Sunday, December 30, 2012

The First Sunday after Christmas Day

The sermon at St. Andrew's this past Sunday, 
by the Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright, Priest Associate.

The prologue to John's gospel is a traditional Christmas text, and its theme
of God becoming Man, the Word being made Flesh, is a major part of
Christmas--‘veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate deity’ and
so on. (Although theologians have pointed out that 'veiled in' hardly does
justice to 'made'--but that's for another time.) It's the classic text,
almost, for the Christian doctrine that says Jesus is fully divine but also
fully human. 

But that easy summary of New Testament teaching about Jesus
doesn't mean we don't have questions about what that means for Jesus's
experience of Himself, and how whatever it does mean affects the way we
understand the things He teaches--especially when we read about Him being
hungry and thirsty, tired, and on at least one occasion angry enough to make
a public scene. Can God be tired and irritable, even when He is made man?
What about the passages in which we read that His soul shrank from the
ordeal of the crucifixion, and that He begged to be spared that; didn’t He
know, we wonder, that He was divine, that death could not hold Him, that
there was nothing to fear?

Fully human and fully divine; these aren’t just two different things, but in
some respects two mutually exclusive things, and it’s no surprise that in
the history of Christianity people have tended to emphasise one and ignore
the other. No theologian has ever explained how they can be reconciled in a
way that satisfies all the other theologians. 

The truth is that it just isn’t possible for us to answer all the questions that arise in our minds as we consider a being both fully divine, the creator of the universe, and fully human, born as a baby and raised in a poor family in a primitive society.

But I’ve found that if, as we read the things He did and said, we ask two
questions, we hear God’s voice to us in both sides of this truth, even if we
still can’t fully understand and explain it. No matter what passage we read,
the best approach is to ask what it tells us about Jesus as God, and what it
tells us about Jesus as human being. And the answers to both questions, in
my experience at least, strengthen our faith, and increase our ability to
live according to it.

One of my favorite examples of this is from another passage that is often
part of the Christmas season, Luke's account of the child Jesus in the
Temple. We won't hear that passage this year, because it'll be trumped by
Epiphany, but it's a familiar story and I think it will help us see how the
theme of Jesus's simultaneous divinity and humanity are at the heart of the
New Testament's account of His life and ministry.

You'll remember that when Jesus was twelve years old He was taken by His
parents to a Passover feast in Jerusalem. He is approaching the year in
which He would go through His bar-mitzvah and become a full member of the
chosen people, a 'son of the commandment', which is what the phrase
bar-mitzvah means. Many Rabbis in those days recommended that a boy do some
special study before his bar-mitzvah as part of his preparation for it, and
that may well be the reason why He was present. Passover in Jerusalem is
special: even today, Jewish families end their Passover by saying 'next year
in Jerusalem'. Unless they are in Jerusalem!

There are lots of things that make Jerusalem special in the eyes of the
Jewish people, and one of them, in Jesus’s time and still today, is that it
is where the great Jewish Bible teachers are. Jesus would have been taught
the Bible by his local Rabbi in Nazareth, and he must have been a good
student and learned a lot, but the teachers in the Temple in Jerusalem were
the best. 

The Old Testament tells us the sort of teachers they were: 'they
were well versed in the Law of Moses', and 'learned in matters concerning
the commands and decrees of the Lord'--Bible teachers, teaching especially
from the books of Moses, the first five books of the Bible. In the usage of
the time, to be learned in the Law was not just knowing the commandments,
but knowing everything in those books of the Bible, and being able to apply
them to the human condition. The trip is an opportunity for Jesus, still a
child, to ask questions of the best Bible teachers in the world.

They ask him questions, too; that was the standard way of teaching in those
days. You didn't wait till the end of the course to give an exam, you asked
students questions as you taught, to make sure that they were getting it.
It's interesting that these great teachers are amazed at His understanding
and His answers. Think about that word 'amazement'; that means He did more
than just give the right answer. If a student gives a teacher the right
answer, he is pleased, not amazed; the only thing that could have amazed
them about Jesus's answers was that Jesus was showing not only a detailed
knowledge of Scripture, but an ability to apply it and explain it, far
deeper than they expected, far deeper than they could imagine in a boy of
His age. Perhaps even deeper than their own; perhaps He taught them, even at
twelve years old.

You can see already the two sides of His nature, the divine and the human,
at work, can't you? As a human being, He is studying and learning from God's
word, and applying Himself diligently to that task; as the Word made flesh,
He is teaching something new even to the greatest teachers in the world.
Even at twelve years old.

