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Sunday, 5 February 2017

Flying sparrows and an impish saviour

SERMON PREACHED AT CHRIST CHURCH, WHANGAREI
PRESENTATION OF CHRIST
3rd February 2008

Readings:
Mal. 3.1-4
Ps. 84
Heb. 2.14-18
Lk. 2.22-40

We normally bring children into the world charged with the excitement and joy of an unwritten, open, unblemished script full of potential, full of love and excitement and all the opportunity that new life brings. Perhaps we have dreams, too, of rewriting imagined wrongs in our own childhood, avoiding perceived criminal errors that our parents made, perfecting in the course of our life the art of parenthood. We know we’ll get it right. This child will have the perfect childhood.
Was Mary, too, full of such dreams, as the miracle baby she had birthed grew up in downtown Nazareth? We don’t know how long Joseph lived to share the dream, but did he too watch the child with a father’s love, and ponder puzzlement in his heart? Was the child a chip of the old man’s block? The child Jesus was no easy prospect: we read after our present story of the young adolescent Jesus missing the caravan back to Nazareth after his whanau visited the Temple. Did the child stretch the resources of his earthly parents? By the end of the second century beautiful stories were circulating about the child Jesus, like this from the so-called Infancy Gospel of Thomas:
1) When the boy Jesus was five years old, he was playing in a narrow part of a rushing stream. (2) He was gathering the flowing waters into ponds, and immediately they were made clean, and he ordered these things with a single word. (3) And after he made clay, he molded twelve sparrows from it. And it was the Sabbath when he did these things. But there were also many other children playing with him.(4) Then, a certain Jew saw what Jesus was doing while playing on the Sabbath. Immediately, he departed and reported to Jesus' father, Joseph, "Look, your child is in the stream and he took clay and formed twelve birds and profaned the Sabbath?"(5) And Joseph went to the area and when he saw him, he shouted, "Why are you doing these things that are not permitted on the Sabbath?"(6) Jesus, however, clapped his hands and shouted to the sparrows, "Depart, fly, and remember me now that you are alive." And the sparrows departed shrieking.(7) When the Jews saw this, they were amazed. After they had gone away, they described to their leaders what they had seen Jesus do.

We may not automatically relate to such a story, but apart from its profound associations of the boy Jesus with creating Word of God, it should also carry hints for us of the difficulties that lay ahead for Mary and Joseph in the years after the complex birth of Jesus and presentation of the child in the Temple after his birth.
Perhaps Mary and Joseph made mistakes in their upbringing of this tricky child. But for all that they presented him, as their firstborn, in the Temple, making appropriate offerings and sharing with God their hopes and dreams. There was much pain ahead: the glimpses we have of Mary are glimpses that are open to all the pain of parenthood – but it was pain deep within the heart and purposes of the Creator, too. Perhaps, at the very least, that is why we sometimes offer our lives and the lives of those we love to God: deep in the heart of God is an understanding of the human journey in all its risks and uncertainties?
Almost every month our media reverberates with the news of some new child who has died a bitter and bloodied death at the hand of some form of abuse. Hopefully we cringe at the thought of such horror – for if we don’t then our compassion fatigue has become so advanced that it’s a pathology. Hopefully we don’t judge – every parent has known the sheer exasperation involved in caring for a screaming child. Nevertheless we must surely know that New Zealand’s status as having one of the highest child abuse rates in the western world is a tragedy beyond comprehension. Thousands of New Zealand children are beaten and sexually abused (often both) every day of the year. The perpetrators of such abuse have often been victims themselves, and the victims that more or less survive will often go on to be perpetrators. The Hebrew scriptural wisdom that speaks of the sins of the fathers passing on generation after generation is a timeless wisdom – and is an inescapable wisdom unless cycles of violence are broken.
In the Christian community, while tragic mistakes have been made, we nevertheless adhere to a belief that can break cycles of violence. We hold to a story that speaks of love and compassion and justice. Ours is not a flavour of the month story, but it is an ancient story. It is not a story about perfect parenting, but is a story about what may be called, as Bruno Bettleheim once put it, ‘good enough parenting.’ Mary and Joseph may have been puzzled by the child that they offered in love to their Creator God, but they did not repress their puzzlement in cycles of substance abuse and violence, or throw out their beliefs in a God who receives and loves and cares and breathes resurrection hope into the lives of each child that is offered to him. Mary and Joseph brought their child up knowing the Creator, learning the rhythms of faith. We know that child as the Son of God, but that became clear only after the events of the first Easter – and Mary and Joseph had no hotline to understanding the complexities of the Jesus-child’s life.
There is risk in the sharing of love with another person. At the very least there is the risk of future separation – psychologists often speak of ‘parturition’, the moment of separation at birth, as being the beginning of a journey of bereavement. But it is a separation that we believe leads into reunion and the resurrection hope of Easter. It is separation that is not the final word. When Jesus was presented at the Temple it was Joseph and Mary’s act of connecting him to the Hebrew story of the people of God. It was not an insurance possibility against the possibility of a hard road ahead, as surely the life of Jesus shows. It was however an act of integration into the possibilities of God.
When we baptize our children we do the same. But arguably more important than that, when we bring them up exposed too, perhaps immersed or saturated in the story of Jesus, then we are offering them a different narrative to the drug and anger-fuelled stories that have claimed the lives of too many New Zealand children. The Christian journey is not terribly chic, but many of the alternatives are seriously bleak and destructive. Just as Jesus was presented in the Temple, so we can present the lives of our tamariki, and indeed our own lives, for the breathings of God.


TLBWY
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