The early years - Luke 2:39-52
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
For those of you who are still at school or university let me share with you what is waiting in store for you in a few years time when some of your friends get married and have children. It is called, ‘The Christmas Circular Letter’. The standard ‘round robin’ goes something like this: ‘We have had a super year as a family the highlight being a 2 week holiday yachting in the Alps. The twins are especially doing well. Tarquin having gained 12 ‘A’ levels has his sights set on becoming a brain surgeon. He has already displayed skills in that direction when he operated on the cat which he diagnosed as having some form of catatonic fits. Tara also shows promise. She has just completed her Gold Standard Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and raised £50,000 for Comic Relief. Both will be six years old next birthday.’ Parents do have a tendency not only to exaggerate when it comes to their little dears’ abilities but also blow a mighty big trumpet for them.
Mercifully that was never a temptation which Mary and Joseph ever succumbed to when it came to the boy Jesus, although being who he was, God Incarnate, one might have understood it if they had. When you read Luke’s account, which is the only glimpse we have of Jesus’ boyhood, it is so measured and, as we shall see, purposeful. It is placed here not simply to inform our curiosity about what Jesus did but to instruct our understanding as to who Jesus is.
However, after the New Testament was written, in around the second century a number of very dodgy and clearly made up accounts of the life of Jesus did start to emerge, written by folk who had weird and wonderful ideas which they wanted to pit against authentic Christianity which always had its head properly screwed on. One of these is the so called ‘Infancy Gospel of Thomas’ written in the second century. Let me read a bit from it so you can see that unlike Luke’s Gospel which was written by someone who lived in the first century and had carefully interviewed eyewitnesses, this person inhabits a different universe altogether- the universe of the ‘Christmas circular letter’: ‘When this boy Jesus was five years old he was playing at the ford of a brook, and he gathered together into pools the water that flowed by, and made it at once clean, and commanded it by his word alone. But the son of Annas the scribe was standing there with Joseph; and he took a branch of a willow and (with it) dispersed the water which Jesus had gathered together. When Jesus saw what he had done, he was enraged and said to him: "You insolent, godless dunderhead, what harm did the pools and the water do to you? See, now you also shall wither like a tree and shall bear neither leaves nor root nor fruit." And immediately that lad withered up completely; and Jesus departed and went into Joseph's house. But the parents of him that was withered took him away, bewailing his youth, and brought him to Joseph and reproached him: "What a child you have who does such things." After this again he went through the village and a lad ran and knocked against his shoulder. Jesus was exasperated and said to him: "You shall not go further on your way," and the child immediately fell down and died. But some, who saw what took place, said: "From where does this child spring, since every word is an accomplished deed?" Here Jesus appears as a freakish extra terrestrial bully. What a contrast, then, to the historical Jesus which we have preserved for us here by Luke- so winsome, attractive and- well- so human who displays his divinity in much more subtle ways which are consistent with the revelation we have of God elsewhere in the Bible.
So why is the story here at all? Certainly it was to enable Luke’s patron, Theophilus get a reliable account of the life of Jesus- the facts. But that account includes understanding who Jesus is and its significance for the world- its meaning. The angel Gabriel had announced to Mary that she was to conceive and give birth to someone who would be known as the ‘Son of the Most High.’ But what kind of Son was he to be? In this passage we are told and so discover three things.
First, he is the submissive Son vv 41- 47
Look at verses 41- 42, ‘Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the Feast, according to the custom.’ There were three great festivals that every Jew was expected to celebrate at least once in their lifetime, if not every year. The Passover was one of them when the people remembered the time when God’s people was in bondage in Egypt and were rescued by God involving the sacrifice of a Passover lamb, which died in the place of the firstborn. It was a dramatic and miraculous provision by God, one which the people were never to forget, but one which also looked forward to its authentic fulfilment when people would be set free from a far darker bondage, to sin, Satan and death by another sacrifice being provided for them by God, another ‘lamb’ who is right here in the Temple, but just a boy and that is still very much future.
