Monday, January 26, 2009

Prophecy explained

I'm going to let you in on a little secret.  Prophecy is not really that confusing.  There are some preachers and some Christian denominations that like to scare people with the dire warnings you will find in the Bible.  Yet at the core of all of them is this simple truth: God wants us to live with him.  He wants to know you better, and he wants you to know him better.
 
God will use any messenger he can to get that message through, and some of them try to use fear, because fear is easier than love.  But don't be fooled.  Yes, God is powerful, holy, mighty...of course.  But the greatest power God has is the ability to come into your heart, and embrace the tenderest, most vulnerable wounds, and heal them.  Can I get an Amen?

Epiphany 3B. 25 January 2009.

          I want to tell you about a church this morning.  A little church.  When I say the word church you think about bricks and a steeple.  I'm not talking about a building.  I'm talking about a group of people.  This church is in a city where a lot of business is transacted, a lot of people move in and out.  From out of the hundreds, thousands of people from all different backgrounds who live in the city, the Christians gather from time to time to worship and share a common meal.

 

          These Christians do not have a Christian background, or even a Jewish background.  Their background is a mix of religions, some going back to the dawn of civilization.  I am speaking, of course, of the church at Corinth—just less than fifty miles from Athens.  And I am speaking of the church that the Apostle Paul founded around 54 AD.

 

          When we read from the letters of Paul to the Corinthians, we are reading about a group of people who need all the help they can get.  Their backgrounds are so diverse, their morality so loosely understood, their understanding of who Jesus is is so poor, that Paul had to write to them no less than three times.  What we read from today—what we call First Corinthians—is actually the second letter to the Corinthians.  The first letter has been lost. 

 

          They had a lot of problems in Corinth.  Paul actually had to tell them to stop going to bed with each other.  Can you imagine that?  He said, "Get along with each other" and then he said, "But don't sleep around with each other, either!" I honestly can't imagine being the Rector of that church!

 

          There were factions in this little group—and they all wanted control.  You will read time and again of Paul trying to get them to behave.  "I appeal to you brothers and sisters…that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose."[1]  This is the same letter in which Paul tells them to greet each other with a holy kiss—trying to bring them together, you see?[2]  They had a lot of problems.  And today we read—on the surface of it—a very a very puzzling teaching.  Let me read it to you. 

 

          "I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away."

 

          This lesson is part of a much longer lesson about marriage.  The question on the table was: what do Christians believe about marriage?  Remember they don't have any background to draw from.  None of their parents were Jews or Christians.       
 

          Here they are in the Roman capital of Achaia, and the whole new cultural matrix of the people of Israel is being imposed upon them.  This was a big deal.  One of the other debates in the early Church was what to do about circumcision.  Male Jews who became Christians were circumcised.  Can you be part of the Christian tradition without first being part of the Jewish tradition?  Don't you need to know what Jesus was fulfilling in order to appreciate him?  Well, why do we need to worry about that?  Isn't Jesus' fulfillment bigger than the Jewish background? 

 

          What Paul is trying to do is to get this church to think about more than just this life.  They are so bogged down in how to live this life, that they can't see beyond it into the life that is to come.  And remember, Jesus was coming right back.  There wasn't a minute to lose.  We've got to go into all the world and preach the Gospel and make disciples.  He's coming back.  We don't know when. 

 

          So, with the end of time breathing down Paul's neck, we get this teaching, "Okay, be married, but be as though it didn't matter…not that you'd fool around on your wife, but that you didn't hold your marriage as the only important thing."  "Okay, you've got to mourn the loss of a loved one, but be as one who doesn't need to mourn…Jesus is coming soon."  "If you've got to buy some furniture, buy the furniture, but be like someone who doesn't think they'll need that bed for much longer."  And he adds the exclamation point to the end of it, "For the present form of this world is passing away."

