In the newspaper this past week there was a story about a group of 140 people in north Alabama who want to incorporate a new town. The town charter would be the King James version of the Bible, the Ten Commandments would comprise all the town ordinances.
But this is the part of the story that intrigued me the most. The organizers say by making the Bible and the Ten Commandments the sole source of legal authority in their town, they expect to go back to life as they remember it from the 1940s and 1950s.
Sometimes I can understand their nostalgia and I can want my faith to confirm the past rather than press me forward to the future.
But then we wonder: Is God more interested in the past or the future. And if God is more interested in the future, what kind of future?
One way to understand what is going on in that deceptively charming story that is today’s appointed Gospel is to see Jesus, even as a child of twelve, already grappling with this question about past and future.
His parents are an exemplary traditional, religious family. Luke emphasizes the gracious obedience of Mary and the faithful nobility of Joseph as they answered the Lord’s call to play such extraordinary roles in the miraculous birth of Jesus. Out of that same steadfast exemplary piety, they now take Jesus at the age of twelve to the Temple, as was the custom of the day for sons.
But then everything falls apart. Jesus disappears. They lose him. Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph were hurt and confused. After three days, they finally find him and Mary says—and every parent can feel her frustration and anger at her son—“Child, why have you treated us this way? We have been searching everywhere for you!”
When they find him, he is already challenging the religious status quo with the authorities. Luke tells us quite carefully that those who had dedicated their lives to preserving the Law and the prophets were “amazed” at his questions and his answers. They were hearing something new from a very unexpected source. They could feel the past, which had seemed so permanent, giving way to a new future.
The great New Testament scholar Raymond Brown says that beneath this seemingly charming childish incident we see the first storm clouds that will burst open in hatred, bewilderment and, finally, the execution of Jesus as an adult. Some haunting verses from the sixteenth century English poet Robert Southwell’s poem about this incident in the Temple elicit a sense of what was to come: “God did play the child. In springing locks lay couched horary wit/ In semblance young, a grave and ancient port/ In lovely looks did high majesty sit/ In tender tongue, sound sense of sagest sort.”
Luke is sending a signal. He is saying even as a child, we can already see that nothing will be the same again. Through Jesus, from the very beginning, all our assumptions will be challenged.
And what is the story of Jesus when he becomes an adult? It is the story of a religious leader who did not put down women, who embraced all whoever they were and wherever they were in the messiness of life. He took dangerous public stands against racism and even against prejudice based on religion. What kind of a religious leader is that? There is no nostalgia for the past here. This religious leader is teaching a whole new way. He is looking toward the future. For one example, he took the ancient principle of loving others and radicalized it: he said love not only others but especially those who are most different form you. But it was not just that he dared to teach such things; this was one preacher who practiced what he preached. And that is what got him into trouble. The religious authorities, those protectors of the past, and enough political leaders whom they could control, found ways easily to discredit him and even to entrap him. Arranging for his execution was actually fairly easy.
From the beginning, Luke is saying, this child who would become an adult will challenge, not reinforce our prejudices. This new way will not be the same faith as our parents. It will probably cause some anxiety and confusion. It will ask us look at ourselves and others, indeed the whole creation, in a wholly new way. It will challenge some deeply held cultural, social and even religious assumptions.
After Jesus we do not look backward we look forward. We do not look at how things were, we look forward to the coming Kingdom of God, of which the way Jesus treated people is a preview! This way of reading the Bible does not look back at any romanticized time in human history; it moves forward, slowly and sometimes haltingly, toward the future, toward God’s future.
The first great theologian of the church after the New Testament, Ireneaus, realized that God revels no more of himself at any one time than we are capable of understanding. Even in the earthly Jesus, only so much was revealed, although we have not fully grasped that revelation. God keeps revealing more and more as we are ready to understand. This is the ancient tradition of the church in which this great Cathedral stands. Relying on the Bible and the tradition of the church, we believe God is still at work in his world, revealing more and more of himself and his heart’s desire for us, and we are deeply engaged in discovering God’s future. Can you feel that spirit? It permeates these stones, which speak to us of the past but house and nurture the quest toward the future, God’s future.
Our faith impels us not backwards to the past but forward to the coming Kingdom of God. If Jesus is a preview of that coming Kingdom, then we already know that the movement is toward the inclusion of all people who respond to the love of God.
This causes confusion and anxiety for some today, just as it did 2,000 years ago when Jesus himself taught and lived the coming Kingdom in himself.
At the end of today’s gospel comes a hopeful word. After Mary and Joseph got over their original hurt and anxiety and after they heard Jesus declare that he was in his Father’s house where he should be, Luke tells us that Mary absorbed all that had just happened and been said and kept it in her heart. The implication is that Mary still did not fully understand God’s future, of which Jesus is the beginning. She sorrowfully concluded, as should we, that there is more hurt and confusion to come, given our resistance to God’s future. But she also believed, as should we, that God is still at work in our world, and she was no longer anxious.
So I conclude with the same hopeful word and offer to you the assurance that God is working through our current confusion and anxiety. We can even join in God’s work in the world. Taking our cues from the earthly ministry of Jesus, we can have enough confidence so we can be engaged in helping the vision of God’s love for all people come into being through what we believe and what we do. The writer to the Ephesians writes in today’s epistle as if he were writing to us this morning, the first Sunday of the last year of the second millennium after the birth of Christ: May God give us a spirit of ongoing revelation and certainty in the coming Kingdom of God that is so strong that we are confident, convinced and committed to treating all people as Jesus did. Because of this unique, God-given way of looking at one another and ourselves, let us experience the hope and power to which God calls us.