People travelled in groups and caravans and the roads from Galilee in the north to Jerusalem in the
South would have been alive with the traffic of humans and animals. It would have been a great adventure for everybody as extended families met and people from the same village walked the route with their donkeys and baggage, talking, laughing and singing together the various ‘psalms of Ascent’. There would also have been family get togethers, catching up on the news from distant relatives, and who knows, maybe a few marriages were arranged. The distance between Nazareth and Jerusalem is about 85miles. So it would have taken three to four days to walk the crowded roads with mules and packs. The Feast itself took another eight days. So this was a big deal for everyone, including Jesus .And the fact that this incident took place when Jesus was 12 years old is probably significant. The 12th year was the final year of preparation for a boy before he entered full participation in the religious life of the synagogue. Up until that time his parents, especially his father, were teaching him the commandments of the law, but at the end of the 12th year the child goes through a ceremony by which he formally takes on the yoke of the law and becomes a bar mitzvah or "son of the commandment." This was the year Jesus chose to stay behind in the temple. Perhaps, at this crucial turning point in every Jewish boy's life, Jesus wanted to demonstrate subtly for those who had eyes to see that he would be more than an ordinary Jewish bar mitzvah; his insight into the commandment was more profound than ordinary men, and his relation to God was unique as we shall see in a moment.
But the main point is this: Jesus and his parents were truly godly. This commitment to the Festivals alone spoke volumes of their devotion to God. It cost them, financially having to give up work for over a fortnight; physically having to make the long 85 mile trek up the steep climb to Jerusalem from the Jordan Valley. And as we shall see in a moment, they were to bear a great cost emotionally. This is one of the things Luke is going to great lengths to emphasis in these first few chapters, that there were genuine, pious Jewish believers around when God embarked upon his great rescue mission through his Son. The Old Testament is not ditched. These people aren’t hypocrites, they genuinely love God and they show that by wanting to meet with his people and obey his Word. You see, it isn’t cool or trendy to sit lightly to what God asks of those who would follow him. It is he and not we who is the centre of the Universe; and Jesus, Mary and Joseph rejoiced in that fact. Now could I ask: is this an attitude which we are in danger of losing? A few years ago the Christian writer, Leon Morris said this: ‘True worship is at a cost. This is something that still needs to be learned on a day when men and women take churchgoing lightly, when they will go to church only if it is easy, if the church is near, if the choir is good, if the preacher is approved, if the weather isn't bad, if friends haven’t dropped in for a visit, and if a 101 other things haven't stopped them. If worship means a real effort, then men and women today are often disinclined to make it.’ Now that charge could not be laid at the door of Jesus, he was a submissive Son. Now, isn’t that something you want to be- submissive to God, a delight to him? If so then you will meet with his people.
In the second place he is the self-conscious Son an idea which is focused for us by the centre of the passage in v49 as he turns to his parents and says, ‘Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”
Here we are given a window into Jesus developing self-consciousness, his gradual self- awareness of who he really was. This is where we are given a glimpse of that mysterious relationship between the two natures of Christ, the Divine and the Human united in one Person.
Because of 2,000 years of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ we might not think it that significant to be able to refer to God as ‘Our Father’, but that was not the case in Jesus’ day. And anyway he doesn’t call God ‘our Father’ but ‘my Father’. For the Jews of Jesus time, God was wholly other, he was transcendent; even his name could not be uttered. Only twice in the Old Testament is God spoken of as Father, and we have yet to find anyone before Jesus who spoke of him in this intimate, filial way as ‘my Father’. This would have been quite shocking both to his earthly parents and the religious leaders gathered around him; actually it would appear almost blasphemous. Who does this 12 year old, whose job it is to hang doors with his Dad Joseph, ‘up North’, think he is calling the Creator of the heavens and the earth ‘my Father’ as if he has a relationship with him which no other person has, transcending space and time itself. It would have seemed weird at best; blasphemous at worst and yet he says it as if this is the most natural thing in the world. How do you explain that?
Then he says he ‘had to be in My Father’s house’. This is what is technically known as the ‘divine passive’ in the original language- that there is a divine compulsion about it all, a destiny if you will set by God. Jesus at 12 is aware he has a divine purpose to fulfil.
And where is he? He is in the Temple, the jewel in the crown of the Jewish religion, the symbol of God’s commitment to his people, the place where God was said to be present from which he ruled the universe. This is the meeting place between God and man, where sacrifices are offered to get rid of sin and where God’s law is taught and applied. And he is saying, this, not Nazareth is his proper home! What and extraordinary thing for a young boy to claim. So have you picked up on the equation yet? The Temple is ‘God’s home’; it is also ‘Jesus’ home’. And although Mary and Joseph are said in v50 not to understand what he was saying, Jesus speaks as if they should have, ‘Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’ There is an innocent bewilderment here with Jesus. Yes. he would have seen the pain on his parents faces- v48, the word translated ‘anxious’ is actually ‘pain’. Mary chides him by speaking of the anxiety suffered by herself and ‘your father’, that is his legal father Joseph, but didn’t she know that his real Father was the God of heaven? This is not the last time that Jesus gently, but firmly has to correct his Mother- after all; unlike her Son she was sinful and her priorities were sometimes skewed. So perhaps he was implicitly reminding them of the visit of Gabriel to Mary and the revelation she had received that Jesus was the ‘Son of the Most High’ and so where else should he be? Maybe he was implicitly reminding Joseph of the divine dream he had, again involving angelic visitation that he was to be named ‘Jesus’ for he would redeem his people from their sins’- notice that his people, which is God’s people. This is divinity we are talking about. You can’t simply push this boy to oneside and say he is just another religious leader- if he is divinity then he is the object of worship and adoration. All that is implied by this passage.
