Vicar's Sermon - 30th December 2018
Luke 2.41 – 52 The First Sunday of Christmas
It’s Perry that sticks in my memory. Kathy Burke, playing Kevin Patterson’s best mate. Kevin Patterson was played by Harry Enfield but, as is the wont with children visiting the homes of their friend’s parents, Perry (when he came round) was always ‘sweetness and light’, ‘politeness personified’ – ‘Yes Mrs Patterson, No, Mrs Patterson.’ If you can remember back to the late 1990’s you’ll maybe recall the episode in ‘Harry Enfield and chums’ where it all changed. Kevin, aged 12 years and 364 days, is shown counting down to the moment that he will become a teenager. Midnight strikes and the transformation takes place. That sweet child is suddenly sullen, aggressive, mumbling, unkempt, moody and out of control! There was enough truth in the episode to make it hilarious…though, of course, none of our kids (yours or mine) were ever like this were they?
Today’s Gospel reading is a real conundrum because it shows us Jesus as a 12 year old. Outside writings that didn’t make the cut into our scriptures this is the only passage in the gospels where we are shown Jesus between his infancy and adulthood. He’s not quite a teenager, (and to be perfectly honest the whole idea of ‘teenage’ is a modern western invention that dates back to the 1950s, an idea now being superseded by the title ‘young people’) but we prefer ‘our Jesus’ to be either a helpless baby or a saving adult. Thinking of Him being a boy or a young man going through puberty and all of its challenges raises some questions for those who believe He was fully God and fully man.
It’s an obvious thing to say but being human involves growth and learning and development and with that recognition comes a challenge for our faith to grow, learn and develop as we make our way through life. In a very real sense ‘I’ am the same person born 57 years ago in Hereford to Doug and Kathleen Harding…but I am also a totally different person. Existing in time, as we inevitably do, human beings are always in the process of ‘becoming’. That being the case, God isn’t just pretending to be human in the person of Jesus – His humanity is real, and so Jesus grows just as you and I grow. At each stage of life Jesus (and we) must be faithful and true to our heavenly Father but that faithfulness and trust will be expressed in ways that are ‘age appropriate’. Jesus’ love for His Father will be intense and pure but just as your love for your partner has changed down the years in the ways it is expressed, so it will be for Jesus’ relationship with God and with our relationship with God. Did you notice that at the end of both the Old Testament and Gospel readings the subjects (Samuel and Jesus) ‘grow in stature’ or ‘grow in wisdom?’ The scriptures repeatedly encourage us to grow into the full maturity of Christ, to keep developing our faith and our understanding of God’s ways: we’re not meant to stay as children but to grow to maturity. ‘Becoming like a child to enter the Kingdom of heaven’ is vastly different from becoming ‘childish’. And so for us as church we are challenged to help people of all ages to express their faith and to learn its practices and disciplines – somehow balancing the needs of young families and young people at the beginning of their faith journey with the desire of mature Christians to keep growing in the faith.
But what does it mean to be ‘mature’ as a Christian? One thing it doesn’t mean is to be packed with bible knowledge. That’s not to say that the scriptures aren’t important for Christians – they clearly are - but that maturity in faith is more to do with how you act than what you think. Faith must become incarnate, it is a ‘lived thing’. It needs some ‘head knowledge’ to nurture it and to feed it but just as Jesus lives out His faithfulness to God within a family and within a wider community so must we. Jesus works out his faith in relationship to the community and family that, in turn, shape Him. The Gospel tells us that Mary and Joseph have a ‘usual’ pattern of going up to Jerusalem for the Passover (which tells us that they were devout). It also says that Mary and Joseph travel with others and that they are confident that others are watching over their son on the way home. What I’m saying is that Jesus’ faith journey is not a wholly intellectual, personal and private thing: it has a context – it is lived amongst people, within real relationships. His growth to maturity therefore involves Him in learning how to be faithful to God and His purposes in a myriad of circumstances. Aged twelve we see him pushing the boundaries of his relationship with his earthly parents. His mother ‘treasuring’ all these things is perhaps a sanitized version of the anxiety she felt at losing Him and yet we’re told that at this stage in His life he ‘went down with them and came to Nazareth and was obedient to them’: He is still a child. For the next 18 years he will presumably work with his father Joseph, rub shoulders with his neighbours, attend synagogue, honour his parents, learn to be an older brother to Mary’s other children and wonder what lies ahead of Him. He won’t know what His calling is until that moment when everything clicks into place as He is baptized by John – but the point is, His life till that point isn’t wasted (is far more than a preparation for His real work) because He is being faithful to God in the place where He is set.
So too with us. God calls us to live faithfully in the present and that is made a whole lot easier if we do so in a context where faith is encouraged and supported – in the faith community we call church. Sometimes people can get trapped living in the past or forever projecting themselves into an imagined future where all will be wonderful. But, as one of the psalms says, ‘Now is the acceptable time now is the day of salvation.’ The issue for Jesus as He grows up back then and for us now is ‘what does God demand of us each day? What does He look for in us today?’ If you are a parent how’s your parenting of your children going? If you have elderly parents or relatives how are you honouring them? If you are employed, are you known for the work you do…in a good way? If you are retired or unable to work how can you use the time you have to serve others and bring praise to God?
Human ‘being’ involves growing, changing, learning – hardly a mind-shattering statement but it helps us to care for one another in this place if we can remember that children are children and not mini-adults…and that there are challenges that come with being a young parent in the 21st century that we never faced. There are faith decisions to be made if you are a newlywed…or a divorcee…or an empty-nester. We can serve one another better if we recall that life can be hard for those who have lost a partner…or whose parents need care but live 100 miles away. Somehow, in amongst the challenges that we all face, God asks us to be faithful – to love Him with all our heart, mind, body and soul and to love our neighbour as ourselves – but this needs wisdom and wisdom develops best in a community that understands and cares. Under the surface of the person sat next to you in church there is a life story that perhaps you don’t really know. They, as your brother or sister in the faith, are called (as best they can) to be faithful to Christ in the place where they are set at this particular stage of their lives: they need your support, encouragement and prayer to do this, they need your help, your understanding and your generosity of heart, mind and spirit.
Way back then Mary had been given the fright of her life when Jesus was found to be missing…but we are told that she ‘pondered these things in her heart’. May we too have grace to learn from one another and to see God at work within one another. And may our own lives, through God’s grace at work within us provide others with examples of how to live the faith in this place at this time to His glory.