By Bruce G. Epperly
Christmas 1, Year C
I Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Luke 2: 41-52
Theme: Spiritual growth
Location: Disciples United Community Church, Lancaster, PA
It is good to see so many of you here this morning! Traditionally, the Sundays after Easter and Christmas are considered “low” Sundays in the Christian year, opportunities for pastors and parishioners alike to take a much needed rest after the rigors of Holy Week and the Christmas season.
Here we are on New Year’s Eve, and we barely had the chance to celebrate Christmas, at least in the church! Christmas comes and goes so quickly that the fact that we are still in the Christmas season, at least according to the calendar of the Christian year, often eludes us. I often wonder why we get four Sundays of Advent and five in Lent, traditionally seasons of contemplation and repentance, and only one Sunday for Christmas celebration! It hardly seems fair that we must pack up the crèche and retire the Christmas carols after only two weeks, and that’s if we’re lucky. Perhaps, we can’t take too much celebration in the life of the church!
But the work of theological reflection and spiritual growth continues all year round, even on “low Sunday,” for the memories of Christmas recently past remind us that we must work hard to keep the spirit of the incarnation – God with us – alive in our ordinary lives, once the “ official” season has past. But, we must treasure these memories, if we are to see God’s surprising and transforming presence in the midst of our occupations, avocations, and daily chores.
Still, we ask “what good word can we hold onto in the afterglow between Christmas and New Year’s?” Caught between the hope “to keep Christmas all year round” and the often fruitless compiling of “New Year’s resolutions,” what word of healing and challenge shall we claim to bring joy and purpose to the days ahead? What image shall we affirm in order to truly bring the spirit of the Christ child to ordinary moments of our every day lives?
As I read this week’s passages, I was caught by the descriptions of two young men, both of whom were contemplating their future vocations – Samuel, the Hebraic religious leader, and Jesus, the son of Mary and Joseph, our savior, teacher, and healer. Samuel grows “in stature and favor with God and with the people.” Jesus increases “in wisdom and in stature and in divine and human favor.” Indeed, the child of the manger is growing up, and must appropriately distance himself from his parents in true adolescent fashion!
Growing in wisdom and stature! One of my favorite professors, the late Bernard Loomer spoke of “size” as the most significant value in theology and spirituality. Size, or what I call “stature,” or largeness of spirit, is at the heart of a growing and healthy faith. Size, that is, how much of the world in its wonderful variety and challenging contrast can you embrace without losing your personal center. Persons of stature have large images of God and God’s presence in our lives, and see God’s work as cosmic, over billions of years and in billions of galaxies, rather than simply focused on the earth and human beings. Persons of stature in religion, politics, and business, look beyond their own interests and the even the interests of their country to the good of the whole. What happens to others is almost as important as what happens to them!
At Christmas many of us, in spite of conspicuous consumption of material goods, food, and alcohol, also experience new stature. For a moment, like Ebenezer Scrooge, our souls expand and we see beauty in unlikely places. We resolve to be “born again” to a larger self and larger scope of care. We experience a glimpse of God’s presence in otherwise ordinary and grumpy co-workers and family members, and for a moment, we dream of peace on earth, as we rejoice in acts of giving. This is good news indeed, but sadly the joy fades and we go back to business as usual, as if the busyness of life requires us to return to superficial and competitive living.
We don’t keep the spirit of Christmas, in part, because we fail to live by the practices of stature now that we’re on our own with little cultural or liturgical support. Perhaps, at the turn of the year, today’s passages can give us some a pathway and practices to experiencing greatest of soul all year long.
