Saturday, 25 March 2017

Sunday Sermon. Luke 2.41-52: Jesus goes missing on Mothers' Day

Luke 2.41-52


Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they travelled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them. Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.

This is one of those Gospel stories we’ve all heard before: it’s a familiar text to most of us but I wonder if anyone knows what it is that’s unusual about it?

This is the only story of Jesus’ childhood recorded in the Gospels. Matthew, Mark and John don’t have it.

Our text not only tells us about the young Jesus, but also a lot about his parents. Earlier in the Gospel we learn that eight days after Jesus' birth he was circumcised and that as an infant he was presented in the Temple according to the religious custom and our text today begins by telling us that every year his parents would go from Nazareth to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover.

So, what do we learn about them? That they were a couple who were very devout in keeping the Jewish Law. Even though there is nothing else written about the young Jesus in scriptures, we know that he grew up with parents who made it a habit of obeying the Law so we can be pretty confident that he would have grown up learning good habits from his parents.

So, we begin today with the party travelling on foot to Jerusalem, probably covering about 15 miles a day, so their journey would have taken four or five days in all. That’s not a trip to be undertaken lightly, particularly as Mary and Joseph were taking their young son with them for the first time. They travelled as a large party because such travel was dangerous and there was safety in numbers. This may be one of the reasons Mary and Joseph were so anxious: it wasn’t just about the possibility of a lost son and Joseph being made to look like an irresponsible father: having had to return to Jerusalem, the family were now several days behind the rest of their kin and trusted neighbours and so were potentially in very real danger.

There’s a little theological gem hidden here too because this incident mirrors the later idea that leaving family and friends to follow Jesus is a potentially costly activity.

Look, we’re doing theology!

And we continue to do theology when we consider the paradox in the passage that Jesus is presented as both son of Joseph and Son of God. Mary asks, "Child, why have you treated us in this way? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” Jesus responds to his parents' concern with two questions: "Why were you searching for me?" "Did you not know that I must be in my father's house? These are the first words Jesus speaks in Luke and they are a real clue to what follows in Jesus’ ministry. Because of the amazement of the crowd focused on his answers to the religious leaders in the Temple, he is in effect teaching the teachers. We have to understand that back then biblical interpretation was a spectator sport. It was competitive exhibition. Those religious leaders wrestled with the text and verbally wrestled with each other. And Jesus was fully engaged in the process. He belonged there. Luke tells it like this: He was sitting among the teachers, listening to them and putting questions to them. And he wasn’t out of his depth, either. Twelve-year-old Jesus was no beginner when it came to interpreting the sacred words. Everyone who heard him was impressed by his understanding and his answers. He was holding his own.

And this is precisely the activity of Jesus that Luke emphasizes at the climax of his ministry before the passion narrative when Jesus again responds to the questions put him in the Temple precincts by Jewish leaders which Luke calls teaching in the Temple. It’s ironic that those who marvelled at his understanding as a child would be scandalized by his words and his teaching as an adult, by his interpretation of the very words of scripture that he’d read in their presence, threatened by the questions he continued to ask and threatened by the answers that he gave.  It was these same priests and Levites, the doctors, the scholars who’d been amazed by his wisdom as a child who’d whip up the crowd into a frenzy and demand that Jesus the man be crucified as a blasphemer.

Have any of you ever seen the film “Home Alone”? “Home Alone” and Jesus being left in the temple share the same basic plot.

In both stories, an extended family goes to a faraway place to celebrate a holiday. And because of a miscommunication, a boy is left behind. No one notices for a while, because everyone assumes he’s with other relatives. When they realize their son is not with them, his parents freak out and spend days frantically trying to get back to him. And when they find him, it turns out he’s taken care of himself just fine. In fact, he’s capable of holding his own with even the most wily of adults. The boy Kevin in “Home Alone” proves this by going head-to-head with two career burglars. Jesus proves it by going head-to-head with the Bible scholars in the temple.

Jesus was never lost. To his parents, he was missing. But he was never lost. He knew exactly where he was. And he knew why he was there. Jesus was right where he was supposed to be, doing just what his Father God put him here to do.