 

          All these things—your work, your marriage, birthdays, anniversaries—they're just temporary, trivial, compared to the next life.  Look at the city you live in, Corinthians!  You've got the Port of Lachaeon on the Gulf of Corinth to the north, the Port of Cenchreae on the Saronic Gulf to the South.  Corinth, you are on an isthmus in between, and you've got people in your city who are there one night, and gone the next.  Food, spices, goods of every kind flow in and out of your city every day—and so what?!!  So what?!  Economy is good, economy is bad…who cares?!  Jesus is coming!  (Pause.)

 

          There is a little chapel I know that has about a quarter of a million dollars in endowments.  The money that has been collected over the years has been given simply to keep this little chapel from disrepair.  No group of people, with any regularity, has ever worshipped there.  It is no one's home church. 

 

          The people who like to visit for occasional services are often very devout people—but the money that that chapel receives can never be spent to establish a parish.  The money is just to keep the building up.  That's all.

 

          And because the money only goes to keeping the building up, it is—on its own—about as spiritually impoverished as an empty train station.  No one is coming, and no one is going. 

  

          I recently had to go to a train station.  I was there to drop off my mother-in-law, who was taking the train back to New York.  We got breakfast at McDonalds, which set us back about ten minutes, and we arrived late.  The train had already left.  No one was there.  It was that beautiful train station in Manassas.  Lovely paint, reconditioned old train benches in the station master's office.  But empty, in every sense of the word.  Just empty.  (Pause.)

 

          One of the parts of my vocation I like best is that I get to come to church everyday.  (When I said "church" just then, I actually did mean bricks and wood.)  I like walking through the church, especially when no one else is there.  I used to get a little spooked walking around in the dark.  But now, I've come to love it.

 

          I don't mean to frighten any of you, but there are times I hear footsteps when I'm in my office in the basement at Emmanuel, and I'll come upstairs and no one will be there.  A couple weeks ago, I heard footsteps and I came upstairs and someone was there, and it startled me to actually find someone.  I love walking around the church.  I see you all.  I come up here to the pulpit, and I see you in your pews. I go into the parish hall, and I see where you like to be during coffee hour.  And then sometimes I'll bump into General Muhlenberg in the sacristy.  You can't miss him in his uniform.  Don't tell anyone, but he likes to polish the brass.  We like to talk together.

            

          I lost my Prayer Book recently.  I looked everywhere, and finally, I was in my office, and I looked down, and there it was with a note attached.  The note was in ink, in beautiful, old-style cursive, and it read, "Alexander, I borrowed your Prayer Book to read Morning Prayer this morning.  Sorry for the confusion."  And it was signed, "Frank Brown." 

 

          Now, Francis Brown, or Parson Brown, as he was known, was the Rector of Beckford Parish from 1922 to 1948.  Back then Beckford Parish included churches in Middletown and Stephens City.  Under his name, he wrote, "P.S. You've got it easier than I did."

 

          I was out at Shrine Mont for clergy retreat and was staying in Maryland House, and I saw Mrs. Streetman walking around in the garden there.  She was clearing some weeds away.  She said, "I know you, you're the new Rector."  I said, "Yes, Ma'am, I'm sorry to bother you."  She said, "No, no…you're not bothering me."  We got to talking about St. Andrew's.  It was a lovely conversation.  You were right, she's something else.

 

          Did these things really happen?  Well…yes, no, yes.  See, I don't have live in a world that is ruled by minutes, and hours, and years.  I don't have to accept death as the end of life.  When you're a Christian, these things are virtually meaningless.  Like Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "…the present form of this world is passing away."

 

          When I stand at the Altar and hold up the bread and wine, and say the words of Jesus, "This is my body," "This is my blood."  Spiritually, two thousand years collapse down into that moment. 

          When I pronounce the blessing at the end of the service, there's no real difference in that moment between my ministry and the ministry of Alexander Weddell, or Parson Brown, or Jim Stamper.

 

          I haven't been here for very long, so I'm still meeting people.  They don't always tell me their names. They just look like they belong here.    

