[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]
Someone has said, “We form our habits. But over time, our habits form us.”
Most of our habits probably don’t mean much. I always put my credit cards in the same places in my wallet, for example. That way, I always know where they are.
I also am in the habit of putting my bath towels up to dry with the tags inside, where they can’t be seen. If I walk into the bathroom and see a towel with the tag turned out, I switch it around. (That's not too crazy, is it?)
But many of our habits are more consequential. A young child may learn to be a good student at a young age; that habit, long after she or he is even conscious of being conscientious and hard-working, will serve them well all through life.
Some habits have negative consequences, of course. A teen may get involved with drugs, alcohol, or sex outside of marriage until these habits gain such a foothold and control over them that they hardly consider the spiritual, mental, emotional, or physical destruction they may be inflicting on their lives.
We form our habits. over time, our habits form us.
So, it’s important that we choose our habits wisely.
I bring all of this up because of a word that appears in today’s Gospel lesson. You know the story it recounts well. It’s the only place in the entire Bible that tells about the childhood of Jesus. The incident recounted happens when he is twelve years old, one year before Jesus, as a Jewish boy, would have been bar mitzvahed. Then, He would have declared, “Today, I am a man.” But as is true of any twelve year old, in our lesson, Jesus can already be seen tilting toward his adulthood.
The word from the original Greek in the New Testament that, in our Gospel lesson, so interests me is ethos. Ethos gets taken over into the English language as ethic or ethics. In our language, it refers to ethical standards or morality. But in Greek, it simply means habit or custom, the way in which people ordinarily or habitually do something. An ethos could be bad or good, just as for us habits can be bad or good.
The word crops up early in our text when we’re told that on Passover, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus went to Jerusalem for the Passover “as usual,” the word in Luke actually being, “as ethic,” as was their habit or custom. That word alone will tell you why God chose Mary and Joseph to be the earthly parents of Jesus. They were people of good, godly habits.
In those days, Jews were expected to travel to Jerusalem each year for three different religious festivals centered around the temple. If they were poor, as we know Mary and Joseph were, they were only required to be in Jerusalem once a year, for the celebration of Passover. Traveling by foot from Nazareth to Jerusalem every year wouldn’t have been easy for the holy family. But it was their habit to do it. The faith of Joseph and Mary was strong and important to them, making them great candidates to raise Jesus, God-in-the-flesh.
We have no idea when Jesus was conscious of Who He was beyond being a Galilean child reared in the home of a poor handyman. We don’t know when Jesus gained what the scholars call “messianic consciousness.” Did He know it when He was in the manger at Bethlehem? I doubt that, but maybe. Or, did the awareness of His identity as true God and true human come over Him gradually?
Whatever the case may be, it must have been critical to God the Father that Jesus have the right parents, people who themselves practiced faith habits which their son could observe and, which, because of their example, He could adopt Himself. That would have included not just going to Jerusalem for the Passover each year, but also things like weekly worship with other believers, reading the Scriptures, service to others, and encouraging others to trust in God, too.
You and I know, of course, that none of these habits earn us life with God or heaven or spiritual points. We are saved by God's grace given to all with faith in Jesus Christ.
But faith habits are the means by which we cultivate closeness to God. And since God is the only source of life there is, growing closer to God fills us with the very life of God, no matter our age or the conditions of our bodies or minds.
The habits exemplified by Joseph and Mary obviously had their impact on Jesus. When, three days after first discovering that Jesus wasn’t in their party for the return trip to Nazareth following the Passover, they finally found Jesus in the temple. Mary was upset and perhaps, understandably, forgetting Who Jesus was for a moment, chastised Him for the trouble He had caused them. Jesus is mystified. He asks her, “Why were you looking everywhere? Didn’t you know that I would be in My Father’s house?” What other habit would a parent most want their twelve year old to cultivate than spending time in God’s house, growing closer to Him?