Psalm 148 cries out in joyful praise. The “bells on Christmas day” need not be stilled. Deep down for those who have eyes to see, the universe praises God. Yes, there is the tragic conflict in Iraq, the fear of terrorism, concern for the economy, childhood abuse and trauma, inadequate health care for Americans, and our own daily challenges, and no theology of stature can deny this. But, there is also the harmony of the spheres as all things, even the cells of our bodies, praise God. Theological and spiritual stature is grounded in awareness and wonder – the recognition of the beauty of life and the dynamic order of the universe. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke of “radical amazement” as the primary religious virtue, and think how amazing this life truly is – spinning at incredible speed, rotating and lurching forward, we seem to be standing still; sunrise and sunset mark the beginning and ending of each day; the love of furry friend; the face of a new born; or that familiar face over the breakfast table or at your weekly lunch date. It is deep down a truly “wonderful life” – beneath the atrocities that are only part of the story, divine order guides the stars and our lives. Perhaps, our own inability to experience wonder has something to do with the violence, alienation, and indifference that characterize much of our lives as persons as well as the actions of political leaders. What would our politics and personal life be like if, with each day and each encounter, we would proclaim, “This is the day that God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!”
Jesus’ temple experience serves as a model for growing in wisdom and stature. On the verge of adulthood, Jesus is drawn to the temple for theological reflection and questioning. Lured by the opportunity to share in the wisdom of his faith, he forgets all about his parents and the rules of his household. Like his later forty day spiritual retreat in the wilderness, Jesus’ three days in the temple were a pivotal point in his spiritual evolution, and they are a guide for our own spiritual growth. Jesus grew in spiritual stature by claiming his faith tradition faithfully and then extending its experiential and theological boundaries to new horizons.
Growing in wisdom and stature calls us to take our faith seriously enough to study scripture, wrestle with traditional theological doctrines, explore new images of God, Christ, and salvation, and spend time in prayer, meditation, and service. A growing faith is not accidental, but requires going to our own spiritual “temple” regularly to listen, ask, and share.
Even Jesus was unfinished and incomplete. He had to claim his vocation and his tradition before he could become our teacher, healer, and savior. And so, he asked questions and shared insights.
As Christians, we are called to be “large-souled persons.” In Philippians, the apostle Paul describes this process in terms of having “the mind of Christ.” Colossians provides similar guidance for those who wish to embody Christ in thought, word, and deed. Christian growth integrates spirituality, theology, and ethics. “Clothe yourselves with compassion . . . clothe yourselves with love.” In other words, let your face to the world be one of loving relatedness. To have the mind of Christ is to see Christ in everyone and treat everyone as if he or she is Christ’s beloved son or daughter.
Colossians counsels us to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” Take time to listen to Christ’s presence within you in seasons of prayer and meditation. In every moment of life, the word of God wells up within us. God is always inspiring us, if we open our spirits to God’s leading. Through our spiritual practices, we hear and respond to that inner word of God in ourselves and all things.
“Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of Jesus, giving thanks to God through him.” The “omnipresence” of God is one of the most practical doctrines of the church. It reminds us that God is everywhere – there are no God-forsaken moments or persons – and that we are always on “holy ground” and always encountering “holy people.” We shape each others’ present and future experiences in every encounter, and by these encounters bring beauty or ugliness to the world and to God’s experience of the world.
Finally, “let the peace of Christ dwell in your hearts.” Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead noted that peace involves the expansion of the self beyond its typical boundaries to embrace the well-being of others and the planet. In the peace that passes understanding, we participate in eternity, growing beyond “us” and “them” by befriending the universe. Today, growing in wisdom and stature, experiencing a larger self, is not just a matter of personal joy, but planetary survival. Can we expand the boundaries of our hearts to embrace life beyond our national self-interest? Can we see global well-being and security as important as our own national security? Can we provide the resources necessary for every child to have a healthy diet and the opportunity to grow in mind, body, and spirit, regardless of their place of birth?
Yes, what we need at the turn of the year is greater “stature.” On this “low” Sunday, we can commit ourselves to a “high” spirituality. We can commit ourselves to daily practices of stature – to daily meditation, to radical hospitality and welcome, to a growing understanding of God through study, and to service that changes the world. Then, we will grow with Jesus, and we will feel the spirit of the incarnation throughout the year, for we will, “grow in wisdom and stature and favor with God and humankind.”
Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.