Who is This Child?

Sunday, December 30, 2018
First Sunday after Christmas Year C

Focus Theme:
Who is This Child?

Focus Prayer:
From our mother’s womb you have known us, O God. You call us to follow you through all our days and seek us even when we wander. As we advance in years, clothe us with your love, that we may grow in grace and find favor in your sight, through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Focus Scripture:
Luke 2:41-52

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.

All readings for this Sunday:
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Psalm 148
Colossians 3:12-17
Luke 2:41-52

Focus Questions:

1. To what (or whom) do you pay the most attention?

2. What are “the things that really matter” that you want to explore in a faith community?

3. How do you imagine Jesus as a child?

4. How can a church give its young people “roots”?

5. How might the role of the oldest generations in your church be expanded in relation to its younger members?

by Kate Matthews

In the tradition in which I was raised, we called this Sunday the Feast of the Holy Family: Mary, Joseph, and the young Jesus modeled for us the way to live a loving, faithful family life. Of course, this particular family was unique and rather difficult to emulate because it included the second person of the Trinity as the (only) child.

Can any of us relate to angelic messengers announcing a pregnancy, or to giving birth in a stable, or to being visited soon afterward by shepherds and their sheep who kneel in awed adoration before our newborn baby? On the other hand, there probably isn’t a parent of grown children who doesn’t shudder at the memory of experiences like Mary and Joseph’s this week.

A fear every parent can understand

What parent hasn’t felt pit-of-the-stomach fear when a child is out of our sight and unaccounted for? Peter W. Marty calls it “more than uneasiness. It’s anxiousness with pain.” And what parent hasn’t felt both the relief of finding that child and the exasperation prompted by the child’s utter self-confidence because they knew that they weren’t the one who were lost?

Mary, who actually sounds aggravated as she addresses her unusual–that is, extraordinary–child, is hardly the meek and mild Blessed Virgin Mary we girls were taught to imitate. And Jesus himself sounds almost, well, impertinent. My own parents would have considered such a response from us “talking back.”

Parting ways with our parents

It seems to be part of the human condition, in navigating the difficult passage from childhood to adulthood, to experience a tension between family and “the world out there,” between safe nurture and broader horizons, between a circle of care and a strong sense of self.

When do parents think one way, and children begin to think another? Just about the age that Jesus was when he was lost and found in the temple by a distraught Joseph and Mary.

And most of the time, those adolescents are as self-assured and unflappable as Jesus was when he was finally found. How could Jesus, being fully human as well as fully divine, make the passage from childhood through adolescence (that delightful stage) to full adulthood without experiencing some kind of transitional tension?

Becoming an adult in any age

True, our own age and culture seem much more oriented toward raising young adults keenly aware of themselves as individuals (for better or worse), but even in the communally based culture in which Mary and Joseph were raising Jesus, a boy sooner or later had to become a man. And our text from the Gospel of Luke on this First Sunday after Christmas gives us a glimpse into what that passage may have felt like to the three people most affected by it.

Mary was so affected, in fact, that she continued, we are told, to “treasure” these things in her heart. Years ago, Erma Bombeck wrote about “things to think about while I’m ironing.” It isn’t hard to imagine what Mary thought about as she did her weaving, and cleaning, and cooking so long ago.

Into the world of men

John J. Pilch fills in the background of what is happening here between Jesus and his parents. As in many other cultures and times, a son (especially the oldest) had a strong emotional bond with his mother and a marked sense of his own importance, to the point, Pilch writes, of being “spoiled” and of concluding that “his every word to women is like law.”

Having been raised in the tender protection of the women in his family, it’s understandable that he eventually felt the need to join the men in the community; at this point, Pilch writes, the young boy was “unceremoniously shoved out of the comfort of the women’s world into the harsh and hierarchical men’s world.”

It seems that Jesus was in the midst of this kind of transition, in the gray area between one time in his life and another, and it was in that gray area that Mary and Joseph both lost sight of him.

