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Monthly Archives: December, 2012

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  1. Sermons : He Grew in Divine and Human Favor

    Luke 2:41-52 

    "And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor." (Luke 2:52)

    This story of Jesus as a boy of 12, amazing the teachers in the Temple, appears only in the Gospel of Luke within our canonized Bible. Just before this passage, Luke also includes the story about Jesus’ parents taking him to the Temple to be dedicated when he was 8 days old. A prophet named Simeon was at the Temple, guided by the Holy Spirit to be there. When baby Jesus, held by his parents, entered, Simeon knew that he was looking at the Messiah. The prophetess Anna also praised the child as the Savior.

    Jesus’ parents were good Jewish disciples, and they raised him within the traditions of the Jewish faith. All male Jews were required to attend the Temple in Jerusalem three times a year, at Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of the Tabernacles. It was not easy to travel to Jerusalem in those days (no cars, planes, or trains), so most men tried to go at least once a year. The text tells us that Joseph and Mary went at Passover, the feast commemorating Israel’s deliverance from Egypt (Exodus 12). At 12, Jesus was still considered a child, but would be preparing to become a full member of the synagogue at age 13.

    Since families travelled to such occasions in caravans, it would be easy for his parents to assume Jesus was with other family members as the caravan left the city. After they stopped for the night, Mary and Joseph could not find Jesus. It would take them another day to get back to Jerusalem. Then they began searching for Jesus. On the third day they found him in the Temple, amazing the teachers with his questions and answers. Christian Education in those days consisted mainly of men gathering in such groups, and presenting problems to be solved.

    As any parent would after a frantic search for a lost child, Mary questioned Jesus perhaps with a little irritation in the voice. "Why have you treated us, your parents, this way, boy? We have been searching frantically, and here you sit like nothing has happened." And Jesus, not unlike any almost teenager, retorted back at her, "Why were you searching for me at all? Didn’t you know I would be here, in my Father’s house, doing my Father’s business?"

    It seems such a simple story – a precocious boy wanders off and irritates his parents, but he cannot understand their irritation. The text tells us that Jesus went home with them and obeyed them. When next we see Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, he is a grown man, around 30, ready to be begin his ministry. For Luke, this seemingly simple story establishes who Jesus really is. Though he was born in a stable, and not in a palace, angels sang of his birth, and shepherds left their fields to worship him. Prophets at the Temple recognized something in the infant Jesus that was different, outstanding. Mary and Joseph treated him as their own child, of course, caring for him, teaching him, loving him. But in this story, Jesus pointed out to them who his Father really was. Though not fully grown, Jesus knew that he had a special relationship with God the Father. And though Mary and Joseph had heard the angels proclaim Jesus as special before his birth, they were still astounded. Mary, a faithful woman, treasured all that happened in her heart.

    Surely Luke includes this story to remind us that Jesus is God, yet also human. A typical almost teenager, he is also seen as exceptional in this story. But then, we all think our children are exceptional. Jesus was indeed the most exceptional one ever among us. Luke lets us know that even as a child, Jesus was both human and divine. This truth knocks aside any heresies that claimed Jesus as more divine than human, or more human than divine at least until he was grown. Jesus grew up like any child of his time period. Because he was human, he had to grow, he had to learn. Yet he also was God and had knowledge and power that only God could have. Non-canonical texts (those not included in our Bible) give a picture of the child Jesus struggling to understand and contain the powers given by his divine nature with his human nature. In "The Infancy Gospel of Thomas," the young Jesus fashioned sparrows from mud, clapped his hands, and the now real birds took flight. But the young Jesus in this lost book also responded to other children by misusing his powers, causing one child to wither like an old man, slaying another just because he bumped into Jesus. In this book, the 12 year old Jesus at the Temple "questioned the elders and teachers of the people sharply, explaining the chief points of the Law and the parables to the prophets." This Jesus had powers he clearly did not know how to handle. It is a somewhat disturbing picture for us, as we see a Jesus who needed to mature and to understand who he was as both God and human. But this book was not included in our Bible for good reason. The manner in which Jesus grew into his divine nature is not so much what we need to know as that Jesus was both human and divine at the same time. This is a mystery we cannot fully comprehend because we cannot experience it. We take it on faith.

    Luke reminds us of this unique division of human and divine in Jesus with these stories of his childhood as an infant and as a 12 year old, both of which end with statements declaring that Jesus grew in wisdom and in years, with human and divine favor upon him. After this incident in which Jesus worried his parents, the text tells us that Jesus went home and "was obedient to them." Jesus knew the commandment to "Honor your father and mother," and he lived it out.