 

          Sometimes they ask me how the church is doing, and I tell them.  They want to know about stewardship, and that's a difficult conversation.  I tell them about the economy, and so forth, and so on.  And they'll nod their heads.  They know what it's like—they've seen the ups and downs.  So I ask them to pray for us, because they know something better than we do. They know that in Jesus Christ, the doors of the Kingdom of God are wide open.  And once you walk through those doors you can shake hands with any Christian who has ever lived.  So I ask these folks, when I see them, to pray for us, because this church is not some empty little chapel—they know that.  This church is a gateway into heaven, a place where "eternity is the measure, felicity is the state, angels are the company, and the Lamb is the light."[3]

 

          Some years ago a man said to me that when he joined the Episcopal Church he told the bishop that he didn't want to be a member of the whole church.  He just wanted to join (and I'm quoting here) "this pile of bricks."  Well, with respect, no church is just a pile of bricks.

   

          Over the last few weeks your vestry and I have sat down and fussed over the budget of the church.  This is a hard time for everyone, and that is very clear.  We have clipped, and cut, and trimmed things down.  And it isn't easy to do that, because it makes us feel even smaller than we really are.

 

          I am speaking of these things, because giving in the Church is a spiritual activity.  It's not just writing a check to pay a bill.  The church depends on the generosity that is within us—and I know that many of us are not able to give another dime, even though we'd like to.  But some of you might be able to help a little more. 

 

          Paul writes, "The present form of this world is passing away."  Things come and go.  The market is up; the market is down.  It's just like the church in Corinth.  But here we are: the Church.  We are the Body of Christ, united in a common love of the One who died and rose, and will come again.

 

          While all the changes swirl around us, the church remains: a gateway to heaven, a place of solace and comfort, a spiritual place where the saints who have gone before drop by.

         

          Two weeks back, I bumped into General Muhlenberg again.  He is such a character!  I asked him where he preferred to drop in: here at the church, or over at the Courthouse.  I would have bet money that he preferred the Courthouse.  I mean, over there they've got a bust and a full sized statue right on the front courtyard.  He laughed and said, "You know, I never go by the Courthouse."
 

          "Are you serious?" I said.

          "Nope.  I never go over there."

          "But the statue, that bust!  They've really honored you over there."

          "No…not really," he said.  "If you want to know the truth, I'd rather be here in the church.  You see, outside the church they seem to think that I'm honored to be...just a statue.  But the church doesn't do that.  The church understands that I cannot be frozen in time.  My life—just like yours—is joined to the resurrected life of Jesus Christ.  I am baptized; therefore, I live." 

         

          I asked him to pray for us.  And he said, "Oh, I'm praying for you.  I'm praying for you.  It's going to be all right, Little Man." 

          He likes to call me "Little Man." 

          "It's going to be all right," he said. "Remind them of Christ, who loves us, and gave his life for us.  Remind them that the present form of this world is passing away; but with their support the church will endure.  You tell them that." 

          And I said, "Yes, sir."



[1] 1:10

[2] 16.20

[3] Taylor, Jeremy. The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying, Chapter 1, §2, ¶5. 1651.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Passed by mercy through the dark


When I was in high school, we sang in choir a piece of music with words by Wendell Berry.  I have never found these words printed anywhere, but I will never forget singing them.
 
We save the good, lovely and bright--by will in part, in part delight.
But he who stands, his shadows mark, has passed by mercy through the dark.
 
Let me explain.  We save what is good to us, what is beneficial.  Yet when we wake up in the morning and our shadow is made by the sun, it becomes clear that it is not the good we keep that sustains us.  Rather, we have passed by mercy through the night, and live again.
 
We are surrounded by mercy.  We are enveloped by love which unfolds and rolls us out to a beautiful world.  You and I have passed by mercy through the dark.  And as long as there is mercy, we will continue so to do.
 
 

Monday, January 19, 2009

Epiphany 2B. 18 January 2009.


 

 

          I am again preaching on the Gospel lesson, the call of Philip and Nathanael.  I have been preaching on the Gospel lessons almost without interruption for the last year, and I am mindful of the fact that you might want to hear from the letters of Paul or from the Old Testament.  I promise I will preach from them as well.

