Sunday 30 December 2018: First Sunday of Christmas/The Holy Family
The God-gift that keeps on giving
Colossians 3:12-21; Luke 2:41-52
By Paul Johns
Methodist Local Preacher and former Director of The College of Preachers
Context: a large dormitory village church, with a high proportion of professional people, active and retired, in the congregation; mostly middle-aged and older but with some ‘20 somethings’ too
Aim: to suggest that Jesus the child and the ‘cosmic Christ’ are one and the same, the climax of God’s creation; and that sharing the gift of Christian peace with others makes us God’s co-creators
Have you opened all your Christmas presents? Presents – some presents at any rate – can change your life. Giving presents, at its best, is a creative thing to do. You’ll see what I mean later – I hope!
God gave Mary and Joseph a present. It certainly changed their lives. With the baby came responsibility. In Luke’s story, as we’ve just heard, Jesus was lost then found. Responsible parents don’t lose their children. However I don’t think Luke wants us to discuss parenting this morning. For him, ‘lost’ and ‘found’ are symbolic.
Jesus is ‘lost’ to his parents. He is moving into a world of experience beyond their understanding. He is ‘found’ beginning to follow his calling to do God’s business. And for Luke, the important thing is where Jesus is found – in the Temple.
The Temple was the focal point of faith and hope for Jesus’ people, for the whole Jewish nation. It was the central place for the teaching of the Law of Moses. It was the place where, each year, the story of the Passover, of national liberation, was remembered. It was the place where, each year, atonement was made for the sins of the nation. It was God’s earthly dwelling place, among God’s people. The Temple could hardly be more important.
Jesus’ mission and ministry were rooted in the faith and practice of his people’s religion, tied up with the Temple. Obedient to the Law, his parents took him, as a baby to the Temple. They took him again when he was twelve (as we’ve just heard) for Passover, at his coming of age. We don’t know how many more times Jesus entered the Temple. But we do know that, at the end of his life, an angry Jesus overturned the tables of exploitation in the Temple. He taught in the Temple; healed the sick in the Temple; laid claim to the Temple.
It was the Temple authorities, Sadducees, who were mainly responsible for the trial and condemnation of Jesus. And, in Luke’s thinking, the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, in AD 70, with all its symbolic importance, was a confirmation. It was a confirmation that, by his death and resurrection, and by his presence in the Holy Spirit, on the move through the Roman Empire, Jesus Christ in himself had displaced the Jewish Temple as God’s dwelling on earth. That’s a huge creative move; a huge God-gift to humankind.
We’ve moved a long way from the gift of a baby in a stable. And now we go even further. We come to our reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae.
The new church of Jesus was on the move, spreading from Jerusalem, taking root in the commercial cities of the Roman Empire. But it took its Jewish teaching with it. The Hebrew scriptures became Christian scriptures by adoption. In particular this belief remained: that God is the great good giver. God’s creation demonstrates God’s goodness and God’s power. So wrote Paul to the church in Rome (Romans 1:20).
Writing to the church in Colossae, Paul went further. He had to; because, it seems, some Christians in Colossae had become captivated by a different belief about God and creation. Creation wasn’t altogether good. It was a battleground between good and evil. There were mysterious evil forces to be placated by special rituals (Colossians 2:16,17). The implication is clear: it’s not enough to believe in Jesus.
Paul’s answer to that is a glorious sweeping assertion about Jesus Christ. By death and resurrection, Christ has already conquered the dark forces of evil. And how? Creatively on the cross. And more than that: Christ was, as it were, in on the beginning of creation. ‘In him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible ...’ (Colossians 1:15,16). The traditional Jewish understanding of a good God and a good creation is swept up into something even bigger. Christ is a truly cosmic figure.
Cosmic Christ? Now, surely, first with Luke then with Paul we really have left the little Bethlehem baby, whimpering in his mother’s arms, a long way behind! Or have we? Perhaps not. For isn’t the Bethlehem birth of Jesus part of the story of God’s creation? And isn’t the reconciliation in Christ of creation with its Creator God’s greatest gift to us?
In the passage we heard read from Colossians Paul tells people to ‘put on love … forgive as the Lord has forgiven you … let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts … the word of Christ dwell in you richly ...’. Why would he say that? Because there were disputes in the church which needed resolving? Probably ‘yes’. Because he wanted to say that we don’t need rituals to ward off evil spirits, all we need is to follow Christ’s example? Again, probably ‘yes’.
But is he saying something more? Perhaps this. If Christ Jesus is God’s supreme gift, the Word at the heart of creation, then, when we practise forgiveness, peace and love we are not just dutifully obeying Jesus. We are giving each other gifts, sharing the gift that God has given us, and thus changing lives by our giving, spreading the new creation. And these are everyday gifts, not just Christmas gifts.
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