“When Herod was dead, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, Arise and take the young child and his mother and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life… And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.”
We have celebrated another Christmas and Tuesday we enter the Epiphany season, both of which instruct us in the identity of Jesus Christ. Today I want you to see the overarching narrative of Jesus’ early life given in the feasts of Christmas and Epiphany and we will do that by looking ahead to the account of our Lord when he was 12-years-old. In addition to that, I want to say a few words about the Bible. I want to do this for a couple of reasons beginning with the fact that we will very soon be in Lent which begins February 10. Because we have such a short Epiphany season this year I intend to return to our study of the Fourth Gospel next Sunday.
So this is what we know about Jesus from the feasts of Christmas and Epiphany: Once he was a little baby, and we know that he was born like all other little babies because he had a mother, but unlike the rest of us Jesus had no human father. His conception, which we celebrate on the Feast of the Assumption, was accomplished miraculously by Mary’s fiat, “Let it be unto me,” and the action of the Holy Spirit.
But our text today instructs us that his mother and his adoptive father, his parents had to flee to Egypt to save him from Herod. The feast days from Christmas including today focus entirely on his infancy, but on Epiphany we skip over those years and land in the midst of an event that occurred when the family traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of the Passover and Jesus was 12-years-old. During all this time the little Lord Jesus has indeed been silent. The first words he speaks in the story world of the Gospels, he speaks in Temple, as the center of attention from the teachers of Israel. In a sense, the It is odd that the One who is Israel’s center of attention was overlooked when his family returned home. But as soon as they realized that he was missing, they returned to Jerusalem to find him. They found him surrounded by the teacher’s of Israel “both hearing them, and asking them questions” and everyone was amazed “at his understanding and answers.” Why were they amazed? He appeared, like any 12-year-old Jewish boy, except that his grasp of their religion was truly remarkable. Yes, but let me say this: what sets all this apart is not the way he talked and questioned the doctors, nor the way he spoke to his parents and then obeyed them. So what is remarkable?
Before I answer that question, I want to say a few words about Scriptures. It is well worth our time to remind one another of some of the basics of our life together. There are some principles that I want to suggest for us, for our family here at All Saints, as we look ahead to another year of preaching and studying God’s Word. First, there is the phrase that I have frequently mentioned in the past, a sort of slogan, which is the challenge for us to live up to the text or we could say our challenge is to live up to our family narrative. What does it mean to “live up to the texts” or to “live up to our family’s narrative?” First of all the text, our family story, is the Bible, the whole Bible especially understood through the New Testament. “But why,” you may ask, “what makes the New Testament superior and the proper text for opening up the meaning of the whole Bible including the Old Testament and the Psalms?” That is a fair question and the answer is, because the New Testament is the climatic and definitive revelation of God’s love to mankind and it is the record of initial mission of the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus our Lord. We do not search the Old Testament in order to validate Jesus’ life and mission. We do not search the Old Testament in order to give meaning to Jesus’ life and mission. It is entirely the other way around. It is the life and mission of Jesus the Messiah, especially his sorrow, his scourging, his crucifixion and death and his glorious resurrection and his most holy Ascension — it is the mystery of Jesus life, death, and resurrection that gives meaning and finality to the Old Testament. His story is the story of Israel’s God returning to his people. The text of the New Testament is not unique as an example of literary excellence and craft, though there are certainly some examples of matchless beauty in the New Testament. What is unique about this text is God’s story.
Every big event in life, in the full sense of the term, has its text. If it is true that the event generates the text, it is also true that great texts may also generate great events. The event of falling in love generates love letters, poems, and novels. But grief may do the same. For example, when William Wordsworth writes in his Ode to Intimations of Immortality,
“That there hath pass’d a glory from the earth,” we know a he is mourning and when at last he writes that the beauty of the natural world gives him “Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”
We know that profound grief has hold of the poet and if you pay close attention you will see that he mourns the triumph of empiricism and utilitarianism in England and the withdrawal of mystery from the world of men and things.
