The twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple spoke of his Father, and meant God; his gift to us is that we also can know our heavenly Father through him, and like him, model our lives and our witness after our true Parent.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, First Sunday of Christmas, year C; texts: Luke 2:41-52; Colossians 3:12-17; 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Joseph always seems to me to be a little pushed off to the side in the Christmas story, like all those Nativity icons and paintings which have him off in the corner. He is remarkably faithful and determined to do the godly thing, but we know little about him, save that he acted as father to Jesus. One wonders if he sometimes resented how his life was sort of taken over by this child who wasn’t his own.
It’s hard to imagine that he felt good about the episode Luke records which we heard today. Jesus, now twelve years old, is lost to him and Mary for 3 days, and when they finally catch up to him in the Temple of all places, arguing theology and Scripture with the elders and priests, of all people, he claims he’s in his Father’s house, or as it used to be translated (and perhaps would still be better understood), “doing his Father’s business.” His Father’s business? Joseph wouldn’t have to be a genius to understand that this child whom he was raising as his own wasn’t talking about a house in Nazareth or building tables.
But this becomes an important moment for us, we who see the crucified and risen Jesus as Son of God and Lord of the universe. Here, before he’s done any teaching, while he’s still a child in the eyes of the law, Jesus shows us two things: that he is imbued with the Word of God and deeply invested in knowing the written Scriptures, and that he knows his relationship to God as one of son to father.
John’s Gospel tells us that since no one has ever seen God, it is God the Son who makes the Father known to us, in ways we never could have known otherwise. That seems to be what Luke is doing here as well, telling us that if we watch this Jesus we will see what we need to know about God, even when he is just a child of twelve. Remember that in Luke’s Gospel there is no secret between the author and the reader about who Jesus is. From the beginning Luke declares Jesus’ divine parentage. But this episode not only underscores previous claims by Luke, it for the first time in this Gospel begins to draw out the implications of what it means for God to be born among us as one of us.
It may not have been pleasant for Joseph to have to face this reality, at least if it seemed a rejection of him. For us, it means the world: Jesus not only shows us our heavenly Father; he also shows us what it means to live in such a way that we, too, are about our Father’s business.
So, though Luke and John write very differently and have different goals, this is a truth they both would have us know: Jesus shows us our heavenly Father in ways we’d never have seen otherwise.
It’s a common theme throughout both of these beautiful Gospels, but if we simply stick with Luke, from whom we hear today, it’s a major part of his focus in writing. Throughout this Gospel, Jesus witnesses to the truth about God, his Father, in the face of a world which imagines God to be very different.
So Luke, and only Luke, tells us that Jesus at the start of his ministry linked himself to God’s servant announced in Isaiah who is anointed to bring Good News to the poor, the blind, the lame, and to bring them all life and healing.
Luke is the one who tells us of Jesus’ stories of a God who so desperately wants to bring wandering humanity back he will do whatever it takes, like a shepherd who’s lost a sheep, a woman who’s lost a coin, and powerfully, a father who’s lost a son. Jesus in Luke shows us the love of a heavenly Father who will stop at nothing to find us, welcome us, bring us home.
This is not what we usually expect of God, or imagine. All-powerful gods in human history tend to demand vengeance and punishment. They don’t sit on the front step day after day looking down the road waiting for sight of their lost ones so they can welcome them back with song and feast.
When the Son of God is brutally crucified, the way the world would write the story is that an all-powerful God would destroy those who dared touch his Son. Jesus in Luke asks the Father to forgive those who did what they did.
Again and again in this story Luke tells, Jesus reveals to us the love and heart of God for us and for the whole world, a love which crosses racial and social and gender and ethnic and religious lines, a love which is forgiving and offering life even as we are killing that love.
And even Jesus’ use of the term “Father” teaches us something unexpected about God. There are many in the Church today who have legitimate concerns about this, people who object to using “father” to refer to the First Person of the Trinity, not only because of its exclusively masculine nature (when of course the First Person is neither male nor female) but also because there are many awful fathers in this world, who hurt or abuse, or worse. The argument is that the word is irretrievably damaged and unusable. But consider this: Jesus actually was and is opening up a new vision of the love of the Creator for the world, inviting us to see the Creator as a loving parent, reinterpreting the idea of parent, of Father, and showing us the possibility of a relationship of such love with the God who made us, a Father better than any earthly father or parent we’ve ever known.
And when Jesus rises from the dead, Luke tells us of his efforts to show his followers that this is exactly the way of God and always has been, throughout Scriptures, and tells them that they will be sent to witness to this love, this grace, this Good News for the world.
So for Luke, Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, affirmed by angels and by Jesus himself, gives us confidence that his revelation of the truth about God is valid and true. We can trust what he says about the heart of God because of who he is. At age 12, and even after he has risen from the dead, Jesus, shaped by his identity as Son of God and close to the Father’s heart, teaches us how to see and know God.
But Luke also believes that this parentage is ours to claim as well, through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Just as Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, so we are born anew by the work of the Spirit. This is another connection linking the theology of Luke and John, where what Jesus claims in the encounter with Nicodemus in John 3 is exactly what happens in Acts 2 when Luke tells of the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost to all the believers. So when we look at this little boy speaking with great confidence about God’s Word to aged teachers, and we see his identity as Son of God, we are seeing also our possibility, our potential, our call.
So here is what we have: Luke wrote a Gospel to tell the world of the coming of the Son of God, conceived by the Spirit, revealing the heart of God to us and living it fully in his life and teachings, his death and resurrection.
And he wrote the sequel, Acts, to tell the world that we all, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can be born as children of God ourselves, and so, too, can fully live God’s way in our life, our teaching, our witness, our love, our action in the world.
And that’s part of Paul’s grace in this reading from Colossians.
Paul urges the believers to be clothed in Christ, clothed in the way of the Son of God.
The two boys of our readings this morning embody what Paul is talking about. We talked about Hannah and Mary near the end of Advent; now we see their sons as young boys, and what we see is that they are so embued with the Word of God, so shaped by their relationship with the Father, that it flows in their words, actions, life.
And people notice. Even teachers of God’s law. Both Samuel and Jesus are described as growing up in divine and human favor. People saw these boys, even before they were fully grown, and saw the hand of God in them, saw who they were, and were admiring of them. As was the LORD God, according to both 1 Samuel and Luke.
And Paul joins Luke in urging that we be open to the same possibility. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, Paul says, like Samuel and Jesus. Have this word so deeply embedded in you, Paul says, it shapes you into godly people.
It’s like putting on new clothes that make you and me look different. So we are to clothe ourselves with all these characteristics of God’s love that shaped Jesus, and so can shape us. Compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Forgiveness and love.
The model of Samuel, and even more importantly, Jesus, is that if we devote ourselves to understanding God’s Word for our lives it will, through the work of the Spirit, shape us and make us children of God. So that, in fact, we live into our true inheritance as children of our heavenly Father.
The remarkable thing about Luke’s message is not that Jesus was remarkable, though that’s important. He was the Son of God, and lived it fully, even at twelve. So much so that he could confidently speak with elderly teachers and teach them. So much so that he, even before his ministry began, could confidently claim God as his Father.
But the truly remarkable thing is that Luke claims we have the same inheritance, the same possibility to be remarkable ourselves. The child Jesus begins to teach us today, and we will continue to learn this from him throughout his ministry and throughout our lives, of the true nature of God and God’s love for us and the world. And in inviting us to claim God as our Father, he invites us be like him, to witness by our lives, our wisdom, our love, to the same relentless love of God who searches for ever more lost ones to welcome home.
This is our joy this morning: that we can also, like Jesus, be about our Father’s business.
Because we know, through him, and with the help of Luke, that God the Father is our Father as well, that we belong to God in love that cannot die, love that will always forgive, love that will always welcome us back.
But also we know this from Jesus, that we also can be and need to be about our Father’s business. We have a calling, a job, a life to live, shaped by this identity, clothed in the way of Christ, in compassion, kindness, forgiveness, patience, to continue Jesus’ witness to the world the truth about the God who created all things and loves all things.
I like to think that Joseph understood this, too. That he saw himself through this boy he held as a baby, saw himself as a child of the heavenly Father, who also had an inheritance to claim and live. But whether he did or not, that is our gift from this boy Jesus this morning, and for the rest of our lives. May our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit so move in us and shape us into our identity that we, too increase in wisdom and stature and so reflect the truth of God’s love to a world deeply in need of it.
In the name of Jesus. Amen