(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Sunday Worship on Dec 27, 2015)
“But He Was a Baby Last Year…”
In the nursery at the small, country Catholic church, Sister Teresa gathered the children round to tell them the story of Christmas. She set up the nativity and began. The little children were clearly captivated. They followed the gentle movement of her hands, as she brought the figurines to life. All was calm in the room. All was bright. Until Sister Teresa got to the end of the story and placed the baby Jesus figurine in the manger. At this, a look of utter confusion washed over the face of little Sammy, one of the older toddlers, and he leaned in for a closer look at the baby Jesus. Little Sammy had had a baby brother himself since the year before, and maybe that explains what he said next. “But he was a baby last year! Jesus must be bigger now.”
While little Sammy had not yet quite grasped the nature of birthdays or anniversaries, he has a thing or two to teach us who would keep Jesus eternally in the manger, or eternally at the end of his life. Jesus, according to little Sammy and also to our story today in Luke, lived a life just like any one of us. Jesus grew up just like you and me, enduring growing pains just like any adolescent.
Which brings us to today’s scripture, a remarkable story that offers us the only glimpse we have of Jesus when he was a child.
And the setting of the story is a remarkably familiar one. We can imagine the scene in Jerusalem: decorations are being taken down; residents are tidying up; a satisfied silence envelops the city. Passover, the main holiday of the year, has just ended.
And I imagine that the first couple days after Passover are like the first couple days after Christmas: they pass anonymously, as though we don’t care so much to acquaint ourselves with them but would rather just rest in their quietness. And perhaps that’s why Mary and Joseph didn’t notice their son’s absence on the first day of their journey back. Perhaps they were relishing the tired plod of their donkeys, the relative quiet of their relatives, the calm afterglow of the festival.
I imagine that’s where a lot of us are right now: relishing the afterglow. We too are quietly coming down, gently preparing ourselves for the return to normalcy.
Where Is Jesus?
And perhaps like Mary and Joseph, we too will eventually stop to ask: where is Jesus? Our nativities are coming down. Which means the baby Jesus is no longer a baby, no longer in the manger. So where is he now? Where is Jesus as we remove the ornaments and take the tree down?
According to Luke, Jesus has not yet left the scene of the festival. Passover was finished for Jesus and the rest of them. But Jesus was not finished with Passover. While the rest of his family were relishing the afterglow, reliving the festive scenes in their minds as they recalibrated their hearts to business as usual, Jesus remained alight, aglow, aflame with curiosity. By that time, the festive lights in Jerusalem would have been disappearing—as many of our Christmas lights will soon be disappearing—but as the fire died outside, it only flamed higher and higher inside the youthful soul of Jesus.
A holy spark had jumped the ashes of Passover and had caught hold of Jesus. He could not leave the Temple. And what follows is one of the strongest images we have of Jesus’ humanity.
It’s easy to sentimentalize this scene, to paint it in the broad, warm strokes of a Thomas Kinkade painting: the boy Jesus, astonishing the rabbis with his divine wisdom. But that would risk missing the point that this boy Jesus is just like any other boy his age. He’s full of questions. Eager. Curious. He’s not there with a point to prove. He’s there to learn—to “grow in wisdom,” as Luke says it (2:52). I imagine him pushing those rabbis to the limits of their knowledge, subjecting them to that most rigorous form of inquisition practiced by twelve-year olds all across the globe: “Why? Why? Why?” Or perhaps to that other infamous youthful inquiry, in which the impossible is imagined, along with the daring question: “Why not?”
If Jesus were with us today as a twelve year old, he might well take stock of our Christmas celebrations and then audaciously ask, “Why not? Why can’t we have this spirit of love and selflessness all year round?” I can’t help but think that he was asking similar questions there in the Temple just after Passover. In my mind, the grey and wispy-haired rabbis are remembering the exodus, how they were helpless strangers in Egypt but God took notice and saved them, and how they as Israelites were commanded to do the same, to take notice of the stranger in their midst and to care for them. And in the midst of this discussion, Jesus pipes up and asks, “And what about our enemies? How should we treat them? And what about forgiveness? If we only ever forgive people who are sorry, will that ever change the world?” How the biggest questions often come from the smallest among us. And yet even as Jesus grows up, he does not discard these big questions. His sermon on the plain, just four chapters later in Luke, will invite people to love their enemies and to forgive unconditionally (6:32-38).
The hard lesson that Mary and Joseph learn in today’s story is the same hard lesson that any parent must learn, I suppose. Their baby child is growing up.
And that, I believe, is the lesson for us today too. We learn it just as easily from little Sammy as we do from today’s story in Luke. Jesus was born a baby. But now he’s growing. And he’s showing us that even though the great festival has ended—Passover, in his case, Christmas in ours—even though the party is over, it continues in our hearts. As the fire dies down outside us, so it sparks something inside us. For Jesus, the fire within would grow and grow until he was publicly proclaiming the good and difficult news of enemy love and unconditional forgiveness. For us, perhaps the fire within is Jesus, and Jesus is growing. And like Mary and Joseph, we watch nervously, realizing that the baby Jesus is not ours to keep, but a curious and inquisitive and bold spirit who will exasperate us as much as he will endear himself to us.
“Let Christmas Last the Whole Year Through…”
“Let Christmas last the whole year through. Let love and joy abound.” So begins the poem by one of our very own, Becky. It is an invitation that we see in the flesh in today’s story. The ancient story of Passover and God’s love for an oppressed people catches hold of Jesus, ignites a holy passion within. Passover the festival has ended. But Passover the story lives on in Jesus. Where it simmers beneath the surface, fermenting, evolving, growing into the gospel that Jesus will soon be proclaiming. So for us the festival of Christmas is ending. But the hope is that the story of Christmas will live on—and not just as a fixed memory. The hope is that the story will grow within us like the Christ child himself, will ask questions of us, will lead us to live out love and joy in a real and fresh way.
Naturally, I’m inclined to wrap this sermon up neat and tidy. But I think perhaps today’s story resists such a clean conclusion. Today’s story says rather that the afterglow of Christmas, like the afterglow of Passover, means that even as the fires without die, the fire within is flamed. And that fire within is unpredictable. It caught the parents of Jesus by surprise. Fifteen years or so later, it would catch all of Galilee and Jerusalem by surprise. Some might even say that, in the garden of Gethsemane, it caught Jesus himself by surprise.
You know how they say be careful what you pray for—you just might get it? If we should dare pray that Christmas last the whole year through, then we should also be ready for some growing pains—and a wonderful adventure we could never see coming.
We wonder at the Christ child, God, born in a manger, born in our hearts. Thank you for the gift of love. Our natural tendency is to hold on to the good gifts we receive. May we allow Christ to grow beyond the manger. Open our hearts to the play of a Christ who escapes our expectations, asks unending questions, and surprises us again and again. Encourage us through the growing pains as we seek to let the Christmas story live and grow in us. In the name of Christ our companion: Amen.
 Adapted from a comment on Craig A. Satterlee, “Commentary on Luke 2:41-52,” https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1524, accessed Dec 24, 2015.