Sunday, December 31, 2006

Little Boy Jesus

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Luke 2:40-52

at Batesville Presbyterian Church on December 31, 2006


            Last Sunday we celebrated the birth of Jesus with the full retinue of children dressed as angels, cows and camels. We marked the birth of Jesus with the Advent Candles and sang Christmas carols. Today, on the First Sunday after Christmas, on this last day of 2006, let's look beyond the birth of Jesus and consider the life of little boy Jesus as we consider what became of the baby in the manger.

            The Bible has little to say about little boy Jesus. Yet we do have two stories that shed some light on Jesus' childhood and adolescence. The first story is from the gospel according to Matthew (2:1-12), where we learn that after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, King Herod found some wise men from the East, astrologers, scurrying around Jerusalem asking about the child who had been born king of the Jews, for they had seen his star rising in the East, and they had come to pay him homage. Of course this news sent King Herod into a panic and he immediately called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem with instructions to find this child and let him know when they found him so that he too, could pay him homage. The wise men follow the star and find the holy family but after being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

            After they left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to take the child and his mother to Egypt for King Herod would search for the child to destroy him. Joseph and the holy family escape into Egypt. When Herod learns he has been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated and sent and killed all the children in a around Bethlehem who were two years old or under. (Mt. 2:16-18) Today, in Cairo, Egypt, there are Coptic Christians who trace their religious ancestry all the way back to the time when their family embraced the holy family during little boy Jesus' exile in Egypt.

            Beyond the fact that little boy Jesus spent his early childhood in Egypt, the Bible has little to tell us except for the remarkable story present in today's gospel reading (Luke 2:40-52) This story, as told in the Gospel according to Luke, occurred when Jesus was twelve years old. By now the holy family has returned to the land of Israel and reside in the town of Nazareth. The story takes place on the family's annual journey to Jerusalem during the Passover celebration. These were occasions of feasting and enjoyment and men brought their families. But even as a child Jesus' religious consciousness is above the ordinary level of consciousness. For even at the tender age of twelve years, his commitment to God supersedes his obligation to his immediate family.

            That is to say, if one were to ask the twelve year old Jesus, "Who's your daddy?" His answer would be: "God." Even as an adult Jesus calls God, "Abba" which in our idiom may be translated as "Daddy." Already, as a child, Jesus knows he has a divine mission for human salvation. Thus, he explains to his parents what he was doing in the temple, saying: "I must be in my Father's house." Little boy Jesus is in the temple teaching because he must be about his Father's business, even if this appears to impair his relationship with his parents, Mary and Joseph. This tendency toward doing the will of God regardless of the consequences will follow Jesus like a shadow until he sweats drops of blood in extreme prayer the Garden of Gethsemane as he faces the cross. There, as an adult, even as here, as a child, Jesus will say yes to God's will, regardless of the consequences.

            This glimpse into the boyhood of Jesus sets the tone for what is to come. As the years pass, the wisdom that Jesus demonstrated in the temple grows and develops. Everyone seems to love him. He dazzled the teachers in the temple. They were amazed at his understanding and his answers. He is lauded by angels, shepherds, Simeon, Anna and many others in Luke's gospel. Later in Luke's gospel (23:21-22), God's expresses pleasure with Jesus when he comes to be baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan river and the heavens open and a dove descends upon Jesus, and God's voice booms down from heaven, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." And of course we know that Jesus did fulfill his mission of opening the door to God's favor for all people and he did it through an act of suffering that is terrible to contemplate.

            We don't often see Jesus' degree of wisdom or devotion in a twelve year old child. In fact, we may assume it has never happened at any time since then. We can only grasp at straws when we try to think of a modern parallel to the love and devotion to God displayed by little boy Jesus. Perhaps the closest we can get to it is a poem. I regard this poem in light of a terrible scene I witnessed once upon a time in Jerusalem. There is a exhibit with a glass front wall at the Yad Vashem, the Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem. Behind the glass wall is a room full of little wrinkled leather children's shoes. They are the shoes of children who were killed in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany. This poem was found by the body of a dead child in the concentration camp called Ravensbrook during the Nazi era:


            O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will

                        but also those of ill will.


