30 December 2018, 11:20
© Stacey Steck
This story of Jesus being “lost” for three days never would have happened in our day and age. First of all, Mary and Joseph would have given Jesus a cell phone for just such an occasion. I mean he was twelve, after all, and I’ve seen kids a lot younger toting around their means of communication. And since Jesus always seemed to be ahead of the curve, I’m sure he would have just sent a text or tweet, like “Hangin’ w/the teachers at the “T”, or maybe updated his FaceBook and Instagram accounts. Can’t you just see the update?: “At the Temple seeking and giving instruction on the weightier matters of the day and the Law. It’s all good.” And there would be, of course, at least 12 “Likes.”
Of course, he wasn’t “lost,” and parent-shaming Mary and Joseph for losing track of him will get us nowhere. In Jesus’ day and age, there were no helicopter parents or tiger moms; there were just the kind of extended families that could be trusted to take care of children without getting a specific charge to do so. It’s just that in this case, Jesus slipped through the cracks, and so since they didn’t discover he was absent until after they’d walked a day, and it took another day to walk back to Jerusalem, and a third day to track him down, he was separated from his parents, and indeed, his whole family for three long days. As with many things, like first days of school, it is the parents who suffer more separation anxiety than the children, and we find Mary and Joseph filled with anxiety, and Jesus just chilling out.
The truth of the matter is that this story is not about Jesus being lost. It is about him being found, and specifically about where and how he is found. “After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them.” Although I’m willing to give Mary and Joseph the benefit of the doubt and put down their misunderstanding to their panicked brains, the truth is that what Jesus has revealed to them about his finding really does make no sense to them, even with what they have been told by the angels about the nature of his humanity. They cannot wrap their minds around the divine nature of his life, especially since he’s still just a child, and clearly a disobedient one for wandering away from his family. They likely said to themselves later, “What kind of nonsense was that ‘Father’s house’ talk? As long as he lives under the roof of this father’s house, he’s going to play by my rules.” And later on it says that Jesus was obedient to his parents, so maybe they did give him a little talking to once they got home.
Be that as it may, this is the first of many statements Jesus makes about what he must do with his life. A couple of chapters later in Luke, Jesus says, “I must preach the good news of the Kingdom of God to other cities also, for I was sent for this purpose. Several times he says, “The son of Man must suffer many things and be killed and on the third day be raised.” “Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” And at the very end, after the resurrection, “Then Jesus said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ ” Each of these musts are translations of the Greek word dei, the divine imperative, the way things must be for God’s plan to come to fulfillment. And Jesus always cooperates with the divine dei, and makes it his business to follow it, his obedience to his earthly parents a reflection of his obedience to his divine parent. Jesus must do what God has sent him to do, and the first must is to be in his Father’s House, learning and growing, and becoming saturated in the history, tradition, and culture of his people. At that important age of twelve, just before the official age of thirteen, Jesus is preparing himself for all the rest of what he must do as the son of God. “And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”
Every year, Luke tells us, Jesus and his family went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread. It wasn’t exactly a family vacation, or a precise parallel to our celebration of Christmas and New Year’s, but there’s a resemblance. These are moments of pausing a remembering that God’s been there in our lives, and that our lives goes on into God’s. The Passover, of course, was the defining moment of deliverance in the life of Jesus’ people, and its celebration each year was a reminder that they had been saved from Pharaoh’s clutches and given the opportunity to become something. Passover was a time of remembering and of giving thanks for life, a natural moment for the kind of adventure Jesus undertook, for what he must ultimately do was deliver the whole world from the hand of sin and shame. And so his escapade in the Temple was a kind of symbol or cipher of things to come, in Jesus’ own life, and in the Gospel story as Luke tells it.
And here we are at one of those annual seasons of reflection, remembering what the incarnation meant to us, and pondering the possibilities it offers us in a new year. That’s why we remember the story of the babe in the manger and sing familiar Christmas songs and make our New Year’s resolutions. We are celebrating what God has done, and what God is doing in each one of us. And though we may not be Jesus himself, because of what he did, each of us has something we must do or must be, some place where we must be, like Jesus says to his parents, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?"
In a sense, our New Year’s resolutions reflect our musts, if imperfectly. When we resolve to eat better and exercise, or to stop a bad habit like FaceBook, it’s because we know that we must be healthier or we must make better use of our time. We know that we are created for more than we are just now, and our good intentions lead us in the right direction. And of course, life intrudes and the other musts we decided for ourselves reassert themselves and throws us off course: I must succeed, or I must take care of someone, or I must do this or I must do that, and the next thing you know, another New Year’s Eve rolls around, and we are making another resolution to do the same thing we resolved to do last year.
