Today’s reading from Luke’s gospel, the story of Christ’s birth, is full of sacred interruptions. Mary and Joseph’s lives were interrupted in a way that they had never imagined or anticipated before. The shepherds had to have been shocked by the angels who came to call on them. Zechariah, a temple priest, Elizabeth, his wife (John the Baptist’s parents), Simeon and Anna were all intentionally waiting for the Messiah and they were surprised by their providential encounters. Zechariah had spent his life and work waiting for the Redeemer. His initial reaction to the news of a coming savior had left him silenced in disbelief for months. God has a way of interrupting our ordinary lives with something extraordinary. Perhaps one of our greatest personal challenges is to allow ourselves to be interrupted. There is a nameless participant in this account of Jesus’ birth whose very ordinary gesture allowed the sacred a place to enter the world.
Luke speaks of hurried, anxious parents, whose lives have been interrupted by an unplanned pregnancy, who need to make a long journey at the worst time. The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be counted in the census was a little less than seventy miles, but it would have been a treacherous journey by donkey or on foot, especially for Mary in the advanced stages of her pregnancy. Have you ever looked for a motel at night on a trip? Maybe you made a reservation but by the time you arrived, your room had been sold to someone else. The journey was even more complicated when you add the detail that Mary and Joseph would find no lodging when they arrived at their destination. After a lengthy period of searching and probably at the point of near desperation, a nameless innkeeper allowed the young couple to spend the night in his stable with all the animals, since there were no available rooms. We have no other information about the innkeeper and yet, he has been portrayed many times in Christmas pageants. Sometimes he is a heartless man, so concerned with the needs of his other guests that he turns the poor couple away. Most often, he is depicted as a sympathetic businessman who wishes he had available space to make the extra money during the census but is so moved with compassion for the young couple that he allows them to find shelter in his stable. No cost is ever mentioned. Really NO one knows who he was or what he was like. We only know that he allowed himself and his routine during the busy season to be interrupted. His inn was full. The “no vacancy” sign might have been on display. That is all that needed to be communicated to Mary and Joseph. Yet the innkeeper did more. He found a spot, or I should say, made a spot in order to serve the young couple. We do not even know if he was aware that a baby was born in his stable that busy night. Was he alerted to the arrival of a band of excited shepherds who happened to appear? What about the unusually bright star gleaming in the night sky?
The innkeeper’s part of the story ends abruptly in v.7 after describing that there was no place for the “beyond capacity” guests. The innkeeper had a small but important part in the Savior’s birth, which in so many ways foreshadowed the ministry of Jesus. The innkeeper allowed himself to be interrupted, moved to compassion, to sow love and grace, even when he had no obligation to do so. Jesus was on a mission. God had a plan for him. Jesus was intentional in what he taught and did in his ministry, and constantly allowed himself to be interrupted. He had compassion for all he encountered, whether grieving fathers, hurting women, hungry crowds, or even his own doubt-filled disciples. On many occasions Jesus could have just thrown up his arms in frustration at all he was attempting to do for humanity, but he still stopped and helped people in need.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest against the sweet earth’s
a tree that looks at God all day, and lifts her leafy arms to pray;
a tree that may in summer wear a nest of robins in her hair;
upon whose bosom snow has lain;
who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.”
- Keep running up, focusing upward, gaining strength and staying in God’s Word. Lift hearts in prayer and lift others up through service. The daily discipline of looking up while cultivating a relationship with God and serving others, helps to keep moving toward the finish line one step at a time.
- Use any available handrails to your advantage. If need be, pull yourselves up like yanking on a rope. Think of the church community as your rails, encouraging each other to keep moving pulling others up when they grow weary, through strengthening each other for the climb. Do not be afraid to climb new heights and courses to build the Kingdom of God.
- It is all about finishing well. The point of the race is to finish! Some will be faster and stronger but each participant should concentrate on doing their own personal best.
The texts for today speak about perseverance. In Jeremiah God promises to love and forgive people in spite of any past misgivings or sinful ways. Paul, writing to Timothy, reminds him that he must be persistent in proclaiming the gospel whether the timing is favorable or unfavorable, to convince, rebuke and encourage with the utmost patience in teaching. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus told a parable about a woman who continually went to a judge to plead her case. The judge is the metaphor for God, who continually hears the cries of people, who repeatedly come to God in prayer. God answers all prayers, but the greatest concern is, “How many will continue to seek God in their lives and live out their faith until Jesus comes again? Will any faithful be left?
2. practice endurance (vv.10-13). The world is going in many directions and Paul experienced multiple hardships for being focused on bringing people to God. Our faith and the grace of God enable us to continue in spite of our failures and sometimes faithlessness. When we die with Christ in baptism, we are raised to new life; a life that reigns with Christ as he reigns over the world. It is not an easy life but God is always faithful, even in our weaknesses.
3. avoid stupid arguments (vv. 14, 16, 23) Christians seem to get energized by arguing over minor points in the faith. Paul reminds Timothy that Christians should not wrangle over words that can ruin those who are listening. Such arguments can lead to “profane chatter” that leads people to be less than Christian. Paul urges Timothy to correct opponents with gentleness so that “God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth.” Licensed, God approved Christians should focus on things like the gospel, the Kingdom of God and the Word of God.
4. rightly explain the world of truth. Approved equals tried and tested in Greek. Wrestling with the truth of God as he or she studies the Scriptures and tests them out in his or her own life and all the while focusing on prayer and Bible study.
5. pursue purity . Just as a kitchen contains many utensils, some are used often and others are at the back of drawers; all can do their job if they are clean. All will become “special” utensils if they are ready for work.
The point of being an approved Christian worker is not for ourselves, it is for God’s work, to be used by God for divine purposes. We need to be clean and ready to be on the job. The license of faith we receive is not something that shines through in our wallet or purse, it is something that shines through us as followers of Christ. (Old song, “This Little Light of Mine, I’m Gonna Let it Shine”) We are to continue to work on our skills as part of God’s overall plan for changing us so that we can participate iwth God in changing the world. No trip to the DMV is necessary, only a daily commitment to doing our best for God and the mission to which we are called.
Years ago when I was a stay at home mom with little ones, I participated in the “Welcome Wagon.” It was a fellowship for new families moving into the area. We had a babysitting co-op, craft groups and dining groups ,which included a gourmet cooking group. If you have seen my kitchen, you know that I have collected cook books for over fifty years. One of my favorites at that time was called The Silver Palate Cook Book and it often called for various types of gourmet mustard: Dijon, coarse mustard with honey, mustard with Cajun spices and other tasty varieties. The mustard seed is very small and the plants grow into shrubs. Mustard seed is quite nutritious in that it is more than 40% protein. The mustard seed was used by Jesus as a model for the Kingdom of God, which initially starts small, like faith, and grows to be the biggest of all garden plants. Some of the recipes in my cookbook took a lot of faith to prepare but the time and effort were worthwhile in the end result. What matters to Jesus is not the quantity of our faith, nor how long it takes before it blooms but if we put our faith into service to build up the Kingdom of God.
Mark Sheerin is currently a financial planner for a wealth management firm in Atlanta, Georgia. He is chief operations officer and part owner, overseeing business for the company and implementing client portfolios. He used to work in third world countries for World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization that tackles the causes of poverty and injustice worldwide for children, families and their communities. He has been asked if working for the financially well off or for the poor is a greater mission? He wrote an article for Christianity Today. “If poverty is understood in terms of social constructs rather than economic ones, the playing field levels between the refugees and the investment banker. I did not come to call the truly faithful to the mission field, the less faithful to the pastorate and the barely faithful to finance,” said Sheering. Sheerin maintains that finance and feeding starving children both amount to good work in God’s eyes. Jesus’ mission was to conquer sin and its effects in all forms and in every place. Fighting against economic injustice through World Vision or through a financial planning firm are both mandated by God. Both tasks are valuable, both tasks seek redemption of broken systems and fallen people. Instead of digging wells, Sheerin now walks through the jungle of probate with widows. Instead of sponsoring children, his firm partners with families through difficult, end-of-life decisions.
Not everyone would agree with Sheerin’s conclusion, but most of us would acknowledge that a life of dutiful faith can be lived in many different types of employment and careers. Luke 17 is one of five places in the gospels where Jesus comments about a mustard seed. Three speak of the Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed (Matthew 13:1-32; Mark 4:30-33; Luke 13:18-19), one speaks to the disciples to explain why they were unable to cure a demon possessed boy (Matthew 17:20) and today’s text which responds to the disciples’ request that he increase their faith. Because of the size of mustard seeds, we tend to parallel this metaphor as a comment on the quantity of faith one possesses. NOT SO! Jesus is responding to the disciples’ request for more faith but their need is not for more faith, only a redirecting of the faith they have toward dutiful service to God rather than grandiose exploits.
There is not a heroic figure in this parable like the Good Samaritan, it does not tug at our heartstrings like the Prodigal Son, and no one gets shut out of heaven as in the Rich Man and Lazarus account. This parable has to do with “your servant,” who labors long hours in the field and is expected to fix dinner for his master before having any food himself. Point is: Does our servant deserve thanks for doing what is expected of him? Does your employer deserve thanks for giving you eight hours of work? NO and NO! Jesus says to the disciples seeking more faith, “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘we are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty’ ” (NIV). “Unworthy” really bites because it implies that no matter how much we do in service to God, we are only doing what is expected and it is impossible to do more than what is expected of us. We can never put God in our debt. In relationship to God, we are always servants. We do what we are told to do and should not expect special credit.
Even though the parable tells us not to expect divine thanks for serving God, there are times when someone says “Thank you” in a heartfelt way. When we see someone lifted from trouble because of our efforts or they relate some remark from a Sunday school lesson that helped them to make a positive career choice, we are uplifted and encouraged. It is nice to experience “warm fuzzies” occasionally, but in Jesus’ parable, he stresses that we should serve God because it is the right thing to do. Doing the right thing brings a satisfaction of its own. Today young couples work long hours and their bodies are in overdrive to achieve everything listed on their daily planners. Sometimes indoor household chores are divided and sometimes outdoor chores and the car care belong to one person alone. If either partner were to come home late, find the table set and pleasant aromas emanating from the kitchen, it would be greatly appreciated. Both people live in the house and keeping it clean, laundry done and meals on the table is shared responsibility. Why should either person be thanked for doing what is necessary to live decently? There can even be satisfaction in serving God when no thanks seems to be forthcoming. Responsibilities are part and parcel of any gift (When my kids were younger, I used to tell them that when they opened a gift, they were obligated to write a thank you note. If they did not want to write the note, do not open the gift! It was surprising how many notes they wrote), including the gift of faith which the disciples had sought from Jesus when they asked him to increase their faith.
The parable Jesus told invites us to see ourselves in relation to God as servants in our work, our church role, in moments of leisure and in the unexpected things that come to us and require a response. We do not earn our way into the Kingdom of God but we are granted entrance because of God’s graciousness to us.
There is an old story about a man seeking entrance into heaven based on good work and has been adapted to Mr. Sheerin’s experiences:
The man came to the Pearly Gates and asked St. Peter for admission. “On what basis?” Peter asked. “Well,” said the man, “I worked most recently in the world of financial management and I worked hard to follow God’s will.” “Yes,” said Peter, “But we expected that.” “Well, earlier I worked several years at low wages in the mission field. I tackled the causes of poverty and injustice in the Third World. I worked directly with children, families and their communities. I even helped people escape from human traffickers.” “We know” Peter said, “but that all needed to be done.” “I have worked hard to be faithful ever since God called me.” “And your point is?” said Peter. “That is all I have got! There is nothing more but the grace of God.” “Exactly,” said St. Peter, opening the gate. “C’mon in.” If mustard were like faith, would a little dab do ya? How big a dab do you need?