12/30/18: Unfolding Incarnation, Luke 2:41-52
First Lesson: Psalm 148
Second Lesson: Luke 2:41-52
Rev. Scott Dickison
What was Jesus like as a child?
I’m sure you’ve wondered this—perhaps since you were a child yourself, imagining how it might have been to have been to be the childlike Son of Almighty God. There are so many questions!
When did Jesus become aware of who he was?
What did he know and when did he know it?
What were his powers and when and how did they develop?
Was his divinity something he had to learn how to wield, or was he always in control?
Was he like the baby from the new Incrediblesmovie who as soon as he can open his eyes is suddenly blasting lasers out from them? Or was he more like a young Clark Kent, mostly able to shield his true identity?
This whole notion of incarnation—of the Word of God becoming flesh and living among us—of Jesus somehow being fully divine and fully human—it’s tricky! Always has been. It doesn’t make sense how we usually prefer things to make sense, and so when that’s the case we almost can’t help but let our imaginations run with it. And as it turns out, this is what Christians have always done.
We know of a number of collections of stories claiming to tell of Jesus’ childhood that date back at least to the second century—there were possibly some earlier than that that we don’t know of. The most well-known and apparently widely read is known as “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas,” claiming to have been compiled by the apostle Thomas, although that’s doubtful…Of course, it wasn’t included in the canon of the Bible and was widely condemned by church leaders at the time, but you know what it takes for a book to be widely condemned—it has to first be widely read.
And once you read it—which you can do, there are translations online right there for you—it’s easy to see why it was such a hit. It’s the stuff of comic books and fan fiction. We find stories of Jesus getting his family in all sorts of hot water with the neighbors after flaunting his divine powers in some pretty flagrant ways. There was one time when a neighborhood kid bumps into Jesus—or punches him, depending on how you translate it—and young Jesus gets upset and strikes the child down dead. Surely you’ve considered how a young Jesus might have handled bullies! I’m not sure about the theology, but for some of us this story is strangely satisfying! As the story goes, the child’s parents come and complain to Joseph, telling him that the holy family can’t live here if this kid of theirs is going to go running around killing the neighborhood children—Teach him to bless and not to curse, they tell Joseph. When a frustrated Joseph confronts Jesus about it, Jesus gets upset and causes the complaining parents to go blind! At which point—I’m not kidding—it says Joseph “rose and took hold of his ear and pulled it hard!”
Young Jesus would relent later on in the story and bring this child back to life and give sight back to his parents, and do a number of other good deeds to win the favor of the neighbors and cause them to stand in awe and wonder, until the collection ends with a word for word retelling of this scene from Luke with Jesus at the temple astounding the sages and frustrating his parents, Mary “treasuring these things in her heart,” and Jesus “increasing in wisdom and in years and in divine and human favor.”
It’s a wild ride, to be sure. But at the very least the existence of these stories remind us that the early church was asking the same questions we ask about who Jesus was and what it means—what incarnation looked like “in person,” so to speak. And fortunately we don’t need wild stories of Jesus exerting divine wrath on hapless bullies to do so. For generations of the church, this passage from Luke has been enough to raise these questions.
In a way, making sense of the incarnation is a kind of balancing act that the church fails at much of the time. There are always some who seem to emphasize Jesus’ divinity at the expense of his humanity, and some who go the other way and emphasize his humanity at the expense of his divinity. And both have found a home in these story from Luke—tantalizingly the only story in scripture from Jesus’ youth.
For those who would lift up Jesus’ divinity, the first part of the story is key: here we have the young boy Jesus, 12 years of age, with all the great sages at the temple sitting at his feet, astounded at his wisdom—surely this is the Son of God in full knowledge and control of his powers! But those who would lift up Jesus’ humanity point to the last verse of the passage which says, “Jesus increasedin wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” To say Jesus increased in wisdom seems to say Jesus was at one point not fully wise, which implies Jesus grew and developed in much the same way we all grow and develop.
This balancing act has persisted throughout each generation of the church, with some leaning more toward Jesus’ essential divinity and others toward his humanity. In modern times, many have tended to question Jesus’ divinity, viewing him as simply “an exceptional human being.” Uniquely gifted and intelligent, wise beyond his years and impossibly charismatic, but divine? Yet others have argued that while this approach claims to lift up Jesus’ humanity, it actually does the opposite because it turns Jesus into some sort of superhuman, able to conquer human nature like no one else could.
So where does this leave us?
Well, to begin with, instead of starting with abstract categories of divinity and humanity and forcing Jesus into them, it’s more helpful to start with what we receive concerning Jesus through scripture and our own experience of faith and work from there. And scripture is clear that the mystery of incarnation isn’t confined to Christmas Day—it didn’t end in Jesus’ birth. It’s a story and a miracle that unfolded throughout Jesus’s earthly life.
The miracle and the mystery of the incarnation is not simply that the word of God becameflesh but that this Word came and livedamong us. It’s not just that Jesus was bornthat we celebrate, but that he lived. And even more, howhe lived. Too much theology focuses on how Jesus was born and how Jesus died, but neither of those things would mean much of anything if Jesus didn’t live the way he lived. If he hadn’t loved the way he loved. Isn’t thiswhat saves us? Isn’t this what heals us—not just Jesus’ death, but Jesus’ life?
Wasn’t Jesus’ death on the cross the final testimony of his life—his final statement of what it means to live a life of peace and love and compassion? Not to mention a very potent statement on what the world does to people who live in this way!One of the early fathers of the church, a man named Athanasius, argued way back in the third century that when God took on humanity in the person of Jesus, God took on all of humanity.In Jesus, he said, God was, in a way, re-creating us—a recreation that unfolded at each point along the way of Jesus’ life, with each step of Jesus’ life revealing something about who God is, what God wants for the world, and how we can live our lives according to it. So it’s not just Jesus’ death that tells us something about God, but every point of Jesus’ life. For example, we learn something important about God starting with Jesus’ humble, impoverish, anonymous, scandalous birth. Not coming to the seat of power or culture or prestige, but under the cloak of night, to an unlikely couple (to say the very least), surrounded by farm animals and migrant workers. This was God’s entrance into the world.
It’s a trajectory that would continue throughout his life. We learn what’s important to God through the way Jesus lives. We learn who is important to God through whom Jesus goes to be with. Jesus reveals God’s dream for us, this new humanity, at each step along the way.
But Athanasius, and many after him,also said that as Jesus lived his life—his full, good life, even if it wasn’t a long life—at each step along the way, with each experience, he somehow redeemed that part of life. He brought it somehow closer to God. Or maybe it wasn’t that he brought our life closer to God but showed just how close God has always been to us as we go through these things.
So in birth, Jesus revealed the presence of God in child birth—in the mother and father of course, but even in the infant; God as a vulnerable, helpless little newborn—God with a soft spot, as we say. At his testing by the devil in the wilderness, in experiencing those temptations, Jesus revealed the presence of God with us as we face our own trials and temptations. When he wept bitterly at the death of his friend, he revealed the presence of God in grief. When he flipped over the tables at the temple he revealed God in our righteous anger. When he prayed in the garden with fierce urgency and not a small amount of fear at what was to happen to him, even saying if God would take this cup from him he would not oppose it, before finally relenting and saying Thy will be done, he revealed how close God is to us in our anguish, our fear. And when he took his final breath and said, Father forgive them, or Why have you forsaken me?, or It is finished, or any of the things the gospels tell us Jesus said from the cross, he reveals how close God is to us in all the different and conflicting emotions we feel in the face of death—our own or the death of someone we love. The fear, the loneliness, the compassion, the grace, the peace. All of it.
And when he was raised he revealed what God has in store for all people and all things.
And if all that’s true—if the gospels mean it when they say Jesus faced all these different challenges and trials—and I mean really faced them; if Jesus wasn’t really tempted by the devil that day, then what good was it? If Jesus wasn’t really grieving at the death of his friend or really anguished on the night he was handed over—if he wasn’t really scared about what was to happen, and weighing all his options, then what good is his example to you or to me? And how many other lives would be worth lifting up instead, folks who actually suffered and persevered with God’s help? No, for all of this to make any sense at all, Jesus had to experienced all of it. All of human life. The highs and the lows. The ho-hum and the other worldly. The hapless and the hopeful. The beautiful and the comical and everything in between. All of it—even those awkward and hard teenage years that scripture was so afraid to tell us about. Jesus lived all of it, and not without pain or suffering, or challenge, or—dare I say it—failure. Because how else could he show us how close to us God is in our failures? Our regret, our shame?
No, I believe Jesus lived all of it, because I believe God is close to us in all of it.
When you think about, these may be some of the most hopeful words in all of scripture: And Jesus increasedin wisdom and in year, and in divine and human favor.
Jesus grew. Jesus changed.
Because if Jesus was a work in progress, then maybe we can give ourselves permission to be so too in this New Year. And maybe the Word of God will be revealed in us as we do. Amen.
Justo González’s wonderful commentary on this passage in the Beliefseries was immensely helpful here.
Athanasius, On the Incarnation,chapter 3
I’m thinking especially of Kathryn Tanner in her wonderful, brief systematic theology, Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity