Church Is Hard

Most holiday decorations now repose in attics, closets, and basements – yet another season of Yuletide work lingering in savory, still-warm memory.

But even without December’s seasonal trappings, the stories of Christmas retain their allure – like bright, red bows still tied atop the already-splendid gift of Christ’s birth. And inside that glittering package clashes a glaring contrast of characters whose ancient words have been our Scripture lessons so far this new year.

We’ve seen and heard from curious astrologers: Magi, Wise Men, lovingly loading precious cargoes of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; then fixing their gaze upon a sparkling star whose stout radiance shines like a muscular tractor beam, pulling the intrepid trio ever-so-slowly-but-surely-toward the little, backwater burg where Jesus lay.

Along their path – eventually completely charted by a different Way, the Way of heaven – the Magi cross paths with Herod. King Herod! Evil incarnate, cunning and ruthless, spawn of satan!

Ever the authoritarian strongman, Herod rules with an iron fist. Blood stains his hands like a gory tattoo, guilty-beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt proof of his genocide – the vicious rage of royal envy and jealousy loosed upon every little boy whose likeness even slightly mirrors Jesus.

The Holy Family escapes Herod’s slaughter by fleeing to the safety of Egypt, several years later returning to a new home, Nazareth, where Mary and Joseph settle in to nurture and tutor Jesus in wisdom and stature, a process about which Scripture is mostly silent. That is until you get to the Gospel of Luke and our Scripture lesson for today.

Into his narrative Luke drops an empathetic scene peppered with familiar-but-hardly-fond situations to which everyone can relate: A lost, missing child. A breathless, heart-pounding, three-day search. A turbulent, white-knuckle clash with the growing pains of adolescence.

The anxious tension breaks when he who is lost finally is found. Where? Hanging out in the Temple, in community and communion with the elders, wrestling with and trying to get their heads around the great theological questions of the day. And yes, by wandering off, Jesus conveniently overlooks that pesky commandment about honoring and respecting mom and dad. But that’s really not Luke’s point.

Jesus – Luke writes – just had to be in his Father’s house!

Parental fear and agony notwithstanding, Jesus just had to be in church!

Hmmm. Apparently, Jesus astutely recognizes and fully claims his identity as God’s Son – long before the waters of baptism assure that truth and fully impart the Holy Spirit upon his humanity. Deliberately pointing himself toward his ultimate purpose and final destiny, a scrawny, skinny boy of scant 12 years grounds and solidifies his identity. Which is as it should be. Though still wet behind the ears, defining one’s identity is an adolescent task of human development.

Remember, in addition to being Son of God, Jesus also is Son of Man. Jesus thus must navigate the minefields of puberty and identity-seeking just like the rest of us once did, now are, or soon will. On the cusp becoming an adult in the eyes of Judaism, Jesus establishes his authority in claiming his identity as God’s Son!

How remarkable! Identity and authority grounded not by family pedigree or business network. Not by calling and vocation, or gifts and talents. Not by personal creeds or mountaintop experiences. Nor by grand dreams, noble ideas, morals, or ethics. All real possibilities, truly so, but none a faithful option. Ever the ironic rebel, Jesus in obedience dutifully grounds his identity first and foremost in intimacy of relationship with his Father, the Lord God Almighty.

For Jesus, faithful relationship with God is not a peripheral matter, not something you tend to when time and energy allow. Faithful relationship with God must shape the whole of one’s life – as much for Jesus as for you and me. God becomes human flesh and pitches a tent of grace and mercy among us, and our new neighbor is who defines whose we are.

Gathered, like Jesus, in our Father’s house, experience now the refreshment of invigorating, ever-true words, in this quite-relatable vignette of lost and found that concludes Luke chapter 2.

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover.

And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him.

After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”

He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. (Luke 2:41-52)

Obedience: “I must be about my Father’s business.”

Obedience: “I must be in my Father’s house.”

That’s obedience writ large.

Obedience – right along with the resulting blessings that humble, honest obedience to God always brings – are the golden threads running through the stories of Jesus’s birth and boyhood.

