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As a church, we are beginning to move out of the Christmas season and into the season of Epiphany. The word ‘Epiphany’ is from the Greek, which means: “the realisation of the true meaning of something” – and this season is called Epiphany because, as Christians, the fact that Jesus was born to us: the Word of God became Flesh. This means that we are able to realise who God is and what he has done for us.
Through the event of Christ’s birth, we have an epiphany: we realise who God is and just how much he loves each one of us.
The church season of Epiphany lasts for five weeks and the focus of the church’s worship during this period is an exploration of what God reveals to us through the person of Jesus Christ. Of course, we think about the visit of the wise men to offer Jesus their gifts but that is just the introductory story, if you like, for an extended period during which we can reflect on the miracle of God amongst us in human form. And to do that, we will be working through a series of sermons on who Jesus is: what does it actually mean for us to have a relationship with God that is made a reality through the Word becoming Flesh and dwelling among us?
Today, I want to start at the very beginning and consider the childhood of Jesus.
The Christmas season helps us to remember that Jesus began life as a child. God didn’t appear among us as a fully formed adult and even though the Bible doesn’t teach too much about his childhood, there are some important things we can learn about Jesus through what Luke does have to tell us.
Now Luke is the only Gospel writer to give us any real detail about Jesus’ childhood. And we can guess why he wants to say what he does. In Luke 1:1, we see that he is writing to Theophilus who was perhaps a Roman official who had become a Christian and at the beginning Luke says, “Dear Theophilus, many people have done their best to write a report of the things that have taken place among us…because I have carefully studied all these matter from their beginning, I thought it would be good to write an orderly account for you. I do this so you will know the full truth about everything which you have been taught.”
It seems that there were a number of different Gospels in existence by the time that Luke wrote his. Certainly Mark’s Gospel had already been written, and possibly Matthew’s too. And we know that there were others too – less credible accounts. We know, for example, about the Gospel of Thomas and in that book, the boy Jesus was described as a boy wonder performing all sorts of miracles. For example, he made birds out of clay and breathed life into them. His clothes miraculously grew longer as he got taller, and so on…These seem to have been fables made up about Jesus and perhaps Luke wants to write the truth about his childhood so that Theophilus isn’t sidetracked into believing these weird and wonderful stories.
And so, in these early chapters, Luke tells us nine stories surrounding Jesus’ infancy and childhood: the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth; the story of Mary’s pregnancy; the story of Mary visiting Elizabeth; the story of Zechariah in the Temple; the Angels and the Shepherds; the shepherds visiting Jesus, Simeon in the Temple, and Anna in the Temple. And the ninth story is this one about Jesus in the Temple at the age of 12. So let’s look at this together and see what we can learn from it…
The scene is set in Jerusalem, which was so important for Jesus. He was born only five miles from there. He was circumcised there. And, we are told, made an annual visit for the Passover. Jesus cried over Jerusalem as an adult and he would eventually die there. So it is appropriate that this story centres on the city that was so integral to his future ministry.
Jesus was there for the Passover – a seven-day festival, perhaps the greatest of all Jewish festivals – and we are told that he was twelve years old. His age in this story is important because it means he was at the end of childhood and just to become a man. Jesus was due to have his bar mitzvah: a puberty ritual that marks the passing of infancy and the approach to adulthood. In the previous stories, Jesus is referred to by the word ‘paidion’, which means ‘baby’ or ‘young child’. But in verse 43, he is called ‘pais’, meaning ‘older boy’. Jesus is growing to maturity from an infant to a young man, with all that that entails…
There is a saying that it takes a village to raise a child – and that’s certainly what we see in this story. In verse 44, we are told that Mary and Joseph and Jesus had travelled to Jerusalem with a group of friends and relatives and it must have been a large group for them not to realise that Jesus had gone missing. So we get a lovely insight into the childhood of Jesus – that it wasn’t a lonely childhood but growing up in a tight-knit community surrounded by his aunts and uncles and cousins and brothers and sisters. Presumably, Jesus had a lot of fun as a child!
