GOD AND HUMAN
First Sunday of Christmas (C) - Luke 2:41-52
When I was growing up, my mother encouraged my brother and I to be involved in the church in whatever ways interested us. I’m convinced that that’s a large part of why I’m a pastor now. My church life, as a young person, was busy. I sang in the choir, taught summer Sunday school, and helped to lead the children’s cantata. And went to the homeless shelter to serve meals. And played in the Christmas orchestra. We had a busy schedule. My favorite thing to do at church, though—and it still is today—was serving as a reader.
I still remember the first time I did it. I had asked my mother if I could read, and she said, “Well, let’s ask Pastor Ned.” Both of us were a little worried he’d say no; after all, I was only ten. Pastor Ned said yes, of course. I’ll admit to being a little nervous. And I made some important mistakes. I had that passage to read from Galatians where Paul tells us, “There is neither Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free.” But I managed to skip over the word “neither,” which is kind of key to understanding the passage. Or, in fact, makes the passage mean exactly the opposite of what Paul was trying to say. So that was helpful.
Still, it made a difference to some people in my congregation, that a kid was willing to take on that sort of role. Just like I know how much it means to some of you when B——, or A——, or N——, or C——, or L——, or E—— —well, you get the idea. I got a letter from Pat Potts, a total stranger to me at the time, telling me how much she appreciated my reading and praising me for my courage to stand up in front of the congregation. I can’t run into her at my home church anymore without Mom talking about that letter of encouragement. And Caren, a friend from the choir, took her first turn at being a reader a few months later, telling me that I had inspired her to give it a go herself.
For all my involvement and participation in the church’s life at an early age, I certainly could never have been described as “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.”
To know exactly what Luke is talking about when he describes Jesus’ activities at this Passover festival, we need to dig into Jewish religious practice a bit. In Christian tradition, we talk about our scriptures and our faith as we search for answers. We want to know, with as much clarity as we can get, as much as we can about God and God’s relationship with his people. For Christians—and Lutherans are particularly known for this—we try hard to find the answers to hard questions about God. We engage in study to make sense of the scriptures. Sometimes our investigation leads us to a theological paradox, like the idea that God is three persons, yet still only one God, or the understanding that this meal we gather around on Sunday mornings is just simple bread and wine, nothing more, and yet somehow at the same time it is the true body and blood of Jesus Christ. But those paradoxes just lead us to ask more questions, to find more answers, to work harder to figure out what they mean, to learn more about God through them. The work of a pastor is to proclaim to the community of faith the Gospel, clear and precise.
The Jewish tradition is a little different. Judaism seeks its understanding not through answers, but through questions. The work of the Rabbis was (and in many ways, still is) to be the leader of the community’s discussion. They collect not answers, but questions and opinions. My favorite example is a question about why the Bible begins with the Hebrew letter B instead of the letter A. After all, it should begin at the beginning, right? So, admittedly, it’s a little bit of a silly question in the first place. Rabbi Jonah says it’s because of the shape of the Hebrew letter B. It’s closed at the back, and open in the front, so that shows that you can only learn about what comes after the beginning of creation, and not before. He learned this from a Rabbi Levi, and gets support from Rabbi bar Qappara and Rabbi Judah ben Pazzi. But other rabbis say that the B is the first letter in the Hebrew word for blessing, and A is the first letter in the word for cursing. And others say that the letter has two points that stick out, one upward toward God the creator, and another pointing backward toward the A, which stands for the Hebrew word for Lord. Or the Hebrew word for one. Opinions differ. And yet, there’s another rabbi, a certain Leazar ben Abinah, who says God was saving the letter A for the beginning of the Ten Commandments.
On the one hand, there is something incredibly silly about all this. Really, who cares what letter the Bible begins with? What difference does it make? And yet, the Jewish tradition values this discussion. On even a simple, almost meaningless question like this, there is a proliferation of opinions, all of which are recorded, none of which are given precedence over the others. Instead of aiming for the “correct” answer, Judaism provides a discussion, and even invites the reader into that discussion, deciding that there is value in the inquiry itself, and that it is better to explore the divine mystery than to define it.