            But do not remember all the suffering they inflicted on us

                        remember the fruits we have bought thanks to this suffering

                                    our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity,

                                                the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this.


            And when they come to judgement

                        let all this fruit which we have born

                                    be their forgiveness.


            This is the loving spirit of little boy Jesus as he demonstrated in his teaching in the temple when he was twelve years old; and this is the forgiving spirit that Jesus demonstrated as he was hanging on the cross, as he said in regard to those who were crucifying him, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Here we see that by continuing to pour oneself out in self-giving love even the darkest evil can be transformed into a scene of incredible love. We can do this ourselves, we can walk this path of self-emptying love, by staying soft instead of hardening our hearts, by not tightening up but by relaxing and letting in the energy of God's love flow into us and spill over into the world, into our families, into the heart of the child in each of us, even the oldest adult. In doing so, we may be more like little boy Jesus, who increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. We may also hear God say of us one day: "You are my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased."

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Blessed Among Women

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Luke 1:39-55

at Batesville Presbyterian Church on December 24, 2006


            Imagine the conversation between Mary and Elizabeth. Elizabeth is a woman who has been married for many years. She is old enough to be beyond child bearing years. Mary is a recently married woman who is still a teenager. Both of them are kin. Both of them are pregnant. Both of them are ecstatic with joy. Both of them are bearing sons of significance. Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist. Mary is pregnant with Jesus Christ. Both of them are blessed among women.

            When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby in her womb leaped. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, and sang out exuberantly,


   You're so blessed among women,

      and the babe in your womb, also blessed!

   And why am I so blessed that

      the mother of my Lord visits me?

   The moment the sound of your

      greeting entered my ears,

   The babe in my womb

      skipped like a lamb for sheer joy. (The Message)


            And like the babe in Elizabeth's womb, our heart skips a beat from sheer joy. We get this feeling about this time every year. This feeling that something big is happening in the midst of the little ones among us. We get this feeling when we see the innocent children dressed like donkeys and cows, angels and drummer boys, playing their part in the great play of resurrection life that we reenact every year about this time. And we know that Christmas once again has come.

            So we gather in the church sanctuary on Christmas Eve, having overcome many an obstacle just to sit in these pews for less than an hour's time. Hard to get here with the family to feed at home. Presents to be wrapped. Or unwrapped. Food to cook. Phone calls. Laughter. And a few minutes of silent reflection in the sanctuary. Some carols. Some scriptures. Some dressed up children singing. And we know, once again, it is Christmas.

            So we take some time to sit together in the stillness of this day. We join all the faithful of every time and place in anxious terror and hopeful expectation, looking for a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger. What a relief to know that the child is indeed in the manger. What a joy to see once again that God has indeed been born into human history. How happy we are to have it confirmed: We are not alone. We are not all there is. There is more to existence than material things. Even after we die we get to live again.

            It's all there, wrapped in mystery like the Christ child in the manger. The prospect of human suffering. The reality of death. The celebration of life. Baptism. Death. Resurrection.

            When we find baby Jesus we ponder the miracle with Mary then return to our home like the shepherds glorifying and praising God that in Christ's birth myth became fact.

            The birth of God in human history. We never imagined it would happen this way. But let's not get caught analyzing the hows or whys or wherefores. Let's throw reason to the wind. Get down on our knees. And join the heavenly choir in singing:


 Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,

            Born to set Thy people free;

 From our fears and sins release us;

            Let us find our rest in Thee.


                        Born Thy people to deliver,

            Born a child and yet a King,

Born to reign in us forever,

            Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.


By Thine own eternal Spirit

            Rule in all our hearts alone;

By Thine all sufficient merit

            Raise us to Thy glorious throne.


