Merry Christmas! Today is the sixth day of Christmastide which began on Christmas Day and lasts for 12 days until we celebrate the season of Epiphany, or revealing of Christ, beginning on January 6. So today, our candles and lights are all lit to remind us that we are in a season of celebrating the incarnation of Jesus – of God becoming human, and taking on our flesh to show us how much God loves us, to show us that God is with us, to reconcile us to one another and to God, and to bring the kingdom of God to reign on earth as it is in heaven. On Christmas Eve, we read the scriptures and sang the familiar carols that tell the story of the birth of Jesus. And now that Christmas Day is past, many of us have already packed up the decorations and put Jesus and manger back in its box until next year, when we once again go to Bethlehem to kneel with the shepherds and sing “Gory to God” with the angels. We spent the four weeks of Advent, patiently waiting for the Christmas moment to arrive, so we could light all the lights and sing all the songs and celebrate that the waiting is over. It was a spiritual discipline to spend four weeks acknowledging the dark moments in our lives and in our world, and to admit that we are not the people we want to be, and that things in our world are not what they should be. But today’s scriptures will challenge us to another form of spiritual discipline – one that lasts much longer than four weeks. Because when Christmas is over, our work is really just beginning.
Our Gospel Reading for the Sunday after Christmas is Luke 2:41-52. In Luke’s gospel, just as soon as we’ve heard about the birth of Jesus, we are given a brief description of Jesus’ dedication at the temple, eight days after his birth, according to Jewish tradition; and then we get one story about Jesus’s childhood – the only story in the gospels about the time between Jesus’s birth and adulthood. In this story we fast-forward to Jesus at the age of twelve – nearly as old as his mother was when she was told by the angel Gabrielle that she would become his mother! In the ancient Jewish tradition, males officially became adults at age thirteen. The twelve-year-old tween-age Jesus would have been at that awkward age of being not quite child and not quite man.
It’s interesting to me that on this Sunday after Christmas, while we are wanting to linger at the manger and cradle the baby Jesus, we are being challenged to refocus our attention not on the Christ-child, but on the Christ-pre-teen! The growing-up-way-too-fast, almost-a-man Jesus, who we encounter in this story of a family road-trip for a religious holiday. Some of you can relate to this setting. Some of you have had this type of road trip with your own family – you may even be on one now. So think of that tween- or teen-age child you know – the one you want to put a brick on their head so they don’t grow up too fast; the one you’re already worried that you don’t know as well as you used to because of how much they’ve matured since the last time you’ve seen them, who’s likes and interests are changing so fast that it’s hard to keep up with. Parents, think of your own children whose attitudes and behaviors make you pray or swear more than you think may be normal, and who the next minute seem more adult than child, and whose passions and wisdom and insights are so astonishing!
Think about these dear ones as we hear the gospel proclaimed:
41 Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival.42 When he was 12 years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to their custom. 43 After the festival was over, they were returning home, but the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents didn’t know it.44 Supposing that he was among their band of travelers, they journeyed on for a full day while looking for him among their family and friends.45 When they didn’t find Jesus, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him.46 After three days they found him in the temple. He was sitting among the teachers, listening to them and putting questions to them.47 Everyone who heard him was amazed by his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were shocked.
His mother said, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Listen! Your father and I have been worried. We’ve been looking for you!”
49 Jesus replied, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they didn’t understand what he said to them.
51 Jesus went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. His mother cherished every word in her heart. 52 Jesus matured in wisdom and years, and in favor with God and with people.
This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
"The Finding of the Savior in the Temple" - William Holman Hunt
“Supposing that he was among their band of travelers, they journeyed on for a full day while looking for him among their family and friends. When they didn’t find Jesus, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple.”
