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First Sunday of Christmas

December 30, 2018

Psalm Reading OT Reading Gospel Reading Epistle Reading
Psalm 148 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26 Luke 2:41-52 Colossians 3:12-17

Epiphany is always observed on January 6, which usually falls on a weekday. Since many church traditions that follow the lectionary do not have weekday services, they observe Epiphany on either the Sunday before or following January 6. The Readings for Epiphany can replace the regular lectionary readings on either Sunday to observe Epiphany.

Commentary on the Texts

Luke 2:41-52

This passage is unique in the Gospels. This is the only account we have in the canonical Gospels of Jesus' childhood between his birth and his emergence on the public scene around age 30 (3:23). The uniqueness of this narrative ought to raise the question again of how Luke is telling the story and what significance that might have in hearing the message of this passage as part of Luke's Gospel.

The entire Book of Luke is structured as a journey, as Jesus travels from Galilee to Jerusalem. In the Gospel of John we are told that after Jesus began his public ministry he made several trips to Jerusalem for festivals (for example, 2:13, 5:1, 7:10). Yet, in Luke there is only one trip recorded that takes up much of the book (9:51-19:28). This is not a historical feature of Luke as much as it is a theological one; it is simply the way Luke arranged the material to communicate his message. This suggests that the journey in Luke is more than just a physical journey, and the setting is more than geographical.

The fact that the beginning and ending of the journey to Jerusalem is clearly marked by Luke also defines this as an important structural element (9:51: "he set his face to go to Jerusalem": 19:28: "he went on ahead going up to Jerusalem.") In both cases, he sent people ahead of him to prepare and make arrangements for the journey (9:52-56, 19:29-35). And in both cases that preparation is followed by accounts that tell about people following Jesus.  The stories about the beginning of that journey illustrate both the command to follow Jesus and the difficulty of doing so (9:57-62), and the stories about the conclusion show the contrasting tension between the willingness of people to follow and their lack of understanding in doing so (19:19:36-44).

With that larger context in mind, this early trip to Jerusalem during Jesus' childhood takes on greater significance. We are told that the family was accustomed to making this trip each year (v. 41). While all male Jews within a twenty or so mile radius of Jerusalem were required to attend Passover in Jerusalem, neither women nor children were obligated to do so. The familial context of the trip is emphasized by the reference to "his parents." The entire family made the pilgrimage to worship at the Jerusalem temple. By these details, not only is the family itself emphasized, but their piety and faithfulness cannot escape attention. However, it is this very aspect that sets up the later tension in this passage.

This raises another contextual aspect of Luke's account here that places these individual narratives in a larger literary and theological context. Unlike the other Gospels, Luke specifically recounts all the "rites of passage" associated with Jesus' birth. That is, Luke takes care to point out that from the very beginning of his life Jesus was associated with temple worship and the rituals associated with it in accordance with Jewish customs and religious laws. While Matthew, writing for a different audience, often sees the temple as a hindrance, Luke takes care to focus on the positive aspects of temple worship and the role of the temple and Jerusalem in the life of the community.

The entire story in Luke even began with the priest Zechariah carrying out his duties as priest in the temple, and it is no coincidence that Luke's Gospel ends with the disciples in the temple celebrating the resurrection. Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day (2:21); Mary observed the rites for purification after childbirth (Lev 12:1-5); and they participated in the ritual Redemption of the Firstborn (Ex 13:3, Num 18:13-16, Lev 12:8).

And now Jesus is again in the temple at age twelve. The next major religious event in the life of a child would be what became known as Bar Mitzvah ("son of the commandment"), which usually occurred during the 13th year. At this time a child was considered an adult for the purposes of accountability and responsibility under the law (a male became a full member of the community at age 30). It is in that context of a boy becoming a man that this narrative is set. This dual context of faithfulness in keeping the religious traditions and laws in the context of family obligations, and the central place of the Jerusalem temple and temple worship in the narrative as a symbol of community, become important guides, not only for hearing this passage, but for hearing the larger message of Luke-Acts.

