Epiphany 1 – Does it matter what we think?

[This sermon was preached in Arnhem in January 2015.]

Be not conformed to this world;
but ye transformed by the renewing of your mind

Does it really matter what we think?

I think we all know the experience of seeing a child puzzling over some matter, anxious.  And then, if the child trusts us, we give the child the courage to explain what is bothering him or her – and if we can answer that anxiety, because we have a greater picture of things as mature adults, what joy when we see the child’s face lighten up, and a kind of energy return and he or she goes back to play once again filled with the kind hope and wonder that we love to see in children.

And isn’t it the same way for us, that we can get stuck in our spiritual ascent by being held fixed by this doubt and that doubt, and if we don’t have the courage to seek answers, we stay there – held fixed, not resolving any.  But if we do find the answer to one doubt, in prayer, or in the reading of Scripture, or in the wise counsel of a friend or teacher – we experience a renewal of desire, the release of energy, the deepening of hope and joy, greater commitment – we feel a lightening of our countenance, we actually grow in light.

Does it really matter what we think?

Yes, it is vital, it is key to our very salvation.

That’s because our salvation is not just to be delivered from sin, but it is to be led by steps all the way to the beatific vision, to see God, face to face – this is our full salvation in Christ.

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Jesus at Twelve with the Scribes, Rembrandt

Today’s Gospel (St Luke 2:41-end) is instructive in this question of how our thinking relates to our salvation and how we might grow in wisdom.

This Gospel is the only account we have in the Bible of Jesus between his infancy and the beginning of his ministry at age 30. (Luke has this account from Mary herself – as indicated when he says “his mother kept all these sayings in her heart.”)

There is a very important teaching here, about of our understanding of who Jesus is.  Jesus was found in the Temple, sitting among the teachers, both listening to them, and asking them questions.  And all that heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.

Now you might say, that this is not so unusual – given that we believe that Jesus is both God and man – God in the flesh.  Surely he would know everything, being God.

But at the end of today’s Gospel is the astonishing statement – And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.

Precisely how Jesus is both God and man is an important question which the Church struggled to understand in the early centuries, and only came to a final conclusion about, in the 5th century.  After carefully reflecting on all of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ earthly life, including this very passage, the Church concluded that a letter written on this question by Pope Leo in 449AD (The Tome of Leo), sums up the truth of the Gospel accounts: it states that Jesus is one person, but two natures – human and divine, and those two natures are combined in him in such a way that they are unconfused and unmixed.

How could Jesus grow in wisdom if he is already Wisdom incarnate? – Because his two natures are combined in such a way that His divine knowing all things does not overwhelm his human unknowing.  So as a man, he grows in Wisdom in the way that every human being can grow in wisdom.  God is showing us in the flesh how to become wise.

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Christ in the Temple, William Holman Hunt, 1860

One aspect of that way of growing in wisdom, is to ask questions – Jesus’ parents found him sitting among the teachers, both listening to them, and asking them questions.  And all that heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.

Jesus is not just asking questions as a polite way of getting the doctors to think about things he already knew, although perhaps he did that too.  As a boy, Jesus didn’t understand some things, and so he asked.  Probably to say that it was a doubt that held him back is too strong – but something he didn’t know, he came to know through asking others.  He becomes Holy Wisdom, in the flesh!

Later, as a man, Jesus tells us,

Ask and it shall be given you, seek and you shall find, knock and it will be opened for you.

The way of ascent, of entering more fully in our participation in the life of heaven, is to come to understand things we never knew before.  Maybe that sounds obvious, but we must look at our lives and see how much of the search for Truth we are actually engaged in?  Are we reading the Bible regularly, are we taking part in opportunities for study?  Are we taking time in quiet to discover what are the obstacles in our mind holding us back from giving ourselves over more fully to God?

As a priest, there is nothing I like more than being asked questions about our faith (especially if I’m able to answer them! but if I’m not able that is good too, I can search it out)… and I am sure that God loves when we ask him in prayer for answers to questions that arise in us – ask and it shall be given you!

So the first aspect of growing in wisdom is to ask and to keep asking, keep searching for the Truth – that is to search for Jesus himself, who is the Truth.

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The other aspect of our growing in wisdom and stature, and the reason that Jesus could grow so quickly, is that he was without sin.

How does sin affect learning?

Here’s a quick survey…

  • If I’m full of pride, I don’t think I need to learn anything from others and will not grow, because I’ve stopped seeking to know. We will not learn until we humble ourselves before God and others.  St Paul says, by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgement… only then will we be able to learn from others.  Pride is the foremost obstacle to growing in wisdom.
  • If I’m nursing a deep anger, I’m using my energy to sustain the anger, energy that could be used to grow, to look on things with wonder – instead I’m stuck in a dark cloud.
  • If I’m slothful – either not applying myself, or just keeping myself preoccupied with unimportant things (one trivial fact or article after another), I will never have time for the highest things.
  • If I’m greedy, gluttonous or lustful – that is, excessively loving the good things of this earth, satisfying pleasure, I will not lift up my mind to the highest things. I will be preoccupied.
  • If I’m feeling guilty because of sin, I may feel unworthy to approach the living God to understand more of the Truth. [Jesus assures us of forgiveness and so frees up our mind from dwelling on our sinfulness and unworthiness that we might again seek Him out with all our heart.]

Holiness of life is directly related to growing in wisdom and stature.  As we follow a holy life, we see more and more God’s good and acceptable and perfect will, it moves us to greater holiness of life, then our vision is opened further to what holiness is and so on – it is a spiral of ascent to become like God.

Think about it:  If God is Wisdom, and God is Holy (which I’m sure we believe), then how could we be wise if we are not also holy?  We become the two only at the same time.

St Paul speaks in today’s Epistle about these two things right after each other – holiness of life and its relation to growing in wisdom:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

It is not that God gives us a whole bunch of rules to follow that we don’t really want just to make us miserable and feeling wretched at his feet when we fail – he gives us rules to follow because in doing so, by grace, the our eyes of our souls are cleansed, and a vision gradually and increasingly opens up before us of the beauty and majesty and glory of God and His creation, especially the beauty in the soul of our neighbour – this is what Jesus saw daily in his earthly life because of the purity of his soul, and this is what we will see more and more as we follow him.

And because love is “to will the good or the truth that we know” – God wants us to seek the Truth with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, because to know him, is to be moved by love for Him and to be filled with light.  That is our salvation.

Does it really matter what we think?

Jesus says, by his actions and by his words, yes it does:

They found him in the Temple, sitting among the teachers, both listening to them, and asking them questions.  And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and answers… 

And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.

Amen +