I preached at our church today so Ginger could take her parents back to Birmingham. What follows is the sermon. First, a quick note to say my brother’s surgery appears to have gone well; he is flat on his back in the hospital and not allowed to move until Tuesday, just to make sure. Thanks for all the prayers.
“How to Grow Up Big and Strong”
A Sermon for Pilgrim United Church of Christ, Durham
Sunday, December 28, 2008
When you’re the fill-in preacher the Sunday after Christmas, you have to turn in your sermon title early. Marty sent an email message to me a couple of weeks ago with the outline of today’s service and asked me to give him a title. I read through the gospel passage three or four times and was caught by the final sentence of the paragraph:
And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.
For all of the times I have read this story, I hadn’t realized Luke’s use of repetition. You see the final verse of the chapter, Luke 2:52, which comes after Jesus, as a twelve year old, has been holding court in the Temple, was one of the first verses I memorized as a young Baptist boy in Sunday School, which meant I learned it from the King James Version:
And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.
Once I recognized the emphasis, I realized Luke wanted us to celebrate the baby’s birth alongside of the shepherds and angels, but he didn’t want us to leave him in the manger for long. And so, recalling the title of an old Mark Heard song, I sent the title back to Marty: “How to Grow Up Big and Strong.” As I have continued to study and reflect, my mind went to two scenes, one from a movie and one from a book, that illustrate the point.
The first is from the noted actor and theologian Will Farrell in the far from Oscar nominated movie, Talledega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby, which tells the story of a NASCAR driver. He and his family sit down for dinner and he begins to say grace by praying, “Dear Baby Jesus, we thank you for this food.” As he continues, his wife says, “You know he didn’t stay a baby. He grew up to be a man,” to which Ricky Bobby replies, “Well, you can pray to whatever Jesus you want, but I like to think of him as a baby.” And then he continues, “Dear eight pound six ounce baby Jesus . . .”
The second comes in a scene early in Prince Caspian and the Dawn Treader, one of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. I know it’s a movie now, but I’ve only read the story. The four children return to the land of Narnia after a long absence. Lucy, the youngest one, sees Aslan the Lion, who is the Christ figure in the tale. She runs to hug him and then steps back. “You’re bigger,” she says. “It’s because you are,” he answers, and then continues, “When you grow, I get bigger.”
Last week, Ginger called us to allow Christmas to bring out the child – the Christ child in all of us. As the story continues to unfold, we are called to let Christ grow up, even as we do the same. We are called to grow up big and strong, by which I mean to be grownups with childlike hearts and spirits. And Luke gives us two great examples of what that looks like in the persons of Simeon and Anna, who met Mary, Joseph, and Jesus when they came into the Temple, as Allen Culpepper reminds us, to fulfill the “deepest awarenesses and commitments” of their faith:
“They saw God at work in events they had experienced. They lived within a covenant community and they sought to fulfill vows they had made as well as to introduce their son into that covenant community.”
Anna and Simeon were also ones who lived in that same sense of deep awareness and commitment. When Anna looked at Mary she must have seen herself as a young, newly married woman. Luke goes on to tell us she was widowed only seven years after her wedding and had lived her life in the sanctuary of the Temple fasting and praying, which probably meant she had no family to take care of her. She was eighty-four by the time Mary and Joseph arrived with Jesus. When Anna saw him, she gave thanks, Luke says, and began speaking to everyone waiting for redemption, telling them, as James Howell says, “”God’s blessing was not a continual smorgasbord of titanic experiences and shiny baubles. God’s blessing was just one thing, and it was eighty years coming.”
Mary and Joseph were diligent in doing all of the things called for by the community of faith. Anna nurtured her faith as she waited in the Temple each day with prayer and fasting, which were rituals of the very redemption she was waiting for. One of the ways we grow up big and strong is by practicing our faith in the sense that we keep the rituals of our community: being together, worshipping together, singing together, praying together, working together, and coming to the Communion Table together.
When we do any of these things, we are answering God’s grownup call on our lives. We are not a community of habit; we are a community of faith. We don’t have worship on Sunday morning simply because we are a church and that’s what churches are supposed to do; we are about God’s transforming work here. We gather together to wait and sing and pray, to love one another, and to point ourselves to God, allowing the Holy Spirit to cultivate the grownup feelings of expectancy, hope, and trust in our hearts. Mary and Joseph went to the Temple because they thought it mattered to do so. The rituals of faith passed down by the faithful across generations helped them continue to grow in their understanding of what God was doing in their family. Anna went through the motions of meaning because it was how she learned God could make something of what looked like the ashes of her young existence.
As James Howell writes: “Notice the order. In the world, it’s rise and fall. The rise and fall of the Third Reich, the rise and fall of the business tycoon, the rise and fall of a movie star. But with Jesus it’s fall and rise…We fall, and from that lowest point, we rise.”
And then there was Simeon, who had also spent his life waiting in expectation because he had been told he would see the Messiah before he died. Each day for decades he had come to the Temple and each day he had gone to bed without the promise fulfilled until one poor couple walked in with their new little baby. Frederich Buechner describes it this way:
Jesus was still in diapers when his parents brought him to the Temple in Jerusalem as the custom was, and that’s when old Simeon spotted him. Years before, he been told he wouldn’t die till he’d seen the Messiah with his own two eyes, and time was running out. When the moment finally came, one look through his cataract lenses was all it took. He asked if it would be all right to hold the baby in his arms, and they told him to go ahead but be careful not to drop it. ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation’ he said, the baby playing with the fringes of his beard. The parents were pleased as punch, so he blessed them too for good measure. Then something about the mother stopped him, and his expression changed. What he saw in her face was a long way off, but it was there so plainly he couldn’t pretend. ‘A sword will pierce through your soul,’ he said. He would rather have bitten off his own tongue than said it, but in that holy place he felt he had no choice. Then he handed her back the baby and departed in something less than the perfect peace he’d dreamed of all the long years of his waiting.
Part of growing up means learning life hurts. Most any choice we make comes with its own share of pain. There’s a whole side of Christian theology that says Jesus came to free us from pain. I’m not sure what they do with Simeon. He’s pretty clear when he starts talking swords with Mary. Life hurts. Period. There’s enough grief and pain in this room alone to more than prove the point. As we embrace the childlike truth that we can never run outside of God’s love, that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, we must make the grown up move to make meaning out of our suffering, which brings us again to what it means to be together in Christ. We are called to bear one another’s burdens: to voluntarily take on one another’s pain. And it is the regular motions of faith, the daily doings of church life when we do them with awareness and commitment that create the connections that allow love and hope and trust to flow between us.
Even though I’m the substitute this morning, I would like to close by giving us some homework. Next week is Communion Sunday. My assignment for us is to come hungry. Let us come next week ready to partake in a grownup meal. When we line up to come to the front to be served, or when we serve one another as we pass the bread and cup up and down the pews, we are not completing a duty or acting by habit. We are about God’s work, feeding one another and reminding ourselves of Christ’s love that feeds us. We are stepping into the stream of faith that runs all the way back to that first night when Jesus served the meal in the middle of deep suffering and betrayal and said, “Remember me” in as grownup a moment as I know in the gospels.
We are God’s people who have welcomed the Child, who live in suffering, who wait for redemption, and who, together, are the hands and feet of God’s love in our world. With childlike hearts, may we be hopeful and diligent, feeding and loving one another that we may continue to grow up big and strong.