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The formative years of Jesus

It is only natural that we are curious about Jesus’ childhood – what formed him, who influenced him, and how did he unfold into the man whose last few years of ministry lead us to follow him and study his wisdom week by week. We are historically curious, we are psychologically curious, and we are theologically curious. This week’s little snippet only goes so far in answering our curiosity. (RCL 1 Samuel 2:18-20, & 26; Psalm 148; Colossians 3:12-17; and Luke 2:41-52)

Our interest is entirely understandable and it is also to do with the emphasis on individuality that our age is fascinated by. Indeed there are a range of interesting myths and theories about what happened between birth and 30 years of age, in particular in between 12 – this morning’s story – and approximately age 30 the beginning of his public ministry.


One of the more interesting, out there, and quite well documented stories is that Jesus spent these missing years in India and Tibet, studying and teaching there. This story is based largely on the travel journals of a Russian Nicolas Notovitch who travelled extensively in this part of the world on the 19th Century and became aware of ancient documents about a St Issa who he and others became convinced was in fact Jesus. It is fascinating for a number of reasons including that there are a number of convergences in the philosophy of Jesus teaching and the Buddhist teachings of this time. But it is not supported by most seriously scholars. It’s popularity may have more to do with our current awareness of eastern and western philosophies. But I for one would not be alarmed or sad if this were found to be true.


Recent interest in the historical Jesus is not only because of improved scholarship which enables us to separated out questions of historical truth and theological truth, it is also to do with the psychological interest we have in individual personality formation. The gospel writers did not distinguish between these different approaches to storied truth telling. John Dominic Crossan, a contemporary popular theologian, who writes about the historical Jesus, states that: The gospel biographies all begin with his/Jesus’ public life. What comes before is Overture rather than Act One. And each gospel writer has written a different Overture because they all have slightly different theological concerns and emphasises.” Only two of them, Luke and Matthew, have birth and childhood narratives as part of their Overture. And they are quite different.


This week it is very helpful that we have the reading from the beginning of Samuel’s life of ministry. Remember that his mother Hannah was barren and begged God for a male child promising that if she should bare a child she would give him to the temple. There are strong resonances between the story of Hannah and Samuel and Elizabeth and John the Baptist and Mary and Jesus. Luke has drawn upon the tradition of Hebrew Scripture, especially that to do with temple teacher and prophet, to shape the story of the young boy Jesus knowing that his business was in his father’s temple. Whereas Matthew’s gospel leans more to the stories related to Mosses the Law giver and deliverer of his people, in the slaughter of the innocents and the flight to Egypt.


Most modern biblical scholars accept that not only was the gospel of Luke written down well after Mark but that the birth narratives were the last – not the first – section to be written. So in a sense the infancy narratives are the least historical and the most theological. So what might Luke want us to understand from this morning’s story?


Maybe that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. There is a sense in which his human and divine families are in tension this morning – his parents’ need and right to know where he was and what he was up to and Jesus’ emerging sense of his father being God and his place being in the temple. It is a tension that carries through the gospel as Jesus’ human family often do not understand him, they think that he is mad etc.


In developmental terms it also points to normal teenage individuation, there is some rejection of the parent so that the new person can emerge. Importantly it also states that the age of manhood – 12 – is marked in the temple, in learning and astounding the learned. This is a teacher and prophet who is being formed. The echoes of Samuel’s dedication to the temple help us to see and hear that this is the pattern for God’s special messengers. It also places the life of Jesus in the long line of God’s salvific activity in human life. What God is doing in Jesus is both a new thing and a continuation of God’s ongoing effort to reach out to the people. “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour.” Now an increase in wisdom with the years is not automatic, or even common, after the age of 21 or there abouts. So how is this morning’s gospel instructive to us, how is it good news?


Well as so often I think that St Paul has something useful to say about the growth of faith. He exhorts us that if we have indeed been raised with Christ, made one in and with Christ, clothed with the new self then we have the Word of Christ dwelling in us and his peace ruling our hearts. If these things are true then we will give up that list of behaviours that he identifies as being part of the old way of living, and we will grow in our capacity and desire to live in new and loving ways. So we too, made one with Christ, can look forward to growing in wisdom and grace, and in divine and human favour.


For the gift of Jesus – his birth, childhood, ministry, death and his resurrection – is not simply some legalistic payment of debt but that in the incarnation Jesus took on our flesh and became us. We are saved from the inside out rather than the other way around. Because God became human, humanity can now grow and develop by grace, into the creator’s image in which we were created, or as St Paul says “… and having clothed yourself with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”


The gift of Christmas is that in becoming a particular person, Jesus of Nazareth, God became human flesh and thus blessed and made sacred all human flesh. Christ is all – the alpha and omega, the pinnacle of God’s creation - and Christ is in all. So let us go out into the world and whether we are looking in the mirror, at family photographs, or at strangers on the evening news let us see Christ in all and act accordingly!

Even so, come Lord Jesus, Word of Life, come dwell in us.



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