“When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him…”
We have celebrated another Christmas and today we enter the Epiphany season, both of which seasons instruct us in the identity of Jesus Christ. This morning we will also look beyond the infancy narratives to the Gospel for next Sunday when his parents forgot him and left him back in Jerusalem. I want to do this for a couple of reasons beginning with the fact that I want more than one week on that story. The second reason is that I want to say a few words about the Bible.
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 Annunciation, was accomplished miraculously by Mary’s fiat, “Let it be unto me,” when the Holy Spirit came upon her and the power of the God who is God overshadowed her, and Jesus was virginally conceived in her womb.
Our text today instructs us that when he was born in Bethlehem, Magi, non-Jewish priests of a different religion, probably Zoroastrians, made a journey far from their home in order to see this child who was born to be King of the Jews. They naively gain an audience with Herod in order to more exactly locate the new King. That, as you know, led to the slaughter of all the little baby boys under the age of two, which we commemorate with the Feast of the Holy Innocents. But before Herod’s assassins got to his village, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and told him to take Mary and the baby Jesus and flee to Egypt where he would be safe.
The feast days from Christmas on, including the Epiphany, focus entirely on Jesus’ infancy until we get the family story about the trip to Jerusalem where they lost the twelve-years-old Jesus and found him in the Temple. Up until then, the little Lord Jesus has indeed been silent. The first word he speaks, in the story world of the Gospels, he speaks in the Temple, as the center of attention from the teachers of Israel. The One who is Israel’s center of attention was overlooked by his own mother and adopted father when they returned home from Jerusalem. 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, the way he questioned the doctors, nor the way he spoke to his parents and then obeyed them. So what is remarkable?
Before I answer that question — and to get the full answer you will have to come back next Sunday — but before I give a preliminary answer, I want to say a few words about the 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 worshipping and serving God. First of all, there is the phrase that I have suggested in the past, a sort of slogan, which is that we strive together to “live up to the text.” Another way to say this is that we should strive together “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. Why give the New Testament priority especially since the Old Testament came first? That is a fair question and this is why: because the New Testament is the climatic and definitive revelation of God’s love to mankind because it is the record of initial mission of the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus our Lord, and it is Jesus who give meaning, who rightly interprets the Old Testament.
We do not search the Old Testament in order to validate 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, his giving life to his Church, and his most holy Ascension — it is Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that gives meaning and finality to the Old Testament. 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 the autobiography of our Incarnate God, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Mary.
Every big event in life 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 he is in 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 some profound grief has laid hold of the poet. And if we pay close attention we will see that he mourns the triumph of utilitarianism in England and the withdrawal of mystery from the world of men and things.
The event generates the text. And the converse is true as well. 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, “Go sell all you have, give it to the poor, and follow me,” and that text changed Anthony’s life. According to St. Athanasius the desert burst into blossom as hundreds of young men all over Egypt follow Anthony to commit their life to constant prayer for the Church and the salvation of the World. The Desert Fathers were in a sense given birth by the text Anthony heard in Church that Sunday morning. So every great event has its text and great text may give birth to great events.
Now 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, like the life and death of a founder, a crucifixion, a resurrection — in that case, if the historic events are imaginary, the texts are lies. The Church claims that New Testament and the Old Testament texts are records, memoirs, autobiographies, life stories, concerning Jesus our God. Jesus is the center of our attention. 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 our lives together. In fact, nothing short of absolutely reordering, renewing, rearranging life would be a reasonable response to God’s concluding acts 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. So there is another reversal: when I read the text, the text reads me.
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, and irresponsible a shot. But that would be to treat the Scripture as unworthy texts. And yet as important it is to attentively read the Scriptures, we know that the New Testament text differs from all others because it is the fruit of the resurrection of the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ.
Now it is the 12-year-old Jesus, lost in Jerusalem, who can help us sum this up. So what remarkable about Jesus questioning the priests in the Temple? 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 are members of his family and we know the family secrets. And 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, surrounded by rabbis, has become the Temple himself.
He died for us and he was raised from the dead. And we know the resurrection 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 Christian meaning. Life does not end in nothingness; your life, my life, the lives all people will end in being and becoming. And that truth, root and branch, 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. The worship of Jesus is the only perfect state of being that we can know in this life. 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 and the destiny of the whole world.