Second Sunday of Christmas – Series B
“The acorn doesn’t fall that far from the tree.” “Like Father, Like Son” We have a whole group of sayings which suggest that there are things which are passed from generation to generation. You can probably think of a handful more without working too hard at it.
Today the readings will ask us to consider that we are the children of God, adopted into his family through the deeds of Jesus. You might have picked up on that theme last week in the Epistle reading, we will get it again in the Epistle today, and even stronger in the other readings. We are the children of God. What exactly does that mean?
What are the characteristics of God that are passed to us his adopted sons and daughters? I personally seem to have missed out on the omnipotence gene. The ache in knee and the back after scooping the snow off my drive suggest that I might have missed out on the eternity bit too; although, God says not so fast in that determination.
What are the traits of God that have been given us because we have been raised in his house, even it if has only been for a short while that we have called ourselves his children? Even an adopted child picks up the sayings and the mannerisms of his or her parents. In my grandmother’s vocabulary few people were beneath the “crepe hangers.” The other day I saw someone doing something rather despicable and the word just sort of slipped right out of my mouth. (I never knew what a “crepe hanger” was as a child, only from the tone of voice my grandmother used that it was not a person she liked. I have since learned that a crepe hanger was someone who would hang crepe paper on people’s doors when there was a death in the community. It was piece work and only the bottom rung of the society would do it, what is more they were harbingers of bad tidings – hence not liked or wanted.)
What words come unbidden to our lips because we are the children of God? What deeds do we do that we may not even understand but we do them because this is what the children of God do? Is there any family tradition we honor as God’s children? Many of us have just come from family gatherings and experienced lots of traditions. Do you unwrap presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning? Do you eat lutefisk for Christmas Eve or oyster stew? Is there an ornament that has to be on your tree? What adorns our life because God is our father?
It is a perplexing question for us. I remember living in Utah where the lines were so clearly drawn. If you wore the special underwear and did not drink, smoke, or work on the Sabbath you were definitely LDS, but other than the undies, the lifestyle of the LDS could be attractive in its healthy living. I actually fit in rather well with them. (My wife did not appreciate the “#1 Wife” bumper sticker my dad almost got for her though.)
Out in the rest of the country, there are not special clothes we wear or foods we eat because we are Christian. The world says “merry Christmas” just like we do, or many of them do without thinking about it. Gangster rappers wear big gold crosses while they sing of drugs and murder. What can a Christian claim that is uniquely Christian? Is there anything? In Utah, unfortunately, 2
the sign of a Christian was too often beer bottles in the trash or what amounted to serial polygamy as they divorced and remarried.
Actually, this is a serious question which I believe our children are demanding of us. The young people in the classes I teach are not asking us to be less Christian, often they are demanding that we be more Christian or they are going to walk out the door. They sneer at the accommodations which their parents have made to the culture, a Christianity which is virtually indistinguishable from the culture around it, which never holds itself or anyone for that matter accountable to the Word of God, which never says “no” to anything.
Of course, it is true; if we start to have standards we might drive some folks away. They, like the church of the non-committal. It asks nothing of them, and so they don’t have to feel guilty for giving precious little of themselves. But I believe we are coming to a day when we need to ask if they are really the people we want to keep in our churches. Would we be healthy and more vibrant with a smaller church of committed folks who were actually engaged in doing something? It won’t make the folks who compile statistics very happy, but I am not sure that I really had but about 25% of the folks who were in my last parish. I often wondered if it would not be better to have spent much more time ministering to them and far less working with the grumpy and disaffected and unengaged majority who really did not care.
Collect of the Day
Almighty God, You have poured into our hearts the true Light of your incarnate Word. Grant that this Light may shine forth in our lives; through the same Jesus Christ, Your Son, our lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Consider the image the prayer uses to describe what God does today. He pours out light into our hearts. We normally use the word “pour” when we refer to a liquid. We pour water from a pitcher. Water pours over a cliff to form a waterfall. The word seems often to be used to mean an abundance, as opposed to a drizzle or even just a regular rainfall. When it is really coming down, we say it is “pouring.”
Light can pour as well. Sometimes we say that a shaft of light pours through an opening in a ceiling most often to highlight a contrast, e.g., into a darkened room. When the sun peaks through a break in the clouds we might say it pours through the clouds. But our usage of the metaphor is always impersonal. We never name the one who pours light through the clouds. It just seems to happen. Even when we talk about it pouring rain, we don’t name the one who pours out the rain.
