First Sunday of Christmas: A Sermon

A sermon preached on December 27, 2015, at Christ Church (Tara).

I.

It’s every parents’ nightmare – to have a child go missing. Even for the briefest of moments when a child is off the parental radar seem like an eternity of panic. In today’s Gospel reading, St. Luke moves us from the emotional high of Christmas to the sheer terror experienced by parents when a child goes missing. You can imagine the added terror experienced by Mary and Joseph – we’ve lost God’s Son! This seems like a rather strange way for Luke to follow up the joy of the nativity story and the tenderness of Jesus’ presentation in the temple where he is blessed by Simeon and Anna. Both the Gospels of Mark and John completely omit the nativity and Matthew focuses on Joseph and Mary’s flight into Egypt to protect Jesus from King Herod’s order to massacre all boys under the age of 2. The Bible certainly is not as neat and nice as we want it to be sometimes.

II.

Like all the authors of the other Gospels, Luke is primarily focused on answering the question: who is Jesus from Nazareth and why is he important? Although each of the Gospel writers formulate their answers differently, they each come up with the same answer: Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God; he is important because he brings us salvation and shows us God’s kingdom. Luke sets out to answer the ‘who’ and ‘why’ questions about Jesus in what he calls an “orderly account” based on eyewitness testimony (Lk 1.1, 1.3; cf. 1.2). Luke intentionally place his account in historical context and frequently ‘name drops’ in order to underline the reliability of his Gospel.

One of the questions often asked about the Gospels is: why do they not offer us any stories about Jesus’ childhood? Aren’t these stories important too? Why do we have only one story about Jesus as a young boy and why does only one Gospel, in this case that of Luke, include it?

I suspect that had any stories of Jesus’ childhood been included in the Bible, the might seem mundane to the point of belaboring a point that the nativity story already makes poignantly clear: God took on human flesh and came to earth to live among us. The effect of Christ’s living among us is clear only in the context of his earthly ministry, culminating in his death and resurrection. The addition of childhood stories about Jesus would be, from an editorial standpoint, needless filler. Of course, none of this is to suggest that childhood itself is unimportant; we know that Jesus welcomed children as his followers and enjoined his adult disciples to practice childlike faith. The fullness of Christ’s humanity, including his childhood, is best represented by the Christmas story.

Keeping in mind that Luke is offering an answer to the ‘who’ and ‘why’ questions about Jesus, Luke offers the story of Jesus in the temple as a narrative ‘hinge’ between the nativity and Jesus’ adult ministry.

At first glance, the texts seems to paint an unflattering picture of Jesus as a petulant pre-teen. His response to his mother’s frustration and relief sounds like disrespect. We expect that Jesus should know better than to not tell his parents his whereabouts and that he would show a bit more respect to his parents. However, we should not let our expectations cloud our reading of the Bible; when we do, we often end up making the Bible conform to our demands rather than let the God speak to us through the Bible in order to transform us as God intends.

When we look at the structure of text, Luke’s intended meaning becomes clear. Luke is a masterful story teller; every part of the story is intentionally placed for maximum effect.

This episode begins with the journey to Jerusalem and ends with the journey home to Nazareth. The next parallel in the text is between Jesus remaining as his parents depart unaware and Jesus’ parents being unable to understand why he stayed. The next parallel is Jesus’ parents finding him and Jesus’ parents reproaching him.[1]

Each of these three parallels create a structure to the story that is meant to highlight the heart of the text: that Jesus is God’s wisdom in the flesh. The heart of the story is the amazement and astonishment that the teachers of the temple and Jesus’ parents had regarding his knowledge of the Torah. Luke depicts Mary and Joseph as pious Jews who make a yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover (cf. Lk. 2.41) and the piety of the temple leaders is certainly assumed. And yet, here is a twelve-year-old-boy, on the cusp of manhood (at least as it was understood in that time and place), showing knowledge and wisdom beyond his years.

Through the narrative, Luke is offering an answer the ‘who’ and ‘why’ questions about Jesus: Jesus is both fully human and fully divine.

Jesus’ physical and mental growth underlines his full humanity: Jesus grew, as we all do, from babies utterly dependent on our parents for everything, into teenagers who begin to spread their wings, into adults who must take responsibility for their own lives. Indeed, the fact that Jesus was twelve in this story underlines his transition into manhood and all that goes with it, including accepting religious responsibility, which is why he responded to Mary’s question with such seeming flippancy: I am in the temple because I am no longer a little boy; I am taking my mission form my heavenly Father seriously.

To be clear, Jesus’ human development in no way should suggest his limitation of his divinity; Luke includes this story precisely in order to underline the truth of the nativity: God became human. The very fact of the Incarnation is a reminder that Jesus did “not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, bring born in human likeness”, as St. Paul reminds us in his letter to the Philippians (2. 6-7).

Indeed, the heart of today’s Gospel reading serves to underline Jesus’ divine nature. There is no what that the teachers of the temple would have even allowed a twelve-year-old-boy to sit among them, let alone grant him an audience or even let him speak to them. They would not let them do this, unless it was patently evident that he was special. That Jesus made this impression on them is clear. Moreover, it brings to mind the story of Jesus’ appearance to two travellers on the road to Emmaus where he opened the Scriptures to them. Both on that road and in the temple in today’s reading, Luke is suggesting that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Torah; all the Scriptures point to him as the Messiah, the Christ, the promised deliverer who will inaugurate a new Passover and a new Exodus.

However, as often is the case in the Gospel stories, the crowds, the religious leaders, and even those closest to Jesus – his disciples and his parents – either cannot understand who Jesus is and why he has come or, like the Israelites in the Old Testament, they constantly forget. This is why Mary’s actions are so important. Like Mary, we must treasure the Scriptural stories about Jesus in our hearts, lest we forget who he is and why he came.

III.

God’s people have an embarrassing tendency to forget God’s promises, which is why God is constantly reminding his people to turn back to him – to repent. Following the story of Jesus in the temple, Luke tells how John the Baptist went about “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk. 3.3). Caught up in our own anxieties about the future of the church, our religious piety, and our discomfort with the seeming antiquatedness of the Bible, we forget both God’s faithfulness and our baptismal vocation to proclaim the gospel.

We are “God’s chosen one, holy and beloved” (Col. 3.12). Our mission in and for the world is to embody Christ in everything we do and say as a community of Christ-followers. We are called to remember who Jesus is and why he came and then put those very things into practice. We are to extend patience, forgiveness, love, and peace to each other. We are to practice gratitude, study the Scriptures, sing and pray together. We are to follow the self-giving example of Jesus Christ who emptied himself for our sake. It is when we gather to receive God’s wisdom in Word and Sacrament that we remember Christ and our calling as a Church.

The church’s witness to the world is wrapped up in the way that Christians within the church act together as a community – from their worship to the way they deal with conflict among ourselves. We worship the Triune God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and we practice the way of forgiveness and gratitude.

These are the very core of our being and mission as a church; and these are the very things that our world so desperately needs to know. In a world where the worship of Me, Myself, and I is central and where the desire for revenge is normal, the church is called to stand as an alternative, ambassadors of a different way of life rooted in Jesus Christ.

This Christmas, let us remember who Jesus is and why he came so that we can be a community that treasures Christ’s words in our hearts and lives as his presence in a world starved for grace.

Amen.

[1] John Carroll, Luke, 85.

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