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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Sandra L. Randleman

January 1, 2017

What Now?

Ecclesiastes 3:1-11a; Luke 2:21-40

In 2008, Nashville author, Ann Patchett, published a book entitled, What Now?, based on her commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College.[i]  While the commencement address was directed to a class of students graduating from college, the book provides insights for anyone facing a crossroad of life, including those considering a change in careers, or what school to next attend, or how best to prepare for retirement or care for one advancing in years, or new parents bringing their infant child home and faced with the challenge of nurturing and raising a child into adulthood, or anyone peering into the face of a new year and thinking, “January 1, 2017!  What now?”  I wonder if President-elect Trump awakened on the morning following the recent election, and thought, “What now?”  Certainly, many of his constituents are anxiously watching to see how he will govern and whether and how he will keep his campaign promises.  

Ann Patchett’s book describes her personal encounter with the question during the various stages of her life, beginning as a high school student faced with the burning question of where to attend college. Everywhere she went, Ann found that she was asked again and again by everyone she encountered, the troublesome question, “Where are you going to college?”  After a time, Ann wanted to scream, “I don’t know!!  I don’t know where I am going to college!”

In the due course of time, Ann received her acceptance into Sarah Lawrence College and thought, at least for a few happy hours, that the question of, “What now?” had finally been answered. But then the college catalogue arrived filled with all the possible classes available to Ann and from which she was to prepare herself for the rest of her life, and more decisions followed.  No sooner had Ann settled into college life, than Ann found herself being asked about her college major and then what she would do following graduation. 

Ann aspired to be a novelist and she struggled to find the door that would lead to her new career. After graduation, Ann found herself moving back into her room in her mother’s home and working as a line cook for four years until she suffered a burn at the steam table and was fired.   The answer to the question of, “What now?” was graduate school at the University of Iowa to earn a Master of Fine Arts Degree.  Two years of study shot by in what seemed to be 20 minutes and the troublesome question arose again.   Ann landed back in Nashville, moving once again into her mother’s house, and worked as a waitress at T.G.I. Friday’s. 

Working as a waitress, for a second time after graduating from college, may seem like a strange way to prepare to become a novelist. But after all her years of formal education, Ann finally learned, while working at Friday’s, how to become a novelist.  Ann was the only waitress willing to wash dishes.  It was while she was washing dishes that Ann learned to stare and reflect, to be quiet enough to think things through.  Amazing, isn’t it, where we learn the lessons we need to learn in order to achieve our dreams? 

Ann finally became a novelist and found that she was well-served by not only her studies in pursuing the undergraduate and graduate degrees, but also by her years of waitressing. Her response was gratitude, for all the experiences of her life, even those that seemed to be detours or even dead ends, and all the people who helped her along the way.  She came to understand that writing a novel and living a life are very much the same thing.  God does not waste any experience of our lives.

Ann concluded that “What now?” is always going to be a work in progress.[ii]  Just when you think everything is set, it all becomes unglued as sickness comes to one who is the picture of perfect health, fortunes are made or lost, babies are born.  Deep and invisible forces pull us into places we never imagined.  Through her own experiences, Ann found that “this part of life when you don’t know what’s coming next is often the part that people look back on with the greatest affection.”[iii]

Mary and Joseph most certainly pondered the question of “What now?” or a similar one as they held the newborn baby Jesus in their arms and marveled at this precious child as new parents always do and as they fed him, comforted him when he cried, kissed him while he slept. While all parents think their child is special, Mary and Joseph had every reason to know that their child was indeed very special.  Yet, to become the human parents of the Son of God was not part of their original life plans.  Their life plans had been permanently amended when God entrusted them with the care and nurturing of God’s Son, to be named “Jesus,” a name which means the “Lord is salvation.” 

Mary and Joseph did not have a “how to” book on how to raise the Son of God, but they knew the Jewish law and scriptures and they were righteous people who loved and trusted God. The first answer to the question of “What now?” was to have the baby Jesus circumcised eight days after his birth and given the name, “Jesus,” as the angel commanded. Then 40 days after the birth of Jesus, the Jewish law required the purification of Mary.  Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord and to offer a sacrifice of two young pigeons as required by the law.  The law required the sacrifice of a lamb and a young pigeon or if the parents could not afford the lamb, an additional pigeon could be offered.  The offering of the two pigeons instead of a lamb and pigeon was called the offering of the poor, indicating that Mary and Joseph were poor in material blessings.  But Mary and Joseph knew they were rich in spiritual blessings, and they were fully obedient to the Jewish law.

