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The Lens of Faith

January 2, 2018

“The Lens of Faith” Luke 2:22-40; Galatians 4:4-7 © 12.31.17 Christmas 1B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

This Sunday finds us in a kind of limbo. Christmas Day was almost a week ago now, and our focus is on the new year. In a little over twelve hours, the ball drops, the champagne cork pops, and it will be 2018.

We might try to celebrate Christmas personally for twelve days, as on the church liturgical calendar. But that’s hard, isn’t it, given that in society at large, once people sing a couple of carols and open presents and eat a big meal, Christmas is over? Time to return the gifts, go back to work, figure out how to pay for all the stuff we bought we couldn’t afford. A few trappings remain—the wreath on the door, the candles in the windows, the tree in the den or the office lobby, likely up only until tomorrow. Then they’re gone, and things get back to what we’ve come to consider normal.

So what do we do now? In the midst of putting away the new clothes, getting oriented to the updated electronics or taking down the decorations, is there a word from God that can help us prepare for the new year soon to dawn? Is there some possibility that even when there’s no big festival on the calendar, we will still experience the warmth, joy, and love of Christmas? Will we heed the reminder of Santa in the original Miracle on 34th Street that Christmas isn’t just a day, it’s a frame of mind?

The texts for the morning seem odd places to look for answers to such questions. But on closer examination, they prove helpful. Luke gives us two people getting back to the routine of life after an extraordinary experience. Mary and Joseph go to the Temple in Jerusalem for Mary’s ritual purification, for the naming of Jesus, and for his dedication to God. These were Jewish legal requirements and customs. We might say the two were much like we are, just doing what needs to be done.

And routine stuff it is. At the Temple, they buy pigeons, make arrangements, and pay fees. Back home, the baby is just like any other. He wakes up at night, wanting to be fed or changed or rocked. He must learn as the days go by to walk and talk and read and write. He has to become familiar with social customs, like sharing and getting along with the neighbor’s kids. This all seems such a letdown after the wonder and glory of the Christmas story with its angel chorus, shepherds sore afraid, and Mary treasuring all these things in her heart. Where could we possibly find newness and clues for living in the description of a first-century family’s daily routine?

Just when we’re about to give up and go home, new faces come on the scene. Guided by God’s Spirit, a man named Simeon has entered the part of the Temple called “the Court of Women” at just the right time to see Jesus and his parents. From Simeon’s lips come surprising words. He predicts an incredible destiny for the child. Mary and Joseph marvel. Then “at that moment” Anna comes into the story, and begins to praise God and tell everybody about the child. Not a concrete clue around, but both of these elderly saints say this baby is salvation, redemption, in the flesh! The key to all reality, for Gentile and Jew alike, is here in a baby presented by a couple performing routine religious chores. Little Jesus has no apparent influence or power, but he will cause the rise and fall of many in Israel. He will be so threatening to some that they will want to kill him, and will succeed in doing so. This child will not grow up in a palace or even a big city, but he will inherit the throne of King David. He will never be a general or even a private in any army, but he has more power than all the world’s armies and weapons. The hope of the world is not in corporations, governments or armed forces, but in one baby brought by parents doing what had to be done.

But there’s more here for us than what the words reveal. Consider the scene. An old man, then an elderly woman, near the end of their days, especially for that time, are paired with an infant, with his whole life ahead of him. We can’t help but think of the traditional symbols for the old year and the new. The promise of God is fulfilled. Hope like Simeon’s and Anna’s does become a reality.

At the end of any given year and the start of a new, there are always experiences we can look back on with joy and satisfaction; and by the same token, words and actions that we wish we hadn’t said or taken, things that happened we will remember with pain. We hope the ratio of good to bad is in favor of the good in the new year. But whatever may come, God will see us through, providing for us at just the right time, as he did for Simeon and Anna, giving us peace. He’ll be our companion as we nurture and pursue our dreams, and if they don’t come true, he’ll be there with us all the same. When hurts and disappointments come—and come they will—God will suffer with us and help us find wholeness in and through the pain. When our very souls feel pierced from some old or some very new sorrow, our Lord will give us new strength and comfort. And even if we don’t keep our promises to ourselves, God stands by his.

I’ll admit that none of this is readily apparent. The words seem just so much rhetoric, the kinds of things preachers are supposed to say to encourage people. Remember, though, that Simeon and Anna needed special insight from God to predict the destiny of a small child, to see in him the presence of God. They saw through the lens of faith and testified to that fact.

I may be overusing the sight metaphor. First my newsletter article for January, now this message. But bear with me, because I truly believe that, like Simeon, we will need new eyes, fresh vision, a different lens, to see what God is doing in and among us in the year and years to come. The world is changing at a sometimes dizzying pace, so we’re kept off balance and uncertain what’s next. We are in what someone has termed “a time of unraveling” (quoted in ). Is God in the changes? We need the lens of faith to see. We may once again know grief or pain or despair or doubt in the coming days and months. Is God with us? Look through the lens of faith. We may go for a long time without a clue as to where God is leading us. In fact, it may seem as if he dwells in the farthest galaxy. Is God among us or not? We can see the signs if we focus our fuzzy vision through the lens of faith.

Will you join me in the new year in seeking to discern how God is at work among us, flawed and perhaps frightened as we are? Simeon saw potential in an apparently ordinary child. Will we see what God can do with us? Let’s be alert to what God may teach us through our conversations, our reading, our thoughts, our meetings, our friends, our families. He can speak through anyone, anywhere, but I have long believed that we hear him especially in the still, small voices rather than the booming pronouncements of government, church, and corporations. He addresses us in the questioning of a small child, the cry for attention from a neglected spouse or friend, the plea for help from a poor family, the complaint of someone we have wronged. May we see life as a sacrament, a way and a means to discover and experience the grace of God.

But if we’re fitted with the new lenses of faith, let us also be open to God’s right times, what the New Testament in its original Greek called “kairos.” In general, kairos meant “good timing,” “propitious moment,” “when everything comes together.” Kairos is a ford in the stream of time; it’s an embryonic dream brought to term and given birth in the midst of our experience. It’s not merely the passage of hours and minutes and seconds; it is time conceived and perceived as an occasion, an event. If clock time is quantitative, kairos-time is qualitative.

Kairos is the moment when God’s purpose breaks in to set humanity or a people or a particular person on a new road, to challenge them or him or her with new directions and thoughts. It’s a different kind of time. Not tick-tock clock time, the chronos, of minutes and hours, but the opportune time, the carpe diem moment, the “we may never pass this way again,” Black Friday door-buster on sale from 6-8 AM only kind of time. When Paul says “the fullness of time” had come, that’s kairos.

Even to claim that there are such seasons and moments of extraordinary opportunity and providence is a statement of faith, because we’re affirming that there is a plan that Someone beyond us has in mind. But that’s one of the main tenets of our tradition—that there is a sovereign God at work to fulfill his purpose in us and in all creation, that he’s working lovingly, fairly, and freely to bring about his desire. So will we believe today that despite all evidence to the contrary, there is Someone who knows what’s going on in the world and is guiding things to a gracious end? Will we affirm that he has a vision for this congregation and a destiny for you and me? The critical task is for us to be or become sensitive to the opportunities God gives us. The times God provides are decisive points in life, when our response affects us perhaps for years to come.

So how do we recognize the kairos? I once said that if the ancient Greeks had sent out space probes as we do today, then their term for “launch window” would be kairos. You may know that the launch window is the opportune time when Earth and some other planet or planets are aligned and in closest proximity, so millions of miles are shaved off the journey. The launch window also is when other conditions are just right.

So we might say that we recognize the kairos when a number of factors in our lives line up, and we launch on a new adventure, boldly going where we have never been before. When there’s some new opportunity ahead or we’re anticipating, planning, a big change in life, we can look at our how planets align, so to speak, and know it’s God’s time for us. Maybe we see how our skills, our personality, our motivation, our calendar are in sync. Or we may have an intuition that now is the moment, coupled with our desire for change and adventure and our restless yearning to make a difference.

Paul Tillich, in my opinion one of the greatest theologians of the 20th or any century, offered some insight: “Awareness of kairos is a matter of vision. It is not an object of analysis or calculation such as could be given in psychological or sociological terms. It is not a matter of detached observation but of involved experience” (Systematic Theology, Volume III: 370-71).

Did you catch that last line? “It is not a matter of detached observation but of involved experience.” So the discernment of God’s kairos in our lives can and does arise from our faithful action, prompted and considered in the light of what God has done in Jesus Christ. If we’re to know God’s time, we must plunge into the sometimes cold stream of human need, participate in the birthing of something brand new, and set out on the road trusting God to care for us. Quite often it happens that in serving we figure out what God is doing and when, as much as the opposite is true, that we believe, and therefore we go out in mission.

Back in the day, the Directory for Worship in an older edition of the Book of Order (W-5.4002, 2004-2005 edition) told us that serving is enacted prayer. So are music and dance and the arts and keeping a vigil. Prayer is also contemplation and silence and going someplace beyond words, as well as addressing God and listening in the common way. Prayer opens us to mystery, brings us into the presence of reality beyond us, and new possibilities within and around us. So it should come as no surprise that it’s ultimately through a disciplined life of prayer of whatever sort that we discern the kairos, what the sage called the “time to plant and time to uproot; time to tear down and time to build; time to weep and time to laugh; time to search and time to give up; time to keep and time to throw away; time to be silent and time to speak; time to weep and time to dance.”

But not only do we put on new lenses and devote ourselves to prayer for discernment of the kairos. We also claim our status as God’s children, who have been welcomed as true and full members of God’s family through baptism. We are no longer strangers to God. In Christ, he knows us, claims us, names us. We can go right into the presence of God. We truly know God. And all this is a gift of the Spirit.

To live in such a way for Paul meant to be freed from slavery. In the apostle’s day, people believed that demonic forces controlled their lives. They had no freedom to decide what course they would take. Today, living free as God’s children may mean putting behind us the mistakes of the past year, forgetting the foul-ups, and believing that our sins, though serious and hurtful, are forgiven for Christ’s sake.

It’s my prayer that you’ve heard good news today that will take you into the next year with hope and joy. May you leave this place with a sense of God’s matchless love and an assurance of his sovereign purpose. May you sing with Simeon: “Lord, let your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.”

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