But this is more subtle that Jesus thinking, let alone saying, ‘I am God’. For we have the mystery of divinity coming as humanity. This is not a beaming down of God in the appearance of a man as in Greek myths, donning a human disguise. No, God the Son really became a human being. Just look at what he was doing in v 46, he was in the Temple courts sitting ‘among the teachers listening to them and asking them questions.’ Jesus didn’t suddenly wake up on his 12th birthday full of precocious theological knowledge- ‘I am the second person of the Trinity’. We are told in v40 that the ‘child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom and the grace of God was upon him’ and later in v 52, ‘Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature and in favour with God and men.’ Wisdom doesn’t just descend upon people- it develops through the study and application or God’s Word by prayer. Jesus would have learnt of God in his home and synagogue. He is obviously an avid pupil as we can see here. Why ask questions if he knows all the answers? Admittedly he was well advanced in his understanding because the theological experts were bowled over by some of the answers he gave in v47. But that does not mean that he was drawing on the knowledge of his divinity, as a human being his knowledge grew as a human being. And as our knowledge grows in understanding our own personal identity, especially during adolescence, so Jesus began to be aware that he was the object of all Old Testament prophecy- he was the lamb of God who was to take away the sin of the world, he was God’s suffering servant, he was the heir to the throne of David, and subjectively he became aware that he had a relationship with God that no one else has had or ever will have. Of course, as he got older then it all came together, so that in John 17 he is fully aware that his relationship with the Father goes back into all eternity before the world was even made, he shared the Shekinah glory of God. But like all human knowledge, even his knowledge about his divinity was to grow and develop. Let me put it like this: His God consciousness grew with his self- consciousness.
Fully God, fully man, united in one Person whom we know as Jesus- that is what Luke is laying before us with this episode. There is no religion on earth which believes anythinglike this. But what does it mean to say that Jesus, even at the age of 12 is fully divine? Here is one writer from the 5th century, Augustine: ‘He (Jesus), through whom time was made, was made in time; and He, older by eternity than the world itself, was younger in age than many of His servants in the world; He, who made man, was made man; He was given existence by a mother whom He brought into existence; He was carried in hands which He formed; He nursed at breasts which He filled; He cried like a babe in the manger in speechless infancy -- this Word without which human eloquence is speechless!’ It is meant to move us to wonder and worship and to be amazed by it all.
But what of his humanity? Well, this brings us to our third point-the sympathetic Son. When God the Son entered into our human existence some 2000 years ago he shared our life in all its grime, in all its bewilderment and disappointment. He knew what it was like to be a baby with dirty nappies, a toddler learning to walk, an adolescent with sexual drives, a man weary and in pain. In my pastoral experience I find people wondering how they can relate to God who seems so distant and how such a God can relate to them. Of course the god of Islam can’t, the god of New Age and our imagination can’t, but the true God of the Christian faith can. Let me tell you something: there used to be a famous saying about the medical profession: ‘Only the wounded physician can heal.’ Isn’t it true that we can relate better to someone who has been through what we are going through and has come out the other end? Well, that is what this is all about: God sympathising with us by becoming one of us. Could I ask you: Do you sometimes feel lonely and neglected? Well, so did Jesus. Do you feel misunderstood- considered suspect by your own family even? So did Jesus. Are you sometimes eaten up with anxiety about what the future might hold? So was Jesus. You see, God has felt the adrenaline rushing through his veins. God has known the joy as well as the disappointments relationships can bring. But most of all- most of all- he has known the crippling burden sin and guilt wreaks upon the human soul as he died to take away your sin and mine, for you see he was to return to this very spot 20 years later to be judged in our place on a cross, to be the meeting place between God and man, the real Temple, so that as we come to Him we come to God. So please don’t ever say that God doesn’t understand or that God doesn’t care-he cares this much to become one of us so that we can become one with him as his children. Let us pray.
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