Readings: 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26; Luke 2:41-52
(Combined Service at Wembley Downs Church of Christ)
Quite a jump in our readings for today - from birth narrative to preteen story! Presumably our lectionary producers are seeing parallels between the dedication and call of Samuel and the call of Jesus to be about his Father`s business. Possibly there is also a theme of `gifting` going on here too.
But have we not just exhausted this whole `gift` idea? Last Thursday in Adelaide`s 41C heat I was thankful to take my granddaughter to see the film The Grinch who stole Christmas. Some of you may have been to see it too. For those who don`t know the Dr Seuss story, the Grinch is a bitter, grouchy, cave-dwelling creature with a heart `two sizes too small`, living as a hermit on high mountain just north of the town of Whoville, home of the merry and warm-hearted Whos. But the Grinch just doesn`t understand what all this Christmas fuss is about - it has no meaning for him; in fact he hates it so much that he decides one Xmas Eve to take away all the gifts from all the homes while the Whos are sleeping.
Now you might think I`m being a bit of a Grinch with what I`m about to say too. Last Sunday the person leading worship at our Uniting Church shared a video clip of someone speaking about how God sent his son to earth, God gave us his son. And I thought does this phrasing really have any meaning in today`s world? It actually comes out of the concept two thousand years ago of God as an all powerful entity in the heavenly domain, separated from the earth by the dome of the sky, like a cake cover over a flat plate.The priests claimed contact with God happened only through the holy of holies in the temple in Jerusalem as the centre of the earth.
Perhaps it`s little wonder then that Luke starts with Jesus in the temple assuring followers that Jesus was indeed raised in a faithful Jewish atmosphere, immersed in Judaism since his youth. But Luke is also flagging a new beginning because Jesus was to go on to proclaim a very different understanding of God as directly present with us even in the ordinariness, the struggles and the messiness of human life. In doing so Jesus drastically shifts the power dynamics even to naming God as a caring father.
The rest of this gospel then reveals how, in sharing this inclusive understanding widely through parable and action of God Immanuel = God present-with-us, Jesus actually ended up in considerable conflict with Jewish authorities over how to interpret God`s presence and purposes. He was destroying the whole cosmological, theological basis for their power - little wonder he was eliminated.
The early Christian church in moving out into the Greek Roman world, tried to put this awareness, this new concept, into words and came up with some credibility terminology like `God sent his son` and various creedal statements.
But surely for us in the 21st century, many of these phrases are past their use-by date? Not only has our whole understanding of the universe been blown apart in our lifetime but also patriarchal frameworks are crumbling and being replaced by other power structures.
As I sat there last Sunday I realised that my own understanding of who or what God is has shifted too. I no longer believe in an anthropomorphic God - God as a masculine figure - and if the truth be told neither does much of the next generation in the western world.
What I do believe in however is a sense of energy, a life-force that permeates and binds our world, a dynamic engaging with us in a two way flow of spirit. One theologian has named this as The More. And I suspect our young people do have a sense of something more than our materialistic world - it`s just that they can`t go along with our outdated language and concepts and stories.
Take the story of Samuel - his father Elkannah has two wives one of whom called Hannah is childless. On one occasion in her desperation Hannah goes to the sanctuary at Shiloh and prays for a child. In tears, she vowed that if she were granted a child, she would give him up to God to serve as a Nazirite. Eli, the priest, saw her apparently mumbling to herself and thought she was drunk, but was soon assured of her motivation and sobriety. Eli blessed her and she returned home. Subsequently Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to Samuel. Hannah`s exultant hymn of thanksgiving resembles in several points Mary`s later Magnificat.
But then comes the bit no mother can understand - After the child was weaned, she took him back to Shiloh and left him in Eli`s care, and today we hear how each year she would come to visit her son with the gift of a new robe she has woven. It leaves modern listeners with the uneasy question `What sort of God is this who would demand such sacrifice?` It`s the same question which arises in response to the death of Jesus being seen in terms of atonement theology. As an adult I have the choice of serving, even to sacrificing my life, but surely morally no-one else should make that choice for me?
Twelve years old is the beginning of adulthood in Judaism and today we hear that it is Jesus himself who makes the choice to be about God`s interests. In choosing to serve God`s purposes, he places his own identity and mission within a particular value system based on caring compassion. Of course in doing so Jesus gifted us with so much including the visioning of inclusive community termed the `kingdom of God` which we seek to uphold in our church communities.
I think we grew up in an era which valued and tried to follow his concept of serving others above ourselves. But many people today seem confused about identity and vocation, about who they are and their own mission in life. This is particularly (though by no means exclusively) true of Millennials. But I do see something emerging from this.
Going into the New Year we as church folk may well be concerned about how the Jesus story will be passed on. But just this past week I read something along the lines of how going to the cinema has replaced going to church in terms of how it bonds families in shared space and how our movies are upholding values like in a sacred story. You might like to look up online Ryan Duncan`s article `10 lessons learned from Super Hero movies` which names these as Real courage demonstrates compassion - Your actions can inspire others - We can overcome prejudice - Women can be strong too - Don`t be defined by what you were - We are stronger together - You don`t need to be great to be good - There is value in our differences - It`s not about you - The power of self-sacrifice. Maybe we should try engaging in religious discourse with young people through the showing of such movies!
And so I return to the Grinch movie - I won`t give the plot away but the film ended something along the lines of these words `Christmas Day will always be, Just as long as we have we. Welcome Christmas while we stand, Heart to heart and hand in hand. And as to the rest, kindness and love are the gifts that are best.` And I thought well that was a wonderful counterbalance to the madness of the post Christmas sales which we were about to go out to!
As we move into this New Year, let us not lose heart but rather let us continue to claim our own identities as Jesus followers and witnesses wherever we find ourselves. We may well feel daunted at times by frailty or life`s struggles but don`t forget, whether young or old or in between, we too have many gifts to share.
And so I now end with a prayer on behalf of us all which I have taken from Margaret Silf`s book Landmarks. Holy One
- I place into your hands, my liberty. It sets me free to love and to serve. It gives me the great gifts of choice and self-determination.
- I place into your hands, my memory. It draws me back to times and places past, where I have known your touch upon my life. It leads me through my history to your mystery.
- I place into your hands, my understanding. It leads me deeply into your Truth. . . as well as revealing the narrow spaces of my own little truths. It gives me insight to help me understand the way others respond to life.
- I place into your hands, my imagination. It carries me to the heavens, as a firework bursts across the night sky. It leads me into heart knowledge, spanning time and space to make all things present. It kindles the flame of your Truth in the darkness of my own mind.
- I place into your hands, the power to feel. My feelings draw me into the depth and joy of love. They invite my life-stream to pour into yours. They open my arms and my heart and unlock my griefs and my longings.
- I place into your hands, my entire will. Once, when time began, it was in harmony with yours before sin fragmented your creation, and every creature took hold of its own little world.
- You have given me these precious gifts, the first-born fruits of the love that flows between us. And to you, Holy One, I return them. You are their author and I commit them into your authority. Do with them as you will