This is a sermon for the first Sunday after Christmas, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is Luke 2:41-52.
“Jesus increased in wisdom…”
Wisdom’s a funny thing. We tend to think of it as being a bit difficult to pin down. A little bit mystical, maybe, or the preserve of people who are able to spend decades amongst musty books. (Just think of that great icon of wisdom in popular culture; I refer, of course, to Master Yoda). And I suspect that for most ordinary people, they kind of feel that wisdom is for other people. As long as there are great sages on mountaintops or mystics in monasteries, you and I don’t need to worry too much about acquiring wisdom.
But the problem with this, for us, is that the Bible makes a big deal about wisdom as being an important part of the life of faith, and so the idea that we can kind of hand over responsibility for wisdom to other people – even if those people are our leaders and teachers – is very risky. After all, we all have our weaknesses!
But it’s also the case that wisdom – in Biblical terms – is not the same thing as mysticism or esoteric scholarship. Put very simply, what the Biblical writings mean by “wisdom” is basically the ability to work out what God wants us to do, and to do it. And while that’s not always as straightforward as we would like, it’s also not beyond the reach of even the most ordinary people.
It is, however, a big topic; too big for one sermon, and definitely too big for the Sunday after Christmas! So today I will pick out just one aspect of that, and think with you a little bit about how we come to know what God wants us to do.
And I think the key thing – the secret, if you like, to wisdom in the Christian sense – is being absolutely assured of God’s love for us. Because we can’t be open to discovering what God wants us to do, if deep down, we’re absolutely terrified that what God wants us to do means that we’re going to be hurt, or humiliated, or struggling with tasks for which we are personally completely unsuited. If – for example – you grew up in a household where missionaries were talked about as the absolute pinnacle of Christian faithfulness, and in a way which led you to believe that the ultimate thing God could want from anyone is that they should become a missionary, you might not ever ask God what he wants you to do, just in case what he really wants is to send you to darkest Africa. When in fact, God might have something completely different in mind for you, which you’ll never discover if you’re too afraid to ask.
Now, I realise, of course that most of this congregation are not in a demographic at risk of being called to missionary service. It’s just an example. And I don’t want to suggest that God has one perfect plan for each of our lives, with no possibility of flexibility. But God can still call us beyond our comfort zones, in all sorts of ways – whether it’s taking the effort and risk of making new friends instead of sticking to our comfortable old friendships, or learning about ethical consumption and having to reorganise our pantries – and as long as we’re afraid that having our comfort zones stretched will, in fact, be bad, we’ll be too frightened to be open to what God might have in store for us.
And that’s part of why I’m talking about this, this morning, when Christmas is still so fresh in our minds and hearts. We’ve only just been reflecting on the very costly, very precious thing that God did in sending the Son to empty himself, take on human flesh and live a human life. That although he created everything in the universe, and even the universe itself, he has come to reduce himself to a helpless baby, for our sakes. With that still so close to the surface for us, we should be that little bit more open, at this time of year, to the idea that God really, truly, loves us for who we are, and wants only our good.
So if we, like Jesus, want to increase in wisdom, one question worth pondering is, “What am I afraid of?” And there’s a follow up question as well: “What would I do if I were not afraid?” That second question, “What would I do if I were not afraid?” is a key question in the little book, Who moved my cheese? Who moved my cheese? Is really a parable about dealing with the fact that in life, change happens all the time. It’s not aimed primarily at people’s spiritual lives, but if you can get hold of a copy – and I have one people are welcome to borrow – it’s an easy holiday read and well worth reflecting on.
And that’s the thing about wanting to discover what God wants for us. It would be extremely rare that the answer would be, “My child, you are doing absolutely perfectly as you are, don’t change a thing.” So the question, What does God want of me? Is scary in part because what it is really asking is, What does God want me to change? And then, what happens if I don’t want to change? Which is why being so confident of God’s love is important; so that, even when we’re unsure or frightened of change, we can approach it confident that if it is the change God wants, it will be genuinely good for us.
And let me say that it’s okay to be honest about having these sorts of doubts and hesitations. God doesn’t beat us up for it, and I’m not going to either (after all, I have my own share of doubts and fears!) Rather, it’s in honestly facing up to those fears that we give God the opportunity to show us which ones we need to let go. And sometimes, our fears are there to point us to other matters which need our attention; maybe we are too exhausted, too over committed, to be open to the new things God might want to bring us now. Maybe, in fact, we need to let go of some other things to make room for that openness!
It’s a process that takes time, and a certain amount of grace, but when our hearts are open to receiving whatever God says, we are in a place where we can wait and listen for a nudge from God. We can rest in the confidence that we don’t have to figure things out on our own. We can recognise the presence of the Spirit, at work in us as we grow in love, joy, peace, and the other fruits of the Spirit.
So that’s what I want to encourage you to take away from this morning, for this Christmas season. Two questions: What am I afraid of? And, what would I do if I were not afraid? And as we reflect together on those questions, we can together increase in wisdom, in our understanding of what God wants of us, and our willingness to do it, just as Jesus did in his life on earth.