This Sunday, February 3rd

Jeremiah has been called “the weeping prophet.” What was he so upset about? We have tended to imagine that he wept over things that were happening to his country (Judah), or maybe even that he wept because he thought that what was happening to them was in some way their fault. But what if it was something deeper? What if it had to do with his faith being disrupted or even destroyed? This week, we will be looking at Jeremiah’s call to become a prophet (Jeremiah 1.4-10) and ask what it might have meant that he was supposed to “pluck up and pull down, destroy and overthrow.” We will also ask what this has to do with us? Are we called to take up the spirit of Jeremiah today? What would that look like? Would we have any friends if we did? (That last question is only half-joking!)

                I hope to see you on Sunday. In the meantime, I hope everyone is staying safe and warm.

The first miracle (John 2.1-11)

The first miracle (John 2.1-11)
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church, Ordinary 2C (January 20, 2019)
Tom James

It might seem to us a little strange that a story of such importance, a story that ends with the salvation of the world, should begin with a wedding reception where the wine runs out. I guess you could say Jesus was starting small. Refilling the punch bowl, if you will, is a long way off from something that generations would remember him for. But, you have to start somewhere, after all.
There actually aren’t a lot of miracles stories in John.  There are seven, and while that would be a lot for most of us to perform a period of just a few years, some of the other gospels have a lot more. Luke, for example, has about twenty. John puts his seven together in an order which does seem to build in significance.  This first one may seem like a “miracle of convenience,” you might say.  For those who have heard about some of the miracle stories of the heretical gospels from the second century called “Gnostic” gospels, recently rediscovered, this story may seem familiar. In some of these Gnostic gospels, Jesus has superhuman powers, and he flexes those powers to show that he is not limited to by the confines of time and space like you and I are. He does awesome things, like turning rocks into birds, simply because he can, not to make life better in this world but to show that the world’s rules are irrelevant to him, that natural laws cannot get in his way.
The Greek term “Gnosis,” from which “Gnostic” derives, means secret wisdom or knowledge.  It is more than a way of thinking about Jesus, it is an avenue of hope for human beings.  According to this tradition, if we align ourselves with this secret way, unveiled only to a select few, we are promised that we, too, can make the limitations of the physical world irrelevant. We can escape from its power over us; we can go beyond the tendency for things to wear down and wear out, including our bodies.  
The ancient religion of Gnosticism has drawn attention recently not only because it produced some alternative pictures of Jesus with a bunch of different stories, but because Gnostic faith is in some respects powerfully aligned with a particular kind of human hope that is commonly expressed today. You could say that modernity in the West has been all about trying to make the limitations of nature irrelevant to us.  Technical skill, the new “gnosis,” has become the most prized human virtue:  governance becomes bureaucracy, politics becomes campaign engineering, the art of caring becomes the science of curing, healing is less something to be thankful for than something to be expected, sexuality becomes less and less a practice of love and increasingly a matter of manuals and pills, the world becomes less something to be in awe of than something to be cleared, mined, harvested, or “improved.”  
One of the more dramatic expressions of this hope, perhaps, come to light a few years ago. People began to talk about what they called “designer children,” who would not so much gifted to us by the mystery of life as built by genetic technology, “made” not only free from the tendency toward certain diseases but also genetically predisposed toward intelligence or athletic prowess or beauty—or  toward any other attribute we may choose. Modernity has been about breaking down barriers to the achievement of our ambitions. And, to some extent, we are succeeding. We are making natural obstacles to human desire, whether they be natural genotypes or forests or the effects of aging, disappear before our very eyes. The rules of the world, to some degree, are becoming more and more irrelevant.
This miracle of Jesus looks a lot like those Gnostic miracles, ancient as well as modern. After all, what’s so theologically important about having wine for a wedding party? Why does Jesus do it? What’s the big deal about having quality wine at a wedding reception? (And, we should note, John makes clear that the wine Jesus made was quality.) The reason is so obvious that it may surprise us. And it is the very opposite reason that a Gnostic might give. It’s not because someone has asked for wine, and since nature’s rules don’t effect Jesus, he just snaps his fingers and it’s done. It’s not a matter of simply satisfying every human desire. No, there’s something about this context, this event, that is important enough for one of the seven signs John tells us about. As I say, it’s a pretty obvious thing. It is because weddings matter. 
