Sermon Ideas For Luke 2:41-52 Part 7
In the British Museum a series of medieval tiles illustrate legends of Jesus' childhood: he repairs a mistake for Joseph in the carpenter's shop and raises a playmate from the dead. These representations of the youthful indiscretions of an incarnate deity show us a natural eagerness to entertain thoughts of divine power abused by an immature Jesus. The familiar story of the boy Jesus in the temple in Luke therefore needs to be understood over against this desire for a theology of wonder working. The theology of incarnation shown in the gospel is anchored in the usual progress of a human boyhood, even if Jesus is theologically precocious. Fulfilling his duties as a man under Jewish law, Jesus has journeyed to the temple in Jerusalem, but lingered to engage in lively conversation with teachers at the temple. Searching for him is to find him in the Temple, his "Father's" house. The authority of the young Jesus is therefore anchored in the traditions of the Law, if expressing literally a new intimacy with God as "abba".
Every time and culture has painted the face of Jesus to express its own ideals. The portraits of the teacher or philosopher in Late Antiquity, the soldier of the Christian empire, the priest of the Middle Ages, or the shepherd of the Mission era have expressed particular images of authority and power for the necessities of the age. Recovering Jesus as a faithful Jew and teacher has been an important piece of the recent work on the historicity of his life, which begins to heal the centuries of anti-Semitism in Christian theology. The arguments of Jesus with the Pharisees in the New Testament are framed to reveal his new insights into the biblical tradition, but they were written within a culture that embraced the dynamism of question and answer as a means of exploring the words of God. Later theologies based on a more static or transcendent view of truth can lead us to overlook the virtue of argument in the gospels. Jesus becomes a mouthpiece of revelation over against the Jewish tradition as well as against questioning in general. Such a docetic pedagogy has simply intellectualized the temptations of magical wonderworking: the Incarnate One is eagerly removed from the normal process of teaching and learning just as others sought to deny his suffering or death.
Christian life as a process of growth through experience and learning has a varied history within the tradition. In the ancient church arguments over the humanity of Jesus discounted his "growth in wisdom." If he was the perfect Word of God, he had no need to learn anything nor could he increase in the knowledge or love of God. Those who taught such a thing would be suspect as adoptionist, doubting the full divinity of the Incarnate Son. Although the two nature doctrine of Chalcedonian Christology attempts to balance our perception of Jesus as fully divine and fully human, our interpretations of his life may still suffer from emphasis on his divine authority. Others however tried to read the human story as presenting an example of faithfulness and perseverance to be followed by his disciples. Against Gnostic attempts to discount the importance of Jesus' human experience, Irenaeus of Lyon wrote passionately, "Our Lord is alone the true teacher and the Son of God is truly good and patient, the Word of God the Father having been made Son of man. For he fought and conquered, a human being fighting for his ancestors."1 Or, as a poster from the Episcopal church which shows Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane states: "If Jesus had his doubts, so can you." As contingent and created beings, we search to understand the meaning of the gospel.
Lurking behind our discomfort with the humanity of Jesus is not only the defense of a certain understanding of Incarnation, but perhaps a general reluctance with the historicity of our faith and experience. Truth which is universal, and indisputable may feel best presented in certain pronouncements rather than through discussion or a story. George Herbert expressed our desire for security in his poem, Hope: "I gave to Hope a watch of mine: but he/ An anchor gave to me./ Then an old prayer-book I did present:/ And he an optick sent./ With that I gave a viall of tears:/ But he a few green eares./ Ah Loyterer! I'le no more, no more I'le bring:/ I did expect a ring."2 God's gifts of an anchor, an optick or telescope, and a few green eares are symbols of the potential of spiritual growth rather than a guarantee of security or knowledge. In theology such hope can be translated to having humility and courage to live with uncertainty as well as seek for answers.
Growing in the knowledge of God is therefore having the confidence to accept both the inexhaustible mystery of God and God's patience in teaching us. Irenaeus cautioned that we may not understand everything in this life, but this only promised "not only in the present world, but also in that which is to come, God will for ever teach and humans will forever learn the things taught by God."3 In his ancient Christian theology, God's patient persuasion of humanity through the words and example of Christ restored each individual at her own level and pace. Like the child Jesus who grew in wisdom, Christians are called to growth in maturity toward a deeper knowledge and understanding of God.
1. Against All Heresies 3.18.6. 2. Poems (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 112. 3. Ibid., 2.28.3.