Sunday, February 26, 2017

Kill the Idols

Chop. Chop. Chop. And the tree falls. Chop. Chop. This third will be a set of chairs. This third will be firewood. But this last third – it has a special destiny. The lumberjack drops it off at the workshop. For days, weeks, the craftsmen painstakingly draw and sketch and chop and chisel. The axe flies, day after day, until a form takes shape, an almost human form. It moves down the assembly line; another craftsman comes. Sweat on his brow, he melts and hammers gold into sheets, bends them around the wood, nails them into place.

Another craftsman takes his turn. Into the gold, he embeds diamonds and rubies, sapphires and emeralds, and all manner of other jewels over this carved block of wood. Now another craftsman comes, a tailor. He makes his measurements and sews the furs, dyes them with the richest violet dyes of royalty, and comes and places a purple cloak around the statue. It's ready.

The priest and his assistants come next, come to the smoky heat of the workshop. They lay out a red carpet in front of the statue, and a white one next to it for the priest. And the offerings are made, and the priest takes vessels of holy water and washes the statue's mouth, purifying it, so he thinks, of the traces of its man-made origins. And he hails the statue as self-made and born in heaven. And whether with a cart or with people to carry it, the priest and his assistants lead the statue out, out the workshop doors, out to the wilderness.

They come then to the riverbank. There sits the statue on a woven reed mat, its carved and plated face sightlessly facing the setting sun. All around sit little offerings. The priest pours out a beer on the ground to the things he worships. He slaughters the ram he brought with him, cuts it open, and stuffs the craftsmens' tools inside. Stitching up the ram's thigh to hide the evidence, he tosses it into the river. A few incantations, another repeat of the mouth-washing – and it's time to move again through the night.

This time, they go into a garden. And then there sits the statue on a woven reed mat atop a linen cloth, surrounded by little reed huts, its carved and plated face sightlessly facing the rising sun. More pouring out beer. More rows of offerings – this time set out to all the planets and all the constellations, little sacrifices to Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, the moon, Mercury, Mars; to Libra, Andromeda, Virgo, Pisces, Scorpio, Aquarius. The priest spreads out the red carpet, sets up tables at the huts, lays out a feast. He throws herbs and spices on the fire, chants more incantations, sacrifices another ram.

Another priest comes. He anoints the statue's mouth, says it's opened now – says that now a god can enter the statue, bring it to life, so that it will see and hear, eat and drink, smell and speak. The priest whispers into the wood carved to look like a left ear, tells the statue, “You're counted as one of the gods now. From today on, your destiny is divinity.” Now the craftsmen are invited, the ones who carved and decorated the statue – and they swear solemn vows that they did no such thing. The priest chants loudly that the statue is a god born in heaven – and now he stands, not beside the statue, but bends low before and beneath it.

They lead the statue into the city, to the temple, pausing to make offerings here and there, chanting various songs and prayers all the way, until the priest and the statue reach the sanctuary. The statue is put where it'll stay. More cleansing rituals to purify their new 'god,' and after nightfall, the statue is given all “the trappings of divinity.” And so an idol is made.

That's really how the Babylonians made their idols. They left us detailed descriptions on tablets of clay – that's the process, that's the procedure. To them, an idol was a statue, an emblem, made to literally embody the presence of the divine; and by becoming the vessel of a god, it would itself become a god, renouncing its human origins for heavenly ones. The Israelite prophets, of course, would have none of their nonsense. And we, most of us, probably think it's silly – all those feeble and futile rites, full of their deception and degradation. We think it's silly. But... do we really?

We may not cut trees, carve them, cover them in gold and jewels, clothe them, and perform rituals to try and bring them to life. But remember – an idol was an emblem or symbol that served to embody what you most valued, and would itself become valued, trusted in, and receive your devotion. And we still do that, for sure. What is it we really hang our hopes on? What is it we really value? What things do we treat with veneration? What do we dote on? What do we obsess over? If you had to write out your autobiography, if you wrote it with the days of your life, what would be the central motifs? What would point to and embody the main theme of your autobiography? And that story – at the very end, would it be a story worth telling in court?

Maybe, if you really think how you'd tell the story of your life, the central motif would be the land you live on or the house you live in – because the theme is self-sufficiency, the theme is how you provide, the theme is satisfaction with your life. And so that land or that house serves a function for you a lot like that statue did for the Babylonians of old. Or maybe it's a car or something else you own – maybe they symbolize shelter, supply, success, and that's the theme that ties the plot of your life together. Or maybe the theme is productivity, and your central motif is those digits on your pay stub for the number of hours you've worked.

Or maybe the theme is health and fitness and beauty, and so the central motif is exercise equipment or a bicycle or the very musculature of your body, treated as an object to be revered and obsessed over. Or maybe the theme is the pursuit of excellence in a hobby or a sport, and so the central motif might be a trophy you keep shiny and prominent, or a hunting rifle and a mounted twelve-point buck, or a football or basketball, or a fast car or motorcycle, or any number of things.

Or maybe the theme is patriotism, your love for and reverence for this country, or for values like honor and self-sacrifice in its cause – and so the central motif, the idol, if you will, is the Pledge of Allegiance or the American flag itself. Make no mistake, those can function for us the way that statue did in Babylon. Or maybe the themes are the ideas you hold dear, and the emblem that symbolizes them is a political slogan, telling you whom to fear and what to fight for, making the great mysteries of life simple enough to catch in a catchphrase.

The truth is, there are plenty of things we're prone to idolize. In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6, you might remember how Jesus called out three big ones we tend to worship: Praise, Wealth, and Security. And just last week, we explored boasting. If you were here, you might remember some of the things people boast in – they boast in strength, they boast in skills, they boast in success, they boast in wealth or possessions, they boast in being members of some group, they boast in having connections to important people or things, they boast in the experiences they've had, they boast in what they know, they boast in being right, they boast in being good. All those boasts can become the themes of our lives – if we let them. And when they do, we eventually have to find ways to embody that theme in more concrete ways to show our devotion to it. And when we do that, we're making and enthroning idols, no less than any carpenter, goldsmith, or priest in all Babylon.

For the Jews of Jeremiah's day, the Jews who were on the verge of, or already, being sent into exile near Babylon, it was awfully tempting to go with the crowd – to give up, to let the Babylonians dictate the themes of their lives, to let them write the story. It was tempting to think that there must be something to all these big beautiful statues, that the Babylonians must know something they don't. Jeremiah has a different take on things. Throughout this morning's passage, Jeremiah offers us five reasons to skip this big charade.

First, idolatry is pointless because the idols are beneath us. Those rituals where the craftsmen say they didn't make the statue – that's an obvious falsehood, it's a blatant lie! That's exactly what they did. The statue is nothing more than a hunk of wood, gussied up with all the finery they could find, but still something made. It gets cut down, carved up, decorated, handled (Jeremiah 10:3-4). And it doesn't matter if “beaten silver is brought from Tarshish and gold from Uphaz,” because at the end of the day, the truth is that the statues remain just “the work of the craftsman and the hands of the goldsmith … all the work of skilled men” (Jeremiah 10:9). And nothing more.

And the same is true of our idols. Land, trophies, praise? We assign those meaning. They have no real reference outside the human community; they're posturing for other people, defining ourselves relative to them. They're entirely man-made. The same goes for rifles and motorcycles and autographed baseballs and golf clubs and framed photos and all the rest. The flag? We made it and everything it stands for. Political slogans? We invented those; we crafted the ideas they represent. Our idols are beneath us. We made them, not the other way around. They didn't make us. We make them.