This vignette in the young Jesus’s life—the only story we get from any of the Gospel writers that takes place between his birth and age thirty—is therefore an important moment. Jesus is not sitting in some backwater synagogue in the dusty streets of Galilee. He’s in The Temple, the very heart of the Jewish religion. It would be like having an audience with the Pope and all his senior cardinals. And he’s not sitting at their feet, learning from them, receiving their wisdom. He’s “sitting among them,” it says, holding his own, asking good questions and amazing people with his opinions and understanding. He’s not just learning the body of Jewish wisdom there; he’s contributing to it. In the most learned group of rabbis anywhere on the planet. He’s clearly one of the most learned rabbis himself. And he’s twelve.
This is not like a child asking to be on rotation for publicly reading the scriptures out of a Bible right in front of him. This is on the order of a child being elected bishop. Jesus is no ordinary child. His divinity is clear even from an early age, even before his Baptism in the river by John, long before Easter resurrection. Jesus is more than human. He is God. Only God could speak like this.
But there’s something else in this child, too. After all, his parents have left him behind in the temple. And most parents I know wouldn’t have been able to do something like that. Luke helpfully says that they “assum[ed] that he was in the group of travelers” and went “a day’s journey” before they discovered he was gone. This crowd of people traveling to and from Jerusalem for the Passover must have been quite something. And full of people the Holy Family knew, friends and relatives, none of whom had seen this twelve-year old boy sneak away from the crowd and disappear into the temple. There’s no question that Jesus knew the travelers had left, and yet he chose to stay behind. Certainly God would have worried about his mother and father missing him. Three days later, they found him in the temple. And when Mary scolds him, as any good parent should, he says, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
I don’t know how you take that response. One of the commentators I read says simply, “it is the author’s purpose to make the opposition of the two fathers graphic in the dialogue.” Or to put it another way, I have always pictured Jesus staring directly into Joseph’s eyes when he says this, just to drive the point home: “You’re not my real father. /1/” Just like a child today who doesn’t care much for his stepfather. Jesus is a pentulant almost-teenager, hormonal changes starting to make his emotions intensify, asserting his independence, misbehaving and pulling away from his parents. We don’t like to think of Jesus, the Savior of the world, as a pre-pubescent teenager, but there it is. Jesus is as human as you can get.
And this is really important. This is what Christmas is really all about. Jesus is born, fully God, present in the world, but fully human, living along side us, just like us. Jesus is the link between humanity and its Creator. People have always aspired to be something more than they are, to reach for greater existence, to become more like God. That is a common, and accurate, description of the trouble in the Garden of Eden. We want to become more like the one who made us. And we can’t. We don’t. We fail. We are habitually less than perfect. All our aspirations to greatness ultimately fail.
So instead of us becoming like God, God becomes like us. God enters humanity’s existence, skin and flesh and all the ugliness that comes with it, and brings divinity down into our reach. We become so separated from God, so God comes and reconnects us. And when God makes that connection, it is unbreakable.
And it changes us, too. Any encounter with God makes us something different than we were before. In God’s becoming human, we become just that thing we were striving for: More like God. That isn’t a way of saying that we become divine ourselves, or somehow that we are God-like. Rather, Christ grants us a share of his righteousness. Through our Baptism, we are made holy in the same way that God is holy. All of us, our fleshliness, hormones and misbehaviour and emotions, like Jesus, are marked by the holy. God makes us something better.
I think back on all those things I did with my church as a child, and I’m glad for what they made me into. And I’m always kind of amazed at the many and wonderful things that people in this congregation do to be part of the worship, fellowship, and outreach of the life of the church. But for me, it’s not just a sign of how we have a lot of really great people around here. It’s a sign, not of how involved we are, but of how involved God is in each of our lives. The incarnation, the Christmas miracle, is that God is part of us. And we are changed. Amen.
/1/ François Bovon. Luke 1. Hermeneia commentary series. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002. 113.