Can you imagine being Mary or Joseph, frantically looking for your lost child for three days before finding her? Can you imagine being one of the aunts, uncles, grandparents and other relatives in the caravan? Would you be helping? Would you be criticizing? Would you be annoyed that you had to turn around and go back? And teens, tweens, twenty-somethings – maybe you can imagine being Jesus in this story… feeling like you’re old enough to make your own decisions, to pursue your own interests, without having to check in with others. If you’re like me, you may wonder why Luke included this story in his gospel. After such a wondrous story about a miraculous conception, giving birth in a barn, or supernatural beings visiting a field full of shepherds, maybe it was to offer a more relatable story, of the holy family on a family road-trip, with a strong-willed pre-teen, worried parents, and a caravan full of extended family who get caught up in the drama.
The Christmas story is poetic, mysterious – God taking the humble form of a tiny, wrinkly baby; angles appearing and singing to shepherds; kings bringing elaborate gifts; even the threat of mass murder by a cruel, deranged mad King. And our Christmas celebrations are romantic and nostalgic – lighting candles, singing carols, roasting chestnuts by an open fire. To me, the difference between these two stories of the holy family are like the differences between the movies, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” or between “Miracle on 34th Street” and “Home Alone.” The story of Mary and Joseph loosing track of their child represents something most parents have worried about – it’s our worst nightmare. And more than that, it represents the fear that all parents and guardians have that we might fail in some way to protect our children, or to instill the right values and beliefs in them, or to raise them to be successful and happy. And yet, as parents and caregivers, it tugs our heartstrings to see the first signs of independence, to see them becoming their own person, to see the ways that they either agree, or disagree, with our own beliefs and values. In essence, this story of Mary, and Joseph and Jesus forces us to acknowledge that Jesus, like all children, will eventually grow up. And it doesn’t happen all of a sudden, one day in the distant future. It begins happening from the moment they are born. We humans are designed to grow! And so this story shows us that even Jesus – God in the flesh of humanity – went through the same physical, mental, neural and psychological growth as all humans do.
So I want to take a moment to lift up the children and youth in our congregation and in our families and in our lives. Growing up is not easy. It can be hard to manage the way that your body keeps changing sizes and your emotions seem even harder to explain or control sometimes as your brain and your arms and legs and feet keep growing. Your interests will change, too, and even the foods you like and don’t like will probably change. You’ll make friends, and you’ll probably loose friends, and you may be good at math but really struggle with reading, or you may love history but can’t understand science. All of these things will be part of growing up and becoming the person God made you to be. But think about Jesus in this scripture; he, too, seemed to be trying to understand how to fulfill his purpose in life. Instead of following his family home, he stayed behind so that he could talk to the religious teachers and ask his big questions about faith, and even give his own answers to these questions – answers that weren’t expected. Scripture says that the teachers and all who heard his were amazed, or astonished by what he had to say.
Adults, I think that too often we discount the views and opinions and insights of the children and youth in our communities today. In 2018, some of the most passionate activists for justice and change in our world have been youth! And while adults continue to label people and groups according to political or religious affiliation, or according to race or class, our youth and young people are being vocal today about their desire to see and treat all people as equal. So children, youth, and young adults – you have valuable gifts to share with our church and our world – not someday, but today! You are not the church of tomorrow – you are the church right now. And you have wisdom and insights that we need to hear today.
For all of us as Christians, this story challenges us to allow Jesus to grow up; to not leave him as a helpless, dependent baby in a manger, sleeping in heavenly peace. Remember that Jesus was raised by the same Mary we read about last week – the one who, as an enlightened teenager herself, seemed to recognize an opportunity to join God in turning the world upside down. In the teenage Jesus, we see glimpses of the adult Jesus will become, who will continue to ask questions that challenge the understanding of the religious rulers of his time.
In acknowledging Jesus’ own growth, we are led to a confrontation of our own resistance to growth – in our children, as well as in ourselves. Just as in Jesus’ day, there are some religious teachers and leaders who may presume that they have all the answers already, or at least all that they need. They don’t want someone like this Jesus to come along and question everything they think they know, and propose something contrary to what they were taught to believe. But as humans, we don’t know it all. We always have more to learn, and more ways to grow. Jesus came not just as a baby to demonstrate God’s love and presence, but Jesus grew up. Jesus became a teen who questioned things. And Jesus became an adult who challenged the status quo, who called fishermen and tax collectors to be in his inner circle, who ate with sinners, who touched and healed the unclean and undesirable, and who calls each one of us to be reconciled to one another and to God.
Following Jesus’ way requires us to do more than worship him at the manger; it requires us to grow up our faith right along with him. To do our own study of the scriptures, and to ask our questions and wrestle with answers that come too easily. And to always keep on searching for Jesus for we, too, realize that we’ve misplaced him, or that we’ve left him in that box with the manger. To find him in the young and in the stranger, in the sick and in those in prison, in the hungry, cold and lonely, and in each person who crosses our path each day. As a new year approaches, many of us make resolutions to start new or different habits to help us become better versions of ourselves. So maybe this is the year you decide to begin every day with scripture and prayer. Maybe this year you decide to start attending Sunday School so you can grow your faith with deeper study. Maybe this year you look for ways to be more generous, giving away what you don’t need to those who do need, and giving in ways that increase the work for God’s kingdom. Maybe a new spiritual practice for you this year will be showing radical hospitality to strangers and those who are not like you. We all have room to grow up in our faith as we consider the ways the Jesus is calling us to mature in wisdom and in favor with God and with people.
Our Epistle reading for today, Colossians 3:12-17, gives us practical ways for just how we can allow Jesus to live and grow in us:
12 Therefore, as God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13 Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other. 14 And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. 15 The peace of Christ must control your hearts—a peace into which you were called in one body. And be thankful people.16 The word of Christ must live in you richly. Teach and warn each other with all wisdom by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing to God with gratitude in your hearts.17 Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him.
As I close today, I want to leave you with one of my favorite readings about the ways that we can take Jesus out of the manger, and take Christmas with us into the rest of our days, allowing the love of Jesus to grow in us, to change us, and to reach others through us.
KEEPING CHRISTMAS (Henry Van Dyke)
ROMANS, xiv, 6: He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord.
It is a good thing to observe Christmas day. The mere marking of times and seasons, when men agree to stop work and make merry together, is a wise and wholesome custom. It helps one to feel the supremacy of the common life over the individual life. It reminds a man to set his own little watch, now and then, by the great clock of humanity which runs on sun time.
But there is a better thing than the observance of Christmas day, and that is, keeping Christmas.
Are you willing to forget what you have done for other people, and to remember what other people have done for you; to ignore what the world owes you, and to think what you owe the world; to put your rights in the background, and your duties in the middle distance, and your chances to do a little more than your duty in the foreground; to see that your fellow-men are just as real as you are, and try to look behind their faces to their hearts, hungry for joy; to own that probably the only good reason for your existence is not what you are going to get out of life, but what you are going to give to life; to close your book of complaints against the management of the universe, and look around you for a place where you can sow a few seeds of happiness--are you willing to do these things even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.
Are you willing to stoop down and consider the needs and the desires of little children; to remember the weakness and loneliness of people who are growing old; to stop asking how much your friends love you, and ask yourself whether you love them enough; to bear in mind the things that other people have to bear on their hearts; to try to understand what those who live in the same house with you really want, without waiting for them to tell you; to trim your lamp so that it will give more light and less smoke, and to carry it in front so that your shadow will fall behind you; to make a grave for your ugly thoughts, and a garden for your kindly feelings, with the gate open--are you willing to do these things even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.
Are you willing to believe that love is the strongest thing in the world--stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death--and that the blessed life which began in Bethlehem nineteen hundred years ago is the image and brightness of the Eternal Love? Then you can keep Christmas.
And if you keep it for a day, why not always?
But you can never keep it alone.