But Luke says that his parents didn’t understand.

From Luke’s perspective, if anyone was lost that day, it was Mary and Joseph. They didn’t know where Jesus was. They were confused. They didn’t know what was going on.

Sometimes who is lost and who is found is completely a matter of perspective.

Today’s gospel is a story about growing up but it is not Jesus’ growing up. It is about Mary and Joseph growing up. It is about you and me growing up. Growing up is not about how old we are. It is really about moving into deeper and more authentic relationships with God, our world, each other, and ourselves.

Jesus has put the Father at the centre of his world and asks Mary, Joseph and us to do the same.

But today is Mothering Sunday, so is there anything from today’s passage that we can learn from about Mary’s relationship with Jesus?

Well, we’ve already noted that Mary wasn’t above chiding Jesus when she felt he had crossed a line and I’m sure most of us are the people we are today because our own mothers, out of love, took us on one side and spelt one or two things out to us about our behaviour and attitude, especially when it was perceived to be disrespectful, selfish or thoughtless. Just think back for a moment. Can you recollect such an occasion in your own relationship with your mother? Try and think what the trigger was in your own behaviour and then think about your mother’s motives and concerns. Why did she tell you off then and why did she continue to do so as the circumstances demanded?

It’s easy isn’t it? Our mothers, like Mary in today’s Gospel passage, had our best interests at heart. It was about showing us what we’d done wrong and showing us a better way to behave or what better attitudes to hold. Why? To make us better, less selfish people; to instil in us life-skills that would help us to be better rounded and more independent people; more socially able adults who are better able to make good decisions and choices for our own welfare and the benefit of those around us.

But I think the main clue can be found in the concluding verses of today’s passage, “His mother treasured all of these things in her heart.” This is the second time in this Gospel that Luke uses this phrase and it says something about the nature of motherhood: our mothers remember everything!

Let’s be honest though: we didn’t always appreciate the reminiscences did we? My mother had this infinite capacity after one or two gins too many to regale us at family events with anecdotes from my childhood and teenage years but, embarrassing as those anecdotes were, they came from a deep pride and affection and I soon realised that not much had got past her. But as I got older I was able to see the funny side of her stories and to appreciate my own youthful foolishness and misunderstandings. It’s also worth remembering that if anyone tried to be critical or snide with me about those events she was the first one to leap to my defence – and she could be formidable when roused!

I think today’s passage also tells us something very special about that mother/child relationship: in the same way that Mary – and Joseph – had to adjust to their son’s developing maturity and his sense of self, so our mothers did too: our relationships with them as adults were very far removed from the ones we had with them when we were children. Just as Jesus helped his parents to change their views and attitudes and to see new perspectives, so it was with us as we also grew, matured, developed independence, distinct personalities and a sense of self, even if that wasn’t always easy for them: the balance in the relationship will have subtly shifted – maybe several times – as we got older and we can see this at work in today’s passage.

So, today we come not just to hear the Gospel, to pray, to take our communion  and worship but to celebrate our own Marys; to give thanks to God for them and to remember them with deep love and affection, for all their faults, understanding that we are who we are today because of them.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Sunday Sermon: John 3.1-17: the problem with John 3.16 and evangelism

John 3.1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.


So today I have probably the most famous Gospel text known to Christians to preach on.


No pressure then.


Last weekend I was at a residential with all the other curates I trained with. The subject was evangelism and when I was preparing for this morning much of what we discussed then fell into place.


But let me start with an anecdote which, to me, illustrate the problem we face with evangelism and with the key verse in this passage.


I used to have a teaching colleague, an African Christian. I would give him a lift home most evenings and it had become something of a nightmare because he insisted on talking to me about Jesus - and it really got on my nerves. This caused great hilarity amongst some of our other colleagues:


“Doesn’t he know you’re going to be ordained?”


“Yes, but that seems to make him worse.”


“This must be your Lenten discipline.” (That was a Muslim friend)


“Look, I gave up chocolate, cake, alcohol, biscuits and second helpings. They were my choice. I didn’t choose this.”