 

          But, for today, we have this little gem from John's Gospel.  Let me read it to you again, and I ask you to listen especially to the dialog between Jesus and Nathanael:

 

          The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, "Follow me." Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get to know me?" Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" Jesus answered, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these." And he said to him, "Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."[1]

 

          Nathanael is an interesting fellow.  You won't find him anywhere else, even though it seems as if he becomes a disciple.  It is very possible that Nathanael became the disciple known as Matthew.  We don't know.  If so, we don't know if that was the Matthew who wrote Matthew's Gospel. 

 

          Jesus says that he saw Nathanael under a fig tree.  According to tradition, the rabbis used to say that the best place to study the Bible, the Torah, was under a fig tree.  It could be that the fig tree is code for the notion that Nathanael was a scholar—and therefore perhaps even the author of Matthew's Gospel.  Again, we really don't know.  Or it could be that Nathanael is a composite of many followers.

 

          Anyway, Philip comes to Nathanael and says, "We have found the Messiah—it's Jesus, the Son of Joseph from Nazareth."  Nathanael responds, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"  It's a natural response.  Nazareth is a very small secluded village.  It's like saying "Can anything good come out of Jerome, or Basye."  It seems odd.  The Messiah should come from Harrisonburg, of course, or Winchester, maybe even Edinburg…but not Basye.  Philip responds, "Well…you'll have to come and see."

 

 

 

          Nathanael walks up to Jesus, and Jesus says, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit."  Well, there are several meanings that could be in play here.  Israelite refers to Nathanael being a descendent of Jacob, and Jacob you remember, deceived Isaac to receive Esau's birthright.  You remember that story, right?  Esau is hungry.  Jacob sells him some soup for Esau's birthright.  And then Jacob puts pelts on himself, because Esau was a hairy man, so he deceives their daddy Isaac into conferring his blessing.  There are a lot of ins and outs—you'll find the story in Genesis 27.

 

          But the meaning of Jesus' comment could also be, "You're an Israelite who is not like your ancestor Jacob."  And that's meant as a kind of a joke.  You know…you're not like your daddy, you old so-and-so.  Ha, ha, ha.  This is how men tease each other.  Men don't say, "You're a nice guy, I like you a lot, let's get together and drink coffee and be friends…"  No, no.  Men tease, men say things. 

 

          I was at a ministerial association meeting and one of the local pastors asked me, "Where do you serve the Lord?"  I responded, "Anywhere I can."  I know what he was asking—but this is how men talk.

 

          Go out to the golf course.  I played golf one time, years ago—the ball was headed for the woods, bounced off a tree and landed in the middle of the fairway.  The man I played with didn't say, "Good shot."  He didn't say, "Boy, you really hit that one."  He just shrugged his shoulders and said, "Preachers..."

 

          But it could be that Jesus is saying, "Here is a Israelite who isn't afraid to see me as the long-awaited Messiah—like many of the religious establishment are"?  That's a strong possibility.  And then again, it's possible that this means very little.  We don't really know. 

 

          What we do know is that Jesus is saying something about the character of Nathanael, which is what Nathanael responds to.  How can Jesus say something about me.  He doesn't know me.  To which Jesus responds, "I saw you under the fig tree."  Now, again—this could be code for "I saw you studying the Torah," but we don't know that. 

 

          Nathanael responds, "Rabbi."  You see that?  Rabbi?  Teacher?  In some instances, Master?  "Master, you are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!"  And Jesus answers, "Do you believe because I saw you under a fig tree?"  And here you can almost see Jesus chuckling a little bit, "You will see greater things than these…you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man."

 

          Now, we're in the season of Epiphany—and this is an Epiphany story.  An Epiphany is when something suddenly makes sense—it's a revelation.  Somehow it just makes sense to Nathanael that this man, Jesus, is the one we've been waiting for.  It comes to him all of a sudden, and it doesn't seem to come from anything big, or exciting.  It just happens.  He is chatting with Jesus, and Bam!  He believes.