What to take of all this reflecting upon the word “pour”? It seems the authors of the prayer want to speak of an abundance of light. This is no dim little glimmer, barely perceptible to the naked eye. This is a lot of light, a waterfall of light, a brightness which pierces the gloom. This light behaves like water, it seems, it comes into the darkened place. 3
The other thing I notice here is that this is poured. Normally we might say that light pours into a darkened room. But this light is poured by someone. I suppose if it was a really powerful flashlight in my hands, I could say I poured light into something, but it would be an odd use of the metaphor. But God pours light like we pour water.
The light, like water into a vessel, then shines forth in our lives. We are the vessels here, filled with this light. Our lives are filled with light and that means we shine with his light.
The real point in the prayer is the identity of this light. It is the incarnate Word, Jesus. God has poured Him into us. That happens at baptism, that happens at the altar, and that happens in the speaking and hearing of the word, it happens as God comes to his people. As John exhorts us, we should not fear the world because the one in us is greater than the world. He was not kidding when he said that.
So how does the incarnate Christ show up in our lives? I can think of lots of ways. He cared for little people, so do we. He forgave sinners and we do the same thing. He fed the hungry and we are doing the same things. He proclaimed the righteous reign of God, he taught in the synagogues and countryside, he comforted the grieving, etc. You will find God people doing the same. We cast out the demons and we rescue those trapped in the clutches of the power of the evil one. The light of the incarnate Word shines forth in us. But this is simply the Lutheran doctrine of vocation. When we feed our children, when we love our spouse, when we care for our elderly parents, and much more are all occasions when the light of Christ shines through us. The Light of Christ doesn’t only shine forth when we have his words on our lips and when we are recounting the Jesus narrative. The Light which is the incarnate Word can silent as we listen to the sorrow of another, patiently and without judgment.
It is true, sometimes it is obscured by our own need for Jesus. We pray that God would work through that and let the light shine. It is not an automatic sort of thing, but it is also not something that we generate or we do. The shining is God’s doing. Here is another one of those places where I would drop the semicolon before the doxological conclusion of the prayer. I think the shining of that light in our lives is simply through Jesus.
I Kings 3:4-15 I have supplied the context both before and after this passage.
1 Solomon made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh, King of Egypt. He took Pharaoh’s daughter and brought her into the city of David until he had finished building his own house and the house of the LORD and the wall around Jerusalem. 2 The people were sacrificing at the high places, however, because no house had yet been built for the name of the LORD. 4
3 Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of David his father, only he sacrificed and made offerings at the high places. 4 And the king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the great high place. Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar. 5 At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night, and God said, “Ask what I shall give you.” 6 And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant David my father, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you. And you have kept for him this great and steadfast love and have given him a son to sit on his throne this day. 7 And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. 8 And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude. 9 Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?”
10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11 And God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12 behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you. 13 I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days. 14 And if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days.”
15 And Solomon awoke, and behold, it was a dream. Then he came to Jerusalem and stood before the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and offered up burnt offerings and peace offerings, and made a feast for all his servants.
16 Then two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him.
This is a really interesting passage to get to today. Of course the theme of this is the wisdom of Solomon which God gave. Of course Jesus also will grow in wisdom today, not because God gives it to him, but because he is God. That raises all sorts of fascinating questions which we will take up in the comments on the Gospel readings.
But this passage also serves to humble us as well and perhaps deflate some of our vaunted wisdom and cocksure ideas that we have this figured out.
Solomon is of course King David’s son. David was the king against whom all were measured and found wanting. Even Solomon will not be as great of a king as David had been, for all the wisdom which is described here and which shows up in his live in the story which follows this one about the two prostitutes who are arguing about whose baby it is who lived and whose baby died. Solomon shrewdly solved that conundrum, a demonstration that the gift of God was indeed given. 5
But before we imagine that we have this figured out, this text throws a pretty good monkey wrench into our neat little theologies. The story is one of those great accounts of wisdom. God comes to Solomon in a dream after a great sacrifice, asking what God should give to Solomon. Solomon takes the righteous and long view of things, humbly asking for wisdom. Good boy, Solomon!
God is delighted with the request, and even though he did not ask for wealth, victory, and women, he gets those too. It all seems rather like a typical story of God rewarding his faithful servant. We would all like to imagine that in the same place we would get the question right as well, especially now that we have seen Solomon’s results.
