Sunday, December 31, 2006

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

Praise ye Jehovah.

I turned to the page in our newspaper that holds the advice columns this morning. In one column a number of readers had written to rebuke the columnist for a recent piece of advice she had given. They all had personal experience with the problem and they insisted that she was wrong. Though her advice might have been wise, they considered it foolish and even offensive. In another column, a writer hoped that a doctor could diagnose a problem that several other doctors had been unable to solve. Though the doctor could discount several possibilities, he could not offer any specific answers. The reader may have thought the answer was foolish because it did not answer any questions, but the doctor was wise not to diagnose someone he’d never met or examined personally.

We all receive daily messages from friends containing all sorts of advice. These messages often include warnings about things that have happened to strangers at unknown times and in unknown places. Some of the stories are truly frightening and the warnings offer advice that seems wise. Yet, a quick check at one of the myth busting websites shows that the stories are not really true and that it would actually be foolish to follow the advice offered, particularly when it commands the reader to pass it on and spread the word.

We listen to news programs to gain information, but it is sometimes hard to distinguish between those who are giving information and those who are sharing opinions. All too often the opinions are stated as facts and it is hard for us to tell the difference. It is almost funny to hear two different reporters talk about the same event because they will each give the story from a unique perspective which often contradicts the other. From our modern point of view, it is easy to assume that there really isn’t one ‘truth.’ It is much easier to assume that there is an individual truth for each person. Then we can accept and tolerate other points of view for the sake of peace, even when they are based on faulty information and untruths. It seems like a good idea – perhaps the world would be a nicer place if this is the way we lived.

Is peace really the goal? Is this a peace without any conflict? Is the peace that is promised by God in the story of Jesus really based on the ideal that no truth is greater than any other truth?

Samuel was just a boy and yet he was already training to be a priest in the service of the Lord God Almighty. His mother, who was barren, promised God that if she had a child she would give him to God. Hannah was so blessed and she kept her promise, taking Samuel to the temple when he was very young. Eli the priest took Samuel into his care, teaching Samuel everything he knew about serving God. It was particularly important for Eli to mentor Samuel because his own sons had strayed far from the way of life to which they were born. However, Eli did nothing to turn them to right paths. He tolerated their ungodly behavior.

Samuel was much different. He was a child dedicated to the service of the Lord, not only because he was growing up in the temple but because he had parents who loved God so much that they were willing to give their first born child in thanksgiving and praise. Hannah did not give her son away and ignore him. She traveled to the temple every year as was their habit and she took with her a gift for her son – a new linen robe for Samuel to use. She encouraged his service and continued to train him in the way he was to go by her own example of dedication to God. Her actions might seem insignificant – a brief visit once a year and a new robe – that’s the least she could do! However, her visit was much more. She was sharing her faith with Samuel, passing on the traditions of their heritage and their religion. Though Samuel learned the specific actions he needed to serve the Lord from Eli, he learned about faith from Hannah.

She must have been so excited each year as their time to travel to the temple drew closer. As she added the final touches to his new robe, Hannah undoubtedly prayed for her son and praised God for all He had done for her. She never again asked for a child, but faithfully fulfilled the promise she made to God by giving Samuel the freedom to live as he had been called to live. In today’s Old Testament lesson, we see Eli blessing Samuel’s mother and father, praying that God would repay Hannah for her gift. This barren woman is blessed with five more children and I am sure she loves them with all her heart. Yet, none would ever replace Samuel – he was the answer to her prayer and he was the sacrifice she made out of her devotion to her God.

What would we say about a woman who left her child at the temple with a man like Eli? We would assume she did not love her son or that she had gone crazy listening to voices that weren’t real. We would not see her action as religious devotion but rather one of neglect and coldness. Could a mother love her son and really leave him behind? We make such judgments based on a lack of information, a lack of understanding.

We make a similar judgment about Mary in today’s Gospel lesson. How could a mother lose her child? Mary lost him for three days! We just can’t imagine this happening. Yet, which mother has not lost her child in a store, even if it were only for a brief period of time. When Vicki was a young child we were in a department store with lots of clothing racks filled with clothing. She was playing hide and seek, hiding in the middle of the racks so I could not find her. As she moved from rack to rack, she got farther and farther from me until she was completely lost. It was not long when I realized she was not right beside me and I panicked. In this day and age, our thoughts turn to horrible possibilities. I cried out for her, but she’d strayed too far. We found her hysterical in a dressing room at the other end of the store. This all happened in minutes, but it seemed like hours. I can’t imagine how horrible Mary must have felt when she realized that Jesus was not with them. He was only twelve, and though a twelve year old was already being trained to be an adult, he was still her baby.

How hard it must have been for Mary. After all, she knew that Jesus was not a normal child. It is hard enough for me with my children who seem so much more intelligent than me. They are learning math concepts that I never learned. If they need help, I can’t possibly give it to them. What would Mary be able to give Jesus? He was the Son of God, the Messiah. He had gifts and knowledge that we can’t even imagine.

Yet, it was God who chose to bring the Messiah into the world in such an unusual way. He chose Mary and Joseph to serve as parents to the child who would become the Savior of the world. Their job was to raise Him, to care for Him, to teach Him the ways of their life and their religion. They gave Him all this and more. They loved Him with their whole hearts. Mary, Joseph and Jesus were in Jerusalem for the festival of Passover, as they were each year. It was their duty, but also their joy, to go to the temple to worship God according to the Law of Moses.

They were righteous and pious Jews. I suppose that is why they were so shocked by Jesus’ behavior at this feast. He was disobedient – He did not leave Jerusalem with them. It took them days to find Him because they assumed He was a good boy who would have followed them. Yet, it was their love of God and their devotion to Him that had encouraged Jesus to seek to know God more deeply. He stayed to learn because He saw in their lives the peace and the joy that comes from an abiding relationship with God. It was His time and He was determined to learn.

They said to Jesus, “Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I sought thee sorrowing.” They were worried, just as any parent would be. I imagine that Mary even panicked. After all, she was charged with the care of this child. They were not so upset about His disobedience as they were about all that may have gone wrong. Jesus did not understand their worry. He answered their questions, “How is it that ye sought me? knew ye not that I must be in my Father's house?” Luke tells us that they did not understand. It do not think that they did not know that Jesus was the Son of God. Instead, I think they were surprised that Jesus knew it also. He was a young 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 that knowledge – the truth 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.

Peace, true peace, does not necessarily mean that our lives will be without conflict. This past week we celebrated the Feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. His life was anything but peaceful. As a matter of fact, his service to God came to a violent and horrible end as he was stoned for speaking the truth. When he was falsely accused, he told the story of God from the beginning of His relationship with His people. He showed them that their religion had taken them down a destructive path. As he spoke, he had a look about him that ‘was like that of an angel.” He had peace – peace in his heart and in his spirit. His words meant certain death, but that did not matter. The words were true, they were honest and they were given to turn God’s people back to Him. They took Stephen out of the city to be stoned, but Stephen had such a deep and abiding peace that he was able to pray for forgiveness – for those killing him.

The life to which we have been called is not necessarily going to be easy. Paul’s message to the Colossians sounds like a message filled with ‘to dos’ 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 given the Sanhedrin what they wanted – fearful trembling before their power and their authority. He might have been freed, but he would lose the peace that dwelled within. 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 turning from that which God was calling him to do would have brought death to his spirit.

We are to live a life of peace between brothers – bearing with one another and forgiving one another. It is a life clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Most of all, Paul writes that we are to be clothed with love. This is not something we can do or something we can strive to achieve, but it is a way of life – dwelling in the presence of God. Samuel learned to dwell in God’s presence from Eli and from his mother. They gave him a foundation for the relationship with God into which he was growing daily. Mary and Joseph gave Jesus the same foundation. Both these boys were chosen by God to do something great and they were gifted with all they would need to do so, but God had also given them to earthly men and women to be raised in faith and truth.

Samuel and Jesus’ earthbound parents taught them the most important lesson they could learn – to do everything in word or in deed for the glory of God. Paul writes that since we too are chosen ones, holy and beloved, we are to do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God for all things. That’s how Stephen could face stoning with such peace. That’s how we can face the difficulties of our life – singing God’s praise even when the world around us doesn’t seem very peaceful. For God alone is worthy of our praise, and the whole world has been created to sing of His glory.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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