We know they matter to many of us, of course. That’s why so many people pull out all the stops for a wedding. Many of us have memories—mostly joyful—of our own weddings, or of the wedding of people who are important to us. Michelle’s and my wedding, on Epiphany of 1996, was pretty unforgettable, because, while we were getting married in Louisville, Kentucky, about a foot of snow was falling, and I don’t think a single plow was plowing! (Because it was Louisville, Kentucky!) It was a mess: a fraction of the people we expected actually people showed up, our hotel was a ghost town and the people working there didn’t want to be working there. My brothers from Florida were sliding around in their rental cars, and this Floridian wasn’t doing a lot better. But, still, it was one of the best and most important days in my life, and I’d do it all over again, just the same.
Any wedding is a unique celebration because it is a grand “yes” to life—yes, this partnership, with all of the problems that will probably arise within it, is worth entering into. Yes—mysteries of sexuality and procreation are worth embracing and affirming. Yes—life is good, and it ought to be continued. Yes, society, togetherness, partnerships are good, and ought to be blessed. And, so, Jesus’s odd little miracle is not just a miracle of convenience—it is his own affirmation and blessing of human community—of our yearning to be together and to go on together.
There is one little detail of this story that I’d like to single out. When Jesus was looking around for containers for this quality wine that he was about to make, he spotted somewhere in the corner some old, well-used, perhaps unwelcome jars that had probably been shoved aside hastily and rudely. These large jars were made to contain water for purification rites when people would confess their sins and asked to be washed clean from them. There’s no mystery why these jars would have been hastily pushed into the corners. Weddings are not a time for purification jars. Weddings are joyful occasions when we celebrate love and life, and purification rites, by contrast, point to sin and brokenness.  
But I think the purification jars are important to the story, and they tell us something about what Jesus was up to. It tells us something that Jesus begins his ministry by filling purification jars with the finest wine. That “jarring” contrast, if you will excuse the pun, is perhaps the main point of the story. It is as if he is pointing ahead to the time when the mourning of purification will yield to the joy of celebration.
Rites of purification were the precursors to Christian baptism, and the drinking of wine at the wedding feast points to the joyful feast of the people of God which of which partake at the communion table.  The journey that begins at baptism ends at the banquet feast. You might say that Jesus is the life of the party, from beginning to end. 
The way of Jesus does not take us away from or out of the world. Instead, it leads us through miracles at wedding feasts, through diseases and healings, through death and resurrection.
Another word for “sign” is “sacrament,” and we are invited by this story to see a life that is marked by things like weddings, and diseases, and loss, as sacramental through and through.  When we break bread together, at the communion table or the dinner table, when we are full of happy conversation or when we have nothing to say, we are invited to experience the living Christ. When we share a glass of wine or give a glass of water to someone who is thirsty, perhaps we can learn to see that Christ is still at work in the world. When we experience the warmth of friends or family, or when we are alone out in the beauty of nature, perhaps we can be opened to the reality of Christ among us. If Jesus makes a sign out of a bit of wine, perhaps all of life is sacramental—all of life is an expression of God’s love and God’s presence. As John says at the opening of his gospel, the word has been made flesh and dwelt among us.  We need to practice keeping our eyes open at all times, at weddings, when we are alone, when there is need, when there is joy, when we are marking the beginning of a new session and a new board of deacons, that we may see its glory. Amen.

This Sunday, January 27

I was really hoping to preach on “The first miracle” last Sunday. So, you know what? I’m going to go ahead and preach it this Sunday. Here’s what I wrote last week:
Do you know what Jesus’ first miracle was? I suppose it depends on whom you ask. In John’s gospel, there are only seven (John calls them “signs”), and the first happens when Jesus and his mother are at a wedding feast in a village called “Cana.” Everybody has heard of this miracle: turning water into wine! Sometimes we treat it as a joke, but, this Sunday, we will talk about what this miracle means and why John’s version of the story puts it first. What does it mean that almost the first thing Jesus does is to provide what it takes to keep a celebration going? What do we learn about Jesus, and about God, from this story?

