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The Lost Christ

(a sermon for January 3, 2021, the 2nd Sunday after Christmas, based on Luke 2:39-52)

“And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”  That’s what Luke tells us in his gospel, but as far as I’m concerned it does absolutely nothing to satisfy my curiosity!

Actually, one of my great fascinations involving the gospel story has always been that of which we know very little: how Jesus, our Christ, grew from that tiny, helpless baby in the manger to a 30-year-old carpenter from Nazareth who came preaching salvation and the coming of God’s kingdom.

I wonder, for instance, if Jesus was ever a fussy baby.  Was he colicky?  What did he like to eat, and did he have a special toy or a “luvvy” (as our kids referred to it) that he clung to at night?  What made him smile and laugh (was he ticklish?), and did Jesus work and play well with other children?  Did Jesus go through “the terrible twos?”  And I wonder… how did Mary and Joseph react when he misbehaved?  Knowing what they did, could the two of them treat Jesus like any other child; would Joseph give him a “stern talking to,” or was there a little pat on the backside if he needed it?  I mean, how do you discipline the Son of God? And while we’re on the subject, was Jesus at all rebellious as a teenager?  Did Jesus really enjoy working alongside Joseph in the carpenter’s shop, or would he have rather been out with his friends?

Small questions, I know, and probably a bit impertinent; but I do wonder about such things, because in all honesty these are the questions that bring Jesus nearer to me and my life; for me, thinking about Jesus this way makes him human as well as divine, and I can wrap my mind and heart around that.  And I take solace in knowing I’m not alone in my wondering: biblical scholars, to say nothing of novelists, poets and artists throughout the centuries have long speculated on this subject.  In the end, however, all we have is speculation, because it turns out that we just don’t know all that much about Jesus’ childhood and youth.

In fact, one of the only stories we have about Jesus during this period is the one we just shared, regarding an incident that occurred when Jesus was about twelve years old, as he joined Mary and Joseph and a great caravan of other families from Nazareth on a trip to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 

Actually, that in and of itself tells us a great deal: that Jesus was raised in the rich Hebrew tradition of his family and community.  You see, not only was it Jewish law that every male Israelite living within fifteen miles of Jerusalem attend the festival of Passover there, it was also customary (and a privilege) for young, growing boys to make their appearance there as part of their passage into adulthood.  So, at age twelve, this was probably one of the first times that Jesus made the pilgrimage as required by law; and that’s significant for our understanding of who Jesus was, and the history and tradition of which he was a part.

But what’s even more significant about this story comes in what happened following the feast itself; for according to Luke, what we learn is that Mary and Joseph, in fact, lost Jesus!  Now, to be fair, it was nobody’s fault, and anyone, especially parents, can understand how such a thing could have happened.  You see, as regards these large caravans traveling to Jerusalem, the tradition of the time was for the women and children to start out on the journey earlier than the men; this was because the women and the children traveled more slowly.  The men would start out later in the day, moving at a faster pace, so that by the end of the day, the men and women would meet at the place of encampment at more or less the same time. 

This was also how, after the Passover celebration, they would make their way back to Nazareth.  But what happened was that Mary assumed that Jesus, having nearly reached the age of manhood, was with Joseph; and Joseph, on the other hand, assumed that since Jesus was not around, that the boy was surely with his mother.  It wasn’t until nightfall, when they’d set up camp for the night that Mary and Joseph realized, much to their horror, that Jesus was still back in Jerusalem!  And so what else could they do but then turn around, leave the caravan, and go back by themselves a day’s journey to Jerusalem to find Jesus!

See, it was an honest mistake! Mary and Joseph were not lax in their parental duties, nor were they neglectful of their son; but the fact remains that quite without their knowledge, they had lost Jesus and had gone on for quite some time without even realizing it! 

If you think about it, it’s actually quite a parable.  Here were Mary and Joseph, these two young people who’d brought this child into the world in a cold, dark stable; who’d willingly become refugees so to protect him from the murderous rage of King Herod; who’d let their lives become completely altered for the sake of God’s own son.  We look at Mary and Joseph and cannot help but marvel at their love and devotion to Jesus and yet, they still lost him!  And here’s where it becomes a parable; because, friends, if it’s possible for Mary and Joseph to lose Jesus, however unintentionally, then it’s also possible for you and me to lose him as well!

