Sermon for 1st Sunday after Christmas
Readings: 1 Sam 2: 18-20, 26. Ps 148 Col. 3: 12-17 Luke 2 41-52
Hymns: A great and mighty wonder, Teach me my God and King, O Little town of Bethlehem, Hark the herald angels sing
I’m sure anyone one here who has survived the rearing of their teenage children recognises that child-adult face which manages to show distain, irritation and boredom all in one practised expression, accompanied by a world-weary voice telling the parent to calm down, stop fussing. That’s what Mary and Joseph got, those already uncertain parents-to-be whom we met at the start of Advent, got to know better on Friday wiping down their just-born baby, precious as any child but with an extraordinary secret identity, and now meet as frazzled parents of a truculent sub-teen. Samuel, whom we also met just before Advent, was another gift of God to his mother Hannah who, unlike Mary, feared she would never get a baby rather than get one rather too soon. As soon as he was weaned –around two- he’d been sent to board with Eli at the Temple in thanks to God, his parents making a formal visit to him every year at Passover to give him a new shirt and receive Eli’s blessing. Both boys were directly of God, born in devout Jewish families, but their early lives were very different.
Clearly we’ve time-jumped a bit from Christmas Day! Luke wants to make clear from the start that Jesus is a properly Jewish boy being brought up by devout Jewish parents, who was taken to the Temple for Passover, a Passover from which 33 years he would fail to return. At twelve, Jesus would always certainly be counted as an adult member of the worshipping community, with whom he spent time at the Temple, listening and learning.
Anxious parents often wonder how Mary and Joseph could fail to notice Jesus‘ absence. Well, at 12 Jesus was close to adult – closer to 18 in skills and capacity; they had other children; and there were crowds all returning the same way. Jesus was exploring his identity, as all kids of that age do, and did so in the safe company of rabbis and other men of learning: he just didn’t do it in a very thoughtful way. Mary, knowing who he was, had probably not told her first-born of angels and shepherds and wise men, concentrating on bringing him up carefully in the love and fear- or respect- of God, keeping dietary rules and following festivals until, a rabbi himself, he broke through the swaddling bands of his childhood and youth, teaching, preaching and healing until briefly bound again in the swaddling bands of death.
The marker of identity for a follower of Christ, irrespective of gender or ethnic origin, is pledging the heart, the mind and the being to God as Parent, Child and Spirit against the yardstick of justice, mercy, and respect for all, including one’s own conscience. Many things mark our identity in this season as coming from Christian stock, or being actively Christian ourselves: Christmas trees in houses and public spaces, the exchange of presents, shared food, carols, Midnight services and perhaps the joy that the Christ is born again, God come to earth that we too might be divine in heaven.
There’s a risk in this intensity, this focus on family and friends, even if that is assuaged by giving a little more to charity, whether to those who serve us- the origin of Boxing Day – or to the refugees once again fleeing from the Holy Lands as Mary and Joseph did, escaping the contemporary slaughter of the Innocents which we remember tomorrow: Daesh and Herod have that in common. While the risk of family breakup after Epiphany is there, whether exacerbated by this intensity or put off till afterwards – divorce lawyers commonly take holidays from Advent through to Epiphany – the commoner risk is complacency and a quick return in looking inwards: been there, done that, so now it’s back to earning a crust or planning the day.
But Jesus wasn’t born, God didn’t come to earth, so each of us would feel cosy in our identity as ‘church people.’ Substituting Christ for Rilke’s angels, Rowan William’s translation of Rilke’s poem Angels reads: ‘he comes squeezing and kneading, wanting to sculpt and hollow. To push you. Break you out of the form you know that clothes you around.’ Breaking out from the swaddling clothes of deadening behaviour, clambering out of ruts. The crucial thing God come to earth taught was generous love for all, loving care in every action, inclusion of all who feel discarded, so that all ‘young men and women, old and young together’ will be bathed in the light of Christ. That is what the light of Christ brought, the light for the world, and without our first Christian rabbi, our great teacher, there was no light. Living in respectful love for all people, living as Colossians puts it in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, is living in light: rejecting people, turning away, being impatient or, much worse, arrogant plunges us back into profound darkness.
This is beautifully illustrated by another rabbi, who long ago asked his students how they could tell when the night gave way to the dawn. One suggested – ‘when you see an animal in the distance and you can tell if it is a sheep or a goat.’ Another said; “When you can see a distant tree and distinguish a fig from a peach.” But the rabbi was not impressed. He finally told his students ‘The new day begins when you can look at the face of any human being and see there the face of your brother or sister. If you cannot do this, then no matter what time it is, for you it is still night.’
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping
Heidelberg, 27th December, 2015