    The young Jesus of Luke’s story was not as pompous or careless with his Godliness as the young Jesus in The Infancy Gospel. Jesus’ parents found him sitting among the teachers in the temple, "listening and asking them questions" (2:46). Even Jesus longed to learn more about his faith. If even Jesus needed to grow in wisdom, as well as in divine and human favor, surely we do too. If Jesus had to work at being obedient to his parents, and to God the Father, surely we do too. "When I was a child," says Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, "I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways" (I Cor. 13:11). " I Peter says of the spiritual life, ""Like newborn infants long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation" (I Peter 2:2). If even Jesus, Son of God, needed to grow and mature before entering the ministry at around age 30, all the more do we need to grow and mature in our faith, throughout our lives.

    Growing in favor with God and humans does not happen without work on our part. Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister and author, has such a wry way of expressing truths about the faith. He says: "Grow up? For old people, isn’t it a bit too late? For young people, isn’t it a bit too early? I do not think so. Never too late, never too early, to grow up, to be holy….Children that we are, even you and I, who have given up so little, know in our hearts not only that it is more blessed to give than to receive, but that it is also more fun – the kind of fun that wells up like tears in the eyes of saints, the kind of blessed fun in which we lose ourselves and at the same time find ourselves, to grow up into the selves we were created to become." (Buechner, p. 143, 144)

    Growing up "to be holy" does not just happen. We have to work at it. We come not just to worship, but also to Bible studies and seminars, as well as to service opportunities. We read our Bibles and other spiritual readings regularly. We bring our children to Sunday School and church activities. We pray for and with others. We walk labyrinths and keep prayer journals. We find the spiritual practices that nourish our souls, and we work at doing them on a regular basis. We work at "being holy" because such an approach to life enables us to better live in the midst of the chaos of life today. Harold Kushner, most famous for his book, Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?, also wrote a book called How Good Do We Have to Be? In it, he tells us why we need church, or, as he calls it, religion:

    "Religion sets high standards for us and urges us to grow morally in our efforts to meet those standards. Religion tells us, ‘You could have done better; you can do better.’ But listen carefully to that message. Those are words of encouragement, not condemnation. They are a compliment to our ability to grow, not a criticism of our tendency to make mistakes. We misunderstand the message of religion if we see or hear it as a message of criticism….Yes, religion can make us feel guilty by setting standards for us, holding up ideals against which we can measure ourselves. But that same religion can then welcome us in our imperfection. It can comfort us with the message that God prefers the broken and contrite heart that knows it failures over the complacent and arrogant one that claims never to have erred." (Kushner, pp. 7, 43-44).

    Our task, then, as church members, as Christians, as God’s people – as children in the faith – is to grow in divine favor. When we do, surely we will also grow in human favor. All too often, we seek to grow first in human favor, which can actually be our down-fall with God. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you." Like the young Jesus, we can be obedient, we can sit with our Lord. We can listen and ask questions, and learn. There is still much for us to learn about following God. Let us too be "in our Father’s house and about our Father’s business," every day of our lives.

    Thanks be to God! Amen.

     


  2. News : Youth Spring Kick-Off

    On January 6, we’ll host a Family Fun Game Night and Potluck from 5:30pm-7:30pm in the Fellowship Hall. Youth in grades 6-12, come with your families to join in the games and hear about our 2013 Spring Programming.

    Last names starting with A-F please bring fruit, veggies, or green salads; G-L: chips or potato/pasta salad; M-S: main dishes; T-Z: desserts.

     


  3. Bulletins & Sunday Announcements : December 30, 2012

    December 30, 2012 Bulletin


  4. Sermons : Blessed Among Women

    Luke 1:39-49

    My name is Elizabeth, and I have travelled across time with quite a story to tell. I am an old woman now. I was considered old even then. I had not yet born a child, or specifically a son, for my husband Zechariah. It was a disgrace to be barren in those days, so I was a woman in deep disgrace, despite my upbringing in a priestly family, and my marriage to a priest. None of that mattered because I could not bear a son for my husband. In those days, no one thought to blame anyone but the woman. Women did not matter much except to have children and care for the children, and sons were more valued than daughters. I have noticed that, even with all the advances made in your time, it is still hard on a woman to not be able to bear a child. Married and single women ache, especially as they get older and yet have not borne a child. I feel for those women, for I have felt what they feel.