Two encounters in the temple show the connection between Jesus and the Jewish prophets and all who had been waiting and looking for the Messiah. Simeon, a righteous and devout man, had been assured that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.  Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Simeon came into the temple and saw the baby Jesus with his parents.  He proclaimed that his eyes had seen the salvation prepared by God for all people, both Jews and Gentiles.  Having seen the Messiah, Simeon called upon God to allow him to depart in peace.

The most startling portion of the proclamation of Simeon’s words is the introduction of the theme of sorrow for the first time into the birth narrative of Jesus. There is part of me that wants to say to Simeon, “Not now, Simeon.  The child has just been born.  Sorrow will come soon enough.  Just let the parents enjoy this moment of joy and wonder.”  But prophets speak the truth of God, however hard it is for us to hear their words.  They speak words that bring comfort and joy, and they also speak words that bring sorrow.  They speak the true word of God.  The prophet’s words affirm that the events that follow are part of the pre-determined divine plan of God.

Simeon blessed Mary and Joseph, and then he told Mary that there would be rejection of Jesus and opposition to Him. Many would “fall” over Jesus and the real motives and hidden thoughts of people would be revealed.  The result would be suffering and pain that would pierce Mary’s soul like a sword.  One can only imagine the pain Mary suffered in the years that followed as she watched as Jesus was rejected by many, betrayed and deserted by His disciples, and arrested, beaten and crucified.  Simeon knew that if we could look carefully into the baby Jesus’ manger, we would see not just a precious child but the cross that was part of His future and the sword that would pierce the soul of his mother.   Yet, Simeon spoke not just of the fall of many in Israel.  He also spoke a word of hope, for the child would also lead to the rising of many in Israel and God’s promised salvation for all the world.

Then Mary and Joseph encountered the prophetess, Anna, a pious widow who fasted and prayed night and day and did not depart from the temple. When Anna saw the baby Jesus, she gave thanks to God and spoke of Jesus as the one all have been seeking for the redemption of Jerusalem.     

After performing everything according to the law of God, Mary and Joseph returned to their home in Nazareth in Galilee. We are told that Jesus grew in mind, body and spirit and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon Him. 

We have waited and watched all the Advent season for Christmas Day, and the celebration of the birth of the Christ child. Yet our waiting and watching are not over, as we ask, “What now?”.  Jesus enters this new day and this new year of 2017, and offers to travel with us the unfolding days if we will but stay alert and watchful for His presence.  Jesus carries the torch of the Light of the world into the darkness of uncertain days, but we must wait for His timing and watch carefully for what He may be teaching us and how He will lead us into the new year.

God can teach us and lead us in various ways, such as through the experiences of our lives. But in order for us to learn, we need time to “stare” at our lives and reflect in stillness.  We can also learn from books and reading about the experiences of others.  In the last several years, I have read several books written by people who are facing death as a result of illness.  Each of these books contains great wisdom as the author reflects on what he learned during the years of life given him.  There are three books I would recommend to you, Love and Death, by Forrest Church,[iv] When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi,[v] and The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch.[vi]  While all three authors professed to be people of Christian faith, the books are not theological treatises and do not engage in deep reflection on life beyond our last breath on this earth.  These books are not about death and how to die, but how to live fully and abundantly the one life on earth we are given.  The pearls of wisdom set forth in these books are remarkably similar.

In establishing the goals and endeavors of their lives, the authors had all taken the time to know themselves and to live in accordance with who God created them to be. They listened to their hearts and discerned their truest desires and dreams.  These dreams were consistent with their God-given abilities and talents.  They devoted significant time to prepare for, to pursue with hard work and finally to live out their dreams.  They each knew who they were and lived accordingly, and they each deeply appreciated being able to work in their chosen vocation. 

Each of these three authors had pursued a vocation that allowed them to seek to help others. One of the authors, Forrest Church, was a church pastor, another, Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon whose surgeries helped extend the lives of his patients, and the third, Randy Pausch, a computer science professor, at Carnegie Mellon.  Randy Pausch described the joy he experienced in living out his dreams and goals.  But he found even greater joy in helping others, especially his students, discover and fulfill their own dreams.

Each of these authors worked diligently in a chosen vocation, but they also had people, outside their working lives, who were dear to them. They took the time to build significant relationships, to listen to the needs of these loved ones and to spend time with the ones they loved.

