I Am: The Shepherd and the Gate

Scripture: John 10:1-21

If you’ve been here over the past couple weeks, you’ve probably seen the colors up front here changing a lot, both what we use on the altar and on my stole here.  I’m wearing green now – can anyone tell me what it was before that?  (It was white for Christmas and Epiphany.) How about before that? (Purple for Advent.)  I know the colors might be easy to overlook, so sometimes I just like to see if you all are paying attention.

I’m wearing green now for the season in the church year we call Ordinary Time, which is not because it’s boring but because we’re counting the weeks between one season and the next.  There are actually two stretches of Ordinary Time in the church year, and this is the first, which takes us from Epiphany – the visit of the wise men which we celebrated on January 6 – to Lent, which begins in March this year. This time is a chance to continue the theme of revelation that begins with Epiphany.  It’s a time for us to get to know and understand just a little better who this baby in a manger – by now a grown man in the midst of his earthly ministry – really is.

That’s why, during this time between Epiphany and Lent this year, we’re asking the question of who Jesus is, and letting him answer for himself.  Specifically, we’re looking at the Gospel of John, which features seven “I am” sayings of Jesus in which he uses different images – like light, bread, vine – to describe to people who he is.  Last week, we heard Jesus tell us that he is the light of the world.  He allows us to see the world as it is and ourselves as we are, and we are presented with a choice: to follow in that light or not.

Last week I told you about how this image of light and darkness arose out of a conflict in the Temple during the festival of Sukkoth, in John 7-8.  Some people hear Jesus teaching and believe him.  Others, notably the religious leadership, are pushed further into their unbelief.  The episode in the Temple ends with Jesus almost getting stoned for heresy, but he manages to escape.

The conflict between Jesus and the religious establishment, however, is just ramping up.

As Jesus walks along, we read at the beginning of chapter 9, he comes across a blind man, and restores his sight.  It happens to be the Sabbath. Naturally all of this causes a bit of a stir, and the onlookers drag the man to the Pharisees, some of the religious elites, for a judgment on this thing that has just happened. The Pharisees interrogate the man, his parents, and then the man again until they finally just get mad and send him away.

Jesus reappears on the scene with the man and some Pharisees with some thoughts on the subject of what really, in the end, makes a person blind.  Then he launches into a new monologue, in which we encounter his next two “I am” sayings.

He deals in the imagery of sheep, imagery which would have been familiar to those he spoke to, though it is probably somewhat less familiar to us.  “Very truly I tell you,” says Jesus, “anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.  The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.  The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice.  He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out….the sheep follow him because they know his voice.  They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

Those of you who have been in our Sunday Bible study as we read through the Gospel of John together know that one of things I find most frustrating about John, and especially about the way Jesus tends to talk in it, is that he can be really hard to follow.  I find myself really wanting Jesus to get to the point.  So maybe you can help me out with what’s going on in this image:

– Who are the thieves and bandits?  (Since he’s saying this in the context of ongoing conflict with the Pharisees, it seems likely that it’s them – that they are somehow trying to lead the sheep astray.)  We might ask also: what’s the sheepfold, and what does it mean to enter it the wrong way?

– “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep,” Jesus says – who’s the shepherd?  Jesus himself?  Seems likely, right?  Does that make us, or his followers in the story, the sheep?

– “The gatekeeper opens the gate for him.”  Who’s this gatekeeper?

– How about the strangers, the ones the sheep won’t follow because they don’t recognize their voice? Are they the same people as the thieves and bandits?

John tells us that the people did not understand what Jesus was saying to them, and to be honest, I don’t really blame them.

Sometimes, though, we might actually trip ourselves up by trying to assign parts to every piece of the story.  Maybe what Jesus is trying to tell us here doesn’t depend on us being able to decode this image.  Maybe there’s a bigger picture here; maybe he’s still setting the scene for what he has to say next.  So let’s listen to it again, and instead of trying to line up all the parts, tell me what you hear in it, what impressions you get.

Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.

What do you see and hear in this scene?

I get an impression of tenderness between the shepherd and the sheep.  There’s a kind of trust and intimacy there.  The shepherd knows the sheep by name and they know the shepherd’s voice.  There’s also danger there – from the thieves and bandits who try to enter the sheepfold.  And yet even in the presence of danger, there is assurance: the sheep won’t go with the wrong person; there’s no mistaking the bandit for the shepherd.

From here, Jesus begins to explain what he means, and this is where our next “I am” saying comes in: “I am the gate for the sheep,” he says.

OK, I did not see that one coming.  I could have sworn that Jesus was the shepherd.

How does this image change for you if Jesus is the gate?  What does a gate do?  A gate is the right way in to something.  Jesus says, “Everyone who enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture….I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  Jesus, the gate, is the way in to abundant life, which I might describe as life lived fully in the love and grace of God.  Jesus is the way in to the pasture where the sheep are fed, and safe, and known.

It’s also interesting to me that Jesus talks about the sheep both going out and coming in.  I’m initially inclined to think of a gate as restrictive, controlling movement, keeping in those who supposed to be in and out those who are supposed to be out.  But here the gate is freedom rather than restriction.

Jesus goes on: “I am the good shepherd,” he says.  Wait a minute – I thought Jesus was the gate.  Now he’s the shepherd, too?  Well, why not.  Again, we can’t be too rigid in our metaphor here.

Well, what does it mean, then, for Jesus to be not just the shepherd in our image – but a good shepherd?

As Jesus says here, The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  He’s not a mere hired hand who takes care of the sheep until it gets scary and dangerous and then runs away and leaves the sheep to their own devices.  That hired hand may have a job to do, but he doesn’t love the sheep.  And he might be able to tell the sheep apart, but he doesn’t know them, not by name, not by whatever ovine characteristics make them unique creations of God.  The good shepherd loves the sheep and will protect them, fight for them, lay down his life for them.

A few years ago I preached on this passage and what stood out to me, then, was this idea of the sheep recognizing the shepherd’s voice.  It stood out to me because Jesus seems to take that as a given, that the sheep will recognize the shepherd’s voice and not go with the wrong person.  This seems less obvious to me, as a person who sometimes has trouble recognizing just what is the voice is the voice of Jesus in my life and what is the voice of society, culture, even my own self-doubt or self-justification.  Sometimes, I think, we sheep need to help each other recognize the shepherd’s voice, so when we follow, it’s together – no sheep left behind.

This time, though, what stood out to me was this idea of not just knowing but being known.  After all, this passage is supposed to tell us something about who Jesus is.  The shepherd calls his own sheep by name.  The shepherd knows his own.  The shepherd lays down his life for the ones he knows.

Once, at the church I previously served, we were going around the table in a staff meeting – it must have been around Thanksgiving – naming what we were thankful for.  I only remember one thing someone around the table said that day: “I’m thankful for a spouse who knows me completely, and who still loves me.”

On the one hand there is something beautiful and comforting about this idea of being fully known by another person – whether it’s a partner, a family member, or a best friend.  There’s something about this idea that someone could know everything about me: my history, my heart, my best qualities, my worst ones – those extremes that people don’t always get to see – and that I could be loved for all of it, for the totality of who I am and who God created me to be, and not just for who I try to present myself as on a day-to-day basis.

There’s comfort and maybe even abundant life in that, but on the other hand, there’s fear, too: my spouse still loves me, my colleague said.  As in, there’s the danger that they might not have.  There’s a vulnerability in being known, the possibility of rejection.  Because maybe if someone really knew us they’d realize we aren’t what they think.   Maybe if someone knew how we can be sometimes they wouldn’t want to stick around.  And so we’d rather not be known too well, maybe even by the people who know us best.

Some of us probably even live with a certain wariness of being known in a digital world of eroding privacy.  We may keep our friendly distance from our neighbors but the powers that be on the internet, somehow, know everything about us: our shopping preferences, what we’re searching for, what conversations we’re having when we forget that Alexa is there listening.  And there’s a distrust – well-founded, I’m sure – of what these entities are going to do with this information, and how it might be used for us or against us.  So again, how much do we really want to be known?

When it comes to Jesus, though, we’re not talking about the kind of knowing where information is going to be used to manipulate us.  This isn’t Santa, knows-if-you’ve-been-bad-or-good kind of knowing; it’s not knowing the way Google knows us, or the way we fear the NSA might know us.  It’s not even knowing the way other people might know us, for better or worse.

Jesus, the good shepherd, knows his sheep completely.  There’s no risk, because he already does.  He knows them, each one, in all their beautiful sheepiness and all their smelly, annoying, sometimes not-so-bright sheepiness.  And he loves them.  He loves you.

And this goes back to how Jesus is not only the shepherd but also the gate – because, in this weird mixed metaphor, the one who determines who goes in and out, who has access to the abundant life of that pasture – is also the one who calls us by name, who lays down his life for us.  He knows us completely, and he – still – invites us in.

Jesus adds, at the end of this monologue, that he has “other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”  And while scholars may debate about who exactly he means – is it Gentiles?  Other Jews? – what I hear in this is an invitation to extend that same love and welcome that we’ve received to others.  In the end, we can’t know those other sheep like Jesus knows them. And in the end, we are neither gate nor gatekeeper, controlling who comes in and out.  We’re simply part of one beloved flock.

