SERMON PREACHED IN CR CHURCH CHRISTMAS I - SUNDAY 3OTH DECEMBER 2012

I was surprised and intrigued to learn the other day that in most manuscripts and printed editions of the Hebrew Bible the canon of Scripture closes with what we know as the two books of the Chronicles. Although the writer ends his account of what he calls ‘the events of the times’ with the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, the destruction of the Temple and the deportation of the people, the concluding note is decidedly up-beat and full of promise – and it is to a Gentile that the final word is given: ‘Thus says Cyrus, King of Persia, The Lord, the God of Heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever there is among you of all his people, the Lord his God be with him. Let him go up’.

‘Let him go up’. So it was that following the tradition of his people and ‘the custom’ of his parents, Jesus ‘went up’ with them to Jerusalem as a pilgrim when he was 12 years old to celebrate the Passover. No doubt as he travelled in the company of kinsfolk and acquaintances he would have joined in singing the Pilgrim Psalms, the Psalms of Ascent, declaring how his ‘mouth was filled with laughter and his tongue with songs of joy’ as his ‘feet (stood) within the gates of Jerusalem’ and how great his gladness when ‘they said to (him), Let us go to the house of the Lord’.

To go on pilgrimage is a deeply ingrained instinct in the human spirit, and is practised in many religions. It is an image of human life itself, which is characterised all the way through by a succession of departures and arrivals, of letting go and moving on. We leave where we are, sometimes physically, geographically, but always and certainly in one way or another.

Later on Simon Peter will say to Jesus that he and the other disciples ‘have left everything and followed (him)’. They have set out on his road. It is worth noting that the thread on which the events recounted in the Gospel narrative are strung, is that of travelling, of journeying. During the days of his Public Ministry Jesus and the Twelve are constantly on the move, on the road, under the open sky, depending on the generosity of others for sustenance and shelter. It is surely not by accident that the earliest description in the New Testament of the life of Christian discipleship was to call it The Way. In the story of the 12-year old Jesus in the Temple we have a highly charged moment of transition,  both for Jesus and for his parents. We are given the first hint of what the road, the Way, which he is to take, will be and what it will cost.

In St.Luke’s account the major obstacle to the journey which Jesus is to make appears to be all that is meant by ‘family’. Family gets Jesus to Jerusalem all right but then it tries to claim him back when once he has arrived. The day will come later on when his family will try to prevent him from returning there when it really matters – but Jesus will not be deterred, ‘knowing that he had come from God and was going to God’,  his face was set steadfastly towards Jerusalem and to everything that awaited him there.

The experience of the familiar getting in the way is common to many of us. ‘Houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children, lands’ are all part of what Peter and the others had to leave behind in order to follow Jesus. The pattern goes back to Abraham who had to leave ‘country and kindred and (his) father’s house’ and set out for an undisclosed destination. It is the pattern of the dark night of mysticism, the pattern of all our ‘unknowing’. We are to understand that the familiar is not ultimate, families are not absolute. Indeed it is worth bearing in mind that modern psychology suggests that we have to break with our families in order to find ourselves. There is nothing absolute about a family – a biological family – and there is nothing absolute about those other kinds of family which are our local and national institutions and there is nothing absolute even about our religious communities.

Neither blood nor soil, neither nature nor nurture, can be allowed to have the final word in determining who we are. Our core identity is to be rooted in God and in his recognition of us and we are not to allow family or any other group to disrupt or displace our direct and immediate relationship with him.

The pilgrimage made by Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem when he was 12 years old led him to this discovery. He realised that there was a higher claim on him than that of Mary and Joseph – that the family business which he was to enter was not the Carpenter’s shop in Nazareth .

For us too there is always the possibility of being called to something which at the beginning we had not seen and for which we are not programmed either by our families or by our institutions or by all that is familiar to us. When the call comes, then we have to choose either to save our lives or lose them, to remain settled in where we are and as we are, or to risk ourselves to the destiny of Jesus of Nazareth – to join him as he goes up to Jerusalem, to the place of sacrifice, to walk with him on the road which was mapped out for him at his adolescence but trodden in deadly earnest in his adult manhood.

We have to distance ourselves from even the holiest  things for the sake of God, as Jesus distanced himself even from Mary and Joseph. We are not to define ourselves in terms of even the highest of categories, the most venerable of institutions. It would seem that God has difficulty in dealing with us until the power of the familiar is broken. It is there in the Holy Family itself. The first great break occurs when Jesus contrasts the One he calls his Father with the one Mary calls his Father. She addresses him as ‘Child’ – she still sees him as her little boy – ‘Why have you treated us like this? Your Father and I have been searching anxiously for you’. Jesus says (and these are the first words we hear him speak in the Gospel account) that he is in his Father’s house and is going about his Father’s business – so why the fuss, why the anxiety? This is a shift, a move, which all Christians must make. ‘Call no one your father on earth, for One is your Father, the One who is in Heaven’. So Jesus invites us to walk where he walks, looking only to the Father for our identity and meaning. He invites us to share his journey, his destiny, his Sonship,  to be born as he was, ‘not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man but of God’, to be born with him into ‘the glorious liberty of the children of God’.

Eric Simmons CR