The Meaning of Obedience

A Sermon by Revd Richard Carter

Readings for this service: Colossians 3.12-17, Luke 2.41-end

Christmas is a time when you often notice how much people have grown. Like my nephew who seems to have grown a foot since I last saw him only a few months ago, or like my niece who I can remember so clearly holding as a baby and now is almost 18. It seems hard to believe and yet of course people grow up. Christmas and birthdays become the markers of that growing. The Gospels tell us very little about how Jesus grew up but they simply say “that Jesus increased in wisdom and in years and in divine and human favour.” I wonder what that increase means and I wonder if we too can follow that same path.

Less than a week ago we were all singing carols of adoration around the crib. Here at St Martin’s on Christmas Eve John Morrison aged 12 days old took the staring role of Jesus at a very in the Crib Service. He was brilliant and filled the whole congregation with adoration the way babies do. When you see a baby that young its difficult not to be astonished. Look at his tiny hands and tiny toes how God makes a baby a baby as beautiful as this nobody knows. When you see a baby like the shepherds or wise men did- they quite simply take your breath away. Little John did when he played Jesus he simply lit up the church. You could see him doing it- everyone became belisha-beacons. You could see the light in everyone’s faces straining to see him. The smallest newest human life in the church and the focus of everyone’s attention and joy. It’s amazing to think that that’s how we all began. Every one of us was once that small bundle of vulnerable life entirely dependent on the arms who hold you. I always try and remember that when we read out the list of those who died homeless, or hear the news of someone murdered on our streets, or indeed see the mug shots of the accused- we all began life as that entirely innocent vulnerable child. But how do we increase in wisdom and in years?

I remember my sister in law saying that no one really prepares you for this responsibility. In other areas of life you have a training or an apprenticeship but when the child you have given birth to is placed in your arms you suddenly realise that this is for real and that this life is totally dependent on you. The Shepherds and wise men from the east go home. The adoration ceases and the real work begins. A birth is not for one day only it is for every day. It is forever. Parents of course know this very quickly. The sleepless nights, the feeding times, the crying, the new routines, the whole new set of priorities, hopes and expectations. The endless worry of am I doing it right, or could I do it any better. The realisation that now someone else’s life has become far more important to you than your own.  This is the nature of love- it changes things it turns lives upside-down

And in this image we are given a very powerful image of the nature of God’s love for us. You see the child in the parent’s arms is in one sense your child but in another sense not yours at all. It is another life. It is a mystery that you are holding and nurturing and caring for. A mystery that has been entrusted into your care. This child is not something you can control or possess but through your love allow to become.  There’s going to be a lot of hard work involved in that love. A lot of turning up, a lot of learning to trust, a lot of unkowns. And what is the hope? Well I have never had my own child but I have known what it is to love and the deepest form of that love is when you realise the miraculous uniqueness of the other person and long not for what you want for them but for them, themselves to become fully realised, the fullest expression of their humanity and personhood. For the other to increase in wisdom and in years and yes in divine and human love. And that I think is an insight into God’s longing for us. The God who longs for the emergence of our fullest humanity. Humanity made in the image of God. The hardest but the greatest of love’s gifts is the gift of freedom. Freedom is especially hard when you love someone because we fear, we find it hard to trust in unknown, we want certainty, control, for the other to be what we want them to be, but freedom and love go hand in hand. That love we call grace- it is the free gift of love without strings attached. It is unconditional. It’s very difficult to do that it is a gift. It takes a life time learning to trust in God’s love. But the more we trust and mirror that love the more we grow and increase. That’s the real meaning of obedience. Not a controlling but a divine listening, a listening of the heart.

Today our story in the Gospel jumps 12 years. One moment Jesus is a baby and suddenly here he is age twelve and we know nothing really about what has happened to him in the meantime other than that it has involved a long journey. The story that we read today is only found in Luke’s Gospel and its one of those moments of parenthood when you realise that the child that you thought was your child has a life that is other than your life and that you cannot contain or control.

On the surface of things its difficult not to be on Mary and Joseph’s side. If Jesus is meant to be sinless, he comes pretty close to blowing it here. Seeming so unaware of the worry and distress he is causing- Indeed when frantic with worry his parents finally find him in the Temple and confront him ‘Why have you treated us like this” He seems to show no sense of remorse but responds: “Why were you searching for me, did you not know that I must be in my father’s house.”   As if they are to blame rather than himself, that sounds pretty cheeky to me.

But perhaps what this story is showing is a different truth. The truth that even in the life of those we love it is God who is at the very centre. We cannot supplant God. We cannot become God to another, neither can the person we love become our God. God will always be the source of all love. And loving another is about learning to allow the other to discover the source of love for themselves. It is about trusting in the love of God. None of us are very good at doing that. We want to be the Saviours ourselves- to fix, to give solutions, to teach ends. It’s far more difficult loving with open hands, loving without controlling, continuing to love even when betrayed and rejected. My mother once said to me that being a mother is about realising that your children are only leant to you. It is a wisdom even in old age she is still learning for the temptation is always to cling to that which you love.

If Mary and Joseph are able to recognise finding Jesus in the temple is the sign not of disobedience but a greater obedience- the meaning of obedience is to hear and to trust- to learn to listen to the Word of God. In fact Jesus is doing just that- he is sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. He is discovering the Word of God which is all that he is and which will guide him at every moment of his life.

That same Word of God is also our way our truth our life. It is what holds us and anchors us in the one who will never depart from us. But how quickly we can dethrone the one who is the centre of all that we are. I wonder if you were to ask yourself honestly what is at the very centre your life, we often find we have enthroned many other desires that are pulling us in contrary directions, so much so that we have in fact lost the way. And yet when we hold to Christ it is like we rediscover our compass and our bearing and surprisingly too our freedom. I am not talking about a kind of literalistic containing of our lives by which some use the Bible as a means of control and judgment. I am talking about discovering the Word of God written not on tablets of stone but written in our lives. And to discover that Word like Jesus we need to listen and to question and to return to the scriptures again and again and again. What I am trying to describe is an openness to the Word of God, a spaciousness in us.  The word made flesh. An Obedience to God’s Spirit within us.

I always feel a bit of trepidation when someone asks me for a Bible in this church. People who are homeless often ask for a Bible, people who are going through a hard time or grief, or those in need of consolation. I feel trepidation because I know what a difficult book it is to navigate. Reading the Bible is like life itself its going to take all of your life. it’s a long journey- it’s the journey to discover fullness of the life of Jesus Christ and will only end in heaven. You will return to the same stories again and again always with new questions as you bring your life to the scripture and the scriptures to life. And yet this holy listening, this attentiveness to the Word made flesh is the most precious gift we have. Perhaps as we approach new year this could be our one new year’s resolution. Members of the Nazareth Community have found such challenge and riches in the contemplative reading of scripture each day. Dwelling with God’s word. Allowing it to permeate our concerns, our darkness, our desires and our hopes and fears of all the years. Our past, our becoming. It is never easy but it does in so many ways help us embody all that that incredibly beautiful reading from Colossians spoke about today. This deeper listening to God’s word, at the centre of our lives is the way by which we learn to clothe ourselves with Christ and grow in body and in spirit. I cannot not express better what obedience to God ultimately means than to read those words to you again and encourage each one of you to let the Word of God dwell in you richly:

“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.” (Colossians 3.12-17)