            For it is there, at Christ's glorious throne, where we may still find Mary and Elizabeth, blessed among women. There, at the foot of the throne of God, Mary still ponders these things in her heart, ever the mystic mother. And there, by her side, we may imagine, is Elizabeth, the wise old woman whose immortal body shines like the sun and will never fade away. These two women, blesssed among women, point us the way home. Show us the way down the narrow path to salvation. Draw us onward in the inner journey toward the effervescent flaming throne of God that is surrounded by the blazing violet fire of the Holy Spirit. There, at the foot of that throne, is where we want to be on this Christmas Eve.

            Mary and Elizabeth, blessed among women, friends, relatives, strong and loving mothers, show us the way to God's throne, to God's very presence. It is the way that we already know. It is the way that begins with birthing a child in a manger in an obscure town in the Middle East. It is the way that produces one son who lives like a desert hermit and another son who is accused of partying with prostitutes. It is the way that rears one son to be a prophet and another son to be the King of Israel. It is a way of great joy in watching these sons grow in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man. It is a way of great sorrow for Elizabeth when her son, John the Baptist, is beheaded by Herod the Great and his head presented on a platter to a woman of power and questionable morality. It is a way of sorrow for Mary as she stands at the foot a crucifixion scene in which her son plays the role victim while he is mercilessly ridiculed by a crowd of religious leaders and foreign soldiers of the occupation forces.

            Mary and Elizabeth, blessed among women, bless us with the joy that come from watching the children grow. Mary and Elizabeth, blessed among women, help us accept the pain that comes from watching our child suffer. Mary and Elizabeth, help us to experience the joy that comes from transcending all human pain and being reunited with God in this life and in the life to come. Mary and Elizabeth, blessed among women, move on over a little bit and let us sit down beside you — there, where you are, at the foot of the throne of the everliving God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — for there is a Christ-child waiting to be born in our hearts today.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Showing Gratitude for God's Sunrise

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Luke 1:68-79
at Batesville Presbyterian Church on December 10, 2006.

Early Wednesday morning as I was walking my dog, Pal, I noticed across the field a beautiful stream of gleaming sunlight break through an opening the thick dark clouds. The hole through which the sun shone looked like an eye in the sky. It seemed as if the eye of God was looking at me and the energy of the light of God's eye filled my being. I was grateful to God for filling me with God's light. Gratitude is the natural response when you see God's sunrise.

Our Bible story this morning is a story of the coming of God's sunrise. The people of Israel had been dwelling in the darkness of oppression and the misery of domination by the Roman government. They were looking for a savior to free them from Caesar's mighty hand. The family of King David in particular were expecting God's salvation to come to the world through their family. They looked forward to one of their kinfolk leading them to salvation. When that savior was born into their family, they would be grateful for God's sunrise dawning upon their nation.

So it was that into the family of King David in Israel were born two young boys: Jesus and John who would later be known as John the Baptizer. These two little cousins were born to families of faith amidst great expectation for the salvation of their people. Today we will ponder the birth of John the Baptist. The story of the birth of John the Baptist is a story of God's sunrise coming into the world.

The story begins with John's father, Zachariah, who worked as a priest in the temple. Let's set the scene. An angel announces to a priest, Zechariah, that he and his wife will have a son. Zechariah laughs at the divine messenger because his wife is too old to conceive a child. As punishment for his lack of faith the angel makes Zechariah mute so that he cannot speak from the next nine months until his son is born.

Finally, Zechariah's son is born and he is brought by his family to his circumcision and his naming ritual. The family and friends gathered for this happy occasion expect the child will be named Zechariah, Jr. or some other family name. But Zachariah's wife says the child will be named John. Zechariah is asked what he wants the child named and he writes on a piece of paper: "John." Then the Lord opens Zechariah's mouth and he breaks forth in a song that is a blessing, a berakah in Hebrew or a benedictus in Latin, the official language of the ruling class.

Now Zechariah takes center stage and breaks forth into song about the birth of his son, John, a child who will come to be known as John the Baptist, the messenger who prepares the way for Jesus Christ. Zechariah's song begins in Latin Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel ("Blessed be the Lord God of Israel"). Thus it is called "The Benedictus" which in Latin means "the blessing."