Don’t forget that Sunday is also an important day for the congregation. We have a congregational meeting, with lunch afterward. Also, during worship, we will be installing our new elders and deacons. Also, for those serving on those boards, we will be having our annual joint meeting after lunch. Hope to see you Sunday!

This Sunday, 1/20/19

Do you know what Jesus’ first miracle was? I suppose it depends on whom you ask. In John’s gospel, there are only seven (John calls them “signs”), and the first happens when Jesus and his mother are at a wedding feast in a village called “Cana.” Everybody has heard of this miracle: turning water into wine! Sometimes we treat it as a joke, but, this Sunday, we will talk about what this miracle means and why John’s version of the story puts it first. What does it mean that almost the first thing Jesus does is to provide what it takes to keep a celebration going? What do we learn about Jesus, and about God, from this story?

Many people have been talking this week about the snow that is (probably) going to hit our area this weekend. Let me take this opportunity to let you know that Session has decided that we will cancel Sunday worship in the event of a “LEVEL 2” snow emergency. So, if you hear that we are at “LEVEL 2,” please stay at home! Also, we will be putting cancellation notices on WTVG, channel 13, and WTOL, channel 11. Finally, if you have doubts or can’t find out, please check your email (I will be sending something out if we have to cancel), or call 567.343.6479. There will be an outgoing message with the necessary information. I really do hope to see you Sunday!

Passing through the waters (Isaiah 43.1-7)