An adult conversation

When they finally found him, he was sitting squarely in the middle of a gathering of adult men, not, in some preternatural way, giving them all the answers to their questions, but engaging them “man-to-man” in an adult conversation about the questions pressing on them all. And the scholars of the Sanhedrin, like all those who heard the report of the shepherds (2:18), like Mary and Joseph hearing the prayer of Simeon on a previous visit to the temple (2:33), were “amazed” at what they heard (2:47).

According to Paul J. Achtemeier, such coming-of-age stories of “renowned people” that suggest their future greatness were not unusual in the ancient world, and he lists others who had similar stories, like the Buddha, Osiris, Cyrus the Great, and the Emperor Augustus of Rome.

Not a miracle story after all

And yet this is no miracle story about Jesus, as much as we may have been taught otherwise: in fact, this one glimpse of Jesus as a youth left later sources dissatisfied, and they created stories of Jesus as a child performing the kind of miracles one might expect from a six-year-old. These stories, Achtemeier notes, are included in the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

Instead of such “miracle” stories (which read more like stunts than the great wonders recounted in the canonical Gospels), this week we hear a quietly impressive story from Luke about Jesus the youth: William Herzog writes that Luke “does not assume that Jesus is engaged in a contest and besting his opponents as though this were some first-century version of Jeopardy. Rather, Jesus is engaged in a lively and respectful conversation and demonstrating a wisdom well beyond his years.”

And yet something very significant has shifted in Jesus’ relationship with his parents at the end of this scene, as Peter Marty notes that the story “closes with Jesus as the subject of the verbs: ‘He went to Nazareth, accompanied by them'” (v. 51). This is a subtle but important shift in the narrative.

The Jewishness of Jesus

There are many rich themes within this short story from the childhood of Jesus. We might reflect, for example, on the “Jewishness” of Jesus, and notice how important the temple is in these early stories from the Gospel of Luke. (This week’s passage brings to a close Luke’s entire birth narrative, and next week we turn our attention to Jesus the adult, beginning his ministry.)

Reading the entire second chapter of Luke’s Gospel, we get a sense of how faithfully Mary and Joseph raised Jesus, having him circumcised (2:21), taking him to the temple to be presented to God (2:22-24), and going back to Jerusalem regularly for the required festivals (2:41).

Blessings and prayers

Luke puts the story of Jesus’ birth and childhood in context by following Mary’s Magnificat with the prayers and blessings of Simeon and Anna, those wise Jewish prophets who encountered the holy family in the temple, and recognized Jesus, Barbara Brown Taylor says, as “destiny’s child.” Taylor reflects on the setting for these stories, evoking the peace and quiet of the temple after the festival pilgrims had returned home, not unlike, she says, our own churches right after Christmas.

“In their wake,” Taylor writes, “the peace in the temple is palpable. There are plenty of seats for those whose devotion is year-round, and plenty of time to talk together about things that matter.” In that setting, Jesus seizes the moment and steps into a kind of spotlight. “Maybe,” Taylor muses, “he has had enough of childish things and wishes to mark his maturation with an exclamation point. Maybe he does not think he is lost.”

The temple as home

The temple becomes a kind of home for Jesus, and Luke will take us back there many times: Jesus will one day have to “clean house,” because he understands the significance of whose house it really is. “His Father’s house,” Stephen Bauman writes, “is his house too and demands his attention. Where is our attention?” Indeed, where is our attention paid most of the time? How much do we see the church as our home?

Is church a place where we can, as Taylor says, “talk together about things that matter”? And are we paying enough attention to the young people in our midst who may have gifts and thoughts to share with us, and who need the church to recognize what their parents might miss in an everyday, close-up relationship? Are we helping our young people to discern God’s gifts in them, and God’s call to use them for the sake of the reign of God?

Growing from his roots

Barbara Brown Taylor says that “Jesus grows sturdily from his religious roots, not in spite of them,” and comes to understand himself as “Sophia’s child as well as Mary’s, whose first awareness of his parentage comes to him in his Father’s house.”

What sense of identity does the church give to our children? What roots do they have in the church? There’s also a generational dimension here, for “there may be Simeons or Annas sitting there,” Taylor writes, “just waiting for permission to say what they see when they look at the children of this congregation.”