Truth is, it happens all too easily: we’re walking what we’re thinking is the sure and certain pace of the Christian walk; we’re moving along on what feels like a good and spiritual pathway for our lives, and suddenly we look up to notice that Jesus just doesn’t seem to be there!  That’s the irony of it, friends: we can be good, loving, faithful Christian people in just about every sense of the word; going to church regularly, involving ourselves in the church’s ministries, as well as doing good things out in the places where we dwell.  We’ll give of ourselves spiritually, physically, financially and otherwise, and do it all with love and as an act of praise and devotion… and yet we still somehow manage to have lost Christ somewhere along the way!

How it happens is hard to say – no doubt at one point Jesus had been there at the center of it – but now, even amidst all the so-called “religious” activity, there’s a palpable sense of emptiness.  Perhaps the meaning and purpose of what we were doing got overshadowed by the work of it, that is, our need to “get the job done,” so it had become less about our “faith response” than it was dealing with another obligation in our lives; or maybe it’s simply that we stopped paying attention to the movement of God’s Spirit in our lives, to the point where now, where a “Christian life” is concerned, we’re just going through the motions!

However it happens, the fact is that it can and does; and therein lay the question for each of us as we look around at our lives and living; and reflect on how this gift of divine love we’ve been given defines us, and how we live: Is Jesus there?  And if not, then where is he?  Can it be said of us that we, in fact, have lost Christ?

Of course, our story this morning has a happy ending: Mary and Joseph find Jesus in the temple, talking with and asking questions of the teachers there regarding matters of law, tradition and theology.  In fact, we’re told that “all who heard [Jesus] were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”   All very well and good – wonderful, in fact – but as you can imagine, his parents are still pretty upset, and understandably so!  Mary says to her son, “Child,” (notice that suddenly it’s “child!”) “why have you treated us like this?”  Didn’t you know that we’d be worried?  We’ve been looking for you all day, we had to come all the way back here to find you… what have you got to say for yourself, young man?

And to this, Jesus very calmly replies, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Luke goes on to say that “they did not understand what he said to them,” but Biblical scholars and theologians make the case that Jesus, even then, knew who he was.  But even more than this, I think that Jesus knew where to go.  Even at the age of twelve, Jesus understood that a life of faith is a life of seeking; always seeking, always asking questions, always wanting to know bit more than you knew before.  It’s about growing, in wisdom as well as in years… but growing ever and always in the company of God, there before you and beside you.

Friends, I ask you this morning, how can we really know God if we don’t take the time to be with God?

How can we live for Christ, if, in fact, we don’t seek to bring Christ near?

How can we know which way to walk on this Christian pilgrimage we’re on, if we don’t take the time to ask for directions in prayer? Or to pause along the journey to reflect both on where we’ve been, and where we’re going?

How can we call ourselves faithful when we won’t seek a deeper understanding of what that faith means?  Or to put it another way, how can we know the answers if we don’t first ask the questions?

I think that even as a child, our Lord understood that though God actively seeks us out where we are, we need to seek God… and seeking God begins with an incredible life-long walk with Jesus!  And if, along the way, we find that we’ve lost Jesus (or perhaps, more accurately, that we’ve misplaced him), the good news is that he can be found.

It oftentimes takes some rather intentional searching on our parts; it certainly requires getting out of our own way for a while, and by that I mean rearranging some of the priorities that may well have taken a stranglehold on our lives!  It means asking questions: sometimes very hard questions, not only of ourselves but also of God; and then prayerfully, deliberately and intently listening to God for answers. 

What we’re talking about here is spiritual discipline; but in such a discipline comes the remarkable discovery that not only have we found Jesus, but that all along Jesus has been waiting for us to find him!  All along the journey, no matter in what direction we’ve veered off the pathway, the good news is that Christ has been waiting – patiently, lovingly and relentlessly – waiting for us to find him.  Truly, this is the gift of every Christmas and the blessing of each and every New Year – most especially in this new year of 2021 – that even when we somehow manage to lose him, Jesus is ever and always there to be found!

