s152g00 Somerton Park 30/12/2000 Christmass 1

"They did not understand what he said to them." Luke 2.50

I confess I have been somewhat bemused by these words. I mean, here were Joseph and Mary, people quite extraordinarily blessed by visions of archangels prior to the birth of Jesus, then they had had visits by shepherds and kings with gifts on the occasion of his birth. After his birth they had to flee from the malevolent searching for him by the King, into Egypt for at least four years, to return only after another vision of an angel. But even then if we are to take the accounts in Matthew seriously, Joseph was still afraid of Herod's son Archelaus, which was the reason he took his family to live in Nazareth. So many wondrous things they had experienced, so much fear and dislocation! How could they forget who this son of theirs was? How could they not understand these words? What had happened to the gold, the frankincense and the myrrh?

As our own progeny begin to "spread their wings" in life, It is true that we will have to let them go, to find their own way in life. I suspect it is here that we find the real source of distress of Jesus' parents. It is hardly unnatural that they should have been concerned, for he was theirs. To have been less concerned would have been quite strange.

Yet Jesus states quite plainly that the real issue is whose Jesus was. He is not theirs, Mary and Joseph's, he was a child of his heavenly Parent. And it is salutary to us to remember that our progeny are not "ours" either, they too are children of our heavenly Parent. Our children are only "ours" in the sense that we have a duty of care; but they are their own persons when it comes to who they are, what they do in life, the mistakes they make ... I mean it would be terribly boring if my boys only replicated my own mistakes :-) I am sure that they can find some more interesting ones to make!

But, of course, on the lips of Jesus, ownership of Jesus already had become an issue, and it was to remain so all his life.

Mary Magdalene wanted to clutch onto Jesus after she recognised his risen form in the garden. James and John wanted to sit, one on either side of him in his kingdom. His mother Mary wanted Jesus to do her will, changing the water into the wine. His family are rebuked when they come to take him away, his brother, sister and mothers were those who heard the word of God and did it. The disciples were piqued that Jesus should associate with people who brought their children for him to bless - they wanted him for themselves. Indeed the reason that the lay religious authorities were so dismissive of Jesus was that Jesus sat down and ate with people other than them ...

It is interesting that most of these thought that they had Jesus' best interests at heart, they thought that their motivation was one of love and honour for him. Even the scribes and the Pharisees who crucified Jesus thought that they had God's best interests at heart, and that their motivation was one of love and honour for the Almighty. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Nothing and no one else exists for our sole gratification. The source of Mary and Joseph's failure to understand, was not that they had forgotten that Jesus was in some special sense a unique child of God - it was a far more common misunderstanding shared by many, who wanted to be in a special relationship to this Jesus, in some senses to the exclusion of others.

Like Jesus, we as Christians are vehicles of grace for others, not as we teach, exhort or correct others, but as we sit down "listening" to others, "asking them questions" and in turn responding, so that others "were amazed at his understanding and his answers". We can well take notice of the order of things. Jesus first listened and questioned. We too do well to listen and question, we too do well to take an interest in other peoples' lives and the perceptions they have.

Last year I heard the wife of a missionary to Nigeria speak to a Mothers' Union group. She had spent several years there with her husband and young family, and had come to know a number of young women of her own age. She had come to really appreciate these women with the day to day struggles they had in life simply to exist. She told the story of giving her very used "matchbox" toys away to her children's friends before she left. How grateful they were, yet they were sold for food! She had come to appreciate the overflowing hospitality, love and resilience that these people demonstrated, regardless of their faith. Indeed I rather got the impression (though I might be putting words into her mouth, for which I am sorry) that she had come to the conclusion that that pre-existing love and resilience dwarfed her more orthodox faith cushioned as it inevitably was by her relative affluence. And I rejoiced in this perception of the inherent dignity and worth of others of a different culture, race, language and creed.

Just as this missionary's wife learned to listen and appreciate others, so too Jesus listens and appreciates us.

And this is what Jesus does to us and to all. Jesus is interested in life as we live it, in our perceptions of faith and life. Issues of right and wrong are fairly immaterial, for each of us are confronted with various different trials and tribulations, and we have to respond as best we are able, as we are called to do, with the resources we have at hand.

As I went through theological college, and it was the sort of semi-monastic existence, of daily morning prayer, optional daily mass, evening prayer, then compline before bed, I often found during worship, that my mind wondered to the events of the day, the different personalities around me, even the latest person of the female gender who had caught my interest at the time. And I often felt guilty, that I should be thinking of these things when I should be listening to and following the words of the service diligently, taking notes during the sermon (I never did that :-)

A long time later, it began to dawn on me that God actually was interested in my musings, and that in fact the places where my mind wandered were more important to God than the words of the service - vitally necessary as those words are.

And when one comes to think about it, God surely knows the words of the service even better than we do :-) I mean God surely would be bored to sobs if God was only interested in the words of the service. God doesn't need to be reminded what the words of scripture say. I confess I sometimes smile inwardly at just how frequently in the liturgy we remind God that Jesus was his only Son :-) Is God a complete dotard? If I were God I would be interested in the variety of our thought processes, not the words of the priest.

There have been occasions when I've wondered if some Anglicans interest in the Prayer Book has actually been to check if the priest doesn't leave anything out, or even include something not actually there! I hardly think God is that pedantic :-)

And indeed this is now the reason why I don't go in for a lot of liturgical innovation, not because I have a particularly sacred and correct way of doing things - quite the opposite. It is because if there are frequent changes to the order of things, I distract you from what is most important, the real and everyday things you and I bring to God during this time. C. S. Lewis, in Walter Hooper's collection "The Business of Heaven" (p 205) speaks about "Clerical One-Upmanship" - "Novelty ... can have only entertainment value ... every service ... works best - when we don't have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don't notice ... The perfect Church service would be one we were almost unaware of, our attention would have been on God." And he continues in "The Liturgical Fidget" - "Novelty may fix our attention ... on the celebrant ... it lays one's devotion waste ... there is really some excuse for the man who said, 'I wish they'd remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my Sheep; not Try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my dogs new tricks.' :-)

It is, incidentally, an interesting trick to both celebrate and bring one's own thoughts and prayers to God, and one of the reasons I don't mind using my modified form of the old 1662 service. If I always used the new service, I would be forever away with my own thoughts, and forgetting where I was in the service.

Jesus was and is a child of the living God and this means that Jesus is all people's - not just ours. Jesus, by his very nature is interested in the lives of all people and not just those who go to Church, those who manage to keep the commandments, those who live up to our notions of respectability, ethnicity, gender or race.

These words tell us that Jesus is interested in us as we are, and all people as they are, and it is as he does this that he truly is a child of his heavenly Parent.

 

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