This sermon was originally delivered at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, in Herndon, Virginia.
In the name of Jesus, amen.
Have you ever had someone make an assumption about your identity, or assume they knew something about you while being drastically wrong? Have you ever made such assumptions about someone else? Our Gospel reading this morning in many ways has to do with an inability to understand who a person actually is, even when presented with proof. Specifically, how Jesus’ identity is misunderstood even at the young age of twelve. In our reading, Mary and Joseph seem to have certain misconceptions about who their son is, and, upon further reflection, so do we. Christ’s adolescent visit to the Temple reveals that we, in our sinfulness, fail to grasp the truth of his identity.
But first of all, on Monday night we heard the familiar story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem during the Augustan census. We know the story well— Joseph and Mary, no room in the house for the birth, the angels, the shepherds— it lies at the heart of the Christmas season. And thanks to our Nativity creches, we mentally prepare for the coming of the wise men from the East to come next in our holiday sequence. So it’s a bit of a surprise to see Jesus showing up as a twelve-year-old in our lectionary for the first Sunday of the Christmas season.
There is good reason for the inclusion of this narrative from the early years of Jesus’ life, though, because it rounds out what some theologians call “the infancy narrative” (not that Jesus is an infant at the age of twelve— he’s quite close to manhood), which recounts scenes from Jesus’ early years. Why we have so few scenes from his early life is a discussion for another time. The next time we see him in the Gospels and in the church year is when he is roughly 30 years old and coming to John to be baptized in the Jordan. Jesus’ going to the temple is the last time we see him as young right before his ministry begins, before he starts being known to the world. And it also shows us that Jesus didn’t jump from being a baby to being a man. It gives us insight into who he was in the intervening years between the manger and his baptism in the Jordan in Luke 3.
And what were Jesus and his family doing in this final episode of the infancy narrative? Luke tells us that they were going up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. They apparently did this every year, even though only Joseph, as an adult man, was required to make the journey to Jerusalem to observe the feast, and even then, was only required to be in the city for two days to fulfill the rite’s obligation as defined in Exodus 23 and Deuteronomy 16. The rites at the Temple would have included the ritual slaying of a lamb and a family meal made of that lamb in order to commemorate the events of the historical Passover recorded in Exodus, where God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt. Mary and Joseph it seems also traveled with friends and neighbors, and perhaps while Joseph and the other menfolk were attending the rites at the Temple, Mary and the women and children did things in the city together. It brings to mind a big convention, the sort of place where every year, friendships are made and strengthened, where families meet and catch up on the year’s happenings.
And after the rites were observed, it was time to go back to Nazareth. Mary and Joseph likely traveled in the company of friends and family and assumed that Jesus was going along with his friends. But when they stopped for the night, Jesus never showed up. He wasn’t with his friends or his other family members. So where was he? Can you imagine the fear, the worry that engulfed Mary and Joseph? I’ll grant you, they lived in a world where a boy of twelve had to grow up much more quickly than any of today’s children do. The life of a child in first century Judea was hard. Half of all children died before their tenth birthday. Young boys would have started learning how to help with the family trade early, and may have been more mature than their modern counterparts, such was their world. So to not see Jesus for the whole day would not have been terribly concerning— he very well could have been with his friends in the caravan. But to not have him show up at night? That was cause for worry, and I imagine that any parent here today can sympathize with Mary and Joseph and can imagine the urgency with which they searched for their son.
And after three days— three days! — they found him in, of all places, the Temple courts, conversing with the teachers of the law and impressing them with his depth of knowledge and insight. One might think that Mary and Joseph would have been filled with pride— their little boy a Wunderkind, speaking authoritatively with the most learned men in all of Judaism. But their actual reaction is more realistic— they had just spent three days in a panic searching high and low for their son, and wowing the great theologians of the day didn’t erase the fact that he was missing and that they were run ragged emotionally. He had some explaining to do, this son of theirs. “Son,” says Mary, “why have you done to us thus? Behold, your father and I, being in great distress, were seeking you” (from Arthur Just’s literal translation of the Greek).
And then comes the kicker. Jesus answers his mother, speaking the first words we ever hear him say in the Gospel of Luke, and they’re a rebuke. “Why is it that you were seeking me? Did you not know that it is necessary that I am among the things of my Father?” (or as some translations say, “in my Father’s house”). This was a strange thing to say. Mary and Joseph couldn’t understand his meaning, even though they both knew that Jesus was the Son of God. But they seemed to have forgotten just who their son was, just what it meant for him to be the Son of God. He wasn’t like the other boys in Nazareth, nor was he like the other boys in the rest of Judea, or the world for that matter. He was the Son of God, and he had a different purpose, a different mission than other boys, a mission to proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand and to preach a Gospel of repentance; a mission to take on the sins of the whole world and to die and rise again in order to fulfill the law; a mission to be “among the things of his Father,” God, in Jerusalem, where his once-and-for-all sacrifice would be made. Mary and Joseph seem to have forgotten this. They thought they knew who their son was and what he was about, but they were mistaken. They thought they knew what God had planned for them and for Jesus, and they were wrong.
Just like Mary and Joseph, we often think we know who Jesus is and what he is supposed to do, who he is supposed to be. We try to mold him to fit our expectations. It’s a bit like the dinner-table scene in Talladega Nights where Ricky Bobby and Carl Naughton, Jr., describe how they like to imagine Jesus. Ricky begins saying grace, preferring to imagine Jesus as he was in the manger:
Dear Lord baby Jesus, lyin’ there in your ghost manger, just lookin’ at your Baby Einstein developmental videos, learnin’ ’bout shapes and colors….Dear 8 pounds 6 ounces… newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet….
On the other hand, Carl can’t seem to make up his mind (in both the scene and bits from the credits):
I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo T-shirt because it says I want to be formal, but I’m here to party….I like to think of Jesus like with giant eagle’s wings, and singin’ lead vocals for Lynyrd Skynyrd with like an angel band and I’m in the front row hammered drunk….I like to picture Jesus as a figure skater. He wears like a white outfit, and He does interpretive ice dances of my life’s journey….I like to picture Jesus as a shapeshifter or changeling. Ya’ll seen that show Manimal?
And then Carl’s pièce de résistance:
I like to think of Jesus as a mischievous badger.
We laugh at these statements because we know that the versions of Jesus that both Ricky and Carl come up wildly miss the mark of describing who Jesus actually is. Sure, Jesus is a baby when he is born, but he doesn’t remain a baby for very long and he ascended bodily into heaven as an adult. And what baby born in antiquity would be watching “Little Einstein” videos? Carl’s depictions of course are especially way off— Jesus isn’t some sort of party bro, nor is he a performer playing for Carl’s entertainment, nor is he some sort of ice dancer whose interpretive dance is supposed to be all about the story of Carl. And Jesus certainly isn’t a “mischievous badger.” But what makes it funny, and I might even say makes these clips good satire, is that we do the same things with Jesus ourselves.
We come up with wrong ideas about who Jesus is because, as sinners, we cannot understand who he is of our own accord, and our own pride and self-absorption prevents us from really listening to him and taking him at his word. Instead of letting Jesus be the Son of God, we try to make him look and act the way we want him to. We make idols out of who we think Jesus is; they’re vaguely Jesus-shaped, but they are not the real Jesus. Rather than looking to the actual Christ, we carve our own personal Jesuses. Rev. Matt Richard in his book, Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?, names twelve false views of Christ that we can find perpetuated in modern culture: Christ the mascot, Christ the option among many, Christ the good teacher, Christ the therapist, Christ the giver of bling (or as I like to call this one, Christ the sugar daddy), Christ the national patriot, Christ the social justice warrior, Christ the moral example, Christ the new Moses, Christ the mystical friend, Christ the feminized, and Christ the teddy bear. Each one of these views of Christ makes him into someone or something he isn’t by making him support the causes we like or look like we do, and to go through them all would take more time than this sermon can allow. But for example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen memes on Facebook that try to shoehorn Jesus into particular political camps or schools of thought, mainly posted by friends who are trying to prove that, were Jesus doing his ministry today, he would support either the Democrats or the Republicans; that Jesus would support single-payer healthcare or that Jesus would build the wall (among other positions). These fail to understand him— he’s not a Democrat or a Republican, he’s above them! He’s the king— the Kingdom of Heaven is not a democracy, and the miracle of the story of Christmas is that the King of it all, God himself, became one of us while also still being God.