Obedient to God’s tap of motherhood, Mary considers herself blessed among women.

Obedient to an angel’s assurance that an unwed pregnancy brings no shame, Joseph and Mary enlist in the bliss and blessing of marriage.

Obedient to the song of heavenly hosts, shepherds abiding in their fields leave behind their vulnerable flocks by night, making haste for a Bethlehem stable, where kneeling in awe and wonder they join angels in broadcasting, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward all.”

With obedience stimulated by starry-eyed wonder, Wise Men follow a star and in Mary’s little child discover blessing far beyond the earthly value of their gifts.

With obedience born of stark, heavenly warning, the Holy Family flees Herod’s wrath and rests easy in the blessing of safety.

With obedience that answers the question of “Now what,” Jesus, Mary, and Joseph find the blessing of fresh direction and the blessing of home, sweet home.

A decade or so passes, and obedience clearly and sincerely rises from the young lips of none other than Jesus himself: “I must be about my Father’s business. I must be in my Father’s house.”

When you’re blessed to be a participant in God’s business of resurrection and salvation, you can’t help but want to be in God’s house. Claimed as God’s very own and in thanksgiving for such undeserved favor, you must be in church.

But, really, who wants to do that? Church is hard!

To riff on the reflections of another, church is hard for the person walking through the doors, afraid of judgment.

Church is hard for the prodigal soul returning home, broken and battered by the world.

Church is hard for the handsome, young man who looks like he has it all together – but doesn’t.

Church is hard for the single woman and single man, praying that God brings them a mate.

Church is hard for the newlyweds and the long-married who argued and fought the entire ride to parking lot.

Church is hard for the single parent, surrounded by seemingly perfect, Facebook-worthy families.

Church is hard for the teacher, coach, or business leader uncomfortable in taking on the mantle of responsibility.

Church is hard for the widow and widower who worship alone and receive no invitation to lunch afterward.

Church is hard for the deacon with an estranged child.

Church is hard for the elder who lost a child.

Church is hard for the singer overwhelmed by the emotional weight of the lyrics.

Church is hard for the teenager who wears a scarlet letter, ashamed of mistakes or abused by negligent parents or schoolyard bullies.

Church is hard for cheaters and adulterers, liars and charlatans, scallywags and slanderers.

Let’s face it: Church is hard for sinners! Church is hard for me!

Because on the outside, church looks all shiny and perfect – Sunday best in behavior and dress, even as underneath those colorful masks and complicated layers beat the hearts of imperfect people, carnal souls, and selfish spirits.

But here’s the beauty of church – and why Jesus demands his followers be in our Father’s house:

Church isn’t a building, a mentality, or an expectation.

Church is a body, a group of sinners, saved by grace, living in fellowship as saints.

Church is a body of believers bound as brothers and sisters by an eternal love.

Church is a holy ground where sinners stand as equals before the Lord’s throne of grace.

Church is a refuge for broken hearts and a training ground for humble-but-mighty servants.

Church is a lesson in faith and trust.

Church is a bearer of burdens and a giver of hope.

Church is a convergence of confrontation and invitation – sin confronted with repentance, hearts invited to reconciliation.

Church is a community, coming together, setting aside differences, forgetting past mistakes, rejoicing in the smallest victories.

Church, the body, and the circle of sinners-turned-saints, is where the Lord resides, and if we ask, the Lord is faithful to come.

So even on the hard days at church – the days when I am at odds with myself or another, the days when I arrive bearing personal and congregational burdens heavier than my ailing heart can handle – yet masking the pain with a smile on my face; when I’ve worn a scarlet letter, lived under the microscope, fought tears and struggled with brokenness, this I will remember and therefore have hope:

Church is hard, but Jesus never fails to meet me there. So there I must be.

Amen, and amen!

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, January 22, 2023, at First Presbyterian Church in Waukon, Iowa. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by R. Alan Culpepper and Arianna Freelen inform the message.

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