"An Ancient Insight That Invites Change"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 29, 2002

Luke 2:22-40

     What has proven to be one of our major challenges as Christians, following Jesus' birth, is learning how to share him with the world's people.  We Christians simply have not allowed Jesus to stand on his own merit.  The thoughts and theologies that have developed about him through the centuries often carry as much if not more authority than what he taught.  This secondary body of information is what has created the countless divisions among us. 

     For example, people are invited to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Savior without knowing exactly what that commitment means.  When our acceptance of him does not communicate the same meaning as it does for those who belong to another group, inner fears can be evoked which may cause us to doubt our eternal security.   

     Sometimes there is pressure for the baptism of new arrivals that can come from relatives who request that "this be taken care of as soon as possible!"  Baptism can also be wrapped around fear of what may happen if there is delay.  It is as if Christians are saying, "We are the way, the truth and the life and no one comes to God but through us."  

     Such theological twists and turns probably number in the hundreds. When we look at the "requirements" and beliefs that surround membership in various Christian groups, we can understand why there is confusion over who has the truth.  Along with Pontius Pilate many of us would enjoy asking Jesus not only, "What is truth?" but also, "Who is living it today so that the world's people can feel included?"   

     If we made a listing of such theological preferences and put them alongside what Jesus taught, there are very few similarities.  Yet our beliefs in this secondary body of information remain very strong and they can become very controlling of the judgments we make about other people.  It is as though we belong to tribes, because each of us seeks for our own kind without asking ourselves "why?" 

     History, traditions and heritage have slowly built such a framework of understanding within us making change very difficult. When Jesus attempted to liberate Judaism from its prison of legalism, he was branded, judged and eventually sentenced to death.  We Christians can resist changing how we think even though what we struggle to preserve has little to do with Jesus' message of loving our neighbor.

     For example, when people arrive in a new community and begin shopping for a church, they frequently know exactly what they want. Obviously, they look for an environment that is friendly.  They may also be looking for a church much like the one in their former community.  The imprint made by a much loved pastor or quality fellowship still lingers.  Inso far as possible, they want that kind of experience to continue.

     A woman called the church on Christmas Eve and I happened to answer the phone. She said, "What time are  your services tonight and are they traditional?"  She knew what she wanted. She was not looking for a contemporary worship experience that features drums, guitars and Christmas carols flashed on the wall through an overhead projector. 

     People also tend to look for the theological perspective coming from the pastor.  People who know what they want can attend a service one time and know whether or not they want to return.  During the worship experience, people listen carefully for particular words and phrases.  There are those who want their minister to inspire fear in them.  They want sermons that talk about Satan's power and how Hell awaits to engulf them if they stray. Others look for messages of hope and guidance that empathize more with what they are experiencing.  People know what they want.

     Church shoppers want to know about the culture of the church. Are newcomers bombarded by letters, calls and visits urging them to join?  Is there a well-grounded church school, a youth group and a friendly nursery environment for little ones?  Is the church engaged in outreach and mission? These are ingredients that help newcomers make their choices. 

     Did Jesus specifically teach about such things?  The answer is, "No."  In fact, there was no Church as we know it.  Jesus never became a Christian. There was no Bible. Only the Torah and several scrolls from various prophets were in use.  The thoughts that have developed about Jesus after his entrance into our world have severely diluted the universal message he brought.

     Jesus wanted people to understand his message, not make him the object of their primary focus.  This is why he said, "Follow me." As Christianity evolved, we appropriated Jesus for our own purposes.  That is when our beliefs became exclusively ours.  Was this what Jesus intended?

     Our Gospel lesson today mentions the first person who recognized Jesus as the Savior of the world.  According to the Law of Moses, a woman was required to offer two turtledoves or pigeons in a ceremony of purification.  She was to present her son at the temple 40 days after his birth.  As Mary and Joseph were doing this, an elderly prophet named Simeon noticed their baby.  When he held the child, he connected with the spirit within Jesus.

     Apparently God had promised Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah.  After recognizing the child, Simeon utters this prayer of thanksgiving:

Lord, you have kept your promise.  Now, I may die in peace.  With my own eyes I have seen the means by which your salvation will be accomplished, a salvation which you have prepared for all people.  You have given the world a light to reveal your will to the Gentiles and to bring glory to the people of Israel.

     As we enter the New Year, this is an excellent time for us to revisit this 2,000 year old insight.  The process of salvation has to do with everyone on this planet, not just a select group who refer to themselves as Christians.  Jesus came to save everyone by teaching us how to stop sabotaging our lives by how we think.  He taught people how to replace a thought system based on fear with one based on love.

     While various Christian groups struggle with each other over "the truth," we forget that Jesus taught everyone how to get along, to communicate well, to be gracious and generous to a fault while trusting God for the eventual outcome of history.  The proof of our faithfulness is not found in our beliefs but in how we behave toward one another.  Jesus knew that love was within us because we were created in the image of God. All we ever needed to do was to let it show.

     How many of you remember the story several weeks ago about Heidi Tomassi, a waitress at an Applebee's restaurant in Olathe, Kansas? She discovered that one of her customers had left an envelope on the table containing $3,300. She immediately took the money to the manager for safe keeping until someone reclaimed it.  She knew how to let what was inside of her show.  What is more interesting is what her honesty evoked in those who learned of the story.

