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Christmas 1C – December 30, 2012

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26 – Zechariah and Hannah give birth to Samuel, who grows is stature and favor of the Lord.

Psalm 148 – Everyone and everything praise the Lord just about everywhere.

Colossians 3:12-17 – Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, and above all else: love.

Luke 2:41-52 – The boy Jesus in the Temple increases in stature and divine favor.

1398.jpgThis gospel text is the only Biblical story of Jesus as a boy. Of course, there is at least one other non-Biblical source for young Jesus stories, "The Infancy Gospel of Thomas", which is dated from mid to late second century. It’s worth a quick read, paying particular attention to section 19.

This story fascinates me. No, that’s not quite right. It’s the presence of the story that intrigues me. What is it doing here? Why did "Luke" include it? What’s the point? In some ways it seems like a complete non-sequitur.

It’s evident in the selection of 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26 as the first reading that the text committee wanted to draw a parallel between Samuel and Jesus. However, as I said in a recent post, the parallel Luke draws to Samuel is John the Baptist; not Jesus.

Since this is the end of the Birth of Jesus section (Luke 2:1-54), I think the story functions as a counterpoint to the end of the Birth of John section (1:57-80). That section ends, "The child (John) grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel." And, since John always "prepares the way" for Jesus, the story that ends the Birth of Jesus section must be better. Let no doubt remain in the "John or Jesus?" question" which one is about his Father’s business. (I drag out the KJV every once in a while.) After all, those are the first words spoken by Jesus in Luke; that’s of significance, methinks. "And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor." (And 2:51 is a reprise of 2:19, linking the story to what has come previously.)

"And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers." I wonder why. Could it be because he was from the lowest and poorest of the social classes? John Dominic Crossan (I may have cited this before) has an interesting exposition of the Greek word "tekton" – which usually gets translated "carpenter." Listen to it here.

What I find interesting are blogs such as this, which go to great lengths to propagate the idea that Jesus was from at least a "middle class" if not somewhat affluent family. (The comments to the post are even more interesting. Read them!) Why protest that the Outsider is really an outsider from the fringe of Jewish Galilean society? Perhaps the question heard in the synagogue at Nazareth (and I doubt that there was affluence anywhere in Nazareth) has a ring of incredulity, "What? Isn’t this Joseph’s son?"

Why should it be so off-putting to think that Jesus was perhaps from a poor family barely existing on a subsistence income? What are we saying about ourselves when we need, or are more comfortable with, at least an "upwardly mobile" bourgeoisie Jesus? What is the affront of a proletarian Jesus? Even more pointedly, what are we saying about the marginalized poor of the world? Stay within Luke’s story. "If Jesus is Messiah, then what about people that ain’t like us?"

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Where’s Waldo? Find the poor man in the painting.

"After three days [!] they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions." Perhaps a foreshadowing of Luke 24:1-7 where, after three days, the women do not find Jesus? Nah! That would suggest an intentional and highly sophisticated narrative. But I digress. Let’s go back to "listening and asking questions."

I have a series of "stump sermons" that I use when preaching in congregations that are in the call process. I usually talk about what people under the age of 35 or 40 might be looking for in a faith community. At one point I share a prayer poem by Michael Quoist that I have been hauling around for 35 years. It’s entitled "Chicken Wire Church."

The wires are holding hands around the holes;

To avoid breaking the ring, they hold tight to the neighboring wrist,

And so it’s with holes that they make a fence.

Lord, there are lots of holes in my life.

There are some in the lives of my neighbors,

But if you wish we shall hold hands

We shall hold very tight

And together we shall make a fine roll of fence to adorn Paradise.

And then – after an appropriate pause of gravitas – I share the PPT bullets.

People are looking for faith communities that are:

  • people of newness, just not niceness; a place with holes, not just a holy place.
  • people where they can be themselves; with honest hurts and hopes.
  • people with whom they can share their deepest questions and not receive pat answers.
  • a group where they can both taste and see – experience – the love of Jesus.
  • disciples that make a difference in the real world for Jesus’ sake.

To pull out that third bullet for a bit, I am without a doubt that " Jesus is the answer." (An even more soulful cut here by the Jesse Dixon Singers; originally on the album "Paul Simon in Concert – Live Rhymin’".) However, equally important is, "What was the question?" Do we take time to listen to people? Are we willing to walk with – accompany people – as they try to sort through the deepest existential questions of their lives? Can people ask and live unashamed questions? Or, are we just the people with all the answers?

When I was confirmed, in addition to Luther’s Small Catechism, we had another catechism with something like 234 God questions (none of which we were asking at age 15), each followed by the theologically correct Lutheran answer. (A similar torture in seminary was the theological proof-texting of Heinrich Schmid’s Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. I pray that you younger pastors were spared!)

Perhaps there was something salutary about that cookie cutter, sound bite, "Tab A into Slot B" type of faith, but it certainly can suck the mystery and nuance out of life; or at least fail to see the mystery and nuance. It will not play in a post-modern world. Perhaps it never should have played at all. IMHO Lutheran Orthodoxy – a correct answer to every question – severely hobbled the reformation movement.

Ray Pickett is of the opinion that we need to return to a more synagogue-like early church use of the scriptures. He maintains that a portion of scripture was read and then the hearers would discuss and wrestle with, "What does this mean for our life together and our life in the world?" Scripture should be more than the answer to questions, it should also be the source of questions. Orthodoxy is to no end if it doesn’t lead to orthopraxy. Ergo, the last bullet above.

The seasons of Advent and Christmas now come to an end. The year of Luke is upon us. What might it mean for your congregation to live large into Luke this year? How might it effect and shape your congregation’s mission and ministry?

"If Jesus is Messiah, then what about those that ain’t us?" Ah, there’s a question worth the wrestling.

Yours in Christ,

Don Carlson, Assistant to Bishop Rinehart