"Do We Ever Leave Jesus Behind?"
Sermon Delivered By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 27, 2009
Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:41-52
It is quite probable that Jesus’ separation from his parents happened in a very logical way. Usually the women traveled in a group made up of people from Mary’s village. They began their journey home earlier than the men because they traveled more slowly due to their family responsibilities. The men would leave later and they would catch up with their families in the evening. It was easy for Mary to assume that Jesus was with Joseph and for Joseph to believe that he was with his mother. The drama began when both of them realized that Jesus was missing. An interesting twist of the story is that his parents blamed Jesus for turning up among the missing persons.
During Passover, it was the custom of the Sanhedrin to hold a public meeting in the Temple courtyard to discuss religious and theological questions in the presence of all who wanted to listen. Hearing and asking questions is a regular Jewish phrase for a student learning from his teachers. Jesus was curious and wanted to learn more about the rituals and customs of his heritage. It was like having a free pass that would give us entrance to sit in the gallery overlooking Congress while the lawmakers are in session.
In spite of all the reasons his parents left Jesus behind, many of us have to confess that a number of the same themes are active in our lives. It is very difficult to keep our minds focused on being the person God designed us to be. The illusions of this world present themselves with such grand entrances and all of them require that we make choices.
For example, every day a number of us can become envious of the appearance of how another person looks. This is the theme of slick marketing techniques that also employ the use of very attractive models for various lines of clothing. We want that look, that hair-do, that stylish suit. We have to make choices, even though we know that our appearance will always be changing.
Viewers of many of today’s television commercials can be led to believe that their medical problems can be remedied by taking some of these melodic-sounding medications. Most commercials end with these words, “Ask your doctor if Avadart is right for you.” Listen to how pleasing these names sound: Toviaz, Spiriva, Abilify, Restatis, Plavix, Omnaris, Chantix, Lyrica and Boniva.
I was talking to two cardiac surgeons last week and they told me that they have never heard of some of these medications. Learn to listen very carefully to the verbal fine print. “If you experience blindness, or suicidal thoughts, call your doctor immediately.” Often we learn why the cure is far worse than our physical symptoms. Again, we have lots of choices to make.
We can become bored, disenchanted or we may completely lose interest in the community of faith that once nurtured that invisible world within us that controls everything from our attitudes to our sense of fulfillment. The demands of life can easily cause us to leave Jesus behind.
Recently, I had a reunion with someone who was in my youth group years ago. She said, “If I lived closer we would come to your church.” I asked “Why.” She responded, “My family and I are doing really well, but I miss all that spiritual stuff we used to talk about. Right now I have nothing going on in my life that even remotely reminds me of any of that stuff. Those discussions fascinated me, particularly when we talked about dying and what happens afterwards. I loved that stuff.”
Business as usual can cause us to leave behind everything Jesus came here to teach us. Too many people, who were once making decisions that enhanced their skills of spirit, have moved on with their lives. Such moving on is not necessarily wrong. What happens is that we learn to meet our spiritual needs through a multitude of physical achievements. We can easily leave the substance of Jesus’ teachings behind and never miss them.
I debated whether or not to read something to you, but because the Redskins have had such a disappointing season this year, the “yeas” won out. Someone took many of the excuses for why people stop attending church and applied them to why they no longer go to Redskins’ games. The analogy is absurd, but this little tongue-in-cheek piece can make us smile. It can also help us to remember some of our responses in the past or present. Here they are:
By placing our community of faith as a lower priority, we may have left Jesus behind. We can be remarkable role models as Moms and Dads. We can receive triple-A performance ratings in our work ethic in our profession. We can be generous in how we use our people skills. We can exhibit self-control over our passions and the excesses that have so easily derailed the lives of others. We can grow very comfortable being where we are while at the same time leaving Jesus behind.
Happily cruising through life is what made the former high school student say, “My family lives day to day, week to week. We’re having fun together. Yet, I still miss those discussions we used to have about all that spiritual stuff.”
What might jar us? What might give us a wake-up call? What might tell us that there is an important part of our lives that is starving to death? Perhaps there is an absence of ideas and activities that once made us stretch beyond our comfort levels. Maybe there is nothing pushing us, prodding us and inspiring us to develop a greater social consciousness. No one is shaking us out of our complacency and saying, “You’ve got a wonderful voice. Come and join the choir.”
Perhaps we thought we knew the nature of God very well. Then one day we questioned everything because God allowed the deaths of our two grandchildren who were killed in a car accident caused by a driver of the other car who had been using cocaine.
When our lives begin searching for greater meaning and purpose, that push is what can lead us into mission, i.e., doing something for others. It is in doing hands-on mission-work that we make critical discoveries that awaken our compassion and empathy for others who have no idea how to connect-the-dots that would help them make sense out of their lives. Even Jesus had nothing until he began to give away what he had discovered.
One Christmas a convicted felon wanted to assemble a group of inmates to form a choir. His hope was to bring a group of men and women prisoners together in order to perform a Christmas program. This particular prisoner was part of the Christian Prison Fellowship. He had been a piano man that had played the bar scene for years prior to the incident that placed him in prison. The warden very reluctantly gave permission.
The initial rehearsal was pure chaos. Everything imaginable happened. In fact, two men began fighting over a particular woman. As prison guards were moving in to quell the disturbance, a woman stood up and began screaming obscenities at everyone. There was instant quiet.What she said has been sanitized somewhat but in essence she said, “Sit down and shut up! Every one of you knows the kind of waste all of us have made out of our lives. You are behaving like animals! This man wants us to bring Jesus back into our lives by teaching us how to sing about his birth. Some of you think this is corny but I don’t think so. I think it’s darn nice that someone cares about us. You either sing or sit there and shut up so the rest of us can.”
He thanked her for her timely, insightful comments as he sat down at the piano he had just tuned with a crescent wrench. There sat rapists, murders, prostitutes, thieves, drug kingpins and the like. As they practiced, something happened to the group. They experienced a collective sense that for once in their lives they were doing something good. They were singing about what God had done. It was as if something took hold of them and they wanted their program to be the best performance ever.
From this motley crew the former piano man had built a choir with all four sections. Many of them had never tried to sing. Their performance was remarkable. The warden couldn’t believe it. Producing music about Jesus brought his spirit back into their lives. The mini-scolding by a sincere woman and the skills of a piano man reached out and touched them, allowing God to give their hardened spirits a new set of eyes.
We can easily leave Jesus behind as did his parents. What is remarkable is that it is never too late to turn around and retrace our steps until we find him again just as did Mary and Joseph. As we enter the New Year, let us be sure that we are taking Jesus with us into 2010.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Merciful God of creation, as we approach the dawning of the New Year, teach us how best to reflect on 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 painfully aware of the promises we made and did not keep, of relationships that we were going to mend, of habits we had hoped to change and of attitudes we were going to discard. A part of us longs for living faithfully a life that has learned how to make your presence visible. Yet another part of us knows that no one is forcing us to make the choices by which we are now living. Guide us to recognize how we can unite our hearts, minds and spirits so that the seeds we sow with our words and deeds might serve to heal others of their fears. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
What a year it has been, O God. There were times when our emotions were running high because of our economy, the level of our pension funds and the unemployment level affecting millions of families. There were other times when we could quiet ourselves, curl up on our sofa, and read a stimulating book. We come this morning on the last Sunday of the decade. It seems like yesterday that we were waiting for the arrival of Y2K and now another decade is about ready to pass. Where has the time gone? We ask once again for the guidance of your Holy Spirit as our lives continue to evolve and unfold.
Teach us why complaining about life’s woes never healed anyone. Guide us to understand why resistant attitudes never motivated us to roll up our sleeves in order to say, "Here am I, Lord! Send me." Teach us why our opinions are useless to those listening to us unless they are helpful, insightful and visionary. Help us to learn why laughter is so critical to the balance of life and why doing something helpful and wonderful for others enables us to rise above the cares that usually defeat us. Show us why our commitment to wholesome attitudes is as essential to living as is our being open to new possibilities.
As we enter the New Year, inspire us to be separated from old hurts, liberated from habits that obscure our loving spirits, and willing to embrace change as an opportunity that helps us to grow. Inspire us to find peace in our complete trust in your guidance so that it becomes such a part of our lives that fear no longer attempts to darken our spirits. We pray these thoughts through the loving spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .