Monday, January 10, 2011

Faithfulness in Ordinary Living

The story of Jesus’ life unfolds with amazing swiftness. In just a little over two weeks we have covered almost all that we know of His first thirty years. You know as well as I the stories:

* Jesus is born in Bethlehem in a stable and visited by shepherds.
* Eight days later Mary and Joseph take their baby to Jerusalem to present Him in the Temple. There they are met by Anna and Simeon.
* Back at Bethlehem some time later the family is visited by magi from the east who present Jesus with gold (a gift befitting a king), incense (a gift befitting God), and myrrh (a burial ointment).
* Being warned in a dream of danger, Joseph takes his family to Egypt.
* Being told in a dream that it is safe to return, Joseph brings his family back to Israel and settles in Nazareth where he establishes himself as a carpenter.
* Before Jesus turns twelve, the family goes on a pilgrimage to the Temple where Jesus amazes the learned scholars with His knowledge and insight.

That is it. That is all we know about Jesus prior to this morning’s reading from the Gospel. Based on what we know about Jesus after His baptism, we can conclude that while growing up He learned how to read (but we have no evidence that He could write), He was known throughout His community and attended Synagogue, He developed a theology about God’s nature and person, He developed a life of prayer, and He developed a keen interest in how everyday occurrences point to deeper spiritual truths.
All of this that we know still is not much. And yet whatever happened during those years it was enough for God the Father to say of Jesus as He stood knee deep in the Jordan River, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

The English writer Evelyn Underhill, in her book The Light of Christ, helps us to understand the significance of this:

New life grows in secret. Nothing very startling happens. We see the child in the carpenter’s workshop. He does not go outside the frontiers from in which he appeared. It did quite well for him... The child Jesus grows as other children, the lad works as other lads. Total abandonment to the vast divine purpose working at its own pace in and through ordinary life and often, to us, in mysterious ways…

Think of the baby in the stable and the little boy in the streets of Nazareth. The very life was there which was to change the whole of history of the human race. There was not much to show for it. But there is entire continuity between the stable and the Easter garden and the thread that unites them is the will of God. The childlike simple prayer of Nazareth was the right preparation for the awful privilege of the cross.

And then Evelyn Underhill points to what this means for us:

We often feel we ought to get on quickly to a new stage like spiritual mayflies. Christ takes thirty years to grow and two and half to act... And when his growth reached the right stage, there is the revelation of God’s call and after it, stress, discipline, and choice. Those things came together as signs of maturity and they were not spectacular things. It is much the same with us in our life of prayer: the Spirit fills us as we grow, develop, and make room.

We get notions sometimes that we ought to spring up quickly like a seed on stony ground, we ought to show some startling sign of spiritual growth. But perhaps we are only asked to go on quietly, to be like a child, a nice stocky seedling, not shooting up in a hurry, but making root, being docile to the great slow rhythm of life. When you don’t see any startling marks of your own religious condition or your usefulness to God, [think of how Jesus grew and know that] the light of the Spirit…unfolds gently and steadily within us, till at last our final stature, all God designed for us, is attained.

On this day when we see the adult Jesus take His place on the stage of life we remember the slow, steady rhythm of faithful living that prepared Him. And thinking of this we offer our days to God; our days of monotonous routine and never-ending chores; our days of casual interactions and insignificant courtesies; our days of rote prayers and intermittent insights… through it all God has a way on working in us, with us, and through us.

When Jesus stepped into the Jordan River the only thing on His résumé of note was that He had dedicated himself to the task of faithful living. And this, apparently, was enough for God to be pleased with Him and it was enough to prepare Him for what God wanted Him to do. From this I take it that God is pleased with us when we too are dedicated to the simple task of faithful living and that we too are being prepared for all that God might call us to do.

Perhaps you look at the quietness of your life and realize that your time to act, to make your mark, is yet to come. If that is you, then be faithful in the ordinary things of today and you will be well-prepared when that moment arrives. Or perhaps you look at the quietness of your life and realize that your time to act is past. You have made your mark, you have done your part. If this is you then know that there is always a new opportunity on the horizon; some way that you can contribute to common good.

Or perhaps your life is anything but quiet because you have stepped out of the river and are now about the business of your life’s purpose; working hard, raising children, building a life. If this is where you are then do this: do not forget all that you learned when life was simple. Remember all those things that went into making you who you are today. Surely the baptized Jesus carried with Him much of what He experienced as a boy, and a teenager, and as a young adult. So if you are in the midst of making your mark, do not forget the value of friendships and time alone. Remember that chores need to be balanced with hobbies; assignments with adventures. Remember how your faith sprung up from a sense of mystery, wonder, and simple trust.

And may each one of us, when our feet are immersed in the waters of life hear the voice of God saying, “You are my child and with you I am well-pleased.”