Luke 2: 41-52
The story of the child Jesus at the Temple is unique to Luke’s Gospel in two ways.
It is unique firstly because this is the only one of the Gospels which tells this story. But perhaps more interestingly it is unique because it is the only story we hear of Jesus in the period between his infancy and his adult life and his emergence into active ministry thirty years after his birth.
However we hear this story in Luke’s Gospel, today, in the context of this Christmas Season, as a continuation of the narrative of the Jesus’ birth. So if we hear this story as part of the nativity story what are hearing?
Well this is a question firstly about what the nativity stories are and do on the context of the Gospels. The first thing to say is that these nativity stories, paradoxically, come quite late to the telling of the stories of Jesus’ birth. The earliest Gospel, Mark, jumps straight into telling us about John the Baptist. The inference being that the earliest collections of stories about Jesus started with the beginning of his public ministry.
It is only in the later Gospels – Matthew, Luke, and then John – that the authors feel they need to make account of Jesus’s birth. When they do this, though, they are not writing so much an account of how that birth happened. Instead they are drawing from the stories of Jesus’ birth those aspects which are consistent with the story they want to tell about his later teaching and ministry. In this way these nativity stories act like an overture to a musical. Where the main tunes of the coming musical are heard in snippets, our ears getting used to them, so that when we hear them again in their fuller form we will recognise them.
So in Luke’s Gospel – with its focus on the justice of God’s new order –the nativity story focuses on the marginalised who will be centre stage in this new order. It focuses on Mary – a young woman; the Shepherds, from the edge of society, as the first to greet the new king; and Simeon and Anna, in their old age, proclaiming Jesus for the first time as the Messiah. As we continue to read Luke’s Gospel through this year, these are the tunes, the themes we will hear again and again. And so Luke the writer gives us snippets of these in the Nativity-overture to ensure we don’t miss this point later.
The story we heard today fits into this pattern. We could go through this story line by line to find all the resonances, but there are three which are worth us noting.
This first is the structure of what happens.
Jesus is separated from his parents amongst the large crowds – possibly his extended family – returning from Jerusalem. His parents assume he his with the larger group and only discovered that he was not with them at the end of the first day of travelling. Panic stricken they spent three days searching for Jesus only to find that he had never left the Temple in the first place.
This story gives us the tiniest snippet of the tune we will hear in greater depth at the end of Luke’s Gospel. Here, again on a road near Jerusalem. This time to Emmaus rather than Nazareth, two travellers are walking away from Jerusalem. They feel they have lost Jesus too. But then they are met by a stranger who, like the child Jesus in the Temple, reveals the depth of his understanding at what God was truly doing. And then Jesus, in this great resurrection appearance, reveals himself to these travellers – who, like Mary and Joseph in the earlier story – had to wait three days to discover the truth of who Jesus was and is. Our story today is not an exact match to this roadside encounter. But it acts as a prompt that in the life of this boy was already sown by God the truth he would reveal to us in the truth of Easter.
The second resonance is in the pattern of the story. One of the recurring themes of Luke’s story of Jesus is that he is a restless presence. Constantly moving ahead of us. This pattern which is played out in this story reminds us that great truth of faith that to know Jesus is never to know a settled easy truth. But rather every time we think we know him and relax he is up, moving ahead of us, almost out of sight, encouraging us to follow. As we listen to Luke’s gospel over the coming year listen out for this motif. When Jesus leaves to pray, seeks to move from a place of comfort and welcome, and finally is up before dawn on that Third Day when the women look for him in the tomb.
The final resonance is to remind ourselves again that the story of Christmas, the story of Jesus’ birth – of which this story is part – can never be heard alone. This story, as all stories of the Gospels point us to the truth God reveals in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Sometime we hear those tunes, those resonances clearly. Sometimes the tune is less distinct. But there remains a coherence in the story we are being told about this child who we have come to worship.
As we continue to hear Luke’s account of Jesus’ life, both through this Christmas season, and through this whole year ahead of us, we might like to listen again for those tunes, those snippets, we get from these nativity stories.
Of the concern a priority shown to the marginalised.
Of his restless, challenging presence.
And of his the journey he will encourage all to walk from the stable door to the foot of the cross and beyond.