During His adult ministry, we’re told of Jesus that He always went to synagogue on the Sabbath. It was His ethic, His habit. And the Bible tells us that Jesus would often go off early in the morning for prayer. That too was His habit.
Joseph and Mary did a good job of cultivating godly habits in themselves and by example, in their child.
The faith of all of us can be strengthened by the adoption of holy habits. The New Testament book of Hebrews tells we Christians to, “consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit—the ethos—of some, but encouraging one another…”
I know that, on the Sunday after Christmas, a traditionally low-attendance day at church, I’m sort of preaching to the choir when I say that cultivating the habit of regular worship attendance is a way to grow closer to God and to imbibe more deeply of the life that only comes to us through Jesus Christ. You know and likely believe that deeply.
But in case there are any here this morning or any who may be tuned in on the radio who need convincing, let me tell you the true story of a man I knew named Louis. (That’s not his real name. But I don’t want to violate his family’s privacy.)
Louis had a rough childhood, one in which he was largely left to raise himself, not always successfully. When he graduated from high school, he wasn’t clear about what he might do with his life.
Then he met Betty. Betty was in college at the time. She was studying to become a teacher. Her family had cultivated some of the same holy habits in which the young Jesus was nurtured. They were in worship each week. They had family devotions and prayers. They regularly helped with projects designed to serve and help their neighbors, particularly the poor. They supported missionaries to faraway places. When Betty was in college, though far from home, she maintained these same habits.
When Louis fell into her orbit and fell in love with Betty, he started attending worship and reading Scripture with her. He found himself coming to trust in the same God Betty knew through Jesus.
Louis’ life was changed. The factory where he worked saw how he worked with new dedication and with a freedom from anxiety that allowed him to keep looking for new, better ways to get things done. Though he had only a high school education, they hired him to work as an engineer; eventually, he headed the engineering department.
Louis became interested in a multitude of things and shared his talents lovingly at church and in his community. I could never keep up with Louis. He was an avid photographer, cook, church banner maker, seamstress of quilts, mechanical tinkerer, Sunday School teacher, and designer and builder of earth homes.
As you can imagine, with all his talents and his willingness to use them to help others, Louis became a popular figure. He would present his co-workers with handcrafted gifts or he would go to neighbor’s places in the evening to help them chop wood, fix their plumbing, or build a shed. In his seventies, he built, almost single-handedly, a home for one of his church’s former pastors. And Louis laughed a lot.
It was natural then, that the beneficiaries of all his loving service would wonder why. Why did he do the things he did?
Well, Louis would explain, it all had to do with his faith in Jesus. I remember him telling me that sometimes people who had grown jaded about God, Christ, or the Church would greet his faith with skepticism.
“You know what I say then, Mark?” he asked me. “I tell them the same thing my father-in-law told me fifty years ago. ‘I’m not going to preach to you,’ he said. ‘But do this: Make it a point of worshiping six Sundays in a row and see if you even want to miss it on the seventh Sunday.’”
Louis told me that since he had taken his father-in-law’s challenge, he hadn’t missed a single Sunday. That holy habit had cultivated closeness to Christ and Christ became the center of his life.
In 2009, we’ve placed a strong emphasis on the holy habit of servanthood in Christ’s Name at Saint Matthew. As God helps us, we hope to expand on that emphasis in 2010.
But I’m also praying and hoping that 2010 will be the year in which we all consciously cultivate two other holy habits: prayer and sharing our faith with the spiritually disconnected.
The one habit may seem boring and the other frightening, both of them a bit intimidating. But we will find that as we cultivate these habits, we will grow closer to Christ and so, like my friend Louis, grow more alive with the power and goodness of God.
At the end of our Gospel lesson today, we’re told, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years and in divine and human favor."
Jesus’ holy habits drew Him closer to the Father; our holy habits can do the same thing for us. “We form our habits. But over time, our habits form us.” In 2010, let’s form holy habits and through them, allow God to form us into being more like our Savior Jesus.