Preacher: Holly Boone
Good morning, Happy New Year, and, still, Merry Christmas. The Christmas season isn’t over yet. We still have a few more days to linger around the manger in Bethlehem while we wait for Three Wise Men to show up this Wednesday for the Feast of the Epiphany.
Christmas does seem like a much bigger deal in the Episcopal Church than it did in the Baptist churches of my childhood. On my grandmother’s kitchen calendar, only Christmas Day was marked in red numerals, as though whatever Christmas meant was a one-day affair. There was a manger scene in front of Calvary Baptist, and on the Sunday before Christmas or Christmas Day itself if it fell on a Sunday, we read the verses of Luke and sang lots of Christmas carols. That was it. When my nieces were small, I sometimes spent a Baptist Christmas with my brother’s family in Texas. Compared to our Advent and Christmas worship at Epiphany, Christmas seemed to come and go among Baptists almost furtively, in a plain brown wrapper.
Which is one reason I don’t like to travel at Christmas any more, even to see family. I want to spend Christmas here at Epiphany.
I believe, and you might agree, that our tradition of Anglican worship as given to us, as gifted to us, in the Book of Common Prayer is not just a highfalutin way to worship God. Our tradition of worship—the poetry and thoughtfulness of its prayers and music, the orderly progress of the liturgical year, the beautiful gravity of the Eucharist—in fact helps us to follow Christ, to walk closely beside him during his incarnate life on this earth. It helps us to be Christians if we let it.
You’ve heard it said here many times that to be a Christian is to raise our consciousness to the consciousness of Christ so that we may live as Christ would live in our particular circumstances. Good luck with that! I can hear you thinking that because that is what I would sometimes think to myself when I started hearing it from Doyt and Kate.
Raising our human consciousness to Christ consciousness might indeed seem like spiritual heavy lifting. But Jesus not only assures us that we can do it, he expects us to if we are to call ourselves his disciples.
And what better time than Christmas to begin or refresh our efforts in that consciousness raising? Unless you become as little children, he tells us. What better time than Christmas to become as little children? The manger in Bethlehem is the first place on this earth to which the incarnate Christ leads us. There any soul can become again with him in the manger a newborn infant.
Imagine your soul, your newborn baby soul, lying in the manger with the infant Jesus. Now what?
You’ve heard of those programs that try to prevent teen pregnancy? Young people in danger of becoming premature parents are given sacks of sugar, a “baby,” to carry around and care for all the time. Maybe they now use dolls that really wet their diapers and cry all night. The point is to remind those potential parents that they can never for a moment stop caring for a child. The same is true of our souls. We can never for a moment stop caring for our souls.
What would you do each day, how would you spend your time, energy and, yes, money, if you were caring for a helpless baby? A baby who needs to be fed and cuddled and talked to. Who needs to feel loved and cherished. Who needs to matter to you more than anything in your life.
As that baby grew, you would read to her and help her learn to read for herself. You would make sure he ate a vegetable now and then and didn’t live on mac and cheese. You would take her for walks in the sunshine and see to it that she went to school and did her homework. You would try to steer him clear of any harm. In short, you would give that child the very best upbringing, the very best training, you could so that that child grew up to have a healthy, abundant and meaningful life.
A child raised in the wild without human attention is said to be feral. Not only myth and legend but also the historical record has quite a few astonishing accounts of such children.
A soul left to raise itself in a spiritual wilderness could also be described as feral. Considering the headlines, there seem to be quite a few feral souls at large in our society. Considering the history books, there always have been.
This is not to say that everything would be fine if everyone just got religion. In fact, the world seems a more dangerous place the more religion comes into play. Perhaps feral souls can be no more dangerous or damaging than when they put on a clerical collar or speak as authority from a pulpit, temple or mosque, or violently insist that their understanding of God should be everyone’s.
No, the world most emphatically does not need more “religious people.” What the world needs is for people to love God with all their hearts and with all their souls and with all their minds and to love their neighbor as themselves.
Good luck with that! you might think. But you know luck has nothing to do with it.
The hard things, loving God and neighbor, growing spiritually into the character of Christ, are not easy. Was it easy to become a good teacher or engineer or musician? Do we leave professional training and development to chance and accident? Do we leave a child’s upbringing to chance and accident?
Personally, I’ve always wanted the easy way out. I’ve wanted God to knock me off my donkey. I’ve wanted one of those Near Death—emphasis on near death—Experiences. I’ve wanted such a powerful word or two from God, preferably a bulleted list, that I would thereafter have no doubt as to how I should live my life. But that’s not how a soul grows up. To quote good old Dallas Willard, “…spiritual experiences…do not constitute spiritual formation.” They might inspire us to turn to God, but we cannot wait around for them to just happen to us, any more than we can just wait around for a child to grow up.
In today’s Gospel Jesus is already growing up. He is twelve, approaching the age when a male child would be held accountable under Jewish law for upholding the commandments. At the end of Passover, Jesus lets his family leave Jerusalem without him and remains behind in the Temple. When his parents finally find him and ask why he has made them worried sick, Jesus answers, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Or in the New King James, “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?”
This story is the only glimpse we have of Jesus between the manger scene and the beginning of his public ministry. It shows us the precocious Jesus already confounding his elders and the status quo. It shows us the young Jesus awakening to the awareness of whose child he really is.
Let’s put ourselves with Jesus in this story. Most of us in this room can claim adult status. We have reached the age of accountability. We are independent agents of our own will. But have we yet truly assumed responsibility for what our hearts want and what our bodies do? Are we aware of whose child we really are? Are we prepared to be in our Father’s house, in his kingdom, and to go about our Father’s business?
This Wednesday we will recall the three mysterious visitors who arrive unannounced in Bethlehem to worship the infant Jesus. They might have been rich and powerful kings. They did bring those extravagant gifts. But we don’t call them kings very often except in a few Christmas carols. In the Book of Matthew they are just called wise, and I think that word tells us something. It tells us that wise men and wise women spend their whole lives, all their skill and all their learning, seeking after God, no matter where and how far from a comfortable home that seeking takes them.
But today is still Christmas. We can look upon the infant in the manger and imagine our own newborn souls lying there. There is a whole new year before us to nurture and care for our baby souls. Stick around Epiphany very long and you will learn that here is a community devoted to the raising and training of souls, yours and mine and each others’. It’s still Christmas. There is perhaps no better time than now, as Christ told us we must, to become as little children.