a sermon by Chris Holmes for the first Sunday in Christmas
his is a time to celebrate. It is Christmastide. The Saviour of the world has come. Light is the order of the day. Darkness’s defeat is imminent. “Joy to the World, the Saviour reigns. Let earth receive her King.” Such is the good news of Christmas. God come among us to save us and make all things right in Jesus Christ. But do we really get it? Can we grasp this? Not really. I love the way our Gospel reading for tonight indicates just how difficult it is to understand the Christ. Even Mary does not comprehend “what he [i.e., Jesus] said.” (vs. 50) But, you know, I don’t blame her for not understanding. After all, how many 12-year Jewish boys are, after a three day long frantic search by parents, friends, and family, found “in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” (vs. 46)
Some critical commentators think that Luke’s description of the boy Jesus in the Temple is to be taken with a truckload of salt. One commentator I consulted writes, “For instance, how could Joseph and Mary have started off on the long journey to Galilee from Jerusalem without making sure that their twelve-year old was in tow? Or how could they have gone a whole day’s journey without realizing that he was not with them? … Or how did Jesus spend the nights in between, until he was found? Where did he spend them? How could he have act so irresponsibly toward his parents, if he were gifted with such striking comprehension, as v. 47 indicates.” In other words, this commentator raises the question of whether our passage is simply the work of Luke’s imagination? His questions at first glance might seem appropriate. But I think that in asking them we miss the whole point of the passage. Regardless of where such a story might come from, it serves a very important theological point. This point is this. Neither Mary nor Joseph really “gets” their son. Again, they “did not understand what he said to them.” (vs. 50) This story serves Luke’s overall purpose of getting across to his readers the profound difficulty of understanding who Jesus truly is.
There is a message here for all of us. To be sure, Christmas is a time to celebrate our dear Saviour’s birth. But we are not to assume that we know just what kind of Saviour he is or how he will save. Mary is Jesus’ mother. But Jesus’ point to her is that her maternal ties to him must yield to those of his Heavenly Father. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (v. 49) Instead of being offended, however, Luke tells us that Mary responds to Jesus’ gentle reproach by treasuring “all these things in her heart.” (v. 51) The text literally means that Mary “tossed them” about in her heart. And lest we think Mary is the only one who doesn’t get it, it is readily apparent throughout Luke’s Gospel the disciples of Jesus don’t quite get it either. Lk 18:34 tells us that the disciples “understood nothing about all these things.” The “these things” in this case is Jesus’ pronouncement of his imminent death and resurrection.
Over the last few days I have been thinking a lot about our Gospel reading. But I have also been thinking a lot about the significance of a book I just read, that is, Elizabeth Gilbert’s wildly popular novel, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across India, Italy and Indonesia. After a particularly intense semester, I know that I needed some “lighter” reading material for the latter part of Advent. So I read Gilbert. After all, it cannot be Barth and Bonhoeffer all the time. My wife tells me that Gilbert’s book is currently being made into a movie starring Julia Roberts. It has spent 129 weeks on the NY Times bestseller’s list. Millions of copies have been sold. A word about Gilbert and her book. Gilbert is a thirty-something women who thought she had it all: money, a powerful career, a husband, and lots of money. But she went through a divorce, depression, a failed love affair. Her dreams fell apart. Depressed and divorced, she decided to take a year off to recover. So she travels to Italy, India and Indonesia. While in India, she spends several months at an Ashram, learning the art of Yogic meditation from an accomplished Guru. Her approach to spirituality, to all things concerning “God” is one that many in our day embrace—in and outside the church. At the end of her time at the Ashram in India, she writes the following, “I think you have every right to cherry-pick when it comes to moving your spirit and finding peace in God. I think you are free to search for any metaphor whatsoever which will take you across the worldly divide whenever you need to be transported or comforted. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s the history of mankind’s search for holiness. If humanity never evolved in its explorations of the divine, a lot of us world still be worshipping golden Egyptian statues of cats. And this evolution of religious thinking does involve a fair bit of cherry-picking. You take whatever works from wherever you can find it, and you keep moving toward the light.” (p. 208)
Now I must admit I liked reading her book. It is a page turner, and it yields some genuine insights about the human condition. But her thoughts on religion left me rather high and dry. For Gilbert, there is this generic thing called “religion.” Religion has many different faces, Christianity being but one of them. Indeed, religion is something we craft for ourselves. This is a problematic assumption, at least as far as the Christian faith is concerned. Let me explain. Christmas time is a time in which we are confronted by a God who puts an end to our efforts to “find” him. Although it might sound nice to say that humanity’s explorations of the divine are evolving, I don’t think that we have come that far. For Gilbert, God is very much something we construct from a variety of faith traditions in order to make meaning for our lives. Christian faith, however, tells us of a God who pronounces a gracious NO to all of our efforts to find or to make for ourselves a god of our own devising.