Passing through the waters (Isaiah 43.1-7; Luke 3.15-17, 21-22)
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church, Baptism of the Lord C (January 13, 2019)
Tom James
I cross two bridges to get here—one of them pretty small—low and level—and the other quite large and very high. The small one takes me from the island where I live over part of the Detroit River to the mainland, and the other crosses the Maumee River on Interstate 280. I hardly notice crossing the small one. It makes some people nervous (each lane is narrow), but I actually enjoy driving on it. There are nice views of the river, which is always changing. The second one, the big suspension bridge on 280, such a massive project that, when it was built, a number of workers lost their lives, has taken some getting used to. It’s not the water below that bothers me—it’s how far below it is. I’m not a big fan of heights. But still, with both bridges, I’m mindful that there is cold flowing water beneath me, and I know that it wouldn’t be much fun to plunge into it. Crossing bridges can help you sustain a pretty healthy respect for nature and its powers.
The ancient Hebrews were not a sea-faring people and had a lot of rather negative feelings about seas and even lakes. We see this in many places in the Bible, where seas are seen as a deep and dangerous threat to human existence. The flood story is an obvious example. But what may not be obvious to us is that the flood story was not just an isolated weather catastrophe, but is instead a sort of sequel to a much older tale. The flood story itself hearkens back to the opening verses of the book of Genesis. When God created the earth, just about the first thing that God needed to do in order to create a habitat for human beings was to separate the dry land from the waters. Now, the waters weren’t just understood to be on the same approximate horizontal plane with us. They were seen to be beside us, if you will, but also below us and even above us. Genesis gives us a very much land-loving picture of a fragile stretch of human habitation, threatened on all sides by raging waves that are pictured as a frightening and hostile force of chaos. That’s what had to be tamed in order for there to be a creation at all.
Some of us have seen the power of waves up close, but, even if we haven’t, we have seen pictures or footage or heard stories about what they can do. Just this past week a lighthouse on the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan was completely wiped out by a huge wave and high winds. Did you see the footage? One moment it was standing tall, and the next minute it was just gone. In the flood, God’s creative act of separating the dry land from the threatening waters is reversed. You could say that a force of de-creation—a force of destruction that had lurked in the vicinity of humankind since the very beginning—was unleashed.
It’s interesting, though, that the very identity of these land-loving people, Israel, was made as they passed through threatening waters. When Israel was enslaved, when they were forced to serve an imperial master and had no safe place of worship and no land to call their own—God heard their cries and delivered them from Pharaoh. How did God deliver them, though? By opening the sea for them—by creating a stretch of dry land for them—by separating human life from the chaos and disorder that threatens it from all sides once again, and telling them to march bravely forward. There seems to be a pattern here. Apparently, this is what God does. Apparently, this is who God is.
This Sunday is designated “Baptism of the Lord” on our church calendar. Still very near the beginning of the church year, we celebrate a series of beginnings for Jesus: his birth, his epiphany or manifestation to the nations as they were represented the wise men, his (perhaps, first) trip to Jerusalem as a twelve-year-old, and, now, his baptism. Jesus undergoes baptism at the beginning of his ministry as it is recorded in the gospels. He passes through the waters, making the same journey, symbolically speaking, that the Israelites made when they passed through the raging chaos of the sea as they escaped Egypt. The next three years are prefigured in this ritual because his journeys through Galilee and then back to Jerusalem will take him through dangerous territory. He will confront chaos in the form of demon possessed people, and people with devastating illnesses, and, for himself, chaos in the form of suspicion and persecution, and trial before Pilate, and death.
Who knew baptism meant so much! We often if it as a sort of blessing we bestow on people—most often children. Baptisms are times for joy. And innocence. And, yet, for Jesus and also for us, his disciples, baptism points to a life of passing through the waters, facing threats on all sides, making our way on a narrow strip of dry land with crashing waves barely held back by the hand of grace. Baptism, in other words, points to real life, with all its uncertainties and dangers.
