Worship Where You Are

The Worship Where You Are blog contains what we think of as "first drafts" of the sermon for each week.  They are prepared mid-week for people who might not be able to be present on Sunday morning but wish to still participate in the worship experience.  They contain scripture, the sermon text, a few questions to ponder and a closing prayer.  May they help you in your faith journey.

All Bible verses come from the Common English Bible

Good to Great - First Who Then What

Matthew 19:16-30

A rich man’s question

16 A man approached him and said, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to have eternal life?”

17 Jesus said, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There’s only one who is good. If you want to enter eternal life, keep the commandments.”

18 The man said, “Which ones?”

Then Jesus said, “Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. 19 Honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

20 The young man replied, “I’ve kept all these. What am I still missing?”

21 Jesus said, “If you want to be complete, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come follow me.”

22 But when the young man heard this, he went away saddened, because he had many possessions.

Teaching about giving up things

23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I assure you that it will be very hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 In fact, it’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”

25 When his disciples heard this, they were stunned. “Then who can be saved?” they asked.

26 Jesus looked at them carefully and said, “It’s impossible for human beings. But all things are possible for God.”

27 Then Peter replied, “Look, we’ve left everything and followed you. What will we have?”

28 Jesus said to them, “I assure you who have followed me that, when everything is made new, when the Human One sits on his magnificent throne, you also will sit on twelve thrones overseeing the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And all who have left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children, or farms because of my name will receive one hundred times more and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first.

 

Thoughts on the passage:

When I first read the book “Good to Great” my second year in ministry I remember being frustrated with the chapter “First Who Then What.” In his study of companies that made the transition from good to great, Jim Collins found that the successful ones started by first getting the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus. He noted that many of the companies had demanding standards and high turnover during this period while they worked to get the right people in place. Once they did this, they were able to then focus on where the company was going and begin their journey from good to great.

As a pastor, I found this to be a challenging and frustrating lesson. After all, in a business where your staff are all employees it is easy to talk about getting people on and off the bus. In a church, most of your employees are not actually paid, they are the congregation. While there are mechanisms to fire volunteers and most churches have some way of kicking people out of the membership of a church, not only is hard to do, it tends to feel, well, unchristian. What does it mean to talk about getting the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus in a church that believes in open hearts, open minds, and open doors? What does it look like to practice this “first who then what” philosophy when you believe in a God of love and grace who invites everyone to the table and calls everyone into ministry?

To start with, maybe we need to rethink what we mean about a loving God who calls everyone. While it is true that Jesus is clear that he wants to reach everyone, he is also exacting in his standards of what is required. In our scripture today we are reminded that everyone might be invited and called, but not everyone is willing to do what it takes. Jesus is quite clear of what is expected to be a follower of Christ and our rich young ruler shows that not everyone is ready for the challenge.

The question that the rich young ruler askes is one that I think we all get. We all want to know what it is going to take to inherit this promise of eternal life that Jesus has been talking about. We all want to know what is required of us. The man in the story asks Jesus what good things are required of him, but where he struggles is with the answer that he gets. At first, he is encouraged because the things Jesus talks about initially are things he has done, but then he learns what he is missing. He needs to sell everything and follow Christ. Ouch, when the man thinks about all that he has to give up, he goes away sad because he has a lot.

Jesus explains that it is going to be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is establishing some expectations. It is not that rich people, or anyone else is being barred from heaven, but to enter heaven, we need to be aware of these standards. The disciples wonder if those standards are too high, “Can anyone be saved?” Jesus is quick to remind them, and us, that what seems impossible to us is not impossible with God. “God does not call the equipped but equips the called” is what our Annual Conference Lay Speaker team has been teaching us.

Think about it this way, who seems more equipped to bring about the kingdom of God, a rich ruler or a fisherman. The first one has been learning about the teaching of scripture and faithfully following them for years. He brings so much, knowledge, resources, and connections to help spread the message of Christ. The other, a fisherman brings little theological training, is a little dense (let’s just be honest), has no real source of income, and few connections. On paper most of us would select the first one over the second, and we would be wrong. We would not know that what Peter possess, that the ruler does not, is a willingness to follow Christ no matter what it means. Peter leaves his livelihood and his family to respond to the call. He is committed to the vision of bringing about God’s kingdom. The ruler is only interested in what it will do to benefit himself.