 

          I am tickled a little bit about Jesus seeing him under the fig tree.  Not just because of any possible hidden meaning there.  I'm intrigued because Nathanael doesn't seem to be looking to be discovered.  The fame about Jesus had certainly spread to him.  Philip says, "Jesus, Son of Joseph of Nazareth."  As if the name had already been mentioned at the water coolers.  And Nathanael doesn't seem to be in any hurry to be noticed by Jesus.

 

          You know there are a lot of people who probably positioned themselves to be seen by Jesus.  You look at how people position themselves to be seen by famous people, or even just people they want to cozy up to.  You know there are some people who are…well, the word for it is sycophant, but very few people would use that word in everyday speech.  Usually they'll use an earthy expression, like suck-up, or butter-up.

 

          As I was thinking about these things, I was surprised at how many expressions there are for this sort of behavior, and how awful they would sound in this pulpit.  That should tell you something.  If the common language for a kind of behavior doesn't sound like it should be said in church, it's probably not a good behavior.

 

          But there are a lot people who are sycophants.  They like to cozy up and schmooze and try to win people's favor—usually to people with power.  These are people with very little personal integrity.  They will stroke and caress, and they will say things they don't really believe, because they hope that one day, the person they are working on will confer upon them some or all of their power.  And then, see, they think that the power will give them the one thing that ironically they could have had the entire time—dignity.  I don't mean, pride.  I mean, dignity.  Dignity is good.  Pride is bad.  Pride is the belief that you have earned the good things that come to you. 

 

          Dignity is the ability to respect yourself, and your decisions, understanding that there are limits to your knowledge.  That's dignity. 

 

          Dignity is a good thing.  There are many people who do not have dignity.  Someone may have told them that they are worthless or stupid, and they believed that.  You need dignity.  You need to believe that you are someone God loves, someone who can do things for God.  That's a basic, basic aspect of being a Christian.

 

          But the corruption of that is to be someone who is always trying to work the angles—always trying to get ahead.  And they'll sacrifice what they really believe to get there.  My guess is that we have all done this in one form or another at some time.  I remember a young man I knew in college who was an unabashed, unapologetic sycophant.  He flattered his professors contantly.  I recall him saying, "I have an appointment with Professor Soandso."  I asked why.  He said, "No reason, I just want to cozy up to him a little." 

 

          Do you think Nathanael wanted Jesus to see him under the fig tree?  My gut says no, but it's possible.  I prefer to think that his question to Philip was a genuine question, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"  And then he goes to see Jesus, and simply by being in Jesus' presence, and by hearing him speak—even just the slightest bit—he becomes convinced that Jesus is the Messiah.

 

          I like that thought.  There's not much too it, I know.  But I have known what it is to be in the presence of someone and just feel that this person is special.  Even if you don't notice it at first. 

 

          I remember when my wife came to seminary, and people sort of clump together, and I wasn't really thinking that I'd ever fall for a seminarian—she was just one of the group.  I think I even had to ask her name a couple times before I remembered it.  But one day, we were seated together at lunch, and someone said something, and we both laughed.  And then something else happened, and we both laughed, and at some point, I noticed that we both laughed at the same things.  After awhile, it became clear to me…she is special to me.  It took awhile before it came to more than that, but you know what I'm saying. 

 

          I recall meeting Pat Carroll.  That name might not be familiar to you, but she is an actress, now in her 80s.  She was on the Danny Kaye Show, the Red Buttons Show, Laverne and Shirley.  How I met her is a long story, but I remember it vividly.  She's the kind of person who enters a room and everyone's eyes are drawn to her.  It's not that she's so pretty—there's just something about her that's captivating.  You get the feeling around her that any minute something magical is going to happen. 

 

          I think that being around Jesus, when he walked the earth, was like that.  That when Jesus talked to someone, it was as if the air was crackling around him.  I like the thought that Nathanael had to eat his words about nothing good coming from Nazareth.  Something about Jesus just grabbed him even before Jesus ever even spoke.  I like that thought.  That might sound a little too precious to you.  It might sound a little too mystical, but there had to be something about Jesus that drew people in.  I think the reason I believe that is because, to my mind, whatever magnetism he had, I think he still has it.

 

          Once you know about Jesus you can only go in two ways.  You can either embrace him and follow, or you can leave him and go some other way.  He's not like that friend who occasionally stops by and says hello.  There is something about him that either makes you want to know him more, or not at all. 

 

          And I think Nathanael's story is repeated again and again in countless lives.  People who are good people hear about this Jesus, and they come to church—they might even come for years—until finally one day, there they are, singing a hymn, watching the priest during the Great Thanksgiving, watching the little children come up to sing in the choir, and they hear this little voice say, "I saw you."  "I saw you washing the dishes."  "I saw you over at Lowe's, back by the drill bits."  "I saw you getting apples at the Save-A-Lot."  "I know you…I know you."

 

          And then it hits you…he knows me.  Jesus knows me.  You weren't trying to be found.  You were just sitting under a fig tree.  You were just going about your business and then down deep—in an area of your soul you didn't even know existed—the Son of God walked right up and said hello.  And then, the most amazing thing happened.  What happened?  

 

          You followed him. 



[1] John 1:43-51

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Would you like to buy some marigold seeds?

I hope you all are inwardly getting ready for spring.  I'm sure you are what with it being so cold.  I know I am.  I need some sunshine.  But let me tell you what's making me twitch with excitement.  I can barely contain it!  During the growing months of 2008, I gathered seeds from all the dead blossoms of my marigolds, and I have more marigold seeds than you can shake a stick at. 
 
I have marigold seeds in a bowl at home, just waiting to be planted.  I intend to take my empty yogurt containers, little single serving pots, and fill them with mix and plant my seeds so that when things really turn nice, I will be able to transplant them right into the flower bed, and pots, and anywhere else. 
 
But I have a feeling that that won't be enough for me.  I'm going to plant those seeds all over the place.  I'll even plant them in places that only I know about!  I'm going to sneak them around and see where I can get them to grow.  Don't tell anyone!  I'm going to plant some in the barren places I find around Woodstock and Mt. Jackson and see if I can dodge the lawn mowers out there! 
 
Maybe you'd like to grow them, too?  Well, I'll tell you what.  I will sell you some of my seeds.  The economy is not good right now, and I think I want to do this as a benefit to my parish.  If you would like some of my marigold seeds to plant in your garden, I am going to charge you a fee.  You're going to have to pay the church 10¢. 
 
Now, I know what you're thinking.  10¢ is a lot of money.  You could spend that money in a lot of other places.  And these little marigolds hardly seem worth 10¢.  I mean, what does it cost to make a little envelope of seeds?  Do you know?  I don't know. 
 
So maybe you don't want give the church 10¢ for my marigolds.  I can understand that.  Maybe 5¢ would be okay? 
 
Would you feel a little cheated if you gave the church 5¢ and you only got a flower bed full of marigolds--with their beautiful blooms looking up at you?  And you'd look down on those marigolds in full flower and every day you'd think, "I can't believe these beautiful flowers cost me so much money!  I can't believe I wasted all that money on seeds that became this beautiful little flower bed.  It's just like the church for things to be like this.  You give some money, and you only get some hymns and a sermon, wine and bread, and a coffee hour and some lovely people to talk with, and share your life with...  Next time, I'll know better..."
 
So 5¢ is probably far too much.  Tell you what, I'll cut you a deal.  I'll give you the seeds for 1¢.  Put a penny in the plate and they're all yours.  But you'll have to promise me something.  You have believe in your heart that you probably should have given more.  And if you're willing to buy the marigolds for 10¢, and you're able to do this, maybe bump it up to 15¢?  Or maybe 20¢?  But don't get too carried away...they can't be worth more than that. 

Monday, January 12, 2009

Epiphany 1B. Baptism of Our Lord. 11 January 2009.


