(Because I am on holiday and am not required to deliver a sermon at the end of the week, this is rather more rushed than usual. I am hoping that visitors to the site who are themselves intending to preach on this topic will leave their thoughts and share their stories in the comments below)
In the newspaper on Boxing day there was a cartoon of the wise men returning from Bethlehem, passing an advertising hoarding giving the latest discounts offered on Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. There was a speech bubble from one of the wise men saying –“ I told you we should have waited for the Boxing Day sales”. One thing that has always intrigued me about Christmas is the speed with which the world turns from the celebration of Christmas to other things. Personally speaking, in my own family we have been particularly fortunate over the last few years because with many of the family still in Auckland we are among the lucky ones who are able to gather around the table, young and old, as an extended family. For a couple of hours all that preparation of the previous few days seems to come together – whether it be shopping, wrapping presents, decorating the tree, cooking – then setting up the dining table. For our family this Christmas, it was off to church … then back home to prepare for the family arrival. We then gather in the front room to share gifts and then off to the dining table for a sharing of fun and fellowship over some very nice food. Yet by 3pm in the afternoon it is all over. The very next day we are immediately into the Boxing Day sales.
Certainly the local Methodist church was full for the Christmas Day service – but realistically we could hardly claim a revival. One man greeted me with, “Remember me – I was here last Christmas” and I suspect he was not alone. Yet last year I seem to remember that the “Tidings of great joy” message was essentially the same. After the stories of the angels, the heavenly choir and the shepherds and wise men joining Mary and Joseph around the manger that first Christmas, a cynic may even wonder why with all that miraculous fanfare everyone would not now know the Messiah had arrived… and more to the point … that it should therefore have made a difference.
Yet that cynicism maybe more a reaction to what we have done with Christmas since the birth of Jesus, than the realities suggested in the gospel records. Don’t get me wrong. I like Christmas very much – but in terms of thinking about Jesus, the very early Church, by acknowledging Jesus birth as fact –yet not having a special day for Christmas almost seems more logical than what happens today. The early Church got on well without Christmas in that the earliest gospels made no mention of the event, and although the Armenian Church was the first in the third century to give Christ’s birth a date (not 25 December), it wasn’t until the fourth century that the Roman Church took over the existing Pagan festival of light when the winter days began to lengthen and appropriated it as December 25, the Day to celebrate Christ’s mass. Certainly there is poetry and even fantasy in the communication of the part of the gospel message dealing with Christ’s birth, in the same way as hymn writers and liturgists use every skill at their disposal to convey feeling and emotion in a response to Christ, but we would do well to remember that Jesus was also fully human and fully vulnerable, in the same way as we too have our learning to achieve and temptations to overcome.
I can understand the church evolving a style of worship to heighten the sense of awe and mystery whereby robes and religious trappings such as richly embroidered cassocks and stoles and ornate bishop’s mitres and other badges of office set aside the leaders, while the places of worship convey a message that they too are set aside for special purpose with their candles and ornate carvings and stained glass windows. Yet, am I alone in suspecting the recent photographs of the Pope celebrating Christmas mass in St Peters – or the Anglican equivalent in St Pauls Cathedral in London elevate the gospel message of a baby laid in a trough where animals feed to a point where it no longer connects with common human concerns?
Small wonder then that the next stage in Jesus life will be played to half empty Churches on the first Sunday of Christmas when in Luke’s gospel reading we find to our surprise that the news of that extraordinary Christmas does not seem to have got through to everyone and when Jesus is presented at the temple it is first Simeon who talked to Joseph and Mary to tell them something of the significance of their son Jesus. The first time I read through this passage I missed the little throwaway line that Mary and Joseph were amazed. Could it be that they had forgotten the encounter with the heavenly messenger prior to Jesus’ birth, not to mention the extraordinary visits of the shepherds and the wise men bringing great gifts – and of course the attempt on Jesus life by the jealous Herod? Or more prosaically do you think perhaps the earlier descriptions of Jesus birth were not quite as recorded by Luke and Matthew? That at least would begin to explain why Jesus was not clearly recognised as Messiah by many who were reported as encountering him.
Certainly Simeon and the faithful Anna appeared to have noticed something very significant, yet even if Jesus was showing early signs of greatness, this presentation at the Temple was only one of a number of events which needed to occur before Jesus would be ready to embark on his ministry. This then suggests an incompleteness in Jesus at this early stage. We can well believe that there was much that his parents and those who contributed various guiding influences on his life would have needed to do in those formative years. Luke is specific. As he puts it: Jesus grew in strength and wisdom. There is actually a message in this reading that can be encountered at different levels.
First Jesus needing to prepare himself for a number of years before starting his ministry suggests a humanity which does not quite match the assertion that Jesus was God incarnate from the word go. Jesus requiring dedication at the temple, facing temptations in the wilderness, seeking baptism – from John the Baptist who even then needed further confirmation of Jesus status, and still not readily recognised by his disciples when accompanied by them for months at a time is clearly not the equivalent of a God who is an integral part of the formation of entire galaxies which suggests that we should be very careful in what we mean when we talk of the Son of God.
If you were assembling a biography of Jesus it might occur to you to wonder just how many people it took, firstly to help him prepare for his mission and secondly to interpret his mission to successive generations. To return then to Jesus’ dedication at the temple…. Perhaps this dedication was only a relatively minor step in the development of one so many were finally able to acknowledge as Master yet without the support that led to the dedication – support from Mary and Joseph who were there as he grew in strength and wisdom, support from those quiet ones like Simeon and Anna who simply saw and acknowledged his potential, and then support later from disciples and friends – then finally those prepared to safeguard and spread his teaching, it is hard to see how His life would have ever reached its potential.
Luke is also stressing for us the importance of the temple and in effect paying tribute to those like Simeon’s wisdom in the context of Jesus’ dedication at the Temple and those like Anna whose faith is steadfast and focussed on worship in the temple as she awaits the one she is sure will come.
A dedication may lack the imagery of the birth stories but nevertheless is a key to understanding the care that went into Jesus preparation. It is particularly appropriate to consider this passage at New Year, because what is a dedication other than a promise of a deliberate intention. New Year resolutions are almost a standing joke in Western culture. How many intentions to give up smoking, to lose weight, to cut down on the alcohol, to develop a lean athletic figure, to….. and here place your particular favourites – all those resolutions which so often turn to dust. And yet I honestly believe the resolutions are important. Yes I know that many are unrealised and I am now sure how many of those amazing exercise machines we see on infomercials finish up unused in the garage sales yet without the resolution to dedication, how else would any change begin.
In one of the two churches I have taken responsibility for a number of AA groups meet. Having personal family experience of a one relative who did not succeed in weaning himself off the bottle and finally committed suicide I asked one of the chief organisers what proportion of the AA attendees who succeed and was told probably less than 10%…. and yet here is the important point, those who do succeed have made a tremendous change to their lives – and it is a change which in all probability would not have happened without the support of others.
I have never subscribed to the view that just anyone could have reached Jesus’ full potential. Scientific study of behaviour has now taught us that part of our potential and propensity to certain gifts and style of behaviour is part of our genetic make-up. Recent research for example showed that a psychotic criminal has a brain which is structurally different and which has a different electrical and chemical pattern of operation. Anyone for example who has had contact with a child who is severely autistic will know just how difficult it is to re-programme such a mind. The same goes for a wide range of behaviour type. Whether or not for example we have a propensity for homosexual or heterosexual behaviour is now known to be a consequence of genetics as well as environmental factors. It is certainly true that those with the inbuilt capacity for talent can have these gifts fostered by intelligence and directed encouragement, but if the part of the brain which is required is damaged or absent, the gift is bound to be limited. The most obvious illustration is the mental impairment which sometime accompanies a stroke.
However the environmental influence is still of critical importance. Children who show extraordinary talent whether it be in music, maths, science or even in ability to interact positively with those around them have almost invariably received appropriate encouragement. Since Jesus is no longer with us in a physical sense, perhaps we might do well to remember that it is not Jesus but those who have the potential to carry on his message and work who will need similar encouragement to develop the gifts which will be required before others can be successful in mission.
That the Temple is central to Luke’s thinking at this point in his narrative may be partly because he was writing his account years after the event but shortly after the destruction of the temple which would have been seen by Luke and many of his contemporaries as a unmitigated disaster. Luke will next go on to record the temple as the setting for Jesus first sign of ministry where he will be found at the temple talking with Church leaders (“in my father’s house”)and the story of him clearing the temple later reinforces how the gospel writer feels the Temple ought to be respected.
So where does this leave us today? The Temple – or in our case the Church has perhaps drifted from its original focus…and like the Temple in Jesus day our Church is in danger of losing relevance. The religious reflection for Christmas is done well in our Churches – yet there is always a danger of so elevating the Christ child in our thinking and in our style of celebration and worship that his message and our part in using and spreading the message is somehow submerged in the glitter and mystery. The gospel tells how Simeon, and Anna were sufficiently alert to the need to recognise Jesus for what he was and what he stood for. Today this need to first recognise in one another the potential for being the Christ in our world and then to support one another in the fulfilment of our potential, is as real as it was then. The week after Christmas is just as important in its time of dedication as Christmas itself. Maybe in this sense the New Year resolutions may take us forward in the days to came.
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