FIRST SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS
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.
Nothing scares the socks off us parents quite as much as when we lose track of our kids. It can happen in a flash. One minute they are next to you in a crowded department store pulling on your coat to get your attention. Then your attention is distracted for a split second and they are gone. Terror sucks the air out of your lungs. Your heart starts pounding as you frantically scan the aisles. Most of the time, these episodes end in a profound spasm of relief as the missing child is spotted somewhere nearby. But the posters of missing children on milk cartons, billboards and bus stops remind us that this is not always the case. So I can well understand the panic experienced by Mary and Joseph when they discovered that their child was missing from the caravan of pilgrims returning from Jerusalem. I can also imagine the relief they felt at finding Jesus in the Temple and their conflicting desires both to hug him tight and to slap him silly for putting them through three days of hell.
Mary, we are told, “kept all of these things in her heart.” She is learning, I suspect, that Jesus is not entirely “her” son. That is true for all us parents in large measure. We don’t own our children and we make life exceedingly difficult both for them and for us when we act as though we do. Disciples of Jesus ought to understand this. After all, in baptism we place our children up for adoption by their heavenly Father when they are infants. At that point, we place their little lives into the hands of God. We invoke the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon them and who knows where the Spirit will take them from there?
But in Mary’s case, this realization is magnified to a higher intensity. Her son has been placed on a trajectory nobody would wish for his or her child. Jesus belongs to the God of Israel. His life will be spent in the service of the outcasts God seems most to love and cherish. His premature death will be no accident, no miscarriage of justice, no preventable tragedy. Jesus’ death on the cross was the inevitable, politically to-be-expected consequence of his life of obedience to God. The cross is what happens when you exercise compassion for the lowly, speak truth to power and return violence with forgiveness. And this, says God by raising Jesus from death, is the life that really is life. It is the life God desires for us.
Jesus does not belong to Mary, but Mary and each of us belong to Jesus. And that means his cross is our cross; his compassion for the poor is our compassion; and his yearning for the reign of God is our longing. Perhaps the church’s love for Mary is grounded in its recognition that she realized from early on the cost of loving Jesus. The miracle of the Incarnation awakens compassion. It infuses into us God’s passionate love for the world.
Such love hurts. Nobody knew that better than Mary. It would be much easier not to love; not to care; not to get involved with the pain going on around us. It would be much easier to give up, throw up our hands at the state of the world and cry out, “what’s the use?” But God loves us too much to allow us to degenerate into loveless, self-centered survivalists. God knows that we were created to love and, until we do, we will always be less than human, less than what we are destined to become. So, like Mary, we are called to the painful, yet strangely joyful practice of love.
Here is a poem about Mary written by Mary Karr.
The Blessed Mother Complains to the Lord Her God on the Abundance of Brokenness She Receives
Today I heard a rich and hungry boy verbatim quote
all last night’s infomercials — an anorectic son
who bought with Daddy’s Amex black card
the Bowflex machine and Abdomenizer,
plus a steak knife that doth slice
the inner skin of his starving arms.
Poor broken child of Eve myself,
to me, the flightless fly,
the listing, blistered, scalded.
I am the rod to their lightning.
Mine is the earhole their stories pierce.
At my altar the blouse is torn open
and the buttons sailed across
the incensed air space of the nave,
that I may witness the mastectomy scars
crisscrossed like barbed wire, like bandoliers.
To me, the mother carries the ash contents
of the long-ago incinerated girl.
She begs me for comfort since my own son
was worse tortured. Justice,
they wail for — mercy?
Each prostrate body I hold my arms out for
is a cross my son is nailed to.
Published in Poetry Magazine, December 2012. Mary Karr was born in 1955 and raised in Texas. She has written several books of poetry including Abacus, The Devils Tour, Viper Rum and Sinners Welcome. Karr is a convert to Roman Catholicism. I encourage you to read more about Mary Karr and her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website. Today I heard a rich and hungry boy verbatim quote
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.
See Fox, Everett, The Early Prophets, The Schocken Bible, Vol. II (c. 2014 by Everett Fox, pub. by Random House LLC) pp. 271-272.
The tension between these opposing views of monarchy 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 women 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-nine 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 in 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?
I will move from I Samuel to the gospel reading 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. 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 is 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.
This is a psalm of praise most likely composed after the Babylonian Exile. It appears to have been the basis of the hymn attributed to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the apocryphal sections of Daniel. The hymn also has some interesting parallels to the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis. Verses 1-6 correspond to Genesis 1: 1-19 recounting the creation of the heavenly bodies. Verses 7-14 correspond to Genesis 1:20-2:4. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 184. 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. Ibid p. 185. Compare with Genesis 1:3 “And God said ‘let there be light;’ and there was light” with vs. 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 a productivity 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.
For an excellent summary of this remarkable letter to the Colossians, see the Summary Article by one of my Professors at Luther Seminary, Paul S. Berge, Emeritus Professor of New Testament.
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.” Vs. 16. 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 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 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).