2 Christmas 2016
The Rev. Bingham Powell
"The hopes and fears of all the years..."
I have always been particularly drawn to this story of the child Jesus teaching in the temple that we heard in the Gospel today. Probably my affinity comes from the fact that I first heard the story as a child, and identified with twelve-year old Jesus more than in the stories of Jesus as an adult, much in the same way that most books for children and youth have a protagonist who is more or less the same age as the target audience. I loved the way that Jesus had so much wisdom that he impressed his elders, that he had gifts to offer them and probably opened their minds to new understandings, helping them grow in their faith as much as he was growing in his. I identified with him, thinking that I, too, had gifts to offer, even though just a child.
This understanding of the story hasn't left me. I love teaching this story to children and adults, in part to remind them that, like twelve-year old Jesus, children and youth do have gifts to offer. Children and youth have much wisdom - they have much to learn, too, of course - but they have much wisdom, if we would just be willing to open our ears and listen. Jesus himself taught us that we have to enter the kingdom of God like a child. Jesus taught us that we find Christ himself when we welcome children. Children and youth are our present, not just our future.
It was a great sermon I used to give. But, as I have grown older, I have begun to hear the story afresh. Not to say that the old interpretation was wrong; it still is good. But from my new vantage point of parenthood, I have started to appreciate the story from Mary and Joseph's position.
I now identify with Mary and Joseph in their fear when they think that they have lost their child. Even if one's child hasn't actually gone missing - which I know has happened to several of you here today - what parent hasn't had, at least, that momentary feeling of utter dread the first time they are uncertain where their child is and fear the child may have gone missing? I connect with Mary and Joseph in their exasperated loving frustration when they finally find Jesus, that sensation that contains equal parts of anger and relief.
And I now identify with Mary and Joseph in their hopes for their child's future, that sensation that he is going to turn out all right when they recognize that he is growing up and becoming an adult and is on the right path. They don't find him out partying and boozing it up, but safely at the temple, learning and growing. That hope that he is going to end up with a stable and success adulthood. Look at how he amazes the great elders now, just imagine what he will be able to do in a few years, they must have thought. I identify with those hopes that Mary treasures in her heart.
I now see this as much a story about his parents' hopes and fears as it is about Jesus' great wisdom. The great hymnist Phillip Brooks wrote of Jesus' birth "the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight." I think that Mary and Joseph could have said the same of this fateful day in the temple. All of their hopes and fears were met in this moment, too.
There is not much known about Jesus' childhood. As an infant, Luke says his parents went through all of the necessary religious rituals for him. Matthew says he went to Egypt for thee years to escape Herod. But this is the only story of his childhood.
As such, it serves two purposes. First, along with the stories of the circumcision, the naming, and the presentation, it grounds Jesus solidly in his Jewish faith. We cannot separate Jesus from his own Jewish faith. He was born and died (and raised again) as a faithful, practicing Jew. We can only understand him if we fully grasp that and put him in that context. All of these stories of his infancy and this one of his childhood make that Jewish faith foundation abundantly clear.
Second, this story of Jesus in the temple is understood to be foreshadowing. It is foreshadowing these hopes and fears that will become a reality. The fear she experiences in having possibly lost Jesus comes true. She loses him to his ministry and his followers. There is that heartrending story where his mother and brothers come to see him about six chapters after today's story and Jesus more or less dismisses them. "Who are my mother and my brothers? Not them, but those who hear the word of God and do it." Ouch, that must have stung, piercing directly into the heart where she treasured so much. And it foreshadows the loss she will experience when he is on the cross and is buried in the tomb, breaking her heart open in a way that only a parent losing a child can possibly understand.
But it also foreshadows the hope. Her hopes in his wisdom, which will come true as he teaches the multitudes. And her hopes in his greatness, which will come true, not as the world would expect nor any parent would want but, through the mercy of God, in the tomb.
The tomb: another place where fear and hope again meet. Our fear of filling tombs - literally and metaphorically filling them in all the ways we encounter death in this world - and our hope in the tomb being empty in God's great time as we are raised again.
A year ago, while on pilgrimage in Jerusalem, we had the opportunity to talk to the Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral there. As we learned, life is not easy for our Christian sisters and brothers in the Holy Land. They have filled too many tombs in the violence that persists. And one of my fellow pilgrims asked him how he held onto hope. And he said that they live in the city of the empty tomb. How could they not have hope?
That is our hope as God makes all things new. That is the hope to which we are called, as Paul so eloquently puts it. We are a people of hope; we have to be: it is what God has called us to be. In a world of fear, which is so prevalent today, and from which we are not immune, we must respond with God's call to hope. These two realities - hope and fear - met in this child who we celebrate this season of Christmas. These two realities - fear and hope - met in the tomb of Good Friday and Easter. And these two realities still meet today when we, the Body of Christ, respond to the world's fears with God's call to hope. Amen,