As a Little Child. Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas

Luke 2:41-52

41 Now every year the parents of Jesus went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43 When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44 Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” 49 He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not understand what he said to them. 51 Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

The two large stained glass windows in our sanctuary on either side of the room have become for me a symbol of what we have inherited from the Christian Church of the past. For one, there is incredible beauty in them. The dedication, the faith, that went into them is amazing. They are a gift to us not only from the particular glass artists but the people who built this congregation and its building and the generations of Christian artists before them. We follow in an astounding tradition of faithful men and women who proclaimed the glory of God through word and music and visual art. I am so grateful for such saints.

At the same time, like the legacy of the church of the past, there are pieces of these windows that make me uncomfortable. Above all, I’m rather embarrassed by how European the figures look. These windows, along with much of Western art, portray Jesus and his contemporaries as looking much more like they lived in Germany or England or Denmark than in Palestine. And the lack of diversity among the crowd does not reflect the church of today or, in fact, of any time in history. We’re slowly learning, as the church, to correct the mistakes of our artistic representations. We’re also working, again slowly, to dismantle the institutional racism that has also sadly marked the church, a church that has too often been exclusive and fearful of difference.

One other argument I’d make with this window in particular is that its depiction of the 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple does not look like many 12-year-olds I know. He’s standing there holding forth among the priests of the temple, commanding their undivided attention and respect. It’s one thing for Jesus to be precocious, but this boy does not seem to me to be very human.

I find that to be a problem because the Gospel writer takes great care to explain that Jesus was really human. He was born like we were, and he grew up just as we do. Now, we don’t hear much about his growing up years. This is the only childhood story of Jesus that we have in the Bible. Luke jumps from his infancy to this visit to Jerusalem all in one chapter. And in the next chapter, Jesus is thirty-years-old at his baptism. This short passage from Luke 2 is our only glimpse into what life was like for the child messiah. But it is enough to remind us of the real, human childhood of Christ.

There are some other non-biblical texts about a young Jesus. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is the most famous of them. It describes a magical, wonder-working child who was learning how to use his powers for good and not for evil. It contains fascinating stories of a mischievous Jesus, but there again he doesn’t seem very human. Those verses seem less a description of real incarnation than a superhero origin story, where a spiritual force gets somehow trapped inside a child’s body.

I think stories such as those reflect the discomfort that church has often had in imagining that God could be truly present in something as ordinary—as human—as childhood. People of faith throughout the centuries have wrestled with the idea that the eternal and perfect God could coexist with a childhood life of change and development and vulnerability. Can God grow?

Maybe we have similar difficulty with the story of Jesus lost in the temple. We imagine Jesus stumping all of the great teachers of Jerusalem with his questions and dazzling them with his own insight. Then when Mary and Joseph finally find him after their desperate search, he responds calmly, “why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know I would be here?”  He might not appear to act much like a real child.

But remember that he didn’t stay in the temple. He went home and was obedient to his parents. Because while he may have been precocious, he was still a child. In Jerusalem, he was curious. He asked questions in the temple. He listened to what others had to say. He explored the city and big ideas to the point of losing track of time and forgetting to join his family on their trip home. And he also needed guidance from parents to help him grow. His parents shared with him the religious faith and teachings of previous generations. They brought him to the temple, they participated in the festivals, they shared the scriptures. And at the same time, Jesus asked questions and challenged some of those traditions. In doing so, he grew not only in years but in faith, not only in knowledge but in wisdom. Jesus was a real child like so many others.

So perhaps today, just two days after our celebration of Christmas and remembering that God is with us in our world and in our lives, it is good for us to remember that God is present in our learning and growing, too. One of our Christmas Carols, Once in Royal David’s City, proclaims:

Jesus is our childhood’s pattern,

 Day by day like us he grew.

I’ve spent enough time with confirmation students to know that 12-year-olds can ask profound questions. It’s not so surprising to me that a young person would a) be interested in discussing matters of faith and b) impress religious teachers with what they have to say. As I’m preparing for a confirmation retreat in a few weeks, this passage reminds me to plan for at least as much time for the ideas and questions that they bring as the material that I want to teach. Both are necessary. And God is present in both.

This is good news not only for young people but for adults as well. God is present in the growing. God is present in our own learning and questioning and challenging of the traditions of the church. We can acknowledge that the church has sometimes erred in how it seeks to live out God’s intentions while still remaining solidly in the Christian community and tradition. We can admit that we have more growing to do, more wisdom to gain. Yet we still can boldly proclaim that God is present with us, here an now.

Maybe that’s a message proclaimed by this other stained glass window. Jesus there receives the children and says that if any of us want to experience the commonwealth of God, we ought to become just like a child. We need to maintain an openness to growing and learning and changing. Like Jesus, it might do us good sometimes to get lost in wonder and our questions and our curiosity about God and God’s world. We must never lose a child’s awareness or the courage to ask, “why is this so?” We’re also given the gift of childlike trust in God’s future.

So then, maybe this passage about the twelve-year-old Jesus is not just describing a phase that he later grew out of. Perhaps God is uniquely revealed in this childlike wonder and openness that can mark a whole lifetime.

I was reminded this week of a quotation by writer Madeline L’Engle from her memoir, A Circle of Quiet.  She writes of herself:

I am still every age that I have been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be… This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages…the delayed adolescent, the childish adult, but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide… Far too many people misunderstand what putting away childish things means, and think that forgetting what it is like to think and feel and touch and smell and taste and see and hear like a three-year-old or a thirteen-year-old or a twenty-three-year-old means being grownup. When I’m with these people I, like the kids, feel that if this is what it means to be a grown-up, then I don’t ever want to be one. Instead of which, if I can retain a child’s awareness and joy, and be fifty-one, then I will really learn what it means to be grownup.

God did not become human so that we could deny our humanness but become more fully human, more fully who we are. If God could be present in something so common and ordinary as childhood development and growth, then God could certainly be present among other things we consider ordinary. God can be present in a South Minneapolis church—in Christmas worship, lighting candles and singing carols; in bread broken and wine poured; in the prayers of our hearts and the work of our hands and feet. God is still made incarnate in a church seeking new wisdom and learning to live more fully into God’s dream. God is with us.

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