Dec. 30 “Searching” 1 Samuel 2:18-20 * Psalm 148 (UMH 861) * Colossians 3:12-17 * Luke 2:41-52
Have any of you heard that last hymn, “Rock-a-Bye, My Dear Little Boy”? Now that we have been here at Fern Prairie for six months, I am beginning to miss the trip to our previous churches, it is just such a beautiful but long, drive, and I have certainly missed the people ever since we left. Here is a version of this hymn recorded by our piano player from South Bend UMC, Phil, with his son Max. It is the final track on their CD “Chromus II” for which the band received two Grammy nominations. Their version is called “Rocking”:
At our previous church appointment, our weekend would begin shortly after we got off work every Friday and headed for the coast, hoping traffic wasn’t too horrible. After several years of doing this, I was so tired of driving up I-5 that I grew fond of driving West from Troutdale on Marine Drive past the Portland Airport and onward through St. Johns, crossing the Columbia River either into Longview and then onto Highway 14 or staying in Oregon all the way to Astoria. Both routes lead to Highway 101 heading North.
After driving up beautiful Highway 101 from the town of Naselle, Washington, for about 45 minutes, you might notice the first sign pointing the way to the small town of Bay Center, but you will probably won’t see it. A little farther on, you can’t miss the large green meadows that open from the forest and spread along the banks of the Palix River as it flows into Willapa Bay. On the left you will see a large, well maintained barn that has “Rose Ranch” painted on the roof, with a herd of the happiest Black Angus cattle you will ever meet munching on the grass. Very tasty cows, I might add. Just before the bridge over the river is the Dike Road, which winds along the bay into central Bay Center, which consists of one tavern, several oyster processing businesses, a nice little marina, a post office, a KOA camp and a state campground, and many humble homes. It is also the home of two churches, one of which is the Bay Center United Methodist Church, also known as “The Church of the Eight Old Ladies.” It is a church family very similar to this one: relaxed, loving, and fun. The main difference being that there are men in attendance here. One of the original eight ladies moved to Vancouver before we got there, and one passed away suddenly in our third year there. The unofficial leader is a bubbly woman named Janie, who I think of as being the “boss cow” for she is also the owner of the ranch you pass on the way into town. What I know about cattle I mostly learned from her, including the fact that one cow is always the boss of the herd. As in the church, the 2 or 3 bulls are in a separate pasture, while one female from the much larger remainder of the herd is in charge.
Janie is remarkable in many ways, with one of her gifts being the ability to see where God is at work. Events come up, good and bad, and she can see God’s hand at work better than most and can usually discern whatever lesson we need to learn, finding something positive for us even in difficult times. Often this would happen during my sermons, when she would start discussing her ideas, often with others commenting, also. As a new pastor this was a little disconcerting, but over the years it began to be something I greatly appreciated, as it helped all of us better engage with Scripture and life in general. I have also learned that when I think my sermons are not as good as I might like, if I open them up to responses from you, they are greatly improved, in both content and entertainment value, and with a greater sense of community.
During church, when she is actually quiet, Janie sometimes would drift off with a far-away look, and then suddenly come back and shares her thoughts with the group. She was always searching for meaning, searching for messages from God, searching for his presence. Now that we have celebrated Jesus’ arrival at Christmas, we join in the search for him in our world. Surely, he is everywhere, we just need to work on our ability to discern what he is up to, most often in the “little” things we overlook.
Of course, we all search for meaning and understanding. We search the Scripture, we pray, we come to church, but we also search as we go out into the world. We listen to the stories we here everywhere, from children, elders, strangers, neighbors, our enemies, and even wisdom can occasionally be heard on TV or elsewhere. Whether our journey is physical or metaphorical, we constantly move forward through time, searching for signs of the God who abides outside of time.
Perhaps Mary and Joseph were seeking to protect Jesus when he “wandered off” in search of his Father, for certainly Jerusalem could be a dangerous place, but we can’t grow if we ignore ideas that we might think are dangerous. We are the same with our kids but know that someday they must strike out on their own. God is the same way with us. We come to this sanctuary once a week to sit at his feet, but then go out to make difficult decisions and search for meaning and fulfilment. Growing sometimes means facing our fears; sometimes it means getting knocked down and roughed up, but we get back up and continue on our way, hopefully a little wiser.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once told the following story:
A student asked his rabbi if he believed “God created everything for a purpose?”
“I do,” replied the rabbi.
“Well,” asked the disciple, “why did God create atheists?”
He answered, “Sometimes we who believe, believe too much. We see the cruelty, the suffering, the injustice in the world and we say: ‘This is the will of God.’ We accept what we should not accept. That is when God sends us atheists to remind us that what passes for religion is not always religion. Sometimes what we accept in the name of God is what we should be fighting against in the name of God.”
Too often, we pray and expect God to do something, but then step out of the picture. Sometimes the answer to our own prayer is us. You will never here me say “God helps those who help themselves”, but you will here me say that God gives us all that we need to be faithful and fruitful, but sometimes we give up too quickly or don’t give ourselves enough credit for our own God-given abilities. When faced with the conquest of the Promised Land, again and again Joshua is told to be strong and courageous. We too, as prayer warriors and foot-soldiers for God, need to be courageous as we live and proclaim the love of God, boldly acting in ways that will point people to his grace and forgiveness.
I don’t remember how it started, but somehow Janie associated me with that TV ad for glasses with the owl that talks, and gets teased by humans who say “who”? Perhaps it was from our shared interest in birding, Bay Center being a good birding location, I don’t know. But I received more than one card with an owl on it from Janie, as well as hearing her say “Who? Stop it!” frequently during church. One of her favorite sayings is: “Always remember that for some people, you are the only Bible that they will see.” My addition to this sentiment is that we are the only Jesus some people will ever see. Most people are searching for something, anything, to give their life meaning and a sense of peace. Wherever we go, we must remain mindful that we can share Jesus with those we meet, giving them a kind word or doing something nice for them.
Certainly, there are people out there who expect us to be super nice and never cuss or drink or whatever shallow expectation they have, but if we are to reach people with the message of forgiveness and acceptance in Christ, being authentic is much more effective, and healthier for us. We admit that we are not perfect but follow the one who is. We share where we once were but show where we are now by the grace of God. Our reading from St. Paul gives us a vision of the way we are now to live our lives:
As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
That’s how we should be in our everyday lives, but that doesn’t mean we should never be courageous and speak up when something is contrary to God’s instructions. Sometimes tough love is required but done with love and integrity. Telling people that they are going to hell generally is not productive in this day and age.
Jesus makes a journey to the Temple, to his father’s house, but it was not really a search, for he knew where to find him. We are like his parents searching for him: we too know where he is, we just sometimes search in the wrong places. Perhaps the main point of the story is that Jesus, like Samuel, goes to God’s house as a formal statement of his station in life. Like we should do, both men publicly declared their service to God, and sought to live in a manner acceptable him. Luke tells us that Jesus was in the Temple for three days, but he doesn’t mention where he slept or had his meals or any other such mundane details. We probably assume that he was taken care of by the priests and workers there. May we too do the same for any who come to us in their search for God.
As we prepare for the start of a new year, may we continue our search for Jesus, focusing on the right places to find him, and acting and speaking in a manner that points people to him. And even during the tough times, may we join together to praise God, as our Psalm today says:
Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven. He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him. Praise the LORD!