Growing a faith over a lifetime

Another approach to this text might be a challenge to develop our faith, which isn’t just dropped on us, a finished product, from out of the sky. We certainly can’t measure up to what Stephen Bauman calls the “precocious and holy charisma” of Jesus that “provokes astonished perplexity and occasional irritation” in his listeners.

However, Bauman joins Peter Marty in focusing on the “must” of this story: how necessary it is to grow our relationship with God. Marty points out the similarity between Jesus’ question to his parents, “Why have you been searching for me?” and the question asked at the tomb, “Why do you search for the living among the dead?” These questions suggest, Marty writes, that “Jesus constitutes a deeper reality than anyone around him can comprehend.”

Even Jesus grew in his spiritual life

Our spiritual growth, however, is a lifelong experience of questioning, and it’s reassuring to know that even Jesus grew, too; Timothy Mulder notes the “character development” and the spiritual struggle of identity development as well.

However, there’s more to this than simply figuring out who we are or what we must do. There is the question of maturity, and the challenge for us in a new year may be the ongoing commitment to a deeper and more mature faith.

Where are we to be found?

For example, would anyone find us in church, discussing the “things that really matter”? Do we simply read the Bible the same way we might have read it as children (alas, as so many “adult Christians” do today), or are we continuing to grow into an informed, inquisitive, open–and critical–approach to Scripture, using the tools scholars have given us and seeking the guidance of the Spirit of the God who speaks to us today, in our own setting? (As Marcus Borg said, “taking the Bible seriously, not literally”?)

Are we open to where that might lead us? Richard Ascough suggests that, “[a]s we seek for Jesus this year, perhaps it is Jesus who will find–and use–us.”

The question of family values

And then there is the question of family, and family values: much later in his ministry, Jesus has some interesting things to say about family–brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers–when they keep us from our call to follow him. Even now, as a child, he cannot be deterred from “my father’s business.”

When family and home draw us into places too safe for growth and too comfortable for giving, we can shine the light of the gospel upon both, asking how God is calling us out, out to the unfamiliar and the risky and the different, out to the places of growth, generosity, and new life.

The joys and hurts of family

We have come through a season that is “family-centered” and yet often full of family tensions, from money problems to old hurts brought to new life, from pressures and misunderstandings to unfulfilled expectations and disillusionment. The people who love one another most disappoint and hurt one another most deeply.

The lovely image of shepherds and stars and angels singing in the night gives way a week later to anxious parents perplexed at their adolescent son’s preoccupation with things above their understanding. Will life ever be the same for any of them, or for us?

Of course, the answer to that question is simply, “no.” Nothing, including our family lives, will remain unchanged after the Incarnation. And that is where the anguish and the perplexed hearts of Mary and, surely, Joseph share common ground with our own questions and pain.

The Holy Family didn’t have to be perfect

I grew up in a family of nine children, with conscientious and loving parents who nevertheless had many challenges and worries (and I’m sure I’m unaware of most of them!); I also raised three children myself and now I’m watching them raise seven children of their own, so I know a little something about those challenges and worries, too.

I’m reassured, though, by William Danaher, Jr., who writes that this story from the Gospel of Luke isn’t about a perfect family that wouldn’t understand our struggles, a family life that is out of our reach. Instead, he finds hope in the story of this family “that lives into messy moments with the confidence that God in Christ Jesus has entered and redeems them from within.”

On the edge of a new year, our lives feel new in this moment, and we too are still young, still growing, still seeking God’s guidance and wisdom for the direction of the life we share together in our congregations and in the United Church of Christ. Where are the places, and when are the moments, when we may be called away from the safe and the familiar to new and risky experiences of faith?

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

T.S. Eliot, 20th century
“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

J.M. Barrie, 20th century
“I’m not young enough to know everything.”

H.L. Mencken, 20th century
“The older I grow, the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.”

Isaac Asimov, 20th century
“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, 19th century
“We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”

Maya Angelou, 20th century
“The desire to reach for the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise.”

Albert Einstein, 20th century
“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”

John Keats, Letters of John Keats, 19th century
“Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”

Confucius, 5th century B.C.E.
“He who knows all the answers has not been asked all the questions.”

Socrates, 5th century B.C.E.
“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.”

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