So what I want to suggest this morning is that we approach the musts of New Year’s Eve not so much from the perspective of what will make our lives healthier, or more productive, or better in some way, all of them noble endeavors to be sure, but more in the sense of what Jesus was doing in that Temple, the first must of his fulfilling God’s purposes. And so it’s a good time to ask yourself, Where must you be? Where must you be? What is the environment you need to be in to thrive in a divine way, for divine purposes? What are the optimal conditions for your growth? What kind of soil, climate, and cultivation will help you grow into God’s purposes? Jesus found his optimal conditions in the temple, among people dedicated to talking about things that mattered. He immersed himself in God’s story, and his people’s story, and his own story. He was remembering and giving thanks in that Passover season, and considering what he must do.
Truly fulfilling a New Year’s resolution really takes some intentionality. We don’t generally change things overnight that we’ve been unable to change over years or decades. If we really want to succeed at keeping our resolutions, we need to structure our days and our thoughts in new ways that give us a fighting chance to do something different. The same is true, I think for our musts. What do you need to do differently, or what different place do you need to be in to live into God’s purposes for your life and our world? Jesus found that he needed to be in the temple, conversing with the people there. According to our recent worship survey, less than half of you experience God most profoundly in church, which means that your deeper experiences of the divine is found in nature or friends, or wherever it may be found, and that’s wonderful, but each one of those places requires an intentionality to be there.
Where must you be to grow in wisdom and stature, with divine and human favor? Where must you be to remember what God has done for you? Where must you be to give thanks for the opportunities your life holds? Where must you be to be part of fulfilling God’s grand purpose for the world? Let me suggest that some of the traditional practices of the faith are a good place to start. Being consistent and persistent in reading the Bible, or praying, or serving is the first step in recognizing, and then living into, the musts that God has placed on each one of our hearts. Those are New Year’s resolutions worth making and keeping. They may not lead us to the health and the wealth we’d like to have, but they will lead us into the kind of faithfulness Jesus displayed in his tender years when he risked his parents anxiety in order to be where he knew he needed to be. They may not make us the perfect people we’d like to be, but they will make us more open to the possibilities for ourselves that God sees even if we can’t. They may not bring the changes we expect, but they will bring the changes God has in mind, the kind remembered each Passover and each Christmas, the kind that change the world. May God bless us in making and keeping the New Year’s resolutions that we must make. Amen.
02 December 2018, 09:24
© Stacey Steck
If you look at the bottom of the page of most hymnals that contain the hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” you will see its words credited to a certain John Mason Neale, a British hymnographer. For some reason, this edition of the Presbyterian Hymnal chose to leave out the man who is also known for bringing us “Good King Wenceslas” and “Good Christian Men Rejoice,” among more than 400 other lesser known hymns, but he was the one who pulled together from many ancient traditions the words we sing again this morning. Like many artists, John Mason Neale did not receive much critical acclaim for his efforts during his lifetime, but, as it has been written about him, “In time… the oversight of his own Church would be corrected. Archbishop Trench called him ‘the most profoundly learned hymnologist of our church;’ another wrote ‘one of the most erudite scholars, one of the best linguists, one of the most profound theologians, and the foremost liturgist of his time.’ Neale could read, write and think in 21 languages and was especially conversant in Latin and Greek.”
It was from his great knowledge of Latin that in 1851 he translated “Veni, Veni Emmanuel,” the seventh stanza of the Advent Antiphons, into what is now one of the most beloved of Advent hymns in the English language church. While I am neither conversant in Latin, nor even sure of my pronunciation, here are the words of that seventh stanza in their original language, because they should not be missed in their natural state:
Veni, Veni Emmanuel! Captivum solve Israel!
Qui gemit in exsilio, privatus Dei Filio.
Gaude, gaude, Emmanuel, nascetur pro te, Israel.
There it is. I always wanted to speak Latin in church. Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, the call to our Savior to return.
According to some sources, the Advent Antiphons, or the O Antiphons as they are sometimes called, are among the oldest existing Christian prayers. They were traditionally recited as a part of the evening Vespers prayers of the Roman Catholic Church before and after the recitation of The Magnificat in the eight days before Christmas Eve. Each of the seven stanzas addressed the Messiah by one of his titles, each one praising the coming of the Savior by a different name, hence, O Wisdom, O Lord, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Star of the East (or O Dayspring), O King of the Nations, and, of course, O Emmanuel, God with Us, whose Scriptural basis comes to us from the prophet Isaiah, in the seventh chapter, “The Lord himself will give you this sign: the Virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” And you also see why they are called the O Antiphons. Incidentally, or perhaps not so incidentally, in Latin, the first letters of the titles make an acrostic which, when read backwards, spell Ero Cras, which means: “Tomorrow I will be there,” to the medieval mind clearly a reference to the approaching Christmas vigil.