But wait a minute here. The editors of the Deuteronomic History, who are entirely anonymous and likely were shaping these stories in light of the brutal Babylonian exile, give us a few interesting clues. They are really uncomfortable with this story and their discomfort is for a good reason. Solomon’s sacrifice and dream all take place as a shrine dedicated to Baal and Asherah, the despised gods of the Canaanites. It was because the Israelites had gone whoring after the Canaanite gods that the Lord had sent them into exile. (The term whoring after other gods had both a figurative and literal meaning since Asherah worship often involved temple prostitution. As one of my students once said, Canaanite worship had a certain Hugh Heffner feel to it.)
What is Solomon doing there? I suppose we can excuse it a little. The Temple had not been built yet and he needed to go somewhere to offer these sacrifices. But the tabernacle was still hanging around as it notes at the end of the passage. He does finally show up at the place where it is kept. Solomon is a problem for us, but the even greater problems is what is God doing there. My theology suggests that God should have sent a prophet to rebuke Solomon on the way there, call him back to the proper Lutheran church where the Word is preached and the sacraments rightly administered. What is God doing receiving the sacrifices offered on an altar to Baal and answering the prayers of a Baal worshipper? What is God doing there of all places? Doesn’t he understand the potential for people misunderstanding his confessional position over against the Community Church of Baal?
Alas, once more God has thwarted my somewhat hubristic, somewhat earnest, and typically well-meaning attempt to tell him what to do. In the words of one author, Tyler Wiggs-Stephenson, I have discovered that the entity which I have on my leash is not in fact God. Indeed, the real God is looking over my shoulder and not terribly impressed with my theological rules of divine conduct. Most likely he is laughing and about to do something which makes me look like a complete fool. At least I seem to imagine he has a twinkle in his eye when I find myself asking him to pick me up again.
What is one to do with all this in a sermon? I think a sermon on the incarnation could be profitably made here. We like to put God into our boxes, but the incarnation is not about God limiting himself but about taking off the limits of our fallen humanity, the chains which sin has put on us. That means Jesus, indeed the Jesus who lives in us, is not constrained by the chains 6
which Satan has forged for us in the fall. The rules of acceptable behavior, the shackles of buy and sell, or the bondage of depressing expectations are no longer controlling me. I can hang around with the outcasts, I can give and receive freely, I can dream of a world in which the sins are forgiven, really forgiven, the hungry are fed, the downtrodden are lifted up, and much more. I can not only dream of it, I can start acting on that dream and living in that world today by what I say and do. That unpredictable Jesus lives in me.
Some biblical illustrations – Jonah and the folk in Nineveh that he wanted God to destroy but God wanted to save. Peter taking Jesus aside to rebuke him when Jesus revealed his plans to die and rise again. God seems to be regularly about the task of smashing our boxes which we like to construct for him.
But what of today? Can we pray for the members of ISIL/ISIS? What about protestors who are burning down businesses or simply folks who voted differently than we did? Can we see past the sin of homosexuality to say that all of us sin sexually and all of us are forgiven? Jesus’ words about lust in Matt 5 seem to condemn all of humanity, not just the homosexual. Is the couple living together heterosexually really on a superior moral plane to the homosexual? Can we even talk about such a plane?
97 Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day. 98 Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. 99 I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation. 100 I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts. 101 I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word. 102 I do not turn aside from your rules, for you have taught me. 103 How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! 104 Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.
Most Lutherans assume that Luther’s great discovery came through his teaching of the letters of Paul, Galatians and Romans in particular. This is not entirely so. Luther became Luther the 7
Reformer through his study of the Psalter. He started in the psalms because he knew them so well. As an Austin Friar he would have sung the psalter daily, multiple times. Through the course of a month or so, he would have sung every psalm. By the time he started teaching, they were memorized. You could have come up to Luther on the street and with a little prompting he could have sung just about any of the psalms from memory. The monastic tradition embedded these prayers and songs into the hearts and minds of generations of people. I do not think the reformers sometimes understood what they were doing when in the course of addressing the abuses they also closed so many monasteries and priories.
A close reading of the psalter, and especially Psalm 119, forces one to wrestle with the question of the Law in a way which makes sense of the Apostle’s letters to the Romans and Galatians. Here the Psalmist simply says it. He loves the Law of God. Either he is psychotic or he has another meaning to the Law of God than what we normally think. Some would weasel out of this with a wide and narrow definition of the term, as though the “Law” could be an inclusive device whereby he also meant the good news of God’s grace as well. But this proves unsatisfactory. Not only does it force one to turn the word into a contradiction, it also seems to violate the plain sense of the text. The psalmist clearly loves the rules, statutes, ordinances, and other synonyms for law that he uses.
