January 5, 2020
All Saints’ Church
Happy Twelfth Day of Christmas! And while we’re at it, Happy New Year! Pretty much everyone says this every year, but honestly, it’s hard to believe it’s already 2020. To me, it sounds like a futuristic number for a year. I’m old enough that when I was a kid, I assumed that by 2020 we’d be living in bases on Mars. But I’m also young enough to know that I will be living with the consequences of decisions made this year for the rest of my life. It’s a strange place to be this year.
One thing I will say about 2020 is that rarely have the people around me greeted a new year with so many expressions of anxiety and dread. Maybe you feel it too. Of course the focal point of this impending stress for many is the election this fall. And the news of U.S. military action in the Middle East has been a deeply unsettling way to start the year. I hate to state the obvious, but this is just the beginning of what promises to be a rollercoaster of a year. I know of few people who are looking forward to the media saturation and public drama that we will have no choice but to be part of for the next 12 months. I am observing how the uncertainty about the future is taking its toll on many of us in this parish and in our wider community. And that’s the point where the things happening in the news meet your own spiritual welfare and the spiritual well-being of this church.
If you are feeling a gnawing sense of anxiety at the beginning of this year, let me say: the time to start building up your spiritual defenses is right now. And you’re in the right place to do so. We come here to worship the Immortal, Invisible, God only wise. We come here to encounter Jesus, the Alpha and the Omega. We hear the words of Scripture, which have comforted and guided countless generations through times even scarier than these. We address our prayers to an all-hearing ear, a God who has promised to hear the supplications of all. And we partake of the Sacrament that is the very body and blood of Christ, so that his eternity becomes part of us and we of him.
All this should be of great comfort, and it is. It is the Christmas gift that keeps on giving, twelve days later and beyond. Because the way to keep yourself sane this year is to ground yourself in God, who enfolds the troubles of the present in the knowledge of the past and the future, who holds all times in the hand of the divine.
Maybe it’s a little bit of a stretch, but I see this message pretty clearly in the Gospel reading we hear this morning. It’s the story of Mary and Joseph losing Jesus at the Temple. We’re still in the Christmas season this Sunday, and believe it or not, this story about the 12-year-old Jesus is in the same chapter of Luke’s Gospel as the story of Jesus’ birth. Pre-teen Jesus and his family go to Jerusalem for Passover, then leave with the rest of the people from their village. An entire day passes before they realize he’s not with them. When they go back to Jerusalem to look for him, it takes them three whole days before they find him back at the Temple.
Can you even begin to imagine what Mary and Joseph felt when they realized their child was missing? First, shock. Next, panic. After that, I’m sure there was a mix of adrenaline, guilt, and anger. Jesus was old enough to fend for himself, but I don’t know any parent who wouldn’t be beside themselves at losing their 12 year old.
Those must have been a rough three days of searching in the holy city. Some twenty years later, there would be another three days of loss in Jerusalem that would shake more than just Jesus’ family—they would rattle the world forever. Adult Jesus would return to Jerusalem with triumph, only to be crucified and buried. Those three days of the sealed tomb were for his disciples much like those three days of searching for Mary and Joseph, a time of shock and anxiety over the loss of the world as they had known it.
Maybe right now you feel like Mary and Joseph frantically looking for their child. Maybe right now you feel like the world the way you’ve known it is sealed in a tomb, a past that can never be reconciled with the present. We all feel that way at times in our lives, the bitterness and confusion of life as we knew it being shattered. We can have those feelings about the world around us, the way of being we once knew changing before our eyes. But the more difficult times are when our personal lives follow the same pattern; someone you knew and loved is no longer around, a setback with work or money, or relationships that seem broken beyond repair. All these things are our moments of panic, the times when we, like Mary and Joseph, turn around in disbelief and see the thing that meant most to us all of a sudden—gone.
Friends, if this weren’t something everyone experiences, it wouldn’t be in the Bible. But look what else is in the Bible: after those three terrible days, Mary finds her son. Not just anywhere, but in the Temple itself, the holiest and safest of places. He was right where he belonged all along; she just couldn’t see it.
Being a Christian means having faith in times of panic and loss that the same God who was with you before is with you now—and will deliver you into a better future. It means having hope, like the apostle Paul, that nothing can separate us from the love of God. It means trusting that that which is lost is being cared for even now in ways we cannot understand, like the young Jesus in the Temple.
This is anything but a simple faith. It is not a naïve belief that things will get better on their own. Nor is it a way around the pain of loss. Quite the opposite. Our faith in the enfolding love of God is an acknowledgement that loss is inevitable. But it is also the motivator for us to push forward to a new future. When Mary lost her son, it was her faith that he was still out there that kept her searching for him. She didn’t just give up and go home. It’s how she kept her cool enough to keep doing the work she needed to do in the midst of stress and heartache. So too must we press on, keep searching, ruthlessly, tirelessly, until we discover the new reality that God has prepared for us.
So how do we live out this faith in a time of anxiety? How are we going to stay grounded in a year that will undoubtedly end much differently than it is beginning?
For answers, we can look to the Gospel. First, pray. Prayer is your immediate connection to the eternal. When we pray, the Spirit prays in and through us. Through prayer, we surrender our perception and our will to God. Think of the words we pray in this liturgy of Holy Eucharist. Most of them are almost two millennia old. They refocus us away from the terrors of the present and into the fullness of time. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were bathed in prayer; it bound them together even when they were separated.
Second, fellowship. Again, the Holy Family wasn’t just on their own—they were part of a fellowship of pilgrims who went up to Jerusalem. Jesus was kept safe by the fellowship of the temple. You’re not going to get through a time of anxiety alone. There are so many nurturing communities in our community. I can only speak for this one, where every single person is welcomed and greeted with love. If you are here, these are your people. Show up. Lean on us. Lift up those who are down. This is what the saints have done since the first days. It is one of the great ironies of our time that though we are more connected than ever, we seem to be more isolated than ever. A fellowship centered on God not only connects us to one another, but invites God into our midst.
There are so many other ways to ground ourselves in God. We can enjoy the gifts of beauty around us in art, music, and nature. We can care for ourselves and others gently and with love. We can vow to begin each day anew with wonder at this Creation before we move on to the disturbing headlines of the day. We can resolve to serve this church our the wider community in new ways. We can outdo one another in acts of generosity and love. These are the things Jesus did—and remember, he’s the one who said who said, “it is I; do not be afraid.”
Do not be afraid, for Jesus is here. Let him transform your fear into action. Let him turn your anxiety into confidence. Hand over your gloom to the God of hope. For our God will never abandon us. Amen.