There is a recurrent theme of gratitude, gratitude for life, the people they love, their vocations and life endeavors, and the people who had helped them along the way. They stressed the importance of expressing one’s appreciation of others in person or through notes and letters.  Randy Pausch even expressed appreciation for those who placed obstacles in his path.  “Brick walls,” Randy wrote, “are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.”[vii]  Brick walls can, in time, be climbed over and surmounted or they may lead us to find another way or another path that is a far, far better one for us.

The prospect of approaching death tends to awaken in us the awareness of the fragility and preciousness of life and time with those we love. Forrest Church, Paul Kalanithi and Randy Pausch all answered the question of “What now?” by expressing deep appreciation for today and the experiences and people given to them, and by seeking to fully and gratefully live the day given to them.  They each also considered the legacy they would leave to others and how they could share the wisdom they had learned with their children and future generations.  How, they wondered, would they be remembered by loved ones and others they had encountered?  They each hoped that they would be remembered with gratitude.

If only we could live each of our precious days with the sense of gratitude that is often given to those whose health is fragile, and, of course, at least in our deepest moments of honest reflection, we all know that our days on this earth are limited. Ann Patchett’s life review convinced her that, “What now is not just a panic-stricken question tossed out into a dark unknown.  What now can also be our joy.  It is a declaration of possibility, of promise, of chance…  What now represents our excitement and our future, the very vitality of life.”[viii]

The beginning of a new year is an excellent time for a life review: reflecting on our dreams and abilities, on the significant people in our lives and how we are spending our time and energy. It is a time for expressing gratitude to people we live and work with each day and to others who have helped us reach the place we are today.  Perhaps we will even find a reason to be grateful for the obstacles of our lives that we either overcame in time or directed us to another, far better, path.  This is an excellent time for expressing gratitude to God.  As we reflect on our lives, we often discover the guiding hand of One who brings together the people and experiences of our lives in an amazing way that show His grace and wisdom.

Mary and Joseph with the newborn baby Jesus provide us with an example for living our way into answering our “What now?” questions. Mary and Joseph believed the word of God that had been given to them that affirmed Jesus as the Son of God, the long-awaited Messiah.  They complied with the teachings and the laws of their Jewish faith, and they sought to protect Jesus from harm as God guided and directed them.  They nurtured and taught Jesus the Jewish law and prophecies and they took Him to the Temple in Jerusalem for religious observances.

We also can include time in our days for prayerfully studying God’s word to us and seeking His guidance, and time for worshipping God in our community. We can ask God, “What now?” and listen, really listen for God’s answer, with a willingness to follow as God leads.   We can hold up to God all the commitments of our lives and reflect on how they align with God’s vision for the world and for our lives.  We can ask God about our priorities and how we spend our time and our money, and how we are using the skills, abilities and opportunities God has given to us.  We can reflect on how others will remember us and the life and legacy we leave.  Will we be remembered with gratitude? 

As Christians, we view our lives from an additional perspective. In addition, to appreciating how God has guided us in the past and seeking His guidance for today, we can also look forward to where God is preparing us to live tomorrow.  Our vision for tomorrow is significant for how we view our past and our present.  I like to think that my final prayer on this earth will be simply, “Thank You!  Thank You!”  Thank You for the experience of living the life I was given on earth, thank You, Lord, for Your love and guidance, thank You for the people you brought into my life to love and thank You for Your bright hope for tomorrow.  Thank You, thank You.

We do not need to fear death, for there is no tomorrow that we will live without God unless we choose to do so. We are promised that nothing in life or death, will separate us from the love of God.  Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face.

During Advent we were encouraged to wait and to watch for the day on which we would welcome the Christ child into our world and our lives. We were also taught to focus our eyes beyond Christmas Day to the day on which Jesus will come again and death will be no more.  The day on which there will be no more mourning or crying or pain.  On the day that God will make all things new.  This is the kingdom that Jesus has gone to prepare for us so that where He is, we may be also.  Jesus is the answer to the final “What now?” question of the world, and the answer is very, very good.

May 2017 be a very good year for you and those you love. The One whose birth we celebrate, journeys with you into this new year filled with hope and promise.               

[i] Ann Patchett, What Now? (Harper Collin).

[ii] Patchett, 71.

[iii] Patchett, 57-58.

[iv] Forrest Church, Love and Death (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008).

[v] Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air (New York: Random House, 2016).

[vi] Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture (New York: Hyperion, 2008).

[vii] Pausch, 52.

[viii] Patchett, 76-77.

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