     The waitress was struggling financially.  Her son, Griffin, had a congenital defect requiring open heart surgery the day after he was born. The expensive procedure was not successful and the couple was told that their son had six weeks to live. To make matters worse, when Heidi's husband asked to take time off work for a couple of days to be with his family, he was fired from his job.

     When the community learned about the honesty coupled with the financial circumstances of the waitress, the story began to spread over the news wires.  Eventually ABC News had Heidi and her family appear on Good Morning, America.  Money has continued to pour in for Heidi's family ever since. The couple found a surgeon at Stanford University Medical Center who performed another procedure and now Griffin is going to live.

     What was happening to the spirits of people as this saga unfolded?  Was God rewarding a waitress for her honesty?  Some people think so. Yet, Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is within all of us. Our consciousness of this Kingdom can be awakened, stimulated or inspired when we learn that by extending the love within us we can brighten someone else's world. We have experienced this here.  The two Sundays following September 11, St. Matthew's collected and sent $14,311 to the United Methodist Committee On Relief (UMCOR).

     Charles Dickens understood this.  It took the three spirits from Christmas past, present and future to awaken this consciousness within Ebenezer Scrooge.  Such an understanding could not have been stirred into wakefulness had it not been there from the beginning of Ebenezer's life.  This universal aspect within our common humanity is what Jesus' pointed to during his ministry.  For far too many people, however, the universal aspect of our spiritual center has remained undeveloped. 

     All of us are capable of changing the way we think. We could start today by drawing a line in the sand and stepping over it. This is what the Apostle Paul did.  One of the miracles about life is that we can change.  God wired us to grow not plateau and stay. Our church family helps us with this process.  We seldom grow alone; we grow by extending ourselves together.

     Simeon was the first person to recognize God's plan.  He prayed, "You have given the world a light to reveal your will to the Gentiles and to bring glory to the people of Israel."  In those days, Simeon understood that there were only two kinds of people -- the Jews and everyone else.  He grasp the universal aspect of God's plan. What an incredible insight to come to someone nearing the end of his life who had been immersed in Judaism!

     We all have friends who have no idea what Jesus brought to humanity. They will not attend a church because of what they fear they will experience. We need to revisit the ancient insight of Simeon who understood that God's Will for recovering our sense of wholeness included everyone.  Think about what is happening all over the world because Jesus' message has become fine-tuned to meet the needs of those who prefer to stay within the cloistered walls of their churches.

     Right now we are being told that North Korea may be engaged in the process of building nuclear bombs.  Their government did not start expelling the United Nations inspectors until they watched us, the only super power in the world, begin to encircle Iraq with our military.  In spite of our noble aspirations for preventing a catastrophe on a global scale, who is interpreting our military's behavior to the world community?  We will not even communicate directly with North Korea!

     Suppose they have chosen to ignore United Nation's protocols because they are afraid of us?  Suppose North Korea's leadership is using what is so clearly visible to the world to see for the advancement of their own agenda? Fear is a strong motivator. Are we making smaller nations afraid of us, particularly those who do not understand our intentions? 

     These are sad times because God created us to be in community where we share and care for each other.  The United States truly is the great melting pot of all cultures. Every nation has citizens living within our borders. The great experiment has proven that it works. Two thousand years ago Jesus understood why it works as he attempted to teach people how to make possible what seemed impossible -- "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven."

     Perhaps the growing difficulties of our country stem from several newer generations of people moving away incrementally from the common values that have provided a culture that the majority of us enjoy. We are entering the New Year. There is no better time then the present to revisit this ancient insight of Simeon.  What Jesus brought into the world is for everyone. Is anyone in the world paying attention?  Is the Church?  Are we?       


    Merciful God, as we approach the dawning of a New Year, teach us the best way to be reflective about the effectiveness of our lives.  Jesus warned us not to look back, but we do.  The vision of our past is much clearer from the present.  We are aware of promises we did not keep, of relationships that we were going to heal, of habits we were going to shed and of attitudes we were going to change.  We often long for the dramatic growth experienced by the Apostle Paul.  Guide us, O God, to realize that we are being exactly who we want to be.  Inspire our desires so that we want to become more than that.  Teach us how to be for others what we want you to be for us.  Amen.


    How good it is, O God, to be on the other side of Christmas.  We experienced the rush and haste to get our homes ready.  We enjoyed open houses, family gatherings and the exchange of gifts.  Sometimes our homes were more prepared than we were for all that we celebrated.  And now we face the coming of a New Year.

    Sometimes when we celebrate, we content ourselves with very impressive rituals in both our churches and families.  We enjoy all that we have received, but confess that we might not be as joyful about loving our neighbors as you asked us to be.  We enjoy fellowship and a good time with friends, while sometimes forgetting that Jesus had no place to lay his head.  We enjoy the Good News of Jesus' coming among us, even though like today, he preached his message to many who could not or would not hear.  And now we face the coming of a New Year.

    This morning, we ask that you create in us a new heart, one that helps us see through the joyful events that do not last, to the permanence that love can establish through our caring, our attentiveness, our friendship, our being there for those who are sad.  Bring us into the New Year with the consciousness that You have sent us to be the mouth, hands and feet of your Son, Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .