Sermon on Luke 2:41-52 for 1st Sunday After Christmas, Year C, Dec. 30, 2012
40 And the Child continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.
41 Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43 When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44 Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 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.” 49 He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not understand what he said to them. 51 Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine
and human favor.
Jesus’ Temple Questions
This is the last Sunday of 2012; a new year is coming. It’s a time for reflection about this past year, and to consider what changes lies ahead.
We are all products of our history. Everything we have experienced has culminated in today. The way we look at the world is neither an objectively true way nor an arbitrary way; it’s the way of looking at the world based on what we thought of it yesterday, and what happened yesterday either to confirm or to make us adjust our thinking. And, add to yesterday, all the yesterdays of last year, and add to those every year since we were born, and you get today’s result.
And this will be the way we see the world tomorrow and all of the coming year, unless… unless things happen to change our way of thinking. And things do happen to change us – all the time. Life is going along as normal, then suddenly somebody invents the internet – and it changes us, how we spend our time, who we interact with, the information we receive, and the way we project an image of ourselves in the world.
The same thing could be said about other big life-changing events: 9/11 changed us, and so did the two wars that have consumed this last decade of our nation’s history. The Sandy Hook school massacre has shaken us deeply – and may result in changes that restore some sanity to our gun and ammunition laws.
Our planet is changing too. The climate is changing. This is mostly bad news – very bad news, and apparently it’s going to get a lot worse. This past summer’s drought in the Midwest, the storm surges we saw in hurricane Sandy, and the loss of entire populated islands and deltas due to rising sea levels is just the beginning, according to the scientific consensus.
I am aware that it is in the economic interests of some well-financed news outlets to find rogue, outlier “researchers” who cast doubt on this overwhelming consensus and so confuse the public, but serious
experts around the world are of one mind; the climate is changing, and not for the better, for our species.
The new year is upon us once again. What new things lie in store that will change our thinking? Who knows? Most of us will not like the coming changes – unless they are of overwhelming personal benefit – like discovering the cure for the medical conditions we or our loved ones are facing.
We will probably initially resist most changes, even neutral ones like the internet, just because they bring with them the complication and disruption of having to learn strange new ways of doing things. That’s why some of us resisted email for a long time, and some are still not on Facebook, right?
So, things will change for us this coming year, but the good news is that even though we don’t like changes, we were made to adapt to them. I’ve been doing some reading about the brain lately. It turns out that our brains are able to keep learning. We are able to form new pathways that allow us to adjust to new conditions in an amazing way. If there is one thing that has been characteristic of humans since the days in which we ran around in animal skins with bones in our noses, it is that humans are adaptable.
Jesus, Jewishness, and Jerusalem in Luke
I began with this reflection about changes, partly because of the impending new year, but also because I think this text from Luke’s gospel is all about making changes. It’s all about how difficult it is for we humans to accept changes, but, at the same time, how necessary it is to change, when our past experiences have led us to expect the wrong thing.
When our past has not prepared us to see the new truth in front of our eyes, the only option for us is to change, in spite of the difficulty. But the good news is that when we are able to overcome our resistance and finally accept the new conditions, then we are able to embrace them, and even find new joy.
We have read this familiar story from Luke. This is all we know, from all four gospels, about Jesus, between his birth and his appearance as a full grown man on the day of his baptism. So, hungry as we are for stories to fill in all those missing years, we all love this story of Jesus as a twelve year old boy.
Jesus goes with his parents, Joseph and Mary, and their clan to the temple in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. They are faithful, observant Jewish believers;
they practice their faith by keeping to the traditions they have received. Jerusalem is the capital city; the city of David, known also as Mt. Zion. The temple there is the center of their faith; it’s where the daily sacrifices are offered. It’s where prayers are prayed, hymns are sung, the place pilgrims, like this family, come for the three annual Jewish festivals.
It’s Passover; the great celebration of deliverance from slavery under Pharaoh in Egypt, so many years ago. So, this is both a religious day and and a national day. Israel became a nation as Moses led them out of Egypt to Mt. Sinai, and gave them the Torah; God’s law; his instruction and guidance for how to live as the covenant-community under One God.
Though Mary and Joseph take the family there each year, this Passover is Jesus’s second trip to Jerusalem that Luke tell us about. Luke has told us what happened when Jesus was taken there the first time as a baby to be circumcised, shortly after his birth. In Luke’s telling of the story of Jesus (albeit different from John’s) we will not see Jesus again in Jerusalem until a much later Passover.
When he comes back to Jerusalem, it will be for the last time in Luke’s account. At that time, he will ride into town on a donkey; he will drive out the money changers from the temple, spend a brief time teaching in the temple, celebrate Passover with this disciples, go out to the garden to pray where Judas will betray him, and you know the rest of the story.
So Luke tell us about three trips Jesus made to Jerusalem, and this is the middle one. This is the one in which Joseph and Mary start to make the dramatic change in their thinking that they had to make, as they became aware of Jesus’ unique character and purpose.
Like Samuel, only More So
Luke tells this story very carefully, with great attention to detail. He tells it in such a way as to recall the story of the boy Samuel. You may remember that Samuel was a miracle baby too. His mother took him to the “temple” to serve under the priest Eli. We read the line that Luke repeats almost verbatim from the story of Samuel, in order to fix the connection in the reader’s mind:
“Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.” (1 Sam. 2:26)
About Jesus, Luke tells us:
“And the Child continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.” (Luke 2:40).
