Sunday, December 30, 2018

First Sunday after Christmas
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Psalm 148
Colossians 3:12-17
Luke 2:41-52

Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father, through him.

Is it over yet? Christmas is always such a hectic time with so much to do, that sometimes we get to the point that we hope it is over soon. I still have a few things to clean up from our celebration yesterday, and I’m getting caught up on normal things that didn’t get done with the holiday, but we are still in celebration mode. Christmas Day is really just the beginning of Christmas, even though it seems like we’ve been celebrating for a month. Christmas ends with the Epiphany in twelve days.

I actually saw someone with their Christmas tree already in the back of the truck this morning. For them, Christmas is over with the unwrapping of presents. Oh, I have to admit that in the hustle and bustle of preparation I sometimes ask, “Is it over yet?” but I really don’t mean it. I really enjoy Christmas, and even enjoy the preparations. I love sharing our blessings with our friends and neighbors, but it is so easy to fall into the same attitude of those around us, to focus on getting through it so that we can get back to normal.

Today is St. Stephen’s Day. Stephen was the first Christian martyr; his story is found in Acts chapters six and seven. In the early days of the church, the apostles tried to take care of all the work that needed to be done in the growing fellowship of believers. They studied and taught the scriptures and the stories of Jesus, and they took care of those in need. They realized that it was impossible for them to do everything; they needed help if they were going to be able to focus on preaching the Word to the world. They chose seven deacons to do the tasks of administration, the business of the church. Stephen was one of those seven.

Stephen wasn’t just a servant, however. He was a man of God who also did works of great wonder and spoke with the grace of God. He was seized by the authorities because they opposed the spread of “the Way” as Christianity was called in the beginning. They claimed that Stephen spoke blasphemy and persuaded some men to testify against him. Based on lies, Stephen was found guilty and was sentenced to death by stoning.

Stephen gave the most eloquent speech, laying out before them the story of God’s love. He reminded them of the works of God’s power in the life of Israel and the promises of God that still lay before them. Then he placed the one whom they crucified in the midst of the story, showing them that everything was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He showed them how they missed the Messiah, and how they betrayed the God they claimed to love. They stoned him for his words, but even while Stephen received such brutality he knew the peace of God. He prayed for Jesus to receive his spirit and fell on his knees to ask for forgiveness, not for himself, but for the ones who were killing him.

As we read the text from Paul’s letter to Colossae, it sounds like a message filled with ‘do this’ and ‘do that’ and yet this is not a message of law, but of Gospel. You are God’s holy and beloved, you who have heard God’s word and believe. Being of God means a life of peace and joy, though this does not mean it will be a life without conflict. As a matter of fact, for many Christians the peace of God comes with the risk of violence and even martyrdom. Stephen could have appeared before the Sanhedrin and given them what they wanted: fearful trembling before their power and their authority. He might have been freed, but he would never have been free. Instead of cowering before them and giving in to their demands, Stephen spoke the Word of God into their lives. The Word of God brought death to his body, but he had no worries because he had God’s peace in his spirit.

The hustle and bustle of the holidays is exhausting and we really do want to get back to normal, but what does that mean for us as Christians? We are called to a life that is never going to be easy. We may be taken out of our comfort zone and put into a position of risk and difficulty. We may have to do something that shocks and upsets the world around us. We may have to say the very things that will bring scorn from our neighbors. Though we do not see any stonings in our corner of the world, Christians are still dying for the sake of the Gospel of Christ. We cry out for peace, and we strive to work for peace, but the peace that God promises is not something we can achieve by doing this or that. It comes from God.

The lights will start to fade on the houses in our neighborhood and some may even wonder why we are still displaying our nativity in the yard. Some neighborhoods have strict deadlines for removing all forms of Christmas from sight. The date is often well before the Epiphany. Who wants to see Christmas lights after New Year’s Day? The peace of Christmas quickly passes as people get back to “normal.” Yet we, as Christians, are meant to continue to dwell in that peace and shine the light of Christ to the world, even if we can’t have the Christmas lights on outside our homes.

We are called to be the holy and chosen people whom God has made us by His grace. This means growing in the grace of God and becoming the visible manifestation of His love in the world. We are told to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. We are told to bear with one another, to forgive as we have been forgiven and to put on love above all else. As the peace of Christ rules in our hearts and we live in thankfulness, the world will see the word of Christ dwelling in our lives, just like Stephen. For some, this life of peace will be offensive and they will seek to see it end. We might be tempted to hide our faith, but Christ will give us the courage to live the life to which we have been called, the life of thanksgiving and praise. As Paul writes, “Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father, through him.”

This is probably a vacation week for many people; they have taken advantage of the juxtaposition of Christmas and New Years to travel to see family and friends. This is particularly true in our society where children do not always stay close to home. No matter how far we roam, however, there’s no place like home for the holidays, so they say. And so, many have packed their suitcases, gathered their gifts and gone by plane, train or automobile to that place where family has gathered for the holiday. Unfortunately, our daughter was not able to come home this week. Thanks to wonderful technology, she joined us through live chat and we had fun together despite our distance.

It has become incredibly easy for us to get to where we want to go. We can drive hundreds of miles or fly thousands of miles in just a day. It is certainly easier than in the ancient days. Yet, they took pilgrimages, too. In today’s Old Testament lesson Hannah took an annual pilgrimage to offer her sacrifices at the Temple and to see her beloved son Samuel, the son that God gave to her when she was thought to be barren. Each year she took Samuel a new robe and Eli blessed the family. Each year Samuel was found to be growing in many ways. How hard it must have been for Hannah to leave her son year after year; even harder for her than for us in these modern times. At least we have easy transportation and amazing technology. She had to wait another year each time she went home.

The Gospel lesson is the story of another boy growing in stature and favor. Jesus was twelve years old in this story. His family traveled to Jerusalem for the annual festival. They traveled in large groups, for safety on the road and because they stayed close to family. Uncles, cousins, grandparents were all together, enjoying the adventure of the journey. Their families we close because they lived close. Everyone cared for everyone. One child could easily be lost in the crowd. Jesus, at twelve, was old enough to be independent. It is no wonder that Jesus was not with Mary and Joseph during the trip. They thought He was in the crowd.

Eventually they went looking for their son and could not find Him. Can you imagine the panic? Most parents have a moment like that with their kids. For me, Victoria was playing in the clothing racks at a department store and then was suddenly gone. I called and searched; others joined in the search. I was in tears out of fear. It didn’t help that there had been a nationally reported kidnapping of another child just weeks before this incident. I couldn’t help but think about the worst possibilities. We eventually found her, crying hysterically in a dressing room at the other end of the store. All was well in the end, but for a brief period of time I was inconsolable. I know how Mary felt at that moment when she realized He was gone.

I also know how she felt when she found Jesus. I was so happy that Victoria was found, safe and sound, but angry that she had wandered off. “How could you do this to me?” I asked. So did Mary. We often place Mary on a pedestal, forgetting that she was a normal woman and mother. And though Jesus was the Son of God, He was also her son and a twelve year old boy. This holy family was not extraordinary, but was as ordinary as you and I.

However, Jesus was not quite ordinary. He wandered off, not because He was playing in the racks of clothes at a department store or even to play stick ball in the streets. He was in the Temple, listening to the teachers and asking questions. His questions were not like a normal child’s questions, but were thoughtful and intelligent. He amazed the teachers with His understanding. He amazed even His parents. Even so, Mary asked, “How could you do this to us?” He didn’t understand their concern. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”

Samuel and Jesus were extraordinary young men. They were where they belonged, even if their mothers didn’t quite understand. We have to let our children go when they become adults, as they go off to college or get jobs in another state. As much as I want my daughter to be close so that we can celebrate every holiday together, I’m proud of the woman she has become. Hannah and Mary had to let their boys go at an incredibly early age, but those boys were equipped for the work they had to do. God was with them. Perhaps we would be more patient with our children if we could be sure that God is with them, too.

There is so much for us to learn. I’m not sure adults even feel equipped to do the work God calls us to do. Paul asks so much of us. I’m not sure I can do it all. I can’t seem to do it all the time, at least. Perfect? Not in this life. But we are chosen, not because we are perfect, but because God loves us and because God has spoken His word into our lives. As one of God’s chosen, God’s word dwells within us. With His word in our hearts and His teaching in our minds, we can do everyone in His name with thankfulness and praise. That’s what He wants from us.

Luke wrote that Mary and Joseph did not understand. I do not think that their doubt was about His identity as the Son of God. They knew. The angels told them. The shepherds confirmed it, so did the wise men. I think they were surprised that Jesus knew it. He was just a boy, not yet ready for the responsibilities that would be hoisted upon Him. He was still a child, innocent and impressionable. They weren’t ready to give up their responsibility for Him. They had more to teach Him, more to do for Him. However, He knew. The day they had been dreading was closer than they thought. It could not have been easy living with the knowledge that Jesus was destined for something great but that greatness would come at a price. Mary treasured every moment she had with Jesus, even when those moments were filled with anxiety. She had an inner peace that is beyond human understanding even while the world around her seemed chaotic and out of control. She had that peace because she trusted in God, and did all she did for His glory.

Our little troubles are really insignificant when we consider the amazing things God has done. He has created the entire world and everything in it. He has redeemed all of mankind by the blood of Christ. He has brought salvation to our lives, ordained His people to service and promised to do even greater things through His Church. We might suffer for a moment. We might have difficult work to do in this world. But no matter what we face, we believe in the God of the heavens and the earth. If only we would spend some time each day just praising God, singing songs of adoration and admiration, we might realize more quickly how inconsequential our troubles really are.

We are called and gathered by the Holy Spirit to join with the entire creation to sing praises to God our Father. He hears our praise wherever we are, because everything He has made sings along with us. It is humbling to realize our place in this world especially when we consider the heights of the mountains, the depths of the seas. When we look at the magnificence of His creation and wonder at the vastness of the heavens, we realize we are just a tiny part of it all. Yet, He has created us to be the crown of His creation.

Then, when we look at the life of Samuel and the life of Jesus, who even as young men knew their place in the world, should we not at least dwell in presence of our God and sing His praise with one another? He has given us the heavens and the earth. He has given us the sun and the wind and the rain. He has made the animals, birds, plants and trees for us. And He has given the care and love of one another. But most of all, He has given us His Son who brings peace to a world filled with chaos. Jesus is the horn of our salvation, the baby born in Bethlehem, the boy lost in the teachings of the Temple, the man who died on the cross.

The peace we have in Christ does not guarantee a world without suffering. We’ll see horrific moments. We’ll panic in the face of danger. We’ll cry when we are afraid. We will have to let go, let others take their place in the work of God, give up the things we hold most dear. But as we dwell in Christ and sing His praise together, we will continue to grow like Samuel and Jesus, in wisdom and favor until the day we will know the perfection of God’s kingdom in our life today.

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