You’d think if any message could be unifying, this one would be, right?  But again, we read, the people were divided.  Some said Jesus was possessed, or out of his mind. But others heard the voice of their shepherd, and followed, because they knew they were known completely, and loved completely.

The God who gave you life knows your beauty and your brokenness and loves you enough to lay down his life for you.  When we live like we know that – that is abundant life.

I Am: The Light of the World

Scripture: John 8:12-30

Who is Jesus?

This is a question that all of us here, in one way or another, are probably trying to answer for ourselves.  Some of us may think we already know.  He is Lord, Savior, Teacher, Son of God.  Of course, even if we can agree on certain titles, we might still disagree on what exactly they mean, and how much those differences matter.

This is also the question that each of the Gospel writers are trying to answer, and they all do so a little differently.  To Matthew Jesus is the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures, to Luke the liberator of the poor and oppressed, to Mark the slayer of demons.  Of course, even those descriptions are grossly oversimplified.  It says something, I think, that instead of trying to answer the question directly, each of our Gospel writers chooses to tell us a story, to present Jesus as they understand him and let us make up our own mind.

The Gospel of John is sometimes called the Fourth Gospel, not just because it comes fourth in the New Testament lineup, but also as a way to distinguish it from the other three.  Because for all that Matthew, Mark, and Luke present us with their different perspectives on Jesus, they actually have a lot in common in terms of the stories they tell and how they tell them.  They’re in fact so similar that we call them synoptic Gospels – syn, same; optic, seeing:  they see the same thing.  John tends to tell us different stories about Jesus, and he tells them in a different style too.  Compare John and Mark and you’ll see that John has a very poetic, almost ethereal quality that sometimes makes it hard to follow compared to Mark’s simplicity and earthiness.

John also attempts to answer the question of who Jesus is in a way that the others don’t, and that is – he lets Jesus tell us himself.

Repeatedly, throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus says “I am” and then gives us an image of who he is: Bread.  Light.  Shepherd.  Door.  Vine.  Life.  Resurrection.

No one of these seven images, or “I am” sayings, can give us a complete picture of who Jesus is.  Neither can all seven of them together sum Jesus up and give us a complete picture.  But I happen to like this idea that we can maybe understand Jesus a little better one image, one glimpse at a time.  That we can never truly have a handle on exactly who Jesus is, but that we can know him from different perspectives and keep getting to know him over the course of our lives.  That is, after all, what it means to be in relationship with someone.  So over the next six weeks we’re going to be looking at each of these “I am” images that Jesus gives us and asking ourselves again, who is Jesus? And what does getting to know him through that particular image mean for us?

Before we get to this week’s image, I have to set the scene for you.

Chapter 7 of John opens in conflict.  Jesus has already kind of gotten into it with the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, and he’s decided to lay low for a while, focusing his ministry in the northern region of Galilee.  When it comes time for the festival of Sukkoth, which was both a harvest celebration and remembrance of the years the Israelites spent in the wilderness, Jesus tells his brothers he’s not going to go.  But then he does go, in secret.

When he gets to Jerusalem there’s already murmuring among the crowd gathered at the Temple for the festival.  People are whispering about him: is he a good man?  A phony?  In the middle of the festival, Jesus gets up to speak.

This is the beginning of a back-and-forth between Jesus, the leaders, and the people that will dominate chapters 7 and 8.  Jesus accuses the leadership of trying to kill him.  They say he’s possessed.  The crowd says he can’t be the Messiah because they know where he comes from.  He says you may know where I’m from but you clearly don’t know the one who sent me.  The leaders try to arrest him, Jesus says he won’t be around for much longer.  At times he waxes poetic: Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.

What is the result of all this back-and-forth?  Some people believe.  Some are pushed even farther into their unbelief.

Does this sound familiar?  To me it sounds almost like the political and cultural division we’re steeped in today – where any new information we get, any news report or study released, seems to mostly result in those who hear it doubling down on the opinions they already held, pro and con.  Of course, there are those who refuse to pick sides altogether – like Nicodemus (remember him?) who enters the scene at the end of chapter 7 to argue weakly that at least Jesus should be given a fair trial.  Refusing to pick a side does not necessarily make someone a good guy, in John’s book.

It’s after all of this that Jesus announces to the crowd, “I am the light of the world.”  It’s almost apropos of nothing, except that light was an important part of the Sukkoth celebration, where people would parade with torches in remembrance of those years in the wilderness when God went before the Israelites in a pillar of fire by night.  “I am the light of the world,” Jesus says. “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

This light/dark imagery is not new in John.  His Gospel opens with a passage we often read at Christmas: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being with him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  This poem, which is John’s version of a nativity story, goes on to tell us that “the true light was coming into the world…yet the world did not know him.”

From the beginning of the Gospel, we have this picture of light, darkness, and perhaps the conflict between the two. And, in fact, this imagery isn’t new to John: we sometimes also hear the prophet Isaiah proclaiming around Christmastime that “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

I’ve become increasingly aware in the past couple of years, especially as I’ve heard and read things that some of my friends and colleagues of color have to say on the subject, that this light and dark language can be problematic.  I want to acknowledge that.  When we always use dark to symbolize evil and despair and ignorance, and when we always use light to symbolize goodness and hope and knowledge, that can end up having some not-so-good implications for how we understand things such as race.  I’m sure most of us would never intentionally equate the darkness of evil and despair with darker skin tones but – well, it’s been done, and it’s imagery that can shape how we think in the background even when we’re not aware of it.  It does us good to hear a different perspective, such as this one from the black feminist theologian Wilda Gafney: “We are afraid of the dark but God is not. Darkness is a creative space to God. Out of darkness God created everything that is, including light. I like to think that light and dark are not in conflict, but in balance.”[1]

This is a valuable and necessary perspective.  But it also seems to me that in John in particular there is a conflict, and I want to be able to think about what this image meant to him and those he wrote for, and how it can help us know Jesus better today.  Let’s keep in mind the fact that the olive-skinned authors of the Bible, when they write in the poetry of light and darkness, aren’t talking about colors or shades.  They’re talking about illumination, the light of sun and stars and lamps and fire.  And what is the basic function of light?  It helps us see.  We can see what’s around us, we can see the way ahead of us, we can see things – at least to some degree – as they really are.  There is something physically powerful in this kind of imagery, too.  It’s something we might even be feeling in our bodies these days as the days begin to grow just a little bit longer.  There is a time for every season in the rhythm of God’s creation – but it tends to be easier to wake up when it’s light outside in the morning, and in this way light is a source of life, though of course the darkness with the rest and growth it provides is necessary for life as well.  But when in the prologue John writes that “the life was the light for all people,” we can understand the connection.

So what, then, does it mean for Jesus to be light of the world?

It means he’s the one who lets us see the world as it really is and ourselves as we really are.  It means that he’s the one who allows us to perceive both the beauty and the brokenness in all of it.  It means he’s the one who makes the way in front of us clear, so that we know which way we’re supposed to go, where we’re supposed to put our feet next, even if the final destination isn’t always clear.

If Jesus is the light of the world, that also means that we have a choice – the choice presented to us from the very beginning of John’s Gospel.  We can choose darkness, or we can choose light.  Which one will it be? And if the imagery is problematic, we can change it.  Will it be hot or cold?  Yankees or Red Sox?  The important thing is that there is a choice, and it’s ours, and only one of our options is the one that leads to life.

And even for those of us who have been going to church for a very long time, that choice is not always an easy one to make.  You all have chosen to be here this morning, and that’s a good start.  You didn’t have to.  You had plenty of other options.  And yet sometimes we do the things we think we’re supposed to out of duty or habit – without ever really having made a choice.

On the other hand maybe some of you remember the exact day and place and time you made that choice, to call Jesus Lord, but I’ll caution you too, because this is not a choice we have to make just once in our lives.  The choice to follow Jesus is one we get to make every day, as we decide whether to forgive or get revenge, who to stand up for, how much we can give away, how far to go out of our way to help someone, whether we decide to learn someone’s story before judging them, whether we put up our defenses or let people in.  It’s a choice we make every day to love and to be a neighbor.  And it’s not always an easy choice, even when the way is clear before us.

There’s another Gospel where Jesus says something similar, but a little different.  In Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the crowds – not I am the light of the world – but “You are the light of the world.”

I somehow think these two lines, in these two different Gospels, are meant to be read together.  We are the light of the world.  We show the world life as it is meant to be, life lived in love.  But we can only do that when we know where our own light comes from.  We can only be the light of the world when we choose the light of the world.

I bet if I asked you to name someone who was an example of shining the light of Christ in the world – at least if I asked you to name someone famous – one of the first answers we might hear is Martin Luther King, Jr.  And, in fact, while he worked and spoke and marched and went to jail fighting for his dream of a world where all people were equal regardless of the color of their skin, he always pointed beyond himself, to the fact that this was not just his dream.  He did that as he quoted from the prophet Amos in that very speech: “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”[2]  He did that in the last speech he made before his death: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life…but I’m not concerned about that now.  I just want to do God’s will.”[3]

It’s easy to forget at this point in history that Martin Luther King Jr. was a controversial figure in his day.  That was not the image of him I learned in elementary school.  But he had some things to say that not only made white people uncomfortable, or overtly hostile, then, but should still make (us) white people uncomfortable today.  He had plenty to say about white moderates, those who professed to agree with his goals but just wished he would wait for a more opportune time to try to achieve them. He had some words for the white church and its failure to stand up for justice. [4]  He had some strong words about capitalism and the connection between economic and racial inequality.[5]  When it comes to the ongoing struggle for racial equality, those of us who are white especially still have a choice to make – probably, again, a lot of daily choices to make.  It’s not enough to simply be glad that bathrooms and swimming pools were desegregated 50 years ago.

