SJF • Christmas 2 2015 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
When his parents did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him.+
A few Christmases ago my youngest sister gave all of us siblings a very thoughtful gift. She went through the shoe boxes of old family photographs to find a portraits of our four grandparents, and then she had professional copies made, and matted and framed them as gifts to each of us five other grandchildren. None of us knew our grandfathers — my father’s father died when my dad was twelve, and my mother’s father was long separated from my grandmother, and not spoken of. But we knew — all of us — our “grans” Mary and Naomi, and loved them both. We knew them, however, as people who had always been old; so much older than us. So my sister hoped her gift would remind us this hadn’t always been the case. They had once been young. They hadn’t always been old. The photographs she chose were of our grandparents in their own younger days, in their twenties or thirties.
However, she was unable to find a portrait of my grandmother Mary at that age. All pictures of her youth included others; so for this gift my sister chose a picture of Mary, my grandmother, with her husband and their daughter — our mother (Mary also) as a little girl. That made it, in its own way, a wonderful contribution to a wonderful gift, to see our own mother as a child. I know we all treasure this gift — I’ve got my copy of it up in the hall of the rectory — especially since we know this snapshot of our my grandmother with my mother and her husband is one of the few surviving pictures of my grandmother when she was young, and of our own mother when she was a child.
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Our Gospel reading from Saint Luke today is rather like that solitary photograph. As you know, the evangelists Mark and John in their gospels tell us absolutely nothing about our Lord’s infancy or childhood, and Matthew jumps right from the flight to Egypt and the return to Nazareth to the preaching of John the Baptist, skipping over all of those intervening 30-some years. Only Luke gives us a solitary glimpse of Jesus in the time between his miraculous birth and his adult ministry.
It is true that there are a number of what are called apocryphal gospel stories in old manuscripts, some of them very ancient. But these accounts never made it into our Bible, these stories that tell of Jesus as a child in his father Joseph’s carpenter shop, or of Jesus playing with making mud animals out of clay by the side of the pool in the village, and the little animals coming to life, to the amazement of all of the other children, or the story about the childhood friend of Jesus who fell from the roof of the house and died, and Jesus brought him back to life. All of those stories appear in those other manuscripts, but none of them made it into our Bible. The church judged these stories to be imaginative tales meant to feed the hunger for knowing more about Jesus during those mysterious hidden years from his birth to his ministry.
Instead, the church chose to preserve only Luke’s snapshot from Jerusalem, that image of Jesus left behind in the Temple where he questions and responds to the teachers, this snapshot of Mary’s and Joseph’s anxiety, of the child’s faithful and provocative awareness of who his Father really was, and of his subsequent obedience to his mother and foster father, and his return home to Nazareth, where he grew in grace.
And so, the church has preserved this solitary snapshot for us, so it must be important; so let us look at it carefully, as something to treasure, to see if we can learn something of this child who would later grow to be the man whom we acknowledge as Lord and God. We will find that in doing so we will also learn a little bit about ourselves, and what it means to be the church.
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The first thing to note in this snapshot is that Jesus is among the elders and teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, understand them and answering wisely. This reveals a very important truth about our God: not only that God is wise and understanding, but that God listens. Our God, the God whom we worship, God whom Jesus shows forth as his perfect reflection and image “in human flesh appearing” as the hymn says — God does not just speak to us, through Scripture and through the inner voice of conscience. God not only speaks to us, God listens to us. God understands us.
God is not simply a powerful being sitting in a remote heaven running the universe. But our God also listens to us when we pour out our hearts, when we gather here to worship and to pray and to praise. What this snapshot from Jerusalem shows us, what this image of the twelve-year-old Jesus listening to his teachers reveals to us, is that God not only hears us, but that God listens to us. And if you don’t know the difference between hearing and listening, just ask your spouse or your parents! So the first thing we learn about Jesus as God from this Jerusalem snapshot is that our Lord not only hears our prayers, but that he listens to our prayers, and responds to our prayers — and the response will be amazing.
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The second thing this incident reveals to us is Jesus’ sense of who he is and where he is: who his true Father is, and where he needs to be to be about his Father’s business. No doubt by the time Jesus was twelve he had seen the winks and nods and nudges in Nazareth — you know, the ones concerning his parents’ marital status. Perhaps he’d heard the rumors and the gossip from those who could count to nine and knew when the wedding had been, and when he was born. Perhaps he’d been called names in the schoolyard, as he would be when he grew up, and as the gospel records, when the crowds say to him, “We are not illegitimate children!” Whatever the source, whether the wagging tongues of townsfolk with too much time on their hands and too little charity in their hearts, or more likely the insight of the Holy Spirit, Jesus knows not only who his father isn’t, but more importantly who his true Father is, and he knows where his Father’s house is: the Temple. And so on this trip to Jerusalem, he returns to the Temple where Mary and Joseph had presented him and redeemed him with a thank-offering when he was just a few weeks old.
This tells us something very important about our identity as Christians: for since Jesus taught us to call God our Father in that prayer every day, we too know that whoever our earthly fathers are we also have a Father in heaven, a Father through whom we are “called to a glorious inheritance among the saints.” This snapshot, then, is like an identity photo, it tells us who we are: we are Christians, brothers and sisters of Jesus, “adopted as children of God through Jesus Christ.”
And this snapshot from Jerusalem also tells us something about what we Christians do: we worship. For while we can and should pray when we are alone, wherever we may be, we can only truly worship when gathered as the church, in the church. This is why we work so hard to preserve and restore this special place; not because we think we can only find God here, but because we know that we have found God here, in God’s house. Jesus knows, as well as we know, what his ancestor in the line of David, King Solomon, had said: that “the Temple could not contain God.” Still Jesus knows that the Temple is a special place of focus, not for God’s attention on us, but for our attention on God. It is a place, as Lincoln said of government, of God’s people, by God’s people and for God’s people, so that, as Jeremiah said, “what was scattered could be gathered home again,” so that the remnant could return, gathered from the farthest corners of the earth, to come and sing aloud on the heights of Zion, to be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, to be filled with gladness instead of sorrow. And don’t we find that here too, on our little church? A place where we can gather, and be filled with the knowledge of God? So it is that our church, our gathering in it — our “congregating” — is a vitally important part of our life as people of God. It allows us both to worship gathered together, but also to find the intrinsic value of what it means to be gathered together as God’s family.
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Finally — and I say “finally” in the knowledge that Dean Baxter of the Washington Cathedral once defined an optimist as a man who starts to put on his shoes when he hears the preacher say “Finally”! — finally, I say, (there is a little more) our snapshot shows the young Jesus returning to Nazareth with his parents, where he was obedient to them. He leaves the place he knows to be his true Father’s home, the place where God is worshiped and adored, the place where prayer is offered, the place where the people of God gather to hear instruction and wisdom, but he leaves that place to go out into the world, out to the far reaches of Galilee. He leaves the Temple to live a life of preparation, that life of which we know nothing until he bursts upon the scene 20 years later, ushered in by John the Baptist to begin his ministry, ultimately to return to Jerusalem again, to witness, to suffer, to die and to rise again for our salvation.
Jesus left the Temple, and so must we. This holy place that nourishes and comforts us is not our dwelling place; though “the sparrow may find her a house, and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young” even at the side of God’s altar, we human creatures of God, we the ones whom God chose to bear his image in this world must also bear his message to this world. And that means going out the door, out to the world in need of God’s word, God’s message. As lovely as this church is, it is not our dwelling place — it is more like our filling station: the place we are fed the bread from heaven so that we may be strengthened to do God’s work on earth, out there, out there where the world is hungry and cold, but doesn’t have the sense to come in out of the cold and be fed.
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Luke left us a snapshot from Jerusalem to show us what we must do, as Jesus did. Through our dedicated time apart with God in this beautiful and holy place, instructed in God’s wisdom and ways, as we hear his voice in Scripture and in song, comforted in the knowledge that our God hears our voice and listens to our prayer, and will respond to us for our best end, strengthened by our communion with one another and in our worship, and fed with the food of salvation, the Body and the Blood of the Holy One of God, we can then go forth in obedience to the call of God, our true Father in heaven, to do his work and to proclaim his word to the ends of the world. The One whom we come to adore also sends us on our way rejoicing. To him be the glory, henceforth and forever more.+