There’s an old story told about a dirt road in the Australian outback where you’ll see a sign that says, ‘Choose your rut carefully – you’ll be in it for the next thirty miles!’ I’ve driven on some roads like that over the years, so I think I know what the sign means! And at this time of year, some of our residential streets in Edmonton are starting to feel a bit rutty too – not because of mud, but because of ice and snow!
Of course, we also use the word ‘rut’ to describe ingrained habits – usually in a negative sense. ‘Getting into a rut’ is usually seen as a bad thing - a sort of laziness of mind and spirit that comes over us. It’s so hard for us to learn new ways of thinking and acting; it’s so much easier to keep on thinking and doing the same old thing. Clergy get into these sorts of ruts when they’re preparing sermons at Christmas time, especially when, like me, they’re getting a bit long in the tooth! I’ve preached on these same scripture readings for years and years; it’s so much easier to pull out an old sermon rather than to go to God in prayer and ask him for something new and fresh to present at the Christmas services! And we can all get into mental ruts; never open to the possibility that we might be wrong, or that we might not have adequate information, we just keep on thinking and saying the same old thing, over and over again. Getting into a rut, in this sense, is not a good thing.
But habits aren’t necessarily negative; they can be positive too. Habit, of itself, is a gift from God, saving us all sorts of time and energy. I’ve gotten into the habit of buttoning up my shirt in a certain way when I get dressed, of putting one shoe on before the other, and so on. If I had to think about it every time I did it, life would be impossible – every course of action would just take too long. Musicians know this very well; we guitarists sometimes talk about ‘finger memory’, by which we mean that after we’ve been playing a tune for a while we no longer have to think about it consciously – our fingers know where to go next without our conscious mind telling them. That sort of habit is a precious gift.
So on the one hand we have habit as a good thing, a thing that saves us endless trouble and helps us do all sorts of tasks more efficiently. But on the other hand, we have thoughtless habits – things we do, not because we necessarily have any great conviction about them, but just because ‘we’ve always done it this way’. These two sorts of habits both feature in our Christian growth. On the one hand, we have godly habits – things it’s good to learn to do, because they help to mould us into the character of Christ. On the other hand, we have ritual actions that don’t really come from any deep conviction in our hearts – they’re just ‘things we’ve always done’, according to that great Anglican creed that we used to say in the words of the old prayer book: ‘As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, amen!’
Why am I talking about habits this morning? Well, in our gospel reading for today the Greek word ‘ethos’ is important. It means ‘a pattern of behaviour that is more or less fixed by tradition and generally sanctioned by society’. The word is generally translated in our English Bibles as ‘custom’ or ‘habit’, but it’s sometimes hidden under other verbal forms. For instance, look at Luke 2:41-42:
Now every year (Jesus’) parents went up to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival.
That phrase ‘as usual’ is ‘ethos’ in Greek. In other words, it was their habit or custom to do it, and when Jesus was twelve, they followed their custom as usual.
Now interestingly enough, when the word ‘ethos’ is used in the gospels or in Acts, it’s often in the form of an accusation against Jesus and his followers: they are accused of attempting to destroy the customs that Moses handed down to the people of Israel. But we can see from today’s gospel and from the early chapters of Luke that this wasn’t the way Jesus was brought up. He and his family didn’t seek to destroy the habits and customs that had been handed down from the time of Moses, but Jesus did try to give those habits and customs a proper meaning.
It is of course possible for habits to become mindless actions, something we do without really giving any thought to what it means. For instance, many Christians make the sign of the cross, and I suspect that a good number of them don’t really think about what it means when they do it. But the solution to that problem is not to do away with the sign of the cross altogether. The solution is for all of us to think about what it means – to remember that Jesus gave himself on the cross for us, and that through that cross we receive forgiveness and healing and blessing and all sorts of other good things. To make the sign of the cross is an acted prayer, praying that God will bless us and give us all the benefits that Jesus has won for us by giving his life for us. When we think of it in this way, making the sign of the cross can be a powerful thing.
Let’s think for a minute about the customs and habits that Mary and Joseph had practiced in their house as they were bringing Jesus up, because those habits probably had a great deal to do with the sort of person Jesus grew up to be.
One habit that he was raised with was participation in the worship of Israel. This worship included the special yearly festivals like Passover and the Feast of Booths and the Day of Atonement, with all the sacrifices and ceremonies prescribed by law and custom. And it also included the weekly worship at the synagogue, going to hear the Law of Moses read and explained, and joining in the prayers of the people there. It never seems to have occurred to Mary and Joseph to say what so many people say today: “I don’t need to go to church to pray – I can do it quite well at home by myself”. To Jesus’ family, the fundamental form of prayer was prayer together, and they were happy to join with all of God’s people in offering it.
When Jesus grew up, he continued this habit. Luke 4:16 tells us that ‘When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom’. There’s that word ‘ethos’ again – Jesus was in the habit of going to church.
I consider myself very lucky that my parents got me into that habit at an early age. When they had me baptized at the age of two months, they obviously considered it part of their responsibility to get me to the church every week, so that I could learn to worship with God’s people. Interestingly enough, I have no memory at all of going to Sunday School, although I’m sure I must have done so from time to time. But what I remember is sitting in the services with my Mum and Dad, singing the hymns and kneeling for the prayers. I’m very grateful that they didn’t take the attitude “Well, we’ll go to church on Sunday unless there’s something else on”. They made it a priority, and I’m still benefitting from that today.
