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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Christmas - December 31, 2006

    It’s the one Bible story we have of the so called “hidden life” or “hidden years” of Jesus, those years between his birth and about age 30.  There are others though, so you wonder, “Why this one and not some of the others like when five year old Jesus fashions some birds out of clay and brings them to life which is pretty amazing or another when the boy Jesus causes the son of Annas the scribe to wither up like a tree that bears no fruit.”  That one may not be Jesus as we like him, but an interesting story nonetheless and there’s lots more 

  We’re mostly dismissive of the non-biblical stories, amused perhaps but dismissive; we don’t take them seriously, don’t pay much attention to them at all except on this one Sunday every three years when this lesson comes up.  However, that may not be the best approach to take because what the writers of these stories did was to imaginatively use what was known about Jesus to fill in the gaps of his childhood as additional teaching material.  Their thinking would have been that the boy Jesus must already have been what he was known to be as a man.  Their intent was to reinforce some of these things.  So whether or not they actually knew that these things happened is less significant than what they might teach about Jesus.

The best comparison I have is the George Washington chopping down the cherry tree story.  The man George Washington was known to be honest and forthright, so in the story, when six year old George is confronted by his father about the cherry tree (which, by the way, in the story he didn’t actually chop down, he just hacked enough bark off of it to kill it); anyway, when confronted he says, “I cannot tell a lie Father; I did chop it with my little hatchet.”  Whether or not it really happened it still reinforces the honesty of George Washington and encourages others, especially children, to be honest themselves; nothing wrong with any of that.

The two stories I mentioned about the boy Jesus function kind of like this; when he brought the clay birds to life he did it on the Sabbath which provoked criticism and of course, later that became a major point of controversy between him and the religious leaders.  In the story about withering up the son of Annas, it foreshadows the hostility between Jesus and the scribes and also between Jesus and another Annas, the high priest and it previews Jesus’ symbolic act of shriveling up the fig tree.    In an oral, story telling society these were additional stories that could reinforce teachings about Jesus.  Apparently there was not sufficient historical validity for them to be included in the Bible, but still not bad stories to tell.

The one about twelve year Jesus in the temple is similar to the other ones, but different too.  It’s different first of all because it isn’t quite as spectacular as many of the others, nothing miraculous about it, but also because it has more historical credibility.  As observant Jews, Mary and Joseph would have made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover and as Jesus was coming of age it is reasonable to expect that he would have had some interaction with the teachers in the temple.  So being less fantastic and more credible are differences to note.

It is similar to other stories in its intent to reinforce or foreshadow things that are significant about Jesus.  Being the good storyteller that he is, Luke crafts this carefully.  First of all it places Jesus in the temple.  During his ministry Jesus doesn’t spend much time in the temple; mostly he’s in the regions outside of Jerusalem.  But it is in Jerusalem, in the temple, where Jesus public ministry culminates many years later in what we know of as the cleansing of the temple when he upsets the tables and drives out those who were selling things there.  It is there that he becomes a threat to the same people who express amazement at him as a twelve year old.  So this story begins to set the stage for what will come later.

Another thing about it is that in his adult life Jesus always placed a priority on the demands of God over the demands of family.  As a boy Luke has him already doing that.  In this story there are hints of Jesus’ understanding of family being different from the way we usually think about it.  It kind of contradicts those who would make what they call “traditional family values” the heart of Christianity.  It’s not that those values are bad, but they are only in line with Jesus’ teaching if they extend very broadly and with the understanding that your relationship with God always comes first.

Luke also has Jesus speak his first words in this story (and first words are usually important in the Bible) and those words have to do with God being his Father.  This of course anticipates the heavenly voice that will speak at the time of Jesus’ baptism and his transfiguration and it reinforces what will later become foundational doctrine for understanding who Jesus is.  In any case, similar to those who wrote the other childhood Jesus stories, Luke has included these points in this story as a way to begin to tell the larger story he will tell in the rest of the gospel about who he believes Jesus to be.

This story also tends to raise the “What did Jesus know and when did he know it” question.  As a child, did he know who he was from the beginning or did his knowledge of his identity evolve over time?  It’s one of those questions that you can’t really answer with certainty, all you can do is speculate about it as it is part of the fully human/fully divine mystery concerning Jesus.  But, in the verse that precede today’s lesson Luke says, “And the child grew up and became strong, filled with wisdom and favored by God.”  Coupled with the last verse of the lesson, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years and in divine and human favor,”that would indicate an understanding of some kind of process of growth and development in Jesus’ identity. 

With that understanding I think it is significant that Luke places Jesus in the temple, at the feet of the teachers of his day as they discuss the interpretation of scripture.  This is where Jesus must be so he can grow in his discernment of who he is and what his destiny is to be. 

This may be the practical lesson we can learn from this story; if scripture was central to Jesus in sorting out who he was in relation to the God he called Father, it would seem that it ought to be central as we sort out who we are and what our relationship to the God revealed in Jesus is. 

The Bible is a lot of things, with a lot of different kinds of writing in it, but mostly it is the story of how the creator God is rescuing creation from its rebellion, brokenness, corruption and death.  Jesus, as he grew and became strong, full of wisdom and favored by God obviously found himself to be the central player in this story.  In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the end of the story is revealed.  We know the ending, but in the present the story is still unfolding.  Like the boy Jesus in the temple, we too should engage scripture and the wisdom of teachers of our time who can help each of us to understand what our role is in this ongoing story.  The Bible keeps us grounded in the possibility and promise of God which is the reality we must keep in view as we make our way amid the other realities of the world.

The birth of Jesus, the Incarnation of God that we celebrate during this Christmas season is the beginning of the end of God’s story of rescue.  As we move next week into the season of Epiphany, more is made known about Jesus’ identity.  It’s important to pay attention to his identity, but also to pay attention in such a way that more is made known about our own identity.  It’s a lifelong process though, for each of us, because the story isn’t over.  We know the ending, but the story keeps moving; God keeps working, sometimes in ways we understand, sometimes in ways that we struggle with.  But God will ultimately bring the story to the ending revealed in Jesus…as we study and interpret scripture we won’t find a role quite as central as the one Jesus found, but we do have a role to play.


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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welcomes me, and whoever
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not me
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one who
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