What Child Is This?
Christmas 1C, December 29-30, 2012
On Monday and Tuesday, we celebrated the birth of Jesus. We looked on with awe and wonder at the story of Mary and Joseph, of angels, and shepherds, and an animal feed trough turned into a makeshift crib for a little baby boy. We sang “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger,” chuckling to ourselves as our own children and grandchildren sang the line, “the cattle are lowing, the poor baby WAKES!”
Babies are cute. They’re fun to play with. They’re cuddly and loving, and it’s a wonderful thing to think of Jesus as a helpless, cute, cuddly newborn infant.
But today is less than a week after all of that, and all of a sudden, here’s Jesus as a 12 year-old kid. No longer the cooing little baby, he’s now only a year away from his bar mitzvah. If he was a member of Our Saviour’s, he’d be acolyting and taking sermon notes and going to confirmation classes. This was a kid on the verge of puberty, whose parents were taking him along for a fairly long trip—from Nazareth to Jerusalem, which would be a distance of about 60 miles. Think about walking from the Haymarket in Lincoln to the Old Market in Omaha…only there was no Interstate 80 connecting the two. It was a dusty and potentially dangerous trek which could take up to 4 days, so Mary, Joseph and Jesus most likely didn’t travel alone. They would have been with a large group of family and friends, all of whom would have been making the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover. This trip was also a personally and religiously significant one—to be in Jerusalem, at the temple, to celebrate Passover was a big deal, and in v. 41 the author tells us that it was a trip that Mary and Joseph made every year.
So when it’s all finished, they leave to go back home with the rest of their group. At the end of the first day, Mary and Joseph make a horrible discovery. Their child, Jesus, isn’t with the rest of the group. As a parent myself, I can’t even imagine the terror, fear, and guilt that they must have felt. And so they turned around and went back to Jerusalem. The author tells us that they searched for three days, finally coming to the temple where they saw him surrounded by the teachers of the law. He was listening to them and asking them questions, and we’re told that the teachers were amazed at his understanding and his answers.
His mom didn’t care about any of that, though. Her fear and terror and guilt had vanished, and had been replaced by anger. “Why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety.” The Greek here is much more strong than our English translation suggests—the word used here is used two other times by the author of Luke, and in both cases it’s not just anxiousness—it’s the pain and grief and agony you experience when you know you’re never going to see someone you love again.
And Jesus’ response to her is a reminder that Jesus wasn’t their little baby boy anymore. “Mom,” he says, “Didn’t you know? Didn’t you know I’d be in my Father’s house? Didn’t you know I’d be about my Father’s business? You’ve taught me the Scriptures. You’ve raised me in your faith, the faith of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the faith of the Exodus and the Passover, and you’re surprised to find me here? You’re surprised to find me with the teachers of the law? You’re surprised to find me learning and understanding, questioning and teaching, engaged in this living faith in which you’ve so diligently brought me up?”
This isn’t the cute, cuddly baby in Bethlehem talking. Jesus throws the adults in his life for a loop. His parents didn’t know where to find him. The teachers of the law were astounded at his interactions with them. The question for all of them, and the question for us today, is, “What child is this?”
What child is this?
Does this baby remain in the manger? Does this child remain at the feet of the teachers? No, and no. In fact, the next time Jesus pays a visit to the temple, those who are there are equally astounded at what he has to say, but this time it’s not with the cute bemusement with which one pats a precocious child on the head and thinks “Wow, you are something else.” The next time Jesus is at the temple, his questions and his understanding don’t get him compliments, they get him crucified. When the baby leaves the manger, when the child grows up, when we can no longer hold Jesus at arm’s length, when Jesus has the audacity to turn our world upside down by challenging what we thought we knew about God and about faith and about life, our human response then and our human response now is he same—it is the cross.
We love Christmas. But Jesus can’t stay in the manger. The fact that God would take on human flesh and would be born as a helpless baby is miraculous—it is itself a sign of God’s wonderful love for humankind and of God’s willingness to do whatever it takes to break into our world and into our lives. But for Jesus to do what Jesus has come to do, he can’t stay a baby. He must grow up. And when he grows up and begins to think and feel and act and teach and command and live and love on his own, for himself, by his own volition, his parents aren’t sure what to do with it. The religious experts, amazed as they are, probably aren’t sure what to do with it. And we, when we’re honest with ourselves, aren’t sure what to do with this Jesus either. It’s easier to sing “sleep in heavenly peace” than to wrestle with “love your enemies.” It’s easier to sing “away in a manger” than to try to understand “blessed are you when you are poor or hungry or hated or excluded or the one who makes peace.” It’s easier to think of angels and shepherds than to try to live out the command to “take up your cross and follow.” We’d rather look at the bright star in the sky over Bethlehem than watch an innocent man lifted on a cross at Golgotha and listen to him say, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
What child is this?
Babies are safe. Babies are cute. But the Jesus who was born for us, the Jesus who lived for us, the Jesus who died and was raised so that we too might live, the Jesus who is alive and among us even today, did not come to be cute. He did not come to be safe. He came to change our lives. He came to change the world. Like Mary and Joseph, even though we know better sometimes we’re surprised when Jesus tells us, “Didn’t you know I’d be in my Father’s house? Didn’t you know I’d be about my Father’s business?” We’re surprised when we come to church and we hear a word of law or a word of grace or a word of comfort or a word of affliction and it’s exactly what we needed to hear. We’re surprised when we confess our sins and are blown away by a wave of gratitude in the words of forgiveness. We’re surprised when we pray and are heard. We’re surprised when those around us become the body of Christ, become hands, feet, ears, mouth, and eyes for those around them. Like the teachers of the law in the temple, we’re surprised when Jesus answers our questions with love and holy wisdom beyond our understanding. We’re surprised when Jesus takes what we thought we knew about God and scripture and turns it all on its head. We’re surprised when we’re called out beyond ourselves to live and love for the sake of the other.
This is the Jesus who’s active in the world today. This is the Jesus who’s active in our lives today. This is the Jesus who is here today, the Jesus who has swept us all up in this restless, raging love of God. This, this, is Christ the King.
What child is this?
Nails, spear shall pierce him through
Nails, spear shall pierce him through
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh
The babe, the Son of Mary.