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F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Epiphany I - 1/10/10 Ruth 2:1-20a, 4:13-17; Ps. 84; Rom. 12:1-5; Lk. 2:41-52
This first Sunday after Epiphany focuses in the Gospel on that visit of the 12 year old Jesus to the Temple.
But, let us look first at the other lessons to see what they might have to contribute concerning Jesus in the Temple.
The beautiful story of Ruth rests like a peaceful gem between two rather sordid periods of Hebrew history, between the Book of Judges and the Book of I Samuel. The Book of Judges told of the violent ups and downs of Hebrew society and of their come-and-go faithfulness to the Lord during the period of the Judges. The tribes had become politically and spiritually unstable, unable to function without some charismatic leader who would pull them together to fight off the continually invading pagan tribes on their borders.
A sociologist today would look at the situation with dismay. There was no capital city, no central government, only a loose federation of tribes which as often as not were in competition with each other -- not to be the most faithful to God, but to be one up on each other. The judges they had who ruled in a very informal way were a motley bunch, some of whom were more part of the problem than the solution, such as Samson. There was very little structure of any sort which could keep the 12 competing tribes united on their course to become a blessing to the whole earth.
To escape a famine in the land, Elimelech and his wife Naomi traveled from Bethlehem to nearby pagan Moab where their two sons married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Her husband and two sons died there, but Naomi heard that the famine had passed and decided to return to her family home in Bethlehem. Orpah stayed in Moab, but Ruth insisted on returning with Naomi.
In the lesson we get just a very brief glimpse of the relation between Ruth and Boaz, who became man and wife under the Hebrew custom of a relative marrying a woman in a fatherless family to give that family offspring so that the family name can be carried on.
Ruth bears a child to Boaz, over whom the women of the town rejoice and give him the name, Obed. The women say, "He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daugher-in-law who loves you... has borne him." Obed will be a restorer of life not only because he can care for Naomi in her old age, but because he, the son of Naomi and Boaz, will carry on the family line.
And that is the whole point of why the Book of Ruth is in the Bible. We read, "The women of the town named him Obed; he was the father of Jesse, the father of... David." That means that Ruth, a pagan Gentile woman living maybe 1100 years before Christ, would become an ancestor of the Messiah, Jesus, who at 12 visits the Temple those 1100 years later.
This, of course, reflects our Epiphany season, which
is about the Gentiles becoming heirs in Christ to the Kingdom of God. It began
long before the wisemen visited the baby Jesus. And, the Jews, as the story
indicated by being included in the Scriptures, had no problem adopting Ruth into
their midst. Ruth's faithfulness to Naomi endeared her to them.
Psalm 84 is, I think, one of the most beautiful of the Psalms. It is specifically about the Temple, the dwelling place of the Lord, and how blessed he, the writer, is to be able to worship and praise God there, the same Temple which, again, Jesus will visit several hundred years later.
"Blessed is the man whose strength is in Thee; in whose heart are Thy ways. Who, going through the vale of misery, use it for a well; and the pools are filled with water."
"For one day in Thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather be a door-keeper in the house of my God than to dwell in the tents of ungodliness."
The sheiks among the migrating sheep herders dwelt in
tents, sometimes in legendary splendor, and often with ungodliness. But
the Temple, as Jesus later would say, was to be a house of prayer for all
people, a place to meet God, not a place for money-lender extortion.
The Temple theme of sacrifice begins Paul's words for today, "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service."
The theme continues with his image of the Body of Christ, the Church, which is the Temple of God, as Peter says elsewhere, with ourselves the living stones. The people of God become the real Temple, through which God manifests His glory in their lives and relationships. We are the Temple of God. And in that Temple Jesus wants to dwell. That is why Jesus tells the woman at the well in John 4, that "the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship Him."
The place will not matter. What will matter will be
our relationship, our communion with each other united in our communion with God
through Christ. The right relationship will turn any place into heaven.
But in the Gospel for today, no high theology, just, it seems, a 12-year old boy whom his parents have inadvertently left behind, sitting in the Temple having discussions which astonish the doctors of the law.
I have often wondered, what are we supposed to get out of this rather strange story, strange because it seems to put Jesus in a bad light with respect to his human parents. But it tells us something about Jesus -- that by the time He was 12, He knew who was His real Father. "How is it that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?" And, he was not referring to his human father, Joseph, but His heavenly Father.
And, why is that important? It tells us that by the time we are 12, we ought also to know who our real Father is, our Father who art in heaven. We ought by 12 to have a living relationship with our Father who is in heaven. We ought by that time to be praying that His will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. We should be receiving our food from His hand, our forgiveness at His throne, and our freedom from temptation by His grace and mercy -- all by the time we are 12.
The story is telling us something about how we are to
grow up, how we are to become spiritual adults in the world.
In Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus (in John, chapter 3) Jesus tells Nicodemus that if he wants to see the Kingdom of God, he must be born again. His first birth, allows him to see the kingdom of Judea, the kingdom of Rome, the kingdom of Greece, but not the Kingdom of God. For that, he must be born again, or from above. He had to become a child of God.
Nicodemus was lost. He did wondered whether Jesus meant that he had to get back into his mother's womb to be born over again. But, no, he had done that first birth just fine. He had emerged a strong, well-trained Jewish leader. There was a different kind of birth. But what kind of "different"?
Nicodemus, like the rest of us, became a Jewish adult by being mothered and fathered by his Jewish parents. They conceived him, brought him into the world, and raised him in the Jewish religion. He was no longer being mothered and fathered by his human parents, but he needed to come to the place where he was being mothered and fathered by God Himself.
Our mothers give us that first powerful gift of grace, the ability to be ourselves. They communicate to us that "power of being", the sense that being me is a good thing, that I am on stabile ground, and that I can stand secure in my relationships with other people. But my human mother is giving me something which comes from God, not from her. She is a channel for that power of being to flow through to me and others around her.
Our fathers give us our sense of authority, our moral sense, our sense of right and wrong, and point us out into the world. And, likewise, those gifts are really from God, our human father being a channel from God to ourselves.
Both our mothers and our fathers should point us on
to God as the true Source of those gifts, for which they have been the channels
Jesus was the perfect Child, and so the perfect example for all the rest of us. None of us gets to 12 and has our relationship with God all wrapped up. Most of us spend the rest of our lives working out our relationship with God, overcoming the damage done by bad parenting, and overcoming the bad decisions we ourselves made while growing up.
We are all familiar with the virtues of good parenting, that there are such virtues. But the story of Jesus suggests also another virtue, the ability to be a good child. We think of childhood as something we want to outgrow in order to become free-standing, independent adults. But that is not God's plan, as He indicated to Nicodemus. Childing is something we are supposed to grow into, not out of. We are to learn how to be children of God.
The emerging adult in us wants to think that one day, I will be all adult, all independent, self-sufficient, and self-determining. That will never happen -- unless you happen to be God. We creatures will always be children at the core of our being because we are dependent at the core of our being. But being children leaves us vulnerable. How can we protect ourselves in a messed up world?
Learning to rest our dependency on the Hand of God is the solution, being born again, as Jesus says, into the family of God. The only way we can be adults in the world is to first become children in God. I can be independent in the world only by becoming dependent in God.
The logic is clear. If I am dependent still on something, some person or group in the world, I will be a child of that person or group. Only if I move the dependency for my security, my sense of being, my personhood -- from that person to God Himself -- can I be an adult with respect to that person. Persons upon whom I depend for essential things are persons who have control over my life. No one but God should have that role.
The same is true of obedience. I must move my ultimate obedience to God Himself, not to any human or earthly being. Only as I am obedient to God supremely can I be free from false and destructive authority on earth. That is the principle upheld in our Declaration of Independence -- that our freedoms, our rights, come from God alone, not from civil government. Only so can we citizens be adults with respect to our government rather that its children. Only so can we govern our governors.
That is the adulthood suggested by that curious event with Jesus and his human parents at the Temple. "Wist ye not that I must be about my Fathers business?" Jesus was telling his parents that God was now His Parent. It was the beginning of His homecoming, His awareness of who He was, the only begotten Son of God, a homecoming made final at the Ascension up to heaven after the Resurrection.
Assuming that Jesus came to His human birth like the rest of us, not knowing who we are or where we are going, but finding out from our openness and sensitivity to life around us, He began with the same ignorance about ultimate things as we do. But His perfect openness and teachable spirit led Him quickly to the truths about life that take most of us most of our lives to complete -- and maybe then some...
But even in His childhood, Jesus was teaching us -- a profound lesson on how to grow up into strong, stable, secure adulthood, adults who can stand straight and tall in the midst of a fallen and often treacherous world. Because, as Jesus said, He relied wholly upon His Father for the provision for His needs in the world, and He obeyed wholly what the Father was asking of Him, He could be the adult in a world of pseudo-adults, a world of pretenders.
Jesus came to give us, His people, that kind of
childhood and adulthood. To be an adult in the world, we must first be children
in God, born again -- into the family of God. Being, then, all children of the
same Father, we become brothers and sisters among ourselves. The world can do
none of that. It can only pretend. The world cannot solve the problems of
dependency and obedience, and so remains always in an immature and ultimately
self-destructive state of dependency and moral confusion.
Lord, teach us how to be children so that we too can be about our Father's business.
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