Sermon for Christmas 1. Yr. C
(Colossians 3,12-17. Luke 2, 41-52.)
I expect many of you, like me have looked at your children or grandchildren, or other young people you’ve known for the whole of their lives, and said to yourself, ”Gosh, it seems only yesterday that they were born!”
The lectionary does that to us this year. Two days ago, on 25th December, we heard about the birth of Jesus: today, 27th December, we are reading about the adolescent Jesus visiting the Temple. The story has echoes of another ‘wondrous child’, the prophet Samuel, who was dedicated to God in the sanctuary by his mother (just like Jesus) and grew up to anoint David as king. Now Jesus, the Son of David, is shown travelling into the Temple, which he identifies as ‘his Father’s house’.
After the nativity story, with angelic announcements, virgin birth in a strange, symbolic birthplace, and visits from shepherds, here we are seemingly back in the real world, with a stroppy adolescent doing his own thing, apparently with no regard for the feelings and real anxieties of his parents.
But, as always with the stories of the birth of Jesus, this is not history. All of Luke and Matthew’s stories about the birth and childhood are actually looking forward to, and reflecting the adult life and ministry of Jesus. This story, of the visit to the Temple for the annual Passover festival, shows him already radically committed to the task he will be called to do , replying to his parents’ natural questions with the reply which could mean either ‘Did you not know I must be in my Father’s House’ or ‘about my Father’s business’. It is more important for him to be in the Temple, listening to the teachers there, discussing theology with them, than to be with his parents and return to his home in the North. As in his later ministry, the ties of blood and family come a poor second to the demands of the Kingdom of God.
Our Christian hymns and carols talk about the child Jesus being a ‘pattern for our childhood’; but they present rather an idealised picture of him: I am sure I am not the only mother to have snorted in disbelief as I sang “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”!
This story from Luke gives a rather different picture; most of us would find it as difficult and puzzling as Mary and Joseph did to parent a child so self-contained, so apparently oblivious to their natural parental concerns as Jesus is shown doing in this story; and his reply to Mary’s natural enquiry seems to be rather impertinent to a parent, even if he is the special first-born child, destined for great things.
But it does show a much more human Jesus than the rest of the birth stories. He is not perfect; he doesn’t yet know everything; he gets things wrong; and so this makes it much more possible for us to believe we could be like him – not just in our childhood, but in our adult lives as well. Stories like this mean we can’t say “Oh, he was the Son of God, and everybody knew it from his birth. He was omniscient, like God. I can’t possibly be expected to reach the same standards as he did”.
Being held to the same standards as Jesus is what the Colossians passage is about. The previous section of the letter talks about discarding our old life like a suit of old clothes; throwing away the old life of evil passions, lust, greed, anger, insulting and obscene language, dishonesty in word and deed, and making distinctions between people based on race, religion and money, and putting on a new life in Christ, so we are like Christ.
This new life in Christ is the gift we are given through his birth, life and death, the gift that we are celebrating at this Christmas season.
Some of us may go to watch a pantomime at this season. One of the stock features of pantomimes is the transformation scene, when the hero or heroine is magically transformed from poverty and obscurity to riches and prestige.
This passage from Colossians reads like a Christian transformation scene.
But this transformation doesn’t come about by magic. It comes about by taking upon ourselves the characteristics and virtues of Christ as described in the Gospel accounts of his ministry. We are to be clothed with compassion, kindness , humility, meekness and patience. We are to be tolerant of one another, and forgive wrongs immediately. We are to be guided by love and live in peace with one another, and be thankful for what we have, however much or however little.
This transformation is effected by the influence of the Word of God on our lives and in our hearts. We are to read it, share it, discuss it, even argue about it and meditate on its meaning. We are to sing it and pray it, so that it becomes part of our very being and moulds our character. We are to be transformed by our worship, and live our lives in the name (that is, in the character) of the Christ.
Most importantly, this is not just to be an abstract hope. All these Christian virtues can only be demonstrated when we live in community with others. They are to help us to transform the world.
The human Jesus that we see in the Gospels teaches us to value this life for itself, not just to see it as a sort of ‘entrance exam’ for the life to come. Jesus was born into human life to show us how to live in this world, valuing people as they are, valuing our similarities and our differences, valuing the earth.
Like Jesus, we are to be concerned not just for the spiritual wellbeing of our fellow human beings, but also for their health and freedom, for justice and equality, and for human flourishing. Clothing ourselves with Christ should make a difference to how we live our lives, moulding us in such a way that we bring life to our fellow human beings, near and far, like us and different.
We are getting very close now to the end of 2015 and the beginning of a new year – the time for New Year’s resolutions!
A commitment to live our lives according to the pattern set out for us in Colossians, to make Christ not just our childhood pattern, but that of our adult lives, would make a very good New Year’s Resolution.
Happy Christmas! Happy New Year!