Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas
The first Sunday in the Christmas season, and suddenly the gospel faces us with a twelve year old Jesus. There is a bit of a disconnect here—particularly when we consider that next Sunday on the Feast of the Epiphany we’ll be back with a story of a much younger Jesus, visited by the magi—but this year the lectionary has us read this childhood story during the Christmas season. And why not? This is the only gospel story we have to fill in the long blank space between the nativity and Jesus’ sudden emergence at the River Jordan, looking to be baptized by John.
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“Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival.” As Luke tells the story, this is common practice for Mary and Joseph; to take their young family to Jerusalem to observe the Passover feast. Traveling with other devout Jews from their home community, they would make the journey south to that great city to mark the feast in its fullness. This devotion, and this festive community journey, is a part of what Jesus knew as he grew up.
Consider your own family and its rituals at Christmas time. What did you or your own children grow up with as the familiar practice? Maybe a trip to the home of the grandparents—“yes, it is snowing and blowing a bit, but Winkler isn’t that far… and if we don’t get there, grandma and grandpa will be so disappointed.” Maybe it is Christmas Eve at the old family church, followed by a familiar late evening meal and just one of the presents under the tree. It has to be turkey, with the right kind of dressing, those potatoes, and that dessert. Otherwise it just isn’t quite Christmas, right? We’ve all got our patterns and practices that for us really mark this season.
That’s the sort of glimpse Luke is giving us here, of one particular family in ancient Judea. “Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when Jesus was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival.” It is all as it should be, wrapped in the comfort of the familiar.
And then Luke throws us his curve ball. “When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it.” What do you mean his parents didn’t know he’d remained behind in Jerusalem? Someone needs to call child and family services, and report them for neglect…
But that’s our world, our context, speaking. As the African proverb goes, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and in the case of the world in which Jesus was raised this was taken for granted. Picture the scene, as all of the families from Nazareth muster together to prepare for the journey home; there are kids running everywhere, and each adult readily assumes the role of parent for each of those children. Young Jesus was there, running and chasing with the other boys, and Mary knows he’s a good kid. When the time comes to set out, he’ll just tag along with the other boys, under the watchful eye of another parent. Besides, she’s got the younger children to mind, and Joseph is talking shop with one of the other men. What’s to worry? It has been a great feast, but it is time to get moving home. Jesus is twelve—almost at the age of adulthood in his society—and he’s responsible. And so, “assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey.” Time to stop for the night, and to enjoy a bit of a travellers’ feast on the road. The holidays aren’t quite over yet…
“Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends,” Luke writes. “When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him.” That’s a piece of understatement if I’ve ever heard one. “When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him.” Parents, picture yourselves in their shoes, suddenly realizing that your twelve year old is not with his friends—not anywhere in this band of travelers. Quickly, back to Jerusalem! Yes, it is a full days journey, and yes it is now dark… but hurry! It doesn’t matter how dangerous these roads are for a couple traveling on their own; for a boy of twelve, Jerusalem is worse… hurry!
“After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” Three days. Easy to read that aloud as a part of a biblical story, but imagine the anxiety of searching three days in that city. Sure, we hear the word “Jerusalem” and think of the holy temple. But what else is there, in that place? There are the con men, the survivors, those on the edge. And what of the Roman soldiers? Who knows what they’ll do to a lost boy?
“[T]hey found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’” That at least is what Luke offers… you can only imagine what else was running through the minds of his parents; what else Mary and Joseph might have said to him as they rushed up the road to try to catch up to the rest of the traveling party.
“He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’” Part of that is spoken like a child, on the cusp of adolescence—“What are you worried about, I can handle myself”—all confidence and naïveté rolled into one rather dangerous bundle.
Part of it, though, is something more. Part of it is a rumour of what is to come. This boy who is about to be a young man—a son of the torah—is already wrestling deeply with the stuff of faith, asking questions which astonish even the most seasoned of the theologians. “[His parents] did not understand what he said to them,” Luke tells us. “Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.” Back to the familiar, the normal. Back to family life as it was supposed to be. Yet Luke adds, almost parenthetically, that, “His mother treasured all these things in her heart.” She saw, she knew, she remembered. It is almost exactly the same phrase that Luke offers at the close of the nativity story: “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)
It is such a profoundly human story, in so many ways. For any parent, it should speak to us of just how tough it can be to let our kids grow up. “What were you thinking?” we ask them, and sometimes as we say that, even in our anxiety, we silently say to ourselves, “well, she’s thinking for herself… she’s growing up.” And at that very basic level, it is a gospel story that invites us to celebrate the questions that our own twelve year old kids ask, anxiety-producing as they can be.
“And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour” is how Luke concludes this story, which among other things means that Jesus wasn’t yet entirely wise or in command of his own life. Though over those days in Jerusalem he wasn’t ready to see it, he still needed his mom and dad to nurture and form him. As much as he was profoundly right in saying that the temple was his “Father’s house,” he wasn’t quite ready to be launched from the home of his mother and adoptive father.
There’s a line from an Anglican Christmas prayer litany that has long struck me as being quite extraordinary: “By the submission of the Maker of the world to Mary and Joseph of Nazareth, hear us, O Lord.”
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us: as a vulnerable baby born in a manger, entrusted to the care of oh-so-human parents.
The Word become flesh and dwelt among us, and he needed his mom and dad as much as any of us ever have or ever will.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and for a time God incarnate was an overly confident adolescent, who worried his parents half to death.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, but before he could do what he was called to do and be, he “increased in wisdom and in years” under the guidance of those parents.
When you think about it, it really makes him one of us, doesn’t it? Which is why it is such a good story to tell on this, the first Sunday in Christmastide.