The other and, I believe, better way to read this whole psalm is to understand that this is the prayer of the person who has been forgiven, who stands regenerated in the love of God. The law has not stopped being the Law; rather, the person has been transformed by God. This psalm is not telling us what we strive to be, but what God has made us. It is not speaking to the old sinner, but to the new saint. It is describing what is ours in Christ. Oddly, it is not an abandonment of the Law but an embrace of it, no longer as the taskmaster who compels us, but as the description of what we are. The Ten Commandments and other rules are of course the imposition of rules on us. But they are also the perfect description of our Lord Jesus. He lived them perfectly. Having bestowed his earned righteousness on undeserving sinners. We could deny that gift and continue to live as if it was not given, but that would be foolish. The psalmist expresses what every Christian can say: the Law which once condemned me is not my delight. It describes my Lord Jesus and the righteousness which he has given me.
We of course have this reading today because of verse 99 in which the psalmist anticipates Jesus’ experience in the Temple as a young boy, amazing all the teachers of the Law. It would be easy to sing or read these words and never make the connection which is implicit here. Luther saw Jesus in every verse of the OT. He is easily enough spotted here in a prophetic and historical sense. But can we not also see him in the pastoral sense? Faith will of course see Jesus in the words of the psalm, but it will also see Jesus in the life of the Christian.
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, 8
To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus:
2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
I love the letter to the Ephesians. It is probably Paul’s last will and testament as a letter. (I am indebted to Luke T. Johnson for that insight.) Paul writes this letter from prison, likely facing his own imminent death. It is a circular letter. Our best manuscripts don’t actually have “Ephesus” in verse 1, but a blank spot in which the reader was presumed to have inserted the name of the town in which he was reading the letter.
The letter is written in a higher style than most of Paul’s letters. Perhaps, since it was a last will and testament of sorts, Paul labored a little longer over it. Perhaps he had some help writing it. He did that sometimes. In any event, it is a beautiful letter, finely written and filled with wonderful imagery and argument. In the letter, Paul offers a definitive word on the controversy which had vexed his entire ministry, the inclusion of the Gentiles with the Jews in the Kingdom of God. His second chapter reverberates with God’s gracious inclusion of both. The dividing wall of hostility is broken down. Jesus is our peace. Upon him as a cornerstone God builds a single church.
The opening verses of Paul’s letters normally start off with Paul’s thanksgivings and prayer for the audience. And he gets to those in verse 15ff., but here in vss 3-14 he engages in a substantive doxology and recounting of God’s great work for us. Paul here lays the foundation for everything that follows.
I find this easier to get if I outline it.
1. Paul tells us that we are blessed with every spiritual blessing just as we were chosen by God to be holy and blameless in Christ (3-4) Here are the blessings:
- a. A predestined adoption as sons – God has committed himself to us as a father loves his children. The emphasis is on the adoption, not the predestination here. God planned this out, but it is love and grace which we are dealing with here, not raw power. We belong to God who loves us, but not by some genetic right, but by God’s gracious decision. (5-6)
- b. In Christ we have redemption/forgiveness through Jesus’ blood (7-8)
- c. Unity, which Paul calls a mystery revealed in God’s grace. This makes no sense to our human reckoning, but God’s telos/goal is that all things, in heaven and on earth, be united in Christ. (9-10)
- d. A heavenly inheritance, guaranteed by the Holy Spirit and given through faith. i. First to the Jews who hoped in Christ
- ii. Second to the Gentiles who believed the message proclaimed.
So what is one to do with this in a sermon? I find these doxological sections difficult to preach sometimes because there is no Law development there. It is all Gospel. But the Gospel without something to be in tension with is hard to preach.
I have usually latched onto the idea of adoption here. We are all adopted as the children of God. He invites us to say “our Father” when we pray. That is Christ living in us, incarnate. Only he has that right to pray that way, but he lives in us, so we do to. This has resulting in some rich sermons. There are no accidental adoptions. One can only be adopted by a deliberate choice on the part of the adoptive parent. Especially in the case of infants, the child has no role to play except to be there.
The problem for an orphan is severe – here is the law development. An orphan has no one to feed, clothe, or protect him/her. The orphan has no real name. The orphan has no inheritance. The orphan is at a serious disadvantage in every way. He/she is vulnerable and in great need of someone who will be a parent to her/him.
