Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The radical Jesus and our own calling (a sermon from Luke 2:41-52 and Col. 3:12-17 for the Sunday after Christmas)

From the earliest time I can remember I was in the church house on Sundays. It did not always go well for me on Sundays. I can vaguely remember one Sunday when my parents and my best friend’s parents let us sit together during Sunday worship by ourselves. We decided to take the foil wrapper of a piece of chewing gum and make a little paper football. We had a whole side pew to ourselves so Keith went to one side and I to the other. We made goal posts with our hands and thumbs and kicked field goals. One of my kicks deviated from its intended path and landed inside a curl of the lady sitting in the pew directly in front of us. She was hard of hearing so we didn’t worry too much, but my buddy got tickled and I got tickled. Well, that was the last time we got to sit together for a while. For the next several weeks we were back at the side of our parents.  

I can also distinctly remember as a kid sitting in worship as the preacher droned on and on thinking what a terrible way to make a living. I thought to myself: To have to stand up in front of all these people and talk about God – how awful. Well, God works in mysterious ways.

Over the years my faith has evolved and changed. But I have no doubt that what I learned and what I was taught and the faith practices I participated in have had an impact on my faith formation. Even though there are elements of my childhood faith I can no longer accept I am grateful for being brought up in the church.  

Jesus was brought up in the Jewish faith and he never abandoned the faith of his childhood though clearly his faith evolved and grew.

Jesus is carried into the temple before he can even walk. His parents are observant Jews who strive to do all that they believe is expected of them. On the eighth day they bring the infant Jesus to the temple to be circumcised and then less than a month later they consecrate him to the Lord in the temple. At his consecration, according to Luke, they meet the prophet Simeon and prophetess Anna who both recognize Jesus as destiny’s child. Luke tells us that the parents are amazed at what Simeon and Anna say about him. In our text today we are given a glimpse of Jesus back in the temple as a boy who is becoming a man questioning and discussing religious matters with the teachers of the Torah.

In those days the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem was made by extended families and friends who traveled together in a caravan, so his parents would not have thought much about not seeing Jesus on the day’s journey. But then when Jesus doesn’t show up that evening they get worried and soon realize Jesus is not in the caravan. They find their son three days later in the temple discussing and debating with the teachers of the Law.
When Jesus is rebuked by his parents Jesus responds by saying, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

I want to say two things about this today. First, Jesus was a passionate Jew. He was brought up in the Jewish faith to be an obedient Jew and here he is as a teenager in the temple expressing his passion by questioning and debating with the teachers of Judaism. Luke is careful throughout his portrait of Jesus to point out that Jesus faithfully observes the customs and traditions and teachings of Judaism even as he critiques and criticizes some of those very customs and teachings. Jesus is a faithful Jew.

So when Jesus begins his public ministry in Galilee and begins teaching where does he go? Obviously there is no temple there, so he goes to the synagogue. When Luke sets forth the program or agenda of Jesus’ mission and ministry he has Jesus in the synagogue of his hometown in Nazareth. Luke begins that passage in 4:16 by saying: “When Jesus came to Nazareth where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom.” As was his custom, says Luke.

Jesus had no intention of beginning a new religion. Jesus was a good Jew. But he was not a mindless compliant Jew. Jesus was a deep thinker who had an intense passion for God and for God’s will being done on earth, which he called the kingdom of God. In Luke’s presentation of Jesus, Jesus immerses himself in all things related to God and God’s cause in the world. Jesus shares the heart of God for humankind and for the world.

So Jesus could not possibly be content with status quo religion. He wants to see his fellow Jews catch his passion for God and God’s will. Jesus cannot tolerate practices and teachings that he thinks stale or false or harmful. Jesus is a Jewish reformer. He wants to reform his tradition, not abandon it.

I am glad that I didn’t abandon my Christian tradition when I began to confront doctrine and traditions that I felt were stale and false and even life diminishing. I certainly thought about it at one point in my life. There are many folks who indeed abandon their faith when they come to that crossroad. I am truly glad I decided to go deeper within my faith tradition and confront those things that needed to be challenged and changed. And what I have done in my own life, I have tried to some degree to challenge you to do the same.

According to Luke one of the ways Jesus challenges Judaism relates to the way many Jews in Jesus’ time thought about their own special calling. Many in the religious establishment considered themselves God’s special people above all others. A kind of religious exceptionalism and elitism had developed within Judaism.

By the way, this is very contemporary. A very similar kind of elitism and exceptionalism has emerged in Christianity and within the matrix of American exceptionalism that dominates political speech today. And in contemporary American civil religion the two are wedded together. There is this strong feeling and ethos that we are better than others. That for some reason we are more blessed or chosen or special or worthy.

Jesus faces this in the Judaism of his day. According to Luke’s version of Jesus’ ministry Jesus confronts and challenges this right at the beginning in Luke 4. It’s a fascinating text that I don’t have time to develop in any detail in this sermon. But the gist of it is that Jesus appeals to his/their own Hebrew scriptures to make the case that God values all people, not just Israel, and in some cases, even by-passes Israel to find people to do his will among the other people of the world. Well, that evokes great reaction. The people in his hometown who begin by praising him quickly turn against him. Luke says that when the people in the synagogue heard this they were filled with rage. They would have killed Jesus on the spot had circumstances permitted it. Luke says they wanted to hurl him off a cliff.