This is the mystery of the incarnation— God took on flesh and dwelt among us, becoming one of us in order to defeat the sin that corrupts us, his children, and makes us unworthy of being with him. And even weirder, that Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.” Our Savior, just as the third verse of “Once in Royal David’s City” states, grew day by day from childhood to adulthood; he was born little, weak, and helpless, but he became a man, and he shares all our sorrows while also rejoicing in all our happiness. He was truly human; he grew. But at the same time, he is not like us— he is both God and man. In the words of the 17th Century Dutch theologian David Hollazius, in the miracle of the incarnation, Christ “now subsists forever as the God-man, in two natures, divine and human, most intimately united.” And we aren’t comfortable with this. It’s incredibly hard to wrap your head around the idea that Christ can be both true God and true Man, that the finite can contain the infinite, and so we dress him in other guises, either making him a different kind of God, or removing his godhood from the equation entirely, preferring that our God be some distant, indefinable, unmeasurable, and inscrutable entity, sitting like Crom, Robert E. Howard’s deity in the Conan stories, on his lonely mountain, whose attention is best not attracted. It’s easier that way, pretending that Jesus is just some guy and that God is someplace else. But it’s not correct. It ignores who Jesus is— who the angels revealed him to be, who John the Baptist recognized in utero, and who he himself knows he is, even when he is a mere twelve years old. But in our pride, we replace him with another god that approximates a crude imitation, but fails to be the real thing.
So how do we properly understand Christ? How do we come to know him? Our own senses and modes of inquiry cannot really approach who Jesus is— our understanding of the world is constrained by our own physical limitations. A wise biologist once wrote:
“Science is limited to the study of the physical world. [It] cannot address spiritual, moral, aesthetic, or emotional issues. Because we can know only a portion of this world that our senses can perceive, scientists restrict their attention to the physical world that can be directly or indirectly observed. Even so, the observations that characterize scientific inquiry are not perfectly objective because of the limitations of our senses. Science does not, however, deny the possible existence of nonphysical worlds; it simply takes no position on issues it is not equipped to investigate.”
Our own attempts at using reason to approach Jesus cannot find him. Like Mary and Joseph, our fallen brains cannot understand him and his mission. As Luther states in his explanation of the third article of the Apostle’s Creed, we “cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, [our] Lord, or come to Him.” But the mystery of the incarnation shows us that Jesus didn’t leave us to flail wildly. He didn’t leave us to create our own rough approximations of him or to worship certain aspects of himself without seeing the whole of him. The incarnation shows us that Christ didn’t want us to find him (we can’t) but that instead Christ came to us, to work among us and to speak to us and to demonstrate his being our Lord and Savior, our God in the flesh, by his fulfillment of the words of the prophets, by his dying on the cross to erase our sins and the curse of death and hell, and by his rising again on the third day. We have his words and deeds as proof of who he is. He shows us that he is not some teddy bear or American patriot or social reformer or giver of stuff, and certainly no mischievous badger. Christ is our God who saves us from our sins. And he has given us the Holy Spirit to dwell with us to remind us of who he is, who, as Luther says in the Catechism, has “called [us] by the Gospel, enlightened [us] with his gifts, sanctified and kept [us] in the true faith.”
When we trust what Jesus tells us about himself and have faith in what he has done for us, then we see who he is and what he has done for us and the whole world. We can have faith that it is indeed for us, because he came among us to save us from our sins and has forgiven us. When you and I listen to Christ and trust him, we can indeed say that in baptism, he has washed away all our sins and marked us indelibly as his own. When we trust him, we can say and believe with confidence that we receive his body and blood for the forgiveness of sins and life eternal here at the altar when we partake in the Lord’s Supper. When we trust him and take him at his word, we know that this is who our Jesus is. We may not fully comprehend him in this life and on this side of the resurrection, but we can trust that he is who he says he is and does what he says he does and will do. When we trust what he says in faith, we know his true identity, and we can take much joy in that knowledge this Christmas season and into the New Year.
So rejoice, our light has come! He has come for us in spite of our inability
to grasp him, and he has grasped us to bring us into his kingdom. In this New Year, may our Lord strengthen
your faith to ever more greatly trust in him and his words and work. Amen.
 Schmid, Heinrich, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. Charles A. Hay, Henry E. Jacobs (Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, 1876): 324.
 Glick, D. Marvin, Myra Mergler Niemeier, Nancy C. Aiello, Seven Studies of Life: The Process of Science, 3rd Edition (Winston-Salem, NC: Hunter Textbooks, Inc., 2003):3-4.