Sermon Briefs: Luke 2:41-52 Part 2
The possibilities for preaching on this text are rich. But often where riches are found, dangers must first be faced as in some Indiana Jones adventure before they are enjoyed. The danger that lurks in the shadows of this text may be identified as "Isolated Beauties," a perceptive description employed by Richard L. Eslinger in his recent book, Pitfalls in Preaching.1 Here Eslinger argues of the tendency for a preacher to go on the prowl for some phrase or portion of a verse upon which the sermon is constructed. Once the "text within the text" is extracted, the larger narrative itself is regarded as dispensable. The incredible riches that lie elsewhere are "jettisoned as excess homiletic baggage" at the loss of the narrative function of the whole.
John E. Withers has successfully navigated these troublesome waters on this text in his sermon, The Growing Christ.2 Here the movement of the narrative as a whole is respected. But Withers has done more. He has brought his congregation on a journey through this text that, as St. Augustine suggests, is the second of three primary functions of a sermon, delights.
Withers begins his sermon reflecting on how much fun babies are. "Everyone loves babies. Babies may be cuddled and cared for, snuggled and pampered. Babies need us and make us feel needed. They call forth the giver in us. Babies are wonderful." Then babies grow into children and here, too, everybody loves little children. But little children grow into adolescents, a period of growth, observes Withers, that is as uncomfortable for adolescents as it is for adults.
In this passage from Luke, Jesus is an adolescent. The adolescent Jesus, his mother, Mary, and his father, Joseph, have been to church, not any church, but the big one — the temple in Jerusalem. Here, Withers sets anchor for a moment for us to observe that Jesus' parents saw to it that he was trained in a tradition, nurtured in the beliefs and values of a community of faith. Mary and Joseph took seriously the spiritual nurture of their child. Though this is a helpful place in the text to pause and reflect on responsible Christian parenting, Withers does not linger. Anchor raised and the sails set once more, Withers leads us deeper into the text with the care of a seasoned travel guide. The alarm, even desperation, of Mary and Joseph when they discover Jesus missing, the rather frank response of Jesus to his parents' anguish and the realization that Jesus has broken into a new level of spiritual maturity are equally instructive. At the end of the text, and our journey through it, Withers imagines with us that what is perhaps richer than any of the "isolated beauties" to be found here is the discovery that this is a story about the struggle and development of our own faith.
Withers concludes his sermon: "The question he asks us always hurts a little. `Why are you searching for me? Why? Didn't you know that I must be in my Father's house?' Mary and Joseph might well have said, and we might say, too, `Someday, that boy will be the death of us.' And the life of us."
David N. Mosser titled his sermon on this passage, Give Me That Ol'Time — When My Children Were Young — Religion.3 Mosser invites us to hear again this passage from another place, through the memories of the holy family. Only by looking back through memory can the power of the story be experienced. Within the story, in present time, the powerful witness of the story is often missed in the grief, anxiety and panic any parent would know after losing a twelve-year-old child for three days. The power Mosser speaks of, of course, is the witness of Jesus' commitment to one mission in life, living out the purposes of God. "Why did we not know?", the holy family may have asked years later. But that is a question we all can ask. Looking backward, through memory, a discovery is made of God's presence and activity in the events of our lives that is often missed before. Our problem, observes Mosser, is that we trade God's call not for something base or vile, but for the multitude of insignificant nickel and dime calls which beckon us daily. The twelve-year-old Jesus calls us to "follow the path of the pioneer and perfector of our faith," to respond unconditionally to the presence of God in each day of our lives.
In her sermon, Living With the Incarnation,4 Bobbi Wells Hargleroad challenges the church to consider again the real question of Christmas. The question of Christmas, says Hargleroad, is not "How are we going to celebrate the birth?", but rather, "How are we going to live with the Incarnation?" There is a lot we don't know about Jesus' life. Luke doesn't give us a graphic description of Jesus' childhood. We don't know if Jesus had colic or diaper rash, if he walked on time or got his teeth on schedule. We know nothing of his first words or how old he was when he learned to read and write. We don't know if he liked lentils or remembered to brush his teeth without being told. Asserts Hargleroad, it was not Luke's intention to write a biography. Luke's purpose is to tell us that even in his childhood Jesus was the Christ.
This text does more than bear witness to Jesus' priorities; it opens up the struggle of Mary and Joseph with what Hargleroad calls "the downside of the Annunciation." Mary and Joseph are seen here having to deal with the consequences of being the ones chosen to parent the Christ, to pioneer for us all the problem of living with the Incarnation. This sermon is a wonderful gift to the church, inviting her to take seriously what it now means that God has come to dwell among us.
W. Douglas Hood, Jr.
1. Richard L. Eslinger, Pitfalls in Preaching (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), pp. 34-35. 2. John E. Withers, The Growing Christ, Pulpit Digest, ed. David Albert Farmer (San Francisco, CA: Harper, SanFrancisco, December/December 1992), pp. 64-67. 3. David N. Mosser, Give Me That ol'Time—When My Children Were Young—Religion,Biblical Preaching Journal, ed. Gary W. Kidwell (Versailles, Kentucky: Biblical Preaching Institute, Fall, 1991), pp. 40-42. 4. Bobbi Wells Hargleroad, Living With The Incarnation, Journal for Preachers,ed. T. Erskine Clarke (Decatur, Georgia: Journal for Preachers, Advent, 1994), pp. 25-28.