This is exactly the state of the Christian prior to the coming of Christ. We had no hope for a real future. We were vulnerable to the assaults of our foes: sin, death, and Devil. We could not prevail over them ourselves, and we were sold as chattel slaves to our passions and mortality.
But into the bleak orphanage called earth God has come. He has sent his only Son to bestow son-ship upon us all. We are given his name, his status, his inheritance of heaven itself. You can see why Paul calls us blessed in every way.
39 And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him. 10
41 Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. 43 And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, 44 but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, 45 and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 And when his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” 49 And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50 And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. 51 And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart.
52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.
The Gospel lesson recounts our only story we have from the adolescence of Jesus. The next time we see him he is full grown, an adult in Jewish terms, 30 years old. We don’t know what his childhood was like or what happened to him at school, or even if he went to school. We just don’t know, except for this strange little story from the time of Jesus’ bar mitzvah. The rite of bar mitzvah which literally means son of the commandment or covenant seems to be what is happening here. At this point a young man was considered an adult, but this was much in the same way as we might consider the confession of a 14 year old confirmand to be the confession of an adult. It is and it is not an adult confession. It will take a while for the normal teenager to grow into the fearsome words he or she spoke on that day. The Jews thought you had not fully grown to that sort of maturity until you were 30.
Jesus, however, seems to be a bit of a special case, as you might expect. When he was told that he was a son of Israel and the temple was his house, he took that quite literally. He stayed in the temple and discussed the law with the Teachers of the Law, more or less the seminary faculty of his day. They were impressed. Jesus is here taking very seriously the statements which would have been made when he was recognized as a member of the Jewish community.
We get this, seemingly, through the eyes of his parents who were frantically searching for him. It was a small world in which they lived. They knew everyone with whom they were travelling and assumed that Jesus was with his friends. That is hard for us to imagine in a day and age when we are loathe to let our kids run to the park and play for an hour or so. They felt pretty much at ease on a trip, never seeing the young man, assuming that he was hanging out with his friends, another family, somewhere in the group. Were they negligent? By our standards probably, but that simply says something about our day and perhaps not so much about Mary and Joseph.
The text raises some very interesting questions for us, most of which don’t have any real answers. The fact of Jesus’ childhood raises some of these questions. It says at the end of the text 11
that he grew in stature and wisdom, in the favor of God and man. I can see the growth in stature. That is what young me do. They get taller. But wisdom? Perhaps the stature is helpful here. God is infinite. Jesus is God. How can infinite grow? Likewise God is the very definition of wisdom and knowledge. He is God, after all. How can the incarnate Son of God learn anything? How can he grow in wisdom?
In the early days of the LCMS there was a bit of a controversy over the “kenosis” of Christ but this was an issue which had been brewing in the Lutheran movement since the early 1600’s. Just how much did he empty himself (Philippians 2:5-11)? Did he empty himself of his godhead? Did he really become a man? If he did not, would he have really been a man? This question has perplexed people for a very long time. Of course, the more scientifically minded in your congregation will scratch their heads at questions and not really see the point. But do not worry too much about that. If you want to read one of the more interesting explorations of this, I suggest Thomas Aquinas’ “Summa Theologiae” in the third part about the knowledge of Christ. There he says that Christ did learn, not only does it say so here in Luke but he was also fully human. Humans learn. Jesus, if he was really a human had to learn as well. How he held infinite knowledge and also managed to puzzle out his letters and numbers like any child, I have no idea. We will have to have leave that one to God’s concern.
The preacher may also want to explore the Christian hymn “Once in Royal David’s City.” There is a line in one of the verses which suggests that Christ’s childhood was a pattern for our own. His submission to his parents recorded in these verses would be a possible connection point there.
But what really is one to make of this text? I hardly think that a sermon on the intelligence of Jesus or the mystery of how the infinite God can learn will really edify your folks. Perhaps it would and I am open to that suggestion. But what is there in this text which confronts our sinfulness, which offers God’s hope for a broken humanity? What is there in this text which proclaims the Law and the Gospel? Here are a few ideas we might develop on Tuesday.
1. Incarnation – it is so easy for us to gloss over the incarnation of Christ and turn him into a spiritual being who only appears in human guise. The Gospels mostly focus on his adult ministry of miracles and wonders and parables. This little story firmly embeds Jesus into the basic unit of all humanity, a family. Jesus did not merely sample human life, he dove into the pond, all the way to the bottom in his crucifixion and death. But along the way to the bottom, he sojourned in a family. He was a real human. This leads to the next point.