          Next Sunday is my one year anniversary with you.  I honestly can't believe that it's been a year.  I will save my remarks on this subject for the Annual Meeting, but the reason I mention it is that I think in this past year you have come to know of my great love for the Holy Bible. 

 

          I used to read the Bible before going to bed each night when I was a pre-teen, and teenager.  Quite often, after a hard day, or when my soul had become knocked about by the growing pains of young adulthood I would sit down and skim through the Bible…just to remind myself of my favorite parts.  Isaiah 40, Psalm 91, The Sermon on the Mount, Paul's letters.  "If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God."[1]

 

          My love of the Bible does not mean that I am able to understand all of it, or that I think it all makes perfect sense without research and explanation.  The meaning of the sacred texts is divine, but much of the actual meaning can get lost in translation.  You have heard me talk about my wrestling matches with the text.  The text always wins, of course, but—like Jacob wrestling with the angel—the text always blesses you after the struggle.

  

          So, as long as you know of my affection for the Bible, I'm going to talk about a period of time that is not found anywhere in the four Gospels—or for that matter anywhere in the Bible.  A college professor might call this "a gap in the scholarship."  It is a period of time that I desperately wish the Gospel writers had at least touched upon—perhaps given just one little vignette from this time.  And that is the childhood and teenage years of Jesus. 

 

          Sometimes Karin will pull down Peter's baby book, and thumb through the photos.  "Do you remember when he looked like that?" she'll say.  We'll look at a list of words Peter had when he was fourteen months.  "Do you remember when he said `cooka' instead of `cookie,' and `capka' instead of helicopter?"   "School bus" was "buh-bah" and then "cool bas."  "Do you remember when he would chase that little truck around the house all day?"

 

          I would love to see Jesus' baby book.  His first steps…on water!  No…I'm kidding there.  But if Luke had just described the tiniest thing I could imagine it all.  Or what about when he was ten or eleven?  Even just a simple story of how he watched Joseph working in his shop, or watched Mary put the wash out to dry.  I would love to have the barest glimpse into that.

 

          When I was a teenager, having those hormones colliding through my veins, I would have given almost anything to have a story about Jesus at that age. 

 

          We believe that he was tempted in every way, yet without sin.  How did he get through those years without the stray thoughts about girls?  How did he learn to be his own man without arguing with his parents, and maybe saying something he shouldn't? 

                   

          The Bible is silent on this.  Is it out of respect?  Maybe there were some stories from back then that didn't add up to the man he became.  Maybe it's a matter of courtesy that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John decided not to include those stories.  We tend to give people a pass on their early years.  What happens in college, stays in college, or high school, or the military, or what have you. 

 

          Still…we're talking about Jesus.  The man who was and is both God and man.  Hands down, the most influential figure in human history.  As Christians, we claim to have given our lives to him.  There are claims we make about the person he is.  We say that he is the one and only human being who can bridge the gap between our sinfulness and God's righteousness…but we don't have the full story.

 

          We have the prophecy, the birth, the Angel choirs, the flight to Egypt and then back to Galilee, and then about twenty years pass until suddenly he appears next to John, presenting himself for Baptism.  I don't mean to sound crass, but: what happens in Nazareth, seems to stay in Nazareth.

  

          Childhood and adolescence are formative years.  Thanks to Freud and Piaget and others, we know so much about the importance of nurture and affection and how various influences shape the people we become. 

 

          It has been said that imagination is a learned activity.  Children have to be taught to project themselves into stories and see themselves through other people's eyes.  You have to learn to self-differentiate, and how to be aware of how your behavior affects other people. 

 

          If you know about someone's childhood, you can see how behaviors had their beginnings in the nursery.  A child born in poverty, given the ability to succeed, may become very materialistic—trying to make up for years of want.  A child born into plenty may not be able to save his money, because he never had to go without.  A child who lost a parent might live out their entire lives with a baseball-sized hole in their hearts—or they may heal quite easily if they never really knew them.

 

          There is so much I want to know.  Did Mary teach Jesus the stories of the Old Testament, or did Joseph?  I would love to see Jesus in Hebrew school, learning to read, learning to write the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  Aleph, Bet, Gimmel, Dalet, Hay, Vav, Zayin, Chet, Tet, Yud, Kaph, Lamed, Mem, Nun, Samekh, Ayin, Pei, Tsadi, Quph, Resh, Shin/Sin, Tav. 

 

          Mary and Elizabeth were relatives, remember?  That means John the Baptizer and Jesus very likely played together as children.  Wouldn't you love to have a story about John and Jesus at ten-year-olds? 

 

          Did he have a Bar Mitzvah when he was thirteen?  We don't know.  Bar Mitzvahs are thought to have started around the first century.  I can imagine him in the synagogue, the scroll of the Torah laid out before him.  I imagine him reciting the creedal statement of the Sh'ma—what we call Deuteronomy 6:4, "Sh'ma Yis'ra'eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad. V'ahav'ta eit Adonai Elohekha b'khol l'vav'kha uv'khol naf'sh'kha uv'khol m'odekha.  Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is One, and you shall love the Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might."

 

          At thirteen, he becomes, in the sight of his community, a man.  He is no longer a child, yet he has still much to learn.  We have no idea how these things took place.  Absolutely no idea.  The New Testament is completely silent—yet they had to happen. 

 

          I'm sure that he knew that his cousin John had felt a call to some sort of ministry for renewal in the Jewish faith.  At some point, John drew himself away from Elizabeth and Zechariah, and took to the countryside near Bethany, across the Jordan, where he began preaching.  The whole world came to hear him.  Surely his preaching was known to Jesus.  Surely, Jesus knew that John had been calling for repentance and preparing the way for the Lord.  Did that weigh on Jesus?

  

          Out in Joseph's shop, you see him, mallet in one hand, chisel in the other, pounding away on a piece of wood.  You can see him brooding in the shop.  Does he know he's the one that John is talking about?  Did Mary raise him with the knowledge of how he came to be born, the promise of his lineage?  He surely knew of the prophecy of the Messiah. 

 

          One imagines that Mary and Joseph might have been speaking to him in code all these years—never telling him outright that he's the Son of God. That Joseph is not his biological father. 

 

          One wonders how God the Father was speaking to Jesus during his early years.  In the silence of the woodshop, the smell of sawdust and oil hanging in the air, could it be that the Father said somewhere deep in his bones, "It's time"?  Was there a light?  Was there an epiphany for Jesus himself that he was the One?  I don't think so.  I don't think he knew everything

 

           But at some point, Jesus put down his tools.  Laid the mallet on the workbench.  Hung the chisel on the wall.  Took off the apron, dusted off the sawdust and wood shavings and hung it on the peg.  Kissed Mary and hugged Joseph, and said, "I need to go." 

 

          He walks from Nazareth to Bethany.  Walks down to see John, who is preaching by the Jordan.  John sees him, and perhaps for the first time, realizes who Jesus really is.  He is not just Jeshua Ben-Joseph, a childhood friend, a playmate, a cousin.  Not anymore. 
 

          He is Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  And he wades down into the water, and is baptized.     The old life in Nazareth is washed away—it is now, perhaps, irrelevant.  The undertow of healing, preaching, loving, and dying, is about to take hold and carry him to a new life.  A life that will reveal who he really is. 

 

          I would like to think that he did it all on blind faith…that he didn't know.  It might make me a heretic to say this, but I think he wades into the Jordan not really knowing much of anything as to why he was there.  Just feeling that there was nowhere else he could be at that moment. 

 

          And as he comes up from the water, finally…finally, a clear voice is heard, and all the questions that might have stirred in his heart hear an answer, "You are my Son…that's who you are.  You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased."  (Pause.)

 

          It would be nice to know what he was like as a boy.  Just a few stories.  But that's the thing about Baptism.  It has a way of washing away the past, and revealing to us who we really are.



[1] Colossians 3:1