The event generates the text. But the converse it also true. When St. Anthony of the Desert was a rich young man he walked into Church one morning to heard the deacon reading the Gospel in which Jesus said, “God sell all you have, give it to the poor, and follow me,” and that text changed Anthony’s life. According to Athanasius the desert burst into blossom and the movement of the desert fathers was born. So every great event has its text and great text may give birth to great events.
If there is no historic event behind the content of the text then we call the text fictional. Fiction is not a bad thing when it is understood to be fiction. Peter Taylor’s short stories are great because they are well-crafted, intentional fictions. The event behind their texts was the intention of the artist to tell a story without any claim that the events really happened. But if a text purports to be a record of what really happened, the life and death of a founder, the resurrection, then if historic events are imaginary the texts are lies. The Church claims that New Testament and the Old Testament texts are records, memoirs, in some cases autobiographies, life stories, and accounts concerning Jesus our God. Jesus is the center of our attention. But this is the main point I wish to make: the big event that gave birth to the texts of the New Testament is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection of Jesus Christ was God’s work of finality, the great reversal, the climatic moment in human history. The worth of the New Testament hangs entirely upon the event of the resurrection and the identification of the resurrected One, as Jesus the Son of Mary, the Son of God.
Furthermore, the New Testament narrative identifies the life of the Crucified and Resurrected Christ as normative for all human life. That means that the life of Christ portrays to all of us what it means to be truly and fully human. And that means that we must personally respond to his life. That means that my personal destiny, your personal destiny, indeed, all human destiny hangs on our response to Jesus. Therefore we are called to live up to the text. If we respond reasonably to the truth revealed in the text, reason aided by Revelation and the Holy Spirit, it will re-order and unify one’s life. In fact, nothing short of absolutely reordering, renewing, rearranging life would be a reasonable response to God’s concluding act of love in Jesus Christ. So to live up to the text means to open up my life to be read and reordered by Jesus’ life story.
But there is another sense in which we are called to live up to the text and that is to be a worthy reader. All worthy texts call forth worthy readers. The New Testament is to be read like all other worthy texts –- attentively, intelligently, reasonably and responsibly. Of course you could give being inattentive, unintelligent, unreasonable a shot, and you could avoid ever taking a position. But that would be to treat the Scripture as unworthy texts. And yet as important it is to consciously and intelligently read the Scriptures we know that the New Testament text differs from all others because root and branch it belong to the resurrection of the Incarnate Christ, an event that was so absolute that everything else in the world, without remainder, is provisional.
Now in light of all that, it is the 12-year-old Jesus lost in Jerusalem who can help us sum up the meaning of the Epiphany. So what is so remarkable about that event? What makes this important to us and to the world is that we know this twelve-year-old boy because we have privileged, insider information. We have some family secrets that tell us what is true, good, and beautiful. These family secrets change everything. We know that the boy grew into manhood and suffered a horrible death that has saved the world. We know the boy who sat in the midst of the Temple as the rabbis’ center of attention has become the Temple himself. Our family tells us that the one who replaced the Temple with his own body is the God of Israel himself.
And we know that he was raised from the death and we know that it is the resurrection that matters above all because if he had only died, even if his closest friends thought he died for the sins of the world, even if his closest friends really believed he was the Messiah — if he had died and was buried then it is all over and done with because the meaning of that story is that being ends in nothingness. Life ends in nothingness. But his bodily, historical resurrection gives our family’s narrative its specific Christian meaning. Life does not end in nothingness; life, your life, my life, the lives all people will end in being and becoming. And that springs from Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. He is the center of our life, he is the center of the life of the world, he is the center of all being. Therefore the worship of Jesus is as close to a perfect state of being that we can know — which worship Christ is without utility. Jesus is not a means to some greater end. There is no greater end. His glory is being who he is. The Church’s glory is knowing the pure joy of our participation in Jesus’s human nature and our perfect end which is the worship of God the Father, through God the Son, by God the Holy Spirit. Our undying loyalty belongs to the resurrected Jesus. That is our destiny. That is the destiny of the whole world.