a sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas [Year C]
The other evening at the music ministry Christmas party several of us began reminiscing about the different kids in the congregation who had played the role of baby Jesus in the Children’s Tableau at our children’s Christmas Eve service through the years. We got started talking about it because this year we had two little girls play baby Jesus, which is absolutely fine. Those were the littlest children available that evening. Neither of them were actually newborns, though. The parents of Kate Behrens, who played baby Jesus at the 5pm service, tried to see if she would lie down in the manger, but she wasn’t really having that so they just let her sit up on her mom’s knee.
Our conversation at the party, though, was mainly about Christmases past, and we tried to name the different kids who had been Jesus each year. We got many of them back to the early 2000s. It was fun to name them and realize most of them are still members of this congregation and are now playing the parts of angels or shepherds in the same Christmas program. We also laughed about the time when John Reynolds played Jesus. At 18 months he was the youngest kid in the congregation, but they used him anyway. None of us at the party were at Epiphany in 1983 when he was baby Jesus, but we’d all heard about how his parents put him in the manger and he promptly stood up and waved at everyone.
We could take all of those kids who’ve ever played baby Jesus and line them up here and we’d have a beautiful picture of childhood and young adulthood right before our eyes. We’d get to see that span of life and realize how through the years we’ve had the privilege to see them get bigger and take on new responsibilities, just like we get to watch the other youth in our midst. Parents might even get misty-eyed about how quickly time has passed.
And yet we don’t get to see any such growth or progression for Jesus. We know almost nothing about Jesus’ own childhood. There are a handful of stories of him as an infant, this single story of him as a tween, and then time passes. All the other stories of Jesus, of course, are of him as a full-grown adult.
Part of this lack of information is understandable. In the ancient world, childhood was not nearly the sacred, blessed time that it is nowadays. Because of disease, many children did not live to see their fifth birthday, so not many resources at all were poured into documenting anyone’s childhood or youth. In addition to that, children were not thought to make any useful contribution to society until they were able to work to support the family. The idea was to hurry up and grow into an adult, “to increase in human and divine favor,” as Luke puts it. Nowadays it’s quite the opposite: stay as young as possible for as long as possible! Back then childhood was largely something to be endured, which is how most people think of adulthood now. We even have a word for it: “adulting.”
It’s natural to have some curiosity about this time of Jesus life, which is called Jesus’ hidden life, since it is hidden from us. Historians and archaeologists can tell us a great deal of things about what life in Nazareth 2000 years ago was like for the average person, but in terms of specific information about Jesus we have very little. How did he interact with his parents and other family members on a day-to-day basis? What were his friendships like? Was there a Mrs. Betsy figure in his life, or a Mr. Scott, or a Mr. Barger, who helped nurture his faith in some way? How did the teenage Jesus deal with peer pressure? With acne? Given that so much time, energy, and money are allocated in the church these days on faith formation for youth and children, it is almost peculiar we know so little about how all that went for Jesus.
What we do know is that his parents were faithful enough in their observance of Judaism to somehow teach him Scriptures and how to read, because by the time he is twelve and he is in the Temple he is able to do that. We know his family had not just the religious devotion but also the means to take the annual Passover pilgrimage from Nazareth to Jerusalem. We also know that he traveled in a caravan to get there, which means he had a group of people from his village that his parents trusted and depended on. People formed caravans because it was a safer way to travel, and when we hear about caravans of migrants coming up to the U.S. from Central America, we probably can imagine the group that Jesus was traveling with wasn’t all that different.
We also know that while Jesus’ caravan is heading home from that pilgrimage, his parents have a Macaulay Culkin – Home Alone moment. There’s that scene from that classic 1990 movie when Kevin’s mom is finally on the plane with all her relatives, trying to relax after a hectic departure, mentally running through all that she has done when she suddenly realizes her young son is missing. She has absent-mindedly left him at home.There is immediate panic and then an about-face to figure out if he’s OK. Leaving an 8-year-old by himself can be a dangerous, scary thing.
I imagine Mary and Joseph have a similar episode, furiously asking all the other family members and friends if they’ve seen Jesus. And then they stop everything to try to figure out where he is, backtracking for three whole days, traipsing through the places they stayed in Jerusalem for the eight days of the festival. For three days they are separated from their child, unable to know what might be happening to him, which must have been a nightmare. I wonder about those families who are still separated from their children at the U.S. border. As of the end of last month, there were still 173 children in custody, which does not include the 8-year-old and the 7-year-old who died while in custody this month. Terrifying.
For Mary and Joseph, thankfully, there is a happy reunion. Just like in “Home Alone” when Kevin’s parents finally find him back at home doing just fine on his own, even holding off some house robbers, Jesus’ parents finally locate him back in the Temple, which he calls his “Father’s house.” There he is, talking to the teachers of the Temple, listening to them and learning from them. We also find out that Jesus is particularly bright when it comes to his grasp on religious matters. The rabbis he is sitting among make note of it, which is a clue for us that Jesus was already at age twelve beginning to show signs of this special relationship with God. We also see Jesus’ parents not fully grasping that, not quite yet understanding how their relationship to him will change, how they will eventually hand him over to the world.
In Pittsburgh I have a friend who used to teach parenting classes at the Children’s Hospital and through various community organizations. She was a social worker and had raised three daughters of her own and was widely-respected in that field. In general I found her to be someone with a great deal of wisdom about life. When she would talk about her work with me, I remember she would say that she always tried to communicate that the primary job of parenthood is to produce a responsible adult and release him or her into the world. That was it. It wasn’t mainly to make them wise or give them great experiences. She said we even might be tempted to think it is to ensure your child’s happiness or give them the tools to find happiness themselves. The job of a parent was to produce a responsible, loving adult, which means the process of raising children is a releasing, a letting go, and I remember being surprised by that at the time because I didn’t have children and I assumed otherwise.
What we see with Mary and Joseph on that anxiety-ridden trip to Jerusalem is the beginning—or at least more—of that letting go. He is in their custody for the time-being, but their child belongs to the world. He will come of age under the roof of their house, but ultimately he is going to be a resident of his Father’s house and open it up for everyone. He will be obedient to them in Nazareth, but his calling is a higher obedience of service and love to all people everywhere. And that call is Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace among those he favors. It is the salvation God has prepared in the sight of all people. It is the redemption of the earth.
God gives us the opportunity to grow in our faith our whole life long, and a huge part of that involves turning Jesus loose to let him be who he is called to be. It does no good to fashion Jesus into a tool for our own happiness. It does not help for us think of him only as our personal Savior, or as someone who primarily keeps us safe. Like Mary and Joseph eventually do at some point, we are to release him and let him offer himself for the life of the world in the way God has called him to do. We let him stand up in the manger, wave to the world, and then step out into its assorted beauty and ugliness.
And then maybe he won’t be so hidden anymore! We will end up seeing his face, for example, in the stranger…in the face of the person in search of a home, or in the face of the person at the border. We let him go so that we can come to recognize his life in the youth who is struggling with peer pressure, the child who makes decisions we don’t like or understand, in the person who disagrees with our personal politics, in the person who has hurt us. We let him increase in wisdom and in years so that we can treasure the gifts of youthfulness but also the gifts of being aged and elderly.
We let him go into his mission and we see him offer his life for us to show us the superior way of self-sacrifice, the power of humility and the glory of loving others as God loved us. We let him grow up and eventually watch him love us so much that he brings us all into the Father’s house where we one day we will stay forever and ever.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.