    But for me, there came a miracle, in my old age! An angel of the Lord appeared to my husband Zechariah (Of course, to the man, not to the woman!) and told him that I would finally bear him a son. The angel said to name him John (though first sons were to be named for the father), and that he would be a servant of the Lord, turning people to God, and preparing the way for the much awaited Messiah. Though he was a praying man, Zechariah, bless his heart, did not believe the angel, because he thought I was too old to have children, and he too old to father one. Because of his unbelief, he was made mute, he could not speak. He told me all of this by writing it down. Fortunately, my priestly family made sure that I could read. Many women of my time were not taught to read, and so we might not have been able to communicate when Zechariah could not speak.

    Indeed I did conceive, and it was not easy. I had a lot of morning sickness, though not as much as that English princess in your news recently. It is not easy to be older and pregnant, so I kept to myself, as most women of my time did when they were with child. Now, women heavy with child go everywhere, easily showing the growing baby! It is so different, but there is so much more freedom for women now. I pray you use it wisely.

    Zechariah, though he did not believe I could conceive, was a kind husband. He did not mistreat me, as other men did their wives. He did not, at least in the privacy of our home, regard me as property, as other men did. I was not subjected to beatings or verbal tirades simply because I had done something he did not like. No woman should have to endure such abuse. I am sure that God does intend not for anyone to live that way.

    As I stayed in seclusion, feeling better, but getting bigger, my younger cousin Mary came to visit me. It was such a surprise, though women often visited one another in our times of seclusion. But Mary was very young, barely a teenager, and yet she looked so mature as she entered the house, saying "Greetings!" And the miraculous thing was, as soon as I heard her voice, the child in my womb leaped, and I knew, I knew, that this was no ordinary visit. It was as if I had been visited by the angel who had visited Zechariah and Mary. I knew in an instant that Mary too was pregnant, and not with just any child, but with the child my son would herald. Mary would bear the Messiah. I knew this in my soul, and I said it out loud to her in my exuberance – "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!" Mary later told me about the visit of the angel to her, telling her that she would bear a son to be named Jesus, who was the Son of God. The angel also told her about my pregnancy. Mary was incredulous at the angel’s words, but unlike my husband, she believed and accepted. And she came to see me right away.

    Now, again, I am so glad I can read, for I have looked at this Bible you are so fortunate to have. We had only word of mouth with which to spread the good news. Only priests were allowed to read the Bibles, and many people could not even read. So you should count yourselves as fortunate to have this book that tells all the truths about God and the Messiah. Read it and study it often! And live by these inspiring words as you struggle through the trials and the joys of life on this earth.

    But I have seen in this Bible that the song that followed this joyous visit is now attributed to Mary’s mouth. That is well and good, for Mary was surely a greater woman than I. Yet if the truth be told, it was I who burst into song. Some of the earliest manuscripts of your Bible show this. But it made more sense for this song to be Mary’s song, I guess, so, with time, the text changed and gave those words to her.

    Yet first they were mine, the one who had been made so low in barrenness, then lifted by the gift of a very special child. I remembered my Bible, and sang a song much like the song of Hannah when she realized she was no longer barren, and rejoiced that God had answered her prayers with a baby to be dedicated to holy work. Her baby was the one who became the great prophet Samuel. She and I were more experienced than Mary, and we knew more about the happenings of the world. Mary was still so young, so naïve and trusting. Like Hannah, I had seen the injustices, the way the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and the powerful care not a bit about the plight of the powerless. We saw the hungry beggars in the streets (and you still have beggars in the streets today, I see). Some things never change.

    So my song celebrated our Lord’s renewal, the reversal of all of these injustices imposed by the rich and powerful upon the weak and helpless. It is okay with me for this song to be attributed to sweet Mary, the mother of Jesus. For she grew to know so much, and to see so much, and to see her son die on a cross, like a criminal. My son too met such a terrible end, also treated like a criminal by that awful King Herod. People thought he was a little strange, my son John. He dressed like a hermit and ate foods of the earth (You call these organic now). But John did such good work baptizing people and pointing them towards God’s Kingdom come to being in the Christ. Jesus was indeed so good, so strong, so caring. So was my son John. And yet both of these good young men died like criminals, disregarded and discarded by the powers that ruled our land.