It’s like that little phrase you’ll see printed on cards and signs and even t-shirts this time of year, usually with a picture of a manger, a star and perhaps a camel or two: Wise Men still seek him.  Wise men, wise women, wise children: we would all do well to live our lives searching diligently for the child in the places where we dwell.  Because I’ll guarantee you one thing:  if we look, we’ll surely find the child who’s been waiting for us all along!

Dear friends, may you have a blessed and happy new year in the presence and blessing of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God!  

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 
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Posted by on January 3, 2021 in Christmas, Jesus, Life, Sermon, Spiritual Truths

 

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Christmas, Even Now

Well, once again at long last, it’s Christmas Eve! 

I have to say, friends, that of all the times we come together as God’s people throughout the year; this is probably the night I look forward to most. In fact, I figured it out and this makes 37 years – 9 of them right here at East Church – that I’ve had the great joy and privilege of leading Christmas Eve worship as a pastor; and I’ve got to tell you, all of those years and all of those times shared in worship are filled with memories and meaning that fill up my heart more than I can possibly express.

I’ve actually been remembering something tonight that was said to me at another church many Christmas Eves ago by someone who came through the vestibule to greet me after worship.  She shook my hand quite vigorously, she gave me this great big hug (as we are fond of saying up in Maine, she “muckled right on to me!”) and then, with tears in her eyes, she said, “Oh, thank you, thank you so much for this service!  I just love coming to your church on Christmas Eve, because it’s the same old thing every year!”  

Ummm… you’re welcome?

Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about that as of late, because I realize that if there’s one thing we can say about anything having to do with Christmas Eve 2020, it’s most assuredly that this year it’s not the “same old thing!”  In fact, I think we can safely say that this year’s celebration of Christmas is to say the very least, unprecedented and nothing we could have possibly imagined a year ago.  And I’ll confess, it still seems inconceivable that we aren’t able to be together as a church family in this sanctuary on this holy night… and yet, out of an abundance of concern for the safety and well-being of everyone around us (to say nothing of our love for one another), it is both appropriate and good, friends, that this year we aren’t gathering for in-person worship.

So yes, this year is different… and yet, I dare say that there’s so much that’s still the same.  After all, we’re still worshiping together as God’s people… we’re just doing so from different places and in a multitude of different ways.  We’re all still singing all those songs and carols … or at least, I trust that we’re all singing from wherever we are!  We’ve still been reading that old and wonderfully familiar story of our Savior’s birth… perhaps this year we’ve even heard it in a way that’s fresh and new!   And in a few minutes, we’ll be lighting candles that will remind us that the light of Christ has come into our darkened world, singing “Silent Night” as we do.

So considering all that, in many ways I still have to agree with that woman who spoke to me with such joy and thanksgiving all those years ago: yes, in every way that matters, it is the “same old thing” again this Christmas, even now… and thank the Lord for it!

Actually, you know what; I also have to tell you that one of my favorite moments every Christmas Eve is one that few people in the church ever get to see: it’s after the last carol has been sung, after the organ has been switched off, the candles extinguished, and all of you have gone home, perchance to get a few hours of slumber before the kids are up and the Christmas celebration starts in earnest.  The heat gets turned back here at the church, the lights are switched off; and finally, after I do a last-minute check of things, I lock up for the night and head outside to go home.

And every year, that’s when it happens: I’ll look up at the night sky, feel the cut of the night air, hear the utter quiet that has descended upon the busy streets; and suddenly it’ll hit me:  Dear Lord, at last it’s Christmas!  And all over this community and nation and world this night, people are celebrating and singing and worshipping – almost certainly in a different way, but still celebrating nonetheless – all because God so loved this world that he gave us his son. 

In these moments I’m inevitably reminded of the words of a poem that I have known and loved for many years now; written by the Rev. Phillips Brooks, who was also the composer of “O Little Town of Bethlehem:”

 
 

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Christmas, Now More Than Ever: God, With Us

(a sermon for December 20, 2020, the 4th Sunday of Advent; fourth in a series, based on Isaiah 7:10-17 and Matthew 1:18-25)

Before the magi followed a star rising in the east or a motely group of shepherds heard the song of the heavenly host…

…before a stable full of animals became the makeshift birthplace for a baby king or when Bethlehem became the place where a ruler was to born…

…even before a young girl is told by an angel of the Lord that she was to bear a child who would be called “Son of God…”

…long before any of this comes to pass, the story of Christmas begins: with a weak and rather wicked ruler by the name of Ahaz, and a battle of… faith versus fear.

Now, what’s interesting about this passage from the 7th chapter of Isaiah, and the reason we tend to return to it every Advent season, is that it does contain the prophecy of a young woman bearing a son who shall be named Immanuel; a single verse that provides the perfect entry into the familiar gospel story of Mary and Joseph and the manger birth of the Holy Child.  Yet the not so familiar story is the one about what prompted Isaiah’s prophecy in the first place: Ahaz, you see, was the king of Judah who came into power around 735 B.C. when he was about 20 years old (!) and ruled for about 20 years; he was the son of King Jotham, who was regarded as a “good king” of Judah, which makes it all the more interesting that Ahaz was just the opposite: we’re not exactly sure why, but he literally seemed to relish going against the precepts of God.  It is said that Ahaz’s many destructive practices – idol worship, sacrilege against the temple of the Lord, even the sacrifice of his own children (!) – contributed to the ultimate downfall of the entire kingdom of Judah!

And as we pick up the story in our text for this morning, Judah is in fact surrounded by at least two foreign armies and quite literally facing its own imminent destruction.  Just prior to where we started reading today we’re told that “the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind,” and as you can imagine, King Ahaz is evaluating the situation and he’s worried, fearful for the future of Judah and quite honestly, concerned for his own well-being and survival. And yet, here’s the thing: all this worry and fear is happening despite the fact that Isaiah had already brought to him God’s assurance that his kingdom would prevail.  And we’re told that Ahaz is so unconvinced of this that God actually invites and encourages Ahaz to ask for a sign as to the certainty of the promise:  ask for anything, the Lord says, “let it be deep as as Sheol or high as heaven.”  Or as The Message translates it, “Be extravagant.  Ask for the moon!”

Now at this point and perhaps to his credit, Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign, not wanting to put the Lord to the test; but to God’s credit, God offers up a sign anyway; that of which we know so well: “a young woman [who] shall bear a son,” and a child who will know “how to refuse the evil and choose the good.”  But even after this news, this monumental news, Ahaz is skeptical; and we’re left in this passage with the clear sense that even with this incredible news of heaven and earth colliding, this king of Judah is far too wrapped up in his fear of what his enemies were planning to even notice what God was even at that very moment doing in faithfulness and with love.

Not exactly the kind of story you want to hear just before Christmas, is it?

But while Ahaz’s response is certainly short-sighted and more than a little self-serving; friends, I have to confess to you this morning that I get it, most especially right now.  Because if there’s nothing else that can be said about our lives in this strange, woe begotten year of 2020 it’s that when the world goes crazy, fear tends to come into direct opposition to faith.  It’s one thing, after all, to profess that we’ll all get through this global pandemic and we won’t get Covid-19 and that life is going to return to normal sooner rather than later; but it’s quite another thing to not let our worries and fears about the uncertainty of it all get the better of us. 

And never mind the pandemic for a moment; I dare say that every single one of us can name a time or situation in our lives when there has quite literally existed a tug of war between “keeping the faith” on the one side and “giving in to fear” on the other.  And the truth of the matter is that when your back is against the wall and all the problems of this life just seem to keep piling on with no end in sight, it’s hard to accept the promise of relief or support coming anytime soon; easier, if I might quote Fred Gaiser of Luther Seminary, “to trust in alliances and arms and investments and securities [rather] than God,” because to “not worry about tomorrow… is easier said than done.” Much easier, even more tempting at times, to give up, give in and let fear rule the day; that’s the problem, you see, for the King Ahazzes of every generation, and for that matter, that’s also the problem for you and me in these times in which we’re living.  But there are consequences for that kind of stance: as the Lord himself says to Ahaz (again, just prior to our reading this morning), “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.” (v. 9)

So isn’t it good, then, that God offers us the gift of standing firm amidst the fear?  Isn’t it good that God is with us in the standing?  And isn’t it wonderful in that it’s all going to come about… because of a child?

“Look,” says the prophet, “a woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel,” a name that literally means “God is with us.”  This will be a child who will be barely grown before he’s able to make good and moral choices; a child who will be able in all things to “refuse the evil and choose the good;” a child who will make war and conflict and division a thing of the past; a child who will bring faith in the face of all fear.  And perhaps most importantly, the birth of this child was to be the sure and certain promise that God would remain faithful to his people no matter how fearful they had become.  God would be with them… come what may, and forever more.

As I say, I suppose had I been in Ahaz’s situation I might have been skeptical.  After all, what possible help can a small, newborn baby possibly be against two powerful armies just about to end his kingdom; better that “the sign” from God be some show of military force!  But then, isn’t this what God always does, to bring forth hope and love and life in the places where one least expects it?  The truth is that God always enters in to our places of greatest weakness to stand firm with us and for us no matter how fearful we become.  To quote the Rev. Brent Neely, a Lutheran pastor and writer from Cape Elizabeth, Maine (!), “Even in this day and age when fear runs amuck, we have no need to fear for a small child has proven to us that God is with us and that God is faithful to his promises.  When our faith is weak [and] our fear is strong,” Neely writes, “God steps in without us even asking for it.  God tells us, ‘I am with you!’  Hope is coming [and] the enemy that you fear is nothing compared to the promise that God has made with us.”

You know, truth be told, I wonder sometimes if Joseph was at all skeptical about the promise of this child who was about to come into his life.  As the story is told in our text for this morning from Matthew, we already know that when Mary “was found to be with child” Joseph had resolved to “dismiss her quietly” so not to expose to public disgrace; but then, of course, the angel appeared to Joseph in his dream and all that changed.  Still, you still have to wonder if Joseph was asking what all of this really meant; not just to him and Mary, but also to the whole world.  Surely, there must have been some significant and legitimate fear in considering just how very much was hinging on the two of them becoming parents to this tiny, helpless infant who was no less than God come to earth!  You have to wonder, even with all the prophecies and dreams and angels’ songs that had led him to this time, if Joseph didn’t wonder, why me?  Why us?  Why now?  And what if it doesn’t happen?

Again, on the face of it, it all seems a pretty unlikely scenario, but therein lies the beauty and the purpose of God’s plan; that this child, this birth, this coming of this Messiah simply didn’t seem to make sense by the standards of the world.  That the whole of Israel’s history; that all the prophecies foretold from days of old; that the sum total of human history should all hinge on a young girl saying yes, she’ll be the handmaiden of the Lord; on a husband who would not walk the other way; and on the chance that the two of them would find themselves in a dark, damp stable in Bethlehem on one particular holy night that divinely chosen from the foundation of the world (!)…

…but that was the sign, wasn’t it?

The sign that the Lord himself has given us: what you and I would deem a miracle; a miracle of divine proportion planned and laid out for centuries before it actually unfolded in all its glory.  That’s the thing we need to remember, you know, especially as we draw closer now to Christmas; that all those wonderful things that make the story what it is – the angels’ chorus; the shepherds out abiding in the fields; the shining of a star in at a unique place and at a preordained time; and the magi who traversed across the miles so to discover where that star would finally rest – none of it was happenstance.  It was all part of God’s plan and purpose; the miracle workings of a miraculous God whose promise it is to be with us… come what may and forevermore.

This is the true gift of Christmas, beloved, one that we need now more than ever: the Lord’s own sign of a child that shows us, again and again and again, that God is still and ever and always watching over the fearful and fretful people of God’s choice.  And most especially in these strange and uncertain days, that this amazing, holy child continues to be a sign unto us and an unending reminder that God is with us still, offering to us strength and love in our times of weakness and assuring us that we are never alone, no matter the size and force of the enemies we face.  No matter what we’ve had to face in 2020 or what may befall us in 2021, we are God’s people and God is with us, and so we have no reason to fear.

Hope is coming to us, and a small child is the sign of its coming.

For the child to be born is named Immanuel… God, with us.

Thanks be to God in Jesus, our Immanuel.

Amen and AMEN!

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved

 

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