On the back of this morning’s bulletin, Rev. Hans Kouwenberg describes this first Sunday after Christmas as “low Sunday.” And compared to the full church that we experienced here the last couple of Sundays and on Christmas Eve, today does feel a little low. The crowds are gone, just like the nearly-deserted temple in Jerusalem after the big pilgrimage festival was over.
But like Jesus, who would spend his life in and out of the temple and the synagogues, learning more and more about God and the will of God for human people, we will continue to gather here week by week, and learn day by day about God and God’s will for our lives.
Even though the crowds have dispersed somewhat, the scriptures today “won’t let us get away with any lowering of our praise,” as Kouwenberg put it. Whether or not we have with us a well-rehearsed choir or a huge congregation, we must continue to join with the whole of creation in praising God as today’s psalm encourages us: “Young men and women alike, old and young together! Let us praise the name of the Lord, for he alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven. He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people… who are close to him.”
On this first Sunday after Christmas, we continue to praise God for the wonder of the incarnation, for the amazing gift of God’s Word becoming flesh among us and living as one of us in our world. The story of the twelve year-old Jesus being left behind in Jerusalem reminds us that he entered fully into human and family life.
Though he was spectacularly gifted in his understanding of God and religion, he grew up within a normal human family. He was a son to a human mother and father, as well as to a heavenly parent. And although he was likely a pretty good son, he nonetheless caused his parents some anxiety and concern at times.
The great Methodist theologian John Wesley, once wrote that this passage about Jesus’ childhood provides practical teaching regarding progress in holiness. Wesley was a leader in the holiness movement, and helped to organize and form societies of Christians throughout England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and North America as small groups that developed intensive, personal accountability, discipleship and religious instruction among members.
His greatest theological achievement was his promotion of what he termed “Christian Perfection,” or holiness of heart and life. Wesley held that, in this life, Christians could come to a state in which the love of God, or perfect love, reigned supreme in their hearts. He insisted on the use of the means of grace (prayer, scripture, meditation, and communion) as the means by which God sanctifies and transforms the believer.
And so, as Wesley read in Luke’s Gospel that, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour,” he must have found in that comment a model for Christian discipleship. Jesus, though perfect, continues to grow in perfection, and thus Wesley said, “it plainly follows” that even “pure” Christians “have room to increase in holiness” and “in the love of God.”
I’m not so sure that many of us would be so bold as to refer to ourselves as “pure” Christians. Most of us are a little harder on ourselves than that. We get stuck in our prayers of confession rather than our prayers of praise, noticing our own failures and selfish moments more than we pay attention to our growing generosity and compassion and love.
Just the other day I said, “You’re the best!” to a fellow Christian while thanking him for helping me out with something. And he was hesitant to accept my praise. He was so aware of the ways in which he is still a long way off from good.
But no matter how far along the path to perfection or holiness we may believe ourselves to be. Whether we’re just starting out, beginning again for the umpteenth time, or well on our way… we are reminded today that we are following the path that Jesus walked before us. We are following in Jesus’ footsteps and learning the way that he lived before us in our world.
It’s not just an idea of goodness and righteousness and love that we are aiming at, but it is the way of Jesus of Nazareth that we are seeking to follow with our lives. We do have a lot of complicated situations and issues and relationships that we are working out each and every day. But there are still a lot of times when asking ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” can provide some remarkably insightful direction for our decision-making day by day.
The first thing we have to do is pause and actually ask that question. And the second thing (often the more difficult thing) is to find the will within ourselves to actually follow his direction.
Wesley believed that it is within our human capacity to come to a state in which the love of God reigns supreme in our hearts, and I believe that too. Because we are made in the beautiful image of God. We’re made for love. We’re made to love one another as Jesus loved us. That’s why he told us to do it, because he knew that we could.
As we come to the end of 2012 and prepare to begin a New Year, this could be a time for us to resolve once again to spend time “in the temple” as Jesus did… listening and asking questions and answering questions… coming to worship, exploring our faith, reading the bible and other good books of theology, participating in bible studies and discussion groups, and more. We could take seriously Paul’s encouragement to the Christians at Colossae to “let the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly” so that we will be equipped to follow the way of Jesus with our lives.
Those are excellent things to do, and I won’t dissuade anyone who wants today to recommit themselves to spiritual disciplines like worship, prayer, and bible study. But our passage from Colossians encourages us to go even further. Yes, we need to worship God actively so that the word of Christ can dwell in us richly. We need to teach one another, and we need to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. We need to take seriously our commitment to praising and worshipping God.
But in his letter to the Colossians, Paul says that “whatever we do, in word or deed” we must “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Our faith is not something that only takes place on Sundays, or something that is only expressed in our spiritual disciplines. We need to carry our faith into every activity of our lives… into our work, into our school, into the community groups of which we are a part, into our families and networks of friendship, into our pastimes, into “whatever we do, in word or deed.”
Of course I hope that you (and many who are not here with us this morning) will be active participants in our Sunday worship and in the programs and ministries we will share here at St. Andrew’s in 2013. But most of all, I hope that you will take the faith and hope and love, the generosity and compassion and care, that are growing within you, and make use of them in your daily life.
When you are making your kids’ lunches for school, when you are serving customers in the restaurant or store where you work, when you are supervising your employees, when you are caring for your aging parent or your spouse who is unwell, when you are studying biology or physics or economics, when you are waiting at the bus stop or driving your car, when you are sharing a meal with your family or a social evening with friends… “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
For you are “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.” May you be clothed today, and for the New Year, “with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience… and above all… with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony… And be thankful.” Because “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth… No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Thanks be to God.