Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
December 30, 2018
Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:41-52
In my first full time job as an architect after graduate school, I worked in a forty-story building on forty-second street in New York City, just across the street from the formidable main branch of the New York Public Library. One of my fellow first-year entry-level colleagues would remark as we waited in the elevator lobby at lunch or the end of the day, that we were taking a great leap of faith every time we entered or left an elevator – stepping over that small gap that went down a couple hundred feet. We talk about liminal time – the time of passage between two times – as if it’s a solid threshold. But it is just as much a gap, and narrow as it is; we might slip through. Metaphorically, there was a passage between our work life and the rest of our lives that was significant, and potentially risky. We could pass through it unawares. But we could also take it very seriously – considering every time, “Where to next?”
Now, we are in the gap. Now, the great focus of Advent leading toward Christmas has subsided, and perhaps we are at a loss for what to do in this gap between times. What many of us will do this week is clean up the mess and put the crèches, ornaments, candles, and twinkly lights safely to rest for another year. But we should not put Christ away with the trappings of Christmas. As the great pastor/theologian Howard Thurman noted, “Now the work of Christmas begins….”
All through Advent we have been pulled forward through plans and preparations, through projects and proposals, toward something that we hoped would resemble calm at the heart of Christmas. Some great force has been pulling us through the chaos of trying to do too much. That force has given focus to our efforts. We have been drawn through the narrow opening of a great funnel, to be released into a kind of quiet, protected chamber at the heart of God.
Throughout much of Advent we focused on the nativity texts of Luke. The writer is very clear in the overture of this Gospel about its purpose, expressing hope that it should stand beside other similar accounts of this important life. It is addressed to Theophilus, or Lover-of-God. That could be a real person and a real name, or it could be a kind of metaphorical name for a new Christian or potential convert seeking to draw closer to the human life who was Emanuel, God-with-us. This seems to be offered as a supplement, or perhaps a corrective, to alternate treatments of Jesus’ life. Like the author of Matthew, the author of Luke was compelled to embellish the story told in the earlier Gospel of Mark with a narrative of the birth of Jesus. In this prologue, Luke includes what became the only Gospel account of Jesus between the visit of the magi when he was a toddler and his baptism as an adult, the only canonical account of Jesus as a youth. Jesus is twelve; nearly as old as his mother probably was when she became pregnant with him. Why?
The way we choose to order our stories is important. Greco-Roman literature in the first century was highly ordered, and one of its main features was the use of symmetry in storytelling. Similar narrative elements would open and close stories, and the central message of a long narrative would be nested in a multi-layered series of bookend events. Early in the gospel of Luke, we have this story of Jesus that is paired with another significant event later in the life of Jesus. Pastor and theologian Gil Bailie offers remarkable insight into the structure and drama of Luke's Gospel.
“Twelve years old is the age of bar-mitzvah; he becomes an adult male, able to participate fully in the Jewish life. Jesus goes to Jerusalem to fully participate in the Passover for the first time.
“The ‘Journey to Jerusalem’ is [most] dramatic in Luke's Gospel. ‘When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.’ And all that follows until Jesus arrives in chapter 19 is Luke's telling of that journey. As the Gospel in miniature, this story from Luke 1-2 tells of a preliminary journey to Jerusalem. It's a story of going to Jerusalem for the Passover and finding that Jesus isn't with us anymore. Where is he?
“‘After three days, they found him in the temple.’ It's a story about the crucifixion and the resurrection. It's the overture, so that when we get to the journey to Jerusalem, we'll remember something about it. You come away, Jesus isn't with you, you're anxious about it. At the very end of the Gospel, Jesus will tell his disciples to meet him in Jerusalem, from where they will go out to the ends of the earth, the second volume of Luke's story.
“It's a rehearsal of the Easter story, and it ends on the theme of Luke's infancy narratives: ‘Mary treasured all these things in her heart.’”[i]
In the chaos of the moment Jesus was clear where he was headed, and was beginning to get an idea of what it would take to get there. He was resolute in his goal. Jesus said, with his actions and his words, “I resolve to follow where my Abba leads me.”
We make resolutions too, don't we? Especially at this time of year we make New Year’s resolutions. Let me guess that I am not the only one here that has made a resolution that I can't remember a month later, much less keep it. Maybe we are just on the wrong track in making our resolutions. The letter to the congregation at Colossus has some advice on the desired behavior of Christian communities. Perhaps we should resolve, as a formal expression of opinion, will, or intent agreed upon by this combined assembly of followers of Jesus:
· To clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
· To forgive each other.
· To be thankful.
· To let the Word of Christ dwell in us.
· To teach and admonish each other.
· To do everything, in word or deed, in the name of the Lord.
But to make a resolution is not simply to list all the desired results of transformed behavior. Part of the problem may lie in the way that we articulate our resolutions. We say we are making resolutions – as if by saying them, they are complete; the problem is resolved. There are some things we accomplish merely by saying them. But most resolutions we make would take a lot of work to accomplish. In another word, they would take resolve. I suggest that if we were to say, “I resolve,” we would make fewer resolutions and take them more seriously. Now, if you stop and think about it for a moment, this also helps us to decide what it is that we should resolve. I suggest to you that there is only one resolution we should all make for the coming year – follow Jesus. I don't mean just into the temple. That is merely the beginning of the resolute journey of Christ. I don't mean just to the cross, for the great hope of the resurrection is that we move beyond the cross to where we find Jesus today. It’s not just “What would Jesus do?” I suggest a different question. Not “What would Jesus do?” but where would Jesus be? Where would Jesus be and will we follow him there?
Will Campbell was a Baptist minister, civil rights activist, and award-winning author, based in Mississippi in the 1960's and 70's. Campbell's prophetic ministry earned him death threats and opposition as well as helping others gain insight into what it truly means to be a follower of Jesus. Campbell was familiar with the practice of the altar call, in which people were invited to indicate a response to Christ by walking to the front of the sanctuary and being prayed for. In one sermon Campbell turned the idea of the altar call on its head.
“I hope that someday there will be an [altar call] in which, when the preacher gives the invitation and people start coming down the aisle, he yells back at them, 'Don't come down that aisle! Go to Jesus!’”
“Upon that declaration, the people coming down the aisle turn around and exit the auditorium and get in their cars and drive away. He then [calls out to] the rest of the congregation, ‘Why are you hanging around here? Why don't you go to Jesus too? Why don't you all go to Jesus?’ The people rise en masse and quickly leave the church, and soon the parking lot is empty.” [ii]
Calls begin to come into the sheriff from all over town where the followers of Jesus have been doing exactly that. A bunch of old ladies are up at the care center yelling that they want to come in and visit Jesus. “We want to visit Jesus! We want to visit Jesus!” The warden down at the detention center is saying, “Send a deputy! There's a bunch of church folk at the gate yelling, “Let us in there! We want to visit Jesus! We want to visit Jesus!” The volunteer coordinators at the food bank and Mary’s place are alarmed at the sudden spike in volunteers demanding, “We want to serve Jesus. We want to serve Jesus!”
Have we lost Jesus in the tumult of the crowd?
Where have we been looking for Jesus?
Did we come here to find him?
Indeed, he is here.
Will we follow him?
He won't stay here, safely in the temple, discussing the law and the prophets with the elders – just as he did not stay safely wrapped up inside the tomb. He will lead us out, if we will follow, to the margins – to the ends of the earth. These congregations have shown that they know where Jesus would be. We are indeed willing to follow him there; to the Food Bank, to the care center, to our homes and offices and gyms and schools and playgrounds. This year resolve to follow Jesus. Say it aloud or in your heart, but only if you mean it.
[i] Paul Nuechterlein, “Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary” http://girardianlectionary.net/year_c/xmas1c.htm
[ii] Tony Campolo, Let Me Tell You A Story: Life Lessons From Unexpected Places And Unlikely People (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000), 30-31.