As the parents journeyed home, they discovered that Jesus was not with them. There has been much made on both sides about this seeming irresponsibility on Mary and Joseph's part. On the one side, some see them as simply negligent in not paying closer attention to their child while making a full day's journey. On the other side, some provide elaborate details about how families traveled together in caravans to the festivals, and shared responsibility in caring for the children. These points may all have value.

But it is interesting, and important, that the text itself makes no great issue of the incident, other than it brought the parents some degree of anxiety and provided the opportunity to learn something about Jesus. Perhaps we should follow the lead of the biblical narrator and assume that there was nothing particularly extraordinary about the fact that they could travel a whole day without knowing where Jesus was. There is repeated emphasis in the story of their concern in looking for Jesus (vv. 44-45, 48-49), especially in the understated comment "after three days" (v. 46). This parental concern, contrasted with Jesus' apparent lack of concern, seems to be the focus of the story.

After they had found Jesus, the dialog moves to the heart of the narrative. The fear and anxiety of any parent in such a situation is readily apparent in Mary's question: "Why have you treated us like this?" Deeper behind that question lies the assumption that Jesus should not have been acting the way he had. There is no hint that Mary expected some extraordinary response from Jesus, no hint of any emotion beyond disappointment at the seeming disrespect that Jesus had shown, and no hint of any reason to be offered that would alleviate the frustration of their three-day search. There is even some level of rebuke in the question, as a mother chides her thoughtless son for not acting properly toward his family.

Again, it is easy here to become sidetracked from the narrative with larger Christological questions, and we are tempted to answer those questions and then use them in the narrative. And we are tempted to fill in gaps in the story from some of the apocryphal Gospel accounts that tell us what a marvel this child was as he grew, constantly doing miraculous things, even accidentally. But there is none of that here. The narrative simply recounts the story of a lost son and his parents' frantic search for him. The simple question and the answer need to remain the focal point.

Still, this story, following so closely the earlier narratives that clearly emphasized the wonder and amazement at the birth of this child, invites us to puzzle at Mary's question. Had she forgotten who this child was? Had she watched him grow like any other child so long that she had forgotten his mission to the world? Had she so soon, even in twelve years, forgotten the angels, the shepherds, the blessings? Had she lost the wonder and so is reduced to a frantic search for her child whom the angel told her would be called the Son of God? In fact, it is this tension around which the narrative revolves.

In her frustration, Mary had exclaimed, "your father and I have been searching," to which Jesus retorts, "Why were you searching? You should have known. . .." There is a tendency here to bring in other categories and talk about the immaturity of a twelve year old. There is probably an underlying strand of that in the story. Yet, Jesus' responding question seems to express some surprise that Mary should be so concerned. Contrary to how many have read this passage, this does not seem to be a rebuke to Mary. Here there is simply surprise that Mary does not seem to comprehend what this boy-man Jesus himself is now beginning to understand.

The crux of the narrative turns on the interplay between the two uses of the word "father" in the two questions. Mary uses the term as a family term, referring to Joseph as Jesus' earthly and legal father. Mary rightly expects some obligation from Jesus to that earthly ordering of relationships, an ordering affirmed by God Himself in the Torah. And yet, as Jesus responds, he shifts the referent for the idea of father. The verse itself can be translated either, "in my father's house," i.e., the temple, or "engaged in my father's affairs." As is often the case, the ambiguity may be intentional intending to bring to mind both aspects. Either way, there is a marked shift in the exchange from Jesus as a member of his earthly father's household to his mission as the Son of his heavenly Father.