And then we come to a key point, in verses 45-46: “[Mary and Joseph] did not find him, so they went back to Jerusalem looking for him. On the third day, they found him in the Temple…” Not the first or second day. Not the fourth day. But on the third day, they found him…Here we have a prophecy about the death and resurrection of Jesus, where Jesus spent three days in the tomb before being raised, as he said metaphorically, to rebuild the Temple. Right from the beginning of his Gospel account, Luke is preparing us for the end: “On the third day, they found him in the Temple…”
I remember when Rebekah was about 6 years old, we were living in the East End of London at the time. And we were having a pub lunch and Rebekah needed the toilet, so we told her where it was and off she went. After about 10 minutes, she hadn’t come back, so we went to the toilets to get her: but she wasn’t there…
Now, if you have ever misplaced your own child you will know the sheer panic that sets in…We went back to the bar and shouted, “Our daughter is missing. Can you help find her, please?” The bar emptied out of about 30 men, all scouring the streets round the pub, heading out to the local park, stopping cars as they drove by. 10 minutes later, still nothing…I thought my world was collapsing around me
Then a very sheepish Rebekah was led back to us, hand in hand with a woman who had found her in another set of toilets in the pub we didn’t know were there. Rebekah had been having 20 minutes of fun playing with the hand driers!
So what did I do? First, I gave her a hug of relief and said how much I loved her. Second, I told her off! “I’m so glad you’re safe! But where have you been? You must never wander off like that again! But I’m so glad you’re safe!”
That mixture of relief and anger – perhaps you’ve had a similar experience yourself?
And that’s how Mary and Joseph were, in verse 48: “My son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been terribly worried trying to find you…”
And Jesus’ reply is really important, not least because it is the first time we hear his words in Luke’s Gospel. And what does he say? “Why did you have to look for me? Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?”
And here – in this first recorded utterance of the Son of God: the Word made flesh – here is the pinnacle of the story…“Why did you have to look for me? Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?”
I ‘must be’ in my Father’s house. This Greek word ‘dei’, meaning ‘must be’ is a really important word for Luke whenever Jesus uses it – and each time it refers to his sense of compulsion about his ministry. For example: Luke 2:49 – “I must be in my Father’s house”; Luke 4:43 – “I must preach the Good News”; Luke 9:22 – “The Son of Man must suffer much and be put to death” …and so on.
Jesus had a sense of compulsion about his ministry: he knew what he had to do. And Luke tells us here that this self-awareness began to develop at a very early age. Jesus, out of a growing awareness of the call on his life says, “I must be in my Father’s house”.
Is it any wonder, then, that in verse 50 we read that Mary and Joseph “did not understand his answer”. How could they understand? How could they realise what their son would need to do for God? How could they grasp the depth of suffering that awaited him just a few years down the line?
But, as Luke writes in verse 51: “His mother treasured all these things in her heart”. She spent the next 18 years before Jesus’ public ministry began pondering the meaning of all these things; from the angel Gabriel visiting Zechariah through to this episode at the Temple in Jerusalem…
We aren’t told any more details about the childhood of Jesus – but what we have here is immense. Here is the Word made Flesh, God in our midst, growing into maturity, from infancy into childhood, just as we did, facing all the same issues we did. Here is the Word made Flesh, God in our midst, growing up in the context of a family, just as we did, with all the joys and frustrations that brings. Here is the Word made Flesh, God in our midst, growing into a deeper awareness of God’s call on his life and his need to be obedient to that call.
A threefold maturing is outlined here: maturing within himself, maturing within the community, and maturing in his relationship with God.
Now, I’m not one for New Year’s Resolutions really. But I do recognise the need for personal growth. Perhaps we all do. And this story of the childhood of Christ can help motivate us in that way…
There is a call on each one of us to mature within ourselves: develop spiritual disciplines, grow in love and compassion for others, develop a greater sense of forgiveness and love for ourselves.
There is a call on each one of us to mature within the community: to ask ourselves afresh what we can do this year, to serve within the church, the Body of Christ, so that we can encourage and strengthen one another in faith and love.
There is a call on each one of us to mature in our relationship with God: to deepen our prayer life, to deepen our desire to study the Bible, to deepen our love for him.
The childhood stories of Jesus are stories of maturing: maturing with regard to self, maturing with regard to the community, maturing with regard to God.
In 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul says this: “All of us, then, reflect the glory of the Lord…; and that same glory, coming from the Lord, who is the Spirit, transforms us into his likeness in an ever greater degree of glory.”
I hope that it is the prayer and determination of each one of us, as we embark upon 2016, to do what we can to be transformed ever closer into the likeness of Christ so that God will be glorified in us and through.
At the beginning of this New Year, we take the opportunity to recommit ourselves to God for the coming year and for the rest of our lives. Amen.