Sunday, January 03, 2010

What Child is This?

Sirach 24:1-24:34

24Wisdom praises herself,
and tells of her glory in the midst of her people.
2In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth,
and in the presence of his hosts she tells of her glory:
3‘I came forth from the mouth of the Most High,
and covered the earth like a mist.
4I dwelt in the highest heavens,
and my throne was in a pillar of cloud.
5Alone I compassed the vault of heaven
and traversed the depths of the abyss.
6Over waves of the sea, over all the earth,
and over every people and nation I have held sway.
7Among all these I sought a resting-place;
in whose territory should I abide?

8‘Then the Creator of all things gave me a command,
and my Creator chose the place for my tent.
He said, “Make your dwelling in Jacob,
and in Israel receive your inheritance.”
9Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me,
and for all the ages I shall not cease to be.
10In the holy tent I ministered before him,
and so I was established in Zion.
11Thus in the beloved city he gave me a resting-place,
and in Jerusalem was my domain.
12I took root in an honored people,
in the portion of the Lord, his heritage.

Every year, in the week or two between Christmas and Epiphany, we concentrate on the humanity of Jesus. The baby, helpless in his mother’s arms, brought into the world in blood and pain just like all other babies. The young boy who asked the teachers in the Temple such amazing questions that they marveled at his understanding. Gospel stories tantalize us with stories that compare Jesus to Moses - the slaughter of all the babies in Bethlehem so much like the slaughter of all baby boys in Egypt, the family’s running to Egypt away from an angry king so much like Moses’ running away from Egypt’s angry king. All too soon – next week – it will be time to leave his childhood behind and celebrate his baptism, the beginning of his ministry.

It’s kind of hard, these couple of weeks after Christmas, to focus on big questions. We spend the four weeks of Advent preparing for the birth and for the return of the Christ. Meanwhile, outside of the church doors, we are preparing for the biggest holiday season of the year. Schools are closed, stores are open crazy hours, traffic is light on the freeways and insane around the malls. We spend all our energy getting to Christmas and once it’s over, well, it’s over. We are physically and emotionally worn out and thinking very hard about anything is more than we want to deal with right now.

But this is precisely when we look at one of the hardest of all questions. Who was the child of Bethlehem and why should we care?

The reading we heard this morning came from the Book of Sirach. I’m not entirely sure why it appeared in one of my Lectionary Commentaries for this week. It’s not part of the canonical Bible. Many of you won’t even be able to find it in your Bibles unless you have a study Bible or a Catholic Bible. It’s part of what is called the Apocrypha, or the Deuterocanonical books of the Bible. These are books of scripture that inform our beliefs and traditions but that weren’t considered quite as important as some other books when the Bible was put together back around the year 400. This particular book is one of my favorites to read. It is a wisdom book, like proverbs. And if you have been in the hospital, you may have heard me read the bit from Sirach that deals with why you should do what the doctor says.

This particular reading talks about Wisdom – how Wisdom has been in the world since the beginning. How Wisdom came forth from God’s mouth to cover the earth, present from the beginning and part of God and creation. And how God gave the people of Jacob to Wisdom to live with and be part of.

If we look at this passage next to John 1 we see amazing similarities.

John 1:1-5, In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

Aside from the difference in pronoun, the Word and Wisdom are described in exactly the same way – together with God, part of God, and necessary to creation.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses, grace and truth come through Jesus Christ.

And Wisdom was given to live in the tents of Jacob – the same people to whom Jesus, the Word, was sent. Wisdom came to the people of Israel through Moses and the law, and also through Jesus, the Word made flesh.

But unlike Moses and the law, Jesus was sent to all people. “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.”

Here is what I believe about that light and the coming of the Christ into the world. Over and over again God told his people how to live. The law of Moses was filled with instructions on how to care for the poor and the helpless. Even with how to redistribute possessions in Jubilee years so that everyone could start off on equal footing again. Over and over Israel would forget, so judges and prophets were sent to remind Israel that God’s desire is for all people to take care of each other, to love each other the way God loves us. To be merciful and compassionate. To turn their backs on those oh so tempting false gods of greed and lust for power. And Israel forgot again.

So a child was born, and that child grew in stature and wisdom, like all the prophets and judges before him. And into that child God poured Wisdom, the Word. For the first time, the Word that was present at the beginning became flesh and did not just speak to the people, but lived what God had trying to get through to us all along. That child grew into a man who would stand between the adulteress and her accusers and remind the accusers to be compassionate toward other sinners. A man who sat down to eat with the very dregs of society. A man who did not consider himself better than anyone else but reached out his hands in love to everyone equally. A man who even forgave the people who put him to death, and asked God to do the same.

This man, the child of Bethlehem, the Word made flesh, came for the salvation of the world. We all know that. But we may not all mean the same thing when we say “salvation.” For some that means “if I believe in Jesus the way the church tells me I’m supposed to believe then I will go to heaven after I die.”

I’ve heard this a lot lately. As you know, I’ve been in Texas for my brother’s funeral. And I heard way too many people say things like “he’s so much better off than we are right now.” Or “now his real life can begin, his life with Christ.”

I don’t believe either of those things. Yes, I take comfort in knowing that my brother is no longer suffering the way he was. I believe that he is with God and that I will be reunited with him some day. I believe that his work here is done and now he gets to rest. But I don’t believe that real life begins at death any more than I believe my work will begin when I retire. I believe that our real life is here and now and that what God wants us to do is leave the world a better place because we were in it. I believe God wants us to remember that we are all created equally, all loved equally, all valued equally, and that we’re supposed to treat each other equally. I believe that Christ, the Word made flesh, came to save the world from itself – to heal us of our sinful ways and to teach us how to bring God’s kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. I believe that if we allow Jesus to touch our hearts, if we take his example seriously and don’t let statements like “well, he was perfect. We’re can’t be expected to be like him” keep us from doing our best, then we can change the world.

We’re not going to do things perfectly. But that just means we still have a lot to learn, as the boy in the Temple we heard about last week was still learning. Like him, we are children. But we can grow, as Kate reminded us. As Jesus grew, in knowledge and understanding.

I believe we make a mistake when we pack away the nativity scenes – when we put the Baby Jesus in a box for the rest of the year. I believe we need to remember that Wisdom, the Word made flesh, our Lord and Savior, was not always an adult. I believe we need to remember that he began his life as a child, helpless and weak, so that we will know that we too, can grow into adulthood in God’s sight. I believe we need to come back from time to time during the year, and ask again “What Child is This.”

No comments: