Scripture Readings: 1 Samuel 2:18–20, 26 | Psalm 148 | Colossians 3:12–17 | Luke 2:41–52
“He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’” (Luke 2:49).
That’s one of the things that I love about churches like ours that follow the Christian calendar: Christmas is not just one day, it’s a season of 12 days!
And on this first Sunday of the Christmas season we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family: giving thanks for the common life that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph shared together… as God raises up a humble human household to participate in His plan to redeem the world, and draw all peoples into His heavenly family.
We don’t have that many stories of the family life of Jesus, and our Gospel reading this morning gives us the only one we have from when our Lord was a child… and it’s kind of a strange episode: the holy family makes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. When Mary and Joseph leave with the rest of the pilgrims, Jesus stays behind in the Temple. His parents eventually notice He’s missing, and desperately search for Him for three days. But when they find Him, Jesus does not respond as we might expect. He’s not worried, even though He had been left alone for all that time. And He’s not contrite either, seemingly unconcerned by His parent’s feelings, or their expectations of Him as their son. Instead, He seems confused that they didn’t know where to look for Him. That they didn’t know that He would be caught up in what was happening in His Father’s house.
It’s an odd part of His story, but Luke shares it with us because he wants us to understand something about this boy and what He’s all about. And interestingly enough, it might help us if we reflect on the story of another young boy from Israel’s early days: the story of Samuel, which we heard briefly in our Old Testament reading this morning.
Samuel was born before Israel had any kings. When they were supposed to be guided by Israel’s priesthood, but time and again we’re told that the people kept turning away from God’s ways, and would “do what was right in their own eyes”, which kept leading them to disaster.
In our reading we catch a glimpse of the boy Samuel, being raised by Eli, the priest, who served with His sons in the Tabernacle: the sacred Tent where sacrifices to the LORD God were made, and where, before the Temple was built, God’s presence dwelt with His people.
Samuel had been dedicated by his mother to the LORD because the LORD had answered her prayer and had given her a son. Samuel served God faithfully even as a child. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Eli’s own sons, who blatantly disgraced the priesthood, and took advantage of those who came to worship God. Our lectionary skips this part of the story, but we are supposed to see this huge contrast between the boy Samuel and Israel’s unfaithful leaders: 1 Samuel 2:22-25.
“Now Eli was very old. He heard all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting. He said to them, “Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all these people. No, my sons; it is not a good report that I hear the people of the Lord spreading abroad. If one person sins against another, someone can intercede for the sinner with the Lord; but if someone sins against the Lord, who can make intercession?” But they would not listen to the voice of their father; for it was the will of the Lord to kill them.”
The early chapters of Samuel’s story play out this turn of events: the downfall of the corrupt leaders of God’s people, alongside the rise of a faithful miracle-child who serves by helping God’s people to turn back to their LORD. Through this boy Samuel, who from birth had been caught up in the work of the LORD, the Living God was drawing His scattered people back to Himself, so that they all might walk in the ways of His holy love.
Returning now to Luke’s Gospel with the story of Samuel in mind, this strange story of Jesus as a boy in the Temple starts to take on a whole other dimension.
The picture we’re given is that this young boy is completely caught up in the things of God… completely at home in the House of the LORD, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:46-47).
Unlike Samuel, Jesus, had grown up far from Jerusalem, and the Temple, but as we know Jesus Himself was the ultimate miracle child… conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary… and more than that, as John’s Gospel tells us, this child is God incarnate… God in human flesh… this boy is Himself the meeting place of Heaven and Earth, God’s dwelling among us… the reality that the Temple and Tabernacle pointed to.
And like Samuel, Jesus was growing up at a time when Israel’s leaders, and in particular it’s priesthood had become corrupt, failing to serve the LORD or His people faithfully. The rise of Jesus, for Luke, will coincide with the failure and fall of the faithless guides of God’s people, who constantly clash with our Lord in later days, and who will lead the conspiracy that brings Christ to the cross.
But again, we know that there’s more going on at the cross than meets the eye. It was the way that Jesus broke the power of death, and freed us from the grip of sin… opening up the way of God’s New Life when after being lost to us for three days, Jesus rose again from the grave.
And again, like Samuel, Luke wants us to see that Jesus, even as a young boy, is the one through whom the Living God Himself is at work rescuing His people, returning their hearts to Him, so that we might walk in His holy ways. In Jesus, the Living God has come and dwells among us to draw us to Himself… to reconcile us, and restore us as His faithful people… to make us, to make you and I, a kingdom of priests, and holy nation, a faithful family, together with our sisters and brothers from every nation, walking together in the holy love of the Lord forever.
We live in a time when we’re all encouraged to just “do what’s right in our own eyes”, but Christ has come to open up for us the way to God’s New Life: so that we too might be caught up in what God is up to… living today as God’s faithful family, sharing in His holy love.
In our New Testament reading today, St. Paul tells us what this looks like in practice. Let’s listen again, and let the message really sink in:
“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
It can be easy to think of Christmas as a story of the promised child, and the holy family gathered serenely around the manger. But our Scriptures today remind us that this promised child has a clear purpose: to bring about the restoration of Israel, and all nations… to draw all peoples everywhere into the family of God… to offer His life on the cross as the sacrifice to deal with all our sins, and set us free to truly be God’s faithful children forever.
As Christians, we have been adopted into the family of God, sharing in the New Life of Jesus Christ through His Spirit at work in us. So, this Christmas season, may we remember that Christ was born into our human family, so that in Him, all of us might live even today as God’s faithful children. Amen.