Sunday, December 30th

First Sunday of Christmas

December 30, 2012
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Psalm 148
Colossians 3:12-17
Luke 2:41-52

Prayer of the Day
Shine into our hearts the light of your wisdom, O God, and open our minds to the knowledge of your word, that in all things we may think and act according to your good will and may live continually in the light of your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Greetings one and all! By the time you read this, the cultural part of Christmas will be over. The Christmas displays will have begun disappearing from the malls. Fir trees that only a week ago were selling for $50 to $100 will be lying out on the curb waiting for the recycling truck. The world will have woken up to the sad reality that Christmas is over, but winter has only just begun.

Not so for the people of God. The feast of the nativity continues for two more weeks culminating on Epiphany. I will admit that it is hard to keep alive the Christmas spirit when everyone else has moved on. But perhaps that is not what we should be attempting to do anyway. I am not so sure what we commonly refer to as the “Christmas spirit” has much to do with the Holy Spirit that gives life to the church. At its best, the Christmas spirit is about giving, family and light hearted fun, i.e., Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph et al. At its worst, the Christmas spirit is an orgy of consumption, consumerism and greed. In either case, I can’t help but point out that a “spirit” that evaporates on December 26th s not much of a spirit. I am glad, however, that however one defines this vacuous Christmas spirit, it has the good grace to clear out of the way so that during the rest of the Nativity Season we can focus solely on what the Holy Spirit is telling us.

The lessons for this week focus on two children, Samuel and Jesus. I think it might be productive to use these lessons to reflect on our feelings about our children in particular and children in general. We dote on our children. We spend a fortune feeding, clothing and educating them. Our leaders speak eloquently of wanting to bequeath a brighter future to our children. The Christmas season is largely about indulging (and often overindulging) children. Perhaps that is why the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School has had such a powerful impact on us. We find it inconceivable that anyone could harbor such malice against a small child.

This week the Bogota police visited Trinity School to discuss with us precautions we should take to prevent or minimize the impact of attacks like the horrific one at Sandy Hook. I suspect that such visits from law enforcement are taking place at schools throughout the country. I appreciate the concerns expressed about school security. Still, I think we need a sense of perspective here. As horrible as the Sandy Hook shootings were, such events are thankfully exceedingly rare. The chances of a child perishing in a school shooting are far less than his or her being stricken by lightning. That does not mean we can afford to be careless with our security. But it should temper our security procedures with a good dose of healthy realism. Sandy Hook had state of the art procedures for dealing with terrorist threats. Those procedures probably prevented the attack from taking many more lives, but they did not prevent the attack. Practically speaking, we cannot prevent vicious attacks like those at Sandy Hook anymore than we can prevent lightning from striking. There are, however, more immediate and pressing dangers facing children that we can and should address aggressively.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, no less than 21% of our children live in impoverished households. A staggering 16 million kids in the United States suffer from some degree of malnutrition according to No Kid Hungry, a child advocacy organization. Each year over 3 million children are victimized by physical, sexual, verbal and emotional abuse, neglect, abandonment, and death – and those are only the ones that were reported! (Love our Children USA). Clearly, there is a huge disconnect between our avowed zeal for protecting children on the one hand and these horrific statistics on the other. The entire nation was horrified and outraged over the murder of the twenty children at Sandy Hook Elementary School and rightly so. Should we be any less horrified and outraged about the 21% of our children living in poverty or the 16 million hungry children in our land or the 3 million children victimized by violence? If we are going to protect our children and ensure for them a better future, the places to start are secure homes, access to health care and adequate nutrition-not turning our schools into armed fortresses.

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=223306127

A word or two is warranted regarding the Book of Samuel which actually consists of two volumes  (I and II Samuel). The book is still widely regarded to be the product of two very different and originally independent pieces of literature or “sources.”

  • Early source: this writer expresses a favorable view of the development of Israel’s monarchy and sees the rise of the house of David as another saving act of God on a par with the Exodus. This piece was probably composed in the period of the united monarchy under David and Solomon before Israel split into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms.
  • Late source: This writer composed his or her work in the later period of the Judean monarchy and was influenced by the prophets’ criticism of the Davidic kings for their idolatry, injustice and oppression of the poor.
  • These two sources were woven together into a single narrative during the Babylonian Exile from 587 B.C.E. to 530 B.C.E. or shortly thereafter.
  • The actual process of composition is actually a lot more complex with evidence of editing as late as the Persian period following the Babylonian Exile.

