Sermons That Work

Endings and Beginnings, Christmas 2 – 2006

December 31, 2006


Our life is filled with endings and beginnings. Today is the last day of the calendar year. Yet we know in the church calendar that we began a new year on December 3rd, Advent Sunday. The federal budget year began on October 1st and many institutions have a fiscal year beginning on July 1st. Sometimes endings and beginnings mark clear boundaries, and at other times they seem to blend. For example, when someone finishes a program we say they have graduated, yet the service is often called a commencement. When loved ones die we say they have entered larger life. Throughout our life we experience other endings that lead to the possibilities of new beginnings.

We might remember some of those experiences when recalling events in children’s lives. A child is named and handed over to the priest who, after baptizing her or him, gives that child back to godparents, symbolizing their important role in that child’s life. A new expanded family responds that they too will support that child in the days and years ahead. A child is dedicated to a life of service of God and God’s people. Endings and beginnings are telescoped in the short duration of childhood and soon new endings and new beginnings can bring expanding horizons to both the child and to all of us who journey with them. Yet our journeys are somehow inextricably connected to each other, if only in memory. In some special way what affects one affects the other.

In our lessons for today we get a glimpse of two little boys whose lives were undergoing a radical change and whose endings and new beginnings were to transform not only them but also the world around them. Both of them were fortunate. They experienced what many young girls and boys don’t; namely to be loved and treasured in those early years that is so crucial for a lifetime of health, wholeness, and the possibility of growing into responsible maturity. Both accompanied their parents in a religious journey to offer sacrifice and to remember how much God (Yahweh) was involved in their child’s life and in their own.

Samuel had been dedicated for service to God very early in life. Hannah, who had been barren, was able to become pregnant and offered her son, Samuel, to the priest, Eli, for service to God. He stayed in Shiloh and as it says in 1 Samuel 2:11 “served the Lord under the priest Eli.”

Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, accompanied his parents to Jerusalem at the time of Passover. Passover was a special time of giving thanks to God for allowing their ancestors to flee from bondage in Egypt, to remember that God had been with them in time past, and to anticipate the coming of a new messenger. This messenger would announce that the new age had begun. The hope that God would send them someone to announce this new age was growing, especially in the 200 years before the birth of Christ. A cup was placed on a table (the cup of Elijah) in hopes that the messenger might appear, drink from the cup, and announce that the new age had indeed arrived. It was believed by many that Elijah, who at his death was assumed up into heaven by chariots of fire, would return as that messenger and announce the new age had begun. This cup and this sacred meal are also part of the Seder meals celebrated in our time at Passover. Little did anyone know that a young boy attending the Passover with his parents that day in Jerusalem would be that messenger.

So these two young boys, Samuel and Jesus, both seen as gifts from God, were indeed about ready to transform the world in their day and in ours.

At least Hannah knew where her son was. He was in Shiloh with the priest Eli. But Mary and Joseph, trusting that their son was with the familiar crowd who had gone into Jerusalem suddenly lost track of him. This is a parent’s worst nightmare. It was after a day’s journey that they realized he was not with the group. Perhaps you and I might have a hard time understanding the lag in time but obviously this was a trusted group of family and friends who were walking together.

Panicked, Mary and Joseph went back into Jerusalem to find him, and it took another couple of days to do so. When they did, Jesus was in the temple sitting with the teachers, listening to them, and asking questions. His depth of questioning and understanding apparently astonished the teachers.

When Mary and Joseph expressed their worry about his being lost, Jesus responded that it should have been obvious where he was, as it was his Father’s house. I often wonder what the Scriptures are not telling us — for I suspect if any of us got an answer like that from one of our children after being missing for three days, we probably would be a little upset with him or her. The story did say that Jesus returned with his parents and was obedient to them but also said that Mary treasured all of these things in her heart. Apparently in the midst of her worry and Jesus’ response to her worry, Mary sensed that something profound was going on here, so much so that she took it into her heart and pondered the meaning of it all.

The stage is set for the next chapters in Samuel’s and Jesus’ life and ministry. What can we make of all this, and how did what happened to them in their youth affect our lives? These lessons for today say two important things: (1) the signs of God’s activity are prevalent in children; and (2) children can be given opportunities to grow, question, and flourish in ways that will benefit them and us for a lifetime.

In the Baptismal service we pray that the baptized person might have an inquiring and discerning mind, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works. These are gifts that ultimately both Samuel and Jesus possessed, but they began possessing them when they were very young. So on this last Sunday in the calendar year and the first Sunday after Christmas when we still hear the wailing of a new born babe in a manger as well as his changing voice throughout his life, on this day we are invited to consider again how important children and child-rearing are.

Samuel and Jesus, in his full humanity, were both able to see what others did not, in part, because of their connection with others who cared about them at a very early age. What we know about child development is that the time before the age of 6 is critical in forming a person’s identity, an identity that will be able to carry them, healthily, into later years of life.

One of my favorite pictures is a granddad taking a picture of his granddaughter. The picture shows the shadow on a sidewalk of the granddad taking the picture of his granddaughter who had just turned over a rock to seek a bug that had just gone under it. The discovery of the bug was a pearl of great price. The particularity of the search was, and is, a reminder of treasures in life being unearthed in minute forms or in hidden places. God is not only available to us in obvious ways but also in the still, small voice; the quiet wisdom from the lips of a friend or stranger; the example of courage and faithfulness of the frail and infirm; in a drop of wine and a small morsel of bread; and in the gaze of a child making a new discovery.

Children not only need to be welcomed to our church, but we need them in our church. We need their inquisitiveness, energy, restlessness, forthrightness, sense of awe and wonder, playfulness, and laughter. We need children amongst us not only because they are significant and important and have wonderful abilities to show God’s love, but also because they can help unlock the child that is still in us, the children that Jesus, as an older man, welcomed into his midst and into the new kingdom that was evolving around him.

We gather around Holy Table to remember, to be reminded, and to be surprised. Like Samuel gathering with Eli or Jesus with his parents, family, and friends in Jerusalem at the time of Passover, we gather to remember the stories of our tradition. As we remember them, we are reminded of who we are, whose we are, who is the “we” that we yearn to be, and the work that lies ahead. And all along the way surprises come to us, often in people and circumstances we would least expect. And in this rhythm of life, this rhythm of remembering, being reminded, and being surprised we can realize that it is never too late to dig wells of future memories for another person. For Samuel and Jesus, their early years of observation were of great value to them in their ministries. We obviously can’t help people recoup their early years but we can do something. To help dig wells of future memories for others helps them remember that they are — and have been — treasured by another human being and by God. It reminds them that they have gifts and an identity as a child of God that can never be taken away from them, as well as an ability to dance with life so that they can, like the writer C.S. Lewis, be surprised by joy. When this happens, that person and us are never the same again.

So here we are at the precipice of a new year, looking back at what was, looking forward to what might be, and invited to look around and within to see what we might do and be in the here and now.

We gather around stories from our tradition and expressions of prayer and song. We gather to exchange peace, which can be an entry way, a foyer, to digging wells for future memories. When we exchange peace we realize three things: (1) we don’t gather here alone; (2) the Eucharist or other worship service is not just about any of us individually or what we can get out of it, but rather what God can do through the worship and through us for God’s work of reconciliation and love; and (3) we realize that the greatest gift we can give one another and the stranger about to come into our midst is to offer the peace of God.

These were gifts given to Samuel and to Jesus of Nazareth. These were gifts they gave the world, and the world has never been the same since. We are called to do the same. May it be so on this special day of the year and in the year to follow. Shalom, my friends, Shalom.

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Christopher Sikkema

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