Such was the power of these ancient words that John Mason Neale translated them, rearranged their order, and set them to music arranged by his favorite collaborator, Thomas Hellmore, and we are still singing them today, although, if you read all the way to the bottom of the hymn’s credits, you will see that although Neale did a perfectly wonderful job, others have tried to improve the hymn even more, and hence the final two verses were perfected in 1916 by the great twentieth century preacher, Henry Sloane Coffin. One final, more trivial note about the O Antiphons, which may appeal to any fantasy fiction buffs in the room, is that they served as the basis for a very old Anglo Saxon poem by Cynewolf, a work which so enamored JRR Tolkien that he added the names of some of the characters in that poem to his book, “The Hobbit.” So, more than you ever wanted to know about any one hymn. Now, what does it all mean?
I think what it all means is that we human beings, and especially we Christians, have recognized our limitations, have seen our best efforts fail to bear fruit, and in the end, all we can do, in every age, and in every generation, is cry out for Christ’s return. We are desperate for the release promised by God through Jesus Christ, we are desperate for God’s grace, we are desperate for God’s presence. Come, O God, please come, be with us! We cannot do it without you! We have tried, and made a mess of it. We are like Humpty Dumpty who has fallen off the great wall, and neither all the king’s horses, nor all the king’s men, can put us back together again. Only you, O Christ, can redeem this broken world, and our broken lives. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!
On this First Sunday of Advent, our Scripture passages remind us that the presence of God we seek is not only the presence of the babe in a manger, but the presence of the God who can put the world back together, and who has promised to do so, in God’s good time. From Jeremiah’s words reminding God’s people of God’s promise to restore their fallen fortunes: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness”; to Paul’s words from First Thessalonians which we didn’t formally read this morning, but also appointed for this day: “Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” In every age of God’s people, we yearn for that day of return when God’s reign reverses all our wayward fortunes, fixes all our mistakes, and obliterates all our sin from the world, once and for all. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.
Those promises of return may be of little comfort, however, when they always seems to be Ero Cras: “Tomorrow I will be there.” It’s always tomorrow with you, isn’t it, God? What about today? What about my needs today? What about the starving children, the maimed soldiers, the beaten prostitutes, the suicidal alcoholics? Why do they have to wait for tomorrow? What good are your promises for them, for me, if they come too late for my suffering? This is the imperative to us of the Gospel, that we bring Christ’s presence into the world today, even as we wait for Ero Cras. This is the dual message we celebrate during Advent as we remember both the once and future coming of Christ into our world. For as it was in the first coming that we catch a glimpse of the second coming, it those who suffer that catch a glimpse of the future Christ in Christ’s presence here on earth today, in we the church. You see, when God’s people cry out, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” they are crying out for God, yes, but they are also crying out for us, for our incomplete and inept presence, but perhaps also their only visible sign of God’s presence in the world.
Let me return to John Mason Neale’s time to offer an example of the power of that presence. Neale arrived to study at Cambridge University during the final years of the life a certain Charles Simeon, rector of Trinity Chapel at Cambridge, the University’s church. It is quite possible we would never have had “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” were it not for the efforts of Charles Simeon to bring the presence of God into the midst of the Cambridge campus. When Simeon was appointed to Trinity Chapel, it is said that “the Gospel had not been preached there for more than forty years,” and true or not, at the very least we can say that the movement of the Spirit was at low ebb at Cambridge. To say that Simeon was not well received at Cambridge is an understatement. His more evangelical style, in contrast to the rationalistic mindset of the university in those days, brought him into conflict with virtually everyone. Longtime members of the church even took to locking their pews during his sermons, so that those who wished to listen would have to stand in the aisles. Frequently during his sermons in the early years, parishioners would even throw bricks through the windows of the church to disrupt him. But he persevered, and increasingly, the church began to fill up with students, and by the end of his life, Simeon had profoundly and personally influenced a generation of young Anglican priests, began a missionary society that would send hundreds of young people off to missionary service, and founded the predecessor campus ministry organization to what is now called the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, in which some of you while in college may have participated. All of this had been accomplished by the time John Mason Neale arrived on campus into an environment that would nurture his spirit rather than crush it, and pave the way for the words we sing this morning, and throughout this Advent.
I want to encourage you this Advent to eagerly await the coming of Christ, on Christmas Day a few weeks from now, and on that unknown day in the future, but also to be that presence of God that so many need. Remember that you are a “living legacy of faith, hope, service, and patient endurance” and that the presence we bring is as needed now as much as it ever has been. May God bless us this Advent as we both cry out, and answer, those ancient words, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Amen.