I have never had to contend with that kind of opposition or hatred to that degree, but I have felt some of this on a lesser level at different times in my ministry.  I have shared with some of you a reaction I felt a few years ago preaching at a Southern Baptist associational meeting. Now, you might think: What am I doing preaching at a local SBC associational meeting? Well, I was asked by Wilma Simmons. For many years our church has conducted a free fair at West Point, Kentucky and we have tried to help Jack and Wilma in their ministry there. I’m sure most of you are aware that while some of us have changed over the years in our theology and approach to mission and ministry Jack and Wilma are still quite conservative and very Southern Baptist. She asked me one time if I would preach at their annual meeting. I tossed this around in my head and concluded, wrongly, that if she hadn’t read any of my articles, which obviously she hadn’t, perhaps others in her association hadn’t either. Rather than try to explain to her why that might not be a good idea, I assumed that most likely no one in her association would know anything about me. Well, I assumed wrong. What I felt in that church on that particular evening was unlike anything I have felt before. Now, I have clearly felt opposition and animosity towards me by Christian leaders before, and probably will again, but never in a preaching or worship context. When I got up to speak the intensity of the opposition I felt in that building at that moment was almost palpable, it was unlike anything I had experienced before or have experienced sense.  I do not tell you this to complain or bewail that moment at all, because such reactions are part and parcel with trying to be a reformer of a particular religious tradition. It’s what you get.

Whenever I talk to people who are ready to abandon their Christianity because of the hypocrisy they see in the church, or because of the teaching and doctrine they can no longer intellectually accept and believe, I try to convince them to not leave their faith but go deeper in it, which is what Jesus does within the Judaism of his day. Jesus is pushed to the edges of Judaism by the religious establishment, but Jesus never abandons his Judaism. His critique and prophetic voice, however, does eventually get him killed.

The prophetic act that probably sealed his death was his protest in the temple at the end of his ministry. Here in Luke we have Jesus in the temple at the beginning and the end.  And here at the end, Jesus isn’t rejecting Judaism when he turns over the tables and stages a protest in the temple at the beginning of what we now call Holy Week. Rather, he is protesting the misuse of the temple whose very structure and organization had come to reflect false values of worthiness and holiness. It was supposed to be a house of prayer for all peoples, but had become a den for corrupt elite religion. Luke says at that point in his Gospel that everyday Jesus was teaching in the temple and the chief priests, scribes, and leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him. It happened to Ghandi and Romero and King, just as it happened to Jesus. This is what sometimes happens to passionate reformers. The powers that be are not normally hospitable to reformers.

This brings me to my second point I want to emphasize today. This little glimpse into the life of Jesus as a young man captures some of the radicalness of Jesus. You can disagree with me here if you want, I will not take offense, but I don’t think we are all called to that kind of radicalness, to that kind of intensity. Very few of us can live with that kind of passion and intensity the way Jesus did, and I don’t think all of us are called to.

In this story Jesus’ shows no concern about his parent’s anxiety over his well-being. It’s not even on his radar. So when his parents rebuke him for being irresponsible (and let’s face it, he was irresponsible here) and for creating this situation he dismisses them and says, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house” with an emphasis on “must.” What would you say to a teenage son or daughter who says that to you?

From time to time in the Gospels we see this kind of intensity and radicalness in Jesus’ teachings and reactions. Jesus tells one would-be follower who was busy making arrangements for his father’s funeral to abandon his plans in order to join his little traveling band of disciples Jesus says to him, “let the dead bury the dead, you come and follow me.” That’s radical however you slice and dice it exegetically.

In Luke 14:26 Jesus turns to the crowds and says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Now, Jesus is employing hyperbole. Jesus is intentionally being shocking to make a point. But once again, however you slice it, this is radical stuff.

My contention is that we are not all called to that kind of radicalness. That means that for you and me to bear the Christ image does not necessarily mean that we copy the human Jesus in every way. It does mean that we reflect the qualities of character that Jesus consistently manifested, such as the qualities of compassion, humility, generosity, a passion for justice and peace, hospitality and welcome and so forth. Paul captures many of these qualities in our epistle reading today. Paul calls on his readers to clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, self-control, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, gratitude, the pursuit of peace. And he says above all clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together. This is the Christ image we are called to mirror in our own lives and relationships.

But I don’t think we are all called to be as radical as Jesus was. Most of us are called to nurture a sense of balance and compromise. And that’s not a bad thing. We need some who share more of Jesus’ radical nature for justice and peace; we need folks like Gandhi and King, but we are not all called to that task or roll.

So how do we find the kind of balance that fits our place and calling? Well, there are no seven habits or four spiritual laws. There’s no special prescription or formula. Jesus says that the main thing is to love God and love neighbor. Paul says above everything clothe yourselves with love. So that’s where we have to start. From there we have to grow and trust our personal and ever unfolding and evolving experience with God.

Luke tells us that Jesus grew into his understanding and calling. Our passage today closes with Luke saying, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom and the favor of God was upon him.” Like Jesus we must question and grow and not be afraid to challenge the status quo or the teachers of our tradition. And we do that best not by abandoning our religious faith, but by moving deeper into it.


Lord, as we embark upon another year, let us not be afraid to face the hard questions and put our faith to the test. And where we find it lacking, may we not throw it out, but let us reform it and purify it and sink deeper into the wisdom and truth of God. And above all, show us how to love others and our world in a way that reflects your unique calling in our lives. Amen. 

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