First Sunday of Christmas (30 December 2018)
Community Worship with Northfield Community Church and St. James the Less Episcopal Church
JoAnn A. Post
Now every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 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. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him.
After three days, they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 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.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.
I am one of eight Iowa farm children, each of us taller and more opinionated than the one before. We are a highly verbal family, nothing goes without saying—even things that probably should have been left alone. Unlike Mary, Mother of Our Lord who is a “ponderer,” we are “blurters” who mostly speak before we think.
Imagine being born into that noisy household. Imagine how little anyone cared what you had to say, even if there was an opening to say it or anyone remembered your name. The family lore is that one of my younger brothers—hard to keep track of which one in the scrum around our kitchen table—didn’t speak a word until he was four. Had this happened these days, my parents would have rushed such a child to every specialist in the county, testing him for rare disorders or cognitive disabilities. Instead, our country doctor, who knew our family well because he had delivered most of us, was unflustered. “He’ll talk when he has something to say.” And he was right.
One day out in the dairy barn, my four-year-old brother looked up at Dad and said, “I think the cat wants some milk.” He had waited four years to say that?
If the gospel writer Luke is to be believed, Jesus didn’t speak for a dozen years. In fact, Jesus probably spoke plenty but nothing worth reporting—not even the words he exchanged with the elders in the temple, asking and answering scripture questions. I suppose Luke, a country physician himself, figured he’d let us know when Jesus had something important to say.
Today is that day. Luke reports Jesus’ first words today. And all of us lean in to hear. What will Jesus say, this child of unusual birth and prophetic promise? Prepare to be disappointed. Jesus’ first recorded words? Sass: “Where did you think I was?” Disrespect: “I was in the house of my real father.”
He waited 12 years to say that?
Scripture nerds find this text fascinating. There are a hundred ways into its maze-like construction. Why the 12-year silence about Jesus’ life? We could study the literary technique (the foreshadowing of his three-day absence, for example), or the family dynamics (if I had talked to my parents with that attitude, it would not have gone so well). Luke gives us insights into Jewish custom (the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, for example), and social customs (would your parents have trusted you were in good company if you went missing for a day?)
It is also filled with oddities:
- Jesus was 12 in this story—a full year before he would return for his bar mitzvah and his formal questioning; couldn’t he have waited a year to show off his skill with a yod and a torah?
- Jesus didn’t have a clue why his parents were so upset? Really?
- On the night of Jesus’ birth, Mary “pondered all these things in her heart.” Later, at his circumcision, Simeon warned Mary that a “sword shall pierce your heart” because of this child (Luke 2.35). Now, Mary “treasures all these things in her heart.” How can a single heart survive such pondering and treasuring and piercing?
The lectionary cycle can be wildly confusing. Just five days ago we celebrated the birth of Jesus. Today he is 12 years old, and in four months he will be an adult being tried for blasphemy in a kangaroo court. The lapses in the story make it sometimes difficult to follow. But the gospel writer was not producing a court transcript, taking down every word, every sigh, every eye roll. Instead, Luke is hastily setting the table for the feast of Jesus’ ministry to follow. In this handful of verses about pre-pubescent Jesus, Luke tells us everything we need to know—his past, his present, his future.
Luke closes this breathless synopsis with a simple sentence: “Jesus returned with them to Nazareth and was obedient to his parents.” Good plan, Jesus, since questioning your paternity in front of the neighbors may not have been the wisest move.
But at the center of the intrigue about this text are those first words: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
If we are honest, most of us are more comfortable with the Baby Jesus—infant holy infant lowly lying in a cattle stall—than we will be with the Adult Jesus. The Jesus who makes pronouncements as startling as these every day of his (recorded) ministry.
Jesus will name demons by name; he will challenge death; he will teach the teachers of Israel. Jesus will forgive the sins of unforgiveable sinners and name as “sin” the behavior of the temple leaders—those who strut in long robes and pray long prayers and write checks with long zeros at the end. Jesus will defy the laws of physics (remember walking on water?) and defend his disciples from those who choose to misunderstand.
From his first words to his last, Jesus always speaks the truth. Always. And that truth-telling will ultimately earn him a cross. Where Mary, whose heart is already bursting, will watch him hang like a criminal.
In two days, we begin a new year. A fresh calendar page. A laundry list of “this year I’m gon’na . . .” A chance to try something new. What will our first words in the new year be? Our last? It is worth pondering. Because our words matter.
The coming year may bring enormous upheaval in governments at every level, on every continent. Though the temptation will be to imagine enemies, to delight in downfall, to offer opinion unblemished by fact, we who follow Jesus know that words matter. Will we pray for our leaders and those in authority over us? Will we welcome those whose ideas differ from ours or shun them? How will we use our words?
Our congregation, like yours, I imagine, has seen a heartbreaking number of sorrows in recent weeks. And some of us anticipate more sorrow in the year to come. My own mother is old, winding down like a clock. There are seven hours between us, so with very visit I wonder if it will be my last. What will I say to her when I see her next? What will she say to me? I don’t recall her first words to me. I wonder what her last will be?
In every aspect of our lives, words matter. And those of us who love and follow Jesus must choose our words carefully. In the public square, on social media, in our congregations, in the privacy of our homes.
Jesus’ first words stung. He was mystified at his parents’ fear. He clarified the angels’ words about his paternity. But we know he didn’t intend to hurt. He was speaking truth—a truth Mary and Joseph had probably been waiting for. And after his first momentous words, his parents gathered him in their arms, set their eyes toward home, and treasured all that he had said to them.
Jesus was a good son to Joseph and Mary, and to God: “growing in wisdom, years and favor.”
Today Jesus’ words are spoken directly to us. Words of forgiveness. Words of welcome. Words of love. Every word matters. Every word is true.