Listen to Zechariah's blessing upon the naming and circumcision of his son, John, and see if you can feel the sense of gratitude with which it is delivered:

Through the heartfelt mercies of our God,
God's Sunrise will break in upon us,
Shining on those in the darkness,
those sitting in the shadow of death,
Then showing us the way,
one foot at a time,
down the path of peace.

Zachariah was so grateful for the birth of his son. For this child represented more to his father than just the long awaited birth of his firstborn son. This child represented to his father, the temple priest, God's sunrise shining on the people Israel. Zachariah's gratitude was the gratitude of a father for the birth of a son and the gratitude of a priest for the coming of a prophet who would herald the savior Jesus Christ, who was also coming into the world.

Zachariah's son, John, was not the savior. As John would later say of himself, "There is one who comes after me. He is the savior who was promised. I am not worthy to untie his sandal. I baptize you with water but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." John the Baptist knew that Jesus was God's sunrise, God's smile, God's loving forgiveness, spread upon the earth like sunlight from the morning sun.

Gratitude is the key that unlocks the  experience of God's sunrise in our lives. We have much to be grateful for today as individuals and as a congregation. We are grateful to those who serve our congregation with dedication, effectiveness and humility. In particular we are grateful for our church secretary, Marilyn Elliott, who will now be moving on to bless another church with her loving service. We are grateful to those who bless our community such as Robin and Michael Fair who have brought us such pride through their work with the young people on the South Panola football team.

Advent is a season of preparation for God's sunrise in our deepest heart. Yes, Advent is a time for gratitude and we are most grateful for the birth of God's Son, Jesus Christ, who is God's true sunshine that breaks upon us and gives us hope and joy. We come this morning to express our gratitude to those who serve us well. We come to say thanks to Marilyn and Michael and their families. We come to worship God and give thanks. We express our gratitude also through our giving and Advent is certainly the time of year to be giving to the church so that we can pay our bills and meet our responsibilities and continue to serve the God who brings sunshine into our lives.

When we express gratitude we experience God's Sunrise breaking in upon us. May God's Sunrise shine a light into the darkness of our sin, revealing those areas of our heart where we experience lack of awareness. May God's Sunrise shine a light into the darkness of our despair, showing us that we are not alone but that at the center of the universe is the beating heart of God's love which draws us into the light of God's love. May God's Sunrise shine a light on those sitting in the shadow death, illuminating their sorrow and drawing them back onto the path of life.
Then may God show us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace. One step at a time is all the light God gives us. We can't see where the path ends. We can't see where the path will take us next year or even next month. But we can see enough light to take one more step. One more step down the path of peace. That is all God asks us to take. One more step. One more step.
We can't jump ahead on this path. We can't solve all the problems of the world in one fell swoop. We can't feed every hungry person. We can't cloth every naked person. We can't give a Christmas toy to every child who has none. But God doesn't ask us to meet every need. God just asks us to take one more step down the path of peace. One more step, give a coat. One more step, give a toy. Give a coat or a toy as a sign of God's coming kingdom. God's kingdom isn't here yet. But it has come in some measure in the coming of Jesus Christ and it will come even more when Jesus comes again. In the meantime, let us take one more step, just one more step down the path of peace.

Our task and our joy is to be presenting God' sunrise through our attitudes and actions. Like Elizabeth and Zechariah, the parents of John the Baptist, we are bringing God's sunrise into the world through our worship, singing, ringing and service of God in the world. God's Sunrise shines on us and through us. We are showing God's sunrise every moment of every day. Our very being functions as a holographic mirror of God's sunrise.

We are grateful for God's sunrise. We are grateful for women and men like Elizabeth and Zechariah who rear their children in the faith. We are grateful for prophets such as John the Baptist, who pave the way for God's sunrise. We are grateful that God's sunrise breaks through the darkness of our unawareness, mindlessness, and carelessness. God's sunrise comes to us and enlightens our lives. We are grateful for God's Sunrise in the form of Jesus Christ. God's sunrise will shine in our hearts as we show gratitude for all God's blessings and especially as we show gratitude for the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ into our world and into our hearts.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Now or Never

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon on Luke 21:25-36
at Batesville Presbyterian Church on December 3, 2006.

