January 3, 2021
Second Sunday of Christmas
Luke’s story of the precocious twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple, sitting among the most respected Jewish teachers and impressing them with his wisdom is a familiar one to most of us. And while it may be intended to impress upon us Jesus’ concern with learning the Law at a young age, our hearts can’t help but to go out to Mary and Joseph upon discovering their child is missing. When they realize his absence a day into their trip back to Nazareth, they return to Jerusalem and search the city and high low, in desperation we might imagine, until they find him. For three days, they do not know where he is.
This young Jesus in our story today, and his off-handed response when Mary and Joseph ask why he would them worry like that, doesn’t really endear him to a parent’s heart. We lost Sarah once when she was about 3 years old. Jeff was running a trail race at Pinelands, and the kids and I, along with Jeff’s parents, were gathered with hundreds of other people near the finish line to cheer him on. All of a sudden, we realized that Sarah wasn’t with us, and we began to search frantically. It probably only took a couple of minutes to find her, but it felt like an eternity and my mind conjured up a thousand terrible possibilities in that brief time. I can’t imagine searching for 3 days like Mary and Joseph. They must have been out of their minds with worry and fear when they finally found him.
Our passage today ends with these words: “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” And this statement points to a question that Christians have argued over for centuries. How human was Jesus really? We make a big deal over the incarnation—God made fully human in the person of Jesus. But was he really human like you and me? Did he make mistakes like you and me? Would we say that not bothering to tell his parents that he was going to hang back in Jerusalem for a few days was a mistake, possibly one he even learned a lesson from? As Jesus increased in years, was he increasing in wisdom, too, like the text says?
This question came up in a lively Bible study of the Gospel of Matthew a couple of years ago. When we got to the story of Jesus healing the Canaanite woman’s daughter, we struggled with Jesus’ treatment of her. This woman comes begging for the life of her daughter, and Jesus essentially calls her a dog because she is of a different race. But she persists in asking for the healing of her daughter, and he eventually relents. So we have to ask ourselves? Did Jesus treat her badly to make a point to others of how wrong it is to privilege a particular race? Or did he actually mean what he said, and her persistence changed his heart?
There’s a Gospel that didn’t make it into our Canon called the “Infancy Gospel of Thomas.” Likely not written until the second century, most of the church fathers rejected it as heretical. And there’s little wonder why. It doesn’t portray the child, Jesus, in a very positive light. In this Gospel, as a child, Jesus is learning how to control his powers and his anger, and he eventually does learn how to use them for good. But not before he kills a couple of his playmates who make him angry and smites with blindness those who tattle on him to Joseph. Yikes—not exactly the Jesus we proclaim as our savior.
Jesus as a mischievous, murdering child is an extreme portrayal to counter the other extreme—Jesus born perfect and remaining perfect—insisting that his divinity won’t allow for those human frailties of bad behavior and poor decisions. Theologians have been arguing over this human vs. divine problem since the earliest church.
And while I don’t like to think of the boy Jesus striking down other children as a way to test his powers, I have to admit that I do like to think of Jesus making mistakes from time to time. Because it makes it easier for me to believe that he can understand and love the very human me—one who makes lots of mistakes. And I like to think of Jesus learning and growing in wisdom from those mistakes. Because maybe that means my mistakes will help me to learn and grow in wisdom, too.
I know that I’ve got a lot of growing to do. As we all do. Humanity has a lot of growing to do.
We welcomed this new year loudly because we desperately hope it will be better than 2020. But we can’t rush blindly into this new year without learning from the mistakes of the past one. And hopefully, becoming a little wiser.
We learned several difficult things about our nation in the past year. We learned that in the history of the United States, we have mostly turned a blind eye to systemic racism, and that there must be a reckoning for that.
We learned that we aren’t great at making sacrifices for the good of others. Thousands upon thousands of people have died from COVID who would be alive in this new year if we had restrained ourselves more and followed the advice of healthcare professionals. We are on target for many more to die this year because we still aren’t changing our behaviors enough.
We learned that we don’t know how to have healthy and respectful conversations with those who see the world differently than we do. We are letting anger and fear and hate guide our national conversations instead of love and compassion.
Those are just a few of the things we need to work on as a nation in the new year. I am sure you can list many more. But will we do the hard work to actually change? That’s what we must ask ourselves.
I read these words from Joan Chittister on New Year’s Day, and they struck me as important words to carry into the new year.
“God created the world but did not complete it. That task is left for us. Our life is meaningless until we ask the hard question—what do I have that I can give to help complete the world?”
Completing the world means transforming it into the world that God dreams of on our behalf. God is with us in that work, but much of it is ours to do. We are partners with God as Jesus made those first disciples his partners, calling them to go out into the world to heal and forgive and feed and love. And so on this first Sunday of the new year, I ask for you to carry this question in your heart this year: What do I have that I can give to help complete the world?