As you heard in today’s Scripture reading, the religious leadership at the Temple that day during the festival of Sukkoth are not persuaded to suddenly leave their old lives behind and choose Jesus.  Yet there are those in the crowd who do hear him and believe.  The choice is there, in front of them.

And in front of us.

I hope this week you make the choice to stand on the side of the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized.  I hope you make the choice to forgive instead of seek revenge.  I hope you make the choice to give away a little more than before and go a little farther out of your way to help, to set judgment aside in favor of love, to tear down the walls that separate us from each other, little by little.  I hope you choose Jesus.  I’m trying to choose him too.

The Light of the World is life for all people, and nothing – nothing – can overcome it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]              https://www.wilgafney.com/2015/12/27/embracing-the-light-the-darkness-in-the-age-of-black-lives-matter/

[2]              https://www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf

[3]              https://www.afscme.org/union/history/mlk/ive-been-to-the-mountaintop-by-dr-martin-luther-king-jr

[4]              https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

[5]              https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/publications/knock-midnight-inspiration-great-sermons-reverend-martin-luther-king-jr-1

Guiding Stars

Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12

I think I’ve mentioned before that I am not generally a person with a good sense of direction.  I have other strengths, but that is not one.  I would honestly have a hard time telling you, standing inside this room without windows, which way is Fort Myer Drive or the river.  I never pick the right exit from a Metro station.  I get really mad when my GPS tells me to “head east.”

Jon is the half of our relationship who can emerge from a building and automatically seem to know which way we should go on the street to get where we’re going.  I don’t know if this comes from something innate or from the fact that he grew up sailing and learned to actually pay attention to these natural cues around him to tell him where he was.  In any case, when we’re in an unfamiliar place, I often rely on him to steer us in the right direction.

Still, while I’ve certainly gone the wrong way and I’ve certainly gotten lost, I’ve never really been lost for long.  I have my aforementioned GPS, which mostly doesn’t lead me astray, and can usually at least set me back on the right course if I find myself off it.  I can read a map.  I’m not opposed to stopping to ask for directions, sometimes a lot of times in a row.  I’ve been indebted to strangers who will go out of their way to make sure I get to the right place.  I have always found something, or someone, to help guide my journey. In the end, there are a lot of different ways that we might find our way.

Stars have never been one of those options for me.  I don’t think I stayed in Girl Scouts long enough for that.  Still, this story that we read and celebrate on Epiphany each year is a story about people finding their way – in more ways than one.

The story of the wise men and their visit to Jesus is one that traditionally gets included as part of the Christmas story, usually with the wise men and shepherds and angels all worshiping Jesus together as he sleeps peacefully in the manger.  And I get kind of wanting to put everything together in one picture like that.  At the same time, when we do, we also end up losing the uniqueness of the different stories we have of Jesus’ birth and infancy: the one that Luke tells, with shepherds and angels and an inn with no room, and the one Matthew tells, with wise men who observe a rising star and travel from the east, from non-Jewish territory, to find the king it represents.  It’s good to let these stories stand on their own, to get to celebrate Epiphany as distinct from Christmas.  In fact for us it’s the end of our 12-day Christmas season, when we move from focusing on incarnation – God becoming human and being born among us – to revelation – searching for Jesus and discovering more about who he is as we go along.

This Epiphany story, as told by Matthew, opens with the news that Jesus has been born in Bethlehem.  There is no mention of a census; Jesus and his parents are simply there.  The story will eventually close in Nazareth, where Jesus will grow up.  At the moment, though, some undetermined amount of time has passed since Jesus has been born, and some wise men arrive in Jerusalem, presenting themselves before King Herod, the local client king of the Roman Empire.  These people we know as “wise men” are probably something like “court priests who practiced astrology and magic.”[1]  They tell Herod that they are looking for a king who has recently been born, whose star they saw at its rising.

I have to ask myself what they expected, asking the current king where they can find the new one.  Maybe they think the new king is Herod’s son.  Maybe they are just gloriously clueless when it comes to politics in first-century Palestine.  In any case, Herod is pretty understandably alarmed, but he goes along with it.  He quickly gathers more information from the chief priests and scribes, who know the Scriptures, and directs the wise men on their way, saying, “Oh, go ahead and tell me where you find him, so I can go pay my respects too!”  Interestingly, it is Herod who makes the connection between this star and the one the Scriptures call the Messiah – there must have been a part of him expecting this news all along.