This immediately brings to the surface the tension that has been subdued in the narrative to this point, and sets the stage for a larger theological issue in Luke. Jesus is here portrayed as a child becoming a man, who is confronted with competing loyalties. As he is maturing, a fact with which Luke clearly brackets this story (vv. 40, 52), Jesus is coming to an awareness of his role in the world. He is now himself becoming aware of what others before had proclaimed about him. As he is becoming a "son of the law," he is beginning to embrace the responsibility of what that entails as the Son of God. The future that was promised to Mary for her baby is now beginning to unfold in this twelve-year-old. To fulfill that role, to carry out his mission as the "redemption of Jerusalem" (2:38), as the "light of revelation to the Gentiles" (2:32), and as the "Savior who is the Messiah" (2:11), to truly be the Son of his Father, he is beginning to understand that as important as familial obligations might be, there is a higher calling that he must serve.

Luke unfolds the implications of this tension in allegiances and obligations throughout the Gospel. Jesus was not accepted well in his hometown, and fled under threat of death (4:28-30). He called his disciples to leave everything and follow Him (5:27-28; cf. 9:23 ff), including the closest of family ties (14:25-27). He redefined family in terms of faithfulness to the word of God (8:19-21; cf. 20:34-36), and later deflected a blessing for his mother into a blessing on those who faithfully obey (11:27-28). He taught that even family obligations should become secondary to the responsibilities of the Kingdom (9:57-62; cf. 10:38-42, 14:15-24). He even talked openly about the divisions and hostility within families that the Gospel message would precipitate (12:53, 21:16). The parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son (15:3-32) all touch on the idea of leaving what is secure for a larger mission. And Jesus affirmed spiritual rewards for those who had left families and home for the sake of the Kingdom (19:28-30).

None of this is to disparage family or familial relationships and obligations. But it is clear that Luke understands that the nature of the Kingdom of God transcends such human concerns. There is again a subversive element to this Gospel that brings into question the things that give us security and comfort (rf. 16:15). As Jesus will later say, "I have not come to bring peace but a sword." Both he and Luke understand that the call to be a disciple of Jesus is a call to move beyond earthly security and earthly relationships. It is a call to reprioritize family, home, and friends and to begin the journey for nothing less than the salvation of the world.

Of course, that is all in the future in this narrative as the man-child sits in the temple learning and beginning to grasp the path of his life. Jesus' response to Mary shows that he still valued that relationship, and was willing to submit to parental authority. His preoccupation is not disrespect, and even the later saying about "hating father and mother" must be seen in light of his submission as he dutifully returns home with Mary and Joseph. But Luke knows what course that path will take as he tells this story, and he skillfully uses this incident to begin to raise the issue of the meaning of discipleship.

And as we know, Luke no doubt is recounting this story with a view of the larger mission of the church. He knows that the journey about which he is telling did not stop at Rome, and the kind of commitment to which Jesus later calls his followers will be very costly. As those followers and the church grow in their understanding of their role in the world, they cannot be hindered by earthly concerns, as important as those may be in themselves and in some contexts. That commitment will lead some to give up their very lives for the sake of the Gospel. That kind of radical obedience and faithfulness cannot be accomplished if the concerns are with an earthly father's house and business more than with the heavenly Father's house and business.

Mary and Joseph did not understand Jesus' response, in spite of all they had seen and heard. I suspect since Mary "treasured all these things in her heart," the question will come again over the years, as she watches her son live out taking care of "His father's business." It is that very kind of reversal of normal human expectations and systems of value that not only brings questions on a human level, but also marks a characteristic feature of the Gospel and the Kingdom.

Preaching Paths

There are two aspects of this narrative that can be developed in various ways. The first is understated in this narrative and actually unfolds in the larger narrative of Luke, even though it is a part of this narrative on a different level. The concern with the temple and the emphasis on community is an important feature in these early narratives. While the physical temple itself is probably not what Luke wanted to emphasize, yet the community activity that centers around the temple holds great value for Luke. If we can set aside all the negative images of Pharisees and Sadducees and legalism and scheming that we are so used to associating with the temple in the crucifixion narratives, it actually becomes a very positive symbol.

