Introduction to the Readings from Scripture
As most of us know, in the church year there are twelve days in the season of Christmas. Most of us became aware of this first when we sang about a partridge in a pear tree, five golden rings, ten ladies dancing, etc. In the western church, the season of Christmas begins on December 25 and ends with the Feast of Epiphany on January 6. It doesn’t last long so you better start thinking about what you are going to bring to the Epiphany potluck lunch!
Since there are twelve days in the season, there is always at least one Sunday after Christmas Day and sometimes two. On these Sundays, the reading from the gospel is usually chosen from one of the few stories of Jesus infancy and childhood, all from Luke’s gospel. Last year on this Sunday after Christmas, we read the story of Jesus being presented in the Temple and the joy of Simeon and Anna on seeing the child and recognizing in him God’s chosen one. This year we will read about an experience in Jesus’ life at the age of twelve when his family was on its annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. All Jewish people tried to go to Jerusalem for the Passover where they would mark the feast and make appropriate sacrifices in the Temple. The story reminds us of Jesus’ Jewishness and his upbringing as a Jew. It attempts to give us a window into his childhood and what he was like. If Jesus truly was the son of God, the Messiah, then surely that would have been seen even in his childhood. We are not disappointed as we find him separated from his parents who are on their way home and sitting in the Temple debating with the learned scholars of the day. And everyone was amazed at his knowledge. His parents do find him and are quite surprised at what he is doing. We in turn are surprised that his parents are surprised since for us it is only a few days since we heard about angels announcing his birth and shepherds spreading the news far and near. What did his parents think he would be like? But that is it. We will not hear anything more about him until he is an adult.
The reading from the Hebrew scriptures parallels the gospel reading about Jesus. It is the story of a young Samuel. His birth, about one thousand years before Jesus, had been something of a miracle too and his mother had dedicated him to live as a priest at the altar at Shiloh and every year his parents saw him when they came to make sacrifices. The story helps take us from Samuel’s birth to his calling when he mistook God’s voice for that of the old priest, Eli. Just like Jesus, we are told that Samuel grew in favour with God and people.
Psalm 148 reminds us that God’s glory is recognized not only by human beings but by the heavenly host and by all of creation. The sun, moon and stars, the clouds in the sky and the waters beneath, sea monsters, fruit trees, wild animals, creeping things, even hail and snow and frost and stormy winds praise God – good for us to remember at this time of year. We are reminded of the words of the popular Christmas carol, “And heaven and nature sing, and heaven and nature sing.”
The reading from Paul’s letter to the early followers of the way of Jesus in Colossae can be seen to follow on the important Christmas assertion of the incarnation. Just as God has put on flesh and come and lived among us, so the followers of Jesus should put on those things that distinguish them as believers. Perhaps we can think of it something like a New Year’s resolution; because of the love of God we have known in Christ, we will change our behaviour, we will put on some new spiritual clothes in this new era, clothes of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, love and peace – not just on the twelve days of Christmas but throughout the year and throughout our lives.
A precocious little boy. If it was anyone but Jesus, we might be rolling our eyes a bit at the sight of this teenager debating with the learned religious leaders. W.H. Auden wrote, “Precocious children rarely grow up good. My aunts and uncles thought me quite atrocious. For using words more adult than I should”. Perhaps if it was our own child we would be a little more generous. But really, running away from his parents and showing off his vocabulary in the Temple? Who did he think he was.
On the other hand, we are happy to know something about Jesus between the time of his birth and his baptism by John at about age thirty. Any good biography or novel gives you lots of important information about its principle character in their growing up years. What their family was like. The school they went to. The social class in which they were raised. Significant events that shaped their young lives and made them into the people they were to become. Some funny stories about them at summer camp or with their favourite auntie. But for Jesus, it is almost blank. Like many of the characters in the gospel story, we wonder who this person is and where he came from.
Each Christmas, my sister gives me a copy of the novel that won the Giller prize in that year. True to form, this year I received Esi Edugyan’s, Washington Black. It is the story of a young boy growing up in slavery in Barbados in the early nineteenth century. I am just getting into it and enjoying it very much, seems Barack Obama also has it on his best reads list, but it is hard going. Like so many novels and movies of the last few years, we are being given a much more accurate and brutal picture of what life in slavery was really like. There was very little of those characteristics of the Christian life that Paul lays out for us on the letter to the Colossians. We wonder how people who understood themselves to be Christian could act in such an inhuman way, devoid of compassion and respect. In the opening pages of the novel, we witness the impact this has on the young Washington Black, how his spirit is numbed and trodden upon time and time again. And at this point in the novel, we wonder what impact this will have on the adult Washington Black. I look forward with anticipation to the rest of the story and to know who this person will become and where the story leads.
We know that we have to look back in order to look forward. Terry Leblanc, an indigenous Canadian theologian describes the understanding of time of some indigenous people in this way. We walk backward into the future. We do not know what lies ahead. We cannot see the future. Our backs are to it. But we can see the past as we walk carefully backward into the future. We can learn from it. We can understand something about ourselves and our relationships, the things that have shaped us and will help us understand and interpret the things we are yet to encounter. Looking back at youth, if we are now beyond it, or remembering to do so later for any who are young now, helps us to know how to live into the rest of our lives. Of course we cannot live in the past although there are many who attempt to do so. But neither can we simply toss it away, as if it has no importance or relevance for where we are going. In all of those illustrations to the old man and the baby representing the old year and the new, it is good to remember that the old guy was a baby only a short year ago. That little infant could learn much from hearing the old man’s story of his childhood and youth and the lessons there are to be learned. Perhaps in this year more than some others we are reminding ourselves of what we can learn from the past, the stories and experiences of another time that we thought would never be repeated.
What we do learn in the gospel story today is that Jesus was different from other children and that he would be different from other adults. He was deeply dedicated to the study of the law and the faith of Israel. He listened and he spoke. Other people did not get him. And he grew in wisdom as well as in favour with God and people. Looking back on this little snippet tells us a great deal about who Jesus was to become. It tells us a great deal about what we might encounter as his life will unfold as we read through the gospel of Luke this year. He may have been precocious but perhaps with reason. In Jesus we see the unfolding of God’s plan for the world as he encounters both those who were well versed in the law and used to being authorities and those that he lived with in Nazareth who had no special claim to fame and who knew something of the drudgery and brutality of life as well as its moments of elation and joy.
So even though we are left wanting more, we have to be content and be willing to move into the future. That is often the way. It would always be good to have one more story. To delve more deeply into some aspect or other about our past that would give more insight into who we are or who someone else is. One more retrospective of the year that has been, to go over again the many people and events that have made the world what it was in the year gone by. But at some point the count down begins, the clock strikes twelve and our journey, even our cautious backward journey, into the future continues. Maybe the examples of Jesus and Samuel from our readings today can be helpful as we move into another year. To grow in wisdom and to grow in favour with God and others. That will put us in good stead for whatever the New Year will bring. And let’s not forget Paul’s advice. When you are thinking or your outfit for New Year’s Eve, whether you are dressing for a great formal ball or wondering how many layers to wear or whether or not you should take your umbrella to Nathan Philips Square, remember to put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, love and peace. They aren’t necessarily the fashion of the day but they wear well and long and you will never be out of place.
As we follow the baby of Bethlehem and the child of Nazareth, and join with those earliest followers in Colossae and other communities and those across the ages and around the globe, we can know that God is at work among us and calling us into the future in our new clothes faith with a message of joy for all the world. Thanks be to God.