Sermon on Luke 2:41-52 for the 1st Sunday after Christmas, C, Dec. 27, 2015
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. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 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. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they 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.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
We had a wonderful Christmas Eve service in which we re-told the story of the birth of Jesus. Time flies, in the bible, so now, two days later, we have a story of Jesus, already twelve years old.
So Jesus bolts from his family at age twelve, leaving them upset at first, and confused afterwards. This is an odd story. Why would Luke (and only Luke) tell us this story? What are we supposed to get out of it?
We tell our kids that we want them to walk the Jesus path – but none of us wants to find an open window and an empty bed in the morning, without even a note left behind to give us a clue. This is the part we want to skip over. Did it happen this way?
The Historical Jesus
First, let me say that scholars of the historical Jesus tend to believe that the most authentic layer of the Jesus tradition are the aphorisms and sayings of Jesus. The narrative settings are often secondary additions. This little story is likely secondary. But if it is, what made Luke want to tell it? What is it about Jesus that we come to understand in this story that we need to know, in order to get Jesus right?
Second, scholars have noticed that the stories in Matthew and Luke of Jesus birth and infancy function as foreshadowing of his life. Prophecies are made over the baby by people like Zechariah and Simeon, angels give him titles like “price of peace,” and all of these function as harbingers of the events and meaning of the Jesus story that they are telling. And it turns out that this story of Jesus in the temple functions exactly like a foreshadowing of the future Jesus.
Third, in Luke’s day, there were lots of “histories” being written, especially stories about famous people. They developed a recognizable style. Scholars call it the style of first-century Greek, or “Hellenistic” historiography. One common feature was to tell a story of an event from “a hero’s youth that gave a glimpse of his future significance.” (see Luke by Luke Timothy Johnson, p. 60)
A perfect example of this comes from a Jewish philosopher named Philo of Alexandria who lived during Jesus’ lifetime. His quest was to make Moses come out sounding like Plato, to make Judaism palatable for his Neo-Platonic culture. Most people think his attempt was a failure. But I mention it because of this: telling the story of Moses as a Hellenistic history, he inserts a story, not found in the bible, from hero-Moses’ youth. Let me read a few sentences:
(20) “Therefore the child [Moses] being now thought worthy of a royal education and a royal attendance, was not, like a mere child, long delighted with toys and objects of laughter and amusement, even though those who had undertaken the care of him allowed him holidays and times for relaxation, and never behaved in any stern or morose way to him; but he himself exhibited a modest and dignified deportment in all his words and gestures, attending diligently to every lesson of every kind which could tend to the improvement of his mind. (21) And immediately he had all kinds of masters, one after another, some coming of their own accord from the neighboring countries and the different districts of Egypt, and some being even procured from Greece by the temptation of large presents. But in a short time he surpassed all their knowledge, anticipating all their lessons by the excellent natural endowments of his own genius; so that everything in his case appeared to be a recollecting rather than a learning, while he himself also, without any teacher, comprehended by his instinctive genius many difficult subjects;…” (Philo’s Life of Moses 1:20-21)
Why tell that story about Moses? Because Moses was going to become the great teacher of the Torah, the Law. Why tell a story like this about Jesus? Because Jesus is going to grow up to become a great teacher too.
Going Way Beyond
But there is more to it. It gets much deeper and more significant. Jesus did not just become a great Jewish rabbi. Jesus did not just teach the Torah to people. Jesus represented a huge innovation, a new way of looking at God and faith and life, including family, that went way beyond the law of Moses.
How was it that Jesus was able to do this? He had the kind of religious wisdom and insight that surpassed all others of his day. So, you could tell a story of Jesus at age twelve that has him impressing the Rabbinical scholars in the heart of Judaism, the temple in Jerusalem, already by age twelve.
But notice how Luke tells the story. Jesus did not just impress them the way a twelve year old science student could impress scientists with his knowledge of things that they already know as PhD carrying adults. Jesus said things no one expected. Here is how Luke tells it:
“And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”
The word “amazed” may even be too soft. One scholar translates it “utterly astonished.”
Well Luke is only foreshadowing, not explaining, so we are not given any clues about what astonished them so utterly. But later, Luke will tell us stories of Jesus’ teaching that should astonish everyone.
Temple and Retribution Overturned
There are so many teachings of Jesus that sound utterly astonishing, given his context. The biggest, at least to me, is Jesus’ complete over-turning of how we are supposed to understand God. In other words, how Jesus radically transformed the view of God that Moses gave the people in the Torah. The tragedy is that for lots of reasons, Jesus has not been very successful. Let me explain.
