Sunday, December 30, 2012

First Sunday After Christmas

Luke 2
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 travelers, 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. 52And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

For those who insist on knowing the full story, I give you a book called “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas.” Now, before you run out and write a Dan Brown-type conspiracy novel, I have to warn you that all that I’m about to share about the supposed childhood of Jesus is widely-known, never-hidden, and has no obvious role for Tom Hanks. Unless he played Joseph, and that French actress who’s name escapes me played Mary, and maybe that French guy who always plays a cop is in it too.

Carmen will tell you that “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas” is a pseudepigraphical gospel that is both late in the gospel-writing period and fully non-canonical. Then in English she will tell you that it wasn’t really written by Thomas (he has his own non-canonical gospel), it seems to come from the middle of the second century and that it was never seriously considered for inclusion in the biblical canon.

Isn’t scholarship fun? So, the next time you are at lunch and someone tells you that they’re writing a fake autobiography of the Duchess of Cambridge to cash in on the whole royal baby thing, you can dismiss them quickly by saying something like “a pseudepigrapha, really? That’s so overdone.” At this point, you should offer to get the check.

So there is a little-known infancy gospel that recalls several fanciful stories from Jesus’ childhood. You’re not going to like it. Some are playful: making twelve clay sparrows and willing them to come to life and fly away. Some are helpful: Heals a snake bite, heals an axe wound, resurrects a boy who fell from a great height. And some are downright disturbing: curses a couple of boys who unfortunately die, and blinds their parents for complaining about it.

I think you see the problem with “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas.” Not only is it late and falsely attributed, it seems to vacillate between silly and cruel. I understand that a hunger existed for more of Jesus’s childhood stories, but these stories seem better suited to Superman than the Saviour of the World. So scrap your plans for a novel, and the movie rights, and go with my Duchess of Cambridge idea instead.

Having discounted all of the childhood stories except one, we can still wonder with Mary at the remarkable events that happened around Passover, when Jesus was a lad of twelve: He gets separated from his parents. They double-back to find him, and eventually he is located within the temple, with the elders, listening and asking questions. Everyone is amazed by this wisdom. Nevertheless, he earns a rebuke from his folks, and he replies “didn’t you know I would be in my Father’s house?” After this, we’re told, he is obedient: returning home while Mary treasured all these things in her heart.

Sure, this story isn’t as engaging as a flock of clay birds or as alarming as what might happen when you make the boy Jesus mad, but it seems plausible, almost expected, that this child with a growing sense of his divinity might head to the temple. There, of course, he would astound others. A prodigy has always been a source of amazement, and even more so when the prodigy has insight into the ways of God. History records that Joan of Arc had her first visions at age twelve, the same age that Joseph Smith took up religion, and the same age that Mother Teresa decided to give herself to God.

On one level, then, it is a coming-of-age story. It marks the transition from childhood to adulthood, even though we have no additional stories to back this up. Nevertheless, twelve is the age of religious instruction for Jewish boys and girls before Bat Mitzvah (girls, 12) and Bar Mitzvah for boys of 13. Among First Nations the vision quest happens around this age, with separation and fasting used to determine a sense of the young person’s future. Even J.K. Rowling worked in this important moment, 11 years-old for admission to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the very same age when real girls and boys in the UK wrote their Eleven Plus exams, the test that largely determined their future.

The story of Jesus in the temple is also an important ‘inside knowledge’ story, an important device employed by the Gospel writers to deepen our commitment to Jesus. In the story, the boy is lost, but we are not surprized that something unusual might happen to the same lad that entered the world in such a miraculous way. He is discovered in the temple, again, hardly a surprize when we (the reader) have known all along that this boy is destined to be called ‘the son of the Most High.” Even Mary’s treasuring is far from surprizing to the insider/reader, since we’ve known from the beginning of this story that Mary is ‘highly favoured,’ and the whom future generations will call Blessed.

Finally, this is a story about intimacy. It is about the trust extended to a group of travelers on the road, and the belief that the extended community and clan would have the same tender regard for the boy as his mother and father. It is about the wonder and amazement that comes when a child finds his place among the elders and is added to their number, encouraged to ponder the ways of God and speak his mind. It is about the gentle rebuke that prompts Jesus first confession of faith. And it is about the child of 12 who can claim kinship with God and the growing understanding that his relationship to God is utterly unique. And the treasuring, the heartfelt desire to hold these things close to the heart is the most intimate act of all, a mother’s understanding that this is not simply her child, but the very child of God.

In many ways, to treasure in our hearts is the goal of the Christian life. Not just the wonder of a child, our own, or one dear to us, or one we have cause to teach; and not just treasuring this particular story of Jesus, but to treasure our Lord himself. Can we say, with sincerity, that we treasure Jesus? Is he central to who we are and who we seek to become? Can we imagine our life without his friendship, companionship, or guidance?

If you are wondering what happened to the usual pulpit guy, wonder no more. It is the same guy. Years ago I wrote a blog for the Emerging Spirit campaign that tried to capture some of this, and what I ended up with was the question: “Would your life be diminished in the absence of a relationship with Jesus.” The first person who responded to my blog wrote, “it depends what you mean by Jesus.” In some ways, my attempt to ask the question in a way that might be most palatable to a United Church audience was trumped by a typical United Church response.

Why, just last year the Observer asked good United Church folk if they believed in God. Simple question, one would assume, until you see the response: Among clergy, 76% said ‘yes’ and 24% said ‘it depends what you mean by God.’ And not to be outdone, lay people made a similar response: 73% said ‘yes,’ and 23% said ‘it depends what you mean by God.’ The other 4% of lay people seem missing and unaccounted for.

I’m actually less alarmed by the roughly 1 in 4 who are uncertain about this ill-defined God we serve. There is a very complex picture of God in scripture, and in fact, even within books of the Bible some very hard-to-comprehend details emerge about the God who may be loving, and forgiving, but judgmental, and filled with some justified wrath, and so on. God is a mystery to human understanding, something God summed up rather well when God said “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55.8). We can and should accept this, and we will be the better for it.

But what we mean by Jesus is another matter. Son of the Most High, healer, friend of the friendless, source of wisdom, source of hope, the one willing to defy convention for the sake of wholeness and joy, the one who was quick to forgive and reluctant to condemn, the one who came to give life in abundance and always knew which side of the boat had more fish. The one who said “love as I have loved you,” and the one who promised many rooms in God’s house. The Jesus who preached and lived the Kingdom of God but never made it easy, only available to those with the heart to embrace it. This is the Jesus we treasure, the one we treasure because he treasured us first, and always, Amen.


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