In our Old Testament reading for this morning, the prophet Isaiah probably has in mind the story of the people of Israel making their way across dry ground, passing through the sea, as they escaped from Egypt as he writes that his readers will pass through the waters unharmed. He is writing to Jews in exile to give them hope that God has not forgotten them and that the chaos that seems to envelop their lives will not destroy them. Commentator Paul Hanson notes that there is another reference these verses, too. Making people pass through water was also an ancient way of putting people on trial to prove their innocence or guilt. Passing through the water was not only dangerous–it was a way of being exposed, proven guilty if they failed the test. And, of course, they failed the test by drowning—so, with the judgment came the penalty as well.
Much later, when Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, I wonder if it wasn’t something like that that he has in mind when he prays, “save us from the time of trial.” When we repeat the prayer now, we use the words “deliver us from evil,” but the literal translation from the gospel asks God to deliver us through a time of trial—perhaps, keep us from being drowned. The evil that we dread is not just any old thing, but a very specific evil—the evil of being put to the test and failing. And, so, “save us from the time of trial” doesn’t mean keep us from ever having to face adversities, or keep us from having to confront and struggle with the chaos that continues to this day to threaten our lives. Rather, it means, helps us to endure the chaos. It means, give us the strength not to buckle or break under the pressure. Show us the strip of dry land where the water can’t isn’t too deep to cross. Enable us to keep standing, even in the face of a huge wave.
The implicit message is, only God can do that. Ordinarily, things topple and disappear, like the lighthouse amid the fury of Lake Michigan waves and wind. Ordinarily, enslaved people don’t get liberated by simply marching away—and certainly not be marching through a sea. Ordinarily, people in exile at the hands of an expanding empire don’t get to go back, rebuild, and create a great world religion. Ordinarily, a man who gets executed as a criminal doesn’t leave a tomb empty. Ordinarily, the barely literate followers of such a person don’t build a movement that outlasts an empire and changes the world. Our history as the people of God, from ancient Israel to contemporary east Toledo, is a story of defying what is ordinary. Ordinarily, there is no liberation but only fresh cycles of bondage, no resurrection but only a slow or fast decline toward death. But, “ordinarily” is not the end of the matter, because God is the creator, and, as long as God remains the creator, creation, and re-creation, continues to happen, and the forces of chaos cannot prevail.
The verses that we read from Isaiah have what some scholars call an “envelope” structure. A theme unites the beginning and the end—the theme of God as creator is repeated in both places, and a theme also unites the section right after the beginning and the section right before the end—God redeems in history. The structure is like an envelope or like a shell in that it holds something very important in its middle, and that is the message that explains everything. Israel had been through a lot with God. It had had moments of ecstatic joy, long stretches of blinding forgetfulness, and times filled with a heavy sense of judgment. But the heart of Israel’s experience is suggested in verse four. God says, “You are precious in my sight and honored, and I love you.”
Ultimately, that’s the message that carries us through the waters—whether they be waters of chaos and threat or waters of trial. We are precious in God’s sight. We are honored. And God loves us. The heart of the gospel is the heart of our story.
On Baptism of the Lord Sunday, it is customary to remember our baptism. For many of us, there is no way to actually remember the experience of being baptized. So what we remember is that we have indeed passed through the waters many times—that God has led us through and will lead us through. We remember our baptism by trusting that we pass through because God has said that we, despite our flaws, despite our lack of faith, despite any of the hindrances which lay before us or behind us, are precious and honored, and loved. We pass through, we are able to stand, because God has reached out to us in our weakness, and that makes all the difference. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer, the who honors us, and loves us. Amen.