2. Family and Childhood – There is a sense that our families are broken and breaking. Childhood seems to be something very different than when I was young. It is filled with threats which I simply did not know. My children are far more worldly and jaded than I ever was. Perhaps it see it with a prejudice and many an abused child of my generation would argue with me, but it just did not seem as dangerous. Jesus has entered into and sanctified families and childhood. He has gone there. I am sure that his family had its
share of strange characters, a dotty aunt, a drunkard, a sharp-tongued sister-in-law or a loutish cousin. Jesus had a family like that. You can read about some of the characters in his genealogy in Matthew. Focus on the women in that list, they are all rather scandalous.
3. Everyone was amazed at his answers – We often don’t like to admit it, but sin clouds our thinking. We are not running on all cylinders when it comes to thinking about anything. We can see that easily when we see some developmentally delayed man or woman. But the truth be told, we all are less than we should be. We all are mentally deficient. Sinless Jesus as a twelve-year-old reasoned circles around the Jewish teachers of the law. One has to be careful here that one does not lose sight of the fact that he was a boy, a real boy, and it is clear that he learned and grew. But at the same time, he was pretty amazing, even at this age.
4. He was obedient – the writer to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus learned obedience (Hebrews 5:7) through suffering and this led to his perfection. One can run off the rails pretty quickly here, so we need to be careful. At the same time, it is intriguing that both Luke and Hebrews speak of Jesus growing and obedient. It is not a work which we like to use much in the west anymore, but Jesus’ obedience is critical to our salvation. Is our obedience also tied into something here? How do we want to talk about that?
Law and Gospel
1. The incarnation is really difficult to understand and I honestly fail at this. It is so important to salvation and yet I just don’t get how this works. It defies my very imagination to describe the infinite God in the manger of Bethlehem or the dying man on the cross. But Jesus is the mind of God and the wisdom of God. I don’t have to be that. I really don’t get how my car starts in the morning either, but it still does, at least most of the time. I only have the vaguest notation of how the forces of gravity and the like keep our planet orbiting the sun, but I am glad of the sunrise every morning. Likewise, I can trust God’s Word. Jesus has taken my human nature up to himself, redeemed it, and restored it to God’s gracious favor.
2. The incarnation often seems very distant to me. It seems like something that happened long ago and which has absolutely no connection to my mundane and humdrum life. I face my challenges which are very different from those of Jesus and his disciples or the OT people. What can their words mean for me? A great deal, if the truth be told. Jesus did not just take up first century humanity to himself, he took up all humanity, every age of humanity, including 21st century humanity. Remember, I don’t understand this, but I know that I share in the same humanity he took up. Jesus has not stopped being physically and really present just because the events of the NT are nearly 2000 years old. In Word and Sacrament he takes up living and active presence in our lives today,
forgiving, empowering, and shaping our lives to our blessing and the blessing of the folks around us.
3. But so often I don’t see this in my life. I feel like God is just a spiritual thing, not a real thing. I cannot touch him. You say he is in this waver and wine, this water and Word. But it doesn’t seem like he is there. I can see no “made in heaven” stamp there. I don’t leave the sacrament glowing or somehow changed. I and my fellow congregants look rather the same for having communed, and sometimes I don’t like what we appear to be. But how does the child who is adopted see his adoption. I suppose he can look at some papers in a safety deposit box, but doesn’t he see it in the very mundane things of life? Isn’t that adoption embodied in the love of the mother who feeds, the father who cares, the new siblings who cheer at your basketball game? God’s love also is not always and only found in the spectacular. He loves us in the mundane, daily things.
4. But Jesus seems to be some perfect guy, and I am such a failure? What does he have to do with me? Much and in every way! He also was a child, a young man, and a laborer. His hands had callouses and he listened to his mother, even when she was wrong. He had a job, he fell into bed weary at night sometimes. He had friends and family. He grieved when they died and he was betrayed by them. He has come into the whole of human life, all of it. He did not just take the good parts, but the bad parts too, the grisly death, the suffering, the fear, and anguish. He knew those too. There is no part of your life which is not connected to his. Sing the songs of life, happy and sad, he has sung them too. He sings them now with you and through you, and he has sanctified the whole lot of it.
1. In God’s Great Big Box – (OT – That the Lord would humble the hearer and excite him or her with the wild possibility of what unexpected thing God may just do in the next year.)
This sermon is based on the question which we asked in the notes under the OT reading in which we wondered what God was doing showing up to Solomon at a Baal worship site. You may want to review those notes.
We love to put God into a box, a box in which he behaves just like we expect him to behave and he only loves the right sort of people, approves of the sort of people we are, and generally acts in ways which are not very threatening. We imagine that God lives in a box of our own definition. We read the passages of the Bible which we like and learn about the Jesus who welcomes children into his arms, heals the sick, and tells those interesting little stories. But we don’t spend so much time on the Jesus who braids a rope into whip and drives out the money changers, hangs around with prostitutes and traitors (tax collectors), and sends people off with a rebuke when they come looking to him for approval instead of forgiveness. That other Jesus gets politely ignored by us. We are 14
happy to let God love and forgive proper Lutherans like us, but others need to come to the pastor’s class and get cleaned up before they can really benefit from what we have to offer.
But God will not live in our boxes, either the boxes of our imagination or the boxes of our buildings. God is wonderfully and frightfully unpredictable. He does crazy things sometimes, things which shock us. He showed up for Solomon at a pagan worship site. Jesus’ own parents were surprised at what Jesus did in the temple in the Gospel reading. Our in the box God should have answered the prayers of the earliest Christians by striking Saul of Tarsus dead with a lightning bolt. I imagine that more than a few of them would have been happy about that. But instead God confronts him on the road and converts him. Ananias was rightly terrified of this man and could hardly believe what Jesus asked him to do. My father’s last parish before he retired was a largely German community who had a deep mistrust of the “English” as they called them. It was well founded since in the days of the American Civil War the ancestors of those neighbors had terrorized the Germans and murdered many. The memory of it was still raw over a hundred years later. But God’s Spirit blew where it wanted to and soon some of those English were hearing the good news and coming to be baptized and then communed. Tempers flared, people were angry, but God was unpredictable.
We have come to a new year, this is the first Sunday of 2015. What do we expect? What do we look for? God’s love is sure, but what he does with that love is not so sure. He came to Solomon in a strange place, what strange places will we see God in over these coming 12 months? With people whom we fear of loathe? What if he brings the 21st century equivalent of prostitutes and tax collectors to our doors? What if he brings our enemies like Saul of Taursus? What if he brings a woman in a burka who is looking for something to eat? What if he brings a homeless family or a drug addict? He blows in those lives too. You might use the story of Jonah who was shocked to find that God loved the Ninevites.
The preacher will want to leave the hearer with a sense of humble awe before God but also a sort of eager expectation. The same God who had mercy on us, who forgives all our sins, is out there calling, doing, and moving. What will we get to see?
2. I love the Law of God – because Jesus did (Psalm – That the Lord would fill the hearer with Jesus himself, giving the hearer the very attitude of Jesus who loved the Law of God and joyfully kept it.)
Based on the Psalm, this sermon seeks to have the hearer reimagine the whole of life. When life is a duty, it is a drudgery, something which we have to do, but under which we constantly chafe. But Christ in Christmas has come into the whole of our lives. He lived a real childhood, he worked, he played, he had a family, and he was a friend. This has sanctified and redeemed the whole of life, not just the churchy bits. See the collect of the 15
day as well in which we prayed that the light which is the incarnate Word would shine though us.
Yes, we still have responsibilities, the law is laid upon us. We have to pay our taxes, we must care for our children, we have to work at our marriage, and when the neighbor fires up his chainsaw while we are trying to take a nap, it is not easy to love the stinker. But Jesus’ incarnation means that now these things are all different. Removed from the economy of buying and selling favors from God, they have instead become a locus for Jesus to act through and in me. I have become his mask to use Luther’s term.
That means that when I come to those lawful tasks, those things I have to do, I still do them, but the doing is different. I am doing something Jesus did and does. He lives in me and I live in him. That means that the problems which could make my heart sour do not, for they may just be a moment when the forgiveness of Jesus shines through. I am excited by that.
The psalm of course perfectly describes only Jesus. I struggle with this as do all of us. But the Jesus whom this describes has taken up residence in our lives through Baptism and Word and Sacrament. He was not kidding when he said he abides with us, goes with us to the very end of the age.
3. Adopted (Epistle – That the Lord would comfort the hearer with the assurance that God has chosen him/her, signed his name in the blood of Christ, and made him/her into a child with all the rights, privileges, and inheritance of a child.)