Jesus knows what Jim Collins learns in his research, that good leaders do not look for the most talented people, they look for the right people. What makes us the right people? We love God and are willing to follow Christ. Does it help if we are smart? Sure. Is it a bad thing if we are rich? Not at all, as long as we do not love our wealth more than we love our God. What are the expectations that Jesus really has for those people who are “on the bus?” He expects us to be committed to God and not to ourselves.

One of the things that gets lost in this story is the shift from what we call works righteousness to an understanding of the need for God. Works righteousness is the idea that through our own actions, our works, we can be made righteous. It is the underpinning of the rich ruler’s question and the concern of the disciples that Jesus has set a standard that no one can obtain. On our own, we cannot obtain that, but what is impossible for us is not impossible for God. Luther, who hated the idea of works righteousness, wondered how any of us could ever really love God when we were always more concerned with ourselves and our salvation. What he realized is that we can love God because God first loved us. Our salvation has been assured to us by God. It is God’s love for us that saves us and it in turn motivates our love for God.

Think about this for a minute, why are you a Christian? If you are like me, it is not because you studied the tenants of Christianity and decided they best matched your own view of the world. Rather, it was because of what God did in your life. You are here, in church, because God first loved you. You experienced God moving in your life and you had to do something about it. You felt God’s love and wanted to share it with us. You came to know God’s grace and wanted more. You saw God at work in the world and you wanted to join in God’s restorative work in creation. We are not here because of us, we are here because of God.

When it comes to being a great church, I think the heart of it is that we are all committed not to our own gain or glory but to God’s. I cannot try and make this a great church so that I look good, but because God needs us to be great. We should not want to be great so that we can be a part of the most successful or popular, or biggest church in Willmar. Instead, we should want it because we believe that God is doing great things in Willmar and we are just trying to be a part of that work.

God needs us all on the bus and all doing our part to bring about the kingdom of heaven. The question is, are we ready to set aside our own desires to serve God? Do we love God more than we love our own success, our own wealth, and our interests? If we do, then we can join together and become a great church. If we are ready to set aside our own personal needs then we can join in bringing about God’s kingdom. It might seem impossible to do, but we know that what is impossible for us is possible for God. So let us respond to God’s call and trust that with God’s help we can bring about the kingdom of heaven.

Amen

Questions to Ponder:

What would make Willmar United Methodist Church a great church?

What are the ways that God is calling you to set aside your own needs to serve others?

What does servant leadership look like?

When is a time when you have felt like the rich ruler and been overwhelmed with what was required?

Prayer:

O God, often the needs before us are overwhelming. It is tempting to fall back on what we know, our money, our safety, our own self-interests. Help us to have the courage to give these up as we respond to your call. Give us the courage to know that when we follow you, your love and grace will be more than enough for all our needs. Bless us and be with us as we seek to make this church a great church that brings about your kingdom here in Willmar. Amen

Good to Great - Level 5 Leaders

Matthew 20:17-28

Jesus predicts his death and resurrection

17 As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the Twelve aside by themselves on the road. He told them, 18 “Look, we are going up to Jerusalem. The Human One will be handed over to the chief priests and legal experts. They will condemn him to death. 19 They will hand him over to the Gentiles to be ridiculed, tortured, and crucified. But he will be raised on the third day.”

Request from James and John’s mother

20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus along with her sons. Bowing before him, she asked a favor of him.

21 “What do you want?” he asked.

She responded, “Say that these two sons of mine will sit, one on your right hand and one on your left, in your kingdom.”

22 Jesus replied, “You don’t know what you’re asking! Can you drink from the cup that I’m about to drink from?”

They said to him, “We can.”

23 He said to them, “You will drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left hand isn’t mine to give. It belongs to those for whom my Father prepared it.”

24 Now when the other ten disciples heard about this, they became angry with the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them over and said, “You know that those who rule the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around. 26 But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. 27 Whoever wants to be first among you will be your slave— 28 just as the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.”

 

Thoughts on the passage:

In his sermon for the 125th anniversary last week, Bishop Ough challenged us to live into how God is calling us to be a great church as we move forward into the future. Jim Collins explored the question of what it takes for companies to make the transition from being good companies that did not stand out from the rest of their industries to great companies that outperformed not only their competition but often yielded returns far beyond even solid performers in the general stock market. Through carefully studying these companies as well as comparisons that did not have the same success, Collins comes up with a set of ideas of what it takes for a company to make the switch from good to great.

Over the last 125 years, Willmar has been a good church. We have done missions, reached new people, and spread the gospel message faithful in our worship, Sunday school classes and our outreach to the community. Over the next few weeks I want us to challenge ourselves to think about what it might take for us to become a great church. When he is studying companies, Jim Collins uses the easy metric of return on investment or stock price, as a way of defining greatness. Obviously, when we talk about great churches, we are not looking for a financial return of investment. Rather, I would say a great church is one that really lives into the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. A great church is a place where people’s lives are changed, relationships are saved, God’s healing power is experienced, and people grow in their love of God and neighbor. Willmar can be a great church!

President Truman once said, “You can accomplish anything in life, provided you do not care who gets the credit.” In his study of great companies, Jim Collins found that all of them were led by what he called Level 5 leaders. He defines Level 5 leaders as those who “Channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It is not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interested. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious – but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.” While many of them might not have realized it, they exemplified some of these traits that Jesus talks about in Matthew where he tells his disciples that whoever wishes to be great must first become a servant. It is not about personal glory, but rather a desire to do what is best for everyone that makes a person great.

One of the tendencies of these Level 5 leaders that Jim Collins observed was what he called the “window and the mirror.” Level 5 leaders tended to look out the window when it came to success, giving credit to others, or to luck, for the good things that were happening at their company. By contrast, when it came to things going poorly, they were quick to take responsibility, never blaming others or bad luck with things went poorly. This comes in part from both a sense of humility, to recognize the contributions of others, but also a level of personal responsibility to be the first to find fault in their own actions when things go wrong.

While I would not claim to be a Level 5 leader, I can tell you how hard it is to shoulder personality responsibility. Our society loves to glorify success and there is not a lot of reward for those who accept the burden of their own failings. I know that when I look at my time here as the leader of Willmar United Methodist Church, there is a lot of blame that I need to take for the declines we have seen in worship, membership, and other areas of the church. I am not always sure what I could have done better, but I know that as the appointed leader of this church, I have not succeeded in the ways I would have hoped to, and for that I am sorry.

Being a Level 5 leader is not something that just pastors, or CEOs need to worry about. I would argue that the traits of Level 5 leaders are rooted in the servant leadership that Jesus calls all disciples to exemplify, not just James and John, or those who were gathered around with him in the story from Matthew. If we want to claim the name of Christian, if we want to call ourselves followers of Christ, then we need to be prepared to live our lives with that same sense of servant leadership and humility that Jesus did. Each of us can be a Level 5 leader in our own lives.

Now, there are a lot of things that I have done right in my four plus years as the pastor and there are also a number of things I have done wrong. Some of you might even have a longer list than me of the things I have done wrong. Rather than dwell on all of my mistakes, which would take all morning, I wanted to use one as an example. We set a rallying cry for our church to be a community of love and celebration. One of the things that we wanted to do was build a culture of gratitude. I am aware that I am not always doing my part. I have these great goals of doing more to write thank you notes and yet I do not do it enough. Now, it might not seem like a big thing, but we all know that every little bit makes a difference. Sometimes it is easy to think that others will do it and let that be enough, but I think that sort of mindset is what makes us a good church. A good church is one where the dedicated 20% do the work. A great church is one where the whole 100% are dedicated and do the work.

We tend to think about humility as a certain “aw-shucks” level of not pushing things. We think of it as downplaying our gifts or just not standing out. James and John wanted to be seated by Jesus. For most of us that would seem like a very not humble desire. Jesus does not fault them for it. Instead he tells them what it will take and what it will look like for them to accomplish their goal. For me to be a Level 5 leader is to take ownership of the fact that if we are going to be a great church than it is going to have to start with me. It can seem like a not very humble claim, but I make it not based on my gifts, but based on what Christ needs.

At the same time, all of us are called to be such leaders or if you prefer disciples. If we are going to be a great church, we just need to know that it starts with each of us. The leaders of the companies that made the jump from good to great were not just smarter than the other leaders. In fact, they might not have been as smart, but they were driven to keep getting better every day. We do not have to be the smartest leaders or the best disciples of Jesus, we just need to be committed to getting better. John Wesley would call it moving on to perfection.

I have made mistakes in my four plus years here. I can promise you that as long as I am your pastor, I am going to keep making mistakes. Here is what I am also going to promise you, those mistakes will be driven by my desire to help us to be a great church. I can also promise you that I will own my mistakes. I am never going to stop trying to make this a great church because that is what I am called to do. If we are going to be leaders or disciples, or followers of Christ, we need to die to ourselves so that we might bring about the kingdom of God.  Amen

Questions to Ponder:

What would make Willmar United Methodist Church a great church?

What traits make a great leader to you?

What does servant leadership look like?

Who is someone you know who does a good job of following Christ’s instructions to be a servant to others?

Prayer:

God, too often we find ourselves either filled with pride in our own abilities or hiding what we have from others in modesty and shame. Help us to see that you have given us all great gifts that can be used to bring about your kingdom. Give us the humility to seek not our own glory but yours. Give us the audacity and courage to strive to be the best disciples we can be in bringing about your kingdom. Amen

Back to Bible Basics - Zacchaeus

Luke 19:1-10

A rich tax collector

19 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through town. 2 A man there named Zacchaeus, a ruler among tax collectors, was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to that spot, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.” 6 So Zacchaeus came down at once, happy to welcome Jesus.

7 Everyone who saw this grumbled, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

8 Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”

9 Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 The Human One came to seek and save the lost.”

 

Thoughts on the passage:

The story of Zacchaeus is filled with colorful details, like his size and the tree he climbed. It tells a story of transformation for one man, a tax collector and sinner. Yet, if you dig deeper you find that it contains the essential message of the gospel, that Jesus comes to seek and save the lost. It serves as culmination of several of Luke’s teachings around salvation and it calls us to reflect on our own role, both in this story, and in how we are called to be disciples and followers of Christ because of this story.

Zacchaeus is a person in need. While he has been successful financially in his life, it has come at the expense of his relationships with his fellow countrymen. This is seen when Jesus comes to town and the crowds begin to gather. Zacchaeus, for all his wealth and importance is shunted to the back and not allowed to see Jesus. Rather than take pity on him for his short stature, the crowd uses this advantage to further block him from seeing Jesus. Their dislike of him is further emphasized that when Jesus chooses to eat with Zacchaeus the crowd grumbles and questions what Jesus can hope to gain from eating with a sinner like him.

What is it that makes Zacchaeus so reviled? He has sold out his country for profit and likely has been acquiring his own wealth at the expense of his neighbors. Even in our modern, well-regulated society, tax collection is not really a well-regarded profession. Most people do not dream of their children growing up to join the IRS. When we are being the most charitable, we tend to think about taxes as a necessary evil, something we grudgingly pay, even if we might grumble about where it goes or how much we have to pay.

During the time of Jesus and Zacchaeus, tax collection looked very different. First, Rome was not a democracy, people were taxed without any real say in the process. Further, since Rome had conquered Judea that taxation occurred essentially through contracted outsourcing. Rome would set the amounts for various taxes and tolls, but its method of collection was to simply allow tax collectors to collect more than the prescribed amount to cover their own taxes. Imagine Target or Wal-Mart adding another 1% to the sales tax they collected for the state of Minnesota in order to cover some of their own costs. It is easy to see how people might resent the tax collectors whose wealth was derived from these extra charges.

There was another reason to resent these tax collectors. Rome was the occupying force. Zacchaeus, and the other tax collectors were working for the enemy. They had chosen to cast their lot in with, and profit from the Roman empire at the expense of their fellow countrymen. Is it any wonder that crowds did not like him? No one loves a turncoat.

This is the backdrop for the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus is lost and hurting. He has turned against his neighbors and profited at their expense and now finds that profit to be hollow. He is longing for a connection to someone who will accept him and offer him hope. Jesus reaches out to him and treats him with the respect and love that he has been lacking for so long. In that moment, Zacchaeus realizes what he is missing and turns his life around. The lost one has been found.

The theme of the lost being found is an important one for Luke. Luke records several parables and teachings that Jesus gives on the importance of finding the lost, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. In each one, Jesus talks about how God is seeking after those who have gone astray. Jesus is also clear of the need for God in these interactions. Just the chapter before, when asked by a rich ruler about getting into heaven, Jesus says it will be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Yet, here with Zacchaeus we see that what seemed impossible to the rich ruler who was not willing to give up his wealth, is possible when Jesus is involved.

It is easy to think of Zacchaeus as the hero, the person who turns his life around. The reality is that Jesus is the hero of the story. He is the one who seeks out Zacchaeus, calls him down from his tree and invites him into a new relationship with God, one not built on money but on love. Jesus, the human one, is seeking out the lost and saving them.

The same good news for Zacchaeus is good news for us too. Like Zacchaeus, we are all lost in our own ways. We have all gotten distracted at one time or another with things that we have made more important than our relationship to God. For Zacchaeus it was money, that drove him to be a tax collector who exploited his neighbors. For some of us it might also be money or maybe it is our love of other pleasures, nice cars, big houses, or fancy vacations that become our focal point. When I was in college, fencing was more important to me than going to church on Sundays. I justified it that this was temporary, and that I would go to church later (which is obviously true) but I am still not sure if that was the right thing to do. Was I making fencing, and my temporary happiness, more important than my relationship to God?

Now, I want to be careful because I do not want to fall into the same trap as the crowds who were so quick to judge Zacchaeus. They had their idea of what it meant to be a sinner, and they clearly framed it in terms of how they were in the right, and Zacchaeus was not. They knew the correct actions that were required of them. What Jesus wanted them to see is that this is not about correct actions, but about relationships. We are all sinners and we all fall short in our relationship with God. We would be wrong however to limit our understanding to our actions. The problem with choosing fencing over worship on Sunday is not where I was, but the mindset that goes with it. What is important is not a set of actions, but a relationship with God.

Jesus reaches out and Zacchaeus is saved, not because of the future actions he will take, but because he has restored his relationship with God. The actions he takes, giving to the poor and those he has cheated, are a response to his salvation not a part of that salvation. Zacchaeus has been transformed by his relationship with Jesus and he lives his life differently because of it.

Christ is extending his hand to each of us as well and inviting us into a new relationship with him. Like Zacchaeus, Christ is seeking us out when we are lost and ready to welcome us back. The question is whether we want to come down from our trees and encounter God. If we do, I can guarantee our lives will never be the same.

Our transformation will look different than Zacchaeus’ because I am pretty sure that none of us have defrauded our neighbors in collecting taxes for Rome. Still, once we have experienced God’s love in our lives it changes us. When we know that Christ meets us in our brokenness it challenges us to think about how we can offer that love to others. Are we guilty of standing in judgement like the crowds, or are we quick to reach out with love and acceptance to our enemies and those we have rejected as Christ does?

The story of Zacchaeus is a colorful tale of how Jesus meets a man and changes his life. It is a reminder that Jesus is longing to meet us and change our lives as well. It is also a powerful reminder of the good news of the gospel, that Christ is coming to save the least, the lost, the left-out and no matter how impossible it be to imagine, God can save everyone, even you and me. Amen

Questions to Ponder:

What are the ways that you feel like a lost sinner in need of saving?

When are the times you have been like the crowds, so sure that there is someone who is not deserving of God’s love?

How is God calling you to change your life and enter into a new relationship with Christ?

Prayer:

God, we admit that too often we are like the crowds, sitting in judgement of others, and maybe even ourselves. We give you thanks that you forgive us and reach out to us even when we do not deserve it. Help us to remember that love and grace you offer to us. Forgive us when we stray and transform our hearts that we might offer your love and grace to all we meet. Amen

Back to Bible Basics - Young Jesus

Luke 2:41-52

Jesus in the temple at Passover

41 Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. 42 When he was 12 years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to their custom. 43 After the festival was over, they were returning home, but the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents didn’t know it. 44 Supposing that he was among their band of travelers, they journeyed on for a full day while looking for him among their family and friends. 45 When they didn’t find Jesus, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple. He was sitting among the teachers, listening to them and putting questions to them. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed by his understanding and his answers.48 When his parents saw him, they were shocked.

His mother said, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Listen! Your father and I have been worried. We’ve been looking for you!”

49 Jesus replied, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they didn’t understand what he said to them.

51 Jesus went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. His mother cherished every word in her heart.52 Jesus matured in wisdom and years, and in favor with God and with people.

 

 

Thoughts on the passage:

Of the 3,779 verses in the four gospels only these 12 verses talk at all about the life of Jesus between age 2 where the birth narrative leaves off in Matthew and the suggested age of 30 when Jesus begins his public ministry with his baptism in the Jordon River. The bulk of his life remains unrecorded except this one story. What is it about this story that it was remembered and captured unlike any others from this time? What can it tell us about Jesus? What does it tell us about ourselves? As we go back to these basic Sunday school stories it is my hope that we can learn something new from this seemingly simple story of a young precocious Jesus.

When we are reading the scriptures, it is always good to ask ourselves what sort of text we are looking at. Poetry, like the Psalms, is meant to be read differently than history like First and Second Chronicles. Even the gospels which tell the story of Jesus are a mixture of teachings and parables, historical genealogies, and stories like this one. Each one is meant to be read a little differently. With all of them it is good ask why is it that the author, Luke in this case, sought to include this part of Jesus’ life in his gospel.

Luke, who is thought to have been writing likely one hundred years after these events, is capturing a story that has been passed on, likely from Mary to others, over the course of several retellings. As such, it is probably good not to get caught up on details, like exactly how much time elapsed between when Jesus was left behind and when he was reunited with his parents. Instead, we are meant to ask ourselves, what can we learn about Jesus, the Son of God, from this experience in his early life. What does this story tell us about the nature of God and the nature of Jesus?

The most obvious theme of this story is that Jesus was an exceptional child. Even at age 12 he had a great deal of wisdom and knowledge, such that he was willing and able to sit and learn from the great teachers in the Temple. Not only was this wisdom present at this point in his life, we know from the last verse that it only began to grow after this point. This further serves to underscore the idea that Jesus was possessed of a great deal of wisdom and knowledge, something that is abundantly clear to all of us who have read through the gospels and been challenged by his parables and teachings.

Just underscoring the wisdom and exceptional nature of Jesus has some rhetorical value. Since Luke is writing at a time when people would not have known Jesus personally, he is trying to capture for them a sense of just how special a person Jesus was. Rather than just tell us that Jesus was the Son of God, Luke is using this story to illustrate this point. As the son of God, Jesus was possessed of a wisdom and knowledge far beyond his years. Luke is fortifying his claim about Jesus’ divinity with this story about how exceptional he was.

I do not think that this is the only reason this story has value. In fact, I think there is more in what Jesus says to Mary that offers us an insight into his nature. One of the less-explored aspects of scripture is exactly how Jesus’ dual nature as fully human and fully divine plays out. As fully divine, does Jesus have access to all that God knows? As fully human, is Jesus forced to learn about the world as each of us? I think this passage from Luke sheds some insight onto this question. It underscores the growing and evolving nature of Jesus’ humanity. Unlike say Athena, the Greek goddess who supposedly sprang fully formed from the head of Zeus, Jesus comes into the world as a tiny baby and grows to adulthood in the same way that you or I do it, learning and growing along the way. This story reminds us that while Jesus was an exceptional child, he was a child none the less.

There is another facet of this story that I want to highlight. When Jesus is questioned by his mother about his actions, he gives the answer “Didn’t you know it was necessary to be in my father’s house?” Other translations substitute the word business for house. In doing so I think we see something of an underlying imperative that is already forming for Jesus. Even at the age of 12 he already has a clear sense of calling. While he could have been going with his parents, Jesus feels that his place already is with the teachers in the Temple, learning about God and growing in knowledge and wisdom. He is already focused on preparing himself for what is ahead.

We do not know at what age Jesus becomes aware of his nature and calling but it is clear by age 12 that it has developed. This is important because it gives us a context for the public realization of his call, which occurs during his baptism in the Jordan River. While that moment seems to launch his ministry in both Mark and John, it is clear from reading Luke, that long before he was baptized, Jesus was already aware of his special nature and his calling.

So, what does this all mean for us today? For theologians and philosophers like me, it can be fun to think about what this says about the dual nature of Christ. What does it offer the rest of us who might not get as much pleasure about such metaphysical speculations? That is where this last point I made grows in its importance. While it might seem vain to think of it this way, we are all like Jesus. We all have a special calling that God has placed on our hearts. We are all specially created for different tasks and we all have a purpose based on our gifts and talents. Like Jesus, there are things we must do because it is fundamentally who we are. Even though Jesus is a good son who honors and obeys his parents, he must remain in the Temple so he can learn about God and grow in wisdom and respect. The message of this story is that each of us has a similar calling in our lives.

When we talk about a call, we often think of a call to ministry. We think about how someone is called to use their gifts in several specific ways, but I think we need to see calling as something more than that. Each of us is a beautiful and unique individual, we are all created different and given a different purpose by God based on those gifts. I might be called to ministry, but that call looks very different than others, even those with a similar call. When I was doing my psychological assessment as a part of the ordination process, I learned that the assessment thought the best job for me was to be an actuary. I bring a love of numbers and an attention to strategy and vision to my call to ministry. By contrast, Pastor Marianne has a deep passion and gift for teaching that is part of how she lives out her call to pastoral ministry. Pastor Dennis has an amazing gift for relationships and visits that I often envy. Each of us felt the same calling by God to serve as pastors and yet God equipped each of us with different gifts to live into that calling.

I believe the same is true for everyone of us. Sometimes our calling is rooted in our employment and sometimes it is not. There are some people who work in a job because it gives them the financial resources to do what it really is that they feel called to do. There are others who are lucky that someone is willing to pay them to do what they would already want to be doing. I know people who are natural teachers and whether or not they were employed as such, they would find a way to be a teacher to those around them. God has blessed them with gifts and abilities that they cannot help but share.

What is God calling you to do? Who is God calling you to be? These can seem like daunting questions and yet I think we can look to Jesus for some insights in how to answer these questions. Jesus tells Mary that there is really no where else that he could be except in his Father’s house. What is that thing that we just default to doing? Are you the one that is always naturally offering to host events and provide food, maybe part of your calling is the gift of hospitality? Are you the one that is always thinking about the details, attending to the schedule, or thinking ahead to what will be need next? Maybe God has given you the gift to be an organizer. The question is not what is it that you are good at, the question is what is that you naturally want to do. I think our calling is not about our technical skills, those can be developed. Instead it is about our nature, how God created us, and that is something that was set in place a long time ago.

When we read this story of Jesus in the Temple, we are reminded that even as a child, Jesus already had a sense of God’s calling and purpose for his life. God has a calling and purpose for us too. It is our challenge to spend that time in prayer and reflection to find that calling. It is our challenge to then embrace that calling and live into it as Jesus did. Amen

Questions to Ponder:

What activities do you naturally gravitate towards?

Do you feel like there is something that God is calling you to do or be?

Who is someone you know who has embraced the calling that God has given them and is living out their purpose?

Prayer:

God, we give you thanks for creating each of us as wonderful, special people. Help us to see the beauty in your creation and your intentionality in who we each are. Help us to listen to the calling you have given to each one of us. Open our ears to hear your voice, open our eyes to follow your spirit, and give us the courage to embrace what you want for us. Amen