must! – a sermon for the Christmas season (on my preantepenultimate* Sunday)

(*Personal Note: As I retire at month’s end, January 4 is my fourth to last or preantepenultimate Sunday of active service.)

preachingChristmas Day. Ten days ago, yet already (at least it feels to me) long past. Annual celebrations don’t last…

There’s the anticipatory build up, which lengthens year to year. (I recall when we didn’t begin to prepare for Christmas until after Thanksgiving Day and in my formative years the Abernathys didn’t dress the tree and decorate the house until Christmas Eve!)

The great day arrives. We revel, gathering with family and friends, reverence, joining in annual religious and communal rituals, and reflect, taking time off and away to be alone and apart.

Then the moment passes and we move on.

The twelve-day Christmas season, always competing with the coming new year, gets lost with the turning, figuratively and literally, the page of our calendars. Poor Christmas. Unable to run its course before we’re back to life as we know and live it; sadly, often enough, leaving behind the peace-on-earth spirit with the discarded wrapping paper, tinsel, and trees that dot the sidewalks of our neighborhoods.

Nevertheless, as this is the eleventh and penultimate day of the Christmas season (it’s not over yet!), we continue to reflect on Jesus’ birth.

Oddly, our biblical contemplative guide is not an infancy story, but of Jesus in the temple; the only gospel account of those “missing years” between his birth and adulthood. (On reflection, it is a fitting story for us, we who have moved, grown past Christmas Day.)

It’s no surprise this story made the cut when the New Testament canon was decided around the third or fourth century. There are other tales of Jesus’ childhood tucked away in apocryphal books, not selected for inclusion in the Bible; revealing a decidedly magical, mischievous, even malicious image of Jesus. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas tells of a 5-year old Jesus molding clay birds on the Sabbath, violating the prescription against work, then bringing them to life to fly away to eliminate the evidence! And an angry Jesus quarrels with the son of Annas, a scribe, cursing the boy and causing him to wither like a tree and die!

I could argue that these tales reflect recurring themes of Jesus’ life as portrayed in the authorized gospel accounts where he challenges the Sabbath restrictions and the scribal, traditional interpretations of the law. Nevertheless, aside from the question of their authenticity, they were considered scandalous. Far safer to include the story of Jesus in the temple. A precocious child goes missing. His parents, frantic and doting (returning to Jerusalem, already having gone a day’s journey, then searching for three days!), find their wayward son. What a simple, sentimental, sweet story.

Or is it?

This pubescent episode in the Temple signals a transition between Christmas revelations about Jesus proclaimed by others – angels, shepherds, Simeon and the prophet Anna in the Temple – and by Jesus about himself. His declaration makes this more than a sweet story.

Mary and Joseph (in desperation, asking each other, “Got Jesus?”) return to Jerusalem, finding him in the temple conversing with the teachers of the Law to the amazement of all. An anxious, perhaps angry Mary chastises her son, who replies, “Did you not know I must be in God’s house?” A provocative question. Yet more, an unmistakable statement of vocation and obligation pointing beyond itself to the subsequent chapters of the Jesus-story.

Hear Luke tell it…

Jesus inaugurates his public ministry: “I must proclaim the good news of God, for I was sent for this purpose” (4.43).

Jesus describes his destiny to his disciples: “The Son of Man must suffer, be killed, and on the third day be raised” (9.22).

Jesus’ understanding of his vocational path was so clear that he repeated this passion prediction: “The Son of Man…must endure much suffering” (17.25) and “…must be handed over to…be crucified, and on the third day rise again” (24.7).

Jesus in the temple. A sweet story? No. This is a tale of transition between infancy and ministry. Jesus, as an adolescent, stands on the threshold of that ministry, saying, “I must be in God’s house.” Again, an unmistakable statement of vocation and obligation. A vocation that obligated Jesus, in faithfulness to his cause, to suffer and die.

This day, we stand at the threshold of a new year. Typically, our time to make resolutions proclaiming our visions for personal growth and betterment. In keeping with this unsaccharine story of Jesus in the temple, I wonder, what’s your, my “must-statement” that declares our discerned life’s purpose, designated calling, chosen vocation, accepted obligation? It may be something already known or entirely new. Whatever it is, are we clear about what it is?

When we look in the mirror each morning, what do we say to ourselves, silently or aloud, that confirms anew our sense of our existence, our raison d’être, our commitments we have made and will attempt to honor, our direction in which we will walk that day, our objectives to which our words and deeds will point?

A word of caution. Mary and Joseph didn’t understand Jesus. His sense of clarity was, for them, the substance of mystery. I submit that whenever we are clear about who we are and where we are going, at times, there will be those, some near and dear, who will not understand. Clarity, which makes bold the expression of conviction, often, at least in my experience, does not bring comfort. Nevertheless, the creation, the Creator, life itself, and our hopes that reside at the heart of our being beckon us to claim our calling, whether new or anew.

January 25. Three weeks from this day. My last Sunday as your rector. Over past months, weeks, days of planning, preparing for my retirement, I have thought much about all of these questions of being and becoming, direction and vocation.

Today, I reduce all of my ruminating to one statement: I must be in God’s house. And for 2015, I condense my questions to two: What is my, your “must”? What and where is my, your “God’s house”?

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