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First Sunday after Christmas

Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas

Readings: 1 Samuel 2:18–20, 26; Colossians 3:12–17 & Luke 2:41–52

We know very little about the childhood of Jesus. In fact, the only story we have from his early years is the one from today’s gospel reading, which describes an incident that occurred when Jesus was twelve years old. This story is found only in the Gospel of Luke. Luke uses it as a bridge between the birth stories of Jesus and the beginning of his ministry as an adult.

The story centres on a journey that Mary and Joseph (the parents of Jesus) take to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover. Luke tells us that this is something they do each and every year, which signifies to us that Mary and Joseph are faithful and observant Jews. 

Adult Jews were supposed to attend the three major feasts in Jerusalem annually—Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. For many this was impossible, but an effort was made by most to go at least to Passover. In puberty a boy became a “son of the covenant,” a custom continued today in the Jewish bar-mitzvah ceremony. It was considered helpful for a boy to attend the Jerusalem festivals for a year or two before becoming a son of the covenant so that he would realise what his new relationship involved.

Mary and Joseph obviously placed great trust in Jesus, and allowed him a good deal of freedom, because we hear that when Passover had ended, they began the journey home to Nazareth, only to find after a day’s travel that Jesus was not with any of their travelling companions as they must have assumed. 

They returned to Jerusalem, and three days after having first left the city, they found Jesus sitting in the Temple, listening to, and asking questions of, the Pharisees and scribes. It is here that we glean our first insight into the unique status of Jesus. For it is only through his special relationship with God that Jesus has the understanding and wisdom to engage with the Pharisees and scribes in discussions concerning the Jewish law. And, as we know from the gospel stories, this was to become a feature of his adult ministry, as he regularly challenged the Pharisees and scribes on their own understanding and interpretation of the law.

This incident also provides us with the earliest sign of Jesus sensing his own true identity and purpose. In answering Mary’s question of why he had caused his parents to be so worried about his whereabouts, Jesus replied that they must have known that he needed to be in his Father’s house, that is, he needed to be in the Temple in Jerusalem, which is where the presence of God was believed to dwell. 

Luke tells us that Jesus then returned to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph and remained obedient to them until he reached adulthood. And Luke tells us that during this time Jesus increased in wisdom and understanding, and that he pleased both people and God.

Luke was very familiar with the Jewish Scriptures, and he quotes from them often in his gospel. It is therefore not a surprise to find several similarities between the story of Jesus and his parents in today’s gospel passage, and the passage that we heard in our first reading from the First Book of Samuel.

In that reading, Samuel’s parents, like Mary and Joseph, were devout Jews who travelled to make the annual sacrifice to God in the city of Shiloh, in the days before the Temple was built in Jerusalem. We also heard that Samuel was performing his ministry for God while still only a boy, and of course Jesus, while only twelve years of age, begins his ministry for God in the Temple. And we heard that Samuel “grew in stature and in favour with the Lord and with people”, while Luke told us that Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour”. 

Samuel was a significant figure in the Hebrew Bible. His ministry marked the transition from a time when Israel was ruled by judges, to the time when the monarchy was established, first when Saul was anointed king, and then when he was replaced by David as king. Samuel’s ministry also marked a crucial change in the role of religious leaders in Israel’s history, as prophetic spiritual leaders (like Samuel) replaced the entrenched hierarchy of priests.

Just as Samuel was a significant figure, Luke is telling us that Jesus is a significant figure. He is the Messiah, the one who fulfils the prophecies of the ancient prophets of Israel, but much more than that, He is the incarnation of God.

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