The tension between these opposing views becomes evident later on in the book when Samuel expresses opposition to the very idea of Israel’s having a king like all the other nations, yet takes an active part in anointing both Saul and David.

The particular snippet of scripture making up our lesson for this Sunday is part of a larger story from the late source. Hannah is one of two wives wedded to Elkanah. She is unable to bear children-a particularly cruel fate for a woman in ancient near eastern culture. In many such societies, a woman’s failure to bear children was grounds for divorce. Though we now know that infertility can as easily be a function impediments to the male reproductive system, in ancient societies it was almost always attributed to the women. To make matters worse, Hannah’s sister wife was fertile, had given Elkanah several children and would not let Hannah forget it. So while the family was on a pilgrimage to the sanctuary of the Lord at Shiloh, Hannah went into the sanctuary and prayed fervently to the Lord for relief. She vowed that if only the Lord would open her womb and give her a son, she would give that son back to God by sending him to serve at Shiloh. Eli, the priest of Shiloh, saw Hannah there engaged in earnest prayer and mistook the poor woman for a drunken prostitute. To his credit, Eli changed his tune when he discovered the truth and blessed Hannah. Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to the boy, Samuel. True to her word, she brought Samuel to Shiloh where he served at the altar with Eli.

The pathos here is striking. Hannah prays for a child, but recognizes that any such child she may have will not be hers. I cannot help but wonder whether Hannah did not experience a degree of regret as she prepared her son for the journey to Shiloh form which he would not return with her. Her boy would spend his formative years away from home. Her only contact with him would be the annual visits she made with the family to Shiloh. She seems to accept this arrangement without any sign of regret.

Twenty seven years ago when I baptized my first child I began my sermon with the announcement that, after much prayer and consideration, Sesle and I had decided to give Sarah up for adoption. My relatives were deeply incensed and told me in no uncertain terms that it was a lame joke and in poor taste. The rest of the congregation was taken aback as well. I doubt they heard much of the rest of the sermon which explained (I thought) my reasoning behind the opening remark. So this was probably not one of my more effective sermons. Nevertheless, I think it faithfully reflected what we are actually doing in baptism. We are giving custody of our children to Jesus. We are acknowledging that the bond they are forming at the font is deeper, stronger and more important than the bond of parenthood that ties us to them. For disciples of Jesus, family values are not the be all and end all. What, then, does it mean for the church, the people of God, to be our primary family?  How does this understanding influence the hopes, dreams and expectations we have for our children? Are we ready to sacrifice all of these to whatever purpose God may have for our children?

Luke 2:41-52  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=223306195

I will move from I Samuel to the gospel from Luke because there is such an obvious tie in. It is remarkable to me that in this one and only New Testament story from Jesus’ childhood, Jesus does exactly what we all tell our children they must never, ever do. He wanders away from his family in a strange city without telling anyone where he is going. Why this story? Why not a story of Jesus winning the Nazareth elementary school spelling bee? Or why not the story of Jesus making Eagle Scout? Confound it, Luke! Couldn’t you give us a story of Jesus that we could hold up to our kids as an example? Why give us a story of Jesus being naughty?

It does seem that Mary and Joseph need to learn what Hannah understood from the beginning. Their child is not really theirs. God has a hand on Jesus who must be about his Father’s business (that remark must have been a little hard on poor Joseph). But again, isn’t that the case with us and our children as well? Don’t we surrender ultimate custody when we hand them over to become one with Jesus in his death? I cannot say that I am at peace with that. Of course, I was delighted to be a part of two of my children’s weddings last summer. I was happy to see each of them united with someone who loved them deeply enough to build a home with them. I was also aware, however, that they were entering into a new bond that was deeper than any bond I have ever had with them. Now there is someone in each of their lives that comes before me. On a purely intellectual level, I understand that this exactly how it should be. But on a gut level, I would be less than honest to deny that it hurt just a little.

I wonder whether we should not be experiencing something of the same thing at baptism. Perhaps we have gone overboard in making this event solely a joyful celebration, even “cute.” Should we not rather feel something of the dread upon Abraham when God said to him, “Take your son, your only son, and offer him up to me.” I believe we are far too invested in the destinies of our children in this culture. The insanity of intense competition for spots in so called “Ivy League” preschools is just one extreme symptom of a larger societal compulsion for exercising control over our children’s destinies. When the kids become extensions of ourselves and we begin to live vicariously through them, we are not only developing a pathological outlook destructive to them. We are also violating the vows we made at their baptisms to “live with them among God’s faithful people, bring them to the word of God and the holy supper, teach them the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments, place in their hands the holy scriptures, and nurture them in faith and prayer, so that your children may learn to trust God, proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Rite of Baptism. In reality, we are only stewards or surrogate parents for our Heavenly Father who has his own calling and purpose for the children we call our own.

Psalm 148  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=223306282

This is a psalm of praise most likely composed after the Babylonian Exile. The hymn has some interesting parallels to the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis. As pointed out by J.W. Rogerson and J.W. McKay in their commentary, vss 1-6 correspond to Genesis 1-19 recounting the creation of the heavenly bodies. Vss 7-14 correspond to Genesis 1:20-2:4. There are also similarities of language and ideas. The psalm reflects the “word theology” seen in Genesis, namely, that God creates by the power of God’s speech. Compare Genesis 1:3 “And God said ‘let there be light;’ and there was light” with Psalm 148:5 “For he commanded and they were created.”

Let me make just a couple of observations here. First, the psalmist is remarkably taken with the unity of creation in all of its diverse forms. From angels, to stars and planets, to weather phenomena, to human beings, to creeping things and winged birds, all created things are united in praising the God who spoke them into existence. Praise is the echo of God’s creative word reverberating throughout the universe. We might want to reflect on whether the “image of God” in which we were created consists in this: that we speak. How much of our speech, then, is creative and life giving? Is such speech the essence of praise?

Second, note that this psalm is a prayer that asks nothing of God, expects no response and has no motive other than sheer praise. I suppose that in result orientated culture that demands results, it should not surprise us that best-selling books on prayer tout “the power of prayer,” “answers to prayer,” “inner peace through prayer” and numerous other things that one might “get out” of prayer. Yet Jesus does not begin there. The Lord’s Prayer opens with a petition that God’s name be hallowed and that God’s will be done. In short, prayer is not first and foremost about us and our needs. We don’t pray out of our need but in response to God’s goodness and compassion. That is precisely what the psalmist does here. He or she praises God for no better reason than that God is God. We discover our true selves and our place in creation through praising the One who makes and sustains it by the power of his Word.

The last verse speaks of God raising up a horn for Israel as those “near to him.” The “horn” is a symbol of strength and power. (See Psalm 75). Israel’s exaltation is for the purpose of bringing all peoples to the praise of God that, in turn, will bring unity.

Colossians 3:12-17  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=223306343

For an excellent summary of this remarkable letter to the Colossians, see the introduction by one of my New Testament Professors at Luther Seminary, Paul S. Berge at the following link for enterthebible.org http://www.enterthebible.org/newtestament.aspx?rid=18

There is plenty to talk about in these jam packed verses. But the one that strikes me at this time is the admonition to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” There is nothing that builds community like singing together. As one of my colleagues has often remarked, more people are driven out of a church by bad music than by bad preaching. This is true. I can easily forgive a lame sermon if the music of the liturgy carries me and the music leaders draw me and the congregation into spirited singing. But it is impossible to ignore a musician who lacks the skill and knowledge of the music to lead a faltering congregation in worship. Bad music is just painful. I feel the embarrassment of the musician as well as the frustration of the congregation. No sermon, however inspiring, articulate and well delivered can repair the damage done by disappointing music.

The church is about the last place in our society where people still sing together. Community singing is a practice fast disappearing in the rest of our public life. Other than singing the national anthem at sporting events, I cannot think of very many other occasions in which people sing together. Maybe that is at least part of what lies behind the lack of unity and polarization we experience in our nation and in our communities. We don’t have songs that unite us. That brings us full circle back to our reflections on Psalm 148. There, the entire universe finds its center in praise of its Creator. Perhaps disciples of Jesus can speak of their mission as a calling to sing for a people that has no song. I think that if I were going to preach on this aspect of the text, my hymn of the day would either be: “My Life Flows on in Endless Song (ELW 763) or “The Singer and the Song” (ELW 861).

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