Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 26, 2021
Luke 2:41-52 Commentary
We are still in the Christmas season on this Sunday, and for many of us, this is a low-key Sunday, a “coming down” from all of the hype that has been the season.
There’s a bit of that feeling in the story as well. Year after year (a more literal translation of the opening of verse 41) Jesus’ family went to Jerusalem for the Passover. We get a sense of a family doing what they do each year—just like our cherished family traditions becoming second nature. A number of these trips have come and gone as we move from Jesus as toddler to Jesus as a twelve-year-old. In Jewish culture, twelve was the beginning of that all-important transition to adulthood, so it’s as though Luke’s given us these vignettes into Jesus’ growing up years as he transitions us into the main account of the gospel, Jesus’ adult ministry.
The Jesus-child whose toddler growth was described as becoming strong, filled with wisdom, and with the favour of God upon him (v. 40), stays behind in Jerusalem as a tween to continue to talk with the teachers in the Temple. In what seems like an unimaginable sequence of events to most parents, no one noticed that Jesus wasn’t with them when they joined the masses of people leaving Jerusalem at the close of the festival…
When they do find him three days later in the temple, Mary describes the ordeal as torturous (English translations watering it down slightly to the more palatable “anxiety”). Though Mary and Joseph are also astonished at Jesus’ ability to interact so well with the Temple teachers, their hearts are still wrenched from worry. We humans truly are capable of multiple emotions at once!
I don’t think this story is here to set up a distinction between Jesus’ earthly family and his heavenly one. Though, as the textual point below elaborates upon, Joseph is a back seat figure in this ordeal, the undertone of the whole account is that his family loves and cares deeply for him, and that Jesus cares about them as well—Luke even goes so far as to point out that Jesus leaves with his parents (again only referred to as “them”) and “was obedient to them.” (v. 51)
In fact, I appreciate John Nolland’s view that this passage is making a Christological point about Jesus. This is what makes it a good passage for the Christmas season: Jesus is growing in wisdom, growing in favour (divine and human), growing as the incarnate Messiah in very ordinary circumstances. Born as a helpless babe, Jesus grows up being human and divine, in a family, in a religion, with a life. But unlike we sinful humans, Jesus is so deeply connected to his heavenly Father that as a tween, he simply expected his parents to know that in the Temple, talking about the things of God, would be the obvious place to find him on a family trip. Growing in the wisdom of God is the desire of his heart.
Mary and Joseph did not really understand this, but “his mother treasured all these things in her heart.” (v. 51) It’s a direct call back to Luke 2.19, when, after giving birth to Jesus and the shepherds come to worship him, Mary “treasured” their words and “pondered them in her heart.” And when I think of Mary and that heart of hers, I think of its willingness to say “Yes” to the promises of God delivered to her by the angel Gabriel. I think of the heart that belongs to the woman who Elizabeth said would be “blessed” because she believes that God will fulfill what has been promised to her. I think of a woman of faith.
And I wonder if that’s how these moments, where Luke says that Mary “treasured all these things in her heart,” functioned for her in the midst of not understanding. Both the shepherds’ words and Jesus in the Temple were signs for her that what Gabriel told her about this child growing up in front of her very eyes is actually true. That they were calls for her to grow in the faith that all that was spoken of her son will be fulfilled.
It makes sense to me that these signs would be necessary. After all, Mary mothered Jesus, raised him. She nursed him, fed him, changed him, provided for him, taught him to walk, did the ordinary work of being a mother. And day in and day out, year after year, we can easily forget and take for granted how miraculous life is—let alone the thought that your baby will save the world. We don’t get the sense that Mary and Joseph thought it was their responsibility to train Jesus up into the role of Saviour. No, from the Scripture account, we get the sense that they understood their role to simply be themselves: parents of multiple children in a Jewish family from Nazareth while it was under Roman rule around 13 CE.
And as they went about raising Jesus and keeping him safe, these moments that reminded Mary that Jesus was something much more, happen among the mundane and ordinary events of their lives. Like giving birth, like going to religious ceremonies. Whether it is herself encountering Jesus in these moments, or she is witnessing someone else react to him, Mary takes them into her heart to reflect upon, hold onto, and is reminded of what has been promised about this boy. Mary’s heart gets pricked, and she receives the words of others as signs of what God is up to—even if she doesn’t understand it all. Her faith in those promises is sustained by these wondrous (albeit frightening) moments.
Both Mary and Jesus can only be who they truly are.
This text is a Christological revelation about Jesus. It reveals Jesus’ growing in wisdom and favour and recognition as distinctly tethered to his being with the Father (in this case exemplified by his being in his Father’s house, the Temple). Jesus’ calm reaction to his parent’s looking for him further reveals how normal this bond with the Heavenly Father is for Jesus: it is everything for him, his baseline and basic disposition.
In contrast, I see Mary as a stand-in for humanity in this story. She and Joseph have been in the ordinary routine of parenting Jesus so much that these signs and reminders about the Christ can be a bit of a jolt to the system. It’s a story that captures the human faith condition quite well. We are so into the ordinary business of living, that every once in a while, we get awakened (sometimes a little harshly) by reminders that the story of God is always at work, that God is keeping his promises, whether we acknowledge it or not. Whereas Jesus grows in wisdom and favour, Mary grows in faith.
In this snapshot story from Jesus’ tween years, Luke describes Jesus as doing the same thing that was happening when he was a toddler: growing in the wisdom of God and gaining favour. In one sense, it’s the message that Jesus is always the same. It was Mary who had grown accustomed to the ordinariness of their situation. These signs that point to Jesus being extraordinary awaken in her those promises of long ago, remind her of what she has to take on faith. She will later become one of Jesus’ disciples, as Luke depicts Mary among the group who devoted themselves to prayer after Jesus ascended to heaven (Acts 1). I wonder how she continued to live in the faith that was planted in her alongside Jesus as an embryo…
Commentator John Nolland (Word Biblical Commentary) points out that Luke seems to go out of his way to keep Joseph from being too closely connected to Jesus as his father. Luke chooses to repeatedly refer to “his parents” and as he tells the story, “they” is used to describe Mary and Joseph’s frantic search for Jesus. Then, it is Mary who speaks when they find him in the temple—this in itself is odd for the time and setting. Yet, as Nolland points out, it allows for the exchange between Mary and Jesus about his fathers: “your father” vs. “my Father.” All of it underscores the Christological point of this story: Jesus is committed to being about his Heavenly Father’s business and he is growing in that wisdom in ways that reveal his awe-inspiring capabilities. And, like will be so often the case in his ministry, Jesus is revealing deep truths that people are not able to grasp, but they will wrestle with—just as Mary does.
Both of these illustrations may seem a little cheesy, but, they are classics, and that’s part of the reason why they work so well as illustrations—especially at Christmastime.
First, Luke may have given us the original “Home Alone” story here. In the 1990 movie, Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) also gets left behind as he’s assumed to be among the number of extended family members headed to the airport. While everyone else gets on a plane for a Christmas vacation, Kevin is still at home. And like Jesus, for the most part, the kid is rather calm about the whole thing… His parents, on the other hand, very reasonably freak out when they realize on the plane above the Atlantic Ocean that Kevin isn’t with them.
Our second illustration, which might be too cheesy for some, is actually biblical. Way back in Genesis, God used the rainbow as a symbol of his promise. And don’t you know, I do think of that every time I see a rainbow. It’s been quite effective! Seeing “signs” alert our brains as well as our hearts to important items that are part of our faith. They lift us out of the moment to something larger that we must rely on faith to be sustained. In a similar way, we sense God’s encouragement to us in the words of a friend, or feel like a sermon was given just for us that morning, or we see something while out on a walk that reminds us of a loved one we’ve recently lost, or a word of promise we received… And, like Mary, we ponder and treasure all of these things (signs of the promises we rely on in faith) in our hearts.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!