So the wise men go, following this strange star, which leads them to Jesus.  So far, they have two guiding influences on their journey: the star that leads them, and the directions of a jealous and suspicious king.  They don’t yet realize that these two guiding influences are competing.  They find the place where Jesus is, enter the house, pay their respects, and offer their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Here in the beginning days of a new year, I think it’s a good time to stop and think about the guiding influences are in our own journeys – whether good or bad.  I’m sure some of us have made resolutions – whether to be healthier, or read more, go to bed on time, or finally accomplish some goal we’ve been meaning to get around to.  I’m sure others of us have sworn off New Year’s resolutions altogether – after all, it’s just another page on the calendar, and experience tells us they’re destined to fail.  But when I talk about our guiding stars, our guiding influences, I mean something more than just resolutions.  I mean what’s behind those resolutions.  Who or what guides the decisions we make each day of the calendar year – big decisions, like whether to stay in the same job or the same relationship, as well as little decisions, like how to spend money and how to treat the people life puts us in daily contact with?

What’s guiding you in those things?  Is it what people will think of you, how it will look on social media, the things society says you’re supposed to have by a certain age?  Is it commitments you’ve made to a person or place or project?  Is it safety and security, real or perceived?

Is it God, and God’s call on your life, and Jesus, and the way he embodied how to live and love our neighbors and strangers and enemies?  Is it prayer and the study of Scripture and the grace we receive in worship and communion?

The thing is that I know all those things can be tricky to sort out.  The wise men didn’t know at first that their guiding influences – one from astrology, one from Herod – were at odds.  Likewise, we can tell ourselves that what God wants most for us is our security and success and prosperity, and that can be the guiding star we follow.  Or we tell ourselves that God wants us to go in a completely new direction when really God might be calling us to stick it out where we are for a while.  Or maybe vice versa.  What’s really guiding our lives isn’t always as clear as a star in the sky.  But it’s something to honestly ask ourselves, at least once in a while.

In the end I believe that if we are seeking to follow the way of love, as embodied in Jesus, if we let that be what guides us through our days and our years, it might not all be clear – but we won’t be lost for long.

As it turns out the wise men have a third guiding influence in this story. Because once they have found this baby king and knelt before him and offered him gifts, the story ends with what sounds like almost an aside: “Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went home by another way.”

The wise men, in the end, were guided by something even more fundamental than a star: a sense of what power used wrongly can do, and the courage not to bow down to everyone or everything that asks us to bow down to them – even when they pretend to be on our side.  They were guided by a dream but also the faith to listen to that dream, to not second guess themselves, to not just take the easiest path when doing so would do harm to others.

And that’s important, because the story actually goes on from there, and it’s not a pretty one.  Herod realizes the wise men aren’t coming back with information on where to find this newborn threat to his kingship.  And so he resorts to dire means: he orders all the male children under a certain age to be killed, while the Holy Family flees to Egypt, seeking asylum across the border until the threat at home is gone.  I imagine they are guided in that journey, as well, both by their own desperation and by the God who goes with them.  When they return, it is not to Bethlehem, but to Nazareth.

This new year, what are your guiding stars?  What’s helping leading you in the right direction, the direction God is calling you to go?

Though I encourage you to think more about that, I also want to help you.  Here I have a basket full of stars, and each star has a word written on it.  These are our Star Words.  Each word is different (though there might be some synonyms in there) and they are all from the Bible or Scripture-inspired.  In just a minute I’m going to let you take a Star Word from the basket.  This word is meant to guide you and be a point of reflection for you throughout the year.  The throughout the year part is important, because a word may mean more over time than it does at first glance.  Maybe you draw something like “service,” and right off the bat you take that to mean that you are supposed get out and sign up to volunteer for something.  Or you say, “I don’t like that word, I already serve plenty, I’m burned out on serving.” But as the year goes on you find yourself reflecting on other things that service can look like, or the balance between serving and filling your own cup, or maybe even you find yourself being served by others.  It’s open-ended. These Star Words aren’t fortunes.  They’re supposed to draw us back to the center along our journeys.  (They’re also conveniently sticky on the back so you can put them on a mirror, or somewhere they’ll stay visible.)

Reader – need a star word?  We still have some left – ask me!

May these stars guide us in love, in discipleship, and in all the paths God has before us this year.

 

[1] Harper Collins Study Bible, notes, p. 1860

Left Behind: The Boy Jesus in the Temple

Preacher: James Armstrong

Scripture: Luke 2:41-52

Thousands of people were on the move all across Jerusalem, jostling one another as they filled the narrow streets of the city. The mood was not unfriendly, but everyone was focused on the serious business of getting through the jam of people and getting out of town as quickly as possible. The week-long festival of Passover was over and it was time to go home. Mary, Joseph and their family were part of the crowd. They were not traveling by themselves, but were headed toward Nazareth together with a group made up of extended family, friends and acquaintances.

It may have been that the women and children, who traveled slower than the men, set out first. The men would have followed later on, catching up with their families at the end of the day’s journey. We can imagine, therefore, that Mary and Joseph each assumed that their eldest son, twelve-year-old Jesus, was walking with the other. Jesus was still a child and so might be expected to stay close to Mary, but he was old enough to perhaps prefer walking with Joseph and the other men. After all, he was just a year shy of the age of thirteen, when Jewish boys officially became men. All this may have been why no one noticed that Jesus was not in the Galilee-bound crowd. He had been left behind. Unaware, Mary and Joseph jostled their way out of Jerusalem and set out on the road for Nazareth, confident that Jesus was traveling with the group, even though neither one of them had actually seen him that day.

Imagine the shock they experienced when they arrived at the night’s resting place and set up camp. Imagine the panic. Jesus was not with Mary. Jesus was not with Joseph. They checked with relatives and friends – they checked with everyone – but Jesus was nowhere to be found, and furthermore no one had seen him in the traveling group. Where was Jesus? What had happened to him? Any parent can imagine the horrible sinking feeling and the terror felt by Mary and Joseph as they came to realize that their son had been missing the entire day.

Imagine the leaden spirit of the parents as they retraced their steps to Jerusalem, asking at each stopping place, at each wide place in the road, if anyone had seen their son and hoping desperately for a positive response. Imagine the daunting task of looking for the boy in a city the size of Jerusalem, with its tens of thousands of residents.

Finally, after three days of fruitless searching, Mary and Joseph came to the Temple and made their way up to the outer courts of the religious complex. It was here that the experts in the law and scripture taught their students. And here was where they found Jesus.

Jesus, when they found him, “was sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” He was not teaching the teachers, as is sometimes said or implied about this passage. He was being a good student – listening and asking questions. Perhaps, though, he was being more than just a good student. “All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” He was the best student these teachers in the Temple had ever seen. Picture a Young Sheldon of ancient Jewish law.

His parents were astonished, too. What was this poor carpenter’s son doing discussing the law and the prophets with the finest religious minds in the land?

Let me pause here in the narrative to make a few observations about this story. Perhaps most important, it is the only story about the child Jesus in scripture. Except for this story in Luke 2, Jesus’ childhood is skipped over entirely by the Gospel writers. From this fact, I think we can properly conclude that Jesus’ boyhood was largely unremarkable. Of course, there are legends about Jesus’ childhood, none of which made it into the Bible. In these legendary stories, Jesus performs miracles, for example, bringing clay birds to life, lengthening a board that he had cut too short and raising a neighbor child from the dead. In fact, in these miracle stories, Jesus sometimes comes across as a rather obnoxious little boy. Contrast that with what we find here: Jesus sitting in the Temple, interacting with the teachers of the law. Ours is a sober story, a fitting example of how God as a human child would have behaved.

Sober the story may be, as we contemplate the conversation among religious scholars in the cool shadows of the Temple courtyard, but it is not without drama, as we discover right now, when Mary and Joseph make their way into the scene.

Imagine the turmoil in the parents’ spirits as they finally come upon their lost son: fear, anxiety and frustration giving way to relief, joy and, yes, even anger. My wife Beverly tells the story of a time when she was about six years old. She decided without making any prior arrangements to get off the school bus before her stop in order to go to a friend’s house to play. Lottie, her anxious mother, called around until she found out where she was, and then came after her armed with a fly swatter. Walking back home, every step Beverly took was accompanied by the thwack of that fly swatter on her bottom. Yes, the joy of discovery is sometimes tempered by something like anger.

Mary interrupts the lofty conversation between Jesus and the teachers, and tries to put the boy back in his place as her twelve-year-old son. You can hear the tension and the rebuke in her words. “Child,” she says, “why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”

Jesus’ response is the crux of today’s passage. It shows that he is not going to easily be put back in his place. “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

But they, Mary and Joseph, did not understand what he said to them. This is the crucial moment, these are the crucial words, but Mary and Joseph did not understand. They had heard the testimony of the angel Gabriel, the angel in Joseph’s dream, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, the Bethlehem shepherds, the Wise Men, and Simeon and Anna in the Temple. In spite of the testimony of all these witnesses, they still did not comprehend who Jesus was. Maybe we can’t fault them too much. You know the same kind of thing happens with us as well. Sometimes we’re in the middle of a critical situation and we really don’t know what’s going on, in spite of – and sometimes because of – all the evidence we have at our disposal. With the benefit of hindsight, however, and knowing the story of Jesus’ life, I think we have some understanding of what Jesus was trying to tell his parents.

First of all, Jesus is simply saying, I’m growing up. I’m no longer the little child you’ve been used to. That’s always hard for parents to hear, but it happens to us all. Children grow up.

More importantly, Jesus is saying, I’m beginning to understand who I am and the role I have to play. At this point, the twelve-year-old may not have understood everything that was to come, but he was certainly moving in that direction, and that’s why he was found in the Temple. He needed to be there, where his knowledge and ideas could be encouraged, challenged and strengthened.

When he told his parents, “Do you not know that I must be in my Father’s house,” Jesus was explaining that he was responding to an imperative, a command that he be there. And under the circumstances, the command can only have come from God.

Finally, Jesus was showing that he understood his special relationship to God, that he was God’s Son. For when Mary said, “Your father and I have been searching for you…,” Jesus responded, “I must be in my Father’s house.” By this time Jesus knew that he had a father who was not Joseph, and that father was God. And his Father’s house, the Temple, was his true home. It was where he could be closest to those who spent their lives trying to understand God, God’s ways and God’s truth.

I entitled this sermon “Left Behind” because I think several people were left behind in this story. First off, there was Jesus, unintentionally left behind in Jerusalem by his preoccupied parents. Then there were the parents themselves. Were they left behind? I think they were. Look at their failure to understand their son Jesus. They didn’t comprehend his spiritual development well enough to know that the Temple was where he had to be. Yes, Jesus’ parents had surely been left behind by their son, whose spirit was already setting out on the road to Calvary.

Do we find ourselves left behind spiritually, as well? I think we do. What happens is we lose track of our Christian priorities and in doing so, we lose track of Jesus. We forget what really matters, we run out of time to do what’s important, and other concerns preoccupy us. And in this way, we get left behind. Now, these other things that are pressing in on us are not necessarily bad things. Mary and Joseph’s priorities were not bad. They were caught up in the busy-ness of getting their family safely on the road back to Nazareth and weren’t paying enough attention to Jesus, both physically and spiritually. Our daily priorities are things like working, getting the kids ready to go out, shopping for food, doing homework. None of these is bad, but they aren’t the Christian priorities that we need to organize our lives around. I think we should take some time this morning to think about and renew these priorities.

One of the ways I am reminded to refresh and renew my spiritual priorities is by participating in United Methodist baptismal services. There, after the baptism proper, we in the congregation are given the opportunity to renew our covenant with God and with one another: “faithfully to participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts and our service, that in everything God may be glorified through Christ Jesus.” Friends, these are four of the most important priorities for us as Christians: prayers, presence (and that means presence here in body of Christ), gifts and service to others. Do we treat them as such? Or do we forget amid the press of other business, and let them fall by the wayside. We need to align our priorities with God’s priorities for us, or, like Mary and Joseph, we will be left behind.

I want to add two more priorities to our list today.

We mustn’t forget about Christian learning. It is no accident that when Mary and Joseph found Jesus in the Temple, he was sitting at the feet of the great teachers of his day, learning about God. And if learning was important to Jesus, it surely is important to us. Just as Jesus needed to learn about God, so, too, do we need to learn about God and all that God has for us. Do you read your Bible daily, engage with the weekly sermon and participate in Bible Study here at church? These are the kinds of things we must do if we want to be students of the ways of God.

Finally, there is evangelism, sharing with others the good news about Jesus. There are many ways to do this, including inviting people to come to this church. Don’t neglect the Great Commission in your Christian life. You may not be able to go into all the world with the message of Jesus, but you can certainly go next door. Jesus is waiting for us to get with the program and to clear out the undergrowth that holds us back – all that we are involved in that isn’t in the service of Christ’s kingdom. If we do not do this, we will be left behind.

We need to adopt Jesus’ priorities and make them our own. You know, here in the final week of the old year we’re in the middle of the season of New Year’s resolutions. May I suggest that you include one or more of these spiritual priorities with your other resolutions for the new year. Today, I’ve mentioned prayers, presence, gifts, service, learning and evangelism. These are all means by which we serve God, further God’s work on earth and, to put it plainly, keep up with Jesus. Which of these do you need to work on?

What happened to Jesus after the encounter in the Temple? He went home to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph and was obedient to them. And he grew. Luke tells us that Jesus grew in four ways: in wisdom, in years, in divine favor and in human favor. The good news is that each child of God – each of us – grows in exactly the same way.

Jesus doesn’t want anyone to be left behind; his hand is stretched out to each of us, but we must reach out ourselves if we are to grasp our Lord’s outstretched hand. And in order to hold firmly to that hand we must, among other things, pray, be present, give, serve, learn and tell others about Jesus. May our Lord give us the assistance we need to do these things, so that in everything we do God may be glorified. Amen.