Like Mary, many of us go looking for Jesus. But we don’t find him where we would expect to find him. Mary’s precocious 12-year is not w. the rest of the extended family. He is at his Father’s house, teaching the Torah to much older students of Torah. Jesus teaches them Torah by asking them questions. Although we don’t know what he asked them, I think it is safe to say that it went something like this: “Do you guys really get it?” Do you know that all of this points to me and what I will one day do not only for our people but for the whole world?
As much as I liked Gilbert’s book, I could not get over the absence of the question of truth. It might be nice to travel across the world in search for God. But is the God you have found, really the one true God? And if so, how would you really know? While our consumer sensibilities might like the idea that we chose a religion by cherry-picking from “religions” what we like, a Christmas people would say otherwise. Christian faith does not celebrate the human search and quest for God. Rather, it celebrates God’s quest, God’s way to us in the Jew Jesus. I find this hard to believe. I really do. God becomes human, really human. This is the mystery of Christmas.
In our other reading for today, St. Paul writes, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” Mary is an example, the supreme example, of one who lets the word of Christ dwell in her richly. Calvin put it this way. The word of Christ “should have a settled abode” in us. The word of Christ is to be all-determining in all areas of human existence. When the shepherds and Angel appear to Joseph and Mary, Mary is described in Lk 2:19 as treasuring all these words and pondering them in her heart. The Venerable Bede writes, “Nothing of what was said or done by him [i.e., Jesus] fell idly on her mind. As before, when she conceived the Word itself in her womb, so now does she hold within her his ways and words, cherishing them as it were in her heart. That which she now beholds in the present, she waits to have revealed with greater clarity in the future.”
Christmas is a time to treasure and ponder. Treasure and ponder we must. For something great has happened. God in Jesus Christ has come among us to make all things new. This is good news. This is news worth dying for. The Christ will pierce Mary’s heart. Mary will one day watch her boy die. And she will see him rise. But for now she does not understand. However, she knows something special is in the air. But when push comes to shove, Lk tells us that Mary (and Joseph) really don’t get it. They really don’t get the true identity of their Son. And we, if we are honest with ourselves, don’t get their Son either. For the incarnation, God’s coming among us as a human—the very joy of Christmas—is a treasure vast and deep. This is a mystery whose depths no one has ever sounded. None may dare to pierce unbidden this, the greatest work of God.
We have twelve days to celebrate Christmas. We have twelve days to ponder the revolutionary politics of God. We have twelve days to join Mary in treasuring what has happened. We have twelve days to let the word of her Son dwell in us richly. May God not find us, this Christmas season, in the corner, choosing our religion. May rather we be found sitting before the Christ who is about his Father’s business even as a twelve year old. Let us be pupils of Christ, learning from him true religion. To be sure, most of the time we won’t get it. But let us not be discouraged. The Gospel gives us a God who in Jesus Christ delights in finding us. In finding us, coming to us, he may rebuke us. But he does so only to teach us and to enlighten us so that we might be fit recipients of the vast and deep treasure that is the mystery of Christmas.