Change is Possible and Promised – Br. Curtis Almquist

Br. Curtis Almquist

Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Luke 2:22-24

I think it’s quite intriguing to consider how Jesus developed from his childhood onward.  As Luke says, Jesus grows in wisdom and stature[i], and Jesus also grows in freedom to be fully himself, fully alive.  How Jesus perceives himself, and how he perceives others, and how others perceive him grows, and develops, and changes.  People will change for good – we will change for good – when three things are present: when we are eagerly desirous or absolutely desperate to change; where we can imagine a thread reaching from our past to our present and into our future, which gives us a sense of continuity so that we don’t get lost.  And then there’s one other important component in our being able to change, which I’ll say in a moment.

In the calendar of the church, today marks forty days following the birth date of Jesus.[ii]  The Gospel according to Luke presumes Mary and Joseph’s adher­ence to the law of Moses.  We read in the Book of Leviticus that a new mother was to be cere­monially purified by a priest forty days after childbirth.[iii]  This purification required a sacramen­tal offering of animals: a lamb and a pigeon.  But that actually did not happen here, according to Luke’s account.  Mary and Joseph availed themselves of an option for the poor who could not afford such a sacrifice.  The poor could offer, instead of a lamb, either “a pair of turtledoves ortwo young pigeons.”[iv]  Joseph and Mary and their newborn, Jesus, were poor.  This “purification rite” slips into the back­ground, with the primary focus of today’s remembrance being on Jesus’ parents presenting him in the temple, dedicating him to God as their firstborn son, which was also required by the law.[v]

In the years thereafter Mary and Joseph, with Jesus,annually returned to the temple at Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover.  On one of these visits, when Jesus was age twelve, Jesus was found sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.  Luke says, “Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.”[vi]Then almost twenty years passbefore Jesus finds his freedom, and claims his authority, and begins his public ministry.  Where?  Not amongst the public but amongst his own people one day when Jesus had come to the synagogue, “as was his custom.”[vii]  Following Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Luke remembers Jesus’ saying that his disciples were to re­main in Jerusalem after his ascension, and that from Jerusalem they were to launch their work on his behalf.[viii]

Observance of the law and attendance to temple duties were very important to Jesus’ formation, according to Luke’s gospel.  By the time Jesus begins his ministry, he is thor­oughly formed in his cultural and religious tradition, both the teaching and the practice.[ix]He would have survived the multiple death threats when he was a young child, he would be conversant with the poverty of his family of origin, and he would have known the great expectations about what his life could amount to or should amount to.  Being rooted and grounded in his past, Jesus hadboth the authority of his heritage and the freedom for change because of this third essential element: he had been companioned by other people: family members and some long-time acquaintances who connected him to his past, and a great menagerie of new people who invited him into the future God had for him.

Inner change is essential if we’re to thrive in life.  In the vocabulary of the church, inner change is called “conversion.”  Conversion is about ongoing, life-long change.  It’s the freedom to become, to keep becoming, the person God has created us to be.  Left alone, we are all unwittingly myopic and are prone to simply be imprisoned by our past.  What we see of ourselves and how we see the world that surrounds us is very small without the enlightenment of the eyes of our heart.[x]   Enlightenment mostly comes through other people. The reason why Jesus changed as he grew in wisdom and stature, why his heart opened to the largess of God, why he had ears to hear those who could easily seem insignificant or impure or inadequate or poor, was because of other people who had formed him or reformed him.  The reason he could take into his heart more and more of the world that God so loves is because he came to face with a world much larger than his own poor roots.

But the reason he had the courage and ability to actually invite that change – that conversion – was because of the people who were his companions.  Jesus was surrounded, not just by strangers but by those family members and friends who were living reminders of his past, who were lines of continuity to his earlier life.  He needed people in his life who could understand him when he would say to the crowds, “You have heard it said…” and with their nods of acknowledgement he could dare express how he now saw things: “…but I say to you….”[xi]  Jesus’ family and friends – those who knew where he was coming from in the past – mediated the real possibility for him to change.  People who know us and love us and who will stick with us are essential channels of God’s grace to bridge our past into our future.  We cannot “go it alone.”  We need to belong.  Jesus was on speaking terms with his past, and he was companioned in his present, which gave Jesus both the authority of his heritage and the courage and freedom to be open to his ongoing conversion.  So for us.

Here’s some good news:

  1. Change is possible. Radical interior change is possible.  If you desire change, the scaffolding is already present in your soul to span the gulf between the past and the future.  Desire is a revelation that change wants to happen.  The core of Jesus’ good news is that change, deep change for the good, is possible and promised.  This is conversion, which is an aligning of your life with the source of life.  It’s about becoming fully alive.  Change is possible, and it’s promised.
  1. Change is not a break from your past but a bridge from your past. You need your past.  God will build upon what is good in your past, and God will redeem what is not good.  Redemption is the good that has come out of the bad.  God is very frugal.  Nothing of your past will be wasted, including even the waste.  Jesus will make all things new.[xii]  What is old you will see from a new vantage point.  That’s Jesus’ invitation.  Co-operate with that invitation to discover redemption, wisdom, freedom coming out of your past.  If your past is a mess, I beg differ.  Your past is amazing.  You just wait and see the miracle God will make out of your mess.
  1. Name and claim where you need help. Following Jesus is not a self-help program.  Jesus surrounded himself with helpers.  You’re going to need help from other people for the rest of your life, and they will mediate how God is really present to you. If your life is anything like mine, the older you get the more help you’ll need.  Help is helpful, and it’s essential.
  1. Recall some pivotal people who have companioned you along the way, who have been channels of God’s amazing grace and given you the courage and freedom to change, to be converted. Who are some of these people for you, those graceful companions in your own life?  Maybe it’s been their tender love.  Maybe their tough love.  Maybe both.  Ponder and pray your gratitude.  And if it is timely and possible, take occasion to actually express gratitude to some of these companions or mentors who have been with you along the way.  Life is an invitation to ongoing conversion, and we, like Jesus, cannot do it alone.  You have needed others; others need you.

Our conversion – our inner change – is life-long.  We will change for the better when we are eagerly desirous or absolutely desperate to change.  We will change when we can imagine a thread reaching from our past to our present and into an imagined future, which gives us a sense of continuity so that we don’t get lost.  And we will change when we are companioned by people who know us and love us tenderly or toughly, or both.   They have been there, and they will be there in your life.  God will provide for you, and make you the provision for others.  Change is possible.

[i] Luke 2:40, 52.

[ii]In the calendar of the church, this feast day – The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple – has also been known by two other names: “The Purification of Mary” and, since the eighth century, “Candlemas.”  The name “Candlemas,” which originally called for a candlelight procession, draws its inspiration from the testimony of Simeon: “Simeon took [Jesus] in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:28-32)

[iii] Leviticus 12:1-8.

[iv]Luke 2:24, quoted from Leviticus 12:6-8.

[v] Exodus 13:2, 12-16.

[vi] Luke 2:47.

[vii] Luke 4:16.

[viii] Luke 24:47-48.

[ix] Insight drawn from Preaching Through the Christian Year by Fred B. Craddock, et al.  (Trinity Press International, 1993), pp. 491-496.

[x] A phrase from Ephesians 1:18.  See Also Ephesians 3:14-21.

[xi] Matthew 5:17-48.

[xii] Revelation 21:5.

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  1. Robert on February 5, 2016 at 00:22

    Thank You Br. Curtis. After reading your sermon I looked back on my life, and remembered how often I have been helped to change, with the help of other people , by taking problems to God . Even at my advanced age the process is still ongoing, and as my understanding grows I still am in need of support, for which I am most grateful.

  2. Nicki Bourne on February 4, 2016 at 15:03

    Brother Curtis, Thank you for your hefty message today. Hefty, because growth can be painful, because change is painful. In order to grow, we must change. I love this saying, because it says you can do it, you may not always enjoy it, but you can become who you really are while embracing needed change. And that is hard work. I loved reading your explanation of Purification of Mary, something I’d not be curious about. I always love to learn these “everyday life” aspects to Bible stories/Jesus’ life. Thank you for this inviting challenge! Nicki

  3. Ruth West on February 3, 2016 at 12:26

    Br. Curtis, this sermon was custom-made for me today. I have been struggling with a technical problem, which seemed to have no answer, and, at my ripe old age, I decided I could not cope with it. However, I resorted to asking for help from the one who could solve my problem. I am so relieved when I’ve discovered how easy the solution was when I asked for that help. Another thing you mentioned was not discarding the past, but using it as a bridge to the present. What significant advice! With God’s help, I have grown in grace and have a much clearer understanding of things spiritual. I thank God for the past upon which I have built new and better understanding of many truths. Thank you for this good message which has been a real help to me today.

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