Second, idolatry is pointless because the idols are inert. They can't really do anything. In the ritual, the Babylonians thought that, after they anointed and 'opened' the mouth of the statue, it would come to life and be able to see and hear, eat and drink, smell and speak. Jeremiah says that's a big bushel of road apples. Take away all the priestly gimmicks, strip off the theatrics, and you'll find the truth – it isn't alive; it's still nothing but wood and decorations. It can't see you, it can't hear you, it can't eat or talk or move. “Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Don't be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil; neither is it in them to do good” (Jeremiah 10:5). These “images are false, and there is no breath in them” (Jeremiah 10:14). They're inert – totally passive, never active; mere objects, never subjects, never agents. And the same is true of all our idols. Land, houses, cars, boats, trophies, banners, slogans – they aren't alive, they don't interact with the world of their own accord, they'll never come to our rescue. People might – but idols are beneath us.

Third, idolatry is pointless because the idols can't teach you anything. You can sit at the pretty statue's feet for months and listen carefully to every word it doesn't say, and how much will you have learned? The statue contributes nothing to your life. It doesn't instruct you, doesn't edify you. It offers you nothing that wasn't already yours to begin with. The great philosophers and sages of the nations, those grand ritual experts who learn from these statues everything they know? “They are both stupid and foolish; the instruction of idols is only wood” (Jeremiah 10:8). “Every man is stupid and without knowledge; every goldsmith is put to shame by his idols” (Jeremiah 10:14). Learn all you can from the idols, and that's the shameful condition you'll end up in. There's no wisdom in something as inherently idiotic as idolatry.

And so everything built on it is foolish. “Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the peoples are vanity” (Jeremiah 10:2-3). 'Vanity' – yes, it's the same word you remember from Ecclesiastes. That's what idolatry is. In a world characterized by shadows and smoke, wispy vapors here today and gone tomorrow, broken and impermanent, impossible to grasp, full of illusion – idolatry gives you no way out. Devotion to idols, to man-made symbols of man-made values, can never get you out of the fog. The same is true of all of our idols. Whatever technical skill you can get from a trophy, a race car, a flag, a slogan, or the rest – it's not wisdom for living. You can sit in front of a trophy shelf for days and not learn a thing. It isn't going to pipe up and give you lessons. And it definitely isn't going to lead you to solid ground in times of trouble.

Fourth, idolatry is pointless because it deforms you. When we really value something, when we really devote ourselves to it, we come to resemble it, reflect it. That's just human nature – we become more like whatever it is we worship. We grow toward it. But if we're giving our devotion to something that's fundamentally beneath us, if we're taking our instruction from something mindless, well, what do you think is going to come of that? The Israelites in the desert worshipped a cow statue... and became stiff-necked like a cow statue (Exodus 32:7-9). The so-called wise men of the nations listened to Professor Woodblock and became, go figure, a bunch of blockheads.

Devotion to idols doesn't just fail to help you; it actively harms you. It stunts and twists your growth. That goes for our idols as much as the statues in Babylon. When we give ourselves over to these mere things, we come to reflect them, be like them. Maybe that doesn't look like much now, maybe it's subtle now, but take that pattern and extend the trajectory, stretch it over the next billion years. What does a billion-year-old idolater look like? Stunted. Shriveled. Subhuman. An idolater truly given over to his or her idols will barter away humanity like Esau's birthright for a mere mess of pottage. An idolater, in the end, is endlessly multiplying him- or herself by a fraction – dwindling further and further from wholeness with each iteration. And there's a word for that kind of existence. The word is “hell.”

Fifth, idolatry is pointless because idols are doomed. Those wooden statues the Babylonians carved – where are they now? Gone – burned in fire, crumbled to dust. They're no-shows on the world stage. The stone statues of the Greeks and Romans have fared a little better – a few survive in museums today (maybe missing a head or a limb), but an insignificant little portion of the ones they built. They're wearing down. Give it more time, a few disasters here and there, and they'll be gone, too.

Wake up a Babylonian from his tomb today, tell him to go find the idol he trusted in – and will he ever find it? His dead idol is now dead and gone. And if by some chance he could find it now, how about on judgment day, when the earth has been cleansed by fire? “The gods who didn't make the heavens and the earth shall perish from the earth and from under the heavens” (Jeremiah 10:11). “They are worthless, a work of delusion; at the time of their punishment, they shall perish” (Jeremiah 10:15). The idols of Babylon are doomed, and so are our idols – our trophies, our hobbies, our wealth, our banners and slogans and all our other manufactured ideals will one day die off. And when we face the court, they will not be available to testify in our favor – and it's questionable if they even would if they could.

No, the idols are beneath us, they're inert, they've got nothing to teach us, they deform us, and they're doomed, anyway. Tell that to a Babylonian of old, or one of his modern kinsmen, and you might incite a panic: “How can we live without something sturdy, visible, and flashy to distant truths and make them near?”

But Jeremiah has more to say. There's one option left, One who offers himself as the main theme of our autobiographies, if we'll take his cues and let him dictate our plot points. “There is none like you, O LORD; you are great, and your name is great in might” (Jeremiah 10:6). He is everything our idols aren't. They're products of our manufacture – mere creations of human skill and enterprise – but he isn't. (Feuerbach was wrong.) “It is he who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens” (Jeremiah 10:12). He isn't beneath us; he's above us, high above us. We don't assign meaning to him; he gives meaning and purpose to us.

Our idols are inert, ineffective – mere passive objects, never active agents. By definition, they're weak – there's nothing weaker or deader. “But the LORD is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King. At his wrath the earth quakes, and the nations cannot endure his indignation” (Jeremiah 10:10). “When he utters his voice, there is a tumult of the waters in the heavens, and he makes the mist rise from the ends of the earth. He brings lightning for rain, and he brings forth the wind from his storehouses” (Jeremiah 10:13) – we sure got a taste of that last night, a year and a day since an abundance of winds swirled in a tornado around this very temple. The idols are dead and breathless; they have no breath, no wind, but the LORD has storehouses full of living breath. He isn't inert; he's very vital. There's none more active.

Our idols can't teach us anything. They offer no wisdom. But it's by wisdom that the LORD established the world (Jeremiah 10:12). He's the source of all wisdom! “Among all the wise ones of the nations and in all their kingdoms, there is none like you” (Jeremiah 10:7). Sit at an idol's feet, and you'll never learn a valuable lesson from it. But kneel before the LORD, and there's nothing he can't teach you. The idols are only pretend teachers. They're only pretend kings, draped in their violet and purple clothing. But the LORD rules. He's the everlasting King (Jeremiah 10:10). He's the King of the nations (Jeremiah 10:7). He has all wisdom and all authority. The idols can't raise us beyond a world of smoke and mirrors; their solution to our illusion is delusion and confusion. But the LORD is the true God, beyond all our mist and fog; he's truth and light and life.

Our idols deform us. As we devote ourselves to them, we grow into their stunted image and become curved in on ourselves, because they're beneath us. But not the LORD. When we worship him, we come to reflect his beauty. We become more of what we were meant to be. We grow upright, into a dignified stature; we shine more and more, resembling his truth, reflecting his light, sharing his life. And if a billion years of idolatry can produce only a shriveled subhuman wreck, endlessly multiplying himself by a fraction, and if the word for that is “hell,” imagine a billion years of worship in spirit and in truth – what would that produce in and around you, a billion years of growing in grace and glory to better reflect the living God? Isn't that paradise, isn't that heaven? If idolatry does nothing but harm, true devotion to the LORD does everything but harm – it heals beyond our wildest dreams.

Our idols are, finally, doomed. They won't last. They burn up or crumble apart. They won't survive the final trial. But the LORD is “the everlasting King” (Jeremiah 10:7). He comes with no expiration date. The idols are doomed and useless, so there's no need to fear them; but “who would not fear [the] King of the nations,” forever and ever (Jeremiah 10:6)? “He is the One who formed all things” and will outlast them all. He's “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Revelation 22:13); and beside him there is no god (Isaiah 44:6). He was and is and is to come (Revelation 4:8). He's God from everlasting to everlasting (Psalm 90:2).

And where idols were built in an effort to bring distant nothings close, the LORD is loftier than highest heaven but comes close. He's not distant. He's “the portion of Jacob,” he chose Israel as “the tribe of his inheritance; the LORD of Hosts is his name” (Jeremiah 10:16). And we know that firsthand, because he came near in the person of Jesus Christ, the one and only God, the one and only and Savior. From heaven he came and sought us, the people of his inheritance, gathered from every tribe and tongue. And although he was the Creator, he knelt to walk among his creation. In a world of speechless idols, he taught the words of life (John 6:68).

Forgoing heaven's finery, he marched toward a piece of wood – not to make an idol of it, but to sanctify it with his blood, the blood that purges our sins away. And so, decorated not with silver nor gold nor with fine robes, but draped in grubby faded cloth and crowned with thorns, he was fastened to the cross with hammer and nails (cf. Jeremiah 10:4), even though he's the One who fastened the heavens and the earth in place.

But that wasn't the end of the story. Hammer and nails couldn't hold him. Neither could the grave, the doom of all idols. Because he is still the living God; his unconquerable life destroyed death's power. He is still the everlasting King of the nations (cf. Jeremiah 10:10). When he utters his voice, there's a tumult in heaven and earth, as the grip of sin and death are shaken. He makes our mist-like lives rise away from mere earthly preoccupations toward a heavenly hope. He brings the Holy Spirit, like the mightiest rushing wind, from his heavenly storehouse (cf. Jeremiah 10:13), and fills our deadened clay with his life-giving breath (cf. Genesis 2:7).

And with the same wisdom that made the earth and established the world, he's making a new creation even now, and by his understanding is stretching out his church “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13; cf. Jeremiah 10:12). And there's just no one like him: the Lord Jesus Christ is his name, who with his Father and his Spirit reigns eternally as one God, glorified forever (cf. Jeremiah 10:6-7, 16).

So why cling to idols any longer? Don't be like the idolaters – don't imitate their devotion, don't fear what they fear, don't get caught up in their crazes (Jeremiah 10:2). Don't use your days to write an autobiography with a lesser theme than the living God. Get rid of the idols. Kill the idols. In your own life, with the power the living God offers you in his grace, hasten the day when “the gods who did not make the heavens and the earth shall perish” from your life (Jeremiah 10:11). Kill the idols. Write a new idol-free chapter – a chapter worth telling on the day when Jesus stands as your Judge. May he then be your Advocate and Defender – and he will, if you place your faith in him now and hear and obey his words of life. Listen to, live by, those words. But kill the idols. Amen.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Boasting: A How-To Guide

“I want everyone to bear witness, I am the greatest! I'm the greatest thing that ever lived! … I must be the greatest. I showed the world. … I shook up the world, I'm the king of the world. You must listen to me. I am the greatest! I can't be beat!”

At least, those were the words of Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali, after his famous 1964 boxing match with heavyweight champ Sonny Liston. Back in the day, Ali was an entirely new phenomenon in so many ways. His undeniable talent in the ring. His sense of racial pride and grievance. His open disdain for the establishment. His affiliation with a radical separatist movement. But maybe most memorable is his boasting. He loved to boast.

Boasting – it's such a common thing. All of us do it, no doubt, at one time or another. It's not just for presidents or rappers or actors or athletes. It literally means to puff ourselves up, to be inflated, like a bellows or a balloon. It's an expression of pride. And there are so many ways to boast, so many things people might boast in.

First, maybe we boast in our power or our strength. There are certainly cases of that in the Bible. Think of, for example, Goliath, staring down puny David. When Goliath caught a glimpse of this pint-sized warrior, “he disdained him, for he was but a youth” (1 Samuel 17:42). And Goliath said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field” (1 Samuel 17:44). Goliath was proud of his power and his strength. He thought it would make him unstoppable. Or think of the Titanic, the “unsinkable” ship – or so the owners thought, until the iceberg came.

Now, we may think we don't fall into that trap. We don't swagger about and think ourselves invincible, do we? Well, I don't know about that. Maybe you're proud of how much weight you can lift, and you look down on those who aren't quite as strong. Maybe you're proud of how resilient you are against disease, and you're slow to see a doctor because, hey, they're for all those people who can't handle it, not for strong people like you. That sort of stubborn unwillingness to accept help – it can be implicit boasting, can't it?

Second, maybe we boast in our skills or our gifts. I'm reminded here of the “super-apostles” Paul had to contend with in his ministry. They passed through the Corinthian church, full of charm and skill, and wowed 'em all. And they boasted in all the credentials they had, all the reasons why they were better preachers than Paul, better at this, or better at that. They boasted in their skills, boasted in their gifts. And the believers in Corinth, the Las Vegas of the ancient world, were already predisposed to do that sort of thing.

And again, we might think we don't fall into that trap. We don't swagger about and talk about how good we are or how skilled we are, do we? But maybe we do. It's not so far off. Maybe there is something you're pretty good at. And because you're good at it, you've learned to make it one of the ways you evaluate people, whether you mean to or not. You're really proud of how good you are at this. Maybe you're a gifted musician, and so the way you think and talk reflects a sense that musical talent is what makes a person enlightened. Maybe you can cook really well, and you love to show off and boast in your cooking. Maybe you love to show off your garden and boast in how skillfully you cultivated it. Or there are so many other skills or gifts it could be.

Third, maybe we boast in our successes or victories. That was pretty common in the world of the Bible. Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans – they all loved to boast in their victories in battle. Just like Muhammad Ali did when he beat Sonny Liston and took the heavyweight championship title. And we might think we don't fall into that trap, but come on. That's not so far off, either. Maybe you've had a good business day, or a day of great productivity, and you want to boast in that. Maybe you feel a sense of achievement or vindication in some thing you've done. Maybe you get a thrill from showing off the mounted head of that twelve-point buck you bagged in your hunting trip, or the trophies you won in a competition. Or, let me say this: I heard plenty of boasting on November 9 from those who backed the candidate who now works from the Oval Office. Yes, there was plenty of boasting. That was boasting in an electoral victory.

Fourth, maybe we boast in our wealth or possessions. Jesus describes people like that – people who have a big stockpile of grain and and a big stockpile of other stuff and think they're all set for years to come (Luke 12:18-19). But it doesn't have to be quite that extravagant. Maybe you're living the American dream – a nice house all your own, a good plot of land, a fine family, and you boast in that, and you look down, even just a little, on those who haven't quite gotten there. Maybe you've invested in a really nice boat, or a really nice TV, or a great truck, and you want to show it off or talk about it – that's boasting in it. Or, like the rich fool in Jesus' parable, we boast in our financial security, thinking we've made the good decisions and good investments that will protect us – that's just as boastful.

Fifth, maybe we boast in our membership or inclusion in some group. People do boast in that, don't they? They think that, because they belong to a certain country club, that's something special about them, something that elevates them over those who aren't members. Or they belong to, say, a local historical society, and they think that, because they're members and their next-door neighbors aren't, it means they care more about their local community, and so they boast in it, pat themselves on the back for caring so much. You can imagine people doing that, can't you? It's not so far off.

Or here's another example, and this one might shock you. How about – wait for it – United States citizenship? You can boast in being a US citizen, can't you? You can think that being a US citizen is special, that it entitles you to special treatment ahead of other people in greater need, that US citizens deserve things that others don't. That “America First” mindset – it's really a “me-and-people-like-me-first” mindset, where your membership means that you deserve special deference over other people, that it entitles you to more, makes you better and more trustworthy than those 'foreigners' and 'outsiders.' And that's boasting in membership. And we are plenty prone to do it.

Sixth, maybe we boast in our connections. People boast in that, don't they? And what I mean is, they boast in who they know. Maybe their mom or dad, their grandma or grandpa, was somebody big in these parts, and they want everybody to know it. That'd be boasting. Or maybe they feel more American because their ancestors fought in the Revolution or came over on the Mayflower. If that's how they use those facts, it turns into a boast. Or maybe they're friends with the mayor or the governor or the CEO, and they boast of the access or influence that gives them. Or maybe they've met a celebrity and can't stop name-dropping. It's not so far off.

Or seventh, maybe we boast in our experiences. People might boast in that, don't they? People who get to go somewhere, do some traveling – they can keep reminding people of it, pretend it makes them more worldly and sophisticated, rub it in people's faces a bit, think it makes them special – and that would be boasting. I've been guilty of it myself, a time or two. And that's just one example. Maybe the life you've led is full of hardship, and you tend to think that gives you a special outlook on life, one that's more valuable than the thoughts of people who you assume don't have your background. Any of you ever start a sentence with, “Well, when I was your age...”? A lot of those sentences amount to boasting, too.

Or eighth, maybe we boast in our intelligence or our knowledge. That's a common one. Looks a lot like the one with skills and gifts. Maybe there's something you know, some crucial area of expertise. And since you know it, you like to show it off a little bit. You think it makes you special, makes you a bit better than people who don't know as much or can't think as fast. It's easy to get sucked into boasting there.

Ninth, maybe we boast in being 'right,' being 'virtuous.' It's a common one in politics these days. I see and hear it all the time. People boasting about how they're good and decent and support all the right causes, not like the haters and bigots and -ists and -phobes all around them. If one side of our latest political struggle tended to boast in victory, the other side compensated with a lot of people doing this other sort of boasting.

But it isn't just them. It's easy for anybody to boast in taking the 'right stand,' or at least thinking they are. It's easy to boast in valuing all the things that the sad world outside our walls doesn't seem to value anymore – and you can boast like that no matter what political stance you take, as long as you think about yourself as the heroic defender of the cause and other people as dastardly foes of good or as just sadly unenlightened. So we boast. We do it in personal squabbles, too, with family members or co-workers or neighbors – we're right, they're wrong, and we boast in our rightness.

And tenth, maybe we boast in our morality, our goodness. We're good, decent people. We don't lie (too much), cheat (too much), steal (too much); we try not to hurt people, and we think that makes us good and upstanding. Not like the people in the newspaper, who did this or that awful thing, who committed some crime, who go to prison. And so we think and act and talk like we're better than them. We say awful things about what they might deserve for what they've done. When we talk about conditions at the local prison, we scoff at treating prisoners as actual people like you and me. We speak derisively about people around the world, or next-door, who don't seem to share the values we hold dear. We speak unflatteringly about our strange neighbors, who seem less well-adjusted than we adjudge ourselves. And we think that our basic decency, our good “works,” are what gives value to our lives and merits us treatment, whether by God or by others, that not everybody deserves. And so we boast.

But the problem with these ten boasts is that none of them really hold up. God advises us against them. “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches” (Jeremiah 9:23). God doesn't approve of any of these attitudes, any of these boasts. In fact, he says, he delights in deflating our inflated view of ourselves. “May the LORD cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that makes great boasts” (Psalm 12:3).

Many of these things are ultimately of no consequence. Strength? You saw how that turned out for Goliath, for the Titanic. Strength and power can be beaten. They can fail. They can fade. Skill? It can be lost. It can be outmatched. Success? You won't always win. And most of these victories – what will they matter in a billion years? Wealth? It can be lost – Job learned that. And you can't take it with you – that's the point Jesus made in his story about the rich fool. Membership? Most of it doesn't matter, in the big scheme of things, and it can be lost, whether by expulsion or death. Connections? They can become irrelevant or absent. Experiences? Many don't ultimately matter, and there's always somebody with a better one. Knowledge? You might find it harder to access someday, and there's always somebody who knows more and can think faster and more clearly. Being on the 'right' side? It's good, if true. But it won't earn you favor with God, and it might not change anything about the world we live in. And our works? Our works don't save us – our salvation doesn't come by works, precisely so that we can't boast in them (Ephesians 2:9). So all this boasting is ruled out (Romans 3:27).

When Paul encountered the risen Christ, he learned that the hard way. In his old life as a Pharisee, he knew a lot about boasting. He had a lot of qualifications to boast in, after all. “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:4-6). Paul used to boast in those sorts of things. They were what he thought set him apart from others. He was more observant, more committed, more connected, more qualified; he was stronger, smarter, wiser. He had everything he thought mattered, everything he thought made him special, everything he thought was worth boasting in.

But then, along that long and dusty road to Damascus, he met the risen Jesus. And Jesus changed his life. And after meeting Jesus and having to rethink everything, Paul came to realize that none of these things were worth boasting in. None of them earned him favor from God. None of them made him 'better' than other people, more worthy or deserving than other people. They didn't make him special – not when compared with everything he could have just by leaning on Jesus. And so, he writes, “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:7-8).

Paul didn't give up boasting, though. Actually, he found the only place where boasting is right. Boasting in all those things – it was wrong. But there is a place for boasting, a place God approves. “Far be it from me to boast except – do you know what comes next? – except in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

And the same is true for us. The cross is the only place left for boasting. We have no specialness in ourselves. No strength, no skill, no success, no wealth, no belonging, no connections, no experience, no knowledge, no rightness, no works – nothing that qualifies us for God's approval. For that, we have to turn to the least-likely place: the cross.

Remember what the cross is. It's rough and bloody. It's shameful – crucifixion was hardly a topic for polite conversation in Paul's day. Today, through the power of religion, we've tamed the cross into a talisman and removed what Paul himself called “the offense of the cross” (Galatians 5:11). But the cross, when seen for what it really is, is exactly what the world calls ugly, weak, stupid, and irrational.

Think about it. The idea that the best display of God's strength is the sight of God incarnate being executed as a criminal alongside a couple terrorists? That a trembling, heaving, oozing, stinking body pinned to splintering wood could be God's offer of beauty? The notion that this is the higher logic by which God runs the universe? That is the emblem of everything we would never dare to boast in – and yet it's exactly where Paul has learned to place all his boasting. “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. … God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no flesh might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22-29).