If you read the book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ final speech to the Israelites, which, according to the story, he delivers after their forty years of wandering in the wilderness, just before they cross the Jordan river to enter the promised land, you will notice two predominant themes. Nobody misses them.
They are first, that the legitimate worship of Israel has to be centralized at one place. Moses, from the edge of the wilderness on the other side of the Jordan has not been there yet, so he keeps calling it by its generic name, “the place that the Lord you God will cause his name to dwell.” That place, it turns out, is the temple in Jerusalem. That is the only legitimate place of Israelite worship.
The other theme nobody misses is called the doctrine of retribution. You get what you deserve. God will bless you if you obey, and curse you if you disobey. It is just that simple.
The reason I said Jesus was unsuccessful was that most people still believe that today. They think that when something bad happens, from a flat tire to a tragedy, that God is punishing them.
Friends, if you knew anything at all about Jesus, it should be this: that Jesus overturned both of these major themes of Moses. For Jesus, spiritual life was not restricted to a temple. You could pray all night long on a mountain. You could go in to a private room at home. You could experience God along with a multitude on a hillside. You did not need a temple to get to God, and you did not need a priest to help you. God could be encountered immediately.
This is huge. So to foreshadow this massive overturning of Moses’ view, to prepare us to accept this kind of paradigm shift by the adult Jesus, Luke tells a story of the boy Jesus, “utterly astonishing” the people who sat on Moses’ teaching seat in the temple in Jerusalem.
Jesus did the same radical removal of the other theme of Moses, the doctrine of retribution. Most people who know anything about Jesus know that he taught us to love our enemies. Do you know why we should? Luke records Jesus saying this:
“love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” (Luke 6:35)
We should love our enemies because that it what God does:
“he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”
In other words, he is not going around cursing them, but rather blessing them with kindness.
Matthew records Jesus saying it similarly but differently:
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matt. 5:44-45)
The sun and rain were specifically what Moses said came as a blessing for obedience and were withheld, by God, as a curse for disobedience (Deut. 28:7-34)
Jesus is going to teach us that this view of God is utterly inadequate; in fact upside down. Instead of going around cursing the bad guys, God loves them, seeks them, calls to them – to us (we need to include ourselves here); with a loving invitation to come to God who is the Good Shepherd, the Loving Father.
Luke likes to use the word lost to describe people who are needing God’s merciful grace. The Good Shepherd searches out the lost lamb. The father of the prodigal son says that he was lost, but then, when he returned, he was found. (15:32) Lostness is our condition, but seeking and finding is what God is like towards us.
So, to foreshadow this way of looking at God, Luke tells the story of Jesus being “found” in the temple, after a three day search.
Jesus and Authority
There is one more important reason to tell this story this way. It has to do with Jesus and authority. There is a parallel here between Jesus’ relationship to his family’s authority, and with the authority of Moses and the Old Testament.
Both are legitimate authorities. Jesus is a dutiful son (at least at the end of the story) and a faithfully pious Israelite. But he has an authority of his own that goes beyond the traditional demands of family and OT law.
Overturning both the exclusive importance of the temple and the doctrine of Divine retribution meant going beyond the authority of Moses. Jesus’ willingness to go beyond the authority of his earthly father so that he could be about the business of his Heavenly Father is a perfect parallel to and foreshadows Jesus’ willingness to go beyond the authority of the written word of God, as Torah was to the faithful of his day.
Getting Jesus and God Correctly
I hope this story helps us all to see Jesus correctly. We follow the Jesus path for a reason. Jesus showed us a revolutionary way to understand our own spirituality and God.
We know that we can respond to that luring, non-coercive beckoning Spirit that draws us to God anytime, anywhere. We can experience God in the wonder of the world. We can experience the love of God seeking and finding us in every experience of beauty – musical beauty, artistic beauty, and natural beauty. We do not need a temple or a priest to commune with the God Jesus taught us to know spiritually.
And when we do encounter God, we do not ever have to fear. “God is love” and as the latter New Testament teaches us:
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1 John 4:18)
Please know this: God is still at work today, calling us, seeking us, finding us, welcoming us into his family, hosting us at his table.
This is, as we said recently, why Christmas is such a powerful, wonderful celebration for us. Jesus has come to utterly astonish us with a new way to know God.
Let us be among those who learn, and respond, and follow.