First Sunday of Christmas
Sermon by The Reverend Kinsey: "Growing Up"
The early church father, Aelred, gave us this description of the boy Jesus – emphasizing his relationship to our faith:
“The great God, while abiding in the divine nature, is born a child, according to the flesh, and grows for a certain space of time. …This is so that, we who are children … may be spiritually reborn, and … may grow up …and advance in wisdom and grace. Jesus’ bodily growth is our spiritual growth. So let his [birth in the flesh], be our spiritual birth, that is, the beginning of our [transformation]. …Let his growing up in Nazareth, express our advancement in perfection.”
The 12 year old Jesus does not get lost in Jerusalem, or deliberately disobey his parents. Nor do Mary and Joseph act poorly in their capacity as new parents, like you might be accused of today, if you lost your child at the grocery store or mega-mall.
Jesus is growing and learn-ed, he is faith-filled and single-mindedly focused. In his youth, he is exactly like he will be, in his adult life and ministry.
The narrative of Mary giving birth to Jesus in the gospel of Luke, is not unlike the birth of Samuel to Hannah, in our First Reading. There, Hannah gives up her first-born son, Samuel to God, who will become the next leader of Israel, a wise and just Judge, in the Temple at Shiloh. It is a promise Hannah made to God, and to herself. You see, Hannah, like Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, was thought to be barren, and endured shame, and even taunts from her family, for this lowly social status, in a culture – thankfully, very distant from 21st century America – that branded childlessness as a sin, and the absence of God’s favor – which stigmatized women who were barren, leaving them without a place in the community.
But thankfully, in the darkest days, while Hannah was getting on in years, her plea to the priest Eli in the Temple, was finally granted: “Go in peace,” Eli told her, “the God of Israel grant the petition you have made.” And like the convergence of human and divine in the birth story of Jesus, First Samuel tells of how Hannah’s husband, Elkanah wined and dined her, and when he “knows Hannah,” the LORD “remembers” her, and Hannah conceives, and in due time gives birth, and she names her son, Samuel, which means, “I have asked him of the LORD.” Now her shame is lifted, and she doesn’t forget her promise either. After three years, the time of weaning children in those days, Hannah presents Samuel in the temple to Eli. And, as God remembers her, she doesn’t forget the vow, she made!
Hannah loved her first born, but she loved her God all the more, who transformed her lowly status, and restored her to the community.
And every year thereafter, Hannah made a new robe of linen, as our reading says, and with Elkanah, they took it to little Samuel at Passover, as he “continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the LORD and with the people.”
Jesus too, is growing in divine and human favor, and at age 12, is discussing with the teacher’s in the Temple at Passover! This is the only story of Jesus as a boy, in all the canonical gospels – until when his public ministry began, with his baptism by John, when he is believed to be about 30. Jesus was 12, but it wasn’t until the age of thirteen, when a boy became an adult. It was a strict understanding. There were no such things as “teenagers” then. You went from child to adult in a kind of pre-bar mitzvah recognition. So, Jesus in the temple, able to listen and answer the teachers at age 12, shows his precociousness, his advanced knowledge.
But, the crowning lesson of the story is in the contrast between Jesus and his parents. First there was Mary’s astonishment and exasperation upon finally finding Jesus: “Young man, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been half out of our minds looking for you.” And then Jesus responds with a kind of wise, sage-like, calm, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I had to be here, dealing with the things of my Father?” (The Message) If you know me, and what I’m about, Jesus seems to be saying, then your expectations for me will follow.
And Jesus went “down” from the Temple in Jerusalem with Mary and Joseph, says Luke, and went home to Nazareth, and Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and like Samuel, in divine and human favor. The temple, of course, is on Mt Zion in Jerusalem, signifying a nearness to God, while home, is back down to the valley, where his work and ministry will be. Jesus held his own with the teachers of Jerusalem – for now, he must continue to grow into full adulthood. But he will be back, at another Passover, and will again confront the teachers, and transform, and form, many new followers.
Jesus’ bodily growth, is our spiritual growth, as Aelred once said, his birth in the flesh, our spiritual birth, the beginning of our transformation.
In what ways have we learned from the traditions of our faith? What friends along the way have mentored your spiritual birth? When have you felt the need to leave childhood ideas and ask hard faith questions? Was there an anxiety, or fear you had, that troubled you, until it was resolved, until you found what your heart was looking for? And what is the transformation that took place for you? How is the spiritual learning embodied in you, born anew, for all to see?
Mary and Joseph did not understand what Jesus told them about having to be in his Father’s house, at the time. But back home, Mary treasured in her heart, all the things the 12 year old Jesus told her. She kept them close, trusting in God that they must have a meaning for her. She stayed open, to the spiritual and divine possibilities, that confronted her, even as she remembered her anger and confusion back in Jerusalem.
Jesus is a unique combination of, human and divine, a mixture we experience in our own lives, a mysterious and sometimes confusing gift, we don’t always want to unwrap, but that we can continue to treasure in our hearts, as it works on us, on our psyche and conscience and whole lives, until suddenly, it is ready to be born in us, so that we are once again, restored to wholeness in the community, in new and wonderful ways.
Jesus shows us the way to God. The way to God, is the journey of faith, always to some extent, a new beginning, like we’re 12 years old again, and still have so much to learn. We’re advancing toward perfection, as Aelred said, but the road is long and winding, and often feels far from perfect. But faith is a journey built on trust: the blind may see first, the lame may find the surest footing, the speechless proclaim the good news, the naked are clothed!
So let us put on our linen robes, the gift we have received from parent, or sponsor, the robes of baptism, white robes that signify the purity of new life, the robe like Samuel received from Hannah, the robe of scholars at graduations, the prayer shawl of 13 year olds, and dress or suit of confirmands, that signifies the beginning of adulthood in the faith.
As the boy Jesus “grew in wisdom, in divine and human favor,” we too grow in the faith, a mysterious mixture of humanity and divinity, empowering us to see our brothers and sisters as equals, and also as unique gifts, on our way to perfection – not because we can be made perfect in our human selves, but because Jesus shows us the way. And we are followers.