The truth is, at the ugly, weak, stupid cross, we meet the beauty, power, and wisdom of God. That's where God wants us to meet him, and where he wants to meet us. It's the very place that wakes us up to the lie of all our false boasts, and offers us something true instead. It's where God offers us himself, and everything else in him:
  • Strength? The cross opens the door to the invincible resurrection life and a kingdom that can't be shaken (Hebrews 12:28). The cross is, as Paul says, the very power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18). There's some real strength!
  • Skills and gifts? The cross empties us so we can receive the gifts that the Holy Spirit spreads throughout the whole body. “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit … All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (1 Corinthians 12:4, 11). Those are real gifts!
  • Success or victory? Through the cross, we share in Jesus' victory over death and over the devil and over all the enemies of our souls. “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them” on the cross (Colossians 2:15). “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57). “In all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37). How's that for victory?
  • Wealth? Through the cross, we become co-heirs of the entire universe, and the immeasurable riches of God's grace are thrown open wide to us (Romans 8:17; Ephesians 2:7). “Though [Christ] was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Now that's wealth!
  • Membership? The cross invites us to be citizens of God's kingdom, part of a reconciled new humanity (Ephesians 2:15-17), and indeed to be rulers over a new world in the making; we rub shoulders with saints as we march on toward the heavenly Zion, with its “innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:22-24)! You want membership, there you go.
  • Connections? Because of the cross, the Anointed King of the universe calls us his friends and brothers, and the Almighty God who split land and sea, light and dark, and who sparked the stars in millions of galaxies into life by the word of his power – he calls us his very own sons and daughters (Romans 8:29; 9:26)! There's no connection that trumps that!
  • Experience? The cross invites us to experience the life of God in Jesus, first in his crucified suffering and then in his resurrection splendor and the divine glory that knows no end (cf. Romans 8:17). You want experience, there's your experience!
  • Knowledge? The cross opens up the wisdom of God to us and unmasks mysteries beyond the limits of our mortal minds, mysteries “hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints” (Colossians 1:26). It lays bare the ground on which angels fear to tread. “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). What higher knowledge could you ask for?
  • Rightness? The cross extends the righteousness of God to us and teaches us the blessed life (2 Corinthians 5:21). That guarantees you're on the right side in what matters most.
  • Goodness? We don't need to depend on our works. We're showered with God's favor simply through trusting him, simply by faith in his gift of grace. And it's that grace, active in our hearts, that will bear fruit in the works God appointed for us to do – not so we can boast in them, but so we can boast in him (Ephesians 2:8-10). Every God-honoring value we've got, we got it all and only by grace. Not to boast in how good and right we are, but to boast in how generous and wise our God is!
But best of all, at the cross, we get to know God. “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD (Jeremiah 9:23-24). And on the cross, he practiced all three in ways we never could have expected.

So don't boast in any of those other things. Pour contempt on all your pride. Boast in what Christ did for you – and equally for your most dignified or most downtrodden neighbor, if he or she will receive it. It had nothing to do with our qualifications. All those things are crucified to us, dead and gone, and we to them (cf. Galatians 6:14). It had everything to do with Christ's mercy, to meet us there, at the cross. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Devotion of Your Youth

It was not a pretty picture. The chosen people in the days of the young prophet Jeremiah, I mean. They were not a pretty picture. They'd become self-parodies, funhouse-mirror images of everything they were ever meant to be for God and for the world. These chosen people were led by sinful leaders: “The shepherds transgressed against me,” says their God. These chosen people listened to false prophets for their instruction: “The prophets prophesied by Baal and went after things that do not profit,” God adds. And their priests? The priests, those beacons of wisdom, were utterly clueless: “The priests did not say, 'Where is the LORD?' Those who handle the law did not know me,” God explains. And that pretty land, flowing with milk and honey? “When you came in, you defiled my land and made my heritage an abomination” (Jeremiah 2:7-8). Thinking to be wise, they became fools – what a self-parody.

Chosen to be an example of justice, their clothes are stained with blood, the blood of the poor, the blood of the innocent (Jeremiah 2:34). Chosen to be an example of piety, they're less faithful to the God of life and beauty than every other nation is to their little statues of death and ugliness. “Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for what's useless” (Jeremiah 2:11). The people chosen as a model of pure worship are enthusiastic about idolatry: “As many as your cities are your gods, O Judah” (Jeremiah 2:28). They're so delusional that they'll call a tree their dad and a rock their mom, and their only real heartfelt interest in God is when they need bail money (Jeremiah 2:27).

Chosen to be free and independent to love him, they instead demand to be slaves to Egypt or Assyria, to lap up the waters of the Nile or the Euphrates like a dog, even though those mighty rivers are aimless as empty wells compared with the Divine Fountain they seem determined to abandon. Listen to God's words by his prophet: “They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water. Is Israel a slave? Is he a homeborn servant? Why, then, has he become a prey? … And now what do you gain by going to Egypt to drink the waters of the Nile, or what do you gain by going to Assyria to drink the waters of the Euphrates? Your evil will chastise you, and your apostasy will reprove you. Know and see that it is evil and bitter for you to forsake the LORD your God” (Jeremiah 2:13-19).

God compares them to a cheating, loveless wife – on the hunt for new and exotic men, out waiting for them in the streets like a donkey or camel in heat (Jeremiah 2:23-25), but with no passion for her real husband. He adores her and provides for her, but she treats him like an abuser and refuses him (Jeremiah 2:31). So much so, her wedding dress burns in a dumpster fire, and she doesn't notice or care when her wedding ring tumbles down a storm drain into the sewer (Jeremiah 2:32).

Oh, she insists she's innocent. She insists she's done nothing wrong (Jeremiah 2:35). She refuses to be ashamed (Jeremiah 3:3). She thinks her husband is just being dramatic. She thinks he'll always be there. She makes nice with words, but in her actions betrays him every chance she gets (Jeremiah 3:4-5). She takes him for granted and treats their marriage like a joke (Jeremiah 3:9). She's given him cause to say, “Surely, as a treacherous wife leaves her husband, so have you been treacherous to me, O house of Israel” (Jeremiah 3:20). She's forgotten him and changed her name (Jeremiah 3:21). He loves her immensely and yearns to take her back and spoil her with his love. But as good as he is to her, she doesn't love him.

It didn't used to be that way. Once upon a time, she cherished that wedding dress. Once upon a time, she showed off her bright, shiny ring. Once upon a time, she loved her husband, her hero. Once upon a time, she swore she'd always be his, and that she'd always love him, always have eyes only for him, always love and cherish him all her life long. That's what she said, when she married him in the shade of the mountain in the desert. She was shy that day – she stood back from the thunder and lightning and smoke (Exodus 20:18).

But still, she took that vow: “All that the LORD has spoken, we will do, and we will be obedient” (Exodus 24:7). And Rev. Moses, officiating the ceremony, certified the covenant as valid, pronounced them husband and wife, there in the camp (Exodus 24:8). And then, up on the mountain, God the Groom hosted the reception: “Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel, … they beheld God, and ate and drank” (Exodus 24:9-11). And on a pavement of sapphire, rich as the ocean and broad and clear as the bright morning sky, the Bride and Groom shared their first dance.

Those were the days. The days her husband wants her to remember. That's what he means when he says to her, through the mouth of Jeremiah, “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (Jeremiah 2:2). All he wants is for her to return. All he wants is for her to come back to him. All he wants is for her to learn again how to love him, love him the way she promised to love him, love him like he loves her. The deserted and jilted and lonely husband says to his loveless wife, urges her, “Remember our wedding day, how you loved me then, how things used to be! We can get back there, I know we can!” And so the only question is, will she make the effort to work on their relationship? Will she remember her love, the devotion of her youth? Can she have a heart to love again?

Fast-forward a few centuries. Go north, north to Asia Minor, to a city called Ephesus, where grows an outgrowth of the New Israel, the Church. And had any local church ever been blessed quite as much as the church in Ephesus? They were founded by Paul, Priscilla, and Aquila, who began teaching there in the local synagogue (Acts 18:19). And while Paul went off and worked elsewhere, the Ephesian church had the service of brilliant, passionate Apollos (Acts 18:24-27). And then Paul came back, and not for just a short while (Acts 19:1). No, Paul spent three years leading and growing the church in Ephesus – they had all that time with him (Acts 19:8-10; 20:31). They saw mighty miracles, they saw evil spirits cast out, they saw things they couldn't explain (Acts 19:11-16). “And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks, and fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled, … and the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily” (Acts 19:17-20). In the face of riots, the church flourished, because they were so full of love and devotion.

Paul left again, after his years there. But he wasn't done with the Ephesian church. He called the elders to visit him one last time, and they wept with passionate love for him and for God (Acts 20:37-38). Paul encouraged them to stay faithful, to watch out for false teachers who would come in and arise even from among their number (Acts 20:28-30). “Be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:31-32).

A few years passed, and from a Roman jail cell, Paul wrote them a letter again. He reminded them that Jesus hadn't just given them a little advantage in life; he brought them from death into life, and given them all sorts of blessings: “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, … and were by nature children of wrath … but God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:1-7).

Instead of being strangers and aliens, they'd been brought into God's house and made into his temple (Ephesians 2:19-22). And so he urges them to live like this new humanity, and to “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:2). He commends them for their love and faithfulness, in fact, he thanks God for it (Ephesians 1:15). And then he reminds them that Christ is their Bridegroom, who loves and cherishes them: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish,” a radiant bride on her wedding day – in fact, Paul tells the Ephesian church, the whole point of marriage is to showcase the love between Christ and his church (Ephesians 5:25-32).

A couple years later, Paul writes to the young lead pastor of the Ephesian church, Timothy, who works alongside Priscilla and Aquila and a devout local Christian named Onesiphorus. And Paul has heard that some things in the Ephesian church aren't going quite so well – people are running astray after false teachers (1 Timothy 1:3-4). Some of the wealthy and entitled Ephesian widows are causing a ruckus and parroting the latest ideas they'd heard (1 Timothy 2:11-15; 5:3-16; 2 Timothy 3:6), and so Timothy needs to raise up healthier leaders to model the gospel in their teachings and their lives (1 Timothy 3:1-13). “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching,” Paul urges Pastor Timothy (1 Timothy 4:16).

And where does Paul point the Ephesian church? To rediscover their true love. As it is, some of them love a lot of things – “lovers of self, lovers of money, … lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:2-4). But they need to get back to true love, the way they started out: “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5).

Decades pass. Paul has gone from the earthly scene. John has spent some time in Ephesus now, and so, if the stories are true, has Mary the mother of Jesus spent the closing years of her earthly life with them. Talk about a richly blessed church! But John is the last apostle, living in exile on a cold little island called Patmos. And in his cave, he has visions. And in his visions, Jesus comes to him, to John the Secretary of the Lord, and dictates a little letter to the church in Ephesus.

At first, what he says is a relief. The Ephesian church has finally overcome its problem with false teaching – they won't put up with it: They “cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false” (Revelation 2:2). What's more, just like in the days of the theater riot, when Demetrius the silversmith whipped up the crowd in Artemis' unholy name, the believers in Ephesus have patient endurance and, through it all, haven't grown weary (Revelation 2:3).

But still, not all is well. Because Jesus has one more message for them: “I have this against you: That you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember, therefore, from where you have fallen” (Revelation 2:4-5). It's just like in the days of Jeremiah. Whatever you can say that's good about the Ephesian church, they've gone astray from the devotion of their youth. They no longer love Jesus like he loves them. Unlike Judah, they're still faithful. They won't cheat on the Truth. And they're busy in work, they're a fine homemaker. But the relationship is still on the rocks... because although they don't stray and although they keep busy, they've fallen out of love with Jesus. And without that, what good is all the rest? They need to get back to that first love, back to the devotion of their youth.

Now, I'm sure that if you built a time machine and flew it back to the days of Jeremiah, and if you did some street interviews anywhere in Jerusalem, asking people if they loved the LORD their God, they would say yes – yes, of course they love the LORD. That's what they'd say. That's what they'd claim. It's just that God disagrees: he's not feeling the love.

And if you took that time machine forward to the days when John wrote down these words from Christ, and you walked into a church meeting in Ephesus and asked the people there if they loved Jesus, they would say yes – yes, of course they love Jesus. That's what they'd say. That's what they'd claim. It's just that Jesus says he hasn't been feeling the love. He knows the spark's gone out – and if they don't get the spark back, then the whole lampstand is going to go (Revelation 2:5).

They can say, over and over again, that they love Jesus. But what matters isn't the words they say. It's not even the things they do, in terms of the motions they go through, as ends in themselves. What matters is the heart that's underneath it. What matters is their devotion. What matters is their passion. What matters is whole-souled intimacy in the relationship. What matters is their love and adoration. And the same is true for us.

When we read these words of God through Jeremiah, when we hear this message of Jesus through John, we have to ask ourselves the question: How's our love? How's our spark? Is it still there, sizzling and burning bright and warm? Are we still polishing and wearing our ring? Are we keeping the dress clean? Are we building a healthy relationship with Christ while we wait for him to pull up in his shining limo to drive us to the chapel?

Or, instead, have we lost the passion with which we loved Jesus at first? Do we take him and our relationship for granted? Does he have to fondly reminisce about the devotion of our youth, the days when we were a young church on fire for him? Or is that love still there?

That's a question for serious reflection. We're coming up, in a few days, on Valentine's Day. And this feast of St. Valentine, or at least what we've made of it as a culture, is all about love, romantic love, in our relationships. And you could actually say that Valentine's Day is a day of repentance. In marriages and courtships all across the land, it's meant as a yearly wake-up call, a time to turn back and recover love in its freshest form, the way it was at first, the fresh devotion of their youth. It's a time when couples rediscover and enrich their love and put into practice all the intimacy-building celebrations that breathed life into their love in the beginning, and still can do the same now.

It's not that it's the only day in the year to do those things. It's not that it's the only day in the year to show and express love. It's a day of remembrance of their youthful faith, hope, and love for one another. It's a day of repentance, for a man and a woman to do again the sort of intimacy-building works they did together at first. It's a day of rediscovery of just how good and fresh that love can be again.

If you're married, please, please do that with your spouse. But as a church, let's do the same with the Bridegroom who stands in heaven for us, waiting for the wedding day. Let's make ourselves ready (Revelation 19:7). Let this be our day of repentance, our day of return to our first love, to the devotion of our youth. “Return..., declares the LORD. I will not look on you with anger, for I am merciful, declares the LORD. … Return...” (Jeremiah 3:12-14).

Let us heed the Groom's call to “repent, and do the works [we] did at first” (Revelation 2:5). And if we do, he promises a beautiful, everlasting honeymoon at nowhere less than “the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7). May we rediscover the passionate joy of our first love, and keep it always, just as Jesus always keeps the passionate joy of love for us that led him to – and through – the cross. Hallelujah. Amen and amen.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

My Father's House

Brothers and sisters, good morning again! I hope you had a lovely Candlemas. That's the story with which we left off last week: the account of the baby Jesus, forty days old, being presented in the temple at Jerusalem. We thought about the long years when Simeon waited and waited and waited to see the Messiah, as the Holy Spirit promised Simeon he would before he died. But “wait” didn't mean “no.” Simeon saw the Messiah, this child named Jesus. We heard how Simeon blessed the family, talked about Jesus revealing the inner secrets of our hearts, whether good or bad. But most of all, Jesus went public to reveal God's heart, which is our salvation.

