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A Sermon on the Gospel
Dr. David Smith

Preached on the First Sunday after Epiphany at St. George's Anglican Church,
Prince Albert Saskatchewan, 2005

Thursday was Epiphany, which is the twelfth day after Christmas.  So Christmas season is officially over and we won't be singing any more carols till next year.  It is time to put away the tree, and to look forward.  It seems sad to let it go, and we wish sometimes that the joy and good will of Christmas could last all year.  Yet we know that somehow that wouldn't work.  We have to move on from even the best of times.  And what about the Christmas message?  In the story of Jesus' birth, we heard about how God came down from heaven and visited us in the most personal and easily understandable way.  We are rightly shy about trying to understand why God has done what he has done, but if we think about it, it is hard to imagine a better way in which God could have given his message of his love and peace to the world than through the birth of Jesus in the manger.  If you had to think up a living picture of God reaching down to us, one that would be able to reach every culture and nation, every level of intelligence and education, every age, every personality, could you come up with a more universal sign for the world than a human baby?  We have all been babies and most of us have been up close to them!  Babies evoke in us a love and a sense of worth and even wonder that make them a perfect picture of God's love among us.  It is no wonder that the Christmas story has the most universal appeal of any part of the Christian faith.  And yet perhaps we have to move on from this part of our faith as well.  The Christmas story has the power to convey to us the real and close intimacy of God's love for us like nothing else.  But perhaps even this message is not the whole of the Christian faith.

These are the kind of questions that our Scripture readings for today address.  And the gospel goes right to the heart of the matter in the most wonderful way because it shows the baby Jesus growing up.  Mary and Joseph go up to Jerusalem to take part in the Passover feast.  When the feast is over they join the caravan that is going back to Nazareth and they think that Jesus is somewhere among the crowd.  It was only after a day's journey that they discovered that he wasn't there.  They went back and searched for him frantically.  They found him in the Temple, questioning and being questioned by the religious teachers of the day.  Understandably upset, Mary speaks to him in what I've always thought is a very gentle way: "Son, why have you treated us so?  behold your father and I have been searching for you in great distress."  But Jesus gives an answer which begins to show that along with the normal character of a twelve year old boy, he is something more.  "Why were you looking for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" 

There are many questions about all this, but notice how perfectly it speaks to our moving forward from Christmas and the Christmas message.  Here is the baby Jesus, but he is not a baby any more.  Here is the Saviour, but not in the easily accessible form of an infant any more.  He still brings the message of God's love and peace for us, but he is no longer lying in a cradle, to be silently adored.  He is talking and discussing with the religious teachers.  He is upsetting the course of day to day life, worrying his parents, straining the bonds of loving affection, so that he can seek the wisdom of God in the Scriptures.  This is a more challenging, less immediate view of the Saviour but it is one that we have to embrace as we move forward from Christmas.  I had a friend who said that when one of his daughters was about 9 months old he found their relationship so perfect that he wished he had a pill that would keep her at that age forever!  And there is something in every parent that would like to keep their children in that wonderful lovable childhood state.  That is an emotion that parents know we have to let go of in order to let something bigger and better happen.  And perhaps there is something in us as well that would like to hold on to the Christian faith in its simplest form - as profound and yet simple as the Christ-child in the manger.  But this too is something that we have to let go of in order to let something bigger and better happen. 

The minister in my church when I was growing up was a man named Dr. Wood.  He was a very mild priestly kind of person.  But one thing would make him quite angry.  People would come up to him at the end of the service and shake his hand and say, "Do you know, I got more out of the children's talk than out of the sermon."  I suppose he tried to be gracious at the time, but he used to say, "Adults need an adult faith, and especially in the modern world."  The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews must have been experiencing the same frustration when he wrote:  "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God.  You need milk, not solid food."  It is really all there in the contrast between the Christmas gospel and the gospel for this Sunday.  Who would not in a way prefer to think about the Christ-child, innocent and perfect in the manger, than the twelve year old Christ, discussing with the religious teachers and amazing them with his answers?  How much easier it is to love the softly breathing baby, than the dawning adolescent, who leaves his parents not knowing where to find him, and then tells them that they should have sought him where his true home is.  But the baby and the adolescent are the same Christ.  And we will not be true to the message of Christmas if we do not go on to relate to him in a more thoughtful, a more questioning, a more mature and informed way. 

In the old paintings of Jesus and the saints, their heads are surrounded by a halo, a circle of light.  It was a way of getting across the idea of the holiness that shines through the person.  In the paintings of Jesus, he would look very different in pictures of his birth, and his adulthood.  But the halo that would be around his head would be the same as a baby and as an adult and that says something very true about him.  His holiness remained the same, but as a man he grew up and that meant leaving behind the tender lovableness of a baby, so that he could think and question and learn and become wise.  In our Christian walk, we need to keep returning to the tender simplicity of the Christmas message and that is why we celebrate Christmas each year.  But we also need to move forward when the time is come, and think and question and learn and become wise.  The Christmas message is all about God coming to us, becoming one of us, sharing our lives as they are.  But if we take that message for granted, if we try to hold on to it without changing we will lose it.  Just as Joseph and Mary found themselves without Jesus and had to go looking for him, we sometimes find that by holding on to our simple ideas about him we have lost touch with him. We then need to take our place beside him in God's house, questioning and learning, so that we may come to maturity in our Christian walk.