Saturday, January 02, 2016
January 3, Christmas 2, Learning God, Discovering Yourself
Jeremiah 31:7-14, Psalm 84, Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a, Luke 2:41-52
We read that Mary, right in front of all those rabbis, lays a guilt trip on her wayward son, as we parents will do when our love gets occupied by fear. You can tell by how he answers her that he does not accept the guilt, though twenty years later he will take on all the guilt in the world. Here he protests his innocence, and like any twelve-year old, he’s been oblivious to the effects on his loved ones of his acting on his impulse.
He’s still a kid. There’s so much doesn’t know. I would say that he doesn’t know yet that he’s somehow God in the flesh. What he does know is that he already has a special story, a story he’s trying to figure out, and, like any twelve-year old, he’s trying to understand his place in the world.
This story is our only glimpse of Jesus’ youth. These two sentences are his first recorded speech: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” His words were remembered by Mary, as we parents will do, especially with emotional events. We can assume that Mary reported these words to Luke when he interviewed her during his research for his gospel.
Luke’s gospel is both carefully historical and artfully crafted. The gospels of Matthew and Mark were already available when Luke wrote his, and Luke made use of both of them. Luke can assume that his readers already know the end of the story, and that God is Jesus’ Father in a unique way, of which this story is an intimation, but Luke is also showing us Jesus’ full and typical humanity.
To bring out the natural humanity of Jesus is one of Luke’s authorial interests. Luke wrote for mostly Gentile converts, and he had to show them that Jesus as God incarnate was not like one of the Greekish gods they were used to, say Apollo or Dionysios, who might temporarily take on human form, but were human only in appearance. Luke always shows us a thoroughly human Jesus.
That’s the great mystery of the Incarnation, that Jesus was fully God and fully man, not half and half, and not a superhuman, but rather God emptying Godself into human life and limitations.
The burden of the New Testament is not just to introduce us to a new vision of God. It’s also to introduce us to a new vision of humanity, especially the writings of St. Luke and of St. Paul, who were co-workers and sympaticos.
This was in contrast to the vision of humanity in the aspirations of the Roman Empire. What kind of man was the ideal man—Hercules, Hector, Achilles, Aeneas, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Caesar Augustus—and what could an empire hope for—power, wealth, prestige, the protection of commerce, effective military control of the foreign interests of the homeland, especially cheap food, the preservation of cheap labor, and the management of the poor by sports and entertainment.
Sound familiar? That vision of the ideal person and the great society is the one that we keep generating in countless versions around the world throughout the centuries.
The New Testament keeps offering an alternate vision of how to be a human being and what to hope for in the world. You get this, for example, in Ephesians, from which our second lesson is excerpted, where St. Paul writes that the all-too familiar vision of humanity and society was tolerated by God for countless ages, but now there is revealed, in Jesus Christ, a whole new vision of human life within the world, and not only that, also the power to live that life, even against the opposition of the empire.
This Jesus is the firstborn of this new humanity. This Jesus is not just for God, this Jesus is for us. He’s like another Adam. He’s the beginning of new humanity. We want to be part of this humanity. We love it that he’s a fully human being, and not some uber-mensch.
A thoroughly human Jesus has human limitations. As a twelve-year old kid he had not figured on how his actions would affect his parents. So while Jesus is remarkable in his Biblical insight for a twelve-year-old kid, as a human he’s only human. That’s the point. He’s shown to us as the true type of what a human being is supposed to be: a creature designed for loving God and for knowing God.
He is what every twelve-year old Jew is supposed to be: a “bar mitzvah,” a son of the commandment. Now the actual Bar Mitzvah ritual had not developed yet. But what that ritual would be all about had grabbed him here. He embraces his identity as a Jew, he embraces a life devoted to the God of the covenant. He realizes, “This is who I am. All right, this is for me. I’m in.”
For eight days he was absorbing the rich activity of the Passover, and it bathed his emotions and quickened his imagination. He watched the sacrificial ritual and the slaughter of the animals. He was breathing in the incense that rose up with the prayers. He listened to the singing of the psalms, the music by the orchestra of Levites, and most of all, the reading of the Torah to the gathered crowds. The lector sang it out, in the tones already ancient.
In all of that he heard the voice of his Father. The traditions, the rituals, the hopes and fears of all the years of Israel. And then every afternoon, the rabbis gathered in the temple courts to offer public commentary on the Torah and the liturgy.
Their teaching drew him in. It is unfortunate that our tradition treats this as Jesus’ critical disputation with the rabbis. That’s misleading, because the disputing was positive. Disputation was the rabbinic form of elucidation and debate was the medium of education. He was learning, and finding himself in the Jewish traditions of the Torah and the Temple.
Even twenty years later, when Jesus started teaching on his own, it’s not that he was against the Torah and the Temple; he was against the crust around the Torah and the uses of the Temple. What got him into trouble, twenty years later, was how he took the words of the Torah, and even applied them to himself, and that he acted in the temple as if he owned the place.
It’s like he saw the whole story as specially for him. You see the hint of that already here. And if that caused anxiety in his parents, imagine, twenty years later, the anxiety of the Jerusalem establishment, with the Roman Eagle looking on.
But not yet. Here he is still a student, learning from the rabbis, asking questions for his own enlightenment, respectfully answering the problems they pose him in their rabbinic style. In learning of God he is finding himself. This is natural, and, like any twelve-year-old, he figures his own experience is normal. So of course he’s surprised when Mary rebukes him. “Isn’t this where I’m supposed to be? Don’t we sing in Psalm 84 that 'a day in thy courts is better than a thousand in my own room?'”
The Jews knew very well that God was everywhere, and not just in the Temple. But here was a concentration of God’s presence. Here was the venue of God’s regular meetings with Israel. Here the presence of God, normally so hidden in the world, was brought to full expression, and everything earthly was displayed in terms of its heavenly significance. This was where eternity touched reality and time stood still. Three days, was I here? Why not three years, why not thirty?
This is where you find yourself. This is why you come to church. Of course God is present in all the world, and in the woods and concert hall and such, and in your own private room. But all of these have other purposes as well; the church is the only earthly organization with the overriding purpose of paying attention to God. The worship service is the only public business meeting of human beings where the agenda is set by God, and God sets the agenda for your sake.
The Sunday morning service is meant to be impractical in human terms, except for the practicality of simply your being human beings as you are meant to be. To be a human being is to be responsible to praise God together, to unite your minds and your voices in praise. You come together in worship in order to be human beings together. You find yourselves within your praise to God, and praising God is how you form yourselves and recreate yourselves each week.
The worship service is what God uses to teach you and convert you. The liturgy, the lessons, the prayers, the psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, the sermon and the sacraments, these are the means that God uses to do business with you. And so you come to church in order to be worked on by God. You pay attention to God, and just doing that is what makes you into truly human beings.
It’s a slow process, but week by week God is forming you into that new humanity of which Jesus is the vision. That’s why we keep him at the center, for in him we are satisfied with both humanity and God.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.