And now Luke fast-forwards twelve years. Twelve years in which Joseph and Mary return to the little village of Nazareth in Galilee. During that time, Luke writes, “the child” – that's Jesus – “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40). And as Luke fast-forwards through those years, he lands on Passover. Passover, the remembrance of how God, in the days of Moses, shielded his people through sacrifice from the tenth plague, the plague of the Angel of Death. Passover, the remembrance of that meal eaten ready to run. Passover, that reminder that Israel wasn't always free. But God set her free, with his mighty hand and outstretched arm. Passover reminded her of God's judgment and God's mercy.

Passover was no small deal. Happening every year in what we'd call March or April, it was one of the most important holidays of the Jewish faith, taken together with the week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread. And it was one of the three pilgrimage feasts ordered in the Old Testament, the celebrations where Israel was called to meet the LORD at his dwelling-place – which became Jerusalem – with sacrifices and offerings (Deuteronomy 16:16). Taken literally, the Law's command sounds like every Jewish man has to make every pilgrimage. But the legal scholars by this time interpret it more loosely. There are three pilgrimage festivals during which the men and families of Israel go to Jerusalem, but any given Jewish family might go to one every few years, or maybe even once in a lifetime, for some.

When the rabbis mention Jews who make the Passover pilgrimage every year, they're talking about the most committed, the most devout, the most righteous, like sages and scholars. And that's why it's so important and telling that Luke insists that Joseph and Mary “went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover,” and that they stay for the whole seven days (Luke 2:41). Again, Luke is hammering home a powerful picture of this couple: they are the most Jewish Jews you'll find. They take God's word more seriously than anybody. They are full of longing for God. And they are raising this special child in that kind of atmosphere. I hope all of our families can be like that!

Imagine, for a moment, what this journey must have been like, in the year when Jesus was twelve (Luke 2:42). Joseph and Mary aren't walking alone. Luke tells us that it's a group trip from Nazareth, full of “relatives and acquaintances.” Mary's brothers, cousins, and maybe even her parents, are along. Maybe Joseph has a brother or two. And surely some of those folks are married with children of their own. And then there's anyone else in Nazareth who planned to go. Joseph and Mary are traveling with everybody from Nazareth making the pilgrimage. Safety in numbers, after all. It's about sixty-four miles from Nazareth to Jerusalem – maybe more, if they (like most Jews) crossed over into the Decapolis region to avoid Samaria. It took days to get there, days trekking from one village to the next, days to even catch a sight of Jerusalem.

But then they do. They see the golden gleam of the temple in the distance, and the city's lofty walls. They sing songs as they come closer and begin the ascent up toward Mount Zion. And then they reach the city. Oh, can you imagine just how crowded Jerusalem was? Even with most Jews making the trip infrequent, still, there are thousands and thousands of extra people in the city. This is the most crowded Jerusalem ever gets. This group from Nazareth books one of the hundreds of inns that thrive off the pilgrimage industry. Someone from the group goes and finds an animal vendor, buys a lamb for each family. And then the Passover begins. Joseph, Mary, their boy, and all the rest – they crowd into the massive courtyard that Herod built around the temple. They watch their lamb sacrificed to the Lord – the bitter stench of blood overcome by the fragrant aroma of roasting meat on the fire. That night, back at the inn, they gather around a table, eat the lamb and the matzo bread and the bitter herbs, and recall why that night is different from all other nights, for they were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but God set them free.

They stay for a week. The seventh day of Passover is another holiday, remembering the Parting of the Sea. They eat another festival meal, they attend more prayer services – and then, the next day, it's time to go. They pack up anything they brought, and they join the crowds streaming away from Jerusalem, probably in all sorts of little clusters. The Nazareth crew has already talked about which village they'll stop at for the night, where they'll regroup. And after a day's walk, they get there. But when they regroup – all the siblings and cousins and friends – they realize that one child isn't accounted for. Jesus – he's not there at all.

Can you imagine what Joseph and Mary must have felt in that moment? The moment it dawned on them that they'd lost Jesus? Can you picture their panic? The shouts at family members: “We thought he was with you!” “No, we thought he was with you!” Can you imagine how, exhausted after a day of travel, their adrenaline gets pumping, and they have to race through the night, going back up to Jerusalem? I can't help but think Mary's relatives went with them – I mean, wouldn't you, if it were your nephew in a tightknit village like Nazareth?

And so for three days, they search Jerusalem, high and low. Even with the pilgrims gone, Jerusalem is no small town. Think of the population of Lancaster – but crammed into a smaller area. And for days, Joseph and Mary frantically search Jerusalem, wondering what happened to this boy. Did he get lost? Is he hurt? Did someone take him? I can't personally recall ever having had this kind of experience with a missing child, but to some extent, almost every parent does – maybe out of sight in a store for a minute, and the panic starts to rise. Think about what Joseph and Mary are going through (Luke 2:43-45).

And think, too, what else must be going through their minds. They only went to Jerusalem because of their love for God. The same God they're praying to, through tears and exhaustion and adrenaline, to show them where Jesus is now. The same God they're questioning with every breath. They went in obedience – but did it cost them their son? That's what they must be wondering. Wouldn't you? Wouldn't you be suddenly asking yourself how a couple as God-fearing as this could be the ones suffering this loss? Wouldn't you be asking God where he was, why he wasn't watching out for their child, why he wasn't miraculously bringing them back together, how he could allow this to happen?

I wonder: During the second day of the search, did Joseph feel a sense of deep regret that he took his family to the feast – that he didn't take a break, let this year slip by, stay home in Nazareth for a change? It's hard to see how he couldn't feel that pang of regret – not on the second day of a missing boy. All of us know, in one way or another, the sorts of thoughts Joseph and Mary were wrestling with in Jerusalem that day, as the minutes and hours ticked past, and they couldn't find the boy anywhere. In the heat of the moment, are we ever tempted to regret a lifestyle of serving God? Because, make no mistake: sometimes, all we can see is the cost. The cost of lost opportunities. The cost of lost relationships. In this case, the cost of (seemingly) lost people. “Count the cost,” we're told – but do we ever think that the cost might look like this?

Joseph and Mary are wondering if maybe it wouldn't have been better to stay home in Nazareth to begin with. And yet with hindsight, with the revelation of scripture, we know the answer is no. No, it's good that they went to Jerusalem. It's good that they celebrated the feast. It's good that they obeyed the Lord. And the same is true for us, even when the apparent cost seems so high. It's always good to go where God wants us and do what he asks of us – even if it means risking those we love on earth.

Well, for Joseph and Mary, the third day dawns. Consider this: Joseph and Mary are the first ones who taste the experience of the disciples some decades later, how they'll feel after the cross, when Jesus is missing from their company for three days. But three days was the limit for his absence from his disciples – he rose from the dead. And just so, on that return trip to Jerusalem, three days was the limit – they found him. And they found him at the temple. The way Luke describes it, we know where in the temple he probably was. He was in the Chamber of Hewn Stone, a room built at the corner of the courtyard, half-in and half-out. It's the room where the Great Sanhedrin would meet, all the great judges of Jerusalem.