Why the connection? Samuel lived at a time of fundamental change, and was instrumental in making those changes; Jesus lived at a time of fundamental change and was instrumental in making them happen.
Samuel lived at the end of the period of judges: he anointed Israel’s first king, turning the tribal confederacy into a monarchy. Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom of God, and effectively ended the significance of the temple itself as well as the city of Jerusalem as the focus of faith; even radically transforming the definition of the chosen people. Like Samuel, but more so, Jesus was the agent of massive change.
It was not easy for Joseph and Mary, or for any traditionally faithful Jewish believers to accept the changes that Jesus was making. Their whole past history had led them to expect a different scenario of God’s purposes for his people. They expected a dramatic military victory, enabled by God’s intervention, driving out the foreign, pagan Romans from their land, and a new king from the line of David on the throne. That was not Jesus’ mission; that idea had to change.
I can sympathize with Mary and Joseph. There are several much smaller changes that I have had to make in my thinking over the years, and it has not been easy. I have resisted. And yet, looking back now, I am so thankful for each of those difficult changes of thinking. Each one has been a new liberation. I wonder if that has been your experience as well?
Questions that provoke Change
I am intrigued by the role of questions in the change process. As Luke tells the story, Joseph and Mary and their whole clan are on their way back home from Jerusalem when they discover that Jesus is not with all the other cousins in the group. And it’s not just a sleep-over in another tent; he is missing. They return, search the city, and finally, Luke tells us:
“46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.”
Jesus was asking them questions. I get the feeling they were not questions of curiosity, like “Why is the sky blue?” or “Who was Moses?” I think they were probably leading questions, like, “Why did God send the prophet Elijah outside the country to a non-Israelite widow to save from starvation?” or “Why did the prophet Elisha cure the foreigner, Naaman the Syrian of leprosy? Weren’t there lepers in Israel who needed healing?” Luke is going to show Jesus bringing up exactly these two issues just a bit later (chapter 4).
The reason I think these questions were leading question is that Luke tells us that Jesus himself answered them, and his answers were literally shocking:
“47And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”
So, his parents find him, express their frustration and Luke then lets us hear more questions from Jesus, this time to Joseph and Mary:
“49He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Questions for us to ask
This cannot help but force us to ask the question of ourselves: What Jesus are we searching for? Are there things about him that we do not know any better than Joseph and Mary did?
I have lived long enough to see that many people are searching for a Jesus who will simply baptize their current thinking. They are searching for a Jesus who will not provoke any changes. They want a Jesus to put out his hands of blessing on the status quo, keep them safe and undisturbed, and keep everything as is. Some simply want to be confirmed in their prejudices, their lifestyles, their habits, their ways of living, even when they run completely counter to everything Jesus stood for.
As I read and study Jesus, it seems to me that the only people he blessed without provoking changes were children. When Jesus met adults, he provoked changes. That is, either they changed or they rejected him, but he certainly did not merely bless their present conditions.
The rich young man was told to sell everything and give to the poor. He went away sad. The tax collector who followed Jesus gave up everything. Jesus shocked the literalist priests with his Sabbath healings. He shocked everyone when he told the Roman centurion that he had greater faith than anyone in Israel had.
Jesus did all kinds of things that forced people either to completely change their thinking or else hate him. He had table fellowship with notorious sinners. In spite of the rigorous purity code in the Old Testament, Jesus touched lepers, he touched people who had blood-contamination, he even touched dead bodies. In each case, the shocking, upsetting, counter-to-all-expectations things that Jesus did, he did in the name of the God of healing, of restoration, of repentance, of forgiveness and of liberation.
Reflection on Coming Changes
When Luke tells us that Mary, upon reflection, “…treasured all these things in her heart” he is signaling to the reader that this is important enough to pause and think about.
As I said, I have had to change my thinking about a number of issues, and now I’m so glad I did, though the changes were not easy. I’m sure the same is true for most of us.
Many people here in the South have told me how dramatically they have changed their thinking about race. They grew up before the civil rights movement and now are shocked at the behaviors that they used to accept as simply normal.
I have had to change my mind about the role of women in ministry. The church I grew up in had no place for women elders or pastors. I have had to change my thinking about gay people. I used to think it was a choice people made, but now I believe that gay attraction is no more chosen than heterosexual attraction.
I have had to change my thinking about other issues too, and each time, though the process is difficult and sometimes lengthy, the result is a joyful greater embrace of God’s purposes in the world. The result is more in line with the trajectory, or the path that Jesus marked out for us of healing, of reconciliation, of mercy and of love.
It’s tough love. God has not been content to leave me in my natural condition selfishness, judgmentalism and bigotry. But he has broken my heart open to a world of people who are made in his image, but who are quite different than me.
I don’t know what the coming year will bring, and what changes that may require for me or you. But I do know that God will walk with us through whatever changes come. Health, relationships, finances, family, all will be different in some ways, large or small by this time next year, for each of us. God will be there for us at each step of the way, just has he has been for every past moment that has brought us to this place today.
So, the question is, what are the temple questions that Jesus is asking us? What Jesus are we searching for? The phony one who blesses the unchanged status quo, or the real Jesus who came to redeem us?
Let this coming year be a year of new openness to Jesus’ provocations, that it might be a year of blessing and joy in an ever-widening circle.