“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…”
We have celebrated another Christmas and tomorrow 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 that because next Sunday I intend to return to our study of Romans where we are just entering chapter 8.
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, and, as our text today instructs us, his parents had to flee to Egypt to save him from slaughter of the innocents. These feast days, from Christmas up to the Epiphany, January 6, focus entirely on his infancy. But in the Epiphany season we skip over those years and land in the midst of an event that occurred when he was 12-years-old and traveled with his whole family to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of the Passover. It is there in Temple, surrounded by the teachers of Israel, that Jesus speaks for the first time. We know that somehow he was overlooked when his family returned home and as soon as they realized that he was missing, they returned to Jerusalem to find him. And they did find him with the learned teachers of Israel, sitting in their midst “both hearing them, and asking them questions” and everyone was amazed “at his understanding and answers.” They were not amazed because he had a golden halo hovering over his head. Why not? Because there was no hovering halo. He appeared, like any 12-year-old Jewish boy, except that his grasp of their religion was remarkable. Of course, that is what any loving parents may well have said about their 12-year-old Jewish son. What is so remarkable? 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 and in particular about the New Testament. 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 mentioned before, a sort of slogan, which is the challenge for us to live up to the text. What does it mean to “live up to the texts?” First of all the text that I refer to 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.” The text of the New Testament is not unique as an example of literary excellence though there are certainly some examples of matchless beauty in the New Testament. What is unique about this text is the content and the consequences of that content.
Every big event in life, in the full sense of the term, has its text. The event generates the text. For example, the resolve of the 13 original colonies to be free from England has as its text the Declaration of Independence. The event of falling in love generates love letters, poems, and novels. The event generates the text. That is important to keep in mind. If there is no historic event behind the content of the text then we call the text fiction. Fiction is not a bad thing when it is understood to be fiction. The fictions of Ernest Hemingway or Flannery O’Connor are great because they are 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, as in the Colonies separation from England, then if historic events are replaced by fiction the texts are lies. The Church claims that New Testament texts are records, memoirs, in some cases autobiographies, life stories, and accounts concerning a man named Jesus. 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. It is the content of the New Testament that sets it apart from all other texts in the world and the content of the New Testament hangs entirely upon the event of the resurrection and the identification of the resurrected One and that is why Christmas and the Epiphany matter. It is the resurrection and only the resurrection of Jesus that gives meaning to Christmas and Epiphany.
Furthermore, the content of the text of the New Testament identifies the life of the Crucified and Resurrected Christ as the normative paradigm of 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 the content of the New Testament. Therefore we are called to live up to the text. If we respond reasonably to the truth revealed in the text, it will re-order our whole 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 the text.
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 – and yet we know that the New Testament text differs from all others because root and branch it belong to the resurrection of Christ, an event that was so absolute, so climatic and so definitive that in light of that event everything else in the world, without remainder, has become provisional. In light of that, I am called to be a worthy reader, a worthy student of the text.
And as your priest I take that seriously. I promise you. I dedicate my days and weeks to prayer for you and to the study of the Holy Scriptures. Every single day I reach up to the Text and whoever preaches in this pulpit does the same. And those who teach in Wednesday school or the Monday Morning Bible Study or the men’s group Bible study do the same. A worthy reading requires hours and hours of study and prayer, loving and respecting the text. So, in summary, there are two senses of the call to live up to the Text. The first is to reorder our lives individually and corporately to the Resurrection. Then having begun the reordering of our lives, we are called to be worthy readers and worthy students.
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. What is so remarkable about that event? Remember it is not the way he spoke to the learned teacher and it is not even the way he spoke to his parents. This is it, this is what matters: 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. And we know that he grew into manhood and suffered a horrible death and somehow his death saved the world.
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 and not also raised from the dead then it is all over and done with because the meaning of that story is that there is nothing to hope for in life. Life ends in nothingness. And if that had been the case, we would not be here today because that would have been the end of Jesus and his mission. His resurrection gives this narrative its specific Christian meaning. Life does not end in nothingness; though we shall all probably die, we shall all certainly be changed so that this mortal life we know will put on immortality. And all that sprouts from Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
We want to know everything we can know about the resurrected One. This boy even in his adolescence had a grasp on the religion of the Jews that was remarkable. And we know why on account of our privileged information: because he is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The details of the narrative become important to us:
“And it came to pass that after three days they found him in the temple… and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? Behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.”
This is strong language. The word for “sorrowing” means to inflict great pain – neuralgia. Mary accuses Jesus of betraying his father Joseph and herself – of betraying his calling to be the son of Joseph. Whatever else may be said about this event and it’s reporting, in a day when women were not permitted to speak, it is astonishing that it is Joseph who never utters a word. Mary does all the talking, defending Joseph’s right to her son to be respected by him as his father. Jesus answers her quickly and with perfect authenticity of a 12-year-old Jewish boy:
“Why are you searching for me? How did you not know that I had to be in my Father’s house?”
Jesus said, “How did you not know I would be here in my Father’s house?” There is no shaming in this statement, no harsh judgment; only the unvarnished observation of an adolescent male wondering how his parents could have had this oversight. “I thought you would know to come here first,” he might have said. But it is the last two verses that most excellently underline his identity:
“Then he went back down with them to Nazareth and was obedient to them… And Jesus advanced in wisdom, age, and favor before God and man.”
Yes, this account of our adolescent Lord being lost and then found in the Temple links his adult life to his infancy. But this story also underlines some essential orthodox beliefs concerning our Lord’s humanity. It is important to realize that Jesus as a boy and an adolescent experienced physical, sexual, intellectual, and emotional development along the lines of the laws of biology and normal maturation. This is fundamental to his humanity and this text asserts just such maturation:
“And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.”
One last point: just as the boy Jesus had to be in his Father’s house, so his Bride must follow him into the household of God to be with him and there to worship him in Spirit and in truth. The worship of Jesus in Spirit and in truth is to simply be with Jesus and to know that as a perfect state of being, which is to worship him without utility. He is not a means to some greater end. His glory is not in our achieving great things in his name. His glory is being who he is. Nor is the glory of the Church located in her utility to the world. Not in brokering world peace. Not in bringing about social justice. Not in feeding the hungry. These are all virtuous and wholesome things, but the Church’s glory is not in achieving these things. Her glory is in knowing her place and that is knowing the pure joy of being in his presence as the perfect end of all being which is what we know to be the worship of God the Father, through God the Son, by God the Holy Spirit and that of course is the only expression of our undying loyalty to the resurrected Jesus that will last forever. That is our destiny as well as the destiny of the whole world, of all being itself.