A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 3, 2015 (Christmas 2, Year C)
Every Christmas, Bryna and I spend some time looking at old Christmas pictures of the boys. We have a few photo albums we cherish but increasingly these are all online, embedded in old Facebook posts. We look at pictures of Ben and Zak and reminisce about simpler times — times when I was still taller than Ben and times before Zak had discovered video games. The chaos of the toddler years melts away and all we see are the sacred memories of that young family that was.
Mary and Joseph didn’t have the luxury of photographs to remember Jesus as a cute infant or a rambunctious toddler. But I’m sure, like all parents with growing children, they occasionally stole a quiet moment to reflect on their rapidly maturing son; to fondly recall rocking him to sleep or telling him a favorite bedtime story.
Of course, we know nothing of Jesus’ life from after the birth narrative until this story when we briefly meet the 12-year-old Jesus. After this fleeting glimpse, that’s it until his baptism in the River Jordan at the hand of John the Baptist — an account of which we’ll hear next week. And at one level, that’s too bad. How great would it be to have some anecdotes that foreshadow his future ministry? Healing a friend on the playground who accidentally got hit in the head with a rock or changing water into Kool Aid.
But while we’re not left with much, we are left with this one story of the “tween” Jesus. A story that emphasizes Jesus’ humanity and certainly resonates with parents of middle schoolers everywhere. Because as we know, the image of our cute, young toddler doesn’t last forever. They mature, they grow, they seek and gain increasing amounts of independence and responsibility.
So it is that Jesus acts like, well, a teenager and ditches his parents after the annual family trip to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. He stays to teach in the Temple, like the precocious adolescent that he must have been. And when they find him, he gives them that great line which only the Son of God could ever get away with: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” He may sound like a weisenheimer, but in reality he is forging his own identity and taking the first steps to claiming his calling as God’s son.
Mary and Joseph were no doubt hurt by Jesus’ words and actions but no more than every parent is hurt the first time our sweet young child doesn’t want to be seen with us when they run into friends at the mall. “What happened?” we ask ourselves. And the answer is simple, if heart-wrenching: they’re growing up. The distance they’re placing between them and us is unsettling, if developmentally appropriate. And we head back to the photo album.
Obviously Jesus didn’t go straight from the manger to telling off Pharisees at dinner parties. He, too, had to grow into and then claim his own spiritual authority. He, like every child, had to go through a maturation process and find his way outside of his parents’ purview. And no matter how many old pictures we look at, for better or worse, we can’t ever get that genie back in the bottle.
But in a sense, we often try to do this very thing when it comes to our faith. In the warm glow of Christmas, it’s worth noting that we often do leave our faith lying in the manger. We memorialize it in our minds. Keeping it as a precious memory rather than a living force of inspiration and transformation.
Frankly, it’s safer that way. To keep Jesus in the manger; to freeze frame our faith in the form of an infant. I mean, a newborn doesn’t challenge us or question the priorities of our lives. The adult Jesus may rail against hypocrisy and challenge us to renounce sin but the newborn Jesus just coos and nestles against his mother’s breast. Right?
Whenever I think about metaphorically keeping Jesus manacled to the manger, what comes to mind is Will Farrell’s character in the 2007 movie Talledega Nights. There’s a great scene where race car driver Ricky Bobby says grace before a family meal in which he makes it very clear that he only prays to the “baby Jesus.”
He begins, “Dear Lord Baby Jesus…we thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Dominoes, KFC, and the always delicious Taco Bell.” This goes on for awhile before he continues with, “Dear Tiny Infant Jesus…” at which point his wife interrupts him to say, “Hey, um…you know, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him baby.” And Ricky replies, “Well, look, I like Christmas Jesus best when I’m sayin’ grace. When you say grace, you can say it to Grown-up Jesus or Teenage Jesus or Bearded Jesus, or whoever you want.”
And Ricky keeps it going: “Dear Tiny Jesus, in your golden fleece diapers with your tiny, little fat balled-up fists…” It’s a great comic scene but it speaks a deeper truth about our own propensity to stunt the growth of our own spiritual lives.
We may not pray to “Christmas Jesus,” exactly, or, as Ricky Bobby also puts it, “Dear eight pound, six ounce newborn infant Jesus…so cuddly but still omnipotent.” But so often our faith doesn’t mature much beyond our understanding of the Jesus we learned about in Sunday School. And that’s a shame.
It’s fine to receive Jesus as a helpless infant as we do each Christmas, but don’t keep him there, immobilized in your mind and trapped in a manger. Adorable but ultimately powerless. The challenge for us is to allow our faith to mature. Just as Mary and Joseph gave space to Jesus to grow; we need to give him space to grow in our own hearts. To allow him to be not just a precious figure in our nativity set, but our Lord.
I’m not big into New Year’s resolutions but the timing is right as we turn the page to a new calendar year to recommit to our spiritual lives. To commit to growing in God in 2016; to seeking out opportunities to go deeper; to meet Christ anew.
The good news is you don’t have to do this alone. You have a community to support you in deepening your faith; you have parish clergy and faithful lay leaders to help you grow in God; you have programs and resources and worship opportunities here to inspire you and assist in moving your spiritual needle. But it’s up to you. Like a teenager forging an identity, we are invited to forge our spiritual identity. We may make mistakes or stumble along the way, but Jesus lovingly and mercifully lifts us up time and time again.
Even though we aren’t privy to exactly how it happened, the 12-year-old Jesus will continue to grow and mature until he claims his calling as God’s Son. And we, too, are invited to continue to grow and mature in order to claim our own calling as God’s children.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck