ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH DECEMBER 27, 2015
Colossians 3 12 – 17; Luke 2: 41 – 52
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
The time after Christmas is different for everyone. Some people pack up everything by noon on Boxing Day and others… well, I had a friend whose live tree was still standing in July. Some people are still celebrating with family dinners while others are already not speaking to their relatives. Some people are enjoying their gifts while others are returning theirs. With Christmas day past and a new year ahead I often find myself wondering: now what? For some people that means they begin to make a list of New Year resolutions and I thought it would be fun to look at a few cartoons about that.
Well, okay, we know that none of those things are going to happen so… Now what? Now what will happen? Where do we go from here? What does the future hold?
When we consider what our personal future holds we often fall into one of two traps. The first is that we look to the future by looking to the past. This can happen in one of two ways – we’re filled with nostalgia because our past was so good, nothing can parallel it or we’re filled with pessimism because things in our past were hurtful or unfair. While we’re shaped by our past experiences, we don’t have to allow the past to define us. To discover what’s next we need to let go of what was. Two monks who had taken vows never to touch a woman were travelling together. They set out at dawn and soon came to a river. A woman was there who wanted to cross but the current was too strong for her. Brother Francis saw the woman’s dilemma and felt compassion. He offered to piggyback her across the water. When they got to the other side the woman thanked him and went on her way. The monks proceeded on their journey. Late that evening Brother Ignatius turned Brother Francis and said, “Brother, I am deeply disturbed that you would break your vows by touching that woman.” Francis replied, “Are you still carrying her around? I put her down this morning by the bank of the river.”
Letting go – whether it’s of people, principles, set ideas or memories – is never easy. The past, whether positive or negative, leaves its impression on our soul but that impression doesn’t need to shape our character. It is far better to let the Holy Spirit do that. How do we leave the past behind us? When nostalgia binds us we can begin to let go by practicing gratitude for the love and blessings we’ve known. Being grateful is different from idealizing what was. Idealizing our past causes us to judge and categorize others and ourselves as either perfect or defective. These judgements keep us from love. They prevent us from enjoying the present and embracing the future. Nostalgia cuts us off. Thankfulness opens our hearts. Gratitude often leads to healthy expressions of generosity towards the limitations and quirks of others – we’re free to give, love and enjoy life because we appreciate all of life’s gifts. Thankfulness is a way we cherish God’s grace and grace releases us from dissatisfaction and liberates us for compassion.
We also need to let go of our emotional wounds and hurtful memories. When the past has been injuring looking back causes us to fall into self-pity, bitterness or a damaging level of dysfunction. When we are children or victims of violence others can have a lot of power over us and we can’t blame ourselves for the actions of those who have exploited our vulnerability. We can however allow the Holy Spirit to free us from that exploitation. Part of this process is discovering who God truly created us to be and asking God to heal and recreate us. Each one of us is so much more than the abuses or traumas we have suffered. We are children of God. Don’t allow anyone to take that gift from you. Perhaps they abused their power in the past but don’t give them power over you today. We find dignity when we claim our identity as part of our rightful heritage in Christ. As we become more resilient, those who have hurt us lose their hold over us. They’re power lessens. Sometimes, as our healing progresses we can, perhaps, find even greater freedom from the past through the act of forgiveness. When we carry stuff around with us, it eats away at and preoccupies our souls, keeping us from the fullness of life. None of us can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending. Sometimes these shifts take more than we are capable of and we need to seek out the help of a pastoral counsellor or therapist whom the Holy Spirit can work through. Letting go of the past happens in increments yet each time we leave something or someone behind us at the river’s edge we can peacefully and joyfully walk into what lies ahead.
Another infective way we look to the future is by being stuck in the present. A fable is told of when the Creator made people. He gave them words and settled them in a valley at the foot of the mountains. Then he started to watch how they developed. Time passed, but the people didn’t develop. They didn’t go beyond their village or climb up the mountains. Their eyes didn’t look at the sky. They didn’t look into their spirits. They became content, secure, dull, fearful and hopeless. The Creator decided to go to them as a traveller. Before sunset people gathered at the square to talk with the traveller. He described to them a life beyond the horizon and suggested he could lead them there so they could see how others live. “Oh,” they answered, “It’s too late for that; we’re quite comfortable here.” The traveler said, “Then come with me to the mountains to look at the world from the top!” “Oh” they shrugged, “too late, we have no energy.” “Then look at the sky”, the traveller said, “and I’ll tell you about the life in the Kingdom of Heaven!” They answered again: “We couldn’t understand you if you did. It’s too late for that.” The traveller became sad. He decided to cheer up the people. “Let‘s sing a song!” he suggested. But the people noticed the sun was setting and said, “It’s very late, we need to sleep” and they went to their huts. The traveller shouted to them, “It’s not too late! Don’t go to sleep! There’s so much more to life!” But they didn’t turn back. Then the Creator told himself: “I will take all words of limitation away from people, words like ‘late, not, impossible, far, high, hard, will not, can’t’ and will place in their hearts the joy of infinity. Maybe they’ll see that nothing is too late because there is no end. There is only beginning!” He did so and waited for the morning to see if the people would change. We are those people. Often, especially as we age, our physical limitations and life changes make us say, “It’s too late.” We may not be able to climb a mountain and our souls may ache – there are some limitations for all of us – I for one will never be an astronaut. That doesn’t mean that my spirit can’t soar. “Coming out of our comfort zone is tough in the beginning, chaotic in the middle, and awesome in the end, because in the end it shows us a whole new world. God gives us the joy of infinity. In Christ there are always new beginnings. There is always a future awaiting us. It’s up to us to choose holy restlessness over contentment. Adventure over security. Engagement over dullness. Wonder over fear. And possibility over hopelessness. What do you choose? What will that look like? What now?
The Gospels don’t tell us a lot about what happened after the birth of Jesus. Matthew tells the story of the wise men and the flight of the holy family into Egypt. Luke tells of the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple. After that we’re simply told, “…they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” (Luke 2: 39 & 40) From there, Matthew, Mark and John skip about 30 years to Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of his ministry. Luke gives us only one other story from those years after Christmas and before Jesus’ future. When Jesus was 12 years old his family had gone to Jerusalem for Passover. As the caravan of neighbours and relatives headed home his parents realized Jesus wasn’t among them. In a panic they searched for him for 3 days. They found him in the Temple; the place where God was believed to dwell. Jesus seemed oblivious to his parents’ alarm as seen in his reply when scolded by his mother, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”(vs. 49)
This story may not seem to address the question, “now what?” or to speak about the future at all. The only sure thing about the future is that we never know what it will hold. As the adage goes, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. The future is always a mystery waiting to be discovered. So where do we search for the future? The story of Jesus in the temple gives us the answer. We search for the future in the people and places where we believe God lives because God is the one who holds our future. We spend time with our heavenly Abba and walk by faith. It is we who ask the question, “now what?” and God who gives the answer, “I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11) That assurance is enough to cause us to let go and to welcome the future knowing it is never too late.