A Sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas, December 30, 2018
St. Dunstan’s Anglican Church, Largo, FL
The Very Reverend J. Michael Strachan
Luke is telling a story. Luke is telling lots of stories, but he’s telling all the different stories that make up his Gospel to communicate to his readers the one, overarching story that he wants to share. To do this, he tells the story of the life of Jesus within the story of God and his people. Some of the stories about which Luke tells us we would know nothing about if it weren’t for St. Luke. In the opening chapters alone, we learn about the Zachariah and Elizabeth, the visit of Mary to Elizabeth, the way John kicked in Elizabeth’s womb, the visit of the Holy family to the temple where they met Simeon and Anna, and, of course, the three Gospels songs: the Magnificat, the Benedictus, and the Nunc Dimittis. We don’t find these stories anywhere else in the canonical Gospels, so it’s important to ask ourselves why Luke is sharing these stories.
On the surface of it, the story Luke shares with us in our Gospel reading this morning is rather mundane. Jesus is a bit older since we saw him last. He’s twelve. He goes with his parents to Jerusalem to celebrate a Jewish feast. Jesus gets separated from his parents, who don’t know that he’s missing until they’ve already arrived home, and the holy family heads back to Jerusalem. They search for him for a few days, they find him, he gives an odd explanation for his whereabouts, and they all return home.
This is it. This is all we get of the story of the life of Jesus from his birth to the beginning of his ministry. We get this one story about Jesus being separated from his family, them finding him in the Temple, and the three of them returning home again. So, the question is why? Why does Luke tell us this story? Ink and paper are not cheap. None of the other Evangelists, which is what we call the authors of the Gospels, decided to share this story, so why does Luke?
It is, of course, possible that Luke was just aware of this story when no one else was, he thought it was interesting and wanted to record as much of the life of Jesus as he was aware of, and so he included this short story in his Gospel. It’s possible, but I suggest that there’s a lot more going on here.
First, like the other Evangelists, the big overarching narrative of Luke’s story is the Return of YHWH to Zion. In one of the more dramatic scenes in the Old Testament, the prophet Ezekiel sees the glory of the Lord rise from the Holy of Holies, depart from the eastern gate, and abandon the Jerusalem Temple. According to the Old Testament, the glory of the Lord never returned to the Temple. Even in the literature outside our canonical Old Testament, there is no description of the Lord returning to his Temple with power and glory the way he had when he filled Solomon’s Temple. The Lord is gone from his Temple, and the people ask in Malachi, “Where is the God of justice?”
The prophets of Judah and Israel promised that one day the Lord would return to his people, once and for all, and the Lord would come suddenly to his Temple. For his part, as Luke tells the story of Jesus, he has been obsessed with the Temple. Zechariah’s vision takes place in the Temple, as does the meeting with Simeon and Anna. Jesus’ temptation by Satan will involve the Temple, Jesus will use the Temple in his parables, Jesus will cleanse the temple, teach there, preach the Gospel there, and speak of the Temple’s coming destruction as God’s judgment. When Jesus dies, the curtain of the Temple will be torn in two, and as Luke’s story comes to an end, we find Jesus disciples blessing God in the Temple.
From beginning to end, Luke is focused on the Temple because when the Lord returns to his people, he was to take his place in his Temple once again. Luke’s theology is sophisticated, but here in our Gospel reading this morning Luke sees a foreshadowing of the grand narrative of his Gospel. There is more story to tell, but the twelve-year-old Jesus, God in the flesh even at that age, and that’s a significant part of Luke’s point, has come to, not the Temple, but, as he puts it, his Father’s house. What a strange thing for Jesus to have said. Mary said to him, “your father and I have been searching for you,” and Jesus said to his mother, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” This is foreshadowing. The work this twelve-year-old will do when he begins his ministry will have direct implications for the Temple, because it is his Father’s house, and he in himself is the glory of God returning to his people once and for all. Jesus isn’t there because he wants to be there. Jesus isn’t there because it’s interesting. Jesus is there because he must be there, as he tells his mother. He must be in his Father’s house.
Second, there is another story in Luke’s Gospel that bears remarkable similarities to this story. Like our Gospel reading this morning, this story is unique to the Gospel of Luke. Like our Gospel reading, two people are in distress because they’ve been apart from Jesus for three days. Note that: three days. In this other story, like in our reading this morning, when the disciples find Jesus he answers their fears with a question in which he explains what must be the case. He says to Mary and Joseph, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” He says to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, “Was it not necessary (same Greek word) that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”
Two stories, both unique to Luke’s Gospel, one at the beginning and one at the end, in which two individuals are separated from Jesus with an explicit mention of three days, and in both when Jesus reconnects with these two individuals, he answers their fears with a question and speaks of things that must be. This can’t be an accident. Luke has framed his story this way. But still, the question is why?
The prophets spoke of a day when God would return to his people forever. He would be Emmanuel, God with us, once and for all. That God became a human being is the miracle and mystery of Christmas that we celebrated on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning and continue to celebrate today. It’s that truth that gives meaning and weight to the presence of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple speaking of it as his Father’s house. But, even though God has united himself with humanity forever, like his mother and father as they searched for him for three days, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus who must have felt like they had lost him forever, we too can feel separated from Jesus.
There is no more Temple. There is no singular place where God’s presence dwells with humanity. We don’t go up to the Temple any more to celebrate the Passover feast and experience the presence of God. Instead, as Luke tells us, when the disciples sat down to have a meal with Jesus, he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread. The point is subtle but significant. We don’t celebrate the feasts of our redemption annually anymore. We celebrate them weekly. We don’t experience the presence of God by going to the Temple a few times a year to make sacrifices and behold the Bread of the Presence, we experience it here, in the presence of each other, as we share this simple meal of bread and wine and partake of his flesh and blood. Here Jesus is made known to us. Here our longing and searching find their answer. Here the God who united himself to creation forever in Mary’s womb unites himself again to the simple elements of bread and wine. This meal that we share is Christmas, because it is incarnational. It’s elements of this creation becoming one with the divine. So, as you come forward this morning, celebrate Christmas. Celebrate that the God of heaven and earth has united himself forever to his creation. Celebrate, as you eat his flesh and drink his blood, that he is Emmanuel, God with us. We don’t have to search for him. We don’t have to wonder where he’s been. We only have to gather, share a meal, and he will be made known to us in the breaking of the bread.