shining stars!
Praise God, you highest heavens,
And you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the LORD,
For God commanded and they were created.

Prayer of Invocation
Almighty One, we enter this time of worship, prepared for the calendar to turn the page, the year to turn to twenty twenty-four, and we give thanks for all You have done for us, for the year You have brought us through. Before the next year begins, may we put aside the busy-ness of the world to focus on You, to join our hearts in worship, in prayer and praise and thanksgiving, for You are the God of all seasons, of all times, the Alpha and Omega, who was and who is and who is to come, the Almighty. Amen.

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
Ancient of Days, we confess that we have broken our resolutions, forgotten our promises, failed to fulfill our vows. We look back on our last year and perceive the disappointments, our regrets and failings. But we also confess that You are our Creator, and You make all things new. We confess our sins and know that You offer us forgiveness, when we truly repent and turn back to You and Your ways. On the eve of this new year, may we look to the good You have done for us, the goodness we have experienced in one another, the love shared, the hopes fulfilled and still to come, and the joy of life that You have given us. May we let go of the regrets and mistakes and guilt, and reclaim the promise in You of new life, abundant life, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

It’s not just January 1, but each and every day that is a new day, a new blessing from God. Each and every day is the possibility to start again. Each and every day is a reminder of God’s extravagant love for you. Know this: God loves you so much God sent the Son for you. For all of us, but especially for you, because God loves you as God’s own. You are God’s beloved, and when you turn back to God’s ways, God is well pleased with you. Go and share the good news, that each and every day is a new day of hope, of love, of peace. Amen.

God of Hope, we enter this space between the years with trepidation. We have had our hopes dashed before. We have had our world stop, the rug pulled out from under us in years past. We know the trap of thinking that the next year is full of all good things. And yet we still hope for it. We still hope for peace. We still hope for reconciliation and reparation and restoration. Remind us, Loving One, that we have to become the agents of hope in this world. We must be living hope to others, or we are speaking empty words. We must love our neighbors as ourselves. We must look to the most vulnerable in society to make sure their needs are met. We must participate in the work of justice to pursue peace. We pray, O God, that You will challenge us, inspire us, and guide us into this New Year to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with You. Amen.

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