St. Paul’s, Durant – 9:00 am
Jeremiah 31:7-14 | Psalm 84 or 84:1-8 | Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a | Luke 2:41-52
And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.
We were visiting for Christmas with family in Tennessee, and last Sunday with them we attended an evangelical church. The young youth pastor was preaching – he was quite good, by the way – and his text was this verse from the Gospel of St. Luke. (Evangelical churches typically do not have a seasonal lectionary, as we do; they apparently just choose their sermon texts because they want to. But in this case it was certainly appropriate.) I wasn’t taking notes, and I certainly don’t want to seem to be plagiarizing from him, but his words did lead me to some reflections of my own on these verses.
I suspect we all have some images in our minds about what the various parts of the Christmas story were like. We often get these from Christmas carols and hymns, or from the artwork on Christmas cards, or from the creche scenes we set up in our churches or our homes. From the actual texts of the Gospels? Often, not so much!
For instance, one of the depictions I have often seen is of Joseph leading the expectant Mary sitting on a donkey, trudging all alone across the Judean mountains to Bethlehem. Actually, probably not. I’ll bracket for the moment the whole business of Caesar Augustus’s decree for a tax census; but in the context of St. Luke’s story, presumably there were a whole bunch of people coming to Bethlehem to register. After all, it had been a thousand years; every Jewish Tom, Dick, and Harry was a descendent of King David. It was like being a descendant of the Kings of Ireland. Or in my case, a descendant of King Robert the Bruce of Scotland. (I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but it makes a good story.) Joseph and Mary in this story would not have been traveling all alone. And let’s not beat up on the poor Bethlehem innkeeper. Inns in the ancient world were not like Hampton Suites, or even like a Motel 6. Ancient inns may have had an actually-not-very-private room or two for wealthy travelers, but everyone else slept as best they could in a common room that was also the bar and grill. “No place in the inn” was not a “No Vacancy” sign, it just means that a saloon is no place to have a baby. Being allowed to use the stable was a good deal for Mary and Joseph. “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.” Well, probably not. It may be one of your favorite hymns, and it’s one of mine, but probably not. Remember what Luke says about the shepherds when they came: “They made known what had been told them about this child; all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” [Luke 2:17-18] It doesn’t exactly imply a huge crowd, but evidently there were some other people there, and we would hope at least a couple of older women who could assist Mary as midwives.
The birth of Jesus, whatever it was like, was probably not a particularly private event.
Lives in ancient Israel, and lives in ancient anywhere else, and lives anywhere before modern times in Europe and North America, were not private. Lives were lived in community, and in much of the world they still are.
Well. In the story we hear today from St. Luke, when Jesus is twelve his parents take him with them to Jerusalem for the Passover, and evidently a good number of villagers from Nazareth and the surrounding area, neighbors, friends and relatives, are going together. (Good judgment, right there!) So when they all start back home after the festival, it doesn’t initially occur to Mary and Joseph to worry that Jesus isn’t with them. (He probably hasn’t been with them the whole trip! Kids then as now like to hang out together away from their parents!) They finally find him still in the Temple, talking with the scribes and priests, possibly including some Pharisees, who were finding Jesus a very interesting young prodigy. (Oh, if only they had known how “interesting” he would be twenty years later!) But we know this story. A point to note, I think, is that matters of faith were not private matters, as we tend to try to make our “personal religion.” They were very much matters for community discussion.
Jesus was not much interested in “personal religion.” Faith was not a private matter.
And the Gospel story today reminds us that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” [Luke 2:52] No matter how we phrase our understanding of the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him.…And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” [John 1:1-3.14] The statement “Jesus is God” is true, but it is not simplistically so.) – no matter how we phrase our understanding, we must remember and insist that Jesus really was a real human being. He was an infant, and then a child, and he had to learn, and to grow up, and all these things were for him, as they were and are for us, processes that took place in the context of community and family. Presumably Mary potty-trained him. Joseph taught him how to use tools. The local rabbi taught him the Scriptures. Working with Joseph on construction across the valley at Sepphoris taught him about the political and economic realities of living in the shadow of the Roman Empire.
And so, when Jesus began his own ministry, this was his message: “The time has come! God’s Kingdom has come near! Change your lives and the way we live with each other, and trust in this good news!” [Mark 1:15] Jesus came not just to make us individually and privately religious, but to call us and empower us for life together as citizens of the Kingdom of God.