This Sunday, January 13

Did you hear about the lighthouse in Wisconsin that was washed away by a huge wave from Lake Michigan this past week? It was another reminder of the awesome power of nature. The Hebrew people were generally not lovers of the sea: many of their images of chaos and even evil were images of ocean depths and turbulent waves (and sea monsters!). It is interesting, then, that their most important story of redemption (the Exodus from Egypt) involved passing through the sea. This Sunday is “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday when we recall the baptism of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. We will be talking about the significance of “passing through the waters” (as we read in Isaiah 43) for Christian life. How does our faith teach us to deal with threatening dangers? How can it equip us to endure trials and difficulties? If we follow the biblical stories, from Moses to Jesus, it seems as if faith were made for dangers and trials! I hope you will join us on Sunday and learn more about “Passing through the waters.”

The old light and the new (Matthew 2.1-12)

The new light and the old (Matthew 2.1-12)
Eastminster/United Presbyterian Church, Epiphany (January 6, 2019)
Tom James
“They shall come from east and west, and north and south, to sit together at the table in the kingdom of God!” What a terrifying thought! Have you ever stopped to think of all the problems that would cause? Think of the logistical nightmare, for starters. Where would they all sit? How would we find something everyone would like to eat? What if the offering is too bland for some, or too spicy for others? Think of all the food allergies to somehow try and avoid. And what kind of table manners could we reasonably expect from those from the east, or from the west? Let’s not even talk about those from the south! The point is, how will we manage not to offend one another, gathered together from all over like that?
Getting lots of people together for big events, as great as it can be, can also raise anxiety levels. There’s always an element of the unknown, always the possibility that conversation will take that unexpected turn that exposes frictions that have been safely swept under the carpet for years, or that creates new ones altogether. Even getting family together for the holidays is like that, as we all know. It may feel cozy and comfortable around the fire—until the new boyfriend shows up, or the new spouse, who knows nothing of the facts necessary for survival in any family: who’s mad at whom, or who you don’t mention religion to, or who to avoid when the eggnog gets passed around. There are all kinds of things to avoid or to worry about, and even the most careful management cannot completely stamp them out.
Now, all of this may help us understand a little of the anxiety of King Herod. Herod was not only the appointed king of Israel; he was a skilled manager, able somehow to keep the people of occupied Israel together, while at the same time pleasing the occupying powers, while at the same time orchestrating the construction of an extravagant new version of the Jewish temple which made him hugely popular with his own people and famous throughout the world. Herod liked to be in control of the party, and he was really good at it.
And then these three strange men hopped down from there camels and innocently knocked on the palace doors. Our tradition calls them the “three wise men,” and they are sometimes pictured as three kings from the east. Likely, they were a group of astrologers from a region which we now know as Iran. They were foreigners, from a land which had once ruled the Jews. They were practitioners of a craft forbidden by Jewish law. And yet, they were very useful, and their art was hardly ever scoffed at as it is today. Like their modern counterparts, these astrologers were expert in squeezing secret information out of the locations of stars. Our Scriptures hint to us that it was through their learned predictions that they came to realize that something was up in Palestine—something that they definitely ought to check out.
But these “wise men” were just as ignorant as a new boyfriend, it seems, about the facts essential to survival in Herod’s family. They didn’t know that Herod was the uncle you need to avoid at the family Christmas get-together. They had no idea how easy it would be to fall into a conversational trap that might tend to ruin the party. “We have read in the stars about the birth of a king, and we have come to pay reverence to him.” Herod’s eyebrows lifted. “A king, huh? That’s interesting.” The innocent and naïve astrologers may not have caught it, but we can almost feel the blood begin to boil in King Herod’s royal veins. Our passage tells us that he was “afraid, and all Jerusalem with him.” Now, the reason all Jerusalem was afraid when Herod was upset was that Herod was the type whose emotions tended to get away with him, and one of the strongest emotions he felt was jealousy for his own power. He was insanely jealous, in fact, not only for his claim to rule but for the old order he had re-established: the monarchy, the temple he had rebuilt, the system of sacrifices and taxation and vassalhood to the Roman ruling power, the machinery that Herod kept running so well.
Historians of the period assure us that this Scriptural image of Herod as insane is more than melodrama. Herod was mentally unbalanced, and dangerous. But he was revered by the people because of his ability to keep some semblance of order and even progress in a period of great turmoil, and, more importantly, for his effectiveness in keeping the old light of Jewish nationhood lit even when there seemed to be so little fuel. Herod was more than a vassal king: he was a bearer of the old light in an age of darkness, and he guarded its flame with a vigilance that bordered on the pathological.
We, too, tend to be people who guard the old light in our lives. It’s human nature to defend and protect our past accomplishments. Each of us, no matter where we are from or who we are related to or how much we have, has a little Herod in themselves. Each of us is threatened by strange knocks on our doors at unexpected times, or by calls to acknowledge a new light shining from beyond the walls of our own Jerusalem. And all of us want the family Christmas dinner to go off smoothly—no uncomfortable questions, no digging around in forbidden conversational territory, no new revelations, or epiphanies.
The Sunday on or before January 6th each year we designate at “Epiphany Sunday.” It is the day on which we read the story of these three “wise men” from the East coming to visit the baby Jesus. It is called “epiphany” because the visit of these three astrologers was the beginning of the “epiphany” or “manifestation” of the glory of Jesus to the nations. These three foreigners caught a glimpse of the Jewish Messiah—they crashed the family party and saw the host in a way that no one else was quite able to see him.  It was their very lack of familiarity with the life of this family that enabled them to see Jesus in a new and unique way, a way which threatened Herod and guardians of the old light in a way they could not have anticipated.
On Epiphany, we celebrate these new perspectives brought by foreigners and other kinds of outsiders when they peer into the stable, or when they knock on our doors, innocently asking for admittance to our family party. We are, of course, free to be like Herod, raising our eyebrows, cherishing bitterness in our souls, scheming to undermine their perspectives and protect our own. But, in faith, we honor the new light on our savior that these strangers shed because in faith we know that God has sent them for that very purpose. Initially, their strange appearance and their (to our minds) odd way of thinking may turn us off, or even frighten us. But we know that God is bringing light from the east, and the west, and the north, and the south, to our table all the time. God is providing other people, people different from ourselves, to teach us who we are, what gifts we can share, ways in which we can grow.
One definition of insanity, I’m told, is keeping on doing the same things we’ve always done and expecting different results.  The truth is, for personal well-being as human beings and for success as a church, we all need new light, fresh perspectives on ourselves and on the God has come to be among us.
This new year is an opportunity to embrace the new light streaming our way rather than turning from it. Let us take hold of it: welcoming new perspectives on ourselves rather than fearing them, consciously and deliberately dropping our defensiveness when outsiders ask questions or probe for reasons why we think or act as we do. Let us do more than “tolerate” differences this year: let us go so far as to open ourselves to the ways God is growing us, making us richer and better equipped for life, through the insights and experiences of other people.
Maybe a new boyfriend or a new girlfriend, or a new spouse or a new child, will show up at your home sometime this year. Maybe we will have astrologers or other “seekers” showing up at our church doors this year, looking for the light of God. What will do?

Epiphany is a call to acknowledge what God is doing among us, and among people who are different from us. The new year is an opportunity to respond to it. So let us learn to open our eyes and see good possibilities in every stranger; let us open our hearts to the ways in which God is being revealed to all who come to the stable. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.

This Sunday, January 6

This Sunday happens to fall on January 6th, the feast of Epiphany. On Epiphany, we remember the people tradition calls “the wise men,” who were likely astrologers from a place we now call Iran. During the sermon, we will talk about these “wise men” and their interaction with the mad king Herod. Herod was the guardian of the old light. He was the one tried to preserve a very literal fulfillment of Judah’s hope for a king (himself) and a Temple (the one he built). But the “wise men” herald the coming of a new light, and, not surprisingly, Herod finds this threatening. I hope you will come and learn about “the old light and the new” this Sunday and celebrate Epiphany with us!
Also, don’t forget that it’s communion Sunday.

What a strange child! (Luke 2.41-52)

“What a Strange Child!” (Luke 2.41-52)
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church, Christmas 1C (December 30, 2018)
Tom James

The movie Home Alone is considered a Christmas movie, even though its themes have nothing to do with Christmas. The McCallister family is about to take a trip to Paris over the Christmas holidays, and they accidentally leave behind their young son, Kevin (played by McCauley Culkin), who had been banished to the attic the night before for acting up. The movie is a comedy because it tracks Kevin’s hilarious successes in fending off would-be burglars who come to learn that he is “home alone.” But if there is a tinge of pathos in the movie, it is in the mixture of panic and guilt that we see in Kevin’s mother, played by Catherine O’Hara, as she learns that she has left Kevin home by himself, and as she tries to orchestrate a quick return from Paris.
I’ve never been a mother, of course, but I have been and still am a mother’s son, and I have wondered many times about how sons cause mothers worry. Sons seem to be perfectly equipped, in many ways, to create worry in mothers.
Jesus was no exception. And we can well imagine the worry, the mixture of panic and guilt, felt by Mary as she cried out to stop the caravan and turn it around, and as she searched for Jesus in the big city, perhaps yelling out orders for family members and friends to look in the market, or the carpenter’s shop, or at so-and-so’s house.
In the ancient world, it was quite common to tell stories about the unusual infancy or childhood of legendary or heroic figures. It was as if to say, “look at how God—or the gods—have blessed this person from the very beginning with strength, or with wisdom, or even with magical ability.” In some ways, this story fits that mold, but on the other hand, there isn’t anything superhuman about the twelve-year-old Jesus we find in this story. A careful reading of these verses doesn’t indicate any kind of inexplicable intelligence or wisdom of Jesus as he sat in the temple with the learned men. We sometimes get the idea from the story that Jesus was actually instructing them, but the text doesn’t say that. Instead, it simply says that Jesus’ answers were remarkably good. It was a common teaching method in the ancient world to have students respond to questions, just as it is today. And Jesus performed well as a student. He didn’t teach the rabbis—but he did learn from them, gobbling up as much knowledge as he could, so motivated that he was a standout among the young students the rabbis were likely teaching. We can think of this as a bar mitzvah class or a confirmation class, where Jesus emerges as one of the best students because he is the most motivated, perhaps among the brightest, and, we can imagine, among the best listeners to what the rabbis have to say to him.
What was maybe a little unusual about Jesus, though not unheard of, is that he wanted to be “in school,” if you will, at all. After all, this was not his home. It may have been the best place to find a top-shelf rabbi, but it wasn’t where his friends were, or where his own bed and his own mother’s cooking would have been waiting for him at the end of the day. The unusual thing is that he was so irresistibly drawn to a unique opportunity to learn. It was time for vacationing, for kicking back and relaxing, maybe taking in a little sight-seeing, storing up images and anecdotes to impress your friends back home—not sitting with a bunch of stuffy rabbis and learning Torah!
