A sermon from The Congregational United Church of Christ in Iowa City.

December 27, 2015,   The First Sunday after Christmas.

“All In Favor”       Jeff Barton, Guest Preacher.

Lessons : 1 Samuel 2: 8-20, 26.   Psalm 148.   Colossians 3: 12-17.   Luke 2: 41-52.      


The Christmas story in this year – with the Luke gospel being the key to our lectionary calendar -  jumps quickly, it seems, from the manger in Bethlehem to this account of the 12 year old Jesus of Nazareth.   Luke is more familiar than Mark, who ignores all the nativity narrative, but most of us want to hear more about the Magi and their gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh.   When we meld the Luke and Matthew stories, as is often done on Christmas Eve, we get more of those three wise guys, from the Matthew account.  

We also would read Matthew about the Magi on Epiphany, and learn more of the danger of Middle Eastern tyrant governments, and the travails of refugees fleeing from one nation to another to try and survive.  Yet since Epiphany is on a Wednesday this coming January 6th, you might have to wait until next Christmas Eve to hear that story again.  

On this first of two Sundays of the Christmas season, we follow Luke’s particular account, jumping from Bethlehem to twelve years later with Joseph, Mary and the near teen aged Jesus.  They are making a holiday trip - not over the river and through the woods – but to the celebration and religious convention (something sort of like a UCC General Synod or National Youth Event) held in Jerusalem at the temple. 

Luke found it important to illustrate this episode in the life of Jesus, the only such vignette offered in the synoptic gospels between his birth and the start of his ministry.   has a wonderful memory about the Sunday when we loaded up the car to come home from church,  and were almost all the way home before anyone, including my mother, realized that my sister Barb,  the three year old youngest of five,  wasn’t with us.  So at some level, can’t we all empathize with parents like Mary and Joseph, who expressing their anxiety and love, scolded:  Why have you treated us like this?”  

Jesus replied, no doubt having his tradition’s story of Samuel serving Eli at the temple in mind, “I must be in my Father’s house.”   And, again, as so often in the strange and marvelous unfolding of their experience of this child:  from the annunciation of the angel, to the confusion of the pregnancy, and to the unique circumstance of shepherds coming to see Jesus in the hours after his birth - Mary and Joseph did not fully understand.   No doubt they did think back to his remarkable birth.


What  Child is This

Verses one and two - adapted - What Child  Is This?



What child is this, who laid to rest, On Mary's lap is sleeping?

Whom angels greet with anthems sweet, While shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the King, Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:

Haste, haste to bring him laud, The babe, the son of Mary.


So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh, Come one and all, to laud him:

Great grace he brings, his favor springs, Let loving hearts applaud him.

This, this is Christ the King, Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:

Haste, haste to bring him laud, This child, the son of Mary.


Great grace he brings, his favor springs.                 

Mary and Joseph had, we might project, not a lot of challenge or concern with young Jesus, at least after the tumult of the pregnancy, birth and the scary flight to Egypt as refugees.  They returned to Nazareth only after what must have been a number of years; maybe two, maybe four?  But now, even accounting for the challenge of raising Jesus and his younger siblings - feeding and housing and caring for them - things must have settled into something like a nearly comfortable working class routine.  Joseph must have been somewhat successful, for he took his family to Jerusalem, which likely wasn’t cheap.  Everything else in the tradition places Jesus as a working class son of a carpenter,  trained a bit at the local synagogue in the tradition of Abraham and Sarah, and leaning more of Joseph’s ancestor; the Great King David. 

Jesus might have - must have wouldn't you think? - been an exceptional student at his local Hebrew school, yet this didn’t seem to ring any parental awareness or pride bells.  No “my son is an honor student” bumper stickers on Joseph’s two wheeled hand cart.   Mary was truly amazed -- not so much at the wisdom and scholarship of her eldest child -- but that the learned scholars would be listening to and learning from him.  

I suggest we should ask ourselves how is it that the wisdom and teaching of Jesus, as a mere youth and as the leader of his band of disciples – in the first century and in the twenty-first – still is amazing.   How does a radical acceptance and embrace of each neighbor, including the generally despised Samaritans, teach us to put aside our fears and be followers of a way of extravagant welcome and peace?   When will we truly turn from being afraid of those beyond our own tribe, and even of too many within it?   How will we celebrate the meaning and value of our culture and our religion without insisting other cultures and religions are somehow deficient or wrong?   Why is it too many who call themselves followers of Christ are so certain of particular and isolated teachings about this law or that practice,  and yet miss the continual and overwhelming theme calling for us to love and serve God and every neighbor?

We would all do well, this Christmas season and every season, to be amazed at the wisdom from on high found in how Jesus interpreted and taught a better way, a more complete truth, and a deeper fulfilling life.      


O Come, O Come, Emmanuel 

Verses three and four - adapted - O Come, O Come, Emmanuel 

(Veni Emmanuel)


O come, thou Wisdom fro-m on high, And order all things, fa-r and nigh;

To us the path of knowledge show, and cause us in her wa-ys to go.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel!


O come, Desire of na-tions, bind All peoples in one hea-rt and mind;

Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease; Fill the whole world in fa -vored peace.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel!


Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease; Fill the whole world in favored peace.

 When I was about that age of Jesus in this gospel story, plus or minus 12, I used to trouble my parents more than I needed to, I confess.   Not more, I hope, than most boys caught between childhood and adolescence, but certainly more than was necessary. In some ways that is what being a child, and especially a boy, is all about. (I would welcome, in the interest of equality, more women sharing about their mostly harmless pre-teen boundary busting. I'm curious if it was more common than we boys ever knew.) There is something expected about troubling our folks by testing some limits, exploring some alternative ways of doing things, finding our own evolving self in our adventures and learning much more from our mistakes than we did from our successes.  I think most of us think back to such formative experiences with appreciative amazement.   However, when at the time my mom would be amazed, less by those successes than by my many mistakes; I would often try to lighten her dark judgmental mode by singing, “Nobody knows, the trouble I've been. Nobody knows, but Jesus."    While that would get a chuckle out of my dad, it never did improve my mom's disposition.   She didn't understand me, or my sense of humor then and most often still doesn't some 50 years or more later.   

Jesus didn't, we infer, purposely try to avoid Mary and Joseph, or trouble them as I so often did my parents.  He was busy listening to the rabbis and growing into his own unique self; he had questions. Maybe he had observations or even divine inspiration, too, but the core of the Midrash - the process of learning the texts and how they are applied to contemporary life - was all about questions.  The combination of such questions and the excitement of being asked for his thoughts, his perspective, and his answers by this collection of scholastic leaders would have been too much of a challenge, I imagine.  Jesus was unlikely to be troubled by the mere expectation that there was a time and a place he was expected to meet Joseph and Mary and his siblings in the moment of such discovery.  


This was, maybe, an initial awakening.  In this circle of scholars, this might well have been the place and the time that Jesus began to realize what his purpose and promise was all about.   That day - not ignoring his child based earthly responsibilities as regards to his life in Nazareth - but having his mature earthly responsibilities made known to him; that day was transformational.  That day was the dawn of Jesus seeing himself as one who would grow to interpret and apply the sacred teachings for a more faithful and more loving experience of God's desire. That day, I suggest, revealed to Jesus his mission and his call.  It was his vision quest, his bar mitzvah, his epiphany, his confirmation and more.  I like to think it is probable - that day - Jesus found his focus towards matters greater than even his life or death.  Can you imagine how, having been odd and different from other children all his life, these sessions with the rabbinical council must have been a day of definition and heartfelt joy for young Jesus? 


Good Christians, All, Rejoice 


 Verses two and three  - adapted -   Good Christians, All, Rejoice 

(In Dulci Jubilo)


Good Christians, All, Rejoice, With heart and soul and voice;

Now ye hear of endless bliss; Jesus Christ was born for this!

He hath op'ed the heavenly door, And we are favored evermore,

Christ was born for this! Christ was born for this!


Good Christians, All, Rejoice, With heart and soul and voice;

Now we fear not life nor grave; Jesus Christ was born to save!

Calls you one and calls you all, To gain his everlasting hall.

Christ was born to save!   Christ was born to save!


We are favored evermore, Christ was born for this! 


I'm just weeks away from experiencing my first Iowa Presidential Caucus. I have participated in and survived two New Hampshire Presidential Primaries, but for most of my life I have lived in places where almost all the decision making had been made before I got to participate.   So I am, I think, measured but pleased to be able in 2016 to say who I favor while it might still mean something to the nation.   Maybe you know who you favor?  Maybe you don't favor anyone who is currently in the contest?  


We ask for favors from friends and family and neighbors.  I gave someone 10 bucks this week, as a favor I don't expect to be repaid.  I can only hope that they did use it for the gas money these strangers said they needed.  I hope you, and me, and all of us, will know the favor of being loved and appreciated, the favor of being regularly surprised by grace, and the favor of learning our various mission and call.  If we are unsure about such a sense of favor today, I pray that all of us will know it, or know it again, before many days or seasons go by.  


The Luke lesson says that Jesus, much like Samuel before him, grew in favor with people and with God.  I wish for you, and for me, and for all of us, that we could grow in wisdom – possibly in wisdom about who to favor in the caucus on February 1st – but certainly in wisdom about how better to love God and all of our neighbors.  Such wisdom seems an uncommon reality too often.  What we can do, I suggest, is consider the questions that would help us be in favor with each other and our God.  Can we, and will we, put aside our fears to better allow and enable us to love?  Can we, and will we, expand our sense of neighbor to include those of differing Christian perspective and practice?  Can we, and will we, extend our sense of shared human inter-relatedness to include those who are Muslim, or Buddhist, or Hindu, or Atheist, or, like Jesus, Jewish?  Can we, and will we, adopt as our beloved responsibility even the planet - God's creation the tradition calls it - and the climate in which all Earthlings dwell?  


One of the beautiful things about the Midrash process is that sometimes multiple and conflicting questions can all help lead faithful students to find a better and appropriate new understanding of what is God's desire for those who would love God and love their neighbors.  That is part of the glory and mercy of our faith and the gift of God to those who seek to be a people of justice and peace.  Between now and next Advent we will continue to explore the wisdom Jesus was and shared as noted by the gospel of Luke. We too can be, and on occasion already are, a favored people. Favored especially when we do not forget to be accountable for the care of all our friends and family.  Favored especially when we are willingly troubled to leave no child behind as was Jesus left at the temple.   Let us work and pray and strive to be -- together with all creation and with all God's peoples -- all in favor.     Amen.