Sermon Ideas For Luke 2:41-52 Part 4
There are many theological themes and quiet nuances that nudge at our attention here. They range from the boy Jesus' keen awareness of a compelling relationship with the divine, to the child's own sense of loyalty to his earthly parents, Mary and Joseph. Here we have a juxtaposing of the human and the divine, of the heavenly and the earthly, of eternity and time in a way that alone bears witness to the whole truth of the Christian message. Luke presents an exquisite story in which he holds the delicate themes of time and eternity, the divine and the human, together. He neither exaggerates the one over the other, nor neglects the one in favor of the other. Both are necessary. The life of Jesus is impossible to understand apart from the divine relationship that empowers his life. Likewise, the story of the Christ begs credulity apart from its rootage in an authentic life, lived at a particular time, in a particular place, under the particular conditions that are common to all humanity. Advent has to do with time and eternity, God and humanity, with both an Eternal and an Existential Now. Whenever we empty the story of either polarity, Christianity is reduced to either an other-worldly gnosticism, which is unbelievable in our time, or a universal humanism that is powerless to change human life, because it lacks a normative principle from which it can challenge evil and sin, let alone skepticism and cynicism.
Let us review, at least, five such theological themes.
First is the unique relationship that Jesus shares with the eternal, with his Father. It has to do with his unique Sonship. "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" (Luke 2:49) Even verse 50 is integral to Luke's point at this juncture: "But they did not understand what he said to them." It is this word "understand," or édeite in Greek, that provides our clue. What is it that we must understand to understand the heart of the Christmas message? Luke's answer cuts through all the smoke of our human devisements, doubts, and genteel evasions. Christ's life cannot be understood apart from God's empowerment of that life! Christ's life is rooted in God's will, God's love, God's hope for humanity. And it is God's will, God's love, and God's hope for humanity that has brought Jesus of Nazareth into being. His birth and life are not an accident of history. Rather, their origin lies in the very soul of God. Even as a young pre-teen boy, who may well have just com pleted his bar mitzvah, Jesus is aware of such a unique relationship with the divine that only the idea of "Father" can begin to do justice to it.
From the very beginning of the Gospel story, Luke anchors the life of Jesus in the eternal mystery of God. From the time he is old enough to sort out his emerging feelings, Jesus' inner consciousness is aware of a relationship to the divine that is higher, more intimate and meaningful than any other relationship he knows. It is this higher, more intimate and meaningful sense of relationship that will accompany, deepen, ennerve and guide the maturing Jesus toward his manhood. Luke does not read into the boy Jesus' "consciousness" more than open-minded, common sense realism should dictate. But Luke knows that the whole truth about the Christian story cannot exclude its rootage in eternity, indeed, its rootage in the very mystery of God, who bursts upon Jesus' consciousness as his true Father.
Second, Luke preserves Christ's humanity in its fullness. Jesus of Nazareth was not an earthly "container" for some higher esoteric wisdom, which, if we only knew it, would allow us to escape this present fleshly realm of pain and sorrow. Christmas has nothing to do with gnosticism. It has to do with realism. It has to do with a real world and real people living in real time—indeed, a world that God has created and originally pronounced "good," but one which we have compromised by our own self-assertiveness, pride and insufficiency. Yet it is into this world that God sends the Son, functioning psychological human being, whose own life vindicates God's human life.
Note the care with which Luke protects this profound theological insistence: that Jesus of Nazareth was a man, a real human being, through and through. How are Jesus' actions in the Temple described? Not as one who lectures, disputes, corrects, or advises. But as one who "sits" and "listens to the teachers" and "asks questions" and whose "answers" amaze the "teachers," because of the level of his "understanding" as a boy of twelve. Luke goes on to emend this event by adding the phrase: "And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor" (Luke 2:52).
In no sense here do we have a God pretending to be a child, but a human being who is truly human in body, mind, will, and spirit. To appreciate the profundity of this theological note, all one has to do is to read The Infancy Gospel of Thomas. It goes back, at least, to the second or third century, and contains one story after the other in which an insufferable five-year old Jesus is depicted as a divine-human brat. Of course, it was not the unknown author's intention to depict Jesus as mean or criminal, but to speculate on the boy Jesus' divine power and how he might have used it as a child. But "gospel" comes out twisted, because its premise is twisted. One story should suffice. On one occasion, the boy Jesus and a companion are playing in the rafters of house under construction. The companion falls and is killed. The neighbors are convinced that Jesus pushed him. But Jesus, desirous to exonerate himself and teach his detractors a lesson, raises the lad and demands: "Did I push you?" To which the resurrected boy responds: "No, my Lord, but you raised me." The deprecation of either humanity or the creation of God is foreign to Luke. The Bible will have nothing to do with it.
The birth and life of Jesus remind us afresh that God is still the creator of a universe that God loves, and that God, unashamedly, has to do with us here and now. To that extent, it is our humanity that is preserved in this story, too. However young or old, it is our humanity that can also "increase in wisdom...and in divine and human favor." A Christian theology that celebrates Christ's humanity rightly celebrates our humanity and God's act in Jesus of Nazareth to salvage, reclaim, and redirect that humanity for our own highest joy.
A third theological nuance that nudges us from this text is the question of continuity. The fifth century Roman Catholic theologian Vincent of Lérins emphasized that the church should endorse only that "which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all." He was offering the principle of continuity as a guide or criterion for determining the boundaries that inform faith. Defining that boundary is still a current necessity for the church and believers. We are constantly bombarded by numerous cultural developments to relax central standards governing both belief and action. Knowing what to keep and what to change, what to reform and what to cherish, are matters of no small significance.
The evangelist Luke, as a historian, sets Jesus' "coming of consciousness" within the context of his continuity with Judaism. Note that the context celebrates family, synagogue, tradition, and Temple. Christianity comes to us from this rich past, with its emphasis upon God's activity among people in relationships, desirous to study and learn the will of God, and who travel to their holy
shrine, as prescribed by scripture and tradition, to worship the living God of the universe. Luke never deprecates that rich tradition of continuity that Christianity has with God's ancient people of Israel. A new era is in the making, but like its predecessor, it too is founded on the purposes of God that formerly inspired and underlay the older covenant. Jesus' purpose is not to break that continuity but to fulfill its dream. And so he sits, and listens, and asks, and searches his own heart, within the context of his continuity with his own people's past, confident that the God of the universe, whom he is compelled to call "my Father," will speak to and direct his own time as well.
Fourth, is Luke's emphasis upon the universality of Christ's significance. His mother rightly says to him: "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety" (Luke 2:48). She was his mother, she cared for him as only a mother can care. Didn't he "belong" to her, didn't he "belong" to them in the sense that they were his parents? Yes. But Luke's story makes it painfully clear that Jesus belongs to all persons, not just his family. "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" says it all for Luke. No. They did not understand what he meant. Only his ministry, cross, and resurrection would finally awaken them. All of this was beyond the pre-teen age Jesus, just then. But his inner consciousness knew, or at least suspected, that God's purposes were eventually to take him beyond family, synagogue, tradition, and Temple. He was content to know at the time only that he needed to be in his "Father's house." And Luke does not press the point just yet. He is content to know that he has pointed his readers toward the coming horizon.
This story at Christmastide is a powerful reminder that Jesus belongs to all persons. "For unto us a son is given" (Isa 9:6). Or as the angel of the Lord explained for the shepherds: "I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord" (Luke 2:10f). Note the words: "for all the people," and "to you." It is an inclusive universality. When we put the creche away and rewrap the nativity figures to be stored for another year, reflections on our actions are quite in order. Christ belongs to all persons, has come for all persons. He is not just my possession to be tucked away in some quiet recess of my spirituality for my personal joy and enhancement. I too am involved in his ministry of universality; I, too, exist for other persons. His "Father's house" incorporates the world, and I too must be about the work of that "house." It constitutes the heart of that theological insight treasured by Luther, that, owing to the freedom of Christians that the cross provides, we are now not only the most free of all, but the most bound of all to care about one another.
Fifth, and finally, Luke's story touches on the dimensions of loyalties. Loyalties play a vital role, both in our human and spiritual development. "Then he went down with them...and was obedient to them. Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor" (Luke 2:51-52). There is a time and place for human loyalties as well as acknowledging the tensions such loyalties engender. Family and peer ties can enhance our development as well as contribute to our understanding of life's larger demands. They can also interfere with, obstruct, and detract from life's higher aims. Great accountability is placed on our shoulders, either way. No one has summed it up better than Fred Craddock in his commentary on Luke in the Interpretation series: "family love and loyalties have their place and flourish under the higher love and loyalty to God."
Ben W. Farley