It is in the temple and around it that the major religious festivals occur, where the community of Faith gathers to remember and anticipate and celebrate who it is and how God works. It is where children are offered to God and incorporated as part of the community of faith. It is the place where old men and women gather to remember the past and long for the future. It is where offerings are brought, where people submit themselves to God, where prayers are offered, where songs are sung. And it is where one day quite unexpectedly the Savior of the world enters as a baby in the arms of a young mother. It is here that the man child sits and learns, and first begins to understand the course he must travel. And it is in this very place some 20 years later that people would gather to rejoice at the resurrection of the Son of God and the beginning of a new community of Faith.

In all of this, Luke surely has in mind that new community, the early church. All throughout the book of Acts the temple still plays a prominent role. But again, it is not just the physical temple that is important. It is the community itself that Luke sees as important. And in these early narratives, the emphasis falls on the rituals and acts of worship and communal interaction that lie at the heart of the religious community.

It seems that as much as we sometimes want to exclude ritual and liturgy, and decry formalism in worship, there is a significant strand of the Gospel story, as well as the practice of the early church, that understood and valued the role of those things in the life of the community. The very fact that Luke presents Jesus in the temple at this stage in his life says that there is an important role for "temple" in the life of Faith. Rather than decrying the lifelessness than some see in such community-forming rituals and liturgy, perhaps a better biblical response would be to invigorate them with vitality so they can serve the purpose of shaping and guiding the community in its journey.

Second, the issue of the meaning discipleship is an important part of this narrative. While it is certainly not fleshed out here in detail as it will be in later passages, the tension between competing loyalties is introduced very early into the Gospel story. We may be somewhat reluctant to follow this line of thinking in an era where there is much legitimate concern over the breakdown of families and the irresponsibility so many seem to exhibit toward such obligations. We would much rather "focus on the family" as a means to try to solve some of the social problems plaguing our modern culture.

But if we are going to take the Gospel story seriously, we probably ought at least to consider to what this perspective might call us. It seems that the perspective introduced here calls into question a "focus on the family" and instead calls us to "focus on God!" Could it be at all possible that the subversion of being "about our Father's business" or being "in our father's house" might actually be the solution for problems that we are trying to solve by our own wisdom and human priorities? Could it be that the same principle of reversal that underlies "those who lose their lives will save it," also applies to those who "focus on God?"

That will never be an excuse for irresponsibility. Jesus does affirm the role of his parents and is obedient to them, just as they take the responsibility of spending three days searching for him. But it seems that the radical call to discipleship that unfolds from being "about our Father's business" is an important definition of the nature of Christian community. And if we understand that in light of Luke's concern with the "temple" as the symbol of community, there seems to be a redefinition of that loyalty and obligation, indeed discipleship, that we take to ourselves by taking the name Christian.

There is one more element to the story that might provide another path for preaching this time of year. Since this is the first Sunday after Christmas, and this is the first narrative after the birth narratives in Luke, a valid question might be, "After Christmas, What?" Where do we go after we have celebrated, after we have heard angels sing and watched shepherds worship? Where do we go after the wonder has faded and we have been plodding amid the ordinary circumstances of life? Do we lose the sense of expectation, so that we do not really anticipate this child to do anything out of the ordinary?

There is a very understated and subtle, but clear warning here. Mary had not totally lost the ability to wonder, because even though she did not understand Jesus and his answer, she still, again, treasured these things in her heart (v. 51). But there is the sense that she should not have been surprised that Jesus had another Father besides Joseph.

I often tire of the same old whining from some Christians about the commercialization of Christmas. It is understandable that non-Christians want to secularize this celebration. They do not follow the Christ!  Let them have their secular holiday. We are about something different. After Christmas, What? There is an easy answer for Christians. Let us be about our Father's business! For we who are in our Father's house, Christmas is not over this Sunday!  It has only begun.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2018, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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