    People can be so cruel to one another. There are too many shootings and killings in the news lately, the worst those children in school, so innocent. We did not have these things called guns in my time. It seems to me that weapons of war keep getting worse and worse, capable of killing more and more people. They kill not just the armies of the enemy, but innocent people, children and teenagers, women and men, young and old. Why do we raise weapons against one another rather than follow the Prince of Peace? Why does anyone need these guns that maim and kill? Only the armies and the guards (I think you call them the police) should have these arms, it seems to me. They are trained to use them, and the rest of the people are not.

    It is sad to see the ways that people are divided in your world, each hiding in their own homes, instead of, as we were, gathering together in community, sharing meals and belongings, helping one another harvest the fields. In my time, we had to help one another, or we would not have made it through life. We cared for one another, for our children and our elderly in our own homes. We welcomed the stranger, the foreigner, for they had no where else to stay. We lived and shared in community.

    My song (Mary’s song) came from my heart, which we see as the center of all being. It celebrated the God who creates us all, and our world for which we are to take care, the Lord’s great gift to us. Still, the world is hard, it is full of suffering, much of it caused by people like you and me. We hurt each other in so many ways. May we instead hold on to God’s promise to us of good things, of love and mercy, of justice and peace. May we remember that out of our deep barrenness, God can bring hope and even joy.

    Mary stayed with me until the child that leaped at her coming was born. On his 8th day, the priests came to circumcise him, as according to the Scriptures it must be done. Zechariah still could not speak, and they wanted to name him after his father. But though it was not my place to do so, I spoke up, and said, "No, he is to be called John." Still, I was only a woman, lowly even though I had borne a son. So they did not believe me, and they turned to Zechariah. He asked for a tablet, and wrote that the baby was to be named John. And, glory be, that is when he was able to speak again! He too burst into song, a song of thanks for the Savior to come, the one who would bring "light to those who sit in darkness."

    Remember my story, our story, as Luke told it, if you will. Remember it because it too points the way to the Christ, the Savior. This season that you call Advent takes its name from a word in the Latin language of old, which means "coming." You wait for the coming of the Christ child again. I tell you, he has already come to be with you, and he lives in you, in each one of you. Look for his presence in your midst, even with the terrible things that happen in life. Help him to come among those who sit in darkness, with your caring deeds and comforting words. Remember that, as the angel told Mary, nothing is impossible with our God.

    I end my time with you with a psalm prayer, found in a book (another new thing for me. We had papyrus for writing, but only the well educated could write), written by a man named Edward Hays. Hear now as we make this our prayer, each and every one of us.

    Psalm of an Advent Ear
    (from Edward Hays, Prayers for a Planetary Pilgrim)

    With prayerful pleas
    And Advent songs of longing,
    I await the birth of God’s Anointed One

    Come, O Gift of heaven’s harmony,
    And attune my third ear,
    The ear of my heart,
    So that I may hear,
    Just as Mary, faithful woman of Israel heard.

    O God, the time is short,
    These days are too few
    As I prepare for the feast
    Of the birth of Mary’s son.
    Busy days, crowded to the brim,
    With long lists of gifts to buy,
    And things that must be done.

    Show to me, also your highly favored child,
    How to guard my heart
    From noise and hurry’s whirl,
    So that I might hear your voice
    Calling my heart to create and empty space
    That might be pregnant with heaven’s fire.

    Quiet me within,
    Clothe my body in peacefulness,
    That your Word
    Once again may take flesh –
    This time, within me –
    As it did in holy Mary,
    Long Advent days ago.

    Amen.

     

    Bibliography

    Ringe, Sharon H., Luke (Westminster/John Knox Press, KY, 1995)

    The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible: New Testament Women (Volume 13) (Abingdon Press, TN, 1999)

    The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible


  5. News : God is Faithful Bible Study

    Monday mornings from 9:30-11:30am
    January 14 – February 25 in Room 105

    At the heart of the Bible’s story is a relationship between God and people, sparked by God’s initiative, sustained by God’s promise, and sealed in covenant terms. Come and track this narrative as God holds steady while the people struggle to keep faith and fulfill their mission in God’s world. The covenant relationship is explored from Abraham through Moses, David, and the Prophets, up to Jesus – calling us to renew our place among God’s loyal people.

    Find out what topics we’ll cover in the December 19 newsletter.

    Contact Nancy Rozak at nancy@wpcdurham.org or 919-489-4974, ext. 104, to register or sign up at the information table in the Mission Center.


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