Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
Each year at Midnight Mass, the figure of the baby Jesus is processed into church and placed in the crib scene, which is then blessed. The completion of the scene marks the arrival of Christmas with the nativity of our Lord. It’s a moment of solemnity and joy. Only last year, I forgot Jesus.
I was tired. Christmas Eve was a Sunday last year so there’d been the usual round of Sunday services in addition to the extra Christmas ones, and a lapse in focus in the minutes before the service started meant that I remembered to welcome the congregation and bless the incense, but left our Lord lying on the side in the vestry. I realised when the procession was halfway down the main aisle, and had to do a quick exit stage right at the front to rescue him. It is, it turns out, quite easy to forget about Jesus.
Not that Mary and Joseph, in our gospel reading, forgot him. They would have been travelling in a group with family and friends from Nazareth, and will quite naturally have assumed that Jesus was among them. The distance from Nazareth to Jerusalem is about 60 miles, so it was a substantial trip taking several days. Luke tells us that this was an annual pilgrimage for the Passover: ‘they went up, as usual for the festival’ – thus establishing that Jesus was brought up in a pious Jewish household. The gospel story started in the temple, with the priest Zechariah being visited by an angel who foretells the birth of John the Baptist. Jesus is circumcised on the eighth day, and forty days after his birth he is presented in the temple. He is brought up in a faithful, observant Jewish household. And this mattered for Luke, whose gospel is written predominantly for a Gentile audience, and who had to reckon with the split between Judaism and Christianity in the early Church, and accusations that Jesus had broken with Judaism. It’s important for Luke, as it is for us, that Jesus’ Jewishness is clearly established. He teaches and interprets the law as a Jew, not as an outsider to God’s covenant with his people.
And teaching and interpreting the law is what Mary and Joseph find Jesus doing when they eventually track him down in the temple. Greek and Jewish biographies of significant people in this period would often show an event from the person’s childhood that gives a sort of glimpse of what is to come: Luke does this here, with his description of this sole event we know from Jesus’ childhood. And it’s significant that Luke shows Jesus in the temple, listening and disputing with the teachers, just as later on in his ministry it will be this same setting, and his disputes with the teachers of the law that will lead to his arrest and crucifixion. Luke shows Jesus as full of wisdom – ‘all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers’. He does not show the boy Jesus doing tricks or using miraculous powers to get revenge on his enemies, as the rather brattish young Jesus does in some of the apocryphal gospels, written later than the canonical gospels and designed to bolster the claims of the gnostics who did not believe Jesus was truly God and truly human. Luke’s Jesus appears precocious, yes, and anticipates the teaching ministry that is to come, but his humanity is real and he has to grow up like any other boy.
And yet, what this scene also establishes is that Jesus is truly God and truly human. ‘Child, why have you treated us like this?’ says his mother: ‘Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ You can understand Mary’s anxiety and her exasperation. And then Jesus compounds it: ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ These are the first words spoken by Jesus in Luke’s gospel, and in them he clearly states that he is his heavenly Father’s Son. He is born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. Or as we sing in the Christmas carol, ‘God of God, Light of Light, Lo he abhors not the Virgin’s womb’.
And that means that here, contained in human flesh, confined in time and space is all the fullness of God. The creator of the heavens and the earth is born as one of us. And he is born as one of us to bring us back to him. ‘Why were you searching for me?’ Jesus asks Mary. And the answer on one level is obvious: because they love him, and because they feared him lost. On another level, though, Jesus’ words encourage us to look beyond our expectations: as Son of God and son of Mary, Jesus’ vocation extends beyond his immediate family to encompass the whole human family. ‘I must be in my Father’s house’, he says, or, as it is often more accurately translated, ‘I must be about my Father’s business.’
And that business is the reconciliation of all things to himself. Here, in this brief episode of Jesus’ childhood we are given hints of all that will unfold. He is in the temple, among the teachers of the law, even at this young age engaging as one of their peers. He begins to indicate that his ministry and mission will extend beyond the local and the familial, beyond even the Judaism in which he is so faithfully nurtured. Mary and Joseph look for him and on the third day find him, in a place they have not expected to, and on finding him, he asks them ‘why have you been searching for me?’ Later on, at the other end of Luke’s Gospel and on the far side of the grave, others will seek for Jesus, who will appear in an unexpected place after he rises from the dead on the third day, and those who look for him will be asked ‘why you seek the living among the dead?’
They are hints at this stage, glimmers of what is to come. And as Mary and Joseph learn in this story, he can’t be contained within their family, just as he cannot be contained within the scriptures, the sacraments or the church, however much these bear faithful and true witness to him. He fills them but goes beyond them, making himself present in them to draw us into the fullness of life he shares with his Father in heaven. Mary and Joseph are filled with anxiety because Jesus is lost, though even as they find him he begins to withdraw from the confines of his family, in anticipation of the ministry that is to come. And this is the pattern he follows later: the risen Jesus goes ahead of his disciples, beckoning them into fuller life as they share in his resurrection, even as he withdraws from them that his risen life may extend beyond the local, beyond the confines of a particular time and space to encompass the whole world. For this is his Father’s business: bringing us to the place that Jesus is, so that there is no place now from which we can be lost, nowhere we can say that we have been forgotten, for the one whom Mary and Joseph seek has already reached out to find us, to love us, and to bring us home.