And that's where Joseph and Mary find Jesus, “sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” – and answering them, too (Luke 2:46). One of the highlights of making the pilgrimage, the rabbis used to say, was that you'd pass by the Chamber of Hewn Stone, and you'd glance in, and all the best and brightest scholars would be sitting there, teaching the Torah to their disciples; and as you'd glimpse them in their studies together, you'd maybe want to take up the discipline of Torah study yourself.

Well, Jesus had wandered in. A twelve-year-old boy with a Galilean accent, brought up in a little village in a handyman's family – and now there he is, in the Chamber of Hewn Stone, surrounded by the sages and scholars of Jerusalem, many of whom probably served on the Great Sanhedrin. Maybe Paul's mentor Gamaliel was in the room. Quite possibly, his grandfather Hillel, over a century old but still alive at the time, was there. So too, probably, was Shammai, the other great scholar of the Pharisees and vice-president of the Sanhedrin.

And they and their disciples talked with this boy. He listened to them. He asked them questions – good questions, tough questions. And as they invited him to sit among them, they asked him questions of their own, questions about the meaning of this or that passage in the Torah. And he answered them. Not with simple, child-like answers, either. With answers that blew them away. Luke says that those who heard him were flabbergasted, they were thunderstruck, they were beside themselves (Luke 2:47). A twelve-year-old boy was matching wits with the greatest and wisest scholars, the most experienced experts – who could this boy be?

Our passage this morning begins and ends by talking about how Jesus, the Wisdom of God made flesh, was in his humanity growing in wisdom and in the favor of God (Luke 2:40, 52). This child, understanding the word of God on par with the top experts, would only get better and better as he matured to adulthood. But already, even as a boy, not yet a man, he was already the truest teacher. And we have access to his mature wisdom all the time. It's right there in the New Testament, written on pages for us. We can hear his words in the Gospels. We can see, in the epistles, how he prodded his messengers like Paul to speak to this issue or that issue. We are not deprived of the flabbergasting, awe-inspiring wisdom of this Jesus.

But I wonder: Are we really confident that Jesus is wise? Do we actually believe Luke when he tells us about the wisdom of Jesus? Because if we really believe that, it's going to change how we live. We're going to look to Jesus. We're going to open ourselves up to amazement. And we're going to trust him to poke and prod us with the right questions when we think we have everything figured out, and to offer us solid answers when we realize we don't. Is that how we live? Do we join the crowds enraptured by his wisdom and understanding, his questions and answers for us? Or do we try to choose our own path through life based on our own wisdom, which looks an awful lot like what the Bible calls being a fool?

In any event, that's where Joseph and Mary find Jesus – in the midst of the teachers. And when they saw him, they were pretty surprised. That's hardly where they expected him to be. Were they a bit embarrassed, thinking Jesus was bothering all these dignified scholars – people to whom Joseph might, under other circumstances, scarcely have dared to say hello? Did Joseph and Mary try to apologize for him? Did they pause for a moment to listen to Jesus' back-and-forth with the scholars, or did some of the teachers explain to this poor Galilean couple what an amazing treasure they have? Or were Joseph and Mary just overcome with relief to have found the boy? Did Mary rush in and throw her arms around Jesus and sob tears of joy?

And like any mother, Mary scolds him. “Child, why have you treated us so?” The word Luke uses here for 'Child' – it stresses the idea that Jesus is dependent on Mary, that he relies on her, that he needs her. She goes on and says, “Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress” (Luke 2:48). And she isn't wrong, not about the great distress. They looked all over Jerusalem to find the kid! Searched high and low! They were so, so worried! Doesn't Jesus understand how much he needs them? Doesn't Jesus understand that it's dangerous for him to be away from them? Doesn't Jesus understand where he belongs?

But when Jesus answers, it becomes obvious – obvious to us, at least, who know the whole story – that Mary's actually the one with some misconceptions here. Because Jesus answers her and says, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that it was necessary that I be in my Father's house?” (Luke 2:49). In other words, he's saying, if Mary and Joseph really understood who Jesus was, if they really grasped what Jesus is all about, if they really lived according to what God had revealed to them already, then they wouldn't have spent days scouring Jerusalem high and low. Why did they go around investigating the whole city, when the temple, with this Chamber of Hewn Stone and the scholars and their disciples, should have been the first place they looked? If they really knew Jesus, where else would he be?

This dialogue between Mary and Jesus – it sets up a big question. Who is Jesus' father? Where is his primary allegiance? What household does he belong to first and foremost? Mary assumes that Jesus' proper place is with Father Joseph – that Nazareth is home, and Jerusalem is a nice place to visit. But Jesus doesn't share that assumption. He knows that, while Joseph is his foster-father, he has a higher allegiance to Father God. He is first and foremost God's child, living in dependence on the Father, not Joseph's child, living in dependence on Mary. And so the question is: Where is it proper, where is it necessary, for God's Child to be?

See, in the 'natural' world, in a world “under the sun,” where Jesus' parents are Joseph and Mary, Nazareth just is where he belongs – forever. That's the natural home for a son of Joseph the carpenter. And that's what Mary is thinking about and talking about: Jesus' place is there with them. That's home. That's where he belongs. But Jesus is more than that. Anyone who calls God by the name “Father” is automatically beyond the assumptions of that kind of 'natural' world “under the sun.” Jesus has God for his Father. And if he has God for his Father, there's more to his life than what you'll find “under the sun.”

Jesus can go back to Nazareth. He can submit to Joseph and Mary – and he does, though they don't understand his point (Luke 2:50-52). But Nazareth is not 'home.' Nazareth is an extended detour. Nazareth is not, in fact, where he belongs. Joseph and Mary, the domestic village life, the craftsman's trade and the tools and the work, the fields and sunshine – those things can't keep him there. Because if he has God for his Father, then his real home is in his Father's house, and his real work is his Father's business. So even at age twelve, when Jesus goes back to Galilee, he's only visiting Nazareth. And as he himself says later, Joseph and Mary are not his primary household: “My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).

If Mary had really understood Jesus – really knew him as the Son of God, really grasped that his true home and true devotion were elsewhere – then she would have understood. Because Jesus, as the Father's Son, belongs in God's house, the temple. He belongs with his true family, those whose attention is on studying and obeying the word of God. The place where he belongs, the place where it's necessary for him to be, is the place where God is worshipped and where the wisdom of his word is craved and honored. It's the Father's house – that's where it's proper and necessary for Jesus, the Son of God, to be.

And here's the point: If you're a Christian, you're adopted by God. You've received the Spirit of Sonship – you are included in Jesus' relationship with his Father (Romans 8:15). Jesus' Father has, by amazing grace, become your Father. We here are the sons and daughters of God. And so everything we just said about where Jesus belongs as the Father's Son – that all applies to us, too. Our proper place, our home, is not primarily in our individual family households. It's in our Father's house. It's in the fellowship where the word of God is truly studied and truly discussed, and where the God who truly spoke that word is truly worshipped.

No less than for Jesus, this fellowship, this living temple, is where it is necessary for us to be. That's why the whole “churchless Christian” craze falls apart. If “churchless Christianity” were a possibility, we wouldn't have this story. But we do. And that means that the people around you are your family, and this is your home. This is your proper place. When we disperse today, returning to our various little Nazareths like Joseph and Mary and Jesus did, that's an extended detour – though hopefully, even as we go forth from the Father's house, we'll still go on the Father's business. But in the meantime, as we schedule our weeks and days, may we never forget in what house we belong. Thank God for our Father's house. Amen.