This sermon is more of a teaching sort of a sermon, a sermon which explains the situation into which we have come by the grace of God.
We were orphaned by sin. It cut us off from any hope of a future. It left us helpless and vulnerable. Sin meant we were destined to be little more than thralls slaving in the dungeons of death for an eternity. We had no escape from this.
But into the orphanage of earth came God himself. Jesus walked these dusty streets and drank our water and breathed our poisoned air. He died the sinner’s death and lay in a tomb with our name on it. In so doing Paul tells us that he adopted us. He took us to himself and gave himself to us. We may pray, “our Father…” and God promises to hear us with a father’s attentive ear.
That means several things for us.
- A. We have a name – Christian – it identifies us as the children of God. We know who we are.
- B. We have a family – we are never alone. God has united us into a great and raucous family, two billion strong here on earth and many more in heavenly rest. The preacher may want to point to the recent memories of families present at the holidays.
- C. We have a purpose which God has given us – our lives are not meaningless motes of existence which are quickly snuffed out in death. We are part of a mighty redemption which God is working. I may not live to see its final culmination, but I am part of that culmination.
- D. Our Father is a potent defender and rescuer. Even if I don’t live to see the final culmination of God’s great redemption, death shall not hold me. He has broken all the powers that would harm his children.
- E. We have an inheritance – heaven itself. The Holy Spirit is the guarantee of that inheritance. Resurrected from the dead we don’t simply return to this, but are enlivened to glory.
The Baptismal rite of the Christian Church reflects the adoption process of the Roman Empire. Romans frequently adopted adults as heirs, especially since it was not uncommon for people to outlive their children. It was not at all uncommon for a high station Roman to adopt a poorer or lower station person whom they considered to be a worthy candidate. The most famous example is Caesar Augustus who was adopted by his distant cousin, Julius. Augustus would then outlive all his children and adopted Tiberius to be his son and heir. The Roman rite involved renouncing the inheritance from the birth parents, you could only be the heir of one father. Thus, when we ask people to renounce the devil and all his works and ways, this is lifted right out of the Roman legal adoption formula.
4. He was a child too (Gospel – that the Lord would render holy the whole of the hearer’s life.)
This sermon has a certain affinity with the sermon on the psalm above. The whole of life is transformed by the incarnate presence of God. But this one wants to focus on the fact that God has sanctified childhood. It would be a good sermon for a congregation which operates a preschool or an elementary school or other significant ministry to children.
The ancient Romans did not think much of children or childhood. They saw the world through a lens of power. Children were, in their eyes, simply incompetent adults. They did not do much, they could not take care of themselves, they could not rule, and they needed the care of others. That is not to say that Roman mothers did not affectionately care for their children, but in a day and age before vaccinations and antibiotics, infant and child mortality was high. Perhaps this explains the Roman practice of simply abandoning children who were not wanted. It was perfectly legal for a parent to drop an infant off to perish in the wilderness or beside a road somewhere.
The Christians saw this very differently. A child was a redeemed person. What is more, Jesus had been a child and that changed everything. The Christians would often find these children beside the road, scoop them up into their arms and pretty soon one found 17
that you had a dozen or so at home. That was an orphanage. Most orphans were not orphaned by the death of their parents, but by abandonment. Usually the mother died in childbirth and the father could not take care of the child. (All this is somewhat speculative, the authors of the ancient world did not “waste” much ink on the lives of ordinary people.)
Today we celebrate the child Jesus, incarnate into the full scope of human life. He did not come in strength and power, but in humility and the gentle cry of an infant humbly born. He was a real child who was loved by his parents, who grew and matured. He sanctified childhood, made it into a holy estate.
Christians have ever since seen a child through the lens of this reality. We stand in awe of God the creator and rejoice in the love of Christ the Redeemer who took our whole human nature to himself. He was a child too. And that has made all children precious.
5. He grew in stature and wisdom (Gospel: that God’s delight in our humanity would shape the way we see the whole of the human experience.)
God is very holistic as he looks at a human being. He considers the whole person. We fail to be very god-like if we only consider the spiritual or only the physical dimension of the human being. God has made us richly and amazingly variegated. We are emotional, spiritual, relational, physical, intellectual beings. Jesus grew in all these ways. God delights in the growth of all people in these ways. We are called to be part of that and delight with him in this.
This sermon would give the congregation occasion to consider their mission/ministry in light of this text.