The old year has passed, and the new year lies open before us; let us pray with one heart and mind. Silence is kept. As we rejoice in the gift of this new year so may the light of your presence, O God, set our hearts on fire with love for you; now and for ever. Amen.
Often at the start of a film or novel or television drama there is an opening scene that takes place in a time or location other than the one the main part of the story inhabits. For some people this is an intriguing story-telling device, alerting the audience to some thread or event whose importance will be revealed later on. For others, this is out-of-order scene is just confusing and annoying.
I hope that our Gospel passage this morning is not confusing or annoying, because it does come outside of the chronological flow of the general pattern of the liturgical year. We are in the Christmas season, and Epiphany, when we celebrate the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem and the homage they pay to the Christ Child, is still to come on this Wednesday; so it is worth asking why we are hearing this particular story about Jesus as a 12-year old today.
There are a few detailed answers to the question, and one major reason. The detailed answers have to do with the intersection of the secular calendar with the church calendar, as well as with the Biblical material itself.
This year, this Christmas season of 2020-2021 is one of those years when we celebrate two Sundays after Christmas (Christmas I and Christmas II). That doesn’t happen every year. And even when it does, we often use the Second Sunday after Christmas to focus on the Epiphany; to make that our Epiphany celebration. But there are three possible choices for the Gospel on this day: two from Mathew and one from Luke. The readings from Matthew are either the Flight into Egypt – when Joseph is warned in a dream to take Mary and the Baby Jesus and flee to Egypt for safety from King Herod’s murderous wrath; or the story of the Magi, which we also hear on Epiphany. The reading from Luke is the one we have this morning, where Mary and Joseph have traveled to Jerusalem for Passover with their son – now 12 years old.
Of the four Gospels only Matthew and Luke give us any description of Jesus’ earliest days. After Matthew relates the Flight into Egypt we only hear a few more verses about Joseph being told in a dream to return from Egypt, but not to go back to Bethlehem and instead settle in Nazareth.
Luke, on the other hand, gives us more. First, the account of Jesus’ circumcision at eight days old in accordance with Jewish Law and custom – which is celebrated in the Feast of the Holy Name. Second is what we know as the Feast of the Presentation, which we also call Candlemas, when Jesus is presented in the Temple at forty days old – again in accordance with Jewish Law and custom – to be offered and dedicated to God in thanksgiving for a first-born male child. We celebrate this feast on February 2nd.
Finally, there is the story we have this morning, about Jesus as a 12-year old. After this we hear nothing about Jesus’ life or that of his family until he begins his public ministry approximately eighteen years later.
This is the out-of-order part for us – to hear this story now. And what a story it is! The family has travelled to Jerusalem for Passover as they do every year, along with a group of friends, neighbors, and relatives all travelling together to and from Nazareth; 80 miles each way on foot. If this is something the family did every year, it is perhaps not surprising that they didn’t know Jesus’ exact whereabouts at first. Walking with a friend or a relative would have been very understandable – after all, what 12-year old boy doesn’t want a bit of independence from his parents? But once it was clear that Jesus was not in the extended travel party, panic ensued, sending Joseph and Mary back to Jerusalem to try to find him.
In New Testament times that ceremony that we know from our Jewish friends as a bar mitzvah did not exist; that only came into being in the Middle Ages. But a boy’s twelfth birthday was the beginning of increased intensity in his religious and spiritual learning. No doubt Jesus had already begun this, and was intrigued, perhaps hungry for more; perhaps a growing sense of his own identity and vocation was coming to the fore and he wanted to hear from people outside his family or his own synagogue and be able to ask questions about God and the Scriptures and what it all meant. So he stayed behind in the Temple, satisfying his curiosity and sharpening his skills in rabbinic rhetorical debate. “And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”
When Mary and Joseph found him in a flood of relief, gratitude, and anger that any parent knows after searching for and finding a lost child, Jesus says in a response that is both cheeky and innocent: "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house? – or ‘on my Father’s business?’” Jesus here is displaying the perspective of his childhood as well as the vocation beyond his years.
The family returns to Nazareth, and we hear nothing more about him until his baptism as an adult in response to the ministry of his cousin John. “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor,” Luke tells us.
We have this story now, in Christmastide, because it is part of Jesus’ childhood, and so the season stretches to include it. But coming at the start of the New Year, when we often focus on what might be ahead for us, and what we might want to accomplish in the coming twelve months, it is also a lens through which we can view our own spiritual growth and development.
How can we increase in wisdom, as well as in years, and in divine and human favor? The wisdom Luke refers to, of course, is divine wisdom – that sense of being in touch with God; of trusting God’s loving providence; of both understanding God’s purposes for us and for the world, and yet being content with not knowing, with not seeing the whole picture.
Being in “divine and human favor” is not about trying to get God and other people to like us or approve of us; after all, God will never love us any more when we are at our best than he already does when we are at our worst. But as we grow and develop and become more Christ-like we will naturally develop a greater affinity and accord with our fellow human beings; we will see them as siblings in God’s family, not as enemies or adversaries. As we grow in spiritual depth and stature we will pay more attention to our own short-comings than we do those of others, and we will learn to rejoice in the blessings and accomplishments of those around us; the focus will be off of us.
So back to our question: How can we increase in wisdom, as well as in years, and in divine and human favor in this new year?
There are still challenges a-plenty ahead of us in 2021 before we are done with this pandemic and its medical, political, economic, and social and racial upheaval. I know that some days it feels like all you can do is buckle your seatbelt and hang on for dear life, and so the idea doing anything different seems like just too much.
But it has been clear to me for a while now that when this is all over – whenever that may be – we will be different than we were before. We will be a different church. That’s not good or bad; it just is. We will be different than we were before because of what we have all lived through. We will be different because of the people who have moved or died. We will be different because of new people who have joined and will join us. We will be different because the world in which we serve God and carry out Christ’s mission is different. Most of all, I hope we will be different because we will have grown closer to God; because we have been more intentional in wanting our lives to be an embodiment of God’s love and purpose; because we have learned a little better how to listen to God speaking to us through prayer and Scripture and silence – to grow into the full stature of Christ.
So it bears asking the questions: Who or what kind of church do we want to be? And more importantly, who or what kind of church does God want us to be?
There is no instant answer, but these are questions that we need to be asking actively and over time, and to be pondering them and our responses as Mary did when the family returned from Jerusalem.
Next Sunday we will have the opportunity to renew our baptismal vows, as it is the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord. And we will be asked, as we are every time we say the Baptismal Covenant, to affirm our faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, and to re-commit to living the Christian life as shaped by the five questions. I would ask you to take some time during the week ahead to reflect on that Creed and those five questions – and I’ll send them out so you can have them ready to hand. Consider if there is an area of your life or faith that you would like to focus on in the coming year; something you might like to know more about, something you want to get better at doing, an attitude or mindset that you would like God to change, or a spiritual practice that you would like to learn, or ways that we together can respond in Christ’s love to our surrounding community as we learn to be truer disciples.
Our renewal as the Body of Christ, as Jesus’ followers – whether as individuals or as the parish as a whole – doesn’t come just by wishing for it, but by prayer and practice. It is my hope that next week’s Renewal of Vows will be an opportunity to start asking those questions of ourselves, and putting ourselves in the way of listening and responding to God in a more intentional way, so that we may increase in wisdom and faith, and so be more truly God’s servants in God’s world.
Let us pray, in the words of St. Paul:
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give us all a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know him, so that, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which he has called us, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Second Sunday of Christmas
January 3, 2021