They found him after three days looking. Mary once again had her child. The panic was over, though maybe not the guilt. The end of the story gives us a very interesting, and familiar, detail—we are told that Mary pondered these things in her heart. Sound familiar? It’s the same thing we find in the Christmas story itself, actually just earlier in this very same chapter. Mary pondered these things in her heart. It seems that this is her typical response in Luke. She pondered things in her heart. And, indeed, there was a lot to ponder! There were hardships, having to find sleep in a barn. There were wonders, a mysterious star, shepherds, and angels. There were frightful prophecies about the deliverance of Israel that to a young Jewish mother at that time must have meant a future of warfare and danger. And there was above mystery woven through all these contradictory thoughts and emotions. And here, some twelve years later, though only a few verses in Luke’s telling, we find her pondering once again. In the wake of a frightful loss of a child and a city-wide search, with all of the self-questioning and self-doubting, with all of the frantic searching of memories to try and imagine where Jesus had been left and then where he might have gone, with all of the relief of having found him again, mixed with anger at him now for so nonchalantly and coolly greeting them, and, we can imagine, the pride at having found him with the rabbis, and them being clearly impressed with her son. All of this she ponders.
During Advent, I said that what makes Mary remarkable is the simplicity of her “yes” to God in the face of a future to come that she could not fully know. Well, now, as if by drips at first, things the future is beginning to arrive. Wonders are unfolding, a mother’s love and patience and faith are beginning to be tested, anxieties and fears are being felt, and a destiny of promise is just beginning to creep into her horizon of vision. And she ponders these things.
In Home Alone, McCauley Culkin’s character, Kevin, uses all kinds of ingenuity to set traps for the burglars, who as the movie progresses, become less and less interested in taking things and more and more interested in simply hurting Kevin. He is a little genius, it seems, and also more than a little bit cruel.  Little Jesus is pretty sharp, too, and is cruel enough at least to be cool to his mother after she has turned the city upside down looking for him. But that’s pretty much where any similarity between the two of them ends. Jesus isn’t trying to protect himself and his domain. As he would do time and time again during his ministry some twenty years later, he is risking himself in order to venture into new territory. Jesus lingers behind, forsaking the protection of his family, as he would later cross angry seas, strike out into regions where he was a foreigner and not welcome, risk interaction with various kinds of social outcasts and hated persons, challenge authorities (including the rabbis!), and fail to utter a word in self-defense in the face of the crushing brutality of Roman justice. Mary couldn’t ponder these things yet, because they hadn’t yet happened—but I wonder if she couldn’t see them coming as she looked into the determined face of her little boy.
This slightly strange child, a source of wonder and bemusement to his mother, is going to bring all of that wonder to bear on the world, on you and me. We will feel the effects of his courage and his passion. We will be among the sheep of another flock that he gathers. Whether we are home alone, with the rabbis in the temple, at work, on vacation, in jail, laid up in the hospital, or on the road, in the bright lights of Christmastime or in its dull afterglow, Jesus reaches out to us and invites us to join his caravan, not back to the comforts of home in Galilee, but on journey of service, love, worship, and compassion.
Ever since my wife and I became ministers, we’ve had services to lead on Christmas eve, and so if we travel over the holidays it is not usually until after Christmas day has come and gone. So we spend Christmas on our couch, with unwashed hair, wearing our jammies, and with any luck napping at least once. It is not very exciting, but it is just what we need. But Jesus allows us just this little time of homely comfort before the caravan begins to gather, and the world beckons each of us once again. Our kids eventually get us off our couches, if nothing else does, and I wonder if there is isn’t an important lesson in that about the meaning of Christ’s coming. Even if he was left behind, Jesus’ childlike enthusiasm for the adventure of faith runs way ahead of Mary’s and Joseph’s, and it never wears off. To follow him, to be called by his name, is in a way to be led by a child, to learn once more to be a child, forsaking safety and security for the sake the joy of being a part of what God is doing in the world.

May we ponder these things as Mary pondered them. May the wonder of new life capture our attention and our hearts. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.