Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Luke 2:40-52
at Batesville Presbyterian Church on December 31, 2006
Last Sunday we celebrated the birth of Jesus with the full retinue of children dressed as angels, cows and camels. We marked the birth of Jesus with the Advent Candles and sang Christmas carols. Today, on the First Sunday after Christmas, on this last day of 2006, let's look beyond the birth of Jesus and consider the life of little boy Jesus as we consider what became of the baby in the manger.
The Bible has little to say about little boy Jesus. Yet we do have two stories that shed some light on Jesus' childhood and adolescence. The first story is from the gospel according to Matthew (2:1-12), where we learn that after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, King Herod found some wise men from the East, astrologers, scurrying around Jerusalem asking about the child who had been born king of the Jews, for they had seen his star rising in the East, and they had come to pay him homage. Of course this news sent King Herod into a panic and he immediately called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem with instructions to find this child and let him know when they found him so that he too, could pay him homage. The wise men follow the star and find the holy family but after being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
After they left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to take the child and his mother to Egypt for King Herod would search for the child to destroy him. Joseph and the holy family escape into Egypt. When Herod learns he has been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated and sent and killed all the children in a around Bethlehem who were two years old or under. (Mt. 2:16-18) Today, in Cairo, Egypt, there are Coptic Christians who trace their religious ancestry all the way back to the time when their family embraced the holy family during little boy Jesus' exile in Egypt.
Beyond the fact that little boy Jesus spent his early childhood in Egypt, the Bible has little to tell us except for the remarkable story present in today's gospel reading (Luke 2:40-52) This story, as told in the Gospel according to Luke, occurred when Jesus was twelve years old. By now the holy family has returned to the land of Israel and reside in the town of Nazareth. The story takes place on the family's annual journey to Jerusalem during the Passover celebration. These were occasions of feasting and enjoyment and men brought their families. But even as a child Jesus' religious consciousness is above the ordinary level of consciousness. For even at the tender age of twelve years, his commitment to God supersedes his obligation to his immediate family.
That is to say, if one were to ask the twelve year old Jesus, "Who's your daddy?" His answer would be: "God." Even as an adult Jesus calls God, "Abba" which in our idiom may be translated as "Daddy." Already, as a child, Jesus knows he has a divine mission for human salvation. Thus, he explains to his parents what he was doing in the temple, saying: "I must be in my Father's house." Little boy Jesus is in the temple teaching because he must be about his Father's business, even if this appears to impair his relationship with his parents, Mary and Joseph. This tendency toward doing the will of God regardless of the consequences will follow Jesus like a shadow until he sweats drops of blood in extreme prayer the Garden of Gethsemane as he faces the cross. There, as an adult, even as here, as a child, Jesus will say yes to God's will, regardless of the consequences.
This glimpse into the boyhood of Jesus sets the tone for what is to come. As the years pass, the wisdom that Jesus demonstrated in the temple grows and develops. Everyone seems to love him. He dazzled the teachers in the temple. They were amazed at his understanding and his answers. He is lauded by angels, shepherds, Simeon, Anna and many others in Luke's gospel. Later in Luke's gospel (23:21-22), God's expresses pleasure with Jesus when he comes to be baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan river and the heavens open and a dove descends upon Jesus, and God's voice booms down from heaven, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." And of course we know that Jesus did fulfill his mission of opening the door to God's favor for all people and he did it through an act of suffering that is terrible to contemplate.
We don't often see Jesus' degree of wisdom or devotion in a twelve year old child. In fact, we may assume it has never happened at any time since then. We can only grasp at straws when we try to think of a modern parallel to the love and devotion to God displayed by little boy Jesus. Perhaps the closest we can get to it is a poem. I regard this poem in light of a terrible scene I witnessed once upon a time in Jerusalem. There is a exhibit with a glass front wall at the Yad Vashem, the Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem. Behind the glass wall is a room full of little wrinkled leather children's shoes. They are the shoes of children who were killed in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany. This poem was found by the body of a dead child in the concentration camp called Ravensbrook during the Nazi era:
O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will
but also those of ill will.
But do not remember all the suffering they inflicted on us
remember the fruits we have bought thanks to this suffering
our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity,
the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this.
And when they come to judgement
let all this fruit which we have born
be their forgiveness.
This is the loving spirit of little boy Jesus as he demonstrated in his teaching in the temple when he was twelve years old; and this is the forgiving spirit that Jesus demonstrated as he was hanging on the cross, as he said in regard to those who were crucifying him, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Here we see that by continuing to pour oneself out in self-giving love even the darkest evil can be transformed into a scene of incredible love. We can do this ourselves, we can walk this path of self-emptying love, by staying soft instead of hardening our hearts, by not tightening up but by relaxing and letting in the energy of God's love flow into us and spill over into the world, into our families, into the heart of the child in each of us, even the oldest adult. In doing so, we may be more like little boy Jesus, who increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. We may also hear God say of us one day: "You are my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased."