Knowing & Doing What We Ought

This is a version of my sermon from Sunday 12 January.

Welcome to Epiphanytide!  Following on the heels of the Christmas season, Epiphany is about the revelation or manifestation of God’s glory in Jesus.  Two of the biggest events in the Gospel narrative that get this season started are the arrival of the Magi to visit the infant Jesus and the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River.  In addition to those two, the verses of this hymn also take up the themes of the rest of this season’s Gospel readings, as they each point us to the divinity of Christ in his life and ministry.

Today’s epiphany story is about the child Jesus in the Temple.

It’s our only story in the Bible about Jesus’ childhood.  Some brief comments about the story:

  • The pilgrimage to Jerusalem that Mary, Joseph, & family was taking was a requirement of the Law of Moses – every Jew (at least every male of age) had to go to Jerusalem for the three major feasts of the Jewish calendar.  Often a whole clan would travel together in a large group, so it’s not all that surprising that Joseph and Mary lost track of Jesus in that crowd.
  • When they did lose track of him, they searched for him diligently or worriedly.  The Greek verb used there is αναζητουν which is an intensified version of the regular word for “search.”
  • In explaining himself, Jesus reveals that he knows that God is his Father.  This is an epiphany of sorts.  Though Mary and Joseph already knew this, the reality and implications of that probably hit them in a new way that day.  Nevertheless, Jesus committed to be obedient to his earthly parents.

In Adam Clarke’s famous Bible Commentary, seven lessons about the human heart are revealed in this story.

  1. An inattentive heart can lose track of God even in the midst of worship (such as this pilgrimage).
  2. We don’t notice when we lose track of God; we continue to assume that we’re in his special favor (as it took Mary & Joseph a day to realize Jesus was missing).
  3. When we do realize our loss of attention (or especially sin) we must diligently seek him again.
  4. When in spiritual danger or loss of attention, we often turn to the wrong people for help (as Mary & Joseph first searched among their relatives).
  5. When sin is discovered, repent!  Don’t press on, turn back and start afresh (as they went back to Jerusalem).
  6. Jesus is best found in the Temple.  Today that means the Church; don’t go it alone, but return to the Church community, communion, and fellowship when facing tough times.
  7. Suffering with Christ is bearable; suffering without Christ is hellish.  (Notice that Joseph and Mary never seemed worried when they fled to Egypt because they had Jesus with them.  But once they lost track of him on the pilgrimage, they were worried!)

Unlike his parents, Jesus knew what he ought to do.

So the big comparison that we’ve got before us here is the contrast between Joseph & Mary and Jesus.  The key verse for us today is Luke 2:49 – “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s things?” This is commonly translated either “in my Father’s house” or “about my Father’s business.  The translation I’ve provided here is a more literal rendition of the Greek, indicating the fact that it could go either way in terms of “house” or “business.”  With this vagueness of language, Jesus’ place and mission are gathered together into one.  Today’s collect also latches onto this point:

O LORD, we beseech you mercifully to receive the prayers of your people who call upon you; and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

We are called to be like Jesus in knowing where we belong and what we’re supposed to do in life, and not like Mary & Joseph who in this instance were having to run around to get themselves sorted out again.  But this, of course, brings us to some of the biggest questions Christians like to ask these days: “what is God’s vision of who I am, and what is his will for my life?”

How do we seek God’s will and follow it, like Jesus?

Today’s epistle reading exhorts us how to pursue this union with God’s will.  The first three verses, in particular, speak powerfully to this sort of question.

First, offer your bodies as a living sacrifice.  Notice what’s plural and what’s singular here.  We each offer our own selves to God, but together we offer one living sacrifice.  This corporate action of self-offering (also called oblation) is fundamental to the Eucharist – it is only possible to offer ourselves to God as a holy sacrifice because of the perfect sacrifice of Christ which makes us holy.

Second, rather than being conformed to the patterns of this world, we are to find transformation from Christ himself as we offer ourselves to him as one holy sacrifice.  In other words, we’re told to allow this spiritual act of worship to transform our minds from worldly to heavenly.  Then we will begin to align with God’s will in discerning what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Third, we must beware exalted individualism: do not think more highly of yourself than you ought.  This is serious!  As verses 3 through 5 remind us, we are part of a whole.  That one holy living sacrifice of Christ is the sacrifice that each become united to and it’s that one holy living sacrifice of Christ that makes any of us holy.  Our individual spiritual worth is staked upon our membership in the Church.  Sure, verse 5 says that we do not all have the same function, so our roles are different, yet our basic identity is the same: Christ.

In sum, the opening verses of Romans 12 remind us that seeking God’s will begins in corporate worship.

This sets the paradigm for “seeking God’s will” in a very different way than popular Christian culture would suggest.

In light of Romans 12’s corporate emphasis we’re better off asking not “what is God’s will for my life,” but rather “what is God’s will for us all?”  Suddenly, answers abound:

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?  Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?  Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?  Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”  He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

This is a powerful moment of dialogue between Micah the Prophet and God.  Micah asks (quite eloquently) what he is supposed to do to honor God, and the answer, quite bluntly, is that God has already told us what to do: justice, love, and walk humbly before God.  Jesus does much the same thing in his famous Sermon on the Mount as he teaches at length about personal holiness befitting God’s people.  Even St. Paul adds his voice to this chorus of powerful answers about what it means to do God’s will:

Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.  If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal… Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away… So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Too often, seeking God’s will for MY life is an escape from being accountable for God’s will for ALL of us.  Seriously, when you peruse the Christian bookstore the resemblance to a regular bookstore’s “Self-Help” section is sometimes painfully obvious.  We read Micah 6 or Matthew 5-7 or 1 Corinthians 12-13 and we say “it’s hard to live that way!  Can’t I just have some basic specific instructions from God for my life instead?”  And thus began the downfall of that once-noble class: the Pharisees.  Yes, it’s difficult to live the way Jesus commanded us to live.  But let’s not forget, it was difficult for Jesus to be obedient to two fathers when he was a child sitting in the Temple talking with the teachers.  He knows what it’s like to have a hard life with hard choices.

All this amounts to one basic exhortation: go back to basics – we need to read the Scriptures and we need to pray.  As another pastor in my diocese recently said:

If you want to know what heaven is like, read the bible, not Colton Burbo. If you want to hear “Jesus Calling” read the bible not Sarah Young. If you want to know what God is like, read the bible, not The Shack.

And alongside that we need to pray as today’s collect bids us: O LORD, we beseech you mercifully to receive the prayers of your people who call upon you; and grant that wemay both perceive and know what things weought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen!

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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1 Response to Knowing & Doing What We Ought

  1. John Melillo says:

    Don’t often come here…but was led here today. Also did not really appreciate the commentary comments and applications. But was struck by and appreciative of your helpful translation: The key verse for us today is Luke 2:49 – “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s things?” That really puts a different spin on the verse for me. Because “in my Father’s House” seems very un-alive – very much like those who go to church and it could just be an empty religion. And because “about my Father’s business” to an engineering type is very cold, methodical. But the first picture that I had by your translation was of the two-year-old in the back of his dad’s closet (hiding in the clothes, or trying them on, or sampling from the pockets), or in his dad’s tool chest, just trying to be just like his daddy (banging things with the hammer, studying the line-up of saws), and reveling in the desire. That’s clearly too simplistic for what Jesus was up to, but it was an insight into the way we are to chase after our heavenly father.

    So, thanks for that translation.

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