Participating in the festivals by which we remember the great events of Jesus’ life and what they mean to us is also very important. Over the years, all sorts of traditional practices have grown up around those festivals. One of those traditions is the use of an Advent wreath. I wasn’t brought up with this tradition myself; I learned it in the early 1980s when we lived in Saskatchewan, and Marci and I quickly adopted it and made it one of our family customs. When our kids were small, each night in Advent we would light the candles on the wreath – one for each week of Advent – and then do a short reading and prayer from an Advent book. Our book also gave us other activities to do with our kids – for instance, one week Marci had them making cookies shaped like crowns and stars and sceptres and other biblical symbols related to Jesus.
There are all sorts of other customs like this – using palm crosses on Palm Sunday, or the sign of ashes on Ash Wednesday, fasting during Lent and so on. These aren’t commanded in scripture, but they’ve been passed down to us in Christian history over hundreds of years. Yes, they can sometimes become thoughtless traditions, but the solution to thoughtless tradition isn’t to abandon tradition altogether – it’s to start thinking about it again, to ask what it means, and to be intentional and conscientious about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.
So Jesus was raised with an ethos, a custom or habit, of joining in the worship life of God’s people – not just a private, do it yourself spirituality, but something they all came together to share in. And another habit he was raised with, one that was so characteristic of Judaism in the time of Jesus and since then, was the habit of reading scripture and discussing its meaning.
This is what the twelve year old Jesus was doing in our gospel reading, during those three desperate days when his Mom and Dad didn’t have a clue where he was. We read in verse 46 that ‘after three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions’. We can make a very good guess what those discussions were about: God’s law, and how to apply it to one’s daily life. This was the most common topic of discussion in Judaism at the time.
As a Jewish boy Jesus would have heard the scriptures read regularly, in the synagogues on the Sabbath and on other occasions, and part of his education would have been to memorise large chunks of what we now call ‘the Old Testament’. Of course, in those days before printing it was not possible for people to own their own copy of even one book of the Bible, but between regular public reading and memorisation, they probably knew it as well as we do, if not better. And the Jewish people loved to discuss the meaning of the scriptures and the way to apply them to daily life; their teachers came up with a huge body of oral tradition on just this subject.
But I suspect that the thing that had the greatest impact on Jesus was seeing his parents struggling to live by God’s Word. In Matthew chapter one we find the young Joseph, expecting to be married to Mary, suddenly discovering that she is pregnant and agonising over what he should do. He wants to do what is right; he is guided by the Scriptures, but also by the voice of the angel in the dream telling him that something unusual is happening here. And Mary, when the angel brings her the news that she is to be the mother of the Messiah, replies “Let it be to me according to your Word” (Luke 1:38). She is willing to obey God at great personal cost. Hearing the Lord’s word isn’t just an intellectual exercise for her – it’s about life transformation. This is the sort of people Mary and Joseph were. And this is the way of life Jesus learned.
So there are these two customs or habits that Jesus learned as he was growing up in the house of Mary and Joseph – the habit of worshipping together with God’s people, and the habit of hearing and discussing and practising the word of God in scripture. But there’s one other really important feature of this passage, something that’s so vital that without it the other stuff really can just become routine. Notice the words of the twelve-year-old Jesus when Mary rebukes him. She says, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety”. And Jesus replies, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” – or, another possible translation would be, “that I must be about my Father’s interests?” (vv.48-49)
This strong sense of personal connection to God as Father was unusual in the time of Jesus. The Old Testament talks about Israel as a nation being God’s firstborn son, but it was almost unheard of for an individual person to have that sense of sonship – to say not only ‘our father’, but also ‘my father’. But Jesus was able to do this. In other words, he had not only learned the outward habits that formed him as a faithful Jew; he had also learned to know God personally, for himself.
This is something that is absolutely central to the Christianity that we read about in the New Testament, and I have to say that we as parents aren’t always successful in passing this on to our children. There’s a simple reason for this: it’s something that can’t be passed on! We can teach our kids to come to worship and to read the Bible, but we can’t give them a personal connection with God – they have to find that for themselves. And if they don’t find it, then in the end they will probably abandon the habits and traditions we’ve tried to teach them as well.
If you have not yet found this personal connection with God, don’t be satisfied until you do. Cry out to him to make himself known to you. Come to Jesus in faith; put your life in his hands and ask him to teach you to know the Father for yourself. Some of us have a definite moment of commitment when we pray a prayer of faith, putting our lives in the hands of Jesus. Others grow into it in a more gradual way. I don’t think it really matters how you find it, but it’s vitally important that you do find it.
And when you do find it, all those habits and customs you picked up as a child will have a fresh meaning for you. Some years ago a man who had been brought up in the days of the old Book of Common Prayer, and then had a fresh experience of the Holy Spirit, commented that he was noticing all sorts of things in the Prayer Book that he’d never seen before! The habit of weekly worship with God’s people, the habit of daily prayer and Bible reading – all these things take on new meaning for us when they are ways of relating to a God we are coming to know and love personally. So let us press on to know the Lord, and then let us learn and use these godly habits so that we can grow in our faith day by day.