Sunday, January 6, 2013

An Epiphany: Sermon on Luke 2:41-52

Because I have been preaching from the Narrative Lectionary this year, and because that puts us firmly in the gospel of Luke from now through Easter Sunday, I chose this morning to preach about another showing, the showing, not to the Gentile Magi, but to Jesus' parents.

Scripture can be found here...

Arise! Shine! For your light has come!

I think I was about 12 or 13 years old. I was in Fort Lauderdale, FL with my family, and with three other families, at the Coralido Inn. It was our annual Christmas pilgrimage to the land where my personal New Year’s Celebration was to dive into the pool at midnight and then sit out under the stars until it got too chilly. It was the single week in every year my parents, small business owners, allowed themselves to take a vacation. It was our one indulgence: time in the sun, time for family, time for folks who worked 6 days a week, 12 hours a day, to relax.

And then I went and got lost. I didn’t really get lost. As far as I was concerned, if anyone had thought about it for five seconds, they would have realized exactly where I would be, where I must be: I was on the beach. In the ocean. I had taken a towel and a book and a transistor radio (kids, ask your parents to tell you what that is), and I had gone to the beach. I was 12 or 13 years old, for heaven’s sake.

Well. When I got back—a couple of hours later—my parents were in a state of panic the likes of which I had never witnessed. They were terrified. But pretty soon they got over being terrified, and were simply furious. I had been thoughtless, I had been irresponsible. I had scared them half to death. “Didn’t you know where I’d be?” I finally said, exasperated. That conversation did not end well.

You know how it is. Families take trips together. Every Christmas, or every summer. It is a tradition. They go for the holidays, or for the holy days, or both at the same time. It is a time to be together, to unwind. Or it is a time to fulfill an obligation—maybe sacred, maybe familial. And sometimes, on one of those trips, something happens that causes the members of the family to learn something about one another they didn’t know before.

Jesus and his parents took such a trip every year. It was the strong tradition of all Jews who were dispersed throughout the known world to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Traditionally, Jerusalem has been a place of longing for Jews since the time when they were first forced from their homeland and their temple, and to this day, Jews throughout the world acknowledge this longing at the end of the Passover Seder, the very last words of which are: “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Jesus and his parents took this trip every year, including the year he was twelve years old. And after the Festival of Passover had concluded they turned their faces to their hometown, Nazareth. Jesus’ parents did not realize it at first, but Jesus had stayed behind. It’s hard to imagine leaving a child behind in a large city until you realize that it was also the custom to travel in a large group. We went to Fort Lauderdale with the K's and the D's and the M's. Jesus and his family went with the men and women and children of Nazareth and surrounding villages. Men traveled in one group, and women traveled in another group, and children in still another, though with women chaperoning. Older boys—twelve and older, most likely, traveled with the men. In the kinds of crowds that would have been swarming out of Jerusalem at the end of the Passover, it would have been easy to assume your child was where he was supposed to be. Mary and Joseph assumed their child was among the pilgrims returning to Nazareth.

Their child.  That is part of the problem of this story. Things have changed in two thousand years, and they haven’t. We think of twelve year-olds as children… until we meet a few, that is. In 2013, most twelve-year-olds are certainly on the cusp of a kind of adulthood, even though it will be a number of years before they have the kind of independence and self-sufficiency we associate with true adulthood. Was it the same for twelve-year-olds of Jesus’ time and place? Certainly, a twelve-year-old child of Jewish parents today would be performing their Bar Mitzvah and taking on the religious responsibilities and roles of adulthood in their faith community. There is no record of Bar Mitzvah for twelve-year-old children in biblical times, though by the Middle Ages it is clear that at the age of 13 Jewish children were bound to fulfill the requirements of the law. I think we can assume a 12 year old in Jesus’ time and place was, at least, on the cusp of something… some transition that we would be familiar with, we who will be confirming 12 and 13 year olds before too long.

And yet, it’s pretty clear, Mary and Joseph did not see this coming, which may be surprising to us, seeing as we’ve been reading the past several weeks about all these aspects of Jesus’ conception and birth that certainly would have signaled that there was something special about this child. Then again, that all had happened twelve years ago. One working preacher writes,

Had things been so blessedly ordinary for so long—no more angels, adoring shepherds, and OT prophesies—that the mystery surrounding their son’s birth had begun to fade like a dream? Or maybe Mary and Joseph were aware of what their son would do and become, but figured that was years away. Perhaps Jesus hadn’t shown any signs of theological curiosity and so his parents couldn’t imagine him hanging out in the temple. Maybe Mary and Joseph simply failed to see that their baby was growing up.[i]

At a certain point, every single parent is confronted with the inevitably surprising information that their children are separate from them. That they have their own identities and interests, passions and priorities. At a certain point, a child realizes there is a star he or she wants to follow. Must follow. Can’t not follow. There is no other way.

Star of wonder in the heavens
Wonder what you want of me
Should I follow you tonight
Star of wonder
Star of wonder
I am just a lonely shepherd
Watching from a distant hill
Why do you appear to me
Star of wonder
If you will
In the morning they'll come looking for the
Shepherd on the hill
What would make her leave her flock
For surely she must love them still
Star of wonder in the heavens
Are you just a shining star
Or should I follow you tonight
Star of wonder
Star of wonder
Shining bright[ii]

By the age of twelve Jesus realized, or recognized, the star he was meant to follow, and follow it he did. And the action of following that star to the temple, where he conversed deeply with the scholars, the scribes, the professionally religious folk—that was an epiphany for his parents. It was a moment in his life that showed them something—I don’t want to say they weren’t prepared for it. All those angels, etc. Maybe they weren’t prepared in the sense that no one is prepared to see God shining through their child quite so profoundly as God was already, or abruptly, shining through Jesus. Maybe they weren’t prepared in the sense that none of us is, in the end, prepared to see someone familiar—a child, a parent, a loved one or friend—arise into their true destiny in a way that is so breathtaking. But arise he did. He arose. He shone. He showed. And then he was twelve again, perhaps just the tiniest bit petulant. “Didn’t you know where I’d be?”

What star will you be following this year? At a certain point, every one of us realizes there is a star that we want to follow. Must follow. Can’t not follow. There is no other way. What star has God shown you that you must follow, that you can’t not follow? Arise! Shine! For your light has come! Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Craig A. Satterlee, Luke 2:41-52: Commentary on the Gospel, December 30, 2012, WorkingPreacher.Org (
[ii] Terre Roche, “Star of Wonder,” from the album “We Three Kings,” Copyright 1991. Sung by Pat Raube and Joan Raube-Wilson.

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