“Maybe it’s Allah’s will for you at this time.” (She’s very sharp, that one.)


I tried to analyse why this was becoming such an issue for me and I drew the uncomfortable conclusion it is because our Christianities were so different. His is a very black and white, literalist approach with no scope for nuance, areas of grey or holy doubt, whereas I am very much at the radical end of liberal.


“I’ve given up Alcohol for lent.”


“You drink alcohol?”


What followed was a diatribe against the laxness of the west.


“It is to do with low standards: with fornication and homosexuality.”


“Now let me just stop you there …”


Can I stop on the M621 and ask him to get out between junctions? Would that seem too inhospitable? I tried to bite my tongue, I really did, but sometimes I just couldn’t rise above it.


“… I’ve just read a very detailed biblical study of why the so-called traditional teaching on homosexuality is a gross misinterpretation of the various texts.”


Sounds of apoplectic gasping from the passenger seat.


“But it says in Leviticus and Romans …..”


“I know what it says, but that depends on whether you accept everything in the Bible as literally true, rather than seeking to understand the various types of holiness codes and laws to say nothing of the different genre, and whether you believe that we are the implied audience of the various passages rather than the people they were written to. We mustn’t assume that we are. Much of the Bible was written in a very specific religious and cultural climate which is not ours.” (Who’s on his soapbox now?) Note to self: triumphalism is not a nice characteristic in a trainee vicar ….. but it felt so good.


There was ominous silence for a while and I realised that I had been driving progressively faster.


There is a change of tack:


“What do you understand about the crucifixion?” he asked me.


I explained the theology of the atonement.


“Not all will be saved.” He says. “People who do not confess Jesus will go to Hell. It says in John 3.16…”


And here we have it: one of the most misunderstood and misused texts in scripture. This single verse has provided motivation for some of the most destructive and unchristian impulses in those who call themselves Christian.


“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that all who believe in him may not perish but have everlasting life.”


Now some of you know that I am a bit of a keyboard warrior: “I’ll be up in a moment Love. I’m just telling someone on the INTERNET that they’re wrong.” There seems to be a recurring theme in this activity: every two or three months I seem to end up in strident cyber debate with some other Christian, usually from either the Anglican diocese of Sydney or U.S. Southern Baptists or Nigerian Christians. The “discussion” is usually about the nature of salvation and the fate of those who do not accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour.


I am clearly a masochist: here I was in my own car having the same discussion.


Taken literally this passage from John suggests that those who do not believe in the Son will perish.


It is difficult to overestimate the damage that has been done by a literal interpretation of this text. It is difficult to overestimate the hurt, harm and abuse that have been encouraged by this passage. It shapes the way Christians throughout history have treated people of other faiths and cultures and the outcome of that has been conflict and violence and the crushing of indigenous culture and languages in the name of Christ.


And yet I can (just) remember in those far off heady days of my late-teenage post-conversion years, when I was a lot more evangelical than I am now, that this text was one I learnt by heart and which informed my attitude to other people. It didn’t matter who they were: they were either saved or they weren’t. Simple as.


My movement away from that stance happened gradually as I matured in my faith and God took me in directions and into experiences where I began to question the old certainties. I will always remember one particular joke a wise vicar told me.


A new arrival at the pearly gates was met by St. Peter and shown round Heaven. At one point they came to a very high wall.


“What’s behind there?” she asked.


“Keep your voice down” said St. Peter. “That’s where the Anglicans are. They think they’re the only ones here and we don’t want to upset them.”


Actually, it wasn’t the Anglicans in the original –just trying to be topical - I’ll leave you to guess: suffice to say that it works with any Christian group.


I have a number of Muslim and Sikh friends. We often talk about religion and I’ve learnt a lot about them and from them. When other Christians berate me about mission and witness and how we must bring others to a saving knowledge of Jesus, I always think of them … and I always think that bringing them to Jesus sounds so simple but in reality is very far from it.

Of course it is never me who convicts and converts, it is the Holy Spirit. I know that and, yes, I sometimes wonder what the Holy Spirit makes of my witness by word and deed to anyone, not just Muslims and Sikhs.


But let me ask you two things:


·       What does it take for someone – anyone to come to faith?

·       What is it that we ask others to believe and accept as part of that act of faith?


You see I don’t think it matters whether you are Muslim or Sikh or Atheist or whatever: in order to come to faith you have to not only hear but to understand the Gospel, although if you come from a culture which is broadly Christian I suspect that it may be easier for you.


“How” I ask these other Christians “does a Muslim born and brought up in rural Saudi Arabia hear, let alone understand the Gospel? How does a Jew brought up in the most orthodox part of Jerusalem or a Sikh brought up in Amritsar, the Holy City? And yet you are telling me that God – my God, the God I believe in and follow – condemns to Hell a whole swathe of people for not following an injunction they could not possibly have known about. In terms of God’s justice, how does that work, then?”


“The Bible is clear.” I am told.




Taken literally John 3.16 becomes the foundation for the rejection of the “other” in society: the ones who are not like us. By that I don’t just mean race and religion, but gender, sexuality.


The irony here is that of the Gospel writers John was the one who was least likely to take a literalist approach to his writing and would most certainly have rejected that sort of literalist reading. The passage immediately before today’s Gospel reading is the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. This is the same John who tells us that Jesus was amazed that Nicodemus understood Jesus’ comment about being born again in a literal way. If the life and teaching of Jesus gives us cause to be literal in our reading of Jesus’ words it is not John 3.16, but John 3.17 that we should look to: “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”


Neither Jesus nor John was interested in establishing a belief system based on rejection by God. What they were very interested in was the question concerning how one came to have faith and the supplementary question about how one grows in one’s experience of God.


There seem to be a number of positions in the New Testament and the one I favour is “Believe and be baptised.” (Mark 16.16) but that raises other issues such as “Believe what?” or “Believe in what?”


So, I think my challenge to you this morning, and perhaps as a Lenten discipline, is to think of those Biblical passages which most closely represent to you what the life of faith is about.

 Of course, there are many passages, but for me here are few ideas which sum it up: repent, believe, be saved by God’s grace, show the change in your life but recognise that you are still vulnerable to temptation. Be open to the spirit, continue to repent and seek the strength of the Spirit to grow more into the likeness of the Saviour.


Hang on, though. Weren’t you concerned about the Muslim in rural Saudi Arabia, the Orthodox Jew and the Sikh -  and the Hindu and the Buddhist who have no chance of hearing, let alone understanding the Gospel?


Yes. But we must leave that to God. My responsibility is not to go with John 3.16 without John 3.17. We may turn out, like the Christians behind the wall in Heaven in the joke, to be surprised by the extent of the grace of God, but it is most certainly not for us to second guess the mind of God on this or to seek to put limits on his grace. Remember, righteousness was ascribed to Abraham through his faith in God and he predated Jesus.


So, I’ll leave you with a tantalising insight into the theology of C.S. Lewis on this topic: a theology which has become known as the theology of the unknowing disciple.


For those of you who are unfamiliar with his writings, Lewis writes a series of what appear to be children’s adventure stories, set in the land of Narnia, the most famous of which is “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. However, Lewis wasn’t simply a children’s writer but a perceptive theologian and the Narnia stories are a Christian allegory.


In “The Last Battle”, which is a story dealing with the end times and judgement, there is an exchange between Aslan the Lion, the Christian God figure, and Emeth, a follower of the God Tash. Emeth is surprised to find himself on the right side of Aslan’s judgement and says to Aslan: “Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine, but a servant of Tash.” Aslan answered “Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. If any man swears an oath to Tash and keeps the oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he knew it not and it is I who reward him.” Emeth replied “Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.” “Beloved”, said the Glorious one, “unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”


It is my personal challenge during Lent to concentrate on my own walk with God. I look beyond that to my immediate family. I must also continue to take responsibility for my witness through word and deed but it is also my challenge to let God be God and to work his grace where he will. It is not for me to misuse his word in a theology of exclusion.