Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas 1

Luke 2
41 Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44Assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48When 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.’ 49He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’* 50But they did not understand what he said to them. 51Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.

It’s goodbye MMIX and hello MMX.

Of course, Roman numerals are always cool, but since we’ve entered the third millennium, they just keep getting cooler. MMX sounds like either a new style of high-end bicycle or a new class of wrestlers. A new date we get to enjoy all year long.

Born as I was in MCMLXV, I can remember puzzling over the dates a the end of movies, or staring at the corner stones of old buildings, trying to unlock the code of all those letters. I suppose it’s a dying skill, like the kid who looks at the big hand and the little hand and shrugs, saying ‘why bother?’

It also makes me wonder about our Methodist forebears, handed the golden opportunity of inscribing the second longest date in Roman numerals to date. They went Arabic, writing 1887 for the dedication of this building, when they could leap at the chance to write MDCCCLXXXVII. Maybe it was a cost-cutting measure. Maybe they also had a budget deficit (with a limited time to make supplemental gifts) and chose to get cheap on the carving. Or maybe it was disappointment: that they missed the record setting MDCCCLXXXVIII by a full year.

So today I’m going to speak about XII, or a specific event that happened during XII. I should note that no one knew that the year 12 was the year 12, being that Jesus was only 12. It would take another 700 years for people to achieve any kind of consensus on the name of the year. So if I were going to follow local custom on the day in question, I might say “during the time of Consul Germanicus. If you were Roman, you would say ‘oh yeah, Germanicus, okay!’

The story is the boy Jesus in the Temple. His parents lose track of the lad, only twelve at the time, and return to the city to find him locked in deep conversation with the Temple elders. Mom says ‘we were scared to death,’ and Jesus says, ‘You should have guessed I would be here, in my Father’s house.’ Only later did it become clear what he meant.

Attentive Gospel readers will recall that this is the only scrap of information about Jesus between the age of zero and thirty. Mark and John begin in adulthood, and we leap from birth narrative to baptism in Matthew. Only Luke reveals this tiny bit of information, leaving the reader with a considerable gap in the story of Jesus.

That’s in the canonical tradition. If we go non-canonical, looking at the various Gospels that didn’t make the final cut, the story is a little different. There, amid some of the forgotten and nearly forgotten accounts, you will read stories like the boy Jesus makes a clay bird and summons it to life. In another Gospel that we don’t recognize as authoritative, Jesus strikes down some bad kids in the playground and then brings them back to life.

Considering the schoolyard example, I think we’ll stick to the canonical version of things, and the solitary story of Jesus in the Temple. It tells is a bit about Jesus, more about his parents, and hints at a future we can anticipate.

You might say he speaks like he owns the place, and you would be right. The extraordinary wisdom of this lad, the way he claims his place in the Temple, and the obedient way he resumes his childhood all provide context to this emerging life. Jesus’ has some self-understanding, and we assume, I think, that his self-understanding, his relationship to the one he names ‘Father,’ continues to unfold. His baptism by John, his time in the wilderness, his early teaching all point to a developing awareness of his uniqueness.

For Mary and Joseph, the head-shaking experience in the Temple reinforced things they were already suspecting: that this child was unique, that he was ‘born old’ as we sometimes say about certain children, and that his sense of ‘Father’ was unfolding. A desire to debate in the Temple (his ‘Father’s house’) was in tension with the carpenter’s shop back in Nazareth, but Jesus obediently returns to the latter, to wait for his time. He seems to find a way to honour both, as only Jesus could.

For the elders in the Temple, this was one more in a long tradition of extraordinary young people: The boy Samuel hearing God’s call when old Eli cannot, and the shepherd boy David, slingshot in hand stepping forward, are only two examples. Ancient wisdom speaks with a powerful voice, and the elders were sometimes adept enough to listen.


I forgot about my promise to be provocative this morning, until Dr. Jim reminded me on Thursday, so I feel somewhat obligated. I fear I may have failed so far, so here goes:

If the interlude we call the ‘Boy Jesus in the Temple’ were part of a development chart for Christians, too many people would also be 12 and no more. Let me explain.

If we were going to construct a development chart for understanding Jesus, it might look like this:

Who he is
What he does
What we do to him

The first stage (who he is) is focused on the things we can say with some certainty about Jesus. I am not including here ideas such as ‘Messiah’ or ‘Savour.’ Rather, in this first stage, people in the mainline liberal church have determined that Jesus can be identified in several ways, beginning with ‘wise teacher.’ It begins in the Temple in Luke and extends to the Sermon on the Mount and most of the Parable of Jesus. With a little extra reading, you might see this refined further, with some describing him as a sage or a radical peasant, or an apocalyptic figure. Again, this stage could be called simply ‘who he is.’

Stage two I am calling ‘what he does.’ This stage finds its focus on the healing ministry of Jesus, the various miracles such as Cana and the raising of Lazarus, and any action sequence that does not involve direct teaching. The wilderness temptation narrative would fit here, as the story has more to do with resisting the adversary than teaching him anything he doesn’t already know. Still, the main focus of this stage is healing, and the way Jesus makes God manifest.

Stage three, the final developmental stage in this system, I have called ‘what we do to him.’ And what we do, primarily, is reject and destroy Jesus, and in doing so, reject and try to destroy God as well. This stage is the most difficult to accept, and the most difficult to comprehend, and clearly the place where most liberal Christians find discomfort.

The first stage requires only admiration, and an attentive ear to the unique message of this great teacher, both in the context of first century Palestine and in our own. If the church only represented a moral system as developed by Jesus, we would still be a dramatic source for good.

The second stage, the healing ministry requires a suspension of disbelief, something most moderns are willing to do in a movie theatre, but not in church. We have medical insight that would have shocked someone in the 19th century, let alone the first century, so it is little wonder that many have discounted these miracles or tried to explain them away. We seem unable to ascribe power to God in areas we have developed our own power.

The third stage, meaning or belief in the power of Jesus’ death, is the hardest of all to accept. We live in a society that thinks more about age-defying cream and ‘freedom 55’ than the redemptive power of Jesus’ death and the meaning of this death for our lives. We have abandoned any systematic attempt to apply the lessons of Good Friday to our every day, to the extent that when I use a phrase like “Jesus died for me” the most frequent response I get in the United Church is “you don’t honestly believe that, do you?”

Like the Roman numeral, we seem to have moved on from the more difficult and complex aspects of our religion in favour of the entry-level ‘good teacher’ approach that even non-Christians embrace. On a recent TVO programme, Shabir Ally, president of the Islamic Information Centre, spoke eloquently about the moral teaching of Jesus, about John the Baptist, and did it with great respect for our tradition. Contrast that with one of my colleagues who stood up at an event not long ago and said “I’m tired of the Bible: I think it’s time for new stories!” I suppose we could say that at least he still believes in God.


If all of this sounds a tad judgmental, then I suppose it is. Faith is always a work-in-progress, a journey if you like, and we find ourselves in different places at different times in our life. I am not saying that everyone needs to have a sophisticated understanding of faith, or that your understanding has to somehow resemble my understanding, because that you be awfully arrogant on my part (my wife would say awfully Dutch of you).

My intention is to highlight a trend in our church, blessed primarily by our preachers and leaders, away from a traditional understanding (meaning multi-faceted understanding) of Jesus, toward a singular, and foundational understanding that makes him nothing more that a moral teacher. Without all of Jesus: miracle-worker, martyr, mystical head-of-the-church, we are lost.

Following a skillful teacher will only sustain the church as long as the world values the teaching itself, and for the most part the verdict is mixed. The world will turn away when the teaching is too counter-cultural or somehow out of step with the prevailing winds. But wonder, and meaning in death, and the redemptive power of Jesus willingness to accept death: these are themes that live outside of time and speak to every age. All we need is the courage to wrestle with them and understand them for our time.

There is good reason that this church, like most, is shaped like a cross. Form should follow function, any architect will tell you, and the function of this place is to weekly approach the cross of Jesus and make sense of it in our lives. It may the ongoing crucifixion of injustice that we struggle with downstairs. It may be the end of life issues we ponder in our ministry with the bereaved, and it may be the busy people who rush by this place that live daily with meaninglessness and need God’s Word.

In the cross, in the cross,
be my glory ever,
till my raptured soul shall find
rest beyond the river.


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