The story suggests that even at twelve, He knew He was divine. Remember the
interaction between Jesus and His mother. Jesus had been so absorbed in His
encounter with these teachers, that He had stayed behind when the Nazareth
pilgrims set out on the journey home. At first, He had not been missed--but
this is not parental neglect, let me assure you. His family would not have
made this journey alone; it’s clear that they were part of a larger group of
people from Nazareth celebrating Passover in Jerusalem. On a pilgrimage of
this kind, it was usual for the women and the younger children to travel
separately from the men and the older boys. The two groups could be as much
as a mile apart, and only at the end of the day, when they gathered to eat
the evening meal and camp for the night, did they come together. 

At 12, Jesus was part child and part young man; no doubt Joseph thought He was
travelling with the women and the younger children, and Mary thought He was
travelling with Joseph and the other men, and they didn't miss Him till they
stopped for the night. Then they discovered He was not in either group, and
Mary and Joseph turned back to Jerusalem to look for Him. And they found Him
still in the Temple, still discussing these things with the great teachers.
Mary blurts out, 'Why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have
been searching for you in great anxiety.' And it's in His reply that He
makes it clear that He knew Who His real father was: not Joseph, but the
Holy Spirit, God Himself. 'Didn't you know I had to be in my Father’s
house?' My father wasn't searching for me, I was with Him in His house,
Jesus implies. Luke tells us that they didn’t understand what He meant, but
Jesus referred to God as His father so often once He began His ministry that
anyone familiar with the gospel accounts of that ministry can easily see
that He is here affirming His own unique relationship with God. As the Son
of God, it was crystal clear to Him already. Even at twelve.

Yet He is also, as Jesus the human being, learning it from God's word. It
certainly amazes me to think that at 12 years old, Jesus knew that He was
God’s only-begotten Son. Even more amazing, to me, is to see that what He
knew in His divine nature, He was in His human nature learning the same way
we learn that He is God's son, by studying God's word. That was what the
teachers in the Temple taught: God's word in the Old Testament. When a child
asked questions, they answered those questions by quoting Scripture. When
they asked a child questions to see if he had learned his lessons, they
expected the child to quote Scripture in his answers. 

During those three days that Jesus had sat at their feet, they must have explored many different passages. And because it was the Passover, they would have read
especially those that explained the significance of the Passover sacrifice,
the lamb that was slain so that God's people might live. In three days they
must also have gone on to passages that talked about the Messiah that God
would send to free His people from their sins so that they might live
eternally. I'm sure they looked at the same passages that Jesus would later
show His disciples, on the road to Emmaus, when He explained to them in all
the Scriptures all the things concerning Himself. It's Luke who tells us
that story, too, at the end of his gospel, completing the theme that he
begins in this passage at the beginning.

At Christmas we celebrate the Word made flesh, God become man. The miracles
surrounding Jesus's birth tell part of the story, other passages tell of His
maturing as a man, learning more about God’s plan for Him, a story of

But of course God didn't only have a plan for Jesus, He has a plan for
everyone. He has a plan for each of us here today. The way to live a
meaningful life, a life that satisfies at every level, is to live according
to God's plan. And the way we learn what God's plan is for each of us is to
follow Jesus's human example. We are not God, and we need not expect to know
divine truth simply by thinking about it, or experiencing emotions about it.
We are human, and we can only learn divine truth the same way the human
Jesus did--He showed us the way to do it. 

We are usually taught the basic truths about God and man from our parents, or from others who love us, the basic truths about sin and salvation that apply to everybody; and then we go on to ask, as the boy Jesus must have done, 'what do these things mean in my life, what is God's plan for me?' And we too discover the answer as we read and think about God's word, as we ask about the parts of it that aren't immediately clear, as we talk to others more knowledgeable about scripture
than we are. As we follow Jesus's example, even the example He set as a
12-year old.

If the possibility of new life in Christ is God's Christmas gift to us, the
Bible is the instruction manual that comes with that new life, that shows us
how to put it all together and to enjoy it forever. I still have a couple of
Christmas presents that I haven't yet read, or worn, or played with, but
God's gift to me isn’t one of them. 

I've opened His gift to me, and I've put it on, clothed myself with it, as Paul loves to put it. I'm reading the manual again and again, to make sure I enjoy God's gift for all that it is worth. I'm following the example Jesus set when He was 12, and the instructions He gave in His adult ministry. If God's gift to you is still
not set up and plugged in, let me urge you to read the manual. When you see
all that this gift can do in your life, you'll soon be ready to discover
God's plan for you, and to put it into action.

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