       A young man wanted to attain spiritual enlightenment so he joined a Zen Buddhist monastery. The rules of the monastery were very strict. The young man's teacher put him in an intense training program as if he were a spiritual athlete, the young man was made to study and meditate for hours every day. Furthermore, the young student was to be silent 24 hours a day and 364 days a year. He was allowed to speak to his spiritual teacher only once a year and even then he was allowed to say only five words.

       At the end of his first year of study and silence the young student finally got to see his teacher. After careful consideration, the student's chose to say, as his five allotted words, "The food here is terrible." His spiritual teacher did not respond and the student returned to his little room for another year of solitude and study. The food did not improve.

       At the end of his second year the student eagerly visited his teacher and spurted out his allotted five words, saying, "My bed it too hard." His teacher did not respond and the student returned to his tiny room for another hard year of silent study. His bed remained hard.

       The third year was very grim for the student and when it finally ended he had his conference with his teacher and he told the teacher, "This regiment is impossible. I can't take it any more! I quit!"

       His teacher replied: "I'm not surprised to hear you say that. All you've done since you got here is complain."

       Imagine limiting yourself to only five words per year and then getting a chance to speak to someone you admire and tell them your five words. Imagine how alive you would feel when you finally got your chance to speak your words. Think of how focused in the moment you would feel. Your hands would be tingling from nervous excitement. Your heart would be aching for the opportunity to finally communicate what you have been thinking for the past twelve months. You would come to that moment with a great sense of anticipation and laser like focus. Extraordinarily gifted athletes and musicians speak of playing in "the zone." You would be in that zone when you came to speak to your teacher. The sense of aliveness you would feel in that moment is what Jesus experienced in every moment of his life and that is what he wants us to experience.

       The young Zen student sought enlightenment. I have recently come to an enlightenment of my own. As if a light had been turned on in my mind, I now understand that I have spent a great part of my life living in unreality. By that I mean I have lived much of my life in a make believe place called "the future." I was rarely able to enjoy the present because I was thinking about the future. However good the present moment may have been I often threw it away and instead put my attention on all the possible problems I imagined I may encounter in the future.

       Other people, perhaps you are one of them, err in the opposite direction. They live their lives in the past. Alabama Coach Mike Shula was having a terrible week after losing to Mississippi State in football this season. The Alabama fans and supporters were questioning  the young coach about losing the game and he was having trouble putting the game behind him. He needed to put the game behind him so he could focus on the upcoming game. In desperation, Coach Mike finally called on his father seeking advice and his father, legendary Coach Don Shula of the Miami Dolphins, told his son, "You can't change the score." Those are words of wisdom for those of us who have trouble letting go of the past. You can't change the score. Whatever it is from the past that keeps you from living in the present -- let it go. You can't change the score.

       Our challenge is to live our lives neither in the future nor in the past but in the present moment. Our state championship football team just ended their fourth consecutive season with a 15-0 record. They accomplished this amazing feat by playing their season one day, one practice, one game at a time. That is the secret to success. Focus on the present moment. What are you lacking in this moment? Nothing. We lack nothing in the present moment. Focus on the present moment. Whatever you are doing do it with all your attention. If you are driving, drive. If you are walking, walk. If you are praying, pray. Only this. Nothing more. That is what Jesus is teaching us this morning.

     As Jesus puts it: "Be alert at all times." Let's begin this practice this morning as we partake of the Lord's Supper. Let us eat this bread and drink this cup fully awake to the presence of Christ in this sacrament. Let us focus our attention like a laser beam on this single moment as a sign of our intention to live each moment in the present tense. As it was for Jesus, so it is with us, it's now or never. We can't change the score. The past is gone and the future is beyond our grasp. All we have is this present moment. We begin the Christmas season with the intention to live each moment in "the zone," wide awake, in the moment, fully open to God. It's now or never. Those are the only two options we ever have. We choose now. We choose now. We choose Christ right now.